Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Swimming Upstream

For the past few days I've been really excited about a few ideas that I've been working on for my students in the next month or two.  One involves a lesson where we'd research ancient civilizations and what archaeologists do for a bit and then create artifacts from a made-up civilization.  If I could find another 5th grade class willing to do the same we could exchange artifacts and use the techniques of archaeologists to try and figure out information about the other class's civilization.  Another lesson would focus on studying the mathematics and science of flight by building a life-size set of wings. 

Image: Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I have no doubt that these lessons would lead to excitement, engagement, authentic learning, higher order thinking, and collaboration within and among my students.  The problems I keep running into are logistical.  Like most schools, our day is segmented into 40 minute periods.  Rarely do I have my students for more than 80 minutes at a time.  The money to fund these projects will have to come from somewhere - probably my pocket unless I can find someone to donate what we need.  We will need to collaborate with experts but the computers available to students have neither webcams, nor Skype installed.  The students in my math class and my reading classes are different.  I'll have to sell the projects to special area teachers and see if I can get them to work with us. 

All of these logistical problems can and will be overcome, and I plan to go ahead with both projects.  I just wish that our schools were set up for real learning.  We all want students to be actively engaged, but our system is set up to make it so easy to have them sitting in rows silently working out of a textbook.  Sometimes doing the really great stuff that everyone agrees is wonderful for students is difficult to organize and pull off in this environment.  Sometimes it feels like we're swimming upstream.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Friday's Five - Education "Reform" Lies

Here's a statement of the obvious:  In the world of politics, very rarely to people mean what they say, say what they mean, nor tell you the whole truth.  With the objective of achieving their political agendas, many catch phrases have become popular with politicians to describe "reforms" they are trying to make to public education.  Of course, all of the phrases are designed to sound positive, even though they are meant to destroy the very public education system that has allowed this country to thrive for centuries.  The real objective of this "reform" movement is change public education from a way to educate students from all backgrounds and demographics into a money making venture.  Don't believe me?  Take a look at the bios of some of the people pushing for "reform".  You'll find plenty of CEOs and hedge fund managers.  You won't find a single former teacher.  Let's take a look at a few of these phrases and see what they really mean.

