March 31, 2006

My Mentors?

Some kids play sports, some play an instrument, others like to draw, I was a drama kid. In 7th grade I was cast in the school play as a “nerd” who had created his own pesticide, “Drop Dead.” (I’m not kidding.) It was a blast, and I was hooked. This positive experience came on the heels of a very unsuccessful baseball career. I didn’t have the skill set to excel in sports, but I did have the energy and enthusiasm necessary to perform well on stage. Seventh grade started a run that lasted through college of two to three shows a year, acting, directing, technical craftsmanship, and a really great time. Because of my love for theatre, I chose to become a drama teacher.

Anyone who teaches has at least one mentor who helped him or her get into the classroom. For some it was their master teacher. For others it was a teacher from their childhood. In my case I had two mentors who served in both capacities. My middle school drama teacher, David, and my high school drama teacher, H.K. both taught me in my youth, and served as my master teachers later on. Both men influenced and shaped me in wonderful ways that changed my life and helped guide my future. Without these men as role models from early on, I would not be teaching today.

David, my middle school drama teacher, had a unique and very positive relationship with his students. In David’s class is was ok to be yourself without being judged, a rare experience in middle school. In fact, you could be silly and make people laugh at what you were doing, not at who you were. David was the first teacher I had ever met who did not condescend to his students, but met them were they were emotionally, and could spar with them mentally and at their level. It was a unique and valuable experience. I gained confidence in who I was and began to trust my skills, my abilities, and myself however unrefined.

Our teacher/student relationship developed into a friendship after I went on to high school and college. When it became time for me to student teach, I knew exactly for whom I wanted to apprentice. I knew that David would allow me to not only “get my feet wet,” but also actually teach solo in his classroom. And he did. In fact, after my student teaching time was complete, David decided that he was ready for a change, and the principal offered me his assignment, which I gladly accepted. I knew that David believed in me from the time that I was 12 years old. I knew it because of the way he treated me with respect, and supported my decisions. David was a great teacher.

Another great teacher was my high school drama teacher. I was lucky to get two in a row. When I got to high school and enrolled in drama courses it was like I was in the presence of royalty. H.K. was a living legend. He had won drama competitions in California for 8 years in a row, and had even taken a show on the road to Washington D.C. Intimidating to say the least. The drama program at my high school was shared with our sister school; we performed our plays at the “cafetorium” of the sister campus. Being involved with the program and being a part of its history was incredible. However more incredible was being in the presence of a teacher who had led so many to success.

In my freshman year I was the only 9th grader cast in the spring musical. I continued to participate in drama throughout my four years. I grew to know H.K. as a man of integrity and passion. His passion for theatre was only slightly outshined by his greater passion for teaching. He cared for and appreciated his students, and we all knew it. Students would flock to H.K. like birds to breadcrumbs. But it wasn’t always fun and games. H.K. was an excellent critic, and held little back when critiquing student performances. Sometimes his views transcended the classroom into our personal lives. Not in an invasive or inappropriate way, but H.K. was always willing to let us know exactly how he felt about the decisions we made both on stage and off.

My student teaching assignment required me to teach both middle and high school. H.K. welcomed me with open arms. Actually, I had just finished a long-term substitute assignment for him teaching most of the 1st semester while he was out ill, so there was a natural flow when I returned during the 2nd semester. H.K. set very high standards for me as a student, and for me as a student teacher; one of the best gifts anyone has ever given me. It was a joy to teach in his classroom and after he too left for retirement that year, I was truly disappointed that I was not offered his assignment.

We mentor kids everyday in our classrooms. It might be the most important job we do. Sure, the three “R’s” are at the core of our purpose, but equally important is how we treat and inspire our pupils. Our kids learn more from us than just academics; they learn how to be people by following our examples. Their world is full of negative imagery and influences; teachers are one of the few positive influences in the lives of students. Being a mentor to a child is one of the greatest gifts one can give.

But it doesn’t stop in childhood. Veteran teachers who mentor young teachers also do a great service. David and H.K. were not the only master teachers who helped me get started. Another master, another David, took me and a few other baby teachers around to visit outstanding veteran teachers during our first year in the classroom. I gained more useful knowledge in a handful of days spent observing the pros than in all of my hours of teacher prep. David knew what worked, and was willing to share so that we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. We were standing on the shoulders of educational giants. What a wonderful way to start a teaching career.

It’s very disappointing when teachers choose not to help each other out. We are a unique breed and we need to stick together. We need to continue to encourage, to inspire, and to help each other along the way. The more teachers mentor each other, the better mentors we will be to our students and the better and more successful our students will be in their lives, which will ultimately make our world a better place.

