Wednesday, February 21, 2018

6 Things My Students Have Taught Me

Twenty-one years later, I still remember my first day of teaching and how misguided my perceptions were about the career upon which I was about to embark. Like so many others, I thought that the primary role of the teacher was to deliver information to students. I couldn’t have been more wrong. 

Now, years later, I have come to understand that being a good teacher is as much about building relationships with students while modeling determination, curiosity, compassion, and helping others through the process of learning. I am constantly learning new things from my students. Here are six things they have taught me.

Don’t take yourself too seriously. I don’t think you can be an effective teacher if you aren’t willing to make mistakes in front of your students and laugh at yourself. When I first started teaching I wanted to make sure my students knew I was in control of the classroom. I had great classroom management, but very little classroom empowerment. Now I am much more comfortable allowing my students to see me as a fellow flawed human. There is a culture of respect in my classroom. I respect my students, they respect me, and they respect each other. Within that culture, we understand each of us makes mistakes on occasion, and that they are learning opportunities.

Passion is powerful. Years ago, when I was teaching 5th grade, I started shifting my classroom to be more focused on letting students learn through their passions. Instead of everyone reading the same non-fiction text to learn our reading standards, students were able to choose books on topics that interested them. Instead of each student having to write a persuasive essay on a prompt that I gave them, they were able to blog about an issue they cared about and publish it to a global audience. As they were able to discover and pursue their passions, they became more engaged in learning. They also helped me see how important it was to pursue my passions and to use my voice to share them with others.

Autonomy is necessary for empowerment. When we find ways to give autonomy to students in the learning process they flourish. I’ve seen this many times in my own classroom, but the example that sticks with me happened during a visit to the HIP Academy in rural western Kenya less than 2 weeks after the school opened. I brought with me some donated tablets and an internet connection. The teachers told me that few of the students had ever seen a screen before I arrived. During my visit I facilitated a Skype call between those children and 2nd grade students in Australia. I told the Kenyan children that they were in charge of teaching the Australians the names of different animals in Swahili. After a few moments of nervousness, the HIP students began to shine with confidence as they picked up stuffed animals and taught their new friends. Being given the chance to be in charge of the call allowed those students to take ownership of the lesson.

You can’t change the world if you don’t know much about it. I teach in the small, rural town where I have lived almost my entire life since I was 11 years old. Like all teachers, I want my students to believe that the learning that happens in school matters, and that they can use it to change their world for the better. I have learned to give them opportunities to see beyond our school walls and make a difference in their local and global communities by connecting with community members and using videoconferencing tools like Skype. As a result, my students have taught me how those experiences allow all of us to see ourselves as interconnected like never before. 

Everybody has the capacity to impact their community for the better. Each time we collaborate with a scientist, astronaut, park ranger, international teacher, or group of students from around the globe, it is a great learning experience for students. So many times those connections have inspired my students to develop ways to make the world a better place. They have designed and fund-raised to build a bridge in Africa so that students could go to school. They have started gardening projects to grow produce for the local food pantry. They have worked to provide clean drinking water for children in the Kibera Slum of Nairobi. They have stopped using plastic straws in the cafeteria in an attempt to save penguins from plastic pollution. Through these student-driven projects and so many others, I have learned that children of any age or background can make their world a better place if given the opportunity.

Teaching is the greatest job in the world. Again and again, my students have taught me that there is no better job on the planet than being a teacher. Teaching is an emotional roller-coaster. Because we care about our students so much, we experience the joys of success with them and the pangs of failure. We deal with the anguish when there are situations out of our control that cause our students pain, and we rejoice when we watch them overcome obstacles to reach their potential. But, we get back so much more than we put into it. Each day we are with our students, we have the opportunity to make the world just a little better for each of them. More importantly, we get to teach them how to affect positive change and feel the joy of doing good for others. Over the years, my students have taught me how lucky I am to get the opportunity to love them and to watch them grow.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

This Teacher of the Year Showed Me Just How Important DACA Is

This post originally appeared in Education Post. I am cross-posting it here to my personal blog. 


