Category Archives: school reform policies

Is Progressive Schooling Just Around the Corner? (Part 1)

My record in predictions is, at best, half-wrong and half-right. I have no special powers in looking around the corner. My record in figuring out what is cresting, what will take hold and spread and what will disappear is unenviable.

Not an encouraging way to entice readers to continue, I admit. Nonetheless,  let me tell you what signs I see of a possible progressive coalition emerging. This is impressionistic, to be sure, filled with guesses, occasional fumbles, and error. But there might just be something brewing politically across the country that is emerging as a  counter to the three-decade long concentration on top-down federal, state, and foundation-funded curriculum standards, testing, and accountability.

What do I mean by “progressive?’ In the decades between the 1890s and 1940s, “progressive education” in the U.S. was the reigning political ideology of schooling. There were two main ideas, anchored in what was then emerging as a “science of education” that spurred and divided U.S. progressives in those years. First, student-centered instruction and learning (adherents were sometimes called “pedagogical progressives“) and, second, advocates of “scientific management” (sometimes called “administrative progressives” who sought to prepare children and youth to fit into work and society far more efficiently than the traditional schooling of the day. Both wings of the progressive movement cited John Dewey and his embrace of science as their source.

Educators, including many academics, administrators and researchers of the day glommed on to “scientific management.” Proud to be called “educational engineers”  during these years, these progressives created lists of behaviors that principals would use to evaluate teachers, designed protocols to follow to make a school building efficient, and measured anything that was nailed down.

Academics, school boards, and superintendents–then called “administrative progressives” –adopted scientific ways of determining educational efficiency. These reformers were kissing cousins of “pedagogical progressives.” The latter wanted to uproot traditional teaching and learning and plant child-centered learning in schools. They made a small dent in U.S. schools but the efficiency-minded progressives triumphed politically in shaping schools in the early 20th century.

That efficiency-driven progressive crusade for meaningful information to inform policy decisions about district and school efficiency and effectiveness has continued in subsequent decades. The current donor and business-led resurgence of a “cult of efficiency,” the application of scientific management to schooling, appears in the current romance with Big Data, evidence-based instruction, and the onslaught of models that use assumption-loaded algorithms to grade how well schools and individual teachers are doing, and customizing online lessons for students.

Even though the efficiency wing of early 20th century progressives has politically trumped the wing of the movement focused on the whole child and student-centered pedagogy, it is well to keep in mind that cycles of rhetoric–wars of words–and policy action on efficiency-driven and student-centered progressivism have spun back-and-forth for decades regardless of which wing won in which decade. The point is that while most policymakers are efficiency driven and have succeeded in dominating public schooling for decades, that political domination has hardly eliminated educators and parents committed to holistic schooling.

Even now at the current height of efficiency-driven, top-down standards and testing, schools committed to educating the whole child have persisted (see here and here). Also consider those charter schools that label themselves as progressive (see herehere, and here)

And on occasion, both wings of the progressive movement, contemporary “educational engineers” committed to scientific management-cum-accountability and those interested in student-centered instruction, have surprisingly merged. One example is the differentiation of high school curriculum offerings (vocational, academic, commercial) in the 1920s and the frequent efforts to differentiate (or individualize) instruction since the early 20th century (see here  and  differentiated curriculum).  That marriage of efficiency-minded reformers and  student-centered advocates occurred then and occurs now.

I see that convergence of the two historically progressive wings in online instruction touted highly today as “personalized learning” in places like The School of One, Rocketship schools, and K-12 corporate schools.  See, for example, the current glossary of personalized learning.

This convergence of efficiency driven instruction and passion for student-centeredness has had it critics, but does represent one instance of a bottom-up push to combine student productivity and individual instruction. Is it a vanguard of a new cycle of Progressivism? Perhaps.

Part 2 will look at the political interest groups (e.g., left-of-center progressives, tea party advocates, home schooling champions, corporate leaders, teacher unions, parents, and students) that have grown in their opposition to current top-down standardization of curriculum (e.g., Common Core and national testing). I also look at the do-it-yourself or maker movement, boosters of career academies, and long-time pedagogical progressives who have continued their support of student-centered instruction and curriculum. Whether these vastly different groups can form and sustain a political coalition to alter the current standards, testing, and accountability movement, I consider in Part 2.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Cartoons of Kids in School

Yep, here’s another edition of monthly cartoons. The following cartoons of kids in school (and at home) have tickled me and I wanted to share them with readers. Enjoy!

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The Kid I Didn’t Kill (Ellie Herman)

Taken from “About” in Herman’s blog:

My name is Ellie Herman.  If you want to find out what I’m doing here and why, click here on why I’m writing this blog.  I’ve been working on this project since the beginning of September….

As for my bio, I’m a writer and English teacher.  From 2007 to 2013, I taught Drama, Advanced Drama, Creative Writing, English 11 and 9th grade Composition at a charter high school in South Los Angeles.

Before that, I was a writer/producer for many TV shows, including The Riches, Desperate Housewives, Chicago Hope and Newhart.  My fiction has appeared in many literary journals, including The Massachusetts Review, The Missouri Review and the O.Henry Awards Collection.

