Educators. Students. Community members. Much more unites us than divides us, particularly knowing we all wear multiple hats. Building relationships. Thinking BIG.
Challenging and supporting one another. Developing engaged, empathetic citizens. Please join me in pondering how best to nurture these common ground connections.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Hanging Out

"Why don't you go outside and get some friends together to play a game of soccer?" I say to my then 7-year-old, back in 1999. "Who will decide teams and who will be the ref?" she asked in a perturbed and mystified tone. Needless to say, no soccer game took place.

As a child? I was a tomboy. I was an athlete. So much of my "character"—determination, discipline and dedication—comes from my childhood experiences in athletics. My students typically assume I am referring to formal sports teams, like park district or school sponsored programs. Programs where an adult was facilitating all events, from start to finish. Yes, I had coaches. And I loved them and learned from them. But I fondly recall the majority of my childhood evenings being occupied by pick-up basketball or softball games, tag, olly olly oxen free, and just general kid craziness in our back yards. When it was time for bed, my mom would ring the bell to signal the end of the evening. Yes, a bell. We determined a winner and/or settled our differences, and then planned the next get-together.

No, I don't consider myself ancient. I'm only in my 40s, and I still LOVE basketball, working out and running. So as a parent, I am bewildered by how foreign the idea of "pick-up games" is to my kids, which has led me to a more general area of concern. My daughters' days are so scheduled, the idea of simply "hanging out" with friends is somewhat frightening to them. The "down time" they have with their own thoughts and the impromptu interactions with peers is far too scarce. And I have always thought that the institution of education and the underlying political/commercial motives continue to cause our children harm, in so many ways. (A telling poem by Clydia Forehand is worth a read.)

danah boyd has shed light on at least one aspect of why shutting down, controlling and/or "facilitating-to-death" our kids' free time might legitimately stunt their growth in terms of developing social skills. She provides an intriguing perspective in her article Sociality is Learning. Our kids are trying desperately to take back their free time. And they're doing so right in front of our eyes. It's not so much rebellious behavior, but a personal necessity. The uncertainty and awkwardness that we navigated during our adolescence might be (partially) achieved through social media.

Certainly, I have many parental concerns regarding social media—the need for interpersonal communication, the detriments of multitasking, the art of managing time, etc. But perhaps we need to embrace the idea of teaching our children how to navigate this new world. Perhaps we need to "unlearn and relearn" how to teach and fine-tune social interactions. Certainly, as an educator and parent of both a teen and a tween, I have some brainstorming and investigating to do.

As a parent, are you teaching your children the benefits of social media? Are you discussing etiquette? As a parent and/or educator, how might we embrace this world so that children don't feel we're trying to "structure" their "unstructured" social media time? How do we become comfortable with this? Still formulating my questions...Would love to hear your thoughts/questions as well.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Edublog Awards

My nominations for the 2009 Edublog Awards are as follows:

1. Best teacher blog: An American Studies, by Spiro Bolos and John O'Connor

2. Best educational tech support blog: New Trier Curricular Technology, by Spiro Bolos

3. Best individual blog: Metanoia, by Ryan Bretag


Friday, November 20, 2009

Education's Role in Fighting Media Disinformation...?

“The increasingly blatant nature of the nonsense uttered with impunity in public discourse is chilling. Our democratic society is imperiled as much by this as any other single threat, regardless of whether the origins of the nonsense are religious fanaticism, simple ignorance or personal gain.”

This quote caught my eye this morning while perusing my unread RSS feeds. My first thought was, "Exactly! This has gotten completely out of hand. I can't STAND to read or hear the news anymore." I finished reading the Scientific American article, War is Peace: Can Science Fight Media Disinformation? I was hoping to gain some clarity as to how I might prevent myself, my colleagues, my children, my friends and my students from getting hypnotized by media disinformation.

And then it hit me. "Wait. This article in and of itself can be an example of media disinformation, at least in certain areas!" It was actually fun for me to recognize this so quickly. (As I age, I can't tell if I'm getting wiser or just more cynical!) An article in Scientific American would likely provide any reader the comfort of being reliable, being accurate, being "true." After all, it is science, right?

The article contains much to ponder. For instance, the author implies that perhaps free and open access to information, through the internet and 24-hour news programs, is bad. I suppose there might be a point where I would agree, but those reasons would be outside the scope of this post. Instead, I find it very important to allow free access to ideas, even the ideas I personally believe to be false, hypocritical, and/or idiotic. And I, too, have always been curious as to how people get drawn into a seemingly simplistic debate, particularly one rooted in drama rather than evidence. But the one question that really got my reflective juices flowing was, "What makes people so susceptible to nonsense in public discourse?"

And therein lies the key, at least for me. "What makes people..."

If we really want to determine how our life-positions (for me...parent, wife, teacher, friend) can help nurture more intelligent discourse, the answer is not to shut down information. It is rather in providing an honest perspective on the information being considered. And this is challenging. Not only should we ask the "who, what, when, where, how, and why." We must also consider,
"Why do I want to (or not want to) believe, agree, disagree, etc.? From where am I drawing this desire to jump on board (or argue against) a particular stance?"

Students come to our classroom with life experiences. Parents bring their own historical perspective to every conversation with their children. And teachers are PEOPLE. Whether subconsciously or self-aware, we see what we see, feel what we feel, believe what we believe for a reason.

We must be up front about our "life curriculum," especially to ourselves, if we want to have meaningful, constructive, intelligent dialogue. For instance, to make the assumption that an educator, regardless of grade or subject matter, can stand up in front of her class and just "present the facts," or that a parent can be "completely objective" with her child's struggles, is ridiculous. And this mentality is the root of the problem causing the posed craziness in the original question above.

So what can we do? Be honest. Teach one another how to scrutinize information through multiple lenses. Maintain an open-mind, particularly when examining the why and how behind your thinking. Remain open to the idea that some of the most foundational thoughts you have are open for discussion. Your life curriculum is the basis for every interaction you have, as it is for all those whose paths you cross. It is in being aware of this "data" that true growth can begin.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

More Reflections

"Driving in traffic is a different kind of hell every day," one of my colleagues quotes a Harvard University psychologist, Daniel Gilbert. "Tell me about it!" I retort. "Never used to bother me, but these days, I really wish I lived close to school! Where did you find the quote and what's the context?"

