I Was a Jerk.


Junior year, 3rd hour Honors English III,
Not exactly the most happening place to be.
Thomas Paine, Walt Whitman, Sherwood Anderson, and others,
Writing essay after essay-oh, brother.

Used to getting As, I received a cursed B,
My writing, it seemed, wasn't where it needed to be.
I rewrote, revised, and rewrote some more,
Silently mocking the teacher, that mean old bore.*

All year I toiled, but to no avail,
B after B appeared, no matter how much I wailed.
"I'm trying my best!  What more does she want?
I got As before! Does she expect a savant?"

I tried to give up,
To my mother I appealed.
She said, "No way, baby--
Suck it up and deal."

Resigned to my fate,
I worked without zest.
Bracing for the Bs,
But still doing my best.

One day, I guess,
It all must have clicked.
My paper had an "A,"
I asked if she was sick.

"No," she said calmly,
"I feel perfectly fine.
You synthesized and analyzed,
Your thinking was divine!"

I realized then the journey that is learning-
While requiring effort, thinking skills I was earning.
I discovered that true learning takes practice and work.
(And that I had been acting like a big ugly jerk.)

*Not really; her class was very engaging. But that's what I thought at the time.
In my last post, I wrote about "honors" students.  Well, I was one.  I knew I wasn't the best and the brightest (those students had already let everyone know who they were), but I was starting to get complacent. 

All it took was one difficult, frustrating, determined, and wonderful teacher to push me out of my comfort zone on the path to true understanding.  For that, I will always be grateful. 

I decided to use traditional grading methods for my online Physical Geology summer class, seeing as I had already created enough grading pandemonium using standards-based scoring during the school year.

If there was still a teeny-tiny part of me not convinced to get rid of points and letter grades, it has been eradicated after this experience.

The class started with 12 brave students (this is the first time my high school has offered online summer classes).  The purpose behind developing the class?  To offer summer courses that were accelerated in order to challenge our "high-achieving" students.

Of those 12 "high-achieving" students, I have 4 left.  There are two weeks left in the class.

Where did those 8 students go?  They dropped. Too much work, they said.  They rankled against doing blog posts where I asked them to be creative and make up stories about plate tectonics; they bristled at my online quizzes (written to demonstrate higher-order thinking) where, as one of them put it, "How am I supposed to answer questions I can't look up the answers to?"  They expressed grave concerns about the state of their GPAs.

But what appalled me the most were these comments made by a parent of a student that dropped this week:

"I understand that the class began with 12 enrolled and there are now 5.  This does not bode well of a class of 'honors students' that I know. What specifically would <the student> need to do to get an A in the class?  This is the only grade that <the student> will accept to continue with the class."

This parent also stated that the student was not "accustomed" to redoing work (I allow students to redo all blog posts for reassessment).

All I could think of was what Alfie Kohn said in his article, "The Costs of Overemphasizing Achievement:"

"Specifically, research indicates that the use of traditional letter or number grades is reliably associated with three consequences. First, students tend to lose interest in whatever they’re learning. As motivation to get good grades goes up, motivation to explore ideas tends to go down. Second, students try to avoid challenging tasks whenever possible. More difficult assignments, after all, would be seen as an impediment to getting a top grade. Finally, the quality of students’ thinking is less impressive. One study after another shows that creativity and even long-term recall of facts are adversely affected by the use of traditional grades."

I used to scoff at Alfie Kohn, his ideas, and his rhetoric.  But, after my experiences with "high-achieving" students this year, I am a fervent convert.  Every characteristic that Alfie Kohn described above I have experienced in these four short weeks of summer school.

Amen, Alfie.  Amen. 

So here are some questions I have:

1) What's really meant by the term "honors student?"  What do "honors" programs really teach students to do?
2) How do we transform these "honors students'" fixed mindsets into growth mindsets?
3) How do we restore the creativity in these "honors students" that has been subdued and neglected since grade school as a result of a factory-model system of education?
4) How long will turning them back into learners (i.e., deprogramming) take, and can it be done after they enter high school?

