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In Defense of Learning (part 2)

As I started discussing earlier in the week, Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food held some amazing insights for me into the world of food and many of the debates in education. I pulled out the envelope I used to scribble down ideas while making my cross-state trek on Interstate 40. One point that Pollan makes early in his book is that a food’s total value is far greater than the sum of its parts. This idea seems to hold true for education and learning as well, as evidenced in recently efforts at reform.

In educational circles we talk about reform and best practices and methodology for instruction that will alter the current educational system for the better. Yet, despite efforts to affect change, little real movement seems to be occurring. There are several camps of thought and theory to which you can subscribe, all proposing that their ideas are the only way to meet the educational goals of our students. But how can this be? How can everyone have the right answer, yet no one does?

Pollan attests that it is nature’s combination of ingredients, enzymes and perfect timing that gives Earth’s most nutritional foods their inherent benefit. As scientists have tried to isolate individual nutrients and chemical compounds for use in increasing the nutritional value of other foods, they have found that the maximum health benefit is never reached.  In other words, the individual components of the food need one another to work harmoniously to reach the best result.

Keeping this analogy, there is no “fix” for the way things are currently operating in education. We are already trying to pit too many independent ingredients against one another and trying to pretend that they will “play nice” and create a desired results. Instead, the combinations of testing, accountability, technology, direct instruction, inquiry and other bits of educational buzz are mixing together to form almost toxic stew that is virtually counterproductive.  Instead of a secret strategy to solve the issues of education, we must look for a blue ribbon winning recipe that leads to a combination greater than the sum of the individual contributing parts. So what might that include? In my not-so-gourmet opinion, I sense a combination of technology, co-learning and passion-based discovery. The most important ingredient, and the that must be the most prevalent, will need to be the student.


Just an Idea: Make n Take

Last night a wonderful conversation emerged in the #edchat session last night on Twitter about how we might facilitate discourse about technology in the classroom with our fellow classroom teachers. It was mentioned that people were tired of being inundated with tools without context, presenters with sales-pitches and no real-life connections to what they are being shown. If we are hoping that teachers will adopt educational technology for use in their classrooms, we have to provide the instruction, direction and on-going support to help them make the experience a success. Many wonderful ideas were shared and I am hoping that others (ahem! Todd Williamson and Tech in 20) will blog about how they implement teaching and sharing about all things ed-tech within their school communities. I thought I’d give a few more details about our school’s monthly “Make n Take” sessions.

Over the past few years, our administration has been outfitting each classroom with SMART Boards. We were the first in the district to really put our money where our mouths were, so we were well ahead of the curve of what professional development was being offered by the system. From that need, and an expressed desire by teachers to learn more about how to implement technology in the classroom, came the idea for monthly “Make n Take” sessions. Each month, a “Make n Take” was hosted by a different grade level in the school in one member of that team’s classroom. The host grade level was in charge of an hour-long sharing and question session that highlighted how they used technology to enhance instruction in their grade level. The members of the grade level team decided together what they would like to use as a focus, and they were also allowed to ask for “help” coming up with a topic if needed. As a result of these monthly “Make n Take” sessions, there were many excellent outcomes:

1. School community was focused. It’s often difficult to organize vertical curricular planning. By having each grade level in charge of one month, and by having all staff attend, we were able to see one another and see first hand how our strands of curriculum were fitting together. Wonderful dialogue was generated when we were around others who weren’t in our “normal” collaborative  planning groups.

2. Authentic professional development was offered. We were learning about technology integration strategies from our peers – people we trusted, people we knew were in the trenches, and people who we knew had the same “stuff” sitting in their classrooms and were teaching the same kids. No matter the discrepancy in ages between the sharing groups, there was always information that could be gleaned and adapted.

