Thursday, December 30, 2010

Why We Read

There has recently been much discussion about Grant Wiggins’ proposal to ban fiction, which has, of course, got me thinking a lot about reading and fiction.

I had read (quickly) the original post by Grant Wiggins about banning fiction and had intended to return to it and read it more thoroughly but couldn’t find it again. Which, it turns out, is because Wiggins didn’t really mean it. (Note to aspiring satire writers: satire is a good way to make a point, but it’s not always as easy as The Onion makes it look)

His attempted point about needing to revisit the materials we use in the classroom is a good one, and one that Nicholas Provenzano makes far better than Wiggins did, and since I’d just be repeating everything he said, I’ll just tell you to go and read what he wrote.

But the other point--the one about students needing to be prepared for the mostly non-fiction reading they’ll be doing in the future--is the one that won’t stop rattling around my brain.

Reading and thinking about this issue I was reminded of a conversation I had with a colleague at the beginning of the year. She was returning Gayle Forman's amazing If I Stay, which she had checked out and read because it was on my summer reading list. I was excited to talk to someone new about what they'd thought of the book, so I asked her what she thought of the book. Her response (not completely verbatim):

"It was okay. The vocabulary wasn't very sophisticated."

I was floored. I just stared at her blankly for a moment and then said, "You and I read books for very different reasons."

'Cause seriously. I was so completely absorbed by If I Stay that it didn't even occur to me to pay attention to the vocabulary level. I was there for the story. I was so caught up in Mia’s decision that I completely failed to notice whether or not the words she was using would also appear on the SATs.

I’ve also had a teacher ask me if I could contact the editors of short story publications to ask them to use more standard grammar. I neglected to follow through on that request.

Reading fiction is about far more than learning new vocabulary and studying grammar in its natural habitat. One of the most critically important skills we develop by reading fiction is the ability to see and understand a world and viewpoint completely different from our own.

Reading fiction helps us develop our ability to empathize. Seriously, it's been studied (go read that article, right now). Being able to put yourself in another person's shoes is an invaluable skill for reading fiction, non-fiction, and, you know, interacting with the world at large.

This has been at the forefront of my mind as I've recently started reading Jason Ohler's new book, Digital Community, Digital Citizen. In the introduction he talks about helping students learn to balance the rights and responsibilities of interacting with people in a digital environment. Understanding your rights is relatively easy--you only have to understand your own perspective; but when you start talking about understanding responsibilities, you need to be able to understand the world from someone else’s perspective.

The concept of empathy is at the core of so much of what we, as librarians, are trying to teach. You want credit for the work that you do? Then give credit to others. Don't want to be bored to tears by a boring paper or presentation? The don't create a boring one yourself. Don't want to be harassed online? Don't want to be misled by false information? Want to be respected? You get the idea. It is hard to thoroughly grasp the underlying concepts that make these things more than just actions and turn them into attitudes unless you have developed an ability to empathize--particularly the ability to empathize with people completely unlike yourself.

You can't directly teach empathy. There's no way to say, "Look, this is how you empathize. Now empathize with problems 1-6 on page 43 for homework." What we can, as educators, do is to create an environment in which students are routinely exposed to views and lives that are completely foreign to them. That's a skill that they will need when reading non-fiction that discusses lives and experiences that are completely foreign to them.

Then there's this article, from a while ago, which I found both interesting and really, really obnoxious. First of all, could we please have an article about teens and reading that either a) mentions books other than Harry Potter and Twilight (I’m starting to get to that point with Hunger Games, too) or b) better yet, doesn't mention them at all. I know they are the "big titles", but teens read LOTS of other things, and any time I read an article about teens and reading that mentions only those two series I can't shank the feeling that the writer is less than well-informed about the real landscape of YA lit.

Things like this paragraph:
So they are in fact not about what is it to be an adolescent, but what it should be, since, perhaps unconsciously, adults want to instruct young people and guide them into adulthood. So images of adolescence in YA fiction are images of what adults want teenagers to believe. It’s a very powerful ideological tool.
make me so annoyed I cannot even articulately respond with anything beyond wondering if Maria Nikolajeva has read any YA lit, or if she was ever actually a teenager.

Though, in fairness, I will point out that she redeems herself significantly when asked what parents should do about teens reading dark literature. Specifically, "Nothing." :
So it is important to let young people be exposed to all kinds of literature and culture, dark and light, serious and entertaining; and it is always a good idea to talk to kids about what they read, watch or listen to.
Anyway, slightly ranty tangent aside, the major takeaway from that article (for me, anyway), is that what we read effects us. Which is both an excellent point and a major duh. Obviously what we read affects us--and it affects us differently at different ages, because we read it through the lens of different life experiences. I read The Great Gatsby in high school and HATED it. A lot. I re-read it at 23 because I was going to have to teach it and LOVED it. And understood why 16-year-old me thought it was awful; there was no way I could relate to that story in any meaningful way. Knowing that did not make it any easier to teach it to a room full of 16-year-olds (one of them, quite memorably, said the book made him want to forget how to read).

Anyway, yes. What we read affects us--good, bad, in between. It changes both how we see ourselves and how we see the world. This is true of both fiction and non-fiction (one of the reasons I read so many blogs by people in my field is that I love being able to learn from their experiences and see problems--and solutions--in a new light). I believe that I would not be as adept a reader of non-fiction without hours (and hours!) of fiction reading under my belt. Good fiction makes it easy to imagine yourself in someone else's place--a skill that is vital to effective reading of non-fiction, particularly if you want to learn anything from it.

And learning, really, is what it’s all about. And if we want to learn about people other than ourselves (and I don’t think anyone is arguing otherwise, even satirically), reading fiction is an indispensable part of the process.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Every Brain is Different

255/365: Dyslexiaphoto © 2009 Janine | more info (via: Wylio)One of the most common misconceptions I encounter about learning disabilities is that they all affect everyone the same way--every student with dyslexia is the same, every students with ADD is the same, every student with executive functioning issues is the same, every student with X is like Y. And oh if it were that way, education (and life) would be so much easier. But every student with dyslexia/ADD/whatever is very, very different. These are big umbrella diagnoses, and there's a lot that fits under them.

Think of it like being diagnosed with allergies--everyone who has allergies is allergic to different things, reacts in different ways, and is best treated by different methods. There's overlap, sure, but it's still a highly individualized diagnosis. So it is with learning disabilities--there's overlap, sure, but what works for Dyslexic Student A is by no means guaranteed to work for Dyslexic Student B.

Which is why I find the research reported on in the article Dyslexia: Brain scans predict reading skills so fascinating and so, so important. Not only does it give us a better understanding of what is going on in the brain, it could help us fine-tune how we work with individual students.

