Tag Archives: learning

A Hypocrit’s Resolution

I’m guilty, or rather I have been in the past and that is something that I am going to change. What am I guilty of exactly? I am guilty of having my face buried in my phone to a detrimental level. For this new year I resolve to put down my phone when I am bored, waiting, procrastinating, etc. and I am determined to spread that message to the students of my school. I write this now, because I know that if I don’t get it out of my head and out into the world that I will be less apt to make a change.

The thought for this resolution came from a great podcast on How Stuff Works called, “Is computer addiction a thing?” and it evolved in my head into the realization that yes, people are way too focused on their phones; I’m too focused on my phone. In the race to unite people through email, text messaging, and social media people have actually accepted the practice of ignoring those in their immediate vicinity. I think of the cafeteria at my school as a prime example. When most people think about a high school cafeteria at lunch they think about loud, raucous teenagers gouging themselves before heading off to their next class. At the beginning of my career, this was the case. Now, however, when I walk the rows of tables the volume has decreased considerably. They still jam as much food down their throats as possible, but they are doing so one-handed with the other firmly grasping their phones. Most students don’t even notice me as I walk by because their faces are buried in a game or a social account. And there is the kicker; they are in the most loosely structured social environment of their entire school day, where they can sit with whomever they like and talk about whatever they like (within reason) and instead they are focused solely on virtual relationships, while the human relationships suffer.

I fear that the quick development of dependency on cell phones, coupled with the attraction of social media has created a behavioral block that is hindering the development of interpersonal relationships. I did not grow up with a cell phone, in fact, I did not get my first phone until after my first year of college. I grew up in a time when I had to memorize my friend’s phone numbers, and getting to spend time with friends was valuable catching up time. I knew a different way before I became addicted to my phone; our young people have never known a life without immediate access and therefore do not place the same value on a good face-to-face conversation.

When the first automobiles came out, there weren’t any traffic laws. Over time, the rise in popularity in the car lead to congestion and safety concerns. Laws were created and regulations put in place to ensure the safety of not just pedestrians, but the drivers of the vehicles themselves. Cell phones and social media have gone unchecked and unregulated for long enough and the immediate risk is that people are being crippled in the art of communication. It is quite ironic when you think about it; we are now more connected than at any other time in history, yet our ability to communicate is deteriorating over time.

I resolve this new year to put down my phone and have meaningful conversations and relationships. I resolve to spread that word to my students and to lead by example. I’m not abandoning technology, but rather recognizing that when to use it is just as important as when not to use it.



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Ming’s Musings: 10/5-10/9

Monday: Duggan steps into the breach to save Detroit schools

Article touches upon the mayor of Detroit’s plan to do his part in helping Detroit schools. I like the approach that he expresses in that he will lobby for the schools but will not take them over; he will leave that in the hands of people better qualified to run the schools. I also like that he recognizes that Detroit is a powerful test subject and that if we can get things right with DPS then we can apply those same principles to other struggling school districts. The part that I am not on board with is written between the lines. I am not in favor of legislation that would require other areas around the state to pay for the debts created by the EAA and DPS.

Tuesday: How much do big education nonprofits pay their bosses? Quite a bit, it turns out.

This article questions the tax exempt status of major testing corporations such as those responsible for the SAT and the ACT and the overall salary of the top executives. The numbers are eye-opening though, especially in light of the big state contracts that these companies have and the pseudo-monopoly they have in the college admissions process.

Wednesday: We must despise our kids: Our ugly war on teachers must end now

13% of teachers leave the job field every year. Why, you might ask? The rise of charters, the elimination of collective bargaining, and the constant denigration of being failures has turned a once noble profession to one of attrition and defensiveness. The author of the article points to the above examples as reasons why the profession is losing its workforce and warns that reformers are doing more harm than good which we may not see the result of until these children are older.

It is a sad state of affairs, but the author has hit some points that resonate with me. I would be lying if I said that I hadn’t had some tough, demoralizing days in my career that have made me question staying in the profession. The most difficult part is not necessarily financial, however, it is that the acts of the “reformers” have create this stigma around education that has eroded the once strong trust relationship between teachers and parents; a relationship that used to bridge the education of a student from school to home.

Thursday: Feeding and Fertilizing School Athletics

This article was written by the head of the MHSAA, Jack Roberts, and focuses on the importance of expanding opportunities for middle school athletics in order to interscholastic athletics to be successful. The article focuses on two major premises; that 6th graders should be permitted to participate in school sports and that we need to lift the cap on the number of contests permitted at the middle school level. These two factors will help to keep interscholastic sports competitive with outside clubs and groups.

