Category Archives: Teaching


Perhaps it’s my own naiveté, but I was sure the grand jury would come down on the right side of history this time. But once again, I have lost faith in our criminal justice system to serve justice. Michael Brown’s death was unnecessary, as was Eric Garner’s. Both were the result of excessive force from law enforcement officials. Makes you really step back and wonder what laws are being enforced — and for whom.

Just after Michael Brown was shot on August 9, I co-organized a demonstration in New Paltz in solidarity with those who had taken to the streets in Ferguson and across the country to protest racist acts by police. It was the first time I was involved in a country-wide action in a location other than New York City in over fifteen years. As a New Yorker, I’d become accustomed to scouring my Facebook and Twitter feeds, emails and texts with info on ad hoc protests that would evolve within minutes or hours after events that warranted civil unrest — and I’d grab a home-made sign and take to the streets. The demo in New Paltz was a far cry from the Trayvon Martin demo that stopped traffic at multiple junctures throughout NYC and actions by teachers for Trayvon, or Liberty Square during the Occupy Movement and the marches that packed NYC streets during that time. But even though the crowd we drew was small, our voices were loud. It was clear that here, too, there are people who are aware of and angry about the fact that racism still exists in both overt and tacit ways.

In the days following the Ferguson grand jury decision not to pursue a trial investigating Michael Brown’s death, a colleague in the Black Studies Department at SUNY New Paltz encouraged faculty to take a moment of silence at the start of each class to reflect on what had just happened. I took this request a step further, and planned a writing and discussion activity to talk about what had happened and the implications of living in a racist society on our work as teachers. As an educator who teaches aspiring teachers how to teach reading and writing, I cannot teach a course without hitting on topics of diversity and the many -isms that continue to pervade our society’s dominant discourse. I saw talking about Ferguson as a natural extension of the work that I already do.

IFerguson Demo in Kingstonn one class, the discussion went well — one student piped in that she saw me in a photo on Facebook at a protest in Kingston, NY, and others expressed how much it influences what they hope to do as future educators of young children. Other students expressed being unclear of what had happened and wanting to know more about why and how the decision had been made not to pursue a trial and indictment.

In another class, the discussion didn’t go as well. What began as a well-intended carving out of safe space to talk openly about what had happened erupted into a contentious conversation about, in large part, whose fault it is that racism still exists. I wondered in the process of where I’d gone wrong as a facilitator. How did our discussion go from a reflection on the racist underpinnings of recent events and their ramifications for our work as educators to a debate on whether or not white people should be held responsible for slavery generations later?

I was able (somewhat inelegantly) to bring the conversation back to the purpose at hand, and concluded the discussion by asking students to write me an anonymous note on what they were thinking and feeling in the moment as the discussion concluded. It took me several days to take a look at these pieces of paper, which I knew would be swollen with personal feelings and thoughts on how or why talking about Ferguson matters (or doesn’t).

For the most part, students expressed that they felt uncomfortable talking about race, but that they were glad I’d brought it up.

More than half of them expressed that no one had brought up Ferguson in their other classes, and they felt it needed to be talked about more.

On the other end of the spectrum, a few students felt alienated by the discussion and asked why we were talking about this when they were here to learn how to teach literacy.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this experience and what needs to shift in my teaching and that of my school community as we work collectively to move toward a more aware, more diverse, more just society. I am in discussion with colleagues around campus who are committed to anti-racist work in both their personal and professional lives. In the meantime, something urgently in need of attention was revealed to me in the discussions I had with my students that I hadn’t been fully aware of before: I’ve been operating from a place of assumption. I assumed that in a small Hudson Valley community that is known for its liberal ways of thinking that we were all on the same page about race — namely, that we’re aware racism is still at work in communities of education, and talking about and acting in resistance to it is part of what we do. It turns out that’s not a safe assumption at all.

I am saddened by this new knowledge, but will not stop fighting for what I know is right; will not shy away from raising difficult topics of discussion in courses on teaching literacy when it’s so obvious how all -isms are deeply embedded in literature we may choose to share with young learners; will not stop naming racism as something worth examining in our daily practice as teachers and teacher educators. I thank the colleagues and students who have openly and honestly engaged in discussions with me over the last few weeks about the work that we do, and how racism places a role. Our work has only just begun.

