Practical Theory - The Origin
The Scholars in CyberEnglish
ToDaY's MeNu - Ted

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Teaching Reform Debacle

For the past eight years we have seen constant reorganization at the NYC Department of Education all in the name of reform. This is hardly reform. Instead it is a debacle. When I started teaching in NYC in the early 80's the big news was "white flight." As the 90's began the new exodus was "middle class flight." Now we are seeing "public school flight" to charter schools.

Public schools don't have the choices that private or charter schools have. Public schools can't pick or choose who will be in the school. Removing students in a public school is not like private or charter schools. Public school teachers don't have the option of choosing who will be in their class. They can't fire, remove, or trade a student as other schools and businesses can do. Public school teachers have little support when controlling disruptive students. The administration has too few options and have to keep that child in the class and school. There are so many variables involved in how school functions. In other industries we hear about balance, but not in education. The scales of evaluation are always weighted against the teacher.

School reform in NYC is a shell game. The same was true in Houston when Ron Paige was the superintendent and through slippery accounting made his district look good. Arne Duncan did the same manipulating in Chicago. We aren't seeing proper reform nor school improvement in NYC or anywhere else because the federal government is in the way. We are told we have improvement, yet we don't see the proof, the students, the hard evidence. All we see are reports purporting improvements and projecting improvement. Educational reform is a shell game, another version of the Emperor's New Clothes.

Of course it is easy to blame the teachers as we once again see and read in the most recent article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Part of the problem is the further erosion of local control of schools by the hostile takeover of education by the federal government and their rich minions like Gates and the Hedge Funds who provide money, a much needed commodity in schools, with so many strings attached, that schools are selling their souls for the money. Too many non educators in policy positions. Watching states scramble for the Race to the Top awards is very sad as only two will get the money and the US government has gotten all the other states with a few exceptions, like Hawaii, ironically which didn't compete, change their local practices to accommodate the federal demands as Race to the Top entrants. There are no rewards for those other states. Who profits? The test makers make lots of money as more and more states are using these untested tests as graduation, accountability, and teacher pay and seniority. It is certainly ironic when we hear politicians speak about making Washington's control over us less, states are giving more local power of education to the federal government. If the argument is heard that the feds can't run health care, what makes them capable of running education?

What will happen to the students who don't make it in non public schools? They will be DUMPED in a public school that has poor teachers, due to the loss of seniority, large classes, and poor facilities. The gap between the haves and the have nots will be wider and in the end undermine communities. The loss of public schools will be one of the most devastating events in education and will be so contrary to what the Founding Fathers envisioned. It will be a huge blow to a diminishing democracy in this country as we become that plutocracy we all fear.

Education is at an all time low in this country because politicians and business leaders are in control and have no clue about how education works. It is not run like a business nor can it be run like a business because we deal with real people not spreadsheets and accountants. Senge's ideas were wrong for education in the 90's and are still wrong. At best they were mediocre for business, just look at the results in the business world. And we want to copy that? MBA = Mediocre But Arrogant. Schools have to work with the resources and customers without options like trading, firing, or moving to another location. What students need is consistency and the current trend in educational reform is not to create consistency, but instead to create chaos.

I'm not too sure I can get very excited about the feds regulating education. When I look at their track record with banks, the energy regulators who inspect coal mines, oil rigs, and other energy industries; I'm not encouraged nor confident they can do a good job let alone reform anything. As we examine who is in charge of overseeing an industry we learn how that person has so little experience in that industry. This is not the case in the legal or medical industries. Education is not overseen by educators. It is run by politicians, lawyers, and business leaders, BUT not by educators. From what we are learning, government oversight is a sham, a joke, and a debacle. We've already seen the failure of Bush and Paige and Spelling. Nothing seems to be changing for the better with Obama and Duncan. In fact it is getting worse, especially with this new Race to the Top. Exactly what is at the Top anyway? Federal Government control and no improved education. I'm with those states not engaged in The Race to the Top, don't even bother to get in the race, it is fixed or it ain't worth it. The federal government has no business in guiding educational policy in the states.

I can only rest assured that my own children are now beyond the grasp of the dying public schools and I have had a good 35 year run as a teacher. My only regret is the state of public education today and bleak future it has as reflected in the mindless, headless, leaderless course it is on right now.

Friday, May 21, 2010

"Teaching will be my lifeline."

This very powerful statement comes from Joyce Carol Oates as she writes about the death of Raymond Smith, her husband of 48 years. This article from the Fiction 2010 Atlantic Magazine, a supplement to the regular issue. Though it is not fiction, it comes from one of our masters of fiction and a teacher of creative writing.

