Schools Are Not Businesses; Students Are Not Commodities

No one can argue that education has changed. Something that is pretty noticeable to me is this shift in focus on creating the best schools we can to spending money on marketing events to recruit students. This idea was sparked from a blog post written by a colleague – Todd Bloch. He spoke about how School of Choice has actually hurt many schools, particularly those in urban centers as the suburbs have more appeal for many families. Those who can afford to transport their students to a (sometimes) better school outside their district do so. What happens of course, is that local districts lose students, which means they lose money. This has, of course, set up an impossible situation for schools, who are already tightening their belts and cutting all the “fat” they can – and have been doing so for years.

More and more it seems to me that schools are operating like businesses. There are pockets of really innovative schools where students are emerged in technology-rich, critically focused, problem and project based learning experiences. Here, these schools are able to share what their students are doing every day via social media and other mediums. They don’t have to spend top dollar creating catchy slogans and commercials. Parents hear from their students how great their school is. They share this with other parents. Students are excited about school and tell their friends.

Unfortunately, the majority of schools are not utilizing this new way of teaching. In classroom after classroom, you still see students being taught to be compliant: walk in rows, don’t speak until called upon, make sure your packet is stapled and in the correct order, etc. We are still pushing students through each grade, often treating them as empty containers that need us (the experts!) to fill them up. It’s so similar to the same way we educated students 100 years ago. Why, when we don’t treat injuries, solve crime, communicate, etc. the same way we did 100 years ago, are we still teaching students that way?

Between the focus on standards, high-stakes testing, performance pay, evaluation confusion, and the myriad other challenges schools and teachers face, it can be difficult to redefine learning in a way that is meaningful for students. Why take a risk when doing so could potentially generate failure? Before, failure was okay and you learned from it. In today’s evaluation-driven schools, failing on a project could be the difference between effective and minimally effective. When it comes down to making hiring and firing decisions, those evaluations matter. A lot.

So what’s the answer? It’s a pretty big problem.

First, we need to reform the current School of Choice policy. You can read the official policy here, but there have been many negative impacts on schools, especially in terms of funding and creating budgets. Beyond that, students miss out on a comprehensive education as they are often going back and forth year after year. The impact on students of Michigan was the topic of a recent MSU study.

Secondly, if we can change the idea of School Choice, that will take some pressure off of schools to spend money on marketing campaigns, fairs, and giveaways that many times just get pitched, and really take a look at where money might make a difference for student achievement. Can we hire more coaches to help with literacy and math? Provide smaller class sizes for teachers to be able to work with smaller groups in a more effective way? Maybe we would have more latitude to be creative with scheduling to provide opportunities for enrichment, re-teaching, challenges for students above grade level, and non-traditional learning opportunities.

Teacher evaluation is also an area that needs to be cleared up. Right now there is no standard for evaluations. School districts were able to choose from a variety of models and the implementation of those models is still convoluted and not clear at all. Implementation of the same model can look vastly different across school districts. The state has not explained what student growth measure should be used for deciding the level of effectiveness of a teacher. This school year, 50% of a teacher evaluation is based on student growth. But it’s not clear what assessment will be used to measure that achievement – M-STEP? District assessment? Grade-level content assessment? It is unacceptable that teachers are held to a standard that is constantly changing. A complete lack of leadership and too much playing politics has led to an unsustainable situation where no one is clear on what the expectations are.

Lastly, I think it would be valuable for university schools of education to work to partner with area school districts to provide the same kind of on-the-job-training similar to doctors and residents in a medical program. I believe this will help new graduates be more prepared for the day-to-day “stuff” of teaching and will also be useful for universities and schools to share resources and access.

While these are not easy solutions and will involve a shift in how we view education at a lot of different levels, I believe it is crucial for education to shift if we are to truly change the focus, improve student engagement and achievement, and actually modify the types of learning students are involved in.

My Education Journey

I’m often asked how I came to be an Instructional Technology Specialist. In many parts of the state, it seems that this role is a relatively new one, so people are often curious about what exactly I do and how I got there.

Most often people decide to join the teaching profession for one of two reasons: they grew up knowing they wanted to be a teacher, or they had such a terrible teacher that they want to enter education to change the experiences of future students.

My journey in education didn’t start in the traditional way. I never wanted to be a teacher. Growing up, I thought I would be a princess. When that didn’t pan out, and I began to think about what I might major in when I went to college, I thought I would seek out a career in communication or public relations. Once I got to college and took a course in communications and really didn’t like it. At the same time I was taking a European History class, mostly because I had always had a love of history and wanted to learn more. In high school I was always the student that others wanted to study with because I knew a lot and took great notes! It was while sitting in that European History class my freshman year at Michigan State that I realized I wanted to study history.