I am currently 34,000 feet over Colorado on a flight home from one of the most incredible experiences of my life. Over the past four days I have gotten to represent Pennsylvania teachers as I learned with, and from, fellow 2018 State Teachers of the Year (STOYs) from around the country.


One of those teachers is Ivonne Orozco, the 2018 New Mexico Teacher of the Year. Like the others in our class, she is an outstanding teacher, dedicated to providing her students everything they need to be successful.


Unlike the others in our class, she was brought to the United States as an undocumented immigrant as a 12-year-old child. Like 9,000 other American teachers, she is currently protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.


With the DACA program in jeopardy, so is Ivonne’s place as a role model and leader in our country.


Like the vast majority of Americans, I believe that the 800,000 people protected by DACA—all of whom pay taxes, have never committed a crime, and are contributing members of communities across the country—should not be used as a political bargaining chip. Congress should pass comprehensive legislation that protects their status.


Until this week, I didn’t truly understand how vital this legal protection is to the future of our country.
EDUCATORS RISING


On Thursday, Ivonne and I joined about a dozen STOYs visiting Boynton High School to learn about the Educators Rising Program they are implementing. Through this, students who are juniors and seniors in high school have the opportunity to take classes that help them learn about careers in education.


Educators Rising is helping to overcome a national teacher shortage crisis and a severe lack of diversity in our teaching force by encouraging students from all backgrounds to learn the aspects of teaching that are lost on the general public—both the behind-the-scenes tasks and the joy that comes from helping others achieve their potential.


At the end of our visit, those enrolled in the Educators Rising Program were given the opportunity to ask questions of the teachers who were visiting. During this time, Ivonne spoke to the group about the power they held to make a difference in the lives of others.


There were tears in the eyes of many of the students. Ivonne had managed in a few short sentences to make each of them believe that they held the power within themselves to create a better future for themselves, their future students, their communities, and our country.


She made them believe that they mattered, regardless of their background or the obstacles in their lives. She made them believe that they held within themselves a power to affect positive change.

I know from their faces that she convinced them that serving others, by teaching or other means, will make their lives more meaningful and our world a little better.

America needs Ivonne Orozco and others like her. At a time when Americans seem to increasingly struggle to understand each other and treat each other with civility, Ivonne radiates compassion.

Every one of us in that room—the school staff, the State Teachers of the Year who were visiting, and the students who were asking questions—is better for having been part of that discussion with Ivonne.

She is just one of 800,000 protected by DACA who is currently worrying that they will be uprooted from their communities, their jobs, and their schools.

If our lawmakers have a tenth of Ivonne’s compassion, they will find a legislative solution to this issue.

If they have an ounce of common sense, they will see that America is better served by keeping and developing more people like Ivonne, not sending them to other places.
PHOTO COURTESY OF IVONNE OROZCO.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Learning With Students From Other Cultures Is a Key to Progress in Our Global Society


Last week I authored a blog post for EdWeek Teacher and NNSTOY on the importance of keeping empathy and the best parts of humanity at the heart of our education system. A few paragraphs from the article are below. You can read the full article at Education Week.

We live in interesting times. As our global society struggles to navigate problems brought about by fear and misunderstanding of those who are different, we have unprecedented access to tools that make connecting and learning with others easier than ever before. This is the great challenge we face as both educators and humans: As technology continues to advance rapidly with an increasing power to both divide and unite us, which course will we choose? The path we take--division or unity--will largely depend on the choices we make in our classrooms and education systems.
The key is to keep empathy, compassion and the best parts of humanity at the heart of our education system while still ensuring the learning in our schools reflects the technological realities outside them. This premise is the basis for Teaching in the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Standing at the Precipice, a book I recently authored with five other Global Teacher Prize finalists. While each of us comes from disparate experiences in a wide array of teaching environments, we agree that regardless of how fast computer processors become, machines will never replace teachers. Teachers will always be more important than the technology used in schools. Though they can be helpful tools to help us make positive connections with others, machines will never be able to love students the way we do as teachers.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

A.I. and Big Data Are Not the Answer in Education

Today I came across an article in the NY Times entitled A.I. and Big Data Could Power a New War on Poverty. Since the implications of Artificial Intelligence and other technological advances in the 4th Industrial Revolution on education is a topic I've been delving into quite a bit lately, I was curious to see the perspective of the author.