The piece concludes the issue. She begins with a discussion of how teaching filled her time immediately after her husband's "unexpected" death. Teaching was crucial in her grieving. It provided her a consistent and stable environment in an otherwise chaotic time in her life. It was normal for her. It was a familiar non critical friend. Of course she had familiar references to Chaucer on teaching and Dickinson on death. But it was the reference to Hemingway's "Indian Camp" that really stunned me. What an ironic metaphor of Hemingway's own life and quirky short story for Oates to reference with the powerful quote, "He couldn't stand things, I guess." "Teaching will be my lifeline" becomes all the more poignant. As I read this moving piece from Oates, I came to realize how teaching for me has been my anchor for these past 36 years and all of the chaos that my life has encountered. Once I got into my classroom, life was stable. I loved the line "Teaching will be my lifeline" when I read it. I reflected on how I was happy to be in the classroom after each of my parents died, after each of my two divorces, and after minor tragedies in my life. The social interaction with our scholars helps us put everything into perspective and to get out of self pity and indulgences that destroy the strongest of us. Teaching teaches us humility, empathy, and the larger picture of life. Oates says this succinctly.

A while ago I spoke about metaphors in our life. I was reminded about this exercise as I read and reread Oates' masterful piece about teaching, life, and death. "Teaching will be my lifeline" is such a loaded and powerful sentence that can be read so many ways. Oates certainly demonstrated how teaching was her lifeline in her personal tragedy not just for herself but for her lucky scholars and readers, like me. Thank you and I am sorry for your loss Mrs Smith.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

How to get a web presence

There are many ways to establish a web presence for the teacher. There are so many choices, maybe too many choices. Consider your needs.

What is it that you want to do? I suspect that we want to get our lesson plans online, make them hypertext to the resources you either create or find on the web. Now that we have so many offerings, I'd like to suggest a smooth and relatively easy method.

Google offers many useful tools. I have teachers start with a gmail account. Once that is created, we go to the "Web" link on the upper left toolbar and then to "Settings" on the right top tab. We then select "Google Account settings" to reveal "My products," which is empty. To add tools, we go to the word "more" in the lower left corner of the page to discover the plethora of Google tools. The five tools that we will use immediately are Calendar, Docs, Blogger, Groups, and Picassa.

I start with calendar. The teacher sets the dates for projects, tests, quizzes, and other matters. This starts the overview for the class and begins the communication with the class. It helps us get the big picture and helps as an outline for the lesson building we will do in Blogger and Docs. Of course the details of the Calendar can be altered. The Google calendar is very sophisticated and can be an active tool in any teacher's classroom. The calendar can become a very interactive tool. Sharing the calendar with the class is very simple. Simply click on the red arrow next to your login name in the "My Calendars" section on the left margin and select "Share this calendar." Making it public might be easier than selecting specific people with whom to share the calendar since this is a class calendar and should not contain private events. The help button in the upper right corner aids the user in the features as well as in highlighting the newest to come from the Labs. Labs is a feature in the setting tab that provides the ongoing development of this tool. Quickly we learn that all of Google's tools are always under construction, evolving, and changing. I also learned that tools I have used in the past that are no longer available to new accounts continue to work for me. This is huge. It means that all the effort I put into something won't disappear.

The next tool I introduce is Docs. Docs is a great place for the teachers to store their word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, and drawings. Google incorporates cloud computing. That means the teachers can edit their documents in Docs. The teachers may use a word processing program at school that they doesn't have at home. Not to worry, they can edit at home in Google Docs. Lessons that the teachers already have can be uploaded immediately and then used later. Some can be shared now or reserved for later. These documents can always be edited in Docs. The documents can be shared with specific individuals for review before using and then distributed to the class by making them a link that is used in the Blogger. This will be discussed in greater detail in the Blogger section. When the scholar opens a document link it is in a word processing program and can be edited by the scholar and then printed, emailed to the teacher, or uploaded to the scholar's Doc and shared with the teacher. Another great new tool in Docs is the drawing tool for math teachers. This feature allows for creating great math figures and using math language in documents.

Blogger is the main tool we use to deliver our lesson to the class. When you create your Blog, be sure you have your cell phone handy so you can receive either a text message, which I suggest, or a phone call to get a verification code to activate your Blogger account. The Blogger has many tools in it and ways we can make it a main page for our class. I have links to my scholars' page on it. I have links to resources. I have my daily messages on it. It is where some teachers can start their class. The page can contain hyperlinks to those documents in Docs. There can be hyperlinks to other webpages that will be resources to complete an assignment. Even though there is a comment feature, I prefer to use the Google tool, Groups, for the class to have discussions and for the teacher to distribute messages in a listserv fashion.

