Instructional Technology: Approach with (Healthy) Caution

In his insightful speech to a 1998 world on the cusp of the explosion of the Tech Age, American philosopher Neil Postman presented his five basic ideas on the concept of technological change. Even though his talk is now nearly 20 years old, his ideas (warnings, really) still ring true for us who lead the charge of integrating technology into all areas of the curriculum...

{Click over to the American Associations of School Librarians Knowledge Quest blog to read the original post}


The times, they are achangin'

So many things have evolved in my 15 years of being an educator in Alabama. When I started my first position in this field, which was serving as a 5th grade reading teacher, corporate email for teachers wasn't even a thing, y'all. I mean, seriously. That alone makes me feel like a fossil. 

And, of course, there is much that hasn't changed at all. In many ways teachers are still disrespected, ignored, and undermined in all the ways that matter when it comes to legislative issues that impact our profession. Our elected representatives talk about us, over us, around us, and under us, but they rarely talk to us. This is ineffective and inefficient at best when it comes to effecting real and positive change for our teachers, students, and communities. 

There was a thing that happened this weekend that gave me hope. A very diverse group of impassioned, extraordinary teachers came together to discuss issues impacting education in Alabama. We discussed everything from Alabama's College and Career Ready Standards to measures impacting teacher quality to National Board Teacher Certification. It was a robust discussion, and my only regret was that we had to cut it off after an hour. This was teachers talking shop, and it was so refreshing to hear the different viewpoints on these issues. 

What made this different from any other teacher roundtable discussion was that, for the first time to my knowledge, a prominent person pursuing an elected office asked for a seat at our table. (*See my friend Julie's blog post explaining just why it is OUR table!)

The times, they are achangin' friends, and in all the ways that will be the wind in our sails to make a tangible difference for our teachers and students in this state. 

Disruption and Leadership

I've been thinking about these words a lot the past few days, and about how so much of authentic, progressive leadership is disruption. Disruption of the way things are, disruption as an impetus to progress, and even how the nature of disruption itself can be used to force things to go topsy turvy solely for the sake of improvement. 

My school district was rocked and shocked this weekend when we lost a successful and disruptive leader in a terrible car accident. Dean Taylor was the newest and youngest member of our Board of Education and beloved across our vast school district. Though he had only a few years of experience serving on the Board, he certainly made good use of them. He was active in all (literally ALL, impossible though that sounds) schools across the district, and everywhere he went he looked for ways - both large and small - to be helpful.

He was out to our school for lunch just a few days ago, which apparently he did frequently for many schools, and gave the cafeteria manager $20 to put in the account of any kid that was overdrawn and struggling. A teacher friend at another school told me that her custodian said he made a point to speak to her on a recent visit and thank her for the great work she was doing to keep the school so clean. He asked her name, and she couldn't believe that someone so important would ask her name. When visiting another friend's school, the first thing he asked her was what she needed for her classroom. He really, truly wanted to know and understand, and if he could fix the problems (though not always possible), he truly would work to do so. 

I think we all looked to him as a sort of hero. If he couldn't fix it, he would at least listen and validate a teacher's concerns. That goes a long way with a group of people who tend to feel anything but heard or validated these days.

Like others, I followed his journey on Twitter and often wondered how he managed to do it all. How did he visit so many schools and have real conversations with people? How did he keep up with what everybody asked of him? How did he become a person of influence so quickly? How did he sustain the level of passion and dedication and energy he poured out into our enormous pool of educators and students?

Dean Taylor was disruptive in his consistent advocacy for boots on the ground, for those educators on the front lines of teaching and learning in our district. He fought passionately against a mass of lay-offs proposed at one point in time and, though not single-handedly of course, was credited with saving the jobs of hundreds of employees. He was a proponent of teachers having the freedom to use social media to network with one another, model appropriate use for students, and to tell the stories from our classrooms and libraries. He was a vocal advocate of libraries and librarians, and not only did he "get" the role of school librarians in modern schools, he had really fantastic and visionary ideas about how to implement those in the future!  