Please post your comments below.

March 26, 2006

You are somebody's hero?

WARNING: This is a feel good post!

It's about time I wrote something simple and positive. No whining, complaining, or sarcasm. I begin with a question as I always do, are you somebody's hero? I am motivated to write about this topic because I recently found my name on a My Space website by a former student where he lists me as one of his heroes. I was shocked. I never think of myself as anyone's hero. I don't think any teachers do, but we should. Not in the self-gratifying, "aren't we great" way, but in the "holy cow, we do make a difference" way. Teachers do make a difference and what we do does matter, and yes, each and every one of us is somebody's hero.

I grew up with only my father as a male role model in my family. My grandfathers had both past, and my uncle lived in another state. So I looked to the male teachers in my life for inspiration and guidance; it's no wonder I ended up a teacher myself. But it wasn't just the male teachers I had growing up, but the female teachers as well who were my heroes. Anyone who supported me as an individual, gave me an opportunity to shine, and taught me anything became my hero. And there were plenty.

I've written a little about my Drama teachers. But they alone did not fulfill the hero role for me. From kindergarten to graduate school, all along the way, teachers gave me inspiration to work towards success. I hope that my students now feel that way about me. I don't feel like I'm always a positive force in the classroom; I have plenty of bad days. Sometimes I'm distracted, or tired, or just plain sick of kids and teaching. Sometimes I am crabby and short-tempered. What do you know? I'm human just like you. We are all human beings even when we're not being treated that way.

Actually I think teachers are more than human, we are super-human super-heroes. Every day teachers come to work ready to save the world, or at least the students in our classrooms. Every day teachers endure the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" as we navigate the seas of adolescent and pre-adolescent insanity. Yet we keep fighting on. It happens in small ways. The polite positive comment. The (metaphorical) pat on the back, or "atta boy." The confidence we instill in our students that they are valuable and worthy of our time and attention leaves everlasting marks on the kids' psyche making them feel like they too can take on the world and succeed.

Of course, there are some Lex Luthors, Green Goblins, and Jokers in our company. Sad that our current system protects the villains as well as the heroes (oops, I promised to stay positive.)

You can't go out and just ask your students if you are their hero, but you don't need to either. If you are being successful in the classroom, if you can see your students engaged in active learning, growing and blossoming into the people they were made to be, then you know that your efforts are neither in vain, or ill-spent. You can rest assured that one day soon your students will reflect on the time spent in your classroom, in your presence, and be thankful that somebody took the time to get to know who they were, to give them opportunities to succeed, to patiently wait on them while they struggled to survive, and think of you as their hero.

Teachers are heroes just like firefighters, police officers, and elected officials (ok, maybe not all elected officials). We are public servants who walk around disguised as Clark Kent, Peter Parker, and Bruce Wayne. Fortunately we don't need a mask and spandex suit to complete our good deeds, we make ourselves openly available to our tasks and complete them honestly and with a sense of gratitude most non-teachers don't understand. But people who don't teach miss out on those moments when the students' eyes brighten up, their lights shine on, and their brains shout out, "A-ha!" Those moments are payment enough for us, your friendly neighborhood teachers.

So keep your chin up, you are a hero. Be proud of the good work that you do everyday for the betterment of other people and our world as a whole. Teachers are givers, not takers. We give of our time, our resources, and our hearts. That counts for a lot in a world full of takers. Teachers by nature put others first, and that is heroic behavior by any standard. The kids know it, that's why they smile at you every morning, or at the beginning of every class. They know that you are different from the others out there who want nothing more than to take their money, their youth, and their innocence away from them. Kids just grow up too fast these days. But not because of teachers. Teachers are the reason kids can survive childhood. Sure parents are critically important here, but whom do most kids spend most of their days with? Teachers.

If you've never looked at yourself as somebody's hero, take a moment now and think about it. Sure, you're not perfect, but you don't have to be. You're just doing the right thing, at the right time, for the right reasons. Doesn't seem like it only takes that much to be a hero, but it's really just that simple. We live in a broken world where too many people put themselves first. Teachers don't have that luxury, and that's good for us, good for our students, and good for the world. The big secret is that serving others is the key to happiness. So in our heroic efforts to make this world a better place, we are making ourselves happier, healthier individuals. Feels pretty good to be a hero huh?

Please post your comments below.

March 19, 2006

Credential Paranoia?

