“Students do the thinking. We know how to read, write, speak, and think about science, and we also know that our students won’t gain these skills if we do the work for them. We give our students the support they need to develop science literacy, analyze data, integrate mathematical and computational thinking, develop models and design solutions. We know students cannot comprehend scientific practices in depth without directly experiencing those practices for themselves; therefore, we check the ratio of teacher work to student work in each and every lesson and ensure that our students get many opportunities to be critical thinkers, readers, writers, and speakers.”

From Sara Bokhari’s description of the “vision statement” that her team at TNTP has set forth for science teaching.

Top 10 Reasons that Year-round Schools are Great for Teachers

CalendarI’ve spent ten of my twelve years of classroom teaching in year-round schools.  I will make no secret of how much I enjoy the schedule and the lifestyle, but I recognize that they are not for everyone.  That said, however, many of the teachers who express doubt to me about whether they would like to teach year-round don’t really understand what they are all about.  Here is my best attempt to educate about, and evangelize for, year-round elementary and middle school.

Note: I’m discussing here multi-track year-round schools, which (obviously) come with a long list of challenges.  The goal of this list is simply to point out the advantages, many of which are not obvious.

1. It’s much harder to reach your energy limit.   In year-round schools, students and teachers work for nine week “track in” periods separated by 3 week “track out” breaks.  I never knew how unrelenting the fatigue of teaching could be until I left year-round for a traditional calendar school.  Why would anyone prefer one gigantic break in the summer instead of four smaller ones spread throughout the year?

2. It’s also harder to get bored.  Someone will argue with me about this–I’m sure–but I get bored when I’m off for months at a time.  Three weeks is some kind of magical period of time during which I relax, recharge, and rethink without missing the classroom or getting that feeling that I need to keep busy.

3. The students stay in “learning mode” continuously.  I took this for granted before I switched to a traditional calendar, but students never get far enough away from school days to switch into the “standby mode” that they have at the end of a summer break.  With a little review, you can get right back to exploring new content with them.

4. The cycle of professional development is built in.  Every teacher has had that moment when she wished that she could hit the reset button on a unit or course of study.  We’ve all wanted to start over again at some point to improve something or try something new.  That opportunity presents itself throughout the year in year-round schools because a track out break is a great time to read a book, attend a workshop, or complete an online class, and then put those ideas to work right away.

5. You don’t use as many sick days.  How many times have you taken a sick day as you felt a cold start to come on?  How many times was the real culprit exhaustion from months without a break?  I managed to bank a ridiculous number of sick days during my first seven years as a teacher.  Of course, then I had kids of my own and I burned through them pretty quickly.

6. You can vacation when the beaches/parks/mountains/etc. are not packed with other travelers.  This is one of those no-brainers, right?  I’ve been fortunate enough to take my family to Disney World in early December and the North Carolina mountains in April.  I sit by my neighborhood pool after Labor Day enjoying the peace and quiet.  Now that’s what I call relaxing.

7. It’s harder to be a hoarder.  In most multi-track year-round schools, teachers pack up from their classrooms before taking their break.  The returning teacher moves into that space so that a school only needs classrooms for 3 tracks (75% of the teachers).  All of that packing and unpacking forced me to limit my collection of teaching materials to just the ones I needed the most.  I took pictures of student work instead of saving it.  I use digital documents instead of a filing cabinet full of paper.

8. Collaboration becomes less about doing the same thing at the same time.  And more about doing what’s best for your students.  Professional learning teams composed of same-grade-level, same-subject teachers are forced to deal with the fact that each track is on a staggered version of the same schedule.  We focus on what we have in common, and how we can help one another, not on standardizing our lessons into lock-step harmony.

9. There is no time to obsess over the past.  Too many teachers get hung up on the mistakes they’ve made or the stumbles of their students.  The pace of year-round school is constant, which forces us to have one foot in the present and the other in the future.  When something goes wrong, we look immediately to what needs to happen next time.

10. It always feels simultaneously like the first week of school and the last week of school.  With one track always settling in after returning from a break, and another gearing up to take their break, the school climate rises and falls on a three week schedule that makes it feel like your breaks are always around the corner.

Year-round teachers, what did I miss? Traditional calendar teachers, what did I get wrong?

It turns out that the most important way for parents to raise successful children is buy bookcases. Or at least this is what readers could conclude if they absorbed just the finding summarized in this Gizmodo article, and not the fourth paragraph caveat that books in the home are likely a proxy for other facets of good parenting—like income, emphasis on education, and parental educational attainment.”

From The Atlantic’s recent guide to reading educational data without jumping to conclusions.  Hat tip to Tim Stahmer who wrote about this post on his blog recently.

Back in the trenches?

1149px-Soldiers_in_trenchWe hear that phrase all the time, don’t we?  Those who work outside classrooms like to announce that they remember what it’s like “in the trenches”.  Classroom teachers criticize policy makers, reformers, and others who act without knowing what it means to be in those same trenches.  To those who perceive themselves as warriors fighting the good fight every day, this kind of language elicits a sense of pride, mutual respect, and self-sacrifice.  But is this really the metaphor that we want?

Here’s a little historical refresher: trench warfare was some of the most horrific fighting of any period of world history.  And that had less to do with the advent of chemical weapons during World War I as it did with the unsanitary conditions that helped Spanish Influenza kill more American soldiers than combat.  It was a gruesome sort of military action that mainly consisted of stalemates that dragged on for months, as each side lobbed artillery at the other and shot anyone who climbed out of those claustrophobic earthen tunnels of misery.

