Wednesday, November 9, 2011

My Journey To Non-Grading Nirvana: An Introduction

Exactly one year ago I came to the conclusion that grading sucks. Actually, when I think about it I came to that conclusion at a much earlier time in my life, 2nd grade. But that is a story for another time.
When I first started teaching in a public school it was in a school where we didn't grade. we wrote narrative reports and we assessed students as to whether they were meeting standards, exceeding standards or needing more work. I just thought that was how it worked everywhere. Then I began teaching at a school that used percentages. All of a sudden it was all about the number and no longer about the work. How to raise that number ever so closer to 100%.
I started teaching at a school where the average grade was in the 90's. How could that be I asked myself? But after getting chewed out by parents who couldn't understand why little Johnny got an 85, I started getting the message.
So I stopped formally grading. I stopped reporting the hour by hour average in the school's online grade book that parents checked like it was their stock portfolio. I set up individual learning targets within the classroom and continued with the work we had always done.
Then a magical thing happened. All of a sudden it has felt like a great weight was lifted off our classroom. Conversations between myself and students were richer and more meaningful, students who had refused to try new things or take chances because of fear of poor grades began to make amazing things, students who refused to work at all began to make amazing things, I had so much more time and energy to focus on the students and on the work going on in the classroom when I took the parents out of the equation. Life was good again.
I have been meaning to reflect and think back upon this process and now I am going to make good on that promise to myself. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

EdcampNYC 2011

I attended EdCampNYC this past weekend. I also attended last years version which was the first year that the Edcamp idea began to multiply in various cities. For those unfamiliar with the ideas behind Edcamp, this is what has been termed an "unconference". An initiative to put professional development into the hands of the teachers. Conference participants are welcome to sign up in specified time slots to "present" a topic for discussion to other participants who are interested in that topic.
The first session I attended was on Google Scripts. I have been interested in incorporating more Google stuff (for lack of a better word) into my teaching activities. It is a great thing to be sitting in a room full of educators who are both interested in being engaged in this level of technology and are also using it. As I remind my students, computers were created to make our lives easier, and can enable us to do more interesting things.
Another session I attended was led by teachers from the School @ Columbia and focused on stuff they do at the school, (stuff being their term this time). Learning is infused with technology and I got to see how the school uses social networking platforms as a way to connect the learning community and how this also provides a continuing 'teachable moment' when discussing digital citizenship and digital footprints.
The sessions I tend to enjoy and get the most from are the ones that are led by educators and teachers who have no shtick or product they are promoting but are truly interesting in either sharing what they do in their classrooms or sharing in a discussion about practices or ideas that interest them. Although I am not certain it was evident at this Edcamp, I wondered if the success of Edcamps might draw more presenters who arrive with pre-packaged presentations where if they are not necessarily selling a product, they are selling "themselves". Of course it would go against the spirit of Edcamp to deny someone a spot, but I hope the teachers and the actual "in the trenches" educators will always outnumber those who are in the education field as promotors of products or ideas that aren't always attached to genuine situations in the classrooms.
Thanks to all those who were instrumental in putting this day together. These are teachers themselves who give their precious and limited free time to organize and produce a rewarding day. I am already looking forward to next year.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Day 2 Where Jonathan Kozol Comes To Visit Us

Jonathan Kozol at CMK11
One of the very first books I ever read about teaching and education was "Death At An Early Age" by Jonathan Kozol. I don't remember how and why and when I picked it up but what I do remember is the impact it had on me. When I heard that Jonathan Kozol was one of the speakers at this summer's session I started to seriously make plans to return for a second time. I was not to be disappointed. Jonathan Kozol exudes all the compassion and empathy and insight in person as he does in the pages of his books, and them some. It was an honor to be sitting just a few feet away from him as he spoke of the book he has just wrapped up and of his journeys to congress in an attempt to bring an experienced voice to the current education debate/reform/debacle.

What I truly don't understand about education is why there seem to be so very many people involved in the positions of power who don't seem to have any sympathy or compassion for the learner. Why is education framed in such a punitive way? Why does it seem to be based so much on rewards and punishments and not on imagination and ideas and wonderment?

Mr. Kozol reminds us that education and learning is (or should be) about personal relationships and the bonds that develop between children and their teachers. It is unfortunate that the current political climate doesn't seem to lend itself to this notion, the wrong sort of people seem to be vying for control of education policy and the money that goes with it.

It is indeed a sad time to be a teacher. I don't know why teaching as a profession, has so little control over the policy and decision-making of the profession. What would happen if we attempted to take charge? Or is there really so little power in the hands of each teacher that we cannot ever hope to make any changes? I am not easily defeated but I don't know if I could continue to teach if I were forced to go against the what I truly believe the experience of learning should be for children.

