My School CARES. It really does: teachers care about their students, students care about their peers, students care about their teachers, teachers care about their colleagues. Cares also happens to be our acronym to help remember our Code of Conduct: Cooperation; Accountability; Respect; Excellence; and Social Responsibility. We added the Social Responsibility to account for an area that we saw was lacking.
In any school, I am sure there are thefts from classes, students and possibly teachers. With the proliferation of personal devices such as music devices, Smart Phones, and tablets, the temptation for some must be huge to ‘borrow’. My school has had its share of loss, but, thankfully, many get returned by students who understand the social contract that allows any space of many individuals to run smoothly.
Some devices are ‘liberated’ by students for their own enjoyment, and many get caught, but some do not, and the devices are quickly lost in the space between social and personal responsibility. The ease with which cell phones can be palmed, turned off, sim card removed and passed on to others is mind-blowing. In less than a minute, a phone can be sitting on the desk and then outside the school building.
We have just recently re-started the reward system for found phones. Students who find phones left in places (washrooms, change rooms) and return them to the office are rewarded with coupons for lunch in the cafeteria. Once word of this began to spread, we were getting many, many phones turned in. But is the carrot system working to stop the thefts? Would these phones be returned more quickly to their owners if they didn’t pass through the office for a snack? Does this provide the cultural change needed to create a safer environment for students and their belongings?
I do not have answers to these questions. I believe that students should look after their own property more carefully, but a moment’s distraction can be a loss of several hundred dollars. I also believe that students should be more social responsible; looking out for their peers, protecting and enhancing the safe spaces for learning. If a student sees something is not right, they should tell someone; staying quiet just endures and promotes the negative actions of others.
My school is considered an old school at 47 years young. It does not get all the repairs needed in a timely way to help create a welcoming environment (leaking pipes, buckets in the hallways, falling tiles). Some students (who some may consider socially responsible) started a twitter feed to point out these problems. Although the intent was good, it quickly degraded into a forum for other students to bully, harass and spread racially hurtful comments. As administrators, we had to try to shut the account down, with limited success. Through conversations with students who had participated in the twitter forum, many were unaware of their tacit support of many of these comments, and quickly changed or deleted their twitter posts and re-tweets.
This shows, I think, that students need to be reminded of their social and citizenship responsibilities; as a schooling organisation, we must remember that these are individuals developing their own moral compass and need subtle and not so subtle reminders of where true north is.
Over the past few weeks, I have been looking at the differences between assessments that promote learning of content and conceptual understanding and those that are based on the behaviour or social development of students. This led to some conversations around the use of late marks, zeroes for not handing in work and ‘the first five minutes of class’ quizzes. See here, for some of that discussion. Now, I am looking at how we take that information and share it with parents and students. Again, looking at what is the purpose of report cards.
I don’t envy the teachers when report card time of year arrives as they are competing with many opposing forces: administrator deadlines for reports, student work and assignments coming in, valuing the learning, reporting learning versus reporting levels. If a teacher has embraced the concepts of Assessments for Learning, this time of year must be exponentially stressful, as all the formative assessment work is now over and summative has arrived (even for the day). But I question the purpose of report cards.
It is mandated from the Ministry of Education that there must be a formal mechanism throughout the year where parent are informed of their child’s progress. This mandate comes from a time when even phone calls were difficult for connections between school and home. Not everyone had an answering machine, some had party lines, and some may not have had a phone at all. We are now in the twenty-first century (I know this because of all those great articles coming out about teaching in the 21st Century-fourteen years a little late….). Communication has changed from phone calls, to emails, to sites where a student or parent can look up the exact percentage in the course. (love those programmes that continue to instill the concept of averaging marks, everything is assessed and reported).
I have seen many teachers move beyond this, by setting up classroom blogs or twitter accounts. Parents can get a glimpse into the classroom and see what is going on. Some teachers have set up e-portfolios that a parent can access and see the progress their child has made as well as where growth is needed. The amount of real data and information that a parent gets through these connections is probably about 3 hours of conversation on the phone.
So let’s look at the report card. Traditionally, it gives a percentage and/or a letter grade, perhaps a work habits mark (g=good, s=satisfactory, n=needs improvement) and a comment or two. These comments are usually canned: $’s is working well and continues to show improvement; $ should be working on his/her mathematics homework for at least three hours a night. There are programmes when a teacher can add a comment, but they are also restricted to length. The amount of information that a parent thinks they are getting is huge (a possible ranking of their child in the class, an idea around whether they go to class and participate, and suggestions for improvement), but the actual information is very misleading. If you read four hundred grade 10 report cards (as I am doing this weekend), the common comments or even some of the personalised comments still reduce the report card to a mandatory reporting out, not a useful engagement of parent, student, teacher triad.
