Friday, January 26, 2007

Oops... guess they didn't check their work

Sometimes we make a mistake and no one learns about it, or maybe only a few select co-workers. Other times, well, other times we make mistakes that end up all over the news. From the Associated Press:
An admissions department e-mail sent from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill congratulated 2,700 prospective freshmen this week on their acceptance to the school.

The problem is that none of the applicants have been admitted. They won't start finding out until March whether they've made the cut.

"We deeply regret this disappointment, which we know is compounded by the stress and anxiety that students experience as a result of the admissions process," Stephen Farmer, the school's director of undergraduate admissions, said in a news release.

Farmer said two employees accidentally sent the e-mail Tuesday. It began, "Congratulations again on your admission to the University."
Oops... I don't think I'd want to be the college counselor who breaks the news to the senior that UNC at Chapel Hill isn't a done deal. That will be a session where the college counselor is actually using traditional counseling skills.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Just what are we really all about?

I've been scanning more than a hundred education blogs recently; my reader is overflowing with stuff, and, surprisingly, much of it is good stuff and thoughtful stuff. Over at When the hurly-burly's done, I came across a post that spoke to me. Mr. Wasserman was discussing his recent effort to grade a stack of end-of-term essays, and the task led him to ask,
What is English class supposed to be about, anyway? What do my students need to learn? How can we (my students and myself) use the scheduled time and place to enhance our understanding of how humans communicate? Clarence Fisher, as usual, puts it so well I can hardly stand it:

If we are about hundreds of discrete skills that have absolutely nothing to do with their daily lives; if we attempt to fill their heads with facts they just might need some day, it is no wonder we are losing the attention, the concerns, the hearts of our students.

Classrooms need to be about passion.

Classrooms need to be about inquiry.

Classrooms need to be about connections and the stories these bring into our lives.

I’ve been reading a lot about the Classroom-as-Studio model. The idea is, the way I see it, to change the way classrooms work. Instead of being teacher-driven (I give you some information, you find more information, you report back on the information, I test you on the information), they will become student-driven (you decide, with some faciliatation from me, what you’ll investigate, then you teach everyone else about it and publish your findings). There are a ton of different ways to do this, but I’m concerned here with what might work in my classroom, with my schedule.
This notion of classroom-as-studio fits in with my mental model of teacher-as-coach. These are certainly not new mental models; the troubling question for me is why are so many teachers hung up on the teacher-as-expert approach, the teacher-centered approach, the teacher-as-information-provider model. While there are times when these models are appropriate and will work, I don't think they really engage our students and allow Mr. Fishers list of outcomes to come to fruition.

What can we, as teachers and administrators and parents do to move along in creating thoughtful, insightful, learning environments?

The picture with this post, found under a license from Creative Commons, is from The Prisco Group and their School of the Future initiative.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Why blog?

Why spend time blogging? Why bother. I hear this sometimes, and frankly I sometimes think the same thing. The blogosphere is huge; what difference does my voice make? Dr. Scott McLeod over at Dangerously Irrelevant recently conducted a survey of educators who blog. I'd mentioned it here, and I also went and completed the survey.

Dr. McLeod has posted the the results. I found it fascinating; he did a great job summarizing the results. Here's the meat and potatoes for me:

Voice; community; learning. I'm not sure about the state of public education in America, but I'm pretty certain we have some awesome teachers.

Do see Dr. McLeod's full report here.

The joy of teaching in an independent school

I think I've mentioned before that every once in a while a colleague or acquaintance asks me why I want to teach and why I want to teach in an independent school. I have a pretty good sense of what education ought to look like; it's a vision that is shared by many in the independent school world. Here's an essay by Brian Horgan who is the past Dean of Curriculum at Western Reserve Academy, an independent school in Ohio.
Most of the colleagues with whom I work and share the joy of independent school teaching, celebrate the aspects of what the late British historian of ideas, Isaiah Berlin, famously refers to as negative liberty--the freedom to act without interference from others. Clearly this is a valuable aspect of independent school teaching. Most of us relish the opportunity to work free of burdensome dictates of state department of education mandates, strict and often misguided teacher certification and re-certification requirements, pat curricular designs and assessment procedures, and bureaucratic paper work including the submission of daily lesson plans. In my teaching career I have come to appreciate the benefits of this kind of liberty as well; however, I try to remain attentive to the opportunities, by way of responsibilities, this kind of freedom makes imperative.

