Thank you, Mrs. Bauer

I hated taking the bus to school during first grade. I was a sensitive kid, and walking to the bus stop was no easy task. My parents meant well having me trek down the street every morning–I think the attempt toward cultivating a little more resilience was noble–but there was an issue that eventually threw a wrench in my parents’ plan for carpool-less mornings and afternoons: The morning bus was always late.

Most kids could care less that the bus dropped them off late at school. The tardiness wasn’t their fault, nor their parents’. The culprit was the bus, so most kids didn’t bat an eye when strolling into class 10-15 minutes late.

I was not one of those kids. If the bus didn’t show up at the stop on time, I cried. When the bus did eventually arrive, I’d cry on the way to school. And when the bus finally arrived, I’d cry while walking off the bus and into class.

I’m not proud of these tear-soaked episodes. I wish I could talk sense to six-year-old Steve. “Don’t worry about the bus,” I want to say. “It’s not a big deal. All you’re missing is attendance and the morning announcement. Maybe you’re missing the pre-spelling test if it’s Monday, but again, not a big deal.”

In my memory, the bus was late a lot. Maybe I’m exaggerating this lateness. Even if I am, I have plenty other reasons why the bus was bad news for me. I remember stepping in dog poop before boarding the bus one afternoon. It didn’t take long for everyone to smell it and begin making fun of me. I also recall a pimply bus attendant who introduced me to Freddy Krueger. I remember the first time he told us first graders about a scene from A Nightmare on Elm Street... it was the part when the heroine is in the bath tub closing her eyes and Freddy’s claw emerges from the soapy water near her feet. I couldn’t take a bubble bath for weeks.

The terror of the tardy bus culminated one morning in a way I’ll never forget. My mom walked me outside, gave me a kiss, and waved goodbye from our driveway. It was a cold morning, and as I made my way to the bus stop I could see my breath, so I pretended to be a locomotive for a while. I was about halfway to the bus stop when I shifted by backpack and noticed it was a little light. I slipped one of the straps off my shoulder, unzipped the bag, and peered inside. My lunch box was missing.

At that moment, the bus made its turn far up the street and began to slow toward the bus stop. It was finally early on a morning I forgot my lunch! With my backpack in hand, I made a dash toward the bus. The bus stopped and two or three students boarded. Then the doors closed and the bus lurched forward. The driver eventually saw me out the window, so he stopped, the door opened, and I jumped inside.

Unfortunately, as I was running my nose started bleeding, so I sniffed back the blood the best I could. Most of the kids probably just assumed I was crying–they obviously had strong prior evidence to believe this was the case. Eventually, they were correct, because I did begin crying. I had an empty backpack with no lunch. I was frustrated about the bus coming early on the day I forgot my lunch. I was embarrassed about getting on the bus late. And my nose was bleeding. I was a hot mess.

Because of the bus’s promptness, no other students were around when my bus mates and I stepped on campus. I walked to my first grade classroom, sat outside on a nearby bench, and continued sobbing.

A first grade mind is like another planet for adults. Too quickly we forget what it’s like to be young. The lens with which we view the world is drastically different now than it was then. Life experiences, cognitive development, and common sense all help us control our emotions and put things in a healthy perspective–at least most of the time. 6-year-old Steve, with a bloody nose and no lunch box, had a lot of developing and learning to do. I think that’s why I was crying, and it’s also probably why my crying eventually caught the attention of my first grade teacher.

I remember Mrs. Bauer opening the door. She stepped out, helped me to my feet, and walked me inside. Her room was warm, and she had on the classical music she sometimes played while we worked. It smelled like coffee, which I liked. She sat me down and brought over a box of tissues. She gently rubbed my back as I pinched my nose. She told me everything was OK.

She helped me wash by face when the tears and blood stopped flowing. Then she called my mom to let her know I needed a lunch.

The amount of relief and peace I felt in Mrs. Bauer’s classroom that morning is something I’ll never forget. She calmed me down, helped stop my bloody nose, washed my face, and ensured my lunch would arrive. As the other students began whooping and hollering outside upon their arrival, Mrs. Bauer let me stay inside and eat a snack. She smiled and spoke softly. It may have been cold outside, but her classroom was filled with so much warm light.

Teachers do this on a daily basis. They help students who had bad mornings or terrible nights. They leave indelible impressions so girls and boys can grow into strong and empathetic women and men. Educators help students again and again and again–all the while teaching standards, creating engaging lesson plans, formatively assessing, intervening, attending meetings, and much more.

