Six Words To Capture Teaching

I saw this in my RSS feed yesterday from friend Larry Ferlazzo. It’s a writing activity perfectly suited to Twitter in which teachers are asked to write a six word essay that captures the essence of teaching. If you are on Twitter, use the #6wordessay hashtag. Larry is collecting some of the responses via Storify. The whole project evolved from a project that Michelle Rhee is doing with young people.

Here is what I came up with:
Teaching, in Six Words

What’s yours?

Peace (in the mini-essay),
Kevin

Digging Up (my) Newspaper Past

From The Springfield Republican
Before I was a teacher, I was a newspaper reporter. It seems like a lifetime ago, that world of journalism, but every now and then, the past peeps out at me. Recently, the art teacher at my school handed me a photocopied newspaper article and told me to look at the story that focused on our school’s art program. She pointed to the reporter’s name. It was me.

To be honest, I don’t remember writing the article. I was often writing two, sometimes three, news articles each day, and my memory of most of the specific stories are a blur. But I do remember when I briefly was the reporter covering the town in which my school is located. The community was much smaller then and has grown considerably. I remember scratching around for news. I often went to the schools to focus in on students (one of the reasons I became a teacher was that I was inspired by the work I was seeing in classroom when I was an education reporter).

It’s interesting to find myself drawn back to that chapter in my life. I may not remember the story I wrote, or the kids I focused on, but it is fascinating to think of the connections that are drawn between that life and this life. The newspaper article is like a little echo of those times when I was a writer, every single day.

Peace (in the news from the past),
Kevin

Classroom Moment: Near-Death Experiences

You know how sometimes one topic suddenly veers off into this completely separate tangent in the classroom, and you just have to go with it for a while? We are nearing the end of reading The Watsons Go to Birmingham, and there is a scene where the main character almost dies in a whirlpool (only to be saved by a vision of his younger sister and the rescue by his older brother). I just casually asked if anyone had ever had a brush with water that they remembered.

Hands shot up. You would think I was in the room with near-ghosts waiting to tell their stories of how a river, or a pool, or the ocean had tried to grab life away from them. We had stories of riptides, and currents, and scary pool incidents. While it was interesting to hear all of the narratives, it also reminded me of how dangerous water can be.

Finally, after almost 20 minutes of this kind of storytelling, one of the students looked at my co-teacher and I and asked: What about you?

My colleague told a story of how he almost drowned in his pool when he came up for air and sucked in a mouth of clorine, and couldn’t breathe. I related the story of how I slipped under the ice in the river and how my older brother saved me by yanking me onto shore (just like the character in Watsons,  I realized).

One year, during 24-Comic, I wrote a graphic story of those events.

(read the rest of the story)

I didn’t mind the way our conversations moved around, away from the topic, because those stories demonstrated the power of memory (and possibly, the failure of memory, too, as no doubt some of the stories were exaggerated a bit), and you can be sure that every student connected with the character in Watsons.

Peace (in the moment),
Kevin

 

A Podcast Protest Poem: We, the Pirates

Chart: “Congress, Can You Hear Us?”

 

 

We, The Pirates

The world reverted to blank canvas today;
I speak here only of the world
as it had become
so that we can wonder about the world
as it has been;

So, Pa, is this what you wanted
when you sought to close the gates
to keep the ragged troops at bay?
We stare into their eyes and see
… only us, staring back.

So, Pa, we are the pirates aboard this ship
and you seek to run the tanker aground
in order to save the gold doubloons in the captain’s pocket,
never understanding that the real treasure
is in the sails that catch the wind of the seas
that float us forward into the unknown worlds.

The world reverted to blank canvas today, Pa,
but we still pulled out our pens, and pencils, and crayons, and keyboards,
and envisioned the way the world might be
if the doors were left open to creativity and chance.

More about SOPA and the efforts to either stop or at least modify it is here.

PROTECT IP / SOPA Breaks The Internet from Fight for the Future on Vimeo.

Peace (in the protest),
Kevin

 

A Podcast: Apps, Ads and Kids

(Note: I wrote this for our local newspaper, hoping they might run it as a column around the holidays, but I never heard back from them. Oh well. I still have other publishing spaces, right? — Kevin)

My seven year old is looking at my classroom book order form from Scholastic.
“Ohhh, dad, can you get the Angry Birds book? Pleasssssse?”
I noticed that there is indeed an Angry Birds Poster Book. It says I can decorate my classroom with Angry Birds.
“No. Definitely not.”
“Why not?”
This podcast and column is why not, but I explained it in a different way to him before we both sat down to read a book together.

Listen to the Podcast

 

Is it just me or am I the only one getting more and more tired with those Angry Birds?

This frustration began simmering this summer when the fun little game app moved off of our mobile devices and into Hollywood (Angry Birds Rio, anyone?), then into plush toys ($18 for a stuffed animal, are you kidding me?). Now, I notice, the video game has morphed into a no-tech board game that came out just in time for the holidays and there’s even a webcomic that tells the backstory of … something.

