Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Control the content.

I'm looking at this from the standpoint of a High School English teacher.

The reality is that it doesn't matter much which books I teach my students. While I like and have predilections towards more thoughtful literature, I really don't need to use those books to do what I do. If this seems strange, I blame it on my labeling as an "English" teacher.
I don't teach English. Never have. Don't even know how, really.

What I teach is skills via literature.

And if we can all agree for a moment that the "skills" part of that is the important part, then it becomes clear that the literature is really just a prop to help me teach those ever important skills. I honestly don't really need any specific prop- I just need something to work with.
All that said, I've become increasingly agitated by the constant questions about "text books." So let's talk about those.

First off, textbook companies exist for one reason: To make money. That's it. Any motivation they have to provide a quality product is dependent on that product being able to make them money. As a result, it's in their best interest to create a product for the largest possible market. Practically speaking in the US, that means building textbooks that fulfill California and Texas' requirements. Everybody else gets to buy it too, but the content is engineered for those states. Fine.
Second, textbooks were a thing created out of need. There was no practical way for an educator to compile all the resources they would need for a year's worth of instruction. Books could be rare (or obscure), there was a lot of writing to be done, and a huge amount of organization to be undertaken.
All of which is to say that we got lazy. We started to think that it was easier to just buy a textbook than it was to build what we wanted for ourselves. We were led to believe that we should leave such stuff to the "experts." Here's the thing: we are the experts. We are the educators, we do know what we need in the classroom.
Several years ago now, I spearheaded a project at my school to have the senior English text be an in-house self published book. We did it in one summer- and yes, it was a lot of work. But from that effort we had exactly what we wanted- nothing more, nothing less. Once that initial push was made and the text existed, every year we could revise it, tweak it, modify it to fulfill our ever-shifting needs as educators. I'll also tell you that self publishing a textbook was wildly less expensive than buying one- printed commercial textbooks were $80-100 each, and our books were less than $6. It was so much less expensive, actually, that we could give them to our students every year- they would keep them, write in them, take contextual notes in them... and it'd still be cheaper than buying some published book.
Now, given that my school has gone 1:1, things are looking even better. We're slowing the printing of texts and moving to ePubs. We're building a modular contextual vocabulary unit that will allow each teacher to pull from the same bank of words, but easily re-order their vocab books to reflect the order in which they intent to teach texts.

If we can't, as educators, be bothered to take control of the very content that we teach- if we hide behind the facade of a textbook, then we do ourselves and our students a profound disservice. We become the same as a chef who takes no interest in the quality or provenance of his ingredients. We become a farce.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

My dirty secret.

I've been wary of saying this publicly, but I think it's something I can't dance around anymore. So here it is:

I throw everything out at the end of each school year.

Lesson plans.

Actually, there are maybe half a dozen lesson that I'll keep from year to year- but I only keep the idea of the lesson, not the stuff attached to it.
I'm saying this for a simple reason: I've been bombarded for years with people trying to move stuff they've made from one format or platform to another, newer one. I usually try to help, and the efforts are usually messy and only partially successful. They always ask how I'm managing the transition, and I always say that I don't have the problem. I think they must assume that I have some secret method for reformatting my teaching resources, but the truth is more simple. I simply make new stuff, all the time.

I think it's because I bore so easily. I can't imagine re-using something I've already used. Or maybe it's because I believe that each year's students are fundamentally different than the last, and the things I'm using to teach should reflect that. Or it's that I believe that my job, as an educator, is partially to create content, and if I'm using content from years ago I'm shirking my duties.

Whatever it is, it keeps life good for me. I'm always solving new problems, always re-imagining how things should be presented, always looking for a better way. And I never have to deal with moving my stuff from one platform to another.


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Reading Deep

I've been thinking out this concept that I've had in my head for a while now.
Reading Deep.

One of the skills I've developed for myself over the years is the ability and willingness to read deep- that is, to read not only the core text, but to read the texts related to it. As an example: When I read Lord of the Flies, I read not only the book, but also related subject books. In this case, it includes texts on the Milgram experiment, Stanford Prison experiment, Third Wave experiment, the Bible, and so on. Then I read articles about those books. Repeat.

I feel the need to impress upon students that understanding a subject isn't a matter of reading any one book, but reading a wide swath of books on the subject, and even beyond that, understanding the dialoge that is currently taking place on the subject. We can't make students experts- it's on the of reasons I take issue with the use of the word "mastery" in education. Mastery is a journey that we start, but not one we ever really reach.

But I digress.

I'm thinking about how to inspire this sort of deep reading in students- how to make it a part of their natural behavior and habits to dig a bit.