I attended public schools in Winnetka, Illinois from kindergarten through high school and graduated from Bryn Mawr College with a degree in English.  I have a teaching credential from Cal State Northridge.  My three children attended Oakwood School, a private school in the San Fernando Valley.  My husband, David Levinson, is a writer who runs the non-profit Big Sunday.  Our basset hound, Lou, appears ineducable, having channeled all of his energy into his good looks.  We live in Los Angeles.

Posted on September 26, 2013

 

I once ran over a student in the parking lot.  Gio was standing in front of my car, waving, grinning and doing a little hopping dance in apparent joy at seeing me, which made no sense because only an hour earlier he had brought my entire class to a standstill by taking a half-eaten pear and mashing it into the floor with his shoe.  Obviously, I threw him out of class, though he did not go easily, muttering profanities and slamming the door behind him.  The sight of his beaming, delighted mug in my windshield was like a red flag to a bull.  Enraged, I gunned the engine and squashed him flat.

Okay, I didn’t.  I honked, smiled, waved and drove around him.  But in my imagination, I ran him over.  Gleefully.  Vengefully.  Repeatedly.  On several other occasions, I mentally strangled him, usually during class when he could not stop pestering the girl next to him by drawing all over her notebook or when he shouted out irrelevant, annoying questions or when he announced loudly that he hated most of the people in the class, especially the quiet, nerdy boy who had been kind to Gio all week.

 Gio was that kid.  That kid!  Every year I had three or four of them, students who occupied about 3% of the actual population of any class but consumed about 50% of my energy. That kid!  The one who made my whole body tense up, who could shut down an entire class for minutes at a time with his demands, accusations and outbursts, whose absence, I’m ashamed to say, would cause a wave of relief to wash over not only me but all of the other students in the class when we realized we were actually going to have a Gio-free day.

 Maybe it’s just me, but I suspect every teacher at one time or another has that kid.  Our school always had a short list of students with extreme behavior issues; they were like mini-celebrities, occupying our lunchtime talk, populating our nightmares, inciting our migraines.  In any given year, of my six classes, usually around three of them had at least one kid with extreme behavior issues.  I’m not talking about kids who are chatty or can’t focus.  I’m talking about kids who aggressively, compulsively and continually seek negative attention.  Sometimes you’d have two kids with extreme behavior issues in a class, which really sucked because they’d trigger each other, causing an exponential escalation of problems.  Once, I had three in one class, turning it into a Lord of the Flies situation with clusters of high-achieving girls taking me aside in a weeping, enraged circle and demanding that the three boys with extreme behavior problems be removed permanently from the class.

These kids weren’t always boys, though often they were.  They didn’t always have learning disabilities, though sometimes they did.  Here’s what they always were: smart.  Often, these students were especially bright, which is what made them so good at driving an entire schoolful of people completely batshit crazy.

Did they come from terrible home lives?  It would be simplistic to say so.  Many of our school’s students came from very difficult family situations and the overwhelming majority did not have extreme behavior issues.  But for whatever reason, nature or nurture, in my experience, these particular students seemed to be driven by overwhelming feelings of shame, failure and above all, loneliness, making them lash out in ways that cause them to be rejected further, a vicious cycle re-enacted daily.  In the inspirational movie version of this narrative, the presence of a stable, caring teacher would break the cycle.  Sure, there’d be a few bumps along the way, but by the end of the year, after a lot of weeping heart-to-hearts, a rock-solid behavior plan and some crackerjack lessons in goal-setting and relationship-having, the kid would turn his life around, graduate and go to college.

These turnarounds actually happen.  I saw very difficult kids turn their lives around, and these were among the most rewarding experiences of my life.  There is nothing on this earth more miraculous—I simply have no other word for it—than to watch a human being find the determination, patience, strength and courage to change.

But.  A turnaround like that takes years.  Years and years of imperceptible growth, of the kid being thrown out of class every day, of parent conferences and arguments and lost tempers and forgotten promises.  Often, as a classroom teacher, you’re not there for all of those years.  Sometimes you just see the first year, which feels like complete failure.

And it doesn’t always happen.  It’s a sentimental fantasy that every kid’s life can turn around if enough caring adults just stay in the game, breathing deeply and sticking to their values.  The rougher truth is that yes, those caring adults can make it possible for a child to make a breathtaking life turnaround.

But the fact that such a turnaround is possible does not make it inevitable.  For every Gio who turned his life around, there were other Gios who dropped out and disappeared.  I’ll never know what happened to them.

I’m thinking of Gio today because in Cynthia Castillo’s class, I saw a boy who was that kid,  acting out, talking constantly, making continual demands.  And I braced myself instinctively—a body memory, thinking of Gio and all the others who were that kid.  I thought of Fernie, who was kicked out of every single class he ever took, who once called me a fucking bitch right to my face, whose eyes filled with tears when his mother told him for the first time that she loved him, who walked the stage in cap and gown this past June.  I thought of gum-chewing Tiffany with the big earrings who couldn’t stop swearing, never did pass a class, and left our school.

