Thursday, June 30, 2011

Staying a step ahead of evolution

Lest the title of this post cause the reader to get sidetracked concerning issues of science vs. religion, I assure you these thoughts have nothing to do with either.  These thoughts were prompted by a tweet from someone (whom I cannot remember or locate at the moment) which said something to the effect of we don't know how to plan for innovation, selling televisions, and this article about the abolishment of cursive writing in the state of Indiana.

Planning for innovation - some companies do it well.  Google is probably the flagship organization in this area.  There are others and you can read about them in The Future of Management by Gary Hamel.  It's worth the read if this post stirs you in any way.

Selling televisions - I work part time for a major electronic retailer in the home theater department. I was helping a customer pick out a television the other day when she said, "I want to buy something that will keep up with all the technology and advancements for the next ten years." To which I responded, "That's impossible. Technology and innovation do not work that way." I then explained using concrete examples of what has happened just in the last eighteen months in the home theater industry.

Abolishing cursive - This is one I've almost come full circle on. I'm currently sitting at about 270 degrees. For you trig people that would be three-halfs pi, but I digress. We currently home school both our children. My wife and I spent a lot of time debating whether we should teach cursive to our children. In the interest of marital bliss, I gave her the deciding vote and she voted yes. No biggie. I kept my thoughts to myself about how no one uses it anymore; it's a relic left over from the days of reducing ink smears when writing with a goose feather; in fifteen years nothing will be written by hand, it will only appear in the air as you type on your holographic keyboard, etc.

The article quotes Andee Anderson of the Indiana University Northwest Urban Teacher Education Program as saying teachers haven’t had the time to teach cursive writing for some time because it’s not a top priority. As a result students’ handwriting is atrocious. Man, I can concur with that last one. I teach in North Carolina and I could have sworn that my students were writing in Sanskrit or Hindi this past year. My humanities teammate instituted the Handwriting Rescue program for these students. Part of the motivation was also because some research had shown that because students had not learned the skills of forming letters properly that seemingly unrelated areas of their brains were not properly developed and therefore they were deficient in other areas like critical thinking, problem solving, etc. I was sold because I was witnessing the latter skill deficiencies.

Such interconnectedness fit nicely into what I would tell my students on a frequent basis. We know now that the brain is fairly plastic. During the preschool and adolescent years, neural pathways get created and pruned depending on how the brain itself is used. Research has shown (sorry, didn't have time to look it up) that students in China think differently than students in the US partly because they use a pictographic handwriting system. It creates different pathways in their brains and therefore potentially different skill sets. And let's not forget this iconic article Is Google Making Us Stupid?.

I promise, this is nearing a conclusion. From a pedagogical and curriculum development perspective, how do we factor all this in? "Research-based" is the buzz word. Marzano is the point man here. He has gone as far as to say that use of such methods will cause an increase in student achievement. Justin Baeder has written an excellent critique of those claims here. Let's assume that the claims are true. Living by such methods only makes us guilty of getting what we always got because of doing what we've always done. If our teaching methods and by extension our assessment methods are based in the past, how are we planning for innovation? How are we allowing for the brain to develop new skills? Has the quest for the "science" of teaching really become a religion of devotion to a particular philosophy?

In other words, how do we teach the students of today for the world of tomorrow?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Spending a year offline - part 1

This past school year has been very interesting for me.  I spent most of it offline.  I don't mean just absent from Facebook and Twitter, the latter having been my preferred place of residence.  I mean almost completely offline.  I blogged maybe twice during that time.  I only participated in two or three #edchats.  I rarely even checked my personal email.  I think the bulk of my online activity was Googling for map directions or Christmas gift ideas.

What happened?  The short version is this:
  1. I had to take a part time job to make ends meet.  I made the decision to spend my little free time with my family instead of on a computer because I knew I would never get off otherwise.
  2. My access to technology at school dramatically changed.  
    • I went from having five desktops in my classroom to one, and that one worked REALLY slowly.  
    • The laptop carts were in constant use.  This was in theory a good thing for all the students.
    • My own personal technology died on me - my LCD projector, my netbook, and my homemade IWB.  All purchased with my own money.  If you want to know why I didn't repair it, see #1.
So the past ten months provided an opportunity to gain a new perspective on things.  First, the immediate consequences.  I felt really disconnected.  I am amazed at how strongly I felt about the relationships with my online acquaintances.  Besides all the nuggets of wisdom I used to glean everyday, I enjoyed the social interaction.  I missed the convos that would happen during #edchat or when other hot topics would pop up.  I missed trying to keep up with all the feeds in my Google reader and then sharing all that I had learned.  I missed our own local edcamp and the opportunity for F2F interactions as well.

