Wednesday, May 8, 2013

TED Talks Education: A Program of Mixed Messages--Post-Viewing Response

Post Viewing Thoughts (previewing comments here)

Over on Twitter, an individual viewing the PBS program "TED Talks Ed" commented that the talks sound "like bumper stickers." Indeed, there was a rapid, sound-bite quality to the show, one much in contrast to many of the ideas worth talking about in some of the talks. In a short sixty-minutes, the program highlighted twelve presentations, and this doesn't account for the commentary and introductions from host John Legend.

The good news about "TED Talks Ed" is that many of the presentations challenged the NCLB paradigm both students and teachers have endured these past twelve years.

Veteran teacher Rita Pierson spoke about the need to accept students where they are in their learning and help them advance. This philosophy is not conducive to the system in which we currently operate, as my states marathon standardized testing illustrates. The Idaho State Achievement Tests pin labels on students: Below Basic; Basic; Proficient; and Advanced.

In Pierson's teaching world, putting a smiley face on an F paper is one way to make students feel a teacher's love. I prefer not putting any grade on papers I return, but I rarely give tests and generally allow students to use notes when I do.

Chemistry teacher Randy Musallum took a chance in challenging "flipping" as an old dog newly clothed and borrowed from the world of English teachers in his use of metaphor and alliteration as he challenged teachers to be "cultivators of curiosity and imagination", just like his toddler is naturally curious.

Although inclusion of these gifted teachers warms my heart, their presence in the lineup makes them seem somewhat anomalous in the world of teaching. Viewers are led to believe that they're the exception and not the rule, that they are somehow unique, even as others toss verbage such as "there are many excellent teachers out there" into the wind. My sense is that most miss the abstract idea and cling to the concrete analogous examples.

The best part of the program came at the end when Sir Ken Robinson spoke. As Sir Ken notes, "There's wonderful work happening despite the dominant culture rather than because of it. Alternative Education works. If we all did that, there'd be no need for the alternative."

Indeed, under NCLB, we have spent too much time testing the alternative: A one-size fits all standardized approach to teaching and testing. Identifying three principles of human nature, Sir Ken reminded the audience that " Education under NCLB is based on conformity. One effect of NCLB has been to narrow the curriculum." The standardization movement fails to acknowledge the "naturally different and diverse" character of each student. "The dominate culture is to focus on testing. Standardized testing should be diagnostic. It should support learning" rather than replace it with test prep.

I particularly liked Sir Ken's Death Valley metaphor to illustrate how changing the learning climate will change the educational landscape. With it he described a deluge in Death Valley that resulted in a desert carpeted with color the following spring. "Human life is inherently creative. We create our own lives by imagining. Instead we have a culture of standardization. The real role of leadership in education should not be command and control but climate control."

In my own district, I see more and more standardization with teachers being directed to teach units designed by others, regardless of whether or not those units are pedagogically sound. All of this is in preparation of CCSS implementation, which none of the speakers mentioned. We can have no paradigm shift unless we at least verbally acknowledge the continued standardization of curriculum and testing. At least under NCLB, I wasn't told to teach curriculum designed by someone else.

The bad news about "TED Talks Ed" is its reliance on charter and private schools as the model for public education. The program featured Geoffrey Canada, founder of The Harlem Children's Zone, which spends roughly $16,000.00 per student each year, a statistic mentioned in a 2010 New York Times article. With that kind of money and private trips to exotic locals like the Galapagos Islands, HCZ should be producing prodigies. In 2010 the HCZ had an operating budget of 84 million dollars. In 2004 the governing board expelled all one class for under performing, something that my district and most others would never consider doing. Additionally, the HCZ has fired teachers because of low test scores among students. The HCZ has a "It Takes a Village" approach to educating poor students from cradle to graduation, and that takes lots of money.

In his "TED Talks Ed" segment, Canada challenged the status quo to loosen its grip on "a business plan that doesn't work and doesn't make sense" and compared today's schools to those from 56 years ago. "Nothing has changed. It's the same one size fits all approach." Citing a 1975 study showing that kids lose academic ground during the summer, Canada criticized our failure to do nothing in the face of this reality. "America cannot wait another 50 years...We are walking along an educational cliff. The real safety of our nation is preparing the next generation to be world leaders."

