Sunday, December 19, 2010

Dissecting the NETP- Part Three, Teaching: Prepare and Connect

This is part two of a new blog series where I want to take a closer look at the newly released National Education Technology Plan. I outline my plan for this series in this post.

Part Three: Teaching, Prepare and Connect

Section Goal: Professional educators will be supported individually and in teams by technology that connects them to data, content, resources, expertise, and learning experiences that can empower and inspire them to provide more effective teaching for all learners.

We now get to how technology can be used to transform and revitalize the teaching profession. This section is the one I have connected to the most, thus far. I felt it made a lot of solid points and paints a good picture of the ability of technology to improve teaching as well as the quality of life for those with the hardest jobs of all- classroom teachers.

What I liked
  • I like the ideas centered around connected teaching. Technology really does allow us to connect and grow in ways never seen before. The chance to connect to other teachers in your field as well as content experts is a big deal. I definitely like how this entire section pushes educators in this direction. We all need to be heading this way, and those systems that figure this out sooner will be ahead of the game.
  • Now, it's not enough to simply connect. There has to be depth behind the connections being made, if they're to have any real impact in the classroom. That's why I like the time this section spends on the reflective process. I feel that this is where blogging can have such a large impact as a growth area for teachers. The chance to publish their reflections on their practices is a huge component to growth and will amplify whatever professional development is already in place. If I ran a school, we'd all be blogging together and inviting each other into our thinking.
  • This section focused a lot on teacher prep programs. I strongly agree that this is one area in education that needs a lot of attention, especially in the realm of effective technology integration for learning. I liked this passage because it's something I've seen with my own eyes on a near daily basis: "Young teachers are similar to their students in that they have grown up in a world where laptops, cell phones, and handheld gaming devices are commonplace...They are as comfortable interacting with digital devices and accessing the Internet as their students are. Still, this does not mean they understand how to use the technology of their daily lives to improve their teaching practices." (p. 44) This is very true, in my experience. It points to the fact that before we worry so much about effective technology use, we need to make sure new teachers are strong teachers...period.
What I didn't like
  • There is a movement mentioned in this section that makes me a bit queasy. On p. 47, the plan mentions that "colleges of education will be held accountable for the effectiveness of their graduates..." I've seen this idea floating around for a couple years now- that there will soon be studies that show the effectiveness of teachers, delineated by their alma maters. Now, I want to be clear- I actually think the underlying premise of this is strong. It would be interesting to see and be able to compare how certain colleges prepare their teacher grads. I think if it were done right, this could be a powerful motivator for schools of education across the country to really start doing things differently. The problem I have is that, once again, I'm sure the "accountability" mentioned will be based pretty strongly on standardized test scores. You can't use something as broken as standardized testing to measure effective teaching strategies. You just....can't. It flies directly in the face of everything this particular section says should be happening in the teaching profession. It makes no sense to measure effective teaching with rote, fill-in-the-bubble tests.
  • The other major problem I had with this section comes on page 48. In three short paragraphs (half a page), a section on "closing the technology gap in teaching" is addressed. Well, I'm sorry- but folks, this is the single greatest challenge we have in utilizing effective technology integration in schools. There are simply a ton of teachers that do not feel the impetus or do not have the SUPPORT to tackle technology effectively with their students. Without support, leadership, and perseverance, all of the wonderful things in this plan will fail. And there is half a page on this issue. That ain't good.
I felt like this section really described a powerful model for teaching in the 21st century. I like the focus on connecting with other educators and learning and reflecting together. I think the plan is right when it takes a hard look at teacher prep programs. While I had some misgivings in this section, I feel it was the strongest yet.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Dissecting the NETP- Part Two, Assessment: Measure What Matters

This is part two of a new blog series where I want to take a closer look at the newly released National Education Technology Plan. I outline my plan for this series in this post.

Part Two: Assessment- Measure what Matters

Section Goal: Our education system at all levels will leverage the power of technology to measure what matters and use assessment data for continuous improvement.

Measure what matters. Such a simple truth, but seemingly so elusive in education these days. Why so elusive? Well.....what matters? Ask 100 different teachers and you might get 100 different answers. Therein lies the main problem with addressing assessment from a large-scale, pushed-down-from-the-top model such as the one we're currently a part of here in the U.S.

Nonetheless, the NETP tackles the issue of assessment and how it can be enhanced and customized through the use of technology. There are some good, substantive uses outlined and also a few items that left me scratching my head. Here are my impressions:

What I liked
  • I really like the Obama quote that kicked this section off, taken from an address to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in 2009: "I'm calling on our nation's governors and state education chiefs to develop standards and assessments that don't simply measure whether students can fill in a bubble on a test, but whether they possess 21st century skills like problem-solving and critical thinking and entrepreneurship and creativity." This is a noble and powerful statement.
  • Assessment through simulations. On page 28, the plan outlines ideas for how online or computer-based simulations can be used simultaneously as learning and assessment tools. It speaks of students performing simulations and, embedded within the programming there is code that records the process that students go through when performing the simulated task. For example, a student is given a task to build a bridge across a ravine. Within the simulation, the student tries different materials, records why they did or did not work, tests the bridge, re-applies materials, etc. I like this approach, as it is problem based and allows the student to simulate something with technology that they otherwise would not have an opportunity to work on.
  • There is a good strategy mentioned on page 29 that utilizes classroom quiz systems (where students have clickers and respond to questions). Typically, I am against the use of any technology that promotes a more efficient way of asking rote, multiple choice questions. However, it's all about the use of the tool/questioning. On page 29, there is an example of a teacher using quiz systems to pose a question, then he asks his students to find others who answered differently and reason through why their answers were different. If there is a "correct" answer, this process allows those who answered incorrectly to collaborate with peers to learn from their mistakes. If there is no correct answer, this strategy promotes discussion, reflection, and persuasion.
What I didn't like
  • On the summary page, I take issue with the underlying assumptions this section makes about teaching and teachers. It states "Most of the assessment done in schools today is after the fact and designed to indicate only whether students have learned. Little is done to assess students' thinking during learning so we can help them learn better." This statement is CERTAINLY true of the federal/state testing that is pushed down to schools, but is absolutely false about classroom assessment in general. It's almost as if the inherent assumption here and in the rest of this section of the document is that if the state/fed doesn't force teachers to do formative assessments, they'll never get done. The fact of the matter is that teachers use formative assessments all the time. Just because they're not logged into some unwieldy data system doesn't mean it's not being done, and done well I might add.
  • There is more talk about utilizing technology to assess- by doing formative assessments frequently to take stock of where students are in the learning process. This sounds great in theory, but in practice I fear what it means is that we're going to be forced to spend all of our students' computer time on assessment instead of using technology to collaborate, create, and publish. There is a limited amount of time and a limited amount of computers in schools. We cannot increase the use of technology for assessment without decreasing the use of technology to actually work on the skills students need. It is a trade-off, and I can envision this increased use of tech to assess turning out badly in practice.
  • This quote on page 35 struck me: "An important direction for development and implementation of technology-based assessment systems is the design of technology-based tools that can help educators manage the assessment process, analyze data, and take appropriate action." Isn't this just calling for increasingly efficient ways to maintain a broken system? If students continue to be looked at as data-sets and all we're doing is making it easier to perpetuate this, are we really transforming anything?
I'm passionate about getting assessment right. And right to me is all about student reflection, problem solving, interaction, and growth. And it's not about numbers for me. How the federal government approaches assessment has huge impacts on where schools focus their energy, where teachers focus their energy, and where students focus their energy. Narrow the assessment focus to reading and math and guess what two subjects are pushed to the front of instruction (to the detriment of the arts and humanities)? Utilize assessments based on "correct" answers that address simplistic items or ideas and instruction begins to mirror this. With all the pressure of labeling schools (and soon, it seems, teachers) as failing or successful based on test scores, it's no wonder that instruction is forced to shift toward delivering content in the same manner in which it is tested- boring, rote, and straightforward.

