Fuhrmanalogies: 3 Word Pictures to Enhance our Understanding of Important Educational Issues

I have discovered over the course of my 10 years as an educator and three and a half years as a school administrator that my best way of making sense of the issues that perplex us is through the use of analogies. Though I will provide the caveat that many of these extended metaphors or analogies fall short when extended too terribly far, they do help me to better explain what I am thinking and typically help me to connect with others in discussion about educational topics without obfuscating the general ideas too much. Having shared a few of these with colleagues and having been thanked for elucidating some issues, I would like to share a few in this venue, not to necessarily answer questions, but to engage us in richer, more vivid conversation about the issues that trouble or challenge us in education.

1. The wooden spoon of evaluation: wooden spoon.jpgOur current evaluation frameworks are much like a wooden spoon. A wooden spoon is designed to be used as a tool to mix many small and independent ingredients into a more delicious symphony of flavors which prove the beauty of synthesis. We want to use our wooden spoon in this way, to blend the components of excellent teaching pedagogy and practices that support the whole learner for the optimal educational experience; however, two difficulties arise with this wooden spoon. First, each of us applies a different approach to the use of the spoon, thereby generating a slightly different mixture from the next. Surprisingly, two people using the same mixing spoon and ingredients could produce very different textures and qualities of products. Second, some have a different experience of the wooden spoon, one associated with a corporal punishment context. Therefore, when teachers encounter the wooden evaluation spoon as a punitive device, their initial impression negatively limits their receptivity to see the tool as a constructive piece of equipment. We must be very careful to apply the use of our evaluation tool with the intention of generating the best mixture of elements to produce the finest educational experience for our students and work diligently to eradicate the notion that the evaluation tool’s primary purpose is to exact punitive measures in response to less than optimal observational evidence.

 

2. The bullseye of assessment:

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We are charged with the complex task of developing learners who are capable of meeting the demands of standardized assessments in our schools much like an archer is charged with the task of placing an arrow within a bullseye to reach the intended target. We seek the items to put in our resource quiver and are occasionally provided with some that are designed especially for the target. Sadly, as we reach for our arrows, we have found recurringly that the target has either moved or has become unclear. In fact, one might go so far as to contend that the target which we initially intended to pursue has changed to look like that designed for a different weapon. We are aware that the target is a necessary end for our challenge, but through the confusion of target and appropriate choice of weapon to send in its direction, we are taking multiple risks in aiming anything in the direction of the target. We recognize that there may be danger posed to those in the nearby vicinity, yet we are urged to take aim and release whatever we might have available in the direction of a general target without much clarification about how the location of the landed projectile will even be measured or when a judge will be able to do so. The frustration continues until we can more clearly see a static target and be equipped with or equip ourselves with tools that are designed to reach it effectively. Perhaps the target will no longer remain static in many contexts, but we would be far better prepared if we knew this at the outset. We will also be reassured when we discover that someone will be revealing to us our ability to hit the target in a timely fashion.

3. The two escalators of growth and achievement:

escalatorsEscalators have the purpose of raising their subjects to a higher point. In order to meet both growth and achievement improvement, we must imagine that students on one escalator have essentially moved their way up one escalator while being transported upward by a strong core curriculum. On the other escalator, we want to see students moving upward more quickly as we are pushing them up the moving escalator in order to draw closer to the height where the other students are found, to close the gap. We want both escalators to raise students, representing growth, but we want to close the achievement gap by providing the requisite RTI push up the escalator for those students who previously showed lower achievement. Ideally, we would be pushing the students up both escalators to the point at which there is little room left before reaching the top. How can we do this? We must be very intentional in our approaches to the differentiated needs of individual learners, and we must be willing to meet those needs and provide escalation forces beyond the typical school day, helping to address both academic and socio-emotional needs that require more support than the scheduled school day will allow.

These word pictures, though admittedly imperfect, should give us some hope that we can make some sense of the daunting issues with which we are confronted in education, and perhaps, through such a depiction, we can begin to arrive at solutions by better imagining the picture that we want to paint for our students and teachers. It is important that we make the nebulous more approachable if we are ever to effectively tackle the difficult issues of education reform.

Inspirational Week as March Begins

Three experiences this week clearly reminded me why it is rewarding to be an educator and important to provide experiences for students whose education is too often limited by life’s circumstances.