The article he quoted from is "Critical Mass," by Jonah Lehrer. (SEED, June 2009) It's worth the read, especially if you're like my husband and I. Driving. Driving. Driving. (Or taking the train...) And being worn down by the very thought. Honestly, I've developed a permanent back ache from sitting in my Civic all these years!

In truth, I'm finding myself in a very reflective mood these days. And there are times when the reflection I "see" is a surprise to me. It's both exciting and unsettling, but the beginning to all honest growth always is, I suppose. One thing that has been on my mind is how badly I wish I could take back all the lost minutes of my life that have been spent in a car commuting to and from work over the past fifteen years. But of course, hindsight is 20/20...

Twelve years ago, when my husband and I purchased our home, we did so for more than just the ridiculous size "bang for the buck" we could get; we were looking at schools, affordability, safety, and mostly location. At the time, it was necessary to be close to my parents-in-law; they were both needing extra support for health reasons. Unfortunately, our plan was short-sighted. Don't get me wrong. I have incredibly fond memories of family gatherings, comfortable conversations and warm connections taking place in our home. I also have a treasured peace of mind being a full-time working mom. I've always felt the reassurance that my daughters were safe and our neighbors were really looking out for them. (And of course, we have the best neighbors in the world right next door to us! I wouldn't give that up for anything!)

But, the time I've lost driving has really weighed on my mind these days. Perhaps that's because my girls are older. Not existing in two different worlds would be a welcomed new peace of mind for me. So why did we stay once the parents-in-law no longer needed us? A host of reasons. But none worth mentioning seem to surface at the moment!

"A person with a one-hour commute has to earn 40 percent more money to be as satisfied with life as someone who walks to the office."

Hmmm...Anyone have a cheap helicopter for sale?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Midterm Reflection

Ten days into the 1999-2000 school year, a young man walked into my classroom with administrative paperwork documenting that he was a new addition to Glenbrook North High School and my chemistry class. I introduced myself, as did he. I swiftly recorded the information into my gradebook and announced to the class, “Everyone please welcome Isaac to our chemistry community. He is a new student at GBN, so we want to make sure we make him feel welcome and catch him up with our investigations up to this point!”

The class welcomed Isaac with smiles and a few handshakes. One student pointed to an empty desk and Isaac took a seat. I then moved quickly into the day’s activity. “Okay, I need everyone to move desks so that you each have a partner and you’re sitting back-to-back. Those of you facing south, take out a sheet of paper and pencil. Those of you facing north, I’m going to give you a picture of a sketched figure. You are to describe this figure to your partner in a manner that will allow him/her to draw it. You cannot look at each other. And only the person with the figure can speak. You have 5 minutes. Go!”

As the activity progressed, I noticed that Isaac was not drawing and appeared quite confused. I immediately intervened so that his first introduction to my class would not be traumatic. I soon realized, with the help of another student, Howard, that Isaac spoke very little English, and in fact had just arrived in the United States the night before! So I stopped the activity, asked Isaac up front and announced, “Okay, change of plans everyone. You all are now going to listen to Isaac describe this new figure to you. Draw it as best you can.” I told Howard to tell Isaac to describe it in his native language, Korean. Isaac looked at me confused. I reiterated, “In Korean.” He smiled and began speaking in what I can only interpret as a confident and happy tone, and it sounded swift, too!

“Okay! Time’s up! Hold up your images!” The class smiled and held them up, with every card being blank except three students, who, of course, all spoke Korean. I smiled and said, “Great job, Isaac! From the looks of these three students’ drawings, you gave incredibly good directions!” To the rest of the class I said, “Now we have a better idea of how Isaac feels when we talk to one another during our classroom activities. Let’s make sure we remember that and do whatever we can to stay together, okay?” I then had them journal their thoughts about the activity and strategize ways to work together. It is one of the most potent memories I have with students really absorbing the meaning of empathy. To this day, Isaac writes me to tell me it was an incredibly positive turning point in his GBN experiences and always looked forward to coming to class.

When Dr. Ming Fang He came to speak to my curriculum class, I immediately reflected on this memory. The sense of “in-betweenness” she spoke of is something I do encounter with many of my students in my district. We have a significant Asian population, a large percentage of whom have been in the country less than six months or are first generation. Isaac certainly taught me a great deal about this idea of "in-betweenness" as I read his journal reflections. I learned about his background, culture, home life v. school life, responsibilities, transitions, hurdles, successes, etc. The cross-cultural lives highlighted in Dr. Fang He’s narrative research was quite informative and filled in more of the academic details needed to aid me in my instructional practice.

As I read her stories and heard her speak, I also made an unexpected mental leap with the information. I, too, am living a life of “in-betweenness” right now. I certainly would never equate these feelings with those of Isaac or any of Dr. Fang He’s subjects. However, the parallel idea is quite striking, and a bit unnerving. I am someone who likes to look at the big picture and then figure out the details later, either as a means for building something or deconstructing something. So here are my categories of “in-betweenness.”

Reward vs. Anxiety
• I suppose my thoughts first traverse through superficial waters. I feel quite lucky that I happened upon this program and that I was given the advice to take this course first. I am so glad I did. I realize how much is out there and look forward to digesting more. Dewey, Schwab, van Manen, Noddings, Chomsky, Schultz, Schubert, Kohn, Pollan, Fang He, etc. have all passed through my hands this semester and I find my head spinning. How will I synthesize, process and harness these ideas in both a practical and foundational manner? What will it look like? What will it feel like?
• At the same time, I am incredibly anxious. Will we have the finances to allow me to continue? Will the remaining courses be this inspiring? Or has this been an act that will surely be impossible to follow? How will I ever get through all the readings I want to do since I need to continue to work full time for now?

