Now We Are One

02/25/2010
First Birthday Cake
Image by Monroe’s Dragonfly via Flickr

Its Education On the Plate’s first anniversary.

I wanted to mark this occasion some way, but I don’t want to do a typical “this is what I set out to do and this is what really happened” essay.

If that’s what you want, I’ve got this handy do-it-yourself method:

Read the introductory post

Read this post about incidental learning.

And this recent one.

Now reflect on whether I did what I set out to do.

While you’re doing that, I’m going to go on.

Like I said, I didn’t want to do a trite, predictable essay, but I was not coming up with other ideas.

After all, it has been 15 years since I’ve thrown a first birthday party and that one was for a human.

Having my blog dive face-first into a birthday cake doesn’t sound like a good idea to me.

So I did what I do when I have a question about teaching or am in need of a resource; I tweeted about my predicament.

There’s a poster in my room that reads, “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.”

That is so true!

When I am in need I always tweet, and I always get a handful (at least!) of helpful responses within minutes.

I think these are all pretty good ideas and I’m very grateful to have them even though I’m not using any of them, at least not this year.

Instead I’m doing what I always end up doing: thanking the many, many members of my Twitter crowd for their help. I’m also thanking the subscriber and the couple of dozen people who have left comments that helped turn these monologues into conversations.

I could name names, but that would be tedious to type and tedious to read all the names in search of yours.

Rest assured, your name is there.

It must be someone else I’ve forgotten to include.

Oh well, there’s always next year.

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I Screw Up & Come Out Ahead

02/23/2010
Train wreck at Montparnasse Station, at Place ...
Image via Wikipedia

I believe in failure.

I believe in taking an intellectual risk and falling flat on my face.

I believe in taking something apart in order to learn how to put it back together the right way through a process of putting it back together the wrong way first.

I believe in failing by doing something you shouldn’t have and learning the hard way why you shouldn’t have done it.

I failed today.

I did the wrong thing and had it go as badly as it possibly could have.

Even so, it may have been the best thing I’ve ever done in my continuingly evolving struggle to connect with my 8th grade social studies class.

My school, like the rest of the schools of the New York City Department of Education, has an ironclad rule against students using personal electronic devices like games and cell phones no matter how smart they are. This was repeated to us in a staff meeting after school yesterday.

Please don’t respond to this post with information on how the computers students all carry in their pockets can be utilized in the classroom. I’ve heard it. I believe it. I just can’t convince the NYCDOE to change their policies. I’ve tried.

So here’s what happened.

I’m in the middle of teaching my eighth grade social studies class, a class I’ve had a lot of difficulty engaging.

It is sixth period, right after lunch, usually the worst period of the day for all teachers.

For a change, my usually extremely rowdy class is actually working at creating cost-benefit analyses of the late 19th – early 20th Century investment NYC made to build schools.

I’m walking around the room, checking progress, helping enhance understanding and all that good teacher stuff, and then I spot it.

Way in the back, where the rowdiest students sit, it is strangely quiet. Two of the boys seem to be staring into their lap, the sure sign they are looking at a verboten screen.

I can move surprisingly quickly and quietly for a big guy and I’m on them in a flash.

This is where I make my big mistake.

I reach down and try to snatch the phone out of the hands of the boy holding it.

In the process the phone flies and breaks when it hits the floor.

The boy who was holding the phone was distraught; it turns out the phone isn’t his.

I calm him and say what turns out to be the magic words:

“I take responsibility for my actions. I will pay to replace the phone.”

Silence.

I say it again.

I tell the boy to go tell the assistant principal what happened.

I repeat my pledge to replace the phone to him, and he tells me to go talk to the principal.

I tell him that I will replace the phone and he tells me what I already knew: I screwed up when I tried to grab the phone.

He warned me not to do it again, I assured him I wouldn’t and returned to my class.

I walked back to that back group and the boy who was holding the phone said, “Are you really going to pay for it?”

I repeated that I take full responsibility for my actions and that I would pay for the phone.

“Wow.”

For the rest of the day, different students wandered into my room and asked me to repeat what I had said.

Each time they shook their heads and looked at me with a mixture of awe and puzzlement.

Finally, two kids came to me and pulled me aside.

“People think what you did was dumb but what you are doing about it is awesome.”

Then they shook my hand and walked out.

Cost of the phone: $200

Benefits from the screw-up: immeasurable.

