Data: our reputations – our students – our collective future

testingIn learning environments, particularly schools, where teachers have yet to engage in a conversation about common assessment, that is, participating in a shared instructional environment and reflecting on teaching with colleagues, it is all too common to hear the following statement offered in argument against it:

“It may reflect on me negatively as a teacher if my students do not perform well on a given test.”

This is a true statement.

Like all true statements, though, it deserves some unpacking, and I’ll do that by asking the following questions:

1. If your student doesn’t do well on a test, whose problem is that, really? Is your ability to make a living and function in the culture threatened? In the long run it is clearly to our collective detriment as the social fabric will be weaker, but will next month’s paycheck shrink?

2. Let’s say you can teach circles on a given topic around the teacher in the room across the hall, and your students do better than his/hers on a test as a result. What right do you have to secret mastery in teaching that topic? Do the students in class across the hall have any rights? If it’s a competition (and no doubt teachers become very competitive), who are the actual winners and Hanshin-Awaji_earthquake_1995_Kashiwai-building_001losers?  If you and a friend suffered from the same cancer and your friend’s doctor had the cure, would you feel entitled to the same access to the cure your friend enjoys?

3. Do you have the right to a good reputation just because you show up and have the keys to the room? Does an architect with a cool studio but whose buildings fall down have a right to a good reputation? How about the doctor who judges his own competence based on the bell curve?

4. Do the people who sign your paycheck and the kids whose futures you hold in your hands have the right to expect that some evidence exists, somewhere, indicating you know what you’re doing?

5. Should each student expect you to figure out how best to educate them, or should every 15-year-old already know the best way to learn whatever you choose to offer up? (I said 15 because my own 15-yr-old just left the room).


Staff_meetingSo the above is all very negative, but do grant that the phrase in question has the word “negatively” actually in it.

What teachers discover when the competition no longer makes any sense, when they start to share the best practices available to get the job done for students, that they begin to grow again, and that teaching returns to the joyful, vital, hopeful profession they thought they entered in the first place.

Teachers, students, the world, deserve no less.

Just part of the air we breathe, teacher

heart rhythmLast Saturday my wife, Danielle, and I sat with my cousin Jim in the intensive care unit as he neared the end of his life. Not only did we accept that his vital signs would be monitored by several machines in the room and displayed in vivid colors with large font displays, over the several hours of our vigil, those numbers, sounds and traces became part of our collective experience, together with our dying cousin. Through medical technology, he was including us in his transition, sharing the data that has become commonplace in today’s hospitals, something unknown to humans a couple generations ago. Before, families watching a quiet bedridden relative would look for signs of breathing, listen for hints that life remained or had passed, but it was only through the stethoscope of the doctor (who may or may not be present) that they would eventually know for certain. Today, we have real-time data. We know, and it informs our way of thinking and perceiving.

Sitting under our plastic gowns, we could see that Jim was nearing the end of his illness, and his life. The nurse stepped over to Jim’s bedside, approached the monitor, switched off the display, and returned to her electronic charting. Danielle and I turned to each other with a look of “Wha?!” I looked at Jim, and instantly felt a broken connection, the frustration of information denied rising inside me. I turned to the nurse and said as politely as I could muster, “I assume you turned off the monitor because of all the alarms that will be going off shortly?” She looked mildly surprised, and said, “Oh, you want them on? Some families do, some don’t.” She restarted the monitor, and for another half hour or so we followed our cousin to his last breath and final heartbeat. It was intimate and precious and utterly unmediated by a third-person stethoscope, all thanks to the telemetry. I would not have given that up for anything.

It is important to this post that I cop to taking all that medical technology completely for granted. It felt familiar and necessary, and it is a comfortable part of my 21st Century experience. If I had walked into his hospital and had not seen evidence of data collection and display, not only would I have been disappointed, I would have demanded my cousin be moved to a decent hospital.

This is precisely the experience of our students when we, by force of law, pull them from their data-infused world and into school that often does not meaningfully follow their common access to data. We persist in demanding they break their connections, and most teachers want to be the stethoscope in the room to tell their students whether the heart of the world is still beating, or if it has a heart at all. And like our nurse, we are surprised when students are confused that we want them to disconnect from their data stream. They know their life is richer because of it. Can’t we see that?

Yes, instructional change is tough, but it begins with an awareness that humans’ relationship to technology has changed the culture of living and learning, in school and out. When students turn to us with a look of “Wha?!” in their eyes, it is simply incomprehension as they power-down, not insolence. Find what you can do to make your teaching and their learning as vital and meaningful, as intimate and precious as they know it can be.

