Tag Archives: K-12

Williamsburg Success Charter

If you live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, it’s hard not to notice the billboards and posters advertising the Williamsburg Success Academy Charter School. I snapped these shots a few weeks ago, as I walked into the subway station near my home and felt my jaw drop at the audacity of the school’s promoters.

Take this first image. The caption reads: “All children play games. Our chess players are always a few moves ahead.” The insinuations are many, and obvious, so I don’t need to get on a teacher soapbox for long. However, as a former chess teacher/coach at an elementary school in New York City where my students often challenged me and other grown colleagues on the chess board, I find this particular sign a little hard to swallow. Why not point out the fact that 1) chess programs have been stripped from schools as the accountability movement has taken public education by storm and funding has diminished for anything extracurricular, or 2) it doesn’t necessarily follow that if you’re good at chess, you’re also a “good” student? And on.

And what about this sign? The caption reads: “Most children are excited for recess. Ours are just as excited for class.” Again, insinuations aplenty. But what’s most upsetting to me I think is the fact that both of these signs feed fuel to the fire of the us-vs-them dialogue that only divides our society further.

This advertisement plays off of the ideology that started the charter school movement (which, at its inception, wasn’t a completely horrible idea) — that public funding for education should go to schools that offer an alternative to business as usual. BUT. The Success Academy charter schools, and others like them that “colocate” with other schools that already exist (among other things), create a dynamic that contradicts their supposedly intended purpose: they create separate, unequal schools that often start by moving into a building that’s already inhabited.

I watched this happen first-hand as a 5th grade teacher in Harlem as not one but two charter schools moved into our building in rapid succession. I need to go back to my journals entries and see what I wrote about my experience. I don’t remember it fondly.

If you’d like to know more about charter schools and haven’t already seen it, take a moment to check out the documentary, The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman. It’s the best explanation that I’ve seen on what the charter school movement has really done to public schools in New York City.

Writing Process

Every semester of graduate school so far has been marked by some event.  For better or for worse, several of those events have been, for me, injuries.  I fractured my tailbone at the end of July (a swimming accident), and then broke my toe about a month ago (a less glamorous fall in the middle of the night).  So for much of the semester, my body has been broken. Literally.  It’s not been my favorite, but it has forced me to sit in one place a lot.  In the last month or so, as I have given more thought to how my dissertation will be shaped (and how I’ll actually get it done), I keep coming back to writing process.

I realize it isn’t an odd statement for any educator or aspiring academic to say they are thinking about writing process, but it’s not something that has always been so acutely on my radar.  The first time I can remember really paying attention to how I write (i.e., the process by which I actually sit down and start forming sentences into paragraphs) was when I was faced with the task of teaching a class of 32 fifth graders how to write a literary essay.  It was only through the exploration of my own writing process (in my mid-20s) that I was able to be a successful teacher of writing, and also, begin to understand what it means to have a writing process.

As a young student, I was taught that writing starts with a draft and ends with publishing, but I didn’t really understand what it meant to “edit” or “revise” something — that the process isn’t linear, but recursive, and good writers tend to go back and rework what they’ve written as they go. I tended to skip over these steps; I would start with a blank page, and write until I filled it.  I almost never wrote a paper before the night before it was due until my dissertation prospectus. It just wasn’t in my bones to spend time on writing craft, until I had to teach it (or the paper just got too long to write in one sitting!).

So something happened to me as a writer when I became a teacher of writing.  I found it was no longer acceptable to meander so much with words (though I’m admittedly still working on this), or be unable to create and utilize an outline or writing plan (especially if I had to teach how to do these things). I started going back to the beginning, dialoguing with myself about what makes sense and doesn’t as I crafted a piece, and using a set of answers to touchstone questions like “so what?,” “for whom?,” and “why?”

