Lets Make it Social, Transparent, and Integrated

I am a very lucky educator.  I have the opportunity be a part of building a new school for our learning community.  What an awesome task, responsibility, and opportunity.  As part of this undertaking, I have been able to visit modern schools and not only see the physical spaces, but also observe the learning activities that occur in them.  It was so interesting hear to a lead science teacher tell us about students studying cancer cells and looking for ways to disrupt their growth. She told us how one particular student had the opportunity to work with bacteria and try to disrupt their communication patterns.  His research had progressed so far that he was able to meet with several Nobel Prize winning scientists at science exposition that he was invited to attend.  At first I was amazed that high school students were involved is this kind of research, but as it these stories sunk in, I could not help but feel that the students in my school were being robbed of these types of learning opportunities.  Should we simply say we cannot afford to put in a laboratory where this type of research can be done and leave it at that?  I am determined to find a way that our students who wish to study and research such topics can do so in a local lab.  At the very least, we must build spaces that promote active learning where Science is a verb and students can explore and discover.  Active learning must take place in all subject areas and we must seek to integrate them where we can.

The above photos were taken in Niles North High School’s state of the art STEM lab.  It is a large learning space with a corner “think tank”. This is where short, whole group learning activities take place such as a like a mini lecture or a student presentation.  The makeup of the room shows what is important–active learning.  The rest of the space is dominated by large tables, deep sinks, and a multitude of tools to experiment with.  A scientists dream.  We will not be able to replicate this room.  I am not so sure we would want to, but we need to see that learning spaces need to be flexible to accommodate different kinds of learning and learners.

Some of the schools we have visited have been very traditional.  The learning environments were not much different than what we have used in our school for the last 100+ years.  Rooms as boxes, filled with student desks, and a central learning focus that cast the teacher as information giver/subject expert.  Other schools have moved away from the traditional design and have spaces that suggest other models of learning.

The four photos above were take at the the Columbus Signature Academy High Tech High.  The school uses a project based approach to engage its students.  What stood out to me at this school was how the student work and the vision of students collaborating were the architectural features.  Learning studios were transparent with movable glass hallway walls, that when moved created very large learning spaces for large group instruction or presentations.  The hallways were filled with different seating configurations.  Some of them resembled restaurant booths, others were library like configurations with comfortable furniture.  Design shaping function or function shaping design….either way the way students learn in these environments reflects a social, transparent, and integrated approach that allows students to do real, meaningful work in ways they will outside of the “school” when they matriculate to other endeavors.  Exciting times indeed!


Excuse Me While I Rant for a Bit

Accountability.  What a concept.  Who is accountable when a parole board mandates a juvenile felon enroll and attend school?  Who is accountable when a student misses more than 10% of the days in a school year?  Whose fault is it when a student drops out simply because they see no purpose in taking a fourth year of English or the mandated Consumer Economics course? Who is accountable for the billions of dollars spent every year in this country on testing? We have come to expect so much from schools through mandates that there is hardly any way for a school to be successful on all accounts. Yet we make teachers and administrators accountable for so many things that are out of their control.  Our system is such a mixed up mess of conflicting mandates that it is no wonder that so many schools cannot fulfill their mission!

We have to define what it is we want schools to be. Therein lies the problem.  We really are not sure what we want them to be. Do we want schools to be pre-college preparation assembly lines?  Do we want schools to be places to drop kids off so parents can work?  Do we want them to prepare kids for vocations?  Should they be engaging environments that encourage our kids to explore their interests and be challenged to find a passion to pursuit?  Do want our schools to compete for championships on the gridiron or in the gym?  Do we want a school that has the highest test scores in comparison to those in the next community?  Should we have an award winning band?  Should our Fine Arts Department put on productions worthy of state recognition?  What our schools are is a reflection of our communities.  Communities define their needs as well as traditions and their schools take on a mission to meet those expectations.  The governments of the states as well as the federal government have continually eroded the local control of schools to the point that we are moving to a common curriculum and standardized way of assessing learning despite differing local and regional educational missions.  The local school has become the victim of the state and national governments’ need to “fix” identified problems that were more than likely created by government intervention in the first place.  Show me the evidence that federal and state interventions in schools have made a measureable, positive difference in our school today.  We want to legislate our way to success.  Government can solve every problem from a distant seat.  We have to get back to empowering local people to solve their own problems!