 I thought of Peter, my most difficult student ever, who alternated between charming conversation and uncontrollable, profanity-laced outbursts of rage, who once shoved a teacher into a wall and who, God help me, was in three of my six classes one year.   By some miracle, Peter managed to graduate.  After graduation, though, he floundered.  I know this because he continued to visit me. As far as I could tell, all he ever did was work out; though he’d been a lanky beanpole as a teenager, as an adult he bulked up and became gigantic.  He never signed up for community college but hung out at home, breaking his hand one day when he punched his fist through a wall after a fight with a family member.

Last year, my father died after a brief illness, and in the weeks after his death, I found myself working late night after night in a vain, numbed-out attempt to catch up with the paperwork I’d missed.  One evening around 5:30, Peter walked into my classroom.

I could hardly bring myself to feign enthusiasm.  He was the last person I wanted to see.  But I knew the bus ride from his house had taken at least half an hour. “What’s up?” I said, managing a faint smile.

“I heard your dad died,” he said.  “I just wanted to give you a hug.”  For a long moment, he enveloped me in an enormous, silent, heartfelt bearhug.  “Okay,” he said.  “That’s it.  You probably wanna be alone.”  And then he left.

I think of the Rumi quote: “out beyond ideas of right doing and wrong doing there is a field.  I’ll meet you there.”

I think of my most difficult students, and how that field might be where I need to meet them.  Maybe learning involves a growth in knowing but also at times an embrace of not-knowing, of accepting, even in the absence of evidence, that a human connection is of infinite, indescribable value.  “Teaching,” Cynthia Castillo told me, “is an act of faith.”  I remember.  I hope to get there.

 

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Poems about Teaching

With this post, I begin a monthly feature about teaching written by teachers, students, and others who bring precise and vivid language in expressing the emotional life of what it is like to be a teacher or student.

Why a poem? Because in writing posts for this blog and for the articles and books I have written over the past half-century, I have used expository writing. I describe, analyze, and try to capture school reform, policy-making, and the practice of teaching using facts, evidence, and explanation. It is aimed at the brain, not emotions.

Yet art, dance, drama, short stories, novels, and poetry–even cartoons–can capture features of teaching and learning, particularly what teachers and students feel when in classrooms in ways that exposition cannot.

I am neither a poet or an aspiring one. I offer these as ones I liked that captured in vivid language what teachers and students feel and do.

 

The Hand

Mary Ruefle, 1996

The teacher asks a question.

You know the answer, you suspect

you are the only one in the classroom

who knows the answer, because the person

in question is yourself, and on that

you are the greatest living authority, but you don’t raise your hand.

You raise the top of your desk and take out an apple.

You look out the window.

You don’t raise your hand and there is

some essential beauty in your fingers,

which aren’t even drumming, but lie flat and peaceful.

The teacher repeats the question.

Outside the window, on an overhanging branch, a robin is ruffling its feathers

and spring is in the air.

Reprinted from Cold Pluto: by permission of Carnegie Mellon University Press © by Mary Ruefle 1996.

 

Why Latin Should Still Be Taught in High School

Christopher Bursk

 

Because one day I grew so bored

with Lucretius, I fell in love

with the one object that seemed to be stationary,

the sleeping kid two rows up,

the appealing squalor of his drooping socks.

While the author of De Rerum Natura was making fun

of those who fear the steep way and lose the truth,

I was studying the unruly hairs on Peter Diamond’s right leg.

Titus Lucretius Caro labored, dactyl by dactyl

to convince our Latin IV class of the atomic

composition of smoke and dew,

and I tried to make sense of a boy’s ankles,

the calves’ intriguing

resiliency, the integrity to the shank,

the solid geometry of my classmate’s body.

Light falling through blinds,

a bee flinging itself into a flower,

a seemingly infinite set of texts

to translate and now this particular configuration of atoms

who was given a name at birth,

Peter Diamond, and sat two rows in front of me,

his long arms, his legs that like Lucretius’s hexameters

seemed to go on forever, all this hurly-burly

of matter that had the goodness to settle

long enough to make a body

so fascinating it got me

through fifty-five minutes

of the nature of things.

From The Improbably Swervings of Atoms by Christopher Bursk © 2006. Reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.

 

 

Poem for Christian, My Student

Gail Mazur

He reminds me of someone I used to know,

but who? Before class,

he comes to my office to shmooze,

a thousand thousand pointless interesting

speculations. Irrepressible boy,

his assignments are rarely completed,

or actually started. This week, instead

of research in the stacks, he’s performing

with a reggae band that didn’t exist last week.

Kids danced to his music

and stripped, he tells me gleefully,

high spirit of the street festival.

He’s the singer, of course—

why ask if he studied an instrument?

On the brink of graduating with

an engineering degree (not, it turned out,

his forte), he switched to English,

his second language. It’s hard to swallow

the bravura of his academic escapes

or tell if the dark eyes laugh with his face.

Once, he brought me a tiny persimmon

he’d picked on campus; once, a poem

about an elderly friend in New Delhi

who left him volumes of Tagore

and memories of avuncular conversation.

My encouragement makes him skittish—

it doesn’t suit his jubilant histrionics

of despair. And I remember myself

shrinking from enthusiasm or praise,

the prospect of effort-drudgery.

Success—a threat. A future, we figure,

of revision—yet what can the future be

but revision and repair? Now, on the brink

again, graduation’s postponed, the brilliant

thesis on Walker Percy unwritten.

