Wrong For Schools, Wrong for Michigan

Late this week, in the last voting session of 2015, the Senate sent Senate Bill 571 to Governor Snyder for his signature. Buried within the 53 page finance bill is a measure that will make it much more difficult for local schools and school districts to inform voters on proposed millages to support school systems.

According to MASSP, “The House adopted a floor substitute to a campaign finance bill that included this measure and took the legislation from 12 pages long to 53 pages at the end of a nearly 12-hour session.” The provision would bar local districts, schools, and ISDs from distributing factual and unbiased information for 60 days prior to an election. This includes mass mailings, TV, or pre-recorded phone messages.

Given the deep cuts to the School Aid Fund and the overall reduction in per pupil funding the last several years, millages are often the only way schools can bridge the gap between what they can financially provide their students and what their students actually need. Millages are one of the most democratic proposals citizens can vote on. Investing in the future of their city’s schools and students ensures that all will receive a quality education in a school that is safe and secure. Students will have access to technology that will support and enhance their instruction, and will be of the same caliber they will encounter in college and their careers. Millages often provide infrastructure support – improvements in lighting, classroom heating, wireless access, updated bathrooms, etc. These are things that have fallen by the wayside as schools have continued to see their budgets shrink due to a variety of factors – one of which is decreased funding from the state legislature.

A democracy thrives when its citizens are able to participate in the electoral process. An informed electorate was one of the key principles of the nation our Founding Fathers valued. They understood the importance of information when it came to choosing laws and policies that would guide our country. For the Republicans in our state to attempt to pass a law that is in no way good for students, for schools, or for the public as a whole, is reprehensible and despicable. Unfortunately, it is par for the course in the last few years. Taking away the ability for districts to be able to distribute factual and unbiased information around a millage means fewer people will be informed, and thus, fewer people will participate in the democratic process by simply choosing not to vote, or voting no because they don’t understand what it is they are voting for.

What’s even more appalling, is earlier this week, Republicans passed Senate Bill 13 that eliminates the ability to vote “straight ticket”. Proposed under the guise of allowing the electorate to be more informed, the Republicans fast-tracked this legislation through the House and Senate, designed to make voting less efficient and less easy. The electorate already voted on this, and over 60% of the population voted to keep straight ticket voting. This time, when the Republicans passed the bill, they attached it to an appropriations bill. Under Michigan’s Constitution, a bill that is attached to an appropriation is ineligible for referendum. So much for democracy in Michigan.

It is my belief that Senate Bill 571 is just another attempt to make it more difficult for public schools to operate in Michigan. Years of reduced funding and cuts to the School Aid Fund. An elimination of caps on charter schools. And now this. Where, pray tell, are schools supposed to get the monies they need to provide a high quality education for the students of Michigan. I am ashamed of the Republicans in our legislature.

I urge voters to contact Governor Snyder and ask him to veto this bill. It serves no clear purpose other than to make it more difficult for schools to offer a high quality education to its students. This bill is not good for schools, it’s certainly not good for students. The people of Michigan deserve better. Our kids deserve better.

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.

Blended Learning Course

Good Monday morning, friends! I’m excited to share an exciting opportunity with Ingham County folks. This Blended Learning Course, offered through the REMC and Ingham ISD, is an awesome opportunity to learn more about how to blend in your classroom/district. Through this course you will learn a lot of great things, like the variety of theories and approaches to blended learning, many Web 2.0 tools to increase student engagement, Universal Design for Learning possibilities, Copyright issues, and much more!

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Blended Learning in the the Classroom https://www.smore.com/ej9ww

The course is FREE! There is an option to receive 62 (woah!) SCECHs for a minimal fee of only $10. Either option is a bargain!

To learn more or to sign up, visit this link – Blended Learning Course.

Building Relationships

I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting lately on how technology can create and enhance relationships. Technology changed the ways I communicate with my students. When I first started teaching, Facebook was the main mode of communication that all my students used. They went to great efforts to try to find me and “friend” me. As technologies and preferences changed, students used Google to read a lot of my blog posts, my teaching portfolio, find me on Twitter, etc. They used the technologies available to them to learn more about me. In turn, I used technology in my classroom to learn more about my students:

Relationships are crucial. I’ve always considered myself very social and outgoing; friendships and connecting have been central to my well-being. I discovered building and maintaining relationships with my students was something that came easily to me, but also were often the difference maker between students coming to my classroom excited to learn – even if the content didn’t always thrill them – and coming to my classroom because they couldn’t skip school without their parents finding out. It seems so simple and yet it is often so difficult for people to get. There’s “never enough time”, there’s “too much content to cover”, whatever. If a student doesn’t know you care about him or her, there is no way he or she is ever going to do what you ask them to do at the level you’d like.

