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.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Yes, I Remember Where I was...

Today is 9/11, the anniversary of an incredibly tragic day. I remember the day vividly. I was teaching my high school chemistry class when I found out about the twin towers. There were two students in class with parents working in NYC and one student with grandparents flying in from Boston that day. I remember how my oldest daughter could not comprehend that this was an intentional act, and not an accident. I remember my youngest daughter thinking the plane hit her preschool building and was frightened to go back. And I remember crying for weeks as images were displayed on television and in newspapers of the devastation felt by so many.

But as we reflect on that day, I implore us all to do so with both compassionate hearts and critical minds. Let us take more from this tragedy than a feeling of sorrow and/or pride; our children deserve better. Let us teach our kids that we are a part of a global community and we have a responsibility to that end. Let us better understand history and our role in its creation. Let us recognize what America does well and what we can improve upon and strive to do so. No one should have to live with the devastation both violence and hatred cause, no matter where they live. So let us let our individual and collective behavior reflect that belief.

The greatest tragedy that could come from remembering 9/11, or similar types of anniversaries, is to reflect on them with a narrow lens, afraid to confront what might be hidden or out of view. There's always something constructive we can learn from these profound historical moments. Looking willingly and courageously at the larger, more complicated context, we can learn how to better contribute to our global community. And we can, indeed, show our children how to leave this world a more peaceful, unified place than we found it.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Inspirational Summer Reading!

Just finished reading an inspiring book, given to me by a friend/colleague, entitled Faust in Copenhagen. Written by theoretical physicist Gino Segré, the book beautifully describes the fascinating story of the discussions responsible for the discovery of atomic structure and quantum mechanics in the early 1900s. The most amazing part of the book is the focus on the human side of science.

Yes, contrary to popular belief, scientists are in fact human! In Faust in Copenhagen, Segré describes the lives of seven (plus) scientists as they communicate and brainstorm with one another in magical ways, pondering the mysteries of physics. Picturing a group of seven musicians or poets or artists or writers discussing their subject seems so "normal," but the same image using scientists (or mathematicians) conjures up a very different mental picture, for some reason. After reading this book, however, you would be hard-pressed to decide in which profession these six men and one woman belong. They are theoretical and experimental physicists, to be certain. But they are incredibly zealous and articulate in their area of expertise, discussing the intricacies of that which excites and intellectually stimulates them with as much passion as a poet, as much rhythm as a musician, as much symbolism as a writer, and as much abstract thought as an artist. The description of their conversation makes me long to be in school again, having scholarly discussions with peers and professors on a regular basis about science and its relevance in our lives.

Faust in Copenhagen was inspirational for me as someone who enjoys science. But having just finished The Element, by Ken Robinson, I value it just as much from a teacher's perspective. Sir Robinson describes the phenomenal potential that exists when you find your element—the place where the things we love to do and the things we are good at come together. These seven scientists certainly all allowed themselves the chance to follow this path. Because of this, they became the most influential physical scientists of the 20th century. Because they were allowed to follow their gift and passion, they literally changed the world. They actively worked at creating a progressive and constructive scientific community, led primarily by the outstanding teaching efforts of Niels Bohr. He did not allow politics, economics, or even personality conflicts get in the way of the progression of science. And Bohr sincerely cared about each scientist as a person, student, friend, helping out with whatever was needed in whatever manner he could.

I have so much more spinning in my head in terms of the connection I made between these two books. Community-building and discussion documentation and technology and personal connections, etc.  For now, I look forward to using these books as a foundation in my classroom this school year, trying my best to emulate the likes of Bohr and the ideas of Robinson. A true challenge, certainly not attainable, but I sincerely look forward to trying!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Building an Ecology of Freedom—The Importance of Fair Use

It has been ages since I've published a new post. Suffice it to say, other, more important life events have required me to revert back into some old, instinctual teaching habits the last couple months. And I have felt terribly absent as a contributing member of my PLN. But, I have continued to devour the ideas being shared and thought now was as good a time as any to get back into the groove!

I just watched Lawrence Lessig's TedxNYED talk entitled Re-examining the Remix. I thought it was quite compelling. I believe I was particularly drawn to this talk for two reasons.

1) I am intrigued by the notion of "Building an Ecology of Freedom." Developing a constructive community is the foundation of my classroom, and in doing so, my students and I practice and investigate dozens of methods of social interactions. This includes "remixing" as a form of personal expression. Lessig showed a video of Julian Sanchez stating, "Copyright policy isn't just about how to incentivize the production of a certain kind of artistic commodity; it's about what level of control we're going to permit to be exercised over our social realities." This got me thinking about how important and relevant "fair use," the freedom to create and remix, is to my teaching practice. And my head is still spinning.