When I get back to my project I start thinking about how to narrow down my area of exploration and what tools would really be best to work out the ideas I have for making an animation based on input from sensors. Besides the Pico tools, there are a couple of other options I had yet to play around with. Go-Go boards and Arduino controllers were also available to use and experiment with. I am reminded of the fine line that often occurs in my own classroom when students are working on projects and figuring out different things they can do or create with the tools at their disposal. I want my students to explore the range of possibilities and to discover success in mistakes or failure. I also want them to be making a certain amount of progress, which I define as the generation of ideas and inspiration and motivation that comes from the work they are doing. As a teacher I see a big part of my job as making sure students are not just dabbling in many things without any focus or ideas.

With this in mind I decide that based on the ideas I have, and the amount of time to work, that the Pico Board and the Scratch program would be best suited for my needs. So I get to work on making my ideas something more concrete.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Constructing Modern Knowledge 2011

Thoughts on the first day of CMK2011.
This is my second year back at Constructing Modern Knowledge, a conference happening in Manchester New Hampshire this week. It is an opportunity to work with a range of materials and work through several ideas that may of been put on the back burner throughout the busy school year. Equally important is the fantastic range of participants and speakers and facilitators who work side by side and who are a constant source of inspiration and ideas.

This week I wanted to focus on using the Pico Crickets or the Pico Board. I was interested in combining sound and animation. In my own classroom I am very careful that my students focus not only on the tool(s) but to allow the ideas and the concepts drive their learning and their creating. The computer is a powerful means to extend ideas and thinking that might otherwise not be possible. I wanted to think of ideas or questions that would drive my week long project and the tools I would use would fall into place.

Another interesting result of experimentation and "tinkering" are other interesting (or maybe not so interesting) ideas. So armed with the Pico materials I spent my first day exploring the possibilities of using the Scratch program and the Pico Blocks program and the many sensors and input and output devices that can be attached and used.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

TEDxNYED - a month later......

I have been mulling this around in my brain for the past couple of weeks, a post-TEDxNYED post....yet I never seem to get it all written down in one place. Most likely that is because I am not really certain about how I feel about all these "excellent ideas" floating around in the ed cyberspace. Actually, I know how I feel, I am supercharged after listening and discussing ideas about education reform and education in general. I love to hear really intelligent (at least I think so) people share their ideas, their successes, their failures, their challenges, about what works and what doesn't work when it comes to learning. It's just that once I get back into my world I am easily discouraged by what passes as education and learning in my own backyard.
I am in the fortunate position where I can do almost anything in my classroom because my class "isn't a major subject". I don't have standardized testing to teach to, I don't have a standardized curriculum to attend to, I don't even have any other teachers teaching my subject. I really enjoy challenging my students and figuring out ways to present challenges and opportunities to my students. I am inspired by the work and ideas of the many talented teachers and educators who I meet at ed conferences or who I follow on Twitter.
So the challenge seems to be how to  infuse this enthusiasm and the sense of possibility and into the schools where you work. It's not just a matter of bringing back isolated ideas or projects or assignments, it is not the specifics that matter most, because very often things like that can't be reproduced or replicated. For that reason perhaps it is the energy that is most important to spread around and maybe that should be my focus when I speak with my colleagues.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

What Does It mean To Be A Teacher?

This has been on my mind a lot these days.
This morning, listening to the radio, the Governor from WA state was interviewed about the current budget situations and how states were dealing with this 'so called crisis'. She mentioned how she worked with the teachers in her state where they could come to an understanding about the sacrifices that needed to be made. Gov. Gregoire said that when you choose to be a public servant, you are not doing it for the money, you are doing it for the service. That teachers must therefore sacrifice their benefits and wages for the greater good. Really?

I wonder how many teachers believe this? How many teachers are really willing (or more importantly able to) give up their dreams of a good life, of being able to support a family, of living in their own home, so that the greater good will prosper? And how do we define this greater good? Does it fall under the same economic principle that gave us the trickle-down theory? Do all those tax-breaks for the wealthy (both individuals and corporations) fall into this category? Where is the sacrifice from the private sector?

I just spent a week off from school, winter break here in NYC. I am excited to go back to school tomorrow, and am enthusiastic about the things that my students are doing. But this attack on teachers and unions and pensions and wages has been relentless of late. It wears me down to read about it and think about it. Maybe I shouldn't take it personally, maybe it is all politics and nothing to worry about. But it is an attack on my chosen profession and it demonstrates a lack of any understanding about what a teacher really does every single day of the year, whether in the classroom or on vacation.

One thing about getting back into the classroom tomorrow is I'll probably be too busy to spend any more time thinking about it...

