Grad!

Cap Tossphoto © 2007 Dave Herholz | more info (via: Wylio)
Today was our graduation. Of course this is a really interesting day for teachers and for the students, an exciting day. It is a day to celebrate achievements and success. A day for the students to come dressed in their finest and show it off to their parents and teachers. For some of us it is a little hard to recognize these students that we have seen in the hallways so regularly wearing something significantly less formal. For the vast majority of students it is a well earned achievement.

However, it is also a day when you might hear: “That student shouldn’t be graduating because (fill in blank with comment about marks, attendance or other perceived shortcoming). This is something that we as teachers can mutter under our breath, maybe we mean it, maybe it’s kind of a dark humour about our students. I’m pretty sure I’ve said it myself. Like so much there’s some truth to our darker thoughts.

Does allowing as many students as we do ‘cross’ the stage cheapen the whole graduation ceremony?

It can certainly be hot topic of discussion at staff meetings and in conversation around the building.

There is probably no right answer on this, but I think I would fall in the let them graduate, it’s not worth worrying about camp. Today was another reminder why. I came across a student who I had taught in my grade 12 social studies class last year. I have to say I have no idea whether or not he crossed the stage last year, but I know that he would have had many strikes against him. He missed a lot of class, he didn’t do really well on many of his tests (despite how intelligent he appeared to be on essays and in conversation), he could even be a little bit hard headed, he passed the class with not a whole lot to spare. Today I met a young man who’s going places. He’s completed the few courses that he was deficient in, he looks confident and self-assured. He’s off to college in the fall, he’s happy and looking forward to it. Some might have wanted to see him held off for lack of attendance, for lack of success, I think they would have been wrong. His presence wouldn’t have cheapened the ceremony, in fact considering some of his challenges, it would have added to it.

Guilty as charged – now what?

Cucciolo colpevole- Guilty puppyphoto © 2008 Mauro | more info (via: Wylio)
A couple of days ago I wrote about my questions about what we are trying to do as an education collective. Then I started reflecting on what I know, and what I’ve been doing. Then I read The Innovative Educator – Lisa Nielsen’s wonderful entry on engaging students. And I have something to confess: I am guilty, guilty of everything that she suggests in her blog. The only thing I can say to mitigate it I am not guilty of everything all at once, but I am certainly guilty of all of them at some time or another.

I have been guilty of these in the past, and I am guilty of some of them still today. I hope that I will not be guilty of them in the future, but I have to admit it is hard to let go.

It is hard to let go of everything that I have been, and have learned. It is hard to see new ways of doing things when the things I used in the past kind of worked.

So what do I do? Well I take into account that I do have some skills when it comes to teaching. I keep up my efforts at trying to integrate technology into my classroom, and I will continue to work with what the kids bring as opposed to an outright ban on things, which as Lisa points out in her blog, is the easy way out.

A few days ago I wrote about some of the problems that I see as an education collective, I have to also say that there are a lot of failings that I am working on as an individual.

What does it mean to learn?

Earth and Saturns moons to scale.photo © 2006 Bluedharma | more info (via: Wylio)

This afternoon I had a fascinating read through Will Chamberlain’s blog: And what Do YOU mean by learning? It was fascinating in a couple of ways.

First I think that Will’s discussion of the disconnect in learning between the two different approaches, one more or less geared around the traditional view of tests and data, and one more less involved in realizing that learning actually has many facets and is a process, is an important discussion. It is one that needs to be had more often within our ranks and with those around us, including parents and especially decision makers.

The second reason that I found his blog very interesting was his discussion of his daughter’s progress with learning. It reminded me of something that I’ve been rolling around in my mind for the last several months. I have become convinced that it really is important for me to pay attention to how my child is learning. I have a five year old and I have really begun to pay attention to how he learns. Like Will I have been fascinated by my child’s process and progress. He learns not because anyone sits there and tell him he must learn, he learns because he thinks it’s incredibly interesting, and in the process figures out the details. As a high school teacher I too often deal with students who have had that wonder pushed out of them, and I have been interested in watching the beginnings of the learning process. If I were to measure his progress using standard methods of school assessment, he couldn’t be measured because he can’t write and read (at least not beyond the most rudimentary basics). Yet he knows, and is constantly assimilating knowledge because he likes it, because he asks questions, because he wants to be engaged in conversation. I often think that this is what I am missing in my high school classes. I teach those things that the students will be tested on. I surely try to engage them in conversations, to ask them questions, and to get them to like it. What my five year-old has taught me is that I have a lot more to do.

