Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Great teachers and attractive Internet - all we need?

Having just gotten back from a brief vacation in West Virginia (see picture for some cool geology near Seneca Rocks) , I scanned the Outlook section of last Sunday's Washington Post and found two articles that intrigued me. One was What Makes a Teacher Great by Marc Fisher, in which he describes a day sitting as part of a group interviewing prospective teachers. The interesting bottom line was that, with guidance, even an non-professional, albeit well-informed one, such as Marc could pick out people likely to be good teachers. He found that the candidates he favored by and large reminded him of great teachers he had in the past. He also quotes Aleta Margolis of Inspired Teaching as saying that"many, if not most educators can be taught to turn away from an authoritarian approach and adopt values and methods that can help children become active, involved learners.

And what better way to get children become active learners than to offer courses on-line, where students spend much of their time anyway? That's the question asked by Katherine Mangu-Ward in her article on the same page called "Traditional Schools Aren't Working. Let's Move Learning On-line." For those who follow such bloggers as Vicki Davis, David Warwick, and many others, the arguments here are not new, and, in my opinion, the author is a bit too quick to write off all efforts in 'conventional' education (as in the "Traditional Schools Aren't Working" statement in the title), but she does quote some interesting statistics from the Florida Virtual School, which has some 100,000 students. According to the article, the students who enroll in AP courses on-line here average a higher score than those who enroll in AP courses in public school.

But I still remember my daughter trying to take a on-line course in Japanese when she was in high school, and eventually giving up because the technology was complicated and our cable service Internet couldn't keep up. I also remember several students in the school I teach, who, despite teachers as supportive as anyone could wish, refused to learn and disrupted class for other students. I certainly applaud the steps away from the "one size fits all" educational models, and I agree that the more 'great teachers' we have, the better we are. I think there are some students I know that could flourish in an on-line environment. But there are some that won't, and there are some that need a bit more structure in their learning lives than teachers who are merely supportive can give. We need a mix of alternatives because the kids we teach are not, in fact, identical. My own experience suggests that there are better ways and worse ways, but there need to be many ways, so that all kids can prosper.

Dropping back for a moment to the point of 'good teachering can be taught', I'm quite excited about an upcoming book "Teach Like a Champion" by Doug Lemov. I've heard a lot of good things about this book and have just ordered it. I"ll let you know how it is.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Andrew Carnegie Rides Again!

Last Friday, I put on my 19th century fancy outfit (why is it that I even have a 19th century fancy outfit? Long story here, another time perhaps.) and came into my class as Andrew Carnegie. As some of you may know, Carnegie came to the US as a poor immigrant from Scotland and ended up as the richest (or maybe second richest) American of his time.

I had asked my students to prepare some responses on the the proposition of "What is good for business is good for the US," and I gave them the opportunity to debate Carnegie, more or less in the flesh. Everyone seemed to have a good time of it. After a while, my students started asking the questions you would expect students from a upper-scale liberal background to ask, and I gave them the answers that someone who was a businessman in the latter half of the 19th century would give.

I think it was a good exercise for my students to debate someone who they clearly didn't agree with, and it certainly held their interest.

Granted, not much to do with high technology here, except that I was able to download a copy of Carnegie's essay "The Gospel of Wealth" (available here ) in a matter of minutes and a bit of an Internet search. That certainly made my job easier.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Feeding the Elephant

I was amused by Dane Peter's post on Dane's Education Blog which related a story in which a teacher from India asked a teacher from the United States whether the US did a lot of standardized testing. Upon receiving a confirmation, the Indian teacher noted. "Here, when we want the elephant to grow, we feed the elephant. We don’t weigh the elephant."

I am fortunate to work at a private school that receives no Federal funding at all. This means we also don't have to abide by Federal mandates, including those about standardized testing. We used to do one set of standardized tests a year, in part as a 'sanity check' on how our students are doing both for ourselves and our parents, but we've stopped doing that, and I can't say that I miss it. Neither do many of my students, who, having come from the public schools, complain long and loud about the tests they had to take when the subject comes up.

One of the sillier mandates I positively enjoy ignoring is the one put in by Senator Byrd of West Virginia which mandates that all schools receiving Federal funding teach about the U.S. Constitution on Constitution Day, which I believe is September 24th. Don't get me wrong; I believe in teaching about the Constitution, and spend two weeks on it in my US History course for 6th graders that I teach. But I teach it where it fits in chronologically, after the American Revolution, which, this year, I got to some time in November. I did not have to interrupt my presentation about the Salem Witchcraft Trials to devote an out-of-context day to the U.S. Constitution.

It would be nice to think that, with No Child Left Behind coming up for revision/renewal, that we'd get off this emphasis on testing, but I haven't heard much to indicate that this will be the case. In the meantime, I'll continue to enjoy my 'bubble' existence free from Federal mandates as I feed the elephant as best I can.

Picture by Oso, published under a Creative Common license. http://flickr.com/photos/oso/5890418/

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Yeah, about this blogging thing...

I follow a number of blogs, including Vicki Davis's Cool Cat Teacher Blog and David Warlick's 2 Cents Worth (both of which I recommend, by the way), but when it comes to writing my own, I can't seem to muster the patience or even the time, to put the obligatory picture on top, and to wordsmith what I have to say to something pithy and wide-reaching, and I certainly can't find the time to blog as much as these folks do. When we had the 'snow siege' in our area two weeks ago, I made myself a promise to say something weekly, which I've tried to do, but I'm not sure that forcing myself to write that often has resulted in that much added wisdom.

But, to continue from my last blog, I did have my students use the discussion feature on our class wiki to start a discussion on our current historical literature book, Ashes of Roses. It's just the first go-round, and I can see, even from my own inexperienced eyes, that this will be a work in progress for some time. I can see that I'll be tinkering with the format for a while before I hit upon something that works. What I do find is that I can launch only so many new things at one time...otherwise some fail simply for lack of attention.

On the bright side, however, I did get the idea of using the discussion feature from the English Companion Ning (which I also highly recommend). For much of my day-t0-day needs, I find this Ning answers a bit better than some of the blogs I follow. However, I find it a challenge to just keep up with the modest amount of on-line reading I do, much less add to my blog even once a week. How some of these folks find the time to read widely, which they clearly do, and blog at the pace they do is beyond me.