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With the cloud of the Corona Virus hanging over us and growing by the hour, it is difficult to see any silver lining. Health and safety are our greatest concerns. The stakes are high and the consequences may be fatal to too many. Anything I discuss here should not in any way diminish the seriousness of our condition. The consequences of our nationwide quarantine however, may be having a profound positive effect on our education system. From an education perspective, there may be a silver lining to one of the darkest clouds to ever cover this country.

In the past, many discussions by several education leaders have sometimes suggested the idea of education reform needing to blow up the current education system in order to affect any real change. In March of 2020 in response to a life-threatening pandemic, our education system, as we have known it for centuries, was blown up. Schools across the nation closed their doors, but required their teachers to try to carry on educating their students using online technology. Overnight, discussions, which were in many cases theoretical about online teaching and learning, became a reality. It was a “ready or not, here we come” event.

Educators, who were trained and programmed to teach face-to-face with students in classrooms with a support staff within a larger school building, found themselves alone at home face-to-face with a blank computer screen. This nationwide experience exposed and underscored a number of deficiencies and shortcomings in the system that can now be addressed in many positive ways. How we respond to what we now know may very well evolve the education system in ways not possible before the nationwide lockdown blew it up. From chaos we now have opportunity.

The earliest indications of our preparedness to meet the online challenge to educators underscored the gap that exists in professional development for educators. Teaching online is not the same as teaching in the classroom. Many educators have not been updated in the use of technology and more specifically, online instruction. Of course the system until now was not dependent on online learning, but technology implementation is essential in our computer-driven society. Now that we have exposed the importance of technology in education, we can use this experience to push for more required, universal, and effective professional development. We can also more convincingly support PD with time, money, and structured follow-up.

We are more aware of the basic needs of kids to have a better working knowledge of technology skills. It is an opportunity to evaluate and evolve how we introduce kids to technology and how we incorporate those skills to enhance their learning. We need to develop their ability to be self-reliant in their learning to become lifelong learners.

We are also more aware of the need for a dependable online infrastructure, one that offers access to all. The digital divide must be addressed. Zip codes can no longer be the driving force of quality education.

Social distancing is a new concept for our country. It should be called physical distancing to be a more accurate description. Online we have all gotten closer through connections with colleagues and students. The idea of sharing ideas, and sources has grown as a result of educators needing to quickly grow and communicate effectively online. Another benefit from this collegial connection is a new appreciation, if not discovery for some, of online content. The use of online sources can enhance a text-based curriculum, or even replace it.

In order to change any system the first changes have to be made to the culture. With schools shut down parents have become more involved with their kids’ education. What parents see and experience, with their children learning through technology, goes a long way in educating parents as to what education in today’s world is all about. Of course this does not work as effectively if there are no online connections between educators and students for parents to experience.

Probably the biggest takeaway from this crisis in education is the absolute need for social and emotional learning for kids. We need to address physical and emotional needs before kids can learn. Maslow must always come before Bloom. Priorities need to be readjusted. We see schools adjusting their grading policies. Maybe grades aren’t what we have believed them to be for centuries? It may be time to reassess and adjust. Many schools have cancelled their need to give standardized tests. Again, maybe they need to move down on the list of education priorities. Let’s take the opportunity to talk it through and consider our experiences.

After each and every catastrophic experience this country has endured, it has reassessed, adjusted, and made positive changes for the benefit of all. Beyond the obvious health and safety issues that must be addressed, we need to address the issues of education. The kids who we are educating today will make the decisions of health and safety moving forward. We can’t educate them with the knowledge and skills that brought us to this point. They need more knowledge and more relevant skills to get beyond our limited capabilities. They will be living in a different world. This horrible event that we are now facing has actually given us the greatest opportunity yet to evolve our education system. We need to reassess, reevaluate and prioritize. This opportunity is the silver lining of that very dark Coronavirus cloud hanging over us.

Stay Healthy!