Apathy – to what extent is it my problem?

Avoid Apathyphoto © 2010 break.things | more info (via: Wylio)
Apathy has been on my mind recently. It has been highlighted in my mind by the current federal election that we are having in Canada. There has been a lot of talk about how disconnected young people are from our leaders. To make a long story short this has got me wondering to what extent this is my problem, or even to what extent am I responsible. As a social studies teacher for the last ten years I have worked with a large number of very dedicated colleagues and one of our fervent hopes has been to produce active, thriving, functioning citizens. When you look at the Alberta Program of Studies for Social Studies it says: “Social studies provides opportunities for students to develop the attitudes, skills and knowledge that will enable them to become engaged, active, informed and responsible citizens.” It has said roughly the same thing for quite a while, I would guess right around 35 years. Yet in those 35 years there is no evidence whatsoever that more of students are actually becoming engaged, active, informed and responsible citizens. I want my students to become all these things, and I am sure that some of them have become that, but I question whether many are. So if that’s the case, why? What are we doing?

The answer of course is much bigger than I could possibly discuss in one blog post, but here’s an observation I noted over the last couple of days. I have several students who are actually quote interested in knowing details about the current election and how government functions in general. They have a lot of questions about it. They may have been taught in the past how it works, but we all know the difference between teaching and learning can be pretty large sometimes, and they are hungry for answers. How many times though in our race to tackle the ‘material’ that we feel we need to cover that we rush through these questions without really answering much. I asked my students to complete the CBC vote compass and got a whole lot of questions about issues which are of interest to Canadians, yet at the same time I felt I couldn’t possibly explore the issues adequately. Of course I can answer their questions, but how long will that answer stick with them. I am convinced that as a social studies teacher I am missing something.

I also don’t think there’s one answer. I found this wonderful video today which highlighted some societal issues and practices (which can in many cases be applied to schools) that certainly help play a role. However if I was presenting this video I might add that we are not being very successful in school in getting students to be engaged. We probably would not be able to engage all students in society, but, at least from a social studies teacher’s perspective, we are missing something really important.

So yes it is my problem, both as a social studies teacher and a member of society.

Filters and other annoyances (well actually only filters)

This idea has been rolling around in my head for the last few weeks.  I have been trying to figure out how to write this with a feeling of anything less than sheer and utter frustration.  It is mainly because my friend Cynthia wrote me an e-mail on Friday asking me to describe what our filtering system is like that I’ve been provoked into action.  Clearly filters are an issue about which many of us in the blogosphere have written long and sometimes distressing entries.  I have no intention of rehashing that although I think that you should visit the following blogs from David Truss’ entries here and here to get an idea, although there are many more!  Beyond the fact that they are a reactive approach to controlling students web activities, rather than a proactive approach to the problem, I’m frustrated because ours really don’t seem to work all that well, and if we’re going to use them (as some educational directors resolutely maintain), shouldn’t they actually work?

They’re not very accurate.

First off let me say that I do understand that sometime and for some things there is a need to put in some form of restriction.  What I can’t figure out is why we don’t think about the sites that we block.  Maybe there should be some considered thought put into the reasons why something gets blocked rather than why they should be unblocked.

One reason why I would argue this is because I have seen a few sites blocked by the masters of the filters (whomever these people are) that simply have no reason being blocked.  Earlier this year one of my colleagues was doing a project that he had been doing for a couple of years on the topic of dictatorships.  He had his students use a website ‘the Dictator of the Month‘ which suddenly and inexplicably this year came up as inaccessible.  When I looked into it, it said that it was because it was obscene/tasteless.  What I would like to know is who decided this?  I mean I understand that it isn’t exactly the greatest website (in fact it has not been updated recently), but really obscene/tasteless?  I was able to get it unblocked, but when I asked why it was blocked, I was told that it was probably because of a mathematical algorithm.  I really didn’t get it, and still while I sit here looking at it I don’t get it.  It is my shining example of why the people who are doing the filtering are not doing the right job.  Some might say that this is a rare occurrence but I can remember a couple of times in the past few years where I had students working on World War II projects and the sites would come up inexplicably blocked.

