Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Dwarfs vs. The Supreme Court

A recently released poll on pop culture indicated that three quarters of Americans can correctly identify two of Snow White’s dwarfs while only a quarter can name two Supreme Court Justices. What does that mean for how we teach?

When working with new teachers and mentor teachers– one of the key questions I ask is “How are the students today different from students when you were in school?” I am sure you can run through the list of answers in your head. Perhaps I should start following that question with “What are we going to do about it?”

At the High School’s New Face conference in Ellicottville this July, I was fortunate to be surrounded by fabulous teachers from our region. Everyone was learning and reflecting on their classroom. Richard Strong and Harvey Silver spoke to one group about engaging students – one of the most powerful things I think everyone took away from that workshop was “Call them by their name.” How many of us take the time to make that personal connection with our students? It doesn’t take long – a couple of seconds – to recognize the children that are entrusted to us. But do we do it?

It’s made me think a great deal about my classroom and what I did well and what I could have done much, much better. I took great pride in learning student names and in learning what interested them, so that I could “hook” them into American History. I’ve started to think about how that information can transfer over into the realm of education I find myself in now: professional development and facilitating curriculum conversations. Having blogged once – I have found the power of communicating with others as I ponder these heady issues and so I have started a second blog for those who were in that session with me – as well as those who are interested in engaging their students and the work of Silver and Strong. We learn from what we are interested in and we learn best from our peers – think about joining in and commenting on my blog or better yet, creating your own!!

Another group at the conference met with Will Richardson and worked on the role that technology plays in “connecting” the 21st century teen. That group came out incredibly excited about what they have learned and I have been following two of them closely. Kim Moritz is a local principal and has been very open and honest in her blog about education and leadership. A great and thought provoking read!!

Pat Aroune is a local social studies educator with great passion for the subject and I have recently peeked in on what he plans to do with his students next year using this new technology. Pat already experimented with blogging this summer and here is what one of his students wrote, “It was great to be able to write about what I want; one would be amazed at how much one writes when discussing a topic of great interest. It was much more fun to learn the chapter keywords in a context that we ourselves understand, rather than simply trying to understand the textbook-given example. Also, I feel that synthesizing information and context is learning on a much higher level than simple "copy-it-out-of-the-textbook" busy-work.”

Or how about this one: “This was challenging for me because I am used to traditional and boring route of education. I have become a robot in school, just doing what is asked and creativity is rarely involved. With this new way of comprehending economics, I was forced to look beyond tradition school work and thinking process, and actually think a little.” Great job, Pat!!

So much excitement, so much to learn – and yet when I look back at a recent Will Richardson post and the comments I realize we need to slow down and ponder what is “best practice” in this new, flat world we live in. While Will’s post, and those of many others that I have been following, speak explicitly about the best practices in using blogs, wikis, and podcasts in education – aren’t we still talking about the best practice in educating our youth? How do we prepare our students for the ever changing world in which we live in? One that has “fragile” cease fires? Where you can no longer bring toothpaste or water on an airplane? Where information (and mis-information) flows faster than ever before? If we don’t use technology, the same technology our students use, we will lose them!!

But we still run across educators who downplay the role that technology plays in education, those that feel that by using technology – we are somehow caving into the outside world and not providing a “real education.” Get on board!! Or as Ewan McIntosh said much more eloquently:

“The arguments that new technologies are just a fad, a cherry on the cake, an added extra, a bolt-on, a treat, something we can pass by, nothing that a good PowerPoint can't supercede, nothing that a textbook hasn't achieved until now, nothing that our best exam factory schools can't do without... all of this is is just keich. The teachers touting this must wake up to the fact that they are not engaging their kids unless they do use these technologies, the ones the kids use. Moreover, they're not really preparing them how to cope with the information being passed over to them unless they teach how to manipulate and analyse that information with these tools.”

Monday, August 14, 2006

Things that make you go hmmmm....

Teaching our students to be discerning consumers of media has been a hot topic among educators this summer. Here are some interesting links to ponder as you prepare your students for research in the upcoming school year…..

One of my favorite blogs on my Bloglines account is from a math educator in Canada. (Yes, I said MATH!) In addition to the GREAT stuff he has done with his students, a recent post about South African wikis really caught my eye. Apparently, many experienced educators have been pointing to South Africa as a leader in using technology as their national curriculum was posted in a wiki. Alas – upon further investigation, and discussion with South African educators who were surprised by this information, it was discovered that this information might not be true!! Even more helpful are the comments to the posting which refer to how this site might be used for educational purposes.

Donna R., one of my favorite 5th grade teachers, shared this website with me that she plans to use with her students before embarking on a library research project using the Internet. While the site looks very professional – complete with maps and news articles referenced in the sidebars – the very bottom promotes an organization called “People for the Ethical Treatment of Pumpkins.” What a great site to visit and apply those critical thinking skills!!

If are thinking about using blogs in your classroom, the Cool Cat Teacher has a great posting on making comments. Point #6 about teaching commenting really hits home when you read the words of a third grade blogger. And of course, #7 on the power of words hits close to home for me!!

A recent find for me (from reading waaaay too many blogs!!) highlights a super piece of student writing. It has made me ponder ways in which I might be able to incorporate authentic student voices into my blog as well. (HINT! Send me your excerpts to share! We are all about improving student writing after all!)

