A Post to Regret

In general, I try hard not to write posts that might offend or appear to be critical of the schools and teachers in my kids’ lives. Teachers work hard. They have too much to do. They are expected to do more than is humanly possible. They serve as nurse, college professor, psychologist, coach, judge, referee and more. They aren’t paid nearly enough.

Yet, sometimes I get frustrated. Really frustrated. Like today.

I’ve been very lucky to immerse myself in the field of educational technology for the last two years (almost). I don’t have to be distracted by field trips, parent-teacher conferences, truancy, etc. But today I am frustrated by schools, teachers, administrators refusing to think outside the box. By refusing to try to learn new things. By thinking that since that’s how they learned (whether it’s 3 or 30 years ago) that that’s how it needs to be.

Isn’t that enough? Nope. I’m frustrated with the snail pace of decision making. With the constant phrases, “kids will be distracted by the technology.” “Kids will just cheat.” (perhaps we need to redefine our definition of cheating, by the way.)  “I learned without technology, so can they.” With the refusal to think that there is more than one way to teach a child.

Quit telling me (or them) to put that computer back in their pocket. That’s how the world works now. Why aren’t kids being encouraged to do the same? Instead, teach them how to use it responsibly. Take advantage of what they want to use and teach them with that. Quit telling me that you can’t use any technology in class because not everyone has a phone, or texting, or a smartphone, or an iPad. Then figure out how to get them something. It can be done.

Do you think perhaps the reason kids are goofing off and being distracted by their technology is because your lesson is boring????  That perhaps that page of math problems that looks exactly like my math book 30 years ago is no longer engaging to a kid?

Quit telling me that it’s their job. Quit telling me that students should make themselves interested in the topic, that they are in school, that they need to make themselves motivated. They should be interested just because it’s what they are supposed to learn.

That’s a cop out. It’s the education system’s job to keep changing, to keep things relevant to kids. It’s a teacher’s job, and administrator’s job to keep looking for new ways to engage and educate students.

I don’t know about you, but my workplace looks pretty different now than in 1988 when I had my first “professional” job. I typed memos, made photocopies, put them in envelopes and put them in interoffice mail. It’d take two days to get info out. Scheduling a meeting? It took a nimble secretary hours to nail down everyone’s schedule and send the paper notice out. The job I have now? It didn’t exist even five years ago. Couldn’t have been envisioned.

Yet, my kids’ schools teach pretty much the same way I was taught, and I graduated from high school 30 years ago. It’s a disservice to kids to think they all should learn the way we were taught.

I know there aren’t enough hours in the day. I live in that world, too.  Don’t expect to hand teachers (or students!) a device and expect them to come up with great ideas. Thinking outside the box takes inspiration. Give teachers time to read blogs. Send them to conferences. Encourage them to watch webinars. LEARN! Start trying new going to half-day seminars. Watching a webinar. Open your mind. Learn something new. Or – get this – have the kids teach you.

If you’re a teacher, I’m sorry if I offended you. Instead of being upset, please help me understand. Why aren’t my kids’ schools keeping up with the world?

Student Learning at the Center

Interesting article, “Rethinking Teaching” from the Oberlin Alumni Magazine about how teaching at Oberlin is changing. Overall, it sounds like they are moving away from the professor lecturing for hours to student created content and visual learning. Collaboration between departments is increasing, which in the end is a win-win.

Steven Volk, a History professor, is using a flipped classroom model. He has students watch a 30-minute lecture on video before class. Then, in-class time is spent on discussion. He seeks to create a community of learners.

We know that the way students learn best is to construct knowledge in their own heads.

– Steven Volk, History prof

Professor Volk seeks to teach students to think and work with material, to to memorize facts:

Volk doesn’t expect his students to recall all the details they’ve discussed in class — after all, they have smart phones if they need to know that Bolivia’s independence from Spain took hold in 1825. He approaches his classes with what he calls the “backward planning” hypothetical. “If I bump into one of my students 10 years after graduation, what do I want them to remember?” he says. “Not the details, but the concepts and the learning skills: how to investigate, read closely, analyze, interpret, and work with others.”

Visual Learning is OK

I think one of the problems with moving to a more integrated technology framework at schools is that people think it implies that students don’t learn like they did before. Kids don’t read. Kids don’t focus. Kids don’t write. Kids don’t….. etc.

