Tuesday, March 24, 2009

21st Century Educator

This SlideShare Presentation by Kim Cofino is a powerful depiction of my professional growth the last three months. I find it uncanny the path I thought I was exploring nearly alone since I began to use just a few social learning tools at the beginning of the year is mirrored over and over again in the stories of others. Turns out, of course, that my journey isn't original or self-generated at all. It's exciting and exhilarating to know so many people in education are discovering the benefit of learning with each other for the benefit of the our students.
How has this happened? What is the driving force? Four months ago I was where most of my fellow staff members are, not seeing any need nor having any want to step out into the unknown world of social networking and web 2.0 applications. Each person must find that spark that's going to offer just enough light to see the possibilities, just enough heat to ignite a flame of desire to explore and expand this new horizon. It's likely not going to be the same for everyone, but I will make it my job to nudge and encourage wherever and whomever I can. Our kids deserve it.

Friday, March 20, 2009

TTS, Text to Speech: ImTranslator

Playing with this widget...I'd like it to fit better in the right side bar. The voice is good. Would love to know if anyone else uses it.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Limit resources dictate emphasis on test scores over instruction

This article appeared yesterday in the New York Times:
Where Education and Assimilation Collide
Published: March 14, 2009

Here is the comment I posted.

Living in Saint Paul, MN, we have many newcomers from all over the world in our schools. In the elementary school where I work we try to support them as much as we can in their classrooms and depending on their needs may pull them out of class into small groups for a few minutes a day to work on specific skills. We also are allowed to read certain tests to them, math and science for example, but not reading. Resources are limited, however, and dwindling and the pressure for these students to do well on tests is great and increasing. Because of this we have felt the need to group higher concentrations of students learning English into a few classes, so they are easier to support with just one or two extra teachers. Having them spread out into all classes the way we used to do would mean adding staff that we cannot afford. It would be ideal to let them be assimilated more and allow them to learn more from their native English-speaking peers, but the cost would also be greater to us if they didn't perform sufficiently on the state standardized tests.

It all comes down to too much testing and too few dollars. If the money being spent on testing was being directed to support instruction we could make more headway.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Testing no measure of student progress

Hare rant 3/13/09

The daylight hours are lengthening, the temperature in Minnesota is warming ever so slightly and we're beginning to see patches of hopeful green grass amid puddles of melted snow, but how do we really know spring is around the corner? We know because boxes filled with testing materials have been arriving and I have been busy installing the testing software on every student computer in my school. In the coming weeks all schools in the state will begin the high stakes tests that will determine whether they have achieved "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) or not.

New York Time columnist DAVID BROOKS op ed piece on March 12, 2009 'No Picnic for Me Either’ had much to say about President Obama's goals for education and I hope he's wrong in his thinking about Obama's plan because I know his perception about testing is wrong. This passage in particular highlight the problem with his position that testing students is going to tell us which teachers are good teachers and which schools are good schools. He says,

"Thanks in part to No Child Left Behind, we’re a lot better at measuring each student’s progress. Today, tests can tell you which students are on track and which aren’t. They can tell you which teachers are bringing their students’ achievement up by two grades in a single year and which are bringing their students’ levels up by only half a grade. They can tell you which education schools produce good teachers and which do not."

As my Twitter friend Ira Socol said this morning, "David Brooks has no idea of what 'measuring student progress' means. That's the problem." Unfortunately, Mr. Brooks and too many others believe test scores measure student progress. It is true that with technology we have access to more sophisticated tests. Our district uses the NWEA Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) tests, which actually do offer useful data in specific strands and concepts in literacy, math, language and science. Teachers can use the data immediately to address areas where each student needs more instruction and practice. These tests track individual student learning achievement and academic growth over time and are aligned to the stated standards. Basically then they are a tool to tell teachers what they still need to teach before the state standardized tests, a tool we use to try to get good enough scores to keep us off the "list" of schools not making AYP.

But what do the scores mean? The companies who produce the tests, the districts that purchase them and David Brooks et al would have us believe the scores tell us how much our students have learned relative to the national norm, and subsequently, how well they have been taught. If we believe this, we've allowed ourselves to be duped, for in reality, what is taught in school is only one of many factors contributing to test scores. The students' intellectual abilities and their out-of-school learning are among others. Because not all students come to the classroom with similar aptitudes for quantitative and verbal tasks or from the same cultural framework, these two factors fail as controls. Therefore, using test scores to measure the quality of in-school instruction is illogical and unscientific.

As for what is taught in schools, here also, standardized tests miss the mark. By their very nature, the test questions are designed so that only about half of the students will answer them correctly! This means developers avoid the items answered correctly by too many or by too few students. In this way, the tests produce a broad range of scores based on "middle difficulty" items. Because score variance is important to test interpreters, questions on which students perform well are destined to exclusion. Consequently, we can deduce the questions not making it to the test are not necessarily aligned with a school's curricula. It is no wonder educators are tempted to teach to the test.

When I began working at my school ten years ago it was a multi-age instructional environment where kids of all ages learned together in flexible groups in project based learning classes and literacy circles. When test time came we had a "Celebrate Learning Pepfest" and reminded everyone to get a good night's sleep the nights before. Not so in today's world. In recent years, because of the state's increased testing requirements and a MAP testing session every quarter, barely a month goes by when we're not testing or practicing for testing.