“I’ll drive to New Orleans and soak

it up and write my paper in a weekend,”

he announces in the Honors office.

And, “I want to be a bum in daytime

and a reggae star at night!”

What could I give him from my life

or art that matters, how share

the desperate slumber of my early years,

the flashes of inspiration and passion

in a life on hold? If I didn’t fool

myself or anyone, no one could touch

me, or tell me much . . . This gloomy

Houston Monday, he appears at my door,

so sunny I wouldn’t dare to wake him

now, or say it matters if he wakes at all.

“Write a poem about me!” he commands,

and so I do.

Gail Mazur, “Poem for Christian, My Student” from Zeppo’s First Wife: New & Selected Poems (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005). Copyright © 1995 by Gail Mazur. Reprinted with the permission of the author.
Source: The Common (The University of Chicago Press, 1995)

 

Mrs. Kitchen

Ann Staley

 

Teaching is about making 400 close-judgment calls a day. Wise teacher comment

Mrs. Kitchen

…traveled the world with her M.D. husband,

both working for the American Red Cross.

They returned to suburban Harrisburg

and began the next chapter of their lives.

Mrs. Kitchen became a 2nd grade teacher at Progress Elementary School.

Our classrooms had floor-to-ceiling windows,

which opened so you could hear recess voices,

and dark wooden floors polished to a sheen.

We were seated, not in usual rows,

but in a square “u” of desks.

We were allowed to sit with whomever

we wanted, as long as our work was uninterrupted

by giggling (the girls) or hitting (the boys).

Mrs. Kitchen was small in stature, big in heart.

She wore glasses and had curly brown hair.

She loved all of her students, but had,

I realized even then, a soft spot for me.

I didn’t understand why and still don’t.

Every afternoon, in the hour before school ended,

she read aloud to us–from books

on the New York Times Bestseller list.

 Kon Tiki is one I remember most vividly.

Winifred Kitchen taught “up” to us,

believing that eight-year-olds could understand more

than the 1950s psychology books expected.

This was her great gift to her fortunate students.

We studied Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal men,

then made shadow boxes depicting their lives.

One day when I’d finished my work early,

she sent me to the library, alone, saying,

 Get whatever book you want, Ann.

That day I chose a book titled The Pigtailed Pioneer,

about a girl whose covered wagon arrives in Portland, Oregon,

where she meets her first Indian in an encampment south of town.

I had braids, then, which my mother plaited each morning,

tying on plaid or satin ribbons that she ironed.

Girls still wore dresses to school in those days,

no pants were allowed until we got to Junior High School.

Jeans–never!

One afternoon I asked Mrs. K if I could go to the office

without being sent there. I wanted to meet the principal,

a woman, but wanted to go there on good terms.

She arranged an interview with this imposing woman.

After we finished speaking, the Principal told me to

sit behind her desk, answer the phone if it rang.

She was going out for her usual late afternoon of listening

to the classrooms with open doors. I was thrilled.

My 2nd grade year convinced me that I wanted to be a teacher.

I set up summer school for my dolls in the basement

and began, in earnest, my professional life.

 

In Instructions for the Wishing Light, with Permission from author

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Asking the Right Questions for Getting School-Driven Policies into Classroom Practice

Every single federal, state, and district policy decision aimed at improving student academic performance has a set of taken-for-granted assumptions that link the adopted policy to classroom lessons.

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From widespread adoption of Common Core standards, to the feds funding “Race to the Top” to get states to adopt charters and pay-for-performance schemes to a local school board and superintendent deciding to give tablets to each teacher and student, these policies contain crucial assumptions–not facts–about outcomes that supposedly will occur once those new policies enter classrooms.

And one of those key assumptions is that new policies aimed at the classroom will get teachers to change how they teach for the better. Or else why go through the elaborate process of shaping, adopting, and funding a policy? Unfortunately, serious questions are seldom asked about these assumptions before or after super-hyped policies were adopted, money allocated, expectations raised, and materials (or machines) entered classrooms.

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Consider a few simple questions that, too often, go unasked of policies heralded as  cure-alls for the ills of low-performing U.S. schools and urban dropout factories:

1. Did policies aimed at improving student achievement (e.g., Common Core standards. turning around failing schools, pay-for performance plans, and expanded parental choice of schools) get fully implemented?

2. When implemented fully, did they change the content and practice of teaching?

3. Did changed classroom practices account for what students learned?

4. Did what students learn meet the goals set by policy makers?

These straightforward questions about reform-driven policies inspect the chain of policy-to-practice assumptions that federal, state, and local decision-makers take for granted when adopting their pet policies. These questions distinguish policy talk (e.g. “charter schools outstrip regular schools,” “online instruction will disrupt bricks-and-mortar schools”) from policy action (e.g., actual adoption of policies aimed at changing teaching and learning) to classroom practice (e.g. how do teachers actually teach everyday as a result of new policies),and student learning (e.g., what have students actually learned from teachers who teach differently as a result of adopted policies).

Let’s apply these simple (but not simple-minded) questions to a current favorite policy of local, state, and federal policymakers: buy and deploy tablets for every teacher and student in the schools.