In recent years, I’ve begun to flex my fiber artist muscles again for the first time since high school.  As a child and teenager, I spent hours creating intricate designs of macrame and crochet, completely engaged in the processes of construction and problem-solving.  My mom would proudly announce to the proprietor at a shop that her daughter could figure out how to make any friendship bracelet, no matter how complicated, just by looking at it.  It would embarrass me, but there was something she was hitting on that I wouldn’t recognize for at least another twenty years: in order to be able to fully articulate something, I had to start from the end. (This isn’t unlike backward design, which Grant Wiggins and James McTighe suggest as a pedagogical approach to planning assessments. I relied heavily on this method of preparation as both a classroom teacher and teacher educator.)

I wouldn’t make this connection between my writing and crafting processes until a few months ago, when Shannon Mattern and I met to chat and she suggested I think about how (in my research) to connect the worlds I spend the most time in: academia and knitting.  Our conversation reminded me of a paper that Nabin Chae (a dear friend and colleague) delivered at the 2009 American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting in San Diego called “Finishing Techniques.”  Nabin is a skilled knitter and writer, and drew a parallel between finishing techniques in knitting and the use of theoretical frameworks in academic writing. The impact of her analogy stuck with me, but it wasn’t until my recent conversation with Shannon that I realized I had to start writing about this.

I started thinking about how I approach a project involving yarn, and noted that it depends on the technique.  If I’m knitting, I have to sit down and plan — knitting is all about numbers and measurements, increments and multiples; if I’m crocheting, I kind of just sit down and fly — even though I design my own patterns, I find it far more forgiving than knitting, and don’t often go into a project with an airtight plan but rather find myself writing the pattern down once the piece is complete.  In thinking about this further, I realized that my process for writing has often been like my traditional approach to crochet — spontaneous, hopeful, and without a plan; however, when my process for writing follows how I might approach a knitting project, I give myself time to consider, think, and rethink a plan of action. For my dissertation, the latter approach is going to be necessary.

So what do I make of this discovery? Is there a way to work it into my dissertation? Is it relevant to my teaching? I don’t know and I’m not sure yet.  But I know I like thinking about it.  There’s something very exciting about considering a way to theorize knitting and simultaneously concretize theory by looking for a channel that connects two worlds that mean, well, the world to me.

Digital Humanities in the Classroom

As I get my feet wet with this public-blogging thing (intentionally public, anyway–this isn’t the first time I’ve blogged publicly, but it’s the first time I’ve done so while trying to capture the attention of a specific audience and string a common thread through my posts), there is a growing pile (digital and otherwise) of things to think and write about. I find that I am accumulating post topics at a much higher frequency than I have time to write about them! This forces me to be judicious with words and space (believe it or not), to critically think through how I might thread several disparate concepts together, and to consider how I’ll use various media to convey the heart of my message.  As informal as blogging can be, the project of maintaining a blog for a specific professional purpose becomes a formalized act that follows a distinct process, much like that of writing a research paper or article manuscript. Which brings me to what inspired this post: last night’s CUNY Digital Humanities Initiative talk with Shannon Mattern and Mark Sample.

Shannon’s presentation in particular, “Beyond the Seminar Paper: Setting New Standards for New Forms of Student Work,” gave me things to think about when it comes to my research.  While I (and many other K-12 public school teachers in NYC) have a knee-jerk reaction against the word “standards,” it was refreshing to hear someone discuss evaluation and assessment in the context of why.  It’s not that I haven’t heard other academics speak about assessment in productive, logical ways; it’s just that so much of my time as a 5th grade teacher was spent producing pretty, neatly formatted assessments because I was forced to, not because it made sense.  One year, using an informal system of notes on a post-it was the accepted form of evaluation; another year, the focus was on rubrics; our heads spun with the rapid changes that seemed episodic and disconnected to the goals of our lessons, and in the interim, the whole purpose of evaluating was lost on many of us. While Shannon has developed a series of evaluative tools along with each project she has developed with her students, it was clear from her presentation that her evaluations were not seemingly random rubrics or checklists like the ones I once compulsorily produced–her evaluations have a specific purpose, and are connected to the larger learning goals of her students’ projects.  I appreciated being a part of this conversation at the higher-ed level–particularly the part that took up questions around support for practitioners.  (And I’d like to see more spaces for conversations like this at the K-12 level.)