Has School Reform Pushed Done a “Dirty Job” on Vocational Preparation?

“I believe we need a national PR campaign for skilled labor.” “A big one.” The nation needs younger workers to replace the many tradespeople over 55 who are retiring because “closing the skills gap doesn’t just benefit future tradesmen and the companies desperate to hire them. It benefits people like me, and anyone else who shares my addiction to paved roads, reliable bridges, heating, air conditioning, and indoor plumbing.–Mike Rowe”

During the past two months a group of folks that represent interests from local businesses to education to talk about how we can fill a large pool of open jobs in our community. It seems unfathomable in a country where the unemployment rate is above 8% that so many job opportunities remain unfilled! Our local industries will be looking to fill as many as 200 positions this coming spring and are very worried they might not find enough reliable labor to fill them. Could part of the problem be that we have bought into the belief that all high school students have to be college ready and have over dosed many of our students on “academic” pursuits? When school accountability is discussed, you never hear about measuring the effectiveness of vocational studies. Although it is not the sole mission of a high school to prepare students for post high school vocations, it is our mission to maximize the opportunities our students are exposed to during their studies here. Not exposing them to the trades and other vocational opportunities is certainly not taking into account the over all needs of the taxpayers who fund our schools. Paris Cooperative High School is undertaking several efforts to expose our students to ALL of their possible opportunities with the implementation of our Academy system this spring. We will also be sponsoring a job fair this April 24th in Eveland Gym. We want to be a partner with families and the local community to create multiple opportunities for our students.

Ensuring our Own Obsolescence

(This post started as a comment on Will Richardson’s “My Teacher is an App”.

How do we make changes in public education that will transcend the model of education that is so entrenched in many of our schools? There are no easy answers.  Many people outside of the education profession believe we need to do more of the same, for more hours, using the efficiencies that technology affords that process to somehow make it better.  Instruct, measure, adjust….repeat—Simple formula.  The ed-reform story made popular today is centered on what is measured in American schools and how it does not equal what is measured elsewhere.  Current reform-minded-thinking espouses that those who staff our institutions are the problem.  Teachers cannot (or will not) instruct, students do not get what they need, measurement results are comparatively poor.  As a result, pop-reformers want to take the obsolete transaction of teacher gives knowledge-student takes knowledge-school measures knowledge gained model and make it work #morebetterharder, in a standardized way. In a time before the ubiquitous availability of information, this type of transaction for learning was worth the cost for students, teachers and our economy.  The conditions have changed.  Technology can make that kind of education more efficient.  SO WHAT!  Kids today can access any information they want when it is wanted.  BUT, can they effectively learn to share, co-create, explore, and make new meaning as well as have meaningful experiential learning via on-line modes only?  Where do those skills and experiences fit into the model of education that is being pushed today?  Environments that are conducive to a learning experience that is deeper and more meaningful, that go beyond simple instruction and regurgitation are not so simple. Public education needs to embrace those aspects of a learning culture that can’t be made more efficient by a bunch of computers that programmatically measure a century’s old pedagogy’s affect on student knowledge acquisition.   There is certainly a richness that can occur in a live classroom, or at least a class that blends live instruction with online instruction, that cannot be matched by a Kahn Academy-styled program based on century’s old learning models.  What I do know is this; we have to offer an alternative change model that contrasts with those being offered by the politician-corporate reformers.  We need to talk about learning and define those skills which today’s students need to construct the world that they choose to build.  The initiative may be daunting, but if we do not under take it, who will?  If we continue to do instruction as it has been done for the past 100 years, we are ensuring our own obsolescence.

