Monday, May 22, 2017

If You Want Students to Be Passionate Readers, Learn from This

It is easy to forget during the season of testing just what it is about reading that lures us in. We can become hung up in test prep---exposing students to so-called "test questions" and sample passages---and in the process utterly blaspheme the joy of reading and the beauty of literature.

Looking back, I became a reader due to two educators in my life: Ms. Jackson (name changed) and Ms. Sherrill (again, name changed, in case she is still out there). Ms. Jackson was our school librarian. She was not a media specialist as they are called now. In fact, I could bet Ms, Jackson would have disdained that title. She would have seen all this hype about "computers" and "technology" as major distractions. She would not have liked the direction our school libraries have taken at all, with the removal of books and the placement of high-tech gadgets.

My fondest memories of Ms. Jackson is her reading fairy tales to us. She read them all: Hans Christian Andersen, Grimms, Native American Tales, mythology, etc. During my first and second grade, Ms. Jackson introduced me to the world of fantasy where almost anything could happen. She provided me with a ticket to my own imagination. She introduced me to books. But what Ms. Jackson did really was instill within me a insatiable flame of desire for books and reading, and she did this when she "broke the rules." Yes, she broke the rules.

In those days, the rule of the library was that you could only check out books from your assigned grade level. Such a rule makes sense on the surface. Students aren't allowed to check out books that are too difficult or are inappropriate, but rules can put out the flames of passion, and in this case, she could have just enforced the rules, and let my own passion for exploration and reading die. She didn't. She allowed me to wander everywhere and check out anything I desired, so when I had a passion for the stars and planets, I checked out every science book on the topic. When I became interested in the Civil War, I checked out books on that topic. When I stumbled on dinosaurs, as every young kid inevitably does, I read every book in the library on the topic. I literally checked out books, in some cases, way over my head, but when I got the books home, I wanted to know what they said so badly, I read, re-read, and read again, until I could understand. Ms. Jackson, by simply choosing not to enforce her library rules, created a life-long passionate reader.

 Ms. Sherrill, who was my sixth grade teacher reinforced my passion for books in her classroom. First of all, she surrounded us with books and a comfortable place to read. She had this carpeted mat sitting next to the class library, and she practically gave us free rein to spend as much time there as possible, if we got our other assignments done, of course. But that alone wasn't new. Ms. Sherrill also fostered my passion for books by reading aloud to us as well. She read Old Yeller, Tom Sawyer, Oliver Twist. She read with such energy and passion. I could tell she loved novels, and she infected me with the same disease.

Both these teachers remind me of these words by my favorite writer, Pat Conroy:
"Great words, arranged with cunning and artistry, could change the perceived world for some readers. From the beginning I've searched out those writers unafraid to stir up the emotions, who entrust me with their darkest passions, their most indestructible yearnings, and their most soul-killing doubts. I trust the great novelists to teach me how to live, how to feel, how to love and hate. I trust them to show me the dangers I will encounter on the road as I stagger on my own troubled passage through a complicated life of books that try to teach me how to die." Pat Conroy, My Reading Life
Today, we aren't going to foster reading, I mean real reading by being obsessed with standardized tests. These two educators introduced me to the "great words" of writers. They also introduced me to novelists and then allowed me to "search out those writers" for myself, "who are unafraid to stir up my emotions, who entrust me with their darkest passions..." Ms. Jackson gave me ability to search and fulfill my hunger to know. Ms. Sherrill infected me with a disease that means I can't walk by the new novels rack in the bookstore and not feel the passion and energy surging from them.

In this season of testing, let's remind ourselves, that the test is not everything; it never was, nor will it ever be.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Why Saying “I’m Doing What’s Best for Students” Isn’t the Best Rationale

One of the most common utterings you will hear from school leaders is, “I’m going to do what’s best for kids” when justifying or providing reasons for actions taken. But, is saying that justification enough?

By using the justification that actions are “what’s best for students,” the addressor, or one uttering that phrase, is staking claim to the higher moral ground. Educators, for the most part and by nature, became so because of their concern for the learning and well-being of the young. So, when one claims what one is doing is “best for students,” the immediate reaction by other educators is simply acceptance and obedience. Most times, not one asks for further explanation and proof either. But what if that action really isn’t the best for students?