Or maybe it's not ever going to be part of the majority of student's behavior- maybe it's not part of the majority of people's behavior.

Photo from jonny2love

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

I'm warry of apps.

My school is moving to a 1:1 environment, with roughly 1100 iPad2's being distributed in the coming weeks. It's deeply exciting, and I feel it has the real possibility to change the way I teach and students learn. In a positive way, if that wasn't clear.

That said, there's been a TON of talk about the apps that we should have student using. People have been worried about spending money on apps, finding good apps, weeding out the bad apps, blah blah blah...

Can I tell you a dirty secret?

I've bought maybe 4 apps. Ever. And I've been on the iPod Touch/iPad/iPhone train for a long time.
I guess I'm just really, really picky about what I throw money at.

I don't do single purpose apps. I like tools that are flexible.
I don't do content based apps. I make my own content, and just as I don't like/use commercial textbooks, I won't use the digital equivalent.

So what do I use? (and this is the school-based list...)
Sure. Let's do this by category.

Social Media:
1. Twitter
2. Google+
3. Mail

1. neu.Annotate
2. Evernote
3. Adobe Ideas
4. iDraft
5. Draftpad

1. Instapaper
2. Flipboard
3. iBooks

1. Scan
2. Clock
3. Dropbox
4. Safari

And that's mostly it. Give me those and some wifi, and I think I can get it done with students. I'm not saying there aren't good apps out there, but I'd rather have fewer good, versatile, workable tools than a giant bin of one trick ponies.

FWIW, only two of the above apps are paid (Instapaper and Adobe Ideas). Both are excellent, versatile, and easy to use. I can likely do without Instapaper as dotePub gets used more and more, and I'm sure there are other decent drawing/sketching/designing programs out there, but I got Adobe Ideas when it was free. So there you go.


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Know what I don't do?

Read Education blogs.
Well, hardly at all- once in a great while I delve in and see if I've missed something, but the bulk of the time I stay well clear. And here's why:

It's all the same.

It's much the same reason I don't take part in #edchat as much as I used to- it feels like people talking in circles about the same issues over and over. I can't remember the last time I saw any disruptive tech/ideas surface in one.
And what I strongly believe we need is disruptive ideas.

We've pushed incremental change for years- refining ideas and delivery and standards, but ultimately, we've not broken a lot of new ground. We haven't climbed many new mountains or discovered many new lands. We need to.

So I'm looking for new ground, and new tech, and new ideas that haven't been done before in education. Disruptive, difficult, complicated, fertile new ground.

See you there.


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Comprehensive Education?

I've become increasingly bummed about what we've left behind in education.
We don't really do comprehensive education anymore. And I think it's a shame.
And while I (personally) would love to see sewing and welding come back into the curriculum, I understand that for many people (educators included) those days are past.

What I'm interested in is what I might call 21st century comprehensive education.
I'm envisioning a one semester course (at the High School level).
It works like this:
1. We start with basic principles of business and marketing.
2. We brainstorm ideas for tangible products.
3. We, using laser cutters and 3d printers, create prototypes of those products.
4. We revise and rework those prototypes into workable final products.
5. We create elevator pitch videos about our products.
6. We create Kickstarter accounts and promote products via Social Media
7. We investigate production-level sourcing for our products.
8. We evaluate what we did well or what might need refinement in our products & approaches.

What you're left with here is a comprehensive class that leaves students with a wide swath of skills. Everything gets covered, from English to Film production, Math and Accounting, Business law, and the like. Total cost to equip a classroom for that sort of course:
1. Computers ($500 x students)
2. Laser cutter (~$2000)
3. 3d Printers (~$900 x 3)
Total Cost = $10,000 (with some flexibility of course)

Worth it in every dimension.
If a student were both talented and motivated, it's possible they would pay for college or their first house. Even if a student's project doesn't go anywhere on Kickstarter, the experience of starting a business in High School would I think be a major benefit in later attempts.


Monday, May 9, 2011

Assembly Lines are Great for Cars...

...but not for students.

The idea that it takes each and ever student four years to get through High School is deeply flawed. The idea that every student needs to sit in a classroom for 990 hours a year is also flawed. And both of these flaws are based on the same mistake:
That all students are the same.

We know this isn't true.

We know this because we have ed plans. And 504's. And tutoring. And leveled classes. And AP classes. And night school. And summer school.
All things designed to put flexibility back into a rigid system.

Why don't we stop putting bandaids on this gaping wound, and address the problem itself:

The system needs to be based on flexibility.