Another reason why our particular filter bothers me is the fact that it has a strange aversion to feeds.  I have been trying to use Edmodo for my social studies class, but one of the things that I wanted to do was build up a collection of feeds, but whenever I have set one up I have found them blocked.  There is a note about advertising/banner ads, but I’m not sure how that applies to my feed.

I have been told by some colleagues that teach mathematics that the filters have an itchy trigger finger for sites even remotely related to probability, apparently they are freaked out by gambling.  Is this a good thing for our students?

Exactly how much time we have spent trying to correct this idiocies is not clear, but it makes me wonder if these are good value for the money.

Students get around them too easily

If they were effective students wouldn’t be able to get around them.  Only they do on a very regular basis.  I have seen all sorts of students on websites that they shouldn’t be.  Students shouldn’t be on Facebook (that’s a debate for another entry), but there they are.  They shouldn’t be on shooter games, yet I found one student playing a game called ‘Sniper Assassin’ apparently without even having to bother with trying to find a proxy to bypass the filter.  They also shouldn’t be on proxies but they are there as well.  I don’t know how many people in schools that have 3G phones, but I would say a lot of students do.  How effective is a filter at blocking 3G cell phone towers?  If I tell a student they can’t do something on one of the school computers, well that’s why they have a mini-computer in their pocket that doubles as a phone.

What’s worse is that these often block the teachers from accessing the most up-to-date or most useful information.  I had a colleague who was regaling me with how the filters ‘worked’ at his school, finally one day after expressing this frustration to a class, a student volunteered to help him access what he wanted.  This one time he agreed, and the student leaped over the filter and had the information inside of ten seconds.  While I may question the speed reported in the story, I have no doubt as to its general validity.  Again how is it that filters are supposed to work again?

Lastly I would point out that the Chinese government has tried desperately to erect an Internet filter, and with all the resources of the state behind it, it apparently doesn’t work well.

A final rant

This whole rant leaves aside the most important problems with filters that they are the wrong approach to the problem.  I guess what I have been dealing with is the fact that if you are a supporter of filters then they should work and work properly.  But the fact is they don’t, and that as technology marches forward they will become increasingly useless (there’s that 3G or 4G or whatever).  What frustrates me probably more than anything is the fact that no one in a position of power seems willing to have a frank and open discussion about this.  This last week the Calgary Board of Education announced that students would be able to use their cell phones in class, but they said that they would still control the websites the students had access to (make sure to read the corrections at the bottom).  Seems a trifle over-optimistic if you ask me.

Innovators or Early Adaptors or just plain Late Majority?

In reading several blog posts and tweets over the last couple of months I have noticed that there were several writers who wondered why the use of technology had not developed further in education, why was education seemingly so far behind in our uptake of this wonderful new way of reaching students.  I had even put a comment or two down on David Truss’ blog regarding what I thought some of the problems might be.   Well it’s a good thing that we get time off to relax and read, I don’t think I have found an exact answer but I have found something that helps describe one reason for this.  I was inspired to write this after reading part of Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Tipping Point. An excellent book that provided a lot of really interesting information about the spread of epidemics both social and viral.  It is well worth a read by any educator any time, for me one of the more big picture moments was his discussion about the development of specific epidemics.  To summarize in a the briefest of fashions Gladwell makes the argument that while there are three essential preconditions for epidemics:

  1. the power of few
  2. the stickiness factor and,
  3. context

each of these he argues are necessary for the spread of epidemics.  These are simple ideas that he describes in a very straightforward fashion and then illustrates with wonderfully interesting examples.  These three factors require three types of people:

  1. connectors – those who have all the contacts
  2. Mavens – those who collect huge amounts of information about things
  3. salespeople – those who make the new idea palatable for others

