Solid on the How, Struggling with the What

Yesterday I participated in the Reform Symposium as a keynote speaker. I’m not quite sure what distinguished keynoters from presenters, but it was pretty cool presenting virtually and having an audience of over 100 people that participated with questions and comments. Their intereaction in the chat made my ability to share much more powerful and I appreciate every one of you who were there. You have certainly made me think more deeply as I read your comments and questions. Not only did I reflect with you then, but I am continuing to reflect on  the what and why of my work with students’ wikiwork.

I shared the work my kids have done on wikis and blogs and talked about the reflecting I was doing on that, the questions that guide me into a new school year, and the concerns I carry as well. I celebrated what my kids have done, as they far surpassed anything I could have imagined as we began. Some of their wikis are creative, some are creative acts of curation and all model communication in some way. All of them are connected.  All of them are personal. All of them contain passion and work worth doing.

Yet I’m NOT satisfied with what we’ve done and I am struggling with how to set it up this year to help students rigorously pursue inquiry. I am constantly thinking about how to help them work and worry and struggle with complex content that stretches them and causes more questions and more inquiry.

Having worked with wikis for three years now, in both structured and unstructured ways, I have seen students show passion around the projects they design.  I have seen intricate projects and ones with little depth. I have seen collections of pictures, or videos, or games, or game codes, but little curation going into those collections.  I have seen some collaboration, but much more parallel play online–the collaboration often happens in my classroom as they collect and post. I have certainly worked with them on the technology and understand the pedagogy of using technology, but something, in my opinion, is still missing in how they work with their wikis. It’s NOT just the issue of parallel play versus collaboration as I spoke to over a year ago.

I know they haven’t collaborated outside of our school much with other kids. When I have set them up to participate in online projects, though, it has only been parallel play, and not true collaboration. I decided to back up– back into my school to work on collaboration there first. I was thinking of Ryan Bretag’s comment in the parallel play post about pedagogy, about kids needing to be taught collaboration skills. So, I watched, prodded and led this year to help kids learn a TON about online courtesy and communication. They learned how to allow others to work in their space and be diligent about the need to monitor it. They learned to ask questions others would be interested in answering on their polls as they became more aware of their audience. There was a tremendous sense of serious play, feelings of power over their content, and a sincere belief that people would read what they wrote as they found their voice and developed niches for themselves–or struggled to do so. I aiding in building their readership by tweeting out links to their wikis, by inviting my colleagues into their conversations, and by blogging about their insights and incredible creativity and commitment to the work.

Are these pre-collaboration skills? Because I work with elementary students, is part of my quandary because my kids need experiences with collaborative activities and they need ways of understanding global connections and audiences??

As I begin to plan for this next school year, I am struggling with my learning objectives for getting kids to work with wikis.  Our county has a goal that we will “prepare all students to succeed as members of a global community and in a global economy.” I am attempting to do that by enlarging their view of the world. I am attempting to do that by helping them learn about publishing in a global community.  I am attempting to do that by helping them become aware of digital citizenship and their digital footprint. So, is letting them have pretty free rein over the content on their wikis okay, or enough, or should I be tying it more to the designated content for their grade level?  Your thoughts?

Standards Matter, But Kids Matter More–And Passionate Educators Make a Difference!

It’s that time of year. We’re entering the last quarter in US schools and that means standardized testing is taking over the classrooms and dreams–or nightmares–of many teachers and students. So many times, we go about that test prep all the wrong way. Sometimes, though, drastic measures are needed. I’d love to hear your comments on the drastic measures noted below.

I’ll never forget being in an at-risk school and the fifth grade teacher leaving mid-year–(his wife got a job elsewhere, so he had to follow. I love that story!) The principal asked if I would leave my “gifted technology teacher” job to go into fifth grade and teach the rest of the year.  I agreed, and we decided to departmentalize so I taught math and social studies and my partner teacher taught science and reading.

When the kids came back  from winter break in January, we assessed the heck out of them with practice tests to see where we were.  It was dismal. As I remember, the results showed that we could expect fewer than than 50% potential passing students in all areas. SO, we went to work.  The other teacher, Jennifer Morgan, and I knew we had to get the kids to believe in themselves–so our first job was to show them the data and convince them they COULD do it. These kids had had repeated years of failure and felt school was a place to survive–not enjoy or learn from.

