Monday, January 29, 2007

Failure in School: Whose Fault Is It?

I've got to admit, I really enjoy reading Dennis Fermoyle's blog, From the Trenches of Public Ed.. I find myself nodding in agreement to much of what he writes about. In one post, he pulls an except from his own book.
I think it's reasonable to say that when teachers are making a real effort to engage their students, the responsibility for trying to learn should lie with the students. But we have been brainwashed. We have been taught to blame ourselves when students refuse to try. It sounds so noble for a teacher to say, "If any of my students fail, then I have failed," but I'm convinced that this is actually harmful. An example I used in the book I wrote illustrates just where this "nobility" is getting us.

I attended a workshop in which the presenter, a teacher-turned- college-professor, told the story of a sixth grade girl with whom he had worked. The girl had refused to do a required assignment. The presenter said he tried everything he could to encourage her, but she wouldn't do it. Finally, he asked her why she wouldn't just give it a try. She told him, "Because if I try, it won't be very good,and I'll be a failure; but if I don't try, then you're the failure."

I think is is important to stress Fermoyle's first line, "I think it's reasonable to say that when teachers are making a real effort to engage their students, the responsibility for trying to learn should lie with the students." I agree that teachers have a responsibility to engage and inspire learners. I am in no way excusing bad teaching. But I recognize that, even when good teachers are trying their best, they all too often can relate to the selection above.

Why is it that good teachers beat themselves up over their student's shortcomings? Students spend roughly 45 minutes a day with a single teacher, which is a little over 3% of their entire day. In fact, kids only spend 6.5 hours (or 27%) of their day in school, and 73% at home. So why are individual teachers expected to be so responsible for students' academic motivation, social health, emotional well-being and character development?

I talk to my students about responsibility for their actions. In response to "Who is ultimately responsible for your own learning?" most will respond, "I am." However, do they really believe that? If they don't turn in an assignment, I am expected to keep track, make a list, recopy the sheets, and schedule a time for them to redo a lab or use the supplies. If they don't pay attention in class, I am expected to stay after school to re-teach the concepts missed. If a student misbehaves, I need to have them serve a detention with me after school. If they receive a failing grade, I am the one who has to go to the principal to explain myself to the administration and to the parent. What message does this send to the student? I agree with the sixth grader above. The message is: if students do not try, then it is the teacher who is labeled the failure and is responsible for fixing the situation.

I love my job, and I work far beyond my 6.5 "contract hours" per day. However, I want to give my time to creating engaging lessons, making meaningful assessments, giving thoughtful feedback, and helping those students who make an effort, but truly struggle. Most afternoons, I give my time to various extracurricular activities to help develop the "whole child." Every hour I spend on a single student, is an hour taken away from the other 99% of my team. I know that is all part of the deal of teaching, but less than 5% of my students take up over 90% of my efforts. I do believe all students can learn, and I want to make a difference, but I am struggling with finding the time to make it happen.

I'm saddened that report cards are no longer considered feedback on student progress. They have become some sort of permanent record of monumental importance, that teachers must remain in virtually constant contact with parents, as to carefully craft the single letter that will remain etched in ink. It is no longer enough to send a progress report every six weeks. Teachers are expected to immediately contact the parent with any drop in percentage and initiate interventions to reverse low performance, in the form of behavior contracts, modified assignments, alternate assessments, and additional help. I am to happy to oblige, but it all of this takes time away from meaningful pedagogical contributions to the rest of the class. As I watch some of my apathetic students, I wonder - what happened to the students' role in all of this?

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Social Impact Games & Gaming in Education

I'll be the first to admit, I'm not much into video games, yet even I have heard kids excitedly discussing WarCraft and Halo. I think it safe to say that most kids are significantly more engaged with their video game console than their schoolwork. I, like many educators, have considered: what if we could somehow combine the two?

In reading Hungarian medical student,
Bertalan Meskó's, blog post on medical video games, I was reminded of a very interesting site which compiles "social impact games." One such linked game explains,
The Liemandt Foundation is dedicated to facilitating, testing, and promoting “stealth education” video games so that they can make learning fun for kids who might enjoy playing games more than listening to teachers.
There are specific learning games, such as Kinetic City's Nowhere to Hide demo on natural selection (birds, bugs, and pollution). The political and social games range from interesting, to disturbing, to downright offensive for some.