Somehow, there is the attitude that if kids aren’t learning like kids learned 20, 30, years ago, then it’s not valid.

But really, do any of us learn and consume information like we did 10, 20 years ago? I doubt it.

Look at newspapers – even if you read a printed paper (and I do – I get two papers delivered to my door every day), the newspaper is different than it was 30 years ago and certainly different than it was 50, 75, 100 years ago. Pictures were non-existent and very rare. Articles were much longer. Print was much smaller. That’s how people got information. Not now – photographs are prevalent, stories are shorter, fonts are bigger, infographics and maps visually represent information that wasn’t possible to communicate before.

How about YouTube? The viral nature of some videos is amazing. If you need to know how to do something? Kids will check YouTube before looking anywhere else. How to tie a tie? Much easier to communicate if you have a video than to describe in a book. Cooking? Same thing. Building something? Same thing. The instructional possibilities of using video are huge.

RSA Animate is a good example. These are excerpts from thought leaders with intricate drawings. Do the visuals detract? Absolutely not. They are a huge plus. Are they popular? You bet. TED Talks are another example. Video of thought leaders giving short, powerful talks.

The list could go on. How about art history classes? Are they still making slides? Or using collections found on many museum sites to build lectures?

So, why are schools (not every school/teacher, thankfully!) so resistant to meeting students’ learning needs through visuals? Why has coursework not moved in the direction of working with increasing visual learning? Why still rely on heavy print texts and assignments?

Moving to visual does not mean dumbing down.

DIfferentiated Testing

Interesting article in a New York Times School Book (“Students Learn Differently. So Why Test Them All the Same?”, Feb. 17, 2012) about the New York State testing requirements. This particular teacher blogger is an ESL teacher, and his description of teaching to the test is distressing. (Not the teacher — but the fact that he had to totally design a course to help kids pass the test.)

In his case, he is dealing with English language learners, and it is (well, should be) that testing needs for this population should be different. Not only do we teach to the test for native English speakers, for the same happens to newly arrived immigrants, when truly, there must be more important things for them to learn.

I think the concept Mr. Goldstein presents is valid for native English speakers, as well. Any teacher knows that kids have different learning styles. Some kids need pictures, some need to hear it. Some need to move things, some need to see words.

But I don’t think standardized tests come in different learning styles, do they? They heavily favor the text based learner. The kids who read and process text easily. Standardized tests exclude the visual thinker, the kinesthetic learner. How is that fair?

Open Internet Tests

When I was in high school, we lived in fear of open book tests. They were  much harder than “regular” multiple choice tests. The teachers that gave them were also well known for asking us to really think and analyze.

Now, there are open internet tests! Seriously – what a great idea. This post by Jonathan Martin shows exactly why. A theater history teacher did an open internet test with great results. See the post for student comments – seems they all thought it was harder — and better.

…taking the time to think through as a teacher what kind of questions can we ask which will continue to be meaningful assessments when Google and Wolfram Alpha are available is, I think, a highly productive exercise, and, of course, will generate a more authentic assessment experience far more well aligned with the real world of professionals for which we are preparing our students

The teacher’s rationale for doing this test:

did I really need the students to regurgitate information or could I ask them to utilize  Internet resources and their class notes to compose essays based on questions that they helped craft?


It’s a great idea. It’s more closely aligned to what will be expected of them — yes, in college, and ultimately, in the working world. It’s teaching critical thinking, analysis, digital literacy, writing. The list gets long…. much better test of what students know and how they think than picking a letter on a multiple choice test.


Student Technology Bill of Rights

Ran across this incredible concept, the Student Technology Bill of Rights, by Brad Flickinger. Check out both Post 1 and Post 2. I won’t quote him here, but just highlight my favorites. (And will be taking them along to kids schools. Wish me luck!)

#3: “I have the right to submit digital artifacts that prove my understanding of a subject” hits home at our house right now. Many previous posts have discussed the Pre-AP World History class that my daughter will take next year. Text. Text and more text. Nothing wrong with some text, but we have decided that she will just do projects visually and digitally. I’m tired of having to constantly advocate for digital/visual assignments. It’s just what’s going to happen.

#5: “I have the right to access social media at school. It is where we all live, it is how we communicate — we do not use email, or call each other. We use Facebook, Twitter and texting to talk to each other. Teachers and schools should take advantage of this and post announcements and assignments using social media — you will get better results.” This is so true.