Picture made available via bupowski’s photostream on Flickr


Speaking of Silk Purses and Sow’s Ears: The Problem with Standardization

Some folks presume to know what kind of “silk purse” we all need to carry. The problem with that is not only does everyone not want a silk purse, there are a lot of people that want no purse at all!  All encompassing presumptions make for bad decision making!  (and yes, I am speaking metaphorically here)  The part that really starts to get under my skin is when both educators and the experts who are not educators start talking about “sows’ ears”!  Standardization on a large scale is what is wrong with what we do now, and it forces us to think about what we teach, and whom we teach in the wrong way!  For what it is worth,  don’t ever refer to my kids, or students anywhere as “sows’ ears” (or bad blueberries or whatever euphemism was used in the last story you heard about unteachable kids).  You see, we need to individualize where we can, “unstandardize”, if you will, so all of our kids can reach their potential.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of by Randy Son Of Robert on Flickr

Has Blogging Rocked My World?

What has creating the PCHSdirectorBLOG and writing about education and technology done for me? How has writing here changed me or the way I approach my work? Have I learned anything? I know this for sure……I know less than I thought I did.  Thinking in this public space has forced me to acknowledge that I do not have all the answers. Not only have I had to admit to not “knowing” it all, but realizing that fact has made me eager to learn more about just about everything to do with my passion, educating the youth of my community. Writing this blog has given me a great way to reflect and refine my thinking about many of things I do everyday and explore many of the current trends in education. When I was challenged to write a blog (by my school librarian), I had no idea that participating in the world of education blogs would lead me to joining a learning network that includes some of the brightest minds in education today.   In a way, writing here has led to a lot of frustration.  I think the online network of educators that I interact with are primarily progressive types who long for meaningful change in the way we do our jobs.  The lack of true change is very frustrating especially for an educator like me who has children currently in the system.  That fact has created a sense of urgency that schools have to change now. We cannot afford to waste time doing what we have always done.  Blogging has led me to understand that my most important role is that of lead learner.  I have to continually demonstrate for my staff and my students that learning is the goal, and knowledge is the result of our endeavors.

This post was written in response to the “How has Blogging Rocked Your World meme”

What Race are We Willing to Run?

Federal policy mandates as well as ed reform “pop culture” are quickly changing the educational landscape. What is the ultimate goal for the programs being pushed by these agendas? I have a few thoughts…..We let the Trojan horse in with NCLB. It was designed to erode confidence in our public education system. It has worked to that end wonderfully. It has also tricked our institutions in to the trap of chasing AYP by spending more time teaching to a broad but very shallow set of standards. We schedule the real learning for when the test has been taken. It is no wonder that people have lost confidence in public Ed. Today’s reform movement is just a different angle on the same principles, and the Obama Administration’s NCLB waivers and Race to The Top are just a magnification of past failed policy.  Its proponents aim to criticize schools and make them the scapegoat for all the societal problems the politicians can’t fix to get re-elected. They espouse expensive solutions so that there is lots of taxpayer money available for special interests to make a profit from the policy. What can we do about it? We must demonstrate our passion to the public. We must allow our students to pursue their passion and in turn make our school shine. Schools need to embrace the new world of learning that is available via changes in communication and adjust pedagogy to accommodate it. School leaders must energize their school communities to be involved in their school so that ownership of the local school builds confidence and pride in the jobs that are being done well. We as educators must fight the negativism at every chance and take the fight to those whose agenda is political or profit based. Most of us are products of the public education system. It helped make us what we are. We owe it this debt to fight to make it better and stronger and to continue the great American tradition of a public education system.


Photo Courtesy of the Burwash Calligrapher’s photostream on Flickr




Avoiding the Revolution?

