On the Road Learning

07/16/2013
Leaving the Delta

Leaving the Delta (Photo credit: joseph a)

I am writing this post from Birmingham, Alabama. I usually write from my home in the NYC suburbs. I’ve been on the road since July 1st, visiting the deep south, a part of the country I’ve never seen before. I’ve got five more days before I reintroduce myself to my wife, our son and our dog and sleep in my bed again.

The impetus for this trip was my acceptance into the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) workshop with the intriguing title “The Most Southern Place on Earth: Music, Culture and History in the Mississippi Delta. The workshop is held at Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi (Mississippi has to be the most fun-to-type word in the English language!).

I have visited Charlottesville, VA, Asheville, NC, Memphis, TN, and now Birmingham. Next stop in Knoxville, TN, then Richmond, VA before heading home.

I am learning an incredible amount, so much so that I’m having a hard time processing it all. I’ve toured Monticello, Graceland and William Faulkner’s house. I saw thousands of acres of corn, soybeans and rice growing in the Mississippi Delta where cotton was king for decades. I’ve been to art museums in Asheville and Birmingham, the Cotton Museum and the Stax Records museums in Memphis, and Vulcan Park in Birmingham. I stood on the balcony in Memphis where Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed and looked out at that balcony from the window next to the one the shooter used. I visited Fannie Lou Hamer’s gravesite, a Chinese cemetery, a Black cemetery, what may or may not be where Robert Johnson is buried and the likely crossroads at which he is alleged to have sold his soul to the devil so he could be a great blues guitarist.

I visited Po Monkey’s, the last rural juke joint in America and met Monkey, the farm hand who owns it. I listened to two musical lectures about the blues, then went to Red’s Lounge, a neighborhood blues club in Clarksdale, MS to hear the real thing.

I’ve tasted  baked catfish, fried catfish, fried sauerkraut, fried okra, fried pickles, koolikles – pickles marinated in cherry Koolaid, and more styles of BBQ ribs than I knew existed.

I visited one of the last Jewish synagogues in the Delta and met the man struggling to keep it alive. I saw the 16th St. Baptist Church where a bombing in 1963 took the lives of four young girls and spent a couple of hours touring the Civil Rights Institute across the street.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned:

Fried pickles are better than Koolaid pickles, but Koolaid pickles are better than you might imagine they are.

The Mississippi Delta is not only the most southern place on earth, it is also the flattest.

People in the south are, at least on the surface, much more friendly than those in NY. They are warm, gracious and generous.

Mississippi has more Black elected officials than any other state, but there are still those who would like the segregation laws reinstated.

Many cities in the south put a lot of effort into making their downtowns beautiful with parks, plantings, sculpture and the like. Memphis is not one of them.

When it rains in the south, it REALLY rains. I’ve driven through downpours where I would have pulled off the road if there had been somewhere to pull off, and I’ve walked through downpours where I could not see where my next step would take me.

My PLN (PRofessional Learning Network) was, once again, a great resource. I’ve had people show me around, recommend activities, suggest dining options and otherwise guide my travels.

The blues did not originate in Chicago, Memphis or anywhere between those two points.

I learned what a diddley bow is and how to make one. I am going to make one for my school library. I have no talent to play it, though.

Farming is hard work. So is steelmaking.

Independent bookstores are hanging in there in Asheville and in Oxford, Mississippi.

Asheville is very dog-friendly. It is also very gay-friendly. If there is a connection, it is called love.

Downtown ballparks are more fun than those not downtown. Memphis’s AutoZone Park is beautiful. I’m also going to games in Knoxville and Richmond, but those stadiums are not downtown.

During an ill-advised five-mile drive down a gravel road cutting through private farmland we saw a lot of corn plots labeled “experimental.” I’m not sure what those experiments are, but they may have produced large aggressive bugs that flew at 15-mph next to my car for almost three miles.

If Mississippi is in need of a state bird, I nominate the dragonfly. Dragonflies are cool and the Delta is the dragonfly capitol of the world.

Apparent;y the Delta State University bookstore never thought of placing their school’s mascot on a cook’s apron even though that would seem to be the perfect place to show off the “fighting okra.”