According to Gladwell these are the ones who are responsible for spreading social epidemics (as opposed to the biological kind).  When you read the book it suddenly becomes much easier to picture certain people in your life as the ones who fill these roles, although perhaps not to the level of the characters he uses to highlight his points.  After taking us through all these details Gladwell finally gets to looking at case studies and here is what I thought was important.  Gladwell looks at some very well know sociological ideas, including one called the ‘diffusion model.’  This was developed by looking at some corn growers in Iowa in the late 1920s and ’30s.  Apparently they looked at the speed at which farmers adopted an obviously superior type of corn.  Despite being introduced in 1928, it took until 1936 for the majority of the farmers observed to adopt this obviously better yielding variety.  It’s from this study that the terms that have been applied to technological acceptance so often today:

  1. Innovators
  2. Early Adopters
  3. Early Majority
  4. Late Majority
  5. Laggards

Essentially these terms are self-describing, but my thought about them was: ‘How do these terms describe educators?‘  In my experience having taught in only three schools, but with well over 160 different colleagues I can safely say that the vast, vast majority are wonderful caring people.  Some with a great sense of humour, and others with a great understanding of students, but where do we, as a collective, fit, on the scale above.  Clearly in teaching, like in society, there are people who are all over the board, a very few who are Innovators, a much larger number that would be in the majority, etc.   What stopped me though was the thought that every year we have a whole new cohort that joins us, ones that should be the Innovators, or at the very least Early Adopters.

So my next question is: ‘Why are our early term colleagues, seemingly not as quick to take up technology?  Why are they not the Early Adapters?’  This I believe is the crux of the issue and I would say that there are probably no easy answers for this.

  1. One of the answers would seem to be because first year teachers are (generally) immediately thrown into a sink of swim environment.  The goal for the first year is simply to ‘survive.’  While there is probably some merit to this approach it also means that someone arriving, new to the profession, with new ideas, is immediately overcome with a need just to get through to the next day.  They are the ones who get the classes no one else wants, the extra-curricular activities no one else wants, any big ideas seem to be swept aside pretty fast.
  2. There is a strong emphasis on anything but technology integration in education schools.  We are very interested in assessment, integration and other popular terms, but somehow we seem to miss this part.  I have worked with many student teachers (either in my classes or in my colleagues’) over the last few years and in retrospect it seems odd that I would be at the same level technologically as they are.  At least one should have been a standout.
  3. There are few educational leaders that grasp the potential yet.  There hasn’t yet been a significant generational shift in leadership where the people in charge see technology as a way to actually deal with issues many educational issues together instead of trying to deal with each issue separately.
  4. Our infrastructure is not, for the most part, late 20th-Century.  It costs a lot of money to run certain schools (heating, cooling, security, etc.), and that is money that is simply not available to chase newer technology.  This is definitely a problem when it comes to trying to put the technology in place for teachers to use.
  5. Maybe we need a great jolt in education, when you look at the farmers in the Iowa study, the greatest change occurred after the onset of the Great Depression, surely a motivating factor in any decision to institute a change, would be an economic reason to change.  It’s quite possible that too many of us just look the way education is going and say well it’s ‘good enough,’ so even if there are Innovators and Early Adapters, the context for change just doesn’t exist (to extend Gladwell’s argument).
  6. Our profession just doesn’t attract the kind of Innovators and Early Adapters that would seem so important in pushing these ideas forward.  They are instead attracted to other professions, and those that do make it in, find the climate to be unwelcoming, and so may leave in frustration.

These are just some potential answers, I’m sure there are a lot more, and there has to be hope out there.  I have never seen myself as an Innovator or Early Adapter, and yet here I am finishing a long and very serious blog entry, so there must be hope.  Maybe the wave is just starting, or as Malcolm Gladwell would say, the trend is beginning to reach a tipping point, and if that’s the case, for all those whose blog postings I’ve read, and that I’ve found inspiring, and who’ve asked this question, hang on a little longer, things could begin to change fast!  Certainly the advent of Twitter and the vast potential for cyber-Professional Learning Communities, seems to hold a lot of potential.

Now I think I need to start a second blog and migrate this entry there, since I never had any attention of making this blog a place for ‘grand ideas,’ more a place for solid ideas for education.