It is precisely these opportunities that give me cause to celebrate the independent school experience. More specifically, the freedom I enjoy as an independent school teacher affords me the opportunity to turn my attention to things that matter most.
Because I am free from the democratic, though nobly intended, policies of public education, I can work within a smaller community where individuals can meet the individual needs of other individuals. Of course the demands of community become more pronounced in this small setting--the virtuous practice of sharing, listening, and compassion are paramount to the success of the independent school. A good public school system will, to be sure, have teachers who are committed to these virtues as well--my children have been in their classrooms. But it is also true that there are teachers who are not so committed in part, perhaps, because they work in school systems where, by necessity or accident, sociological statistics and objective data collection have become more important than people. Unfortunately independent schools employ people like this as well but my sense is that this is accidental rather than the inevitable by-product of a large educational system overburdened by bureaucratic demands. The small community of learners to be found in an independent school invites us to listen to the individual needs of our students and respond to those individual needs rather than having to resign ourselves to the limitations that long class rosters and incredibly hefty teaching loads would normally dictate. It invites us to share our insights, strategies, and classrooms with our colleagues rather than wasting time and energy protecting turf and reputation. It invites us to self direct our professional growth rather than having it governed for us by people whom we have never met.

When we enjoy these benefits of independence, however, we must recognize that the source of our joy is an independence hat differs from the negative liberty of "no interference". As independent school educators we must be constantly mindful that to be independent of outside demands is to be, at the same time, bound by professional and inter-personal obligations, and that monitoring these obligations has become, to a great extent, the responsibility of the individual rather than the state, or proficiency test results, or the superintendent, or even, in some cases, the department chair. Freedom should never mean that one is free to do whatever one pleases; rather it should mean that one has the opportunity to focus with greater clarity on the proper limits of independence. To be independent does not allow one to say "leave me alone and let me do my work"; instead it calls one to invite others to share that work in an environment that is grounded in trust. With freedom comes duty--a duty to move beyond the walls of individual classrooms and attend to the broad requisites of mission. Unfortunately, I fear this aspect of independence is sometimes overlooked. Fortunately, many independent school teachers are mindful of the full scope of possibilities their independence affords and consequently enjoy the most rewarding benefits of teaching at an independent school.
This essay was posted in About:Private Schools; I think it captures a sense of why some teachers choose to work in independent schools. I, certainly, can relate to Mr. Horgan's words. And, I look forward to the day I'm back in the classroom independent, but interdependent of an entire school community.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

I answered "yes"

A little something from Dangerously Irrelevant:
Hear ye! Hear ye!

All education bloggers are hereby invited and encouraged to...

1. complete the short and completely unscientific, but hopefully interesting, education blogosphere survey;

2. forward the URL of said survey to all other known education bloggers to ensure decent representation of the education blogosphere; and

3. publicize said survey URL on their own blogs to foster greater participation in this most noble endeavor.

Survey results received by Sunday, January 14, shall be posted in the town square on Wednesday, January 17.

Those solicited who choose not to participate shalt be labeled both publicly and widely as dastardly scoundrels, notty-pated hedgepigs, or beslubbering, doghearted, maggot-ridden canker-blossoms!

[photo credit:]
Join in this unscientific survey. I'm intrigued to find out how many people said "yes."

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Using an open source tool for curriculum development

For the last year or so, I've been subscribing to Teacher Magazine. When I taught before, I was a plankowner subscriber to the magazine. Certainly, the format has changed a bit since then, but the gist is the same: to help teachers and alleviate the profession. Each issue usually has a least one good nugget; usually I come away with several.

The October edition had an interesting feature about Paul Edelman and his lesson plan website called Teachers Pay Teachers.
“Why reinvent the wheel every night?” Edelman says of the lesson-plan preparation ritual many teachers go through. “Why waste your time when great ideas are already out there?”

Putting course materials online isn’t a revolutionary idea—many other sites offer curriculum resources for teachers. What’s new and different is the notion, expressed in the site’s URL, that teachers can do something with their valuable materials at the end of the year besides chuck or give them away: Sell them....

