Who Chooses What We Teach?

Another good ‘Room for Debate’ page in the NYTimes appeared again this week. This time the question is: Should Parents Control What Kids Learn at School?

My initial response would be that parents should know their child, how they learn best, what their strengths and challenges are, and work with the teachers in the development of the curriculum. Whatever it is that kids learn in school, there are basic fundamentals that children should learn like reading, writing, and arithmetic. Teachers and parents can certainly agree on those. What it is they read, however, may be up for debate. Social/emotional learning is very important too. I wonder, for example, if the social/emotional learning of the Italian captain of the cruise ship Costa Concordia had more to with the tragedy than the engineering and ship operational training he received.

I think the most important part in this debate is that all stakeholders start first by agreeing on what fundamentals ought to be taught in schools. For early primary, the academics are obvious, but the delivery and pedagogical methods may not be. Minor philosophies on homework, etc. will always exist, but the overall goals are similar. For example, regardless when people think the correct age may be, they can all agree that kids should be able to read.

Customizing the curriculum has always been how I’ve worked (public, parochial, or private). Every year the range of abilities changes with a new set of students, so why wouldn’t you adapt your curriculum to those different needs. With the new law in New Hampshire (which I haven’t read), it seems like what bothers most is that parents can make any demands on the content. I’ve never had any issues with any parents. Even with ideological or religious differences. I can think of one family years ago, who for their own religious reasons, did not want to participate in Halloween activities at school. While the school respected that family’s ideas and suggested alternatives and modifications, Halloween would still be celebrated at school.

I think it becomes a problem when parents have a different mindset than you about what is age-appropriate content, or if the content seems too ideologically radical for some. In elementary school, it’s possible to see how a simple biography project might go awry if a parent disagreed with the teacher on whether a child’s choice were appropriate. Is a biography about Anne Frank is suitable for an eight-year old? While the biography may be, some of the events surrounding it may be considered too much for a second grader. This actually happened with a student of mine last year. She chose Anne Frank after perusing the biography section in the school library. I was just as tentative as her mother in her choice, but we both agreed that she was a child who was ready to read about those horrific events. Both me and her parents just wanted what was best for her. It would have been different if it were a different child which is why knowing your students (and their families) is so important.  If we are supposed to welcome diversity and embrace its benefits, than we cannot just go with the status quo, and we have to listen to everyone.

Will some abuse a law like New Hampshire’s? I’m sure some will try. Every once in a while, there will be a battle between the over-entitled parent and the extremely inflexible and obdurate teacher, and that is unfortunate. Like so many other things, there is often so much we have in common. A lot that we can come together and work with. If we start where our ideas and values overlap and recognize our differences as strengths to enhance those ideas and values, there is so much we can achieve.

Can an atheist enjoy Christmas carols and Islamic art?

Can someone who’s gay be a Republican?

Can someone working at Microsoft like the iPhone?

Can an epicure eat cereal for dinner one night and love it?

Of course they can, but too often lines are drawn in the sand instead of bridges being built.    Rather than objecting to the curriculum, as one of the writers in the opinion page mentions, parents should use those areas as teachable moments. Teachers should too. I remember a child years ago asking me about the existence of Santa Clause. He just couldn’t see the plausibility of it all. I certainly wasn’t going to be the one to break the news to an 8-year old. What I told him was to think critically about it (I’m sure I used different words) and make that decision for himself. I didn’t defer it to his parents nor did I subject him to my thoughts. That was an example where he could make up his own mind. He could grapple with his own dilemma and reach his own conclusions.

Currently, I’m teaching a unit on penguins. What would be objectionable is if a parent insisted that I teach about emus and ostriches instead. There’s no reason why I couldn’t, but there’s no reason why I should either. A follow up question to this debate on whether parents should control what kids learn at school is if teachers can control what their students do at home?

What Are Teacher Leadership Standards?

It was a marathon of a day with little time between to take in all that I was learning between sessions. One session that resonated with me was the call for identifying teacher leaders and giving them various responsibilities – not as add-ons, but by providing them the structures to take on these responsibilities. According to Kathryn Boles, we lose too many of our best teachers and attrition rates are too high. Many teachers do not want to become a principal/head of school, but they aren’t given the opportunities to be the change agents they want to be while still in the classroom. There are seven domains/standards for teacher leaders that have been identified.

Domain I: Fostering a Collaborative Culture to Support Educator Development and Student Learning

Domain II: Accessing and Using Research to Improve Practice and Student Learning

Domain III: Promoting Professional Learning for Continuous Improvement

Domain IV: Facilitating Improvements in Instruction and Student Learning

Domain V: Promoting the Use of Assessments and Data for School and District Improvement

Domain VI: Improving Outreach and Collaboration with Families and Community

Domain VII: Advocating for Student Learning and the Profession

You can get a lot more information about all these standards at this site (still under construction, but already very good). Every administrator should know about this site. Not only have standards for teacher leaders been developed, but the supporting strategies to support these have also been identified.