As a school leader, I am so self-aware when I use that phrase and when others use it too. Sometimes it is tossed around so much, it almost loses its real power to justify anything. But when we use that phrase as school leaders, do we really know that what we’re doing or asking others to do is “best” for kids? It might very well be in our minds that it is, but the history of education is riddled with schemes and ideas that were “what’s best for kids too."

Should we not be a little hesitant to use this phrase? After all, we don’t get a grade of “A” in leadership when we were well-intentioned. I don’t get the consolation prize of knowing that, “Well, I did really mean well when I decided to trash the school’s arts program in favor of more reading instruction” because I thought it best for students to be able to read rather than play the violin or paint a landscape. Never mind that there just might have been a Mozart, or a Shakespeare in the midst of bloom in my school that was stamped out by my actions.

Perhaps we should discard the phrase “doing what’s best for students” from our leadership practice. I suspect it’s another thing of many that educational leaders have borrowed from the field of business and industry leadership. In business, there exists a true bottom-line. You need to make a profit, and to do that, you delineate the bottomline to make that happen. And, as leader, you simply make your decisions align with that.

But I don’t really think there’s a ‘bottomline’ in education. Things are not just that simple. Perhaps there’s a bottomline for every single student who walks in the hallways of our schools, and because of this, there’s absolutely, no way, we can say with 100% confidence, that what we do is in the best interest of all our students. We are fallible human beings in spite of what our college educational leadership programs tried to tell us.

One major lesson I’ve learned from educational leadership? Abolutely certainty will surely get you into trouble. I honestly think I know less about being an educational leader now than when I started. What this really means in practical terms is that I am a fallible human who can’t always say definitively that my decisions are “What’s Best for Kids!”

Thursday, April 13, 2017

How to Be an Educator When Thinking Has Become Dangerous

"Thinking has become dangerous in the United States and the symptoms are everywhere." Henry Giroux, Dangerous Thinking: In the Age of the New Authoritarianism
 For all the talk and blather about teaching students to think critically and creatively, we need to face the reality that much of our political and educational establishment is actually more interested in conformity, and teaching others to think in certain privileged ways. For example, with all the talk that comes with education as the engine of the economy, also comes the worship of greed, free-market fundamentalism, and simple form of idolatry that places the "businessman" as the salvation of all that is good and wonderful. Schools are seen as the producers of workers for industry. Art and music is irrelevant and unnecessary. Education is not about thinking critically; it is about making sure our students accept and conform to a culture that pursues economic interests, and selfish individual interests at the expense of everything else, with the belief, that in the end, all will be well in such a society.

The current predicament we face in this 21st century isn't just about jobs for our students; it is whether or not the world we are leaving them will even be inhabitable. Instead of educating students how to work the machines in the factory down the road, we need to be teaching them to be problem-solvers, creative thinkers, and dare I say, teaching them to be willing to be non-conformists?

Non-conformity is not always a negative. There are plenty of examples of constructive non-conformity in our history. Had the forefathers of our country chosen the path of conformity, we certainly would not have the country we have today. I realize that is a bit of tired thinking, but I think it illustrates a simple point that should be a part of our educational philosophy for 21st century thinking. You simply sometimes can't think outside the box when conformity matters most. You can't always expect different results when you insist on playing by the rules set by others. Sometimes you need to invent new rules, or simply refuse to play by the old ones, and invent an entirely new game.

As Giroux points out, "Thinking has become dangerous" and I would agree it has especially become dangerous in the United States in our current political climate. But, if we are going to push the limits and be "dangerous educational innovators," we are going to have to engage in the unsafe. We are going to have to be critical and creative thinkers, and question the official, and dare I say even resist. Ultimately, we can by example teach our students to be "dangerous thinkers" who can disturb the present by being willing to question and even think dangerously ourselves.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Sometimes You Can't Feel the Same Way About E-Books as a Real Book

As I sit here surrounded by books, working and writing, I can't help but think back just a couple years ago, when I started amassing e-books. I purchased both a Kindle and a Nook reader, set up a Google Books account too. I was converted: I moved my reading into the 21st century. Now? I have become a backslider, as evidenced by this photo. Why have I fallen from the faithful? It's really not very complicated at all.