Pearl Arredondo, who describes having built a new school after returning to the middle school she attended, challenged teachers to share their personal stories with students. The daughter of a gang leader whose mother shipped her an hour and a half away from home each day to attend school in a better neighborhood, Arredondo's personal narrative both inspires and challenges students in similar situations to rise above their circumstances just as she has.

I get where Arredondo is coming from, but as I have aged and as I have continued to share my personal story with students, I realize that many students struggle to harmonize a teacher's personal narrative with their current reality. It's true, as Arredondo says, that students need teachers who will say, "You can move beyond that."

Unfortunately, many students simply don't hear this message most teachers deliver. I have spoken to students often about my own life living in a two-room shack with no bathroom, about my father's blindness and my role as his primary caregiver prior to his death, and about my half-brother's conviction of second-degree murder when he was just seventeen. Generally, I speak about the latter privately to a few students whose lives have veered off course and who find themselves in difficult legal quandaries. Getting them back on course takes more that a story.

To her credit, Arredondo realizes this, I think, and that's why she helped create the San Fernando Institute for Applied Media. She spoke about needing "freedom to create curriculum" but remaining attached to her district for funding. Well, that's what all teachers, students, and schools need. We need such academic freedom and funding. Yet unlike her charter school, most don't have that option.

Interestingly, Angela Lee Duckworth, who left management consultant, which she described as "less challenging than teaching," left teaching to study why some kids, often the most intellectual, fail while others succeed. Duckworth seemingly takes a page from Susan Cain's book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking when she identifies "grit" as the character trait most prevalent among successful students. Call it tenacity, perseverance, determination, or whatever, but teachers have long known that those who persevere will prevail, regardless of intellect. I am a living, breathing example of such tenacity.

According to Duckworth, "What we need in education is a better understanding of students and learning from a motivational perspective." Well, no, that's not what we need. We already know that those who set long-term goals, who stick to their passions, and who "live life as a marathon and not a sprint" succeed. We already know that "grittier kids are more likely to graduate" and that "grit matters in school." True, we don't know how to build grit," but I suspect it has something to do with the first five years of life, genetics, and a culture that emphasizes entertainment and sports as well as immediate gratification rather than a long-term view of life.

Those who want to know more about motivation need only read Danial Pink's exceptional book Drive: The Truth about What Motivates Us. Duckworth admits: "I don't know" how to build grit, but she still expects teachers to do it: "We need to be grittier about making kids gritty." I can't help but think about her inability to grit it out for the long haul and wander how long she lasted as a math teacher. In answer to her question, "Which teachers are still going to be here by the end of the school year?" I can think of a response as I near the end of my thirty-second year teaching.

The worst part of "TED Talks Ed" was listening to Bill Gates pontificate as he delivered his MET (Measures of Effective Teaching) sales pitch, a proposal with a five billion dollar price tag. Gates wants to spend lots of cash equipping classrooms with video equipment so that teachers can be taped and evaluated. It's hard to argue with Gates' claim that "We all need people who will give us feedback. That's how we improve." I agree, and wrote about this in my pre-viewing commentary. 

However, there is no need to donate five billion dollars to Bill Gates' collection plate if one has a smart phone or a camera. Recording one's teaching is pretty easy and something I have done a number of times.

Gates wants American schools to be like those in Shanghai, China. He says so and offers charts to support his claim. I bet those students sitting in neat rows don't offer many critical comments on the Chinese system of government. Gates advocates "weekly study groups for teachers," which Shanghai teachers have. I propose an alternative: Support National Board Certification; pay teachers with subject-area MAs more. In our world of social networking, teachers meet both formally and informally in "study groups" via #engchat, #edchat, #titletalk, etc. I imagine this isn't happening in the tightly controlled internet of China.

Teachers don't need Coach Bill Gates. We have and are continuing to innovate our PD. Gates is far behind the curve when it comes to advancing PD, and we don't have to spend five billion dollars to develop PD. Many of us do this voluntarily already. I'd rather see that money used to support student learning, upgrade buildings, support arts education and libraries, and pay teachers a wage comparable to the one Microsoft employees earn. When I'm in the market for coaching, I won't seek advice from Bill Gates.

If you didn't see the program, check it out on the PBS website. I'm intentionally omitting commentary about the student profiles, which I found enlightening, and Chicago poet Malcolm London's fabulous spoken-word poem about schools as training grounds. I hope that lands on TED's website. John Legend did a superb job hosting, as well.