#7: “I have the right to be taught by teachers who teach me and demand that I use 21st Century Skills.” So true. My kids’ assignments should not look like the work I did 30 years ago when it is so clear that teaching to all kids modalities and using 21st century tools work better.

#9: “I have the right to be protected from technology.” Yup. It is now the school’s responsibility (along with home) to teach digital citizenship. Teach kids to start building a positive digital footprint.

#11: USE THE CLOUD. Yes, please. I almost cried when my son said he had to buy a flashdrive for school. REALLY???? I refused. And this when the teachers use Google Apps for Education daily. Why not the students? (footnote: this will be changing soon!!)

#12: Let them text: if a kid wants to write by texting, why not? It’s EXACTLY the same argument I heard when I was teaching, although in this case is was whether to let students write in the cultural dialect they spoke at home. I let them. They were writing, communicating, thinking. We also taught “educated” English, but didn’t cut them off from who they were.

These are great. Thanks, Brad!


Bold or Old?

HT to Patrick Larkin (@bhsprincipal) for this great 5-minute excerpt  from a talk by Will Richardson. Mr. Richardson challenges his audience, Are you going to be BOLD or OLD?

I found two takeaways:

FIRST POINT: The 21st Century Literacies from the National Council of Teachers of English. The three of these I find most compelling, largely because they are not being met in the two schools I know best,

  • Develop proficiency with the tools of technology
  • Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multi-media texts
  • Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments

It’s not easy to develop proficiency with anything if you can’t use it. If you have a computer in your pocket that gives you access to libraries full of information — yet you aren’t allowed to use it during the day? How can you learn how? You learn on your own, without the guidance of teachers and adults in your life.

How can you learn to create and critique multi-media texts if you aren’t allowed to use these tools for assignments? If you aren’t allowed to look at them?

Let’s not even start with learning the ethical responsibilities. In some schools, it’s like plugging their ears: if they can’t hear it, it’s not making a sound! If you never let the kids use the tools of technology (which, right now, are social media, cell phones, mobile devices, etc.,) then there’ll never be a problem. Right? Nope – wrong.

SECOND: Mr Richardson is addressing a room of teachers. In his remarks, he tells the teachers that they should be the “Learning Leaders” – they can convince parents that the kids will be ok, that they’ll get into college. That it’s the right thing to do to have kids who are passionate, deep learners – kids that love to learn.

But what about my situation? I’m the parent. But in our case, it’s the schools that need convincing. I’m not having much luck at this. I’m met with comments like, “If we let them use their phones, they’ll text the answers,” or “We can’t do projects (digital, multimedia, etc.) because that won’t help them get ready for the AP test.” Or teachers who can’t see any reason a student should get an iPad because all the apps are games that aren’t helpful. Or a principal who leaves all technology innovation to the teachers, who’s never been on Facebook. A school district where webpages are three years out of date. A high school that doesn’t require – or even encourage – teachers to post homework, test schedules, etc. online for kids to access.  High school current events classes that only use the print newspapers. A district that won’t look at BYOD because it won’t be equitable – instead of figuring out how to make it work

Mr. Richardson – what would you advise me to do? My kids are moving along through school quickly. They don’t meet any of the NCTE standards of literacy. I shouldn’t have to disrupt them from their friends — and yes, from the other very good things that do happen in these schools — to get them to schools that do understand that it is not a “fun” thing to incorporate the tools of technology into schools, it is the RESPONSIBILITY of schools to do so.

I leave you with this quote from Mr. Richardson,

It’s not about passing a test, it’s about solving the problem, about sharing something with the world that changes the world.  It’s about doing meaningful, real work. School should be real life.


The Positive Side of Dyslexia

Thanks to Diane Ravitch for the link to this great article about dyslexia. Many thanks to the author, Steve Dingledine.

The current movement towards using appropriate tools in the classroom, whether it is an iPad, Chromebook, laptop, whatever, is a step in the right direction of allowing students with dyslexia — or any other learning disability, difference, or even just students who learn best in different modalities (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc.) — the chance to really be successful in school. A learning difference should not equate not being successful at school and in life.

…many dyslexics have other cognitive skills in abundance, including visualization and intuition. They can also see problems and solutions in the big-picture frame and can detect obscure patterns in unique and, at times, revolutionary ways.