When I started my doctoral degree, I tried to purchase e-books as much as possible, often from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Google Books, and iBooks, mainly because some titles were not always available as an e-book from one of the publishers. There were even quite a number of books not available as e-books at all. It was toward the middle of the program that I discovered that there just wasn't a way to replace being able to hold the book in my hand, take a pencil and underline and then write notes in the margins. All of the e-books readers offer the ability to highlight and make notes, but being able to do this in pencil just seemed to help me wrestle with the texts, and those who have worked on doctoral degrees know that there is a great deal of "text-wrestling" to be done. I could thumb back through the pages I marked up to quickly retrieve a note or an idea that I had during my original reading.

Still, I am not sure I have a totally rational reason for my almost-complete move back to e-books unless it as the current state of my study shows: I can stack the books around and see simultaneously, in one glance, where I've textually been and where I am going.

A few years ago I heard the chatter that physical books were going the way of 8-tracks, cassette tapes and vinyl records, but here it is about four or five years later, and the total demise of physical books has not yet occurred. What has occurred is the blunting of my enthusiasm for e-books. Sure, I still purchase them, especially if it's a title I would like to see immediately, but many times I have elected to the physical book instead. I even find myself thumbing through the new titles on Amazon's website to see if there are books I might want to pick up at the local bookstore. It turns out the failure of e-books to eradicate physical books wasn't enough,  and it seems that vinyl records, 8-Tracks, and cassette tapes are coming back as well, though I have yet to long for those yet.

I've heard and keep hearing all these predictions about how this technology is going to revolutionize this industry, and how this device is going to make some old standard way of doings things obsolete, but it just doesn't seem to be happening with the same level of frequency anymore. In my case, I literally enjoy the comfort of being surrounded by books that I am reading. That's just not something they've figured out how to get out of Kindle app yet.


Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Be Wary of Products Claiming to Be ‘Research-Based’

I receive countless emails during a given week from vendors of software, textbooks, and other instructional materials. A number of these throw the term “research-based” around like a badge of validation. The truth is, I can’t help but be skeptical.
"Products claiming to be ‘research-based’ throw around that label like a badge of validation."
Recently, a vender sent me an email for some redial reading software and in that email was the claim to be “research-based.” I emailed the sales person and asked them to send me copies of the research studies that validate their product. The email I received was links to simple generic titles of studies that indirectly validate the “supposed methods” and psychological principles on which their product is based. There was not a single study that actually “validated” their specific product. That hardly, in my opinion, gives them validation as a “research-based” effective product.
"Having a product that claims to be ‘based’ on research-based principles of learning is not the same has having a product that is validated by research."
If we were operating in a more skeptical world, when we ask for “research” that a vendor claims validates their product, I honestly think we should ask for specific independent studies that examine their product.Being “based” on research-based principles does not validate that specific product.
"Being ‘based’ on research-based or scientific educational principles does not validate the product."
I realize that is a very high hurdle for edupreneurs and educational product developers to traverse, but if you’re going to say that your product is “research-based,” you have an obligation to prove that your specific product is just that. Otherwise, your language should simply say that your product is based on research-based learning principles, and then provide documentation for those principles.
"If a company claims their product is 'research-based,’ then that company is obligated to provide those validating studies."
We as educators should not be naive and be willing to ask the tough questions when salespersons call. Just because the product was developed by an educator, or is being sold by an administrator you knew a long time ago, does not mean that we accept their word either. We owe it to our stakeholders and our students to make sure our limited funds aren’t wasted on bogus educational materials or products.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The End of Ed-Tech Evangelism: Using Your Critical Faculties to Question Tech Obsession

One of the identifying characteristics of my blog, this blog, has been that it "advocates for the use of technology." Since the very first post here, I've often joined the educator chorus of singing the praises of "technology in education." Now, a few years later, I am beginning to wonder, in the spirit of Nicholas Carr, that perhaps I've been more "evangelist" than educator when it comes to "advocating for technology." I've been "spreading the gospel of technology use in the classroom and in my role as principal" for several years now, and I've come to some certain "Carrisian" (if I may invent a new word) realizations about technology myself which can be summed up thus: Technology is no panacea; it doth not an effective educator make.

Before the virtual spitballs start flying in my direction, let me explain myself a bit further. Being a "Tech Evangelist" gets it all wrong. There is "no gospel of ed technology." There's nothing to convert people to, and there's no salvation to be found in outfitting out classrooms with gadgets galore. Placing 30 laptops in a room does not necessarily transform that room into the new center of learning in Western Civilization. Why? It's simply this: the greatest feats of learning are not always found on the screens of our smartphones and tablet screens. No matter how much we try to convince ourselves, that "tech is better," sometimes a pad of paper and our favorite fountain pen is a much better way to engage our thoughts and the world.

