Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Where We Have Failed

As typical of the media, they tend to focus on the negative when it comes to our public schools. They are very quick to tell us that we are failing at something or another. So, as an educator I'm often thinking about failure. Who are we failing? How is this happening? At some point during the presidential campaign last year, it became very clear to me what we're doing wrong. Ironically, it revolves around the media.

Now, more than ever, we need as individuals and as a society to be able to analyze, or synthesize, or take apart and put together again, the daily content, messages, advertisements, and general informatioin that bombards us at a sickening rate. The statistics of how much information we are almost forced to acknowledge daily is astonishing. So, it's no wonder that people shut down and turn off and simply allow someone else to explain, analyze, and or evaluate all this information. This is scary.

While teaching English within the last decade, I had many interesting arguments with students about how the media impact our society. My students always tended to blame the media for our negative attributes. It's easier to take this stance; this removes the individual from the problem, releases him from blame. I always got pretty heated in these debates. It was difficult not to. Because, I knew, if students believed that our violence and our degraded morals and virtues as a society stemmed from aggressively violent video games and blatant sex on MTV and in the movies, they would never see their role in the bigger picture. They hated to hear that the media does what it does because we buy it. If we don't want it, the media doesn't produce it. It's a simple economic principle. If the demand is there, produce.

Now? I'm really not so sure that I can make that argument anymore. I'm beginning to think that our media may actually be controlling our society more than we'd like to think ... or not think. As I was drawn deeply into the presidential campaign over the course of the past year, I noticed that whatever spin the media decided to give to whatever story they decided to report, the 'news' was voraciously devoured by rabid viewers. And it was very clear that there was little thinking going on in regard to at least fifty percent of the population, and this huge group of people believed everything they read or heard. I had personal experience with this.

There were many students I spoke with last year who just simply had incorrect information about our presidential candidates or about the campaign itself. I would locate valid sources, and we'd read or listen together, and then I'd ask them to reevaluate their original statement based now on the facts. They didn't like doing this, but it worked to show them where they had stopped thinking on their own and where in their thinking they had allowed someone else to take over. I never let the cat out of the bag in regard to who I was planning to vote for; my focus was simply making sure that they got the correct information, in the correct context, and evaluated it on their own. This worked for our students, but I couldn't necessarily go through the same process with adults I ran across who were having the same problem with their thinking.

Which brings me back to the immediacy of the problem: If our public schools intend to churn out people who can think, who want to think, who can tackle jobs that haven't even been created yet, who can work productively in a globalized society, and who can keep America on top, then we'd better look long and hard at what we're not doing. We fail at teaching our students how to analyze what they see and hear around them. Worse yet, they can evaluate very little on their own. When our adults fail to think, and I think to some degree it's a choice that many of them make, then we can rightfully blame ourselves and our public school system for failing to do what, I think, is our primary job: teach our students to think for themselves, to think deeply, and to base their decisions on something other than how they feel.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Response to "The Misplaced Math Student"

This is my response to an article by Dr. Tom Loveless, Director of the Brown Center on Education Policy entitled "The Misplaced Math Student: Lost in Eighth-Grade Algebra" published in September 2008.

Dr. Loveless,
I've read your article regarding misplaced math students lost in eighth grade algebra, and it's difficult to disagree with your citing of the research and data and your conclusions. However, I fail to see how schools, educators, and/or policy-makers can really benefit without real solution/s to a real problem.

Instead of telling us what we already know, "[students] should be taught whole number and fraction arithmetic so that they can then move on to successfully learn advanced mathematics," give us clear methods, strategies, approaches to use to help us, not to identify (we know how to do that), but support these children in elementary school before they get to the tougher maths and simultaneously support them while they are enrolled in Algebra I in eighth grade.

Your only real feasible solution is to require students to attend summer school. Unfortunately, the students you have identified (from poor, minority families who can offer little support to their children) are unlikely to attend summer school, required or not, and the schools that they attend (large, high-poverty, urban public schools) are unlikely to have the finances to offer summer school.

According to Richard DuFour , et al. (Whatever It Takes... 2004), support must be built into the school day in order to reach the students you've identified. This is where we have the most difficult problem ... finding time during the day to reach these students before it's too late. Offer us creative ways to play with and manage time in order to accomplish supporting our students during school hours. This is the only way we're going to reach those 120,000 students to which you refer. I believe that it can be done.

Here at my high school, with a student enrollment of app. 1,600, we see the same type of students struggling in Algebra I and Geometry who are consistently failing our state standardized exams. We have finally realized that our students will never learn what we want them to learn if we don't support them during the day. We're going to a "one lunch" period next year - we currently run 4 lunches - to work in remediation and enrichment during the day. I'm very excited and will be working with a select team of teachers next semester to finalize the details to make sure it has a good start. Wish us luck.