I agree with the authors thoughts on the matter and am concerned about one particular set of comments that had the message that some school administrators believe sports take away from already limited resources. As an assistant principal and athletic director I see everyday, firsthand, the influence of sports on education. Many of the students that roam the halls of my school do so during the day because they know that they won’t be permitted to play their sports if they don’t. Sports teach important lessons about life that cannot be learned elsewhere and having a school-based system ensures that athletics remain educational.

Friday: Bill would get retired teachers back in the classroom

Proposed legislation in both the House and the Senate would allow for the return of retirees to the classroom without hurting their benefits and the hiring of non-certified teachers in areas of need.

I have very mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, there is a very real shortage of teachers in many areas of need and ultimately students lose in this scenario. On the other hand, bringing back retirees brings up a different problem, a generation difference that is exacerbated by the increased demands of today’s teachers. In most other professions, if you have a specialized job that has a limited applicant pool, employers will incentivize the position to make it more attractive. This is where education may be missing the mark. Pardon my crassness, but recycling retired teachers does not solve the long-term need.

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Ming’s Musings: What I’m Reading 9/21-9/25

Monday: Student learning accounts for half of teacher evaluations this year

Local article from my area that talks about the 50% value on student growth for teacher evaluations. This is an especially difficult situation for teachers and the evaluators alike in that the state, through legislation, has said that this is the law, but has not adequately defined what student growth is. To think that 50% of your evaluation is required by law to involve a variable that the state has difficulty defining is a difficult situation for all parties involved. Evaluations are not supposed to be punitive, but rather a measurement of where somebody is and what they can improve on.

Tuesday: Teens Need More Sleep, But Districts Struggle to Shift Start Times

The major point of the article is that school should start later in the day, especially at the high school level. Research points toward high school students optimally starting after 9am, but this poses a logistical issue for many families.

Being someone who has been involved with high school education for 11 years, I can attest to the observation that teenagers have a tough time functioning early in the morning and have noticed how much better those same students do in the afternoon. The article takes the viewpoint, however, that schools are not aware of the benefit of starting later, which is false. Educators are aware of the benefits of the teenage mind starting later in the day, but cost (though we wish it weren’t) is a driving factor in many school decisions. Fundamentally, everything from busing, to teacher contracts, to after school activities (including sports) would need to be changed in order for this to be beneficial. The difficult ask with this type of proposal is that it almost requires an entire community to alter their schedule for the schools and that seems to be too big of a reach in most areas.

Wednesday: Grand Rapids schools teacher layoffs spark evaluation system discussion

Another article, this one out of Grand Rapids, about the effect of teacher evaluations. The article brings up that multiple probationary teachers were released from a district due to not achieving effective status on their evaluation. The troubling part of the article for me is that the point was made that school data is used for student growth for the teachers that teach subjects that are not directly state tested, often times when teachers didn’t teach those students. This is an example of how the failure of the state to define student growth has led to dire outcomes. Another part of the article that was bothersome to me is that one of the board members, that was a former teacher and administrator, claimed a lack of consistency in the year-to-year evaluations citing his own record of being highly effective one year and effective the next. In the education world, as in many other professions, there are up years and down years that are determined by many different factors. It is not a fair claim to say that the evaluator or evaluation system is unjust based on the information provided.

Thursday: Judge rules Ann Arbor school district can ban guns

A short article about Ann Arbor schools and a court case that upheld the right of the school district to ban guns on school property.

I am not against denying anyone their rights that have been granted by our Constitution. With that being said, however, I do not see having guns on school grounds as a good thing. Any gun, whether properly licensed or not, poses a security concern at the very least.

Friday: Five ‘dumb’ things one educator used to think but doesn’t anymore

Interesting take on five topics that have undoubtedly come up in classrooms across the country. “1. School is your job. Just like I have a job and your parents have a job, you too have a job. 2. Algebra teaches you how to think differently. 3. Homework will teach you how to do things you don’t want to do. 4. My strict deadlines are teaching them accountability and responsibility. 5. Difficult/strict teachers help you learn how to deal with those types of people…it’s good for you.

I really enjoyed how the author reflected on his experiences as an educator and challenge the conventional logic above. Anybody that has been in education will tell you that it is cyclical and that there are no new ideas. I don’t believe that this has to be the case if more people challenge why we do what we do. My thoughts on education have changed a great deal over my career and are now reflected in my simple philosophy of creating opportunities. Education should be exciting and learning should be fun while opening doors to areas that otherwise may have been blocked off.

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Core Advocacy Convening in Summary

This past weekend I had the privilege of traveling to Denver and being a part of the Student Achievement Partners Core Advocacy Convening. I left the weekend with several thoughts and ideas as well as some new resources that I feel will help me in my professional development. The single biggest impression that I take away from my weekend is that there are a lot of extremely talented, dedicated, and energetic people who are working very hard to make high quality education a reality for all the students of this country. These educators, across the country, are advancing the progress of the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and are laying the groundwork for the full-scale roll out that is taking place around the country.