The impasse was punctuated by surges of troops emerging from the trenches in an attempt to advance, usually with the loss of more than 90% of their brave doughboys.  Progress on this front of The Great War, located mostly in France, was nearly nonexistent.  The war was neither won nor lost in the trenches, but rather through air superiority and advances in tank design.  That lesson is often lost on those who think of trench fighting as noble: it rarely results in change.

In truth, education needs so much more than stalemates and status quo.  We need new strategies and new tools.  We need innovation and experimentation.  Above all, we need teachers who see their role as not simply holding the line but advancing it.

I consider all this as I return to the middle school science classroom this week (after a 9-month hiatus) and receive encouragement from those who are glad to have me back in the trenches.  I take this praise with trepidation, however, because I know that it is far too easy to become “entrenched” in the ways of today and lose sight of the need for momentum.  I am well aware that it takes small squads of courageous educators to jump over the barbed wire and cross no man’s land in order for us get to where we need to be.

Are you “in the trenches” or deeply “entrenched”?  Do you see a difference?

photo credit:  Wikimedia Commons

“No, no!  The adventures first, explanations take such a dreadful time.”

-Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass

This week has brought such exciting adventures and fodder for many future blog posts.  More to come soon…


The LEGO model for edtech integration

medium_7588638570If you’ve spent any time reading about the intersection of education and technology, you’ve probably heard about the SAMR model, originally developed by Dr. Ruben Puentedura.  It suggests that teachers’ use and integration of technology follows a progression from substitution to augmentation and then to modification and finally redefinition.  The general idea is that teachers will move from doing what they currently do with the addition of tech to reinventing their practices to doing entirely new things because of the tech tools.  It’s a concept that anyone who has provided support and professional development to teachers has experienced.

With all of that rolling around in my head, I recently looked up from my laptop to see my own kids playing with their LEGOs.  Watching them build, unbuild, and rebuild with these ridiculously over-priced, yet wonderfully open-ended little bricks reminded me of the way in which I’ve observed teachers using and integrating technology into their practice.  It occurred to me that the way kids develop as LEGO “users” mirrors the way teachers mature into technology-infused-educators.  Here is the soon-to-be trademarked “LEGO Model for EdTech Integration”:

STAGE 1: Watching Dad Build

This is the stage at which the child may simply lack the dexterity to snap bricks together, or might not be able to understand the three-dimensionality of the images in the instructions.  Either way, their contribution to the construction process is minimal, but they will gladly play with (and break) the finished product.

In the classroom, this is when a teacher needs the support of tech savvy colleagues and/or students to figure out how to use a tech tool.  She is likely to become easily frustrated, especially when that support isn’t present.  Many (most?) educators never leave this stage.

STAGE 2: Build and Glue

At this stage, my son and I would build LEGO models together, although I would be doing most of the work.  This was a fun stage, but it was heartbreaking when the finished model fell into pieces soon thereafter and he would bring it to me to fix… every five minutes.  My solution to this problem–and I truly regret resorting to such a “nuclear option”–was to use super glue to connect the pieces permanently.

I see this stage of teacher development when teachers learn one way to use a tool and are unable to adjust to differences or fix problems.  They can become quite adept at performing one task with a device or app, but can’t apply those skills to new situations.

STAGE 3: Following Instructions Independently

I was really proud when my son (and later, his younger sister) were able to follow the instructions that come with a LEGO set and build a model on their own.  To me, it was a demonstration of focus, hand-eye coordination, and attention to detail.  It clearly wasn’t a very creative adventure, but definitely successful.

Teachers indicate that they are at this stage when they can dive into a new tool or technique and figure it out by themselves.  Despite not being comfortable creatively thinking of new uses for the tool, these teachers can often troubleshoot minor issues related to the handful of ways that they know how to use a tool.  They can even demonstrate the tool and its use for others to duplicate.

STAGE 4: Building Original Creations with the Bricks

This is the stage that my son has now reached in his own LEGO development.  He will pull out a bin of assorted bricks and begin connecting them to match a pattern in his head.  He spend large amounts of time experimenting with different arrangements to get the visual effect and structural strength that he seeks.  In many ways, the bricks become just a medium, similar to a sketchbook or lump of clay.  He doesn’t care so much that they are LEGO-branded, as much as he wants to have a sufficiently diverse collection of them to make his imagined constructs come to life.

This is clearly the ultimate stage of teacher tech maturity, as well.  It’s a stage that I would love to see every educator attain, although so few (myself included, much of the time) have done so.  At this stage, a teacher thinks first of the learning outcomes that she wishes to achieve.  Only then does she choose the tech tool that will help her students reach that goal in the most engaging and effective way.   The tool (or app or website or gadget) is simply a means to an end, not an end in and of itself.

Just as with the SAMR model, which Puentedura intended as a way to assess and promote tech integration in education, these stages exist on a ladder that moves teachers in the direction of better teaching.  The goal for educators, schools, and larger organizations is to shift instruction in the direction of transformation.  And that requires a serious commitment to putting quality instruction ahead of whiz-bang novelty.

What LEGO are you at?  What would it take to move you forward?
photo credit: Robiwan_Kenobi via photopin cc