Disheartened

Disheartened

Last week I went to beautiful Bedford Springs, PA to speak to Superintendents from the Allegheny Intermediate Unit … it was both intimidating and exciting. I am always a little nervous speaking to K-12 educators because I always make the mistake of thinking our worlds are so different. It was exciting because I always end up finding out how similar our problems and issues really are. This was no different. I went in thinking I was out of my element and left with a new found appreciation and confidence in my understanding of our shared issues.

I shared a mix of stories and statistics that described how social computing is being used (typically outside of formal learning environments) to create new and engaging online conversations. I was surprised that this group didn’t come at me with the typical doom and gloom questions — they instead were (for the most part) eager to embrace what was happening in the “real world” and engaged me in a pragmatic discussion over what to do. One of the things that was funny was that many of my answers seemed so basic, yet created so much more thinking. I was particularly struck by a question over how teachers should use social environments … as I answered I heard myself talking about how critical it is for teachers to understand how the environments work. If you are going to use youtube for teaching, understand how related movies are chosen, know when to embed a video instead of using the youtube page, and make sure you can navigate the environment. Talking about facebook felt similar … we stressed how important it is to know how the privacy features work, how to really use the environment, and again, just know how to move around. Not earth shattering ideas, but ones that surprised me how much they resonated.

This was a smart group of K-12 administrators who are striving to do great things for their teachers and the students in their districts. They, in general, were very open to new ways of thinking and wanted me to assure them that the teachers we are producing at PSU are prepared to deliver the kinds of educational experiences that will ultimately make students successful in higher education and beyond. We spent a lot of time talking about how important it is for new teachers to foster feelings of creativity — even in the face of strict state standards and the constraints of the no child left behind initiative. I was a little worried about the emphasis on new teachers and not just teachers, but in general I was heartened to hear it and felt like our schools were in good hands.

I contrast this with the experiences I am having with my daughter’s public school education. I hear very little mention of innovative practice and I am certainly not seeing the ability to be flexible in the delivery of curriculum. I am not pointing fingers at teachers I am just seeing a system that wants so badly to be agile and effective, yet is trapped by red tape and outmoded methods. I don’t see anyone openly discussing learning styles, embracing digital literacy, digital story telling, or portfolio thinking. I mentioned reflective practice to a teacher in my daughter’s school and got a very strange look, as if she were saying, “why do that?” I want so much for my daughter to love school — she is still only in first grade … and I want her curiosity and creativity to be promoted, not stunted. Unfortunately what I see is a path that has been walked on for decades being the only direction, that change in thinking isn’t going to be tolerated, and that a push to the middle is the only option. So, with all the hope and promise of administrative leadership comes the realities of the trenches and I once again realize just how different my environment is than theirs. I am disheartened.

8 thoughts on “Disheartened

  1. Cole, I feel such empathy for your situation. Like you, I want my son to love school, not to see it as a chore or something to get out of, but to want to go because it’s where interesting things happen. He’s in third grade now and I have to say I’m very very pleased with his school and his teachers — but it’s not at all the “traditional” model.

    When he was in preschool, we interviewed a lot (a LOT) of potential kindergartens before we picked one for him. I still remember one of them: we asked what the curriculum was like for the kids, and the teacher looked at me and said, “We mostly focus on teaching them to sit still in their chairs and stand quietly in line so they will be successful in school next year.” Yeah, that’s what I want my kid to be: orderly, quiet, and bored to tears.

    He’s in a Montessori school now, where his teachers take one day a month to plan lessons — school is closed for curriculum development. As a result, they are able to offer him (and the other children) specialized material that suits his learning style and ability. I am so grateful to have this school available. I wish that all schools and all teachers were as equipped, and that all children could have the opportunity to learn to love school, not as a place where they stand quietly in line, but as a place where new ideas are embraced and individuality is celebrated.

    I think one of the first steps is for people like you to talk to audiences like this one. Thanks for carrying the banner out there.

  2. Cole,

    When I volunteered for the Penn State Powwow a few years back, I was chatting with several local school teachers. They asked what I did, and I told them, and then I asked if they ever considered using Web 2.0 stuff like social Internet, podcasts, etc. in their classroom. They were middle school teachers.

    This is anecdotal, therefore not really true evidence of a local attitude in education, but their reaction was like I suggested a field trip to the End Zone. For example, one said “so you think it’s a good idea to allow child predators access to students while they are in school???? Not in my classroom.” Never mind any benefit, just focus on the worst case scenario. The others wrote off this stuff as a passing fad that was going to be irrelevant to their students in a few years.

    Matt Groenig, creator of the Simpsons, did a cartoon in the 1980-1990s called Life in Hell. One of my all-time favorites. Well, he did a series called “School is Hell” in the late 80s, and in the section on kindergarten, there was a frame that showed a kid painting. The frame was titled “express yourself with art” and had little balloons around the kid that said “Paint doggies!” “Paint pictures of your house!” “Paint on your friends!.” At the bottom Groenig had “Be creative now before school destroys your creativity with soul-crushing conformity.”

