Saturday, April 26, 2014

Keep Your Nose to the Grindstone...
Watching Wheel of Fortune the other night with my parents and son, it happened to be an episode with University students.  "Keep Your Nose to the Grindstone" was one of the puzzles and none, I repeat, none of the contestants knew the phrase, let alone what it meant!  WOW!  Talk about Generation Gap.  This of course got me thinking about what that phrase meant as I attempted to explain to my 2nd grader what a grindstone was and what the phrase meant--and why on earth you would ever want to keep your nose on it!

We talk a lot about the importance of hard work, grit, stamina, perseverance, stick-to-it-ness--call it what you wish--in our students.  There is much discussion about how to teach this.  This was actually a feature not too long ago on NPR:
Here's the thing, I see my son NOT being willing to work on a challenge for extended periods of time...unless it is to level up in Plants vs Zombies or survive another night in Minecraft Survival Mode.  Perhaps I have to deal with my own generation gap as I try to convince him that reading and learning his times tables require just as much attention as defeating Dr. ZomBoss.  What has happened that the younger generations seem uninterested in academic and life successes?

Have we created an illusion of "easy success" with such truths as "participation" awards in sports, helicopter parents, and Google's ability to provide thousands of possible answers to any question within seconds?  I understand the desire to encourage kids in sports--I am a less-than-coordinated athlete who was ALWAYS picked last in PE.  I would have loved a participation award to acknowledge the fact that I kept showing up (well, I had to) for humiliation on the pitch.  As for helicopter parents, I'm a parent and my child is an only child.  I "get" wanting to help fix problems--at least right now.  He is only 7 1/2, after all.  And as for Google, well, I am a HUGE supporter of Google and all that they are doing for education so don't get me wrong, I love that I can pose a question and have a zillion possible hits in seconds all from the comfort of my own home.  No card catalogs or microfiche for me to pour over.  What a huge time saver.

So I return to the question that seems to be growing in education and society: How do we "teach" kids this all-important trait of stick-to-it-ness?  We adults know that at the heart of any success is the ability to keep with something until you have a product that you are proud of.  According to the Official Formula 409 website, the product got it's name because the previous 408 attempts didn't work.  Talk about tenacity!  How about the story of Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan? How many hours did Mozart spend practicing?  Or how many auditions did it take for your favorite Hollywood star to become a star?  What about our top-paid athletes?  I'm a baseball fan and I know that it is such a small fraction of a percent that actually makes it out of the minors and into the MLB (30 teams with a roster of 25 players by mid-season--you do the math!)

I like the trend that is growing of iterative learning.  Allowing students to critique their work, receive feedback, and continue to re-submit until they are pleased with their final product and it is one that truly demonstrates mastery of the content.  This is definitely not how I (or probably most of you) learned.  I had to memorize and produce.  It was always a one-shot deal.  So I got really good at knowing what I had to produce--until the semester came and the teachers changed, and then I had to learn all over again how to please the new round of teachers.  (There is some value in that approach, but that is for another discussion.)  My perseverance, however, became motivated by achieving the grade, not learning the content.  I want my son, his classmates, and all of the students that walk through the doors of our high school to be motivated by the desire to learn and accomplish something, not simply check a task off a list.

So, teaching them about hard work, stamina, grit, perseverance, stick-to-it-ness is somewhat of an "X" factor, in my opinion.  Because how kids can learn has changed over time, and because the skill set they need is much more complex than it used to be, we as educators need to find new ways to reach them.  We need to provide our students with just enough incentive so that they are willing to keep trying until they are satisfied with their product.  This is imperative for the success of society.  If today's students are not willing to keep with a problem until it is solved, then what chance do those of us who will be in the rest homes have of a decent retirement?  And more importantly, how will our nation--or the world for that matter--continue to progress?

In the NPR article that I have linked, Alfie Kohn argues that grit is not dead and that kids today have just as much, if not more grit than earlier generations.  This seems to be at odds with many of the "Chicken Little" prophesies that are floating around today about needing to teach more grit.  I am not sure, to be honest, which side I am on in this discussion.  I look at my son and say "the sky is falling", then I go to work and see the amazing things our students are accomplishing and say "the world will be fine".

