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.


Education Ideas, cheap!

07/24/2012
English: Looking northeast across Lex and 91st...

English: Looking northeast across Lex and 91st at 92nd Street Y. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes you get more than you pay for.

That is certainly the case with the #140edu conference next week at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan where, if you are a teacher or student, $1.40 buys you two days of ideas, inspiration, conversation and connection with some of the more thoughtful, challenging, and engaging educators who have used social media in their classrooms or individual learning.

I should warn you, these are long days. Both of them, July 31 and August 1, start at 8:30AM and run until 5:45PM, with only 45 minutes for lunch, but don’t worry. You don’t have to sit and listen to it all. You can get up, walk out, go to the networking room or step outside, then go back for more. Trust me, you will need to do this because your head will explode if you don’t.

Just plan to be back in the hall by 11:50AM on the first day. That’s when I’ll be talking about How to Make Dropping Out of School Work for You. I don’t want to go into my whole talk here, but the thesis is that one can get an equivalent or better education using social media as one can by attending high school. I have no idea how I got included with the otherwise distinguished list of educators presenting here, but I did. Please come and disagree with me. Educators can register here for just $1.40 for the two days (you can disagree with a lot of people and make the conference even more cost effective if you like).

English: Infographic on how Social Media are b...

English: Infographic on how Social Media are being used, and how everything is changed by them. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you do go, and I hope you will, please come and say hello. I’ll be the one with the exploded head.


Getting Out of the Building

01/26/2012

Teachers generally spend very little time with other adults. I spend less than most teachers.

HomePic-Teacher

In my school, when a teacher wants to talk to a colleague he or she can just walk out of the classroom and into a colleague’s next door. When I want to talk to a colleague I have to go down a hallway and up a staircase to get to anyone’s classroom.

Or I can just wait for someone to come into the library to make copies and hope I’m not busy with students at that time.

When I want to talk to another librarian face-to-face I have to leave the building.

That is why this weekend is so important to me.I’m spending this weekend in Philadelphia at the Science Leadership Academy, a fantastic high school, where Educon takes place the last weekend of January.

Educon is a different kind of conference. It is not free, like one-day EdCamps, but it is not expensive like the multi-day extravaganzas like the ISTE, ALA, or AASL conferences. But that is not what makes it special.

At Educon there are sessions but they’re conversations not presentations. I’ll be with about 400 other educators of all kinds: classroom teachers at every level, music teachers, art teachers, special education teachers, professors, theorists, advocates and even a few librarians in this school all day Saturday and most of the day Sunday. Educon2.3 conversarion

I can walk into one session and, if it doesn’t captivate me I can walk down the hall a few steps and go into a different session. I hardly ever do that. Oh, I’ve walked out of a session or two but I never seem to make it to the next one without getting caught up in an interesting discussion in the hallway.

There are times when Educon feels like a reunion. I see people there that I usually see only on Twitter or Facebook. Many of these people have been going to Educon since it started four or five years ago. This will be my third. I’ll also be meeting face-to-face for the first time some people I’ve known online for a few years.

I learn a lot in Educon sessions. I’ve become a more thoughtful teacher, a better teacher because of things I’ve learned there. Last year Educon came six weeks after I suddenly became a school librarian. What a joy it was to meet Joyce Valenza and Shannon McClintock Miller and to be able to converse with them one-on-one and have them to help me put my feet back on the ground and get my head above water (to mix metaphors). I was so needy that Shannon even gave me a big hug.

Odd, isn’t it? I’m willing to drive two hours or more to go to Educon but not to take the time to walk upstairs to visit with my colleagues at my school.

I’m not saying anything against my colleagues, many of whom are wonderful, warm, intelligent hard-working professionals, it is just that Educon is so much better. Instead of a five minute conversation between periods or over the copying machine, I get to spend hours and hours, breakfasts, sessions, lunches, dinners and even time having a few drinks with 400+ of others who, just like me, can’t think of a better way or a better place to spend a weekend.

I might even see the Liberty Bell.

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Standardized tests: good for the geese, good for the ganders.

12/11/2011
De Cito Eindtoets Basisonderwijs.

Image via Wikipedia

Something remarkable happened the other day.

A school board member in one of the nation’s largest school districts had the temerity to take the 10th grade standardized tests that he and his cohorts require students to take.

I think this is an excellent idea.