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A Funny Thing Happened my 12-1 class this week. We are working on Glogs, they are really enjoying it. Previously they had created some awesome animations using Animation-Ish and I wanted the students to have a place they could share their work online. They worked on creating their Glogs for 2 classes, and getting a feel for what Glogster was all about. We have extremely slow internet connection at school, painfully slow, dial-up modem-like slow. It is difficult and frustrating enough for these students to write and express themselves, without being challenged by slow loading graphics and delayed responses to clicks. It was hard for them to include the introductory text I wanted them to write.
Next class I told them that we were going to use Text-Edit to write the couple of sentences that described their animations, and explain to the viewer what they were most proud of in the work. I said it would be easier to type it here first them copy and paste to the slower Glogster page.
Then I watched them sit there, frozen, in front of the computers, there was so little work going on, no excitement, no motivation, for the rest of the class. After that class, where maybe a few complete sentences in all were written, I thought about what happened.
I thought about how discouraging it must be to not feel comfortable with the written word, to feel at war with writing, at expressing oneself in this way. Such a fundamental way of communicating with others. So I decided to ask them about it.
Next class (I see them twice a week), I asked them about how they felt about writing (they had negative feelings...) and what about communication (of course, everyone wants to communicate...). I asked them if they text their friends, (yes) and if that was the same as typing something for school, (no).
So I told them that the reason I wanted them to add some written work to their Glog was so they could share with others their excitement about what they had produced and explain it to their audience. I told them to pretend they were just "texting" their friends, to not care about spelling and grammar and mistakes, that was the easy stuff to fix later and the important stuff was the ideas and what they wanted to tell their audience about their fantastic work.
By the end of the class they had all written something, and funny thing was they didn't have horrible grammar or mis-spelled words at all, and they added that to their Glogs and we are almost ready to publish them to the world!!!

So what is my point here? This is a groups of students who have been at odds with school since they started attending. I have been watching them begin to light up when learning and producing includes more creative forms and less traditional forms of literacy (the pen and paper and worksheet). Each week I see them they arrive to my class more engaged and excited to be there. The power of many of these so called Web 2.0 tools is in getting students excited about learning, something many of them have equated with "schooling" for far too long.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Roar of EduCon

One of the exciting things about spending the weekend at Educon is listening to all the voices. Everyone has so much to say and so many opportunities to speak. At my school I don't really have a voice. I don't teach a core subject so I am not asked to contribute to the dominant conversations which take place. So I guess it feels exciting to be a part of an education conference where the conversations are diverse and imaginative and engaging. There is a place for everyone's voice because it us recognized that all ideas and experiences are relevant.

This past weekend I listened to and participated in, conversations about seeking better ways to assess students, about ways to allow students to demonstrate their mastery or expertise in subject matter, about building better schools. It is so refreshing to be in a place where it isn't just about ELA and Math but about learning.

Instead of rambling on about the specific sessions I attended (or wish I had attended), I am going to go right to some of the many voices I made a note of which gives a sense of the sounds of Educon. (in no particular order...and a very very tiny slice of all the conversations taking place at any one time)
  • Stop rubric-ing them to death.
  • Not all problems have solutions
  • Definition of students as thinking of themselves as innovators.
  • There are other ways to teach skills.
  • The arts should be in all schools.
  • We are not going to change the world just by being right-brained.
  • Grades are often no indication of what the student did.
  • We are an aspirational nation. Have we lived up to it?
  • They need the skills in order to do stuff. 
  • But can't innovation be part of the way the kids learn the skills? 
  • Using 2 disciplines to solve a problem.
  • If you don't expect them to succeed they will live up to that expectation.
  • A zero is a ticket out, absolving of responsibility
  • What is the purpose of a grading system?
  • A shallow way to look at school and games: if games are fun, to make school fun, have kids play games in school.
  • “Play is a child’s work....”
  • The best thing about games is that tension between failure and success.
  • Alfie Kohn “you can’t practice understanding”
  • What is a fundamental concept of literacy????
  • Have we institutionalized what we consider to be literate?
  • Writing for different channels.
  • Teaching collaboration in the digital space just as important as collaboration in the physical space.
  • Getting students to show their engagement with the material.
  • Students are not just “turning this in”; they are “turning this out”. They are turning this out to the world!
Chris Lehman tasked Educon participants to not only think about what they can take back to the classroom and schools from their Educon experiences but to  immediately act upon it when we return to our classrooms and teaching and "real lives" in the afterglow of the Educon excitement.  This is a huge challenge because many of us return to places where top down decision-making gets in the way of innovation. But surely when all these voices that were roaring from a single building on 23rd St in Philadelphia for one weekend in January head back to where they teach, or collaborate, or administrate, or coach, or parent, or write, whatever their role in education may be, we can surely try to speak loud enough so these voices are heard for those who were not in attendance to hear. And since actions speak louder than words, it should be a very exciting thing to see.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Why Blog Why Now?

You are supposed to ask yourself "who is your audience" when you are writing something or when you are putting together an exhibition of your work, so that thought is on my mind as I begin this blog. At this point the answer is "my audience is me". I have wanted to write down, or record, or compile - whatever you want to call it - my thoughts and observations and ideas on teaching and education for a long time. If only to keep them all in one place and to have them exist outside of my head.

So this is the beginning then, a place of reflection and thinking, of my teaching, or of books I might be reading, or upon conversations I might be having, or about things that didn't work or did work in my classroom, or upon conferences I have attended. A place to share with others. Even if at first, it is most importantly a place to share with myself. A way to get things down on paper (so to speak).