Sunday, March 29, 2015

Not Reform but Revolution!

       I have a background as a Science and Maths teacher.  When my son expressed interest in attending a local charter school, I approached the notion with an open yet cautious mind.  The title of the name of the school and their advertisement at a local schools fair indicated they were technology oriented.  We expected small class sizes and one to one, which means we expected every child to have a device for them to use.

       Before I signed my child up for this school I thought I would check the learning environment.  During my surprise visit, I noticed immediately how quiet the school was.  This is a little unusual for a school where engaged-active learning is occurring.  However, when every child has a device and is working at their own pace sometimes classrooms can sound like this.

       After touring the school I learned the unnatural quiet way not due to happy, engaged work.  The students were quiet because they would be disciplined if they did not remain quiet and follow the teacher with their eyes.  They were also required to follow painted lines on the floor when walking in the halls.  This school is training followers. 

       There were large signs informing the students they were not allowed to talk in the hallway.  There were no textbooks.  The principal attempted to turn the dearth of books into a selling point.  He explained there would be no out of date information.

     Every class of students had worksheets in front of them. The teachers were covering the worksheet in a step by step manner. The only exception was coding class which was also being taught in a rote step by step manner.  The technician would put in a line of code and then the students would copy it in to the only set of computers in the school.

       During my visit I did not observe a single child engaged in any form of play. Play is how children learn deeply. I did not see innovative or integrated lessons or any best practices.  Instead. I observed large classes (33 to 36 students), oppressive rules and lots of worksheets.  

      If Tennessee wants to fund school innovation this school was not fulfilling the calling of creating an innovative, positive environment.  

     Perhaps in place of funding dry, rote teaching, we should consider funding some laboratory schools.  The state could test what works for the children of Tennessee. 

  I suspect that happy environments would be foundational to learning to love learning.  The love of learning is the essential ingredient to generate life long learners.   We could start here by creating schools students love to attend and teachers love to work.  In the current climate that's an innovative idea.  You might even say it's revolutionary.


Sunday, March 22, 2015

Practical-Ambient Mathematics

       This weekend we were working in the yard and completing some sewing projects.  A former student came by to help and to learn how to sew.  The student will be called S for the rest of this tale. 

       First we started in the garden.  The children have decided to grow cooking herbs to sell but we had to get the garden beds ready after a year of neglect.  We went outside to measure the beds and figure out how much dirt we would need.  The both beds were three feet by nine feet and half of a foot low.  By the young ones were able to visualize taking the yard squared sections and stacking them to make a cubic yard of dirt.  It turned into a math problem which was easily solved just by picturing it.  Minecrafting experience helped because they were able to visualize a cubic yard.  Here is a link to help you create your own gardening project:

       Once we completed our yard work we came inside to work on a few sewing projects.  S brought scrap material from home for us to make a round skirt.  As we began to create this without a pattern she realized she was going to need the to find a radius of a circle based on the circumference of her waistOnce she completed the math for this project we were able to fold the material in fourths and measure the radius down either side of the center corner.  We used a pen to describe an arc connecting the two radii.  She was surprised when we cut it out the it fit her waist perfectly.  

       At the end of the morning when she has completed her project I asked her the question, "How will anyone ever use the maths they teach now in middle school?"  She and I both knew we had used middle school level mathematics all morning.  She said, "Not everyone will but the people who live interesting lives will."  Well said!

       The experience left me thinking about how practical hands on learning stays with people. This type of learning is not occurring very often in schools because there is so much pressure for teachers to conform to becoming a test prep technician.  Teachers who still use teaching as a creative outlet are swimming against the current.  I still long to create memorable lessons that cause students to see the practical side of the learning.  My old school definition and experiences of teaching this way are joyful. I may have to create some classes outside of the public sphere to practice.  