These are the two paragraphs that resonated with me the most:

In contrast, the battery of standardized, paper-and-pencil tests typically used by reading specialists did not aid in predicting which of the children with dyslexia would go on to improve their reading ability years later.

“Our findings add to a body of studies looking at a wide range of conditions that suggest brain imaging can help determine when a treatment is likely to be effective or which patients are most susceptible to risks,” says study leader Fumiko Hoeft, associate director of neuroimaging applications at Stanford University.

Paper and pencil tests (or any standardized test, really) will do a good job of telling us what a student doesn't know or can't do--but they fail miserably at telling us why. And the why could be any number of things, depending on the student--even a student who we think fits in a particular box because they have a particular diagnosis. I think we're a LONG ways away from having up-to-date brain scans on every student (and I'm not sure about how I would feel about that, though my initial reaction is ew), but research like this will, hopefully, lead to discussions about the fact that there ARE differences in why and how students struggle with information, even if they're struggling with the same information.

If I haven't already recommended Maryanne Wolf's absolutely amazing Proust and the Squid a million times, I am severely negligent. You will come away with a new-found amazement at the sheer complexity of process of reading, and learning to read (and it's the most accessibly written book about neuroscience you'll ever read). Of particular resonance for me was the final section, on the dyslexic brain and how it doesn't learn to read--but does learn to do many other things. Wolf raises an excellent (but currently unanswerable) question about whether the over-development in certain areas of the dyslexic brain is a cause of or effect of struggles with reading--and also asks us to think about the talents that many dyslexics have that those of us with "normal" brains couldn't conceive of. If you're interested in this topic at all, you should go read it, like, right now. I'll wait.

We owe it to all our students--diagnosed, undiagnosed, misdiagnosed, undiagnosable--to do our best to understand and believe that having dyslexia, or ADD, or dyscalculia does not put them in a particular box. The same goes for "smart" kids--the ones who typically do well in school. If we tell them (through words or actions) that we think they can/will only learn a particular way, imagine the crushing defeat when that way just doesn't work for them. For resilient kids, or the ones for whom school usually "works", chances are they'll find or ask for another way. But LD kids generally won't--because, sadly, they've gotten the message that they just can't "do" school so many times that one more failure doesn't seem noteworthy. So it's up to us to notice, and adapt, and change, and work with them to find the how and why that DOES work.

Even if we don't have an fMRI in every classroom.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

"Whatever you are, be a good one"

I will potentially catch flack from my mother, several friends, and a number of colleagues for sharing a blog post with this title and agreeing with most of what is said, but I'm going to do it anyway (I live life on the edge, clearly):

My Job is Not What I Do, It Is Who I Am

During my first year as a librarian I remember a colleague asking me how things were going, and when would I be done and able to take some down time. And I remember saying, "There's no point at which I'm 'done.' There's just a point at the end of every day when I say 'enough for today' and I stop."

That is, I think, the nature of working in education (and in a lot of other fields, I know; it's just that most of my experience is in education). I get frustrated with colleagues who want to do something "like we did it last year." Even if a project went perfectly (ha!), I always want to try something new, make something better. And every year we're working with new students who bring different strengths and weaknesses to the table. No matter how good a lesson or unit is, it never feels "done" to me.

Which is not to say I never drag my feet through a day, or want to do something that's just "good enough" or get frustrated or feel like work has consumed my entire life to the exclusion of the possibility of social interaction. 'Cause I do. But 9 times out of 10 a positive interaction with a student (whether that's working with a kid on a major project or someone just stopping in to say hi and ask for a book recommendation) will bring me back to where I need to be.

This is, I think, part of how I'm wired. Even when I worked in, um, let's just call them "jobs not crucial to the future of our nation" I often spent too much time at work or thinking about work. I'm not very good at just leaving half-done things aside at 5:00 and not thinking about it till the next day. And I took any feedback on my work--good or bad--to heart. Often too much so. So I suppose it's a good thing I'm in education, as leaving half-done things aside at 5:00 is never really an option, and taking critiques of your work--good and bad--to heart is incredibly important.

Like the quote that is the title of this blog post (attributed to Abraham Lincoln, who I think it's fair to say took his own advice to heart), whatever it is I do, I think it's important to be--or try to be--good at it. But I've come to realize, too, that being good at what I do also means taking time away from work; it's important to create balance, and perspective. Spending all my time immersed in and consumed by my work creates a kind of myopia that is counter-productive when it comes to actually improving.

My job is who I am; there is no way I could feel as passionate about my work, or unbegrudgingly give over so much of my life to it if it didn't speak to something deep within me. But it's not ALL of who I am.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Going it alone

When I first started as a school librarian I was, if not 100% opposed to the idea of doing a stand-alone information literacy class, at least 93% opposed. I believed, in the way only someone fresh from a grad school program can believe, that the only really, truly effective way to teach information literacy skills was through collaboration with classroom teachers.

And I still believe that that is a GREAT way to teach information literacy. I just no longer believe it is the only way, and in my particular case I'm no longer convinced it is the best way.

I'm going to say what's obvious to any librarian working alone without a clerk--trying to collaborate with 40 different teachers in multiple subjects with various levels of expertise and interest is hard. Finding the time to really plan collaboratively is challenging, and doing that planning is difficult when the teacher you're working with isn't familiar with the skills/concepts you're trying to teach. And yes, I want my teachers to know and understand what I do, but when we only have an hour to plan it's hard to decide between teaching the teacher and planning the unit.

The other time difficulty is in scheduling classes; if Ms. X wants to bring in her A-block class during the first week of November, great. Well, until Mr. Y also wants to bring his A-block class during the first week of November. We're on a modular schedule this year, which I love for lots of reasons, but it makes shifting projects a week here or there very difficult, if not impossible. Shifting a project means shortening the time allotted to it, which means radically altering the project--and often short-changing the process.

And let's not even get into the issue of trying to make sure you're reaching all students using this approach. Depending on class schedules and teachers and courses of study, it's not uncommon for a student to either miss a skill completely, or get a double (or triple) dose of it. And while I suppose it's not awful for students to be taught the same skill twice, it's frustrating for them, and it makes it hard to hold their attention and focus (even when I try and give them more advanced skills to practice, they have a hard time differentiating those skills from the ones they see their classmates doing, and when I'm working one-on-one with students practicing these skills for the first time it's hard to find the time to get over to the student who may have been in the library learning this just last week. And they often know enough to be bored, but not enough to be able to help their peers. Frustrating). What I'm concerned about is students who somehow never get these lessons. The senior who claims they've never done in-text citation before. The junior whose website evaluation consists entirely of the words "it looks legit." The student who has never used a database for research. The student who "knows" never to use Wikipedia because "anyone can edit it" who then cites Yahoo! Answers in their research paper. Everyone's moving at a different pace and in a million different directions, and there is no way for me to keep track of it.