Let me start by saying that I think the author, Elisabeth A. Mason, has a solid premise; we should look beyond the disruptions and chaos that new technologies like artificial intelligence will have on our lives and instead look to the benefits that they can provide society. On this I agree. There are many exciting applications for new technologies that can help alleviate human suffering and can potentially even combat poverty. 

However, I have to take issue with her second main point in the piece that connect directly to education. For reference, here are the three paragraphs that relating to education: 

Second, we can bring what is known as differentiated education — based on the idea that students master skills in different ways and at different speeds — to every student in the country. A 2013 study by the National Institutes of Health found that nearly 40 percent of medical students held a strong preference for one mode of learning: Some were listeners; others were visual learners; still others learned best by doing.

Our school system effectively assumes precisely the opposite. We bundle students into a room, use the same method of instruction and hope for the best. A.I. can improve this state of affairs. Even within the context of a standardized curriculum, A.I. “tutors” can home in on and correct for each student’s weaknesses, adapt coursework to his or her learning style and keep the student engaged.
 
Today’s dominant type of A.I., also known as machine learning, permits computer programs to become more accurate — to learn, if you will — as they absorb data and correlate it with known examples from other data sets. In this way, the A.I. “tutor” becomes increasingly effective at matching a student’s needs as it spends more time seeing what works to improve performance.

Those of us who are teaching actual children can see some problems here. Let's take them one at a time.

First, the idea that people learn better through different learning styles is a myth (Pashler, et. al.). It has been debunked (Association for Psychological Science). There is no credible evidence to support it (letter to The Guardian from 30 prominent researchers). Even if A.I. was going to lead to an incredible revolution in education, basing that revolution in learning styles is akin to having A.I. teach children differently based on their zodiac signs.

Second, the criticism in the second paragraph that our schools are overly standardized is both harsh and somewhat accurate. For almost two decades now, our education systems have increasingly become driven by big data - generated by mass-produced standardized tests and compiled with the processing power available due to technological advances. This has led to misuse of educational technology, the narrowing of curricula, and a lack of compassion in schools. Children are seen as numbers on a spreadsheet rather than unique individuals with wonderful potential.

Artificial intelligence may be able to adapt to a child's curricular needs, but this is but a small part of what it means to be an effective teacher. Every day, teachers make 1,500 educational decisions. I would bet that the majority of those educational decisions are not curricular in nature and are based in relationships, empathy, and emotional intelligence. This is what makes teachers effective.

Machines may be able to crunch a child's data, but they will never be able to love a student the way a teacher can love a student.

Understanding a student's needs will always be more complex than simply analyzing answers on an assessment. Anyone who has taught understands this. If students in one of my science classes fail a test, I have a responsibility to figure out why. It may be because they didn't study. It may be because they didn't have breakfast that morning. It may be because they misunderstood the lesson. It may be because their baby brother cried all night and they didn't sleep. It may be because they are stressed over a parent's substance abuse. It may be because I did a lousy job of teaching. Each reason demands a different and nuanced response that fits both the child's academic and emotional needs. This is what teaching is.
Graphic from
Teaching in the 4th Industrial Revolution:
 Standing at the Precipice

Assuming that education is only about the transfer of content from teacher to student is a recipe for disaster, especially in our increasingly complex world.