Image Credit: www.senseoncents.com
  1. "School Choice" - When students are allowed to change schools and take funding with them, a few things happen.  First, the school that they left loses revenue.  In many cases, the revenue lost is more than what it would cost to educate the student who is leaving.  When you factor in that the most expensive students to educate are those with special needs, and many private schools are allowed to ban such students, the inequity here becomes more stark.  For example, if it costs a school district $9,000 on average to educate a student, that number is a combination of the $25,000 it costs to educate special needs students and $4,000 it costs to educate regular education students.  If a regular education student transfers, they take $9,000 with them to their new school and the public school they left is short $5,000.  Secondly, the schools that students are transferring into are subject to different rules than the public school they left.  One such rule is that the school can be run by a for-profit company, resulting in tax dollars going to that company.  A glaring example of how this destroys public education as we know it can be found in Chester County, PA.  The public school district there has run out of money because of budget cuts and 50% of their students switching to a charter school.  While the company that ran the charter school handed out laptops to its students earlier this year and pocketed a $5,000 per student fee, the teachers at the public school are working without pay.  This cannot be what a good public education system looks like, especially when 4 out of 5 charter schools that are taking money from our public system do not outperform the public schools they are bankrupting.  In fact, many perform worse.
  2. "Teacher Accountability" - Let me start by saying that everyone should be held accountable for doing a good job, teachers included.  I welcome the opportunity to be judged on whether I am doing a good job teaching.  The problem is that the methods of evaluating teachers being discussed are not measuring whether we do a good job of teaching.  Should policemen be held accountable for the number of drunk drivers in their town?  Should firemen be judged by the number of fires in their area?  Should the effectiveness of a doctor be based on how obese his/her patients are?  We all know that you cannot control the behavior of others.  Teachers should be judged on their own behaviors, not those of their students and their students' parents.  Since there is no cheap and easy way to do this, politicians have decided to use student standardized test scores instead - despite the fact that those tests were not designed for that purpose and research has been shown that parents are the primary factor in predicting student success on those tests.  I don't think it's a coincidence that standardized testing companies have made billions of dollars in the past decade from both the tests themselves and the test prep materials they have sold to schools.  Once again, public tax money that should be going towards educating students is ending up in the hands of those looking to make profit on the backs of our children (and with close ties to many politicians who are pushing for these policies).
  3. "Alternative Certification" - Every student deserves an excellent, qualified teacher helping them learn.  Recently, some states have begun to allow people from other professions to take "alternative certification" courses, which last a few weeks and allow them to teach.  As someone who takes my profession very seriously, this is the highest of insults.  We should be making our teacher training programs more rigorous and raising our expectations of those coming into the profession.  Our students deserve nothing less.  Of course, the reason for these alternative programs is to reduce teaching from a profession to hourly job.  If teachers are not trained as professionals, they don't have to be paid as professionals.  And when teachers don't have to be paid as professionals, more tax payer money can be diverted into the pockets of those looking to profit off our children.  
  4. "Merit Pay" - Two heads are better than one, right?  And three are better than two.  If you want to accomplish a goal, getting many people to invest in finding a solution and collaborating together is desirable.  If your goal is getting students to learn you want teachers share their successes and failures with each other.  That's not what educational "reformers" want, though.  Teachers overwhelmingly oppose the corporate takeover of our schools.  Having them working together makes it difficult to change to a for-profit public education system.  Merit pay is a way to ensure that teachers compete instead of collaborate.  If only the teachers with the best scores get paid, teachers will be much less likely to help each other.  If your family's wellbeing depends on your students scoring higher on some test, you can bet that you'll be more likely to fight for the kids who have steady homes, affluent parents, and no learning disabilities.  Wouldn't it be better for our students if the best teachers were encouraged and rewarded for working with our most needy students?  
  5. "Education Reform" - I've used the term "reform" throughout the post, and each time I've put it in quotes.  Our education system does need to change.  For over a decade we've been testing students more and more, asking them to think less and less, and the results by every measure show that we have stagnated.  Every student deserves the opportunity to have a great education in our country, regardless of their zip code or economic background.  We need to improve the effectiveness of our teachers by increasing the training we give them.  We need to reform our pre-service teacher programs so that teachers coming into the profession are more prepared.  The United States is one of the few countries in the world that gives less resources to schools that are most in need.  That needs to stop.  We need to look at finding ways to fund schools equitably so that students attending schools in economically depressed areas have a chance at success.  Instead of letting for-profit companies create charter schools with tax dollars, thus leaving many of our students in bankrupt public schools, we need to make a commitment to fixing those public schools so that ALL students have a chance to learn.  Most importantly, we need this revolution to be lead by educators, not by CEOs, hedge fund managers, and politicians.  Nobody wants politicians and insurance company executives making decisions on their health care instead of their doctors.  Likewise, nobody should want politicians and company executives making decisions about their child's education instead of their child's teachers.  Don't tell me there's no money to do these things - the billions of dollars being sucked out of the system by testing companies and for profit management companies will be plenty. 

Friday, February 17, 2012

Friday's Five - Our Students Need to Believe They Matter

It's human nature to want to matter.  We all have that desire.  It motivates much of what we do.  For some, it motivates them to seek financial success.  For others, it motivates them to do charity work.  For me, it was a driving factor in why I became a teacher.

Our students have this need as well.  Unfortunately, many of our traditional practices in education make students feel that they have no worth.  It's a primary reason why our students are lacking motivation.  Why work hard if you and what you produce don't matter?