We met with them and explained how the SOL tests worked, what a distractor was, and told them we would not only be working on test-taking skills with them, but also that we would make sure they learned the content. We wanted them to be confident going into the tests, and  we told them that we were sure they would blow the top off the tests.  (This was in a school where not one class before had ever met the standard score needed for AYP.) In fact, I was blown away when we (the principal, and both of us teachers) first met with the whole group and explained our plan and  Bobby asked, “Why do you think we can do it? My brother says any kids who have been here are stupid.”

Our response was to talk about the difference between effort and luck and help them understand that it was effort that would get us over the hump of not reaching our goals.  We spoke to the importance of believing in yourself and trying your hardest.  We told them we would NOT wish them good luck the day of the test, because it is not an issue of luck, but hard work and determination. AND, we told them we would be with them each and every step of the way helping them and supporting them.

We began by showing them their math test data and have THEM analyze it for the standards they didn’t know. Each child had a folder with the SOL standards in the front with the standards they needed to work on highlighted.  Bobby had skipped items on the test–the principal sat down with him and showed that if he had answered them, PURELY GUESSING, his score rose 4 points–so he clearly got that he needed to answer each and every question–and he became our evangelist for that test-taking skill.

Jennifer and I made up a system we called “SOL Points” where kids got points for participating in extra work on content, emphasizing  to the kids it was the effort that counted. (Extra work counted things like making posters to put in the hallways so others kids saw them and that reinforced content, attending extra work sessions, reading books at home, being on time with homework and correctly doing the daily “do nows”, etc.) Each child had a folder where we DAILY reported to parents the behavior in class-and the students self-rated their effort. The goal was 100 points in a short amount of time to earn a special field trip to be determined by the students.  (In the end they chose a walking tour of our downtown mall–as many of these kids had little experience with traveling outside of their rural area.)

We offered OPEN after-school tutoring twice a week, and almost EVERY student chose to come, so we had groups of 20 kids for tutoring. We scaffolded the kids every way we could to help them understand they WERE learning and they WERE going to succeed–that their hard work was paying off.  We–all of the teachers–SPED, Guidance, Title 1 teachers, gym teachers, librarian, everyone in the building–worked to help this group of kids understand they were smart, they could do it and they just needed to work hard and believe in themselves. We integrated skills whenever we could, teaching stem and leaf plots through looking at test scores of the class- so the group could see them rising.

Jennifer had the kids practice reading skills with science texts.  We used Virginia Pathways to teach the history standards, having them do history like historians do. We used hands on materials to teach measurement–we compared bags of candy weighed in ounces and grams, and used students from the University of Virginia to help with the groups so they had more individual support and attention.

Our Central Office Science facilitator, Chuck Pace, and our County tech support person, Becky Fisher, came out to do “gym science” once a week during their gym time.  Our gym teacher did brain gym exercises with them during this time to help them attend to the hands on stuff Chuck and Becky led them through. Our county math people came out and targeted specific skills with individual kids as the test came near that still hadn’t gotten the skill–they literally pulled kids throughout the day and worked one on one or in small groups on the patterns, functions and algebra strand.

During lunch, I offered read aloud time–to share one of MY passions, so over half the fifth grade came to my room each day to eat their lunch as they listened to me read picture books and share great literature on my document camera–they loved hearing stories they hadn’t heard before, especially as I shared stories of my love for these books. We read Ghost Cadet during our study of the Civil War and took them to the New Market Battlefield–and an anonymous donor bought each child their own “Cadet Kit.” An observer would have thought they were given gold–but that kit was simply part of the power of the community we were building.

It was an amazing 5 months–and then May came with all the glory of the tests. Our kids WERE  confident.  They DID know it–and they did pass the test well enough so that our school earned AYP for the first time.

More importantly though, the passion we had–all of the adults involved–showed these students that we thought it was important for them to learn.  It was crucial for them to believe in themselves as we believed in them.

The scores were amazing–in the high eighties and even one in the low nineties as I recall.   Even more incredible, though, were some anomalies we found.

I had a Hispanic kid who was identified for Title 1 services–after working with her a short time, I pulled her OUT of title 1 and two months later she was identified gifted.  I did a spot check through our student information system on some of these kids and she is in 11th grade now, in Adv. German, AP Language and Composition, Honors Calculus, Honors Physics, and taking History at our local community college.

