Things I Know 189 of 365: I’m not interested in pictures painted with the all the same brush

You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Reading a post Monday critiquing the Andre Agassi Ventures LLC plan to join with an investment firm to secure, rent and plan to sell properties to charter schools, I stumbled over a passage.

I mean that. I was motoring along, consuming the information, filtering what jived with my previous knowledge and what needed to run down the shoot of new ideas.

Then I got to the following:

This shows the true aim of charter schools–they won’t be run in the interests of students, but to meet the needs of charter operators to be profitable, in order to pay off their lenders and landlords.

What?

Say what you will about charter schools (and I know people will rush to the microphone of public opinion on that invitation), but I have a hard time believing any one move by any one organization can or should be taken as representative of the whole.

Reading the remainder of the post held little interest for me after those few lines. I’m willing to wager the writer of the post would claim charter schools ignore the individuality and individual needs of their students in the interest of maintaining monetary solvency. If that’s the charge and an argument of seeing individuals is to be maintained then that same perspective must be the benchmark of opining.

This is difficult. It’s difficult from all perspectives.

Those speaking and spending the loudest in favor of improving teacher efficacy frequently wander off the message of building on the strengths of the most successful teachers onto what sounds like a tirade condemning the majority of educators.

Such is also the case when those railing most vociferously against the worst managed and most harmful begin to dull their arguments by fencing all charter schools into the same camp.

If Petrino DiLeo disagrees with charters, if he considers them the bane of modern education, so be it.

As soon as he or anyone else gives in to the temptation of seeing anything other through a homogenizing lens, the middle is lost. And, as was the case with me, those whose ears, eyes and minds might be open to you become quickly closed.

Things I Know 182 of 365: Sometimes, I’m ready to move on to the next discussion

Discussion is an exchange of knowledge; argument an exchange of ignorance.

– Robert Quillen

I won’t call it an argument.

What I got into this evening that lasted from the beginning of dinner, through settling the check, the drive to the movie theater and up to the point at which we took our seats for the previews was a discussion.

We discussed education.

In a party of 9, my friend and I ignored all others and searched for common ground.

He discussed from a deficit model.

He discussed the importance of standardized tests.

He discussed there were far more teachers who should be fired than were excellent.

He discussed end-of-year assessment and the ability to write a well-reasoned essay as the marks of a highly-qualified teacher.

I argued against it all.

I argued against it all except the very last point.

I wanted to. In my argument for project-based assessment, for the value of asking students what they can create and teaching to their passions, for the idea that having students read from textbooks precludes the idea that a teacher has created a constructivist classroom – in all of this – I could not make my way to the argument that writing an essay should no longer be the measure.

This thought hung on the coatrack in the back of my mind as I attempted to make my exit from the discussion.

He wasn’t ready for the idea that what might deserve our focus is teaching students to make arguments, but that writing them down – on paper or screen – mightn’t need to be the standard by which we measure their rhetorical abilities.

It was incredibly frustrating to realize how many layers of discussion were necessary before I would be able to get to an idea I recognized as truly progressive.

I wanted to suggest having kids write with video integrating links, tags and annotations a la youtube videos could liberate voice, deepen understanding and lead to more dynamics arguments. I wanted to suggest that writing in words wasn’t native to the human experience, that doing something because it’s what’s been done for centuries isn’t answer enough.

Instead of this, I had a discussion I’ve had time and again regarding truths I take to be self-evident. It was a moment of frustration. I want to be having a better discussion based on a common belief that learning and adequate yearly progress are not the same thing. Tonight, I had hoped that our conversation of what education can be could come from a mutual belief that teaching is a respectable profession and that we must care for teachers as we would care for students. It turned out, we weren’t ready for the conversation.

I’ll find myself in some iteration of tonight’s conversation again (soon, I’m sure). I will listen and question and push with as much vehemence as I did tonight each time I’m allowed.

Still, in some moments, it would be nice if we all decided we were ready for the next big conversations.

Things I Know 142 of 365: We can draw everyone into the conversation

I’m always up for a conversation. So long as it’s with someone else (and sometimes even with myself), a good conversation leads to me learning more.

And I really like learning.

Standing up to start my section of the keynote for the Ohio School Facilities Commission’s 21st Century School Design Symposium 2.0 today, I presented the audience with a slide devoid of title or name.

