Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Wrong Data

I have been a teacher in a public school for my entire 13 year teaching career. Over that time I have seen many changes on the education pendulum swing back and forth. One trend, although likely more than a trend, I see creeping or rather blitzkrieging into every aspect of our school in recent years is the use of data. To say schools have become obsessed with data may be an understatement. 

Now I'm not here to say I don't like data. In fact, it is quite the opposite. I believe data is a very valuable tool in schools just as in many aspects of life. As a self proclaimed runner, I am constantly pouring over data from my running. I collect distances, times, elevation and even weather conditions. I have two sons who swim and I often review the data of their times and how they are doing and progressing as swimmers. I realize this may indicate I need a new hobby. :) However, data is very much a part of my daily life and likely of many other people.  

In school it feels as though the most important data we collect is reading and math scores. Yes, I realize there are other data points gathered but these appear to be the headliners in the data driven show. Teachers are told they are good teachers or bad teachers largely based on this data. In some places teachers who don't even teach math or English are being told they have a stake in that reading and math data. Huge amounts of human and fiscal resources are invested in supporting reading and math intervention. Specialists are hired to work with our students who struggle in these two area. We even create additional classes for students to get additional help in reading and math. Often times these new classes come at the expense of an “special” or an enrichment class. When this happens students miss out on other learning opportunities they might excel at in an effort to receive additional support. All of these decisions are driven by the data being collected. 

Again, I'm not opposed to data or even using data to inform decisions. Yet, I wonder if the data we’re collecting and the data that is driving our decisions is the right data. If you walk the halls of many schools across our great country you will see issues and concerns beyond low reading or math scores. You will see students who are unhappy, lonely or sad. You will see students that are hungry, that are not well rested and generally unhealthy. You will also see students who are overweight, unkept or emotionally unstable. When I see these students I wonder about a different kind of data driving our work as educators. 

How are we collecting data on happiness? Are we collecting data on physical and mental health? What sort of decisions are being driven by students’ joy and wellness in our schools? Are we creating intervention plans or pulling resources to support mental health as well as physical health? Is it at the same level as it is with math and reading? How can we obsess over a child's reading scores when they're hungry or struggling with obesity? Why are we worried about whether they will master math standards when they are clearly not well either physically or emotionally? 

In reality, much if not most of the data we are collecting in schools will mean little when kids leave our buildings. Whether or not we got a student to a higher level of reading or a higher level of math computation will have less bearing on their life than if they leave us healthier both in mind and body. Why is it that English teachers are being forced to obsess over intervention plans and supports for struggling readers? Why aren’t the PE teachers and the health teachers or the counselor's creating comprehensive wellness plans, mental health plans, or happiness plans for children who struggle in these areas? Why are these plans not the focus of our conversations and data meetings? The data we use to drive our decisions ultimately reflects what we value and I wonder if our schools are beginning to value the wrong things or at least not valuing enough of the right things.

Monday, August 10, 2015

A Curious Teacher - Part Three

A Curious Teacher - Part Three

I am still unpacking many of the insights and lessons shared in Brian Grazer’s book, A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life. One of my initial takeaways was around the idea of curiosity not being a sought after or overly valued quality in schools. The other insight gained was about how the notion of “good enough” can by problematic in life but certainly in our work as teachers. My third and potentially finally takeaway for now is around the notion of the Internet and its impact on curiosity. In his book Grazer states the following:

“It was Karl Marx who called religion ‘the opium of the masses.’ He meant that religion was designed to provide enough answers that people stopped asking questions.  
We need to be careful, individually, that the Internet doesn’t anesthetize us instead of inspire us. 
There are two things you can’t find on the Internet - just like there were two things Robert Hooke couldn’t find in the Bible or in the decrees of King Charles I: 
You can’t search for the answer to questions that haven’t been asked yet.  
And you can’t Google a new idea. 
The Internet can only tell us what we already know” (Grazer, 2015).

I find this notion interesting and can’t help but relate to it on a personal level. I think we can all remember being in a argument where we tried to remember the name of an actor in a movie or who won a professional sports’ title. Or we have debated about how a particular historical event actually transpired. Those discussions and debates may not have been incredibly important in the grand scheme of things but the interaction was. Now, when a moment like this comes up, a smart phone comes out and the debate is settled with a few strokes of the finger. Is that to say we don’t value the information at our finger tips? No, but I wonder if we loose some of that discussion and curiosity that often fuels great conversations. For me, conversations are the great catalyst of learning and therefore something I treasure and value above nearly all else.  