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Change is inevitable and with the influence of technology it happens faster today than ever before in history. The first mobile phone call was made 45 years ago April 3, 1973, but the first true smartphone actually made its debut in 1992. In less than three decades we have redefined the purpose of a phone to be a mobile computer and camera with phone capabilities as one of its many functions. Beyond the communications industry technology-influenced changes have had a great effect on the film industry, the record industry, the typewriter industry, the media industry, the photography industry, and many, many more. In every case a reevaluation took place to assess what each industry had to offer and how technology could improve their product. Some industries benefitted greatly by the change. Unfortunately, many others were deemed obsolete in our technology-driven culture, causing their demise rather than their transformation.

The influence of technology has been slow in changing the industry of education. The idea of reassessing and reevaluating the product of education is difficult when the product is not something that is tangible. The other complication is the many facets of the education industry that need to be affected in order for the slightest change to take place in the final product that might be described as an individual’s education. There is no one silver bullet that will fix or evolve the education system. It will take many advances in many areas to improve the overall outcome of an individual’s education. The big question is: If we can’t do all the needed changes at once, where do we begin in order to start the changes?

Why not consider using technology to make an innovative change in the way we report on student assessment? We need to look at how we do it now and then see if technology can improve things. Of course it might be beneficial enough just to reassess the method that we have been using for centuries, whether or not technology may improve it. There are two things that schools do that cause unwanted stress in a family for many. The first is homework, often a struggle to get kids to complete. The second is the report card. I have often said that report cards are only provided for some parents to have bragging rights. Of the two, reexamining the why and the how of report cards might be an easier task.

Generally speaking, most schools work off of four grading periods of eight to ten weeks each for the year. At the end of each quarter a report card is sent home with the quarterly grade and the final grade is provided on the final report card. Many schools have some form of interim progress reports that teachers can send home between report cards. In addition to the grade there is usually a set of comments teachers choose from to report on a student’s behavior, attitude, work ethic, and if he or she plays well with others. All of this is a subjective assessment and rarely gives an accurate description based on the limited choices of the pre-determined comment list. A common comment is “Doing Satisfactory Work”. The question is does “Satisfactory” mean the same to the teacher as it does to the parent?

Everyone who is familiar with this system is also aware that there are some teachers who are easy graders, and some who are hard graders. If that is true, we have to wonder, if there are three teachers teaching the same courses on the same grade level with two of them easy graders and one a hard grader, are all students being assessed equally? Should teachers be identified as such to give parents a choice in scheduling their kid?

I also wonder if report cards were devised to assess the marking period, or was the marking period devised to accommodate the report card? Eight to ten weeks is a short period of time for an educator with a student load of 150+ to learn, and accurately understand, and assess each student to meet the demands of the required report card grade and comments? Most quarterly grades are based on averages of test grades. Are there a required, or minimum number of grades that teachers adhere to in order to determine that quarterly grade? Of course the biggest question is how much of any grade is objective?

All of these should be considerations before reporting a student’s progress in learning to his or her parents. After all, that is the purpose of the report card. I question whether the report card in its current form using the current procedures accurately reflects a student’s learning?

We have technology that can record and communicate any file including text, audio, and video. This enables teachers to not only report on their observations, but they can include the actual work that led to those observations. This may take longer than ten weeks to develop, but schedules can be changed. Developing portfolios are far better indicators of a student’s learning than subjective assessments from teachers with limited time and prescribed assessment choices.

Portfolios also provide for self-assessment giving great insight to a student’s learning to the teacher and parents. Grades are a promise of potential, while portfolios are proof of accomplishment.

Technology can be very useful in communicating great amounts of feedback to parents in a timely fashion. It also simplifies the task of developing an individualized learning plan for each student. Simplify does not mean it makes it simple. It is a complex plan that addresses strengths and weaknesses of each student and provides a path to use the strengths to overcome the weaknesses. Again this is not accomplished in a ten-week period.

Just because we have done the same thing since the 1800’s, doesn’t mean it is still the best way to do it. We have different tools today than were available in the 1800’s. We have different needs as a society than we did in the 1800’s. We live in a tech-driven world that affects our perspective and our culture. Employing nineteenth Century solutions in a Twenty-first Century world doesn’t make sense for an industry that deals with learning and relevance. Let’s reexamine quarterly grading periods, as well as the way we observe and report student learning to parents.

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In a recent #Edchat discussion we discussed whether or not schools should encourage teachers to use technology to reach out in communication with parents. I really did not think this would still be a relevant discussion in light of how we have all grown dependent on technology for communication, but evidently there are places where it is not yet fully endorsed.