After all, if the tests are appropriate to see what students know then they are also necessary to see what school board members know. School board members should be required to take the same tests students are required to take. To be fair, I’d only require them to take the 10th grade tests. I wouldn’t want to challenge them too much.

Standardized tests are necessary to see what members of state boards of education know. If the state requires an exit exam so students can graduate from high school, then that is the exam the state board members should take. If they can’t pass them they should be removed from their positions and required to repeat high school.

Standardized tests are also necessary to see what the mayors who control school systems and the chancellors they appoint know. After all, if the tests are adequate to judge teacher ability they must certainly be able to judge the ability of the people who hire the teachers, set curriculum and allocate assets to schools.

President Barack Obama and Mrs. Michelle Obama...

Image via Wikipedia

Arne Duncan should take standardized tests. So should President Obama.

And the results of those exams should be made public.

In fact, standardized testing is a great way to see which of the presidential candidates is most up to the demands of the job, which one can understand the math of the budget or the tax system. I’m sure Newt, Mitt, John, Rick, Ron and even Michelle could pass those tests with flying colors.

I’m starting a movement to have everyone who sets educational policy take the standardized tests, the same ones students do.

Join me. Send a tweet, a text, an email or phone to your school board members, your state legislators, your Congress people, Senators and presidential candidate of choice. Tell them that it is time for them to sit down with a couple of #2 pencils and show us what they know.

After all, it is only fair.

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I’ve Failed, and I’m Almost Glad I Did

12/06/2010
A black and white icon of a teacher in front o...
Image via Wikipedia

Today was my last as a classroom teacher

My classes are being taken away from me.

My principal has lost confidence in my teaching ability.

So have I.

Oh, I do okay with my high-flying 7th grade class and they were distraught when I told them that I would not be their social studies teacher anymore. There were tears, some of them theirs.

I did not do so okay with my low-level 8th grade class.

I completely failed as their teacher.

I can make all kinds of excuses: there are 35 of them; all their other teachers struggle with them; they were a ‘bad’ class last year and more difficult students were added this year; and more, but the fact is, I did not reach them in any way.

Oh, there are one or two students in the class who I connected with, but not the other 33. My lessons were flat, my class management totally ineffective. A good day was one where the books flying around the classroom was the biggest behavior problem.

I had a double period with them today and they were oddly well behaved. Some of them even worked, but only three had the draft of their exit project written report due today. They did not know it was our last together.

They are not learning and I was getting more and more frustrated.
Tomorrow they will have a different social studies teacher. So will my other classes.

I have long championed the value of failure as part of the learning experience and I already know one of the ways this failure will benefit me (more on that in a moment), but it still does not feel very good to fail and I’d much rather have been a better teacher for those 8th graders and my three other classes.

Then again, had I not failed I would not have the exciting new opportunity presented to me.

Tomorrow I start my new job as the school’s media specialist.

I will be taking over the library and trying to drag it into the latter stages of the 20th Century.

I’d rather drag it into the 21st C. but the budget and some Department of Education regulations won’t allow it.

Even so, the late 20th C. is a big step forward from what we have now.

Now I know nothing about being a librarian.

TL09 View of School Libraries
Image by vanhookc via Flickr

Nothing.

No worries; I’m fortunate to have some of the best school librarians in the country offering to help me out.

Through Twitter I have ‘met’ Shannon Miller from the Van Meter, Iowa schools, DM Cordell, a retired school librarian from upstate NY, Beth Friese from Georgia, Melissa Techman from Virginia, and Susan Myers from South Carolina. I am sure they will get me off on the right track.

What one does as a media specialist is undefined and seems almost unlimited, but I think it will have a lot to do with helping students make connections that will be as important to their learning as those librarians will be to mine.

Today one door slammed shut.

Tomorrow a different one swings open.

I will go through it smiling.

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All This Talk of Reform is Making Me Cranky

11/22/2010
Education Reform I found this picture at: http...
Image via Wikipedia

Today is blog for education reform day and I’ve spent a week trying to think of what I wanted to say about education reform.

I’ve been reading a lot of the other blogs participating and have been duly impressed by the level of conversation and the ideas expressed.

It is all leaving me very cranky.

I know education reform is taking place somewhere but where I work I’m not seeing it. Oh wait. Is all that testing reform and I’ve just not noticed it? If so, I’m sorry, I’ll try to pay more attention in the future.