The south apparently does not believe in vegetables. The most common side dish with BBQ seems to be white bread, with french fries running a close second.

Grits get tiring after a while, but biscuits are a great excuse for having peppery sausage gravy.

I am sure that over time these superficial learnings and impressions will be augmented or replaced by deeper understandings. This will happen because I will have the time to process and reflect upon my experiences. But as I sit here in my hotel, with my stomach growling for dinner, I feel like what I am sure many of my students feel. Overwhelmed, tired, hungry and thirsty.

It is good to be reminded that our students need to be fed, to have their thirsts slaked, to have their own PLN to show them love and support, and to have time to process all that their sponge-like brains soak up.


I’ve been nominated for a Bammy Award

04/07/2013

Teachers have been under attack lately and reports say teacher morale is at an all-time low.

Bam Education Radio created the Bammy Awards for Education Excellence last year to help spread the word about the good, talented, hard-working child-centered people who work in education including janitors, superintendents, teachers, principals, school nurses, education professors, education commentators, education reporters and more.

The Bammy Award

The Bammy Award

The Bammy Awards are presented at a black-tie event in Washington, D.C. I was privileged to attend last year’s ceremony as one of a group of 25 bloggers representing the 100 selected for Educator Voice recognition. It was fun to see friends and colleagues all dressed up even if I never felt fully comfortable with the idea of the ceremony.

Educators are generally very hesitant, even loathe, to toot our own horns. We even tend to shy away from recognition by others. This has to change. We have to tell our own stories because no one else is going to do it for us.

I am nominated for a Bammy Award in the school librarian category. I’m honored and humbled, especially when I see the others nominated in the category. I hope you will take some time to read the nominations and cast votes in some of the categories.

Please help spread the word that there are some great educators out there who need some recognition and support.

Thank you.


I’m a librarian. Use me!

02/14/2013
Narsarsuaq Airport, Greenland. Terminal, Nanoq...

Narsarsuaq Airport, Greenland. Terminal, Nanoq Duty Free shop. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today sent my principal an email telling him I am underutilized.

I have seven assigned teaching periods a week, slightly more than 1 per school day. Our day is eight periods long. I have open access two lunch periods every day. The rest of the time I am allegedly doing “library administration.” As far as I can tell after two years of doing the job, library administration takes about 10-20 minutes a day which I spend re-shelving books. When I still have money to spend, I might take another 30 minutes a day reading book reviews to select my purchases.

That still leaves me four more periods a day plus my contract-mandated duty-free lunch period (which I hardly ever take – I read trade magazines and answer work emails while I eat).

I reminded him that I did a lot of different things before becoming a teacher and I carry a diverse set of skills he could take advantage of and gave him suggestions on how I might be more useful to him and the school.

I could write grants. I write and win a couple or three for the library each year. My record is seven applied for, six won. When an assistant principal needed an essay for a grant proposal she was submitting that day, I wrote what she called a great one in twenty minutes. I could write more.

I could plan and do PD. We used to get a lot of PD on differentiating lessons but none of it was differentiated. When I pointed that out to my principal he said there wasn’t enough time to plan differentiating it. I managed to hold my tongue and not point out that teachers, too, are under time pressure, what with all the paperwork they have to do. I could plan differentiated PD – more differentiated than he might imagine (unconference model; Educon conversation model, EdCamp model, etc.). I could create PD on Project-Based Learning, on interdisciplinary unit design, on becoming a connected educator, and more.

I could create, or facilitate students creating a webpage for the school. Right now we have the dull, cookie-cutter NYCDOE school webpage and it doesn’t give a clue about who we are, what we do, how we do it, or any of the great things happening in our school. I’m currently working with three sixth grade classes to develop a website for our library – right now they’re deciding what will be on the site and the more artistic students are investigating other school and library sites to get design ideas (and a list of things not to do!).

I could produce an online school magazine.

I could, I could, I could.

I’ll let you know how he responds.


The Question is Asked, the Conversation Begins

02/10/2013

It started with this question: Why aren’t our students making more progress?