Astronomical Aspiration: The first experience that enlightened me this week was the visit to our school by Billy Hix (@billyhix) and his colorful learning experience through the use of his portable planetarium this past Wednesday. Economic limitations often hinder our students from experiencing much of the world beyond their zip code, but Billy Hix expanded their horizons to as far as the outer limits of the universe through the use of some technology that is quite uncommon in most school systems, much less in the homes of our children. He engaged students with stories that made astronomy and Greek mythology come to life, even detailing how the cast of Greek characters interacted in the constellations so evident in the night sky. Additionally, Billy Hix tells his own story of aspiration and its realization in his eventual position with NASA, encouraging students to pursue their positive interests without feeling hindered by others’ limited expectations for them.

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The enthusiasm of our teachers and students during and following this event reiterated for me how meaningful an experience can be when those leading it demonstrate how valuable students are and provides opportunities for extending and enriching their educational journey.

Enlightened Shadow: On Thursday, I had another powerful experience as I was encouraged to consider participating in the #shadowastudent Challenge (http://shadowastudent.org/). The pervious day, students in third and fourth grades were asked to submit reasons why they wanted me to shadow them for the day, and through careful rubric-based consideration, I narrowed down the candidates and selected the child I would shadow. I began my day meeting my student as she was dropped off at school (I had initially made plans to meet a different child at her home and walk to school with her, but she was unavailable for the experience). After walking through the front door, we headed to breakfast, and I stayed with her throughout the day until dismissal.

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I really came to this experience with few expectations but was excited to find that the student whom I shadowed experienced many great opportunities throughout the day. I was impressed by her ability to learn autonomously as she engaged in music theory exercises, research, and applied mathematical principles. I was also pleased to see that what we offered as meals were appropriate. What struck me most was the importance of the relationships established and how these shaped her day just as critically as any academic experiences. I am certain that her experience differed from most days in some respects as she artificially escorted her 6’4″ shadow all over our campus, but her friendships and relationships with her teachers revealed how meaningful social connections can enhance and support students and how the absence thereof can lead to equally negative consequences. Hopefully, the shadowing experience has led to another meaningful relationship that I can continue to foster for the rest of this year.

Valued Voices: My third experience that brought me to better appreciate my role as an educator began Friday, as I joined 49 other educators from Tennessee who came together to comprise the first Tennessee Ed Voice Fellows (@TNEdVoice) cohort. We were met by other national America Achieves (@aaftp) fellows, as well as SCORE President David Mansouri (@davemansouri) and Director of Educator Engagement Melissa Stugart (@melissastugart), who helped to elucidate for us the often obfuscated history of Tennessee public education. Marcus Markle, Program Manager for the Tennessee Educator Voice Fellowship, led the events of the weekend, and brought together wonderful voices and ideas that would inspire me and others to share our voices on the issues that really matter to us in education in Tennessee. We had opportunity to hear from panelists, which included Commissioner Dr. Candice McQueen (@mcqueencandice), Representative John DeBerry, Educator James Dittes (@Father_Ahab), and ASD Director Malika Anderson (@Malika_TN). We had opportunity to hear from a number of other fellows, whom I will detail in other blog posts, and these were all very informative and greatly enriched me as an educator.

@TNEdVoice

The biggest takeaway I have after attending the @TNEdVoice meeting is that our voices as educators are not only important to represent ourselves, but to advocate boldly for what is best for our students. Though this is not a profound point, it is one that becomes clearer when one has opportunity to engage in conversations with other educators who are passionate about optimal learning conditions for their students and integrity with respect to educational matters. I was touched by so many stories from the experiences of other educators and, vicariously, their students, but, more importantly, I was empowered to take the next necessary steps in advocating for what our schools need with actionable plans and proposed solutions, and I am now even more willing to share my voice to meet this end, not just for my school and school system, but for students throughout Tennessee and the United States. Though I know this proves to be an exhausting endeavor and it will be met with considerable resistance and challenges, I am willing and ready to join others who feel as passionately as I do about bringing the best learning experiences to our students who not only will shape tomorrow, but who are already shaping today.

 

 

 

5 Areas in Which Balance May Not Be Easy, But Should Be Carefully Considered for Schools

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As I consider where we must put our efforts this year in educating students, I recognize that there are important areas in which our efforts must be to reflectively analyze our approach to strike a balance; such a balance requires ongoing investigation of both quantitative and qualitative data, some of which is not easily obtained. These areas, in particular, though I would like to see as areas in which great clarity can be attained, are somewhat perplexing and require consideration of multiple perspectives that take into account far more than a single data set can provide.