So then, what am I trying to say?  I think my point is this: It is important for students to understand the value of working at something until they "get it" (notice I didn't say "get it right").  It is equally important for educators to realize that we have to do more than show up as was the case once upon a time.  Jamie Casap (@jcasap) is fond of saying that teachers no longer need to be the Google in the room.  How true this is!  Educators can no longer be the "sage on the stage" and expect students to listen attentively, take notes, and regurgitate the proscribed information on the test.  If we want to engender hard work in the next generation, we need to give them a reason to work.  However, it isn't just about what happens Monday-Friday from 8 am - 3 pm.  This is truly a societal effort (remember, "it takes a village"!).  Parents, bosses, coaches, the media, all need to demonstrate the values of hard work.  If kids can't see the value in something, they move on.  That is definitely a result of this digital age.

And so I return in my musings to the beginning.  "Keep Your Nose to the Grindstone" may hold no meaning to the current generations--who have been raised in a primarily urban society--because it is cultural as much as generational in reference.  However, when it comes to achieving something they really want, they have the ability to demonstrate grit, and thus keep their nose to the grindstone even if they don't know that is what they are doing.  If you are more in the "Chicken Little" camp, perhaps these young people will help to change your mind: Google Science Fair

As long as the next generations continue to see value in their work, continue to find motivation in success, then I believe that the notion of hard work will not fade.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

On the Cutting Edge...or the Bleeding Edge?
I have just finished a very full two days of learning.  First, I attended Lead 3.0 (#lead3).  It was my first time at this conference and all I can say is "WOW".  It was a solid two days of connecting, learning, and being inspired.  I had no idea what to expect and left with much to mull over, take back to share, and a to-do list a mile long.  As that conference wrapped up, I booked on down the freeway to Stanford University for an afternoon workshop on Design Thinking and Common Core at their K-12 Lab(@k12lab).  This was a packed 3 hours that blew my mind.

I came away knowing that I was at these two unrelated events in the same weekend not just because I am an #edunerd who loves learning, but also because I was meant to connect with some specific people.

So this brings me to my title because I have to question if my vision for our school is cutting edge or bleeding edge.  Indulge me for a moment (I promise that this isn't a rant like last time).  Design Thinking, Maker Space, Technology.  Critical Thinking, Creativity, Communication, Collaboration. State Standards.  CCSS.  How can all of this intersect?  Should it intersect?  How are teachers supposed to keep all of this in mind for every lesson?  And how can Administrators help lead teachers in their efforts to accomplish all of this, prepare students for the ______________ (place your current test du-jour name here) high-stakes test, and remain a committed, passionate, sane educator?

My experiences these last two days tell me that Design Thinking, Maker Spaces, and Technology are the keys to the puzzle.  Through  the use of these three, students will naturally engage in the 4C's.  If they are engaged in the 4 C's then by default, I can pretty much guarantee you are hitting the Common Core standards.  If you are hitting Common Core, you should be addressing your state standards since the CCSS framework is built on State Standards.  It seems so simple, right?  Well, not really.  And wait, what happens to those high-stakes tests?  Oh, right, I conveniently left those out.  Because they do nothing to prepare students for college or their future careers.  As I have said many times, I don't want to hire anyone who only knows how to bubble-in answers.  Do you?  And having taught AP US History for 10 years, I know a thing or two about high-stakes tests.  And I can say with certainty that any standardized test worthy of being used for data collection/analysis does not need to be "taught to".  Intelligent students who know how to read, think critically, analyze and apply can answer any multiple choice question thrown at them.  Honest.

Our duty is to inspire life-long learners.  Scantrons don't do that.  We are then creating Ferris Bueller scenarios (you all remember that great scene, right?

This is not what we got into this great profession to do.  So my quest is to bring Design Thinking to my school.  And then to bring a Maker Space to the school.  And overlay these goals with a  constantly increasing use of technology--much to the chagrin of some teachers (you probably have some of those on your campus too!)  And here comes my dilemma: Is all of this necessary?  How much is too, much, in other words.  Right?  One could argue that any of these things are passing fads (anyone remember ebonics?)  But, I am going out on a limb here and now to say that these are NOT passing fads.  We know the statistics about the jobs of the future.  We know the rate at which society is changing.  Given these pieces of information, how can Design Thinking, Maker Space, and technology be passing fads in education? Without them, our students won't be ready to assume meaningful roles in the society of the future.  We don't know what that will be, but we do know it isn't what we have now.  I love this clip on the possibilities of the future:

How do we prepare our students to develop these ideas...and many others?  We have to challenge them, encourage them, provide them with safe places to fail frequently and often.  Thus, in my opinion, Design Thinking, Maker Space, and technology are the tools needed.  They can be applied to any content area and allow learning to be messy and meaningful.

I'm going to give you a few examples from my learning this weekend and hope that you will continue the learning by finding your own examples...

