Sunday, December 9, 2012

Why We Should Be Listening to Students

If you have not yet heard of 17-year-old Nikhil Goyal from Woodbury, New York it is only a matter of time. Nikhil is the author of the recently published One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School and has been featured on just about every news and media outlet available. The Washington Post calls him “ most likely to be the future Secretary of Education” and Dell has named him one of the Top 100 World Changers in 2012.

I am thinking that by any standard, this is pretty amazing for a high school senior.

Nikhil and I follow each other on Twitter. He actually contacted me first by email when he realized that I was engaged in book chats with parents. He was wondering if I might be interested in reading his book and discussing it with students.

Nikhil Goyal is still in high school and is already creating his own future. A quick check of his website and you cannot help but be impressed with the multiple resources that he has amassed to share his views on the education being received by the majority of students in America.

When using any 21st Century Skills rubric he has done the following:
  • Thinks critically and analyzes an issue of interest to him and others
  • Explores available research
  •  Identifies experts by using technology to help him communicate and collaborate
  • Uses technology to expand his personal learning network
  • Writes a book
  • Manages to get his book published
  • Markets his book
  • Draws significant attention to his work by maximizing resources available to him

Today he tweeted:

There has never been a better time to be an innovator and dreamer in America

What an exciting perspective amid all the talk of hopeless prospects for the future! Carpe Diem!

Monday, November 26, 2012

What Do Teachers Do on those Early Dismissal Days?

Teaching is perhaps the most complex profession on the planet.  If you don’t think so, then watch this short video of a first year teacher as she struggles to differentiate instruction in her science class

Think about how much time it would take for her to engage in this same work for every lesson that she teaches. Notice the time of day that she arrives at school and the time of night that she continues to work on her lessons… it is a 24/7 job.

The Dobbs Ferry School District is full of teachers who rise to the same challenges and aim for this same high bar for their students. With our inclusive program for all students, Dobbs Ferry, more than most schools, is especially charged with meeting the needs of very diverse learners.

In an effort to support this philosophy and what we value, those early dismissal days play an increasingly important role. Here are some of the things that routinely happen in our School District when students have a half day….

·         Teachers meet in grade level teams to look at student performance data and talk together about instructional changes designed to meet individual student needs.

·         Teachers gather in collaborative groups where they “step up” to share what they have learned with other faculty and administrators about using technology integration in their classrooms.

·         Administrators “turn-key” the use of technologies that they are personally using and work with teachers to explore connections to the classroom.

·         Teachers work within and across grade level teams to engage in curriculum design and work to “map” the curriculum to ensure continuity from Grades K-12.

·         Teachers come together, in response to APPR initiatives, to develop student-learning objectives (SLO’s) and design pre-assessments that set the baseline for student achievement in individual courses.

·         Teachers and administrators engage with professional consultants in the areas of curriculum and instruction to align curriculum to the new Common Core Standards.

Here is what teachers do when they are not involved with “official” professional development time.

·         Spend hours designing engaging lessons that focus instruction on student learning targets.

·         Review and provide feedback on student work.

·         Participate in webinars with other teachers around the nation and the world on topics of interest to their craft.

·         Join social network discussions with other teachers at their same grade level or content area who are conversing about innovative curriculum and instruction.

·         Share Twitter exchanges with over 300 school administrators around the nation to highlight and debate key educational issues of importance to all schools.

·         Engage with students via Twitter and video-conferencing to connect with other students and schools around the country to discuss curriculum-relevant current events.

·         Connect with students to model the creation of personal learning networks so that they can learn how to use technology as a “learning tool” instead of a “social tool.”

Teachers in the United States are often compared to their colleagues in Finland and Japan. In both of those countries however, teachers spend almost half of their time engaged in professional development processes like lesson study and inter-classroom visitations. The “value” of teacher-time is not only measured in the “quantity” of time that they spend working with students, but in the “quality” of their instructional practice in the classroom. This assessment of “quality” is determined by continual professional growth and honing their craft as educators.