But the biggest question I have is this:

How can we redesign schools so we prevent turning students into "honors students" in the first place?

In Part I of this two-part post, I gave some advice to 1:1 computing teachers out there for dealing with and heading off any issues you may encounter with students.  However, the biggest mistake I think I made during my pilot this year was overlooking a very important group of people involved in 1:1 computing: parents.

You'd think I would know better, having been through administrator school and all.  (I heard "Informing and valuing all stakeholders is the key for successful implementation!" so many times I probably mumbled it in my sleep.) But when you're wading through new technology territory, your time gets so consumed by transforming the vision of school for 120+ students that the idea that parents need to be convinced, listened to, and informed of this new vision gets shoved to one side, lonely and neglected.

Now that I have had some time to reflect, here are my top 4 tips for parent issues and concerns when starting a 1:1 computing initiative:

1) Communicate, communicate, communicate.  And then communicate some more.  Many of the problems I had with parents this year came from not communicating enough with parents and from miscommunication between what I would say in class and what was told to parents at home.  I think a parent meeting night about a month into the school year would be very beneficial.  That way, information could be distributed to them about expectations regarding the netbooks, and parents could have a forum where there questions could get answered directly from the teachers using the technology.    Also, let parents know that they are free to contact you at any time about any questions or concerns they have, so the conversations about technology and its importance can keep going.  If your school is like mine, we request parent e-mails and put them into out student management system.  You could use these e-mails to reach out to parents at the very start of the year, informing them about what you're doing from day one, and opening the door to future communication. While there will always be parents that disagree with how a 1:1 initiative is being implemented, realize that most parents will support you once they understand the rationale behind what you're doing.  Taking the time to involve them from the start will be worth it.

2) If you're implementing blended learning correctly, eventually you'll get accused of not doing your job.  Blended learning can mean many things, but it implies that your classroom becomes more student-centered and less teacher-centered.  This means you must plan for learning rather than teaching by developing web-based instructional activities and formative assessments, and then using that formative assessment data to provide further relevant learning experiences, remediation or enrichment.  You may want to start the year with more teacher-centered activities as you teach students how to learn the technology, and gradually take away your teacher "support" throughout the year until the students are doing the majority of the work of learning.  (This is called the "gradual release of responsibility model.")  It is when you plan for students to do the bulk of the work of learning on their own that you will get calls (sometimes anonymous) and strongly-worded emails telling you that you are not doing your job by not filling your students' heads with information and having them parrot it back to you.  Students and parents will resist efforts to have students learn to learn on their own, simply because it's not their vision of how school is "done."  However, in this 21st century world, independent learning is a vital skill they need to learn to compete successfully in college and in their future adult life.  This needs to be emphasized repeatedly throughout the year, to both students and parents.  They won't appreciate it now, but they will after they leave your class.

3) Survey parent attitudes towards technology early.  The information gleaned from a parent survey of attitudes towards and their use of technology will help immensely, especially if done early in the school year.  This will help you plan for instruction, and, when trying anything new, will help you address parent concerns.  In other words, you won't be blindsided by parent complaints if you already have an idea of what the major parent concerns and attitudes are.  A good time to do this might be at the parent meeting mentioned in #1, or you can create a Google Form or use a Survey Monkey survey and put a link to it on the school or class website for parents to take by a certain date. 

4) Involve parents in learning the technology with students.  Parents are a valuable resource in any 1:1 computing initiative; but, in order to support your program, sometimes they need to be educated in technology use first.  If, after surveying your parents, you discover that the majority of them are not technology savvy, you may want to create a program for parents to learn the web 2.0 tools and/or software their students are using in class on a daily basis.  You could enlist the help of your media center director, IT staff, or administrators in putting together a program during the day, or you could organize an after-school program.  Whatever you choose, this will help parents be much more informed about what their students are doing (and give you more support at home if students complain that the tech is too hard to learn), as well as enabling parents to help their students use the technology outside of class.  It will also go a long way in changing any traditional views of school.