For example, you might ask your student to write a personal memoir. While he or she may complete the assignment satisfactorily, maybe even get an A as all her subjects and verbs agree, she’s chosen “juicy” words, and met the length requirement (that’s another pet peeve…I digress). But if she doesn’t TRUST you, she’s not going to share anything beyond the surface level with you. And that’s a lost opportunity to get to know a student as more than just a repository for your knowledge. It’s crucial to see our students as people with amazing ideas, complicated pasts, massive dreams, fears, and desires.

Technology can make it easier for us to connect. Technology helps students who often feel voiceless have a voice. It can make communicating much easier and faster than speaking face to face or hand writing a letter. But technology doesn’t have to be the only way we build relationships, connect, and grow with our students. The important piece for me is that we do SOMETHING to show our students why we went into teaching in the first place. I became a teacher because I wanted to share my passion and love for learning with others. I became a teacher because I love kids and learning from them. I became a teacher because to see them change, struggle, learn, adapt, create, and grow is the best feeling in the world.

Let’s hear it – how do you build relationships with your students? Does technology play a role? 

Teaching and Embracing Failure

I’m still on a high from the most recent MACUL Conference in Detroit last week – blog post coming soon. There were so many inspiring, energetic, compassionate, and passionate educators discussing a variety of ideas. I’m still trying to focus and organize my thinking around all that I just experienced and absorbed. Ann Smart wrote a great post about this feeling – The MACUL Hangover. 

Something that gets talked about a lot is creating a space for students to feel safe enough to take risks and to fail. Not only do students need this opportunity, but teachers do as well. Being a teacher is incredibly challenging in the best of environments. Without an administration and a staff that values collaboration, sharing, risk-taking, and innovation, teachers are going to be very hesitant to try something new.

I came across this article in from The Huffington Post about the recent Science Fair at the White House. President Obama invited students for the fifth time during his administration to share their projects they created. There were a variety of students, states, and ideas represented. Students and teachers could also participate from anywhere in the world using Twitter. If you haven’t checked out some of the cool things students made, I encourage you to search the hashtag #WHsciencefair. One thing that struck me in the article was the ways in which we teach students – not just science but all subjects:

Every test question has a right answer. Every lab has known results. We emphasize facts rather than the process and joy of science. We praise success but don’t sufficiently reward effort.

How can we we expect students to innovate and take risks when much of their learning is already pre-determined? If we cannot allow students authentic opportunities to truly discover, to tinker, to make, and to figure out, are we really preparing them for the “21st century”? Perhaps more importantly, are we really preparing them to be engaged critical thinkers?

Google Classroom

You guys – I LOVE Google Classroom! It is so incredibly easy to use, super intuitive, very well organized, and (almost) perfect. In case you’re unfamiliar with Classroom, it’s a Learning Management System by Google that syncs seamlessly with Google Drive and Gmail. You can also check out the video here.

I remember the days of using Google Docs with my students and trying to sort through the inevitable five or six (or 20…) “Untitled Documents” that students had shared with me. It was such a hassle trying to organize them, keep the graded and ungraded assignments sorted, share documents with students, get them to name the document correctly, or make a copy of a template I had created. Google Classroom does all this (and more!) for you.

Earlier this week I showed off some of the features of Classroom to a group of teachers at Mt. Hope STEAM. These teachers are so awesome and willing to get right in there and learn. I love that kind of attitude! The first step was giving teachers a glimpse as to what Classroom was and how it looks from the student perspective. I created a class and invited the teachers to join as students. I think it’s so important to understand the student view in any tool or device we use with kids. Just like you create an answer key or go through questions on a worksheet before you share with kids, having an idea of what Classroom looks like from their end was an important perspective for me to share. Teachers loved the ability to have a conversation with me on an assignment. I enjoyed the ease from the teacher dashboard that showed me in one view which students had completed an assignment, which ones were late, etc.

After the teachers completed an assignment, I graded and returned it to them, it was their turn to be teachers. They were able to create a class and some assignments.

Classroom allows you to add resources to any assignment. This is worth the price of admission if all you ever did was use Classroom to push sites for your students to visit. You can end the frustration of having students type a website address that they will inevitably type wrong, or put into the Google search bar rather than the address bar, etc., etc. Of course, you should definitely use Classroom for far more than this, but you get what I’m saying.

Lots and lots of webinars, trainings, tutorials, and videos are out there on using Classroom, so I won’t spend a ton of time on it. What I will say is if you are a Google Apps for Education (GAFE) school, you should totally get on board. Like yesterday. If you’re not, bug your administrator, tech director, whomever to get going. Google Apps for Education is just so great in so many ways. Not only does it help with teacher and student workflow, its an awesome way to use technology to augment and modify what you’re already doing in your classroom. The students at Mt. Hope have been so excited to work on one document with others in their classes at the same time – or whenever is convenient for them. With GAFE – as opposed to using space on a school server – students can access their information wherever, whenever, and from any device. Teachers also have this ability. It’s a heck of a lot easier to take home a computer or tablet to grade papers than to take home a stack of 180 English essays.