1. Did policies aimed at improving student achievement get fully implemented?

For schools in Auburn (ME) to Chicago to Los Angeles Unified School District, the answer is “yes’ and “no.” The “yes” refers to the actual deployment of devices to children and teachers but, as anyone who has spent a day in a school observing classrooms, access to machines does not mean daily or even weekly use. In Auburn (ME), iPads for kindergartners were fully implemented. Not so in either Chicago or LAUSD.

2. When implemented fully, did they change the content and practice of teaching?

For Auburn (Me), LAUSD, and all districts in-between those east and west coast locations, the answer is (and has been so for decades): we do not know. Informed guesses abound but hard evidence taken from actual classrooms is scarce. Classroom research of actual teaching practices before and after a policy aimed at teachers and students is adopted and implemented remains one of the least researched areas. To what degree have teachers altered how they teach daily as a result of new devices and software remains unanswered in most districts.

3. Did changed classroom practices account for what students learned?

The short answer is no one knows. Consider distributing tablets to teachers and students. Sure, there are success stories that pro-technology advocates beat the drums for and, sure, there are disasters, ones that anti-tech educators love to recount in gruesome detail. But beyond feel-good and feel-bad stories yawns an enormous gap in classroom evidence of “changed classroom practice,” “what students learned,” and why.

What makes knowing whether teachers using devices and software actually changed their lessons or that test score gains can be attributed to the tablets is the fact that where such results occur, those schools have engaged in long-term efforts to improve, say, literacy and math (see here and here). Well before tablets, laptops, and desktops were deployed, serious curricular and instructional reforms with heavy teacher involvement had occurred.

4. Did what students learn meet the goals set by policy makers?

Determining what students learned, of course, is easier said than done. With the three-decade long concentration on standardized tests, “learning” has been squished into students answering selected multiple choice questions with occasional writing of short essays. And when test scores rise, exactly what caused the rise causes great debate over which factor accounts for the gains (e.g., teachers, curricula, high-tech devices and software, family background–add your favorite factor here). Here, again, policymaker assumptions about what exactly improves teaching and what gets students to learn more, faster, and better come into play.

Public Education Today

Take-away for readers: Ask the right (and hard) questions about unspoken assumptions built into a policy aimed at changing how teachers teach and how students learn.

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Technology Use in Special Education Classrooms (Gail Robinson)

Journalist  Gail Robinson wrote this piece for the Hechinger Report on June 5, 2014

  Eleven-year-old Matthew Votto sits at an iPad, his teacher at his elbow. She holds up a small laminated picture of a $20 bill.

“What money is this?” she asks. Matthew looks at the iPad, touches a square marked “Money Identification” and then presses $20. “20,” the tablet intones, while the teacher, Edwina Rogers, puts another sticker on a pad, bringing Matthew closer to a reward.

They race through more questions. “What day of the week is it?” “What is the weather outside?” “What money is this?” In most cases, Matthew, who has autism, answers verbally, but he is quicker and seems more comfortable on the device.

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A few classrooms away at Eden II, a Staten Island, N.Y., nonprofit that provides programs for people with autism, the going is slower but the approach is the same. Anthony Scandaglia, a teenager who does not really speak, tries to identify simple activities on the iPad. “What do you use to drink?” the teacher asks. He presses a picture of a cup.

“Where do you wash dishes?” asks the teacher, Colleen Kenny. Anthony selects the picture of bed. “No, we wash dishes in a sink,” she says.

Anthony and Matthew are among a growing number of children on the autism spectrum who use electronic devices — in their cases iPads equipped with a software program called Proloquo – for learning. Just a few years ago, they would have used bulky communication devices costing $6,000 to $10,000, if they used any technology at all. Or, they would have communicated by picking out pictures and sticking them to a board. “We spent a lot of time laminating and Velcroing,” recalls Melissa Cantwell, who teaches autistic children in Vancouver, Wash.

Special education students have long used so-called assistive technologies, like audio books for the visually impaired or special transmitters for hearing-impaired students. So today’s trend toward blended learning – the combining of technological devices with more traditional instruction – may seem less jarring to these students than to their general education peers.

“We have so many different programs that will help a child,” says Valeska Gioia, an assistive technology specialist at the South Carolina Department of Education, who focuses on struggling students and students with moderate to profound disabilities of many kinds, including autism. “We give them the tools and they rise to the challenge much of the time.”

Many teachers, parents and administrators say that laptops, tablets and the various apps help engage and motivate special ed students, while also making it easier for teachers to individualize instruction and track progress. Others caution that, as with so much in the world of educational technology, definitive research about results is scant.

“There is little research on how students with disabilities are doing with on-line and blended learning,” says Tracy Gray, managing researcher for education at the American Institutes for Research, a nonprofit that conducts behavioral and social science research. “For whom does this work, under what circumstances and with what support? We can’t answer that for general education, let alone special education.”

But some specialists believe that children with certain kinds of disabilities, such as those on the autism spectrum, respond especially well to technology programs because the programs behave in consistent, predictable ways. And unlike earlier technologies for students with special needs, the tablets and laptops are portable and indistinguishable from devices used by other students.

As developers continue to design a huge array of products – from free apps, such as Bookshare, to expensive robots – hopes are running high. Some programs help students with attention deficit disorders get organized; others track students’ individual education plans, or provide lists of words to prompt struggling writers.