And then there's what is, really the biggest issue for me. Much like the "everything in one book" syndrome, it's the "everything in one project" syndrome. Students need to develop search strategies, find and evaluate information, organize, take notes, cite AND often learn new information related to their core course, synthesize it and create a paper/presentation. It's a lot to ask of one project. It's too much.

Many students are so overwhelmed by the idea of the final product of a research paper that they can't properly focus on the process. The product is, for them, what matters, and the process is what's standing in between them and that product. And while I offer to (and beg and plead with) teachers to grade different components of the research process, not many take me up on it, and ultimately I have no say over how different parts of the process are weighted and graded.

In one of the latest projects I worked on with a class, I asked a student to close her laptop while I was giving a brief overview of the resources that would be helpful for this project. She scoffed, "I'm writing the paper." For an assignment that had been given the day before, and on which she'd done no research. I asked another student how he was doing with finding and citing sources, as I'd noticed that he hadn't entered any information into NoodleTools. He told me that he was going to do what he always did--write the paper (on a fairly nuanced and detailed topic) and then find some sources that he could plug in. For those students--and many others--the product was the point; the process was an afterthought (at best).

And so, all that (which was was way more than I intended) being said, I have gone to the powers that be at my school with a proposal to teach a stand-alone information literacy course. And gotten a very enthusiastic response. It's very early in the process, but I'm excited about the possibilities. You'll definitely be hearing more about this as planning moves forward.

Do any of you school librarians out there teach a stand-alone information literacy class? What do you love/like/hate about it? Things I should keep in mind as I start planning?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Struggling with citation

Last night I dreamt of citations. I spent my sleeping hours much as I did my waking hours--dragging students through the process of creating a citation in NoodleTools, and then begging, pleading, and cajoling them to use in-text citations. It’s not a traditional nightmare, but I would have much preferred to spend my sleeping time being chased by a bear. I feel like it would have been more restful.

I am struggling mightily with the teaching citation this year. I am amazed and a little appalled by the number of juniors and seniors I have who claim they have never had to create citations before (most of whom I know for a fact I’ve taught how to cite). Several want to just be able to print a list of URLs (the quality of some of the sources students insist on using--and their reluctance to even try a database--is a topic for another day). Even students who are on board with creating citations are either flummoxed by or giving me push back on creating in-text citations; several claim to “just know” very specific statistics, and have no source to cite.

To be fair, there have been a handful of new students who, upon going through the steps needed to create a citation in NoodleTools, have said, “Well, that was easy!” And even students who are getting a refresher (willingly or unwillingly) do well with the process when they actually start it, many of them needing very little guidance.

So what’s the stumbling block? I think there are several. I don’t think students are universally held accountable for the need to cite; they think of it as something you do for the research paper in History/English/Science class, but not something you have to do unless it’s part of the requirements. Or only for certain teachers or assignments. I think we need to have students cite regularly and consistently on assignments big and small, just so they get in the habit. And the consequences of not citing need to be clear and consistent; if a student is handing in a major research paper with no citations, that’s a big problem that needs to be addressed.

I know many students also simply struggle with the format of citation, even using NoodleTools. It can be hard to figure out what information is which and where it goes and why or even how to classify the source you’re citing.

I have really good analogies (usually involving food) to explain almost every part of the research process, but I have yet to come up with something for citation that clicks with most students. The biggest issue seems to be helping students understand WHY they need to cite. I’m less interested in having perfectly formatted citations (and can empathize with students who get frustrated with the details of creating a proper citation); there are tools that will help students with that. But getting students to really grasp when and why to cite? That’s the really important part, and harder to teach than what goes in which part of the NoodleTools form.

I also wonder how much of this difficulty with the concept of giving others’ credit for their work comes from a lack of students’ investment? pride? ownership? (some combination of those three words embodies the idea I’m trying to express) of their own work. If they don’t feel like they are authors (with a real, genuine audience, and pride in what they have written and created), why would they understand that another author might want credit for their own work?

Citation is, in a way, about empathy; it’s about understanding that someone would want credit for the work that they’ve done. And if you can’t imagine yourself as creating anything that someone would read and use, how can you put yourself in the shoes of someone who has? I think a big part of fixing the issue with citation is helping student come to see themselves as authors and creators of work that worth sharing and getting credit for.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Murder in the library!

When I got home from the wonderful CASL Conference on Monday, I walked into my library to find the following:

Crime tape blocking off the second floor!

Shell casings left on the floor!

Bullet holes in the shelving!

More bullet holes!

And more! Someone was a really bad shot. . .

But the killer eventually hit his mark!

I, of course, knew this was coming. My friend Shawn, who also teaches Forensics, wanted to stage a crime scene, and I eagerly volunteered the library. I wanted to play the victim, but my teaching schedule didn't allow it--maybe next time!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

How do you make students comfortable with failure?

Seriously. I'm asking how.

I'm working on an I-Search project with the 9th grade Thinking & Writing classes; kind of a "get your feet wet, learn the basics" project. We've talked about defining a topic, identifying key words and ideas, where and how to search, evaluating sources, and citations. It's a good way for me to get to know more about them as researchers (so future instruction can be better designed), and for them to both explore a topic of interest and get a bit more comfortable with the research process.

But many of them are struggling. And I'm struggling. Not necessarily with the process or the ideas or the few things about research that are nice and neat and linear--just the parts of research that aren't nice and neat and linear. Which is, you know, most of them.

Research, I think many of us would agree, is an iterative process. You search, there's new questions and dead ends and unexpected turns, so you regroup and refocus and re-search. And that's difficult and uncomfortable, especially when you're just starting out as a researcher, but you get better at it--and, if you're anything like me, you begin to enjoy the journey of research almost as much as the answer you find at the end (assuming you even get to the "end"). I know not everyone comes to enjoy the process of research, but my hope is that students at least become comfortable and confident with the ups and downs of the process.

Only that's really, really not happening for a number of my students, and a lot of their frustration is kind of heartbreaking for me.

For those of you who don't know, the school I work at serves students with learning disabilities--dyslexia, ADD/ADHD, executive functioning disorders, etc. These are kids who, oftentimes, have been really and truly beat up by the educational system. They have been made to feel stupid. They have been exhorted to "just try harder" when they really are trying their hardest. They have often been denied the supports they need to learn. And a big part of what we do here--particularly in the first couple years--is put in those supports and help them learn how to learn the way they learn best. We take what had been a messy, unknowable process--learning--and give it structure and sequence.

