Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Campbell Brown's Reality T.V. Philosophy of Tenure

Reality television can teach us much about the Campbell Brown (former CNN anchor) philosophy of education and her attack on teacher tenure in New York.

Campbell Brown's foray into education policy consists of a lawsuit she filed challenging New York's tenure statute on July 28, 2014 

In a photo op for the ages, Brown gathered children and their parents in a tableau that alludes to Jesus gathering the children for the Sermon on the Mount and saying, "suffer the little children to come unto me..." (Mark 10:14). 

Brown's organization, The Partnership for Educational Justice (P.E.J.) filed the lawsuit, which you can read more about at Capital New York. 

How can reality television offer insight into Campbell Brown's attack on teachers' due process (a.k.a. tenure)?

Simply, reality television is organized around people who think they have skills they lack. Consider the premises on which these few reality shows are based: 

  • "American Idol" features "aspiring" singers, many of whom can't carry a tune let alone evolve into the next Beyonce.
  • The reality show original "The Real World" on MTV filled an abode with unskilled individuals just so the audience could gawk at them like sharks in an aquarium. 
  • HGTV is filled with reality television programs that showcase people with marginal skills, but they do have experience and training in most cases. I'm thinking about shows such as "Design Star," "Brother to Brother," and "Flipping the Block." 
  • "So You Think You Can Dance?" may feature dancers with some skill as it culls the pack for the best booty-hopper. Importantly, this program does show the connection between head knowledge and demonstrated talent
I could go on with the list, but you get the point: Some reality television shows that contestants need no skills, no ability, no knowledge to gain fame from their inability to do anything but make noise while other reality television shows demonstrate that success comes from both head knowledge and demonstrated ability. 

Campbell Brown falls into the first camp. She thinks she can teach. She thinks she understands tenure. She thinks she's an expert on what it takes to be an excellent teacher. 

Campbell Brown belongs in the club of pseudo-education reformers I call head cases. Brown may have read some slanted rhetoric about teaching and how anyone who has sat in a desk can do it. She has listened to well-intentioned parents who decry the incompetence of their child's teacher, but she has never demonstrated any ability to step into a classroom and do what she so eagerly tells teachers how to do: teach. 

My recent experience dealing with a well-read family member has positioned me to give this topic much thought. I've been listening to and observing this individual quite closely the past month and have had an epiphany about how someone can know so much as a result of reading incessantly but not be able to transfer that cognitive knowledge into observable skills. 

What one knows about does not always equal what one can successfully do. 

I can give hundreds of examples from my own life. I know about many sports, but I am a complete incompetent when it comes to playing them. I often tell students the story about my bowling tutor in college. He was the Midwest bowling champion, yet despite his coaching and patience, I could never get better. As a consequence, I made a C in bowling, and I'm proud of that C because it's not a D, which I very well may have deserved given my inability to perform. 

I struck out in bowling. But at least I studied and practiced. Unlike Campbell Brown who has never taught and has no real clue about how to teach, the training one needs to teach, and the pressures one experiences from all kinds of forces from outside and within education. 

Arthur Goldstein's Huffington Post article "The Misleading Argument That Blames Teacher Tenure" succinctly articulates much that's wrong with Brown's thinking about education and tenure. Beginning with the pressure to pass kids, Goldstein challenges what he calls "Campbell Brown's Law" as ignoring every factor that influences a child's success. Goldstein imagines teachers accepting Brown's premise that the only good teacher is an untenured one: 

In short, if you're a tenured teacher, you are an impediment to Excellence. The only way you can help children is by getting rid of your tenure, standing up straight and walking to Arne Duncan in Washington DC and saying, "Please sir, I want to be fired for any reason. Or for no reason. I want to take personal responsibility for all the ills of society. Neither you, society, poverty, parents, nor children themselves are responsible. I'm ready to be dismissed at the whim of Bill Gates or the Walmart family and I agree with you that Katrina was the bestest thing to happen to the New Orleans education system."

When a reality show contestant gets shown the exit, the contestant often rationalizes his/her departure: "The judge didn't get my vision." or "Those judges are stupid." Many proclaim, "I'll be back. This is just the beginning. You haven't heard the last of me." 