Happiness vs. Depression
• I love being a student. I love listening to my classmates ask reflective questions on the readings. I love being a member of a community where people are passionate about the world of education and are open-minded to the idea of honestly investigating not only institutional curriculum, but also their own personal curriculum and how that influences what they do.
• I cannot believe I spent so many years directionless. I should’ve listened to my husband years ago and absorbed what he had to say. Had I done so, I would’ve broken free from the feeling of helplessness I felt the last few years. This feeling also took a toll on my family. It’s hard to be a part of the very institutional setting that actively makes poor choices for students and not feel suffocated. But I know it’s not impossible to break free and I should’ve found an avenue. Why did I think I had nothing to offer or feel so down? It is so unlike me…It’s frustrating that I waited this long to act. I’m incredibly upset with myself for not reflecting with eyes, heart and mind more open.

Enlightenment vs. Confusion
• Every Wednesday, I look forward to coming to class to hear stories, process readings, connect with peers and receive affirmation that my experiences and practice are on a good path. It has been such a treasure to have access to some of the most insightful, experienced, intelligent scholars in the area of curriculum. I look at my work through a new lens and see myself doing so much more…
• Every Wednesday, I come to class challenged by a personal or academic puzzle in the area of curriculum and leave with at least five more! I love being pushed into an area of intellectual discomfort and working my way through it by experimenting in class and/or talking with family, friends, classmates and colleagues. It’s invigorating! It’s the foundation for true growth.

Presently, my sense of “in-betweenness” permeates my daily life. I oscillate between illuminating and demanding emotions every moment these days. Suffice it to say, I’m feeling alive and inspired to unfold the next phase of my educational journey.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

My Journey Begins...Finally

I have begun the coursework that will eventually, hopefully lead to a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction. I am extremely excited right now. And I couldn't be doing this without the incredible support of my family. Based on how busy our lives become, I imagine I am in for a few of the days illustrated in the comic. But I've been proactive in protecting my family from this character by resigning many duties at work in order to keep some semblance of sanity. So far, everything is wonderful! And the following is my first reflection paper. Enjoy!

“I have some sad news for you,” I share with my students. I’m in costume, wearing a wig, flowery dress, cardigan sweater, and using a cane. “Your teacher, Ms. Gallagher, has been in an accident. I’m here as your sub. Today we are going to investigate observations and interpretations by looking at these bins of artifacts found in Ms. Gallagher’s home and office. To begin, please look at the artifacts in one bin with your group members and write down ten statements you believe to be true about Ms. Gallagher.”

And this is the introduction to the school year for my students. It is the day we begin building our community. It is the heart of our class climate. They are initially thrown by the role-play. They are excited about getting to know their teacher in such an unconventional way. They are confused by what this activity has to do with the world of science; after all, they are in a chemistry class.

Although there are dozens of subtle foundational reasons for doing this activity, one of the most constructive outcomes is that my students come to an adventurous conclusion by the end of the hour. No longer in costume or character, returning as their teacher to facilitate our analysis discussion, I share the following thoughts. “How many of you now have more questions about me, Ms. Gallagher, having gone through this activity than you had when you entered the room this morning?” All hands go up with a number of smiles. “As your teacher, I am NOT here to provide answers. I hope this activity has illustrated that I believe part of my responsibility is to instead provide you with opportunities, opportunities leading you to more to questions, opportunities to find your life experiences mysterious and intriguing and worthy of well-formulated questions. In short, you should have more questions in June than answers. I think we’re in for a wonderfully exciting time.” (Activity created by Spiro Bolos, modified for science.)

The night before I did this activity with my classes, I started the journey towards my PhD. I became the student. I am now at the other end of that very lesson. We have barely scratched the surface here in CI 574. How do I know? Because I already have a seemingly endless list of questions based on my readings by Schubert in CPPP. My first course reflection is in fact a series of questions, focused in three areas.

1. My curiosity of history and curriculum as a field:
a. Were any of the most influential educational reformers “just” teachers? Or is it a historical prerequisite to be a professor in order to have long-term impact on educational foundations? To be a part of the discussion?
b. Who are the most influential curricular specialists NOT written about or listened to? What were their thoughts? And why weren’t we listening?
c. What would teachers working during Dewey’s time have thought of him? Of Tyler? Of Spencer? Etc. Did teachers look up to them? Did they agree with their thoughts? Did teachers have time to discuss these things? How different was the actual schooling in comparison to what the curriculum experts had envisioned during those times?
d. Why is the teaching profession put on such a pedestal in other cultures, but is considered so lowly here? What started that?
e. Who would the academic community consider as the foremost expert on curriculum right now? Whose ideas should we be listening to? i.e., Who’s the next Dewey?
f. Who would the teaching community consider to be the foremost curricular expert right now? How many teachers could name five curricular specialists? We asked the question in class, “Who do we start with in terms of the history of curriculum?” I’d like to also know, “Who do we end with? And how did our path lead us here?”
g. What is worthwhile? What’s worth knowing, experiencing, doing, needing, being, becoming, overcoming, sharing, and contributing? (Questions in "g" formulated by William Schubert.)

2. My personal life:
a. Why didn’t I start this program ten years ago?! Ugghhh. I am so angry with myself for not starting earlier. I REALLY would like a full-time job working in the world of academia and teaching teachers and helping to improve schools. I miss thinking. I miss discussing. I miss hearing the big picture. I miss being in an environment where I matter, where my abilities are being challenged and employed.
b. How in the WORLD does Schubert know so much? There’s so much to read and absorb and process and question. I need a full-time job just to read everything I want to read! Where do I sign up?
c. How can I learn to read faster?
d. What would be the ONE book I should read above all else if I want to be truly inspired as a future curriculum specialist?
e. What is worthwhile? What’s worth knowing, experiencing, doing, needing, being, becoming, overcoming, sharing, and contributing? (Questions in "e" formulated by William Schubert.)

3. My professional life:
a. How have we allowed ourselves (the teaching community) to stray so far away from what is best for our students? Why isn’t there a revolution? There are so many teachers out there…
b. How do I study the damage we (teachers) cause in order to convince administrators and politicians (the policy-makers) that (putting it simply) we’re doing everything backwards?
c. Who do I talk to about planning the rest of my schooling? Life?
d. What is worthwhile? What’s worth knowing, experiencing, doing, needing, being, becoming, overcoming, sharing, and contributing? (Questions in "d" formulated by William Schubert.)

