Friday, May 10, 2013

MindShift article about e-reading

A colleague sent me a link today to an blog post about e-reading (with a focus on iPads).  KQED, an NPR station in California has a page called "MindShift" that is subtitled: "How We Will Learn."  I like that.  It is about looking to the horizon and starting to anticipate some of the hurdles we will face.

I presented on using Kindles in the classroom at the TAIS Tech conference back in April.  I had 12 participants.  11 of them were excited about e-readers in classrooms and drawn to the possibilities.  They had questions and ideas.  1 participant was there out of anger.  She had been told by her administrators that all students would be using e-books on their iPads for reading.  She wasn't given a choice or voice in the matter and she was understandably upset (I bet a lot of our students would understand that feeling.)  This particular teacher is also a parent.  I only mention that because she represents an interesting demographic that I have encountered frequently.  Often when educators are discussing new ideas, a special insight is brought to the table by teachers who are also parents.  They blend those boundaries and can see more than one perspective on the issue.

BUT.  Every kid is different.  I know that as a mom with a toddler, I am often shocked when someone else's toddler has a different personality.  I assumed they were all like mine!  They aren't.  

This one participant in my session jumped in early on and said, "I have a teenager and if I give him an iPad to read, he isn't going to read.  He is going to be on social media the whole time."

I acknowledged that she is raising a real concern.  But, she was transferring the tendencies of some to the masses.  Perhaps she was arguing that I have it backwards--the masses were going to Google venereal diseases rather than read Jane Eyre.  This is not the first parent-teacher who has made that same comment.

I also realized that her anger was not my fault, nor was it my burden.  She was going to be pissed no matter what I said or did and she came to my session out of spite.  Well, as a teacher there is nothing knew in that feeling.

Why don't I agree with her?  Why am I not resisting the erosion of paper books?  Why am I advocating giving students a choice to read on paper or Kindle?

First, because I was a naughty non-reader in early high school, specifically in 9th grade.  We were given paper books and I just chose not to read them.  I am pretty sure I failed every quiz on Sophie's World because I never finished the nightly reading (often because I never started.)  I resented being told what to read, even more so if I didn't personally like the book, so I did the very mature thing: I refused to read to spite the teacher.  I don't think avoiding reading is new or unique to e-books.  Kids looking for distractions from their assigned reading don't lack them even if you put them in a cardboard box.  (Mark Isero has an interesting post about the "Big Brother" software that can track what you do on an e-reader on his blog Iserotope.)

More importantly, I don't think things will stay the same.  When cars were first invented, people resisted those too.  People were killed in this new scary way: hit by a car.  There were not many paved roads, no signs, laws, rules, or customs for driving.  It was a time of chaos.  But we as a car culture didn't stop there.  We developed systems and whole institutions around driving and cars.  Early periods of any new development are often like the Wild West.  I see a restoration of balance on the horizon.

That is what the article was talking about.  It didn't say that we should reject e-books because they are different and present some challenges.  Rather, we need to teach our students new ways to meet these new challenges.

Justin Reich, the author, points out two main types of reading: focused and connected.  (Louise Rosenblatt, a very influential researcher and professor of reading, had two types also: aesthetic and efferent.  Aesthetic is reading for joy, for it's own sake; efferent is reading to learn.)  For Reich, the focused reading is the reading of deep engagement and thinking.  Connected reading is about synthesizing information, making connections, drawing lines of interconnectivity.  He feels that e-texts are well suited for connected reading but perhaps present challenges for focused reading when apps and the internet just a swipe away.

So, what do we do?  Reich argues that we need to teach them to "clear the desk" for e-reading.  Just as we may teach a student to turn off the TV, clear the magazines and the other books off of their physical desk before they begin to do focused reading in a paper book, we need to teach them to do that digitally.  There are a variety of apps that can "lock" you into an app.  It makes it not impossible to stray, but more difficult, giving you more time to exercise some self control.  I guess that to me sounds like "locking it down" rather than "correcting the behavior" in the words of Richard Byrne, who spoke at TAIS Tech.  If you make something or someone else police you, you never learn self-restraint.  But I do think that the new mindset is a necessary one.  We need to teach our students to avoid and drown out the "noise" that is all the epic stuff happening on the internet.  (There is, in fact, a Facebook page called "I Cannot Go To Bed - There is Epic Stuff* Happening on the Internet.)