Only that doesn't work for research. There's no way I can create an authentic research assignment that also proceeds in a linear fashion. Throw in website evaluation and citation and you have three often messy, confusing processes.

Frankly, sometimes I'm surprised that more students don't break down in tears or give up in frustration.

And I don't know what to do. I know that I need to create authentic research opportunities for my students. I know that they need to get comfortable with the ups and downs and ins and outs of the research process. But when they experience initial failure, they often shut down--and I get it. Years of being made to feel like you can't learn will wear a kid down. And it breaks my heart when I see a smart kid who assumes that they're struggle with research is a reflection on them, and not a reflection of the fact that it is a difficult process for everyone.

So how do we make students--particularly students who believe that failure means there is something wrong with them--comfortable with the idea of failure being part of the process?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

School librarian bingo

In recent weeks::

  • I had a Twitter conversation with Buffy Hamilton
  • I received a congratulatory e-mail from Sara Kelly Johns
  • Doug Johnson complimented a comment I left on his blog
  • Gwyneth Jones commented on my blog--and follows it!

I feel like these are key squares on the school librarian bingo card.

Also, my picture was in AL Direct this week, which is all kinds of weird and awesome. Mostly because they used the picture from this blog. You know, where I’m dressed up as Super Librarian. The other librarian pictured (Alicia Blowers, the other AASL-sponsored Emerging Leader) looks like an actual professional adult. I look ridiculous. Particularly because you can’t see the cape.

Friday, October 22, 2010

On display

I 0nce turned down a job offer to teach 4th grade because--in addition to being completely, totally and woefully unqualified to teach 4th grade in any way, shape, or form--I felt like my bulletin board creation skills were not good enough to work in an elementary school. I preferred high school, where I could tack up a few posters and call it a day; and during my three years teaching high school I was a teacher on a cart, so I never even had my own room with bulletin boards to worry about (which, really, is the only perk of being a teacher on a cart).

That changed, however, when I went back for my MLIS. One of my friends from grad school (well, he's still a friend, but I met him in grad school) used to joke that I was getting a degree in arts and crafts every time I had to create some sort of display for class. (He also used to sneak up behind me while I was working in the computer lab and try to give me a hear attack. With friends like these. . .).

I really enjoyed those assignments where I had to create a display; I'm pretty good at presenting information in text, but not so good at presenting information in pictures, and it was good to develop those skills. Students are a lot more likely to respond to something that's visually appealing; turns out I was more than a little off-base in my assumption that by avoiding elementary school I was avoiding the need to create bulletin boards.

Now, despite (or more likely because of) not having a conventional display space, I really like creating new book displays. I don't get to rotate displays as often as I'd like (though, thanks to a friend and colleague wh0's working with me in the library this year, it's a lot easier), but I did want to show off a couple I've done this year.

First up, my Banned Books Week display:

I was pretty proud of the number of frequently challenged books I already had in my collection; I added glaring omissions to my next order. The signs are lists and charts of frequently challenged books by title and reason for the challenge.

I was considering a Halloween display, but I feel a lot of pressure from seasonal displays, given that there is a definite expiration date. I wanted something I could keep up for a while, swapping books out as needed. So I came up with "Get Carried Away by a Book":

And then I decided to do a small Halloween display anyway, as I had a bunch of decorations from a previous display:

On the circulation desk I have my friend Courtney Sheinmel's first book, My So-Called Family, which I finally read and LOVED:

But no matter how many displays I make, or how good I get at it (or even if I ever get a "real" display space), this:

will always be my favorite kind of display.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

In the news

In completely unsurprising news, I am, in a word, exhausted. The start of the year has been very, very busy. Mostly in good ways, but not in ways that have provided a lot of time that would naturally suit itself to sitting down and reflecting and blogging. I feel like I'm constantly playing catch-up; I tell myself if I can just catch up, I'll be able to make time to write. But in the midst of getting caught up, a whole other list of things to do is created, and it begins again. Which, I am aware, is not exactly a novel observation.

In expected news, the new schedule--and figuring out how I fit in it--is a big part of this "caught in a whirlwind" feeling. I LOVE having long blocks in which to work with students, but it does mean redesigning all my lessons. And I'm also getting a bit more assertive in terms of "this is how these skills need to be taught, and this is the time I need to do it." All the teachers I'm working with are very receptive, but it also means more reconfiguring of things. But I'm very happy with the new lessons I'm designing, and feel like I'm getting a better handle on the big picture in terms of curriculum writing.

In exciting news, I've been selected for ALA's Emerging Leaders Class of 2011! You can find more about the program (but not my name. . . yet), at this link. And if you're one of my Facebook friends or follow me on Twitter, you'll be sure to know when my name is there. I'm also being sponsored by AASL, which is pretty cool. I'm not always crazy about how ALA functions (for reasons that look a lot like this), but in another not exactly novel observation, I don't think they're unique in being a large organization that is often weighted down by bureaucracy. I debated a long time before deciding to apply, but a good friend helped me figure realize that I can't really just sit on the sidelines and wait for the organization to change; I need to be an active part of making that happen. And given that I'm already involved via CASL and being a part of AASL Affiliate Assembly, I should go ahead and jump in with both feet. So I'll be headed to San Diego in January (don't feel too bad for me) to get started with the program.

In completely unrelated news, I did have an experience the other day in which I had to teach, explicitly, the steps necessary to e-mail a link. In the very basic, "copy/paste/send" sense of the word. Which has me thinking, as I often do, about how carelessly we throw around the idea of "digital natives", and the students who get left out/left behind when we make those assumptions. One of my goals for the year has been to write something and submit it for publication, and I think this might be that something. So I'm going to work on that. When it doesn't get published, I'll be sure to share it here. (My goal is to submit something; the publishing decision is in someone else's hands, so I'm not thinking about it.)

And finally, in other news, Amazon recently recommended The Boxer and the Spy to me, which I would like to offer as conclusive evidence that our computer overlords are not yet all knowing. Amazon also thought I might be interested in men's skinny jeans, which I offer as evidence that we don't need to be that worried about how soon our computer overlords will be all knowing.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Swearing at students

The other day (note: I use “the other day” to refer to any day in the previous 3+ years that is not today. This particular “other day” was about three weeks ago) I was booktalking for a 9th grade English class. I had several booktalks that I’d written, and a handful of books from which I’d selected passages to read; one of those books was K.L. Going’s fantastic Fat Kid Rules the World.

I’d read over and over the booktalks and passages in preparation; I’d tweaked my booktalks, selected passages carefully so they started and ended at just the right spots. I’d practiced reading everything several times. And yet, somehow, I didn’t notice in until I was in the middle of reading the passage and saw it lurking on the line below.