I’m so excited to see Classroom in action. Since I am no longer a classroom teacher, I have to live vicariously through others who utilize a tool I share with them. I sincerely wish Classroom had been around when I was teaching!

Putting it Out There

Being able to learn from what we do is such an important part of improving our performance. While I know my own flaws and am aware of the things I think are necessary for me to work on, it is always beneficial to hear about what others’ perceptions of what I do are. I did this every year with my students; we would use a Google Form for students to evaluate my teaching. Students didn’t have to write their names if they didn’t want to, and they were able to give really helpful feedback on what worked for them, which lessons were their favorite, least favorite, what they wished we could have done more of, and ways I could improve for the next year. It can be a little scary, but honestly, I never had an inappropriate or hurtful response. Students love having a sense of agency. They love having a voice. The majority of students took the evaluation process seriously and provided really good feedback – often providing ideas for teaching that I hadn’t thought of myself.

Data-driven (everything) instruction is crucial, but it is often difficult to find meaning in data. I was never a numbers girl; social studies nerd all the way. So I often am overwhelmed with trying to make meaning from rows and rows of numbers. But when data is meaningful and easy to parse, it makes sense to me. Not only that, it makes me want to be better. I truly took to heart the suggestions and comments students provided in their end of year evaluations. Am I a completely different person? No. But, I am cognizant of how my mannerisms, delivery methods, responses, etc. can appear, and try to be as balanced and fair as possible.

Fitting myself into a new role as a Technology Integration Specialist is somewhat tricky. There are a vast number of teachers I am working with and just as many levels of technology knowledge. Creating presentations and offering suggestions that will be a one-size-fits-all is pretty challenging, and perhaps impossible. I have been working to provide a variety of tutorials that will hit on several different levels of technology confidence. So often, technology creates anxiety among teachers, but I do my best to help them to think about a device or a website as a tool, just like any other. Technology is a tool that makes a job or outcome easier. Paper is a technology. Pencils are technology. iPads are technology. The tool doesn’t matter – the learning does.

My overarching goal is to teach everyone at least ONE thing they will use – with confidence – in their classes. Beyond using it, the second piece of that goal  – and perhaps the more important piece of that goal – is that the technology tool teachers implement will enhance the learning for students. At the end of the day, that is the goal of technology – to transform WHAT we do, HOW we do it, and how students are CONNECTING to their learning.

This week I have spent some time working with teachers talking about iPad basics, using their Promethean Boards, and Kahoot. A variety of different tools, a variety of learner outcomes. And a plethora of lessons for this Integration Specialist to learn. To that end, I am putting myself out there in a sense. After sessions, I send an evaluation form to my attendees (thanks to my friend Jeremy Radner for the template!). The questions are simple; they ask teachers to evaluate their level of knowledge before and after the session and to provide any suggestions or comments if they’d like. There is always a risk in asking for feedback on something you do. Knowing what you do well – and hearing about that – is always nice, but that’s not how we grow and learn. It is only by asking for ways to improve, evaluating the reasonableness of that feedback, and, if necessary, implementing changes, that we truly grow and improve our practice.

After all, we ask our students to do these kinds of things all the time. We ask them to review their behavior, we provide feedback on their work (and their behavior sometimes!), and ask them to revise, improve, and learn. If we are not willing to do that ourselves, what kind of model are we for our kids?

Your Turn:

Do you ask for feedback often? 

How do you implement suggestions into your practice? 

Excitement

With the myriad responsibilities, anxieties, assessments, and learners teachers have to juggle, sometimes learning just one more tool can feel overwhelming. Obviously, my job is to put teachers at ease and to help them to see that the technology is just a different way to do a lot of the same things students already do. But that can be difficult to visualize.

Today, I had the opportunity to share with a group of passionate and dedicated 4-6 educators some ways to help engage learners using their Interactive White Boards. Our district has chosen to utilize Promethean boards, which offer a TON of great resources and lessons via their online community called Promethean Planet. Today, teachers created accounts, learned how to browse and refine resources, and then discussed ways these lessons could be used in class.

I always love listening to teachers share and generate ideas with one another. That’s why I love working with educators! We all have so much to share, even if we think what we do isn’t necessarily mindblowing or earth shattering. Spending time discussing ways to get kids up and involved in their learning is always beneficial.

Another tool I showcased for teachers was Kahoot – which is getting tons and tons of buzz in the educational world right now. Sometimes I think it’s helpful for teachers to see things from the kids’ points of view, so I had the teachers experience Kahoot from the student perspective first.

