Saturday, January 23, 2010

Technology and Engagement

This week had an unfortunate hiatus for my readers here at Teaching on Mars, but for yours truly, the reasons for the hiatus are well worth it for me. My mind is swimming with all sorts of things in all sorts of directions, but with some semblance of normalcy beginning to resume for me, a quick blog post is in order.

My last post brought up my favourite educational technology blog Aaron Eyler's Synthesizing Education, and over the course of a good discussion on the role of rote memorization, I think I found that my opposition to what I saw as his thesis was more of debating over fine lines than major issues as well as the fact that I teach a group of students that is far from the norm. One of his posts this week was on the role of technology in student engagement, and I concur with his thesis 100%. To me, the crucial quote was as follows: 

In no way do I advocate that we start arbitrarily shoving computers into classrooms without proper training and discussion, but I do find fault with the teachers who go all year without utilizing technology for multiple assignments. What we truly need to do is accelerate the discussion and provide professional development and training to these teachers, mandate usage in Professional Development Plans, and encourage them to take risks when being observed.
Looking at how teachers in general use technology, it feels like in most cases computers are arbitrarily shoved computers into classrooms without proper training and discussion, though not through the fault of technology facilitators. Then when there are observations made, teachers are assessed whether they use technology or not, without any sort of notation of the individual teacher's level of technology aptitude.

Eyler makes a great point that the tidal wave of technology that is coming into the classroom needs dedicated professional development to close the utilization gap that teachers have with technology. I know I'm nowhere near the norm in terms of teachers with technological know-how, but even among the "techie" teachers and average teachers, there's still a huge gap. There needs to be dedicated, and let me be honest, mandatory professional development to bridge this gap with some semblance of assessment of teachers to make sure it's sticking. I of course know that this is asking for nothing but bureaucratic trouble, but perhaps there's a way to keep the paperwork to a minimum.

The other thing he notes is to encourage teachers to take risks with technology when being observed. Our observation sheets only note if we're using technology, and the technology threshold is ridiculously low, in that overhead projectors are considered technology. So, when it's time to be observed, I could either make a fancy virtual flipchart on my Promethean board that includes the student using the ActivVote handhelds, and this is considered just as much of a use of technology as a teacher using markers on an overhead. It makes no sense and is frankly unfair to me in that I put so much work into integrating technology. I have no impetus to take risks when being observed, so why should I? Of course, I should for the students, but it's a weird feeling to see my observation sheet with just technology used checked when I used it to engage my students when I could have used technology in a passive fashion and gotten the same comment. Like most things, it isn't fair, but perhaps it's something we should look at.

Until later.

Monday, January 18, 2010

We've created "...a Generation of Jay Leno Stooges"

I like reading Aaron Eyler's Synthesizing Education blog. He does a great job of discussing the interaction of education and technology in a way that isn't basic like a lot of education blogs, but keeps its feet on the ground so it doesn't become a wacky futurist blog. However, one of today's entries hit my nerve by implicating that rote memorization isn't needed these days because the amount of knowledge being created makes a lot of existing knowledge obsolete. I'm a big huge massive believer in the theories of E D. Hirsch that believes that state that a core area of knowledge must be passed on from generation to generation to ensure the continuance of free and egalitarian societies. Simply put, knowledge makes people free, and a culture that has a constant core of knowledge that spans generations engenders longevity and a concrete legacy. You may not believe his ideas about how it applies to society, but his agreement with cognitive scientists that a vital aspect of cognitive growth is memorization at young ages is something that most folks with common sense and experience with learning a foreign language as a child and as an adult (I took French in elementary school, and I decades later I can still read a French book without a lot of problems. I took Spanish in college and don't remember a lick) can attest to. Eyler's plea for us to ditch knowledge because we can look it up on Google peeved me to no end. As a result, yours truly shot back after a fantastic response that likened today's knowledge-less students as "a generation of Jay Leno stooges":

