Comments ‘Round the Web, July 3-9

July 9

I’m troubled at the use of Superman as a symbol for education reformers…

Since his introduction into American pop culture, Superman reflects our cultural self concept of the ultimate “American good” at war with the incomprehensible evils in the world. Harkening back to this World War II version of the Superhero is a weak attempt to tap into a part of our country’s cultural pride and equate education reform with America’s role in stopping Hitler and the Nazi party.

The bigger question for me is why do some education reformers choose to evoke 1940s America (World War II) or 1960s America (“Sputnik moment”) rather than look to the future? Looking back seems counter to their agenda.

via TeachPaperless: Why Superman Would Suck As a Teacher.

Related Post: Superman and Clark Kent: Teaching’s Symbolic Superhero

Why Gymnasts and Flipped-Class Teachers Need a Spotter

The flipped-class method, sometimes referred to as the “Fisch flip” (or reverse instruction), is a way to reorder the elements involved in teaching class material. In theory, students view a vodcast lecture or presentation screencast at home and the next day in class the student will practice or apply what was taught the night before. The flip refers to the swap between traditional uses of class time (lecture) and homework.

"Jake" image courtesy of xac on Flickr.

There are many reasons why this flip works for students and teachers among them:

  1. Unlike live lecture, students can pause, rewind, or review the recorded content any time in class or on their own.
  2. Teachers can ensure all sections of all courses hear the same explanations. No more worries about class interruptions for fire drills, assemblies cutting class short, teacher or student sick days–the content remains the same.
  3. In a mastery environment, students can work ahead or take more time. Learning becomes self-paced instead of teacher-paced.
  4. Teachers and students take advantage of class time for experimentation, exploration, practice, and clarification.

I don’t doubt the benefits for many teachers and students, but I am concerned about how reversed instruction may be applied. Planning for and creating vodcasts or screencasts requires a certain amount of technical skill along with presentation skills. Enthusiasm for the flip is not enough without understanding what makes it work well.

Gymnasts and Their Spotters

In order to learn and develop the strength, flexibility and muscle memory necessary to execute backflips, handsprings, and other tumbling, a gymnast requires dedicated, focused practice. In order to learn effectively, gymnasts begin with a spotter who can help them develop their skill as they learn a new technique. Spotters are experienced guides who don’t take control away from the gymnast, but provide the support necessary to ensure the gymnast’s safety, encourage proper form, and prevent injury. Just because a child is naturally athletic and taught herself how to do a back handspring in the backyard doesn’t mean she’s ready to complete a series of back handsprings down a balance beam in competition.

Spotting the Flipped Class Teacher

In education, we’re fond of throwing around terms for educational practices and we expect when we use these terms that everyone knows what we mean by them: formative assessment, differentiated instruction, project-based learning, the flipped classroom. In practice, misunderstandings and misapplication of methods that work well in the cutting-edge classrooms lead some late adopters and critics to decry these methods because they’ve missed what’s under the hood. It’s easy to read blog posts and Twitter testimonials and get excited (or critical) about a new method but without understanding how it ought to be applied. For example, my first flipped class experience was for an online Masters degree course. The lecture consisted of a cram-packed PowerPoint presentation and a muffled audio recording of the professor reading the slide information while occasionally interjecting additional points that weren’t already on the slides. It was difficult to pay attention to the recording because I could read the content faster than it could be read to me. Just because the lecture and notes were pre-recorded didn’t mean this was a successful flip. It was an attempt, and like a gymnast who falls and fails to complete a tumbling pass, my instructor needed coaching and practice. In other words: what if my professor had a spotter to help him refine his presentation or give him feedback?

Innovation and trying something new are key elements to keeping education vital and helping students meet 21st Century Learning outcomes. In the process, though, it’s important to remember we don’t have to do it alone–and we’re better for it. Before I embark on a flipped-class venture, I plan to seek out my own spotters and coaches to help me avoid making mistakes that will impair learning in my classroom. What are some of these mistakes that need spotting?

  1. Creating presentations that allow students to merely watch passively.
  2. Replicating textbook content and replacing reading with viewing.
  3. Ignoring issues of recording quality and clarity.
  4. Conflating pizazz and technical showmanship with instruction.
  5. Expecting too little of my students.

QCK Coaches Code of Conduct image courtesy of Rick McCharles on Flickr

For more information and examples of a flipped classroom in action, visit the Flipped Class Blog by flipped class innovators Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron  Sams or ask questions using the #flipclass hashtag on Twitter.

Sacred Cows

I love writing. I adore metaphors and images so clear that I can lose the distinction between words and what the language evokes. One of my favorite poems is this gem by William Carlos Williams:

Image courtesy mcbarnicle on Flickr

This is Just to Say

I have eaten

the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

I read that poem for the first time in a high school creative writing class over half my life ago. Even now I can imagine the cold plum in my hands, the texture of the skin, and the sweet burst of flavor in the first bite that grows sharp and sour toward the stone. Poetry has always been a miraculous alchemy of text and imagination for me and I write from time to time for myself and for my students.