But I'm a hopeful kinda guy. I hear things like "assessment 2.0", assessing critical thinking, promoting digital persistent portfolios of student work, and I have hope. Maybe this plan can help shape assessment so that it truly does "measure what matters"- a lot of the words being used aim in that direction. I'm just looking for more ways to do my part to make these words become classroom realities and I hope you'll join me!

Next week, we'll look at the next section- Teaching: Prepare and Connect

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Dissecting the NETP- Part One, Learning: Engage and Empower

This is part one of a new blog series where I want to take a closer look at the newly released National Education Technology Plan. I outline my plan for this series in this post.

Before I dive in to the first meaty section of the plan, I think it's only appropriate to reveal some biases I carry with me as I begin this process. So here they are:

  • I think standardized testing and standardized anything is harmful to students. Anything that promotes rote learning, filling in worksheets, spitting out simple facts without digging deeper is something I will naturally push back against.
  • I believe teachers are an integral part of the classroom process and should be given the freedom and support to deliver classroom instruction and create their classroom environment how they see fit. Teachers are the foremost experts in the education system because they are firmly grounded in the everyday reality of classroom life.
  • I firmly believe that in the 21st century we need to be pushing our students toward collaborating, creating, and publishing their work online.
  • I have qualms with the idea of "scaling up" reform. In other words- taking something that appears to be working well in one school and stamping it on top of other schools. It rarely works, mainly because the reason the first school was successful is not simply because of the program they were running- it's because of the people running the program. People/educators make the difference, not templates.
  • After reading Diane Ravitch's excellent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, I have a much more realistic and cynical eye on any type of federal policy.
So with all that being said, now you have an idea for the lens I'll be using when looking at this plan and my own personal standards that I'll be applying. For each section I'll give a brief overview, what I liked, what I didn't like, and some conclusions for what this means moving forward.

Part One: Learning- Engage and Empower

Section Goal: All learners will have engaging and empowering learning experiences both in and out of school that prepare them to be active, creative, knowledgeable, and ethical participants in our globally networked society

This is the first section of the plan and it rightly kicks things off with the learning component. The plan lays out visions for some critically important concepts such as "What Learning Should Look Like", "What People Need to Learn", "How People Learn", "Where and When People Learn", and "Who Needs to Learn." Each of these topics could (and has) filled volumes of literature and careful reflection on their own, so it's interesting to see a plan take them on in a few short pages each. Once each of these aspects are laid out, the plan offers action steps to obtain the goal outlined above.

What I liked:
  • The language rings true. A lot of focus is on expanding the borders of school, blurring the lines between school and life, giving students more choice and freedom, providing relevant contexts for learning, and utilizing technology as a means to help students self-direct their own learning.
  • Digital Portfolios are addressed. "Student-managed electronic learning portfolios can be part of a persistent learning record and help students develop the self-awareness required to set their own learning goals; express their own views of their strengths, weaknesses, and achievements; and take responsibility for them." (p. 12).
  • Leaning on science and research. The plan takes into account what we know about how people learn. There is an emphasis on research-based strategies such as how people are motivated to learn and how that varies from person to person: "We learn and remember what attracts our interest and attention, and what attracts interest and attention can vary by learner."

What I didn't like:
  • Too broad when speaking of deep topics. The topics brought up in this section are enormous. It felt like the plan was glazing over them, saying the right things in broad terms. That is what always worries me about federal documents- the verbiage always sounds great, but the devil is in the actual implementation and execution.
  • The contradiction between the learning model presented here and what Race to the Top seems to be pushing for- ie, more standardization of curricula, more standardized testing. This plan, sponsored by the federal government and with Secretary Duncan's name on it, calls for flexibility, choice, multiple methods of instruction, and pushes for student-directed learning. This plan calls for "transformational change" but Race to the Top is not that at all- more than anything, it seeks to amplify the policies of No Child Left Behind. I'm worried that this plan, even if it seems right on target the rest of the way, will not have teeth in it because of Race to the Top and what it calls for.
  • Something gnaws at me when the plan discusses the idea of layering what it considers to be best practices on top of "what all students should know". This quote makes me think: "A core set of standards-based concepts and competencies form the basis of what all students should learn, but beyond that students and educators have options for engaging in learning: large groups, small groups, and activities tailored to individual goals, needs, and interests." (p. 10). This bothers me and I can't put my finger on exactly why. Maybe I've seen too many students not given opportunities for choice, freedom, and engagement simply because they hadn't learned the "basics" yet- in other words, first we have to drill the basics into you with a hammer, then later we'll let you have fun and be engaged in school. I think that's completely backwards and dangerous. I feel that EVERY student at every level should have access to choice, freedom, creativity, and engagement in their own learning. I don't agree with the idea of "Once you get these basics down, then we can let you have some fun in school" and that's what this plan reminds me of in this section.

I like the wording of this plan so far and I like the direction it wants to move us. My only fear at this point is that while it may be spot on, it may be undercut or replaced by the current administrations' main policy push, Race to the Top. But teachers, don't let that stop you from creating a fun, engaging, tech-driven classroom environment of flexible problem solving and reflection!

Next week, I'll dive into the next section entitled Assessment: Measure What Matters.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Dissecting the NETP- New Blog Series

The National Education Technology Plan was just released this month. This long, ambitious document lays out both the general and specific direction that the Department of Education is looking to move forward with. In the next 7 weeks on this blog I'd like to dive into the plan, summarize what it is trying to say, relate what it means for teachers, and offer up my own opinions as to how it is laid out and structured. Any time a plan such as this comes forward from policymakers it is very important to not only wrestle with it in an attempt to understand what it will mean for everyday classroom teaching, but what directions we can expect to be pushed, poked, or prodded to go in the near future!

The name on the plan is "Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology." In Arne Duncan's accompanying letter, he stresses that "the model of learning described in this plan calls for engaging and empowering personalized learning experiences for learners of all ages." Within the first page of the executive summary, we find that the plan calls for "revolutionary transformation rather than evolutionary tinkering" (p. ix), a statement that I very much agree with. However, right after this statement are listed four major emphases of the plan that aren't all that revolutionary:
  • Be clear about the outcomes we seek (Is this a new idea?)
  • Collaborate to redesign structures and processes for effectiveness, efficiency, and flexibility
  • Continually monitor and measure our performance (Is this revolutionary?)
  • Hold ourselves accountable for progress and results every step of the way (there's the A word that often gets us into debate...)
The plan is then laid out into five goals with recommendations for states, districts, the federal government, and other stakeholders. These goals address what the plan calls "the five essential components of learning powered by technology: Learning, Assessment, Teaching, Infrastructure, and Productivity" (as a side note, that is an interesting order isn't it?). Each of the next five weeks I will dedicate this Tuesday blog space toward each section. On the 6th week, I'll look at the Research and Development piece included with the plan. And, finally, on the 7th week I'll offer up my final thoughts, conclusions, and ways we can move forward in schools to reconcile the plan with our everyday work with students.

