Thursday, June 30, 2011

Reflecting on ISTE Keynote

I've always been something of a contrarian. I can't simply go to any gathering and agree with everything that is being said. Rather, I'm always finding some fundamental difference with the conventional wisdom. At ISTE, this is also the case.

While Chris Lehman is a great and accomplished principal who does many things worth emulating, I don't completely buy into his worldview. I'm all in favor of meaningful projects where students construct their own meaning and trusting, caring student teaching relationships that allow learning to flourish. However, he is much more radical than me when it comes to the teacher role.

Lehman likes to say that students don't want to be told anything. No more sage on the stage. His students back him up. His young poet/slammers had a lot of swagger when they pronounced basically that no one can tell them anything. Quite simply I'm not in favor of the teacher abandoning the role as subject expert. Here's why.

In these difficult economic times, the people that manage to thrive are people with expert knowledge in a specific area. How does one become an expert? Generally by learning from the experts in the field, either by working with them, reading their writings or listening to lectures. I believe it is essential for every young scholar to appreciate intellectual mastery as a worthy end, and that means respecting their teacher as the expert in their subject. A student that is never humble before someone of greater knowledge really doesn't have much of a chance of acquiring subject mastery. I believe very deeply as an orthodox Jew that one must revere the scholar and that the highest form of learning is 'lishma' which loosely translates to 'for its own sake.' The love for the scholar and the love of learning much go hand in hand.

Maybe I was the weird one, but in High School I had no respect for teachers that did not know their subject. Typically these teachers would show a lot of videos instead of teaching anything themselves. On top of that they never assigned any meaningful work. From my experience, the best teachers were the most knowledgeable and gave students assignments that required thinking and creativity. As a student I needed both things to do well. In college and graduate school I had some professors that were more facilitators of learning, rather than scholars. I didn't feel like I learned as much than I would have if they were teaching me from a position of expertise. Sometimes I would actually feel cheated if the professor was not teaching in a subject matter in which they were an expert. In contrast, I remember being absolutely enthralled by a lecture at the University of Minnesota by a special man who was a scholar in death and dying issues. I could have tried to grasp death and dying in a constructivist type project, but I felt that having a sage on the stage was far better. His lecture left me with a strong desire to learn more about the subject.

I'm not an advocate of lecture-only classes. Students need to work with the material in a meaningful way. Sometimes this means reading in depth in isolation, but it could also mean working with partners or groups or listening to a teacher and asking questions. Time on task has long been the biggest factor in student learning. So, yes I believe teachers need to adjust to today's students, who are more difficult to engage in truly academic, rigorous work, but that does not mean teachers should back off completely from their role as an authority on the subject they teach. Furthermore, I believe the highest outcome for our students is for them to become real scholars, those that love to learn. That means they need role-models that are experts and scholars.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Librarians, Media Specialists and New Tech

Today I confirmed what I long suspected...I am the only Library/Media Specialist at the New Tech Network training in 2011. This is very worrisome to me. Most of all, I am concerned about what this says about the library profession.

I'm personally very invested in this profession and I've called myself a librarian for a full decade now. I've always bought into the idea of a librarian as a leader in teaching 21st Century skills. There are many of us that play this role and I'm proud of many of my colleagues, but the writing is on the wall. Not enough librarians are making the leap into the 21st Century.

Many of the people from New Tech Schools that I have spoken with recently cut their library positions after their librarians retired. Others have librarians, but they have not made themselves critical to the mission of the school. One person said that it took 3 years for the administration to figure out the librarians role in their New Tech school. That is so sad.

I am not just concerned about the profession, but our entire culture. Libraries represent so much that is critical for the continuation of Democracy. I don't think the Internet by itself is a substitute. I believe the future needs reflective people that understand complexity and the many perspectives of different people and cultures; people read widely and deeply. Nicholas Carr has called the human mind of the Internet era "The Shallows." I think he's correct. I'm concerned that there won't be enough people capable of deep and abstract thought to sustain this great country as a bastion of freedom. Ignorant people are prone to tyranny.

The New Tech model of teaching is wonderful, but I think every New Tech school needs a library (even if it is called the Media Center or the Learning Commons). The library is nothing without a passionate and skilled librarian. Without such a person, who will advocate for students to read full-length books in the course of their high school careers? Who will teach how to find and process quality information in the vast sea of propaganda and who will man the information hub of our schools? It's possible that teachers can fill this void, but it is equally possible that no one will do so.

