Sunday, July 28, 2013

Caught Between Innovation and Legislation

As I start thinking about the 2013-2014 school year I find myself caught between two powerful forces in education: innovation and legislation.

My passion is providing my students with authentic, rich learning experiences. I have seen how captivating project based learning can be and how technology integration enhances the level of student engagement. I have seen my students grow exponentially when I focus on teaching key 21st Century skills like collaboration, communication, critical and creative thinking. Deeper learning takes place when I team teach with colleagues from different disciplines and when I provide time for my students to follow their curiosity, they go to places on their own learning journeys that I could never have imagined. This kind of teaching is organic and exciting and often messy. Failure and frustration litter the path but are critical components of wisdom acquisition. I find myself wondering how I will combine this style of teaching with the adoption of Common Core Standards and whether or not they are even compatible.

Like many educators, schools and districts I am still grappling with the new standards, trying to figure out how they will impact pedagogy and methodology. The new standards come with great promise of a focus on developing critical thinking skills and collaborative, reflective learning, but with any standardized testing there always lurks the fear that we are fostering standardized students. I am sure that there will be much professional development time devoted to the roll-out of this latest reform wave, aimed at helping teachers serve their students well. But is it possible to teach to a set of mandated, static standards while still fostering a dynamic culture of learning? I guess that’s up to me.

Ultimately, I will do what the only thing I really know how to do. I will focus on learning about my students, their needs, their passions, their learning styles and try to accommodate them as best I can. Despite innovate teaching practices and “new” standards, after 23 years of teaching my charge remains the same: foster meaningful relationships with my students, nurture them, let them know they matter, empower them and try to ensure that every child has a rock star experience every day in my classroom.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Windows 8 and Skylanders

All my 7 year old son wanted for his birthday was the Skylanders portal for his Xbox. He could barely contain himself in the car on the way home from the store. As we pulled onto the driveway I hung back to answer a call and by the time I entered the house the floor was littered with wrappings and paper, leads and wires and various pieces of equipment. Sighing, I settled into to wait for the inevitable call for help but it never came!

Fascinated, I watched him from a distance while he transferred his limited digital knowledge, failing, persevering and eventually getting the game up and running within twenty minutes. I knew that his motivation to play the game was a powerful driving force, but what I discovered while watching him, was that for him, the “playing” began the moment he opened the box.

My latest “toy” was a Windows 8 tablet that I was asked to pilot at school. Just like my son, I was highly motivated to learn how it worked, but my whole approach was so different. The tablet sat in its box untouched for days while I sent out a request to friends for any useful resources they knew about, and then settled down late at night to watch online tutorials and read up on my new device. When I eventually opened the box the tablet didn’t seem quite so intimidating and I felt confident enough to begin playing. I have to wonder why I didn’t rip open the box like Jack and immerse myself in independently figuring it out.

My best guess would be time. The thought of sitting and “playing” with it seemed like an inefficient use of time to me so I prepared myself in order to avoid unnecessary frustration. After reading the following post by Laurie Barnoski I would assume that many teachers are reluctant to adopt new technologies for the same reason:

I recently emailed a former colleague, a highly respected math teacher, to ask her to list the programs she was supposed to consider implementing in her classroom. Here goes: standards-based grading and instruction; common-core standards; common grading; end-of-course assessment, or EOC; conversation, help, activity, movement, participation, and success, or CHAMPS; creating independence through student-owned strategies, or CRISS; love and logic; pyramid to intervention; response to intervention; learning targets; data walks; teacher-principal evaluation project, or TPEP; school improvement plans, or SIP; academic collaboration time, or ACT; positive behavioral intervention and supports, or PBIS; and a new whisper in the halls, Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and PARCC.

There are so many demands placed upon a teacher’s time that we really are in danger of losing the capacity to play and by extension, our sense of joy in the discovery. My own love for learning is what helped me to make the decision to become a professional educator, hoping that I could instill the same passion in my students. I can’t imagine it happening, but if I were to lose that joy, how can I possibly inspire students to learn?

Initiatives like those employed by Eric Sheninger will undoubtedly help his teachers to maintain their desire to learn. By adopting the 80/20 principle teachers at New Milford High School will now be able to follow their work related passions. "We really want teachers to be innovative and creative," Sheninger said. "For us to make that possible, we need to empower them to really pursue those areas that they're motivated by." When teachers are so empowered, wouldn't it seem natural to empower their students in a similar way?

As for me, I am thankful that yet again, my own child has been able to teach me an invaluable lesson. As we settle down in front of the Xbox together to enable him to begin my first lesson on Skylanders, I am grateful to have a teacher who has reminded me of the power of play.