Forget the birds. Rovio Entertainment has itself a real cash cow.

What worries me most is that gaming apps like Angry Birds are fast becoming prominent places for blatant advertising and options to buy with in-app purchases popping up everywhere, coupled with tie-ins for all sorts of other products.

It’s not just those birds, either.

The whole resurgence of the blue-skinned Smurfs this past year has spawned not only a movie but also a series of online game sites, networking spaces for children like Smurf Village, and mobile device apps that are completely loaded with ways for kids to buy, buy, buy …. with their parents’ credit card accounts, of course.  You may have missed the lawsuits that finally led to some changes with how in-app purchases take place after bills of hundreds of dollars started showing up, but I didn’t.

As an educator who fervently believes in the possibilities of technology to transform the ways we write and interact with the world, this commercialization of technology is incredibly frustrating, particularly when you consider the audience.

I can’t say I am surprised by the corporate world’s push to make new games a touchstone of commercialism.  If nothing else, they know the compulsive tendency of their young audience. Every innovation that eventually attracts a mass of consumers (radio, television, the Internet, etc.) is also bound to attract companies seeking ways to leverage that audience for profit.

But can we please collectively agree to leave the kids alone? Target me all you want. I can take it. I can turn it off. I can buy your product and regret it later.

Our youngest citizens, however, are bombarded enough with the commercialism of our culture. They don’t need their world of play tainted with advertising, too.

Recent news items that have alarmed me included some schools now offering up the doors of lockers (Minnesota), the sides of school buses (Utah), and even the front pages of their report cards (Colorado) for businesses willing to pay up to hawk their goods to an unsuspecting audience. These schools do it because they are strapped for cash. I understand that. I just can’t stomach the idea of the captive audience.

I recently came across some push-back recently that gave me some hope.

It’s a petition for folks and organizations and families who want to send a clear message to gaming companies and the vast entertainment complex to consider the audience for their products, and to please tread lightly on their childhood.

As far as I can tell, the petition has no advertising. I take that as a good sign. And there is not a bird or Smurf in sight. Even better.

Peace (in the ad-free play),
Kevin

My Troubles with Technology

I suppose any reader of this space knows that I can come across as a cheerleader for the ways that technology can be used to transform the possibilities of composition and publishing for young people. But not everything is all rosy all the time. I admit that I am lucky to work in a school where the administration understands the power of technology, and invests as much as it can in equipment, but we still run into all sorts of hurdles.

I regularly use the Dell PC Cart that is housed in my classroom (convenient!) and leave the MAC carts for other parts of the building, particularly for my colleagues in the younger grades. But the Dell Cart is now going on six years old. I remind my students that the computers they are using were brought into the school when they were in kindergarten. That opens up a few eyes. And softens the complaints of processing speed and error messages.

I do a lot to keep the cart running because I don’t want the technology to interfere with the learning. I am not always successful and if often feels like I spend some days in a wrestling match with technology, both of us determined to conquer the other. So far, I am winning. I think. But every day is a new battle, and I need to be light on my feet. It also makes clear, though, why so many teachers give up on technology when the glitches take place, or the computer won’t start, of whatever. It can be exhausting.

Here are just some of the problems that I regularly run into:

  • Six-year-old PC laptops. ‘Nuff said. This would not be as big an issue if they were Macs (says the former PC evangelist);
  • Wireless data flow. When 21 laptops are streaming a heavy-duty site (like Glogster, or Voicethread, or Gamestar Mechanic), the wireless system often gags, and loading of webpages slows to a crawl;
  • The batteries on our laptops are deteriorating … I can barely make it through one hour-long class, and I have four hour-long classes each day. I do a lot of juggling at the end of class and at the start of class to leave a window open for recharging. It does give me time for mini-lessons, but sometimes I am just dancing around in the front of the room, praying for more time;
  • Updates clog up the system, too. Between Windows XP updates, Firefox updates, anti-virus updates, the flow of data coming through the air and into the laptops makes me wonder we don’t see the bits and bytes flying before our eyes. And since that happens in the background, the laptops can crawl at times, and then suddenly, the students are confronted with a shut-down/update;
  • Our Internet service is pretty stable but the other day, we lost it for about four hours, and that impacted an entire day of game design.

I should point out that the students roll with it. While they expect speed and instant connectivity with equipment these days, they mostly complain, ask for help and then wait out the fixes with patience. Maybe more patience that I show at times. But together, we use what we got, and we keep pushing the equipment to the edge of what it can do. We don’t give up. Well, at least most of the time.

Peace (in the gripe session),
Kevin

 

I’ve Given Up … Stories

(Note: This is a response to a writing prompt by my friend Jeremy Hyler at our National Writing Project iAnthology writing site. The prompt was to write about something we have given up. I chose stories. By the way, you should consider voting for Jeremy for his blog at the Edublog Awards for best new blog. At the least, you should add him as someone to follow as he reflects on teaching, writing and, particularly, reaching middle school boys as readers and writers.)