2) I believe I'm also drawn to this topic for personal reasons. My husband, Spiro Bolos, works quite extensively on copyright and fair use, presenting at regional and national conferences, including CUE this past spring. I happen to find his explanations and stories exceptionally relevant to the teaching community as a whole. He not only quotes Lessig (I believe), but is working with Renee Hobbes this summer, as well. (Here is a version of his presentation.) Having heard Spiro's talks, I was quite surprised at Lessig's angle of describing the conservative politicians to be the Fair Use Crusaders. I don't know why; I guess I assumed that since I agreed with my husband's thoughts, and Lessig's, that liberals would be crowned with that title. Live and learn! (But I'm certainly interested in hearing other experts' opinions. Do most agree with Lessig's perspective?)

I found the following statements from Lessig's talk to be incredibly important as the fight to "Build an Ecology of Freedom" continues, regardless of who is leading the charge.

"Freedom needs this opportunity to have BOTH the commercial success of the great creative works AND the opportunity to build this (ecology of freedom) type of culture. And for that to happen you need ideas like fair use to be central and protected…"

"Walt Disney was a remixer extrataordinaire."

"Our lives are sharing activites. And for sharing to exist, we need well-protected spaces of fair use."

"The ecology of sharing needs freedom from within to create. And we need to respect the creator."

I would have to work exceptionally hard to even be considered a novice in understanding Fair Use. But I am developing a greater appreciation for the social and professional necessity of learning about it, and fighting for it. So, do I vote Republican in November? ;-)

Monday, April 5, 2010

"Childish" Dreams...We Adults Should Be So Smart!

Adora Svitak shares her "childish" dreams...and they have inspired me today. She's twelve and definitely worth a listen. Not only should educators think differently about the expectations we have for our students ("standards" are NOT the answer...), but we should rethink our expectations for ourselves. If we continue to talk about why we CAN'T do something, or have conversations about check-list items like NCLB or RTI, we're destined to harm our students' growth, and our own. We need to feel free to be new and creative with our ideas...We need to talk and brainstorm together. Unstructured, creative time. The ideas are spinning...! Thanks, Adora!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Doing "Nothing" is "Something"

My idea of "doing nothing" needs a bit of tweaking. For years, people have been telling me this. But I'm learning! Slowly, but surely, I'm learning to ask for help, rather than allowing myself to become overwhelmed. Why do I tend to have such trouble being idle? Relaxing? Do nothing?

I attended a two-day science teachers' conference and returned home Saturday night after a four-hour flight delay. The flight itself was a nightmare for me; the small plane felt every bump of turbulence!  My youngest daughter was having a birthday slumber party that night, so upon my return, the house was filled with 14 thirteen-year-old girls. As I walked through the door, I was gearing myself up to help out with the party.

However, my older daughter had stepped-up. She had done the grocery shopping, baked the cake, helped decorate the house, and most importantly, helped calm my youngest one down, assuring her everything would go smoothly and everyone would have fun. My husband, too, helped tremendously. Along with all the work he normally does, the house had a peaceful feeling, a sense of serenity that only he can provide, even amongst 14 teenage girls. He calmly kissed me hello, asked me about my trip, and offered to make me dinner, since he rightfully guessed I had forgotten to eat.

On Sunday night, I was wiped. The excitement of the conference, the stress of the flight home, etc. wore me out. So my husband tells me, "I'm doing the dishes, taking out the trash and finishing up some emails. You do nothing. Go sit on the couch and relax. We'll watch some TV together when I'm finished. Is there anything else you need me to do for you?"

"Doing nothing sounds great. Thanks, Sweetie. No, I don't need anything. I'm good." So I head for the couch...

I don't know what's wrong with me. Somehow, on my way to the couch, I got out the lunch boxes for the morning, cleaned up the dining room table from the party, grabbed the laundry from the dryer to fold, put in another load, dealt with some work-related emails and then brought my luggage upstairs to unpack. And then it hit me. I had taken a 30 minute detour doing things that could have waited, things that my husband would've gladly done for me (except the laundry). So I abruptly dropped everything and purposefully made my way to the couch!

So am I really learning? Honestly, yes. Six months ago, it would've been a 60 minute detour! But the learning curve can only be understood by someone like me; someone who has a hard time asking for help, someone who seems to have two speeds—80 mph or "shut-down mode" due to burn-out, with no speeds in between!

What I'm learning most of all is that doing "nothing" is "something" and it's a very important skill I want my daughters to learn. I don't want them to develop the idea that they always need to be working. My two-speed engine needs some balance from someone who works just as hard, but balances life with a dominant "stop-and-smell-the-roses" perspective, someone who saves energy for people first and things second, someone with a calm yet strong demeanor, someone whose serenity of mind and heart is contagious to those around him. Someone like my husband.