Some might think that teaching students to focus on a text and read deeply and with maximum engagement with an e-text is an impossible task.  I guess I am just a little more hopeful.  I do really believe that it is possible and that we can do it.  I think that if we put that effort in, the doors that are opened with e-books are of immense value.  

I feel like I am giving a lot of hope and no solutions.  The article focuses on the "Someday/Monday dichotomy," which balances what we stargazers see and what really needs to happen in a real class on Monday.  I guess I am willing to muddle through it and learn with my students.  As a teacher who uses an e-reader herself in class, I am learning as I go.  I don't have the answers, because I don't even know what some of the questions are.  I hope that my students will come up with as many of the answers as I will.

*That isn't the real word.  You know which one I mean.  I'm also not linking you to the page.  Not just because of the bad word, but because most of the stuff posted on there is pretty asinine.  Which just reinforces my point, I guess.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

An article about a new Paperwhite user

I am on a roll today, I know.  Since I can't get off the couch (strep throat), I am blogging to keep the cabin fever at bay.

I read a great article today from Telereads about an avid e-book reader who finally broke down and bought a Kindle Paperwhite.  He does a good job of describing why I read almost entirely from my KindleTouch, and only use my phone and PC apps while I am teaching.

This isn't news to anyone who has a Kindle, but it may be new to those of you who are new to e-readers.

The biggest thing is E ink.  The Kindle does not glow*.  It is not like a tablet or a phone.  You can see your phone screen in the dark.  You cannot see a Kindle** in the dark.  The Kindle screen is made up of tiny balls of magnetic ink that are oriented to display the page.  Think of it like a fancy etch-a-sketch.  Here is a video that looks like it walked out of a 90's science class:

I will tell you that I address the "If students read an e-book they will get headaches and eye strain" argument at least once a week. 

Hear ye, hear ye.  If the student is reading on an Eink device, they will NOT get eye strain. 

*The Kindle Paperwhite, Kindle's only touch sensitive device, has a light built in that can be turned on or off.  It is basically a fine mesh of lights, from what I understand, that is spread across the screen. 

**If you read with the Paperwhite's light turned on, you will have light and you can read in the dark.  In that case, you may experience some eye strain, although it is not a glowing LED screen, so it may not be as severe. 

"Slow Education"--Inspiring blog from England

I stumbled upon a British blog called "Slow Education" a few months ago and everything I see or read there has inspired me.  The most recent post written by Maurice Holt was especially powerful.  I am not sure why it is so heartening that England is also struggling with the same questions and issues the United States is, but I appreciate the commiseration.

One benefit of teaching at an independent school, is that we do not have the shadow of state standardized tests hanging over us.  Our supreme goal is a student's future success in both college, but ultimately in a satisfying career. 

Despite the ability to shrug off the assembly line model of right answers and multiple choice over critical thinking and reasoning, these modes of education are hard to avoid completely.

I like his description of the problem:

"The government is forever telling us that the task for schools is Driving Up Standards. This mantra emerged under New Labour and continues under the Coalition. What does it mean? How are the standards defined, and how are they driven up? The idea of “driving up” evokes the image of force and power, of pushing and shoving until students deliver the goods. The government tests often use multiple-choice formats, which are cheap and easy to mark – but they are unreliable, and diminish teaching. Yet those test scores have to be “driven up” – so the result is grade inflation, and an emphasis on right answers rather than reasoned argument. First-year undergraduates now need special courses to teach them material that was once part of A-level, but is now too difficult."

 Professor Holt offered a very good description of the alternative that "slow education" offers. 

"The idea that education is all about delivering right answers is clearly misconceived. Yet it’s the inevitable consequence of this mistaken approach. Students learn, but they do not understand. And working backwards from outcomes – to deliver the required answers – is a recipe for dumbing down. Standards-driven education isn’t very different from a fast-food outlet, where packages of test-shaped knowledge are swallowed, but never properly digested. Slow food, on the other hand, starts with sound ingredients and creates a satisfying experience. So does the slow school."

As a gardener and proponent of eating "slow food," I appreciate the comparison.

Reading this post was a reminder to me that as a teacher at an independent school, I need to put my money where my mouth is with slow education.  I can, so I should try.   Many teachers out there dream of teaching a class without a mindless multiple choice test in May.  It is my duty to continue to inspire real learning, encourage critical thinking and group work, to be open to new ideas and interpretation, and to challenge students to think about the process and not always the product. 