Teaching and learning needs to undergo a seismic shift in order to meet the needs of 21st Century students. Teachers need time and exposure to expertise both from within schools and from the larger world around us. Half days, early dismissals and other professional development time and dollars are not simply a luxury. They are critical components to instructional excellence and student success.

Teaching is complex hard work that is nurtured in an environment that encourages and promotes reflection, creative thinking and innovation.

Monday, October 29, 2012

What “Inquiring Minds” Need to Know

There are many discussions happening about 21st Century teaching and learning. Lots of conversations about skills such as collaboration, adaptability, creativity, effective communication and the ability to analyze and synthesize information.

How do we help kids prepare for a world where knowledge is abundant and opportunities for learning are everywhere?

One strategy for bridging this gap is the use of an “Inquiry” or “Active Learning” lesson design. Although not exactly new, the use of inquiry is challenging for teachers, students and parents who are unfamiliar with it. Randall D. Knight at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo has compiled a list of research-based active learning strategies most suitable for teaching physics in his book, Five Easy Lessons: Strategies for Successful Physics Teaching (Addison Wesley, 2004). These strategies for active learning and inquiry can apply to any content area but have been used in science education for years.
Knight points out that active learning strategies have five traits, which are quoted here from his 2004 book:

   Students spend much of class time actively engaged in physics. The engagement consists of thinking, talking, and doing physics, not merely listening to someone else talk about physics.
   Students interact with their peers. Communication between and among individual students and groups is an important component of knowledge construction - developing, sharing, and evaluating ideas and processes.
   Students receive immediate feedback on their work. Students receive corrective feedback from their peers or the teacher as appropriate to the learning situation. Students must have a standard against which to measure their propositional and procedural knowledge.
   The instructor is more of a facilitator, less of a conveyor of knowledge. The saying, "The teacher should be a guide on the side, and not a sage on the stage" is a statement that helps make the point. Students should "construct" knowledge from observations and reflections whenever possible. This includes the development of concepts and laws from first-hand laboratory experiences.
   Students take responsibility for their knowledge. This includes student metacognition (knowing what one knows and doesn't know) and self regulation (bringing oneself into compliance with expectations).

Inquiry is more difficult than it may sound. It is a strategy that challenges many of our traditional ideas about how classrooms should be organized and what teachers should be doing. It feels “loosely constructed” and can be particularly hard for students who are most successful when they have very clear guidelines and feel most effective when given highly organized directions. Inquiry feels sloppy at times and requires a very different kind of thinking.

It is critical that students gain understanding and practice with inquiry-based lessons because they mimic many of the experiences that they will have when they participate in college coursework and the workplace. Employers continue to echo that they need talented young people who are able to find creative solutions to problems without needing a lot of direction. Successful people today are prepared to create their own jobs and not assume that they will one day be working for someone else.

Inquiry is important. We have to model it and help our kids have the “grit” to figure things out.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

How important is “getting it right?”

In a recent presentation at Maker Faire in New York City, internet marketing “guru,” Hastings resident, author and occasional education blogger Seth Godin, one of my favorite paradigm changers says, “If you’re doing something that might not work, then you are doing something important.”

It made me think about 21st Century teaching and learning and reminds me that it is very important to continue to highlight the fact that we do not have all the answers, we expect to not always get it right and we embrace the chance to “learn by doing” and try new things while embracing “failure.”

Isn’t this what we are telling kids about learning? 

In his recent TED book Why School,? Will Richardson, educator, blogger, speaker and colleague who recently presented at our Dobbs Ferry Schools Superintendent’s Conference Day talks about the notion that traditional schools were designed for a society where knowledge was scarce. He writes about an earlier society that needed to attend school in order to acquire knowledge and information.

In contrast, our world today is one of knowledge over-load. Information is everywhere. The challenge becomes one of filtering and collecting data, news, statistics, facts, figures and intelligence in order to “make meaning” and understand a new reality. As educators, this is a seismic shift in our roles and our thinking.

In pondering the opportunities and challenges, I am very heartened to be surrounded by teachers, administrators and a Board of Education in Dobbs Ferry that embraces this new landscape. Since the end of school last year, we have made a collective commitment to working together to understand how technology can help us expand and change the way that we think about teaching and learning. This is not just geared to our students, but for us too.