At P. S. 176 in Brooklyn, N.Y., a dozen third graders sit in a classroom. A large interactive white board displays a snake skin, a turtle shell and a honeycomb, all examples of repeating patterns known as tessellation and all housed at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, N.J.

A friendly male voice from the screen directs the children to draw a triangle with sides of 6 inches. For some, it is laborious, but he urges them on. “Hopefully I’m not running into lunch period,” the voice says. “I’ll give you two more minutes.”

The lecture is coming to the children live from the science center. Meanwhile, as in a chat room, the teachers at P. S. 176 type in their observations about how the lesson is going, allowing the Liberty instructor to adapt to the students’ pace and mood.

All students at P. S. 176, where more than 10 percent have special needs, participate in the partnership with Liberty, but third grade special education teacher Christina Panichi feels it has particular value for her students. “It’s like going on a trip with hands-on materials,” she says. “The only down side is they can’t touch it.”

Panichi also thinks having the material online helps. “It’s more like a game for them,” she says. “For some reason when technology is involved — especially cartoons — it engages them more.”

In Middletown, N.Y., a virtual number machine on her tablet is absorbing the attention of a little girl in a fourth grade special education classroom at Presidential Park Elementary.

As soft music plays in the background, she selects a number to insert into the “machine” on the screen of her Samsung Chromebook. The screen machine belches out a different number at the other end. After a few rounds, it asks the pupil what the math machine is doing to the number she inserted. In this case it’s adding seven.

This is Jessica Indelicato’s class, one that is the very model of a blended classroom. Several other students are bent over computers, all equipped with various education programs and Google docs, doing different tasks that vary with their progress and abilities. Meanwhile, Indelicato discusses decimals with five students, and a third group sits on the rug combining blocks to create numbers with decimals. In a few minutes, all students will rotate to the next station.

Indelicato sees the technology as key to engaging her students, in math and in reading. “It’s amazing. It targets whatever special skills they need help with,” she s. “They’re motivated. They enjoy it.” Their work on the computers, she says, “gives them reinforcement and confidence” that they carry into discussions about math.

Indelicato, Panichi and other teachers observe that many students simply find a lesson more attractive when technology is involved. Many programs features cartoon figures, instant responses, bright colors, music and encouraging voices.  Those things draw students in.

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Nowhere has the interest in technology been greater than for students on the autism spectrum. Debra Jennings’s son, Brady Bartsch, 9, who has Asperger’s, exhibited learning difficulties in kindergarten, and it seemed clear he was not going to learn to read by sitting down with conventional books. He began working on a Galaxy tablet equipped with Raz-Kids, an interactive program that incorporates a reward system. His mother says he’s made enormous gains. Brady, now in second grade at a Staten Island public school, “almost goes out of his way to be the star,” she says. “He’s shifted from being in the back of the room to wanting to be an example.”

Andy Shih, the vice president for scientific affairs at Autism Speaks, a research and advocacy organization, has seen similar examples.

“A lot of families are telling us how technology, particularly apps and iPads, are contributing to a quality of life for their kids they couldn’t begin to imagine,” he says. This is particularly true for those who cannot speak, which, Shih says, “doesn’t mean that they’re incapable of communication with others or that they don’t have a rich inner life.”

Shih says technology may help autistic students because it is simpler to “read” than people. “What technology does is simplify interaction,” he says. “Interaction with an app is always going to be the same. The expectation is always going to be consistent. Interaction with individuals is far more complex.”

As with general education students, technology is more successful for some children with special needs than for others. Even among autistic students, where it seems to hold the greatest promise, technology is not always successful. Some have no interest in their electronic devices, while for others, they become a kind of obsession.

Providing tablets and laptops to students with disabilities raises many of the same concerns that giving them to general education students does. Cost is clearly one.

Ms. Gioia, the South Carolina technology specialist, is always on the lookout for free tools and says most districts in her state have stayed away from Macs because of their higher cost. Some schools rely on fund-raising to cover some of the costs. While not denying that the devices can be pricy, Karen Cator, director of Digital Promise, a nonprofit focused on innovation in education, advises schools to look at whether they can be offset by some savings; maybe a student with a tablet is less likely to need a full-time, one-on-one aide.

Some experts think one of the greatest pitfalls of technology is that people will expect it to do too much, that they will see what’s new and glittery — what Andrew Hess, the assistive technology specialist for the Mamaroneck, N.Y., schools, calls the “mynah bird syndrome” — and ignore its limitations.

Aaron Lanou, director of professional development at the ASD Nest Support Project at NYU’s Steinhardt school, proposes two questions about technology: “Is this tool going to make something easier and more engaging, or is it just novel?” he says. “And, we need to ask teachers to think about the amount of time kids are actively engaging and using the tool versus the time it takes to learn the tool.”

Gray, of the A.I.R., emphasizes that no technology, no matter how dazzling, can do it alone. “There’s no magic here, whether you’re talking about kids with disabilities or general education classes,” she says. “You need teachers who understand technology, the support to do it well, and professional development.”