I am thrilled to be starting the process. I look forward to learning, thinking, discussing. I can’t wait to be a part of this full time. Above all, I would really love to be part of connecting practice with theory in a meaningful way…

The journey begins...

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

My September 11th Story—Which Hat Should I Wear?

"Good morning! Take out your journals and get today's outline down." It started like any other school morning. My students were given a collaborative challenge and were working in their groups. During our investigations, a school administrator walked in, handed me a piece of paper, and immediately walked back out. I made a funny face at the class not knowing what in the world that behavior could possibly mean.

I walked across the room with the paper in my hand to answer one more student question. I smiled and said, "Well, I wonder what this says?" loudly and in a playful voice. My eyes spun over the words on the paper; I remember seeing "Urgent" and "CNN" and "Pentagon" and "World Trade Center" and "plane" and "crash." It took me what seemed a lifetime to process the content of this note. All of a sudden, a shiver ran down my spine. I felt instantly weak and physically cold. I looked up at my class and for some reason they seemed so very young at that moment. They were babies and I needed to protect them. But from what?

I managed to snap myself out of this momentary trance, collected my thoughts and figuratively and firmly put on my teacher hat. In a calm, serious voice, I said, "Guys, does anyone have family visiting or working in New York City today or flying into or out of Boston?" Three students raised their hands. Rather than read the potentially life-shattering news in front of the whole class, I pulled these three students out into the hall. All of them collapsed as I read the news. One had grandparents flying in from Boston; the other two had fathers working in the Trade Center. I grabbed another student from the class to walk these three down to the counseling office and told her to call me when she got them there. I called the office to let them know they were coming, as well.

I went back into the classroom to read the note to the rest of the class. They were quiet, I think going through the similarly slow processing that I went through earlier. While I gave them some time to think, I heard an announcer's voice speaking next door. My good friend Maureen had turned on a radio for her class to listen to. I brought my class next door to join her.

As a student was asking me a question, his voice seemed to fade. My stomach fell to the floor. The wind left my lungs so quickly that I had to gasp for air. A student said, "Ms. [G], are you okay?" My teacher hat was gone and my personal hat hit me like a ton of bricks."Do I know anyone...?" I thought. It took me this long to think of myself as a person. As someone who had a life outside the walls of the classroom. As someone who might also have friends or family in danger.

I checked in to see if Maureen knew anyone—she did not. And then I panicked again. I switched hats. I was Mom. "Are my kids okay? What's going on at their school? Are they frightened?" So I went to call my husband, Spiro, who was also a teacher, to see if I should go pick up my oldest daughter, Katina, from school. (Being so emotional, I thought it best to check in with my husband! He helped give me some direction.) My youngest daughter, Kira, was in the 3-year-old pre-school at my husband's high school.

So I called his office.
"Joan? This is Olive. Have you heard about all this craziness?"
"Yes, that's why I'm calling. Is Spiro around?"
"Well, I'm not sure. Let me check. (Pause) Oh my God! The fire alarm is going off! I have to go!"

She hung up on me!
I had NO idea what the hell was happening. So I grabbed my keys and my phone and was heading to my husband's school. I said to Maureen, "I've got to go. I think Kira and Spiro are in trouble." She said, "Go. I've got your class."

As I was walking out of the building, my cell phone rang.
"Joan? Where are you?"
"I'm on my way to see you! Where is Kira? Is she okay?" I was a wreck.
"She's in my arms, Babe. She's fine. Olive told me she hung up on you and I knew you'd be on your way over."
His voice was calm and light. I relaxed.
"What the hell is going on over there?" I asked.
"Some idiot chemistry teacher set off the fire alarm doing a demo right after the principal made the announcement about the Trade Center. It is crazy over here!"

I instinctually laughed out loud. My teacher hat went flying back on, knowing just how easily it is to cause this kind of trouble doing demos! I turned myself around, went back to my classroom, and talked with my students. I spent the rest of the day chatting with kids about their thoughts, trying to keep them thinking scientifically and as a humanitarian, not letting them get caught up in the drama and rumor of the event.

Arriving home that evening, I was greeted with a big hug from my pre-schooler, Kira. She said in a somewhat shaky voice, "Mom. Did you hear a plane hit my pre-school today?! We had to go outside and everything." I was completely thrown, but then understood what she was saying. She had jumbled all of the data that had been thrown at her that day. So we spent time over dinner explaining things to her. (To this day, she still has to transpose the information. Her first instinct is to remember a plane hitting her building.)

Later that night, Katina and I went to sit on my bed. I needed to rest and I wanted to comfort her at the same time. I put my head back and closed my eyes as she cuddled next to me.
"Mommy, I feel so badly for all the people who got hurt when the plans crashed into those buildings."
"So do I, Sweetheart. It's an incredible tragedy. Such a senseless act."
She was quiet for a moment. She sat up and stuttered, "You mean, someone did this...someone did this on purpose?"

I slowly opened my eyes. Tears welled up in both of us. I recognized the revelation she was having and how thoroughly depressing it would be. Then, she shook her head. It was as if she was preventing the thought from getting any deeper. She knew she couldn't process the idea of a person doing this purposefully. So she instinctively protected her emotional state. It was amazing. She reached her hand over and grabbed mine. She said, "Don't worry, Mom. We'll figure out some way to help those people who were hurt. Maybe we could make ribbons and sell them and give the money to those who need it." Out of the mouths of babes, you know?

I've never gone through so many unexpected hat changes in such a short amount of time. And all I can think is that if this experience drained me psychologically and physically at this level, I have so much respect and admiration for anyone who actually lived through it. I can't even begin to imagine.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Obama's Address to Schools

NEW INFO: See blue text below...

This is the letter I wrote to my daughters' school district. What are your thoughts?