  • Increase the capcity to create staffing models that include differentiated career options for teachers. It’s shouldn’t solely be just teacher ==> assistant principal ==> principal ==> superintendent.
  • Develop new structures for licensing and/or credentialing teacher leaders.
  • Engage stakeholders in developing criteria-based models for the selection of teachers to serve in formalized leadership roles.
  • Develop systems for reward and recognition of the contributions of teachers in formal and informal leadership roles.
  • Establish compensation systems that recognize teacher leadership roles, knowledge, and skills.
  • Establish a performance management and evaluation system that is consistent with the identified and varied roles of teacher leaders.

I’ve a lot more to add on this one topic alone, but as I mentioned, the schedule is packed solid – Fantastic, but full. In fact, I’m getting ready for another 12-hour day of learning which starts in 15 minutes. Hopefully, I’ll be able to break some of the things I’m learning down into little chunks and how they apply to the classroom. In the meantime, check out that link above.

An App a Day: Stick Pick

There are many teacher tool apps out there, but not all of them work well. If you’re an elementary teacher, drawing sticks with kids’ names on them out of a can isn’t a new idea. It’s a great tool to randomize the way you select kids. If this app simply replaced this concept electronically, it wouldn’t be that innovative. The person who designed this app actually put some thought into it so it does much, much more.

There’s no point describing it here when their website does it so well.  It was developed by a 6th grade teacher. I can’t wait to use it with my new class this year.

What is the Point of Learning?

Several weeks ago, I was fortunate to attend a TEDx event at Eastside Prep. Several speakers really spoke not only about what’s wrong with much of our education system (that would be too easy to do). They also spoke of changes that would enhance learning – the real kind of learning where you take risks, sometimes fail, but persevere until you get it. The reward is intrinsic. The value and motivation comes from the learning itself. For example, changing the schedule to allow for longer deeper inquiry or assessment without grades. Honestly, if I was evaluated on a grading system rather than through goal setting, feedback, and reflection, I wouldn’t do it. So why do we do this with kids in middle, high, and even some elementary schools? I’m glad people are motivated to put on events TEDx events focused around education. There’s another TED education event in this area, TEDxOverlake (How People Learn,) happening on June 18.

This week, the videos of these talks were posted, and I wanted to highlight a couple of speakers that addressed the above in different but concrete and passionate ways. The first is by Shawn Cornally, a high school math and science teacher called The Future of Education Without Coercion (you should also check out his blog, ThinkThankThunk.

The second is the talk by Dr. Tae whom I wrote about a few weeks back. His talk was titled: Can Skateboarding Save Our Schools?

If you’ve read Daniel Pink’s Drive, read Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards, seen the movie Race to Nowhere, or heard Sir Ken Robinson speak or read his book The Element, a very similar theme emerges in all of them.

Day 1 of Flipping the Classroom

There’s the common expression, “Change is hard. You go first.” Well, I’ve been doing a few firsts this past year or so, partly because I decided not to wait. If I think it’s worth experimenting with, I’ll try it. What I’ve learned is that with a few of these things, I might have been better off talking about it, rather than dive right in. As a result, I may have ruffled a few feathers here and there and had to repair a few work relationships. It was actually a good exercise in growth for me and made me a lot more reflective about what I want to do next.

I started this blog, for example to share what I learned at a conference, but decided to keep it going because I actually enjoy it. Because I had no expectation of anyone else blogging, I was oblivious to the fact that some might feel that they would have to share what they learned via a blog. It’s just my way, and I enjoy it. I also started my own classroom website because I couldn’t wait for our school’s official site to have all the features I wanted. It’s worked for me and my students’ parents and that’s really all it boils down to. There are so many ways to communicate, sometimes the purpose dictates they type.

Well, I’m at it again. After only a couple of weeks since the TED talk “Flipping the Classroom” aired, I unleashed Khan Academy upon my second graders. Honestly, the videos are pretty dry and boring for the most part, but the kids love the exercises, the immediate feedback, and the choice. One child decided for homework tonight to head to the geometry section which asks for the area and circumference of circles. He made a few attempts, got all them wrong and decided he’d come back another time. It was very non-threatening. Today was just the first day, we headed to the media lab so they could learn how to login and logoff. And even though I assigned about 10 to 20 minutes, I noticed that many kids were engaged enough to spend much more time on it. I’m actually more excited about the data that might come back after Spring Break. Why? So much of good math pedagogy is not just helping a child develop a concept, but asking the right questions. Knowing what children have mastered, allows you to target your questions more precisely. Of course good teachers who already know their students well do this, but with the added data, who knows.

One interesting unintended consequence occurred. Many of my students have older siblings. So far, I’ve gotten great feedback from parents, but they wanted to know how their older child could sign in. I told them how and that they could sign me up as their coach if they wished. This is a big experiment. I don’t intend to have students using Kahn Academy in class, but only at home. What I will do, is use the data to help inform the way I teach each child. As Kahn put it in his TED talk, “Flipping the Classroom.”