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A New Perspective From the Old

02/22/2010
Hands
Image by dbz885 via Flickr

Today is the first day back at school after a week off and I’ve never been as eager to deal with children again.

I spent most of the past week tending to my 85-year-old aunt and uncle who live about an hour away.

He is in good shape and able to take care of himself, but she’s been in hospital or rehabilitation center since taking a nasty fall in late November.

At first the problem was a broken arm.

Now she is losing her mind.

It is odd how many of the same skills I use daily with my students I now use talking to my aunt and uncle.

He’s always been a deliberate person, considering options from every angle before making a decision, but now he processes slowly and remembers less easily, so waiting for him to make a decision requires every bit of patience and gentle prodding I can muster.

My aunt’s once focused mind is now lost in a world of its own creation. Her increasingly bizarre statements show she is no longer the person my uncle married 50 years ago this past Valentine’s Day.

Listening to my aunt is exhausting.

I’ve always said that I get energy from my students and that is so. Dealing with the elderly, I am discovering, has the exact opposite effect, rendering me  an old battery trying to start a car on a very cold winter morning.

Don’t get me wrong; I am happy to be able to help my childless relatives. I’m the oldest nephew and my uncle, a major figure in my childhood, has remained a reliable guidepost throughout my life.

Even so, dealing with my elderly relatives is far more difficult than dealing with the most difficult students.

I care deeply about my students, and not just their academics. I try to be for them what my uncle was for me; someone I could depend on when things got rough, someone who helped me learn that I did not have to be the person I often saw being modeled for me at home.

I tell my students that all experiences produce learning, but that we have to capture it and connect it to what we already know.

I enjoy working with my students, but I never thought of them as a relief before.

Being there for my relatives this past week has given me a valuable new perspective on what I do every day.

I will try to remain open to the lessons that new perspective offers.

.

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Teachers Have Dreams, Too

02/16/2010

Many of the things I hear or read from teachers lead me to think they live in a fantasy world.

Today I participated in an hour-long chat via Twitter on the subject of how technology can help build community in the classroom.

The chat was one in the Edchat series of Tuesday chats. Usually upwards of 50 people participate in the chats and the tweets come fast and furious.

I usually just scan them as they roll by on my screen. I respond to a few, but usually just occasionally drop in necessarily terse (there’s a limit of 140 characters per Tweet) comments.

Today’s chat really irritated me and led me to post the comment I used as the first line here.

For an hour I read messages about the advantages of creating communities in classrooms and how tech may or may not help one do so.

For an hour I read idyllic comments about creating learning communities in which everyone teaches and everyone learns, and other ideal situations.

It was like watching the teacher version of a Disney movie in snippets of text.

Well, I am going to be the evil witch.

You cannot create communities in which all learn and teach in a classroom.

You can create a situation in which the students learn and teach, and the teacher learns while teaching, but they are not members of the same community.

As my friend and self-described “big goober” William Chamberlain pointed out, communities are created around similarities.

Let’s examine the similarities between teachers and students:

Teachers spend all day in a classroom.

Students spend all day in a classroom.

Teachers are paid to be in the classroom.

Students are required to be there.

Teachers have authority in the classroom

Students are subject to that authority.

Teachers determine the décor of the classroom.

Students’ completed work is part of the décor.

Teachers specify the procedures in classroom.

Students have to follow those procedures.

Teachers determine the activities of the class.

Students have to perform the activities.
There’s not much similarity or common interest, is there?

Instead of spending an hour dreaming, thake the time to think about the power dynamics in your classroom.
William Chamberlain again: “Forcing students to work together when they don’t want to is like hitting your head on the wall. It feels good when you stop.”

Think about the idea that your students are aware that the idea and demand for community is coming from the only person in the room with any power.

When that happens, community becomes a requirement.

Required community doesn’t sound very good, does it?

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The Antidote to Burnout

02/14/2010
Homemade Chocolate Chip Cookies
Image by windy_sydney via Flickr

Something incredible happened Friday.

It was the kind of thing that makes teaching so rewarding.

Hell, it’s the kind of thing teachers live for.

The most difficult student I teach did something that made my jaw drop.

And it was good.

It was very good.

She gave me a small bag with two homemade cookies.

My relationship with this girl was so bad that I would not have eaten the cookies for fear that they were somehow dangerous to me.

I ate the cookies. They were delicious.

I ate the cookies because of the note that came with them.

“Mr. Black – thank you for trying to teach me and improve my behavior.”