It read simply:

What do you want to know?

In the next line, I invited audience members to text their questions to the phone number on the screen or send a message to my twitter account.

The original plan was to follow the questions up later in the presentation and open my Google Voice account. Call it keynote formative assessment.

Due to some login issues, I wasn’t able to access my account while I was still on stage.

That was for the better.

Once I returned to my seat, I opened Google Voice and found several questions waiting.

“How do you run professional development to prepare SLA teachers for project-based teaching?”

“What do you use to clean your dry erase tables?”

“Any how-to tips for working with an odd BOE?”

In my 30 minutes, I hadn’t the time to speak directly and in a detailed way to the concerns each of the questions raised. If I’d attempted to do so, I would have missed the mark of what I was asked to speak about.

Still, each question shows at least the basics of curiosity surrounding the ideas that had been presented.

The texters were inquiring.

Any question worth asking is worth answering.

The same thing happens in my classroom. In fact, I’d wager the same thing happens in every classroom. Class discussion begins or the teacher asks what questions the students have, and the few noble souls pipe up.

Most of the time, it’s the same people. On particularly excellent days, other voices enter the mix.

Today, Google Voice helped me collect some of the voices and questions that would have gone unheard and unasked in class conversation. It was the tool for today, but it isn’t the only tool.

From time to time, when having a full class conversation around a text, I explain that my goal is to hear from all voices in the classroom. I explain the value I place on a plurality of ideas and that I’m genuinely curious as to what each student has to say.

When I asked today’s audience to share what they wanted to know, I was also genuinely curious.

In class conversations, I’ll often require students who don’t speak up in the physical spaces to share their thoughts (either a new idea or a reaction to a peer) on the class discussion board on MOODLE.

Those message board strands bear out some deeply thoughtful conversation.

That conversation is epically helpful to me as I attempt to understand each of the students in my charge and how they view the world.

Sometimes, I’ll jump in on the discussion board conversations. Other times, I’ll send a private e-mail in response.

Today, I sent a response to each text message I received. I might never hear from any of them again. I get that.

Still, when we’re banning and working to verbally diminish the power of new conduits of conversation in education, maybe it will serve as a reminder of the tools we have to draw more students of all kinds into the fray.

Things I Know 88 of 365: We’re about to have some great discussions

There is creative reading as well as creative writing.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

In the second half of the semester, I open my storytelling class to greater student choice and control. This could be intensely dangerous considering the class is populated with students with eyes fixed firmly on graduation.

I operate under the assumption greater choice and control will help make our class relevant.

The guiding questions for the assignment I rolled out today are simple:

  • What is a text you connect with strongly?
  • What causes that connection?
  • How can you help the class understand that connection?

I suppose anyone else in a class about story would collect a set of stories from the Western Literary Canon and proceed with the indoctrination.

They’ll have college for that.

My goal is more to work toward the type of deeply curious conversations about texts that will equip them with the tactics to pull apart those dusty canonical behemoths later on.

The assignment is simple:

  • Pick a text that means something to you. Prep a whole-class discussion that will help us all learn more about the text.
  • For the purposes of the assignment, I put myself in the role of Mr. Chase as English student rather than Mr. Chase as English teacher.

Students are responsible for preparing copies, online materials or video clips as necessary. They must also prepare pre- and during-reading activities to prep their peers (and me) for at least 30 minutes discussion.

Last year’s initial launch of this assignment brought some amazing moments.

For almost an entire class period we debated the appropriateness, theme, and intended audience of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree.

In another discussion, the debate over the narrative structure of OneRepublic’s “Say (All I Need)”.

Aside from checking in with students to make certain they’re finding texts and offering suggestions for planning their discussions, I stay out of things as much as possible.

I know the texts, but I haven’t read many of them.

There’s an element of trust there, I suppose.

It’s why I ask that the texts be important to the students sharing them.

“If you bring in something you don’t care about, it’s more likely that we won’t either.”

This is likely why I have such trouble teaching The Great Gatsby.

Some early possibilities this year include an excerpt from the film version of For Colored Girls, a cross-medium analysis of a quotation from The Kite Runner, deconstruction of Hamlet’s most famous of soliloquies and a Rage Against the Machine song.