Another layer to this is Grazer’s notion of the Internet anesthetizing us as people. There is certainly a level of truth to this when you think about how the use of the Internet often plays out in schools. Often is purely a resource where students go to and then regurgitate information they find. They are not left to wonder and all of their questions are answers in the search bar in Google or Wolfram Alpha. This is where the role of the teacher comes in and how we use questions. 

I have heard many people say, “If a kid can google the answer to your test questions, then your questions are no good.” While I agree with the sentiment of this, I think it is a bit too polarizing and one of those sayings that look better on a poster than in real life. Kids do need content that Google can provide with a quick search. However, more importantly is that students can use that knowledge to ask more questions and think of ideas Google doesn’t have. In many cases the Internet has become the end point to a learning activity and not the starting point. 

How can we ensure the Internet, and technology in general is being used as a way to spark curiosity and lead to more questions and deeper ideas? Can we move past the Internet being the end point of learning and source of consumption and into a space where it pushes learners to deeper thinking and more questions? 

Thursday, July 30, 2015

A Curious Teacher - Part Two

Previously, I wrote about my initial reactions to reading Brian Grazer’s book A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life. Beyond just the role curiosity played in Brian’s life and work he struck another chord with me when we discussed the phrase “good enough”. This if often a phrase we hear in our line of work as educators, as is likely the case in any occupation. However, Grazer’s approach to that phrase resonated with me: 

“When someone says to me, ‘That’s good enough,’ it never is. It means exactly the opposite. It means the person, or the script, isn’t good enough… 
It’s such an odd expression, that means exactly the opposite of what the words themselves mean. It’s a way of saying, We’re going to settle here. Mediocrity will do just fine” (Grazer, 2015).

He goes on to explain through his curiosity conversations with world leaders, business moguls and other incredibly successful people, many of them have a deep dissatisfaction with “good enough”. If you are going to be successful, being good enough cannot enter your mind or be in your vocabulary. 

How does this relate to the work we do as teachers? Sadly, I fear good enough permeates into the world of education far too much. Standards are good enough for now. These textbooks are good enough based on the choices we have. That lesson was good enough to get the content across for this year. 

Beyond just the teachers and administrators, we see this with students and parents. Students do the bare minimum or what is simply good enough to get a passing grade. In addition, they settle for good enough in their own education and are content with what the school system has provided for them. Parents, too, are guilty of this. Far too few parents push back on schools doing just good enough for their kids. Instead they should be investigating and advocating for the best possible education for their kids. We can all do better. 

I have written before about my fear of mediocrity becoming the norm in our schools and I still see traces of it for sure. There has to be a way we see past good enough and push to be better than that. Being content and settling are partners in crime to good enough and in turn mediocrity. 

Teachers need to push back on being good enough and always look for better, different and more effective ways to do their work. We need to use our curiosity to question and wonder what else can be done and how we can look differently at our work. As teachers we also need to create learning opportunities that take away the option for students to turn in “good enough” level work. Students who are engaged in high interest and high value work rarely settle for mediocrity. As parents we need to be involved and aware of what is going on in our children’s schools and never be afraid to access our curiosity and ask questions. Questions lead to conversations and conversations are the path to learning. 

What are you going to do this year to get past good enough in your school? 

Friday, July 17, 2015

A Curious Teacher - Part One

Not so long ago, I was given a copy of A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life written by Brian Grazer. Now, admittedly this book was not written for educators or with the intent of being considered an education text. However, as I read the book, I couldn’t help but see so many parallels to teaching as well as potential implications for the way we work with children. The very premise of the book is the role curiosity plays in our lives and how simply acknowledging it as an important element of one’s self can lead to a richer and more full life. Specifically, I think Grazer makes a few points in which I think can influence the work of educators. I wish to delve into these ideas here as well as in what I anticipate will be future posts on the topic of curiosity in schools. 

Through Grazer’s life he found curiosity to be a key competent to success and happiness. He describes it in many ways and recognizes it can look different from individual to individual. However, he used his own curiosity to find ways to have what he called curiosity conversations with many people throughout his life. From Fidel Castro and Ron Howard to 50 Cent and Howard Zinn, Grazer has sat down and talked with some of the most influential, powerful, successful and interesting people in the world. His curiosity drove him to seek these individuals out to see what made them “tick” but also to gain insight into the role curiosity plays in our world and how it can manifest in many different ways. 