Third, this article is focused upon the ability for artificial intelligence to help alleviate poverty. Our children in poverty are the ones who are most in need of the compassion that robots will never be able to provide. According to the American Psychological Association the psychosocial outcomes associated with children living in poverty include:
  • Children living in poverty are at greater risk of behavioral and emotional problems. 
  • Some behavioral problems may include impulsiveness, difficulty getting along with peers, aggression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and conduct disorder. 
  • Some emotional problems may include feelings of anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. 
  • Poverty and economic hardship is particularly difficult for parents who may experience chronic stress, depression, marital distress and exhibit harsher parenting behaviors. These are all linked to poor social and emotional outcomes for children. 
  • Unsafe neighborhoods may expose low-income children to violence which can cause a number of psychosocial difficulties. Violence exposure can also predict future violent behavior in youth which places them at greater risk of injury and mortality and entry into the juvenile justice system.
There are important ways that the technological explosion can have a positive impact on education. We must make sure, however, not to repeat the mistakes of the past by believing that technology is the answer to our problems. It is not. Teachers are, and will remain, the most important in-school factor in helping children learn. 

If we really want to overcome poverty, we need to stop looking for easy fixes and cheap solutions. Along with addressing the societal problems that lead to so many of our children living in poverty, we must focus on recruiting, retaining, and supporting excellent teachers so that every child, in every location, receives a quality education.

Michael Soskil is co-author of "Teaching in the 4th Industrial Revolution: Standing at the Precipice." All profits from the book are being donated to promote teacher education, development, and collaboration around the globe.

Friday, June 9, 2017

So What About the Evolution of Blended Learning

Learning is inherently about experiences. Whether in a formal school setting or in our everyday navigation of the world around us, humans learn through experiences that move us emotionally. As teachers and learners, we know this intrinsically. When we think back to the teachers that had the greatest impact on us during our time in school we often remember those who had the ability to make their lessons meaningful to us on a personal level.

In the last decade, technology has changed much about how learning happens in schools. Unfortunately, too much of that change has been driven by efficiency and productivity concerns. Instead of looking at technological advances as opportunities to provide students with new, exceptional learning experiences and emotionally engaging applications of their knowledge schools have focused upon ways to save time, improve workflow, and analyze data. None of these goals are bad for students, but none are focusing on the preparation of our next generation for the unique challenges they will face in a complex global society. 

Blended Learning was born out of the desire for education to be more efficient at delivering instruction and evaluating students on their acquisition of knowledge. Knowledge and assessment will always be important in the learning process, and in that regard Blended Learning has been successful in meeting those narrow goals. Students are able to move at their own pace, receive feedback on their progress, and review content as many times as they need. Because effective formative assessment and differentiated instruction are proven ways to improve student performance on traditional metrics, the use of Blended Learning has gained attention as a possible way to revolutionize education for the 21st century. 

While improving personalization of students' consumption of information, Blended Learning does not address some of the most important needs our children have in order to be prepared for an increasingly global and complex world. Innovation, creativity, and problem solving are best developed when students have agency in the learning process within a culture that lets them experience the joy of using learning to make the world better. 

Teachers know that "delivering instruction" is but a small part of the vital work they do in helping students develop into lifelong learners. Of course we want our students to be knowledgeable, but we also want them to develop into socially minded citizens who can use that knowledge in ethical, innovative ways to affect positive change on their communities. We want them to learn the importance of empathy. In fact, empathy is the character trait that correlates most strongly with success in life

When we look at technology's ability to transform learning, we must start by asking what emotionally engaging experiences can be created for students that would have been impossible previously. We must look at how new technologies afford our students the ability to work with those who are different than themselves, solve problems with experts who are using knowledge in practical ways, and experience the satisfaction of helping others. When we do this in our education systems we will see the true power of technology to transform education and develop our next generation of global problem solvers.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Help Wanted - US Secretary of Education

The United States is currently looking for a Secretary of Education. Since I am trying very hard not to get sucked into the negativity surrounding American politics right now, I'm going to stay positive. Here are the things we need to see in our next Secretary of Education if we wish to succeed in meeting the goal of providing a great education and equal opportunity for success for every one of America's school children.
Image Credit: Glassdoor.com

Our next Secretary of Education needs to understand how children learn. One of the ways we have failed our students in the past is by enacting policies that fly in the face of the neuroscience research that shows how kids learn. If we want to build a system focused on student learning, the leader of that system must understand student learning.