Aside from Hamlet, these will be texts with which I am largely unfamiliar. While this adds an air of novelty to the process, the greater benefit is my not having a preconceived notion of how a discussion should play out. I’m learning along with the rest of the class.

This year’s iteration of the assignment includes one major adjustment. Aside from the 30-minute minimum, the students and I are building the assessment criteria for the discussions together.

Before they’ve built anything, we work to answer the questions, “What should a great version of these discussions look like? What should we expect as help in our thinking? What is the role of the discussion leader?”

Before they graduate from high school, I want them to graduate to owning class and their thinking.

Classy: Bringing silly and embracing unsatisfactory

In the eyes of the over-trained, I was an unsatisfactory teacher for a good long time today.
My instructions to my junior English classes sounded something like this, “I’m going to give you five minutes. Talk to your team members about the high and low points of your break. Also, talk about what you’d like to get out of the first half of 2011.”
That was it.
At the end of five minutes, no one was held responsible for doing something with the information they just gained. No one reported out.
It gets better.
The next instruction, “You have two minutes to come up with a team cheer.”
Two minutes later, the class watched as each of the 8 teams of four performed their cheers.
A personal favorite, “My name is Jeff and I invite you to experience the bountiful garden that is Team 7.”
It was a good 10 minutes of class.
I left out the opening. I left out the new material. I left out the guided and independent practice. No objective was on the board. All told, I was fairly unsatisfactory.
I don’t care.
My students got new seats today. Many of them are sitting with kids with whom they might not otherwise socialize. For 10 minutes, they took time to get to know one another, to collaborate with their new team to create something without academic penalty and to present as a group something that built a collective identity.
And, to practice being silly.
For the rest of the class, focused research on a writing project with the potential to create positive change in their communities.
For 10 minutes, though, pure, unsatisfactory silliness.

Classy: Long-form journalism, writing in digital margins and class discussion

A few months ago, my friend Max and another friend of his launched a site called longform.org.

A week ago, Ben tweeted out a link to reframeit.com.

I noted each site in the cache of my mind as something that could be useful in class.

I like the cache because it’s a place where ideas can marinate. (Pardon the mixed metaphor.)

My G11 students are completing a benchmark project right now. It’s one of those pieces where they have a bunch to work on, and we hand over class time to that collaboration. Doing only that can be monotonous.

To break the monotony this week, we’re playing with longform.org and reframeit.com.

Last week, I ask each team of kids (they sit in tables of four) to head to longform an find a piece of journalism they thought would hold the class’ attention and produce thoughtful conversation.

The directions were simple:

  1. Work with your team to come to unanimous approval of the article you’d like to lead discussion on.
  2. Tell me.
  3. Using reframeit.com, read the article and draft discussion points and questions.
  4. Prepare to lead discussion for 35 minutes of one class period.

That’s it.

The discussions and debates about which articles to select were as interesting as the comments that started showing up in the digital margins. One team of all girls made it halfway through an article they agreed was highly interesting, but too mature for some of their classmates. I’d made the same judgment when they told me what they’d selected, but they needed to come to that conclusion on their own. Choice means realizing when you’ve made a bad one. They shifted and all is well.

Over the next two weeks, we’ll have a shared reading experience of some amazingly diverse and high-quality long-form journalism. The students will collaborate on how they interpret and question what they’re reading. The class will build their abilities to converse about a given text and build comprehension, analysis and intertextual reading.

My role will be that of a reader and thinker.

When I showed the class reframeit.com the first time, all I did was give them time to play and told them we’d be sharing our first impressions at the end of play time. Several times, their evaluation danced around the idea that they could see it as possibly useful if they had a clear purpose for using it. Its existence wasn’t inherently useful.

That’s what cache marinading is for.

Hi, you’re doing it wrong: Chat/Discussion

As I’ve explained, I started my master’s program a few weeks ago. Through an online program, I’ll have a Master’s of Teaching and Learning in Curriculum and Instruction in 14 months. It’s my first time in an all-online learning environment. They’re doing it wrong.

As I’ve mentioned, my course requires participation in three online chats throughout its 8-week run. I missed the first chat as I was in a tiny town in a small town outside East London in Eastern Cape, South Africa, and the Internet was spotty.