Communication with parents is an important key to student success. Without it often times an “Us vs. Them” mentality can develop between teachers and parents which should by all accounts be a team like effort and not an adversarial relationship. There is no need for any parent to be surprised with a failing grade on a report card because there was no prior notification so the parent might have the opportunity to intervene.

Way back in the 20th century it was sometimes difficult to reach parents with communications limited to the US Mail or a landline telephone. People struggled with reachable hours because of work schedules of both parents and teachers. It often seemed to teachers that the parents of struggling, or failing students were always the most difficult parents to contact. The unfortunate result was that many teachers had to concentrate on trying to contact parents whose children had difficulties, while leaving little time to commend achievement of more successful students. Kids would dread a call from their teacher to their parents knowing that there was no such thing as a good call. Many kids also became proficient at hijacking the mail in a timely fashion.

Technology in the 21st century has given educators several benefits in their ability to effectively communicate with parents for good stuff, as well as possible deficiencies that may need a parent’s attention or intervention.

Letting parents into their world at school is not something most kids freely volunteer. Teachers using class websites featuring glimpses of what their class does is a great way to keep parents in the loop and highlight the wonderful thing kids accomplish during the year. It’s also a great place to post assignment deadlines for all to see.

Many teachers have had great success using Twitter to highlight student accomplishments to “following” parents. Many principals have had great success on a larger scale tweeting out accomplishments of their schools.

Of course a great source for parent communication would be the student information system used by the school. Many of them have a parent-messaging component to them, allowing any teacher to email parents directly through the system. No muss, no fuss. Many schools are unaware of the benefits that these systems have to offer. Schools also need to train teachers on these systems on a regular basis to cover changes in the system, and new personnel joining the staff.

Of course every teacher should have an email account through his or her school to use for parent communications rather than using a private personal account. Teachers must be informed that contact with parents about kids should always be done on a school account for legal protection.

The problem on a large scale is that many, if not a majority teachers, are not trained to understand the communication possibilities or responsibilities of using technology. At some schools they find it easier to deal with telling teachers to stay away from technological communications. Of course that will eventually come back to bite.

Professional development in this area is essential in today’s computer-driven society. Even the President of the United States uses Twitter for communication. Using technology is not an intuitive endeavor. It requires training. Thoughtful and responsible communicating is also not an intuitive skill. It requires training and understanding. There are also legal considerations that teachers must be aware of. It is best to have a trail of all communications for the protection of all concerned. All of these considerations bring a whole bunch of obstacles to overcome, but it is better to deal with them up front, than to try to clean up a mess created by uninformed users. A little learning is a dangerous thing.

Back to the #Edchat discussion: something developed from a comment indicating that teachers have an obligation to notify parents that their child will be receiving a failing grade before it becomes a written fact on a report card. The statement that bothered me the most was one made by a teacher in the chat and agreed to by some others. Admittedly, many years ago I repeated the same words. “Students earn their failing grades.” That statement assumes that the teacher did everything right and the student deliberately chose to fail. I guess that might be true in some cases, but I don’t believe it holds true for a majority of failures.

There are some teachers who fail to assess their students’ understanding through formative assessment as lessons progress. This is a fatal flaw in teaching. If we do not determine student understanding of the lesson from the beginning and into the middle, how can we expect understanding at the conclusion? Does the teacher’s failure to assess his or her own effectiveness in a lesson become the responsibility of the student? Yes, this is not always the case, but it happens more often than it should. Students placed in that situation are not earning their failing grades, but they will get them anyway.

Maybe by communicating with parents more fully, a teacher could gain insights into his or her students that kids don’t share in school. One thing I have come to understand about kids: they show one personality to their teacher and they show another to their parents. We need to see and understand the whole child and that can only happen by sharing information with parents. This too should be a subject of Professional Development. How do teachers communicate with parents to get unsuccessful kids to succeed?

If communication is the key to success, we need to make sure our teachers can successfully communicate. That requires that we provide and support relevant professional development to do that. If we are to better educate our kids, we must first better educate their educators.