  1. Technology: Proficient and meaningful use of new technologies requires access to such technologies, both physically and in terms of skill development, and the use of technology should lead to significant and transferable learning experiences. Nonetheless, other skill development is necessary, and technology is not infallible in its uses and technology can both positively empower and unfortunately negatively enable certain behaviors related to education and learning. Some assistive technologies, when used with students who do not need them, can actually hinder students from achieving at a higher potential.  For example, a student who can read fluently and quickly who uses a “read-aloud” feature available in a technology-rich environment may be slowing down his or her reading and preventing the child’s potential development of more sophisticated analytical reading comprehension strategies.  Technology must be used as a capacity builder and experience enhancer rather than as a convenient tool or resource for simply accomplishing the same learning tasks and producing the same educational events with a different means of delivery. Many new technological advances in augmented reality, virtual reality, wearable technologies, and some that have not even been yet developed will impact education, and it is very important that our students are immersed in some use of these technologies only insofar as they enrich their educational experience and lead to their meaningful and relevant exploration of other venues and educational experiences. Students will most benefit from their own personal investment of time and effort in development, innovation, and active presentation of discoveries related thereto and should be supported in environments that allow for this.
  2. Family “Enrichment”: The family is both the greatest potential support for a student and the greatest possible determiner of the child’s sense of direction and ambition. Our role as educators is to empower a family and the constituent students therein; our role should not, however, be to undermine family values that may differ from our own if such values are not in some way harmful or detrimental to the children. We have to be sensitive to cultural differences that exist from one family to the next and be aware that differences in preference do not dictate a need for serious intervention on the part of educators in the affairs of the family. We can influence and educate the entire family insofar as we consider the well-being and best interest of all of the family’s members, but we should not impose our own sense of ambition or culturally defined desires and measure of success upon others. The balance can be struck when we provide multiple experiences that reveal what we see as valuable in our cultural framework, but we must be careful not to tout all of our practices as superior such that we inadvertently alienate the families whom we serve. If we are to reach our children and their families, we must be careful not to denigrate but should instead appreciate what their families have to offer, especially as each provides an identity for its children.
  3. Quantitative Data Analysis: Quantitative data are driven by so many different programs and variables in our present data-driven world that they can certainly present a piece of the puzzle which is the whole child, but they can by no means represent the entirety of a child’s academic or socio-emotional disposition in isolation without consideration of the multiple variables that impact them. Should poor test performance alone indicate to us that a child has a low or high academic aptitude? Absolutely not! However, should poor test performance (on more than one occasion) indicate to us that the child struggles with the assessment? Yes. Our daunting but imperative charge is not simply to use the data with a simple “if, then” approach but to decipher the data and to determine what contributed to the data. Too many of the contributing data are often only available to us through speculation about home conditions or demeanor during testing, which can be skewed and perhaps misleading. What, then, do we do with assessment data? Begin to assemble a puzzle with flexibility in knowing that the pieces (like standardized assessment data) can change and that the picture we want to assemble is that of the child’s greatest potential, not necessarily the picture of perfection. Nonetheless, assessment data should not be dismissed and should help us to better identify where a child has some needs, especially in the context of assessment.
  4. Recognition and Celebration: It is so important that we recognize and celebrate the achievements of our school families; however, if we do so too often for everything, we find ourselves in a place where such recognition is not distinctive and becomes disingenuous. The parody in which “everyone gets a trophy” has some merit in depicting the importance of sincerity and expectation in recognition of accomplishments and how too much praise can be trite and forgettable. When something truly spectacular happens, it should be treated as such, given its respective impact upon the person who accomplished it and others. Too little recognition of successes can lead to a stagnant and unappreciative school culture in which few strive to achieve because of the absence of an impetus for doing so. A school in which rewards are given even to those who do not display effort is one that presents a false sense of accomplishment. We can promote growth mindset, but should do so only through an authentic lens, not through a sympathetic view that causes our praise and recognition to be stripped of significance.
  5. Transparency: Transparency is essential to a system that acts with integrity, but too much transparency can sometimes lead to misgivings about decision-making and overwhelmed recipients of too much information. It is important to be transparent about the actual status of a situation or the motives behind a decision insofar as such transparency will help to keep people informed, safe, and not blindsided by something that concerns the well-being of the children and their families. Certainly, the premise underlying FERPA and HIPPA laws recognizes the need for children’s and families’ respective privacy and though both impose some difficulty for transparency in some situations, they more often protect people from too much information being shared with unrelated parties. Being candid and sincere is critical to building morale, especially with those identified in leadership roles within a school; humility and receptivity to multiple perspectives are key to a successful school if they are used to better inform decisions on the school’s behalf. Without some level of transparency, neither of these is possible. The best basis for transparency is a need to be honest and forthcoming about the issues that impact those with whom information and views are shared in a way that serves to maintain the well-being and success of each child and school stakeholder. May some question who is to determine what is in the best interest of these parties? Of course, but we must act with integrity in making these decisions and provide transparent responses in ways that serve and support the mission and values of our schools.