Dear District 200 Board Members,

I am extremely disappointed with your decision to ban President Obama's address to the children of our district. I am a parent in the community and a 20-year veteran teacher. As an educator, I know it is necessary to make our curriculum relevant to our children's lives, particularly if we want them to be engaged as active learners. This rare opportunity to use a live presidential speech—a speech being addressed directly to our children—as the source of meaningful dialogue in the classroom should be the focus of your day on Tuesday in every building. The electricity running through your classrooms, watching the students come to life conversing about something that sincerely matters—the importance of school and a strong education—will be a fabulous reminder to all of us what our primary purpose should be as professional educators. Namely, that we are nurturing our children to be critical thinkers, sensitive to the world around them and capable of making informed, constructive decisions.

We moved into this district in part due to the excellent reputation of District 200's strong, challenging schools. I find this decision to be in direct contrast to the characteristics that make a school excellent. The greatest tragedy of this decision is that you've removed the academic freedom from the teachers you supposedly support. (In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if this becomes a union grievance.) You are sending the message that your teachers are incapable of facilitating an impromptu, dynamic and potentially passionate discussion among a couple dozen students, students you put in their charge on a daily basis. How do you explain this discrepancy? They are either hired to be educators, or they are hired as pawns to deliver approved, scripted content. Please do not allow their progressive ideas and these rare opportunities to become suffocated in the penetrating trend of standardization and indoctrination.

This is very much an embarrassment to me and my children. The districts in the area where I work have instead left this decision to the teachers to determine whether the speech is an appropriate focus for their day's lesson. They have also set up areas in the buildings where students and classes can go to watch this historical event, including the lunch room for those students eating lunch at that time.

As a science teacher, I plan to have the president's speech playing in my classroom and then discuss whether or not his thoughts will help solve any of the 20 greatest scientific, global problems as outlined in the book High Noon: 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Fix Them. The idea of disagreeing with the president's thoughts is as welcome as agreeing with them and as welcome as not understanding long as a student has a well-formulated opinion. This is the foundation of developing a constructive educational community. Without this freedom, I would not have the opportunity to make this lesson really come to life. And I believe my students will find the day eye-opening, challenging and—dare I say it—even inspiring. This is the type of environment in which our greatest historical thinkers thrived. Don't deprive our children of these experiences.

There are a host of other reasons why I find this decision wrong, but I wanted to highlight only my main frustrations. Please know that I recognize that there are logistical challenges to schedule changes and am intimately familiar with the potential difficulties of dealing with technology. However, our children are worth the effort. And there are creative ways to solving any problem. That's what I learned in school.

Don't deprive our children of this historical event. Don't let them be the "kids from the schools that banned the president." Don't close the door on our children or our teachers.

This is a teacher's decision. Trust them. I implore you. Trust them.

Joan Gallagher-Bolos

Seems the campaign spearheaded by our neighbors worked, at least in part. The community received notice yesterday that the school will record the president's speech and that students will be shown his address in school on Wednesday. A form will be sent home today for parents to have their child opt out of watching the speech if they so wish.

Not what I was fighting for, but I guess baby steps in this region is all we can hope for...They're still missing the point. Really missing the big picture...

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Why Am I a Teacher?

Always and forever worth asking. I do it every day. Certainly I ask it at different levels or for different reasons, but I do visit it in some way, shape or form each day. The one part of this video that was so powerful for me, particularly at this point in my twenty-year, and shall we say, adventure-filled-as-of-late, career was the following quote, "Don't let your teaching life make a mockery of your teaching values. Let your teaching values guide your teaching life." No matter what your surroundings may be, good or bad, make a literal or mental poster referred to in the video and "touch it every day." What wonderful, wonderful advice. I wish you a wonderful journey this year! Enjoy!

Monday, June 22, 2009

When Do We Let Go?

I'm so fortunate. As so many of us did, I entertained the idea of multiple career paths during undergraduate school. But twenty years ago, I decided to enter the wonderfully complex, often misunderstood, ever-rewarding world of education. It was the best decision I ever made. It has shaped who I am. And I feel incredibly lucky to have found a profession where I honestly believe I belong. I wish everyone would feel this way about their professional path!

I define my role as an educator as someone who is responsible for three main tasks. I facilitate the movement of a community of people to constructively, efficiently and effectively achieve an overall objective. I teach people (individuals and groups) how to honestly reflect on who they are and the experiences they've had so that they are able to grow. And lastly, I recognize when my influence has reached a point where the journey is no longer needing my guidance; I decide when to let go. Overall, I feel that I basically provide the scaffolding for success, the opportunities to experience, and the dialogue for reflection. Then I quietly walk away hoping that some part of what I've done has been beneficial. I walk away prepared to catch people if they fall, but also hopeful and confident that they'll fly. Because when they fly, they do more for themselves than I could ever hope to do for them myself.

So when is it appropriate to let go? At what point do we pull ourselves out of the equation and let people fly? THAT is the key to a successful educational experience, whether you're responsible for influencing administrators, staff, teachers, students, parents, family, etc. 

I want to share a few wonderful end-of-the-school-year stories. Three people I know decided to do something with their experiences. When I let go, they flew. And they flew well beyond any reasonable expectation would predict. And it's a testament to who they are. They own their growth!

I worked with a K-12 district curriculum director. She decided to reshape the foundational design for sustainable professional development in her district based on the reflective questions we came up with together. She was the one who remained open-minded enough to reflect on where she was, where the district was and what would aid their movement in a positive direction. Way to fly!

Second, one of my students decided to really take ownership of her education this year. It sounds like a number of her teachers all agreed that it was time to let go of her hand and let her fly. And she did. She really did! Take a look at her blog post. Her history teacher in particular has inspired her to reconsider her perspective on education. But she was open-minded enough to let the thought sink in. Way to fly!

Lastly, the inspiration for this post came from my daughter. In all honestly, sometimes it's difficult to know where the educator in me ends and the parent in me begins, and vice versa. As a parent, my role is much more complex, rewarding and personal. But there are similarities in my role, particularly the three areas outlined at the beginning of this post.

Four months ago, I saw a presentation at my school. It was an informative, tragic and inspirational movie created by the organization Invisible Children (IC). I shared the information with my daughter at the beginning of March. Since that time, she has committed herself to being a part of stopping the longest running civil war in Africa. Yes, my 17-year-old daughter is trying to stop a war. And I'm not exaggerating!