After changing my major to history and taking a variety of history courses, I heard over and over – “What are you going to do with a history degree? Teach?” And my pat response was always, “I’m not sure what I want to do, but I know that I don’t want to teach.”

Not long after I graduated, my cousin – a Sergeant First Class in the Army at the time – came to visit my parents. We hadn’t seen him in many years as he joined the Army right out of high school and was several years older than me. He had been stationed in Germany for the past three years, was getting stationed in Hawaii, and then would be deployed within the year to Afghanistan. My cousin offered me an opportunity to house sit for him in Hawaii while he was gone to Afghanistan. It was an amazing chance to live in a part of the world that I always said I wanted to visit.

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The house I was responsible for “sitting”. It was on the top of a mountain on Hawaii’s North Shore.

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View of the sunset from my lanai (porch)

Once I moved to Oahu, I set about finding a job and ways to spend my time. My cousin was stationed at Schofield Barracks and got me a part time volunteering “job” at the local museum on post. There, I worked on data entry – digitizing records of visitors, events, and letters to and from Schofield Barracks. It was interesting work, and I got to work with the curator a bit on putting together exhibits. One of the guys who worked at the museum told me about the USS Missouri was hiring tour guides to give tours of the battleship and that I should apply. I knew NOTHING about ships, and had never thought about being a tour guide. In fact, I didn’t know that I could get in front of large groups of people and speak. But, I applied, headed down to my interview, and landed the job!

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The Mighty Mo

We went through a major training process where we learned all there was to know about the ship – her history, how she was built, the specs about the engine and horsepower, artillery, etc. It was awe-inspiring and overwhelming. I never knew that World War Two officially ended on the decks of the Battleship Missouri. The more I learned, the more passionate I became – both about the ship and about my job. Being able to share with so many people the history of an integral part of the larger history of the United States was an honor. Through my work on the Battleship Missouri, I was blessed to meet true heroes – men who fought and survived World War Two. I was able to spend time with several former captains of the ship, give a tour to the governor of Oklahoma, observe two interments off the stern of the Missouri, and watch from the bow of the Missouri the Missing Man Flyover in honor of the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor.

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The beginning and the end of World War Two for the United States. USS Arizona memorial and USS Missouri. The Missouri is where the documents of surrender were signed by the Japanese on Sept. 2nd, 1945.

It was also how I came to decide to become a teacher. I knew that educating children would be very different from being a tour guide, but I also knew that I would feel a huge sense of pride and accomplishment in working with so many young people and guiding their learning. I wanted them to see that history could be interesting and fun, nuanced and complex. So I decided to return to Michigan after my cousin got back from Afghanistan and get my teaching degree.

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After an amazing student-teaching experience in a 7th grade classroom at Williamston Middle School, I knew I wanted to work with middle school students, so that’s where I focused my search. I was lucky enough to be offered a job as a 7th and 8th grade Social Studies and ELA teacher at Pathfinder School in Pinckney shortly after graduating with my teaching certificate. I worked for three years with an amazing group of educators and for an excellent principal. I honed many of my classroom management skills and began to think much more about my role as a teacher and about education as a whole. Unfortunately, due to budget cuts, I was laid off after three years. It was heartbreaking to leave a school where I felt like I had built a reputation, was taking on leadership roles, knew the staff and students, and where I wanted to make my career. By that time, I began to feel pretty jaded about education – not teaching, but education. Knee jerk policies, unfunded mandates, and the increased pressures on teachers to do more with less had made me feel very frustrated and defeated.

During my first three years of teaching, I worked on getting my Master’s Degree in Education Technology from Michigan State. The MAET program was an awesome way for me to combine my love of teaching with my passion for technology. I was able to learn a lot of new ideas and theories in my classes, and then implement them into my practice. Once I graduated with my Master’s Degree, I began seeking out opportunities to use it in a more explicit way.  481591_10102825188805804_1450006417_n

While my journey has been somewhat convoluted and certainly not traditional, I firmly believe that it was the right path. Each step led me closer to this role, but I didn’t know that was where I was heading when I set out on it. Today, I am able to collaborate and share with many teachers from around the district, learn, plan, collaborate, and share with them, and interact with a variety of students. It’s an awesome way to share my expertise and learn from so many brilliant educators. It’s an amazing gift and I am so appreciative!

Your Turn:

What’s your educational journey? 
Are you where you thought you’d be? 

I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Michigan Teachers Speak

Anyone who has been part of education in the last few years can’t help feel a tad defeated. While the rewards of being able to work with young people, watch them grow, ask questions, formulate opinions, and build relationships make teaching an unbelievably awesome job, there are many other pieces of our jobs that have come under fire in recent years. Teachers have seen their class sizes increase, their planning times taken away, salary cut, benefits reduced, etc. One could go on and on with all of the policies that have been made at the state level that directly influence our day to day work. Most of these policies have been enacted without teacher or educator input, which can be incredibly frustrating!