       S left our home with more than a skirt she knows practical ways to apply some of the maths she had previously only learned for tests My children were able to help with the projects and completed some sewing projects of their own.
       At the end of the day my children told me we had made some great memories today and they had enjoyed themselvesI did too.  I hope to make another round skirt for my daughter soon.  If you would like to see how to complete this project I will post it to: soon.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Open Source/ Crowd Source for Education

 Read more about Open Source Initiative on WikipediaThis image was copied from OSI article.

        If we chose to crowd source our textbooks and yearly tests, the last article demonstrated  ways these products would be drastically improved. If you have not gotten to read the article from last week yet this link will take you back to it.  If you right click you can open it in a new tab and get back here easily.  Here is the link for last weeks article on Open Source Education.

       Open Source in Tennessee, here after called Crowd Sourcing, could improve teacher retention.  Teacher retention will be a huge problem in just a little while.  Our state is currently 1000 teachers short.  We have a shortage of young people choosing a major in Education in college as well.  Add to these numbers, the dozen or so teachers in my circle I know of who are ready to quit and you have the perfect storm.  We can still abate the damage.

        We need to rebuild teacher status in Tennessee to help people understand that teachers serve the community in a significant way.  One of the ways we can elevate the status of teachers in our state is by creating a crowd sourcing core of teachers.  Top teachers from around the state would leave the classroom for a year.  This  core group will work together to write our textbooks, update curriculum, and the annual tests.  It would be ideal for this group of teacher to interact with the legislators at least bi-monthly.  Teachers rarely get to interact with legislators.  This would open some needed lines of communication.  Teaching and learning conditions have changed rapidly in the last five years.  Teachers have insider information about changes in school and classroom culture.  These professional may have solutions others might not think of because of this insider information.  There would probably need to be protections so teachers could share knowledge without fear of reprisal.

         People who have invested their time and money into building their pedagogical skills should be selected for the crowd source core.  They need to have a minimum of 10 years in the public school classroom with some classroom time occurring in the last two years.  This postion should require teachers with advanced degrees, publications, published studies, significant awards and or grants.  Other evidences demonstrating creativity and drive should also be given weight in the selection process. At the end of the year their tenure in this program ends and they rotate back to the classroom and a new core group of teachers is selected.  Instituting this plan can help Tennessee develop a repository of some of the best educational lessons and knowledge.  Currently this knowledge leaves when the teachers leave but it does not have to be this way.

         Make this into a well known program which teachers aspire and desire to be a part of.  Pay full salary plus a handsome bonus.  Plan carefully methods for quality control so only the best of the best are selected and diversity matches the teaching force from which the core is drawn. 

        This planning/crowdsource core should only be composed of teachers.  Text book companies representatives, chamber of commerce reps, charter school representatives, Pierson or other test making company reps are not  teachers.  Make this core elite and exclusive with no exception to the only teachers as member rule. Elevate the status of teachers to retain them and maintain our amazing public schools.


Saturday, March 7, 2015

Open Source Education- better products, lower costs, greater transparency

In 1998 Netscape released their source code and made it available to everyone. People in the Open Source community realized this was a great time to teach others about all of the ways a community working together to improve software is better than a company with limited talent and resources building software for sale. If you know about the open source community of Linux users/builders you probably wonder why the same ideas aren't used in Public Education. I have spent several hours thinking about that myself.
In 1999 the Open Source Community sent a petition to the Federal government to encourage the use of Open Source software. Now much of our Public Sector is run with Open Source software. Since the federal government knows about Open Source we should consider applying these principles in Public Education Policy. 
An Open Source approach is currently being used on a limited basis in Tullahoma, Tennessee city schools. Tullahoma was alarmed at the rising cost of textbooks and perhaps disappointed by the errors, misspelling and how quickly these products became dated. This small town decided they could do a better job than the commercial textbook companies and custom tailored their texts to local curriculum. Now instead of having to follow textbooks designed for larger states they have a textbook which can be modified in real time to keep up with real world happenings. Their texts are online and searchable for their students. Tullahoma City Schools brochure states: "TCS is unique in that our teachers create the content taught in their classes. An Open Source initiative is well under way in Tullahoma City Schools offering digital textbooks as the tool of choice." TCS is also a one to one district for 3 through 12. Students are welcomed to bring their own deviceTheir approach is unorthodox and inventive. They are forging their own path and sharing resources in their district. Although not available to all this is certainly a step in the right direction. 
This is not Tennessee's first foray into Open Source principles in Education though. Twenty years ago Metro Nashville Public Schools selected educators to collaborate on creating a series of tests to help teachers insure their students were up to speed with the grade level skills. The Math Instruction Program, MIP, was well thought out and extrememly well organized. This was the best testing initiative I have ever seen. it was not created by professional test makers or textbook writers. It was created by a group of TEACHERS the Nashville district brought together 20 years ago.