Finally, Will Richardson has an excellent and thought provoking blog on the use of technology in education. If you don’t have your copy of Blogs, Wikis, and Podcasts – run, don’t walk, to the nearest bookstore (real or virtual) to get your copy. Even if you don’t think this is the way of the future – you have to have read about it to engage in conversation about it. Will’s most recent blog links to some “light” reading on “Obstacles to Educational Uses of Copyrighted Material in the Digital Age.” I’ve only skimmed the table of contents and the case studies seem to be something that every educator should read – especially social studies teachers!!

And of course, my posting would not be complete without some reference to mentor texts!! These two teachers are doing a pretty powerful job in sharing their own learning through literature in their quest to have read the Newbury Award winner – not to select it, but to have read it before selection. They have also started a pretty interesting list of the 100 Cool Teachers in Children’s Literature. They are only up to 58 so it’s not too late to weigh in!! Besides being a great resource blog – can we say awesome professional development?

Phew!! This ought to be enough to get any newbie started and lost in the world of weblogs and wikis!! I have just begun the journey myself and what an interesting ride!! Please share some of your “highlights” here as well!

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Sticks and stones may break my bones...

Words are very powerful weapons. They hurt. They soothe. They ignite fire. They calm raging waters. They can raise you up and back-fire on you. Words are loaded with meaning, embedded in riddles, and can have different meanings depending on the accent given.

Fire! Fire? FIRE!!

Two separate studies reviewed the vocabulary of Webster’s Third International Dictionary (1963) and found that when compound words, archaic words, abbreviations, proper names, alternative spellings, and dialect forms were excluded and the remaining words could be classified into 54,000 word families!! Our students are bombarded with new words on a daily basis, but we also expect them to choose their words wisely. How can students master this many words? What about English language learners?

We need words and we teach words. But do we teach students to love them? To treat words with respect? To recognize the power that words have when they learn them?

I spent three years in law school, and almost the same amount of time in practice, learning how to use words to my best advantage. I think they did a pretty good job; when backed into a corner, I can use them to back my verbal opponent into the opposite one. I can see the weakness in their arguments, craft mine in my head to counter it, and spititoutsofastthattheydon’thavetimetothinkyetalonerespond. I win!! But interestingly, when a friend is grieving over the loss of a family member or the dissolution of a seemingly rock-solid marriage, I falter. Words escape me and the only thing I can stammer out is “I’m sorry, I am so sorry.”

Words have come to the forefront lately as we seem to trip over them in education. We need to be careful with what we say so as not to offend or hurt so we couch their meaning in other words which don’t really mean the same thing and not everyone has access to the code so they think we mean something entirely different we talk about what is important to us. Huh? In other words, why have we stopped saying what we mean?

I am obsessing over words because I have spent the past two days working with very dedicated educators to review ELA testing items for our state assessments. In the course of our discussions we have been dissecting words: what grade level they are appropriate for, whether our students would know them, how to teach them. But we don’t talk about how to teach students to love them. Truth be told – the process is starting to kill my deep affection for them! But it has made me wonder about how to empower students with the nuances of our complicated, illogical, often misused language.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Those Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer

It is one of the hottest days of the summer today. Our record temperature and heat index might not mean much to those in Phoenix used to triple digit temperatures – but here in Western New York it is down-right H-O-T. The air is heavy, people are cranky, and my hair is out of control!!!

So it was nice to relax after work floating in the pool with my nieces. They have just discovered the power of words in the worst form of torture known to man: knock-knock jokes!! I suppose it is all worth it to see them doubled over with genuine belly laughs when they actually get one – but the jokes lose their appeal after about 3 minutes. Knock-Knock! Who’s there? Amsterdam Amsterdam who? Amsterdam tired of all these knock-knock jokes!

But they are only this young and innocent once and I cherish every moment that I get to spend watching them grow and develop into the beautiful, intelligent young ladies I know they will become.

So it strikes me that we don’t often take the same opportunities to step back and enjoy the moment with our students. We are worried about covering the breadth of our curriculum, racing towards the finish line of a state or district assessment. In this mad dash for completion, we forget to step back and model reflection and revision – good teaching practices that we throw out as unneeded ballast.

I am not the only one noticing this interesting trend.

Dana wrote in response to a previous posting
about the time she has spent with students in summer school on the thinking process: “Sometimes we forget, good teaching and commitment always will be the answer to test scores.”

And Melodee shared: “The last two days I have spent with a speaker at our school who talked about the reading strategies and the importance of modeling them, as well as giving children time to discuss, reflect and write. Of course as you and I both know many a teacher asked the age old question, "How do we fine time to do all this?"

Not sure that I have the answer, but what if we all tried a noble experiment. Instead of lamenting that “I have to teach X”, let’s instead proclaim “I get to teach X.” Imagine what would happen if we changed our mindset to think of our teaching as an opportunity!!!

Now – this experiment won’t be easy. Our peers will scoff, administrators may look astray and step to the other side of the hallway as we approach, and family members may begin looking into resort spas as therapy. Some of these may not be bad by-products of our experiment. But my hypothesis is that the true result of our experiment is that our students might actually enjoy what we are teaching – even if it is writing!!

"Opportunities are usually disguised as hard work,
so most people don't recognize them."
- Ann Landers