Some comments I heard:

  • “Wow, this is really fun!”
  • “I LIKE this!”
  • This was definitely worth it!”
  • “We’re going to use this this afternoon!”

As a presenter and instructor, who doesn’t love when their attendees feel like what you told them was helpful and worthwhile? But more than an ego boost, I like knowing that I have generated an excitement. How validating to know that I have worked to inject some enthusiasm back into something teachers do. As the teachers left, the principal remarked that she hadn’t heard so much excitement and energy after a training session in a long time.

It’s not just that Kahoot is fun – it is definitely that. But, beyond that, the tool (because that’s what’s really important here) WORKED THE WAY IT WAS SUPPOSED TO. Teachers were impressed with the ease of creating their own Kahoot. They liked that it involved EVERYONE in the class at the SAME TIME. Teachers remarked that they appreciated how it was fair – everyone had the same opportunity.

Before we left for the morning, I walked teachers through setting up an account and creating their first Kahoot. That felt like an important step for me, because I know for myself that I constantly learn about all these new tools but then never actually use them. Now that teachers have their own accounts, that’s one less barrier to them not using this in their classroom. We were even able to create a couple of questions for a quiz, so teachers could experience that as well.

Today sort of feels like when you have a great lesson with students. You feel validated and inspired to continue to work hard. You get a sense that what you’re doing matters.

Your Turn:

Have you ever had a lesson that turned out “just right”? 

How do you get the feeling that what you do matters? 

Community Connections – ENTH and the RDC

Yesterday, I had the opportunity work with 8th grade students who are in the midst of a project researching immigration in the United States. Rooted in the 8th grade Social Studies content standards, students work in small groups to research the reasons for immigrants to emigrate to America. In addition to looking at the reasons for the movement, students also analyze the cultural, political, economic, and social impacts that the immigrant groups experienced. They also look at ways immigrant groups impacted the United States’ politics, culture, society, and economy.

Later, students will take a look at a local organization, the Refugee Development Center. According to their website, “the Refugee Development Center was started in 2002 in an effort to provide the educational and social support refugees need to become self sufficient.” Since its beginnings, the RDC has grown tremendously, which speaks to both its need in the community and its ability to assist refugees. Part of the New Tech model that 7th and 8th grade students are engaged in at Everett New Tech High (ENTH) includes building connections to the community. Students had the opportunity to listen to a guest speaker from the RDC to learn a bit more about what the organization does. Many students attend school side by side with students from a variety of countries, so the connection is very real for them.

While the immigration to our country as a historical event is interesting and its impacts can be seen in our culture and society today, it is still somewhat distant and abstract. Learning about the difficulties and hardships that happened “back then” doesn’t always resonate with students today. By connecting the experiences of immigrants in the past to the experiences of refugees who come to Lansing and utilize the RDC, students will have a deeper understanding of the types of challenges immigrants experience when moving to a new place. As a way to support the work the RDC does, students will work on creating materials to help improve awareness of the RDC and its programs.

It is so inspiring and refreshing to see kids connected to their learning! There are so many awesome things happening in our local schools. I am excited to be a part of it, to support students, to work on harnessing technology’s powers to improve student achievement and to increase the awareness of what our brilliant students are doing.

Sooo…What is it you DO, exactly?

I get this question a lot when I first tell people that I’m a Technology Integration Specialist. While those relatively new to the education world are more familiar with this idea, others have never heard of it. I kind of liken it to all the various acronyms we give to jobs nowadays. Secretaries are “Administrative Assistants”, we have “Customer Care Relations Specialist” for Help Desk employees. So, usually once I explain to people my role, they are excited and interested to hear how I help teachers and students.

Working with 6 different buildings is a bit challenging, and the logistics of simply making it to all the schools and doing meaningful work is often difficult. Teachers have so much on their plates, technology is AWESOME when it works, random visitors, opportunities, assemblies, emergencies, etc. all pop up, and a myriad of other “crises” can derail even the best laid plans. With all of those (potential) obstacles, working with teachers and students is still incredibly rewarding – even if fleeting and short-lived at times.

My job has been made possible through funding by a Federal Grant to support STEM and STEAM education in our  nation’s schools. What an awesome and exciting time to be a support person! The incredible things students do, the intense level of engagement and connection to their learning…it’s awe-inspiring. I decided to create a short video of what types of work I’ve been doing in the month since I began working with teachers. You can view the video here.

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There are so many creative ways students are using technology to improve the world they live in and to enhance their understanding of complex issues. I cannot wait to see the fruition of some of the projects I have been supporting students on.

Your Turn:

What do you do that inspires others? 

What do others do that inspires you?