Because buyers can customize the products, rate them on the site, and send written feedback, Edelman maintains that TPT actually encourages better teaching materials, and ultimately, better teaching.

“Giving teachers the opportunity to sell the educational products they create will lead to innovation,” he says. With the monetary incentive, he adds, “The best material will eventually rise to the top. … This is the process by which education will move forward and advance into new realms.”

Edelman has described TPT as like eBay, only without auctions, but it’s more like an electronic teachers’ lounge where the vending machines are stocked with lesson plans, study units, and quizzes instead of junk food. The mechanics of the site are about that simple: After paying an annual $29.95 fee, teacher-authors can upload as many products as they like onto the site, pricing each item as they see fit. Some sample materials are free, so that users can get a sense of an author’s goods, but most lesson plans or one-day activities cost $5 or less. Unit plans average $5 to $25, and whole courses are available for $20 to $80 and up.
Now, that's all well and good, and I applaud the idea of putting lesson plans online so others can use them... but I'm not too keen on the idea of selling them.

Sure. Sure. They're intellectual property, and the developer teacher spent time on the product and ought to get something for their effort.

But I'm an open source, transparency kind-of-guy.

This morning I saw Joanne Jacobs' post about Open Planner, a similar, but very different site from TPT. Open Planner is, well, open. Notes Andrew Stillman, one of the founders of Open Planner, ;">We imagine a world in which curriculum is actively developed and made freely available by teams of classroom practitioners. Open Planner certainly takes the notion of collaboration and open source and puts it to use.

Last week, Kathy Sierra posted in Creating Passionate Users a dissertation about the wisdom of crowds. She noted that in many cases, the masses merely dumb the content down (okay, I'm wildly paraphrasing here, but that was the general idea); in some cases, she says, that's not necessarily true, however. I'd say Open Planner is one of those tools where collaboration will help.

About Open Planner, Ms. Jacobs notes,
Using open-source software, teachers work in teams to build and refine curriculum. Teachers are encouraged to modify the curriculum to suit their needs, try it and report back on the results.
That is the power of collaboration.

I've signed up, and I look forward to posting a few tools I use in my consulting work which might be of some use to (middle & high school) teachers. And, I'm even more excited about the possibility that next fall will provide, as I am once again a full-time member of an academic community.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

I'm not a magician, either

The above is from Post Secret, a website that collects "secrets" mailed in from around the world. Perhaps you've seen the site or maybe one of their books, tomes which collect the finest secrets and then publish them for the world to see. Every Sunday, Frank Warren, the publisher of Post Secrets, posts a dozen or so cards. The above card was from a recent posting.

I think this teacher is at his (or her) wit's end. And, she's wrong: magic does exist, maybe just not the type of magic she thinks everyone expects her to produce in her classroom.

I'd been thinking recently about why I want to return to an independent school and teach. I think, in part, it's because I'm not a magician, but I still want to experience the magic that takes place in the classroom, in the student dormitories and faculty homes, in the dining hall, in the student center, in the athletic facilities, on the various playing fields, and on the theatre stage.

Why teach? Why join an independent school community? My reasons are many: I love words and ideas. I want to positively influence young people so they can impact the future. I believe that English and the humanities, history and the social sciences, are worthy of study and that they are useful and important in adult life; students need teachers who see that value and can make the link.

Perhaps this sounds hokey, however, it is, really, what I think. Anyway, I look forward to making magic, the sort of magic I know is possible in a small, independent, boarding school.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Advice to follow for the classroom teacher

I've been reading Ask-Dr-Kirk, Delaney Kirk's blog, for the last couple of months. She has a solid handle on classroom management and effective teaching. Among other things, her posts have given me prodding to think about the type of teacher I am, and the type of teacher I want to be. While Dr. Kirk is a management professor at Drake University, she understands learning and the classroom. (Sidebar: Another example for me of the dearth of leadership in departments of education within higher education...)

Anyway, she offers an excellent post today about things we teachers do that infuriate our students.

Changing the syllabus after the semester begins. The students look at the syllabus the first day to get a sense of the workload of the class, what types of assignments will be given, when things are due, how you will grade them, etc. Adding to or changing this will upset your students.

Requiring expensive textbooks that you do not use. If you have a textbook, be sure to give readings or assignments from it that you take up and grade.