Too often, I am afraid that we inadvertently oversimplify some of these issues by committing to programs or initiatives without fully considering whether our approach is appropriate to the context for which it is intended. As one who likes to commit fervently, wholeheartedly, and zealously when I am convinced that a plan of action is the best, I must be careful to remember that extreme approaches, though perhaps exciting, are not always prudent and that caution must be exercised so that all involved parties are treated with a purpose that extends beyond my own frame of reference, ultimately to benefit our students and larger school family.

Intentions to Blog in 2016

With the pace of communication and information dissemination increasing so rapidly, especially with digital venues, I find it sometimes difficult to justify posting thoughts or resources to a blog. I typically feel that a concise discourse or a shared resource on Twitter will suffice to connect with fellow educators, but I also recognize the value of sharing one’s voice more extensively on issues about which one is passionate. Hence, I have decided to to blog more again this year. My WordPress account has remained dormant for quite some time, and though this has not caused me to engage in fewer conversations or stifle my voice in other venues, I want to re-engage in this practice of communicating via weblog to intensify my focus and transparency about what drives me in my journey as an educator, hoping to connect even more meaningfully with others who share my passion for best practices, innovation, and reflection on optimal education for all students. Though I can’t promise any particular profundity in my remarks, I look forward to once again sharing my voice as throughout this year and learning from the many who inspire me to persevere in a challenging and rewarding profession and calling.

Setting the Stage for RTI

I must preface this lengthy analogy with the assertion that I am not an RTI expert, and I write completely based upon my own informal, independent research on the subject within my experience as both a regular high school classroom educator and an elementary school administrator.

Having been a theater teacher and school theater director in the past, it occurred to me today the similarities between the RTI provided during the rehearsals for a production and the RTI provided in our general education programs.

Too often, we consider effective RTI too difficult a requirement to incorporate into what we are already doing to support our students. To be quite frank, I think what intimidates us most is the re-prioritizing and re-organizing of what we have held onto for many years because we naturally teach how we were taught or through the lens by which we experienced education, and the unnatural integration of some other support system is uncomfortable, and skeptically, we doubt its effectiveness since it is neither what worked for us nor what we think has been working for our students in years past.

To break down RTI into what I see as the same process as preparation for a theatrical production, it is important to set forth some disclaimers. RTI requires that all students have a role on stage in the final production and that all students are expected to perform their roles so that the “show must go on.” Though the federal “No Child Left Behind” program faced much scrutiny for being somewhat idealistic and for its flawed and inconsistent support for implementation, insistence that all students receive support academically such that they will be best equipped within their cognitive means to perform successfully is both equitable and imperative. No child will should be or will be hidden in an effective RTI implementation. With this being overtly mentioned, RTI should not set out to be a Comedy of Errors or Love’s Labours Lost; instead, the production should reflect more of an end that All’s Well that Ends well.

Before tackling the Tiers of tears, it is important that RTI be systematically organized, especially to handle the uncertainties of the implementation and to establish and maintain momentum throughout the process for all students. The cast must be committed to an excellent production at all levels and must not intend to ride on the merits of previous productions nor be discouraged by the previous failures.

As with any production, a director must fully engage and monitor fidelity within RTI, but a plethora of other experts must be consistently involved in orchestrating what the director has designed. The director (oftentimes a school administrator) must always be receptive to the concerns and difficulties expressed by those orchestrating the plans and responsive by adjusting resources and strategies to best equip the cast members for the final production. Costumers, a stage director, stagehands, set designers, and various “behind the scenes” personnel must be working collaboratively with the director(s) throughout the stages of preparation for the production. Every angle of the production must be considered analytically so that even unexpected mishaps can be averted.

Another element that must be clear is a script, schedule, and date of production that reveals the full scope of the timeline and rationale for RTI. Without a coherent sense of the date of production or the script beforehand, the backstage staff will wander aimlessly from one standard to another without a clear sense of the overall goal.