So what do we do if we want to use a technological tool we don’t know how to use?  What are the resources available to professionally develop your own skills as instructors–at all educational levels?  And how can the growth of our society’s do-it-yourself (DIY) culture support those endeavors?

Shannon’s talk last night touched briefly on what I hear mentioned often in professional talks lately: getting an academic job is no longer a guarantee once you get your PhD.  I feel like I’ve witnessed the development of this phenomenon first-hand over the last decade, and have to wonder at how it has paralleled the development of technology.  At age 26 (eight years ago), with but two years of teaching 5th grade under my belt, I was hired as an adjunct to teach a course called “Assessment and Evaluation” at a local university.  Not only were the students in my course teaching in grades K-12 (I’d only taught elementary school at that point), the course text (which was dictated by the department) was unbelievably dry and disconnected from most of my students’ daily work, and my students were rightfully frustrated by the course content and my teaching of it.  I had not yet developed the wisdom (which would come several years later and is still evolving) to logically develop a purposeful assessment tool that was accessible to my students and made sense for the larger goals of the project or assignment.  At the time, there were few impressive lines on my CV that related to teaching at the Masters level, and other than being an ambitious, personable young woman with lots of energy and a brightly decorated classroom, I didn’t seem qualified.  So why was I hired?  Surely it couldn’t just be because I was cheap at $2,250 per class (or thereabouts), or that I was referred by an advisor through the New York City Teaching Fellows–I still went through an interview! Was something else happening at the time?  Was it the start of what we are witnessing now, with the disappearance of full-time, tenure-track positions? What does it all have to do with the advances of technology?  I realize I’m tangenting, and again, raising threads that I will want to return to, but all of these thoughts were descending upon my brain last night as I sat and listened to Shannon and Mark talk about their work at their respective institutions. (You can read more about my K-12 teaching experience in my previous post if you’re interested.)

Toward the end of the discussion, someone asked a question about the boundary between teaching tech and teaching content–for instance, at what point does teaching how to use a blog platform detract from the content-specific point of the activity?  I appreciated that both speakers had already intimated in their respective talks that the boundary is blurry and increasingly so–that as pedagogues, we will often be required to move our technological knowledge along independently, and make use of the advances available to us whether there is a PD session to support it or not.  I admit I’m out of the loop when it comes to debating the identifiers of “digital humanities.”  It seems that technology and teaching are so inextricably linked at this point that you cannot teach without bumping into technology somewhere along the way, and vice versa.

If I had more hours in the day, I would spend time looking at how developments in letter-writing and the postal service, television, telephones, automobiles, radio, and other technologies have impacted policies and practices around teaching and learning–this tension surely existed before computers, right?  I can’t imagine the development of automobiles having had the same impact on classroom learning as computers and the internet, but I’m curious about how the education system catches up to advances that move quickly around it.

I’m looking forward to continuing this discussion with you and other friends and colleagues involved in the project of education.

From Journal to Blog

So much has been going on, it’s hard to figure out what to write about!  I was back down at Occupy Wall Street this morning, and I am impressed that it’s still going strong.  It makes me hopeful about what is possible.  In the meantime, I got some helpful feedback about digital organization systems for data from my last post, and will report back about my experience soon. Speaking of experience, my dissertation research stems from my experience in the classroom.  While I have been preparing to start my research in earnest, I have been looking back at my journals, from which I initially constructed blog posts when I was a rookie teacher.  My blog authorship as a teacher was not long-lived, because back then, I still didn’t fully understand the internet and was worried about being found out.  But I still have those journals.  This post might feel incomplete, but I’m going to circle back to it eventually.  In the meantime, here’s a look back:

July 24, 2001.  I don’t know my classroom assignment yet, but it’ll either be 3rd or 4th grade.  I might be in an inconclusion class, which means I’d be one of two co-teachers.  The other teacher would be a special education teacher, and I would fulfill the general education portion of the partnership.  I’m equal parts nervous and excited.  My mentor teacher was late this morning, and the class I’ve been student teaching in all summer went wild.  A game of Simon Says erupted into a fight, and once again, I looked like I had no control over a group of students.  And there are only half as many students as I’ll have in September.  No, I’m probably more nervous than excited.