I met Dean through Twitter. In his mid-thirties, he was young and very hip to the social media scene, and one of his first strategies after being elected to the Board for reaching out to the learning community was to go through the district's hashtag and find active educators to help him understand how teaching and learning really work in our district. That's how we met. He followed me on Twitter (I didn't understand this at first; he was a Board Member. He was the Board PRESIDENT...and me? I was and am a complete nobody!), paid attention to/retweeting my posts, and within a month he was making the first of many visits out to my school, that particular time to observe what we were doing for the Hour of Code computer science event. I remember that he was so impressed by the work of our students, with the involvement of two parents in particular who were painting one huge wall of the library for us, and he in turn impressed all of us by asking real questions about what we do and what we need in order to do more for our kids.

Dean was disruptive in that he had the courage to ask questions, and to ask them of the people who never ever get asked: teachers.

It was a foreign concept for a nobody like me to be asked the big picture questions, but Dean Taylor taught us all that with him, there was no such thing as a nobody. Any time I would thank him for coming by an event or encouraging a group of teachers (he often popped in to professional development sessions), he would quickly wave it off and respond with "Oh no, thank YOU. You guys are the rockstars. I just get to hang out."

I remember talking to him that first day about our personal kids and all we hope to see them do, about how scary and wonderful it is to be parents, and our common goal in pouring our life into this school district because we wanted our children (personal and otherwise) to have every opportunity to receive a great education experience. From my perspective, every single decision he made and battle he fought over the next few years was fueled by that same mission. 

Dean visited my school and several others' many times, and he was even scheduled to return tomorrow to speak to a group of kiddos who struggle with behavior issues and share his story. He shared recently with me and a few other teachers at our Career Day last week (at which he was one of the volunteer speakers) that he actually was that same type of kid when he was in school, and he was eager for the chance to tell them that if HE could make something of his life, then so could they.

I couldn't resist pointing out that if he didn't have such a rebellious, disruptive streak as a child, he might not be exactly the type of leader our district needed. And I'm grateful he reminded me that there are other kids just like him who have disruptive types of futures in store for them as well,  and that if HE could make a difference by helping whoever and wherever he could, then so can they.

Though I'm sure he would be the first to tell us all that A) We're being ridiculous for grieving over him and B) He was far from perfect, the loss of Dean Taylor has and will affect many of our people because he gave so much and made such a difference in such a small amount of time. As one friend's husband put it, "It sounds like this man really wanted to leave a mark on this world and from what you're telling me, I think he did."

He sure did. There's just no better way to put it.

I will certainly miss his disruptive leadership, friendship, and kinship in a mission to serve people well, but I'll never ever forget him. 

We have to stop pretending. #makeschoolbetter

I was tagged by Amanda Dykes in the #makeschooldifferent feed on Twitter. Amanda, tagged by someone else, lists five things that we are doing wrong in the education system as a whole. In the spirit of carrying the wave, here are my five:

make school different

When it comes to education, we have to stop pretending:

-that school libraries don’t matter.

Across the nation, libraries are understaffed and underfunded. Print resources and digital resources are absolutely vital to providing students and teachers with what they need to teach and learn well, as are learning commons-style space utilization. As the one place in the school reaching every student, every teacher, every parent, school libraries should not just be adequately funded...they should be a priority.

-that good teaching equates following all the rules.

Generally speaking, this industry rewards those who stay in the safe boxes, please all the people, and follow all the pacing guides to the letter. Making a shift to recognizing and valuing true innovation (not using iPads for Accelerated Reader tests and calling that innovative) would empower teachers, bring life to classrooms, and make school a whole lot more fun.

-that poverty isn’t the single greatest barrier to success, any way you measure that.