3. It fit our local requirements. It was focused on our curriculum. It integrated 21st century skills. It was free.

4. We covered a myriad of topics without being overwhelmed. Because each team took on a “theme” for the month, you had a month to go back to your classroom and try one or two of these ideas before another one was thrown at you. This time to implement was key. Having a team full of specific tech support was also essential in the success of this model. Over the course of the year, we got excellent real-world examples of using SMART boards, SMART Response Systems, Podcasting, Blogs and Wikis, Our School Webhost, and more. As each topic was addressed from the perspective of a “real” classroom teacher, it was invaluable and inspiring.

So if you are looking for a way to bring more educational technology to your school or your district, consider looking in. Teachers are often doing more than we give them credit for and they have amazing ideas. And why not harness what great ideas are already floating around in your own building and district?!

My Hair Is Not on Fire

When the summer began, Lee Kolbert made a call for recommended summer reading for educators by educators. One of the first titles that streamed across my PLN was Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire by Rafe Esquith. I picked up the book at a local bookstore and started reading write away. I was initially impressed and even blogged on the first chapters of the book here. I was excited about what it set up to be and how it was playing out, but something changed for me as I continued to read.

I have struggled over the blog post because there are lots of things I want to say about my reactions to the book, but I do not want to undermine what  Esquith does with his students. I think the dedication he displays to the children in his room is remarkable and admirable, and his students are very lucky to have a teacher who is devoted to help them develop as learners and leaders. Esquith offers great ideas for engaging students in reading, writing, math, science, social studies, and the arts. He even talks about teaching students about testing as a process, rather than a stressor. That being said, there were several moments in the book that I found myself questioning what was going on – the how’s of it all.

How does Esquith get students to arrive at school at 7:00 AM and stay until hours past the official end of the day?

How do students get to school and get home?balancing act

How do his students feel who don’t want to or can’t participate in all of these extra events?

How do the students in other classes feel who aren’t having these experiences?

How do his students react to their teachers when they leave him and move on to other grades?

How do the students balance their lives outside of school?

How does Esquith balance his life outside of school?

Throughout his book, I wondered how he had the time. I worried about new teachers or those getting ready to enter the teaching profession might feel when reading this book. I give a lot of myself to teaching and to my students, but even I was overwhelmed. If you are not putting on plays, teaching how to play musical instruments, teaching from 7:00 am to 6:00 pm, driving kids on cross-country college tours, facilitating home-based film clubs and organizing tours of the nation’s capital, you are still an amazing teacher. As this post evolves in my own head and on the screen, I am finally figuring out how I can love this book and dislike it at the same time. Only a small percentage of us can do what Rafe Esquith does. I am not one of them, but what can I do?

  1. I can know what my students need. Esquith recognizes that his students may not ever get the opportunity to “know what they don’t know.” We, as teachers, have the unique chance to open our students’ eyes to a world they may not know exists beyond their neighborhood. While I may not be able to make a cross-country trip with them, I can emerge them in great literature, take them on virtual trips, and connect them with others world-wide through technology.
  2. I can find a way. Esquith set up his Hobart Shakepearans as a non-profit organizations to raise money for their expenses and trips. If he can do this, I can certainly fill out the occasional grant application to offer a new experience to my students. I can encourage parents and community members to put their monies where their mouths are. I can communicate regularly with my elected officials to keep funding and adding more funding to public education.
  3. I can encourage service-learning. In Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire Esquith highlights his students’ holiday meal service. Even if this is too much of an undertaking initially, take from it the idea that you are providing a priceless lesson for your students by teaching them the value of service. The experience of service-learning cannot be written in a lesson plan or numerated through goals and objectives. It touches the heart, and lessons that do that will last much longer than any science lab you will ever do. Collect cans for a food drive. Sing holiday carols at a nursing home. Write letters to troops serving overseas. Find a way to make students dig deep into their hearts, not just their parents’ wallets.
  4. I can let students have it. It may be your classroom. It may be your materials. But it is their learning. Allowing students to own their work and to share it with others in their classroom, school and community will instill in them pride for learning. They will learn discipline and hard work. They will learn problem solving conflict resolution. If you you hold so tightly to the control of your classroom, everything you try to accomplish will stay within your walls. If you let your students have it, they can take it with them.