Rather than go into great detail on everything that I heard over the weekend I thought I would provide some snippets of my takeaways with a little commentary on each:

  • To implement any big change institutions need two major starting points; a strong foundation to build upon and a vision of what is being built.
    • This is something that I certainly feel can be improved upon in Michigan. It seems to me that Michigan districts and schools are in the unfortunate position of being for an idea but without the big picture of what that idea will look like nor the foundation to build it upon. This is certainly an area of need for Michigan schools as we look to improve and one that I intend to talk more on in future posts.
  • When challenged by parents and naysayers about why math looks different now or why elementary students are being asked to cite evidence I reference back to my previous statement about laying a strong foundation. What is that foundation being laid to form? The easy answer is a college and career ready young man or woman capable of critical thinking, problem solving, and logic application.
    • Common Core literacy and mathematics is about more than coming up with an answer; it is about the development of an idea and being able to replicate a process under a different set of conditions. Yes, this looks different to parents than the way they learned, but that is the point! What we were doing was great, but the world has changed and with it, so have what we are asking of our high school graduates. In education we can control our targets and standards, we cannot control what the world and its many changes.
  • Rigor does not mean hard, but rather extremely thorough, exhaustive and accurate.
    • What scares people about the word “rigor” as it applies to education is that it requires real thought and a deeper level of understanding that most people are not accustomed to. This is a change from the status quo and any time the status quo is challenged there is resistance. I would argue that the status quo is an illusion.
  • When working with others we should “collaborate to calibrate”.
    • My favorite quote from the weekend. Nothing we do in this profession should be done on an individual basis because what we do ultimately should benefit all. Why are we making changes and implementing a massive educational shift? Answer, to better the lives of our students. If that is the case, collaboration is essential to develop the best possible resources. Within that cycle we calibrate and re-calibrate as needed because the collective understanding of all is greater than the individual understanding of one.

I was inspired throughout my weekend by the work, dedication, and passion that people have for education. I met some wonderful colleagues that are doing their part to improve the lives of students. We still have a long way to go as our country starts putting in the shifts of the Common Core State Standards, but I am confident that the right people are leading the charge. The work isn’t easy, but it shouldn’t be because if we are setting a goal for high rigor and greater depth then we need to be developing in that same manner. There is, and will continue to be, resistance as the status quo is challenged. Ultimately, though, the work is too important and the stakes too high for failure. Educators will collaborate and calibrate and networks and resources will be developed and students will be better for it.

I walk away from my experience in Denver knowing this to be true.

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A Lesson from Finland

If someone were to ask you what kind of career requires an advanced college degree, a 40+ hour work week, constant research and development, and demanded critical thinking, constant adjustment, quick decision-making, and management skills most people would be inclined to guess a doctor or a lawyer or some other prestigious high salary job. Few would probably guess that you were asking about the education profession, at least not in America. In other parts of the world, teachers are seen in a much different light then they are here in the United States.

I don’t usually like to reference back to articles that are over a year old, but one of the powerful things about Twitter is that relevant information has a way of getting recycled back into the mainstream. In the article linked below a Finnish education expert, Pasi Sahlberg, discusses some of the differences between highly ranked countries in education and the United States. In reading the article, several points jumped out to me that I highlighted in the article and will discuss here.

What if Finland’s great teachers taught in the US

From previous posts, I hope that I have made it clear that I am not a big fan of comparing the education systems of one country to those of another. It always seems to be the case that there are too many variables to develop clear conclusions. Anyone that has worked extensively with data will tell you that you can make the numbers say what you want them to if you look hard enough. I have found that to be the case with comparison studies in the past; the study conducted makes certain assumptions and inevitably apples are compared to oranges.

One of the points that Sahlberg states is that in top performing countries, specifically China and Finland, there is one very rigorous and selective problem for teacher certification in comparison to over 1,500 different teacher certification programs in the US. In America we are searching for ways to entice the best and brightest into the profession through talks about increasing starting salary, performance pay, etc. We ignore, however, the fact that the quality and quantity of our paths to education vary significantly. In a sense this variance in certification has been the lead domino that has brought us to the point of increased emphasis on standardized testing, school accountability, and educator effectiveness. These factors, in essence, have a retroactive clean up fill to them while the programs described elsewhere seem to take a front-end approach.

The most striking aspect of the article to me is that Sahlberg acknowledges that teachers have an impact on student learning, but not as much as we tend to believe here in the United States. Teachers work as part of a bigger team of adults in a building that creates culture and leadership. The article cites that, “schools and teachers alone cannot overcome the negative impact that poverty causes in many children’s learning in school.” When the article was written in May 2013 that poverty number was around 23%. Viewed from the perspective of free and reduced lunches that number is near 51%!