I wish I could say thank you to Mrs. Bauer. I wish I could tell her I still feel the warmth of that morning in her room. I’d like her to know I eventually did become more resilient–that through good and bad years I grew into a man who now has two of his own children whom he loves dearly.

So thank you, Mrs. Bauer. And thank you to all teachers who care for our most precious resources by showing love and compassion on a daily basis.

The Antifragile Teacher (part 2)

I discussed how to be an antifragile teacher in this post at the beginning of 2015. Here are ten more ways teachers can make themselves strong like Hydra.

  1. Use ubermix. Google Chromebooks are great, but they’re reliant on the internet for productivity. iPads should be avoided like the plague in educaiton–unless you’re teaching a multimedia class. With ubermix, WiFi can be down and students can continue working. In fact, students may come up with better ideas when figuring out how to solve a task without WiFi. Check out this post I wrote on the ubermix blog for more information, and keep this in mind: ubermix>Chromebooks>iPads>Windows.
  2. Go on PLC walks. This might sound absurd, but I can’t overemphasize the importance of walking while you collaborate. Why is walking an antifragile action? Not only are there health benefits, you and your colleagues will also be inspired in ways that are impossible within a classroom, library, or teachers’ lounge. The environment of a meeting is important, and so is what you’re doing while you talk. Try a walking PLC and see if you don’t come up with more effective ways to enhance student learning at your school. (If it worked for Steve Jobs, it can work for you.)
  3. Maintain the perspective that every day is an opportunity to learn something now. There’s so much change. Once you make the decision to stop learning, you’ll die as a teacher.
  4. Give feedback, not grades. Grading may never go away, but I’ve seen a lot of teachers pour precious time and effort into grading assignments. The time could be spent more effectively, especially considering that students often don’t understand how to become better by viewing a letter grade. It’s much better to tailor your classroom in a way where the assignments you create foster easy teacher feedback–even at the expense of grading. “That’s a great idea, but how do you grade it?” This is a question I’ve heard many times. The quick answer is, “You don’t grade it.” In my credential program, I learned you have to grade everything. This is bonkers. Instead, take the stance that every assignment deserves “feedback”, and the feedback doesn’t necessarily have to come from you. It could come from students or other teachers. This approach will strengthen you as a teacher by providing more time, fostering your creativity with student assignments, and allowing flexibility within your work day.
  5. Give less homework (or no homework). I don’t want to make a blanket statement and say that you should never give homework under any circumstances, but I think we need to have a long conversation about why we give homework. Is it to strengthen skills and knowledge of content, or is it to ensure students are being compliant? It’s an interesting debate, and a great place to start is right here.
  6. Ditch your textbook. What would happen if school districts decided to write their own textbooks? What could you do with the money? How empowered would teachers feel? Could this help establish an antifragile school district?
  7. Get really good at a few skills. In my first post for becoming an antifragile teacher, I wrote you should learn as many skills as possible. This is true, but I’d like to add that you should never underestimate the importance of being really good at a select few. This will make you invaluable within any organization.
  8. Build your Professional Learning Network (PLN). Twitter is a must,–chances are you found this post via Twitter. Social media is important, but face-to-face interactions are much stronger, which leads to…
  9. Attend conferences. I’ve stated before that you must “read, read, and then read some more.” The great thing about conferences is you can learn and build your PLN at the same time. It’s like reading a book and making a friend simultaneously.
  10. Read Seneca’s work. I know this is random, but Seneca’s stoic philosophy will teach you to be antifragile in every area of your life, which will inevitably make you a better teacher.

Read Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Educational technology

Throughout history, there have been prospectors for gold, oil, and many other commodities. In 2015, the rush will be for a market share in educational technology.

It’s important to note there are organizations devoted to promoting learning for free. The two that quickly come to mind are Khan Academy and Gooru. Helping students and educators at no cost is an extremely noble endeavor, and I hope Khan and Gooru thrive during the upcoming year.

However, for most who have tossed their hats into the fray, it’s a fact that they’ve gotta hustle if they wanna make a dollar. On one hand, I have a lot of respect for companies such as Edmodo, Illuminate Education, LearnZillion, and the many other entities who are hustling for a foothold in districts across the nation. They’re all fulfilling niches that may very well be needed as schools adopt personal devices for students. On the other hand, if I worked for a company that wanted to service school districts, I would feel constant unease due to the fact that educators usually want (or need) services for free, and districts are continually looking for the cheapest alternative–many times at the expense of quality.