One of the life lessons I took away from that writing class has helped me shape not only my writing, but also my decision making. I’m sure at the time my teacher had no idea her suggestion would leave such a lasting impression.

K.Y.D. or Sacrificing Sacred Cows

When a writer has fallen in love with her idea and written every wild thought onto paper or into a document, the resulting piece can be an overwhelming tangle of images. In the revision process, it’s up to the writer to sharpen the focus or soften edges, polishing and refining the draft until only the essential elements remain. This is where the writerly advice to K.Y.D (kill your darlings) or sacrifice your sacred cows comes in.

"Old and New F-P Cows" Image courtesy teresia on Flickr

Sometimes we write beautiful descriptions that don’t advance the action and clog up a story’s rhythm. The writing is lovely, but it doesn’t achieve the aims of the piece; snip-cut, the darling must go. If the writer clings to tightly to every potential cut, the piece as a whole suffers. I learned through practice that the wild hare ideas and tangents that popped up in my essays and didn’t quite fit my thesis could become whole essays on their own if I allowed myself to make the painful cut and sacrifice a sacred cow. (Right now there are fifteen blog posts waiting in the wings; piles of sacred cows ready for reincarnation in a new form.)

Like my writing, my career has borne dear darlings and sacred cows, too. I vowed to return home and teach, embedding myself in the community where I had grown up; I now live over 1,000 miles away from it. I swore I would never teach middle school students, though my first job as a teacher was in a 7th grade classroom–and those students formed me as a professional. I believed book tests, lecture, and nightly homework made me a good teacher because that’s what I thought I was supposed to do. As I’ve grown as an educator, I have let go of many of my former sacred cows and replaced the lazy dear-darlings (worksheets, vocabulary workbooks, book reports, cookie-cutter essay prompts) with stronger, more interesting, more challenging, and more collaborative work for my students and for myself.

Fire Up the Grill

The trouble I’m having with the education reform discussion is that many proposed “solutions” are propping up sacred cows and dear darlings: standardization, testing, conformity, submission, uniformity. The talking-points have become so sharp from frequent use that they’re used to pin disagreements and divergent opinions to the wall; I’d rather use them as skewers and grill up some sacred-cow kabobs. Until education reform is willing to address some systemic sacred cows, no amount of testing or meriting or byzantine formulas for assessing quality will amount to any positive change.

Dear darlings and sacred cows on my list?

Here are a few sacred cows and failed experiments I’d like education reform to address. If we’re not willing to question the merits of items like these, we will be unable to imagine the schools of the future.

  1. Birthdates are the best way to sort children into learning cohorts.
  2. It is not only possible, but best, for students to learn a prescribed set of information for all content areas and master it in one academic year.
  3. Retention policies based on the one-year, 100%-mastery ideal.
  4. English teachers as the only ones held accountable for teaching reading and writing.
  5. Mathematics is a mechanical process to be memorized rather than a way of thinking or problem solving.
  6. Grade levels K-12.
  7. Letter grades that reflect student behavior or compliance with assignment criteria rather than reflecting what students know and are able to do. (And the false equivalency of “the A” with “mastery.”)
  8. Desks in rows. Lockers. Printed textbooks. Assignments written or printed and handed in.
  9. Fetishizing trivia and testing its recall.
  10. Outsourcing professional development.
  11. 180 school days that start at 7:30. Five-day school weeks. Summer vacation.
  12. The supremacy of data and research findings when it comes to “core” subjects, but not when it applies to the arts or physical education.
  13. Eliminating recess.
  14. Segregating students by grade level so that older students and younger students rarely work together.
  15. Music, art, photography, dance, creative writing, and design are luxuries failing schools can’t afford. These are frills parents can provide for students outside a formal education and must be cut to pay for more important things. Like more tests.
  16. Lesson plans (lines) instead of educational designs (maps).
  17. The best way to develop divergent, creative thinkers is to ensure they all give the same correct answers on a standardized test.
  18. Prepackaged “programs” or methods foisted on all when it only works for some.
  19. Insisting that all schools are the same in every way, ignoring individual student and community needs and desires.
  20. Anything which, when questioned, the only response is: Because we’ve always done it this way.

Superman and Clark Kent: Teaching’s Symbolic Superhero

Depending on who you talk to–and depending upon who is listening, teachers are either the laziest, dumbest, backward-thinking, status-quo-worshipping, bottom-feeders of society, or self-sacrificing heroes, model citizens, and our nation’s most precious treasure.

President Obama, in his State of the Union address said:

Here in America, it’s time we treated the people who educate our children with the same level of respect. We want to reward good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones. And over the next ten years, with so many Baby Boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.

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.

Read more of the President’s speech

Though this sounds hollow when compared to the anti-teacher narrative pervading our country. We’re supposed to feel better about it when someone tells us they admire us and could “never do” what we do. It’s also supposed to make us feel better when someone reminds us we work such short days and get to take the summer off.