Kahn Academy approaches math in a very linear, sterile manner, but with some of the basic skills under their belt, they may be able to really grapple with project based learning activities which involve plenty of mathematical problems, creativity, and the beauty of math that doesn’t always get to see the light of day the way our math texts are written. Who knows? This is still day one of doing things a little differently. It may just end up being something faddish, which is something I  usually try to avoid, but when I see some potential in how it can help kids, I’ll dive head first. Sign in for yourself and try some of the later differential questions. Do you even remember how to do them? More importantly, do you know why? I’ll keep you apprised of how my little experiment goes.

Kahn – Flipping the Classroom

Of the TED talks given last week, this is the one of the ones I was anticipating the most. Human interaction is crucial to learning, but that interaction is just part of it. Can a robot or youtube video do my job? Only if I stand in front of the class the whole time and lecture. Sure, listening is an action, but doing something more interactive like student-student or student-teacher is a much more valuable use of their time. I had a few colleagues come back from the NAIS conference recently and really liked Sal Kahn both as a speaker and what he had to say. It really shifts the paradigm of traditional schooling, but as an educator, it also makes sense in many ways. I still need to explore Kahn Academy’s website and materials more thoroughly, but after this talk, I’m convinced I really need to. Best of all, it’s all free!

“I Believe We Can Be Better.”

How many books about differentiation can Carol Ann Tomlinson write. Here is a list:

  • The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of all Learners (1999)
  • Leadership for Differentiating Schools and Classrooms
  • How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-ability Classrooms (2001)
  • Fulfilling the Promise of the Differentiated Classroom (2004)
  • Differentiation in Practice: A Resource Guide for Differentiated Curriculum (grades K-5/5-9)
    Tomlinson, C.& Edison, C. (2003)
  • Differentiation in Practice: A Resource Guide for Differentiated Curriculum (grades K-5/5-9)
    Tomlinson, C.& Edison, C. (2003)
  • Integrating Differentiated Instruction and Understanding by Design: Connecting Contents and Kid
  • The Differentiated School: Making Revolutionary Changes in Teaching and Learning (2008)

Well – she’s got a new one out called: Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom. At first I rolled my eyes and thought seriously, another one?

Differentiation continues to be a big buzz word in education these days and truly, you can go back to the title of her first book and see that differentiation is simply ‘responding to the needs of all learners.’ Those needs are going to vary a lot among students and change from year to year. Being able to adapt to your students’ learning needs is the essence of differentiation. Those of use who realize this, get it. Now what more could she possibly add. But then I opened the book and read the preface which began with this quote:

Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow where they lead.  — Louisa May Alcott

For some reason, that resonated with me. It had “Growth Mindset” written all over it. The author then began to tell a story. An autobiographical account of her epiphanies (many which she didn’t even realize until much later in her career) regarding differentiated instruction. Some she realized on the spot. “… I understood at that moment that an effective teacher is not someone who just teaches content. He or she is someone who teaches content to human beings, and the classroom has to work in such a way that each individual in it has a legitimate opportunity to grow as much as possible from his or her starting point.” Classroom management is not about keeping kids in their seats but about giving good directions, providing an engaging curriculum, and adapting to individual and group needs. She ends the preface by saying that the book is an aspirational guide. “We have no illusions that any teacher — even the best among us — reads a book and emerges with radiclly different teaching style in tow. We do believe, however, that there are many teachers who aspire to grow as professionals every day.” And that was just in the preface.

Then, in chapter one she calls on classroom teachers to be leaders for change, and she says in order “to achieve such a level of leadership we must

  • Work from and aspire to an objective that is an improvement over the status quo.
  • Articulate this vision so that those who are asked to follow have a compelling reason to do so.
  • Move knowledgeably toward this vision while simultaneously attending to the voices and needs of those who will necessarily help enact it.
  • Be patient with and supportive of followers, yet impatient with artificial barriers to progress (I was so glad to see this as this describes me quite well – I thought my impatience with those barriers was a flaw. Woo Hoo! Carol Anne Tomlinson says it’s ok to be impatient with certain things).
  • Maintain a pace that consistently ensures visible progress without pushing the system beyond it’s capacity to change. (Well here’s where I could learn something – As a wise colleague once said to me, “It’s a marathon and you can’t sprint the entire race.”)
  • Monitor outcomes of the change and be willing to adapt, when necessary to achieve desirable outcomes and eliminate undesirable outcomes.

The rest of the book helps define what differentiation really is, uses it as a philosophy, clears up many misunderstandings about differentiation, discusses how to be a more reflective teacher, and how to begin that journey.  The second half of the book focuses on the mechanics of managing an effective differentiated classroom. There are some excellent ideas posed. She then ends by responding to almost every possible resistance in order to go on this journey.

Perahaps that earlier quote resonated with me because earlier I was reading the president’s speech regarding the recent tragedy in Tucson. His words were simpler, but echoed the earlier quote of Louisa May Alcott. He said, “I believe we can be better.”

Maybe Carol Ann Tomlinson did have more to add on differentiation. Teachers can learn to differentiate well, adapt to the needs of their students, and continue to grow.