Tuesday, September 30, 2014

They're Afraid of Thinking, and I'm Afraid to Tell Them.

Remember singing "We don't need no education.... We don't need no thought control..."?
Pink Floyd - The Wall 
Those lyrics have been rolling around in my head a lot recently.  I've often thought that the very nature of the double-negative was proof that an education was needed, I never really focused on the second line.  Until yesterday.

I'm a teacher -- a veteran teacher with 16 years in the classroom, a bachelor's degree in elementary education and a master's degree in Educational Psychology.  I'm paid to teach the best and the brightest students in my district.  And yesterday, I discovered that the Pennsylvania Common Core Standards seem to lack something integral in the educational process  -- there don't seem to be any goals, in any area - that focus on THINKING.  

Sure, there are goals to analyze literature, respond to prompts, cite sources, and evaluate structure, but nowhere in the Commonwealth's adopted PA Common Core Standards is there explicit instruction in thinking.  Apparently after all those roundtable discussions, all those meetings, all those revisions to determine what skills our students need to learn prior to graduation to be competitive in the 21st century, THINKING didn't make the cut. 

I turned to the Common Core National Standards.  And while the words "promotes critical-thinking", appear in the introduction to the standards, the actual teaching of critical thinking - of metacognition or metacognitive process -- is absent once again.  How is it that I am just discovering this now?  And if the rest of you knew, why didn't you point it out to me?  

Reflective Teaching Questions: A 30-Day Blogging Challenge For Teachers

Day 30

What would you do (as a teacher) if you weren’t afraid?

Welcome to Day THIRTY of this blog.  Despite the fact that Cindy abandoned me after two posts on her own blog, I'm glad I stuck with this -- especially when I consider the number of Unfinished Objects (UFOs) that exist in my sewing room and needlework baskets.  I'm not really a finisher -- I'm a starter, so I'm pretty proud of the fact that I made it through the 30 day challenge from the folks at Te@chthought.  However, my euphoria is somewhat dampened by the fact that I seem to have discovered tonight that the skill most fundamental to all learning and knowledge seems to have been left on the cutting room floor by the politicians fine folks who are deciding what is most crucial for our schools.

Today's prompt asks me what I would do as a teacher if I weren't afraid.  If I weren't afraid, I'd bring this "deficit in thinking" to the attention of someone.  I'm not even sure who, at this point, but I possess a strong sense of justice and firmly believe in the need for metacognition.  The mere thought that THINKING is not perceived as important enough to be taught as a 21st century skill grinds my gears.

If I weren't afraid, I'd jump up and down, and call news conferences.  But I hear the camera adds 10 pounds, and there would be at least 3 cameras there, adding 30 pounds, and who wants to look THAT fat?

If I weren't afraid, I'd ask to be put on the school board agenda, and tell my tale there and let the reporter covering yet another board meeting try to spin this story into something that would stop the presses.

If I weren't afraid, I'd march to Harrisburg, or Washington D.C., and demand to see someone with a title greater than mine who has some control over all things educational/political, and ask for an explanation about this oversight.

If I weren't afraid, I'd alert parents everywhere, and tell them to spend a weekend, or a lifetime, teaching their kids to think and to ask questions-- and to read the small print in contracts -- and not just checking the little box that says "agree" next to Terms of Use for anything.   Because these are not skills defined as important by the present system.

I don't consider myself a political person.  I am happiest in the classroom watching sparks in the eyes of learners as they make connections or create something original.   I'm blessed to have an additional set of standards in my life that target the specific population with whom I work.  The NAGC Standards exist as a recommendation for quality programming and goals for Gifted and Talented.  In addition to performance goals, there are metacognitive goals including self-awareness, self-advocacy, self-efficacy, confidence, motivation and risk-taking.  There are specific goals for promoting self-understanding and reflection.

These aren't just goals that are good for gifted and talented kids.  In my humble opinion, the omission of such goals from the Common Core may be the fundamental problem.  We're asking our kids to think, but we don't teach them to do so.  We're asking them to reflect, but don't allow time.  I've often said that I have the best job in the district, and  I know what I am doing is impacting lives -- and I've heard from former students that it's not just my life that is changing as a result of these interactions.  The kids crave the ability and opportunity to to be thoughtful.  We need to, as this challenge is so aptly named, Te@ch Thought.

But.  (And that's a big but, even without excessive numbers of cameras pointed at it...) I am afraid that my class, which exists because there are students who are gifted and talented who HAVE mastered the standards deemed worthy by the Common Core Gurus, might come under scrutiny.  You see, I discovered last evening that I am a subversive educator, teaching content that, apparently,  has no place in the Common Core Standards. 

I teach thinking.  I teach thought.  I teach perspective.  I teach Habits of Mind.  

My text for this semester invites my students to explore How to Think Like da Vinci.  Last semester, we explored the fundamental beliefs held through the NPR series This I Believe, and the curriculum written by NPR that promoted the ideas of thinking via Perspectives.  (We used 13 - see the bulletin board photo here).  What I teach isn't actually ON any test, but it certainly aids a test taker.

"We have nothing to fear but fear itself," claimed FDR.  I'd like to amend that.  The question is, should the revision be "We have nothing to fear but fear itself AND the Common Core" or should it be "We have nothing to fear - including thinking - but fear itself"?

Neither seems to have a nice ring to it.  Maybe that's why thinking didn't make the cut.  Fortunately for this generation, they know that the best part of any DVD is the outtakes and bloopers.  Maybe, just maybe, somebody will make the discovery.


Monday, September 29, 2014

I've Stopped Caring.