Maker Space is for more than physics (thanks to @smartinez, Closing Keynote at #lead3).  For example, teach students the rules of grammar by having them program a poetry generator.  They will certainly need to learn parts of speech in order to build a program that can do this effectively.

Design Thinking to learn history (we did this at the K12 Lab workshop): We read Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I a Woman" (you can brush up on it here: then went through a series of steps for practicing Design Thinking.  This was extremely hard for me and I will return to that in a minute.  I am outlining the process we followed below:

1. Empathize with Truth by building an empathy map that looks like this:

2. Write some Needs Statements:

3. Ideate.  For this process we used a Story Spine format.  This was new to me and it follows this formula:

Once upon a time...
Every day...
Until one day...
Because of that...
Because of that...
Because of that...
Until finally...
And ever since then...

You can be as creative as you like with this and you can cross over space and time, as I learned while listening to groups share out their Story Spines that included Sojourner Truth appearing on Oprah, having a Starbucks drink (the Truth Triple Shot) named after her, opening a get the idea.

Now, while your head spins a bit about the ways that you can apply some or all of these examples in your classroom or at your site, let me share a few additional take-aways:

1. You do not need to follow all steps of the Design Thinking process every lesson, and you don't even need to work them in a linear fashion. I am telling you exactly what we were told by the expert facilitators at our session. We only did 3 of the steps.  For those of you who don't know, DT is: Empathize, Define the Problem, Ideate, Prototype, Test ( and Redesign).  We did Empathize, Define, Ideate.  Though you could make a cast for the fact that our Ideate and Prototype were combined in the Story Spine.  But honestly, it's NOT important.  What is important is the learning.

2. We have to let go of some of the traditional learning to allow this more organic process to really take off.  This was a huge "a-ha" moment for me as I sat in a room full of smart people and struggled with reading a document that I have taught for years listening to adults throw out descriptors of Truth with absolutely no historical context.  We were 10 minutes into the conversation before ANYONE mentioned that it appeared she was speaking at a Women's Convention!  The historians out there are cringing right now.  I had to keep my mouth shut so as to not de-rail the creative process that was going on.  And then when someone brought up this fact about where she was, it led to the conversation by our facilitators that this is a great point to insert some instruction about how to read primary source documents.  "Oh!"  My inner voice exclaimed.  O.K., I can get behind this.  I also realized that in a room full of 40+ educators, not one single person seemed bothered by their lack of knowing the back-story.  I know that most of them learned it at one point (the age range in the room was HUGE) but, as with our students today, it was not on the forefront of their mind.  And guess what, if it was really pertinent they could look it up, right?  That is the beauty of the internet.  Despite entering into this activity with no context, the discussion was rich.  This process opens up the opportunity for the messy, constructive, collaborative learning that will propel our students into the future to be able to compete in a world that will be their world, not ours.

So I argue that Design Thinking and Maker Spaces and Technology belong on our campuses because regardless of what trends in content come our way, they won't change the need for our students to create, collaborate, critically think and communicate.  Thus, while nay-sayers might argue that my efforts to bring these ideas to our campus is so far past the cutting edge to be on the bleeding edge, I strongly disagree.  I am glad I had these past 48 hours to get some centering and encouragement because it will not be easy but I believe our students will be better for it and thus the effort will be worth it.

What are your thoughts?  

Friday, April 4, 2014

Being optimistically angry
I will preface this post with the following information:we are still a few weeks away from Spring Break (yes, I tell the truth on that) so my edge might be a little sharper than usual.  With that said, here we go...

This week's #slowchated topic is all about anger.  As I ruminated on question 3A (what makes you angry at your school/district) I jumped right down the rabbit hole and now I have to blog about it since 140 characters isn't enough to capture this one.  What makes me angry is the lack of equity from school to school in my county, this state, and our country and the lack of professional recognition for educators. 

Schools are the very foundation and uniting fabric of our society.  Their success or failure determines the level of success or failure of our democracy, of our economy, and of our society.  Everyone wants their children to be educated, but not everyone is willing to put their money where it counts.  Why is that?

Teachers are some of the most educated professionals in our society, yet they are treated like uneducated employees.  Often parents, politicians and business people, those who have chosen a profession other than education, believe they know better than the educators how a class or school should be run.  I am not saying that there aren't some ineffective educators out there, because there are.  however, every profession has misplaced individuals.  What I am saying, however, is that just because you went to school doesn't mean you know how to run a school.  I would never walk into my accountant's office and tell him how to do my taxes!  I would never give my surgeon advice on how to properly remove my spleen!  I wouldn't do this because these are not my areas of expertise.  I want to partner with these individuals and I will dialog with them.  But ultimately, how they do their job is their decision.  I trust them because they are the professional in that realm.