Once the vision is clear for all participating, other pieces need to be set in place and appropriately adjusted during rehearsals or intervention/extension times. The prop master is perhaps one of the most important roles in tier two and three interventions. This person ensures that the appropriate tools are available to the teachers and students for effective “performance.” One can not expect to place the same props in the same place for everyone and to see all roles performed with proficiency. Every student plays a different role in his or her aspiration to be part of a successful production. This is important, too, that each student recognizes his or her individual performance as a critical component of the school performance.

In implementation, RTI must continue to focus on specific hindrances from the conveyance of a coherent message, both by its individual constituents and as a production company. One of the sharpest criticisms that I have made of my own analogy here is that it focuses too heavily on an end product or comparison of the performance to the assessment; however, it is important that the assessment is seen formatively in the same way that theatrical performances are seen as formative assessments of whether or not preparation for the production was appropriate.

If we were to extend this analogy too far, certainly it would fall apart on multiple other levels, but my reason for explicating it in this way is primarily to demonstrate that RTI is not simply a one size fits all program, nor is it possible without multiple levels of support. Its primary purpose should be student learning irrespective of an assessment-based production, but those who know that the show will go on in spite of any difficulties that may arise may use this analogy and develop it more coherently such that they can reveal the need for meticulous planning and attention to detail. I have attended and have been a part of both dynamic and flat performances, and having been responsible for producing plays myself, I know that the attention paid to the initial schedule and during rehearsals to the details of each individual’s performance in the form of progress monitoring makes the difference in what we will see when students are expected to perform.

Twitter Tapestry

As I continue to peruse Twitter for all things edtech-related and concerning Tennessee education, I have expanded the group that I follow immensely. I am reminded of the statement that Adam Taylor (@2footgiraffe) made about how Twitter is like a waterfall from we must only expect to get a cupful of information or collaboration at a time. When I initially began following some fellow Tennessee educators and education enthusiasts, I found mostly people promoting their own interests and blogs. Though this still continues on a pretty large scale, I have found others who are also engaging in more altruistic collaboration and an interest to share their successes, struggles, and discoveries in the world of Common Core State Standards and other education-related subjects.

I have begun to follow more administrators around the world who are experiencing all sorts of results of integration of RTI, Common Core, and various other initiatives. Despite the frequency with which I monitor Twitter, I do scan tweets fairly rapidly, looking for particular noteworthy items, especially those that I think will appeal to and engage or inspire my followers. I re-tweet far more than I originally tweet, thus reducing the attribution of much ingenuity to myself, but hoping to be relied upon more as a disseminator of useful tools than as a source of great profundity (which I feel is quite difficult to express in 140 characters, anyway).

For those who continue to be intimidated by Twitter or who are still convinced that Twitter is simply a celebrity venue for communicating their mundane experiences and gossip throughout the day, I would encourage you to look beyond what can be potentially an overwhelming flow of random chatter and to avoid the Twitter litter typically produced by sophomoric casual conversationalists and predatory saboteurs to see the true resources and tools that are shared daily and motivation of fellow educators who are in the trenches seeking the same goal, what is best for our children. I would advise those just beginning their Twitter journeys to find a friend who is already rather Twitter-savvy to assist in what may seem some simple strategies to focus on what you may really be seeking.

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Typing on iPad with USB Keyboard

Today, I discovered that the quality of the electronic devices at thrift stores is beginning to improve beyond VHS cassette rewinding machines and 8-track cassettes. One piece of equipment I had kept on my radar was the USB keyboard. I had found numerous other computer keyboards, but my interest in the USB keyboard was due to the potential to connect it to my 1st generation iPad. Using a cheap camera connection kit that I purchased for about $3 on Amazon, I was able to enhance my iPad typing experience for a grand total of about $5. Though the experience is not optimal and may pale in comparison to using a keyboard that is made to communicate with the iPad via bluetooth, it allows me to use my keyboarding skills on the same size and design keyboard with which I am familiar. If my intention is to look trendy and show off the newest technology, I will fail with this means of connecting the keyboard; however, if I do not mind the look of a nerd who has saved money and has a full-size keyboard to type on his iPad, I am a success. As I type this blog, I am very pleased with my purchase.

I will mention two things just to be transparent about this discovery. I did not discover the connectivity method on my own. Secondly, the method is not without some flaws: the iPad will display a pop-up message that indicates that the device is not supported. This may appear a few times but generally it no longer appears after “OK” is pressed a few times. Also, the keyboard appears to be somewhat sensitive in recording letters. II have had to delete multiple letters that have been entered multiple times on a single keystroke.