The Groups tool is a fabulous tool for the teacher to communicate with the class at any time via email. When the teacher or any member of the class needs to communicate with the class the Groups tool is fabulous. To begin with Groups is a good way to have a class discussion. The scholars respond to a question. As the scholars respond all of the responses are gathered in one spot and then each scholar can respond to another scholar. This is a particular useful for absent scholars. Perhaps a scholar has discovered a bad link or a good link or something s/he wants to share with the class while doing homework. S/he can use Groups. Groups makes the class 24/7 and interactive.

Picassa is the last tool I introduce and perhaps the most fun. Pictures are saved here. Picture the teacher may use in the Blog are saved here. Pictures of the class can be uploaded and used. Videos can be saved here.

I consider these five Google tools essential in the teacher's toolbox for classroom use. It is where I start with the teachers I train. They learn them quickly because they are intuitive and easy to use. Soon teachers get their scholars using them and eventually the teachers can link to their scholars' work that is online. We soon discover this is the best way to document and collect the data we need about our scholars for our Administration, the parents, and for those evaluating our performance as teachers.

There are many other fabulous tools at Google for the teachers to explore and to incorporate into their classes. The key is to get started with a web presence and as I've heard, the rest is history. Have fun.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Technology is common thread

Technology keeps showing me that it is the common thread in successful teachers and schools. On any given day, I find more than one article about how technology is the key to some success in a teacher or in a school. We have plenty of models of how technology is the key ingredient in success. Consider these three articles.

The most recent Teacher of the Year was praised by President Obama as a 21st Century teacher. Wessling has found a way to use facebook in her classes. She uses podcasting to communicate. She understands how a class should be learner centric and applies that pedagogy to make her scholars producers. The results are good as we hear from the scholars, their parents and others including the president. She has made her classroom transparent and technology was how she did it.

Success in schools across the country can be attributed to technology use increasing in schools. The ratio of technology to scholar is an impressive 3.1 to 1. Support staff on a district level is a high 89% and in the schools close to 50%. Now we need more professional learning and more teacher webpages or web presence.

Finally in a Pittsburgh school district they hired a coach to teach technology skills to the staff in the schools. A former technology teacher now prepares teachers around the district.

Before our reorganization in NYC, we had lots of technology coaches. Now we don't have any. We have certainly had a "dark ages" in education especially as it pertains to technology use in our classrooms during the W years. The whole direction of education was set back a hundred years after Clinton and Gore got us rolling. We have to recover not only those lost eight years, but reset our mind-think about how education should function in the 21st Century. I have said it before, technology is the panacea and I think we are seeing more of this idea being adopted by others as well. The next big step is that educational policy actually incorporates technology as other 21st Century businesses and organizations do. Heck the scholars are more 21st Century than their schools.

In the years I have used technology in CyberEnglish, all of this is not new to me. In fact I have found myself paring down. I'd like to get back into the Moodle frame of mind, especially for more Virtual School applications. I'm still a firm advocate for my scholars writing their HTML for their webpages and for publishing their work online. Blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Ning and some of these new social network apps are cool, but not a backbone for a classroom. I still haven't found anything better than the webpage. It is all about using the technology and being transparent and 21st Century in a profession that insists on being early 20th Century.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

What is your Metaphor?

Many of my scholars conclude "Metaphors are all around us" when they build their metaphor hypertext essays. We are always using something we know to help us understand or explain something we don't know. My scholars learn that metaphors are the genus, the umbrella, of the comparison of unlike things. Some of the more specific or species of the metaphor are simile, personification, anthropomorphism, hyperbole, and analogy. These five and others are specific metaphors, they have guidelines, limits, and specificity. Similes use like or as, for example. Personification makes things not human human. The analogy the classic SAT use of pairs comparisons.

One of my favorite exercises when we study the metaphor, is to ask, What is your Metaphor? I always find the metaphors we make for ourselves very interesting on any given day in any given situation. These metaphors change as the day progresses and so our moods.

One of my favorite articles about using metaphors starts out:
Teaching is like cheerleading. Your task is to motivate, enthuse, and get the students off the bleachers and involved in the game. When the team is winning, that’s easy to do; but when things are looking bleak, that’s when you really have to shake your pompoms, make a leap, do back-flips.

I am spring weather. I see the world coming alive. I am dark clouds, heavy with rain, but I pass more quickly than my sullen winter cousins. I hear the returning geese across the ridge. I hear the worms under the grass, running from the robins. I enjoy rolling over the prairie, surprising the joggers. I am a teacher.
In "Metaphor as Renewal: Re-Imagining Our Professional Selves" By Candida Gillis and Cheryl L. Johnson, I find the use of metaphor brilliant when I teach teachers or do any professional learning. A colleague reminded me about how we use metaphors when he walked into my class exasperated and exclaimed that he should have been a dentist because it felt like pulling teeth to get them to get their work done.

What is your metaphor?