Sunday, March 3, 2013

Is Someone Not Being Held Accountable?

It's been quite a while since I contributed to my blog, but due to the climate of American society for the past couple of years, I have certainly had lots of thoughts and ideas to put into words.  As a result, I now have a long list of topics and thoughts that should provide fodder.  Family obligations and other goals have hindered more frequent updating, but procrastination may also be a factor.

I base the topic solely on my observations over 30 years of working in the field of education, teaching and collaborating directly with students and teachers.  Social networks are abuzz with opinions about what is wrong with education and the latest programs and gimmicks to make the changes needed.  

For, after all, society's woes can be contributed to poor teaching and dumbed down curriculum that does not  prepare our students to be productive in a future society.  At least, that's the impression I get these days from what I hear and read.  Is it true?  I don't think so.  Let's take a look at what I have observed and what I believe to be the major influences on producing citizens who will contribute positively to society.

When I began my career in education, it was the late 1970's.  Students came from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, had a variety of personal experiences that contributed to various degrees of background knowledge, and they sometimes had learning disabilities or special needs to be addressed.  Wait!  That describes the student of today!  

OK, let's look at teachers.  In general, they are prepared, trained in understanding the curriculum and standards, as well as technology tools.  Yet, today's teachers are the most criticized, overwhelmed, under appreciated, and suffer from the lowest morale that I have seen in 30 years.  How can this be explained?

Who is accountable for this low performance in students that we read about?  Why do universities and employers complain of unprepared prospective students and employees?  Teachers, administrators, and school boards, are all held accountable.  Students are also held accountable, as much as can be.

Taking all of the above into account, I believe from my observations over the past 30 years that behaviors and attitude is what is different.  Those are difficult to measure, other than through survey devices.  However, the results of having poor attitudes and behaviors result in things that are measurable, such a grades, tests, projects, and other evaluated and tangible statistics such as rising prison populations. 

There does seem to be something missing from many students these days.  It's called pride.  The kind of pride that makes someone want to do their best because it gives you a good feeling when you do.  Without pride in daily work, it's difficult to care about challenging yourself to do better, or caring about successful school work.  Students often do well at sports or music and take pride in athletic or musical abilities, and it can transfer over to school work.  But, many times, it doesn't. Many students do not participate in extracurricular activities. Teachers can mentor students and try to instill pride in them, but should it be up to them to do this? 

So, again, who is missing from this picture?  "Parent."  No, not "parent" as a noun.  "Parent" as a verb.   I am speaking in general terms here.  There are fortunate children who have wonderful parents who set limits, provide structure, assign chores, instill ethics, and make sure students act responsibly.  There are too many factors to go into here, but many of these changes are due to changes in society.  For instance, more students do not go home until late in the day now, or there are more distractions that are more fun than doing homework.  But, there have always been, and always will be, distractions and excuses.  And now, we have a generation growing up under the guidance of those who had little guidance themselves.  I have heard teachers say that they have had parents tell them not to contact them because when their kids are at school, they belong to the teacher and they should deal with them.  They don't want to be bothered.  It's hard enough to parent, but if you didn't have someone model parenting for you, then you need to learn those tools.

Now, those parents I described above are exasperated parents that need some help.  Whether they want it or not.  Because they also should be held accountable.  Parents should provide experiences in the home that prepare students for being successful in the classroom.  Schools have no control over this and only have students for a few hours a day.  What is to be done about this?  Ah, that is the question!  Here are some thoughts, though some need funding and I am not providing many thoughts for that.

1.  Provide parenting classes for parents of students who are under performing or exhibiting behavior problems.  Begin at an early age.  Provide transportation to attend these classes.  During these classes, parents should set a goal and provide a follow up at the next class.  Share success stories in these groups. Have parents sit in small groups to discuss the problems.  Chance are they will be helpful to each other.   Give these parents a reason to be proud.  

2.  Parents on public assistance who do not attend a predetermined percentage of these classes should have a reduction in the amount of assistance they receive.  Employers should be notified when employees do not attend, as well.  Pay should be reduced and that can help fund the transportation to the classes.  If we do not do this, parents will continue to not show up at conferences, will still refuse to take phone calls, and many do go to great lengths to avoid school communication.  I know this sounds severe, but even pet owners with barking dogs disturbing neighbors are held accountable.  Shouldn't we, as parents, be held accountable?  Children will have a more lasting affect on society than dogs.