Sadly, we haven't heard the last of Campbell Brown or her ilk, but teachers who do the challenging, often unappreciated work of educating children, those public school teachers who embrace all God's children as deserving and capable of learning, we know that just like the failed contestants whose names none can recall and who do disappear into the has-been universe of celebrity wannabes, the students we serve will remember us as the ones who did gather the children around in our classrooms for more that a photo op. 

And what of Campbell Brown? She's just another contestant in the sad parade of head cases who fancy themselves experts in teaching. Unfortunately, it's public education that's the biggest loser in the ongoing side show. 

Image credit: wikipedia. Brown at
Greater Talent Network's 2012 New York gala

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Exploring the Myth of Multitasking and Homo Zappiens or the "Where Was I?" Effect

Whether we call them digital natives, the iGeneration, homo zappiens, the net generation, Generation i, or the Google generation, an underlying premise informs our treatment of students born to a world of technology: They learn differently than the generation that preceded them.  

Yet we must ask: Does being born into a world of technology equate with the ability to use multiple technological platforms simultaneously in an effective manner? What evidence exists to affirm or negate the question?

An article in Educational Psychologist challenges conventional wisdom about technology and students' ability to use it in complex cognitive tasks. "Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Education" by Paul A. Kirschner and Jeroen J. G. van Merrienboer (2013). By reviewing numerous studies, Kirschner and Merrienboer challenge the notion that digital natives exist and by virtue of their digital nativeness have the skills needed for using technology well without training and those necessary for multitasking. 

I learned about Kirschner's and van Merrienboer's research via a Slate article my friend Caitlin posted on Facebook: "Bill Gates is an Autodidact. You're Probably Not." As often happens, an anecdotal example leads to generalized claims about learning. The digital native one goes something like this: "Bill Gates dropped out of college, and he did just fine." Gates, of course, is the proverbial exception to the rule, and occasionally we encounter such students--although not typically of Gates's caliber--in our classrooms. 

Yet rather than considering the exceptional student as one for whom we need to make exceptions, too often the one leads to all-encompassing claims about the many. These propositions grow as individuals seek to innovate and claim a niche in the ed tech (or other) landscape. 

Ideally, our lives as teachers and the lives of students would be so much easier if the promises of technology in the classroom lived up to their lofty goals. If only. 

In 1998 Salomon and Almog coined the term butterfly defect to describe the generation of tech users who flutter from one site to the next, from one hyperlink to another, and from one platform to the latest without developing the deep thinking necessary to master either content or the digital platform. 

What we may actually be seeing is a generation where learners at the computer behave as butterflies fluttering across the information on the screen, touching or not touching pieces of information (i.e., hyperlinks), quickly fluttering to a next piece of information, unconscious to its value and without a

via Google search "free to use or share" wiki image
Simply, the ability to use technology well is not a question of chronology. It requires training. To think students understand technology's myriad application to learning without proper training is akin to thinking one is born with the ability to drive merely from having been driven home in a car from the hospital as an infant. We do not learn via osmosis. Our skills depend on our training and our practice in using the technological resources available to us. 

This is also true of teachers. New teachers entering the profession are limited in their ability to use technology and empowered by it depending on both their training and their practice. This is a point my colleague Caitlin Chiller in the Master Teacher Project and I discussed last November in Boston as we gathered for the NCTE annual convention. Despite being a teacher with 33 years experience compared to Caitlin's seven years, I was able to show Caitlin some tech tools she had not yet learned. 

A salient side note here is that although the concept of the digital native explicitly and/or implicitly assumes that the current generation of children is digitally literate, many curricula (e.g., Iowa Department of Education) see information and technology literacy as 21st-century skills that are core curriculum goals at the end of the educational process and that need to be acquired.

An unfortunate outcome of the false premise of the digital native is another egregious belief: Students have the ability to multitask. That is, they can text, snap-chat, post to Instagram, and complete complex cognitive tasks such as reading and comprehending their reading simultaneously. 

Rather than multi-tasking, the simultaneous and/or concurrent performance of two or more tasks requiring cognition or information processing students engaged with multiple and competing tasks vying for their attention are actually switching from one to another without fully concentrating on any one cognitive complex performance task. Simply, it's impossible for two things to occupy the same space at one time. 