Not a “damn” or a “hell.” Not even a “shit.” A full-fledged “fuck,” just sitting there, waiting to be read aloud to a class of 9th graders.

Time slowed down. And as I continued to read the sentence that I was already in the middle of, heading full steam ahead towards that fuck, my internal monologue went into overdrive:

Do I skip it?
Do I replace it with a more innoccuous choice? Frickin’? Flippin’? Eff’n? Doesn’t that just make it more obvious that I’m not saying it?
Who am I to make that choice? This isn’t my book. The word is there. Do I say it? Why would I *not* say it?
What’s the big deal, anyway? It’s just a word.
No, it’s not. I mean, yes, it is “just” a word. But it’s not a word I use with students. It’s a word I actively discourage students from using in front of me. Is it hypocritical if I use it?
Well, it’s not really me using it, it’s the character using it.
That’s a cop-out.
No, it’s not. I selected this book because I love the characters. And Troy says “fuck.” And he uses it for a reason. Who am I decide that he really should have said “frickin’”?
It’s two words away. . . make a decision.
It’s not my role to decide what something “should” be; I can only share what something is.

“. . . I’m a fucking 300-pound teenager. . . “

And then it was done. A couple students giggled nervously, but then we all moved on. And that was the experience in every class. Yes, I read it again. Same passage, same word. Because I’d selected that passage for a reason; to switch passages because of one word (a word that I’ve, *ahem*, used once or twice before) felt. . . wrong. The language--in the entire passage, not just that one word--was true to the characters and true to the story; to not read an entire passage because of one word seemed as ridiculous to me as challenging John Green’s Looking for Alaska over one scene about a blowjob (which is not, when it comes right down to it, *about* a blowjob), or challenging Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian because of “profanity” and mentions of masturbation.

It’s one passage, one word. And if it fits with the book, fits with the story, fits with the character--authentically and in such a way that when you see it in context you think, “Yes, that makes sense. That feels true”--none of us have any business trying to take it out. Least of all me, even if I am standing in front of a group of 9th graders. *

I’m always bothered a little bit by the argument that swearing/sex/violence etc. are okay in books because “kids hear a lot worse in movies/in the hallways/from their friends.” The arguments seems to be that it’s okay only because it’s “too late” to protect kids from these images and words (it bothers me, too, that the natural extension of this logic leads to people challenging The Hunger Games; if they don’t read/hear/view violence then everything will be just fine). But what if I want to work with students to be more civil AND suggest a book with the word “fuck” in it? Am I allowed to do that?

If students don’t watch those shows/live those lives, is it not okay for them to read these books? Are we only allowed to see our own experiences mirrored in what we read? Or do we read to experience lives that are often completely unlike our own--in ways both good and bad? You can probably figure out my answer on that one.

And so I recommend fantasy and science fiction and horror and realistic fiction where characters live difficult lives and bad things happen and sometimes people swear. And I recommend humorous books and adventure stories, and light-hearted books where the conflict has less than life-or-death stakes. I make recommendations based on what the student is looking to read; not based on whether or not I think the student has existing first-hand knowledge of all the plot points and themes in the book.

And for all the talk of “sex/violence/profanity” sells. . . no one checked out Fat Kid Rules the World. But someday one of them probably will. And I bet they’ll be too wrapped up in the story and the characters to notice one little word.


This was one of the many things that bothered me about The Boxer and the Spy; there’s a scene in which an adult apologizes for using the word “crap” in front of a 15-year-old girl. Really? Crap? I’m all for being more civil with our language and how we talk to each other, but in the context of conspiracies about murdering teenagers to cover up crimes, apologizing for the word crap seemed a little forced. Of course, he did use it in front of a girl, and you know what delicate lavender-lined paper using creatures we are.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Maybe people use the word "antediluvian" all the time, and I just never noticed

Okay, my hackles were clearly already up, but as I was finishing The Boxer and the Spy last night I was so distracted by some of the ridiculousness (it's like he was taunting me!) that I couldn't help but grab a stack of Post-Its and start flagging.
Suzi looked like she was planning for her wedding. Her eyes were bright. She was excited. Suzi was adventurous, Terry knew. For Suzi this was fun.
And for an adventurous girl, what could be more exciting than planning her own wedding?!

Later on that page, Suzi is described as a "sexpot." Suzi is fifteen and has, allegedly, been kissing boys.

While in the middle of an intense conversation about an intricate conspiracy that they believe lead to the murder of a classmate:
Nice legs, though, Terry thought, for her age.
This was the umpteenth time this character's nice legs (despite her being all old and gross) were mentioned; I think we could have skipped it during the whole "we suspect you of being involved in a murder" conversation.

There are also many obnoxious references to Terry not knowing the meanings of "hard" words (because, you know, boys have muscles but are kind of dumb), but this one seemed over the top:
"He laughed at me," Mrs. Trent said. "He is a troglodyte. Some sort of antediluvian beast, I think."
A couple other words he'd have to ask Abby about.
Now, I love big words, and I use them a lot. I have used "presumptuous" in a text message before I even had a phone with a QWERTY keypad. I've used "troglodyte" in casual conversation. But "antediluvian"? Seriously? And just four words later? It doesn't seem to fit the character at all, making its only purpose to point out that Terry doesn't know the meaning. And go ahead and accuse me of setting low standards, but I think it's perfectly okay for a 15-year-old to not be familiar with the word "antediluvian", particularly when used in such a stilted fashion.

I did finish the book last night, and while I did enjoy the story, it was really frustrating to be so regularly pulled out of the story by such bizarre and obnoxious gender stereotyping.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Is lavender-lined white paper something I, as a girl, should know more about?

I don't normally write about what I'm reading, mostly because I can barely even manage to update my GoodReads more than once every three months, but I feel compelled to write about Robert B. Parker's The Boxer and the Spy. And not for good reasons.

I am, for the most part, enjoying the story, and I will be booktalking it in the near future. But some the language Parker is using is just a) taking me out of the story and b) ticking me off.

First, "crap" is used and referred to as if it's a big bad word, which wouldn't seem quite as ridiculous if the main character didn't use the word "fag" quite so casually. But I'm not going to say much about that, as I have another post I'm working on that's all about swearing (you might want to skip that one, Mom).

The thing that pulled me right out of the book was a reference to the female lead taking out "a piece of lavender-lined white paper" and then, just a few pages later, using "a Sharpie with lavender ink that matched the lines on her notepaper."