Our resident jokester–whose sense of humor often got in the way of learning–is now in Adv. History, Adv Chemistry, adv. College Algebra and Trig, Adv. German and Honors English.

A quiet girl who just KNEW she would never succeed at this is currently in Adv. History, Adv. Chemistry, Adv. German and Honors English.

Another girl is in Adv History, taking nursing at CATEC, and is also studying digital imaging. (These kids also got to take home digital cameras in fifth grade.)

And, is there a connection between our “doing history as historians do” and the fact most kids I checked are in advanced history classes OR taking history at the local community college?

MANY of these kids are extremely successful at school.  I wish I could say all of them are, but that’s simply not true.  However, I KNOW we made a difference in the lives of many–and it was because of the passion we educators had–and the belief that ALL children can learn.
Check out our gap data on history and science for that year–the first picture is black/white and the second is free and reduced lunch kids.

black white data 2004

SES data 2004

These were children who, as a group,  had experienced very little success in school.  They had very little belief in themselves as successful learners.  Yet, they learned that passionate educators exist–a whole lot of them who helped them AND that their effort paid off in standardized testing AND learning.

For about a week now, @PamMoran has been tweeting about joy of learning, and how the culture of schools and sometimes teachers either nurture or kill student passion for learning. The blogging members of the Cooperative Catalyst Blog agreed several weeks ago to all read the book, Wounded by School and write about it.  I think this is the week we’ll be doing that, so be sure to check it out tomorrow. (We post on Monday.)

Sparks of Learning

Recently I have read a series of other people’s posts and websites that have helped me realize  that we, as teachers, often sit down, roll over and play dead when we should be questioning, expressing our opinions, trying new ways in our classrooms and sharing with our peers. WE are the experts in our jobs and we should be educating parents, students and our administrators NOT to expect the same thing we have always seen or done in schools.

I have NEVER had a parent say  to me, “I don’t want my child learning the topics s/he is interested  in and learning to read and write in real contexts.”

I have NEVER had a parent say  to me, “I don’t believe you can see what my child knows and doesn’t know about reading and writing by looking at their writing (blog, wiki, etc.)  as they read and write in real ways.”

I have NEVER had a principal say to me, “Your students are so animated and alive with excitement about learning every time I come into your room. PLEASE STOP MAKING THEM  FEEL THAT WAY!”

You see, I began as a primary teacher.  I became a primary teacher because a saleslady discriminated against me as a child, and when it happened, I decided right then and there I would grow up and work with children and NEVER treat them the way that  saleslady treated me. I am not the only one who has had a childhood experience shape their views about education.

As  a primary teacher, one constantly has to be teaching social skills and showing students HOW to learn. In the primary grades, it is all about processes–learning to read using many strategies, looking for patterns and relationships in math and numbers in our world, doing science as scientists do,  studying history through stories and books, and writing about what we were studying.

I am NOT a cog.

I NEVER believed in being a widget myself.  I have never believed in producing my students as widgets. I refuse to believe that teachers are SUPPOSED to be widgets or create them.  (Read The Widget Effect for more info.)

I recently had a friend share that her son had told her he believed “teachers were people who were unable to get jobs as dictators.”

I am not a dictator, either.

I believe, instead, we DO need to be cheerleaders at times and that we need to also be important to our students–which means we need to cultivate a caring, respectful relationship.

I believe we know what is best for our students and that we buckle under to pressure NOT to do that, in the name of standardized tests, raising state test scores, time  issues, access problems,  and a myriad of other things that interfere with us following OUR passions.

I’m not going to roll over and play dead anymore. I am not going to sit by quietly while my Board of Supervisors and school board make budget cuts that will kill some of the best parts of our world class school system.  I am not going to watch programs be decimated by the economy without a fight.

I am going to become a gladiator for my kids, for my colleagues and for myself.

I am going make sure EVERYTHING  I do looks, feels and sounds like who I am as an educator–an advocate for the children.  I am going to do so with all of my heart and in ways that impact upon others’ hearts, so that they too will feel the call of leading the learning in ways that matter in our division and in our world.

I am going to share my kids’ passions with our school board–with our money guardians–and with my students’ parents.  I am also going to share their words  and their ideas as they share them with the world as to what they want THEIR school to look like and be.