I miss the days of trust, really I do

Vicki Davis, the Cool Cat Teacher blogger and Ed Tech guru of many years standing, has issued an impassioned and earnest plea in Why I now friend my students on social media for school and government authorities to back off the over-regulation of communications via social media between teachers and students. You will feel as well as hear her plea in her presentation here:

My reply to her blog post is below. I will also mention that she is a teacher in a private school in Camilla, GA, and has always enjoyed certain benefits not available to us in the public sector, including an expectation that students in her classes enjoy sure access to technology at home, for instance. There are any number of regulatory spaces not carefully attended to in the private sector, permitting a certain kind of choice-making not available to the rest of us.


Hi Vicki,

I am entirely resonant with what you are saying here, and I share the desire to be able to connect with kids when they are reaching out to us. At the outset of my career, I was the teacher who gave out his home phone number, and that was waaay before cell phones, and before Internet. It was during that time I intervened with more than one suicidal student because a friend had my number, so my heart is certainly with you.

Our world has changed, though. Currently, a local physics teacher is serving time for seducing and raping female students, and his primary mode of communication was Words With Friends. Not long ago in our area a local teacher had to be hospitalized, and her Facebook-based classroom help group became flame central to the point one of her students was afraid to come to school, with everything happening out of sight of the teacher who had (legally and effectively) extended the teaching/learning space into the back channels of a medium that was undiscoverable and unsupervised. She had unintentionally left her classroom without a teacher present, and the potential consequences of vicious online bullying are too well known.

Federal and state statutes have defined our responsibilities in terms of how student information, student-teacher communication, and learning spaces connected to terms of employment are to be managed. What you would like to see as possible has been overtaken in drastic measure by FERPA, state Education Codes, and board policies which seek to limit the liability of education systems when things go wrong.

In the past, teachers were able to use their discretion when meeting privately with students, and while there have always been bad apples among both teachers and students, teachers generally knew which students were not trustworthy behind a closed door, they knew when to leave it open with a colleague not far away. This has been particularly true for male teachers. Commercial social media, however, has made the risk of covert back-channel communication high risk for all because any teacher who connects online in undiscoverable (as in invisible and unverifiable) channels is exposed to great risk of unfounded accusation, and the law has done much to protect minors in those same spaces.

What you are hoping to see in the way of reform would require major retooling of many statutes to restore the freedom of discretion we once enjoyed, but because of the actions of a few spectacular exceptions, this is highly unlikely to occur any time soon. I think our best strategy, at least until the current spasm of social media over-protection has run its course, is to make sure our students receive education and socialization that recognizes the necessity of quality face-to-face relationships so that social media is not their only option when life goes sour.

So teacher, are you just about the technology?

Last week Doug Johnson featured the article 7 Myths About Empathy, and it recalled a powerful memory for me that made its way to a guest post on his blog. I reprint it for  you here, as a courtesy to those of you patiently awaiting a new post.

Doug,

While reading your 7 Myths About Empathy post, I found myself looking for a description of not just what empathy is or isn’t, but also how it actually functions in the course of instruction. Then I wondered, “Why am I looking for that?”  As I read I remembered I had been provided with exactly that insight in the middle of my teaching career.

The path to understanding this many years ago was my biochemistry professor’s manner of delivering excruciatingly complex material; at least it was that for me. I was an adult learner, early forties, taking some career-necessary coursework at UC Davis. I was drowning, and apparently I wasn’t alone in feeling that way, and was seriously considering dropping the class. I remember the moment… at one point, the professor put down his dry erase pen after filling half the board with yet another enzyme reaction series. He turned toward the class, and with deep compassion in his eyes he proceeded to talk to us about knowing how difficult his was for us, how our brains needed time to unravel it on its own, and to not worry that we didn’t comprehend the complexity right at that moment. He then, as he had occasionally before, talked about the nearly miraculous nature of what it was we were trying to understand, that it was the essence of life itself, a complex process shared by virtually every living thing on the planet. He advised us to just take it in, relax, return to it often, and give our brains time to quietly sort it out.

That moment was a huge gift. Not only was he right about our brains and we how we come to understand complicated things, he used it as a teaching moment to share his love for the subject matter, and his compassion for us. He completely drew us into his discipline and communicated to us that both we and the content mattered, and the effect on us was quite amazing. I aced the damn class. My study partner (a second-career older adult) and I earned the two highest grades out of fifty or so in the class, but even our  desperate-looking whippersnapper classmates did quite well.

I’ve had other experiences like this, with inspiring professors and teachers, but this particular one informed my own practice as a teacher because of his precisely directed, caring advice. I came to understand that the empathy relationship was bi-directional in a classroom, and that the deeper that relationship became the more powerful and permanent the learning. I became a much better teacher, and had much more fun. Teaching this way was personally more challenging, more emotionally risky, but I look back on my teaching days as having been very successful thanks to that understanding.