Here's what she's done since March:
1.) She had an informational party at our house to share the cause with her friends.
2.) She has regularly shared information with people whenever she gets the chance, in person, through Facebook, on the phone, etc. trying to raise awareness and raise money.
3.) She wore the IC t-shirts for a month at school to raise awareness.
4.) She went to the The Rescue event in Chicago. (Perhaps you saw that Oprah was the mogul who rescued the Chicago team.)
5.) And she is now in Washington DC at the "How It Ends" event. She will be lobbying congress to sign the LRA Disarmament and N. Uganda Recovery Act.
Check out her blog as she fills us in on her journey. I couldn't be more proud of her dedication and determination. If there's anyone out there who could literally stop a war, it's her. Way to fly!

We do go through moments where the people we are responsible for do not extend their experiences beyond the opportunity we provide. And I know how hard it can be to let go, both as an educator and as a parent, because you feel like there's so much more you could do. But look what happens when we put in the time to match opportunity with potential...

...and then get out of the way. The ownership of these success stories belongs to the three young women who chose to do something with the information at their disposal. Way to fly!

As educators, when should we let go? At the point where our influence becomes added weight instead of gentle wind. 

When is that? You have to decide together.

And it's normally a bittersweet moment when it happens.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

A Mother's Reflection...

As I sit here watching my 12-year-old daughter and her friends circle the skating rink in celebration of her birthday, my eyes fill with tears. Tears of confusion. Where has the time gone? Tears of pride. My, what an incredible young lady she is becoming. Tears of relief. She is surrounded by such wonderful friends; I could not have molded any better. Tears of joy. I love her and she loves me.

And then I think, with a bit of panic, does she know what's in my head? in my heart? She sees me working so hard day after day. She realizes how many hours are required to do what I do. She hears me talking about education all the time; it is potentially an all-consuming career.

But does she know how much time my head spins with thoughts of her? Does she realize that I spend more time reflecting on motherhood than I do my role as an educator? Does she understand that I question my parenting and find it more challenging and more rewarding than anything else in the world?

Actions speak louder than words, hers more than mine today. She approaches me and gives me a big hug and kiss in front of her friends and says, "Thanks, Mom. What a great day. I'm so lucky." I relax inside, I hide my tears, smile and kiss her on the forehead. And I know that, at least for today, she knows. She realizes. She understands.

Tomorrow, the cycle will likely repeat...

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

NSTA 2009

What an all-around fabulous conference the National Science Teachers Association put together! I just returned from this very rewarding four-day professional development experience and it will likely be very tough to surpass it in the near future. It was educational, fun, rewarding, and inspiring all at the same time.

First of all, how thrilling it was for Dennis and I to walk into the NSTA bookstore to see our second book, Whole-Class Inquiry, on the shelf in front of us! We have been working on this book for five years. Dennis received a Spencer Foundation grant back in 2004 to research my classroom. His focus was in the area of Whole Class Inquiry (WCI), a teaching strategy we've developed that culminates in the creation of a self-sufficient scientific community of learners. This book is a direct result of that experience and a labor of love we're extremely proud of. We think it has the potential to help both pre-service and in-service teachers make the mental shift, transitioning them into the world of WCI. During the conference, we attended an author's reception where we were able to meet and make connections with other authors, educators and researchers. We met the president of NSTA, Page Keeley, who welcomed us into NSTA's Author's Circle, along with many other authors, including Randy Bell. The reception was an inspiring venue, a place to hear so many people brainstorming ways to understand and improve science education. I've realized just how much there is to do! Personally, I hope more teachers are willing to open their doors to the world of research. If we can further connect with educational researchers, we will then be able to bring theory into practice, study practice to develop theory, and so on. I've learned a great deal about my teaching through Dennis's lens. And I hope to continue!

Dennis and I also gave three presentations. We spanned the spectrum in terms of the material we shared. One was very philosophical—the big idea of WCI, with the video cases and research results showcased. At the other end was a ready-to-implement classroom activity—The Element Walk. And somewhere in the middle, we gave a talk on how different types of journals are used to help nurture WCI. All were incredibly well received. After each session, we were questioned by some very enthusiastic Knowles Fellows, some passionate teachers from varied districts, and a handful of dedicated university researchers. It was challenging and fun and rejuvenating and intriguing all at the same time!

During the conference, we also had the opportunity to hear Arne Duncan speak. (See videos below.) Of course I was mostly skeptical or unnerved by some of the content he shared; he is a politician and refers readily to his experience in Chicago. So we'll have to wait and see. But I was for the most part impressed with the way he "thought on his feet" and responded with a compassionate and foundational understanding of education during the question and answer section. I was happy that he was adamant about not signing off on NCLB without first determining its attributes and failures. It will be interesting to see how he proceeds with the conversations necessary to determine these things. All and all, it was a neat experience to hear him in person.

Of course we also had the opportunity to visit the French Quarter, socialize with a few colleagues, submit our proposals for next year, and to outline our next book. Yes, we discussed a bit of our idea with our editor and we're planning to get started this summer. No rest for the wicked! But just as I came out of last year's NECC conference with new ideas and new philosophical challenges, I feel the same way having spent time in New Orleans (N'Awlins) at NSTA.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

I Don't Show My Own Children Their Report Cards!

I really don't! So yes, perhaps I am a bit crazy. But I must say, it has worked out better than I ever could have imagined. Yes, they have ways of finding out this information, but...

Grades have always been a key topic at the professional development presentations and workshops I give. But before getting into a detailed discussion of all the questions and frustrations that go along with grades, let me start here. This is the abridged version of the keynote address I gave at our school's National Honor Society induction ceremony two years ago. I was honored to be asked. I know it's long, but again, it's my way of sharing just how off-putting it is to report a grade.

"...I have two daughters, one is in fourth grade and one is a freshman in high school. At the end of first semester this year, my oldest daughter and I were driving home from school and she said, “Hey Mom. I think you need to call my school.”
I asked, “Really, why is that?”
She said, “Well, everyone has been talking about their report cards for a couple weeks now and we haven’t gotten mine yet. So I think we should call the school and ask for a new copy to be sent.”

I said, “Oh. Your report card? We got that a couple weeks ago.”
"What? We did? Did you look at it?” she asked.