Still, so few people know what goes on in our nations’ classrooms. Education reformers believe they’ve found the secret to shedding more light on what happens through standardized testing, but nearly every classroom teacher distrusts the method and its impact on learning. In the tug-of-war for the profession and purpose of education, teachers find themselves at a loss for good ways to explain what we do and how we know when it works. There’s a battle for the soul of education and the camps are lining up on two sides of the issue.

Unfortunately, teachers have often been as quiet about their successes as they have been about their struggles. In the absence of our story, one has been written for us.

Waiting for “Superman”

In searching for a metaphor or symbol to identify the new reformers and contrast them with the teaching establishment, Davis Guggenheim selected an image offered by Geoffrey Canada. It’s a moving story. A boy looks to the heavens for a powerful, benevolent figure to swoop down and right the world’s wrongs, defend the weak, and protect the innocent. A boy waits for Superman.

In the comic books, Superman is an alien, an outsider from another planet. A benevolent interloper who comes to the rescue when opponents with similar levels of power and evil intent threaten to destroy Metropolis. Since his introduction in the 1930s, Superman’s personality, identity, and mission have shifted to reflect current events and cultural perceptions. Our culture sees in Superman the magic answer to the problems we can’t solve for ourselves–the ones that seem to big or overwhelming.

Superman’s powers are impressive. He is strong in many ways, leaping over immense obstacles, outrunning bullets or trains; he can “change the course of rivers” and “bend steel bars in his bare hands.” In education reform, don’t we need someone who isn’t daunted in the face of significant obstacles and can prove their clout?The problem with Superman, is that in order to “change the course of rivers” or “bend steel” his strength turns to destruction.

Superman is single-minded: do the right thing–but his single-mindedness combined with his strength can lead to unintended collateral damage in the name of doing what is “right.” He shows up to save the day, but Metropolis is left to pick up the pieces and sweep up the mess after he has defeated the bad guys and hung up his cape for the day. As a hero, he is loved by his fans, hated by his enemies, and truly known by no one.

If education reformers are Superman, then what role do teachers play? Are we the citizens of Metropolis, passively waiting to be saved along with our schools, or are we the union villains to be defeated in the name of “truth, justice, and the American way”? Teachers must refuse to be cast in either of these roles.

Despite these concerns, Superman still may be the right symbol for education reform–and a symbol teachers can embrace, despite his unintended flaws. Not just because many teachers have claimed there’s no need to wait for Superman or Superwoman. Those of us in the profession see many examples of strong leaders who are making a difference in the lives of their students and in their communities. They are often unassuming, yet they are visionary leaders bringing change to their schools through their own actions without carrot-and-stick measures. No, Superman makes a good symbol because he’s actually Clark Kent in disguise. Clark, who chooses to hide his dual identity in order to lead a normal life while stepping up to save the day when called upon. Clark, the quiet, unassuming reporter may not garner the same amount of attention or recognition, but still has all of Superman’s strength and abilities. He chooses to work behind the scenes instead of making headlines and getting the credit.

Maybe it’s time for our inner Clark Kent to stop hiding our strengths and make sure our communities, our states, and our nation know there is no need to wait for Superman when Clark Kent is already on the case.

Artfully Scientific

Open notebook

During a professional development meeting about seven years ago, I started doodling in a black and white composition notebook. I don’t remember what the presenter said that made my mind race, but a torrent of ideas spilled themselves all across that notebook page. I created a list, a drawing, a diagram, a mess of tangled lines and arrows and bullet points.

The list was my attempt to define my role. That meeting took place at a point so early in my career, I was having trouble orienting myself in the classroom as the teacher. I felt unsure of my role and what felt like the many hats I was having to pull on and off in the course of my day. The longer I have been a teacher, the more roles I acquire.

I am a coach     mentor     doctor     lawyer

therapist     mother hen     model citizen     manager

police officer     judge     architect     artist     expert

musician     counselor     defender     designer

scientist     statistician     researcher     technology guru

peacemaker     writer     poet     cheerleader     librarian

…the list goes on.

I may embody each role for only a fraction of a moment as I interact with students, my colleagues, or parents. In the community I am a spokeswoman, an archetype, a strawman, a figure carved in marble, a selfish ineffective drain, or an earthly saint. Each of these roles, too defies easy borders and the labels stick firmly.

I eventually put my list away, but every so often I open my old notebook, trace the inked lines and ask the one question that won’t leave me alone: Is teaching an art or a science?

This blog, a brand new venture for me, is my attempt to grapple with this question at a time when education reform depends on it. The calls for merit pay and value-added assessment won’t mean a thing if they’re suited for a job description that doesn’t match what I do. In my heart, I believe teaching is both an art and a science and if we ignore or devalue one of those aspects, we weaken and devalue what it means to be a teacher.

For anyone who may read my ideas, please understand that I’m bringing my personal philosophical struggles into the public sphere and I may, at times, say things that appear contradictory or uninformed. All I can do is ask you to share your insights with patience and quote American poet Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”