So, no, I don’t teach like my hair is on fire. I don’t really think that Rafe Esquith does either. He teaches like his heart is on fire, and that’s the greatest thing a teacher can offer his/her students. And when you are reading about astounding things that others are doing, don’t get overwhelmed by the how’s. Focus on the why’s. When you do that, you will find inspiration to light the fires of your students.

Photo from Flickr: Balancing Act by SashaW

‘Tis the Season

No, it isn’t the joyful winter holiday season. Nope, it isn’t the crisp, cool start to football season. Actually, it isn’t even tax season anymore. It’s worse. It’s testing season!

Teachers across the United States are up-ing their anti-stress prescription dosages, buying stock in Red Bull and biting their finger nails to the quick. Students are suffering from proverbial spring fever as the birds are chirping, the sun is shining, and cries of “Play Ball!” fill the air. Yet many of them are also suffering from untold personal pressure, parental pushing, and panic by teachers. Administrators can’t get their hands on enough tutors, test prep materials and number 2 pencils (please, principals, at least splurge for the ones with the good erasers). A swine flu pandemic is sweeping our continent and I would dare to say that our schools are suffering from a much greater, and more detrimental, fate.

Let’s talk about the kids for a minute. Picture an 8 year old. Yes, a freckle faced kid who is just learning to play kid-pitch baseball, a kid who still wears SpiderMan pajamas and carries a security blanket stress-leeroy09481(but not when spending the night with a friend). Now picture that same kid, stomach in knots, doubled over a chair in physical pain over the stress of an 8 passage, 56 question reading test and two days worth of 70 math word problems. Imagine a 10 year old boy, the kind that is “super macho,” having an emotional break down mid-way through a final test in 5th grade that will determine whether he gets to go to middle school or not. Is this age appropriate? Is it measuring knowledge, memorization, stamina or simply stress management?

Now picture the teachers. We don’t sleep. We spend countless hours planning on the best ways to prepare our students for a test that will supposedly measure their learning and our proficiency as teachers. We wrestle internally and externally with the thoughts of our students who have grown 2 grade levels this year under our care, but they still aren’t where they need to be. We turn a blind eye when children who are rationing their school lunches (so they and their siblings will be able to eat something for supper) sneak food out of the cafeteria. We lose sleep wondering what will happen the mornings of testing at the bus stop, in the kitchen, or worse. And most painfully for the pure educator in us, we wage an internal battle between external pressures to prepare students to pass a test and personal beliefs in the best ways to reach and teach children… especially when our livelihoods may be on the line.

This is the gruesome reality of high stakes testing. Children are being taught day in and day out, but are they learning? And what exactly are they learning? They are learning that when you are asked a question about building a fence, hanging wallpaper border or framing a picture, they are really asking about perimeter. They are learning that reading means answering a series of multiple choice questions. They are learning that kids with the “fancy” fraction calculators are taking the same tests as those with the 4 function ones. Kids are learning that education is not about the questions that they ask, but rather the questions that they answer.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe in accountability. I believe in standards. In fact, I champion the idea of high expectations and assuring that all children are given access to achieve their personal best. I just believe that personal best cannot be tested in a secure setting over the course of three days. Becoming a mother has changed me in countless ways (and not just my waistline). Now that my twin boys are in kindergarten, watching their experience in school is altering my own philosophy of teaching and learning. How will I determine if my children have had a successful school year?

  • They still love school.  Nothing will kill the dreams and ambitions of a child faster than a negative experience with school.  If my boys are still excited about coming to school again next year, my greatest battle has been won.
  • They are persistent in solving problems.  I don’t want my kids to get everything easily. I don’t care if they can’t tie their shoes yet, even though most of their classmates can. I am not worried that they still occasionally struggle with coming up with rhyming words. Do my children approach these problems with a strategy of attack and a notion of determination? Are they learning to approach these problems with a variety of strategies?
  • They have an opinion. I know that all parents out there see our children being full of personal opinions, many of which are opposite of our own. Heavens, I know. But, I want my child to challenge the idea of a status quo. I want them to ask questions, make decisions and evaluate information. Hopefully, their teachers are not only tolerating this, but they are encouraging it.
  • They are thirsty. When we give children open access to knowledge and information, they are likes sponges. We get tired of hearing “Why? Why? Why?” when they are toddlers, but that curiosity must be fostered.