 

 

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Kindergarten and Technology (Sharon Davison)

This post comes from kindergarten teacher Sharon Davison. It was posted on June 17, 2014. I have taken  her self-description from “About” on her blog.

My name is Sharon Davison and I have the pleasure of being a Kindergarten teacher in Vermont. I have been teaching for 25 + years.  During my teaching career I have worked with 1st through 4th grade.  I am now embarking on a new journey… Kindergarten!

Kindergarten is like a breath of fresh air everyday.  Young children are curious and great observers.  They naturally look for patterns, similarities and make connections spontaneously. Kindergarten life was designed and created by me with these ideas in mind.  I love the daily energy and excitement that children bring each day.  This genuine interest and love for learning is what I enjoy the most.  Through a young child’s natural ability to seek out understanding I try to capture this idea to help promote the love of learning.

I use a variety of technologies that help to engage, enhance and inspire children to want to pursue their ideas.  I have found that once you are inspired to learn, you learn how to learn through your ideas about what you understand.  Blogging, wikis, voicethreads, podcasting, ePals and SKYPE are just a few of the technologies that I use to promote the love of learning in Kindergarten.

I value collaboration and innovation.  The world is changing so fast and the tools that are available to support, enhance and engage from a teaching view are endless.

 

As I am finishing up last minute things in my classroom today I was thinking about all the different ways my students have been mentors this past year with each other, helping model how to tweet and blog with other classrooms as well as sharing their expertise with adults.

Last spring a teacher approached me and wanted to observe how I use technology with my students and was also interested in how I use the SMARTboard as well. I asked one of my students to provide additional support and more 1:1 time after our meeting.  As I watched and listened to the conversation I was really impressed with not only how comfortable my student was with the SMART technology, but the problem solving that took place during this 1:1 support time with a teacher.  I loved seeing the teacher take notes as she asked questions about not only the operation of the board, but what happens when things go wrong and do not work.  Watching my student navigate through how to solve problems as they arise was really wonderful.

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I am not only proud of all my students, but this experience reminded me of the importance of  self direction, problem solving and critical thinking.  All of these ideas were happening at once and being facilitated by one of my kindergarten students.  As a teacher of young children I have a unique opportunity to model explicitly how synchronous and asynchronous tools can be integrated in a seamless way in regards to learning.  Once my students understood how this tool works, how we use it, then they are able to create and design their ideas as well and make contributions.  Through our contributions and being able to teach and share what we know with others we get inspired, experience positive self esteem and make connections.  This student was empowered because she was able to make a contribution, help another teacher and engage in conversations that challenged her thinking and helped her reflect on what she has learned.  For this amazing teacher, my friend, I think about what great professional development this was for her!

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MOOCs and Online Instruction: Cartoons

Recently, I posted an update on MOOCs after three years in the hype cycle. Afterwards, I scoured the web for cartoons on MOOCs and its kissing cousin, online learning (aka elearning, distance education). Here are some that might make you smile, giggle, or even prompt a chuckle. If not, maybe you can point me to one that does get you to laugh. Until then, enjoy!

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The Gift That Never Stops Giving–Teaching*

I wrote this post four years ago. With graduation ceremonies in K-12 and college occurring now and in the next few weeks, and so much in the news about the quality of teaching and how to capture it, I thought I would run the post again.

 

A dear friend and I exchanged emails recently and she mentioned that she had heard from a student she had in 1960. She had taught in the New York area for a number of years before returning to graduate school but recalled with much warmth how fine a group of sixth graders she had that particular year. The then 11 year-old, now a grandma, had stayed in touch with my friend over the years. She had become a teacher and had just retired and was now writing about the adult lives of classmates.

I began thinking of the often unspoken psychic rewards that accrue (in business terms, I would call it: the return on investment) to experienced teachers who have had many groups of students pass through their classroom over the years and how some of those students (such as Steven Strogatz) make a point of visiting, writing, and staying in touch with their former teachers. Fortunately, that has happened to me when a few former students at Glenville High School in Cleveland and from Cardozo High School in Washington, D.C. have stayed in touch. Ditto from some former Stanford graduates. When letters or pop- in visits occur, I get such a rush of memories of the particular student and the class and the mixed emotions that accompany the memories. Teaching is, indeed, the gift that never stops giving.

Those former students who stay in touch over the years, I have found, attribute far too much to my teaching and semester- or year-long relationship with them. Often I am stunned by their recollections of what I said and did. In most cases, I cannot remember the incidents that remain so fresh in their memories. Nor had I tried to predict which of the few thousand high school students I have taught would have reached out to contact me, I would have been wrong 75 percent of the time. My flawed memories and pitiful predictive power, however, cannot diminish the strong satisfaction I feel from seeing and hearing classroom tales from former students.

However policymakers and researchers define success in teaching or produce pay-for-performance plans the hard-to-measure influence of teachers upon students turns up time and again in those graduates who reach out to their former teachers. Those graduates seek out their former teachers because of how they were pushed and prodded, how intellectual doors were opened, how a ready ear and kind words made possible a crucial next step for that young man or woman. Student test scores fail to capture the bonds that grow between experienced teachers and children and youth who look for adults to admire, adults who live full, honest, and engaged lives. Am I waxing romantic about the currently unmeasurable results of teaching and the critical importance of retaining experienced teachers? No, I am not. I have a point to make.