School isn’t just a centre created to produce workers–rather it is a centre of knowledge transmission for a society from one generation to another. In the quest to ensure our students adapt to the rapidly-changing world, we’ve deemed the recall of knowledge as irrelevant and somehow beneath us as educators that we have created a generation of adults who have zero capability to remember anything. By ignoring the research from cognitive scientists that persistently show that children’s brains are a fertile ground for permanent storage of knowledge if they memorize them between the ages of 6-11, we leave our students without the cognitive ability to store and retain knowledge after that age since the brain doesn’t know how to do it.
I teach at a school that is borderline failing. Most of the things discussed on this blog are but a gleam in my eye because I have more pressing needs like the fact that 80% of my seventh grade reading students read below a sixth grade level at over 50% through the school year. What my students need is not Socratic circles, questioning the author’s purpose, or any of the other literacy strategies my state’s DoE require me to teach because these kids can’t read with comprehension. Period. It makes no sense that I have to repeat concepts 20+ times for them to have the slightest bit of comprehension. It also makes no sense that they get the same questions incorrect on every single quiz I give when I leave the same questions in the exact same spots on said quizzes.
Whilst you may be onto something about the idea that every child needs to know about the siting of Grant’s guns during the siege of Vicksburg, by ignoring or marginalizing rote memorization, you have undermined the entire concept of a hierarchy of thinking by ignoring the foundation. How can someone evaluate something when they have no knowledge to base their opinions on? How can you synthesize new information when there is no prior information to use as a reference point?
By continuing this line of thinking, the dissemination of knowledge from generation to generation is lessening by the year, and before long we will have an entire underclass of people of all ethnicities and creeds bound together by the fact that they know nothing of substance. If that’s been the unconscious goal of education leaders to create such a stratified society consisting of knows and know-nots, then they can sit back and pat each other on the back; they’ve done their job.
Yeah, I went there. My professor of Social Studies Methods who's a massive fan of Howard Zinn (and Bruce Springsteen!) would be proud of my shot at creating good workers, but the rally cry for memorizing facts probably irks him. It's OK. When they're all lost and in dire need of directions and I pop in and save them due to all of the geography knowledge I had to memorize, they'll thank me later.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Skipping down the Hall

Friday was an interesting day. It started off innocently enough when I gave my quiz to my first period class, and when they finished I read to them an excerpt from Churched by Matthew Paul Taylor. I had been reading it during out (allegedly) silent reading time, and laughed the entire time. In the next week or so I'll post a review of the book. After our team meeting our principal looked rather concerned and told us to go to our classes. When the bell rang students came in from PE, but no one else. We were told to stay in our classrooms and lock the doors. My honors class is third period and I only had half of them, so I was stuck without a Plan B.

Like the students, I was without a clue as to what was going on since there was no mention of our crisis plan, but I decided to just let the students do whatever they wanted provided they didn't get too loud. After a while of chit chat I read them two chapters of Churched, we discussed the effects of the earthquake in Haiti, why Haiti has earthquakes, looked at satellite footage of the damage in Port-au-Prince, hung signs up on my ceiling, and played charades. After about an hour of this I peeked out the door to see police officers, Central Office employees, and our administration searching students. Apparently, we were in the process of a random search day. Hooray! Some of my students freaked out about the K-9 dogs, but I sufficiently calmed them down enough for them to not break down in tears at the thought of it.

We were in the midst of our Charades game when there was a knock on the door. The principal couldn't stay serious because she had been watching me give the clues on top of my desk. When I told her and the group of very serious individuals what we were doing, they all laughed. We went into the hall and the students were wanded with metal detectors. The dog and a couple of deputies went in and searched the class. When they came out, the principal and the officer in charge complimented us on the fact that no contraband was found, and this was the first class for that to happen. I beamed with pride because I go out of my way to give good attention and love to my honors students. Oftentimes our school's issues mean the kids with problems get all the attention, and I believe that high achievers deserve to be doted on also.

After 150 minutes of imprisonment, we were finally freed. The search turned up no drugs, but enough cell phones (One student had three [!!!] cell phones) and mp3 players to stock an electronics store. For the rest of the day the students were in full zoo mode. I had to take one out of the class and tell him to calm down because he was so upset his iPod was taken from him. To his credit, that talk was what he needed because he was back to normal after that. When the bell rang to end the day, I was thankful the critters were out of my sight. Phew!