Have any other tips regarding parent involvement in a 1:1 computing initiative?  Please feel free to share them in the comments below.
Let me start off by reassuring everyone that I, in no way shape or form, consider myself an expert in running a 1:1 classroom.   There are many other great educators out there that have been in the 1:1 game much longer than I have.   However, since I was pretty much the only one using netbooks in my school this year, I have been asked to give some detailed advice to a few more teachers in my district who have been chosen to have a set of netbooks in their classrooms next year.  (I gave some limited advice to them in this post; consider this the more updated version of that post.) I thought this advice would be worth sharing, especially to any teachers about to dive into a 1:1 computing program.  In this post, I will tackle considerations in dealing with students; in my next post, advice for dealing with parents will be the focus.

Here are five pieces of advice concerning students, you, and any 1:1 computing program in which you and your students find yourselves:

1) Some students will resist using the technology I had students going to counselors wanting out of my class because I made them use the netbooks.  Realize that, with any technology you use, there must be instruction on how to use that technology.  When learning new technology, there is a learning curve, and students who are used to getting by in a passive learning environment will resist having to use the netbooks--because it means they must be actively engaged at all times.

I would suggest a "play day" on the day you first introduce a new technology tool.  Give brief instructions on the basics of the tool (you might even consider screencasting directions ahead of time using Jing) where you give students time to play in the tool, but say, "You must do <blank> by the end of the period and show/share it with me."  This gives them a goal and a means of demonstrating their proficiency to you, but them allows them to explore the tool in any way they see fit, making them more comfortable.

You must first build their confidence with the technology.  If you don't, they will always fear it.  Just like you would for any instructional strategy, introduce one tool, use it 3-4 times, then introduce a new one.  After a while, allow them choices.  Towards the end of the year, you can even just mention ones they might want to try that are new, and you'd be amazed at how students will learn them on their own--after their confidence has taken root with using technology.

2) Eliminate excuses for limited access.  I had a lot of students say they couldn't get the work done because they didn't have an internet connection, a computer at home, their computer crashed suddenly, etc.  While for some students this is a completely valid statement, some students will use this as a way to get out of doing the work.  Don't let them.  Many angry parents called me, accusing me of being unreasonable until I told them that students could get a media pass from me any time to use a computer during study hall, or use the computers in the media center in the morning (if they had no study hall), or come to my room after school every single day of the week from 3:15-4:15 to use my netbooks.  The availability of student access to technology needs to be communicated early and often.  Also communicate that any work not completed still needs to be completed using technology.  As Doug Reeves says,  "The appropriate penalty for missing work is getting the work done."

3) Limit paper evidence of learning.  Our students come in with little to no experience using Web 2.0 tools.  While they tend to know the basics of Microsoft Office, they do not know how to collaborate online, have a true online discussion, brainstorm ideas, or have the confidence to learn technology on their own.  This technology is unknown to them, and they will cling to paper methods of learning as long as you let them. (For example, when given a choice of paper or netbook projects at the end of the year, I had two classes where 6 out of 7 groups still chose the paper option.  When asked why, they said it was because they didn't want to take the time to use the technology.)  To me, the only solution is not to give them a paper option, or at least give very limited paper options for final evidence of learning.  This practice needs to be in place from the beginning of the year.  You might get parent phone calls about this, but you need to emphasize the valuable skills they will be learning that will make them more employable in the workforce.  And, more importantly, emphasize the learning skills they are developing along the way by learning how to use current technology. 

