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Experience matters

Recently both President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have stated that paying higher salaries for teachers with Masters degrees is money poorly spent.  Well, except for maybe math and science teachers. But for the rest of us educators, having advanced education does not bring any greater results in student achievement. Both men have also placed strong emphasis on charter schools and programs such as Teach For America to as solutions to the current problems in education. Both charter schools and TFA depend on young and enthusiastic educators with little to no experience. They are inexpensive to hire when they bring a desire to change the world and make a difference in the lives of kids – but have little education experience or graduate degrees. You can’t beat the price for enthusiasm.

In more than 16 years as an educator I have come to realize that experience, education and training DO matter. It has taken me many years to craft my lessons and understand the rhythm that is necessary to keep a lesson moving and motivate every learner in the room to work to their best potential. It has taken many professional development workshops and trainings to be able to integrate Project Based Learning, Differentiated Instruction, Learning Styles and Multiple Intelligences, 21st Century Skills and all of the trends in education that have been in vogue since in the past two decades. I have learned to map my curriculum with the best of them; I design my courses with Backward Planning. Sure, any college grad could probably learn the lingo, but to really bring the methods into their classrooms is another thing.

What I’ve really learned in 16 years in education is how to work with kids and parents. I, like so many young teachers, really thought that kids who didn’t do well were lazy or just didn’t try. What I’ve come to understand is that kids do care and kids do try. Finding the best way for the student to demonstrate learning is the tricky part. And the part that comes with experience. Finding the patience to work with a student who is acting out or refusing to engage in class comes from knowing that tomorrow you’ll hopefully see a change. Or the next day. Teaching a student is not only about the subject but about life. Experience has taught me that every day students bring baggage from outside of class – a home foreclosed on, a parent’s illness, divorce, an abusive relationship. Experience has taught me that I am only one adult that can influence a child’s life, but at that moment in time I am the only adult who is there in the classroom to make a difference, who can make their day better, who can help them learn something they have never known before.

With 16 years’ experience, a Master’s degree, and hundreds of hours of further professional development and training, I earn much less than my contemporaries who have chosen other careers. I have no expectation that I will ever earn a bonus or get a substantial raise. I am a professional educator. I care deeply about kids and am passionate about teaching and learning. Our children matter – your children matter to me and I hope my children matter as much to the teachers who educate them. With all due respect, President Obama and Secretary Duncan – you are wrong. Advanced education for teachers improves teaching. Experience improves teaching. And measuring education only by student test scores is wrong.

Tempus fugit

Over the past few months I’ve been trying to find a better balance of work and family and time for myself. I’ve been exercising more and have managed to drop nearly 35 pounds. I’ve signed my daughters up for activities they like and that fit into our busy lives. But gymnastics and swimming and soccer and all the other events that fill the lives of young children take more time than you’d expect. And this year I’m teaching a course I haven’t thought much about in over ten years, so prep for that is certainly much more extensive than for the classes that I’ve been teaching regularly all along.

Also over the past few months, education has very much been in the news. Mostly news that is critical of public education and all of the bad teachers that seem to populate our schools. It’s demoralizing (at best) to live in an atmosphere of such negativity. And frustrating to know that all of the good work that so many of my colleagues do every day with kids is never going to be recognized when it is much easier to point to standardized test scores or listen to what Oprah or Bill Gates have to say about education.

For the past two years I’ve found that blogging was a way for me to clarify my thoughts. I like to share what I do and what I’ve learned. But I also have found myself criticized for being open with my opinions and thoughts on education. Which is to say, I’ve found that taking the time to blog has been a distraction from the immediate business of life. Taking the time to thoughtfully reflect on my practice takes away time from planning my lessons or being with my family. Taking the time to engage with other thoughtful educators means that I have to turn my attention away from other pressing demands.

I want to renew my commitment to blogging and sharing my thoughts, concerns, and ideas about education. I want to. But right now, I have to submit my grades. And plan for the week. And develop goals for the next year. And complete paperwork to seek re-certification. And grade projects. And plan for an observation. So when Oprah and Bill Gates want to take the time to see what it really means to be an educator in a public school today, I’d be more than happy to have them follow me some day. But until then, tempus fugit. And I need to get back to the everyday work of being a teacher.

This post is also published at The Professional Learner and has been co-written by Michael Springer and I.