There is an epidemic in teaching that may be unknown to some of you, but to those of us who teach "outside" of our credential area, it can be a very serious condition. The symptoms can include frustration, anger, difficulty sleeping, and feelings of inadequacy. A general malaise may develop over time leading to a desire to leave the teaching profession entirely. What causes Credential Paranoia or CP? CP is brought on by persistent and sometimes annual requests by district officials to justify oneself in his or her content area of expertise. How does CP occur? In my case, I hold a credential in English, but I teach multimedia courses which are approved for UC/CSU Art credit. I don't hold an Art credential or an Industrial and Technical education credential. In order for me to teach the multimedia courses, I need to be school board approved every year. This year my principal is writing an appeal on my behalf; an appeal for me to teach the courses that I wrote. Amazing.

It all got started when I decided to pursue teaching. Actually, I didn't decide to pursue teaching, teaching pursued me. By that I mean that I didn't always want to become a teacher. (I've already written about that here.) Once I realized teaching as a good fit, I choose to teach Drama. Drama was the subject in middle and high school that definitely got me out of my shell and into a classroom seat. Without Drama, and more importantly, without my two Drama teachers, I wouldn't be writing any of this today.

To teach Drama in California one needs a single subject credential in English (yeah, that makes sense). I was a communication major in college so this was the first obstacle to overcome, the first of many hoops I was asked to jump through before I finally landed in a classroom. I was told that I either needed to go back and get an English undergraduate degree or take a test. That was an easy decision; that was not an easy test. Back then the name had just changed from NTE to Praxis (yes, I'm that old.) Now kids have to take something called the CSET which I suppose may be in my future as well.

Taking the test did not go well for me. The second time I passed the 200 multiple-choice questions on the history of English as we know it. The essay took me a few more tries. Hard to believe that my eloquent and verbose writing style did not impress the judges (sarcasm implied). I finally figured out that all I needed to do was just get to the point and use the simple five-paragraph essay format (perhaps some of my readers wish I might do so even now, but this is much more fun). I finally cleared the testing hurdle and got enrolled in a teacher prep program.

I think most teacher prep programs miss the point. It should not be about theory and speculation on what you'll do someday when you get into a classroom working with kids. It should be about actually teaching from day one. Some programs get student-teachers into the classroom right away. That makes sense to me. I actually believe that substitute teaching is a far better training program and predictor of ultimate classroom success than the standard teacher-prep approach. Think about it, the military does not have a "12 month talk and read about boot camp" prep program before actually going to boot camp. A solider gets his or her haircut and right to work learning the ropes. But I digress.

After teacher prep I student taught middle and high school Drama and high school English. My master teachers were wonderful. Both Drama teachers were my teachers when I was in middle and high school. Both teachers were also ready to move on, leaving an open assignment for me to fill. Both gave me significant and immediate opportunities to teach. I learned everything from those experiences. (I plan to write specifically about these two men soon.) The high school principal had someone else in mind for her campus, but the middle school principal informally offered me an assignment. I had to interview and jump through more hoops, but the job was mine to take or leave. I left it after two years to teach high school English at the campus where I currently teach multimedia.

I was hired to teach English but I eventually found myself in the computer classroom. I was put there without the proper credentials not only by my own personal choice and drive, but also by administrators who saw a need and had a desire to have the subject matter taught. Sure I agreed, and yes I love what I teach. I've even written extensive curriculum for the courses. But now that same administrative body who put me there is telling me that I am unqualified to teach the content they put me there to teach. It doesn't make sense. I've got a bad case of Credential Paranoia.

There is of course a simple remedy, all I need to do is get the proper credential and I'll be "acceptable." The question is what is the proper credential? Last year I was asked to add a supplemental. I could choose programming or office technologies. I already had sufficient course work for office technologies, so I paid my fee and added the supplemental. Sure, it was a stretch, but it was something. It was sufficient then, but not now? Perhaps they want me to add the Industrial and Technical education credential. Cool, I'll learn to sew and I'll be able to teach woodshop, two dying subjects in the world of A-G and CASHEE. Or I can pick up the Art credential. It still burns some of my fellow Art teachers that I teach such courses without the Art credential (not that they want to teach multimedia).

It's a big mess, but I am not the big loser. The kids who I teach will be the big losers if an antidote for CP is not found or I am reassigned. No one is saying that yet, and I doubt it will happen, but the situation if very frustrating. After 10 years in the classroom, 6 years teaching courses I wrote myself, I am still being asked to hurdle obstacles that basically question my competence. It's silly. Not only that, but every time I'm asked to renew my credential, or add a supplemental, or take more courses it costs me money. Teachers already get paid too little, and then we are asked to invest what little we have left so that we can keep our jobs, or at least our place on the pay schedule. My job performance is not what gets me a raise; it's the number of courses I take. Silly. I will not allow CP to bother me. I'm going to keep teaching until I can't teach anymore, or until they take away my keys.