If You’re Going on the Academic Job Market

Up early on a Sunday, I’m catching up on emails, and just saw an email with a link to a video I participated in last spring that is about, among a few things, what it’s like to teach in higher ed these days, and how to prepare for the academic job market. After a recent email from a friend who’s going on the job market this fall, I figured there might be others out there looking for advice on how to plan their approach. If you’re up for watching a bit of a video, I wish I’d found something like this, “Teaching in the Modern University: A Conversation between Urban Education students and professors,” when I started out looking for a job as an assistant professor last fall, especially the section that starts at 57:29 and goes to 1:21:17. Either way, read on — below you’ll find some tips for how to approach different stages of the process.

Remember that this is just one perspective, and lots of people out there have advice. There’s no magic wand, but there are things you can do to be prepared:

WHEN TO START LOOKING: The academic job market is a roughly one-year process. Universities start posting jobs at the end of the summer or start of the fall semester for the following academic year. Each listing has its own deadline.

WHERE TO LOOK: You can sign up for email lists through research associations and organizations; look in the Chronicle for Higher EducationHigherEdJobs, and Indeed; do regular Google searches; or visit Human Resources webpages of colleges and universities. I was surprised to find that the latter approach yielded quite a few listings I didn’t find using other avenues — I highly recommend using all of these approaches.

MATERIALS TO PREPARE: Each university has different requirements, but there are a few materials they almost always require.

  • curriculum vitae: make sure your CV is up to date, and accurately reflects the three areas of experience and potential the search committee is looking for: teaching, service, and scholarship. You may want to consider tailoring it to reflect teaching first if you’re applying to a teaching university, or publications and presentations first if you’re applying to a Research I or Big-R research institution. The one I have posted online follows the same format of the one I used when applying for jobs.
  • letter of application: your letter is your first contact with your potential new colleagues, and you want to give them a glimpse of who you are–primarily as a teacher, scholar, and communicator. Make sure to see if there is a central focus or a specific question you’re supposed to answer in your application. Make sure to gear your narrative toward the specific field. Even though I wanted, and gratefully accepted, a position teaching literacy methods, the jobs were few and far between. I ended up applying to generalist and technology education positions, too. I looked for jobs in educational studies as well, but found even fewer of those. I included a version of my letter of application here:

    Download (PDF, Unknown)

  • recommendations: some universities will require two or three written recommendations up front; some, as in the sample, require the names of a certain number of references. Make sure you give your recommenders ample time to prepare their materials as necessary.
  • teaching philosophy: you may be asked to present a 2-3 page statement about your pedagogical approach to teaching. You can see mine online here (keep in mind there are a variety of approaches to this, which vary by discipline).
  • supplementary materials: you may be asked to send writing samples or copies of recent publications, transcripts, sample syllabi, etc.
  • digital CV: before I headed out on interviews, I created a digital CV. I purchased and used to host my site. By having a readily available digital presence in this way, I was able to send search committees to my website, demonstrating my seriousness about a life of scholarship and a commitment to staying technologically relevant. I was also able to use this site to house any supplementary materials for teaching or research presentations I gave during my interviews.Screen Shot 2013-10-13 at 10.33.14 AM

THE PROCESS: Academic jobs are few and far-between right now. Don’t be surprised if you don’t hear back about all of your applications–you are up against hundreds of other people, and some colleges and universities won’t respond to you at all. I heard back from 9, or 75% of the 12 universities to which I applied: 6 were rejections, and 3 were invitations to interview.

  • First contact is usually a phone or Skype interview. Search committees are generally comprised of 4-6 faculty members of the department, program, or school to which you’re applying. They usually ask from 7 to 10 questions.
  • In order to prepare for my interviews, I combed each university’s website, and discovered things I was excited about at the university that I would want to highlight in my interviews. I also took a look at any research or publications by the members of my search committees. I wanted to go into the conversations with a good idea of who I was talking to; the best way to get an idea of this, I felt, was to take at look at their research. I also researched the geographic area. I applied to jobs primarily in the New York City and Hudson Valley regions, as my partner and I wanted to stay in the vicinity of New York. I also applied out in the Pacific Northwest, where we have family. I don’t necessarily recommend limited yourself by geography — it’s a bit of a gamble.
  • The job market seems to be space in which anything goes. It was unpredictable, overwhelming, and scary, but I learned a lot about myself in the process.

