It Isn’t In the Air

03/18/2011
Chalk Dust

Image by scholz via Flickr

It’s not in the water.

It’s not in our food.

It’s neither in the music we hear nor the news we watch.

It is certainly not in the chalk dust we breathe.

None of those things hold the magic to make a good teacher better and a better teacher great.

How does it happen?

It happens through the structured processes of teachers learning from better teachers.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

I hope I’m not bursting anyone’s bubble when I tell you it isn’t quite that simple.

Not even the best teachers among us are good at teaching everything. No one teacher will ever tell you that they know all there is to know about teaching. If your kid’s teacher ever says that to you RUN to the principal’s office and have your child’s class changed.

Teaching is incredibly complex and very hard to do very well, just like being a nuclear physicist. Fortunately, the people most likely to be bad teachers never try teaching at all. Most of the rest of the people who turn out to be bad teachers quit within the first three years.

So much for the new teachers being the best ones. Enthusiasm is great but it only carries one so far. You don’t get to become one of the best unless you hang around for a while, at least until the magic happens and you get to rub shoulders, work hard and learn from better teachers than yourself.

As much as I champion incidental learning, there is a lot to be said for structure in the process of learning complex things, things like nuclear physics and teaching.

All the politicians say they want better teachers, but they act like developing them is just a matter of drinking the right water, breathing sweeter (or maybe smoggier) air, or perhaps they think we need to breath the dust of colored chalk instead of bland white.

I know they think this way not because they say so. Oh no, they say just the opposite, but I learned a long time ago to pay no attention to what politicians say; you have to watch what they do.

What they’re doing is planning to take all the funds away from the National Writers Project, the Teaching American History program, and all the other programs that provide the instructional and experiential structures that turn good teachers better and better teachers more so.

This is a map of the NWP's local Writing Proje...

Image via Wikipedia

Times are tough. Teachers are being laid off. Class sizes are getting bigger and bigger. Those teachers who will be in the classrooms come September will have to do much more with much less.

Don’t we want them, don’t we want us, to be able to do the best possible job, to teach our sons and daughters to be capable, confident writers, to help them understand that history is made daily and that actions today determine our future as much as any event or person in the past?

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

Write, call or, better yet, camp out in the office or front lawn of your Congressperson or Senator. Make them understand that great teaching is not as simple as breathing and that it doesn’t come out of a sparkling spring. Tell them the ugly truth and make them face it.

Great teachers are made the hard way. Through working at it in superlative programs like the National Writers Project and Teaching American History.
Tell your Congressman that they can’t have it both ways. They can’t complain about bad teaching while pulling the funding from the programs that improve teachers.

Insist that the National Writers Project and Teaching American History be funded now, tomorrow, next year and for as long as there are teachers willing to work hard to make themselves better at their craft.

Otherwise they should just shut up.

This is being cross-posted at the Cooperative Catalyst, a collective blog by people who care deeply about the state of learning in this country and are trying to figure out how to fix it and this post is part of the #blog4nwp effort to save a very worthwhile program.

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Learning a Universal Language

01/20/2011
Angry Talk (Comic Style)
Image via Wikipedia

I just learned a new language.

I used to run a British pub in New York City where we used to joke that we spoke about a dozen languages: American English, British English, Irish English, Australian English, Singapore English, Nigerian English, Indian English, Scottish English, Welsh English, South African English, Canadian English and Spanish.

I’m not yet fluent in my new language, but I’m learning it very quickly, probably because I am exposed to it so frequently.

New York City is the world’s most linguistically diverse place and this language is all around here, but I bet it is in your town, too. It’s probably in your school, maybe even in your classroom.

It was in my library today.

What language is so pervasive that it is common in New York City and Little Rock, Arkansas; in Omaha, Nebraska, in Adelaide, Australia and anywhere else there are enough people to have a middle or high school?

The language of anger.

Angry Sphynx
Image via Wikipedia

Anger a language? You bet!