If you need some inspiration, watch these videos of interviews with students answering the question, "If you had a whole month of school time what would you choose to learn about?"

Income Gap and Achievement Gap

All of my teacher friends are sharing a recent New York Times Article titled "No Rich Child Left Behind."

This article finally got me to write a post about my shift from public to private school, something I have been thinking about for a while.  (That, and I am home sick with strep throat.) 

First, let me give you the extremely brief summary of the article: rich kids do better in school.  Reason?  Rich families invest more in early childhood enrichment.  No surprise there.  Geoffrey Canada, creator of the school and community outreach project The Harlem Children's Zone, talked about his ideas for creating the school.  He said, basically, that he wanted to teach the parents of Harlem to do for their kids what parents in the suburbs do ("suburbs" read: wealthier parents.)  Paul Tough wrote a book about The Harlem Children's Zone, Whatever It Takes, where he described the institutional structure of the organization that is "designed to mimic the often-invisible cocoon of support and nurturance that follows middle-class and upper-middle-class kids through their childhoods."  I appreciate that Canada recognized this and has made a huge effort to reach out to parents and children as soon as they are born.

The Times article extends the analysis of the data to schools.  If those early childhood enrichment experiences are what is making the difference in children, then what responsibility (read: blame) should the school receive for failing students?  Aha, here we are.  It is much easier to blame teachers for failing students.  Because we are a nation of privacy and we don't tell parents how to do their jobs.  Teachers are public employees, and therefore much easier to reprimand. 

I used to have this elaborate fantasy of a thug posse of teachers.  We would roam the city dressed like mafiosos.  We would roll up to a house in a big boat of a car.  We'd step out in velour track suits with baseball bats and big gold necklaces.  A knock on the door reveals a quivering parent.  The lead thug says, "How come Sierra has been late at school all week?"

"She's--she's been walking her little sister to school."

"Excuse me?  Did I hear you right?  Sierra is 11.  She is the kid and she's late to school.  You are the parent.  You need to find a way to get Sierra to school on time," says Lead Thug as she slaps the baseball bat into her hand, menacingly. 

"Yes!  Of course.  I will walk her to school from now on.  Sierra will be on time."

"What about her homework?" asks the thug.

"What about it?"

"She hasn't done it for 2 weeks."

Okay, you get the idea.  I could go on and on.  Where does this fantasy come from?  I felt accountable for my students' progress and test scores, when I only saw them for an hour each day.  Schools' attendance rates are published each year and factor into the schools' ratings.  It felt like sometimes the parents or the inherent disadvantages the student was facing were undoing all of my hard work.  I found that no matter how hard I worked, how many extra hours I put in, I could not bring on that much change.  It sounds obvious, but it isn't a part of conventional school wisdom.  A teacher can only affect one hour of a student's life.  I can't make them come to school on time and with all supplies and homework completed. 

The first two years of my teaching, I was at a public school in Brooklyn.  It was a new, small public school that was all-girls.  Yes, those exist.  After teaching there, I taught at a charter school in Manhattan.  Charter schools are funded by public money and are run by the state, therefore they qualify as public schools.  When we moved to Nashville two years ago, I started working at an all-girls, independent school.  "Independent" and "private" are synonymous for all intents and purposes.  We refer to ourselves as independent because "private" implies a certain image of exclusivity that has a negative connotation.  Cynicism aside, independent schools' raison d'etre is to do things their own way--whatever way that may be. 

I have now taught full time at 3 of the 4 major types of school.  Parochial schools are the only type I am missing, but I did do some tutoring during grad school at a Catholic nativity school in the East Village while I was at NYU. 

I didn't think that I would be teaching at an independent school 6 years after getting my teaching degree.  At NYU, I was instilled with a passion and commitment to public education.  I felt strongly drawn to schools that served students who needed me. 

But after 4 years I was becoming the sad statistic.  50% of teachers quit the profession entirely in the first 5 years.  I swore left and right that that wouldn't be me.  I was top in my class, I had an excellent teacher education program and I had the commitment.  And yet, after 4 years, I made the decision that if I couldn't get a job in a private school, I was going to quit teaching. 