One day late last week a third of the staff stayed more than two hours after school to discuss the possibility of our becoming a magnet school of sorts. The sort isn’t important, but the conversations about it are. horseshoe magnet

No one had asked that question before. We’d been told that we had to have our students make progress and we’ve been given a host of different programs to cause that to happen, but none of it was working.

In small groups we had serious conversations to answer that question. Among other ideas, each group mentioned a lack of student motivation as a major part of the problem. In response my principal said words that I never expected to come from his mouth, words I’d been saying and writing for a number of years. “The reason our students are not motivated is because school is not working for them.”

It’s not the students’ fault, he said, and not the teachers’ either.

“Students are not motivated because the way we do school, the structure of the day, the changing of classes at 42 minute intervals, isolation of subject areas from each other, none of it is working.”

For a moment it was silent. Then the conversations started. We talked about our own positive and negative experiences in school and why they occurred. We talked about how we’d change the structure of the day, the physical plant of the school, the curriculum.

Some were defensive, feeling that what they do and how they do it was under attack. We agreed that some kids thrive in the current mode of operation. Others were for change. There were even a couple who, like me, were ready to trash the system and start over.

We won’t get the opportunity to do that. And we may not win the $3,000,000 grant that would allow us to make a lot of changes and train ourselves on how to make them work. It’s not that the grant doesn’t matter, but one of the most important parts of the change has already occurred.

It happened when our principal asked that question and created an anything-goes safe zone in which we could explore answers.

Now that the conversation has started, it is up to us to keep it going.

We are the change that needs to happen.


Assessing Teachers: Almost Impossible

01/08/2013
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg opening ...

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg opening the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The mayor of New York City, an incredibly wealthy man named Michael Bloomberg, compared my union, the United Federation of Teachers to the National Rifle Association because we will not agree to a deeply flawed, poorly thought out system of rating teachers.

The mayor thinks what he wants and expresses himself in whatever way he chooses. No one need comment on his incredible statement because it speaks very loudly on its own about what kind of man is running New York City and the New York City schools.

But the mayor is right about one thing. My union is refusing to cave into his and the state’s demand that we accept a teacher-rating system that is largely based on student performance on standardized tests.

The NY Post reports that teachers who rate poorly on the current system are offered satisfactory final ratings if they resign. Teacher evaluations have always been political — one intent of all this testing is to eliminate subjective rating, but it just moves it into sleazier territory. What the City is saying, in essence, is we think you’re a bad teacher but we’ll tell some other district that you apply to that you’re an okay teacher and let them take their chances. Doubly dishonest, and this is what we model for our students.

The problem is, there is absolutely no way to rate the effectiveness teachers because the result of what we do or don’t do in the classroom is not readily apparent in any meaningful way for several years at best and by then it is impossible to tell what influence any one or collection of teachers had, as if it were ever possible.

In my life, all the really influential teachers retired or died before the fruits of their influence developed enough to become apparent to me, much less anyone else.

The problem is we’re educating for the long run and the powers that be keep trying to assess us on the short run.

It is like judging the health of a business based on its performance in one or two quarters. By that standard, Enron looked fantastic, just like all the slick no-credit-check mega-mortgages and the derivatives based on them. We all know how that turned out

If they really want us to teach for short-term student gains we all can do it, we know how, but that is not what our students need and most definitely is not what our society needs.

Just like in business, taking the long view might not work out as well for the current investors, but is often advantageous for the society as a whole.


I matter

09/18/2012

I used to be very shy. VERY shy. Then Angela Maiers showed me that I matter. 

It was three years ago at a major technology education conference in Washington, DC. I thought of it again this weekend because I was in DC with Angela for the first Bammy Awards for Excellence in Education.

The NECC was my first education conference and it is a huge one. Five days and tens of thousands of people. I had been on Twitter for a few months and had made some soft connections; I’d had some conversations with people and I knew a few names. At that time my handle was @spedteacher, being shy I used my job at the time instead of my name as a moniker. I was a very small presence despite my large size.

In many ways the NECC was a huge step for me. I had not yet met anyone I knew through Twitter face-to-face and I was in awe of the knowledge, the experience and expertise of the people I followed there. I was learning so much and wanted to learn more. I always want to learn more. Curiosity is my driving force. So I decided to go to NECC.

