Thursday, January 27, 2011

Some Conversation

During an informal walk through earlier in the week, I entered into a room where the class was discussing President Obama’s State of the Union Address. The class, including the teacher, was sitting in a circle. I settled into a desk on the outside of the circle and listened in. On numerous occasions I have observed this particular class deeply engaged in a whole class discussion. As was the case during a previous pop-in, I could not leave. Even though there were other classes I wanted to see, the conversation was to captivating to leave.

This particular class, Classics Symposium, is a wheel course in a small 12th grade Classics Academy. The purpose of the course is to provide a space where students can further discuss and debate the essential questions and themes that serve as the foundation for this senior academy. Moreover, the course explores creativity and critical thinking.

"The Symposium for the Classics Academy is an exploratory, full-year class that will delve deeply into the concept of creativity. The class will actively implement whole-mind strategies and activities in order to break down traditional modes of learning and to expand students’ views of themselves, as well as their personal concepts of creativity."

There was a strong connection between President Obama’s address Tuesday night and the goals of the Classics Symposium. Pundits cited that the President’s address lacked specifics. Absent from the speech were narrowly defined short and long term goals the administration hoped to achieve. Instead, the president challenged the creative spirit of Americans. Citing Robert Kennedy, the President said the future is ours to win. Through innovation, we can overcome challenges this country faces. In a class that has spent the first part of the year examining creativity, the state of the union address fit perfectly within the context of the course.

When I walked in students were debating the point as to whether American lacked the creative energies to compete in the global marketplace. Had our time come and passed and we were now witnessing the rise of nations such as China and India that cultivated a creative spirit amongst its citizens that surpassed what we can muster. Competing beliefs surfaced during the discussion with students making compelling arguments about the President’s address.

The conversation shifted to analyze elements of the speech that commented on our educational system. Students started to make connections between the role schools play in fostering creativity and innovation. Several classroom participants shared their own academic history as a way to forward the discussion. However, what was most compelling about the whole class conversation was that students started to question the current academic structure. Learners called into question the validity of standardized tests, the contemporary relevance of advanced placement courses and limitations embedded into a traditional grading system. Students were honest in saying why they had enrolled in AP courses, stayed up late to complete assignments and sought entry into test prep courses. While the conversation was cut short by the changing bell, you could see that students were beginning to doubt the traditional educational paradigm and whether this model was suited to prepare students for obstacles their generation will confront.

I left the class thinking that this conversation needs to happen more often. I believe this is true for two reasons. First, change is a community endeavor. The focus on rethinking education needs to include all stakeholders and not just teachers. Yes, teachers play a significant role in redesigning the classroom experience, but students and parents have to understand why these changes need to occur. To a certain extent we have run into this at the high school I work at. 12th grade English teachers I oversee moved from delivering a traditional essay driven midterm to an inquiry-based assignment. The 12th grade English midterm is not an event, but rather a multi-layered process. Teachers have received push back from students who would rather or maybe feel more comfortable sitting for an essay exam. I applaud those English teachers for what they are asking students to do. I just wonder whether students see the value and rigor embedded into the process or have been shaped to believe in a more traditional system of assessment. The push to reinvent education has to be shared with students for certain expectations to be privileged.

Secondly, how are we to inspire students to become teachers. The President made an appeal to the American public when he stated:

“In fact, to every young person listening tonight who's contemplating their career choice: If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation; if you want to make a difference in the life of a child -- become a teacher. Your country needs you.”

How are we to develop future teachers or as referenced in the address “nation builders”, if high schools refrain from analyzing and discussing education? Maybe we can foster a generation of creative and innovative instructors if we begin to have meaningful conversations about learning, instruction and school design well before graduate school or college.

Political allegiances aside, I hope we can rise to meet the challenges set forth by our President. I hope the creative spirit and innovative fortitude of Americans is alive and well and that our schools cultivate the type of thinking valued in the 21st Century.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Midterm Season

Midterms are almost upon us at the high school I work at. The testing period has been pushed back due to the string of inclement weather the Atlantic region has faced, but by the end of the month 1500 students will be required to complete midterms in core academic courses and year-long electives. The stress level at the high school increases for both students and teachers as stakeholders try to balance midterms exams, classes and extracurricular engagements.

I wonder if midterm exams are worth the effort and stress. The schedule is overhauled to find space for the administering of midterm exams. As a result of the weather, this schedule has been reworked on several occasions. Even though educators need to be flexible, their ability to alter instructional sessions is compromised with each cancellation or delayed opening. Additionally, to a certain extent, the schedule continues as if the midterms did not exist. Classes progress towards the end of the marking period. Extracurricular activities are not halted. Students and teachers head towards practices and meetings before, during and after school. The intensity is heightened as classroom participants try to manage academic expectations.