But, as we all know, there’s high risk in all business endeavors. I’ve stated the obvious in the above paragraph, but it’s a good way to frame an educational technology conversation in which the following three questions are discussed:

1. For what purpose does an educational technology company exist? 

2. What do schools and districts need? 

3. What do teachers need in their classrooms? 

These questions may seem simple, but their answers are fraught with a high degree of complexity. Too often school districts follow sales representatives down a rabbit hole that leads to nothing but unused products and wasted money. To compound this reality, many companies are trying to find success through a grass roots campaign of making their services free for teachers but not free at a school and district level. This creates a disunited educator base where every teacher finds her favorite platform and fights for its adoption because it’s the ‘right’ choice.

I’d like to address the three above questions. It’ll be an incomplete analysis, but at least it’s a start in the edutech dialogue.

For what purpose does an educational technology company exist?

All great organizations have members who are introspective and want to exist in order to bring value in a field in which their services are needed. It’s also important for school districts to ask what the purpose is for a service. Finding a product’s necessity is only possible after a district has already answered many important questions, such as: Do we want fully digital curriculum? What, exactly, is a learning management system (LMS)? Do we want our LMS to house student information, take attendance, function as a grade book, and contain district made curriculum? Does the same LMS need to perform all these functions? Is there a difference between an LMS at the school and district level compared with the classroom level? (I’d answer with a resounding ‘yes’ to this last question–more on that in a bit.)

A district can probably grasp why an educational technology company exists, but it’s hard to figure out if the service is necessary, which leads me to the second question:

What do schools and districts really need? 

At a school or district level, the technological services most in need are on four fronts: how to house digital curriculum, how to track student performance on formative assessments, attendance, and a grade book. (I will leave out programs used by payroll and special services, mainly because I’m not familiar with these divisions.)

Digital curriculum: To the chagrin of many, digital curriculum is coming. Districts need to figure out whether they will continue the traditional textbook adoption or transfer to a service that provides content in a web-based solution. Also, will districts create their own curriculum and publish it with the web 2.0 tools that are available for free, or will they pay for curriculum that is created by an outside company?

Student performance: The importance of formative assessments within education may be unparalleled, and it would behoove the school or district that promotes this type of checking for understanding by finding a service that not only assesses students quickly and efficiently, but also provides teachers and principals with easily discernible data that can drive instruction. There’s a lot of wasted PLC hours every school year, and a way to gauge whether or not students are learning is in high demand (or at least should be).

Attendance and grade book: These two are much more straightforward than how to solve the digital curriculum and gauging student performance quandaries. The hard questions lie in how students will be assessed, especially when studies show that grades hinder student learning. (Feedback, on the other hand, it extremely important and not the same as a traditional grade.)

Schools and districts have their work cut out for them. There are no easy answers, but fortunately, I think the answer for what’s needed in the classroom is a lot easier to solve.

What do teachers really need in their classrooms? 

Simply put, they need ‘digital infrastructure’. What I mean is teachers need a way to assign assignments digitally, collect assignments digitally, flip the classroom with video, and administer efficient common formative assessments with an LMS that provides easily discernible data for student achievement. So, if you’re a teacher who’s wondering what’s needed in an LMS, follow this checklist:

  • Does the LMS assign assignments easily?
  • Does the LMS collect assignments easily?
  • Can you provide the students with links to videos–especially videos that can be watched at home?
  • Can you administer common formative assessments easily and share data painlessly with colleagues during your PLC meetings?

If there is a ‘no’ to any of these question, look for another LMS.

Conclusion

This post barely scratches the surface for what’s facing districts, schools, and teachers in regard to educational technology. Nevertheless, the questions posed are necessary when evaluating nascent services that are attempting to capitalize on 1:1 devices trickling into classrooms. There’s a lot at stake, and as always, we need to offer more questions than answers before making big decisions regarding how students will learn and produce work in 2015 and beyond.

Welcome to change

For school districts across the country, there are a lot of changes happening right now.

Common Core

Curriculum adoptions

New technology

That last one incorporates a lot. The technology that teachers can use to enhance pedagogy is truly remarkable, and there’s never been another time in history that it’s being developed at such an incredible rate.

There are some educators who are up to the challenge and dive into the use of new apps and devices. Others may not try everything, but rather decide to curate best-practices.

There are also teachers who feel skeptical. “It it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” They’ve been teaching well for years, so technology is a disruption.