So society needs to treat educators like the professionals that they are!  I know of no other industry where people have to constantly keep up with new trends, ensure that they address a long list of standards, manage 130-160 individuals, draft performance reviews on a weekly basis for these 130-160 individuals, attend numerous meetings every month, take work home with them or stay early and/or late for no additional compensation, return on evenings and weekends to cheer on the company team or meet with potential investors (parents)--again for no additional compensation, and constantly pursue continuing education.  These are just some of the many things educators do as a matter of course.  Yet they are some of the lowest paid professionals in the country.  Don't believe me, just read these statistics compiled by the NEA:

But enough about the teachers, this is about the students.  Why can our nation not have leaders who truly care enough to provide top-notch education to EVERY student in the country?  Why do students in poorer neighborhoods have to attend underfunded schools that lack adequate tools, including textbooks, supplies, and the ever important technology?  How will these students ever be able to compete for the top jobs with students who show up to school carrying 3 personal devices, have access to the internet 24/7 and never have to worry about where their next nutritious meal is coming from?  We hear a lot about "breaking the cycle of poverty".  We know beyond a doubt that education is the key to this goal.  But there is minimal action to actually make this a reality.

I am really befuddled by the fact that our nation does not consider it mandatory for every school have unfettered access to internet, every student have ALL the tools they need to succeed: supplies, technology, appropriate furniture, safe campuses, nutritious food, and great teachers.  Every campus in the country needs to have well-lit, comfortable learning spaces, bathrooms that work, and furniture that is ergonomic, inviting and rust-free.  Why must anyone wait to "go to work" to experience a productive environment?  How do we prepare our students if they are trapped in antiquated environments?  Am I the only one who finds this odd?

This business about the state not interfering in education is a sham in my humble opinion.  If you DON'T interfere, education is for the elite only and the gap between the haves and have nots will continue to grow.  And by interfering, I am NOT talking about standardized tests, PI programs, or the latest program du jour dreamed up by bureaucrats.

As our education options weaken, there will be more individuals attempting to survive on welfare and not enough successful workers to pay into the pool for welfare, Social Security, health care, and the rest.  Then what was once the most prosperous nation on the planet will slip into the lower ranks of nations with a very long, uphill battle to regain some of it's former status.  Some would argue we have already slipped too far.  I believe there is hope, but I am an eternal optimist so please correct me if you think we have moved past the point of no return.

As a history teacher I know this scenario will come true if things do not change.  I know I am not the only one who teaches these basic principles of democracy so how is it that the thousands of elected leaders in this country have forgotten such a basic lesson and do nothing of real impact to improve the outlook of education in this country?   I believe the answer is a simple shift of priorities, a partnership with industry (if Google can begin Google Fiber as their own initiative, why can't more companies follow suit?) and a recognition that educators are professionals and should be treated as such.  Those in positions of influence need to dialog with educators, develop a SMART plan and then get to work.  This is how we teach our students to tackle large projects.  The adult community needs to follow suit.

Perhaps the most sobering fact for me is reflected in this infographic from CNN Money:  The disparity between what states invest in their future generations and what they invest in their prison systems is quite appalling.  My goodness, many states spend more per year on their prisoners than do on annual teacher salaries.  Seriously?!  What is wrong with this picture?

There has to be a way to turn the ship but I am at a loss to see the clear path--perhaps because I am blinded by anger at these inequities.  My sense is that it will not be one path, but many, that save our children and our future.  It is happening in small pockets around the country as individual teachers, and small groups of teachers work to make their classrooms exciting hubs of learning for every student.  Theses teachers and administrators create havens in their classrooms and on their school sites where students feel safe, valued, respected.  But I don't think it's enough.  Every student deserves these opportunities, and not just for one day or one year but every day of every year.

So here is my challenge: if every educator can pledge to mentor just one other educator then I believe this problem can be solved from the ground up.  Because if all the teachers are doing amazing work, then the stories will get out.  Administrators and Superintendents need to pledge to tell their site stories LOUDLY and proudly to the press so that the politicians will hear them and the public will start to really believe in education again.  When that happens, then maybe, just maybe the tide will turn.

I welcome your thoughts and comments.  I am angry, but I am also optimistic.  Thanks for reading!