  • Nov. 30th- Learning: Engage and Empower
  • Dec. 7th- Assessment: Measure What Matters
  • Dec. 14th- Teaching: Prepare and Connect
  • Dec. 21st- Infrastructure: Access and Enable
  • Dec. 28th- Productivity: Redesign and Transform
  • Jan. 4th- R&D: Innovate and Scale
  • Jan. 11th- Final Reflections and the Way Ahead
I hope you enjoy these posts and I hope they offer some insight into what will be coming down the pike in our schools.

Happy Thanksgiving!
-Steve J

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Yargh! The Internet is Down! (What next?)

Cross-posted to

We’ve all been there- we’ve put together a lesson where we take our kids to the computer lab and all of a sudden student hands (and voices) start shooting up and the worst four words you’ll hear that day start to echo off the concrete- “The Internet is Down!” or “My computer’s not working!”

I’m here to tell you not to panic and give you some ideas for productive/fun things you can do with your students when the Internet comes crashing down. In fact, the whole reason this post is being written is because this situation is exactly what happened at my school today.The Internet came crashing down in the middle of the day and stayed down for the rest of the afternoon. Across the building, varying waves of panic and discomfort spread. I’m proud to say that the teachers I work with handled it with a great amount of flexibility and patience (go JN Fries!).

I was supposed to write this post about the National Educational Technology Plan (NETP) that was just released, but after today’s events I decided to shift direction (stay tuned next week for more info on the NETP). In my office, I found myself reflecting on what I’ve done before when the Internet has gone down with a bunch of students in a lab. I figured I’d give some ideas I’ve used in the past and will surely have to rely on in the future.

  • Do some drawing! PC's have a drawing program installed on every machine, MS Paint. On a Mac, there is no preloaded drawing program but there are two free options that schools can install- Paintbrush (download here) and Tuxpaint (download here). Have students open up a drawing program and create a picture related to the content of the day. They could draw a flag that represents a fictional country in the region you are studying (or where the novel you are reading is set). Students could try to draw a character from a novel they are reading and explain why they connect with that character and how the author worked to make that character relatable to the reader. Students could create a logo, a family shield, or a representation of a math concept such as fractions. Once students are done creating, allow them to walk around and see each other’s creations (a makeshift art gallery opening!).
  • Allow students to get into partners and create a presentation in Powerpoint or a brochure in MS Publisher.
  • Many monitors now have microphones attached to them. If the ones in your lab do, have students work together to create podcasts relating to the content you were hoping to work on. They could come up with interview questions and interview each other. Or, they could roleplay an interview with a character or actual person that is being studied (interview Abe Lincoln, characters from Twilight, or if you’re really creative have them imagine they are inanimate objects such as a tectonic plate or Pluto).
  • Allow students to explore the other programs on the computer. Most of the time, when kids are in the computer lab their time is highly scheduled/regulated. Break that rule by giving them some time to simply open whatever they want on the computer and keep a short log of what they discover. Around the midpoint of class, have students share some of the programs they found that were interesting so that the other students can take a look at those too.
  • Have kids create a revolving story. Ask each student to open up a word processing program and start a story- just two to three sentences is plenty. This story can be completely silly or related to content. Next, every three minutes have students stand up and move to the computer to their left. Before they finish the sentence that was just interrupted, have them change the font color so you can track where each change was made. Keep revolving around and watch the stories grow and evolve! At the end of the period, pull out and display some good examples.

So there you go- a few ideas for things you can do in a lab if you’re ever caught, stuck with the Internet going down. Just remember- don’t panic or get too upset. Like everything else in teaching, roll with the punches and have fun with it!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Using Mahara for Online Student Publishing / Digital Portfolios

In my fourth and final installment of my "Power of Students Publishing Online" series, I take a look at a tool that is completely new to me,Mahara (found at I stumbled across this tool overTwitter, where I was able to ask an excellent educator from Nebraska,Brenda Smith, more about how she uses the product (by the way, if you're not connecting with educators yet over Twitter, what are you waiting for?).

That conversation led me to investigate further to see how well Mahara stacked up with other publishing platforms such as the ones I've detailed in this series- Kidblog, Weebly, and Wikis. What I've found is that Mahara offers some excellent features that the other services do not!

So, what is Mahara? It is an open source ePortfolio system. If you're new to the term "open source", this refers to software that is developed as a huge group project, with software developers pitching in through global collaboration! It is all completely open and free for anyone to use, create add-ons for, or make improvements upon (read more on open source here, from Wikipedia). This means that Mahara is constantly being upgraded by the users themselves and will continue to be free for as long as it exists- a definite bonus!

Mahara offers every user/student a portfolio space, a blog (or multiple blogs), access to groups/classes as set up by a teacher, access to forums, the ability to make friends with other users, upload files, create a resume, and more. As with all digital tools, the best advice I can give is for you to create an account and start playing with the interface. As you play and research, here are some pros and cons I discovered while doing the same:

**Special thanks to both Brenda Smith and Rob Griffith for their help in testing Mahara out!!**

  • Free!
  • Lots of storage space per user. Each user has up to 1 GB of storage space, which is plenty for almost all uses. If your students are creating a lot of videos or large images, they might need to host them elsewhere (like Youtube, Vimeo, or Schooltube) and link to them on Mahara.
  • Social Networking aspect. Users can interact with one another through friending on Mahara. This enhances the community atmosphere of the class.
  • Forums, Blogs, and simple file uploads. This is the only tool I've seen that seamlessly allows all of these for free (especially the 1GB storage space).
  • Ability for students to have several classes at once. As a teacher, you can create several classes or courses (or "groups" in Mahara). You can then invite the correct students into each class. This means that students can be set up in multiple classes with just one account. That is a big plus, management wise.
  • Ability to export the portfolio when the course is over. This is a big plus for me. One of the biggest pains in the neck when tackling digital portfolios is the question of "What do we do once the class is over?" You don't want to delete all that wonderful work- you want students to be able to take it with them and use it as they need to. Mahara offers this functionality under "My Portfolio" and "Export."
  • Requires students to have an email account to set up. This can be a major sticking point.
  • Some of the embedding is glitchy. I was able to embed a Voicethread and a few other tools, but Glogster, Timetoast, and Animoto did not seem to work correctly for us.
  • A bit more technical to manage. Of the four tools I've presented in the past four weeks, Mahara will take the most time to learn how to manage. It is not much more difficult, but there are more moving parts here when dealing with users, setting up permissions, forums, blogs, etc.
The bottom line is that if you have student email accounts and feel comfortable after playing around with Mahara, it may just be the best portfolio tool of them all so far! In fact, after playing around with it I may push for this to be our main vehicle for student portfolios in our county next year.