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It has been quite awhile since I have written a post. I think I might be in a state of depression as a result of my addiction to television News shows and the recent development of an affliction that I refer to as “screen screaming”. Getting beyond the political turn of events of recent history, I also find myself frustrated and depressed over the slow pace of change in education that we have witnessed since the turn of the century. Why is it that so much of what education thought-leaders have been advocating for, in order to dramatically change the education system for the better, has yet to take root in any significant way? Many of the practices that have been identified as stymieing the system are still common practice in too many school systems today.

The big question that educators often ponder seems to be: In this age of technology and innovation does technology improve student learning? Of course that is a big question with research supporting both sides of the argument. I think however that there are other questions, which must be answered in order to gauge the effects of technology our education system.

My first question is: What has technology affected in the everyday lives of educators and support staff that improves their conditions? I tend to use my own experience and observations in addressing this since I began teaching in the early 70’s, before any real significant influence of technology on education, calculators not withstanding. Tech has certainly improved and simplified the ability to record data over the years, freeing up time for teachers. Of course that free time might be lost if teachers are loaded up with new additional stuff to record on students. Tech has given educators an ability to increase their connections with other educators through social media and collaborative applications to exchange ideas and share sources. Certainly this collaboration could be a positive influence and a great source of professional development if promoted and supported by an innovative and creative administration. It is impossible to get “out-of-the-box” teaching and learning when teachers are restrained by “in-the-box” management.

Technology has changed the dynamic of curating information for teachers and students. It gives access to information never before so readily available, or so easily curated. Technology also enables users the ability to publish acquired information in various formats for consumption by others. Additionally, it offers a means in many cases to analyze data in ways that could not be done so easily before technology had become so ubiquitous.

Communication has been upended by technology. There are many ways for people to communicate. We have gone way beyond the dial up telephone. Not only can we communicate with voice, but we can also transmit documents, files, videos, audio files, and live streaming. Gutenberg and Bell would most certainly be impressed.

Access to all of these wonders of technology requires a different mindset than that of the early 20th century. It requires the ability to be flexible and adapt to the constant changes that come with technology. It requires one to commit to being a lifelong learner. It also requires a strict adherence to critical thinking in order to recognize, that which offers value from that which is crap.

Now let us consider what teachers need to survive and thrive in their world today in order to be relevant to their students in what they must teach and the methods they use in the time that they have to deal with their students. Technology affords them time-saving methods to deal with the required bureaucratic minutia. It also offers the ability to maintain relevance in the tech-driven, fast-paced, changing environment of information exchange. Access to information at anytime is also a tech-added benefit for teachers. 24/7 communication access can also benefit educators accessing their administrators, collegial sources, students, or parents.

Now let us consider what students will need to know in order for them to survive and thrive in the technology-driven world that they will occupy, as opposed to the world that their educators grew up in. We want kids to be able to communicate, collaborate, curate, critically think, and most importantly create while using Reading, Riting, and Rithmetic.

All of this is now happening and will continue to happen in a world that is technology driven. We do not get any say in how much technology will continue to change and drive change. We can only prepare for the inevitable change by developing a generation of flexible life long learners who can assess and adapt to new information.

If my observations are even somewhat accurate, why is our education system so slow in developing methodologies that are supportive of teachers learning and using technology with their students? Why aren’t educators learning along with their students the very things they were not exposed to as they grew and learned? Why are we not concentrating more on student-centered learning, as opposed to Teacher-driven teaching? Why are we not focusing more on collaborative learning as opposed to lecture and direct instruction? Why aren’t districts more in tune with supporting collaborative learning for their teachers in obtaining relevant professional development to teach kids for their own future?

Well, now that I sat down to write something on education, I find myself again screen screaming, but this time it has nothing to do with partisan politics. I guess the idea of comfort zones, traditions, and closed mindedness are just as frustrating when we recognize where we should be going, but only a few are willing to take a chance on innovation. Maybe politics and education have more in common than I thought. Just because you have always done it one way doesn’t mean it must continue that way. When the world around you changes, pay attention. If we are going to better educate our kids, we must first better educate their educators.