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Snow Day! A Reprise

02/10/2010
Tweed Courthouse, New York City - The headquar...
Image via Wikipedia

Why is it that when the New York City Department of Education seems to do the right thing for what seem to be noble reasons, the cynic in me rises to the surface and speaks.

Last year in early March there was a weather forecast very similar to today’s: snow beginning overnight and becoming heavier as the day progresses with near blizzard conditions due to 45mph winds.

NYCDOE memos say they’ll announce school closings, a very rare event, before 6AM and last year they waited until the very last moment, finally announcing the shutdown after many dedicated teachers had left early to get to work on time and far too late for parents to make alternate arrangements for childcare.

I wrote about that little bureaucratic snafu that morning.

I don’t know if Chancellor Klein or someone with his ear read that post, or the hundreds of other excoriations online, but things were done a little differently yesterday.

New York City is finally moving into the modern era when it comes to communicating with citizens and other people interested in changes in routine. The City offers a notification system similar to the ones introduced to college campuses after the Virginia Tech shooting.

This system allows people to sign-up for text message, email and telephone notification of things like changes in parking regulations, school closings and public health emergencies. I signed up early yesterday morning

Shortly after 11:30 yesterday morning the NYCDOE posted a message on their homepage in the Spotlight section below and to the left of the link teachers click to get to their curriculum information, teaching resources and DOE email.

The email link is significant. My principal and, I’m sure, many others in the system are trying – for budgetary if not environmental reasons – to reduce the volume of paper memos by distributing information via email.

We are told to check our email frequently.

We are never told to check the DOE homepage and most teachers I know don’t spend much time, if any, looking at it.

At about 1:30 in the afternoon I recieved a text message, an email and a phone call from Notify NYC telling me that Alternate Side of the Street Parking Regulations were suspended on the next day due to the impending snow.

Nothing about school closings.

On its homepage, the DOE said it was announcing the school closing so early to give parents time to make childcare arrangements for the snow day.

Still, it was not until more than three hours later, 3:03PM to be precise, that Notify NYC texted, called and emailed to announce the planned school closing.

snow covered cars
Image by dgphilli via Flickr

Apparently knowing that you would not have to move your car to the other side of the street in the morning was more important to NYC residents than knowing you would need to arrange alternative childcare.

Admittedly, its not always easy to find legal parking in NYC, but its got to be easier than finding emergency childcare.

Lots of teachers live in the suburbs and lots of teachers have young children.

Suburban schools close due to snow because it is difficult and dangerous to try driving school busses on slippery streets. Just after noon I received three notifications that my son’s school would be closed.

NYC schools rarely close because only special education students travel to school and home on what they call the “cheese bus.” All the others walk, are driven by parents or ride public transportation.

NYC teachers with school-age children also need to make childcare arrangements so they can go to work even when the suburban schools are closed.

But it was not until 4:30PM that the DOE finally got around to emailing its employees about the decision to close the schools.

The NYCDOE did make the right decision and they made it in a much, much more timely fashion this time. They get a well-deserved pat on the back for that.

But the NYCDOE needs to learn something from the difficulties they seemed to have communicating that decision.

They could realize that having high expectations, like mine for them, is not enough to produce desired learning; that learning requires teaching and time for repeated attempts to err, try again and, eventually, get things right.

Maybe they’ll understand that learning does not happen on a steady, smooth upward incline on a graph.

The NYCDOE went from an F to a C, or in the terms we use, from a low one to a high two, in a little less than a year. They are approaching the standard for school closing.

Eventually there will be another major snow storm, another opportunity to do better.

But chances are they’ll have a lot of time to reflect on their performance this time, to think about how they could do better when the next performance exam comes, and to practice the procedures involved.

I wish they’d give my students that kind of time.

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Teacher Gets A Report Card

02/07/2010
1954/1955: Progress Report
Image by jessica @ flickr via Flickr

There’s been a lot of chatter recently about ways to assess teachers.

Some say that principals and other supervisors do a lousy job assessing teachers because they don’t have the time, the training, or the inclination.

Others say it should not be totally up to principals because they play favorites, are vindictive, or have some other agenda.

My first two years teaching I worked for a principal like that. Now her school is being shut down.

Some say that the scores students get on standardized tests should be used to rate teachers.

070305
Image by COCOEN daily photos via Flickr

The President of the United States says that’s the way to do it.

Which just goes to show how little he understands about education, about assessment and about motivation.