Here are two professional development possibilities that are in the works. Which policy appeals to you the most? If you could write the PD policy for your district, what would you look for?
Policy A:
All teachers will attain certain goals each year of their employment. They will attend prescribed workshops (e.g. blogging, podcasting) with specific targets to be met at the end of every two years. By the end of 6 years in the district, all teachers will be expected to have met all of the PD goals by attending the predetermined workshops. Teachers will be evaluated on their successful completion of the workshops and having demonstrated mastery of the material covered in each workshop. Continued employment is contingent on regularly meeting the goals detailed in the district plan.
Policy B:
As a benefit of employment, all employees will be given the opportunity to further their professional knowledge through participation in workshops designed to increase knowledge and understanding of technologies. These life skills workshops will be offered regularly with a variety of topics to be presented during each workshop period. Workshops will include podcasting, blogging, building a PLN, etc. During each session, educators will have the opportunity to choose which workshop best meets his/her current needs. Each two years the educator will list the workshops attended and reflect on how those tools/skills have improved his teaching/learning. At the end of 6 years all teachers will have had the opportunity to attend all of the district’s workshops.
Which plan would you vote for? Things to add or subtract? Pros/cons?

Ellen Commito and Mia Gaska have presented an interactive workshop on using iPods in the classroom as part of the Blue Ribbon Institute. They shared samples of activities they’ve done with their students and podcasts (both student created and teacher made) that they have used to support teaching/learning their their elementary level classrooms. Here are my notes from Google Docs with links to some resources that might be helpful.

This morning I attended an excellent workshop presented by Steve Olivo (@solivo11) and Kathy Favazza (@kathyfavazza) as part of the Blue Ribbon Institute for Academic Excellence. Here are the notes that I took in Google Docs. This includes links to the sites that were mentioned, including Jing, The Edublogger, Blogger, and A Difference (Darren Kuropatwa’s blog).

In the past I have mentioned that I use VoiceThread with my classes for digital storytelling. VoiceThread is a web-based service that allows you to upload images (a PowerPoint, photos, documents, or even video) to create a presentation. What makes VoiceThread different is that you can then comment on each slide, creating a narration or explanation that is either typed or recorded. Then, depending on the publishing options that you choose, you can share your VoiceThread either with only a few individuals or with the entire world. Anyone you share it with and who has a VoiceThread account can then add their own comments to your presentation.

One of the first projects I used VoiceThread for was a storytelling project with my Latin Studies classes. These students are mostly juniors and seniors in high school who have repeatedly failed in their studies of other foreign languages.
The goal of the project was to review a number of grammar concepts, particularly noun cases. Students wrote their own stories and demonstrated their understanding of the grammar through the Latin writing. They then chose or created images that best told their story. Finally, they recorded themselves reading their story using their best Latin pronunciation. Students viewed each others’ stories and left comments for each other. One example of this story is “The bear who cried ‘boy’” created by two boys in the class. Their story was created in PowerPoint and then uploaded to VoiceThread. In “Sabina’s Bad Day” the student who created it found images mostly from stock photo sources. She then inserted the text using SMART Notebook to create the basic slide show.

In our Latin 1 classes, we start the year by asking our students to find examples of Latin mottos or phrases that are still in use today. This year we used VoiceThread to again add the oral element to the presentation. Most of the presentations were created using either PowerPoint or SMART Notebook. Then the images were uploaded to VoiceThread and students recorded their comments there. Students selected mottos that all followed a certain theme, then chose images that best illustrated the motto. Some examples of this project are: Latin Love Mottos, and Philosophical Latin Mottos.

As these projects suggest, I teach Latin at a public high school just north of Boston. I expect my students to create their own presentations (for the most part) and then we use our language lab to record the comments. Occasionally I’ll use VoiceThread to create projects with my daughters (ages 3 and 5). This fall, on a particularly exhausting and rainy Friday afternoon, my girls were driving me crazy to play on my computer. Together we created Three Lonely Dinosaurs using SMART Notebook and VoiceThread. The girls chose all the images from the Gallery in Notebook and then Bridget recorded herself reading the story. This is when she first began to read, so we shared it with family and friends who might not otherwise get to hear her.

This year my older daughter is in kindergarten. She does well with letter recognition and writing, she is even reading short chapter books. Each week her class studies one or two letters and their homework is to find pictures or draw things that begin with the assigned letter. Bridget enjoyed it at first, but soon became bored looking for pictures in magazines. When I spoke with her teacher, she thought a VoiceThread sounded like a good option. Each week my daughter and I brainstorm some words with the key letter. I then help her search for appropriate images on the internet. We create the “book” using SMART Notebook, inserting the images and choosing the colors for the text and background. Using my laptop and a headset Bridget records the words and the letter of the week. What I’ve really enjoyed watching is her own developing sense of what will make a good presentation. At first, she didn’t care much about the color of the background. But when she saw that some pictures look good with light backgrounds and others look better with a matching background she started to get choosy about what she wants each slide to look like. This week she did all of her own recording and was really choosy about how the final recording should sound. Some slides required five or six takes for her to say it just that way she wanted it. Sometimes she spoke too slow or she stumbled over a word; it was easy to delete the bad recording and do it over. Our first effort was Pajama Party, with more recent projects being Bridget’s R Book and Bridget’s Y Book.