“No. I haven’t opened it. I’m not even sure where it is. I think I recycled it.”
She gave me her disapproving “here-we-go-again” look and said, “Mom, you know you’re crazy right? I don’t even know how to explain you to my friends. I’ve gone all these years without looking at my report card. Can I please look at it this year?”

Before going any further, you should know that I haven’t shown my younger daughter her report card either. So I’d like to provide some self-defense, however off-the-wall it might be, for the torture I put my daughters through by not showing them this certain piece of paper.
When I was younger, my parents told me that it was important to find a balance in life between academics, athletics, a social life and a spiritual life. Every day at the dinner table we would have conversations that touched upon all four of these areas. “What did you learn today? How was basketball practice? Did you enjoy playing piano? How is your friend doing? What did you do today to make somebody feel better?”

So after getting married and having children, I decided to teach my children similarly—find a balance. When my daughters were about 2 or 3 years old, they really got into the whole talking thing. And everything out of their mouths was a question. "Mommy, what’s that? Where did she go? How do I tie my shoe? Why do I need to say that? Who was that person and why was she here?" Etc.
As I began to focus on these questions, I found that they all fell within the categories my parents had shared with me. My children were NATURALLY finding a balance. I thought, “Geesh! Parenting is gonna be easy! All I have to do is to continue to nurture what they’re already doing!”

And then a few years later, I went to my first parent-teacher conference as a PARENT. I had conducted a number of conferences from the teacher’s perspective. But this was the first time I was the parent. So I asked questions about my daughter. How is she behaving? Does she treat her peers well? Is she respectful to authority figures? What is she interested in? Does she ask a lot of questions? Is she too quiet? Too loud? And I found it interesting that the teacher kept bringing the conversation back to the grade sheet. This is completely understandable; it was her comfort zone. Being a new teacher myself, the grade printout was typically the focus of the conversations I would have with parents, as well. But now that the tables were turned, I realized how little I cared about those things and how little that piece of paper actually communicated about my daughter. And I realized at that moment that keeping that natural balance would be more challenging than I thought. The institution of school was going to tip the balance in one direction, academics. I now needed to provide the counterbalance to keep them well-rounded and grounded in the other three areas. I didn’t want them to grow up thinking that academics was necessarily more important than the other three. Nor did I want them growing up believing that their report card dictated their intelligence. So, I decided then and there that I would never show my children their report cards in an attempt to provide the counterbalance.

Perhaps you are now all in agreement with my daughters in that you think I’m a bit crazy. Please know that I do believe that doing well in school is very important; I’m a teacher, after all. And all of you have obviously done well in your classes here at GBN and are therefore being recognized for that this evening. Congratulations. You should be proud of yourselves...

(I then shared three points with the students that I thought were worth thinking about. I've left these descriptions out to narrow this post to the "grades" issue. If you're interested, I can always add the details later!)

...So how has my not showing my girls their report cards panned out? Magnificently well, thank you very much. They have learned to not use a grade as motivation for learning. Of course we have those normal conversations in my family about tests and projects once in a while. And of course there are more variables than just not showing them their report cards that have played a part in who they are as students. I have simply tried to help them keep the balance. For the most part, I like to think that our family focus is, “What did you learn today? How was practice? How is your friend doing? What did you do today to make your tiny segment of the globe a better place?”
I think my children know that learning and education are extremely important to me. I’ve dedicated my life to it, as has their father, who is also a teacher. But I also think they know it is not a means to an end. Formal education is one small fraction of ONE facet in their lives. As I purposefully try to tip the scale in a direction that illustrates four areas being equally important in life for my children, I’m challenged to do the same in my classroom. And it drives most of my students nuts! I’m sorry for that, but I know no other way. I wish you well and I congratulate you on all you’ve accomplished. I am excited for you as you grow through life’s adventures...

I was thrilled at the reception to the above story. Parents loved it. I wonder how many of them still reflect with appropriate measure on the assessments and report cards in their lives.

I cannot begin to tell you how much I have grappled with the idea of grades—the philosophy, the mechanics, the influence, the meaning of grades. Grading is an incredibly complex issue, one that I don't believe is given enough reflection by the education system, in fact by society in general. But that's understandable. I just wrote my longest blog ever and have not even begun to scratch the surface.

Suffice it to say, it's a complicated issue.
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Out of the Mouths of Babes

Our typical family dinner routine begins with asking our kids about their day. "What was the best part of your day? Most frustrating? What did you learn that you'd like to explore further?" And as enthusiastic as our sixteen-year-old is, our twelve-year-old has been equally moody lately. Yes, I know, it comes with the territory of having a tween in the house. But when the girl who used to find excitement and adventure in every part of her day, from math to recess to chores, is completely turned off by school, it's very upsetting. Being a mother and a teacher, it's excruciating.

She said something incredibly insightful the other day, something that made me think that perhaps there was more to her mood than just being a tween. She looked up from her homework, homework she had been working on for two hours, and said, "You know, Mom, I wish teachers thought that every day was the first day of school."

I paused, absorbed her statement and asked, "How so?"

She continued, "Classes were exciting. Teachers were so happy then. They seemed to really like us; they seemed to like their job. Now, not so much!" And she turned back to her books to complete her homework.

As a mother, my heart broke. As an educator, my head understood.

I gave her a hug and shared a strategy with her that I thought might help. (She is bringing a journal to school and writing down one thing she finds interesting, funny or confusing in each of her classes. We're going to explore together. We'll see what happens.)

You'd better believe my lesson plan for the next day met her approval!

The mid-winter teaching slump hits us all; education is a draining profession, physically, emotionally and intellectually. But it's easy to find the energy to keep going when you see first-hand how directly you influence the growth of your students.

After two decades, I am still impressed by how perceptive kids can be. They pick up on everything! And if we're paying attention, it can make all the difference.
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Thanks to the People on Twitter

I have been teaching for nineteen years now, and as one would expect, there have been many experiences responsible for who I am and why I do the things I do in my classroom. Certainly at the top of the list would be the gift of watching my own children grow. Equal in influence would be the constant source of inspiration, knowledge and encouragement I receive from my husband, Spiro Bolos. And I have been incredibly lucky to have collaborated with a gifted educator and scientist, my best friend, Dennis Smithenry, over the past fifteen years.