It was funny to revisit this post, “And the Search for Next Year Begins,” where I describe the fears I had about the job market when I was just starting out. It was only a year ago, but it feels much longer!!

WHEN YOU’RE INVITED TO CAMPUS: Getting a campus interview is a big deal. Only 2 or 3 candidates are generally invited. Usually all your expenses are paid–hotel or bed and breakfast stay, meals, and travel for one or two days, depending on the structure of the interview.

  • Be prepared. your presentation will generally follow one of two formats, or perhaps both. There is 1) the classic job talk, which is mainly a research presentation in which you present your latest research. I used my dissertation for the basis of any job talks I gave. The other option is 2) a teaching presentation, in which you’re expected to teach a lesson to a class. In both cases, I was expected to present for about 45 minutes. Each presentation is usually followed by a Q & A session. A range of people–administrators, faculty, staff, and students–are generally invited to presentations, so be prepared for the room to be packed (but don’t worry if it’s not!).
  • Know the campus. Have some reasons prepared for why you’re excited about potentially working there–you don’t want to say things like, “I applied because it was one of the only listings I found in my discipline.” They want to feel like you hand-picked them from the pile of job listings, so you should have something to answer with when you’re inevitably asked, “Why do you want to teach at x university?” I had it easy — I was born less than an hour away from the university where I now teach, and my grandmother lived an hour and a half away. In a way, I felt like I was coming home. While it wasn’t enough to say, “the Hudson Valley is near and dear to my heart,” I was able to work that into the conversation. There were a number of programmatic things that attracted me to New Paltz initially, and I made sure to talk about them when I was asked why the job and university appealed to me.
  • Bring sustenance. You’ll be fed, but I found it helpful to have some snacks on hand when I felt my energy waning after the third interview of the day. My schedules included as many as four interviews plus one presentation in a day. It was exhausting.
  • Wear something appropriate. I was planning on pulling some tweed skirts and jackets out of my closet, but my advisor warned that I needed to wear suits. It was an expensive investment, but well worth it. While affordable suit fashion has yet to catch up with current trends of the tapered leg in pants, wearing a suit boosted my confidence when it came time to presenting in front of thirty some-odd strangers.
  • Listen, but also speak. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for you to show people how brightly you shine. You want to talk about why it is you’re the best person for the position. You want to wow them with your accomplishments and ideas for how you think you can be an asset to the program, department, or school.
  • Enjoy yourself. This was one of the best pieces of advice I received when I started frantically calling people to help me figure out how to prepare for my interviews. You’re going to be wined and dined and the focus of attention for 24, maybe 36 hours, so you might as well get into it.
  • Have a change of clothes for dinner if you go out. I didn’t always change, but I was glad to have options when necessary.
  • Remember you’re interviewing them, too. This was hard to remember at times, but a handful of people shared this same bit of advice with me–you have to keep in mind that you should want to end up at the place that offers you a job. If the feeling isn’t mutual, it’s not a good fit.

There’s so much more to talk about. If you have a specific question, please add it to the comments. I’m sure you’re not the only one.

Good-Bye, New York!

I just got home from my last subway ride as a New York City resident, and I’m filled with all kinds of emotions about it. I’m starting as an Assistant Professor of Literacy Education at SUNY New Paltz next week — a job I first dreamed of having over ten years ago when I started teaching education courses part-time. I am so excited about this change, and about moving to the Hudson Valley, a place I knew well as a child from frequent visits to my Oma, my grandmother. We would knit and crochet side by side, and she would say that the Catskills reminded her of the mountains back in Germany. She passed on a few years ago now, but she would be happy to know that I’m moving to a place she called home for years. Which brings me to the main point of this post: an opportunity to bid New York City, the place have called home since 1999, farewell.

placeI know I’m not moving that far — New Paltz is only an hour and a half away by bus, and I’ll probably see friends as often as I did while living in the city, but there are certain things that I’ll miss about it. I’ll miss the iced hibiscus tea at the coffee shop across the street in summer; bike lanes everywhere; that moment of affectionate eye contact when you see someone familiar on a bike path; that guy who sings Beatles songs in the tunnel between the F/M and 1/2/3 trains at 14th Street; seeking out spots for photo shoots for my knitwear project, Brooker Hollow, (like the one pictured); the subway (okay, I’ll also not miss the subway); the amazing musicians and street performers throughout the MTA system (especially the tap dancers); huge spontaneous protests (and the more organized ones, too); feeling connected to millions of other New Yorkers, even though we will largely remain anonymous to one another; the food; the singing man in Williamsburg…

The list could go on. I’m going to miss it here, period. But I’m about to start a new chapter, and am completely ready for it to begin.