Everything anyone does, wears, doesn’t do or doesn’t wear is a form of communication, a language.

Today some kids communicated by pulling a whole bunch of books off the shelves of my library and scattering them around the room. I wasn’t there at the time, but when I came back I understood their language right away.

Those kids were speaking anger, much more a universal language than Esperanto could ever be.

What were those kids angry about? I can only guess; being in school when they don’t want to be, being in the library with a rookie teacher from a different academy (we have seven in our school) who was covering the class for an absent colleague; and, likely, some stuff happening at home or elsewhere outside of school.

Everyone connected with school these days seems to have plenty to be angry about.

Teachers are angry about budget cuts, standardized tests, and people with no educational background criticizing their job performance and telling them how to do their jobs better.

Principals are angry that their jobs depend on raising test scores for all, but raising them for the most challenging students at a faster rate despite uncontrollable external factors including poverty and budget cuts.

Students are angry because their school building looks and feels like a prison, compliance is the response expected, and everyone they come into contact with in school is focused on short-term results.

By the way, many experts say the focus on short-term profit making was one of the major factors behind the recent economic collapse. If that is true, the current focus on short-term educational success will likely lead to a collapse in our field, too.

It’s just one more thing to be angry about.

Anger Is the Swiss Army Knife of Emotions T-shirt
Image by Mike Monteiro via Flickr

Or is that the opportunity we’ve all be looking for to make some real changes in how school is done?

That’s what anger is, an opportunity to make changes.

It is not easy to change things even slightly, much less radically, when everyone’s happy.

But when everyone is angry the door is wide open.

The question is, will we take advantage of the anger or spend our energy trying to repress it?

I’m angry about the probable answer to that.

You should be, too.

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Fighting, Just Because

05/26/2010
Broken glass
Image via Wikipedia

There were two fights in my little wing of our school today.

Neither fight had to happen. Neither fight should have happened.

Inner-city middle school students fight as play sometimes, but these were not play fights.

Students fight because their parents tell them that if they don’t fight back when someone says or does something to them, they’re wimps.

Some students fight because their self-image is so fragile that even the slightest negative comment about them is a challenge to their existence.

These students, and those whose parents are not abetting their violent ways, fight because they don’t have other strategies for dealing with problems.

My fellow teachers and I do our best to teach problem-solving strategies.

We tell the students that when someone talks about their mother it is not actually their mother, that the other students doesn’t know their mother and is making comments about some pretend mother that they all share.

I also tell my students that I am completely non-violent and that non-violence is stronger than violence.

Mahatma Gandhi

Image by dbking via Flickr

I teach them about Gandhi, how we share a birth date, and how he defeated what was then the strongest nation on earth with words and peaceful actions.

We all teach them about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and how he fought racism with words and non-violent actions even when confronted with violence.

And I tell them the story of the only time I got punched and how I won the fight without doing anything more than taking the punch.

I was in middle school when it happened, probably about 11 or 12 years old.

I was a big, athletic kid, but I was just a kid.

One day I was the first student to come down the stairs and out into the schoolyard for recess.

As I came through the doors into the schoolyard I got hit hard, very hard, squarely on the right side of my chin.

My jaw seemed to go out a mile and snap back, but I did not crumple or go down.

I just stood there looking at the youngish man who had attacked me for absolutely no reason.

I just continued looking at the man as my mind raced to figure out what had just happened and why.

Then the man ran away.

I continued to stand there.

It finally occurred to me that the man had run away because I had just taken his best punch, absolutely cold and just stood there.

There was nothing more he could do to hurt me.

It was in that moment I decided that I would never practice violence.

And I never have.

My students always listen raptly to the story and seem impressed.

Some ask me what I would do if they hit me.

I tell them to try it, but I don’t think they believe me when I tell them I will not fight back.

I want them to realize that turning one’s back and walking away is a far stronger statement, far more honorable, than fighting to defend one’s honor.