This morning, inspired by posts from Jen Wagner and Nadine Norris, I began thinking about what other experiences have really transformed my approach to the classroom, particularly within the past two years. My ultimate goals have not changed, but how I reach these goals has certainly been modified thanks to the people I follow on Twitter. (My goals? Simply put, it is to create a self-sufficient scientific community of learners using Whole Class Inquiry so that each person feels valued and is confident he has something worthwhile to contribute to the class. Yes, this is likely the focus of another blog.) It is very difficult to describe what tangible change the people on Twitter have allowed, but there's one thing that's certain. It's not the tool; it's how I use the tool. It's the people I've listened to through the use of the tool. Let me repeat. It's the people.

My parents taught me that in order to grow, and not simply exist, one must never stop questioning. Following certain people on Twitter, and then reading their blogs, has allowed me to continue to generate educationally sound questions. This, in turn, keeps me reflecting on my practice. And if I'm lucky, I get the chance to meet some of these people in person and share thoughts about what is best for students and why and how we do the things we do.

I've only met three of the people in this thank you video, other than my students, of course. But to all of you—including those of you I may have forgotten, forgive me—thanks for keeping me on my toes. I hope I have the chance to talk with you face to face some day. I'm quite certain we'd have much to discuss!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

PDing. Oh, How It Makes Me Smile!

“How do I make this happen?”
“That’s interesting, but I'm curious…”
“This is wonderful! I want to...spend time processing what we’ve talked about and reflect on my own practice.”
“Do you have trouble covering the standards?”
“These were great ideas. We should all be doing this! Show me how.”
“What kind of support do you get when you implement these ideas?”

There is NOTHING quite like being in a room with dedicated, passionate, hungry educators who are willing, in fact eager, to spend a day reflecting on their practice. They dig through their thoughts with fierce desire to make a positive change in their teaching. They find a way to a mental place that removes all barriers, allowing them to get back to improving their practice for the sake of teaching well, teaching fun, teaching students, teaching…period. And it’s an incredible experience to be a part of. This describes the day I had working with teachers from the San Mateo High School District this past weekend.

My friend, Dennis Smithenry, and I have had the privilege of sharing our Whole Class Inquiry strategy with a host of audiences over the past eight years. Basically, we have developed an approach that nurtures and creates a self-sufficient community of learners, where the whole class inquires through a range of challenges together.* This was the focus of our professional development day this past weekend. (My slides are attached here.)

It was a particularly rewarding weekend for me. We spent the day presenting to a group of teachers all from the same high school district. I think this made for a unique audience, unlike audiences at regional and national conferences where people in the crowd do not likely know one another. It was thrilling to see new information being absorbed, a myriad of questions being raised and smiles filling the crowd. And then slowly, the conversation level would rise as they turned to talk to their colleagues about how they could make "this" happen in their rooms! These teachers walked away with new ideas to kick around, and will feed off of their colleagues' similar excitement regarding the possibility for change because they started the journey together.

Another part of this day that was exhilarating for me was that the day was all about TEACHING. It wasn’t housed under a subcategory of education like, standards, technology, accountability, etc. It was all about the practice of teaching. Of course these ideas surfaced within the context of best practice and what we were introducing. But the overarching conversation kept the classroom as a whole in mind. We tried to help these teachers connect theory with practice, and more importantly, we talked about how to make this happen. We were focused on our students and what we could do to help our own classes. This day was about “our kids,” the familiar classroom where all the real-life drama and history and vision and learning occur. The place we call home-away-from-home because we spend more time there than anywhere else in our lives. The identity that is and always should be the focus of our reflection and growth. Teachers have a finite number of days to share, to inspire, to connect, to challenge. As an educator, whenever I have the opportunity to reconnect with those practices that best touch students’ lives, I feel rejuvenated. Speaking with these teachers was a very beneficial day for me. I am hopeful it was for them, as well!

*We are thrilled that our second book (cover shown above) will be released this spring, hopefully at the NSTA conference, and it will contain dvds to show how and why I’ve chosen to implement this strategy in my classrooms. It is also accompanied by the educational researcher’s analysis—done by Dr. Dennis Smithenry—of the study done that began this process in the first place. (Shameless plug, I know. But we are very proud of this book!)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Fresh Start

My blogging hiatus is officially over! It seems the perfect time—a new year, new semester and new president all upon us. Unfortunately, GBN administered final exams last Tuesday and missed watching a part of this new beginning—the historic inauguration of President Obama, along with his inauguration speech. Other schools described the day as "electric," the halls and classrooms filled with enthusiastic dialogue. High school students, too young to vote, were conversing about the future and what they could do to participate, as well as formulating insightful, authentic questions for their teachers all day long.

One moment that jumped out at me during President Obama's speech was his reference to science. He made the following statements, "For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act — not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do."

Looking at this paragraph carefully, the foundation for growth that the president describes is rooted in science. I'm thrilled by this! I hope educators and students see this an invitation. I also find this paragraph intriguing; what is science's rightful place? And what caused its shift from its rightful place? And how, when and where will the discussions take place regarding the economic, political, religious, and/or social constraints that affect science? And how can we use science as a means for positive humanitarian efforts?

There are many of us who have wondered how long it would take for the idea of "thinking as a scientist" to resurface and play a role in our governmental decisions. More importantly, I still wonder whether the people making these decisions are capable of reading, processing and analyzing information that is highly scientific in nature and making a solid decision regarding it. If children are still wondering why to study science, I hope this speech makes it clear. Even though schools segregate our academic areas of study into separate classrooms, they are one and the same. Each piece plays a role in our daily lives, intertwined and complex. And although certain content details may not be needed for recall on a constant basis, the need for a comprehensive understanding of these ideas is mandatory for the betterment of our global community. Regardless of what position you will hold in the future, decision-making requires the ability to think as a scientist. And sometimes, the content you're thinking about can be extremely challenging. It's worth challenging our students to think this way.

A fresh start starts now!

(Pictures linked to original sites, including and