The people who go to elite private schools never really get what education is like for the rest of us, especially those of us who work or learn in inner city or rural schools which, counter-intuitively, have a lot in common.

At the present time there doesn’t seem to be a really accurate, workable way to assess teacher effectiveness, at least not one that can be applied to all teachers.

I give the task of assessing my teaching to the people who see it every day and for whom it is most crucial that I do it well: my students.

At the end of each quarter, when I have to determine and enter their grade for the quarter into our data system, I ask my students to give me a grade, to give me a report card.

I tell the students they do not have to put their names on the paper, but I want their assessment of me in writing.

I let them pick the criteria and determine how their assessment will be expressed.

Some make elaborate report cards with various categories, letter or number grades, and comments.

Others just write one sentence.

The first time the students assess me I get excellent marks. By the second quarter, when they see I take this very seriously, they are more critical.

My sixth grade class can be VERY chatty and a majority of the students in it told me I should be stricter. Even some of the chattiest ones said that.

strict school teacher
Image by isurusen via Flickr

They also told me they liked the projects I give them to do, that they like that I give them choices about how to do things and what kind of presentations to do. They want more parties.

Many of my colleagues who I know only through Twitter thought this was a great idea but one, Glen Westbrook, said that he knows some teachers who would be very worried about letting students have a say.

I have a message for those teachers:

All students assess their teachers every minute of every day.

Our grades are delivered as behavior.

The students who do the work, obey the rules and get good grades are saying they like, or at least can tolerate, the way you teach.

The others, those kids who are not engaged, not doing the work or otherwise acting out are delivering a different message.

Its not an easy message to receive.

It’s a lot easier to blame the students, their parents, the community or the administration.

Next time, before you bad mouth anyone else, take a look in the mirror and ask this question:

Mirror
Image by wetwebwork via Flickr

Am I teaching my students the same way I’d teach my own child? Do I teach the way I want my child’s teachers to teach?

Think carefully before you answer. Be honest.

Or hope your students will be when you ask them.

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Bring Real Life Into Education? Hah!

02/03/2010
garbage trucks (color)
Image by rdcapasso via Flickr

Many of the currently trending phrases in education revolve around the concept of bringing “real life” into education.

Some people see schools as dead places deeply in need of life, real or otherwise and they attempt to remedy this by introducing ‘real world situations’ into mathematics lessons.

My friend Ira Socol, as part of a larger critique of how math is taught, illustrates one of the difficulties in doing this with a story about negative garbage trucks.

You might be wondering what a negative garbage truck is. So did he.

Ira says, “We all too often create fake issues, fake circumstances, fake problems – which strip all motivation from the subject…fake issues drive kids away.”

But the difficulty of bringing real life into schools is much larger than merely creating plausible math problems.

The real problem is that education, at least the school part of it, operates on a completely different model than real life.

School is reductive; life is not.

In school, life is teased and isolated into different content strands called ‘subjects’: math, science, social studies (or, in its more pure form, history) Language Arts (which used to be English), etc.

Even in elementary grades, where one teacher might teach all those subjects (plus art, music, physical education and more), those content areas are often divided from each other much as a child arranges the potatoes and lima beans on his plate so they don’t touch.

Math is remote from science and even more remote from Language Arts. Social Studies somehow teaches us about vital events and concepts in our lives without reference to science or math.

At Educon this past weekend, in a discussion titled “Tinkering Towards Technology Fluency” (which had little to do with technology fluency), it was pointed out that when a student is required to perform certain labs in science class it is sometimes difficult because he has not yet been taught the math skills necessary.

It was suggested that the math teacher and science teacher plan together so each would know what skills the other subject requires and on what schedule so that, like in real life, skills are on-board when needed.

Real life is not like that. Skills are usually learned through a process involving failing in the task the first time.

I learned how to change the washers in a faucet, but I had to flood the bathroom to do so.

And that was despite having the book “Plumbing for Dummies” open in front of me.

Schools don’t often allow time for a student to try something novel, struggle with it, make errors, learn from them, try again and succeed.

Another problem with trying to bring “real life” (a tacit admission that school is an artificial one, for sure) is that schools have curriculums.

At their best, curriculums are a basic, streamlined statement of the learning goals for a class. Start here; end there.

I’ve never seen one like that. Life isn’t often like that either.

Most curriculums are heavily detailed, often week-by-week schedules of what is to be taught (and possibly learned) and when it will be done.

Those curriculums squeeze the random out of the classroom so efficiently that one wonders if that isn’t their real purpose.

