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.”

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Why books still matter

I am sure there are several posts about David Brooks' recent column lurking in my GoogleReader, but since they're amongst the 300 or so other unread items in my school account, I haven't read them. Which is probably good, as I'd like to come at this without everyone else's opinion rattling around in my brain. I know, from the snippets of discussion I've caught on Twitter, that much is being made of his discussion of Internet use; I find that part of his argument interesting and thought-provoking and occasionally annoying, but I'm going to leave them alone.

I want to talk about the books.

The study he refers to reminds me of a couple studies I remember reading about in library school; I'm going to be a little light on details, as all of my notes from grad school are in my office, and even I don't have unhealthy enough a work-life balance to go into the office on a Sunday in the summer.

Anyway. There were two studies, about reading and about having books in the home. The studies showed that children with more books in the home had higher educational achievement, but the gains did not necessarily seem to be tied to more reading. Children whose parents took them to the library and read to them frequently did not show the same kinds of gains. While reading to young children was important and had an impact, it seemed that in order to get the full effect you had to actually have the books physically in the home.

And of course there are all sorts of socioeconomic factors in a study like this that you can't isolate for that point to other reasons why children who had books in the home fared better educationally.

But it would seem that having books--physical books--matters. Why? I think Brooks gets it right by saying it wrong here:
But there was one interesting observation made by a philanthropist who gives books to disadvantaged kids. It’s not the physical presence of the books that produces the biggest impact, she suggested. It’s the change in the way the students see themselves as they build a home library. They see themselves as readers, as members of a different group.
So, yes. The physical presence of the books matters. 'Cause you can't see yourself as building a home library unless you physically have books in your home to put in that library.

For all the arguments about "digital natives" and kids being "wired differently" these days, it seems that some things haven't completely changed yet. I know plenty of students who read a lot--articles, blogs, Wikipedia, etc.--online, but who still don't think of it as "real" reading; they talk about themselves as readers when they pick up a physical book. Will that change eventually? Probably. But it hasn't yet.

And maybe my students--for whom print presents such a barrier--are different. For many of them, printed words have for years been something inaccessible;they stayed away from words out of frustration, or shame, or because when they tried--and struggled--they were called stupid. And the words that they were denied access to were printed in physical books. So granting access to the words--more so than words on a screen--was a mark of significant achievement.

When I talk with colleagues about the role of the library at a school for students with learning disabilities, the word dignity comes up a lot. And it's a word that I take seriously. Students know that "real" schools have libraries, and having a "real" library at their school--a library with books, a library where they are welcome--matters to them more than I can explain.

So why is it that students seem to think of themselves differently--and appear to achieve at higher levels educationally--when they have books?

Part of it is self-perception, and part of it is the perception of others--or really, a student's interpretation of how others perceive him. If, for years, you've gotten the idea that others don't think you're worthy or capable, giving you a book--particularly one that comes with the understanding that the giver believes you are fully capable of reading it--changes things. It's a vote of educational confidence.

The Internet is, compared to the book, in its infancy. While there is a lot that is of educational value available online, most students' primary interactions with online content is not educationally-focused in the strictest (or even loosest) sense of the word. It just doesn't (yet) carry the same weight as a printed book.

And until it does, the printed book will still have a very important--even if primarily symbolic--place in education.

Friday, July 9, 2010

What happens in the library

After making a quick escape from my first session in order to avoid someone I recognized but did not feel like reminiscing with (based on seeing her in action in the session, I could tell she was pretty much the same as she’d been in college, which was as much as I needed to know), I headed to Ballroom B for the AASL’s Presidents Program, which featured Allison Zmuda. She was a great speaker—lot to take in, and I’m glad she offered to share her PowerPoint slides, as there was a lot to read and take in and I know I missed a lot.

One of the ideas that really resonated with me, however, was the idea that while we may have limited sphere over which he have control, we need to do what we can to really exert our influence within that sphere—in fact, it’s imperative that we do everything we can to exert the influence that we can.

I spent a lot of time at ALA (and in the past ten years) thinking about and having discussions about the education system as a whole, battling the “it only matters if it’s tested” mindset (and that the only way to make something matter is to create a way to test it), the seeming decline in critical thinking, the “no one reads any more/death of print” storyline, etc., and the discussion always revolves around what we can do to change, you know, everything. Which we can’t do. As Zmuda spelled out, there are things we can’t control, things we can influence but not control, and things we can control.

And while I think it’s important to keep having the discussions and exerting the influence we do have on the “big picture” stuff, for me that idea really drives home the importance of being active on the local and state level, even more so than on the national level; that is where our influence is really felt, and that is where momentum builds.

But even more than that, it speaks to the control we have and must exert in our own libraries, particularly when it comes to instruction. You can’t say, “I had to do this project/assignment, because it’s what the teacher brought me.”

Often we do it with the best of intentions—it’s a way to make less willing teachers feel comfortable, it’s easier to coordinate when you don’t have to start from scratch. And oftentimes teachers will come with a fully formed unit plan and just want you to show students “the research part.” Even when the research assignment they’ve written looks nothing like something you would create in order to teach the skills students need to develop. Such unit plans also often keep the librarian out of the creation of the final project; and, as I wrote yesterday, we need to stay involved for the information integration part of the process.

But going along with a. . . not necessarily “bad” plan, but not necessarily a good one either, is a cop out. And I say this with full recognition of the fact that I’ve done this. A lot, particularly in my first year. When you’re new and someone comes to you with a project they’ve been doing for ten years (which, yikes) it’s more than a little awkward to try and tell them to change everything. But if we want to truly be collaborating with classroom teachers—and not just be a drop-in lesson on skills that seem disjointed from the lesson—it means taking ownership and having challenging and productive (if sometimes awkward) conversations with our colleagues about creating and teaching units that integrate information literacy skills.

We don’t want what happens in the library to just stay in the library; the skills we teach impact not only other academic areas, but areas outside the school walls. And if we want what we teach to have an impact beyond the library, we have to take full control of what happens in the library.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

How do we teach students not to put tomatoes in fruit salad?

Now that I’ve been home for a week, and ALA has been over for even longer, I suppose it’s about time that I finally write about everything I saw there. I’m going to try to break it into multiple posts covering different sessions, both in order to pace myself and to avoid a post the size of a book.

Saturday morning I went to a session on sequencing instruction from kindergarten through college, which seems like a pretty difficult task. Even if you manage to keep students in one school district for K-12, ensuring they go through a complete information literacy curriculum, it seems that the channels of communication to post-secondary schools are not always great, never mind the different expectations different colleges have (or the disagreements between—or within—different departments at the same school).

While I am working to prepare my students for college (and try to stay familiar with general info lit trends at the schools my students frequently attend), students arrive at my school from all sorts of different backgrounds. Some have had excellent research instruction; some have had almost none. Which is one of the challenges in writing and implementing curriculum; there’s no one I can coordinate with on K-8 instruction.

Rather than attempt a cohesive narrative (my brain’s half on vacation), I’m going to bullet point ideas that resonated with me, and explain why.

Dr. David Loertscher started the session with an overview of what we’re trying to do.

  • Information literacy instruction used to just be about the research process; now, it’s more about critical thinking and content creation

Students need to be doing more than simply trying to absorb a lot of information; it’s getting to be a trite observation by now, but the ability to memorize and recall facts is simply not as useful or impressive a skill in the Google age. The skills students need are different—can you locate the information, can you assess it, can you make sense of it, can you integrate it into what you already know, can you build upon that knowledge and share it? It’s way more complicated than remembering a set of tasks in sequence

  • “You only learn 21st century skills in order to deepen your content understanding.”

I wrote “YES!” next to this when I was taking notes in the session. Too often I see people talking about “21st century skills” (by which they usually mean the latest technology) as an end in and of itself. Sorry, but learning how to build a wiki, or record a podcast, or write a blog or use an e-reader are not ends in and of themselves. Unless they are coupled with real content, they’re just toys. Technology divorced from content (i.e. context) is just as meaningless as try to teach content without context.

  • Understanding how Wikipedia happened will help us solve the dropout problem

Okay, I left out a few steps in his logic, but for me that was the basic point. We need to center our work around engaging with real problems and involving students in knowledge creation. Students who have a voice and an audience and see the real-world context and application for what they’re learning are students who stay engaged in what they’re learning. And engaged students stay in school.