For me, this is the heart of why the teacher cannot be removed from the learning of complex subject matter. Learning a “discipline” happens when the learning setting is informed by a discipleship of following and seeking rather than 19th century discipline for punishment and order (The flogging will stop when morale improves.) Learning is often hard, at every age and level of development, and we can only be drawn to it as willing participants, not driven by compulsory anything.

The glorious admission of bad teaching

Elsewhere on this blog I have admitted my fandom of Bianca Hewes, prolific PBL blogger and English teacher in SW Australia.

Yesterday, though, she outdid her usual literate self by describing her despair over having approached her job badly, deluding herself into thinking she was doing stellar work when in retrospect she evaluated her performance as just mediocre. Clearly Bianca brings great gifts to her students on her worst days, but this blog post goes significantly beyond her usual descriptions of best practices and explores how a teacher perceives his/her own practice.

What is the most professional and productive response to one’s realization that the experience you just required 30 or more young people to have was a first-class waste of time? We all recognize there are a number of choices, but which one leads to change so that we avoid repeating our own mediocrity?  Here are a few I recall from my own teaching days:

  • I blame the curriculum. “If this stuff were just more interesting it would engage the students more. I’m doing my best with the drudge I’m given to teach.” I taught science, so no excuse there.
  • I blame the kids. “If they could perceive the importance of this material, if they were mature enough, if their hormones would cooperate, if they knew how much I cared, if they’d had their breakfast, if they had learned what they should have last year (with that other teacher, of course).”
  • I blame the technology. OK, I concede this one. Current education funding and the limits on instructional material spending create technology nightmares. How does a teacher use Edmodo instructionally when the lab is antiquated, there are no devices in kids’ hands, ad nauseum. On the other hand, was it my failure to plan for inevitable tech challenges? Was I realistic and informed?
  • I blame myself. “I suck.” From here one can take a few different paths. Because the bell does ring and the road leads away from campus, it is tempting to leave one’s failure at school and spend free time investigating retirement options or investing in the hobby. Another path involves adding new tools to one’s repertoire, new arrows to the quiver, then energizing and blazing a new personal path to making it right for students.

When failure visits, whether due to habit or the day’s circumstance, “I suck” can represent an opportunity to change tools, to pull a different arrow and shoot at a new target.  Bianca’s post is a glittering example of a remorseful, healthy professional taking a fresh look after letting failure go public and stinky.

[Addendum: True to form and as predicted, Bianca self-diagnosed today and pulled a fresh arrow from her quiver, describing it in today’s post.]

“I know karate…

so it’s okay, I’ll lead the way out.”

During his address to the community of Newtown, CT last night, President Obama offered that quote from a student being evacuated from Sandy Hook Elementary School following the mass shooting there last Friday.

While there is no obvious ed tech connection to these horrific events that would prompt a blog post, that quote hung in my thoughts last night when I should have been sleeping.

The President’s audience, and I, chuckled when he quoted that student, and I struggled to understand why we adults found that child’s earnest assurance of a fearful adult so sweet and amusing.  We are not accustomed to children leading, even when they are competent to do so, and we make a habit of assuming children have no vision of leadership or inner purpose.

As we all fight to absorb the meaning of the events of December 14th, 2012, and as we hold a national discussion around guns and mental health so that adults are held to a higher standard of meeting our responsibility of protecting our children, I ask my colleagues to take that child’s statement at face value, and know they want to lead with all their hearts.  Our students need adults to provide them with the best tools and keenest wisdom in order to succeed in their leadership, but we can assume they bring heart and courage to school every day.

May we all learn deeply from this sacrifice.

When kids create change…

it can get mighty uncomfortable for the adults.

Ed Tech friends,  you’ve just GOT to read this story from the BBC, : School Dinner Blogger Bannedblogger martha payne

Meet Martha Payne, 9-year-old Scottish blogger from Argyll, decided to raise money to feed hungry children by blogging about and rating her school meals.

3,300,000 hits later, and counting (thanks to the now infamous ban on her photographing her meals – like I said, read the story) young Martha has focused proper attention not only on her own school’s meals, but on the fare being served by schools to (up to now) powerless students.

HUZZAH Martha (aka Veg) and HUZZAH Dad-o’-Veg!

As a technology educator I celebrate your living the present and the future by making our technology attend to real life, address real problems, while holding the all-too-often dysfunctional adult world accountable.

Note that the ban, and the viral response leading to the lifting of said ban and the millions of hits and protests (not to mention an opening of floodgates of donations to Martha’s charity) all occurred over the course of less than two days.

I think the future is looking brighter for us all.