Although I write mostly to share things that I think can apply to educators, I can’t leave out one last VoiceThread we enjoyed making. When Bridget was recording her stories, my younger daughter was jealous of the fun she was having. Together Julie and I created Hiking at Lake Winni using pictures of a recent trip we had taken up to Lake Winnipesaukee. This was a wonderful way to share Julie’s personality with family that lives around the world.

VoiceThread, as with any form of presentation, works best when the project is well planned before the images are uploaded. The images themselves can’t be edited in VoiceThread, although there is a doodle function that allows you to add writing to your comments. If the original images or presentation isn’t very good, you probably won’t be able to make it better with VoiceThread. Having said that, VoiceThread is really easy to use – my 5 year old basically has learned how to do it herself. It is easy to share and it is easy to control who views your presentations. Their education accounts (both free and those with a fee) allow teachers to supervise the work their students are creating and sharing. If you are looking for further ideas for using VoiceThread, check out the VoiceThread for Educators Ning or VoiceThread for Education Wiki.

The child left behind

This week one of my students was officially dropped from my class roster. I hadn’t seen Rufus (his Latin class name) in a while and other students told me he was planning to drop out. He’s been a student in my class for almost two years, and with only 2 1/2 months left in his high school career Rufus has walked away. The number of adults who’ve attempted to get him into school and to support him is probably too high to count. There have been calls home and meetings and interventions and disciplinary actions and accommodations made. But in the end, he has walked away.

So who has failed here? Has our public school failed him? Have his individual teachers failed to somehow connect with Rufus? Have the guidance counselors, special education liaisons, administrators, and advisors all failed? Have his classmates somehow failed to help their friend stay on track? If he had more personal relationships with his teachers and adults, would he have stuck around? Have we, in fact, failed Rufus?

Legislation like No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top consistently says that it is the schools and teachers that have failed kids like Rufus. “The schools are failing our kids. Teachers are failing our kids.” That’s what the policy makers say. And ratings that measure school success count the percentage of students who don’t graduate and consequently lower the ranking of each district based on that number. The proposed merit pay for teachers won’t come to those of us who work so hard and so long only to have a student walk away. Policy makers don’t seem to recognize the influences that pull kids out of school: drugs, family crises, financial distress, etc. They only focus on pointing to those who are working so hard for kids to get a student this close to graduating, only to fail in the end.

I’m sad to have Rufus so quietly deleted from my gradebook this week. I hope to see him at some point, to say goodbye and to wish him good luck in the future. In the end I do not believe that our school that has failed. I didn’t fail Rufus. We didn’t leave him behind. One day, he just decided to walk away.

I’ve been blogging for about a year and a half now and Tweeting for a little less time than that. When I first started blogging I really enjoyed writing about and reflecting on my teaching. Sometimes I shared links or websites that I’d found or talk about what I was reading on-line. Over time I found that what I enjoyed writing about most is what I do with my students in the classroom. I’ve developed new projects and written about the web 2.0 tools that we use to learn Latin, Roman culture, history, and mythology.

Over time I developed a PLN, a professional learning network, a group of educators and those interested in education from around the world. I learn from them and (I hope) they learn from me. I felt comfortable in the blogosphere and Twittosphere because these are open fora. I don’t personally attack or criticize anyone, but I do share my thoughts and occasionally frustrations in my blog and in my tweets. Teaching is sometimes difficult, frustrating work that can leave you feeling isolated and on your own. Through my PLN I have found support and answers to questions. I have also developed  some authority as an educator, based on my writings and perhaps my presentations at workshops like the Blue Ribbon Conference, MassCUE, or EduCon 2.2.

Over the past few months, however, my PLN has changed. This is a natural evolution, I suppose. And, after all, blogging and Twitter are public and open to anyone who cares to join the conversation. In the past, my followers were largely those who were interested in my take on the blending of Foreign Language, education, and technology. They were positive and involved. And they were mostly from far beyond my district and state. When people shared comments, they posted to my blog or responded to Twitter in the same open and public forum. What’s changed is that more people from my district and my school are following what I say. And recently the critiques aren’t appearing in the same venue where the conversations originated. I’ve heard references to my writing at the photocopier or in the faculty room. I’ve been confronted in the hall and criticized at school. To be honest, it has made me question why I blog and what I’ve written. And it has made me silent for the last few weeks.