Second, it totally changed the way I taught.  When my personal equipment failed, gone was the opportunity to stop whatever we were doing as a class and search for an answer or connect with another class for input.  I had to come up with new ways to make sure that I was creating learning opportunities that challenged all my students on all levels of Blooms and did so in meaningful ways, not just for the sake of work completion.  I found myself slipping more and more into not only out of vogue techniques, but less effective ones as well.  It was hard and I felt bad for my students many days.

I don't know if anyone cares about Part 1, much less any future installments I might write about. But I am an extremely introspective individual (some have called me a "frowny faced introvert"), so more will come.  I did learn a lot as a result of this year and some of it is worth sharing.  Thanks for helping me weed through it.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Today was great day. . .

Today was a great day in the classroom.  In fact, the last two weeks have just been awesome.  This year I am teaching 7th grade and I have one section each of general math, pre-algebra, and algebra 1.  And for the record, I am at least 1 month behind in getting everything on the standard course of study (SCOS) covered in time for Testivus and its annual celebration of end of grade testing.

Why am I behind?  I'm glad you asked.  I'm behind because we have spend so much time just learning and making connections.  I took more time than was recommended on a few key concepts to ensure that my students really understood what they were doing.  The last two weeks have been so great because we have spent that time going BEYOND the SCOS and exploring other connections.  Today I was just giddy with excitement as I watched all the little light bulbs flicker above everyone's heads.  I then shared why I was so excited.  Do my kids think I'm weird?  Definitely, but that was a foregone conclusion without today's behavior.  Did I demonstrate to them a passion and excitement for learning?  Most definitely/.  Did some of them experience that for themselves?  I gotta say yes.

Today was a great day.

What I learned about grading by working retail

It's been a really long time since I've blogged or tweeted, like almost six months.  Thanks to both of you who missed me.  Part of the reason is I've been working a second part time job for a major electronics retailer.  State budget cuts and frozen salaries combined with a continually rising cost of living have made this a necessity.

Like any retailer, the holidays are a major source of revenue.  In my particular department, we make somewhere in the neighborhood of two-thirds of our annual revenue between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Black Friday is a big deal for us.  I sold a lot of stuff that day.

I am not paid on commission but my personal sales are tracked.  On Black Friday, each person in the department had an assigned goal of approximately $30,000 in sales.  Keep in mind I'm not selling cars but consumer electronics.  That's a pretty high goal.  On the following Monday I checked our tracking system to see my totals.  To be honest I was pretty excited to see just how much I sold.  Due to a glitch in programming, not all the data was properly assigned.  In my own estimation I knew I had exceeded the goals for all three days of Black Friday weekend, but nothing was there to show it.  I was bummed.  Despite knowing I do not receive any commission or special recognition for my individual sales, I wanted to know.  Then I had one of those "oh great wise one share your wisdom with me" moments of clarity - this is how my students feel about grades.

This is my second year using a standards based grading system.  Assignments receive a score between 1 and 4, depending on the level of mastery they have shown.  At the end of the grading period I conference with each student and we assign a similar score for their overall progress.  I then convert this to a typical 100 point based grade to satisfy local requirements.  I tracked with my students from 6th grade to 7th so this system is nothing new.  However, this year I'm teaching math, a tested subject.  The kids don't really care about grades but their parents do.  Every time I send home a progress report with ones, twos, threes, and fours I have to answer the question, "What's my child's grade?"  These numbers are important because so many people measure everything by them.

So, what exactly did I learn about grading from working retail?

  • despite the lofty ideals of working /learning for the sake of simply doing so, we all want to see some fruit for our efforts
  • when you are being assessed on your work/learning, everyone wants it to be a meaningful assessment.  Don't just give me a set of exercises to do, connect them to something.  Do they really assess my learning OR my ability to recreate rote tasks?

The task for me now is to find a way to address and apply both of these lessons.  What suggestions do you have?