All over the US, teachers are held personally responsible (through high stakes testing) for student achievement, without any consideration of the fact that many of those students bring with them into the classroom a culture of poverty. They are hungry, they have seen and experienced violence, they are in foster care, they are sick, they are neglected...yet teachers are faulted and sometimes punished when those kids don’t score in the upper quartiles of the latest and greatest standardized assessment. When those kids can’t think or build or interact well with others, simply because their minds are trapped in another world.

-that education isn’t very big business.

When a company packages and sells textbooks and test practice materials/software, and then they also package and sell the test (for we are talking MEGABUCKS), that is an issue. When companies court districts and promise the moon if you’ll pick their equipment, their textbook, their instructional materials, the kids are cheated. When we are distracted by all the shiny new techie toys without truly evaluating them with the eye of an educator, the kids are ripped off. Go to any educational conference and check out the vendor hall to see just how big a business that the world of education is.

-that the current model of standardized assessment and “continuous improvement” is actually working.

In reality, it’s counter-productive, trapping administrators and teachers and students into “plans” they don’t value or find exciting...checking boxes that don’t matter to, well, anyone...except for the next level of box-checkers. Thanks to the testing movement, fueled by No Child Left Behind, only reading and math are taught in most elementary schools. Social studies and science are an afterthought, until kids reach middle school and their teachers shake their heads in bewilderment that kids today just don’t know how to think.

How can we teach them how to think, when we aren’t doing very much of that ourselves?

We have to stop pretending.

2015 Junior United Nations Assembly

Everybody says middle schoolers are...a handful. And hey, I’ll be the first to tell you about how destructive and volatile they can be even with everyday simple machines.

But in my book, they are the most exciting, delightful little diamonds-in-the-rough on God’s green earth and the Junior United Nations Assembly of Alabama is just the place to see them shine.

January 29-30 I had the privilege of seeing their hard work and effort come to fruition. Held at Birmingham-Southern College, this year JUNA featured 49 nations, represented by approximately 250 6th-8th graders from schools all over Alabama.

19 of those sweet angel babies are mine, and my, oh, my, did they shine. Our three teams standing up for Australia, Liberia, and Morocco were especially noteworthy because they were the only teams from any of the 50+ schools in our district.

In their respective committees, our young ladies and gentlemen spoke out to plea for UN assistance for issues in their nations such as child enslavement, water pollution, and ebola relief. They demonstrated proficiency in student leadership, initiative, public speaking, courteous debate, understanding of world resources and issues, and creative problem-solving.

The first day of the two-part conference included students greeting one another in native tongues, (some incorporating sign language), taking on the language, dress, and culture of their nations. After all the pretty pleasantries, they broke out into pre-assigned committees involving UN topical issues such as education, the environment, health, poverty, disease outbreaks, trafficking, etc.

Within each committee, two to three students presented the resolution that was written by the entire team/delegation in the months prior to conference; this involved a series of three speeches. These students then fielded questions from other students...and here is where the rubber meets the road...they must be intimately familiar with their nation’s issues and even that of their geographical neighbors in order to adequately defend the resolution. Beyond that, they must have oratory skill and charisma to field questions and respond to them to adequately defends the resolution. 

Every delegate (soon will change to each nation) votes on each resolution in the small committee room, and the 2-3 nations receiving the most votes from each committee will then pass out of committee. Those nations will have the opportunity to repeat their same presentation in General assembly, taking questions now from a wider variety of nations.

There is a public “roll call” after each presentation, and the nations vote yes, no, or abstain. If they have more yes votes than no, they are passed by the general assembly. This is the hallmark of teams who are well prepared, have researched well, and have a well-honed ability to communicate articulately and with enthusiasm and to respond to questions courteously and effectively. 

Awards given at the conclusion of the conference include recognition of leadership, display board, costume, resolution, spirit, best nations, individual leadership as delegates, and preparedness. This fun, celebratory time isn't the goal of the JUNA experience, but it does put a nice little bow on things.

As for my sweet little team, we are gearing up for a fun field trip to deepen our study of global cultures, but we are already looking forward to next year's JUNA in Alabama!