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

balance

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.

Avoiding Twitter Litter

As of late, I have been mildly irritated by the disadvantages of using social media, namely the spammers and the shameless advertisers. However, because I find great advantages in using the freely provided venue of Twitter for professional growth, collaboration, and networking, I have chosen to endure these with a few strategies to aid in my avoiding such annoyances.

The first is a pretty obvious one to most Twitter users, the “Report for Spam” and “Block User” buttons. When I find that I have a new follower with inappropriate tweets or an @ mention that contains a shortened URL attempting to send others to some potentially malicious location, I am very comfortable using these two buttons to prevent the users, authentic or Spambots, from interfering in my online adventure.

More recently, I have seen spammers subjecting certain hashtags to their filth; one of the most unfortunate of these in my experiences is the ever-popular #satchat. I noticed this morning that a new hashtag, #satchatec had replaced this for some participants. It was not long, however, before this too was being overrun by inappropriate drivel from multiple tweeters with lewd comments and photos of scantily clad women associated with them. My only proposed solution to this is to develop yet another hashtag (which will likely be discovered by followers of popular hashtags who intend to sabotage them) or to develop a keen sense for who the major contributors to the hashtag are to identify who will pose questions and whose views you most want to see expressed. I follow these users to include them in my general Twitter feed. Certainly, this form of filtering will neglect some of the new contributors, but a re-direct to another forum or venue for continued conversation may deter the spammers from pursuing the conversation further. I am particularly fond of TitanPad.com or TodaysMeet as venues for open conversation which can later be referenced.

As for the advertisement disruptions on Twitter, I am willing to encounter these in favor of opportunities to win Twitter contests or to discover some new gadget, and Twitter seems to keep these sponsors to a minimum for the numerous positive elements that the social media giant presents. One or two ads appearing at the top of my Twitter feed does not do much to dissuade me from the wealth of resources I find beneath them. I simply scroll down.

Although I would love to see additional tools provided (which may already exist but of which I am currently unaware) to prevent the static in the Twitterverse, I am quite content with the discernment that I can use to navigate through the tweets and make my own discoveries fairly painlessly. The garbage that makes it into the Twitter feeds is more disturbing perhaps than some of the trash found strewn on the shoulders of a busy highway, and the reporting of spammers takes a little longer to execute than the process of simply picking up items to throw them away, but I am thankful to Twitter that such tools exist to maintain some level of appropriateness for those of us who wish to encounter new ideas without repeated exposure to the same menaces of spam.

Reflections on the Spiral vs. Linear Approach with Common Core

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It is very difficult to try to fit the square peg into the circular hole. Likewise, it is difficult to fit a framework for pedagogy that is inherently driven by rigor and depth into a linear pattern of execution which is characterized by completion of standards and expectations and a checklist of “covered material.” This is one of my fundamental concerns about our transition to the Common Core standards. We must come to grips with the paramount paradigm shift that must take place in order to truly prepare students for new expectations in what will continue to be a high-stakes testing environment, which aims to hold both teachers and students accountable in its idealistic approach.

Imagine for a moment the length of a Slinky if it were to be entirely straightened without any kinks. This is representative of many teachers’ instruction based on our previous and, in many cases, current model. I include myself among the “many” in this statement. When the Slinky is returned to its original length and structure, it better represents the model for instruction that we aim to achieve with the Common Core. While the straight model allowed us to cover a breadth of material that was admirable, the depth was often very difficult to achieve. The idea of re-visiting fewer standards is theoretically quite relieving, but if we simply re-visit the standards on the same level, we are not spiraling in a way that deepens understanding. How do we break free from our straight path to a corkscrew pattern that truly gives students more leverage to engage their understanding on deeper levels?

I propose the following (although somewhat prematurely) as steps to be taken in making this shift:

1) Define levels of depth for each standard. Provide mathematical practices and clear representations of levels of understanding. The more tangible these are, the more clearly they can be represented to the students and teachers, alike.

2) Design a scope and sequence which allows for multiple checkboxes, with each addressing a deeper level of understanding with respect to each standard. Ideally, this would occur for every student, as well.

3) Provide public recognition for achievement on multiple levels. This is likely to be most observable in the form of PBL and multi-faceted products.

4) Backward-build tasks based upon student response exemplars. Struggle to determine what questions and prompts elicit complex responses. This may be very difficult at first, but it will force the empathy with the student. This also helps to disrupt the linear pattern of problem-solving to look at desired results before designing the prompt which brings it forth.

5) Create academic tools that can be used on multiple levels and can engage multiple intelligences so that familiar material can be viewed in a new light each time it is encountered.

The Common Core standards are still quite unfamiliar, and the integration of these standards can not simply be a content shift. In fact, much of the content is not significantly different in its core from what many states may have vaguely prescribed before this adoption of more consistent standards. It is the approach that must change, which will force teachers to delve into more comprehensive questioning and facilitation of learning after foundational knowledge is present with all learners.

The corkscrew method of teaching is not a carousel on which the same standards are re-visited with the same approach, tools, and scenery. It is more like an archaeological dig, in which each removed layer reveals a more comprehensive understanding. The linear model, though very familiar both in our culture and our frame of understanding, I am afraid, is no longer going to suffice as the model for evoking the types of responses desired in our impending PARCC assessments and our efforts to be increasingly competitive in a global sense.

Do not misunderstand me. I think that a clear, linear, logical approach is essential for foundational skill-building, especially in lower elementary education, and I am concerned about the emphasis on Common Core obfuscating the importance of such cognitive development, and I hope that we will not depart entirely from tried and true practices that are supported by brain development research.

In full consideration of the new ride, however, I think it is important to remember that every ride needs time for rest and reflection, so I sincerely hope that we will take time for these without feeling that we will ever be able to witness every spectacle along the way. The spiral ride will hopefully build efficacy through gained familiarity and empowerment rather than a sense of one-time accomplishment that leaves us wondering at the end, what exactly did we learn?