When did the stone age flintknappers actually realize that their skills had become obsolete?  Do you think they looked around at the folks who were working on making a hotter fire, shake their heads and say, “We have to emphasize stone flaking and drawing pictures of our hunts on the walls of caves. This playing with fire will only get us burnt–glowing coals, UGH!”?  And did they think: “All of our young men and women must show proficiency in the ways of following the paths of the animals and the seasons of the good plants!”  “If we don’t manage to teach our youth how to better do these things, we will continue to see a decline in the herds!”? “Everyone must join us in this race to the edge of the cliff!”  How long did these people fool themselves until somebody realized that using tools that broke easily and took days to make did not make sense any more?  That controlling the animals and helping the plants grow in the same place each year made things easier? Obviously the transition from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age happened, but somewhere in the interim there were groups of people that did not make the transition and suffered in the competition with their neighbors.  I think we are at that point now.  So much of what we have our students do in school is obsolete.  Why do we continue to insist our students spend hours learning and practicing skills that new technologies have made obsolete?  School is not about just learning information any more.  It is about using information, collaborating to solve problems, and experimenting to create new understanding.  The tools we have today in our pockets make much of what we have done in the past century, well, things of the past.  If our students can do our assignments and pass our tests with out so much as doing any more than  “Googling” the answers, we are not preparing them for the world in which they live.  We need to embrace the social tools of today, give up the stage, and embrace the new role that teachers must fill today.  Every revolution in history eventually favored those who embraced change.  It is time to move on, throw away our need to hold on to what we know, and work toward creating the next generation of education.

Photo courtesy of the Hull City Council’s photostream on Flickr

And Now for Something Completely Different

Wow. Sometimes it is so amazing how much I can learn by casually looking at what folks are saying or sharing on Twitter. I have come into contact with so many educator/educational thinkers and their ideas by engaging in the social learning network that has grown out of blogging a little bit and and reading the ideas of others and by looking at the resources they share. My participation in this Personal Learning Network has taught me more about education in the last two years than I learned in all of the education classes I took while earning three degrees. Do not get me wrong, what I learned in those programs was important, just not as relevant to the everyday job as the words of those living it everyday (in case one of my old professors is reading). Reading about education almost always leads me into thinking about changes that need to be made.   Inevitably I think about all the things we do just because we have always done them.  My thinking amost always makes me question why we do things that no longer make sense, such as:

1. The agrarian school calendar. Tell me it makes sense to take two and half months off every summer. Don’t’ get me wrong, I love having that time, the teachers love having that time as do the kids. Penguins love Antarctica. That does not mean it makes sense! 

2. Sitting students in rows, talking at them, having them answer questions out the book, having them copy and memorize things with no depth of understanding. 

3. Why do we have students do anything that they only do in school? How many fill in the blank worksheets do you do on a daily basis (students don’t answer)? I have not had to do any fill in the bubble tests since I took the test to prove I was competent enough to hold an administrator’s license (I heard that! and let that be proof positive that not all tests are valid). 

4. Make students sit in a seat so many hours before they can earn credit towards graduation. The Carnegie system was good for days gone by. When the information was scarce, only to be found in the textbook, at school, or in the library, maybe this made sense. Not today. Today it amounts to day care for a lot of students. I kid you not, I know of a student who failed a math class twice, but when given the opportunity to take the course online, at his own pace, he finished the course in eight weeks—with a good grade! 

5. Teaching students in a schedule in which they go to as many as eight different classes a day, where very little if any connection is made to what they were exposed to the hour before or what they will encounter the next hour. 

6. Sending kids out into the world after high school with no clue about what they want to do and very little job specific training and expect them to figure it out and not make any mistakes. 

7. If you have read this far….please continue this list with your thoughts in the comments!!! Because I could go on and on, but I want to know what you think! I did not even touch on subject areas, homework, extra-curricular activities…etc…. 

Now let’s move on to those things we should be doing but we do not because they do not fit into the way we do things. 