While the program entertained viewers, many topics were treated as taboo, including Race to the Top, CCSS, the poverty gap, and school funding. Failure to include these as part of the discussion is inexcusable. It's not enough to look back at the failed polices of George Bush, we must look at the present administration policies and put Arne Duncan in his proper place alongside George Bush.

To do otherwise simply makes our talk the fodder of sound-bites and bumper stickers. We need more that 140 characters and a hash-tag to engage in meaningful dialogue about education. One can only hope PBS and TED have started a larger conversation.


Watch TED Talks Education on PBS. See more from TED Talks Education.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

TED Talks Education: Operating On a False Premise

On May 7, 2013 TED partnered with PBS to air an hour-long program about education: "TED Talks Education." Since my local PBS station air time is 10:00 p.m., I'm dividing my thoughts into pre and post viewing sections.

Pre-Viewing Thoughts

When Bill Gates talks about "giving teachers what they deserve," I experience "a tighter breathing / and zero at the bone," similar to the effect that narrow fellow in the grass had on Emily Dickinson.

"Give teachers what they deserve" is the idea Gates espouses in his recent collaboration with TED. The only problem is that what Gates claims teachers need doesn't jive with my own professional thoughts on the subject. On first glance, Gates' contention that teachers need feedback, similar to that given to athletes seems pretty innocuous. However, a close look at Gates' phrasing reveals a more sinister intent:

It's amazing to think about how much coaching is given to, say, professional athletes...But most teachers get almost no feedback at all.

It's true that teachers get little meaningful feedback. We get far too much feedback about our profession from characters like Bill Gates. Gates' comparison of teachers to athletes suggests teachers aren't experts. The underlying premise on which Gates operates is that teachers need feedback from people like him--pseudo, self-appointed experts rather than from professional educators and master teachers.

Gates gets to talk about eduction, and TED has given Gates a bully pulpit for one reason: Gates is extremely rich, and as one of the most wealthy individuals on earth, Gates has bought his way into the discussion about education policy. His money has allowed him to dictate education policy with little regard for those with real expertise and those we serve--students.

Gates talks about the need for innovation and technology in giving teachers what they need. We already have an innovative program that offers teachers a challenging way to hone their skills: The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. NBPTS requires teachers to submit portfolios of their lessons and student work samples, as well as videos of their teaching practice. Yet NBPTS certification receives no support in my state. It's a rigorous, standards-based program, one Gates should support with his billions if he truly wants to "give teachers what they deserve." Gates calls giving teachers feedback "the most powerful idea in education today."

In my postion as an adjunct faculty member for Idaho State University teaching Communication 1101 in the Early College Program, I receive exceptional feedback from my supervisor, Professor Nancy Legge. Nancy has subject-area expertise that far exceeds mine and having her input into my pedagogical practice has been invaluable. When Nancy visits my classroom and listens to my students' speeches and to my presentation of lessons, I'm confident that she will offer thoughtful ways for me to improve my practice.

Additionally, the kind of feedback I receive from Nancy offers me ways to think about my teaching of both English and fundamentals of communication, our required speech course. Unlike Bill Gates who has no credibility as an educator, Nancy's is unparalleled.

Every state has a university system filled with expert faculty, all of whom would be excellent resources for offering secondary teachers meaningful feedback. Given time to observe one another, teachers are extraordinary sources of feedback. And we work cheap.

In addition to Gates' special brand of faux expertise, TED chose the celebrity expert John Legend to host "TED Talks Education." Gates gives Legend a glowing endorsement:

John cares a lot about improving education and is investing a lot of his own time on the issue. I first met him when we were both involved with the documentary Waiting for Superman, and I could tell right away he was an impressive and well-informed guy...

I'm glad Legend cares about education. Really. But his involvement with the misleading and often false Waiting for Superman undermines his credibility among professional educators. Rick Ayers composed an excellent analysis of the documentary in which he responds to its disingenuous rhetoric and fear mongering in The Washington Post.

Moreover, the idea that celebrity and wealth gives one special expert status is simply a wrong-headed notion. Being rich and talented and having sat in a desk does not make one an expert in education.

In Gates blog about the upcoming program, there is no mention of the myriad challenges facing schools, including poverty, funding, etc. That's because the premise on which Gates operates is this: Teachers are the problem. Teachers need fixed. And Bill Gates is the source of a solution. That doesn't make me feel too appreciated this Teacher Appreciation Week.

More thoughts to come after the show. Stay tuned.