The Southern Education Foundation reports that 51 percent of students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade in the 2012-2013 school year were eligible for the federal program that provides free and reduced-price lunches.

This is where Sahlberg argues that public policy must come in because, “Teachers alone, regardless of how effective they are, will not be able to overcome the challenges that poor children bring with them to schools everyday.”

American teachers work very hard to hurdle great odds. They face a lot of criticism, yet find a way to overcome, persevere and get a lot of children to amazing heights. They cannot, however, change the baggage that comes with students when they enter the classroom, nor should they be held accountable for what happens to a student between the end of one school day and the start of the next. 70+% of the time of any regular school day is spent outside of the school and thus outside the influence of the classroom teacher, maybe it is time that we stop restricting and penalizing the hard-working front line teachers and start addressing the root cause of student struggles.

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Education in the Cross-hairs

I’ve been in education for 10 years now, the first 7 in the classroom and the last three as an administrator. In that time I have seen a lot of initiatives and new programs come through; some lasting longer than others. One change that has happened during that time, and one that has been getting progressively more concerning, is the negative image of the education by the public. I asked a peer about this the other day and was surprised to hear that it hasn’t always been this way. There was a time when people trusted professional educators to do right by their children. While they didn’t always agree with every decision, people at least respected the work that was being done in our schools. I was relieved and surprised to hear this as I reflect on my time in schools.

When NCLB rolled around toward the end of my college days it was touted as being a positive change meant to increase the quality of our education system. In many ways, the guidelines and stipulations of NCLB have done just that, but in one big way it put education firmly within the cross-hairs. NCLB brought the education conversation into the houses of the everyday person. As a result, teachers and schools became targets for all of America’s ails and everybody that has ever been in school somehow became an expert on what is best for children. Lost in the conversation were the voices of the professionals tasked with carrying out the day-to-day hard work necessary to educate America’s youth.

Today, I make the decision to look at the glass half-full in regards to the public’s scrutiny of education. Lemons to lemonade; and scrutiny to the fact that the public is genuinely concerned with the education of our children. I ask that the public continue to ask questions and draw attention to the problems that we face. In return, I ask for support for educators as we continue to put our expertise to action and work with children. If the public truly does care about education, they need to understand that we are at a cross-roads in our work. We are now being asked to prepare students for a yet-to-be-determined future all the while facing naysayers, reductions in budget and salary, government intervention, unfunded mandates, and a general lack of support. We will keep doing what we have been trained to do and we will keep challenging our students. Please join us and help us rather than cut us down. We got into education because we care; we care about the well-being and learning of children. We want the same things for your children as you do, so why are we on opposing sides?

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Cultivating Curiosity

I pick my daughter up from school most days. My schedule doesn’t always allow me this pleasure, but whenever possible I like to be the first one to talk to her about her day. I treasure the 5 minute drive home because that is the time with just her when I can hear the excitement in her voice about what she did and learned in school during that day.  I value this time for all of the parent reasons, primarily a love and desire for my daughter that goes deeper than any words can express, but also because I work with high school students on a daily basis. It isn’t always the case, but typically a high school student does not have the same shine in their eyes and excitement in their voice when they describe their day at school. Somewhere along the line, things changed for them and the conversations that I have with my daughter keep that energy alive for me.

I, like most educators, enjoyed school and still enjoy learning. Independent of the level of school I have been at, one constant has fueled that love for education; a deep rooted curiosity about the world around me. This curiosity has stayed with me in my adult life and it is one of the things that I hold most dear. Though it drives my wife nuts, it is what motivates me to have my iPad open surfing the web while watching tv at night, spurred into a quick search by a random factoid dropped in a sitcom. I see this curiosity in my daughter’s eyes after school and hear it in the questions that my other daughter asks; they want to know about the world around them. They aren’t motivated by grades and rewards, they are driven by the deep desire and hunger for knowledge.

Somewhere between the ages of my daughters (4 and 6) and high school students lose some of that curiosity. Many become content with being told how to do something rather than discovering it on their own. They have learned how to get by without having to think and process and develop. My hope and wish for each of these students is that they get the privilege of taking a class with a gifted teacher that challenges them to think and ask questions. I hope that they find someone that frustrates them by not telling them the answers but instead making them find them on their own. And I hope that in that teacher they find someone that cultivates the innate curiosity that they had when they were young and develops it into a craving for future knowledge.

Before high stakes testing, AYP, report cards, grades, and even schools there was curiosity. Though it may have killed the cat, it has also challenged conventional wisdom and done amazing things throughout history. I hope for my own children and for all of the students out there that the curiosity doesn’t die and that it is always a motivator to seek more knowledge.

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