I, of course, Googled "lavender-lined white paper" to see if this was really some sort of cultural phenomenon that was sweeping the nation. For that exact phrase I got exactly one hit. I'll let you guess where it came from. When I broadened the search a bit I found some more references, all to papers that included pictures of fairies, or were lavender scented, or had a pattern of lavender flowers. I did find a couple references to using lavender-lined paper in a special writing project in a middle school. But no indication that there was any particular reason why the lavenderness of the lines on the character's paper (and her matching Sharpie!), needed particular emphasis.

Except, of course, to point out that she's a girl! Who's taking notes! And isn't that adorable!

Abby, the character, is otherwise fairly well-drawn and dynamic. She's smart and assertive and can go toe-to-toe on multiple levels when talking Terry, her male counterpart. And this whole lavenderosity seems thrown in to remind us that she's actually feminine--as if those other traits of hers are somehow not feminine--and that's why Terry is in love with her. There's a very "girls can be smart, but it's even more important to them that things have pretty matching colors, and that's really why boys like them" tone to it. Barf.

I may have been a bit more tuned into these language choices because I was reading Maureen Johnson's amazing blog on gender and reading earlier (which you need to go read right now. Seriously. I'll wait. She says everything I've ever wanted to say on the subject, only better), but I've come across this before, and it's always just so. . . obnoxious. If pointing out the color of the lines on a piece of paper is the only way you can think of to point out that the character is a girl, you need to outsource the writing of female characters to someone who understands that many girls have favorite colors that aren't pastel.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Reference Question of the Day

Student: I don't mean this to be offensive or anything, but were you, like, a nerd in high school?

Me: Still am, honey, still am.

Student: I know. But were you, like, an even bigger nerd?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

New year, new blog post

I have several half-started (but nowhere near half-finished) blog posts that I haven’t gotten around to actually writing and posting; now is the time of year when I switch from not posting regularly because not much is going on, to not posting regularly because too much is going on. As a reader, your experience is pretty much the same. I’m all about consistency.

I’ve been back for over three weeks now (two weeks of an intensive Professional Development Institute, and then the regular week-long inservice), but today the new students arrived, making it feel like a real “first day of school.” More significantly, it is the first day of my fourth year at this school. Which is, for the record, the longest I’ve worked anywhere. Which is both exciting and kind of weird. Don’t get me wrong--I love working here, which is why I’m still here, and I’m really excited about many of the changes that are taking place, and the ways in which my job is developing. And I really like the idea of being somewhere for a length of time--establishing myself, building a program, becoming the person that can answer the new teachers’ questions.

Also, this year’s four-year seniors have never known another librarian at this school. I still can’t quite wrap my head around that.

Many exciting things on the horizon for this year (I’m aware that I keep using the word “exciting.” I do know other words, but they are stored in the less tired parts of my brain, to which I do not currently have access). My big goal for this year is to write a real, actual curriculum--beyond the big ideas of what students learn, to a year-by-year, “when and where” do they learn it plan. On one level it seems straightforward, and on another there are too many pieces for me to wrap my head around. But realizing that this year’s seniors have only had me as a librarian has lit a fire in me in terms of really taking ownership for the long-term shape of the information literacy curriculum.

We’re also doing a big push with assistive technology this year, taking what we’ve been doing and making sure it’s implemented consistently across the disciplines. This has, for a while, seemed to be a Sisyphean task (yes, I can come up with “Sisyphean,” but not a synonym for “exciting”), but momentum has finally gotten to the point where real, school-wide change is almost inevitable. I’m psyched and overwhelmed; AT is one of those things where I feel like I know enough to know what I don’t know. But I’m working with a great team of people, and we have built connections to experts who can help.

We’ve switched to a new website portal. . . thing (not to get too technical), and the state of the library website is sort of in limbo. I still have the wikispaces site I’ve had for the past three years, but at some point the library will get folded into the larger school site, which is exciting. I’ve always been a bit frustrated with the wikispaces site; I love that it makes it possible for me to have an easily editable website, but I hate that it’s not really that professional looking. It feels separate from the rest of the school website. Probably because it is. However, that integration hasn’t happened yet, so I’m kind of in between the old site and. . . something new. I don’t know what it will look like or what I’ll be able to do. I am using this experience for building my “making peace with uncertainty” skills.

In a related story, regular readers (hi Mom!) will recall that I had gotten some. . . less than enthusiastic feedback on the summer reading program. Well. In the past few weeks I’ve gotten several e-mails from students who are excited about the books that they’ve read, and are asking good questions about the summer reading projects. And they are doing some cool projects. I can’t wait to see them. In fact, one student showed me his book trailer for Carl Hiassen’s Flush this afternoon, and it was obvious (underneath his “too cool for school” exterior) that he was proud of what he’d created--and he is not the type of student I would have necessarily expected that from. I know there will still be grumbling, and I know that every student didn’t necessarily buy in, but just based on the initial feedback I’m thinking that this new program was a success. So there.

I also did a new student orientation today, which went well, but I’m not really thrilled with what I did. I’m not sure what I would have changed (if I knew, I would have fixed it beforehand); it just seemed lacking in some way. But, one of the prefects did introduce me to a new student as “the coolest librarian you’ll ever meet.” So, I got that going for me.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Why YA: Or, links to people who say so better than I can

This article from the New York Times on adults who read YA lit has, predictably enough, been making the rounds; and I am, predictably enough, late to the party (though slightly less late than usual). I enjoyed it and was annoyed by it for many of the same reasons Gayle Forman was, and she said it better than I could, so I'll just tell you to read what she has to say.

It drives me nuts that when people talk about reading YA fiction it is often ever-so-subtly juxtaposed as being different from, you know, "real" fiction. That adults read. (Which is somewhat analogous to the distinction that's set up when people talk about "women's fiction." As if it's somehow. . . other.) And even in the NYT article there is a bit of justifying of reading habits. It's okay to read YA because they're discussing it and analyzing it. What if they were just, you know, enjoying it? I enjoy discussing books as much as the next girl, and I love being able to share such a solitary pursuit with my friends by gushing about the great books we're reading. But that is not, at the core, why I read. I read because I love stories. And I don't have to analyze the book in order to justify the time spent reading it.

I regularly get asked why I prefer YA fiction (sometimes with a tone that suggests, "Defend yourself!", though not always). And there are lots of reasons (and as much as I don't like it when YA is distinguished from "real" fiction, I do think it is a distinct genre--one with many sub-genres, but this thought it getting too big for a parenthetical), many of them having to do with why I love my job. Basically, I like reading YA for the same reasons I like working with teenagers: there is the sense of possibility. There is someone who is at or near the beginning of something. Everything is big and new and incomprehensible. There is more of an excuse for acting like a complete jerk, as you're still too young to know any better. There is the potential for change. There is none of the navel-gazing mundanity of a mid-life crisis. Reading YA fiction helps me remember what it's like to be a teenager, which helps me understand my students--and the incomprehensible ways they behave--better.