Why don't we run things on a credit based system? You need (x) credits to graduate from High School. They need to be in the following distribution. If that takes you 5 years, that's just fine. If it takes you 2.5, that's ok too. If you'd rather take classes during the summer to speed things up, we'll offer those. If you want to take a semester off to do an internship, that's great; we might even grant you some credit.

Kids aren't all the same, and treating them like they all need the same schedule does them a disservice.


Saturday, April 30, 2011

Grades are rubbish.

Grades are a horrible thing.


Let's put it this way: A student works hard for a semester, or worse yet, a full year. They read, complete projects, participate, and otherwise do the best (or not) that they can.

For all this effort, we give them a single letter, recorded in their file.

A "B," for example.

Now, in computer terms, it takes 3 bits to keep that data. 3 bits, not bytes, not megabytes, not gigabytes, not terabytes. Bits.
It's literally as small a piece of data as we can keep. It tells the student nothing. It tells the teacher the next year nothing. In an age where data storage is so blindingly cheap, why are we content to keep such a small, ultimately meaningless amount of data on students?

If I get a student, and I look at their grade from last year, it tells me (as an educator) nothing about what I need to focus on with that student. Grammar? Writing? Reading Comp? Participation? Likewise, it tells me nothing about their strengths, either. I then have to spend (waste?) the first few months of the year "getting to know" my students. Now, on a personal level, getting to know the personalities of students will always take time and be important. But why do I have to waste that time getting to know their academic personalities? Why can't I already know what their writing looks like and what the next step should be for them?

The answer is easy- we can do all these things, right now.

Portfolios. Digital portfolios, to be more specific.

I should, I think, be able to look back through every assignment a student has ever handed in for their entire academic career. The information would be invaluable to an educator getting to know a student, and there's no reason not to. Let's recap:
1. Storage is cheap.
2. Work can be digitized quickly and cheaply.
3. Benefits to students are massive.
4. Benefits to educators are massive.

So why aren't we already doing this? Why do we cling to our 3-bit grade?


The Future (as I see it)

I've taught a class in Media Production for a number of years now, and before that, I played with video production for many years. I learned to edit video in the late 80's and early 90's, when linear video editing was all that existed. For those that don't know, here's how it worked:
1. Cue a tape to your first segment of video you intend to use.
2. Cue a second tape (in another VCR) to the beginning.
3. Dub video from tape #1 to tape #2.
4. Remove tape #1 from the VCR
5. Insert a new tape, and cue it to the segment you want to use next.
6. Repeat steps 3-5, forever.

If you made a mistake, you had to back up and re-do a bunch of work.
If you changed your mind about a sequence, you pretty much had to start over.
It was awful.
Slow. Inflexible.

And in a lot of ways, it was a lot like how we teach school.
We start a course at point A, and slowly progress to point B over a period of time. Everybody goes at the same speed, at the same time.

In the mid-late 90's, video changed forever. Once video was easy to shoot digitally, editing it morphed via computer. Instead of linear, it became what it is today: non-linear. Here's how it works now, just for contrast:
1. Load footage into a computer.
2. Cut footage into clips you like.
3. Click and drag those clips into an order you like.

That's it. If you change your mind about order, you just move things around again. It's natural feeling.
Fast. Clean.

And I think this is where education needs to go. We need to start crafting courses so that they are, for lack of better terminology, worlds. Students could explore in nearly any direction, satisfying curiosity and whim.

There was an article that (kind of) dealt with this on BoingBoing just the other day. They focused on the use of Massive Multiplayer Online Roll Playing Games (MMORPG). That might be the next step past what I'm talking about- I think that we need to seriously consider the future of education being time/location independent, and a MMORPG structure allows for that, but so do other things.

If we're making students ready for the world, to be responsible citizens, it seems strange that we teach them in a world where we all move lock-step. That's a parade, and from what I've seen of it, the world moves more like a race. I'm not saying the cut throat competitiveness of the world at large is the right thing for education, but neither is this everybody-at-the-same-time trap we've fallen into.

There's money to be made here, I think, for someone motivated enough to create a MMORG that's compelling and rich that's based specifically around education. And I'm not talking about k-12 here- it would need to be more focused- say, 8-12. But even here I don't like labeling this with grades, because I think the idea of years/grades is flawed too.
But another post for that.


Sunday, April 17, 2011

An open letter to Paul Toner.

This is in response to an email I received several weeks ago from MTA president Paul Toner. I'm posting it here because I have strong passionate feelings about the issues being talked about within. There's been no rational, logical, clear thought put into so many of the politically driven decisions regarding education as to be criminal. And I'm sick of endorsing it as an educator. This is my opening shot.