Will you join me and follow your heart in your classroom, your school, your interactions with students?  Will you plan a lesson or series of interactions for tomorrow that will light a fire in some reluctant student and help them want to come back?  Then, will you share that lesson, that idea, that spark with a colleague to ignite them as well?

Let’s BE the experts and begin to lead from the heart, from the classroom, from the base as we build a quality way of doing business that does NOT kill curiosity, wonder and willingness to problem solve and figure things out. Let’s build that love of  learning we all dreamed about when we first began OUR trek into the world of school.  Let’s make sure the people who make the decisions that impact our very essence understand the effect their decisions have upon our future. . and our students’ future.

Learning Well

Last spring I saw a tweet about a collaborative venture called “Teaching Well” that was part of the work Darren Kuropatwa (@dkuropatwa) was doing with facilitating PLP work. Basically the idea was that one person started a metaphor/contrast about teaching and the other person finished it. There were some amazing contrasts and pairs of slides that not only showed the creativity of the teachers involved but also the philosophies and thoughts they have about teaching. I wasn’t officially part of the PLP, but Darren let me submit a slide anyway. (See the idea with many links explained here by Tania Sheko.)

Here’s mine.


It clearly shows I believe teachers have to be learners, and in rereading it, I think that it pretty much encompasses all that I believe about teaching.

Teachers can teach shallowly, to simply pass the tests or we can teach for deep understanding that allows students to ask new questions and thirst for more; we can do it alone or we can collaborate and share with our colleagues; we can do it because we want to make a difference, we want to help kids, we relish the AH-HA moments in our students, we enjoy deep conversations, we like the challenge of crafting questions that scaffold students to new understandings  or we can do it in a way that simply meets the requirements of the job to bring home the paycheck; as we teach, we see knowledge as simply a gurgling up, a beginning that leads to more questions, perhaps different questions and deeper learning as we make connections, synthesize, analyze and use that knowledge to create.

So many of us lament, day after day, that we have no time to talk to our colleagues, that we have no time for reflection, no time to build the lessons we have in our minds and hearts that go well beyond the state standards to the passions we have in our field.  Milton Ramirez (@tonnet) recently responded to another of my blog posts, saying, “Twitter really changed our way of connecting to educators and other professionals. I can not foresee other applications that can bring together so many interesting people at once.” While I’m glad to hear another person say Twitter is as powerful for them as it is for me, I think we have to go beyond 140 characters and commit to having deep conversations, critical questioning and more co-creations that tap into the incredible brainpower of the educators  sharing in the Twitter stream.

We not only have to share our strategies, our finds, our projects, and our methods of using the web with our students as we talk about teaching well, but we also have to have the conversations about how our students LEARN WELL. Let’s challenge ourselves to change the conversation from centering on our teaching to our students’ LEARNING WELL.

I’m wondering what my slide would look like if I borrowed Darren’s idea and changed the phrase to “Learning Well.”  Interested in thinking about what YOUR slide would look like? Want to play?

Learning Well

Please be sure to cite your source on the last slide.

Playing School. . .

I continue to struggle with meaningful learning in schools. I continue to think about what Ira Socol said–“Educators often think that school is the point, when it needs to be the path.” I continue to ponder his other statement, “So, it is not a question of whether these technologies add value somehow to education, but the reverse, can education add value to the communications and information technologies of our present day world, and its future?”

Then he states: “It is the job of education to alter itself to prove itself of value to the world which now exists.”

It is the job of education to alter itself. . . .Think about that. . . . Do we ever?

I have been teaching 35 years, and I still see classrooms that look very similar to those in which I student taught.  Teachers are still confusing the verbs of schooling and learning, as Eric T MacKnight responded to my last blog: “Schooling’s main purpose is to produce compliant, homogenous workers and citizens. Learning, on the other hand, has to do with our individual needs and desires for understanding, enlightenment, and personal growth.” (Thanks, Eric, for the contrast of schooling and learning.)

Donna Bills also noted that “If you only learn “school” and learn it well, your expectation is to always be led by the hand “step by step” into all new knowledge and skills.” I believe that too many times we teach students how to “play school” (also known as the hidden curriculum of sit down, shut up and listen) at the expense of modeling learning, at the expense of setting up situations where kids can develop lifelong learning skills or habits of mind or the propensity to WANT to figure things out.