My mother often recounts the time I received my report card from school where it stated that I was a very valuable member of the rugby team. My father was so proud, as I had never shown any interest in the sport, nor talked about it. Turns out, they sent the wrong report card home. Now, it was fixed and my father had to be proud of my swimming athleticism, not my rugby ability, but it makes me think that we could eliminate all the stress of report cards, by removing them completely.
Let’s invite parents into the conversation throughout the year, not just two to three time a semester.
Public education is a beautiful concept: all children, everywhere, have the grand opportunity to learn, discover and grow, regardless of gender, family background, economic dis/advantages, or ability. It is, in my opinion, the cornerstone to any democracy (not that democracy is the best, just the best we have right now). In the last fifteen years, in North America at least, there seems to be a growing change around public sentiment and discourse on public education and, in particular, public education teachers.
With adages like “those that can’t, teach”, respect for what a teacher does in his/her classroom has been diminished to seem to be one of a glorified babysitter.
“Look after my child from 8:30 to 3:30, and be glad you have the opportunity, as you wouldn’t be able to get a job anywhere else”
Now, if you asked parents what they think of their child’s teacher, a different set of responses would be revealed: parents support their own teacher, but lump the teaching profession into negative light.
This disconnect between their personal experiences with teachers and the global portrayal of teachers has been building for years. Governments and unions debate in public to sway opinion during contract talks. The result is a disenfranchised public that end up having negative views on both politicians and educators. This demoralizes teachers and slowly destroys all the relationships and community that has taken many years to build.
When I first started teaching in the nineties (last century), teachers were seen as the gatekeepers of knowledge. Their skills and art of teaching allowed them to give students opportunities to learn content that would be hidden to them. Once the internet opened up the content knowledge (or as I like to call it, the world wide interthingy), teachers’ roles changed. Classrooms became places where not only content knowledge was important but also social emotional learning , cultures of learning, individual education plans, critical thinking.
When the perceived role of a teacher is to provide the content knowledge only, big business can step in and provide options. Knowledge content that is mobile, accessible and free (to start, at least) means that issues of class size and composition become irrelevant in this view of education. This reduces the role of the teacher back to that belief of babysitter.
Yet without the teacher, critical thinking and the ability to synthesize the content, cannot be done. We end up with students who have google knowledge, but no ability to fully comprehend complex issues or situations. In this new model, our new good teachers will not want to enter a system where they feel discounted. They will not become our next group of great teachers for all students, not just a privileged few.
The egg has cracked and is in the process of being scrambled. We can either accept that our best and brightest will be part of the google nation, or we can think outside the box and see what great, imaginative recipes we can come up with.
The term technology is quite broad. It means different things to different people. Some might consider the move towards 1:1, BYOD, BYOT or even using tablets such as iPads as the only way to embrace the technology that is so rampant in our society at the moment. In my school, I would love to see more teachers experiment with the concepts of flipped classrooms, twitter, google plus, or other social media platforms in the classroom.
Some teachers have wholeheartedly embraced this type of technology with their students: using technology to enrich the learning and engage students in ways that were impossible ten years ago. These teachers will adopt the technology in spite of my role as administrator, not because of it. These are teachers that will find a way. My role, in these cases is to make sure that any obstacle that I can control is removed so that they can teach, learn and lead without worrying about bandwidth, tech failures or larger district policies (of course, they need to follow the policies, I just need to make sure that they can navigate through them to provide enriched educational opportunities for our students).
But then there are those teachers that want to embrace the technology, but don’t know where to start. These teachers need the support, guidance and learning required to move their practice forward. Just giving them permission is not enough, they need help with getting to that space where learning gets messy and risks are taken to enhance the learning within their classrooms. It may be that their idea of bringing in technology is using a tablet in place of the overhead; starting small with powerpoints that lead to showing YouTube clips or animated, real time video. Small steps, but huge in the direction that is needed to make sure that all students have the opportunity to participate in our connected world.
Then there are the teachers that might consider using technology, but don’t feel they have the knowledge base or expertise to even start. Working with these teachers, there is a need to introduce them to the professional connected opportunities such as twitter to demonstrate the power of being connected. If they see how their own learning happens, they can translate that to their classroom, in their way.