Full text follows:

Hi Paul-

It's taken me some time to get back to you and I apologize- between our school's transition to a 1:1 environment, my second daughter being born, and my teaching load, there's not been much in the way of extra time.
When I made the video that you're referencing, I had a decent (though not complete) understanding of the MTA's standing on the use of student MCAS scores in teacher evaluations. Thanks to your email (and the attachments you sent), I now feel I have a clear understanding of what you've gotten behind.

And it's still wrong.

Not a little wrong, not in need of tweaking or adjustments, but fundamentally wrong.
I'll try an analogy here:
The MCAS is a tool- a tool designed to measure student performance in relation to some minimum standard. It's a bit like a hammer: it does one thing, and does a decent (sort of) job of it.
Now, we've got these teacher evaluations we need to do- another, different job. Let's say that teacher evaluations are a bolt that needs loosening.
The proposal you've backing is the direct equivalent of using the hammer to try to turn the bolt- at best, you don't break the bolt, and at worst you break the bolt and everything around it.

We, as educators, are tasked with constantly providing differentiated instruction to our students. We mold the lesson we're teaching to fit the needs of each of our students a little differently. This is a good thing. But yet, when it comes to student evaluations, we don't do that. And now teachers, who are each highly educated and creative people, are going to be judged all by the same ill-fitted measure.
Let's put aside, just for a minute, the inherent flaw with using this tool for teacher evaluation.
What about the inequities among evaluations between teachers? How do we judge a English teacher that only teaches seniors? What about a teacher who teaches low-level sophomores in an at-risk environment? What about SPED teachers? What about freshmen teachers? There's simply no way to be fair about this, and endorsing a system that doesn't even make an effort at fairness seems... unfair. At best.
I know I'm an English teacher and that this may leave something to be desired with my math skills. And I know it's been a long time since I took AP Stats in High School, but it deeply worries me that there seems to be so little statistical thought being put into this. There's no mention of sample size, or standard deviation, or confidence interval. Why not? The data is meaningless without a way to evaluate what it means. You take great pride in your attachments to pointing out how you don't take age/race/gender/location etc. into consideration regarding comparing student scores. Um, really? ALL OF THOSE THINGS have a profound effect on the scores students achieve. The need to be considered.
To endorse this is not only an insult to teachers, it's an affront to the nature of education. We must lead by example, and this is clearly the wrong path. In fact, if it wasn't in the paper and in the news, I'd have assumed all of this was a cruel joke.

I guess the joke's on me.


Monday, March 28, 2011

Some clarification (and a thank-you)

Wow. I never expected such a huge response- so first of all, thank for all the kind words and excellent comments.

I should make clear a couple of things:
1. I am in no way anti-union. I am, however, anti-hiding-behind-unions-rules. Just like an administration that abuses it's power over employees is a bad thing, a union(member) that let's regulations determine their teaching is a bad thing too.
2. I do not believe that technology is some sort of magic bullet in education. Tech will not make a poor educator better, though I do believe that it can make a good educator great. And I think we're to the point where it might not be possible to be a good teacher and not have deep integration of tech in our classes. The world beyond education is awash in technology- and this is the world that our student will live in. It's the difference between tech as an add-on, and tech as something as prevalent as writing utensils in students' hands.
3. I've been sitting on this post for a week or so- but my non-school life has gotten wonderfully busy in the last few days, so bear with me.


Friday, March 25, 2011

On my mind, and got me angry...

We are our own worst enemies.

Want to know why we've been made the bad guys by politicians?

Want to know why we get kicked around?

Want to know why parents think we're dolts?

Because we ask for it.

We complain any time anything changes. We get so set on what we "have" to do that we lose track of what the RIGHT thing to do is. We meet every new thing with a bitter cry of "We'll need PD for that!"

Which bothers me, if you can't tell.

Are we or are we not professionals? Are we highly skilled, motivated, dynamic, flexible educators that lead by example, or are we rigid, stagnant, small minded pawns?

I, for one, am a professional. I take my job very seriously, and as a result, spend some time teaching myself new tech. I want to stay relevant- not be left behind. Wait- that's not true. I'm not satisfied with not being left behind- just like I'm not satisfied with not coming in last. I want to win. I want to be at the front of the pack. I want to lead the race. And in every other profession I can think of, that's what the best/most highly skilled/trendsetters do. But not in education, where we worry about "being left behind" and "keeping up." When did that become good enough?

It's not good enough for me.

I know it's only a small, though very loud, group that does this. I know that most educators work hard to learn new tech and implement it. I just wish that the people that make so much negative noise would either put up or shut up.

A Quick intro...

This will be the home of my education related posts- I'll compile videos, articles, tweets and the like here. Think of this as my central repository of ed-babble.

You can find me on: