Sunday, April 27, 2008

Celebrate the Child

“Mothers will go where their children are being celebrated, every time, in every town, in every city.” Bill Strickland

This past week my school hosted a spring family night. Hot dogs and hamburgers were served along with performances by our jumprope club, our ballroom dancing club, as well as our staff and student choir. The next day our Assistant Principal sent an email to the staff with much praise and high thanks for all of the participation.

My school has a large base population living in public housing right on the outskirts of our city. Frequently it is difficult to attract parents to come to our school, though the trip, for most, would require little more than a short walk across the street. Our AP noted in the email the significant turnout of base parents and I thought of the Bill Strickland quote.

For those of you who don’t know him, Bill Strickland is an innovator who has funded and created his own schools and training centers to help the under served populations of inner city Pittsburg. He has received the MacArthur “Genius” Award for leadership and integrity in the arts, among his many other accolades.

His quote is referring to a gallery that the had opened at his school to celebrate the work of the students. He spoke of the drive to get parents to come to the gallery openings, and how he hired a man to encourage the parents to come. He described how the number of guests at their openings grew with each invitation because mothers will go where their children are celebrated.

Immediately I thought of our school.

I thought of the lengths that my school goes to to encourage our base parents to come for teacher conferences and the inevitable low attendance. I thought of my own frustrations with with parents who do not seem to offer the support that their child so desperately needs. Then I thought about celebrating their child.

I teach the fourth grade, so I wondered how many parent teacher conferences parents may have already been to that did not center around celebration. I wondered about a history of calls from the office that were devoid of celebration. At some point, I imagined, you begin to dread that call, to disdain the invitation, to ignore the school that looms, like a wall across the street. I thought of the conferences that I haven’t had with my base parents, and wondered if there would have been much celebration in the event that they had visited.

Sadly I fear that our results oriented society would not offer much hope for celebration at the parent teacher conference. This concerns me. What concerns me more is that I don’t know that I have to answer for how to provide the platform for celebration. I firmly believe that every child has a gift and talent to be cultivated and drawn forth by, among others, educators. Additionally, I believe that I am working every day to draw the children out of themselves, heads held high with confidence. But I also recognize theirs and their families strong adherence to the standards that our society has set in place. Grades and testing results measure, ultimately the child. While I do believe that there is a need for valid assessment of understanding and capabilities, my concern is that, increasingly, it is at the expense of the child. That, I suppose, is an entirely different blogpost.

Here, I am at an end, though I realize that I have not concluded my thoughts. Ultimately I feel that I am not at a conclusive place. Perhaps one of my three readers out there in cyberspace might have some thoughts on the matter. I just can’t get this notion of celebrating children out of my head.

See Bill Strickland speak here.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Industrial Revolution 2.0

More and more I find that the world, along with myself, seems to be coming to grips with the notion that we find ourselves in the midst of what should only be deemed an Industrial Revolution. William McDonough has already spoken of an industrial revolution in terms of the terrible need to change our perspectives about ecological responsibility. Cradle to cradle is his brainchild for radically changing the ways that we think about production and recycling. Within it, he poses a challenge to generate products and structures that are truly recyclable, that have no end life. “The Next Industrial Revolution.”

My vision of our current Industrial Revolution is slightly different, and as I thought back to my grade school understanding of the history of the Industrial Revolution I found the comparison to be extremely interesting. Around the mid 1800’s people in Great Britain and America began migrating away from their farms into the cities where their labor was found to be in great need. There had been a fairly rapid increase in innovation in regards to the technology of manufacture. Factories churned out goods at what seemed to be an alarming rate. The general public, who, for the first time, were accumulating wealth, became consumers and their appetite was discovered to be great. It was, in many ways, a time of huge prosperity and essentially the powerful wind that has brought us forward to the present.

One of the major differences between the first and second Industrial Revolution and the Industrial Revolution in which we currently find ourselves will be the fact that we will be able to study and relate to our own revolution as it happens. The speed with which media is currently produced and consumed will allow us to view multiple different takes on the state of our lives almost immediately. We will analyze and evaluate our direction in much the same way that our cars are being guided remotely via satellite. Previously, people were aware that there were great changes going on right around them, but these individuals did not have an efficient method for contemplating the whirlwind of change that they found themselves drawn up in.

Here we are in the midst of a great whirlwind, and what is amazing, is that we will have the pause to still, at least our own minds, within the turmoil to assess our direction and affect, hopefully, change.

What is frightening is how this will connect with the classrooms of the 21st century. Obviously, technology, similar to mechanization, is going to be the greatest factor in revolutionizing our world as we know it. This past weekend I attended, along with two of my administrators, our counties job fair. The elementary schools of our county hosted around a thousand applicants, in most cases, looking to begin their careers as teachers. I was able to ask one question of our perspective candidates and I elected to center my question around how they might plan to implement technology in the classroom. In general, they struggled with their responses.

Here we are preparing our students for careers that have yet to be conceived of. Preparing the children for a world that is rapidly shrinking. Moving forward into an incredibly exciting time of tremendous innovation and yet it seems that we may be missing the boat.

The average student in their teens has at least three digital devices on their person at any given time. Whether it be a cell phone, an MP3, a laptop, a video game, a GPS, or a simple television. They are interacting on a global scale with multiple individuals socially, economically, and as someone who pursues their own personally developed education plan, and yet in the classroom they are stuck in what might reasonably be called a medieval time.

Many students have a more thorough knowledge of technology than their teachers. For a lot of teachers this is terribly intimidating, let alone the notion of the multiple rapid improvements in technology that are taking place on a daily basis. WE MUST PERSEVERE! We must not be intimidated, and furthermore, those of us who are able to interact within this world of change, must step out of our comfort zones with the intentions of guiding our colleagues into the next Industrial Revolution. We must do this for the sake of our children. We must do this for the sake of our country. We must embrace the future that is here now, and seek to guide our children into this great foggy expanse.

I believe that many will find this, in some sense frightening, for one of the most difficult aspects of being a teacher is allowing oneself to believe that it is ok not to know all the answers. Here we stand in the great whirlwind of change. Don’t miss your opportunity to turn on the switches that will keep our next generation on the precipice of innovation.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Your Daughter is a Dancer

Many of you may be familiar with Sir Ken Robinson and his powerful thoughts about the future of creativity in our world. If you have seen his TED talk, which is a must (Really, see it now if you haven’t.), then you are familiar with the story about the young girl who had trouble sitting still in her class. Her principal called her mother in for a conference and, in a rather eloquent way, informed her that her daughter was a dancer. I’ll try not to spoil it for those of you that haven’t already seen it. Suffice it to say that this week I had one of those moments in my classroom.

Frequently I worry that I might be the major factor in a child’s life that could potentially keep them from pursuing their hearts desire. This year I have had a student, who on more than one occasion has pushed my patience to its edge. She is not at grade level, frequently her attitude pushes other children away from her, her mother has enabled her for fear of hurting or damaging her self esteem, and completing anything, and I mean anything, takes longer than one would think humanly possible.

Today I had a parent bring in a special snack for our class in honor of her daughter’s birthday. One of the young men in my class volunteered to sing happy birthday for her, so I took the liberty of jovially putting him on the spot. It was all in good fun, and inevitably he laughed himself back to his seat in a slight fog of embarrassment. Of course when there is any possibility of limelight, you’ll find that multiple students, frequently ones that you might never have expected, will jump out into the forefront.

As I was weeding them back to their seats several of my students pushed to have my difficult student remain as a standout. In all of the din, I elected, simply, to sit back and see what would come. It was very quiet at first, but then her voice found footing, and I found myself quietly... amazed. Here was power and confidence. Justified confidence bubbling over.

I thought of the multiple conferences that I have had with her mother. All of the interventions and strategies, the hand wringing and frustration, and this child in the midst of it all. Clearly frustrated. Her own patience worn terribly thin because, how long can you be told that you are not doing what you should be doing before you give up. What should be a reasonable expectation for our students when it comes to reflecting on what we have deemed to be their shortcomings. How do you show perseverance to someone who struggles to read the word, or better yet, in this student’s case, refuses to write it for fear that she will inevitably misspell it.

Were it not for the current state of education, I would have called mom, this afternoon to set up a conference. At the conference I would have shown mom, what it is likely that she already knows. “Ma’am, your daughter is a singer. Isn’t that a beautiful thing?”

Sadly I cannot do this.

Though I am sure that mom would be very appreciative of the compliment for her daughter, we live in a world of high stakes expectations. Her mother lives in a world that has told her again and again that, for her daughter to succeed, she must meet a specific set of criteria. For her daughter to succeed, she must expect to attend college. Success will be achieved if her daughter is able to command an assessment that proves something to someone somewhere. There is no measure for creativity. There will be no benchmark that qualifies an individual for college because they can paint an impressive landscape.

And so here I am. Up late at night on a Friday, pondering the notion of my own failures for this child, who I fear is set on a path to failure. Sometimes it makes it difficult to sleep.

* * *

For those of you who are interested, Ken Robinson has a book out currently titled:
Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative
I am currently reading it, and yes, it is as powerful as his talk.

“You say you want a revolution...” -- John Lennon 1968

Sunday, April 6, 2008

A Drop of Reason

Here comes the orator! With his flood of words, and his drop of reason.
Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard's Almanack

I have decided to create a space where I can iterate my ongoing thoughts about the current state of education in the United States. Frequently among my closer circles of colleagues I have said that it would appear that the only solution for the current mismanagement of our school system would be for a revolution to occur. As I was beginning the creation of this blog and searching for a proper namesake, I thought of the revolutionaries who formed, from the salts of the earth, our great country. I sought wisdom from an ever fruitful source in Benjamin Franklin, and I found this quote to be subtle and appropriate for my way of thinking.

My intention for this blog is to nurture and cultivate a burgeoning philosophy towards a reparation of the ills that are plaguing our system of teaching and learning. A revolution in education.

At this point the notions of this revolt are still but a babe, but more and more I have felt their roots taking hold, so that powerful ideas are pushing towards the sun. Ideas such as:
  • Recently, my eyes have been opened to the importance of technology and innovation in the classrooms of tomorrow.
  • For too long too many educators have ignored the elephant in the room that is testing. More and more our years worth of work is boiled down to one mark from one watered down assessment.
  • Imagination is being stifled, ingenuity lost, children are buried, and though everyone bears the same furrowed brows, none have yet had the courage to be that one small voice to call out into the void.

And so here I am... tossing a drop of reason into the void. Trusting that one person can work to bring about a change in a world where it can be so easy to feel insignificant.