1. I am going to get laughed here, but follow me, if you can. When my children were younger, they used to watch a program that I loved, The Magic School Bus. I loved the program because the students got to experience what they were learning about and the teacher was not always the expert (well she was, but I digress). We need to make small learning communities where strong relationships are built between the students themselves and with the teacher. In a model where they learn in an alternative schedule, free of the Carnegie system. Where students and teachers tackle real life problems, create real life solutions and have real outputs with value. Students would still responsible for learning many of the same subjects, but would do so in depth with a level of understanding and an opportunity see how what they are doing in school relates to the world they live in. 

2. Have all students involved in an apprenticeship. Where they spend time away from the “halls of education” learning from professionals in the fields of their interest while earning credit. We do this to some degree, but not to the level it needs to be. We have to quit ignoring the businesses in our communities when they say we are not producing the types of workers they need, not because we need to serve the businesses, but because we need to prepare our students for vocations and show them that they can contribute to the community by working. 

3. Give teachers time develop as professionals. Professionals from all fields of work spend time preparing to do what they do. We have to realize that professional teachers cannot effectively teach in the classroom all day and also be expected to grow professionally. They, as well as principals, need to be held accountable, but they also need to be given the time and resources needed to become master teachers. I think the National Board Certification program is a great way to help teachers to become better. We need to compensate them if they achieve that certification and give them the support to do it. If a teacher does not make that effort to grow or is deficient as a teacher then we need to counsel them to find another way to make a living. 

4. We must develop a set of standards that make sense. Allowing the politicians, textbook companies, and other parties that do not have a real stake in what students should be able to do other than advancing their own agenda is a mistake. Students, parents, employers, teachers, and institutions of higher learning have to sit down and determine what learners need to be able do before earning a high school diploma. Our standards now are too broad. We have too much to cover and the list grows every year. Why does the legislature get to pass law about what is covered in class anyway? We need to ask, what does the 21st Century learner need to be able to do? Is it different than what we are asking them to do now? Why? 

5. Again, this list could keep going, but these are my ideas…..I want your input. Join the conversation! What should we do that would be completely different? Remember what I wrote at the beginning of this blog? How what I have learned from my personal leaning network is greater than and more valuable than anything I learned while pursuing my advance degrees? Chime in. Change is going to happen; you may as well be heard. 

Golf, a Metaphor for School (and life)

I have been golfing a lot lately.  It is a way to recharge my batteries in the summer, and besides, it is good exercise.  My golf game is a lot like everything else in my life, I like to analyze it and try to make it better (my poor children).  I have been tweaking my swing and have really concentrated on rolling my wrists and occasionally “slapping my wrists” for more power.  Now, when I mess with my swing, inevitably I end up really struggling with my game for awhile and the other day was no exception.  My brother-in-law (bless him for putting up with me) and I went on a all-you-can-play-for-one-price outing the other day.  The day started bad and got worse.  I was lucky to hit the ball in the right direction and more than 40 yards.  We analyzed what was wrong and decided I was leaving the face of my club open on every shot.  Simple fix.  Close the face. Turn the wrists.  I did this, over and over and over, to the point where I was taking a 1/4 swing at the ball and was still missing for the most part.  Very aggravating to say the least!  I struggled for 34 straight holes.  Then, by some minor miracle, or as my brother-in-law says, “even a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in a while,” I started realizing that my problem was my take away and back swing, not how I was holding my club at the point of contact.  I had been short arming my shots all day as a by product of the latest tweak to my swing.  The last two holes I hit the ball well (for me anyway).   I was happy to be hitting the ball well, but frustrated to have spent 34 holes doing the same thing over and over expecting different results.  What is my point you ask?  We are doing the same thing with our education system.  We have over analyzed what we are doing and are concentrating on doing things that will not really make our system better.  When our test scores are not good, we decide to spend more time prepping for tests and to take more tests.  Sounds like me trying to make sure my club head was straight at impact when it really did not matter what I did until I fixed my back-swing.  We have to fix what we are doing with our students before measuring how they do matters.  We can get “on par” with where we want to be, but we need find the real issue that is causing our schools to fail.  Focusing on student engagement, using the tools available today and creating a community of learners matter much more than test prep and testing.

Picture courtesy of kulicki on Flickr