Please post your comments below.

March 12, 2006

Automated Education?

My school district recently purchased software to help struggling students pass the CAHSEE. I am concerned about what this type of application means to the future of teachers and teaching. It is not my purpose to openly criticize the software application, it'’s designers, or the parent company, so I have not used the actual names.

Is HalBishop to 2006 what the Hal 9000 was to 2001? Or like Bishop from Aliens, does it prefer the term "Artificial teacher?" At a web site they claim:
With HalBishop you can:
* Reach struggling students and recover lost credits
* Increase graduation rates and reduce dropout rates
* Challenge advanced students who want to move ahead
* Prepare students for state and standardized tests
* Provide individualized learning at a distance
Wait a minute, isn't that what teachers do?

The truth is we teachers need all the help we can get, and if there are software solutions have some successful answers for helping students, then bring it on. My district recently purchased licenses to HalBishop and installed it in the computer lab adjacent to my computer classroom. I walk through this lab to get to our repair room, and my lunch refrigerator, a couple of times a day (well, only once for lunch). I have casually observed students working with the HalBishop software, appearing to be engaged in learning, while their teachers sit at another workstation monitoring the students' time using the application, and their areas of study. The students interact with the computers, not with the teacher, and that is what concerns me.

I interviewed one of the teachers who is currently using the HalBishop software. I asked her about her experience, and how she is using the software to help her kids (that have failed the CAHSEE at least once already) prepare to pass the CAHSEE. She explained that students are graded based on the amount of time they spend using the application. Sounds to me like kids are getting credit for seat time, kinda like the way our "alternative" education campus works.

However measuring the time spent in HalBishop can be challenging. Students have already figured out that since HalBishop works in a browser window that they can open a second browser window and surf the web while still recording seat time. The teacher's job is to keep an eye on all of the student's computer monitors as well as their own workstation monitor to make sure that everyone is on-task. Teaching not required.

To complicate the process, the HalBishop server is in another part of the country (far from here) and the service is relatively slow. Kids can't scroll their screens and the refresh rate is not in real time. So kids get bored, and begin to wander around the web. I'm sure that will soon be remedied, it's simply an annoyance at the moment.

I asked my colleague about the type of teacher student relationship that is formed with students working in this type of environment. It appears that there is more limited student/teacher interaction. She confirmed my suspicion. The teacher is there as a facilitator to answer questions, a "guide on the side." There are some opportunities for more meaningful one-on-one time, but fewer opportunities for direct instruction, group work, or peer tutoring. One of the (important) reasons kids come to school is for social interaction, experience, and therefore education. What type of social skills are students building while they are interacting with the computer, and not each other, or the teacher. Of course, this is only one hour during the day, they can always socialize at lunch, or during P.E.

Our school district purchased the HalBishop software and mandated its use without consulting classroom teachers, or our single site computer IT technician. I'm sure that Generals are not in the habit of consulting the troops before formulating a war plan. All soldiers need to do is carry out orders. That's sort of what it feels like to the teachers who use HalBishop. Right now there are only two, but if the software proves successful for our students, that number will grow. As the number grows there will be fewer and fewer teachers actually teaching students, and instead facilitating their on-line experience. Is this a good thing?

Instead of automating education, I feel technology is better used to facilitate the teacher, and not the other way around. A recent K-12 Linux article identified four areas where technology is being used effectively in the classroom. The author lists:
1) Communication
2) Collaboration
3) Analysis
4) Creativity

I strive to use technology like this in my computer-based multimedia courses with very successful results. Technology can and should be an incredibly useful tool when the teacher takes advantage of the opportunities provided by computers and the like. But to do so teachers need to dedicate themselves to not only embracing technology, but mastering technology. We must train ourselves to become iTeachers, as savvy about technology and more indispensable than the software and hardware itself.

People, not technology is what makes a difference in the lives of our pupils. No matter how efficient or effective technology becomes, it cannot, and will not replace the relationship between student and teacher. Think back to your scholastic experience, what motivated you to succeed? A computer application? I doubt it. Teachers provide the encouragement, support, and direction that all students need to become successful adults. The ASVAB may be a good indicator of what a child might be good at in their future, but it is the teacher who will truly guide the student towards that accomplishment.

The Hal 9000 computer might have been able to manage the Discovery One, but we all know how well that turned out, "Open the pod bay doors..." And Bishop may have been a helpful alien hunter, but neither of these computers could have ever touched the life of a student the way any teacher on any given day can change the lives of their students.