Check out some of these games at Social Impact Games and the Serious Games Initiative.

However, this brings me to an interesting dilemma. Where is the balance between our need to educate and our expectation (by today's kids) to entertain? Is there a satisfactory and possible compromise?

Magazine T.H.E. Journal believes education is Trending the the Right Direction. Also, considering the issue of using gaming and interactive software in education is the focus of an upcoming international symposium sponsored by The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), I think it is an important trend to watch.
There are salient differences between the design environment for those who design games and those who develop products for the K-12 market. One difference is that game developers are largely unconstrained by national or state mandated curriculum and can design their products for integrity and validity as a stand alone experience. Also, game designers must count on the nature of the experience to engage the student rather than relying on an adult authority to require kids to use it.
To date, there has been limited cross-over between the worlds of education and gaming/interactive software. This Symposium will explore if there are effective strategies for stimulating greater synergy between these sectors with the goal of providing more compelling and engaging learning environments for our children.
I plan on attending that March 27th symposium. I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

School is Boring

Dennis Fermoyle's blog post describes how Marc Prensky's article, Engage Me or Enrage Me (2005), was placed in teacher's mailboxes, presumably to inspire and motivate the educators. However, it ended up enraging some of the teachers instead. Of course, I had to check it out myself, and had a similar reaction. From the article...
The big difference from today is this: the kids back then didn’t expect to be engaged by everything they did. There were no video games, no CDs, no MP3s—none of today’s special effects. Those kids’ lives were a lot less rich—and not just in money: less rich in media, less rich in communication, much less rich in creative opportunities for students outside of school. Many if not most of them never even knew what real engagement feels like.

I've heard this from veteran teachers. They talk about the frustration of "competing" with students' multimedia outside world.
Life for today’s kids may be a lot of things—including stressful—but it’s certainly not unengaging.

Except in school.

And there it is so boring that the kids, used to this other life, just can’t stand it.

In fact, kids often seem over-engaged. The only time they get to relax is in school, and many kids take this mental vacation to new heights during school hours.

Yesterday’s education for tomorrow’s kids. Where is the programming, the genomics, the bioethics, the nanotech—the stuff of their time? It’s not there. Not even once a week on Fridays.

That’s one more reason the kids are so enraged—they know their stuff is missing!

I might argue against that. Do they really know that their stuff is missing? Or do they only know they want something different?
The fact is that even if you are the most engaging old-style teacher in the world, you are not going to capture most of our students’ attention the old way. “Their short attention spans,” as one professor put it, “are [only] for the old ways of learning.” They certainly don’t have short attention spans for their games, movies, music, or Internet surfing. More and more, they just don’t tolerate the old ways—and they are enraged we are not doing better by them.

And if we educators don’t start coming up with some damned good curricular gameplay for our students—and soon—they’ll all come to school wearing (at least virtually in their minds) the T-shirt I recently saw a kid wearing in New York City: “It’s Not ADD—I’m Just Not Listening!”

Whew. It's tough just to pick out a few parts of that article to comment on. It is rather enraging. I frequently remind students that I am not "a paid entertainer" and part of the responsibility to make things interesting rests on their shoulders. I don't think it is acceptable for students to sit back and to send the message, "Engage me or Enrage me."

However, I do see some valid points to the article. The world IS changing, and education should be forced to change with it. However, as with any innovation, there needs to be time, money and support.

I use various technologies in my classroom. I have been using digital video, internet simulations and powerpoint lessons for years. I am currently looking into implementing blogs, wikis, and Flash into my curriculum. However, I struggle with the time. From the moment I wake up at 4 am, until I leave school at 6 pm or later, I am racing around. I can only imagine what I might be able to come up with given an uninterrupted chunk of time with similarly-minded professionals. We have a lot of good ideas inside of us, but not the time to flush them out.