3.  These classes should provide specific suggestions on how to make a child successful.  Included should be an emphasis on work ethics, personal ethics, goal setting, responsibilities, and reflection.  Provide a chore for the child to do and praise them for doing a good job and then teach them to reflect on why it was good or what could be done differently.  For instance, if the chore is to wash dishes, were they clean?  If not, then what was wrong?  Was the water cold?  Was there soapy water?  Why do they feel greasy?  Did the chore take too long?  How can this be changed for the next dish washing to make it successful?  Reflection is an important life long skill.

4.  Parents should know the importance of expectations and goal setting.  Help your child set a goal, like doing homework or reading a book.  Be realistic but let them know your expectations.  Let them experience success and they will know the feeling of pride in a job well done.  

5.  This is always a touchy one, but provide a variety of positive ways that parents can discipline children.  Children must understand that there are consequences for undesirable actions and parents must follow through.  Life isn't "fair" and children need to learn this too.

I remember.  Parenting is the hardest job I ever had.  Sometimes I just didn't feel like being a parent, especially after a difficult day at work.  But the greatest gift I gave my children was being a parent who was consistent in expectations and discipline.  They are good citizens and contribute positively to society.

If students came to school ready to learn, took pride in their work, knew what was expected of them, set goals for themselves, and exercised personal and work ethic, then their teachers could concentrate on teaching and then our students would be more productive adults.  

Let's all do our part in keeping our country strong and our society healthy.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Hot Topic: Teachers and Salaries

It's been difficult to decide what topic to address next.  After reading a lot of news editorials, it seems the most talked about in education concerns Merit Pay.  I have a few comments about that.

Common sense tells us that if it's increased test scores that is the goal, then those teachers who bring about the highest test scores should be paid more.  There are a number of variables regarding merit pay that must be taken into consideration.  Here are a few:

      1. Teachers have students one year, without any control over prior knowledge when they come into their  classrooms.  And they have one year to turn them around if they are far behind!
      2.  Teachers who prove to increase test scores are often "rewarded" by being given the most academically needy students.  "Needy" students require more strategies, individual assistance, and are most often the ones who require the most discipline.  These students require much more time. Some reward.
      3. Teachers wear many hats.  Teachers who are especially good are asked to share their knowledge and strategies with faculty, districts, and at conferences.  They are placed on committees that, many times, meet until late hours.  There is no monetary compensation.  There is no such thing as "comp time." AND, many times, educators pay their own way to attend conferences, including conference registration, hotel rooms, meals, and gas. (Or plane ticket.)  Another "reward" for wanting to learn new teaching strategies and improve the quality of instruction.
      4.  Education is an environment that fosters collaboration, collegial discussion, and sharing.  Imagine yourself as an educator who has honed your skills to the point that your students show much growth during the course of a year.  Are you going to share those skills?  Probably not if you are receiving Merit Pay , because you are now competing with your fellow teachers.
      5. Merit pay promotes cheating.  It's already happening to keep schools from "failing." and      Think about the expensive resources that will be needed to make sure this doesn't happen!
      6. What would Merit Pay using test score data mean?  Is it based on a percentage of your students meeting the proficient level or above, or is it the based on gains students show?   And, if it's based on the former, how will this affect teachers who have students already meeting proficient or above?

    As a recently retired educator, I received more money by obtaining my Master's degree and then National Board Certification.  My work was important to me and I was passionate about it.  I feel blessed to have worked in a field I loved.  However, I need to be honest and admit that it was physically and emotionally draining to work the long hours and have so many obligations that many of my colleagues did not have.

     Therefore, to avoid early burnout and low morale, I propose that changes be made to the current system of teacher pay.  However, I hope the powers that be keep the above mentioned points in mind.  Remember, schools are not industries and have no control over their raw materials.  Is basing salary on test scores alone fair?  And what about all of the support personnel who contribute to students' success but do not teach an area that is tested, such as elective area teachers?  And what do we do about those who provide instructional support, as well as direct instruction, such as media specialists?