            At the same time the district pulled together a group of Reading/Language Arts teachers. The program they created was not on par with the Mathematics program. MNPS conducted focus groups and one of the teachers, Julia McConnell, suggested the district organize the Reading tests into a notebook with a table of contents and dates to administer. It was a nice improvement but she was not credited with her suggestion.  
  So if we used an Open Source approach to education in Tennessee what might that look like? First people who contributed beneficial ideas to education in our state would be recognized and remembered. The resources created for education would be available to all. Teachers who are strongly invested in education such as people who have taught 15 years in a public school and have advanced degrees in pedagogy could apply to be part of the states Open Source Core. This core of teachers could write our textbooks and testing materials for a year and then rotate back into the classroom. Then the cohort for the following year could add to our library. The textbooks could be available on line or printed by some of our local textbook companies such as Ingram or Harper Collins which now owns Thomas Nelson.
There is no reason to pay millions in tax money to companies who prevent teachers from discussing the tests after testing. Relationships with companies who prevent parents from knowing about the questions and sections the children are asked to read should be ended. Secrecy enforced by contracts the testing companies have with our governments not only prevent improvement to the tests but also may be a violation of the sunshine laws. There is also no reason to continue to fund inferior text books and tests with typos and incorrect information.  Open Source is a solution.
  If we switch to an Open Source model. The tests could be released at the end of the testing cycle and new ones could be generated. Errors on the tests could be identified and questioned. Faith would be somewhat restored in the veracity of annual tests. Typos in the texts we are using to teach could be identified and corrected if the texts were editable by our school system or by the Open Source Core. The millions of dollars we could save could go into one to one initiatives, wrap around services, and even after school enrichment programs.
Not only would students benefit by getting a better more closely vetted product They would also enjoy better use of education funding. If well qualified professional teachers created the test we might get some usable data. We are not getting much from the current tests. [For more information on what the current tests measure check: Map Comparison: Level of Poverty to Level of Performance] The students are extremely stressed during testing and a month of instruction time is lost attempting to help students navigate the test itself. We could hire several dozen teachers for a year to create these materials and the cost savings even after funding their salaries would be significant. The students would experience less stress because the tests would be worded for better understanding and would be aligned to the textbooks and curriculum taught. The students would regain a large portion of the test prep month because it would not be as needed as it is right now. Currently our test makers have no oversight by parents and no accountability to anyone. Let's change that.
         Special thanks to Jared Polis for Congress for supporting Open Source in Education through legislation. 
Also thanks to Becky Mostello for bringing this to our attention.

         If we do not make changes we may be facing a revolt.  You can read about it at:

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Informal Learning

       My daughter attended a young coders conference to get her first class on programming in Python. She was worried and asked me if there would be tests during the class. I told her she would not be tested. All she had to do was to pay attention and learn as much as she can. She was relieved and excited about class.

      It made me think about how much I wish other kids could have access to this type of learning. There is less and less space for informal learning in school due to the test driven curriculum. Informal learning is some of the most memorable. 

     Time is being wasted for short term temporary gains. Test prep and all of this testing is a waste of time. Not just of the teachers time but more significantly the students time. At the time when youngsters are able to grow the most dendrites they are being subjected to substandard teaching because it's measurable. Measurable is not the same as memorable. In this case measurable and memorable may be opposites.