Here are some additional reforms I’d like to see.

1. I’d like all the students in my school, my city, my state and my nation have equal access to exotic things like math books.  I’m tired of reading about one-to-one laptop programs here and there when the kids down the hall from my classroom don’t have math books but all the other 6th graders in the school do.

2. I’d like to see the smaller class sizes the City promised and was given extra money to accomplish.

3. I’d like to see the reductions in paperwork the city has been promising for years. I’d much rather spend my time gathering materials and planning than filling out forms.

4. I’d like to see my employer pay for the supplies I have to buy every year. It used to be chalk and stuff like that, now it is hard drives, cables and other things to keep the small amount of tech I have access to so my students might not fall ever further behind the more prosperous part of the populace.

I know these are small things and not what anyone is really thinking about when education reform is the topic, but if we can’t get the small things done can we really expect the big things to happen?

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Where Are All the Digital Natives?

10/13/2010
Internet Map. Ninian Smart predicts global com...
Image via Wikipedia

I keep hearing about digital natives.

I’d like to meet one.

From all I hear about them in the media, on Twitter, in education conferences and elsewhere one would think there were digital natives behind every tree in every forest.

Or behind every desk in every classroom.

Not mine.

Not any of the other classrooms in my school.

Maybe they’re all out in the suburbs.

I asked my 16-year-old son, a junior in a nice suburban high school, if he knows any digital natives. He doesn’t.

I really want to meet one.

So where are they?

I work with students who range in age from eleven to 16. I’d think that would be in the prime age-range for being digital natives, but no.

Maybe there aren’t any digital natives in the Bronx, home of the nation’s most poverty enhanced congressional district.

Maybe they’re all in Manhattan. Or Kansas.

Maybe they’re as rare as left-handed dentists.

Or maybe they don’t exist at all.

Just another figment of imagination, or perhaps just a neat phrase that inadvertently tripped off the tongue of some glib presenter somewhere and stuck.

Believing in digital natives is not as harmless as believing in the tooth fairly, though.

Thinking that all kids are digital natives means we don’t bother to teach them about digital things.

Thinking that all the kids are digital natives makes it easy to forget that there are a lot of kids from poor families who still do not have access to the most basic modern technology that most of us take for granted.

Out of the 85 or so students I teach, 26 say they don’t have any kind of computer at home. Of the 59 with computers, 14 say they don’t have access to the Internet.

Most of the remaining 45 say they just got Internet access within the past 18 months.

There may be digital natives somewhere.

But let’s keep in mind that there are digital have-nots right under our noses.

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The Left Hand Doesn’t Know…

09/03/2010

I’d laugh if it weren’t so frustrating.

I’d cry if I thought it would do any good.

I spent today like I’ve spent every day this week, at school on my own time setting up my classroom.

I’m setting the network of five laptops and three desktop computers that will be available in my classroom and I test them to make sure they can access the internet. It was a good thing because several were having connectivity issues.

The homepage for NYC Department of Education computers is the NYCDOE homepage.

As I launch each computer’s browser that is where I am taken and each time there is an item on the homepage about helping two NYC schools try to win $500,000 through the Kohl’s Cares program.

The item tells me that the voting deadline was today, Friday, September 3, 2010, and a link to the contest is provided.

Being the caring guy that I am, I click the link to do my part to help these two NYC high schools win the prize.

Here I am all ready to vote and…

The site is blocked.

Yes, the NYCDOE Web Sense filter blocks access to the contest promoted on the NYCDOE’s homepage.

It is insulting that the NYCDOE doesn’t trust teachers and administrators enough to allow them unfettered access to the internet, that they don’t trust me to keep my password secret to only I can use the administrator account visit websites verboten for students.

I’m not talking porn here. Not even soft porn.

Here’s where it gets really ridiculous.

The Kohl’s site was blocked because “social networking” sites like Facebook and Kohl’s Cares are not allowed. But I can go to Twitter.

The category “games” is blocked, keeping my students away from hundreds of sites with really good games with high education value, but I have no problem entering contests like the ones at MyRecipes.com or HGTV even when using a student account.

So I can’t help two schools win $500,000 but I can try to win myself $5,000 or some tools.

The NYCDOE runs a really good help desk for employees having computer hardware or software issues. The folks there are efficient and know what they’re doing, which immediately distinguishes them from many divisions of the NYCDOE.