As I sat down to check my e-mail, I had an e-mail in my Inbox entitled "Offer of Equipment and Trainng." From the head of the Technology department. I opened it and found out I was one of two teachers from my school chosen to receive a Promethean interactive whiteboard for my classroom, as well as comprehensive training. I was floored. In one of our computer labs is a small board that is never used, and I had been asking for it so it could get used. Now I was picked to get a 95-inch board just for me!

 Actual Promethean Board slightly larger than pictured

I've played with Promethean boards in the past and found them to be an exceptionally neat toy to use in the class because of its sheer variety of interactivity options. My brain's already cooking up ideas to put it to use as soon as I get it. But before I got too ahead of myself, I replied to say I wanted it. It went as follows:

Hi! In case you haven't heard the yelling and screaming from the west just yet, I'm just replying to you that I'll gladly accept the offer to receive a Promethean board. In fact, I'll be here on Saturday to open the doors to let them install it for me by Tuesday. Scratch that, I'll pick it up and install it myself tonight. Can you tell I'm excited? Cheers!
I went skipping down the hall like a student and everyone was just staring at me. When I told them what I was getting, I got a couple of odd stares, but a lot of congratulations from my colleagues. After that I was shooting the breeze with Mr. Schmidt, our Louisiana History teacher, we were laughing about who was the geekiest teacher here. He's a big music and history geek, but when I showed up, I kind of left him in the dust.Today was his birthday, and I knew of nothing else to give a fellow geek for their birthday a birthday card from the Communist Party.

Happy Birthday from the Communist Party, Comrade!

The three day weekend is going to be great, but I can't wait for my Promethean board!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


As a teacher, I'm faced daily with the full spectrum of humanity. It's a weird feeling to, within a two hour span, see students whose futures vary from the sky being the limit to being fitted out with prison jumpers. I'm still uncomfortable thinking about the latter, but I guess I'll get used to it. One thing I have grown surprisingly used to is how stupid dumb clueless my students can be. I used to get upset when a student would give a startlingly incompetent answer to a question, but after a week of heartburn, I decided to laugh instead. After discovering some of them thought I was laughing at them (Well, I was, but it was more toward their answers.), I started facepalming myself, or, if it was staggeringly incompetent, just beat my head against the whiteboard. It allowed me to make fun of the student in a non-invasive way and make some people laugh at the same time. Everyone wins that way.

Today gave me a hat trick of facepalms and heads-against-the-whiteboards.

I was teaching on connotations and denotations of words, and the activity involved sorting words and phrases into columns for denotations, positive, and negative connotations. During first period I asked for a volunteer and one of my students, who, sadly, is playing without an entire suit in his deck (But tries oh so hard!), volunteered. He got stuck on what to put where, so I fake-whispered a hint that the denotation was the one with more than one word. He looked at me, the light bulb in his head flicked on, and he excitedly shouted... a one-word answer.


The whole class was stunned until my paraprofessional started laughing and we all had a great laugh. I had to explain to him between chuckles what I was hinting at him. When he realized the error of his ways, he laughed to himself and said that was pretty dumb of him.

During fifth period I was writing office referrals for a trio in my fourth period class that is in the midst of waging an insurgency against my authority and my desire to teach them. I laugh at their puny efforts and keep on writing referrals with hopes they can hit the magic number of 12 referrals so they can be shipped off to Alternative School so I can teach my class instead of having to deal with students with zero self control. Anyway, I was listening to Fighting Talk (Essentially what Around the Horn on ESPN hopes to become one day) when there was a knock at the door. My math teacher was there with a giggling student. They asked me how to spell the student's last name, and I automatically spelled it out N-E-L-S-O-N. They both started laughing and told me how a student in his group spelled it N-L-E-S-O-N. My facepalm reflex kicked in and I joined in the laughter.

During my last class of the day I had a replay of the first incident, except my little genius this time guessed incorrectly twice this time. The first instance got a facepalm, but the second time had me beating my head against the whiteboard. How you could miss it twice was beyond me, but what can you do other than laugh? Get angry? Cry? To me there's no other option but to laugh. If I didn't I'd probably go mad otherwise.