 July 30, 2001.  We had a guest speaker today in class, who said some of the following things:

  • Never show your emotions.
  • You are not a counselor.  We are here to triage.
  • Do not raise your voice—it’s entertainment to your students.
  • Feel your adultness.
  • If you structure your days with love, your students pick up on that.
  • The contract says you don’t have to break up a fight.
  • After you admonish a child for behavior, call on them next to build them back up.

September 16, 2001.  We still haven’t had a full week of school, and the country is still reeling from September 11th.  I’m not sure I’ve processed what happened.  I’m exhausted, and everything hurts.  I have to write more later.

October 5, 2001.  One 3rd-grade class was split, because the class sizes on the grade were too small.  My 3rd-grade class has only 16 students, and I wonder what will happen.  And why are the classes so small?  I thought overcrowding was a problem in New York City.   When I was in the main office today, I overheard that they are splitting another class.  I just keep thinking that it’s going to be mid-October, and a whole class of students has no idea who their teacher will be for the year.  How are they supposed to feel comfortable in their classrooms? It doesn’t seem fair.

This was all happening almost exactly ten years ago. I can’t believe that someone said, in a class, that “we are here to triage.” What does that even mean?  There was so much talk of not smiling or showing emotions, and it was literally impossible for me to abide by those guidelines.  And what about “feel your adultness”? Thinking back, we were a group of people who spanned twenty-something to fifty-something, but I guess there was a majority of young people—I had just turned 24 at the start of the school year. And why were we talking about breaking up fights when we hadn’t yet learned the fundamentals of teaching children to read?

I have lots more to say on this, and want to tie it back to something I read recently regarding technology in classrooms today, but I think I’ll wait to continue until my next post.

To be continued…

Using Blogs as Data Collectors

When I started graduate school, web-based reference tools were only just being developed. At the time, I was using Endnote to keep track of my citations.  That is, until I clumsily tripped over the cord attached to my iBook. This was before the cord was magnetic, and I watched in stop-action as all of my work came crashing down. Little screws and bits of plastic spewed out from the sides. I hadn’t backed up in a while, and have not made that mistake since.

Today, it seems like everyone I talk to is using Zotero.  I was, too, until I realized about halfway through last year that someone else was using my Zotero library (and adding to and reorganizing it), too, in the adjunct office where I spent the bulk of my time last year. I hadn’t completely understood how Zotero works, and although I managed to get through defending my dissertation proposal by using it, I gave up and have been wavering ever since on where to take my library of citations next. And it dawned on me: why not just use a blog?

Has anyone had experience doing this? If I set up categories for authors and subjects, would it be easy enough for me to aggregate the appropriate data when necessary? I wonder if it would be possible to develop a WordPress plug-in (or if there already is one) to export bibliographic information as Zotero does. In the meantime, I am considering using a blog to organize my data by using categories and tags as codes. Obviously, the blog would need to be private; however, I wonder what other institutional requirements might be necessary for such a project. If my data is housed in a private site on the internet, is that as good as a locked file cabinet in an office?

Meanwhile, I have a Google Scholar alert set up for “teachers and blogging,” and have for almost a year now, and I’m fascinated by what comes up every time I receive a new digest. This morning, there was a paper about students “phlogging,” the practice of blogging from your phone, to complete assignments. And something else dawned on me: I have witnessed a 180-degree turn when it comes to technology and gadgets in the classroom.