Sharing too much personal information. I had a colleague years ago that had several dogs that were essentially her "children." She brought up the dogs in every class. The students started rolling their eyes whenever she mentioned them. Sharing some personal info is ok if it is relevant to the class. However, the students are not your friends and don't need to know the details of your everyday life.

Reading to the students from the book. I'm always surprised to hear that some faculty conduct their lectures by going over the chapters in the book page by page. Don't. Another tip: use examples from another textbook or from journals rather than the book your students are reading.

Lack of timely feedback. The students want to see how they did on exams and papers as quickly as possible. One way to set expectations is to tell them when you will be giving them feedback. For exams, aim at the next class period. For papers, I tell them it will be in two weeks. That way, if I get these done early, they're impressed but they don't expect it.

Having rules for them to follow that you don't. If you want them to turn off their cellphones or come to class on time, make sure you do also.

Assignments that they see as "busywork." Try to make the assignments interesting by relating examples to the "real world." Show the students how doing the homework will help them be successful in the class.

Perceptions of favoritism. When you are asked by a student to make an exception to your classroom policies such as accepting late papers or giving extra credit, think about whether this would be perceived as unfair by the other students.

While not all of these are applicable at every classroom level, there's a nugget here for everyone.

I'm particularly personally interested in the timely (and appropriate, I'd add) feedback. During the coursework for the doctorate I'm working on, I was surprised at the differences in feedback received from my professors. Some professors were quick to return papers, but the feedback consisted of a word or two. What can "Excellent paper" do for me in terms of getting better? I know that providing feedback for papers, and exams, can be difficult. In some respects, it is drudgery. And, we all hate drudgery. But there are things we can do.

Providing feedback was one of my bugaboos while teaching. I think the first thing I've done in the last 20 years is to realize that it's not a matter of "correcting" or "grading" papers; it's a matter of providing feedback. That single mindset can help alleviate the drudgery; it's an entirely different paradigm that is more helpful and more proactive. Second, I found that for papers, I offered two different types of appropriate feedback. The first was a written response, a paragraph or two, or more, that addressed the paper and offered a gentle critique; it was more of a holistic feedback approach. The second was a sit-down, workshop-oriented, line-by-line review of the paper with the student writer; it was a conversation that covered all aspects of the writing endeavor with the goal of not only providing the student with feedback but getting the student to think like a writer.

I encourage you to read Dr. Kirk's blog; if you subscribe to her feed, you'll get Dr. Kirk on a regular basis delivered straight to your reader.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Recycling: Remember that repetition is good

Just back today from Mobile where I'd been working with a client, facilitating the 7 Habits course and assisting with creating a customer service focus for the unit members. Read today's Robert Kennedy's About: Private Schools post and thought it sounded both right-on-the-mark and also similar to something he'd posted during 2006.
When a boarding school has only a handful of day students, the school basically can control the school community's dynamic. Everybody is confined to the campus. Rules and regulations can be enforced. A parent who lives a thousand miles away from the school needn't worry about her son hopping in a day student's car and heading off to enjoy God-knows-what! Unfortunately a private school located in a wealthy suburb will attract a higher percentage of day students than one located in the boondocks. Combine expensive European cars and spoiled teenagers with substantial cash. Add a gorgeous luxury home with no parents present - they are at work, of course. The result? Well, I'll leave that to your imagination.
Turns out that Mr. Kennedy was, indeed, recycling. He'd posted the same post in early March, and I'd already blogged about it.

Just because Mr. Kennedy had already blogged about it doesn't make it any less true or important. As a matter of fact, recycling and repetition is good.

Interestingly, when I blogged about this post last time, I'd also just returned from facilitating the Seven Habits material.

Every time I facilitate the Seven Habits course, I learn something. I've facilitated probably close to a seventy or more offerings of the course over the last decade, and every time, I learn something new: I learn something about myself or about a principle or those around me or organizations or tools for effectiveness. Every time. Repetition can be good and helpful.

Many years ago, I had a colleague who said that people had to read or hear something seven times before it would sink in. She'd read somewhere that to get a message across, it was best to use multiple mediums (such as email, websites, posters, memos) so that people would see the message multiple times. And then it would sink in.

Those people who live in small boarding school communities with high concentrations of boarding students and a focus on boarding schools already "get it." For the rest of us, we have to see the message more than once.