Random is dangerous, some say, especially in the hands of teachers.

But life is random. You may make plans to go to the theater on August 2nd, but your plans may be disrupted by a hailstorm, a hurricane or temperatures so hot the roads melt.

Or you may get the measles.

Vogon Constructor Fleet
Image by Bladewood via Flickr

Or die.

Or find the need to dodge the Vogon Constructor Fleet.

Need proof? Haiti. No one there was expecting a massive earthquake on the afternoon of January 12th.

Schools are specifically designed to hide the truth that anything can happen without any warning at any time.

We all do our best to pretend that life is predictable and, to a large extent, controllable. Otherwise, we’d have so much anxiety we could not continue to function.

Bringing real “real life” into the classroom is actually kind of a silly idea.

I don’t know about your classroom, but in mine real life comes in every day with my students. They bring me their hunger, their fears, their precocious sexuality, their sibling rivalries, their problems with stepparents; their daily struggles just to survive.

On a lot of days there’s far too much “real life” for me to handle.

On those days, facing off with a negative garbage truck sounds like fun.

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Run Schools Like Businesses? Absolutely!

02/01/2010
Business Plan in a Day book
Image by Raymond Yee via Flickr

I’m about to say something radical.

Okay, it may not seem so radical to you but to the people who have known or read me for some time this will be startling.

Schools SHOULD be run as businesses.

I ran a business for almost 20 years so I think I understand some things about how to do it.

The business leaders who complain that schools should be run more like businesses don’t get it.

They don’t get it so much that I don’t understand how they stay in business.

The people who oppose running schools like businesses also don’t get it.

They think that schools run like businesses will be even more like factories than schools are already.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell: the folks talking about running schools believe their customers are their product.

All businesses have at least one product. It may be cars, or widgets or accounting services, whatever.

All businesses that want to stay in business also have customers who buy or rent those products.

It is essential, in business and in the rest of life, that products and customers, both essential for business survival, are not the same thing.

Any smart businessperson will be able to tell the product and the customer apart.

Actually, there are a lot of not-so-smart business people who can also tell you what their products are and who their customers are.

It really isn’t that hard to do.

But, somehow, the people who insist that schools should be run like businesses can’t.

They think their customers are their product. I have no idea who they think their customers are.

The school-as-business advocates cling to an industrial model of school.

This industrial model emerged in the last part of the 19th Century and the early-to-mid parts of the 20th century to teach children who grew up on farms, children who grew up in other countries, and the children who grew up on farms in other countries how to be good, obedient, factory workers.

The industrial model of schools taught and teaches how to be in place at the assigned time, not a big farm skill but essential in industry.

The industrial model teaches how to follow directions, also useful in industry.

The industrial model also teaches how to produce on a rigid schedule, and we all know that assembly lines move on a rigid schedule.

Despite all the talk that schools are bad, they actually are exceedingly good at doing what they were designed to do: take in raw youths and produce compliant, punctual workers.

The problem is that our schools are designed to feed students into the industries that America no longer has.

All those jobs that initially moved to Japan and more recently to China, Vietnam and India not only led to the decline of industrial centers like Detroit, Youngstown, Ohio, and Gary, Indiana, they have led to the obsolescence of the American model of education.

Now there are various efforts to “reform” schools in some way.

Most of these efforts, charter schools and the like, are small adjustments in a model that more and more people say needs a major overhaul at the minimum.

In any case, these charter schools have come into existence to give students, guided by their parents, choices about where to go to school.

Competition, it is claimed, will force public schools to become better.

In other words, public schools, private schools, parochial schools and charter schools are all competing for the same student just like McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s and Five Guys are all competing for the same stomach.

Those folks who say schools should be run like businesses still think of the student as their product even though their customer, industry, has fled to the hinterlands and is unlikely to return no matter how compliant the students schools create.

The student who used to be the product of the school system is now the consumer, the customer.

So I think it is now essential to run schools like businesses.

Schools-as-businesses now need to focus on the student, figure out what the student wants, how much of it they want, in what kind of package, and where they want to buy it.

Schools and school systems need to sell themselves to their customers the same way Chevy, Ford and Toyota have to sell to drivers.

Now the problem of keeping students in high school is a marketing and management problem, not a legislative one.

Now creating schools that students want to attend will take more than new packaging and other tweaks.

It will take new products, new formulas and new locations.

This is big.

It’s like the day after Thanksgiving for retailers, now get the customers to come to your school.

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