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

5 Facts to Remember in the Teacher Tenure Debate

old teacherThe issue of tenure never used to come up in conversation between my teachers friends and me.  Since the North Carolina General Assembly acted on the growing movement among conservative legislatures and began to eradicate the practice, however, it is all that we seem to talk about.  And since the Vergara ruling in California earlier this month, it seems the Internet is similarly obsessed.

As is my tendency, I tried to absorb as many facts and as much opinion as I could find (on both sides of the issue) before writing about how I feel.  Here’s a sampling of writing by some really knowledgeable folks:

  • Tom Whitby writes here about why he feels that the Vergara ruling is potentially devastating to the profession.  In particular, Whitby makes the point that poverty trumps teacher effectiveness in their effect on student learning.
  • Peter Greene, like several others, points the finger at teacher evaluation.
  • The always-awesome Valerie Strauss does a fantastic job summarizing the conversation and clarifying what exactly tenure is.

After reading those posts and many others, as well as tracking down some references on the subject, here are five important things that educators and legislators alike need to keep in mind about the issue of teacher tenure:

  1. Tenured teachers can be fired.  Tenure is simply a commitment to follow due process before terminating a teacher.  Many other professions have similar due process that isn’t call tenure, leading to the erroneous belief that teacher tenure is something particularly special or unique.
  2. Many teachers, especially in the states in which tenure is being argued vehemently, are evaluated based on student test scores.  This should only be acceptable to you if you believe that these test scores actually measure the learning that we want students to have AND you trust the faulty VAM statistics to tell us whether individual teachers increase scores.
  3. Firing the least effective teachers is one of the least effective (and efficient) ways to improve public education.  It may seem a lot cheaper to simply fire the teachers who are not doing a good job, but you still need to train more teachers to take their place.  It has been proven that providing high-quality professional development results in a more effective teaching force.
  4. With or without tenure, teacher job protections vary greatly between union and “Right To Work” states.  In North Carolina, for example, recent moves to phase out teacher tenure by the General Assembly may have little effect on job security.  But in  states like New York and California, unions have negotiated strong protections that have (in the past) led to situations like the infamous “rubber rooms“.  Ironically, tenure is often toted as compensation for otherwise inadequate pay, yet the states with the highest pay also have the strongest tenure provisions.
  5. Tenure is the only reason veteran teachers can compete with new teachers who earn much less money.  On the contrary, research has shown again and again that it costs less to keep and train veteran teachers than to equip new teachers.  And, the research is similarly clear about the greater impact that veteran teachers have on student learning.

I’m still a bit undecided about whether tenure harbors unfit teachers or protects academic freedom.  What I know for sure is that in a world in which student success and teacher effectiveness are measured using high-stakes standardized tests scores, it’s hard to tell which teachers are truly mastering their craft.

Unless, you know, you actually watch them teach.  Duh.  #sarcasticbuttrue

Promoting Teacher Leadership Through Year-Long Sabbaticals [CROSS-POST]

The following post was originally published on the blog that I also write for.  It summarizes much of what I’ve learned from the out-of-the-classroom job that I have had since October.   medium_2389416107As my 9-month stint as Program Manager for NCCAT‘s Data Literacy Program wraps up later this month, it’s a great time for me to reflect on the experience and the value that similar ones might have for other educators. Many in education have lamented recently the lack of career advancement opportunities for classroom teachers, myself included.  As they become master teachers, experienced educators have very few options outside of school administration.  This lack of a differentiated ladder of employment drives many teachers out of the classroom once they achieve a certain level of skill and experience. Research and new initiatives have begun to appear that show promise as oases in this “career desert”.  Barnett Berry has written about the idea of “Teacherpreneurs” who expand their influence while staying in the classroom.  Programs like Opportunity Culture create tiered roles for teachers that come with additional responsibilities and pay.  There is no doubt that keeping our most talented educators in the classroom needs to be a national goal, and hybrid teaching positions are one way to get there. Continue reading