Again, there is someone who says it much better than I do--this time it's Sarah Rees Brennan, over at The Book Smugglers (a post which I discovered via Bookshelves of Doom).

She sums it up really well in this section:

YA is about your first time. And not just that first time, though that’s often on the table as well.

It’s about the first time you ever get betrayed by a friend. The first time you fell in love. The first time you realised, on a bone-deep, gut-deep level, that the world was unfair, that something terrible and irreversible could happen to you, that nobody was coming to save you. And the first time is a really intense time – it’s shocking, it cuts deep. The world never comes as such a surprise again.

. . . but you should read the entire post, if only so those of you who know me in real life will understand why "assbucket" is being added to my lexicon.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

For the record, "How's your summer been?" would have been a better way to start that conversation

To paraphrase Charlie Brown, nothing takes the taste out of your veggie burger quite like being told that "every" student thinks the Summer Reading program you spent hours and hours and hours on is a joke.

I don't want to be as bothered by this as I am, 'cause I know how students are, but it just completely deflated me.

This information was given to me by a colleague at a cookout this afternoon--a cookout I was hoping to enjoy, as it would be an opportunity to catch up with some colleagues I hadn't seen all summer. According to her, students think the Summer Reading program is a joke because English teachers "never" follow up on it or collect the essays or anything. Which I know isn't true, but I also know isn't completely false. And, apparently, unless there's a test or paper or something, what's the point of reading a book? I did point out to my colleague that the Summer Reading assessment had changed this year, and students would need to show up with a completed project. That did not seem to matter.

Part of me wants to say, "Fine then. We'll make it super rigorous and give a test and make you write a super long essay. Happy now?" Part of me wants to passive-aggressively "apologize" to these kids for trying to make the Summer Reading program enjoyable. Part of me wants to tell the English department that if they're not going do the follow up on Summer Reading in the fall, then I'm not going to put so much work into developing and promoting it. Part of me feels super depressed at the idea of having spent three years trying to change the Summer Reading program into something that is less about work and more about enjoying reading, and seeing I haven't made a dent. Part of me is even more depressed that there seems to be a significant population of students for whom the idea of "reading for pleasure" is, essentially, meaningless.

It's a lot of parts. But all of them kind of want to cry.

ETA: Just to be 100% clear--I am in no way mad at or frustrated with anyone in the English department, regardless of how they've handled Summer Reading in the past. The whole idea is that it's not assessment intensive. I'm just feeling frustrated and deflated.

Monday, July 26, 2010


If this story doesn't convince you that education funding in this country is completely, totally--and possibly irrevocably--broken, nothing will.

What happened to that principal, that school, and mostly those students--and the Obama administration policies behind it--makes me sick to my stomach.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Identifying the cart and the horse (and then putting them in order)

Right as the closing keynote at ISTE was beginning I found out that my ride home from the airport had flaked out on me, which sent me into a bit of a panic. So I was one of those awful people who texted through the first part of the session, trying to arrange a new ride. I felt awful, but given that I was leaving for the airport in about eight hours, I also didn’t have many options. Luckily, I was able to arrange for a new ride very quickly and then devote my undivided attention to the speaker.

And I’m glad I did. The speaker was Jeff Piontek, the Head of School at Hawaii Technology Academy, and he was fantastic.

I’m going to do this in “what he said I what I thought” style again.

  • Too often we give children answers to remember rather than problems to solve

There’s a larger statement about educational philosophy in this idea, but there’s also day-to-day feet-on-the-ground implications. Oftentimes when we want to try something innovative or new in our teaching we “can’t” because we have too much material to get through (often with a test or semester end in mind); the pressure of the “can’t” comes from both internal and external forces. But are students really learning more if we manage to give them more facts within a certain time frame? And if there are—as I believe there are—certain core skills students need to be successful, what’s to say those skills can’t be taught—and better learnt—when contextualized in a problem-solving exercise? If students need to learn these skills to be successful in the real world, don’t just tell them that—open the newspaper and show them how these skills apply.

  • No one really knows what’s going to happen in 5, 10, 20 years.

His second point doesn’t really jibe with the rhetoric we usually hear when talking about education. We tend to hear “Kids need to be able to do X,” or “We’re preparing kids for jobs where they’ll do Y.” Which may be true, but is just as likely not to be true. So do we want today’s students to know certain facts and ideas, or be able to implement a set of skills? Which lead really nicely to this point:

  • Robotics is not about the robots; it’s about critical thinking, team building, problem solving.

At the pace things move, any robot a student learns to build in 9th grade will be beyond obsolete by the time he or she is in college—let alone starting a career as an engineer. But the skills they learn—critical thinking, team building, problem solving—will never be obsolete. These skills can be used for everything from robotics to surviving the zombie apocalypse (well, that and the double tap)

  • Standardized testing vs. portfolio assessments

It is, as Piontek said, the difference between one 8x10 photo vs. an entire scrapbook. Which gives you a better sense of a student’s achievement? But, as he readily acknowledged, it is pretty much impossible to do meaningful portfolio assessments when you teach 100 students. You just can’t do it. So what do we do? Well, the current answer seems to be standardized testing, which I think pushes the pendulum too far in the other direction. And as much as we would love to see it, I don’t think hoping for teachers’ course loads to be cut in half is realistic. Is there a middle ground?

  • Students and teachers want to be engaged with other people. It’s why we go to conferences—in order to engage with ideas and questions

Learning is, inherently, collaborative. Yet so much of what we do in schools requires students to work independently. And that, again, is driven in large part by our need to assess students and their individual progress. And knowing how each student is doing is important—collaborative work can’t become a way for struggling students to fall through the cracks. But there are meaningful ways to engage all students in collaborative work that are neither rocket science nor radically new. There is also something in this about the importance of teaching and planning collaboratively.

I also really appreciated, especially at a tech conference, the need for human connection that is a significant part of our learning. Many of those connections become easier with online communications, but there is something about face-to-face communication and learning that is really important—and we can’t lose sight of that for ourselves or our students.


STEM is the shorthand used to refer to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math; Piontek argued that we need to add Arts to that acronym in order to truly prepare our students for the challenges they will face. We need to bring back creativity and make it an integral part of what we do—and what we encourage our students to do. As Piontek said, you can teach math and science skills, but you NEED innovation. It’s the unGoogleable skill.

  • I would say I don’t like to criticize, but honestly I do.