Then there are teachers who are afraid of technology. They’d like to be knowledgeable, but there’s just too much. Combine the many devices and websites with the implementation of Common Core this year, and it’s enough to send some people over the edge (or to an early happy hour).

Here’s what we need to keep in mind: Education is always in a state of flux. Change, disruption, uncertainty–these words will be used to describe schooling for many years to come. Teachers must embrace the unknown and set their minds on the fact that being uncomfortable is an ongoing reality. Is this a bad thing? Not really. Treading water makes a person stronger. As long as we can keep our heads above water, work hard to embrace innovation within the field of education, and learn how to teach rigorous courses at the high levels Common Core demands, the students will thrive.

Search or think?

According to the United States Department of Labor, 65 percent of today’s students will end up at jobs that haven’t been created yet. This means we have to rethink the best way to use time during a school day. Students must learn how to ask the right questions; more specifically, they must be able to clearly determine what skills are worth learning, honing, relearning, or dropping altogether. This is easier said than done. Currently, we overwhelmingly teach students skills opposed to critical thinking and creativity: direct objects, indirect objects, geography, ancient history–none of these things are bad to teach. However, when you have a finite amount of time (as we all do), and you understand that the learners will one day apply for jobs that are currently nonexistent, then you must prepare the students with helpful “habits of mind.”

Math will always be important because it strengthens problem solving ability. Constructing responses to writing prompts are also beneficial because students learn to defend what they believe and communicate in a linear way that’s easy for the reader to understand. What’s not as important is learning facts–especially facts that can quickly be found via Google.

In the end, that’s a good way to frame the question as to what teachers should spend their time teaching. Is the subject matter  “Google” knowledge or “thinking” knowledge. In other words, are we teaching students stuff that they can find in a couple seconds on Google’s search engine, or are we teaching students to think clearly and critically so that one day they can work at Google?

Give them technology anyway

Are there technological issues we’re grappling with as a society? Of course. There’s social media etiquette, how often we check our phones, privacy as a commodity, personal communication implications, the rising cost of rent in tech locales because of high salaries.

But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t flood our schools with technology. I’ve never seen students more happy than when they’re sitting at a laptop producing and communicating. It’s how they’ll work and interact when they’re adults, so schools should prepare them for the inevitable. Innovation must supersede tradition.

We’re ironing out our societal technological issues, which could be an eternal challenge, but we need to use technology in classrooms to engage young people and teach them the 21st century skills they’ll need to be successful.

Some more thoughts on education

1. All students should learn HTML and CSS sometime between 5th-8th grade.

Since ebooks are taking the place of traditional books, and computing tablets are just around the corner for all American students, young people should know what the devices are comprised of upon which they are reading and writing. (This could branch out to hardware as well.)

Traditional books are made of paper. There’s not much to them. Ebooks come on complex devices that run software that can be easily learned and programmed. HTML and CSS are the structural and presentational ways of displaying data on ebook devices and online. This knowledge will help students make better sense of technology and how it affects their education and leisure. HTML and CSS also set up the foundation for something very important…

2. All high school students should be taught JavaScript.

This is possibly the most accessible of all programming languages, and it’s a skill many employers want in job candidates. A year or two is plenty to help students think critically and expand their skill sets so they are more marketable–possibly right out of 12th grade.

If HTML and CSS are the presentational and structural components of websites and ebooks, then JavaScript is the behavioral part. Technology is becoming more interactive, and as I’ve read recently: “you either program, or become programmed.” (That’s probably hyperbole, but it doesn’t discount what I’m proposing.)

3. Encourage all students to go to college, but give them the full disclosure.

It’s wonderful if an 18-year-old wants to go to college for the sole purpose of becoming more knowledgeable–and acquiring marketable skills for a job is not in his or her equation. As long as the student knows this going in, I’m cool with that. To tell the student, however, to just “get a degree and everything will work out” is misguided.

We live in a time when going to college makes no sense economically unless a person is pursuing an education that garners skills that can be used in the workforce right now. There’s a lot of jobs just waiting to be filled, but not enough people are applying who fit the minimum description. Our young people deserve to be told that certain degrees are a waste of time (unless the student is independently wealthy), and universities must take into account which degrees are more beneficial to stakeholders than others.

If students and parents are going to go into tens (in not hundreds) of thousands of dollars in debt to attend (not even ivy league) colleges, then the education should at least supply jobs that can pay the monthly student loan debt. Saddling young people with debt before they even have jobs must end. Soon.