I sometimes wonder if God looks down on us and facepalms when we screw up. I'd like to think so, because God knows I've done enough to make him facepalm more than a couple of times. Yet when I screw up, He's always there to pick me up, dust me off, and send me on my way. Maybe one day I can be like that for my students. Until then, I'll just beat my head against the whiteboard.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Being Tired means You're not doing a Good Job

One of my first memories as a teacher was reading Harry Wong's The First Days of School. I don't have my copy handy, but I distinctly remember a passage that he discusses in his video series about teacher fatigue. To sum it up, Wong stated that a properly-run classroom had the teacher jumping and skipping home full of energy; not the other way around like most classrooms, where teachers leave exhausted. I asked my first principal why if this was the case why I went home tired on the days I had the students do all of the work in class that day. As with most things, my principal didn't have a suitable answer and instead blamed me for all of my problems.

I was thinking about this conundrum today as I woke up from my daily nap that I take upon returning home from work. I come home completely wiped out every day no matter what I do. For a time I thought that perhaps Harry Wong was correct and because I do most of the work in my class I'm the only one who leaves tired. I tried doing some classes where I gave the students some autonomy and I still ended up tired. I was laying in my bed one night thinking about this problem and came up with the answer--these kids are so starved for love and attention they suck us dry every day.

It all clicked for me because at my old school I skipped out the door on most days because I had enjoyed it so much. Of course, I didn't do that every day, as I trudged out on days my boss decided to tell me everything I did wrong or tell me I disciplined a kid incorrectly for reasons only known to her. Here in the public schools I was leaving tired no matter how well the day went because I was teaching classes full of kids who were absolutely parched and needed someone to approve them, tell them they were doing a good job, or most importantly, that someone believed in them and really believed they could make something out of their life. I then thought about how I was able to do it day after day, and I could only come up with that I do it only by the grace of God. Apart from that I was completely out of ideas. That isn't to say I don't need encouragement from others, because days I get an attaboy really give me a lift.

Fast forward to yesterday, and I saw one of my former colleagues was really struggling with teaching. I felt really bad for her because she's a fantastic teacher and always thought she was super cool... even though her husband was an LSU fan. I ended up messaging her and over the course of the conversation we discussed being a teacher that expects excellence from our students and how sometimes we're the only ones who do that for them. By the end it was apparent she was feeling better, and I really felt great about how my exhausting job could be an encouragement for a fellow teacher. So Mrs. Richard, if you're reading this, keep on keeping on, and remember, people who dumb things and can't believe they got caught don't just appear, they're just students who do dumb things and can't believe they got caught that just grew up.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

ShareFair Post-Mortem

This past Tuesday I attended the St. Mary Parish Technology ShareFair, and it was the first time I was able to be a presenter. As I posted last year, our parish's technology department puts on this fair as an opportunity to learn about new technology and how to use it in the classroom. At the end of ShareFair last year, I told a member of the staff that I wanted to be a presenter at the next fair, and they said sure. Fast forward a year later, and since I was volunteered appointed school webmaster, I was asked to present anyway. With gusto I threw together a fairly decent presentation on Web 2.0 that explained the concept, and loaded it full of websites to use.

My first session only had a couple of people attending it, mostly from my school, and they were a great audience for me to practice on. One of my fellow teachers told me afterward that her head was spinning when it was done, but found several websites she was going to look at later. My second session blew my mind in that I suddenly had twenty people in the classroom--a full house! By the time it was over their heads were spinning also, but there were also questions being asked all across the room and there ended up being a great discussion on giving students assignments online.

Looking back, I probably still managed to go over the heads of a lot of the teachers attending, but I think I was able to balance that with the sheer number of websites I gave on the handouts I had prepared. After presenting at a professional development day last year, I found that no matter how simple I tried to make it, it flew over their heads. What they did respond to was the three websites I gave to them. This time, I took that into account, but I think I went with too many websites. Next time, I think I'll go with fewer websites.