     Perhaps the next topic should be centered around what goals and qualities we want for our graduating students.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Has Public Education Got It Wrong?

With so many school  reform headlines on the forefront, it would seem that our public schools are failing.  And, according to these headlines, they are.  Low test scores and low graduation rates are at the top of the list for reasons why changes are needed.  One of the main concerns is a lack of individuality, or customization for students. Really?

Indulge me for a moment for a look into the past.  A typical classroom 40 years ago had rows of desks.  All students practiced the same lessons.  The teacher would usually speak for a few minutes, explaining new material at the board, and then students read a chapter and answered questions at the end of the chapter.  For spelling, we wrote each word 10 times - the idea that after writing it so much, it was ingrained in our memories.  And it worked for the typical 72 hour recall to take the spelling test on Fridays. We regurgitated what we were told or read.  We did not use math manipulatives.  There was no hands on anything until high school.  We worked as individuals, never allowed to speak to another student in class, and there were no resources for those who learned differently.  Despite these drawbacks and old fashioned strategies, my classmates and I, for the most part,  managed to become successful adults.

As in other professions, such as medicine, that have adapted to changes and improvements, and thanks to technology, schools no longer look like the classroom of 40 years ago.  Today's strategies include students working together, and individually.  Students have hands on learning, virtual field trips, information accessed by the click of a keyboard, and access to their instructors almost 24-7.   Students who learn differently, speak a primary language other than English, or have emotional and psychological problems are provided assistance as needed.  Students no longer regurgitate facts, but solve real life problems.  Years ago, students wrote reports on topics.  When I was in the 4th grade, I remember writing a report about Saturn.  I read some facts in the encyclopedia and probably copied those facts and wrote them into one long paragraph.  Now, rather than learning facts about the Revolutionary War, students may research questions such as, "What were the effects of the American Revolutionary War on our economy?" or  "How is the culture of Ancient Greece relevant to our society today?" Actual investigation and thinking is required to answer these questions.

Teachers are more prepared than ever before. They are certified in their grade levels, content areas, and are better trained in techniques and strategies. They work in teams. Teachers have access to tests that provide individual student scores based on performance levels in each content skill area, and can use those scores to customize individual students' needs and address those needs through grouping or individual conferencing and instruction. .....Wait.  What ?  That's right.  Customized learning in today's public schools.  And, in addition, many districts utilize computer based instruction that teachers can use to coincide with these individuals' needs, as well. 

So, what is the argument that accuses education of "cookie cutter" instruction, not customizing for individual needs?  My guess is that it's the hype about all of the standardized required testing.  No Child Left Behind has caused widespread panic among school districts that has trickled down to the classroom teacher, who is pressured to forego the meaningful student experiences as outlined above that take longer than can be allowed if all of the test items are covered by test time.  Educators are struggling to maintain presenting meaningful and engaging instruction while addressing all of the required standards.

It's obvious that parents are looking for answers.  Just look at the new alternatives to traditional public schools that are popping up: charter schools, virtual school,  home schooling, and
private school vouchers.  And, it's only natural.  This is the age of individuality and customization.  "Hold the pickles..." led to basically a society in which we can choose what we want, when we want, according to our desires.  Everything is customizable and accessible, almost instantly. And we like to be in control.

We are also a society that is in love with new-ness.  We are bombarded by new electronics, new styles, and new ideas.  We have grown accustomed to wanting the latest and greatest.  I believe this has trickled into our minds that newer is better.  Thus, the thought that "old" public education is outdated has emerged.

But, is public education broken?  If we have better resources, teachers trained in best practices, and tests that provide individual scores and needs that we didn't have 40 years ago, then what is the problem?  Let's look at what else is different.  Forty years ago, most students did their homework, completed classroom assignments, and behaved in class.  And, I must say, even though lessons were boring, I behaved properly, did my homework, and completed my assignments.  Why?  Because my parents had expectations that I would do these things, and I was very much aware of these expectations.  Parents did not make excuses as to why homework wasn't done.  And it was MY homework, not my parents'  Bless the parents who still have those expectations.  When students develop poor habits and use excuses in school, what kind of work ethic are they developing to help them be successful in their workplaces as adults? 