Have fun with it and let me know if I can help!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Using Weebly to Publish Student Work

In this third part of my "Power of Students Publishing Online" series, I'd like to introduce you to another great tool for organizing and publishing student work for the world to see. Last week we talked about KidBlog and this week I'd like to present Weebly.

Weebly is a website creation tool. It's free, easy, and allows you to create up to 40 student accounts that can start your students on the process of creating and maintaining a positive presence on the web. Here are some pros and cons to using Weebly that I've discovered so far:

Weebly Pros
  • Free!
  • Easy to set up
  • Easy to edit. Everything in Weebly is very straightforward for students. It is all drag-and-drop and exactly what you see on your screen is what you will get when you hit the publish button.
  • Unique URL addresses for students. This is a big pro for me. Weebly allows your students to have their own, personal, url address. They will look something like This gives students a web address that they can easily pass along to their friends and family- whoever has an internet connection can easily bring their site up!
  • Easily embeds files from other online tools. Many other digital tools offer the ability to embed themselves into other sites. Excellent tools such as Glogster, Timetoast,Animoto, and many others have what is called an embed code- some text that you can copy and then paste into you or your students' Weebly sites. In Weebly, simply drag a "custom HTML" box onto your site and paste the code in there. This will embed your file for you!
  • Ability to include easy blogs. Simply click on "New Page" and select "New Blog". Voila! Your students have their own blog space built right into the site. And even better- the blogs and comments are moderated easily by the teacher.
  • Students able to add content easily at home or anywhere else they have an internet connection.
Weebly Cons
  • Student content that is posted to Weebly is not moderated or filtered. In other words, if little BillyBob wants to upload inappropriate stuff at home, it will post automatically- it does not wait for approval of any kind (blog posts need approval, but everything else does not). This is not a major obstacle as long as you have strong and well-understood consequences for misbehavior online, just as you would have when they are in your classroom.
I'm a big believer in Weebly and think it can be used effectively to house student work online! Take a shot, create an account, and see for yourself how quick and easy it is to create a very nice, professional looking website with students.

And remember, just let me (edtechsteve) know how I can help!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The first and last post about myself

Welcome to the first and last post that I'll ever talk about myself.... (definitely a good thing).

Ever since my book has officially been released, I've been struggling with walking a line I've never had to walk before- the balance between promoting myself/my book (what I don't like to do at all) and wanting to make a big difference (which is something that, if a bunch of teachers read my book, I think I could make). I'm very comfortable speaking and writing about a wide array of issues surrounding education and technology, yet I am very uncomfortable when someone praises me or my work. I don't like the spotlight on me at all- I'd much rather it be on the great teachers and students I work with. This sounds crazy, but I'm even embarrassed writing this post- I just don't like talking about myself, plain and simple.

I am proud of how the book turned out and I truly believe that if every teacher had a copy, we'd have a much better shot at seeing some of the things we'd love to see in today's classrooms, with both instruction and the use of educational technology. And while I'm proud of it, it's been much more about the accomplishment of actually doing it and it's chance to help, rather than making any sort of money from the book or other opportunities that may arise as an outgrowth. In short, I don't want to be well known or well paid- I just want to help as many teachers and students as I can.

So why am I writing all this? I guess I want people to understand why I react weirdly when someone asks me to autograph a book or compliments my work. I want folks to know that I do appreciate the recognition and praise very much, even if I seem awkward when you're offering it (not that I've been showered with praise, by the way).

In the past year or so, I've toyed with the idea of becoming an independent consultant or even starting my own consultant business with some awesome folks I've met online and off. I've been lucky enough to have done some of those gigs and have some pretty great connections that I think would invite me into their buildings, districts, and businesses. I'm positive it would pay a lot more money than my little old teacher contract. I'm positive it would be challenging. I'm positive I could make an impact in the places I would visit. But after thinking about it a lot, I'm also positive that this just ain't my path. I'm not a businessman. I'm not a brown noser. I don't shmooze well. I don't like to be away from my family. I'm not a marketer, especially when it would be myself that I'm marketing. It feels good and freeing to know myself well enough to veer away from that path.

So if anyone is interested in knowing, I'm going to just keep plugging along- helping as much as I can and turning red when someone comes up to compliment me or asks me to autograph a book. Because that's me.

Let me know if I can help!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Using KidBlog to Publish Student Work Online

This blogpost is also cross-posted at

I'd like to introduce you to a free, easy-to-setup, kid-friendly way of starting a digital portfolio with students: KidBlog (

For those that aren't sure what a digital portfolio is, think of it in exactly the same terms as you would a traditional portfolio- a collection of a student's work that illustrates how they have grown throughout the course of the year as well as how well they have mastered content. The only difference with a digital portfolio is that the products are published to the Internet and are therefore great ways to interact with an authentic audience of peers and others.

Here are some pros and cons I've uncovered while utilizing KidBlog with students:

KidBlog Pros:
  • Free!
  • Very simple to set up a class and create student accounts
  • Safe and easy to moderate. In the Settings tab, you can choose how open you want this blog space to be- from completely private to completely public. Also in this area, you can set your class up so that every new post and comment needs to be approved before it is published to the blog. Comments are easy to preview and approve within the Control Panel.
  • Easy interface- looks and feels just like any other word processing program that your students have used in the past.
  • A unique URL. When your class is set up, it will then have a unique url that you can use to post as a link (ex,
  • Responsive support/help. I had a question about the amount of storage space and was contacted within an hour by someone that worked at KidBlog.
KidBlog Cons
  • Not much storage space. The default is 100MB, which gets eaten up quickly if your students are posting a lot of pictures. There are ways around this, however- you could upload pictures/files to a separate account (Flickr or Schooltube, for example) and simply have students put links on their blogs that point to these offsite hosts. Contacting KidBlog through this link, , can help this situation slightly- the support person I emailed with immediately upgraded our storage space from 100MB to 250MB. Not a huge jump, but every little bit helps!

In my school, our entire 7th grade class has started this year on the path of using KidBlog as a digital portfolio tool. If you get a chance, check them out and leave a comment! (Scroll down to the bottom of this page).

Good luck, have fun, and let me (edtechsteve) know if I can help you set up an online space for publishing your students' work online!

Next week, we'll explore the use of Weebly as a space for publishing student work. Until next time!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Reclaiming "Student Achievement"

For a long time in education, and particularly in the past ten years, we've seen the bastardization of the word "achievement" and I think it's time that we, as educators, start to take it back.

Ask just about anyone you know, inside or outside of school, what student achievement means and I bet you'd hear something about grades, AYP Results, and/or test scores. Our students, schools, districts, states, nations, and (increasingly) teachers are all being judged by this narrow, blind definition of the word achievement- results on standardized tests. NCLB has taken the meaning of this word and twisted it to simply mean test scores.

Alternatively, ask anyone you know, inside or outside of school, what their achievements are. I bet you'd hear a completely different story. I've tried hard the last couple of weeks to think of any institution or job where the word achievement is defined by test scores. Plumbers? Businessmen? Doctors? Artists? Writers? Journalists? Fry cooks? If you were to ask anyone outside of school what the achievements in their job look like, you'd see descriptions of people doing, creating, publishing, and performing. You know....actually achieving something!