I always hope that this story will come to mind the next time they think they need to fight.

It never does.

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10 + 1 Not To Miss

05/16/2010

I recently got tagged in a blog post by Shelly Terrell (@shellterrell) one of the many people I rely on for my continuing teacher education.

Tagging sometimes seems like the blog equivalent of literary logrolling in which authors conspire to praise each other’s books, but I really do read and recommend the blogs I am about to tag.

If you are tagged, follow these rules:

1) Insert the picture above into your blog with a link back to the blog that nominated you
2) List 10 blogs you feel others should read
3) Tell the bloggers you have nominated that you have tagged them.

Here, in no particular order, are the ten blogs that have made a difference in my teaching and/or my thinking.

SpeEdChange by Ira Socol (@irasocol) Ira is the single most interesting person I have met on Twitter. He’s a dyslexic former NYC police officer, author, and now doctoral candidate in Special Education and Educational Technology at Michigan State University. He is a passionate advocate for Universal Design in Education.

Philly Teacher by Mary Beth Hertz  (@mbteach) An inner-city technology teacher reflecting on teaching, learning, leadership and life with intelligence and spirit.

For the Love of Learning by Joe Bower (@joebower) challenges the “deeply rotted myths” that modern teaching and schools live by and explores more progressive forms of education. Always interesting, stimulating, incisive and quite often fun.

Keeping Kids First by Kelly Hines (@kellyhines) The title says it all. This blog is focused on teaching and learning, but takes a broad view of those topics. Don’t let Kelly’s easy-going North Carolina charm distract you from the deep thinking going on in these posts.

Learning is Messy by Brian Crosby (@bcrosby) His students are 4th graders, mostly second-language learners, many of them in special education. Brian focuses on how policies, processes and politics affects his teaching and students.

Upside Down Education by Amanda Dyles (@amandacdykes) She’s passionate about “using technology to ignite learning” and the subjects she teaches her 6th graders: science and social studies. And, despite living in Alabama, she’s a passionate Red Sox fan.

Human by Tomas Lasic (@lasic) A tinkerer who likes to ask ‘what if…’, Tomaz says “Rather than teaching people, I prefer to make them think and learn together.” And he plays water polo.

A Geeky Momma’s Blog by Lee Kolbert (@TeachaKidd) Asks questions. Asks lots of questions. Really good questions. Sometimes she finds answers.

ClassRoots.org by Chad Sansing (@classroots) One of the people with whom I often disagree. Here’s where we meet: Classroots.org presents failure and learning from it as equal partners with success in innovative teaching.

Reflections of a Science Teacher by Sandra McCarron (@sanmccarron), who describes herself as scientist educator and life-long learner. She likes to blow things up; all in the name of science, of course.

And one more…

Living the Dream by Diana Laufenberg (@dlaufenberg). Diana teaches social studies with passion and it comes through in every single post of this blog I recently started following. Diana discusses her teaching at Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy and explores larger themes of teaching and learning.

Challenge:

Take time the rest of the week to read these blogs and see which ones to add to your daily read! If you’re tagged in this post, please spread the love.

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Sticks and Stones… Yeah, Right

03/22/2010

It happened again.

I’m sure the person responsible for it didn’t mean to do it.

Why, I’m sure she didn’t even give it a second thought.

That is the crux of the problem.

We don’t give the words we use a second thought, at least not when we say them out loud.

When we write we choose our words carefully, aiming to get just the perfect nuance, the right shade of meaning.

When we write we recognize the power of words, how choosing one instead of another shifts meaning in subtle or overt ways. We use dictionaries and thesauri in tandem to aid us in our search for precision in language.

I do, and I am confident many other writers, cognizant of the complexity of our mutt-like English language, do as well.

While Professor Henry Higgins bemoans that “One common language I’m afraid we’ll never get,” the rest of us are free to revel in the diversity of words that Dutch, French, Turkish, Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese, Saxon, German, Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Italian (itself a motley collection of distinct dialects), and more have contributed to what we commonly call English.

