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Crafting Character

This weekend, I had the exhausting pleasure of attending Educon 2.3 at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia.  The first class that I was privileged to participate in was “Crafting Character” led by Karen Blumberg and Meredith Stewart.  Here, the conversation focused on educating students about acceptable behavior online and the implications that mistakes can have in the future.  As a librarian, this issue is certainly not a new one.  We have revised our Acceptable Use Policy with an awareness of the impact of a student’s behavior online, although postings take place after school hours.  We have dealt with the issue by including any derogatory postings about our students, faculty, or school online as falling under the “harassment” section of our disciplinary policy.  I think our AUP has become a fluid document, that is revised and revisted as situations occur.  With this document, and a library curriculum that taught students about protecting themselves online, acceptable behavior, and future consequences of improper behavior, I thought that I was preparing them for the future.

But, as the discussion progressed, it took a turn I had blindly not foreseen.  We discussed taking a more proactive stance by helping students craft a positive digital footprint.  Someone suggested flooding online sources with positive information about oneself in order to subordinate the inappropriate or unflattering information that may already exist in searches.   I had not considered attacking the issue from the other side, from a more upbeat action-oriented way, giving the students the power to take charge of their online persona.  While concentrating on “don’t do this,”  I missed “do that.”  Thanks to all the participants in the class who helped me open my eyes and see that thinking forward  is much better than looking backward.

Banned Books Week

As we celebrate Banned Books Week in the library this week, the seventh grade students and I have had some great discussions about reading and the ultimate decision makers about materials purchased and held in a library.  Just who can decide what we read, and should they have that power?  Amidst these enlightened discussions regarding freedom of speech, I read an article regarding the banning of The Catcher in the Rye in a Florida School (“Martin County Mom Trying to Get Catcher in the Rye Banned from Classes“).  What I found interesting was not the fact that a mother objected to her child reading a book with profanity.  Frankly, that happens all the time, and as a librarian I have no issue with it.  Parents, after all, are the primary educators of their children.  But why do parents think they have the right to challenge what is being read by other students, or worse deny them the right to read those books?  The books that are challenged and ultimately banned contain ideas that can inspire reflection and conversation from both a negative and positive standpoint.  They can inspire exploration of ideas and moral stances.  Without the exploration of this literature, personal philosophies may go unexamined.

Freedom of speech grants the freedom to explore many different ideas, even those that may be unpopular or unfamiliar.   It is truly frightening to think individuals believe that they have the right to censor those ideas that they find offensive, to the detriment of the entire community.  It is hard to believe that these actions continue in 2010.

Time to Re –

After attending the Edutopia webinar, “Education Nation” amidst planning for the beginning of the school year, I was inspired by the idea that there are some classroom techniques and practices that must move from the realm of “nice to know” to “must do.”  As an educator, I have been guilty of learning about new sources and methods, but have failed to completely integrate them into the classroom.  Time has always been an issue.  It has always been easier to fall back on what I’ve used in the past and use what is readily at hand.

But as the school year begins, I think it’s best to review my  lessons and practices of the past school year and employ the  philosophy of Re: Reflect, Reevaluate, and Reinvent.

  • RE – flect: Think about the learning experience of students in my classroom.  Am I challenging and engaging my students?  How many assessments involved more than recall and regurgitation?   How can I best assess their knowledge?
  • RE – evaluate: What classroom projects and practices worked last year, creating an authentic learning experience for my students?  Look at each unit, it’s construct, resources used, and assessment.  Be brutal.  What is worthwhile and worth keeping?  What can be improved?
  • RE – invent: Once the weaknesses in lessons have been pinpointed, I must have the courage to change them.  I have to step out of the box and try something new –use a tool I’ve just learned about, or explore a different dimension of a topic. I’ll do my best to try to engage the students, rather than instruct them.

Now that I’m reinvigorated from the summer, I should have the energy to revise my methods.  That is my goal for this year.

Assumption of Excellence?

This morning, I read a great blog post  by Michael Smith entitled “Believing You Are Great Leaves Very Little Room for Improvement.”  In it, Smith asserts that teachers’ unwillingness to change may in fact be due to a belief in the excellence of their methods, lessons, colleagues, and the school program/curriculum  itself.  I thought this was an interesting take on the situation, as I had seen the problem more as a lack of desire to change, and satisfaction with the status quo.  But when you think of a school as a microcosm, where the community is often small and closed, you can easily understand how the ideas and myths perpetrated there could come to be accepted as truth over time.  The characteristics of the faculty, students, and parents remain fairly static.  So, thoughout the years, feedback and comments may also remain the same.  In addition, because the community is fairly closed, exposure to the methodology of others outside the school is fairly uncommon.  This leads to a misconception: that something we’ve done in the past considered excellent, continues to be excellent forever.    The problems is, that as time passes, our expectations and standards should evolve.  Lessons applauded ten years ago cannot be assumed to be excellent today.