Finally, there are those that use quizzes from the 1990’s, overhead sheets for students to copy (which technically is still a type of technology) and use lecture as their main source of teaching. Don’t get me wrong, lectures (especially the Socratic method) can be a powerful learning experience and I wouldn’t want some of these teachers to change who they are. Sometimes, though, variety can lead to creativity and creativity leads to passion which can be a powerful learning tool.
For me, it’s not the type of device or the type of app you use in the classroom. It’s about the relationships you make with students and develop the trust that creates opportunities to take risks. Moving into that zone of proximal development and Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow, where the great learning happens. Technology in the classroom is, for me, just an excuse to try new things and experiment, where learning is a by-product of living.
I recently read Tom Whitby’s post on the way connected educators are recognized through such forums as the Leaders to Learn Forum. Part, not all, of his argument was that some of the winners were relative unknown within the twitter-verse. This go me to thinking (as all of the posts by those blogs I follow, do): why do we need to connect when we work in schools and can connect within? what argument can be made for educators to reach beyond their school/district walls for collaboration that cannot be found within their school/district walls?
I have worked in five school districts, at both the school and district level. Every district has their own unique take on professional development; each school and department have their own take on assessment, reporting and teaching. I have met teachers who have graduated from the school they started their practicum and are now teaching side by side their high school teachers. I’m sure this is not isolated, but it is isolating.
We are social creatures. Social constructivism suggests that we construct meaning through our interactions, using the scaffolding put in place by our facilitators, whoever they may be, until we can continue on our own. If our ideas are coming from one space, one social network, one area on inquiry, it is conceivable that a spark will lead to innovation and improved student success. What is more likely, though, is a more traditional process will be indoctrinated into the new educators in the system; new ideas are seen as risky, untested and therefore, dangerous to try out on students.
Also, in this closed system of education, those innovators are the champions of their ideas, but those innovations are lost once the champion leaves: there is no sustainability built into the system. Compare this with a connected educator; one that has access to the ideas from around the world, or across the province or state. If that educator has twenty people in her or his PLN, twenty people that give feedback to ideas, suggestions or even just a ‘like’ or ‘retweet’, the enriched conversations propel that teacher to seek and try to implement new ideas.
A connected educator with 600 educators to discuss would be better than twenty, but a solid twenty is more effective in the learning and improvement if professional development than a surface 600.
I would like to thank everyone in my PLN. They push me forward, into sometimes uncomfortable spaces, that allow me to grow as an educator. The depth of their shared knowledge is staggering. Someone, my brain has forgotten who, said that they have learned more from twitter than any masters or education course. I would disagree. I learned more in a focused area (developing student teachers and the semiotics of learning) during my masters. Twitter is more like a sampling; one that starts the conversations towards the deeper learning.
Why are we educators? Why do we attend conferences during our school breaks? Why do we connect on weekends and evenings through twitter, Google +, blog about our experiences and meet with other educators through collaboration?
As educators, we are always learning. We model our experiences so that our students can see what Life Long Learning looks like. We are inquisitive, hungry to learn about and hone our craft. We are a mix of artists and scientists, always improving our professional work.
We do this to improve the opportunities of our students. We want them to be successful in whatever they choose to pursue. We want them to have the skills, knowledge and understanding of our world to make a difference: to make our world a better place.
I have noticed that there is still a great divide between socially created disciplines within our schools. But I ask you, do we want doctors that cannot be creative and understand the beauty of our world? Do we want artists that cannot understand our knowledge of the biological world? If they do not know the world, they cannot reflect, in their creative ways, our place within it. Do we want accountants and lawyers that do not understand the heart of our society? Do we want our auto mechanics, furniture builders, software creators not be able to communicate the art in their work?
We need to look at our school-based disciplines as tasters of the learning that is available to the world. There shouldn’t be a bell that rings, Pavlovian-style, to move our children from one closed room to another.
The power of education is that it opens the world, not shuts it out.
We are educators to help open those doors, turn off those bells, and give students the opportunities to learn, explore, and create within our world to make it a better place.
In the next few posts, I will be looking at how our 19th Century system can move into the the 21st Century and beyond. I will look at curriculum, assessment, differentiation, physical structures and political structures that are limiting our ability to create spaces for our students to thrive. Please comment or contact me if you have ideas or thoughts on how we can move together to re-form (not reform) schooling, by making learners, not educants.