In the News

A link to this article in the Daily News came through on multiple list serves this morning: “New York City Teaching Fellows call for overhaul of 12-year program as deadline for new batch of teachers nears.” I think Lisa Cunningham, a former New York City Teaching Fellow who was interviewed for the article by Corinne Lestch, sums up the gist well: “I just think we need to have a serious conversation as a city about the way we train and support our teachers” (full article here).

First of all, isn’t there a hiring freeze? That’s what I’ve heard from friends looking to get a teaching position at a New York City public school, anyway…

snapshot of my own (old and weathered) copy of the NYT article referenced

But more importantly, this isn’t the first time, and I doubt will be the last, that the effectiveness of alternative certification programs like the New York City Teaching Fellows has been questioned.

I was reminded of the start of the program — I’d wanted to apply, but missed the first deadline, and joined a year later with Cohort 3. How differently the program was painted then. I’m reminded of an article in The New York Times, A Longer Shortcut to School,” in which I appeared with a colleague, that outlined a sort of day-in-the-life of two New York City Teaching Fellows. I’m described as “tall and animated,” and the author, Abby Goodnough, offers an account of my attempt to teach perimeter to third graders (which, years later, is a little horrifying to read). The tenor of the article is one of skepticism, though in contrast to today’s in The Daily News, far more hopeful about the program on the whole.

As I come up on the last year of graduate school, and begin to really consider what I want my job to look like as a full-time teacher educator, I am concerned about the disjointedness of teacher education, generally, and how programs like the New York City Teaching Fellows have confused the terms of what’s really going on in our city’s schools.

No Apples Here

This post draws from my first journal entry as a brand-new New York City Teaching Fellow about ten years ago. I’d spent plenty of time working with children as a teenager, and a year as a photography teacher at a school in Yonkers, but I was not prepared for what was to come. [Our summer school assignments were intended to be an observational period — an opportunity to watch and learn from a veteran teacher, and as time went on, to try our hand at teaching a lesson here and there before jumping headfirst into our own classrooms, come September.]

“It’s the first day of summer school, and we arrive promptly at 8am to find that there are no classes for us to observe. Correction: there are classes to observe, but not enough (certified) teachers have shown up, and we are asked to act as substitutes instead. We are paired up.

My partner and I are escorted to a 5th grade class, and the day is mostly chaotic. Before we get started, I notice a girl standing off to the edge of the room, and when asked to take a seat, she says she’s too big for the furniture. It’s true, so I give her the chair from the teacher’s desk to sit on, which initiates a waterfall of complaints from other students who want to sit in a big chair, too. It turns out the room is built for 3rd graders, and more than a few students are crammed into chairs and desks that are too small.”

Looking back on this entry, I can see the emergence of what I would soon learn to call ‘the policy-practice gap.’ Here are my observations as a graduate student:

  • Having an uncertified, rookie teacher cover a class on the very first day of summer school seems to go against policy, no? The Transitional B certificate, which I and all other alternative certification teachers were given in order to bypass New York State regulations requiring the acquisition of a Masters degree prior to certification, likely contributed to this grey area. While I wouldn’t have been able to teach full time without the certificate, I was not prepared to take on a class on my first day.
  • Mismatched bodies and furniture would happen on a recurring basis throughout my years of teaching that would follow. How can students be expected to learn and ‘behave’ if they can’t fit into the seat(s) assigned to them?
  • Any brand-new teacher can attest to hearing things like ‘don’t smile till Christmas,’ referring to how important some educators feel it is to appear strong to students. While I have a number of issues with this tacit new-teacher ‘policy’ (and a general inability to not smile at times), there is some truth in making an effort to keep your composure when standing in front of a group of students. And while pairing us up made sense from the perspective of the administration, since few of us had ever stood in front of a classroom before, it sent the message to the class (just like smiling broadly might) that we were nervous/unprepared/new.

More on the ‘policy-practice gap’ to come in future posts.

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.