  • Knowing how to research does not mean you know how to think


So how do we change research so students have to know how to think in order to be successful? And how on earth do you teach someone to think?

  • Once students find information, it’s now up to teachers to show them how to do something with it; we need to put ourselves back in that process.

This goes to the root of the whole “research is not thinking” issue; we need to be working with teachers on the WHOLE process, not just send them back to the classroom once they’ve gathered information.

  • K-12 schools and colleges/universities need to work together; better trained teachers create better undergraduate students.

If nothing else, naked self-interest means that librarians in K-12 schools need to communicate with colleges about what new teachers (many of whom are not information literate themselves) need to know.

  • You are no longer amazing just because you taught a kid how to use a database

Students can find information. That part of the process keeps getting easier, frankly. What they do with the information? That part will never be easy.

I also really liked several of the points Valerie Diggs of Chelmsford High School presented.

  • It is very difficult to move teachers away from “information regurgitation” projects

So, so difficult. Part of that is because that’s how they’ve always done things, and part of it is, I think, because teachers think students need to master “the basics” before they can do more “advanced” research. Except a) students are bored to death by these projects, and so b) they don’t learn anything either basic or advanced. So we do another “information regurgitation” project. . .

  • We need to focus less on finding and evaluating sources, more on how they use the information they find

This was reassuring to hear, and I think ties into the point Dr. Loertscher made about teaching kids to use a database. Finding an evaluating sources is important, but it can’t be the core of what we do.

The final presenter was Ellysa Stern Cahoy, a librarian at Penn State.

  • We’re teaching skills students think they already know

Anybody who has ever tried to teach anybody anything can relate to this idea. No matter how little they actually know, students are convinced they know everything about the research process (and sometimes everything about the topic they’re researching). The challenge of over-confidence is particularly tricky, as researching requires resiliency, and you need some confidence in order to be resilient enough to make it through the research process—never mind sharing what you’ve learning with a larger audience.

  • How does the research make it into the final product? Students find good information, but they don’t integrate it

I cannot tell you how many times a student has told me that it doesn’t really matter if the information is correct on the five other sources on their Works Cited, ‘cause they got all the information from one source. In order to get students to integrate information , we need to rethink the entire research process; right now each step is not clearly tied to what comes next in a causal way. It’s find your sources and then evaluate them and then take notes and then etc. In a way we need to take students to the final project and then show them how to scaffold back to where they need to start; they need to see how each part ties into every other part, rather than viewing each step as discrete and disjointed.

  • How do you keep the fun of technology from interfering with the critical thinking process?

I’ve seen students spend more time selecting images for the cover page of a report (a cover page that is rarely if ever required) than doing the research for that report. I’ve seen them spend more time on backgrounds and text effects for a PowerPoint than creating actual content for the slides. Add in the possibility of video clips or sound effects and critical thinking goes right out the window.

The title of this post is a reference to a quote I recently discovered (and have been unable to find authoritative attribution for): "Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad." This, as I see it, is the big shift in information literacy instruction at every level of schooling. Finding out that a tomato is a fruit is no longer the point; knowing what to do (and what not to do) with the tomato is the point.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Why I needed more than one carryon bag on my trip back

I promise more substantive posts are coming within the next several days (a bad case of dehydration and general exhaustion took me off my stride while I was away). In the meantime, a comprehensive (I think) list of all the swag I came home with:

20 books
11 Pens
8 Totebags
6 T-shirts
4 Test prep DVDs
4 Badge ribbons
3 1/2 Inches of handouts
2 Flashdrives, one of which is also a bracelet (be jealous)
2 Bracelets, one of which is also a flashdrive
2 Squeezeballs (for lack of a better term), one of which is in the shape of a brain
2 Zombies vs. Unicorns buttons (one zombie, one unicorn)
2 non-Zombie vs. Unicorns buttons
2 Miniature computer mice
2 Luggage tags
1 Mini flashlight
1 Noisemaker/Bubbles
1 Mousepad
1 Bandana
1 Foldable cell phone stand
1 Insulated lunch bag
1 12-month subscription to Webspiration
1 Lindt chocolate bar (consumed)