Attending NECC was an expensive proposition. Registration is a few hundred dollars; DC hotels were not cheep and were at a premium, especially those within walking distance of the convention center. When a teacher from upstate NY, who I didn’t even know through Twitter, contacted me to ask if I’d be willing to share my hotel room so we could both cut our expenses I only hesitated for a moment before agreeing. Fortunately, Ryan Wassink and I got along well.

One of the features of the NECC is what they call a Bloggers Cafe where people gather to write their blogs, chat with others and generally just process the huge amount of information being presented. In this instance the cafe was a collection of small tables and cushioned benches and couches of different heights. I would go there and sit off away from anyone else. I was VERY shy.

One afternoon I got to the cafe and it was fairly empty, I sat on a bench leaning my back against the side of the empty couch next to it. I did not yet have this blog so I was on Twitter looking at tweets about the sessions I was not able to attend. Some people came and the cafe began to fill up. There was an interesting conversation going on behind me and I was listening intently. At one point I turned around to see who these people were and as soon as I did this very pretty woman looked at me and said, “You’re spedteacher!”

That woman was Angela Maiers. Angela is an award-winning educator, speaker, consultant and professional trainer known for her work in literacy, leadership and global communications. She is a big deal. She recognized me. And she introduced me to everyone else in the conversation. Then Angela asked me what my take was on the topic.

I have no idea what the topic was, but I will never forget that Angela thought what I had to say mattered.

Angela has been telling people that they matter for a long time. She talks about it, she writes about it, and she lives it.

I’m writing this to tell you that you matter, and I’m writing this to tell Angela how she mattered to me. Angela recently started a group on Facebook called Choose2Matter. She, and it, have helped me change my teaching this year.

I’m telling my students that they matter. It started the first time I saw them and played them this message (make sure your sound is on, then click the play button!)

There are geniuses here!

I asked them to tell me about the kind of genius they are. Engagement was instantaneous. They all wanted to make a Voki and tell their message about the kind of genius they are and how they matter.Everyone got right to work, thinking, writing planning.

All except one small girl who just sat there staring at her paper. I went to her, knelt to her level and asked if she was okay. She nodded yes. I asked if she was having difficulty writing. She nodded yes. I said, “you’re very shy, aren’t you?” She nodded yes. I told her to whisper in my ear the problem she was having.

She leaned over, cupped her hands around my ear and softly said, “I don’t know what kind of genius I am.”

I whispered back, “I don’t know you yet so I don’t know and can’t tell you what kind of genius you are, but my first job this year is to help you discover it for yourself and learn how to show it to the world.”

She smiled.

I mattered.

Thank you, Angela.


What if?

09/17/2012

Saturday evening I sat in a darkened theater, wearing a tuxedo for the first time in almost 40 years, for the first presentations of what might be annual awards for excellence in education. The Bammy Award for Excellence in Education

I am sitting among a group of education bloggers who will be called up on stage and recognized for our work.We’re being treated like movie stars, photographed and video interviewed on the red carpet on our way into the Arena Stage in Washington, DC.

As much fun as it is to see people I have come to know, respect and learn with all dressed up, the men handsome and the women beautiful in our finery, this feels weird, bizarre and more than a little uncomfortable.

That this feels so strange is precisely what is wrong with the Bammy Awards for Excellence in Education —  that it is so outlandish for educators to get red carpet treatment, hear kind words and receive weighty trophies. We have become far more used to being blamed, attacked, criticized, sniped-at and otherwise vilified.

The Bammy Awards are a calculated response to the cynical, damaging and dangerous negative images of teachers and other educators being presented to the public.

In the process of recognizing exceptional teachers, administrators, school maintenance managers, education reporters and school nurses the Bammy Awards ask a challenging and important question: What would happen if we treated teachers with the same high regard we give to entertainers, sport stars and other celebrities?

What would happen, how would things change, if we showed teachers appreciation, respect, perhaps even admiration for their work, their experience and their dedication instead of treating them with contempt.

What would happen if we built educators up instead of tearing them down; what if we helped teachers feel good bout themselves instead of causing them to question their choice to teach in the first place.

What would change if we recognized the professionalism of teachers the way they do in Finland and Singapore?

What indeed?


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