My friend’s story of her former 11 year-old student still staying in touch because the relationship forged in 1960 between a group of sixth graders and a young teacher has resonated in a handful of graduates’ lives for many years. Something beautiful and long-lasting occurred when those bonds were forged in that Long Island elementary school, something that eludes current reformers eager for getting new teachers into classrooms and not worrying too much if they leave after two years since a new crop of fresh newcomers will replace them.

Turnstile teachers cannot forge those lasting bonds with students. Staying at least five-plus years give teachers the experience and competence to connect with classes and individual students. For those students lucky to have experienced teachers who had their older brothers and sisters, whose classrooms they want to eat their lunches in, whose reputations for being tough, demanding, caring, and a dozen other admirable traits draw children like magnets to their classrooms, the impressions and memories of these teachers will serve as guideposts for the rest of their lives. These are the teachers, district, state, and federal policymakers need to retain through mindful policies that encourage, not discourage teachers–policies that spur teacher growth in what and how they teach, foster collaboration among teachers, and motivate teachers to stay at least five-plus years in classrooms.

Were such thoughtful policies to be adopted, the chances of alumni students returning to tell their teachers how much they appreciated their help would increase and not become just a fleeting memory of some former teachers like me and my friend.

*I thank Selma Wassermann for converting the commercial one-liner for a credit card company into an ad for teaching

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Philanthropic Advocacy for School Reforms

I … challenge the wisdom of giving public sanction and approval to the spending of a huge fortune ….My object here is to state as clearly and as briefly as possible why the huge philanthropic trusts, known as foundations, appear to be a menace to the welfare of society.

Frank Walsh, Chairman of the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations, 1915

 

Yes, a century ago, Walsh pilloried the richest man in the world who had established a foundation in his name, John D.Rockefeller, in advancing his corporate interests–then in oil, coal, and scores of other enterprises. His namesake foundation was a “moulder of public thought.”

A century later, critics are making similar charges that donors to school reform (see here and here) shape the policy agenda of districts, states, and the federal government when it comes to improving the nation’s schools.

If you think I am suggesting that donors and criticism of their charity comes around again and again, you are on the money (see here and here). The cyclical nature of philanthropic grant-making by both progressive-leaning and conservative-leaning foundations to advance different versions of urban reform–do any readers remember the Ford Foundation in the late-1960s funding decentralization in school reform and the harsh criticism the Foundation encountered including federal legislation in 1969?– is evident to me. As William Faulkner said: The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.

How come?

There is a theory that when new organizations are born, they imprint the organizational goals, norms, and rules that last for decades as they mature and thrive even when the environment changes on them. Just like when naturalist Konrad Lorenz showed how new-born goslings saw him first and attached to him–following him everywhere for as long as they lived.

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Those years in the early 20th century, then, of wealthy businessmen forming foundations to give away their fortunes to help others and getting criticized for pursuing their corporate interests of the day is where the Walsh committee’s censure of John D. Rockefeller enter the picture. Imprinted on these foundations was that wealthy donors will do what they seek to do even if goes against the public interest. Since then, legislators and critics have lambasted donors during difficult economic times, social disruption, and political divisions for not being true to their stated goals. And the first decade of the 21st century is one of those times.

Why now?

The largest donors today (Gates, Walton, Dell, Broad, Fisher, etc.) began as entrepreneurs who created wealth and have decided to focus on causes dear to them including school reform. They have shifted their attention and dollars away from individual grants scattered among state and local districts to push their version of school reform (e.g., charter schools, alternative pools of educators such as Teach for America, teacher evaluation, Common Core State Standards) by making joint grants to the same entities (e.g., charter management organizations, big districts led by superintendents and school boards partial to their agenda) and national policy advocacy, that is, creating new organizations and funding existing ones such as “think tanks” that will influence legislators, educational policymakers, and the general public (e.g., New America Foundation, Brookings Institution, American Enterprise Institute) to do the right thing.

Researchers Sarah Reckhow and Jeffrey Snyder have documented the extent of what they call “convergent” funding of particular organizations between 2000 and 2010 that advance national policy agendas big donors want. In 2000, for example, 23 percent of donor money went to organizations that received funds from two or more major foundations. A decade later, 64 percent of donor money was given to organizations that received grant dollars from two or more foundations. One startling fact of “convergence” is that 13 of the 15 largest K-12 foundations gave grants to Teach for America. They concluded:

By targeting resources to a more focused set of organizations and allowing those organizations to grow stronger and more influential, foundations have likely increased their influence on education policy   (p. 193).

Recent articles on “A Walmart Fortune, Spreading Charter Schools” and “How Bill Gates Pulled Off the Swift Common Core Revolution” add heft to the above increased … influence on education policy.

Surely current foundations are politically engaged now at a national level far beyond earlier foundations were in advocating for a particular policy agenda. In doing so, this “convergence” of money and policy advocacy have unintentionally strengthened efforts to centralize national authority in advancing a particular agenda for school reform.  The previous voices of unions, parent groups, professional associations, university-based researchers, and civil rights organizations have become mere echoes of what influence they once had.

Frank Walsh, where are you?

 

 

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