Sure, not all schools are good.  Not all teachers are good.  Not all doctors are good either.  But, in my 30 years in education, I've never encountered better, more knowledgeable, caring, and prepared educators than I have my these last few years.  And don't misunderstand my thoughts.  Alternatives provide competition that fosters improvement.   Let's work together to bring about awareness and each do our best in the roles we play in education, as professionals, parents, students, school board members, and community members.  Our students are our future.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Getting Out of the Box with School Libraries

Welcome to my first post since retiring as a Library Media Specialist.  Or Teacher-Librarian.  Or Information Consultant.  Throughout my 28 years in education, I've worn the label of all of the above while serving as a school librarian for 25 of those years.  The label doesn't really matter.  The passion, commitment, and those we serve, do.

The topics chosen for this blog are a reflection of my thoughts.  My posts will reflect my observations from the the standpoints of being a parent, community member, educator, classroom teacher, and, of course, the school library media specialist.  I invite comments.  The ability to post comments is the best part of a blog, since they provide feedback on which we can further reflect and grow.

Let's begin with a question.  What does a school library media specialist do?  I'm willing to bet that most people will give an answer similar to, "checks books in and out," "shelves books," "reads to students," and "hold book clubs."

How sad.

The professional school librarian in this state is required to hold a Master's Degree in a field such as information science or educational media.  Here is another thought.  School librarians have standards to teach, just like teachers, preferably through collaboration with classroom teachers during research.  Our state also has standards for cyber literacy, naturally connected to our national standards. In addition, the school librarian prepares and oversees a budget, selects and manages materials (both print and nonprint), serves on school wide and district committees, oversees adult or student assistants, may (and should) serve as the school's instructional technologist (helps teachers implement technology into lessons), and is frequently assigned other technical duties. School librarians do basically what a school administrator does, on a smaller scale, except they also teach.  Many also sponsor programs that offer students experiences for growth in reading, special interests, and computers, and also are responsible for the morning live (or recorded) closed circuit news broadcast.

Now, here is another question. What field has shown possibly the most growth in the past decade?  The answer is the field of information!  You knew that though, didn't you?  So, where am I going with this?  Hang on, I'm almost there.

Let's take a quick look at some concerns we have about schools and our young people in general. 1) poor test scores 2) students' lack of knowledge about how to access, acquire, and use good information 3) poor reading skills 4) and how students practice risky behaviors in cyberspace.

Now, what do these concerns all have in common?  They are all areas that the school's librarian has the power to foster improvement.  So, in many cases, this isn't happening.  Why?  Because when it's time to lower costs in a poor economy, we cut an already minimal library staff.

Because this is what has always been done.

FACT:  Students know how to entertain themselves with technology by downloading, uploading, texting, viewing, and listening.  But, ask most teachers, and they will tell you that they do not know how to access and utilize information, or what sources to use to gather information.  They do not know what is legal and not legal.  They do not understand that a posted photograph cannot be deleted, even though they remove it from a site.  It's in cyberspace forever.  In other words, they do not possess the life skills necessary in the world we have today.

The school librarian can "fix" this problem.

School librarians have free online tools such as TRAILS to assess student knowledge, and obtain individual scores before working with classes.  They still teach how to use a dictionary or encyclopedia, only now, it takes longer, because we teach how to use both printed and electronic ones.  21st century librarians reach their communities through Facebook, Twitter, blogs, wikis, podcasts, online photo sites, and it takes time to update those.  21st century school librarians collaborate with classroom teachers, bringing together an expert in content, and an expert on information, to provide the best quality experience for the students embarking on research projects  School librarians still pull requested materials from the shelves for student and faculty use, but also utilize Web 2.0 tools to create helpful links for online resources.

This sounds wonderful.  So why are school librarians on all levels often frustrated?  Because instead of  conducting the types of professional activities listed above, they must circulate and shelve materials, process new materials, repair worn labels or book spines, keep the batteries charged for the  myriad of electronics, check in and stamp magazines, because they have no paraprofessional to assist them in the daily activities.

