Saturday, May 2, 2015

Five Things We Need to Stop Pretending

Inspired by the recent wave of Five Things We Need to Stop Pretending posts by educators across the country and a crazy April of new initiatives and preparations for state testing, here are my thoughts.

1. The education we received is good enough for our students.
If I hear one more educator say this, I just may scream. What was good enough last year may not be good enough this year! Each group of students is unique, with their own strengths, weaknesses, interests, and ideas.  We should not treat them like they are! Factor in the advances we've made in understanding how the brain functions, the technology available to us, and the way our world is changing, and it's obvious to everyone that the education you received is not good enough for the students in our classrooms today! That doesn't mean it will be easy-change is always difficult! But the evolution of our teaching as we learn and grow should be a top priority for all educators!


2. Banning technology is the answer.
Love it or hate it, tech savvy or novice user, technology is a part of the lives and world of our students. Classrooms should not be isolated islands of tech free space or only-when-the-teacher-oks-it use. Have we been to a staff meeting, a workshop, or a conference lately? In the "real world," we're always using our technology, and sometimes we're even encouraged to use it! Yes, students will use the tech at inappropriate or inconvenient times, but we need to take on the responsibility of modeling, monitoring, and teaching appropriate use of technology. It's a new type of classroom management, but one all of our students need!

We can not pretend our students will learn everything about appropriate tech use at home, or that they won't make mistakes at school with tech, even if we have banned it from our classrooms. Just like every teacher must find the classroom management strategies that work for him or her, educators must find the tech strategy that will work for each of them. But a strategy at work is a vast improvement over pretending we won't have situations to address or that we can pretend the technology doesn't exist.

3. Students aren't capable of big plans and game-changing ideas.
We have the unique opportunity as teachers to work with young people each day, to hear their hopes, dreams, and ideas. We need to take these seriously! Our students need us to be their cheerleaders, their coaches, to put them in touch with the right people, in person and through social media, who can help them transform their ideas into realities. While I've always known this, it was never more apparent to me than it was last weekend as I sat with a tentative group of "tech team" students from my school amongst more than 250 other middle and high school students at the Hoosier Student Digital Leaders Conference. The keynote speaker, Kevin Honeycutt, challenged the room to think of something they were passionate about, and how they could use that passion to change the world and improve the lives of others. After hearing two students share responses, he allowed time for the students to talk among themselves about ideas--and the room was alive with conversation. With the right guidance, how many of those ideas will become realities?

Four young ladies from my school spent their time discussing ways to help bring education to girls in countries where their government or religion does not want them to be educated; nearly a week later, these girls met during our school activity period to brainstorm ideas to make this happen! Our students don't have to be eighteen or have college educations to dream big and want to make a difference!

4. Non-educators should be the major decision makers in education.
As we prepare for state testing (and as I teach freshmen and sophomores, ALL of my students will experience at least one major standardized test this year), my high school students are smart enough to question the need for all of this testing and what is done with the results. These are the most tested students in our history, and I see two types of students that the testing emphasis has manufactured. One type of student is so stressed out by the thought of tests and grades that any minor slip or mention of the word "test" brings about anxiety attacks, hyperventilation, and sometimes tears. These students are the ones who are afraid to be wrong, afraid they won't measure up, and afraid they are the equivalent of that test score. On the other hand, I also see students who no longer see the value in tests or the point in doing their best work--after all, they will just have another test in the future. For this group, a test isn't proving anything and has lost meaning.

I've been rebelling against testing this year in my own classroom. Other than the midterm and final, I rarely give a test as assessment. Instead, I've asked my students to write from a character's perspective through RAFT assignments, to argue a point through an "Epic Rap Battle," to tweet a modern version of Romeo and Juliet, and to write letters to authors. I am much more interested in my students creating things to show me their knowledge, and I can assess their learning just as much, probably even better, from a project that required making something to show evidence of learning as I can from a bubbled-in test answer sheet. My students know that I have recently earned my administrator's license, but they have been urging me to pursue a political career rather than a principalship. Even our students know that those who are not in our schools, with our students, and living the state of public education can't possibly know what things are like or what is best for our students. We need more educators, students, and parents working together with all stakeholders to determine the best decisions for education.

5. A silver bullet exists to fix our problems.
Working in two different school districts and substitute teaching in several others, I've seen so many initiatives billed as the answer to our problems. The truth is, none of these are THE answer. Many of even the best designed and best-intended initiatives don't stick around long enough to make a dent in the problem they were intended to alleviate. Part of this is natural, because sticking with any change is difficult. Just think about how many of your own New Year's resolutions you've made and broken! But another issue here is the inability to prevent new obstacles from getting in our way. Personnel changes, new standards to tech, new evaluation systems, newly elected policy makers--the list is long and in constant flux.

The truth is, no single solution exists and no two situations are the same. All we can do is try to be better than we were yesterday, last week, last year. We need to learn and grow, be accountable for and learn from our mistakes and celebrate and share our victories. If we can do this, we will be the best versions of ourselves, which will mean our schools and our students are the best versions of themselves as well.