 So much of the change in me as an educator has been governed by external forces.  While I was on this earth the day that JFK was assassinated, I was only 2 and was probably taking a nap.         

The same can not be said for knowing where I was when the Challenger exploded in 1986 (first day back to work after the birth of my son),  September 11, 2001, (at a prayer breakfast, as I was only teaching half time that year), and the shooting at the Amish school at Nickelmines, 1/2 a county away - about 15 miles from my own school (where I was in an elementary school computer lab with students.) All of these events, along with many other lead stories on the news in the last fifteen years has impacted education -- and me as an educator.

We are nearing the end of the 30 Day Blog #reflectiveteacher Challenge from the Te@chthought folks.  Today's challenge:

Day 29

How have you changed as an educator since you first started?

While my sense of claustrophobia will most assuredly keep me from going to space -- giving me some control over THAT scenario, the possibility of an attack at school now seems like the norm instead of a far off possibility.  We've gone from code red intruder drills to a new "run for your life" scenario that causes nightmares for parents, students and teachers.

In fact, fear seems to permeate education, and educators these days.

Talk to any teacher, and you'll soon realize that success as a teacher is no longer defined by any assessment designed by anyone within the confines of the school or the educational system.  We are told that we will never be distinguished teachers on the new evaluation.  No matter how hard we try. This is a hard pill to swallow, as most teachers are Type A personalities, wondering what they can do to fall into the upper echelon of the review rubric, and frantically trying to modify their lesson plans, their time commitments, their communication skills, etc, in an attempt to move into the zip code of the "Distinguished Teacher."

The same can not be said for most students.  Kids specifically ASK whether material presented is "going to be on the test" rather than caring about the process of learning.  Our society has done this to them, and to itself.  Education is no longer about learning, it's about gathering the facts necessary to show proficiency to the state.  My friends who are college professors look down their noses disapprovingly at those of us in the high school world, wondering why we do things like give students the chance to "retake" exams and rewrite papers.  High school teachers blame middle school teachers for not teaching kids to research and write;  middle school teachers blame elementary teachers for not drilling times tables.  Teaching has turned into a game of finger pointing and blame.  And, in my case, apathy for the system.

So how has all of this fear and blame changed me as an educator in the last sixteen years?  I've stopped caring.  Yes, you heard me.  I've become numb to the machine, the man, the system.  I've given up on the goal of "living in the zip code of distinguished" in favor of my students.  I have rejected the system that is supposed to motivate me to create perfect graphic organizers, and started asking kids to design them themselves.  I've stopped grading papers on arbitrary rubrics created by someone outside my room, and started including kids in that process.   I no longer force a lesson to arrive at the almighty "summarizer" I've designed; instead we, as a class, find our way to summarization that makes sense for the path we've explored during the class period.  I've changed my mindset to one of growth, thank you very much Carol Dweck, and finally realized that teaching is not about knowing the answers -- it's about asking the questions.  AND, it's about asking the questions in such a way that the kids are motivated to look for the answers themselves and maybe, just maybe, learn something along the way.

My biggest change as an educator is that I have evolved into a tour guide on the path to discovery.  And the view from the front of the bus shows only the horizon of possibilities.   I love the new me.  Every day is a new adventure, as I witness discovery, excitement, and enthusiasm through the eyes of my students.  It's a great gig, and it's mine! 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

A Three Hour Tour....

Most educators can recite Bloom's Taxonomy as a matter of rote.  Several years ago there was a revolution to move away from the inactive nature of Bloom's and redefine it for the 21st century learner, as active, more engaging responsibility as the learner moved up the taxonomy.  Ironic when you consider that the "active" learner was one (according to the graphic interpretation above) who worked entirely on his or her butt in front of a screen.  

I like to think that I'm up on technology, and fairly sophisticated unafraid in its use, but it changes so quickly that I often feel like I've been away with the movie star, the professor and Maryanne on what I THOUGHT was a three hour tour, only to realize that the rest of the world kept on spinning into the next century.  It probably doesn't bode well for my technological savvy that I watch reruns of F-Troop, Hogan's Heroes and Gilligan's Island (now in color!) on a non-cable tv as my wind down time before I go to sleep.  

For the record, those guys at Stalag 13 knew a thing or two about advanced technologies.  (Let alone what the professor could do with a few radio tubes and coconuts).

Day 28

Respond: Should technology drive curriculum, or vice versa?

Greg McVerry's blog eloquently states the obvious:  curriculum MUST drive technology.  Simply "showing them cool stuff", (which, probably isn't so cool to them because it is "so yesterday"), does nothing.  (Click on the link and read Greg's thoughts!)

Clearly this answer does not apply to classes that actually have technology AS the curriculum.

Once again, however, I feel the need to exert the powers of the Autonomous Learner as a 21st Centry concept -- and, in this case, it's mostly because it makes absolutely no sense for the immigrant to be teaching anything to the natives.   I was somewhat amused to discover the graphic of the 60's astronaut with a chimp.  It served as a reminder to me that every generation (including mine -- I was born in 1961) thinks that THEIR technology is the best.  In truth, it is.  For a fleeting moment.

As teachers, we have a responsibility to encourage our students to use the resources they have available to (with homage to Bloom),  analyze, synthesize, and evaluate the material presented in the most relevant way possible to them. 

Technology is a tool -- and should always be viewed as such.  Teaching technology AS the curriculum (except, of course, in the classes where that is the topic), will ultimately result in bored students learning from immigrants with bad accents. 

It may have worked for General Wolfgang Hochstetter, but he is SOOO 20th century.