I have probably already mentioned how when I started teaching at an elementary school, if we had to look something up on Google, we felt guilty; like somehow we weren’t good teachers if we didn’t have all the knowledge we were trying to impart to our students stored away in neat little virtual folders in our brains.  The fact of the matter is, I don’t remember all the capitals to all fifty states anymore (and probably haven’t since I memorized them for an in-class quiz about twenty-five years ago now), not to mention all of the conversion rules for ounces/cups/quarts, etc.  It’s not that I had to sit there with my laptop open, Googling things every moment of every day in order to teach; however, I admit that there were times when students asked questions that stumped me, and my colleagues and I made good use of the technological tools within reach. (A note on laptop use as a teacher: when our school was initially wired, teachers were not permitted to use the wireless network.  This is another example of the policy-practice gap I’m examining in my research.)

I’m getting a little off-topic here, but it’s hard not to think about how things have changed, while trying to figure out how to make technology work for a project right here, right now.  I have a feeling that in ten years, blogs will be even more sophisticated, and there will in fact be a more universally available option for keeping reference information and research data in blogs.  In the meantime, I’ll be developing my own system and will keep you updated on that project in future blog posts.

In other news, I went down to the Occupy Wall Street protests again yesterday with a group of colleagues, and was overwhelmed (in an inspiring way!) by how huge the crowd had gotten by the time we got there.  Thousands of people came from all over, and union representation was enormous.  At one point, we stretched all the way from Foley Square to Wall Street.  You can see photos here if you’re interested:

Occupy Wall Street 10/5/11

Lastly, RIP Steve Jobs.  Apple technology = awesome.

Pednology, or Maybe Techagogy

Yesterday’s post marked the start of me trying to work out, in writing, some of the questions I have about pedagogy and technology.  I’ve been spending more time with my computer than any other object in my life for at least the last ten years, and there are (many) things that have developed or changed over time that I’ve often discovered by mistake, and I wonder how other teachers have handled it.  Educators aren’t generally trained in new technologies unless we seek out the training on our own or it’s for some profit-driven company that will benefit when the school buys 500 of whatever’s being offered (at least that’s been my experience).  And yet we are required to stay up-to-date in the name of pedagogy, a requirement that is understandable and at times, impossible.  For example, how are teachers expected to use SmartBoards if they are taught a crash course in an afternoon PD session when they’re already exhausted, have about 8 million other things to do to prepare for tomorrow, there will likely be no follow up, and they don’t have regular access to the SmartBoard itself?

This is one of the things I’m talking about when I mention “the gap between policy and practice” in my work.

But I’m talking about less-technologically-advanced things than SmartBoards, too.  If you haven’t ever had a Facebook account as a teacher, you’re missing a huge understanding of how young people communicate; if you do have an account, you have to be careful about what you post (and gets posted) on your wall.  And what about learning less big-concept things like the fact that you don’t have to type “www” anymore when you enter a URL?  Or what about fair-use and copyright laws?  I admit that the first time I taught an online course (back in 2004!?), I simply scanned in and uploaded portions of texts that I wanted to use.  I had a hunch that that wasn’t exactly what I was supposed to do, but as a part-time instructor at a university that had little means to train a rookie teacher who’d been hired as a teacher educator (a problem in its own right, but one that initiated my career as a teacher educator), I did what I could with the technology available to me at the time.

So what of these changes — both subtle and far-reaching — that are happening at mach speed on a daily basis now? When and how are teachers trained, if they don’t take the initiative on their own?  Some people might argue that everyone, no matter the industry, has to figure out how to use new technologies, but my counterargument to that is that education is different.

On the day I received my acceptance letter to the New York City Teaching Fellows — a little more than ten years ago — one of my best friends said, “teaching is the most important job.”  Granted, he’s a professor now so might be biased, but that statement really impacted me — education is a requirement in this country, and thus something we all universally experience in some form; it is also something our society values a great deal, despite the fact that a degree does not guarantee being able to find a job.  Teachers need to be taught, too, and we’re starting to figure out ways to do that at the post-secondary level, but what about K-12?  Where are the in-depth, across-the-board trainings for teachers that don’t 1) take time away from everything else they have to do, 2) are free of charge, and 3) address, in a zone-of-proximal-development type of way, the pednology, or maybe techagogy, needs of teachers?  Pedagogy and technology are no longer disparate concepts, and K-12 educators who don’t feel completely comfortable with what’s happening need the supports to catch up, too.