I would take his brand of thoughtful, reflective criticism any day. The phrase “constructive criticism” is slowly becoming meaningless—it’s a way of saying “you’re doing it wrong, and I know how to do it better.” Sometimes I like the type of criticism that doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but is instead interested in unearthing all the questions.

  • There’s no longer an excuse not to know how

This goes back to something I was writing about one of the ALA sessions—basic know-how is no longer a high level skill. I was thinking of this the other day I was trying to figure out a new knitting pattern; I didn’t understand how to do the stitch I was supposed to use, but I was able to quickly Google a video of someone demonstrating that stitch. That does not make me an expert knitter. Knowing how to find something on the Internet is not a “21st Century Skill;” 21st century skills are not the same skills we’ve been teaching for generations, just done on a computer. The finding information part is now easier than it’s ever been; the real new skills we need to be teaching are what we do with that information once we have it. And sometimes we won’t know—but our students will have ideas, and we need to encourage that. As Piontek said, “Tip over the boat, even if you don’t know how to swim. Your students will teach you how to swim.”

  • All children should be able to give it a go. All children should have access

I wasn’t sure whether to stand up and clap or weep for joy at this. In part because you could tell he really, truly genuinely meant it. This is one of the issues that comes up a lot working with students with learning disabilities; there is this notion that we need to spend all our time on “the basics” and that we can get to this other stuff if there’s time—but this extra “stuff” is really the core of what we should be doing—particularly with LD students. These “extra” skills are what they’re really good at, and are their entry into learning the basics. When talking about basic skills versus 21st century skills, many argue that we need to be sure not to put the cart before the horse. I agree. I just think we’ve misidentified which is the cart and which is the horse.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

It's the students, stupid

ISTE was amazing and overwhelming and I learned a million and six different things, but in the interest of finishing my thoughts on this year’s conferences before, you know, next year, I’m going to condense a significant percentage of the conference down to “I learned a lot; it was cool” and spend my time reflecting on the two keynote sessions I attended.

I missed the opening keynote session (though it was, from what I hear, a “death by PowerPoint” experience, so I’m not exactly heartbroken). Tuesday morning there was a keynote panel titled "Innovation and Excellence: Buzz Words or Global Imperative." Speaking on the panel were Karen Cator (Director of the Office of Education Technology, U.S. Department of Education), Jean-Francois Rischard (former VP of the World Bank), Terry Godwaldt (Director of Programming, Center for Global Education), and Shaun Koh (a student from Singapore). Despite having the least “impressive” title, Shaun Koh was the speaker I found most interesting, and would gladly sit through as many speeches as he cared to give. Not that the others weren’t interesting, but his perspective and forthrightness were the most engaging.

Anyway, their thoughts and what I think of them:

Terry Godwaldt

  • 21st century skills require deep understanding of basic skills

Again, it’s nice to hear this emphasized; these new skills don’t replace the other skills we need to teach, they build on them.

  • You don’t have to invent projects; you can just open the newspaper.

Want to make learning relevant? Then don’t invent a project that’s like the real world; use a project from the real world.

  • At Google and 3M, they trust employees. We need to trust teachers

An obvious applause line, but a good one. This is, I think, a big part of why teachers rail against standardized tests—the implicit message is, “We don’t trust you to know what’s important to teach, or how to assess it.” It’s the problem with over-aggressive Internet filters, and administrators who push back when teachers try to do something new and innovative. The message is: We don’t think you know what you’re doing, and we don’t trust you. It’s really hard to keep moving forward when you don’t feel like your supervisors trust that you know where you’re going. And then people complain that teachers don’t do anything new or innovative. It’s enough to drive a person crazy.

  • Why did you work to solve these problems? Because they were there.

We need to instill in students the same kind of drive to achieve that got Mallory to the top Everest--I have to tackle this problem not because someone told me to, or because I’m getting a grade, or because it will look good on my college application. I need to tackle this problem because it’s there.

Jean-Francois Rischard

  • The dictatorship of the standard test doesn’t allow much wiggle room for innovation.

It was nice to hear someone outside the (sometimes insular) world of education acknowledge that we are stuck between two very demanding masters—we need to make sure students get high marks on standardized tests , and we need to make sure that students develop critical thinking skills and the ability to learn independently. Which are two diametrically opposed goals. It is possible, and I’ve seen teachers do it, but it’s not easy and it generally takes the kind of effort you see in those “teacher as super hero” movies wherein it’s made clear that all you have to do to be a good teacher is give up absolutely everything else in your life.

Karen Cator

  • Stay on questions longer

There is a time pressure that exists in education. Idea not working as quickly as you hoped? Students not finding the answer or finishing projects at the pace you've established? Then move on! Or, you know, not. It takes time to build momentum and get really engaged, and we tend to switch gears right as we reach that point. So take time. Really engage with big questions. And it will take a while for you and students to get used to that pace, so have patience with that as well. But in order to keep students really engaged with problems, we also can’t be using the same types of “find facts and regurgitate them” projects; they need to tackle real “real world” problems.

  • Education is the most reticent system, but change is possible. We need to start where we are

Not where we wish we were. We can’t talk about reforming and building upon the education system we wish we had; we have to work with the one we actually have, thorns and all. Just like we want our students to wrestle with real world problems, we need to do the same.

Shaun Koh

  • Technology is just an enabler. Don’t forget why you started teaching; technology makes that come alive.

There is no technology on the planet that will turn a bad teacher or a bad lesson into a good teacher or an interesting lesson. Good technology used ineptly is not good technology. I can’t remember if I heard it in this session, or another one, or only saw it on Twitter, but someone at some point said “The killer app for 21st century learning is a good teacher.” It really doesn’t get more complicated than that.

  • Listen to and watch your students--keep an open mind to ideas your students have

We are, as teachers, often afraid of letting go of control. And I feel comfortable saying this because I’m not completely comfortable with letting go of control myself. But I’ve done it, and you know what? The world did not end, and I learned something. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know,” but it’s even more okay to say, “I didn’t know; thanks for showing me.”

  • Testing sucks the passion out of learning

Another obvious applause line in a room full of teachers, but you can’t exactly argue the point. There is this conversation going on about how, in order to give time to subjects that are now getting short shrift due to standardized testing, we need to start testing those subjects as well. Ugh. No. I know I’m probably preaching to the choir here, but what we need to do is disabuse ourselves of the notion that the only way to measure learning is through standardized testing. Yes, it makes compiling statistics easier. But those statistics are a) essentially meaningless and b) completely and totally useless to the students who we are supposed to be educating. It’s not about us or our need for data. It’s about students. I think we need to revive the “It’s the economy, stupid” signs, but replace “economy” with “students.”