I wasn’t sure this was under their domain but I called the help desk to point out the silliness of promoting something on the homepage and then blocking it on the network.

The fellow on the other end of the line listened and asked me to hold on while he checked it for himself. When the same thing happened to him he gave me a web address on which I could fill out a form asking that the site be unblocked.

Despite having plenty more to do to set up my classroom for the first day of school next week I tried to go to that website. A couple of minutes filling out a form would not set me back much.

I entered the address carefully.

I tried again, this time with a slight change.

I gave up.

Sorry East Side Community High School. Sorry Brooklyn Tech.

I tried to help but found myself bucking the inconsistency, inanity and inefficiency that is the NYCDOE.

But boy am I excited about the new school year!

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Oops, there I go again…

08/25/2010
White Tiger Mouth wide open!
Image by kabils via Flickr

I need to learn to keep my mouth shut more often.

This is doubly so when my ‘mouth’ is my fingers typing here, on Facebook or, most important, on Twitter where  I am known as Spedteacher.

Here’s what happens when I don’t.

I hate when that happens. But it is completely my fault when it does.

So now I’ll be easy to find on most Tuesday evenings starting at 8:30PM NYC time.

#spedchat is for teachers (and not just special ed teachers, either), parents, administrators, students and everyone else with any connection or interest in special education issues.

Topics proposed for the first chat on August 31st are:

  • How can parent-teacher relations be improved?
  • What do grades mean in special education?
  • Is inclusion working for general and special education students?
  • How do we get general education teachers to understand? (the current leader in the voting)
  • How have school budget cuts affected special education?

You can participate in the decision about what the topic will be by voting here.

To participate in the chat just log onto Twitter ( if you don’t have an account you can get one free, here ), then search for the hashtag #spedchat.

For a better explanation of all of this please visit my co-conspirator and #spedchat moderator Damian Bariexca’s excellent blog.

I hope to see you Tuesday.

I’ll probably get myself into even more trouble.

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Better Students? Not My Job!

06/08/2010
Dr Kildare 002
Image by Tinker*Tailor via Flickr

Can You Name Five Famous Teachers? Four? Three?

I bet you’d have no trouble naming five famous lawyers.

Go ahead. Try.

Easy, wasn’t it?

Naming five famous doctors is a breeze, too.

I bet you can even name five famous living economists.

Teachers?

Famous teachers are hard to come by.

Is it because teaching is thought of as women’s work? Perhaps.

Is it because teachers don’t toot their own horns? That, too.

The problem with not tooting our horns is it makes us easy to ignore, easy to disregard.

How many teachers are at the table when education policy is being formulated and debated?

How is it that all the decisions about teaching and learning are being made by people who are not teachers?

I recently asked my teacher groups on Twitter to tell me how they’ve made a difference in the lives of children and their families.

I was looking for examples of the sorts of things that teachers do that don’t show up on those infernal standardized tests.

I got a few of those:

But mostly teachers told me the 140-character-or-fewer stories of how teachers made a difference in their lives.

There are few famous teachers but we all have teachers who affected us deeply, not necessarily academically. They got to us in ways that helped us grow, helped us become better people.

Much of the talk about education these days is about how America is falling behind, how students in Kansas can’t compete with kids from kids from Korea, Kenya or Katmandu.

Teachers are blamed and exhorted to create better students.

Sorry, that’s not my job.

Better students come from homes with parents who around to read to and talk with their children instead of having to work three jobs to feed and clothe them.

Better students come from better communities that are able to support libraries and where the development of children is everyone’s concern and a kid may have only one mother and one father but is blessed with a dozen or more ‘parents.’

If it is not my job or any teacher’s job to create better students, what is it that we do?

In all honesty, as much as I love history, it is not important to me that every student knows how the enmity the American revolutionaries felt towards King George III affects our lives today (do you know?).

What’s important to me is that every student knows how to tell fact from fiction, not confuse opinion with authority.

It is important to me that all my students can wade through the pervasive media environment and know how to form and communicate a reasoned opinion and cast an informed vote.

No, we don’t want to create better students.

We want to create better adults.

Better adults become better parents. Better adults create better, more caring and supportive communities.

All those critics who want America to have better students, you’re setting your sights far too low.

We all know, low expectations cause poor performance.

Need proof?

Just look at our politicians.

We don’t expect much from them.

And when it comes to education policy, not much is exactly what we get.

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