So I will continue to practice making time to do nothing. Anyone else having trouble with this? Specifically teachers? Any ideas that have worked for you?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Education = Federal Disaster Area. Save Our Students!

My thoughts are spinning. I want to share. No, I need to share. Blogging, I've found, is therapeutic! So let's see if I'm capable of tying together these seemingly isolated stories. Somehow, I know they fit. 

1. First I heard a story on NPR's Morning Edition, Obama Policy Shelves Most Bush-Era Stem Cell Lines. (see below) As I listened, I became increasingly frustrated with the absurdity of red tape, and with the consistently poor transitions that take place when newly elected officials take office and the old ones vacate. In this story, the loss of years of experimentation and millions of dollars of resources are the unintended consequence of a new application process implemented by the Obama administration. In essence, volumes of scientific research might be halted and become worthless due to paperwork? What a mess! Research that is ongoing and progressive is being forced to stop and reapply using new guidelines. And there's no guarantee that the application will be accepted; they might have to start all over! As a science teacher, I wonder how to prepare my future professional scientists (students) for situations like this?

2. Then I listened to another NPR story, Spelling: 'No Child Left Behind' Is A 'Toxic Brand.' (see below) Arne Duncan plans to address congress with a "reworked" version of the No Child Left Behind law. He is recommending that the 2014 deadline for math and English proficiency be replaced by a new 2020 deadline for college and career preparedness. (Breath, Joan, breath.) I am infuriated on so many fronts.
a. Reworked? Why use NCLB as a foundation? Start over!
b.  Fire teachers in underperforming schools? Oh my goodness...We should have the president and congress be scrutinized in the same manner. Then they might understand what a bad idea this is. This completely misses the point!
c. "There's nothing pedagically wrong with teaching to a test." Dewey is turning over in his grave right. I'm sure of it. My point? There's nothing pedagogically RIGHT with teaching to a test. In fact, our entire assessment process needs revamping...High stakes testing is a BAD idea. Period.
d. College and Career Preparedness? Our nation is receiving hourly news reports of teachers being cut, programs being slashed, buildings being shuttered, students becoming victims. And Secretary Duncan is testifying about a reworked NCLB?! Wake up! We need true reform, not anything that resembles revamping or reworking anything!

3. Lastly, I watched an old TedTalk of Ken Robinson (see old post of mine). And I'm reading his book, The Element. Phenomenal discussion on where to start with school "reform" (for lack of a better term).

So how are these stories linked? Here's what I came up with:
We need to figure out how to NOT reinvent and cause trouble (story 1),
we need to reform when things have spiraled out of control (story 2),
we need to use our creative intelligence to know the difference (story 3).
These are the exact life challenges our students need to be prepared for. Do we really think we're modeling things well for them?
Let the comments begin. Please. What do you think?

(As an aside, I wish my district would have said "no" when NCLB started to diffuse through our classroom walls, and instead used creativity to do better by our students.
And said "no" to increasing AP offerings and enrollment when schools became ranked using this criterion, and instead used creativity to do better by our students.
And said "no" when programs were cut and/or replaced with "test prep" or "content driven" courses, and instead used creativity to do better by our students.
We have a chance now. We can say "no" to RTI (Response to Intervention), and instead use creativity to do better by our students. RTI is an insult. It is a waste of time and energy. Time and energy that is being expended by lowering the bar on incredibly talented individuals. BUT it CAN be twisted into something meaningful. We just need to let go and let the creativity flow!)

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Reactionary Collaboration & Reflection is Better Than None...Right?

"You cannot hold me more accountable than I hold myself responsible for the children in my charge." ~Chris Lehmann, Principal SLA, Philadelphia

This quote pops into my head every time I hear a news story about the government's and/or educational leaders' plans on how to best "reform" our public education system. Accountability cannot be the foundation of sustainable, meaningful reform. So I was shocked when I heard the news that Central Falls High School in Rhode Island fired its entire teaching faculty, effective at the end of this school year, in part to comply with the No Child Left Behind Act. Yes, the whole faculty has been fired. And President Obama implied that this was a good decision!

The story on NPR's Morning Edition (below) filled me with simultaneous outrage and relief. Former Assistant Secretary of Education, Diane Ravitch, has changed her position on No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and other educational reform ideas. A former supporter, she now says that "It actually lowers standards...The problem is that when we attach high stakes to the tests...This, then corrupts the value of the measure..."

One quote by Ravitch resonates with me because I have always nurtured a collaborative environment in my classroom. True collaboration is key. Ravitch states, "Schools operate fundamentally — or should operate — like families. The fundamental principle by which education proceeds is collaboration. Teachers are supposed to share what works; schools are supposed to get together and talk about what's [been successful] for them. They're not supposed to hide their trade secrets and have a survival of the fittest competition with the school down the block."