I question the worth of midterm exams. I see value in delivering a final assessment. Students should be placed in a position where they need to synthesize information accrued throughout the year and defend personal interpretations. However, I do not think midterms serve the same purpose. Do classes need to stop in the “middle” of the year to evaluate progress? Educators are supposed to be constantly assessing students both formally and informally. Each day data is being gathered and used to personalize learning. In theory, what are we going to learn on a midterm that we do not already know about a student? This is particularly true if the midterm is uniform across a class or course. We cannot privilege a personalized learning environment and deliver the complete opposite for a midterm exam.

I would rather see classes where students are engaged in a process of continually making meaning. Prior assertions are constantly challenged through guided and organic inquiries. New information is evaluated against existing perspectives. Discovery is an extended process with the learning afforded the time and space to determine truth. As stated before, the end result should be a public exhibition in which the learner can demonstrate understanding and growth.

If we are to have midterms, the emphasis needs to be on the demonstration of skills more so than the regurgitation of content. I was excited to read a post over the weekend from the Teaching Paperless blog. The blog’s creator, Shelly Blake-Plock shared a broad description of a midterm he created for his Human Geography course. I shared the post with several teachers who were struggling to develop a midterm assessment that moved away from the traditional memorization and recall format to a structure that was authentic and skills based. The most recent post on Teaching Paperless shared the actual Human Geography exam. The examination assesses a learner’s ability to actually become a researcher in human geography through the completion of ten different tasks. All of the work is to be displayed on the student’s blog. Students are required to complete a range of tasks that are united through conducting research inquiries. My favorite questions are #5 and #7. The implications of a student being able to accomplish these specific tasks is significant. Learners are challenged to synthesize information, critically analyze a problem and make informed recommendations. A broad range of skills are engaged to meet the exam requirements. The exam has depth as opposed to a narrow focus.

Regardless of whether midterms are assigned, any assessment has to have enduring value. The hope is that over the next two weeks our students will be engaged in meaningful endeavors that represent challenges learners will face in college or the professional world. The hope is that students and teachers will view midterms as time well spent. Teachers can further the accumulation of students data and build personalized learning experiences. Students can hopefully find time to reflect on their performance and either revisit or if warranted, revise personal learning goals.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Nurturing Talent

Scott's Weekly Podcast Series

"Building educational experiences around student interests is probably one of the single most effective ways to guarantee that enrichment practices will be introduced into a school"

Sunday, January 16, 2011

No Skier Left Behind

If you are a skier you should read Bill Pennington’s article in the NY Times, Where All School Days Are Snow Days. If you are an educator your should read Bill Pennington’s article in the NY Times, Where All School Days Are Snow Days. If you are an educator who is an avid skier- pack your bags and head out to Miniturn, Colorado and hope there is a job opening at the Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy.

In 2007 the Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy opened its doors to students. To date it is the only public winter sports school in the United States. The school mirrors sport specific schools made popular at first in Europe and later in this country by Tennis Academies and most recently the IMG Sports Academy in Bradenton, Florida. Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy is held to the same academic standards as all Colorado public schools. However, the school day is radically different. Students spend the morning on the slopes training in one of four disciplines. Coaching is provided through a partnership with the nonprofit Ski and Snowboard Club of Vail. After practice students head to school. From 1 to 5pm, students are in the classroom.

The Academy has benefited from its existence in a digital world. Pennington shared that, “Online instruction tools like Blackboard and other programs make it easier for traveling students and teachers to communicate as if they were in the same classroom. Each academy student has a laptop, the classrooms are equipped with exceptionally fast wireless networks and computers, and Grimmer has made sure every faculty member has an iPad.” Geoff Grimmer, the academic director at the academy, admitted that the academy could not exist without the development of an interactive web. Pennington also shares that students do quite well. Twins interviewed for the piece were going to Ivy League Schools. Students score above state and national averages on standardized exams. More than anything, students are able to pursue a passion and not sacrifice their education.

There is an ideal embedded into the Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy that can be applied to all schools. Students have the chance to follow their passions and do so in a supportive and rigorous academic environment. Personal interests are not sacrificed a the Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy. The delivery of curriculum works in conjunction with the nurturing of talent. Instead of skiers and snowboarders, why can’t potential journalists, lawyers, web designers and mechanics spend part of their day working with professionals. The need for students to apprentice both in and out of the classroom is critical. Through authentic experiences students can engage higher order thinking skills and develop a foundation of experiences that will guide them through school and the professional world.