That’s one of the reasons I decided to apply to be a Michigan Educator Voice Fellow. I know so many great things are happening in our schools, throughout the state. It’s not all doom and gloom. There are myriad teachers doing innovative and challenging lessons and units with their students. Unfortunately, those voices don’t often get heard.

So what is the Michigan Educator Voice Fellowship? According to their website:

The Michigan Educator Voice Fellowship, as a branch of the national America Achieves Teacher & Principal Fellowship, empowers outstanding teachers and principals to elevate their voices in public conversations about teaching and learning, to assume leadership roles in their schools and communities, and to influence education policies at the local, state, and national levels, including the implementation of college- and career-ready standards.

I’m incredibly honored to have been chosen as one of 50 educators from around the state to work to raise teacher voices. For so long I have felt like my voice was the only one, whispering, while all around me people who have no experience with educating children get to shout and make the policy.Not only do we want to let people know about the innovative learning happening in our schools, we want to help reform education policy, provide solutions, and the time to see the effectiveness of those solutions. Being a part of this fellowship helps me to feel validated and empowered to not only share what teachers, schools, administrators, and districts are doing, but to feel supported in a way that I haven’t before.

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My Takeaways From ISTE

Friends, it has been a month since I returned from Philadelphia and the 2015 ISTE Convention. With this being my first ever ISTE, I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect. While I have attended other technology conferences around the country, this was by far the biggest and most well-known conference I have ever been a part of.

Here are my key takeaways from the conference:

1. Planning is Crucial

It is literally impossible for you to do and see all the sessions you want, talk to all the vendors you would like to, and even connect with all the folks you said you would. For weeks leading up to ISTE, my mailbox was inundated with postcards plying me with free cocktails and appetizers to hear their sales pitches. Promises of free swag were attempts to lure me to various booths in the Expo Hall. Without prioritizing the places and events I really felt would be beneficial for me and my role, I would have been pulled in far too many directions. The same goes for attending sessions. While it is always nice to have someone you know sitting next to you at sessions so you can bounce ideas off of one another, it isn’t always the most strategic way to attend a large conference. My colleagues and I attempted to “divide and conquer”, but it isn’t always easy. A tip that an ISTE veteran shared with me was to not make such a big deal of attending the “featured sessions” as those are often recorded. Generally they fill up the fastest, too, so you might schlep your stuff from one end of the convention site to the other, just to realize that the session is full. The ISTE app was really easy to use and allowed you to “favorite” sessions. You could also filter by day, time, and type, so that made finding a relevant session much easier than flipping through the 100+ page booklet.

2. Get out of your comfort zone

Sometimes I have a tendency to become a bit introverted in big settings. I alluded to this idea before when I mentioned that I didn’t really feel like I had enough “street cred” to really contribute to the conversation. Having seen the power of networking and connecting (especially via Twitter), I have come to realize that I DO have significant contributions to add that furthers the conversation. Still, sometimes those old insecurities come creeping back. It’s important to break out of your comfort zone. For me, that is speaking up in a large crowd to answer a question, share a point of view, push back on something the speaker has said, or contribute an idea. In smaller group settings, I am totally fine with sharing. Somehow when I’m at a conference I feel like I don’t belong with the rest of “those really smart people.” When I did put myself out there and got a little uncomfortable, I found that I made some great connections with folks – a shared experience or a lesson to takeaway. It’s important to remember what that feels like every once in awhile. After all, we ask our students to get out of their comfort zones on a daily basis.

3. Find Ways to Connect Beyond the Convention Site

As a runner and avid traveler, I love nothing more than the opportunity to pound out a few miles in an unfamiliar place. For me, there is no better way to see what a place is all about than by running the city streets and waving hello to the other morning walkers and runners. At ISTE, Josh Stumpenhorst organized an informal run. It was a great way to meet up with fellow educators and start the morning off on an active note. We met at the Philadelphia Art Museum – yes, the one with the famous Rocky steps – and headed along the Schuylkill River trail. I ran from my hotel to the Art Museum, which was about a half a mile away, did the 5k with the group and ran back to the hotel. Four and a half miles in before 8:00 a.m.; not a bad way to start the day! And, because both runners and educators on the whole are a kind and generous people, I not only found some running buddies, but a couple of them were extra welcoming. There was a lovely man who teaches at an International School in Africa whom I met in the elevator. He had the pleasure of running with me as I tripped and fell in the middle of the street, completely destroying my knee! Once I reached the fountain, another guy saw my Team Playmakers shirt (and my bloodied legs) and came to check on me and make sure I was okay. I sure appreciated those guys reaching out and making sure I was good to go. For the record, road rash HURTS – and takes FOREVER to heal!