Collaboration. Hallelujah! I'm relieved that this has finally been voiced. I hope this quote is aired repeatedly and used as a focus for faculty discussions all over the country. It holds so many foundational elements to quality education. So I applaud Ms. Ravitch's reflection and growth. But the only way these ideas will become reality in our school system is when the evaluation process matches these thoughts. When will these ideas become the foundation for educational reform?

I'm enraged that this has taken so long. Why weren't the teachers, professors, educational researchers and a large number of school administrators listened to years ago when these tragic outcomes were predicted ad nauseam? The present state and federal mandates are unfortunately speeding up this path of educational destruction and we need to put on the brakes!  I vividly recall a conversation I had with my husband approximately ten years ago. He said, "I think they're trying to destroy public education. I think they're campaigning to take it down, to privatize it. I really do." And look where we are. Is it too late? Can we still turn the corner, implement collaborative, research-based, sound changes?

Our students need individualized, local attention. High stakes must go. Education is not formulaic. So will the people responsible for making educational decisions finally start to sincerely collaborate with the educational community? We're ready!

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Need for Creativity in Education

Just saw this TedTalk. Yes, it's a bit old, but it is funny, thought-provoking and still very much relevant. Take a look. How creative do you feel as an educator? Do you take risks? And most importantly, what do you do in your classroom to nurture the creativity in students?

Some interesting thoughts/quotes from the video:
(1) Creativity is as important as literacy in education.
(2) If you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original.
(3) We're educating our children out of their creative capacities.
(4) Shakespeare was in somebody's English class, wasn't he?
(5) There isn't an education system on earth that has a unique hierarchy. Math and science on top; Humanities in the middle; then the arts at the bottom.
(6) If you were to explain the purpose of public education to an alien, you'd have to conclude that it is to produce university professors...Professors live in their heads...This is not the way most of the world lives.
(7) We need to radically rethink our view of intelligence.
(8) We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we are educating our children.
(9) If Gillian Lynne had been assessed in our time, she would've been diagnosed with ADHD, put on medication and told to calm down. Back in the 1930s, when she was 8, her doctor instead told her to go to a dance school. She did. And she became a choreographer and dancer and multimillionaire. She did Cats, Phantom, etc. Dozens! She's brought happiness to millions of people.
(10) The last clip is incredible.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Death of a District?

My presence at work meetings usually results in the book title Death By Meeting echoing through my head. I believe many of us have had that same frustrated feeling, "I could be doing something so much more important right now!"

But I attended a board meeting in Wheaton last night for my daughters' school district, Community Unit School District 200, that gave new meaning to the word "death" in that title. As I sat there, my eyes watered, my heart sank, my spirit bled. My hometown school district was dying, and I was at the deathbed gathering. Where was I? How did this happen overnight? And how is it that I was informed about something so catastrophic through a casual email from a friend?

The community sat stunned, injured, depressed as the acting superintendent read slide after slide of loss—middle school teachers cut, class sizes increased, educational opportunities dropped, just to name a few. This "budget proposal" was literally harming every person in the district, most directly, of course, our precious children. How could this possibly be the solution?

The domino effect of negative consequences caused by implementing this proposal cannot be fully understood by anyone at this time, but common sense dictates nothing less than disaster. Most disturbing to me is that I do not believe an administrative team who proposes this as the path to fiscal stability is capable of comprehending the depth of destruction this will cause. The immediate frustration to the teaching staff—a dramatic and arguably a potential career-changing factor—will lead to much more tragic outcomes. Having a positive, familial atmosphere at school—between staff, students, etc.—provides a comfortable environment for all to thrive, nurtures a climate conducive to innovative curricular development and most importantly fosters critical teacher-student relationships. These are the minimal foundational pieces for the growth of our children. This atmosphere cannot be sustained in an environment described by the acting superintendent last night. (In fact, the polar opposite is likely.) Nor is it remotely appropriate to ask this already dedicated and loving teaching staff to try.

I have a solution to the board's partially self-inflicted woes. Revisit the district's core beliefs. Sit with creative and insightful teachers, students and staff. Ask yourself the tough questions, the really tough questions. Let others help you formulate them, if need be. And then think, ponder. Spend the hours necessary to develop more appropriate, innovative, and responsible decisions. Do not, I beg of you, take the seemingly simple route. You described yourselves as "elected servants" last night. That is exactly what is required here. We could use this opportunity to demonstrate how a community employs true collaboration and originality to tackle a challenge such as this one.

The complexity of issues that will surface if you follow through on the administrators' budget recommendation will be insurmountable. And the damage done to our children will be irreparable.

And I am available to brainstorm with any board member at any time. I'm waiting for your call.