As for the next time, I've got a session up for approval with the Louisiana Middle School Association for their annual conference on using Geographic Information Systems across the curriculum. Haven't heard from them yet, but I'm hoping for the best.

When Is An 80 an 80?

Aaron Eyler writes a blog on technology in education entitled Synthesizing Education, and posted an interesting blog entitled When Is An “80″ Not An “80″?: Grades in Schools. At the end, Eyler states

I understand that the primary focus on grading is parental, community, and higher-education pressure, but we need to make movement in finding more effective ways to analyze students internally and externally. In other words, an “80″ in my district as a final grade should be the same as an “80″ in yours. This is a daunting (maybe impossible) task, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore it.

It's a laudable goal, but frankly, he's living on a completely different planet than where I teach. Back when I taught at Bethel, I taught seventh graders and was incredibly tough on them when it came to grading reading and writing. Parents complained at first, but by the end of the year the students adapted and their grades improved despite me sticking to my assessing guns. Fast forward to this school year: same grade, same subject, but radically different students. I gave my first graded assignment of the year and graded the same way I normally do. Their grades? 80% failure rate.

I initially wanted to be obstinate and make my students rise to meet the standard, but frankly it's an impossible task. The students I teach come from a completely different educational background and as a result, the metric I used to assess these students was worthless; there was no way my principal or my program manager would accept a failure rate that high. I ended up changing my assessment methods to meet their needs as well a provide a hurdle high enough that the students would have to improve to truly succeed. Is it working? Well, I do have a perfect bell curve for my grades so I think it's safe to assume my grading method works with these students just fine.

In the end, there is only one way to ensure that an 80% is an 80% across the board, and that is to use standardized assessments, which is what we do with our yearly standardized testing. In other words, the only way we could work to achieve Eyler's goal would be to make every single assessment we give to our students in every single school a standardized assessment. Of course, this is completely impossible, so I'm not sweating it too much.

Monday, January 4, 2010

New Challenges, New Goals, New Year

So the second half of the school year beckons in a couple of days' time, and I'm bracing myself for it. Looking at my students, I've seen some semblance of academic growth on their part but I still shudder in fear at the thought of them taking the iLEAP in April. Sure, I know a lot of it is out of my hands and chances are they'll do just fine. I assume that this is how parents think when they look at their little offspring, but considering I'm nowhere near being a parent, I'll just assume that.

Regardless, 2010 looks to be a year where I get to consolidate my career as a teacher and really begin moving forward. Apart from any unforeseen circumstances, it will be a great year for be being a teacher. Here's my goals for 2010:

(1) Finish off my Teaching Certificate

Yes, I'm one of those pesky Alternate Certification folks, and I have twelve class hours to go. Six hours get knocked out this spring in the form of Adolescent Psychology and Testing and Assessment, and the Summer will see me kill off the two literacy classes. By this time I will have finished the necessary time served to get an exemption from the state to bypass the internship/student teaching requirement. No more looking behind my shoulder, tenure beckons!

(2) Start up that Educational Technology Add-on

OK, so this one is a bit of a gimme, but I'm enrolled in the state's EIT course on technology integration due to me being a Web Administrator. I was apparently lucky to get in, but after looking at the coursework it looks to be some easy fun in terms of looking at technology in the classroom and how to use it. The class I'm enrolled in is the one that is given the least, so completing the other two whouldn't be hard, and when I am done with it, I get an add-on to my certificate in Educational Technology, along with 135 CLUs Yipee!

(3) Start my Master's Degree

This one is dependent on me finishing my Alternate Certification classes, but if everything finishes on schedule, I should be starting on my M. Ed. in Gifted Education this Fall. Considering at time I have an almost fanatical devotion to gifted kids, this was a no-brainer.

(4) Teach Social Studies (Finally!)

I probably don't have a lot of control in this, but I'm tired of teaching ELA. You would have thought those perfect Praxis scores would have impressed someone by now...

I could go on and on, but I won't now, because Share Fair is tomorrow and I'm presenting on Web 2.0. I'll post the recap tomorrow. Until then.