But I have to come back to my original goal in writing:  this is a home for my reflections and thoughts on education and teaching in a public school. I will have positive things to share – and negative. But the conversation starts here. And I hope that I will start conversations and perhaps invite debate. I’m assuming there will be criticisms. And I hope those who wish to respond feel confident to join the conversation and participate in public debate.

I had fun at EduCon 2.2! It was great to get away for a weekend and spend time with colleagues. I loved meeting people from my PLN face to face and talking to educators from around the world about what we do and how we can improve education. It was a thrill to listen to so many really smart people share their ideas and debate. For two and a half days we joined in conversations, facilitated discussions, learned, relaxed, ate, drank, laughed, and had fun. Conferences should be fun. Learning should be fun. Spending time with colleagues – whether they teach in the classroom next door or at a school halfway around the world – should be fun. I need to make it a priority to have more fun with my colleagues. There are times when the work of teaching needs to be set aside so we educators can talk, share, laugh, and have fun.

It’s been a few weeks since I returned home from EduCon and now that we’re on February vacation I have some time to reflect on what I’ve taken away from EduCon 2.2.  Over the next few days I hope to write some more about specific conversations I had and people I met. It was energizing to spend an entire weekend with educators and students who care passionately about teaching and learning.

This school year has been a challenging one and I’ve gotten frustrated more often than not. Many of my (high school) students are not interested in school or learning; their lives are complicated by illness, financial struggles, broken families, drugs and alcohol. Others are merely apathetic, going through the motions just to earn their credits and move on. Don’t get me wrong, I do have many other students who are interested and motivated. But so much of my energy as a teacher seems to be spent supporting and encouraging students who just don’t care what (any) school can offer them.

What I realized while I was in Philadelphia was that I had been missing the passion that used to drive my teaching. When I spoke with the students of Science Leadership Academy I was struck by how clearly each one could articulate the mission of their school and what that education meant to them personally. They didn’t spout some party line about each having a laptop (though many cited this as a reason for them to check out SLA in the first place). They didn’t talk about test scores or the number of AP classes or the other measures that seem to drive education policy. What excited them was the personal relationships they had with their teachers and the individualization of their learning. They cared deeply about their projects, the choices they had and how they demonstrated their learning. They spoke clearly and confidently about how their school has molded them as learners and as individuals.

My first thought was that it was already too late to make meaningful changes in my classes this year. After all, the school year is half over and we’ve already established our routines and expectations. At least, I had established them. But talking to Liz Davis on the flight home helped me think about things differently. The Latin curriculum and learning expectations were mine – not my students.  When I returned to school, I sat down with my two most challenging classes and spoke honestly about my frustrations and my hopes for the course. I told them they still had to meet curricular goals, but I wanted them to help design how we met those goals for the rest of the year. At first they seemed skeptical, but then they spoke honestly about their learning.

They asked for more independence and creativity in how they demonstrated their learning. They asked for more projects. They still wanted structure, but with the independence to move through the work at their own speed and ability. Every student in these 2 Latin classes has been diagnosed with a language based learning disability and has been with me for more than a year and a half. And perhaps for the first time they were being given an opportunity to truly individualize their learning. I agreed to implement some of their ideas, but only if they agreed to commit to doing the work as well.

The next day I made some modifications to how I present material and what I ask of my students as they come into the room each day.  I committed myself to smiling more and being truly glad to see each one of them every day. I focused on the essential elements they need to learn – to translate Latin accurately and to recognize verb forms, for example. I showed them the big picture and then allowed them to progress through activities more independently and creatively. I offered them choices in how they demonstrate their understanding. I encouraged them to support each other in learning and to contribute positively to class each day. I put on Pandora so they could listen to music as they worked. To be honest, these were small changes that brought about some big results. All but one of my students has embraced the changes. They are working more steadily and translating more thoughtfully than I’ve seen since they started Latin 18 months ago.  They are asking specific questions and participating in their own learning. As a group, they seem happier to walk into my room each day. We still have work to do; this will involve more planning as we move forward. And I have one student who will need to be supported differently from the rest. It has only been two weeks, but I am feeling more positive each day when I see them walk into my room.

Ultimately I’m hoping I’ve rediscovered my passion for teaching and for Latin. I don’t delude myself with the belief that my students will suddenly become passionate about translating Latin or even continue their studies past this year. I do have hope that they will find that putting effort and care into what they do can make a difference in their lives. And that taking responsibility for their work will make the experience of learning more meaningful overall.