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decisionsDuring the last year, or for as long as this election has been running, I have had a growing concern. I listen to interviews of voters in our democratic society and wonder how well we have prepared our citizens to actually make considered and responsible decisions. I realize that emotions may weigh heavily on decisions we make, especially in election years, but decisions should initially be, at the very least, critically analyzed, and based on facts rather than opinions or pledges, promises, and propaganda. With so much indecision, as well as a mass misrepresentation of facts in this election on both sides, I question how much we have addressed decision-making in the education of our kids over the centuries. Beyond just this election, this would hold true when applied in any situation requiring a decision. My concern is that our education system may, in great part, be failing to give decision-making its proper priority in the system. Is creating learners capable of responsible and considered decisions a true goal of education, and is it supported with action and not just discussion?

Teachers have always asked for autonomy in teaching their subject areas, a position I always support. The argument is that the teacher is the content and education expert and quite capable of making the decisions for what is appropriate for their students. Teachers want to be the decision-makers for what kids will be taught. Administrators have their perspective as well. Mandates, regulations, and standards are all the considerations for their decisions. Additionally, parents have a say with their decision-making: support of the budget, their kid’s schedule, and the overall direction of their kid’s education and life.

Everyone wants their say in a kid’s education, but what about the kids? The path to sound decision-making should be a practice of our students in regard to their own learning. Decision-making should be involved in the content delivery that teachers provide within their courses. Decision–making should be a practice in what path students choose in their academic journey. For too long these decisions have been made by educators for kids. Teachers decided curriculum for students, and what methodology worked best for them to learn. We must accept the fact that the ability or skill for decision-making doesn’t happen on its own. It is also a skill that is refined with maturity as much as practice. It would be foolish to assume the youngest of our kids are capable of making life-changing decisions, but making some decisions is better than making no decisions at all. We need to start this early and increase the decision options as kids mature.

choice

A Problem-based curriculum allows for decision-making. This includes failure as a teacher. The wrong decisions have consequences, but what better place to fail than within the safety of the classroom with a teacher to guide kids back from a wrong direction. If a teacher needs class rules and regulations to guide the learning environment maybe the kids could make the decisions of what rules to use after discussing the needs and reasoning behind each rule. The teacher should not just dictate rubrics to the students. Many teachers include the students in deciding what rubrics are needed for their work. Students should decide what work they want to use for their portfolios. One idea for high school students might be to have a required (already decided) course to specifically deal with decision-making. This will come at a time when these students will be entering into a whirlwind of decision-making concerning real life choices dealing with their future.

Sound, responsible, fact-based decision-making as a mastered skill should be a goal in education. It cannot be assumed that education itself will develop that skill. I have met many educated people who must be told what to do and how to think, with little interest, or possibly ability to make their own decisions. Since we base the governance and safety of our country on the decisions our citizens make, it is in our best interest to have our citizens well versed in decision-making skills.

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Ozpicture-640x400The worst advocates for educators using social media for do it yourself professional development are those educators who have been successful developing their own do it yourself professional development. This probably applies to other successful educator undertakings as well. Many of those educators who achieve success with innovative ideas tend to expound on the achievements and benefits of their strategy, method, or project, which tends to overwhelm those educators exposed to it for the first time. This alone, seems to scare off some educators to even being open to considering change.

I remember attending an education conference back in the early 90’s and seeing the most impressive presentation on education that I had ever seen before. It incorporated every bell and whistle that Apple hardware and presentation software had to offer. There was a standing ovation from the entire audience at the end. Of course during the question and answer period I had to ask: How long did this take to prepare this presentation? The answer made me feel stupid at my own lack of understanding for what I just witnessed. The answer was simple, 48 years. The presentation was based on this person’s life experience through the lens of an educator.

Too often we buy the sizzle, but miss the steak. We don’t pay enough attention to what it takes to get to that success that impresses us so much. A Personal Learning Network consisting of thousands of collegial sources did not develop in a few months. A successful project, using project based learning methodology, was not the result of mapping out a lesson plan the night before. A school does not go to 1:1 laptops by merely handing out the hardware on a special school tech day.

If any change is to successfully take place in any aspect of education, it will take an understanding of the foundation for that change. Preparing the educators who will implement and support that innovation is key in any plan for change. Providing collaborative time to support those educators is essential. Allowing time to deal with and correct failures in the development of that change cannot be overlooked.