Task shifting diverts a students attention away from one project to another. This results in shallow thinking and redundancy as students must often backtrack before moving forward with the reading or writing that necessitates uninterrupted attention. 

It has been broadly shown that rapid switching behavior, when compared to carrying out tasks serially, leads to poorer learning results in students and poorer performance of tasks.

I call this phenomenon the "Where Was I" effect. We've all experienced it, that moment when a call or child or other interruption distracts u from a task in which we are immersed. Returning to the task, we wander, "Where was I," and we find ourselves retracing our steps or rereading a passage just to find our place so that we can move on toward completing our goal. 

Juggling tasks leads to mistakes and prolongs completion of important projects. It's a myth, an urban legend, a vampire lie with which students delude themselves to think that homework can be completed and skills learned just as well when we text while researching a topic for English. 

Kirschner and van Merrienboer extend their analysis to include doctors and pilots and note that multitasking and diversions lead to increased mistakes in both professions. They also review the research suggesting that texting and driving is just as dangerous as driving under the influence. 

Simply, the digital natives, iGeneration, homo zappiens, Generation I, and multitaskers among us don't exist in the idealistic incarnation envisioned among supporters of educational technology that chant, "Let my people text." 

These are the 21st Century equivalent of Big Foot and unicorns. As teachers, our job necessitates we teach students to recognize the tech fairy tales and learn accordingly.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Steal Like a Teacher to Teach Like One [Inspired by "Steal Like an Artist" by Austin Kleon]

A cruise around the internet and in many print publications wields a cascade of resources for teachers, all of which promise that using them will result in classroom success. Lately, I've been pondering a question:

What does it mean to teach like a teacher? 

This question entered my mind as I read Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon (2012 Workman Publishing) and thought about its implications for teaching and learning. 

The book begins 
Interesting. But what does "all advice is autobiographical" have to do with teaching? 

The cacophony of advice given to teachers these days comes not from teachers but from corporations. The most often named one is Pearson, of course. 

"Nothing is completely original. All creative work builds on what came before. Every new idea is just a remix or a mashup of one or two previous ideas," says Kleon. This is true for teaching, too. 

Advice from experienced teachers comes from our autobiographical experiences in the classroom and often from what we've learned by constructing our own lesson plans and curriculum. Teaching as a profession is in danger of losing a generation of teachers who entered the profession before the onslaught of prefab teaching units and the internet. 

"You are a mashup of what you let into your life," says Kleon. For teachers this is important because taking the path of least resistance, choosing unimaginative curriculum from corporations rather than "stealing" from real teachers  in real classrooms turns us into corporate cogs rather than artistic teachers. 

Kleon quotes Steve Jobs in his TED talk: "Good artists copy. Great artists steal." Permit me to re-imagine Jobs's epiphany: Good teachers copy. Great teachers steal. And we know from whom to steal. 

For example, when I began teaching 33 years ago, I regularly asked students to read about current events. I taught them to summarize using these readings and discussions. Somehow I diverted, sadly, from that course. Then in 2009 I read Kelly Gallagher's book Readicide and discovered the "Article of the Week" idea. Gallagher gets credited often for this idea, but I first learned about it from my high school speech/debate/drama teacher, Nydia May Jenkins. 

Miss J. is really my first teaching mentor because she's been my muse over the years, and as a young teacher I stole from her by using the handouts I had collected as her student. 

Find what's worth stealing, and find it from teachers, not from corporations. We're told that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but Kleon says it isn't imitation that's flattery; "transformation is flattery." 

When we steal like a teacher, we take ideas and inspiration from our network of colleagues, whether they are in our building or in our professional organizations or online. We also eschew the "canned" curriculum, the fodder of mass-produced bland curriculum that tastes like melba toast to our students and makes us feel less like a gourmet chef than like Chef Boyardee. Lets face it: Food out of a can tastes more like a MRE than like a meal in a five-star restaurant. 

When I post teaching ideas and lessons on this blog, I'm sharing a narrative, the autobiographical story of my teaching life. That's my bottom line. What's the bottom line for Pearson and other companies hocking canned curriculum? 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Collaboration Story: A Day with Drue

"So I have been given the solo task of creating the entire high school curriculum map..." 