Looking at my own life, what do I list as my achievements? As a classroom teacher, my achievements were measured in the way my kids wanted to come to school, the affirmations of parents that trusted me with their kids, teaching a low ability kid how to read, bringing out student passions.... and on and on. Outside of the classroom, I married waaaaaaaaay up. That was a big achievement for me. Writing a book was a big one, especially since, when I finished my masters, I had announced that I'd never write a long paper again....whoops. We can all list our achievements in life and I bet they'd be as far away from filling in bubbles as humanly possible.

Any realistic, serious look at transforming education has to deeply analyze and reflect on what achievement is. What does it look like? What are we wanting students to achieve? How are achievements recognized? What do they look like? How can we tell if a student has achieved? I don't know the answers to these questions, per se, but I'd love for the national conversation to be centered around trying to figure them out.

The point is- to become better achievers in life, we need to be doing, creating, publishing, and performing. Why aren't we viewing our students with this same lens? Why do we continue to allow the world to view "student achievement" so narrowly? I've said before and will say again- testing does not improve achievement- ACHIEVEMENT improves achievement. In other words, let's start getting our kids to produce some authentic work for an authentic, participatory audience. The more they achieve in school, the more they'll achieve in life outside of school. It's just that simple.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

How I became a better teacher

Last night's #edchat focused on the idea of "what is a good teacher? bad teacher?" It was a really interesting conversation and caused my mind to reflect on my own classroom experiences. I will never claim to be an expert or master teacher (and will always be automatically skeptical of anyone who anoints themselves in this way), but I know for sure that I improved a lot over the years. So the question I've begun asking myself is: How did I become a better teacher? I feel like if enough experienced teachers were to reflect on and answer this question, we'd get a pretty stark handle on ways to help teachers begin to improve.

So here is what I've come up with, when thinking back on those years:

How I became a better teacher:
  • I asked for and was receptive to help. Seems simple, right? I remember asking the other kindergarten teachers and my assistant principal (a former K teacher) for help often in my first year of teaching. Mostly it was about behavioral things that I was nowhere near ready to handle on my own yet! I can remember I had no idea how to help this little dude named Christopher. Someone along the line had told Chris that when he flushed the toilet, he would get sucked down and swallowed up forever (must've had older brothers, right?). Well he would freak out about it every day. He wouldn't go to the bathroom without me, he had to have the door wide open... this was a big issue! I couldn't leave the whole class alone every time he needed to go and at age 5, the rest of the kids don't need to be watching you in there. So I asked the other K teachers what to do. They helped me help Chris by letting him have small successes which eventually led to him being able to conquer that fear. That's just one small example. One thing that is tricky about this is that it's one thing to ASK for help, but it's entirely another to be open and receptive to that help. Without the second piece, you'll never improve. Be receptive to others' knowledge!
  • I had to make my own stuff. When I got to my first classroom, there were very very little materials. I had to scrape together books by going to yard sales, my Mom donating a bunch, and going to the library every single Sunday to borrow tons of books for the coming week. I had to create alphabet songbooks and print them out and bind them for every student. I didn't have the means to go and buy posters- I made them (and I am the opposite of me!). Now, how did this force me to improve? Pretty straightforward, really- I had topics/content I needed to teach, and had to come up with fun ways to do it. My kids needed to learn how to tell time by the hour and half-hour, so I was forced to come up with my own way of doing it (a giant clock and cardboard long and short hands- every half-hour the clock helper kid was responsible for stopping the class and leading us back to the big clock, where he'd stand and put his arms in the right spot- totally fun stuff). That's just how it went- every Sunday at the library I got to sit and pore through books that were interesting and hit the letter of the week or some other science/ss concept. I became better because I was forced to make my own stuff. I worry about all of these canned instructional methods these days mostly because of this fact- we improve when we're challenged to do so (just like our kids, right?)
  • I began to be able to visualize a lesson as I was planning it. This was huge and is something that helps me stay connected to the classroom now, even as I've been out of it for almost 6 years. As I was planning lessons, I started to play it out in my head- how the kids would react, how complicated the directions were, which kids would need an extra hand right away, how the transitions would work (or not work), how I could prep the materials so that the materials wouldn't distract from the actual lesson... everything. Actively practicing this visualization led to my lessons becoming much more effective. Plus I had already done the lesson in my head a few times, so when it was time to actually do it, it was like an old shoe- nice and comfy.
  • I was forced to see my kids for who they were. One thing I loved about my first school, Vass-Lakeview Elementary, is that for the first two weeks all the teachers had to man a bus route. The stated purpose of this was to help the bus drivers maintain control for the first two weeks but the underlying purpose was much more powerful- we all got to see firsthand exactly where our students lived and the environments they were coming from. I won't go into the squalor and living conditions, except to say that if you haven't seen poverty before- when you see it up close and personal and experience it in your classroom, you will never be the same if you truly care about kids. But seeing these conditions and then many more as they walked about my classroom every day didn't sadden me as much as inspire and embolden me. It made me want to do more, to teach better, to be warmer and more kind. That was probably the single biggest way I improved- being able to see my kids for who they were, what they were coming from, and what they were dealing with.
So those are the thoughts that jumped out at me, as to how I personally improved as a teacher. Hopefully they make sense to someone out there reading, and I'd love to get more folks together to reflect on this question so we can have something to hold onto and share with other teachers to inspire them to improve as well!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Power of Students Publishing Online

There is one major moment that every teacher loves to experience as often as possible- the look on a student's face when they finally "get it". The way their eyes light up is probably what drives a lot of us to keep at it over the years and inspires us to reach students in new ways.

Over the years, I've been lucky enough to have seen that look many times. But today and for the next four weeks, I'd like to introduce you to another big moment that you may have been missing out on in your classroom- the look on a student's face when they realize that work they have published online has been read and appreciated by someone in their now-worldwide audience. Whether it's another teacher, a parent, a community member, or someone from another part of the world, once a student comes to the realization that someone out there is looking at and appreciating their work the effects on their motivation are as priceless as their surprised faces!

This is the power of publishing student work online- your students begin producing authentic work for an authentic, interactive audience. It's this second part, the interactive, that pushes this type of publication ahead as a must for your classroom. Because publishing online also means allowing the public to view and, yes, comment on their work. This leads to students striving to be responsive to their audience's feedback, justify choices, and in short- produce better work.

There are many excellent digital tools available to allow students the opportunity to publish online (many are found in my book, Digital Tools for Teaching!). For the next four weeks, every Tuesday, I am going to focus on four specific tools that can help you organize and manage your students' online work: KidBlog, Weebly, Wikis, and Mahara. Every one of these tools are free, easy to use, and easy to monitor and moderate.

I'm looking forward to sharing these powerful ways to impact your students in new, exciting, engaging ways!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Scribblar - Awesome collaborative whiteboard

This blog will also be cross-posted to the Maupin House blog

I’d like to introduce you to Scribblar – a new online tool to enhance collaboration in your classroom. It’s easy to set up, maintain, and is completely FREE!

So what is Scribblar? It’s a whiteboard that is housed online at On this board, students can draw, create shapes and lines, insert images, add textboxes, utilize highlighter ink, and much more!