Monday, May 6, 2013

Windup and Pitch: A Change Up for Book Talks


With baseball season in full swing and my attention focused on the boys of summer, a metaphor begins forming in my mind. Yes, baseball fans are all familiar with the plethora of routines pitchers employ prior to hurling that white and red orb toward home plate. 


Teachers have a variety of ways to generate interest in books among our students. Daniel Pink describes six PITCHES we can use and have our students compose in To Sell is Human (2012), a book I reviewed a few weeks ago.

I have adapted each of the six pitches Pink describes for selling ideas to "pitching" books. First, I created a document describing each type of pitch with the examples Pink offers.

Next, I wrote examples of the six book pitches for Cory Doctorow's YA dystopian novel Little Brother and presented them to my speech classes, where I piloted the assignment before using it in English.

The Pitches:

1. One word:  Freedom

2. Question:What would you do if you were accused of being an enemy combatant or a terrorist?

3. Rhyming: Whether terrorist or combatant, teens so labeled are no longer by the Constitution enabled.

4. Subject Line: 12-year-old labeled terrorist turns tables on government agency.

5. Twitter: Little Brother: Teen hacker Marcus is accused of terrorism when bomb explodes Bay Bridge &    jailed at Gitmo by Bay w/out legal rights #titletalk #engchat

6. Pixar: Once upon a time, Marcus, a seventeen-year-old high school student, regularly hacked into his school’s security system so that he could override it and, thereby, manage to slip out of school undetected by the administration during the day. Every day, Marcus manipulated the school’s computer system and incurred the wrath of the assistant principal who was determined to “bring him down.” One day Marcus and some friends hacked the system and traveled to downtown San Francisco for an event, but the Bay Bridge exploded just as they entered the subway, causing them to reverse course and head back up to the street against the flow of bodies. Because of that, the authorities working with Homeland Security determined that Marcus and his friends bombed the bridge and arrested them as enemy-combatants. Because of that, Marcus was tortured and detained without legal representations on Gitmo by the Bay. Until finally he and his accusers came to a final reckoning, which I shall not reveal to avoid spoiling the novel for future readers.

In the Pixar Pitch, I have bolded certain phrasing to emphasize the formula inherent in the pitch. Students raised concern about how to pitch a book using the Pixar Pitch with out spoiling the ending. This is why I wrote the ending so that I didn't give it away. This is important since students "pitched" their books in class. 

Avoiding spoilers is less important if teachers meet with students one-on-one or use the pitch as a summary activity. I think it would be a great way to have students respond to a variety of texts, including:

1. A chapter in a text
2. A nonfiction essay
3. A class discussion
4. A video presentation
5. A short story
6. Etc.

Of course, the real test of a lesson is how it works with students. 

Porter pitched Blink by Malcolm Gladwell:

Question: Is our sub-conscious as influential as we think? "There can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis," (Gladwell).

Rhyming: Are you thinking about blinking?

Subject Line: Blink: The Power of thinking without thinking.

Cameron pitched The Fault in Our Stars by John Green:

One-word: Cancer

Twitter: Your life could end any day now, so do you live life while you can or give up on life altogether? 

Pixar: Once upoon a time, there was a boy and a girl who both had cancer. Every day, they didn't know if they were going to be alive the next day. One day they met each other. Because of that they became lovers. Because of that they decided to go on a trip together. Until finally, that trip turns their lives around more than they can even imagine. 

Kasey pitched Bull Rider by Suzanne Morgan

One-word: Dedication

Rhyming: Who knew sacrifice could be so nice.

Pixar: Once upon a time, the O'Mara family got a shocking phone call. Their oldest son Ben had been blown up by an IED in Afghanistan. Every day, the family would travel to see him. One day, his little brother Cam would learn how to ride bulls to make his hospitalized brother proud. Because of that, it brought more stress and arguments to the family. Because of that, Ben did nothing with his life. Cam was sick of watching his brother sit around in a wheel-chair and give no effort to life. Until finally, Cam bet Ben that he would move a qualified ride on a bull that had never been ridden, only if Ben would do something with his life. ---Read Story! 

For longer descriptions of each pitch type and its uses, pick up a copy of To Sell is Human.

Dizzy Dean's wife once offered an observation about her famous husband and ad men: "You know what some of these advertising guys are trying to do? They're trying to get Diz to speak English." The world of selling offers teachers myriad ways to encourage students to speak about books. 

Play ball, pitch books!