Of course all of this is obvious and makes perfect sense as we read through this post, but I constantly meet with educators who have horror stories about the lack of support, training, collaboration, or even a basic understanding of the needs for educators in order to implement any innovation in their class, school, or district.

It is unrealistic to expect a wizard will come along and enable us to make all of the needed changes for education today and to be relevant, authentic, and meaningful to kids just by waving a wand and mumbling some cryptic words. We need to pull back that curtain behind the wizard and expose what hard work really needs to be done to achieve that needed change.

Educators are inclined to help and teach kids. Every educator must be more than a content expert. They need to be masters of pedagogy, methodology, and now technology as well. The ongoing problem is that all of these components of education are continually evolving as a result of a rapidly changing, technology-driven society. We need to keep our educators up to date with those changes taking place so rapidly. Change is never easy for anyone. Comfort zones are the biggest deterrents to change. The wave of a wand will always be preferred to the hard work required to change, but there are no magic wands. If we are to better educate our kids we need to first better educate their educators. Evolution in education does not only fall on teachers, it requires a large commitment from all constituents in an education community.

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We often hear that the most influential element in a student’s life is the teacher. As an educator this can be both an honor and a daunting responsibility. It elevates the status of a position, often viewed by some as public service, to that of a valued mentor. This would all be well and good if education could truly be defined as it was for centuries in the past. Students were empty vessels to be filled with the knowledge of their teachers. If this were in any way true today, and a teacher was able to pour all of the knowledge contained in his or her head into the empty vessels seated in rows before him or her, the teacher would still not be imparting enough information for an adequate education in today’s world. Our world, as well as information itself, changes and evolves at too fast a pace. Teaching and learning are evolving and many of the old concepts no longer apply.

Unfortunately however, many politicians and some educators buy into this traditional model of what an educator should be, and base teacher evaluations on it. In many states a teacher’s evaluation will be predominantly based on how well his or her students perform on a standardized test. That test performance has de facto become the goal of education.

What makes all of this so complicated is that kids are not widgets. They are complicated. It may be true that a teacher may at times be the most influential factor in the classroom for some kids, but not for all kids, and not every time. Kids do not leave everything at the door of the classroom so they can have their vessels filled. All of their problems travel with them. The difference between kid problems and adult problems is that, hopefully, adults have learned coping mechanisms, but kids have not.

Teachers do not just address that part of a kid that is in school to learn. The whole child with all of his or her problems must be addressed. Learning, no matter who is the teacher takes a back seat to safety, hunger, health, and emotional stability. When it comes to kids we need to first address Maslow’s Hierarchy before we can get to Bloom’s Taxonomy. This is never a consideration in a teacher’s evaluation.

Kids today are entering schools after traveling through neighborhoods that might be considered war zones in some countries. Kids are coming from homes where education is not a priority at all. English in many homes is a second language at best. Kids are coming to school not from homes, but cars or shelters. Beyond the complications of urban poverty, we have large regions of the country experiencing rural poverty with different problems for kids, but the same results. Their problems and needs take precedence over learning in school.

How can we possibly assess and evaluate a teacher’s performance without assessing and evaluating each of his or her students? The tests that students are forced to take may be standardized, but the students themselves are not. Each student is different with problems that affect their ability to learn each and every day with varying intensity. That is what complicates learning and teaching. How can there be simple solutions with so many complicated variables?

To complicate things further for teachers, they must also deal with the red tape of shortsighted policies. Policies often put in place to address issues that have little to do with educating a child. Teaching involves dealing with the whole child and all of the complications that come with it; yet, we are told that a standardized test for all is the answer. It is the golden measure. It will tell us how much each student has learned and how effective each teacher was in teaching without regard for any other factors beyond the grade on the test.

With standardized testing and all of the curriculum materials and extras that go along with that making a BILLION dollars a year for a few companies, I fear it will be with us longer, but we have already lived with it for longer than we should have. We cannot however allow politicians to use these tests to decimate the teaching profession and public education beyond repair. Yes, we need to evaluate a teacher’s performance, but it must be done fairly and in consideration of what the job really requires. It can’t be done in a way that simply ignores what it is that teachers are being required to do every day they report to work. Teaching and learning have nothing to do with empty vessels. Politics and politicians however might better fit that description. Maybe before we can better educate our kids, we need to first better educate our politicians.

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