This week, we will debut our first monthly staff coordinated and driven professional development sessions designed to help us share our knowledge about technology tools with each other. The entire initiative is grounded in the idea that none of us are experts, but we have ALL learned some new-age instructional and technology skills over the last few months and feel comfortable about sharing these with our colleagues. We are ALL working to find ways to connect new ideas with new pathways for student learning.

In Dobbs Ferry, we recognize that traditional economics may be scarce, but in-house we have no shortage of talent, dedication and passion for teaching and learning.  And so ….sometimes we may not always get things right ……but we know for sure that we are doing something important.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

So What About Those Field Tests?

I received an email on Friday from a parent with some important questions about the administration of “field tests” to our students. He was interested in my opinion of the recent parent push back toward these tests as well as parents who are choosing to “opt out” of these tests for their children.
I thought I would share my thoughts and responses to him in light of the growing discourse around the issue since there is lots of chatter and questions in Dobbs Ferry and the surrounding towns over these past few days.

Dear Dobbs Ferry Parent:

The parent push back toward standardized testing is directed in a large part (at this particular time) at the administration of field tests by Pearson Inc. It is also important to note that we have Dobbs Ferry parents who are part of a consortium of parents from all of the Rivertown schools as well as parents from many other districts in Rockland, Westchester and Long Island who have organized to lobby Albany about unfunded mandates in schools as well as standardized testing. All of these district parent groups have posted the same petition on their websites calling for parents to sign the petition related to field tests and increased time and emphasis on standardized tests in general. Their intention is to send these petitions to Albany and make their voices heard as parents and constituents.

Since you have asked for my opinion as the Dobbs Ferry superintendent I am happy to share it with you. I believe that standardized tests in their current form are a waste of valuable instructional time and provide useless information when used in isolation which is how they are used by the New York State Department of Education. The fact that we are required to waste further instructional time on "field tests" which will be used to construct additional meaningless tests is, in my opinion, appalling. I am certainly not against standardized tests. In fact, I am a strong supporter of quality assessment practices designed to allow our students to demonstrate what they know and understand. The issue lies in the fact that the standardized tests currently administered do not do this in any way. The current tests are designed to provide a measurement that is cheap and easily scored by Pearson. Hence, the field tests do certainly provide Pearson with the information they need to produce more shallow assessments with limited usefulness to teachers in their work with curriculum design and addressing student needs.

As for having a positive bearing on our kids, I can't imagine anything positive for our kids about assessment practices in their current form. A much better measurement would include shorter, more frequent formative assessments that are performance based and would provide teachers with ongoing feedback so that they can make continued instructional adjustments based on the needs of individual students. These can certainly be standardized and could be used in an aggregate way to provide the kind of teacher accountability that all of us would like to see.

Boycotting "
field tests" would not have any effect on student classroom grades however we, like most schools, certainly use student performance on standardized tests as one measure when looking to place students in programs. This is always done in conjunction with teacher recommendations and other internal assessment measures. This does not apply to field tests since we do not receive feedback about field test performance by individual student. Feedback about performance on field tests sometimes is only used by the testing company and is never even shared with districts. 

Boycotting standardized tests that are not considered field tests could certainly have negative impact on our schools, our scores and the scores used as part of the new teacher evaluation process. These tests are similarly flawed but ramifications for boycotting them is more complicated for all involved. This would really need to be better researched and I believe that the parent consortium advocacy groups will more than likely explore this.

I think that parents questioning and voicing their concerns is really important at this moment in time. Unfortunately, the New York State Department of Education is not interested in the voices of professional educators and many of the issues associated with this have been created by the educators themselves. Nonetheless, it is critical that we stand up for the education of our children and advocate for classrooms where instruction is dynamic, student centered, innovative and not a "test prep" laboratory designed to "get kids ready for the test."

So ……there you have it. This is what I think and I applaud our Dobbs Ferry parents and all parents who are beginning to organize and make their voices heard in Albany and across our communities. It is time we spent our time and efforts working toward quality assessment practices. It is what is best for our kids, our teachers and our schools.