But the real power of Scribblar is its potential as a collaborative space for your students. All you need to do is send the link to students and they can work together on the same whiteboard, in real time! To enhance the collaborative nature, Scribblar also provides a chat space to the side of the whiteboard. And if that isn’t enough, students can also utilize the Microphone button to broadcast their thoughts and ideas to the group.

The rooms are easy to manage and give you control over whether the room is locked, public or private. Within the room, you can also add multiple pages so that students can work on different steps together. The rooms also persist online so that students can interact with the page both at home or at school.

The potential for this tool in your classroom is enormous! You could create rooms with pages of math problems for small groups to solve together, at home or school. You could post short reading passages and ask your students to highlight parts of the text depending on what they are studying. You might ask students to collaborate and create a new map for the country you are working on in social studies. And, beyond your personal classroom, Scribblar could be used with students in different classes from around the world. The only limit to this tool is your own imagination.

I encourage you to give Scribblar a try and report back how you were able to use it with your students for enhanced digital collaboration!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Trusting sources- thoughts from EBC session

Fair warning- this post was written on the fly before a session. Will hope to more fully develop some of these thoughts later.

In a really great Edubloggercon session we were discussing the idea of "crap detection" and how to help students navigate the overwhelming flow of information. In short- how do we teach kids what sources to value and what not to value. Angela Maiers spoke up and suggested 3 questions that students/ all of us need to be asking every time we are presented with new information. I don't have the questions jotted down and couldn't find them in a quick search, but they boil down to- making sure where the source is coming from, what is their purpose, etc. The questions were very good, but my thoughts aren't centered around the 3 questions as much as they are centered on the very process of attaching three questions every time we encounter new information.

What I spoke of then is that I feel the whole issue revolves around trust. My question is - at what point do we begin to trust a source? And if we trust the source, do we need to constantly question it? Or do the questions change? By trust I mean not that the source is "correct" or factual necessarily- by trust I mean I consistently find value in that source's information, whether it's a person, a site, a newspaper, a chat- trust lies in the value it brings to me, not it's correctness or even if it agrees with my own views. My thoughts are steering toward not having to ask those three questions every time we encounter information. There has to be a time where we move past that, or else we turn into spinning wheels- for time's sake, there has to be a level of trust involved.

Now, maybe the questions change once trust has been developed from a source. Or maybe they're the same questions, but not as often. What could some possible new questions be?
Has this source changed affiliations since I first trusted them? Have they grown/changed? If so, how does that affect my trust level? I'm thinking that once a source has built trust, perhaps this is a lasting thing...if they change or grow in a different direction, I would still value their input. So what situation would occur where the trust would be broken? Sometimes when I personally meet someone my opinion changes- they try too hard, they are more narrow minded than I imagine, etc. I guess my trust would be broken if I feel they are not as authentic as I once thought. Authenticity and connectedness to classroom realities is important to me.

Which brings me to my next thought- maybe it's more important to figure out what's important to me, before I think about how I place or not place trust in sources. So what is important to me when I consider sources of learning?

  • Authenticity. I don't like fake people or those that put on different shows for different people. If they are telling people what they want to hear and changing their story for different audiences, I've got no faith in them
  • Connected to classroom realities. This is important to me. I want sources that have walked the walk and haven't forgotten what it's like to try to affect change at the local level
  • Practical. I enjoy real, grounded ideas and thoughts. Something that can be used. I don't like those that get hung up on semantics. Yes, words are important, but action is more important than debate. There is a place for the more theoretical aspects, but their point should be to inform action. Those that argue/debate just for the sake of doing so are not advancing the cause.

As I head into my next session, I'll finish by saying that the process of information fluency seems to be as much about each individual's trust levels and what is important to them as it is the simple methods of "crap detection". Once you figure yourself out and what is important to you, you can have a much better chance of also figuring out how you apply your values to the information landscape.

Until next time!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The most awesome and free creature creator- Spore!

For those that don't know, Spore is a game created by Will Wright, the same dude that created The Sims. In a nutshell, it takes you through 5 stages of evolution- you start off as a cell, then you sprout legs and come onto land as a creature, then you become sentient and enter the tribal stage, then you enter the civilization phase, then finally you blast into space and try to dominate the galaxy. Every step of the way, the decisions you make affect the type of existence you will have- aggressive, social, economical, religious, etc. There are many paths to complete domination!!!

Anyway, the game is pretty cool by itself, but one thing I've been doing with students is to use a small piece of the game that is available for free- the trial version of the creature creator! Just click here, click on "Try Now" and download for PC or MAC)

The creature creator is a really easy to use builder. You start with a torso that you can bend and shape however you want. Then you start adding parts to the creature- mouths, eyes, arms, legs, noses, wings, spikes, etc. Then you can paint the creature any way you like. And finally, you can take em for a test drive to see how they would walk, roar, dance, sing, and do flips. It's a really sweet program. I suggest you download it at the links above and give it a whirl (You'll have to install DirectX on your computer if you're using a PC)

Finally, the other cool thing is that it is very easy to take pictures and video within the creature creator. This media can then be included in all kinds of other creations- slideshows, digital stories, movies, wikis, etc.

Things I've used this for with students:

Character creation - I've had students in groups on wikis, creating characters together. Each time they add an attribute they have to think about what that means for the character they're creating (for example, if they put the eyes in the back of the head, what does that mean? Is this character paranoid? Does it run into things? How does that make it feel or act? How does that impact others around it?). It's a great tool to activate students' creative writing- once they've developed a good character, often their stories flow much more freely.

ESL and Foreign Language students: We've done labeling of body parts, vocabulary of the movements, etc. It's a great way to work on these things. One Spanish teacher had her students create the creatures, import pictures into Word, then write a descriptive paragraph in Spanish about their creature.

Genetics: I've been working with our biotech teacher for the past two years, using Spore for her genetics unit. It's really very cool- the kids are given genotypes and are asked to build the parents and then work out the Punnett square to guide them in building the offspring. Then they create a powerpoint that pulls pictures taken in Spore and describes the genetics principles they used.

There are other things I've used it for like creating charts from the attribute points, having students try to create a creature based on a novel's description (Goosebumps work great here), and a few other things.

Here are some documents I've created to use with Spore- feel free to use/pass on to whoever:

Anyway, this program is FREE, it's VERSATILE, and is very engaging to students. I highly recommend you give it a try!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Final Thoughts on Ravitch's "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education"

First off, I enjoyed the book. I think it's appropriate to reveal the biases I had going into it:

** I've felt from the beginning that NCLB was a failed policy- another grand sounding idea that wasn't thought out through implementation
** I don't use the word hate, but if I did I'd say I hate standardized testing. I think it's a terrible way to judge just about anything that is useful in the 21st century and the unintended effects of widely spread testing make my skin crawl- I've had the throw up on my shoes from the 3rd graders and up nervously working on the one test that determines their fate for the year...
** I value people that are advocates of a certain position but keep an open enough mind not to cling to it when new evidence comes up. I don't mind flip-floppers- it shows that they're human, make mistakes, and learn from them

So I was set up to like this book going into it. It made me think, gave me some history I was not aware of, and offered real insight into how this all came about and how decisions about education reform are made. This is good knowledge.