Money is also an issue. Teachers need experts to train them. However, what would be the motivation for a technology expert to accept a position in a school district for $50,000 a year, when they can make that much in 6 or 7 weeks in a lucrative tech field? From limited personal experience, this is a growing problem, as science and technology trained professionals leave teaching to pursue more appropriate compensation for their talents. Schools also need money to upgrade their equipment. Prensky demands "some damned good curricular gameplay." We need the equipment and network to support it. To implement technology to the extent to which Prensky refers, we need more that a few computer carts for schools 500+ kids. And, as the technology gets more interactive, the strain on the limited systems will become more pronounced.

And, most importantly, there needs to be support. Prensky asks, "Where is the programming, the genomics, the bioethics, the nanotech—the stuff of their time? " It's out there, but teachers can't yet grasp it. When a technology start-up encounters an area of non-expertise, what do they do? They secure additional funding and hire a consultant. However, across the country, school district budgets are being slashed. Just as a start-up would not ask a non-expert to waste their time muddling through a problem they cannot solve, teachers should not be held responsible for being unable to integrate such technology into the current curriculum. Provide us with the expertise, the training and the time to learn, and I am sure we would see more invigorating results.

Prensky, while initially raising the hairs on the back of my neck, makes some very valid points. Education does have to change. But in order to do so, the current time and funding structures will have to change as well.
An African proverb says, "It takes a village to raise a child." Well, it's going to take a whole lot more than just teachers to change education. But with the necessary resources, we are up for the challenge!

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Muscle Song in Prep for Frog Dissection

When studying comparative anatomy, my students sing the following song, to remember the function (lyrics) and location (motions) of some major muscles. They tease me for making up the song, but I've heard more than one student hum the tune while taking the muscle test!

(to the tune of "If You're Happy & You Know It." Instead of clapping twice, as in the original song, we do the indicated motions twice.)

The Pectoralis is a muscle in my chest, (cross arms over chest)
My Deltoids lift my arms the best, (lift arms as if flying)
If I wanna take a peek, (hand up as if shielding your eyes from the sun)
Then I'll have to use Oblique (turn and bend diagonally)
The Pectoralis is a muscle in my chest. (cross arms over chest)

Use my Rectus Abdominus in a crunch, (crunch forward)
My Triceps Brachii help throw a punch, (punch motion)
Now to lift my leg like this, (lift leg in 90 degree angle from hip)
I'll have to use my Femoris, (hold pose)
Use my Rectus Abdominus in a crunch. (crunch forward)

My Gastrocnemius is kinda neat, (stand up on tip toe)
It's the muscle that helps me point my feet, (lift foot and point toe)
Now you might think I'm a nut, (no particular motion here)
But my Gluteus is my butt, (turn and point to butt)
My Gastrocnemius is kinda neat. (stand up on tip toe)

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Microbe Wanted Poster & Plagiarism

Every life science teacher in my building does some variation of the "Wanted Poster" during our study of microbes. (Feel free to modify my checklist.) Search Google, and you can find many teachers who are using a similar project. Not only does it allow for a little creativity, but a project like this helps dissuade the plagiarism beast.

Media literacy is as big of an issue to tackle as plagiarism, so for this assignment, instead of letting them loose on the Internet, I restrict their search to a list of trusted sites.

With all of these great resources available on diseases, a straight report would be an open invitation for plagiarism. We've all heard our students claim "but, the author wrote it exactly the way I would write it already!" In the old days, plagiarism meant painstakingly copying sentences from an encyclopedia. However, nowadays, "cut-and-paste plagiarism" is much more convenient and prevalent.

I used information from Indiana University and Lisa Hinchliffe to create a PowerPoint to use with my students at the start of this project. At each natural stopping point, I allowed my students to write and share their own paraphrasing of the selections. It was a good discussion and all of the kids said they learned something from the activity.

Does this mean I have never had instances of plagiarism again? Not quite. There will always be those students whose waited well beyond the last minute or who are looking for the "easy A". However, it did cut down tremendously on the amount of "uninformed plagiarists" - those kids who honestly didn't realize what they were doing was wrong.