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4. Set Goals and Follow Through On Them

It’s easy to be inspired at a conference. You’re surrounded by thousands and thousands of educators who are passionate about a lot of the same things you are. You sit in sessions with leaders in the educational world – teachers, coaches, administrators, consultants, innovation leaders. No wonder we leave a session ready to set the world on fire! (metaphorically speaking, of course). But as it often happens with conferences, we quickly forget about the ideas, the energy, the excitement, and we come back to our districts and feel disillusioned by another set of mandates or testing schedule. At the closing Keynote, Josh Stumpenhorst challenged all of the attendees to use Future Me to send an email to ourselves with one goal from ISTE. The email should come to us one month from the end of ISTE – July 1. I should be receiving my email in the next couple days. It think goal setting – and making a plan to follow through on them – is crucial to implementing what you learn at a conference. It can’t just be about the new tools you saw in the Expo Hall. Education is SO MUCH more than the shiniest, newest “game changer.” As my friend George Couros reminds us:

5. Seek Out Time to Explore

Being in a city is always so energizing for me. I grew up in a really small town; graduated with 30 kids. While I attended a large university (Go Green!), Lansing itself is not all that big in comparison to larger cities like Chicago or Philadelphia. So when I have the chance to explore a “big city”, I usually jump at the chance. It’s also fun to spend time with your colleagues outside of the school environment. While we were in Philly, a few of us decided to get together and take in a Phillies baseball game. We got some tickets for the cheap seats, grabbed a hot dog, and enjoyed the night!11709863_10106916225894684_6036938018920863097_o

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I also spent some time exploring the history of City Hall, Philadelphia, the LOVE Statue, and the oldest tavern in Philly! The Ale House has been operational since 1860, the year Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated. it was pretty cool.

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Philadelphia was a great venue for ISTE and I had so much fun, learned a LOT, and made some great connections. It’s so fun to meet folks that you’ve only ever interacted with on Twitter!

Going Beyond Google

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, several of the schools I am working with are Going Google. Earlier this summer, I worked with one of my schools and did some basic training on Google Drive – Docs, Forms, and Classroom, specifically. As with most things we learn, you have to use it or you lose it. I don’t take personally that staff doesn’t remember every single thing I taught them!

This summer I have worked hard to provide personalized learning opportunities for my teachers by providing drop-in office hours. A few teachers have taken up this option, but the majority have not. And that’s okay; we all need breaks and all are busy. However, as a Technology Integration Specialist, I want to share my knowledge and strengths to help teachers engage students in new ways and to hopefully make their lives easier! Starting next week and going through the month of July, I am offering some more in-depth and focused teaching of Google Apps.

While there is value in learning the technical “how-tos”, they don’t really help if you never provide teachers time to practice and practical ways to use these tools. Yeah, they are fun and exciting at first, but if you don’t have any real pedagogical and curricular connections, then what’s the point? My hope is that these summer Google training sessions will be useful for teachers.

Tech Camp 2015

I’m pleased to share an exciting – and FREE – technology professional development opportunity for my friends in the Mitten. East Lansing Public Schools is hosting a 3 day technology camp, covering topics ranging from social media, technology integration, software systems, iPads, and more.

This is the first year East Lansing Schools are offering this technology camp, and I’m excited to be a part of it. I will be sharing my knowledge on using code in the classroom. I have presented on this topic at a couple of conferences recently, and the amount of people who are interested in this topic continues to grow. I’m excited to share what my teaching partner and I have learned and to talk to folks who have done similar things in their buildings. That’s probably the best part of any conference – those connections!

While I engage in a lot of online learning – webinars, MOOCs, and Twitter chats – there is a lot of value in the opportunity to connect with others face to face.

There is no registration or fee for attending the Tech Camp; you can attend all 3 days or pick and choose which sessions you would like to attend. You can learn more and view the schedule here. Hope to see some friendly faces there!

Camp Google

Sometimes I am super jealous of young people today. They have so many amazing and unique opportunities available to them! I was recently at #ISTE2015 and attended a session about developing the innovator’s mindset. One of the things the presenter said that struck me was that the technology we have today is the worst it will ever be. Take a minute to let that sink in!

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In that vein, one of the coolest things I have seen Camp Google. Students can “go to camp” with Google. According to their site, “Google Camp is a free camp for kids, full of fun science activities and adventures led by experts.” There are several different themes and areas to explore, including Ocean, Space, and Nature. Google partnered with the National Parks Service, National Geographic, and Khan Academy to bring innovative and interactive activities for students. What an awesome way to spark creativity and curiosity in young people.

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Camp Google is designed for students ages 7-10 and students don’t need a Google account to participate. Students can participate throughout the summer; there aren’t set times or deadlines. Many of the activities ask students to use household items, but the camp itself is completely free! I love the idea of students learning and then creating something new. Providing students options to be active and connected to their learning is so powerful.