Thus began a text I received a few days ago from Drue, the fabulous student teacher I shared with a colleague last year. Feeling a little overwhelmed as a first year teacher now tasked with the chore of mapping the high school English curriculum for her small district, Drue first planned to use my district's maps as a jumping off point but soon discovered that the books available in her district present an additional challenge. That's when she emailed me. 

I offered to meet with Drue, so she drove the 105 miles from Murtaugh, Idaho to my home in Chubbuck, Idaho so we could gather around my kitchen table and collaborate. 
Drue and I working at the dining table. 
First, we did a little catching up, and I gave Drue a tour of my home after introducing her to the dogs, Puck and Snug, who embrace new friends once they've been bribed with a treat! 

Idaho has adopted the Common Core State Standards and envisioned them as the Idaho Core Standards. Consequently, Drue's district expects teachers to align curriculum to the standards. Essentially, Idaho has defined and interpreted the CCSS and repackaged them as the ICS. Since I have worked extensively aligning curriculum and creating an English 12 course based on the CCSS for the NEABLMTP, I suggested Drue look to the CCSS as her guide. 

Dre already knows, via our discussions last year and via my work with the MTP, the concerns I have w/ the CCSS and how to align curriculum with the standards and keep creativity and student choice within the standards' parameters. For new teachers, both the CCSS and the ICS offer a shortcut to reinventing the wheel in terms of constructing a curriculum map. For Drue this is vital because not only is she a first year teacher and the only English teacher at Murtaugh High School, so is her middle school colleague. Also her principal is a first-year principal. 

As so often happens when a teacher begins a new job, Drue has been left with no information about what the students have been reading from year to year. All she has are Prentice Hall textbooks from 1999! Thus, as our first task, we sorted the books Drue has at her disposal and talked about the budget for new books. Drue told me that her predecessor has not been teaching any of Shakespeare's plays in recent years. 

Throughout the day, Drue and I worked on the following:

  • Creating a daily routine that makes room for independent student reading;
  • Deciding how to assign the books available to each grade level and incorporate literature circles into the plan;
  • Planning ways to build community with students in the opening days of the school year;
  • Determining a potential theme for the first semester that reminds all that change for students and teachers is challenging but that all are learning together;
  • Finding common ground in terms of types of units for various grades--especially 9-10-- that offer students choice, that reduce the amount of reading Drue will need to complete, and that create cohesion in a standards-aligned curriculum. Since the CCSS groups 9-10 and 11-12, we worked within those guidelines. 
  • Incorporating Shakespeare into grades 9, 10, 12 (and possibly 11). Since CCSS suggests Macbeth be taught in 10th grade, I suggested that Drue teach Macbeth to both 10th and 12th graders next year. She has the curriculum from the Folger's Shakespeare Set Free and my unit from the MTP. 
  • Putting poetry into each grade level. Drue taught a fabulous poetry unit last year that focused on Romantic, Victorian, and Modern British poetry. Indeed, her wonderful illuminated text of "Dulce et Decorum Est" is part of my poetry unit in the MTP
  • Laying the groundwork for aligning writing based on the six purposes Kelly Gallagher identifies in Write Like This. I suggested that Drue work with the six purposes at each grade level and vary the task so that students aren't all assigned the same topic for major papers but have the opportunity to write and revise for each of the six purposes Gallagher suggests. 
  • Trimming the work load by using the same quick write topic for each grade level and using the 3P grading method, with modifications, from the Teaching That Makes Sense website. 

Drue's new principal wants her to submit a plan for each day of the semester before school starts, as well as align the curriculum and list the point value of each task. Of course, this is absolutely asinine and a sure-fire way to drive a new teacher out of the building before the first bell rings. As a master manipulator, I offered a solution to this mandate that will save Drue's sanity and satisfy the new principal who plans "to change some things around here."

After lunch, a time for sharing personal stories and "hey, did you know" news, Drue commented: "I bet you didn't realize when you took me on last year that you're stuck with me for life." 

Well, that's a happy thought and certainly the way I envision a happy collaboration, mentoring relationship, and friendship evolving as the start of another new school year approaches. 

Drue, I <3 You, my colleague and friend.