I've heard many educational experts tell me that the way to solve this problem is to tell students why what they are doing in school will relate to their life when they get out of school.  Our students don't care about this.  The long technical reason is that their frontal lobes aren't completely formed, and such rational, unemotional thought is not possible for them.  The short reason is that asking a kid to trust you and be motivated by something that may or may not benefit them 5, 10, 15, or 20 years down the road is absurd.  Our kids need to feel important now.  If we want them to learn, we'd better start meeting this need.  Here are five ways to allow kids to feel that they matter.
  1. Problem Based Learning (PBL)  If you want kids to feel that that matter, have them do something that matters.  There are a multitude of problems that need to be solved in our communities. Challenge your students to solve them.  How can we help the local food pantry raise money?  How can we effectively publicize the upcoming blood drive in our school?  What data can we collect and use to prove that there needs to be a stoplight at the intersection near the school? 
  2. Publish their work. It is insulting to a student to work hard on a project, paper, or other in-depth assignment with the end result being that a teacher looks at it, judges it, and hands it back with a number or letter on top of it.  Use a class blog, wikispace, or other avenue to publish their work.  Let them share with friends and family around the globe.  Let their research be used by others.  Give them an audience other than the teacher.  Better yet, let them publish their writing in a book using a site like lulu.com and use the proceeds to solve a community problem like the ones described above.
  3. Stop expecting students to be motivated by grades.  Grades are a way to rank, sort, judge, and punish students.  They are not an effective way to motivate students.  A plethora of studies show that external motivation is not lasting and will not serve our students in life.  We need to give them the experiences of learning for the pleasure of learning, feeling the joy of helping others, and being valued for reasons other than being the best hoop jumper in the class. An emphasis on grades undermines our ability as teachers to give our students those experiences and does nothing to lead our students to believe they matter. 
  4. Allow students opportunities to consult, collaborate with, and learn from community members.  If you want students to believe that their math lesson is important to their life, bring in a member of the community who uses that math in their job every day to share his/her experiences with your students.  Then allow the students the opportunity to be an accountant, small business owner, mechanic, home builder, etc.  The same opportunities can be worked into classes in almost every subject area.  In addition to the valuable career awareness that comes from these types of interactions, there is the chance for students to do work that is necessary in the community.
  5. Allow students to use tools current to the generation in which they are living.  Forcing students to read outdated textbooks to get information, having them spend hours answering questions that have easily "googled" answers, and not allowing them to use 21st century tools to demonstrate their learning not only makes school seem woefully irrelevant, but sends the message to our students that we don't respect them.  If we did respect them we'd allow them to share their learning using tools and in ways that are familiar to them, regardless of our traditions and comfort with those tools and methods.  This is especially true when those tools and methods are much more aligned with the expectations of the workplace they will graduate into than what we have traditionally done in schools.  A zoologist would think nothing of pulling out their phone to find out the best diet for a pica, but our students learning about mammals must wait until their weekly computer lab time slot - even though they have a very capable phone in their backpack.  An advertising executive would think nothing of sending a text of a picture to a colleague to ask for an opinion on a piece of concept art, but many of our students would get an in-school suspension for sending a similar text to a peer.  I could list examples like this all day long.  I know someone will argue, "Many students who can text their friends won't learn anything because they'll be distracted."  I'll argue, "All of our students who believe school is irrelevant and that we don't think they matter won't learn anything."  Maybe we should teach them to use technology in appropriate ways instead of banning it. 
What are your thoughts?  Do you have other ways to make students believe they matter?  Share your ideas with us in the comment section below, and share this post with others in your network so that we can hear their ideas as well.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Friday's Five - My Favorite Lessons