This is not to say nothing should ever be done on paper.  While learning is taking place, paper is often a vital part of the process-brainstorming, mapping out a plan, quick note-taking, etc.  However, the final evidence of learning should be turned in electronically.  You can differentiate this by giving them choices between how to electronically organize and present their evidence of learning to you.  For example, I had one assignment where students could choose between different ways to demonstrate their knowledge, all involving a different Web 2.0 tool--bubbl.us, Popplet, Capszles, or Flipsnack

4) Teach students valuable problem-solving and troubleshooting skills.  Students, when faced with an unknown computer screen or an error on their screen, are usually stopped dead in their tracks.  They will wave their hands frantically, wanting you to come over and solve their problem.  The more you do this, the less they will learn how to solve computer issues on their own.  You need to teach them basic troubleshooting skills at the beginning of the year about what to do when they are faced with an error.  Most often, students don't fully read the error message or the screen, and, if they had, they would realize that just by clicking "OK" or "Continue," they would have been allowed to keep working.  Teach them what to do and practice it for a few days, and then tell students they are responsible for following your troubleshooting steps, and that you will not come over until they have carried out those steps.  If you don't do this, every time you introduce something new, you'll spend most of your time running around "fixing" things that, most often, students could have worked out on their own if they had just read the screen and thought it through.

5) Set up a system of and ground rules for student communication with you outside of class.  I would suggest setting up a separate e-mail account for students to contact you.  Make it clear what an e-mail to you should/should not contain, and what it should look like.  Most of the students I deal with have plenty of texting experience, but little to no e-mail experience; I feel it is my job to teach them how to use e-mail, and use it professionally.   (Here are my "Guidelines for E-mails.")

Also, make it clear what questions should be asked and when.  I had many issues with students asking me questions that, if they had taken a few minutes, could have easily been answered by looking at the class website.  I also stopped answering questions via e-mail the night before a major assignment was due, because I was getting flooded with students having technology/direction issues at the last minute because they had all started at the last minute, and they all demanded my help RIGHT NOW.  Most importantly, set hours you will be available by e-mail before & after school and on the weekends, and stick with them.  (These rules were firmly "suggested" by my husband, who got tired of going out to dinner with me and watching me e-mail students from my iPhone the entire time).

Do you have any other pieces of advice for new 1:1 teachers?  Feel free to share them in the comments below.
I was informed that I should put the Mrs. E show back on the air every once in a while. 

I was told that I am a good teacher, so I should get back up and teach every now and then in my 1:1 classroom for the period. They tried to convince me by saying my students used to learn when I was up in front, too, and they need to feel like they're being taught.  They can't always sit in front of a computer, right?  Plus, I can't make it look like I'm not teaching them, and they can't feel like they have to teach it to themselves.

I feel like I'm trapped in the cogs of the educational public relations machine.  And I'm mad as hell about it.  (I'm just waiting to hear how I should use the textbook more often, too.)

Those statements upset me after all I've worked towards this year.  I have taken on a new role in my teaching, one that maximizes students doing the work of learning, and minimizes me doing the work of learning for them.  I feel it is my job to set up learning experiences for them, collaborative and individualized, differentiating according to need and ability, and then guide them through those activities with questions and advice, not the answers. 

I set these learning experiences up using available technology, but not all of it is computer-based.  I start each day with 5-10 minutes of me in front of the class reviewing my daily question, which was generated from their exit slips the day before.  There have been days when my students just weren't getting major concepts, and we would stop and draw.  Or we would do a quick-write on paper.  Or I wanted to do a formative assessment, so I had them do what I call a four-square summary on 11 x 17 paper to see if they were making connections I needed them to make.  Sometimes learning doesn't happen in a desk in front of a computer; sometimes it happens huddled around a big sheet of butcher paper on the floor.

That's how I define blended learning (and there are many definitions)--using technology to enhance instruction, but not using it when the technology just doesn't fit the learning you want students to do. Instead, use other proven techniques and activities that don't involve technology, but are student-centered.  The way I don't define it is, "Have the teacher get up and talk for an entire period every once in a while."

I'm not teaching them; I am helping them learn.  I am also trying to help them learn how to learn.  What I got the most from students when I stood in the front of my room and taught was a lot of my own words parroted back to me on a test or quiz.  I would even receive writing assignments specifically designed so that the students could show off their creativity that sounded like it was I who had written them all.  I hated every single one of my own words staring back at me.  But, God bless them, that's what my students had been taught learning was.