The overall feeling I get after reading this is one of disappointment in the system. My eyes have been opened as to just how ed reform gets driven by those that are not educators. Rather, it's lawyers, politicians, and businessmen that frame the debate and offer their solutions. They are in power so they make policy. It's just that simple, and sad. And not only this, but they are obviously incredibly persuasive- whether it be because of their positions of power or the fact that money talks. They were able to persuade curriculum minded folks like Ravitch with their ideas about reform, after all. And the public was persuaded too (and still are). Throwing out bullet points such as these are simple, powerful, and persuasive: 1) the system is broken, 2) teachers and schools need to be accountable, 3) parents should be able to move their kids out of a failing school and into a better one, 4) all students must be required to be proficient. Who can argue these points? The problem lies in the SHALLOWNESS that this boils ed reform down to. Which is perfect for politicians because it avoids the hard truth- there is nothing simple or shallow about true ed reform. It's hard and blueprints don't work.

So I agreed with much of what Ravitch is saying, although I take issue that it took her this long to realize it. I'd love to see someone with FOREsight instead of just HINDsight here. I mean, how many educators saw NCLB's requirement of every child being proficient by 2014 and started laughing? Getting educators in the discussion and in positions of policy power would have halted a lot of what was wrong with the bill.

Here are a few things I take issue with from the book, however:

  • There is nothing about the impact of 21st century learning, literacy, skills, tools, or anything else. In fact, at one point Ravitch states that we should go back in time 10 1983 and follow the recommendations of the A Nation at Risk report, stating "These recommendations were sound in 1983. They are sound today." This is a huge mistake and oversight. The very meanings of information and literacy have changed immensely since 1983. Students now are growing up in a completely different landscape. The answer to ed reform for this generation is not to dig up relics of the past.
  • There is no mention of Bloom's taxonomy and how the testing movement has undermined higher order thinking skills. That's a huge missed opportunity here.
  • She relied way too heavily on urban reforms. Of course, this seems to fit with the overall theme of education reform- it is driven by what urban areas are doing. I would have liked to see her explore the effects of urban driven reform on the rest of the country's students. It's my opinion that it is a huge mistake to take an urban reform and try to apply it to a rural area. Having worked in both environments, there are simply things you can do in an urban setting that will never work in a rural area. School choice is an obvious one.
  • There seems to be a cultural elephant in the room. All throughout the book she referred to high performing students/areas and low performing students/areas. She speaks about how charter schools siphon off the top students and leave the public schools with the worst of the bunch. Let's be clear here- she's talking about whites and blacks/Hispanics. There are significant cultural differences that she is shirking (and no one really wants to touch, especially in politics)- there are real differences in how some cultures view schooling, learning, being smart, etc. I'd like to see more attention given to some of these real issues instead of skirting around it every time. Let's work on solutions instead of pussyfoot around the problems.
The way forward

So I leave this book thinking about how it affects my thinking and actions. Here are some thoughts:

  • Is it time to incite or encourage student protests of standardized tests? I know my wife doesn't want to hear that (she is an AP and a test administrator, after all!!). Bubble card burning? What can we do to wake the public up to the effects of all of this testing and the time/money wasted on it?
  • Encourage as many teachers to forget the test as possible. Just teach and do what's right for your students.
  • Keep pushing for collaboration, creation, and publication. Focus on high quality learning environments that help students be creative, flexible problem solvers. Because that's what the world needs moving forward.
And, finally, it is really interesting to finish this book and jump into Drive, by Daniel Pink. A great convergence that is really shaping how I think about things. I'm looking forward to starting a project revolving around Drive in the future- a global book club of sorts. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Ravitch Book Review Pt 6 (Final Chapters- 10 and 11)

Chapter 10 - The Billionaire Boys Club

Chapter Review

Here Ravitch dives into (and tears into) the foundations and corporate financiers that are changing the face of education based on the dollars they are shelling out. She goes into the history of big money philanthropists and the reforms they wanted to see happen. This leads up to the current decade, when a big three of billionaire entrepreneurs got into the education reform game by making targeted monies available to schools. The big three are Eli Broad, the Walton Family (Wal-Mart), and of course Bill Gates. They are what is known as "venture philanthropists" because they operate similar to a venture capitalist- they try to find something that will work and then throw money at it to make it happen.

With targeted investments, the big three have come to have a large impact over American Education Reform, at least according to Ravitch. Ravitch argues that the idea of capitalist driving public school policy is "fundamentally antidemocratic". She artfully argues that there is a lack of accountability on the very folks that are pushing the accountability argument in schools. They can't be voted out of office. If their plans fail, there are no penalties. As she states, "they are bastions of unaccountable power".

The agenda of these foundations is choice, competition, and privatization. She points to the Gates' initiatives to produce smaller high schools as an example of a failed experiment. The idea sounded grand and made sense, but the foundation didn't take into account the benefits of going to a large high school- including, mostly, the much more varied course offerings, more ability to take AP classes, etc. The results of the smaller high school initiative were that attendance was better, but academic results were no different than other high schools.

Ravitch also touches on Race to the Top and how it grew out of these types of reform efforts. It is described as "NCLB 2.0: The Carrot that Feels Like a Stick". She then touches on the more human side of school choice- that parents shouldn't be burdened with shopping for a school. Their neighborhood school should be high quality.

My Reactions

I'm not a big fan of bashing Bill Gates and others that are pushing money into school systems. I'm usually not on the fence on things, but on this one I see both sides. On the one hand, I agree wholeheartedly with Ravitch that Gates in particular is pushing corporate ideas and driving reform more towards privatization and linking teacher pay to test scores- ideas that I think are simply wrong for American public schools. But on the other hand, I respect Bill Gates and anyone else that is willing to do what they can monetarily and philosophically to HELP. The system is broken and at least here is a guy that is putting forth some ideas and efforts to help. I have trouble faulting someone that is actively engaged in trying to help, even if their efforts are misguided.

And the other thing is- Gates wouldn't be able to push these reform ideas if we didn't LET him. If superintendents drooling over cash didn't bend over backwards and compromise their ideas to receive the handouts, they wouldn't be embraced.

I'm not sure what it might take to steer Gates and other corporate minded reformers away from the measure and punish/use data to steer every decision mindset. It feels like NCLB all over again- many educators can see the writing on the wall with these reforms- they will lead to corruption, increased teaching to a test, brainless bubble-fillers focused on the lowest levels of knowledge, and many students that are good at taking tests but bad at the kinds of creative and flexible problem solving this century will require in it's workers. The question remains- what can we do about it? How can we stop it and steer the ship another direction? This is a question I look forward to working on for the next 10 years or so. :)

Chapter 11 - Lessons Learned

Chapter Review

Here's the recap chapter. Lots of soundbites in this chapter that illustrate the main thrust of Ravitch's arguments. Here are some that stand out to me:

"The fundamentals of good education are to be found in the classroom, the home, the community, and the culture, but reformers in our time continue to look for shortcuts and quick answers."

"The most durable way to improve schools is to improve curriculum and instruction and to improve the conditions in which teachers work and children learn."

"Our schools will not improve if elected officials intrude into pedagogical territory and make decisions that properly should be made by professional educators. Congress and state legislators should not tell teachers how to teach, any more than they should tell surgeons how to perform operations."