This is where social media comes in.  In order for teachers to be able to see excellence in an unbiased way, they must reevaluate their lessons in light of the work of other educators.   They need to see and hear what other teachers are doing in their classrooms, and become familiar with the tools that they too can use.  Because for most of us, attendance at multiple conferences each year is a financial impossiblity, teachers should take advantage of the free information on the web.  Using Twitter and blog posts, for example, can greatly increase exposure to worlds outside our school walls.  Information from others can help us reevaluate our plans to best serve the students.  What new sources and tools exist that can create a more authentic learning experience?  Constructive criticism is available from well-respected peers, if we’re open to have others look at our plans.  Teachers have at their fingertips a wealth of information that can lead to the develop of truly excellent lessons, if they’re only willing to try.  Educators can go on assuming that what they’re doing is excellent, or they can take a brave step into the world of information and evaluation to see their lessons as others would.  After all, how can we assume academic excellence if we’re unaware of what is possible?

Education Loses Out

As I was speaking to students this week about next week’s plans, and how we’ll be finishing up before spring break, several students informed me that they would not be in school next week.   The reasons varied: volleyball tournaments, trips to Florida for spring training, going to Mexico, and of course, Disneyworld.  When I asked them if they realized how much work they would be missing, I mostly got shrugs and a generic chorus of  implied “who cares.”  But one response in particular really made an impression.  One of the traveling students came up to me after class to apologize for his upcoming absence, but told me his parents didn’t think missing a couple of days of school would matter.   Now, as a teacher who works hard every day to design lessons, to try to teach in innovative and meaningful ways, and to find assessments that truly gauge a student’s learning, I was offended by this comment.  What exactly do parents think is happening in school each day?  Is learning less important at the grade school level?  And is there an assumption that students can learn this material without guidance or direct instruction?  Is it also assumed that upon their return, they can possibly make up what they’ve missed?  Unfortunately, a student’s vacation results in extra work for teachers: additional instruction time, the reteaching of lessons, notes and handouts, and redesign of  make-up assessments. I had to shake my head in disbelief as I realized what is valued: anything but education or educators.  And that is a sad realization.

Planning Time?

Yesterday, because of a horrendous nor’easter, I was stranded in a commuter train for six hours, hoping to get home.  It was exhausting and frustrating, and would have been much worse, had I not been traveling with a colleague.  After finding a pen, and using the back of our theater tickets, we talked about lessons and future class plans.  We worked on scenery and staging for our school musical, and even a little choreography (although we did get some strange looks from fellow passengers).  We had to laugh about the absurdity of the situation — we had to be trapped in a commuter train outside of New York to have the time to work together, and collaborate the way we wish we could.  If only planning time was made a priority by schools, so that teachers would have time to exchange ideas, and explore new, inventive ways to teach lessons.  It is amazing how productive we can be when we have the time to bounce ideas off one another — time that we never have during the school day.  I guess we were lucky to have been stranded — it gave use the opportunity to accomplish everything we wanted to.  I have to thank  Mother Nature and New Jersey Transit for that.  Although next time, I’d rather not be tired, hungry, and thirsty to work my best.

Lately, we’ve talked a lot about the necessity for collaboration between educators.  As a librarian, I’m especially interested in the topic, as I’ve come to realize that this collaboration truly produces the most authentic project based learning.  Many teachers are reticent to embrace such collaboration, seeing a division between information use and subject-specific instruction.  But as we all know, 21st century learning recognizes no such division.  I had come to believe that the combination of the instructor’s age and lack of familiarity with technology was responsible for this resistance, but this week I was proven wrong by my students. 

Eighth graders learned this week how to use GoogleDocs; specifically,  the presentation creation feature.  The idea was this:  as a class, let’s create a slideshow about the Winter Olympics, based on research they’ve already done.  To do this , they had to collaborate with classmates, agreeing on backgrounds that did not clash, similar fonts, the formatting of slides, and in what order to place the information.  Students began to argue about the look of the presentation.  More than one student took it upon himself to change the background of all the slides multiple times, resulting in raising the frustation level of the group.  Once it was decided to put the slides in chronological order, students were surprised to see that classmates had moved their slides, often to the incorrect position.  The results would have been comical, had they not pointed out the difficulty of collaboration, even amongst the young and tech-savvy.  I found that group collaboration is hard, regardless of age and experience level, and that the lesson here was not what I intended — to teach the students to use a new tool — but how to work together.  Our class next week was to spend time looking at our beautiful final product, but instead, we’ll look at the project from a different angle — why is working on it together better than doing it apart?  We’ll spend most of our time discussing the difficulties they had working together, and how we can do better next time.  Because, as all educators know, an intended lesson can often have an unexpected result.  It was no longer about  the use of a new tech tool.  It  became something totally different — that collaboration is difficult, but well-worth the effort.  And this lesson is age and ability blind.

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