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…

And the Search for Next Year Begins

When you’re starting to think about making the commitment to start a PhD program, you hear about how difficult/complex the academic job market is, but you don’t really get what that means till you’re staring down the barrel of your dissertation while simultaneously trying to make a livable wage, eat well, get enough sleep, and figure out what to do next year.  So far this school year, I’ve felt like a circus performer on most days, juggling more things than any person should.  And although I haven’t conducted a vast empirical study to test my hypothesis, it seems that most of my friends and colleagues are in the same exact boat.  I had a lengthy discussion yesterday with some classmates about how crazy (and a bit cruel) it seems that job and fellowship application deadlines are happening now for the next academic school year.

So how do people actually do it?  What does one do when they think they might finish their degree this academic year, but can’t fathom how the job search is supposed to happen right alongside the writing of the dissertation?  How do you know if you’re supposed to be applying for dissertation writing fellowships, jobs, or postdocs?  What if you’re not 100% sure you’ll be able to defend your dissertation by April in order to graduate by May?  What if you can’t have a lapse in healthcare?  What if you find a job but don’t graduate?  What if you graduate but have no job?  What if?

I have a lot of “what if” questions, and despite all the talking I might do with my mentors and colleagues, it ends up seeming like an arbitrary set of choices that may or may not work out in your favor when you’re trying to conceptualize what life might be like a year from now.  In an ideal world, I would either get funded for another year to write, or I would find a position in a school of education as a full-time professor, teaching a mixture of methods and foundations courses that draw on my experiences as a classroom teacher, literacy specialist, technologist, and artist.  I have yet to find a job listing that meets this criteria, but a grad student can dream, right?  In the meantime, I’ll keep at it with the job search on the Chronicle of Higher Education, keep poking around at various fellowships, and keep crossing my fingers that this all makes a little more sense come April.

Night Before the First Day of School

I wonder if my bad sleep patterns lately are a subconscious act of solidarity with teachers throughout New York City who are preparing to start another academic year tomorrow.  I remember all too well that charged mixture of excitement and anxiety that churns in your belly the night before school starts — I always thought that the more experienced I got, the more calm I’d be on the night before the first day, but that never happened.

As a classroom teacher, I spent my time on this night prepping first-day/get-to-know-you activities, and frantically finishing the touches on my colorful bulletin boards, in the hopes that the first day would go smoothly, my prep and lunch schedule would afford reasonable bathroom breaks (one year, I taught for nearly four hours without a break on some days), and I would be able to be myself without being a total pushover (which a former supervisor described me as during my rookie year — ouch!).

Here’s a picture of that rookie (that I’ll probably be horrified about having posted come morning).  Note the empty shelves behind me that demonstrate the lack of books I was faced with during that first year.  I’ll never forget asking my AP (the same one who called me, to be exact, a “soft, white pushover”) sometime in September, when would my books be arriving for my classroom library?  I was directed to make due with what I had, or provide a library using my Teachers Choice money (which amounted to $200 per year per teacher at that time, and funded the purchase of very little for an entire classroom of students, as you can imagine).  The books that existed in the room when I arrived were in a variety of languages and skill levels, and all seemed to be published sometime before 1990.  I think the room had been a learning language lab at some point.  Very few of the existing books were appropriate for a group of third-grade students, many of whom were still learning to read.  I was lucky to acquire a number of book collections from friends during that year, and my classroom library eventually grew to robust proportions; only to be replaced two years later by the “mayors’ library,” which involved an exciting-and-then-anticlimactic delivery of over 300 volumes to my classroom that were mostly inaccessible to my students because of a mismatch in skill level.

So, at the start of a school year when education funding is being slashed left and right, and teachers are busying themselves in the spirit of bringing meaningful, engaging learning experiences to their new students, I cannot help but think about their collective task ahead.  My heart and soul are with all teachers tomorrow — I wish you a wonderful, productive first day, and 179 smooth, engaging days to follow.  In the meantime, thank you for the tremendous work that you do.  Your job is, after all, the most important job.

“Hope and enthusiasm are soaring here. But not test scores.”

This past Sunday’s New York Times published the first of a series of articles about “the intersection of education, technology and business as schools embrace digital learning”(p. 16) with the title “In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores.”  I have to say, I appreciate the NYT’s effort at turning the spotlight to education every now and then, thus encouraging the masses to pay attention to K-12 classroom learning; however, they don’t always get all sides of the story.