It is that very diversity that allows linguistic precision, and it is that capability for precision that makes it so very distressing when people who should know better use words carelessly.

It is one thing to use an imprecise word when speaking, but quite a different thing when one is writing and, perhaps, has the time to choose words more carefully then read and revise by picking a different word or phrase to better convey intended meaning.

Still, despite the opportunity to do better, I’m sure the person responsible for it didn’t mean to do it.

Perhaps I should say persons because the offending term appeared in a magazine article and this magazine has an editor who might have caught the offending term and suggested an alternative.

That this did not occur leaves me to presume dereliction of duty or, worse, intent.

I will not embarrass the writer, editor or magazine by identifying them, partially because that is not how I operate, but also because the offensive phrase is so commonly used.

Here’s what I’m going on about; just a few simple words:

“Regular education,” or in this specific instance, “regular classroom environment.”

I am known in many corners of the online world as Spedteacher. It’s a handle that takes SpEd, a common abbreviation of ‘special education’ and adds it to my job title.

Perhaps I should call myself ‘Irreguteacher ‘ instead.

The opposite of ‘regular education’ is irregular education. A classroom environment other than a regular one is an irregular one.

All people are different. We all come with a broad selection of abilities and things we’re not so good at doing. How can it be that only a very small group of that overwhelming selection of abilities is labeled ‘regular’ and the rest are implied to be irregular?

In the text for one of the many inclusion-themed t-shirts available from his Nth Degree Catalog (The Home of Wheelchair Boy Jeans) Dan Wilkins explains the problem with the phrase ‘regular education’ much better than I can:

“One of the problems I have with the Special” and “Regular” education dichotomy is that its very existence forces us to label every kid just so we know which box to put him/her in. It gets worse. Then we take all the kids in one of the boxes and we put each of them in their own box and slap another label on it…. perhaps two…or ten. After a while we forget about the kid in each box and just see the box (and all its labels). It gets worse. Inside the box, the kid, misjudges the edge of the box for the horizon and comes to believe ‘that’s all there is…’ In the eyes of everyone, including the child, the kid and the box become one. So much for dreams…the chase is over before it begins.”

There it is.

In general, it is better to call the classrooms most students are in “general education.”

Calling them anything else should be irregular.

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Education? What for?

03/02/2010
The Thinker
Image by afagen via Flickr

What Is The Purpose of Education?

This is the kind of philosophical question that drives people nuts. It drives me nuts.

Some say its A.

Some say its B.

Others propose C.

Then they spend the next decade arguing about which idea is right during which the education system marches along aimlessly without understanding why it exists.

This way of doing things has been good for some, not so good for some others and a downright disaster for the rest,

The realization of that last bit leads to pleas and demands that the education system be “reformed.”

Now that I have achieved middle age I can look back and see that these calls for reform are part of a self-perpetuating cycle that has a predictable pattern.

Here’s how it flows…

Every major change in technology raises fears that American children will be ‘left behind’ the children in the rest of the world. Those fears lead to calls for education reform.

New emphasis is put on math and science at the expense of social studies and the arts.

We accomplish putting a man on the moon or whatever.

We feel good for a while.

Then we notice that we’re still behind Latvia in math scores and Burkina Faso and Mongolia in science scores.

Rinse and repeat.

This is what happened when machines started to replace skilled tradesmen and women.

It happened again when airplanes started to expand travel and commercial opportunities.

The next wave of calls for reform came when the Soviet Union launched the first chimp-in-a-rocket and set off the space race.

Is it any wonder that as first computing and then communications systems became more pervasive, personal and portable, the calls for education reform have become feverish?

So here we go again, round and round into the spiral of another discussion of the purpose of education.

The one thing I’m sure about is this:

* Mission: STS-41-B * Film Type: 70mm * Title:...
Image via Wikipedia

The purpose of education is NOT rising to the top according to some exam.

When did our nation become so small-minded?

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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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