I have a friend who up to a couple of years ago when teachers began to retire in a certain school in our district swore she could have gone back to that school and had the exact same schedule in the same rooms withthe same teachers she had as a 9th grader (and she is over 40 now.)  She also said, that as a district administrator, she had been in some of those classrooms and it appeared they were using the same lessons she sat though in the 80s. So, if it’s the job of education to alter itself, why hasn’t it happened?

What if. . .

* we all decided to incite passion in our students. .  .  To find out what they care about and give them a chance to interact about it. (My fifth graders RAVED about using wikispaces, but it wasn’t wikispaces or our activities that they mentioned–the comments they made were all about connecting and interacting and wiki-mailing each other and sharing and learning from one another.)

What if. .  .

*we all decided to use pre-assessments and actually used that data to compact the factoids we have to teach and THEN used the time we save to set up connected learning situations for our students?

What if. .  .

* we all decided to give each other (as teachers) feedback on what we’re doing so that it becomes more meaningful and richer for the students. (I want to engage my students in some true collaborative projects this year, NOT just parallel play ones. I want my leadership, at all levels, to reduce the silos and the parallel play in which they engage, as well!)

What if. .  .

*we did as Chris O’Neal suggests and build in “some simple sit-down times with individual teachers where we ask some of those “tell me about the students in your room” and “what does the typical flow look like” or “who do you sense isn’t as engaged as you’d like.” Then, as a team, what can we do about it…?” I’m working with my 3rd grade team tomorrow on their math curriculum maps, as simply yet another member of the team.  Will what I say and do make a difference in how we all look at teaching math this year, and more importantly will it make a difference in how our students LEARN math??

Will we think twice now about putting such an emphasis on teaching, or such an emphasis on schooling?

Will we look more to learning, both our own and that of our students?

Will we pull those backchannels out of silently happening in their brains and make them open?

Passionate educators are everywhere.  Will we pour that passion into helping our students show their passion to us, so we can support their learning better and help them connect to others who will help them think deeply about those passions?

Can we

Will we

live up to the job of education to alter itself to prove itself of value to the world which now exists?

If we can, we’ll engage those kids who have checked out, who have disengaged, who have no use for the stupid game of “playing school.”

Passionate Educators Are Everywhere

This morning  I read a tweet by @e_shep who quoted “Inventing Creativity” The true pain of being passionate is encountering people who are not.

I think that’s a true statement because so many of us who are passionate are often perceived as dogmatic, or intense, or our passionate contribution to a conversation is misconstrued as “it has to be my way.” One reason I tweet is because I find like-minded individuals on twitter who are also passionate about teaching, learning, technology, students, quality interactions and real, honest, direct and sharing/caring relationships. So many times I have seen people who do not know each other face to face express incredibly kind sentiments to one another, and I have marveled at the ability of strangers to connect so deeply across this microblogging platform.

Today I tweeted out a question: “In thinking of passionate educators, are people on Twitter more passionate educators than you typically encounter day to day?”  I didn’t mean it as an either/or question, but as more of a continuum, or to help me think about the passion behind the educators on twitter.  In 140 characters, I certainly didn’t say all I was thinking, and the responses I got broadened my thinking even more.

Here’s a sampling:

  • UltimateTeacher@paulawhite I love what I do, and I happen to work with some people who don’t feel the same…twittering allows me to help and be helped

  • cwebbtech@paulawhite re: Passionate teachers – I think the teachers who are on Twitter tend to “share” their passion more frequently-globally. (And I’m appreciative of that sharing!)

  • icklekid@paulawhite hard to say if educational twitters are more passionate but tweeting and sharing ideas makes me more passionate about education!

  • tbrewstertbrewster@paulawhite Educators that use Twitter are passionate about sharing ideas, and modeling 21st Century technology skills for their students.

  • melhutchmelhutch@paulawhite passion can seem more evident when you are excited and learning so twitter people seem more passionate- others can be just as p.

So what I’m sharing is that it’s not that teachers on Twitter are MORE passionate than other educators.  Teachers who are passionate about teaching and learning are everywhere and show those passions in lots of ways.  Those of us who do it on Twitter may simply be more overt or public about it in this particular venue.

P.S. and being limited to 140 characters is probably a good thing for many of us!