If my children walk away from school each year being proficient in these areas, I will be thrilled with their education. Imagine that child. Picture that teacher. I certainly have an entirely different image in my mind of that teaching/learning/testing experience.

Is this possible? Or is it simply something for me to add to my seasonal wishlist? I choose to say “Bah Humbug” to the traditional, high stakes testing season and “Happy New Year” to a new focus on the student as learner, not the student as tester. ‘Tis the Season!

Flickr Photo Credits: “Stress” by Leeroy09481 and “Happy Kids in Squares 3” by carf

10 Reasons I Love Teaching

I was recently at an awards ceremony for high performing schools. The keynote speaker read a list of 10 reasons why her best friend loved teaching. The teacher had written this list at a particularly low point, a time when she needed reminding as to why she had ever wanted to be a teacher. Our speaker challenged each of us to create our own list of 10 reasons why we love teaching, so here goes… Consider it a work in progress.

10. Staff Pot Luck Events. I’m sorry, but when teachers cook, it’s almost as good as a church event. The other day we had a cookie exchange. Holy cow! Move over Martha!

9. A mom, not a teacher. The mom of one of my students this year came up to me the other day and gave me a giant hug. She thanked me for what I’ve done for Zack this year and how I’ve enhanced his enthusiasm about school. She’s a teacher at my school. That day, she was a mom in tears.

8. Learning. I love teaching because I love to learn. I care more about instilling a love of learning on my students than I do what tests they pass or scores they make.

7. Summer Vacation. No, not for the reason that you think. Within 2 weeks, I’m ready to get back to work. Despite struggles and low points throughout the school year, I always feel this way. I spend my summers figuring out to make the next year better than the last.

6. Homemade Christmas Gifts. A frame made from a cardboard box. A recycled pair of earrings. A handmade card. These are the gifts that bring me to tears because they are gifts of the heart.

5. “I want to be a teacher.” When I hear a student, any student, say that he/she wants to be a teacher, I am motivated. In a culture that focuses on money and fame, where little kids want to be professional athletes and musicians, I am touched and inspired because I know there are those who want to continue the work I am doing.

4. Recess. Recess is a great time to teach students about discounting stereotypes. I can throw a football in a perfect spiral much farther than any of my students. The first response of the year is always, “But… you’re a girl!” My girls perk up and my boys start to think. It’s good. Very good.

3. National Board for Professional Teaching Standards It’s not the certificate or the plaque or the pay raise. It’s the process. Completing my National Boards transformed my teaching and reflecting practices. It made me look at my practice in a way that has since improved my teaching in countless ways. The processes that were required by doing National Boards have now become a part of my daily teaching practices.

2. Destiny is on the honor roll. When Destiny came to me, she was repeating the 4th grade. I was new to the school. She had missed over 20 days of school the previous year. The year I had Destiny, she bloomed and blossomed in so many ways. By the end of the first nine weeks, she had found a love of learning and passion for school. She never missed and wrote me the most beautiful letter that now hangs inside my classroom cabinet for a “rainy” day. On graduation day, her mother bawled. I did too. Now, Destiny is an honor roll student at the middle school.

1. The motivation of my colleagues and friends. Why do you love teaching?

Hey Y’all

I’ve made the transition and am putting myself out there. I’ve been using educational technology with my students (kellyhines.wordpress.com) and doing a lot of research on my own. I will always be a learner, as I think we all should be. I don’t claim to be terribly eloquent or informed. I am passionate and interested in what is going to keep my students’ learning first (and that of my own little boys).  I’d be honored for you to read along with me and help me learn.