Since approximately 90% of American schoolchildren attend public schools, our next Secretary of Education must be intimately familiar with the workings of American public schools. This is no small requirement. Each state has a different way of funding, running, and evaluating public schools.

The leader of the Department of Education must understand the purpose of our public school system. Our public schools do not exist to serve parents. Our public schools exist because our society is better when we have an educated populace. While it is true that parents and families benefit from strong public schools, we have developed a publically funded system of education because it is good for everyone in our communities. If we lose sight of this fact and divert tax dollars to privately run schools for the benefit of parents, we destroy a system that was created to strengthen our communities. There is a reason that you cannot take your tax dollars back that the government uses on the police force to buy private security. There is a reason that you cannot take the tax dollars back that the government uses for road maintenance if you don't have a car. There is a reason that you cannot take back the tax dollars the government uses for the fire company in order to install a sprinkler system in your house. In each of those cases, those tax dollars are being used for the good of the community and removing them for the benefit of individuals would hurt everybody. Our next Education Secretary must understand that the public school system benefits the collective, and that removing tax dollars for individuals hurts everybody in the same way.

Education is Constitutionally a state right. The federal government has a role to play, but our next Secretary of Education must end the practice of coercive unfunded mandate control over state education systems. This has become toxic in part due to lobbying from companies who are looking at their own financial interests instead of what's best for our students. While companies have gotten rich off standardized testing and selling Common Core aligned textbooks, our students have been subjected to increasingly more test prep and have had fewer opportunities to find the joy in learning.

The role of the Department of Education absolutely should be ensuring that the US Constitution is not being breached in schools that receive federal funding. This means that students should be protected from discrimination based on gender, disability, race, religion, or anything else. Students can't learn if they don't feel safe. Our Secretary of Education should be a champion for all students.

Our Education Secretary should have at least a Master's Degree in an education field. If a principal, someone who is in charge of running a school, is required to possess a Master's Degree in Educational Administration, it is fairly obvious that someone wishing to run the entire American educational system should have that level of education.

Within the Department of Education's influence, nobody has greater sway over student learning than teachers. Like any other professional, teachers are better at their job when they are supported, inspired, given autonomy to use their professional judgement, and empowered. Our next Secretary must be someone who understands this. Empowered teachers create empowered learners.

We must encourage our most talented youngsters to choose teaching as a profession. In 1971 close to 21% of American college freshmen were education majors. Now, that number is below 5%. The teaching profession has been decimated by a lack of respect and a lack of autonomy. Those who choose to teach do so because they want to make a difference and help our children thrive. When education policy makes it difficult for those who choose teaching to fulfill those goals, when salaries do not allow those who choose teaching to live in the districts where they teach or pay back their student loans, when those in power emphasize the few stories of bad teachers over the plethora of amazing stories of good teachers so that they can better meet political goals, our most talented youngsters are discouraged from teaching. The next Secretary of Education must be committed to reversing this trend.

Communication will be an important skill for our next Secretary to possess. Policy at the highest levels is nuanced and complicated. The leader of a federal department will have to be able to understand and articulate clearly those policies.

The best interests of America's students should be the primary driving force behind our next Secretary of Education's decisions. The person occupying this position should have no financial interests in education companies, for-profit entities, universities, private schools, or any other organizations that may influence his/her decision making. Our students deserve an unbiased Secretary looking out for their best interests.

Sometimes we need to look beyond our borders for solutions. The American public education system helped create one of the most innovative and knowledgeable civilizations in the history of the world. We are the only nation to put men on the Moon. College students from around the globe have flocked to American universities for decades because of our excellence. American teachers are among the most educated and respected on the planet. However, we must not be blind to the excellence happening in other countries, or unwilling to learn from those who have discovered solutions to problems we face. The Secretary of Education should be willing to look at countries like Finland, Canada, Singapore, and others to see what they are doing well and how we can incorporate their solutions into our system.