'If we always do what we've always done, we will get what we've always got.'   This saying rings so true for education today.  We've always taught students, and it's time we stopped.  If we are serious about changing education, we need to stop teaching and foster learning instead--and fostering true learning looks radically different from the teaching we've been doing since school was invented.

Therefore, no matter the demand for the Mrs. E show to return, it's not coming back.  I won't be a part of something that is designed for appeasement and not for education.

I refuse to teach my students anymore.

I think a lot about education reform.  I don't often express my opinions, however, because people get very fired up about this and sometimes lose any sense of the rational.  But there is one thing I have to say, because it's been bottled up inside me all school year.  I'm going to let it out, just this once:

True learning, REAL learning, won't ever take place in schools in a systemic fashion until we get rid of standardized tests.  They are a measure of inconsequential educational nice-to-knows but not need-to-knows, yet their results are held up and examined as if they were definitive, absolute measures of true understanding.  What makes me lose touch with rationality is when the media and any politician using the "education angle" as a part of their re-election campaign talk about these test scores in terms of "learning" when, in reality, learning is the last thing you can draw valid conclusions about from these tests.

But you don't have to believe this crazy teacher if you don't want to.  Just ask any sane teacher that is interested in having students learn, and they'll tell you standardized test results are useless as far as being able to decipher what students really know, understand, and are able to do. 

They do not measure how much my students have learned to be able to learn independently and not rely on a teacher.  They can't possibly measure how much they have improved on their collaboration skills.  And they don't even come close to measuring how well my students can evaluate data and apply the science we learned in class to an original experiment that was of their own design.

In other words, they are worthless at measuring the things that really mean anything in terms of student progress.

After we get rid of standardized tests, lets get rid of standards, too.  Sometimes they feel like an anchor to which I am chained, and they only serve to drag me down, deeper away from any real learning I could be teaching my students.  In Illinois, we are given standards and told, "Teach them.  Teach them all."  Well, State of Illinois, it's impossible to teach standards that are so poorly written and contain such superfluous information that teachers first have to guess at what you even mean by them.  Good teachers know that student learning should never be a guessing game; why are we as educators required to guess what will really be on the test?  And, after we think we've successfully read the State of Illinois' mind, why do we always end up asking ourselves, "Who in the world thought it was important that they know this?"

For example, here's a standard I have come to know and loathe: "Answer questions about given Punnet squares." What type of Punnet squares, monohybrid or dihybrid?  What questions do you want them to answer?  Is it phenotypic and genotypic ratios that should be determined, or is it the probability of a certain genotype, or is it the percent of offspring showing a certain phenotype? Or is it all of the above?  I have no idea because the State is making me play "guess what's on the test."  It's a game at which I readily admit I am not very good.

And don't even get me started about the standard that succinctly and infuriatingly says, "Understand isotopes." 

But the bigger question is this: who decided that all of these bits of information were important enough to know in the first place?  Why am I even teaching some of the things that I do?  Shouldn't I let my students (with me as a guide and caretaker) take their own learning directions, following their own compasses, on their own paths to learning?  Sometimes what individual students need isn't on the big list of ambiguous "learning" standards that are plopped in front of me every year.  Each year I find myself more and more resentful at having my students' learning defined by and confined to a few pages of standards. 

I have real teaching to do in order to start some real learning; I don't have time to waste playing the state's games with my students' understanding.   

I know some of you out there now fully understand why the word "crazy" is in the title of this blog.  Yes, I'm advocating getting rid of standardized testing and the standards they rode in on.  It's time we faced the fact that you can't standardize human beings or their learning; there's too much variation in the population in order to even attempt to do that.  Each learner has to come to their own understanding in their own way. 

I tell my students all the time that they will not be allowed to take shorcuts to learning.  Well, this whole system of standards and standardized testing is one big shortcut, designed to make something that's hard to measure easy to measure.  It's a shortcut that has led us nowhere.

We can come up with a better way to hold schools accountable for learning.  It will be complicated.  It will not produce a single number used to rank and compare students.

It will be messy, because learning is messy.  But it will be worth it.