    How little things have changed, apparently.

    Anyhow, back to work.

  3. What a great place for you to give a talk! It seems that if we want to serve higher education, we should aim at K-12 educators. I wonder if our outreach to other campuses arrives too late in studnt’s careers to be of much significance. Having summer or weekend gatherings for K-12 educators and road shows to high schools might help. It sure seems worthwhile, and would spread some good Penn State PR.

  4. I understand your reasons for feeling disheartened. Being such an innovative thinker, it is only natural for you to want an open learning environment where your child can flourish to the best of her potential. While your children are at the beginning (or will be soon enough) of their public school education, my children (14, 16, 18) are at the end of theirs. While my kids have fared well academically, I must admit I didn’t leave it all in the hands of the school district and their standard agenda. Like teaching manners, ethics, and accountability, I believe innovative thought and discussion falls within my sphere of influence as a parent and can be applied to whatever development level is currently appropriate. It might be more work, but seeing your kids thinking creatively and outside the box is very rewarding. Of course, I must admit that I have had to provide more support to the youngest, who is by far the most innovative, when his teachers did not appreciate his innovation as much as I did. Strangely, this was most obvious in the middle school; I cannot fathom why.

    Many make the argument that college doesn’t really teach you specifics, as much as it teaches you how to learn. To me this makes a lot of sense, and is a core life skill that makes a monumental difference in a person’s life. Why, though, do we wait until college to focus on how to learn> I think that when we encourage innovative thought from a very young age, we might be incurring more work for ourselves as parents in guiding and leading them in exploration, but the rewards are far greater for them. The choice is ours, as is the responsibility. I just hope that academia and school districts catch up quickly.

  5. It’s heartening that the folks you spoke to want to add these things to the curriculum, and a total reverse (I must say) from my prior life as a high school teacher. In my district (not our local one), the teachers were begging to do some new and innovative things, and it was the administration that stifled the creativity. For the most part, this happened at the level of local administration (e.g., principals) rather than centrally.

    Interestingly, I found that kindergarten in our local public school was the most creative and inspirational time for both of my children. Other than one fabulous second-grade teacher whom both my children were privileged to have, the remainder of their elementary education was quite stifling. And each year they always seemed to have novice teachers–folks who were fresh out of internship and just feeling their way. In my experience, creativity was the last thing on their minds–getting through the year was.

    This year, we pulled my daughter from the public school and put her in a local charter. So far, it’s been a fabulous experience. Everything is about portfolios, technology is integrated wherever you look, and teachers (two per class of 25) are responsive to a degree that I haven’t seen in a long time.

    That having been said, I don’t really blame the teachers, either. As I personally experienced from my seven years in the public schools, the system itself wears you down. And it really seems unfair that my daughter’s new charter school is so fabulous because the state chose to free them from the red tape and bureaucracy of the regular public school. Why not just free everyone and be done with it?

  6. Hi Cole,

    We (meaning Emily and I) have been doing outreach to K-12 and public librarians for the last four years (our group has a ridiculously long name—K-16 Central PA Information Literacy Network). This is partly borne out of my past as a children’s and school librarian and our wish to connect with librarians at all levels of education. Our workshops have been well attended, and have traditionally focused on information literacy issues.

    I think a technology-based initiative to reach out to area K-12 educators as Dave suggests above is an excellent idea. I know our librarians would certainly be interested—I think one of the shortfalls faced in this area (which impacts the level of teacher/librarian use of technology in the classroom) is a dearth of local professional development opportunities.

    If you’re interested in pursuing this, Emily and I would be happy to share our practices (all of our workshops carry Act 48 credit, which is a major incentive to educators) and partner/hrlp out in any way possible.

  7. Thanks to everyone for the comments … a few thoughts. Both my wife and I will be strong advocates for our child as she moves through the system. I won’t be the silent type, but at the same time I will always work to respect the position the teachers are in. I know it is systemic issue, not a single point of success or failure and that means we’ll have to work hard at every turn. I think the thing now that she is in first grade is that we are seeing a push to the middle — creativity and curiosity are already starting to be pushed aside. That is what is so disappointing.

    I know we’ll continue to explore alternatives and if something that feels right comes along, we’ll make the move. For now I am going to engage my little lady in other kinds of activities so she gets exposed to other kinds of thinking. I’ll let her do digital storytelling activities, we’ll go out and make little movies together, and I know we’ll have fun doing it. In the process I hope to find ways to continue sharing these ideas with her teachers and the school administrators I get to talk to. My time working with K-12 PA leadership has just begun and I plan to take advantage of the opportunity.

    I especially like the idea that Ellysa shares — opportunities to provide professional development for our own school environments. That may be a theme I explore here very soon. So again, thanks for the thoughts and I’d love to continue this conversation!

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