Being Secretary of Education is an overwhelming job that requires a lot of expertise and experience. There are plenty of more requirements that I could come up with that I did not list due to space limitations. I haven't even touched upon issues outside K-12 education such as the benefit of pre-K programs, the impact affordable college tuition would have on our country's prosperity, or several other issues. A strong public education system has been the backbone of our thriving, free society. We must choose a Secretary of Education who is committed to strengthening the cornerstone of our American democracy.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Leave Time for Serendipity

Today, my 4th grade students were supposed to analyze data from NASA's Climate Change website. I wanted them to look at real data and to have conversations about what it meant. I wanted them to draw conclusions and make predictions. That's what today's science lesson was supposed to be. It was a good plan.

Unexpectedly, about 10 minutes into my lesson, the distinctive tone of an incoming Skype call filled the room. My students know this sound pretty well by now.

"Who are we talking to today?"

"Are we supposed to be having a Skype call?"

"Who's calling us?"

In a few seconds I had to make a decision. Should I answer the call or continue on with my solid lesson plan? I saw that a teacher in Nepal, Pradeep Sapkota, whom I had been playing the Skype equivalent of phone tag with over the past couple of weeks was on the other end. He and I have been looking for ways to connect our students. His students had their school destroyed by last year's earthquake and are learning English. I wanted my 5th grade students who were learning about plate tectonics to connect with them to learn about the earthquake.

I knew that it was too late for Pradeep's students to be on the call. My 4th graders hadn't learned much about geology. They have the state's high-stakes standardized science test coming up in a few weeks. They were excited to look at the data from NASA. There were plenty of reasons to ignore this call and move along with my lesson.

But I didn't. I answered the call. Sometimes it's moments of serendipity that make the best learning experiences. If we never take the chance to allow them to happen, our students are robbed of opportunity.

My kids learned from Pradeep about the earthquake.  They learned that the Nepalese don't eat beef, that students are learning outside because their school is being rebuilt, that Mount Everest is in Nepal, and that the capital of Nepal is Kathmandu. They got a little taste of a different part of the world, which by itself is a wonderful experience and absolutely worth the time we took out of our lesson. When we travel and experience different cultures with an open mind, beit physically or virtually, we get the opportunity to see what parts of those other cultures we can incorporate into ourselves to make us a better person. I want my students to have as many of those experiences as possible.

And then, just as we were about to end the call, serendipity happened. One of my students asked, "We've been learning about climate change. Has climate change had an effect on you up in the mountains?"

The impersonal data that we were looking at just became a whole lot more meaningful. Pradeep told us how rising temperatures are causing avalanches in Nepal as snow on the mountains becomes less stable. He told us that many people were affected. He told us that Nepalese people were dying.

After the call we still looked at NASA's data, although we got to see less of it than we would have had I not answered the call. The data my students did analyze was a whole lot more meaningful to them, though. We also had great discussions about the shape of mountains in the Himalayas and how that relates to avalanches, plate tectonics (they'll have a great head start for next year's learning), and Asian geography.

It's the emotional connections to content that make knowledge stick in our students long-term memory. They may not remember in two weeks how many parts per million the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere has risen in the past three decades, but I guarantee they'll be able to tell you ways climate change is affecting humans.

Sometimes, with all the demands placed upon us as teachers, it's easy to forget why we do what we do. It's easy to focus on the content that needs to be covered, the assignment that needs to be completed, or the assessment that is upcoming instead of the inspiration that we have the opportunity to provide our students. The most important things we do in schools can't be quantified easily, and so it's easy to forget their power.

It's the unexpected, and often uncelebrated, moments of awesome that make all the difference for our students. As teachers, sometimes we just need to let them happen.