Wednesday, I returned to the States.

Wednesday, our second chat was scheduled.

After two days of travel involving 3 continents, I had my sister pull over on the drive from O’Hare back down to Springfield, IL and I signed on sitting in supremely busy McDonald’s of Pontiac, IL. (If you don’t think there’s a global information divide, compare that last sentence to this situation and get back to me.)

No matter the free Internet juice my MacBook was sucking down, it just couldn’t talk to the chat room.
As had happened during my first go, I’d log in to the WebCT chat room, one person would send a line of dialogue and the infinite pinwheel of death would appear.

This happened across Firefox, Flock and Chrome.

After 30 minutes of trying, I e-mailed “Education Specialist” to say I wouldn’t be making it to the night’s chat.

Here’s what happens if you miss a chat:

After missing the last chat, I opted for the second choice. I’d intended to go with the first option, but the transcript never got posted. I inquired about it on the discussion board. But, as I’ve now learned, “Education Specialist” doesn’t so much use the discussion board.

I in my e-mail explaining my absence from Chat 2, I said I’d keep an eye out for the transcript. Subtle, I know.

Chat 2’s questions for discussion were:

Some potentially beefy material.

Before I read the transcript, I checked back to see what the requirements for participation were…non-existent.

On the other hand, I found this:

While no set requirements for participation exist, we are to write a synopsis of what we’ve learned in the chat and copy and paste it to our “Chat Log” along with our compiled responses to the weekly discussion forum.
I’m a bit worried that option 4 here runs in contrast with option 2 for those who missed the chat. Seems even if I opt for option 2, I’ll still need to include option 4 which is the same as option 1 above.

Here’s where I’d normally make the argument for putting all information in the same place, but I don’t have it in me right now.

Baffled, I’ve turned to the transcript.

Here’s how the discussion began:

The response to that one was kind of ugly.

The answers, by the way, Active Learning and Classroom Management. The first one makes me chuckle every time.

Then “Education Specialist” said:


But not everyone had finished typing the first strands, so it was a mix of strands  in what was an actual request to repeat specific information back to the instructor.

In the middle of it all, someone asked a question about an upcoming assignment and received the reply:

Burn.

It was difficult to read the rest of the transcript. “Education Specialist” would yell each successive pre-announced question and my peers would type their responses back to “Education Specialist.”

Here’s the only feedback I could find:

Warms the cockles, no?

Forty-seven minutes in, and it was over.

Kaput.

In this course, we’ve read (or were assigned to read) multiple chapters about making learning active, moving from a teacher-centered approach, making learning authentic and multiple modalities.

Then, in one of the 3 times we’re all in the same “room,” it’s straight-forward teacher-centered call and response. Desperate for any actual evidence of, you know, chat, I took a tally.

In the discussion that took place before “Education Specialist” left the room, peers responded directly to one another a total of 5 times. Those responses were generally along the lines of “I have used that tool and find it very helpful as well in the math classroom.”

Hardly the free, open and democratic exchange of ideas I work to facilitate in my classroom.

Chat can and should be a much more powerful tool for facilitating learning from varied geographic areas.

Election Night 2008, I sat in Chris’ living room with my laptop, logged in to a moodle chat room open to all SLA learners for discussion of the history that was being made. People were throwing out commentary, questions, answers, tips for the channel with the best coverage. When it got down to the wire, a rich conversation started about how some news outlets were calling the election whilst others were not.

No pre-fab discussion questions were needed. Something interesting to talk about and learn from was happening and so we got together to explore it.

This week, seasoned educators from around the country were asked “What techniques do you utilize to manage classroom behavior?” and 3 people responded with 10 lines of text.

Every second of the 47 minutes that chat was being facilitated could and should have been dedicated to just that question. Teachers from multiple disciplines talking about what they do to set and maintain the climate of their classrooms, and we spent maybe 5 minutes.

This isn’t active learning. This isn’t inquiry. This isn’t constructivist. This isn’t, well, it just isn’t.
“HOW DO YOU INCORPORATE THE THEORIES OF VYGOTSKI, PIAGET, DEWEY, ERIKSON AND OTHE THEORISTS INTO YOUR CLASSROOM[?]”

Better than this.

Hi, you’re doing it wrong.