The education system owes it to these kids – those with dyslexia or any other sort of learning difference – to adapt the SYSTEM to the kids. The kids shouldn’t have to suppress or ignore their natural skills in order to learn.

Dyslexics and other non-conformists need time and space to grow within school contexts. Their creative genius and divergent thinking needs to be incorporated into classrooms and not stifled.Their teachers need to have the flexibility and freedom to nurture their strengths and talents while helping them to reach their potential on their terms.

Like the author of the post, I am a textual learner. His wife is dyslexic. My daughter has not been diagnosed with dyslexia, but has considerable trouble with text based learning. She is a strong visual learner. I really appreciated this thought:

Our society, unbeknownst to me beforehand, is heavily geared to text-based learning and work activities. The emphasis on reading text, which creates “winners” and “losers” through standardized tests and entrance exams…

My (many) previous posts about my daughter’s choice for an advanced social studies course next year have focused on the responsibility of the schools to provide an adequate education for all learners — not just text based learners. It’s going to be a struggle to get them to accomodate my daughter’s needs, but why should just the kids who are text based learners have access to the advanced content and be considered “smart?”

Hopefully we’ll see things changing as schools move more towards allowing and encouraging students to make use of technology tools and the paradigm shifting that happens (or should.)

Visual Learners and Digital Storytelling

The other 3 (human) members of my household are all visual learners. They see everything from numbers to dates to stories in their heads as pictures. My daughter sees all numbers, letters, days of the week, months, etc., as color. This is odd to me, as I am very much a word person. I don’t see pictures – I see words. (You’ll notice my blog is far more words than visuals.)

Yet, for my daughter especially, school is very much a word based place. She works twice as hard as a word based person to read – every word is turned into a picture.  Her move to the high school has just exacerbated this problem. If you’ve read previous posts, she wants to take Pre-AP World History next year.

Does this look enticing for a 21st century visual learner?

We looked at the book – it’s deadly. Print. Pages and pages of tightly spaced words with no visuals. Class assessments are totally writing based – essay, tests, etc.

The teacher told me it was because it would be what the kids would find in college. I don’t disagree with the need to learn how to read advanced texts and be able to write essays. But is that really the only way to learn content and demonstrate understanding? Why does a high level history class have to focus on words only? Where are the visuals?

There are others who feel visual learning is valid. I just read a blog post about a teacher who has his students study a painting and read it as an essay about the time in which is was made:

He challenged students to think of a painting as an essay – in the sense that it captures not in words, as an essay does, but through a visual image, some aspect(s) of the life, history, and culture of a particular historical period from the point of view not of a writer but of an artist.

Awesome idea, and certainly a very valid way to learn concepts and history.

Another blogger wrote about the digital storytelling assignments she does with her high school students. In this case, students are given a topic and have about a week to put together a two minute digital presentation. Kids can use iMovie, Keynote, etc., anything that let’s them express their understanding of the topic in a digital mode. Visuals are considered key.

I would argue that these projects are a better assessment of a student’s understanding of a topic than a mere essay. If you check her rubric and watch the samples, you’ll see that the students aren’t slacking. They do have to write: no digital storytelling project would be complete without a script. They have to organize their thoughts in a storyboard. They have to also find appropriate visuals to express their ideas. They have to cite all sources. Some of the samples are more narrative or biographical, but you certainly could make these projects into something like a 5-paragraph essay with a strong thesis and supporting arguments. Like those who argue that giving students a public audience for blogs, the whole class watches the videos and is even quizzed on the content!

Digital storytelling can be used with all ages and subjects. The product doesn’t have to be a polished 2- or 10-minute video. Shelly Terrell writes about an online course she’s teaching (to 250 people!) about digital storytelling. She lists a number of quick ways to get started (such as having students pull out their cell phone and tell/write a story about a picture on their phone) and a myriad of resources for building digital stories.

I can easily see the problems in assigning a digital project like this: access to a computer lab, teaching students about the software, etc. But why not make it an option?

I know my daughter will gravitate to study fields that are more visual and less towards the word based content. I’m sorry that history, which she really enjoys, won’t be an option if her classes continue to be offered in these exclusively text based formats. The teacher next year thinks he’s really helping her by teaching her how to learn the way he thinks she needs to. I think he’d do her a lot more good by letting her express her understanding in a format that makes more sense to her.