I’m often looking for articles and media presentations about teaching that take into account teachers’ input, and it should be noted that this article gives a nod (in the section “Teachers vs. Tech” on the last page of the article) to the impact of recent technological developments in education on teachers — particularly the financial constraints of new materials, resources, and training.  So often, discussions of education leave out the part of the narrative that honors that teachers are living, breathing human beings, too, who, despite the efforts of teacher education programs, don’t arrive at the classroom door with a fixed set of skills — especially at a time when skill-level requirements (particularly around computers) are changing and ratcheting up on a daily basis.  Teachers, just like students, need ongoing learning opportunities, too, and their input in this conversation is necessary but often absent.

There are a million threads to take up in response to this article, but I want to focus on just a few:

  • definition of what we’re referring to as “technology”
  • teacher as guide instead of lecturer
  • proof of value of technology in the classroom

Definition of what we’re referring to as “technology.”  So what do we mean by “technology”?  It is implied throughout this article that the “technology” being discussed is computer and internet technology.  But where does technology end and begin?  Wasn’t the invention of the wheel “technology”?  Isn’t using a xerox machine technology?  Do students have to be operating in virtual spaces for it to be considered “technology”? Are there actual, specific requirements for a classroom to be considered “technology-centric?”  How does this distinction help or hurt when it comes to developing best practices in the classroom?

Teacher As Guide Instead of Lecturer.  The article references Kyrene School District in Arizona, which has “invested roughly $33 million” for computers, interactive screens, and other virtual technologies, and states “the digital push here aims to go far beyond gadgets to transform the very nature of the classroom, turning the teacher into a guide instead of a lecturer.”  This line honestly floored me — each of my teacher education courses, whether I was a student or an instructor, centered around the Piagetian idea of constructivism, in which the teacher is a guide, not a lecturer.  Put simply by Dewey, constructivism means that “experience is education,” and that the act of doing is, in itself, a powerful form of learning.

For me, and the majority of my teaching colleagues, the notion of acting as a “guide” instead of  “lecturer” is not new, and focusing on this as some sort of new method for approaching the classroom via the lens of technology does a disservice to the last century of progressive educators’ work.  While I can only speak for myself, I find it angering to have this concept renewed again and again, as if for the first time, without focusing on what is really happening: a lack of equally accessible resources, a dearth of ongoing, effective training for teachers, and a system of policymaking that could not be further from the actual classroom.

I remember when the new citywide curriculum for K-6 was implemented (roughly 7 school years ago) in New York City, and as a fifth grade teacher I was expected to start teaching with a new curriculum that was unfamiliar to me (Everyday Math).  At that time, the rhetoric was that we needed classrooms to be “child-centered.”  Now we need classrooms to be “technology-centered”?  Will this simple shift in focus actually make a difference?  I am guessing that it won’t.

Proof of Value of Technology in the Classroom.  The article states the claim that “educators would like to see major trials years in length that clearly demonstrate technology’s effect. But such trials are extraordinarily difficult to conduct when classes and schools can be so different, and technology is changing so quickly.”  Sure, yes.  We would all love to see trials of things that “work” in education, period, but one sure-fire thing that a century of education research has helped us conclude is that nothing works for everyone.  I am not advocating the willy-nilly implementation of programs in classrooms (if you’re a public school teacher, you know this happens already.)  As an educational researcher, I unconditionally agree that more research must be conducted; however, one need not conduct a years-long, longitudinal study to make the basic claim that technology (of the computer/internet variety at the very least) is increasingly becoming a necessary pedagogical component.  You can’t get a library at the local library, get an MTA card, or communicate with a cell phone today if you don’t have a basic understanding of technology.

As I said, there is a lot more to say, and I’m having a hard time cutting this post short as a result, but…  I hope this is the start of a really important conversation that every educator can be a part of right now: how can/will the technology revolution transform education?  Will it transform education?  Or, will the same trends continue, in which a new silver bullet is proposed (in this case, “technology”), tons of money is invested, and empirical data shows little or no change?  At what point are we going to stop beating around the bush and figure out that 1) any new device — whether curricular, pedagogical, technological, or any combination of the above in nature — will require additional, sufficient teacher training; 2) clear channels for teacher input/expertise need to be forged; and 3) the internet isn’t going anywhere and kids need to interact with it in their learning environments — and not just in the name of improving American test scores.