"Schools that expect nothing more of their students than mastery of basic skills will not produce graduates who are ready for college or the modern workplace."

"Our schools will not improve if we value only what tests measure....Not everything that matters can be quantified."

"Closing a school should be only a last resort and an admission of failure, not by the school or its staff, but by the educational authorities who failed to provide timely assistance."

"Schools are not businesses; they are a public good. The goal of education is not to produce higher scores, but to educate children to become responsible people with well-developed minds and good character."

"Our schools cannot be improved by blind worship of data....If the measures are shoddy, the data will be shoddy. If the data reflect mainly the amount of time invested in test-preparation activities, then the data are worthless. If the data are based on dumbed-down state tests, then the data are meaningless."

"Our schools cannot be improved if we ignore the disadvantages associated with poverty that affect children's ability to learn."

"There is no single answer to educational improvement. There is no silver bullet, no magic feather."

My Reactions

I agree with every statement above. I really do. But I think she has some wide gaps in her thinking that are mostly attributable to the lack of attention she gives to how the Internet, Web 2.0, the explosion of mobile devices, and the changing face of information changes everything.

But I think I'll save those thoughts for my final post/reflections. That one will be next!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Part 5- Ravitch Book Review (Ch. 8 and 9)

Forgive me blog, for I have sinned. It's been over a month since my last entry. (hmmm you can take the boy out of Catholic school, but...)

Anyway, my spring break ended and craziness happened at work, as usual. I did finish the book a few weeks ago but hadn't had the chance to come back and finish up these review posts. So here goes, I'm going to do chapters 8 and 9 here, then 10 and 11, then a post with some final thoughts. Again- these are just my gut reactions/reflections and they will probably read as such!

Chapter 8- The Trouble with Accountability

Chapter Review:

Ravitch speaks about how the mantra of accountability came to be embedded into education reform in the 1990's. The movement grew steam until President Bush, in 2001, introduced NCLB- the ultimate throwdown in accountability, proclaiming that all students would become proficient. It was entirely tied to testing and "came down from elected officials who did not understand the limitations of testing."

Ravitch spends some time going into detail about the limitations of testing. She is not anti-testing, per se- she recognizes that tests can be quality measures if used to inform, assess, and guide a teacher towards reteaching. She told about how they are imprecise, have margins of error, only take a snapshot, don't take into account wide abilities of students, NCLB-based tests only happen once a year, etc. Basically all the stuff that educators are already aware of, I'd say. =)

She then gets into the real troubles with "accountability", when it's based solely on test scores. The tests completely absolve the student and their parents of any responsibility whatsoever. Basing high stakes decisions, money, and labeling on test scores leaves the door wide open for corruption. Test-prep actitivites emerge as a way to game the test. In short, "What matters most for the school, the district, and the state to be able to say that more students have reached 'proficiency'. This sort of fraud ignores the students' interests while promoting the interests of adults who take credit for nonexistent improvements." (p. 159)

My Reactions

Most of what Ravitch writes in this chapter rings true for me. It boils down to one sentence in this chapter for me: "When we define what matters in education only by what we can measure, we are in serious trouble." (p. 166). This is exactly how I feel. School should be so much more than filling in bubbles and forcing students into the boxes that testing puts them in. School should be about opening the mind, allowing freedom, nurturing self-directed learners, and of course creating.....collaborating...publishing. The jobs the majority of our students are going to be doing in the future will require them not to be robots, but to solve problems creatively.

I am not anti-testing- I'm pro assessment. Tests are necessary, but only if used as they should be used- for helping students. The first year I taught 2nd grade, at the end of the year there was a test we had to give in our county. One of the questions seemed so benign- it showed a bunch of shapes (trapezoids, squares, triangles, pentagons, rectangles, etc.) and asked the students to simply color in all the rectangles. My kids totally BOMBED it- I think only one out of twenty-four got it right. My class was by far the lowest in the county on this question, and it wasn't even close! Why did they bomb it? Well...I had never taught them what a rectangle was, pure and simple. I assumed they knew it...but they didn't color the squares, and most colored any shape with 4 sides. Did I get embarrassed? Nope. Was I worried? Nope. Did I care? YES. I cared and was actually excited to see it- I knew exactly what I had to go over. We did some fun little activities to address it, they nailed it, and we moved on. That's what assessment should look like- a guide and opportunity to help students understand something better.

But that's not what we do with standardized testing at the end of the year. It's not designed for the student and it's not an opportunity. In fact, what often gets done is the scores come in, then we write little goals into the school improvement plan to increase the scores a little bit more the next year...In other words, we take the scores from one set of students and, instead of using those to help those students, we use the data to guide decisions for the NEXT group of students (the ones that didn't take the test...). This overlooks one huge issue- every teacher knows that every class is different than the last. One group is nuts, one is low, one is high, one has the extremes, one has all the talkers, one has a lot more ESL students, one has huge attendance issues, etc. Boiling teachers, students, schools, districts, and states down to points of data is way too narrow.

Chapter 9- What Would Mrs. Ratliff Do?

Chapter Review

This chapter finally starts to personalize Ms. Ravitch a bit- she starts by talking about her favorite teacher, Mrs. Ratliff, who obviously had a big impact on her. Mrs. Ratliff was her senior English teacher. She challenged Ms. Ravitch to use proper English and to provide deep answers that revealed her thinking. Accuracy mattered. She had larger goals for her students- beyond teaching literacy and grammar. Stuff that doesn't show up on standardized tests. They dove into rich literature and the classics.

Ms. Ravitch sets this teacher up as an example of one that would not be valued in today's education world. This type of teacher has more and more trouble existing and functioning in today's high stakes testing environment. They are too pressured to prepare students for the test, their tests mirror the EOG/EOC, deeper thinking is not as much of a focus. If merit pay were around back in Mrs. Ratliff's day, she might find trouble eating....

Ms. Ravitch then spends a decent amount of time talking about teachers' unions and how they have become a lightning rod in the realm of education reform. The issues of merit pay, teacher tenure, teacher compensation structures all set battle lines between teachers' unions and market-minded corporate reformers.

Finally, she tells about the idea of good teachers being quantifiable based on data. Many reformers out there talk a lot about the effects of a good teacher on students, but what they're really doing is equating "good teacher" with "teacher that raises test scores".

My Reactions

So what we're talking about in this chapter is "What makes a good teacher?" What would the answer to this question be from parents? From principals? From businessmen and women? Most importantly- from students? I'd bet most of them wouldn't mention better-than-average results of standardized testing....and if so, that would be near the bottom of the list of qualities. Here are some qualities I think make good teachers, in no particular order and off the top of my head:

  • someone who can make students laugh at the same time they learn
  • someone who can tell you a personal story or some background about each student in their class
  • someone who identifies a students' interest and adjusts to meet it
  • someone who listens
  • someone who offers an ear more often than a pointed finger
  • someone who takes content seriously
  • someone who can make igneous rocks seem interesting
  • someone who tells students (and parents) about the GOOD stuff that is happening
  • someone who pushes and pushes and pushes and doesn't let kids give up
There are a million other qualities I'd list before I touched a stupid test score. And I'd wager most others feel about the same way. So this begs the question- why are so many "reformers" moving towards boiling a teacher down to their testing data? And why are so many people letting them do this?