Take a listen to my response as a podcast.

 

I’ve given up more stories than I can count, and each time, I feel as if I have lost someone dear to me. But they just had to go. I’ve given up stories that started strong and ran out of something by the middle and either fluttered to the end, or never even made it there. I’ve given up stories that seemed to go one way, only to veer another way, and then I could not find the strings to tangle them back together. I’ve given up stories because I have forgotten the story I wanted to tell in the first place, which is about as much of an awful feeling for a writer that you can have. I’ve given up stories because of the opposite, too: I told the story I wanted to tell and that story was for no one else but me. I keep those stories in my heart. So, maybe they aren’t completely given up. I’ve given up stories more often than I have not given up on stories, and I often wonder: what does that say about me as a storywriter? Do I give up too easily? Can’t I focus, for god’s sake?

My 11 year old son was writing a story the other day on our computer and then last night, he told me he had run into a wall and decided to delete the whole thing. No, I almost shouted. Don’t do it. At least save it for another day, another year. Save the story for another time when another version of yourself can pick it up and keep it going. I think I was talking to myself as much I was talking to him.

I’ve given up lots of stories, but somehow, I know where they still are.

Peace (in the lost and not-so-lost stories),
Kevin

 

What Do You Mean, Teachers Can’t Create Curriculum?

My wife has a subscription to a bunch of school administrator journals. It’s not the best of reading, but I like browsing through to see what trends may be emerging on the horizon. It’s like peeking around the corner with spy gear. I am always surprised by the amount of canned curriculum being advertised in the pages of these journals — the claims that everything can be fixed with a simple software tool, or box of leveled books, or the new device is both interesting and appalling at the same time.

I was reading a column in the latest edition of District Administration by Cathleen Norris and Elliot Soloway (who write a column called Going Mobile) when something jumped out at me that I had to respond to. The column was about the impediments to technology in schools these days, and Norris and Salaway outline a number of obstacles. They make some good points, including the need for more professional development opportunities for teachers, a viable infrastructure that supports technology, and the need to do more work around assessment of student work with technology.

Another impediment is curriculum development and this is where something they wrote had me fuming a bit. This is what they say:

“… administrators can’t expect to be successful on the back of teacher-generated curriculum materials. Teachers are not curriculum producers; teachers are, well, teachers.” — Norris/Soloway, District Administrator

Excuse me? Condescending a bit or what?

I guess as a teacher, I am not talented or smart enough to develop a rich curriculum that engages my students in learning while also anchoring that learning to whatever state curriculum is in the mic? I don’t have the tools to be thoughtful about development of activities with end-goals in mind? I don’t have the wherewithal to integrate technology in a meaningful way for a meaningful purpose for meaningful learning?

Come on! These two need to get immersed in the work of organizations like the National Writing Project, where the heart and soul of curriculum development is with the teachers. All I could think of is that these writers may represent a majority of administrators (not all, but many) who don’t value teachers as leaders, and so where do they turn for curriculum?

That’s right. To the advertising pages of journals like District Administration, where they can spent gobs of precious money on canned curriculum that gets shoved down the throats of teachers, stifling not only the creative abilities of teachers but also taking away much of the individualized approaches to student learning that we know is most effective.

What Norris and Soloway are saying is: Trust the experts when it comes to curriculum development, and the experts are not the teachers.

If ever a statement needs push back, this is it, particularly as we shift towards Common Core standards and the major companies like Pearson are no doubt  gearing up canned curriculum and textbooks for states and school districts to purchase and pat themselves on the back that they are now in the running for Race to the Top money that comes with alignment. Administrators, look to your own teaching corp for expertise and find a way to bring us teachers into the equation, too.

Peace (in the push back),
Kevin

 

Using Data Charts to Gauge Student Writing Growth

Unless you are teaching under a rock, you know that data collection and data analysis is a driving force in education these days. Administrators are asking for data and numbers and charts to document the learning going on in classrooms. I’ve tried to be open-minded about this, and I have been working hard at figuring out what kinds of data collection might be useful for me as a teacher. Last year, I began documenting the writing assessments of my students as a whole to see if our work around open response, in particular, was making a difference in the content and quality of their writing.

This year, in September, after assessing an open response piece of writing (based on a Reading Response rubric that is tied to our district’s Standard-based Reporting system), I began to create a visual graph of where they were as a class. Last week, I assessed another writing sample with the same rubric, and again, created a graph. What I was wondering was: have they made growth since September? (This is all tied to some goals in our Communities of Practice/PLC work, too)

Clearly, they have.
reading response1
reading response2

 

Notice how there has been a nice shift from the “Progressing towards grade level expectations” to the “Meeting grade level expectations.” There is a still a much-too-large percentage in the “Beginning to show grade level expectations” category, and those are the specific students I need to keep targeting with one-on-one intervention. These kinds of informational data graphs, while fairly simple to construct, are valuable in giving an overview of growth.

Now maybe I see what those administrators are talking about.

 

Peace (in the data),
Kevin