Again, A Curious Mind is not an education text nor do I think Grazer’s attempt was to influence educators specifically. However, he does take a direct shot at the lack of curiosity in our schools when he shares the following thoughts:

“The classroom should be a vineyard of questions, a place to cultivate them, to learn both how to ask them and how to chase down the answers. Some classrooms are. But in fact, curiosity is often treated with the same regard in school as it was in the Garden of Eden. Especially with the recent proliferation of standardized testing, questions can derail the lockstep framework of the day’s lesson plan; sometimes teachers don’t know the answers themselves. It’s exactly the opposite of what you would hope, but authentic curiosity in a typical seventh-grade classroom isn’t cultivated - because it’s inconvenient and disruptive to the orderly running of the class” (Grazer, 2015).

I reread this section many times and reflected on my experience as both a teacher and a parent. How many times did I push a kid’s question aside because I needed to “get through” the content or the lesson of the day? What have I done to discourage questions born out of curiosity because I didn’t have the time or the knowledge to answer them? Worse still is how my classroom has at times been a place that discourages questions due to the environment or instructional pacing. My own children have come home full of questions that have gone unanswered in their own classrooms. While I don’t blame their teachers, I do wonder if rigid curriculum maps and testing prep regimens are pushing curiosity out and further standardization in. 

There is certainly movement to get kids to use curiosity and guide their learning utilizing that curiosity. This has come in the form of Innovation Days and Genius Hours. Yet, are those enough? Can we say that a child can only be a genius or innovative during one day or one set period of time a week? Maybe we don’t want innovators or geniuses but rather children and adults who are curious and constantly asking questions to make sense of the world around them. Children at young ages are incessantly curious and yet something happens and that feeling erodes over time. Maybe it’s maturity or maybe it is something unintentionally or intentionally done in our schools. How can we foster curiosity in our students so they seek knowledge and understanding rather than simply grades and scores?

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Thank You Mr. Smith

This post was originally shared a while back. However, as the end of the school year rolls around I wanted to take time to share again as much of what Mr. Smith does is hugely impactful at the end of the school year.

As a teacher you are lucky if you find yourself teaching in a building with inspirational and influential people. In this area, I feel incredibly fortunate due to the high number of people that would fit this description in my building. However, there is one teacher that stands above the rest for me personally. He has inspired me to write this post that I hope to serve as a thank you to him as well as a learning opportunity for others. I will not use his real name for both personal and professional reasons.

This particular teacher, Mr. Smith, teaches the kids that many others don’t want to, or simply can’t handle. These students are difficult, to put it mildly, and make up the so called “E-D” population which are students with a host of social, emotional, and behavioral challenges. His caseload ranges from year to year and fluctuates in both numbers and intensity of needs and he has been at it for 25+ years. Many of the students that walk through his classroom doors have witnessed and experienced things that most people will never see in a lifetime. Without going into great details, Mr. Smith’s students often are known by the local police departments, hospitals, social workers, and armies of therapists. In any given year his students will come and go due to hospitalizations at treatment centers or problems with the “law”.

Press photograph from the George Grantham Bain collection

What amazes me most about Mr. Smith is that he is like a prize fighter that gets his bell rung nearly every single day and yet keeps getting right back up. I have witnessed kids screaming at him and cussing him out while throwing classroom furniture. Yet, within minutes of these altercations, he is there rebuilding the relationship and providing the love and support these kids so desperately need. It is often a thankless job that largely goes unnoticed by other students and staff, who routinely try to avoid his room for fear of what is happening down in “Room 13”.

I have spoken and written often about my belief in relationships being the key to a successful teacher-student relationship. Much of my feelings and beliefs have come from the dreaded Room 13. When Mr. Smith’s often hair trigger students are having a bad day, he will dance and sing a “Grumpercism” which is one of his many creations to help his students crack a smile and relieve the tension. He will literally do anything for his students who are those that struggle the most with authority and the general institution that is public school. It is very easy to talk about relationship building and supporting kids in a so called “normal” class. However, teachers like Mr. Smith prove it can be done in the most difficult of spaces and takes away any excuses the rest of us might have.

What are you doing to build relationships with your students? Do you connect with the kids that are difficult and often pushed to the side? What about the kids that scream, yell, and throw furniture? Do you build relationships with them as well? What about the students in your building that are in “room 13”, do you take the time to know them, understand them, and have empathy for them?

Lots of educational talking heads keep saying we are “Waiting for Superman”. I am not. I work two doors down from him every day and I along with many other teachers in my building are better because of it.