Schools need to foster passion or interest based classes. What interests students matter and must be accounted for when crafting experiences for kids. This is not a radical idea, but how many of our classes account for what learners are passionate about. Just scroll through course listing in a public high school. Course descriptions read like a roll call of content. Devoid from descriptions and practical applications are broad themes and open-ended essential questions that provide space for further self-guided exploration. School is supposed to be a place where interests and passions can be stimulated and nurtured. In high school, refined interests are often located in “elective” classes. Students should not have to take an elective to pursue personal interests.

It is understood that the school located in the shadows of Vail is unique. I might be stretching the merits of the Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy to prove a point that our classes need to account for what interests our students. So be it. Without taking into consideration the interests of each individual learner, schools will fail to empower students. Students will value the learning conducted outside of school more so than what transpires inside a classroom. While it would be nice to hit the slopes for a few morning runs before class, most of us will have to settle for findings ways to fit some of the magic of the Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy into our schools.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

New Year's Resolution

I was never one to make New Year’s Resolutions. For some reason, I never embraced the idea of saying from this point forward I will do the following or for that matter, seeing January 1st as a motivating factor. However, I came across the following post on Daniel Pink’s blog. The post “3 resolutions for making 2011 practically radical” offered possible resolutions for the upcoming new year. One of the resolutions resonated and gave me a moment to pause and consider what can be discussed over the remaining school year.

The resolutions Pink shared were from Fast Company co-founder Bill Taylor. The suggestions explained in the blog post came from Bill Taylor’s new book, Practically Radical: Not-so-crazy Ways to Transform Your Company, Shake Up Your Industry, and Challenge Yourself. One of the resolutions stated the following:

I resolve to embrace a sense of vuja dé. We’ve all experienced déjà vu—looking at an unfamiliar situation and feeling like you’ve seen it before. Vuja dé is the flip side of that—looking at a familiar situation (an industry you’ve worked in for decades, problems you’ve worked on for years) as if you’ve never seen it before, and, with that fresh line of sight, developing a distinctive point of view on the future. The challenge for all of us is that too often, we let what we know limit what we can imagine. This is the year to face that challenge head-on.

I found the suggestion to be profound and in particular the idea of looking at something as if you have never seen it before. At times, educators can get lost in the system and forget the need to think progressively. The realities of shrinking budgets, state and or federal mandates, or deeply rooted school climates can cast an ominous cloud over innovative pursuits. Embracing a sense of vuja dé, challenges the notion of accepting the status quo or using crutches to slow down change.

In looking forward to the new year, it is important to step away and consider what is possible. The need to be creative and innovative is constant. Without examining education from a fresh perspective limits are placed on schooling. Here’s to a new year and the promise of what can be accomplished. With that in mind, I think we need to pay attention to the following possibilities.

  1. Grading- is the current grading system relevant or should we move to a proficiency-based model that eliminates the seemingly arbitrary A-F scale?
  2. Multiple Pathways- are we providing for students multiple pathways in which understanding can be demonstrated? Are there multiple through routes in which students can reach graduation? How else do we infuse the interests and passions of stakeholders?
  3. Internships- do we see students as apprentices or students? How do we get our students to think and act in a way that mirrors the professional world?

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Way It Is

The World We Live In

This photo was taken at a roller skating rink in Northampton, Massachusetts. Over break, we ventured to western Massachusetts to visit my wife's family. My older daughters were skating with their cousin while their younger sister found a vacant bench to catch up on some light reading. My youngest grabbed someone's iPhone and started to surf some games, videos or photos. Without any assistance from adults, my youngest navigated through the various content she wanted to access.

Being the parent of three daughters, I am constantly reminded of how different it is and will be for them growing up. Having spent the past week off from work, it is apparent that my kids are at ease embracing the digital world. Whether it is accessing information or content via a handheld device, iPad or personal computer, my kids are comfortable working through potential obstacles. Observing us trying to complete a math worksheet for homework might yield a different picture as the frustration can mount. However, the comfort and ease at which they navigate the digital world is a far cry from more traditional modes of dissemination.

Parents and educators need to nurture a familiarity with the digital world. Above all, kids need to harness the powers of the digital world in ethical and responsible ways. Imbued with an ethical understanding students need to produce, in the public domain, information. At this juncture my kids are consumers, but as they grow and mature, the hope is that they will produce relevant information and develop content that others can use.