Judge away!  I know that I felt immense guilt.  But, I decided that teaching was still my passion and calling, and I had to do it in a way that I could sustain. 

Okay, I am taking forever to get to the point I want to make.  So, let me cut to the chase.  When you judge teachers by their test scores, you are not really judging their quality as teachers.  Here is how I know: on paper, using the measuring stick that state and local governments use to judge teachers and schools, I was a terrible teacher and then I was awesome.  None of this actually has anything to do with me. 

Exhibit A: My 3rd year of teaching I taught 8th grade English at a charter school.  Only 22% of my students were judged as "proficient" by the state English exam.  (Let's, for the moment, not argue about the validity of test scores.  Let's operate on the assumption that the state tests tell us what they claim to.)  I know that we can't only look at that number, we have to also compare that to those students' scores from the previous year to see how much improvement they had from the previous year (called "value added.")  If only 2% of those students were proficient the year before, then I am awesome!  I rock!  But guess what, there wasn't a huge amount of growth.  Those students will be seniors next year, and I could potentially find out how many of them enroll in college, and in 5 years I could check on graduation rates.  As of now, I don't have that data. 

But, let's say that based on that 22% proficient rate, we can call me a crap teacher.  I was sleeping on the job.  I was undereducated in my content area.  I was what was wrong with the system.  (Let's be a cliched extreme for a moment.)

Then I moved to Nashville and started teaching at an independent school.  The juniors I taught last year are college bound next year.  I don't have their SAT data, but that would be a good substitute for state tests (independent schools do not give state tests.)  But, let's take their college enrollment as a point of judgment.  One is going to UNC Chapel Hill on a volleyball scholarship.  Of the students who have decided on a college, they are going to Belmont, Kenyon, Howard, Denison, Centre College, UT Chattanooga, and Loyola Chicago.  Those schools are all highly selective, or ranked in the top 50 for the type of school they are.  I rock!  I am awesome!  I am the best teacher ever!  I have 100% college enrollment.  Clearly it is all due to my dedication and skill as an educator.  I am the solution.

What happened?  How did I suddenly strike teaching gold between my 4th and 5th year?  How did I magically become better?  I didn't.  My students changed.  They are naturally more gifted, they have a network of support (financial, emotional, and otherwise), and they have ambition.  Not all of them are rich, mind you.  (I can see you scoffing.)  No, really.  Of that list of universities, I know of 4 students who received partial or full financial aid to attend my school.  (I only know this of students who have volunteered this information.) 

I know that the New York Times article is right because I have lived it.  When I talk to non-educators, I always try to explain this phenomenon.  I try to emphasize this to fellow parents, especially.  They are all really worried about the quality of schools their children will attend.  They keep talking about the school as if it is the only factor in their child's success.  I remind them that they are the most important factor.  And their child will be fine.  Why?  Because they get fed, clothed, read to, loved and taken to quality medical care when they are sick.  Sound basic?  It isn't.  I could tell you so many stories of children without winter coats, with empty tummies, with untreated tooth aches, with broken homes, with parents in prison.  As a middle or upper class parent, we can find a million reasons to feel guilty, to feel that we haven't done enough.  But, hopefully hearing the struggles of low-income parents puts that in perspective. 

What makes a school "good" these days is the quality of the parenting the majority of children receive.  The method that we currently have to quantify that these days is percent of students who qualify for free lunch.  It feels like a giant euphemistic oversimplification, but sadly, it's the most indicative number I have found based on my experience.  94-97% of students in my public and charter school days received free lunch.  That means that their families basically lived below the poverty line.  That means they may be displaced from their homes, may have limited access to food and health care, probably do not own books, may have to use inferior child care in early childhood, and are possibly being raised by a single parent, or have only one (under)employed parent.  How well is a student going to do in school under those conditions?  I would like you to imagine how you might learn and behave at school if you had woken up in those conditions every day.  (If my coffee isn't brewed right, I'm fussy all day.)

Now, I am not saying teachers don't matter.  I do think that teachers who are smart, hardworking, and committed are a must.  But they are not the only factor that matters.  We have to stop this culture of blame.  How about a culture of responsibility?  How about a culture that looks at the numbers and comes up with creative ways to address them, even if they aren't what "we have always done."   How about we start talking more about parenting?  How about we admit that it isn't easy to fix?