Where Physical Ends and Digital Begins

How often do you still download a document, or go to the site of a periodical you used to get in the mail every week, and approach it as a concrete piece of the physical world?  How has the switch from print to digital affected how you engage with what you’re reading/learning?

I grew up convinced I’d been born in the wrong decade.  I always thought I should have come of age in the 60s, been a part of a set of movements that were fought by and for everyday people, had the chance to witness “real” change happening.  And it only recently dawned on me that the span of my lifetime, and that of my peers, is mind-boggling in a totally different but also unique way.  Although the technology revolution is of a different nature than that of the antiwar and civil rights variety, it is also the mark of an amazingly wild and exciting time to be alive.

I often come back to this fact: I typed my college applications on a typewriter.  Sometimes I spend whole days coming back to this idea, wondering if there has in fact ever been a time in history in which so much change has happened so rapidly.  I also wonder how historians will recount this period in time: are we only at the beginning of what is to come? When/how did this wave of change really start? What social, economic, and political forces impacted the rate and speed of digital growth?  How do schools factor into all of this?

But I digress.  Really what inspired this post was downloading my first book on iBooks. I’m a recent iPhone convert, and while a big part of why I’ve avoided getting one is related to my klutz factor, a big part of me has resisted the functionality of apps like iBooks that aim to marry the physical and digital.  If you’ve ever been to my apartment, you’ve probably noticed my monstrous bookshelf.  Even though it holds my most precious possessions, I have a love-hate relationship with the shelf itself.  I kind of can’t stand it anymore — it’s been through seven apartments with me over the last decade — and the more information I take in digitally every day, the more I want to purge my life of physical things (like my books — I can’t even believe I’m saying that out loud!!) for if I keep them, the growing intake of digital information will at some point surely seem redundant.

I can’t see myself getting rid of the well-worn tomes that my favorite high school English teacher assigned senior year, the stacks of heavily annotated political economy and education policy literature, my collections of Chris Van Allsberg books and Jacqueline Susann novels, the beautiful knitwear and fiber art books my grandmother gave me from the 70s, or the touchstone texts that guided me through the first years of teaching reading and writing in an elementary school.  But then I try to imagine what my iBooks library will look like a year from now — surely there will be more than just one volume sitting on my virtual shelves. So what happens to my actual books?  Will I end up purchasing them digitally, too?  Will my book collection become a retro conversation piece in twenty years?  Will my urge to purge anything in the physical world that I maintain a digital copy of grow? And related to my work: how can public elementary schools possibly keep up?

I went to a presentation at the American Educational Research Association annual meeting this year in New Orleans about the national education technology plan.  It was a fascinating symposium that went through a brief history of how the internet has affected students and learning throughout the U.S., and spent a lot of time explaining the plan for the near future.  All sorts of innovative ideas were shared about the impact technology is having (and could potentially have) on education, and the capabilities teachers have at their fingertips.  The catch is: only if there’s funding.  And at this point, the federal education technology plan puts the pressure on the states to back the plan with dollars to make it happen.  Of course we all know what’s happening with state budgets: they’re being slashed, and things like education are taking a huge hit.

So in my eyes, we’re at a real crossroads.  It’s not a clear-cut crossroads or even a fork in the road exactly — while I’m framing my thoughts here in the context of two distinct bodies (physical and digital), I see them as necessarily tangled.  I think a period of time will continue for a while in which most of us will kind of fumble now and then when we try to use an app that replicates something we’re already knowledgeable of tangibly (i.e., a book), but that eventually, the digital world will no longer seem to replicate (or try to imitate) the physical in the same ways.

I have so much more to say about this, but it’s the first week of the semester and I’m completely spent.  More tomorrow.