No, testing does not measure or encourage good teaching. In his book Standardized Minds, Peter Sacks asserts, "Standardized tests reward passive, superficial learning, drive instruction in undesirable directions, and thwart meaningful educational reform." Instead of encouraging good teaching, he says, preparing students to do well on tests requires teachers to teach badly. Conversely, he concludes, "to teach in a way that helps students understand ( and become enthusiastic about) ideas may actually lower scores."

And so Mr. Brooks, I can agree that schools must do their jobs and be held accountable for teaching our nation's youth. I agree that teachers who are good educators should be rewarded with the respect and compensation they have long deserved, but you are wrong when you say that this means testing. Testing measures only a fraction of the life skills we teach in our schools.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Constructivism and Technology: Creative Web Tools

Check out this SlideShare Presentation: Creative Web Tools For and By Kids is a slideshow presentation given at the CUE (Computer Using Education) 2009 conference.
One of the things I like about this presentation is the representation of teachers as co-learners. With the exponential rate at which technology is advancing and the amount of information is increasing, there is no way any one person can know everything needed to know to be an expert for more than a moment. We will do our students the greatest service if we allow them to see us explore and learn right along with them. And what is the best way to learn something? Why to teach it, of course. So there you have it...teachers who are learners are teachers and learners who are teachers are learners.

A vendor who "gets it"

My favorite blogger this week in Michael Summers. His blog SMaRT Education Initiative-1 to1 shows amazing insight into the challenges teachers and school face when attempting to teach with technology. Not a teacher but certainly a educator, Michael understands that teachers who don't use tecnology in their classrooms aren't backward or lazy. They just don't see how the technology available fits into the learning processes happening in their classrooms. He believes "it doesn't matter what we put into our classrooms, meaningful technology integration cannot work and will not work unless and until teachers are a part of the design process at the outset because teachers, not technology, will dictate the success of our efforts." And in order for teachers to want to be involved in the design process they must know "why technology is important; why technology is meaningful, why technology engages our students and why technology improves student outcomes. Because if [they] don't get beyond why, [they]'ll never get to how."

Standing up and telling or even showing teachers why and how isn't going to move them to adoption. No, teachers learn by doing and teaching. We must give them models to follow, opportunities to explore and practice, success and failures to share. New and improved equipment would certainly be a plus, but with limited resources it is not always an option.

Michael is a vendor whose job it is to sell technology to schools, but he argues, "Sometimes scarcity and lack are a good thing. It forces you to make better decisions, to focus on what's really important and to make better use of what you have. In the case of technology, some schools and school districts are woefully underfunded and the technology just isn't there or the technology that is there is out of date and hopelessly obsolete. But in many schools and school districts, the threshold issue isn't really the absence of technology, or the amount of technology, but how the technology that is already there is being used. Is this technology being used as a 21st century learning tool to promote deeper, more meaningful interaction with the subject mater, increased classroom collaboration and communication, more student-driven, project-based learning, innovative instructional practices and more differentiated instruction?"

Sometimes, I know I have been caught in this, we confuse of 21st century learning with 21st century tools. Here we have someone whose job it is to sell us the tools reminding us that whatever tools we have or use, our primary task is to teach 21st century skills.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Every Child's Time

Check out this SlideShare Presentation by Ira Socol:

If you work at my school, much of what you see here is stuff we know and have practiced for 12+ years. It is rewarding too see that others still believe, despite pressures to conform to the existence of standards and never ending testing. We are now moving away from the multi-age model to one of looping. The relationship students and teachers establish and develop over two years together will still occur, but we will no longer have the other benefits we know are inherent in a multi-age instructional setting. How can we incorporate these important principles into our plan so as to meet the need of every child?

Monday, March 2, 2009

"Using technology in the classroom is a mindset, not a skill-set."
Kim Cofino is my new favorite blogger. This 21st Century Literacy Teacher writes prolifically, proficiently and enthusiastically. What makes me so excited about her is that she describes everything she is doing with students and teachers in such understandable detail, it's impossible not to want to jump in and try everything she's doing at her school.

My own blogging efforts are at the other end of the comparative spectrum currently. I have spent so much time at work over the last couple of weeks installing testing software, running updates and performing maintenance tasks on the school computers and most of my non work time on projects around my house that I have been able to form complete thoughts about where to start or with direction to pursue when the teachers and students come back from their break this week. All I have are snippets of ideas picked up here and there and dropped into Evernote and they're just too jumbled up to sort at the moment.

It has been cathartic getting my personal stuff done; all the recipe clippings, articles and papers in little piles have been duly filed or tossed. The spring cleaning is pretty much complete, so as soon as the snow melts I'll be able to dig into the garden without guilt. But the mundane tasks at work have been mind numbing. I could easily conclude that a chimp could do it, but since I won't give out the administrative passwords to anyone, even chimps, I guess I am consigned to do it myself until they hire someone else in the tech department. Huh!

There has been a bright spot on the technology discovery scene. I am still considering what a classroom application might be, but for fun, blip.fm has been a treat. Ever listening to the radio, watching TV or reading an article and come across a song or artist you'd like to hear again or know more about? This site is a social music site. No music is downloaded to you computer, instead the site plays the songs you select from their servers. The social part of it is that you can access other members' play lists and it's like twitter. When you "blip" a song the word goes out to others and you and they can listen and/or add it to play lists. This is really crude explanation, best to go there and explore.