Every teacher has a few lessons that they get excited to teach every year.  I'd bet that for the majority of teachers these are lessons that do not come from a textbook, are engaging, and get students excited to learn.  They probably have nothing to do with preparing students for standardized tests.  In today's post, I'd like to share five of my favorites, and encourage you to share your favorites in the comment section.
  1. Pasta Mining - I love this lesson because it allows me to combine social studies, writing, math, and science into one lesson, makes my students use higher order thinking, and gives me an excuse to dump 16 pounds of pasta onto my classroom floor.
  2. You Be the Supreme Court - Every year when we finish learning about the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights, I give my students the opportunity to listen to overviews of actual court cases dealing with each Amendment (except #3, which has never been relevant in a Supreme Court case).  They then get to vote on what they believe the Court's decision should be based on the facts.  I then tell them how the Supreme Court actually ruled.  The case overviews come from a beat up, highlighted, and written on book that I bought for 25 cents at a garage sale about fifteen years ago.  It's the best quarter I ever spent.
  3. π Day - On March 14th we celebrate π Day in my math class every year.  The activities vary from year to year, but there's always an abundance of pie, excitement, and learning.  You can see what we did the past two years here and here
  4. Book Reviews - I always hated book reports, both as a student and as a teacher.  There didn't seem to be a purpose for either reading or the report that came afterward.  Since I've started having my students write book reviews and publish them to our class wiki, I've seen a great deal more interest.  Since many of my students refer to book reviews from past years when they are choosing books to read in their free time, they understand that publishing a book review will help others in the future.  It's also refreshing to them to be able to say, "I really didn't find this book interesting or entertaining at all" if they feel that way.  I simply ask that they back up any of their opinions with examples and details from the book.
  5. State of the Union Address - For someone that teachers American History, there is no better event than the State of the Union.  Regardless of who the president is, there is always a plethora of material for students to discuss and learn ranging from the content of the speech to the historical significance and procedure.  My students always love learning about the presidential line of succession and the reason one cabinet member is always hidden in a secure location.
What are your favorite lessons to teach?  Share with us in the comment section below.  Feel free to steal my lesson ideas; I'm sure I'll steal yours if they fit what I'm teaching.  Also, please share the post with others in your network so that we can steal their lesson ideas as well.  After all, imitation is the finest form of flattery, right?  

Friday, February 3, 2012

Friday's Five - American History through Movies

One of the reasons that I love teaching History is that the subject is loaded with incredible, interesting stories.  Since Hollywood makes money from incredible, interesting stories, it's no surprise that many movies have been made that fit perfectly with the American History curriculum I teach. 

Of course, none of these movies should be taken or taught as fact.  One of the most important skills we can teach our students in social studies class is to identify bias and understand the point of view of the person giving you information.  Movies offer a great opportunity to discuss this topic as well.

There are so many movies that can be used in a history class that it's hard to narrow this list down to just five.  Since my 5th grade curriculum only focuses on early American History (up to and including the Civil War), my list will focus on that area as well.  If I missed any of your favorite movies that you use in your classroom from any period of American History, please share them in the comment section below. 
  1. Johnny Tremain - Obviously this is a very Disney-fied version of the events leading up to the American Revolution, but it does give exposure to many of the reasons American Colonists were unhappy with the British in a way that is understood by elementary students.  It's important to explain to students the British point of view and the fact that 2/3 of colonists did not support independence as well in order to for students to overcome the movie's bias. 
  2. Gone With the Wind - While the movie romanticized life for slaves in the South before the Civil War in an effort to appease Southern movie watchers in the 1930's, it does give students a good sense of several events during the time period - Sherman's March to the Sea, the Seige of Atlanta, and the attitudes of Southerners towards those in the North before, during, and after the war.  I've found this movie is great for discussing bias, the Civil War, and how authors build good plot when writing narratives. 
  3. Glory - I know it's rated R, and that most of the movie is too graphic to show elementary students, but there are clips that can give students a great sense of the prediciment of black soldiers during the Civil War.
  4. Keeping the Promise - This is the television-movie adaptation of the book "Sign of the Beaver."  My students find it easy to relate to the protagonist since he is 12 years old, and find it easy to understand frontier life, self-sufficiency, and some of the reasons that Native Americans resented and resisted the expansion of European/Colonial settlements onto their lands. 
  5. Uncle Tom's Cabin - Harriet Beecher Stowe's book is mentioned in every American History textbook, but my students found it hard to understand the way a story could change public opinion.  As we watched different parts of the movie I asked them to imagine that they are a Northerner during the 1850's who believes that slavery is wrong, but has little direct experience.  I ask them to monitor whether the narrative told would make them more likely to want to take some sort of direct action.  As the movie goes on, most students start to understand how the connection readers would have made with the characters, and the increasing mistreatment of those characters would have had a great influence over public opinion.
What are your favorite movies to use in your classroom?  Please share with us in the comment section below, and share the post with others you know who may want to share their ideas as well.