Educators, I'm afraid, have been "spreading a utopian view of technology," as Nicholas Carr calls this technoevangelicalism, for some time now. I've engaged in that myself. I've been guilty of viewing any educational progress as "essentially technological." And, this means, I've been a part of the problem of "legitimizing" all these edupreneurs and opportunists who bombard my email inbox every day with promises of sure entrance into the "academic achievement promise land" if I will only purchase their products. Educational technology is the land of opportunity for many; including those who peddle snake oil and latest elixirs that cure every ailment in our schools. By being uncritical and faithful to the ed tech creeds, I am just as guilty as anyone of enabling that "commercial culture" that puts the profits of self and others ahead of what is sometimes best for the students in my building. No more.

If anything, ed technology needs it's own version of "Food and Drug Administration" that forces these edpreneurs and technoevangelists promoting their wares to provide solid evidence of their claims. Educators are a trusting lot. They want so much to believe that the nice gentlemen plugging his software program or tech device, or any other educational ware, really wants what they want: what's best for kids. But, while that may be true, understand that he is out to sell a product, not take care of your students.

We have the greatest "FDA" faculty in our heads as educators. We talk about critical thinking and independent thinking, then we need to exercise it when it comes to any educational product or technology. Anyone can claim their product is "research-based" and the best thing to happen to education since chalkboards. Yet, we are ultimately responsible for using this critical faculty to ask the tough questions of anyone promoting a product or even idea. We owe it to our own integrity and most of all to the kids we face each and every day.

By spreading a utopian view of technology, a view that defines progress as essentially technological, they've encouraged people to switch off their critical faculties and give Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and financiers free rein in remaking culture to fit their commercial interests" Nicholas Carr, Utopia Is Creepy and Other Provocations

Saturday, November 26, 2016

A Career Caught in the Swirl of Ed Reform: What I’ve Discovered

My entire career as an educator, all 27 years, has been spent in the perpetual swirl of “reform” that enveloped education when I first set foot into the classroom. It was in the cusp of the “Era of Accountability” that I began teaching, and the clarion calls for site-based management, uniform standards, and testing were just beginning to resound. Soon to follow was the Total Quality Classroom movement, multiple intelligence theory, and right-left brain theory, critical thinking teaching, thinking maps, and whole host of other initiatives. There has been no shortage on theory during my career as an educator that’s for sure, and during my entire career, we’ve been reforming education, then reforming our reform in an unending pursuit of a “magical land” where schools succeed, except that there’s been one major problem: we’ve never arrived.

I don’t mean to sound pessimistic in this reflection; in fact, I’m not really that way at all. I am nostalgic in one sense, because there has always been that anticipation of the next great idea that comes around the bend, and the promise that all our educational ills will finally be resolved. Those who’ve promoted this atmosphere of perpetual reform, have, after all, succeeded even if our schools may not really be any better off. It’s those who’ve capitalized on these reforms by promoting products, professional development, computer programs and websites, and new techniques and strategies who have earned a bundle. The promise of their being one single way to resolve the educational puzzle has led many to search high and low, and our market-based approach to these products has not disappointed, at least for those who’ve made the money.

Still, I’ve come to a cold, hard conclusion that is, in fact, very liberating. It is simply this: There is no magical theory out there or discovery that will allow us to suddenly be able educate like we’ve never done before. There is no one best way to teach, and as we already know, there is no one best way to learn. Despite all these infernal emails I get that promise to "raise my students’ ACT scores or SAT scores to exorbitant heights," in the end their promises are more marketing than reality, and in many cases, downright deceptive. Education has become a money making enterprise like everything else, with “experts” arising from all corners of the field with their version of the “final solution to all our education problems.”

My liberating conclusion that all of these are mostly empty promises frees me to view education as the difficult work it is with problems that do not, nor ever will have singular solutions.

Reform has become such a cliche now, every time I hear a politician say the word, I want to flee in panic, or hit him with a rotten tomato. It just won’t happen. Perhaps real “reform” will begin and end with ourselves rather than continuing the fruitless quest for magic. Real reform begins with the liberating thought: “There are no easy answers or solutions to discover about our educational system. There’s only hard work to be done."