I enjoy reading your articles. I hope to see one related to the above suggestions in the near future. Thank you for your time.

Snow Day in Virginia

Ok, today's an educator's dream come true ... a snow day. Don't laugh! I know it's not much snow, but we take what we can get here in Virginia. I lived for thirteen years in Boston, and as far as I can remember school was never closed because of the weather. So, this is a joke, and I know it, but ... I need a break. I'm going to spend the day with my son drinking hot cocoa, letting the dogs out to pee occasionally, and avoiding as much Sponge Bob as I can. Ahh...

Sunday, January 25, 2009

YouTube and Blogs: Where are they in the classroom?

On our drive home together after hearing Alan November speak at a conference in Williamsburg, Virginia, my colleague said, "Those English teachers need to start using their digital projectors. I'm going in to their next department meeting and tell them that they have to use PowerPoints. That's a start!" It's not a start. If I sit in on one more teacher observation watching students' eyes glaze over as the teacher clicks from one slide to the next, I'm going to cry. That's a whole problem in and of itself. No, it's not about what the teacher uses in the classroom; it's about students and how they're using technology tools to help them question, understand, research, and create meaning of the content that's on the Internet.

I hope Alan November, an international leader in education technology, and Sara Kajder, a professor of English Education at Virginia Tech, both keep talking until their faces turn blue. They moved me to act. I can only hope that they impacted others in the same way. When I left those conference sessions, I knew that I was going back to my school and infuse our curriculum with technology. Easier said than done.

I got up very early this Sunday morning to write, well, because I couldn't sleep; I was thinking about technology. Since, ironically, I've been unable to connect to Virginia's Department of Education to look more closely at their technology standards, I'm flying by the seat of my pants. I think that Virginia's technology standards focus more on students simply learning how to use the computer and to search the Internet. I know that by 5th grade Virginia students are supposed to know how to turn the computer on, computer jargon, and how to search the Internet. The standards don't change much by the 8th and 12th grades. Further, these standards are separate from the other disciplines. In other words, the technology standards aren't embedded within the standards for science, math, English, or social studies. This is left up to the school districts or the teachers themselves. Big mistake.

Couple this with the fact that almost all of our school districts refuse students access to much of the Internet. Oh, and this includes teachers, too. I'm not sure about you, but here's the message I get from all of this. The teaching and learning of the use of technology is an afterthought, and we're better off just not allowing students and teachers to have access to YouTube and Facebook ... you know, it's just better that way. (If you could see my face right now, you'd see a 'Rachel Maddow expression' going on.)

I discovered last week that my 10-year-old son and his friend from next door have been making "videos." I've yet to have the opportunity to really look at these "videos," but I'm imagining that they are similar to the cool "Learn how to be Ninja" movies on YouTube that they both watch together almost on a daily basis. They're making these "videos" to upload to YouTube. This was their intention from the beginning. I asked my son when did he and his friend think it was time to get their parents involved in this process. He hadn't really thought about it. Well, I involved the other mother last night when she called for me to send her son home. I said, "Hey, did you know that our sons have been working diligently on movies to upload to YouTube?" She practically screamed into the phone, "What? YouTube? They absolutely are not uploading anything to YouTube!" I said, "Well, wait a minute. Let's take a look at the movies together and talk about it. Maybe we can show them how to do it and make sure it's safe and all." I was surprised at her response. "Well, ok, ... I guess so. I guess we should talk about it a little more."

I know my son was probably the instigator in all this because I've worked to empower him when it comes to the Internet; no one else will. Just a week ago or so we sat down in front of my laptop and learned how to use Movie Maker together. He proceeded to make a cool movie of his little plastic transformer creatures beating the hell out of each other (boy stuff), and I loved it. We tried to upload it to YouTube, but we couldn't get it to work. We're still working out the kinks. Now it's my job to work on the mother next door.

This is what it takes. An open mind to what's available out there in cyberspace. Access to it. And teachers who know how to use it in relation to their curriculum. Then it takes time for students to "play" with the tools at their fingertips. To ask the right questions. To understand what they are seeing and hearing. To research productively. And to then create meaning from all that text and content out there floating around. If we educators fail to make sure that this happens, Alan November reminds us, we have failed our children miserably. We are living in a globalized society now, and it doesn't help that we don't even know the jobs that our children will be engaged in because the jobs haven't been created yet. But I can tell you that learning to create meaning from all the global content out there has to be key to the success of our children's future. If nothing I said makes sense, then this video from YouTube will, "A Vision of Students Today."