March 08, 2006

iTeacher or I, Teacher?

What is the future of teaching using technology? Will teachers wag the technology tail, or will the technology tail wag us? Schools all over the country are embracing the use of technology in the classroom. Not just computers, but LCD projectors, VOIP phones, and video conferencing are all common in many of today's 21st. Century classrooms. Software titles abound in an effort to help the classroom teacher meet the needs of "all" students. From Microtype Pro to Geometer's Sketchpad, there is a computer application to fit almost every need. Teaching is changing, and change is good. But what kind of change is on the horizon? And have we already gone too far? Some teachers are still in the "how do I use this e-mail thing?" stage while others spend their days simply facilitating the online experience for their students. How can technology best be applied to the everyday regular-ed classroom? It starts with teacher training. But before we go blindly into the great electrical unknown, I think it's important that we pause and consider our futures as teachers using technology. We must ask ourselves, will I strive to become a competent tech-savvy iTeacher, or will I simply react robotically as if Asimov had written I, Teacher?

Technology is good for education. Certainly our pupils need to be well prepared for their future's and their future contributions to the world. That includes technical literacy. However, technical literacy is not on the public school agenda at this time. Right now, high school public education in California is about the A-G requirements and passing the CASHEE. Neither requires any technical know-how at all. Finding a class in a high school that teaches technology can be challenging. I teach multimedia courses that not only use technology but also teach technology. But my courses are the exception. It's didn't use to be that way. Elective courses in high schools today that could teach technology are being re-designated VOC ED or replaced by math and English review courses designed to leave no child behind. I am in not in favor of leaving any child behind, however I don't understand the logic of replacing important and effective elective courses with remedial academic courses on the master schedule. But that's not what I am writing about right now.

In 2006 there are more and more software applications available and more and more money being invested on hardware and software designed to help students succeed in passing the standardized tests. Money that in my opinion would be better spent on paying people to repair, maintain, and instruct teachers on the proper use and care of the software and hardware we already possess. While this equipment requires electricity and a dry environment to operate in, it doesn't require much input from a biological life-form beyond supplying access to the electricity and monitoring the "on-task" status of the students engaged in "learning". And the software works. Students who use these tools show improved test scores. They don't get "left behind." But what about the teachers? What is our future here? Will we be replaced by classified lab-techs? (they're cheaper to employ)

Our survival is being threatened here. Don't you see it? We teachers need to fight for our futures. We need to fight the I, Teacher syndrome by becoming iTeachers; by training ourselves to use the technology wisely, appropriately, and effectively, so that the technology doesn't end up using us! It's easy for me since I teach technology classes, but all of us, especially the regular education classroom teachers need to learn how to use this stuff, and use it well. It's no longer acceptable to say, "I didn't get the email because I don't know how to use that thing." We are not dinosaurs. But if we ignore the changes in education, if we deny the role of technology in our daily classroom lives, we are destine to suffer the dinosaurs fate.

I’m clearly preaching to the choir here. The mere fact that you are curious and competent enough to search out into the Internet and find a blog site like this is evidence enough of your own technical mastery. You know all of this already. Together we must make a stand for our survival and indoctrinate our colleagues before they are assimilated (Star Trek reference, sorry).

At my school funding is drying up for technology courses, even those that satisfy the category “F” art requirement for UC/CSU. We got a huge start with the Digital High School grant way back in the late 90’s. But now that money is gone, and the equipment purchased during that period is at end-of-life, and in need of replacement. Sadly the funding is just not there if the program is not somehow tied to improving API, AYP, or AMOs. So, I’m going to try and sell the concept that not only does the multimedia program stand alone on it’s own merits deserving of being continued with a new generation of hardware and software, but also that this new equipment will be used to help train the rest of the staff on how they can better use the technical stuff they have at their disposal in their own classrooms. Survival is the name of the game.

I don’t know exactly where education is headed; it’s silly to speculate too much. But one thing is clear to me: I want to stay employed as a teacher working with kids. Are teachers really in danger of being replaced by automated education? Probably not. But the chasm of technical literacy between students and teachers today is frightening. The idea that software can remediate more effectively than a human teacher is just plain weird. But who knows? Perhaps the more we rely on computers to teach the basic core, the more time we’ll have to teach the really fun stuff. The pendulum always swings back, and while in the current environment of “it’s about the test scores, stupid,” we have no time to really explore Shakespeare, to rebuild the great pyramids using geometric shapes, or to explore the universe. In the future, if we master teaching using technology (and not technology using us), we may get back to a place where we can return to the “enrichment” part of the educational experience.