School librarians do the same tasks as 30 years ago, plus the added tasks involving technology, information literacy lessons and research projects, keeping up with the latest and greatest online tools, and share them with students and teachers.  In other words, the work load has increased about three fold, but there is still one person doing the work.  My work week went from about 45 hours (including work at home), to about 60+ hours per week.  If I see this correctly, that is not enough added time to conduct 3 times the workload.  And 30 years ago I had a paraprofessional.

School librarians are the only educators whose standards include the lifelong skills of locating, accessing and utilizing valid and appropriate information, and working together as students to create new information.  Our standards also  promote lifelong growth through reading through individual interest and selection.  

Cutting library staff, or having a minimum level of professional staff is not only hurting our student communities but is no longer acceptable in the 21st century.

In closing, I challenge a school district to go "outside of the box" by piloting a program where there are MORE than the minimum number of professional and paraprofessional staff in a school library, by conducting a 3 year research study to demonstrate an increase in test scores,  teachers empowered with technology knowledge and digital tools to use with instruction, and information literate students, with lifelong skills to help them be successful for life.

Investing in qualified, creative, and  knowledgeable school librarians is a sound investment in our future.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Comics as Tutorials

One frustration I've had is how to get middle school students to understand that the Web 2.0  tools used to create a web presence for the library's patrons are actually useful to them.  As my customers, I feel obligated to introduce the library's various tools and have them use them during research and creating.  My hope is that they will utilize these outside of the school and adopt some of these tools for their own use.  Through observation, stats, and conversations with students, I have come to the conclusion that many students just don't want to read a lot of text (neither do I), so I explored some ways over the last year to create some excitement using comics, animation, and Glogster

Now, that being said, my creations are rather basic, but I have thoroughly enjoyed every moment exploring various tools and creating these.  First, let me give credit to Gwyneth Jones, the Daring Librarian, who graciously shares her very professional creations and how to create them, working under a Creative Commons.  Check out her blog post with tutorials. 

And here are some of my own.  Using Comic Life software I experimented with a page on the library's wiki page linking to the Delicious site.   The beauty of this is that I threw this together in only 10-15 min. after downloading the software.  It's so easy.  The avatars are some that I already had, so if time is an issue, this will not hinder you.  We all know that Delicious is not very attractive and has lots of text, so students were not enamored with it last year.  But, I have caught students reading the comic explaining how to use Delicious, so the traffic is increasing.  The home page of the wiki was done using Glogster.  It took a while, but only because I had too much fun looking at the widgets and deciding what to use.  And guess what, students are using the wiki!

At book fair time I decided to get their attention on the morning news show by using a couple of other tools that were easy and fun.  Here is one using GoAnimate.  An even easier animation tool is Domo.  The videos definitely got their attention.

If I can do it, so can you.  If you try something, please consider sharing how you are using it and what successes you are having.  Good luck!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Cyber Smarts

Media specialists in my district are implementing cyber literacy programs at their schools. This involves sharing a wiki of resources with faculties, planning lessons, and devising ways to teach the lessons to all students.  Each year at least 4 lessons will be taught, one for each of the four South Carolina Internet Safety Standards K-12.

For our first lesson, I chose the topic of cyber bullying from standard 3, dealing with ethics.  This lesson produced lively discussions and many positive comments from teachers concerning students' engagement and reactions. 

I was intrigued by a recent blog post from Billings Beta on the topic "The Hurt Square."  So, I borrowed the idea and created a bulletin board so students could react to a scenario.  The scenario is that a friend posted a photograph of you with him at the age of six, running through a sprinkler wearing cowboy hats, and nothing else.  Is this intentional or unintentional hurting, and to what degree is this embarrassing or hurtful to you?  Here are the results in the photograph below.

Most students thought it would be hurtful to see this photo posted, though most also thought it was unintentional.  Only a few thought it was totally intentional.  And, even fewer thought it it would be not hurtful or embarrassing at all.  To my surprise and delight, students are asking for the next scenario!   When middle school students voluntarily participate in something, it makes you feel somewhat successful.  My plan is to use a different color dot for each scenario until it runs it course.  I will post another photo of the end results.

"The Hurt Square." Beta Billing/Notes from the Tech Lab