I'm proud to be a part of the New Schools Network, and I don't blame anyone within the organization for the state of affairs in public education and school libraries. I simply urge more of my librarian colleagues to get involved and be a part of the future of education.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

New Tech Network 2nd Day

I'm now starting to settle in and get familiar with the group, the instructional model and the software of the New Tech Network. One thing I noticed today is that most of the schools at this training are from smaller cities or rural communities. My school of Dallas and another school from San Antonio are the only truly urban ones represented here. This is actually something I'm very proud of. We have a great group of people on our staff, and I really think we can make this school of South Dallas into one of the crown jewels of the New Tech Network, and encourage more urban school around this country to adopt this excellent model.

First Impressions from New Schools Training

After my first full day at NST, I now have a better understanding of why this training takes place over a full-week. Never in my career have I been through a full-scale school change. As the keynote speaker said yesterday, most school reform/staff development initiatives are doomed to fail because of their piecemeal approach. This one strives for going all the way with an all-encompassing model that drives the entire school. I'm completely on board with the instructional model,and understand what my individual role in this school will be, but it is clear now that our task as a campus is pretty enormous.

New Tech Network creates a very good impression. The trainers and IT staff that I have dealt with are very positive and sincere people that believe in their mission. As a participant, I can say I feel overwhelmed, but supported. On the downside, the ECHO system that we will be using is a Drupal based software that has some bugs and is somewhat hard to embrace fully.

Echo is very early in development and the IT staff is aware of many of the bugs, but I am mainly concerned about the difficultly of mastering the course and project creation tools. I feel that teachers need software that is intuitive and this one is difficult for someone like myself that is more on the IT side of things.

For the rest of the week, I will be analyzing ECHO and figuring out a simple approach to making good projects accessible to students so that we can help our Freshmen hit the ground running with project based learning. Look forward to more posts about PBL and the software connection.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Comprehensive High School RIP!?

When I began this blog, I wanted to showcase some of my successes with promoting the strategic use of technology. I'm a Library media specialist, my career satisfaction depends on working with teachers to improve learning outcomes.

I have spent the last 10 years serving as a Library Media Specialist in comprehensive high schools, but I am now moving on. I have worked in 3 very different schools, each one had its strengths and weaknesses, but each was fundamentally flawed in its basic operating assumptions. For each of my jobs, I tried very hard to integrate myself into the faculty of the school and develop relationships towards helping students develop 21st Century skills. While I'm proud of the work I did, I am left with the feeling that I was ultimately unsuccessful.

My next job will be at a New Tech High School in Dallas ISD. It's everything I want in a school: a small cohesive staff with low student-teacher ratio, a solid instructional model that involves students in thought-provoking projects, and an overall emphasis on vital outcomes such as creativity, teamwork, and critical thinking.

Comprehensive High Schools provide the opposite. The structure of the school inhibits real teamwork among teachers of different subjects. The institution is generally large and impersonal, and the main emphasis is on grades and credits granted by teachers as opposed to student outputs. Often the work needed to earn grades and credits in mindless, irrelevant stuff that discourages deep thinking and creativity.

Why is it not possible to reform the comprehensive high school? I have my theories. One time when I was sitting in a curriculum meeting at my previous job, I realized that I was the only one in the room that did not have mostly warm, fuzzy memories of high school. In other words, I was the only one that was actively working to provide students with a drastically different high school experience than I myself had back in the 1980's. The others where emotionally invested in doing the opposite, providing light academics while emphasizing the traditions of high school: letter jackets, athletics, dances, etc. At the very heart of the old high school tradition, is a bias towards not working the kids to hard, so they can enjoy their adolescence. Sizer's brilliant analysis in Horace's Compromise, written back when I was in high school, is still true today. That's not to say that all of the teachers I worked with were this way, but the exceptions were a small minority.

So, in a nutshell, I'm done with trying to reform the beast from within. I look forward to the day when all high schools offer are exciting, vibrant places where students and teachers feel connected to the institution and the youthful energy is channeled towards productive ends instead of creating a feeling of being a rat on wheel until graduation. Yes, I'm still an idealist, but a slightly more realistic one.