I recently watched this
TED Talk by Salman Khan, the founder of the Khan Academy, a multidisciplinary video-oriented approach to educating the next generation of students. Before you read ahead you should watch the video. But for those who are impatient (like me sometimes), the generally idea is that video tutorials, coupled with online exercises, point-laden badges, and data mining by teachers, allows the classroom to become a workspace while the home becomes the lecture hall. The idea has a lot of merit and I have actually been using video tutorials for a few months now, but I want to focus this post on some of the concerns I have as an educator in an urban classroom.
1) It requires motivation. Students who might be motivated in the classroom because the teacher is there making sure they focus are not necessarily going to go home excited to watch a video on how to draw a line on a graph. I don't mean to say students won't benefit. There are just many who - for whatever reason - are going to forget to watch, not want to watch, or be too distracted to watch.
2) It is not teaching problem solving or critical thinking. Each video tutorial and problem set are for a specific skill. This is most definitely important as my students are lacking in many specific areas. That being said, it is important that they also develop the brain capacity to decide WHICH skill to use for a particular situation. Practicing an algorithm is useful to a point. Knowing when to use it is better.
3) It still does not get at the core of intrinsic motivation. By providing points for completing exercises, watching videos, etc it is applying a concrete (albeit digital) response to completing work. I agree it can be very motivating to get points, but when the focus is on the points, students are not always going to take the information they are processing and want to use it elsewhere. If they are not graded on it later, why bother?
So overall I like the idea - I stand by the demo lessons I make and send home with my students. But the teacher is a crucial part of the equation. Without a guiding facilitator the student may never learn how or when to use those skills.
I had a sobering conversation with one of my students today. We were discussing how he is behind in his work and I suggested using the valuable time he spends on the bus to complete some assignments. Since it takes him about an hour to get home, I thought it wise to break open the laptop and answer some math problems.
He disagreed and for one very good reason: he might get shot. He cited a problem his brother had a few years ago wherein they were on the street somewhere and the brother - along with two other friends - were shot so that a perpetrator could steal whatever they had on them.
I have been talking about how my students have experienced hardships in their neighborhoods but never heard it from one of their own mouths before (the fact that a former student of my school was shot and killed two weeks ago doesn't help either).
While I wholeheartedly agree that the teacher is the most effective and important part of a student's learning, the neighborhood can have a decidedly negative effect that could counteract it. If neighborhood schools were safer, perhaps some of my students would spend 10 minutes walking to and from school and not waste the 2 hours daily this kid has to. That time could be spent reading, writing, completing homework assignments, or maybe participating in an after-school program.
The violence at schools like Audenreid HS and South Philadelphia HS is just one example of the many problems our schools have. For that reason I am glad that the position of Safe Schools Advocate is being re-introduced
. An independent observer focusing on violence in schools might force the District to spend money on people helping students or peer mediation programs instead of turning our schools into prisons with video cameras everywhere (besides, what can a camera do in the event of a problem? it can contact the authorities, but people walking the halls can act immediately). Programs like Restorative Justice
or Positive Behavioral Supports
are just two of many that have helped me become a better teacher in my brief two years.
If we can curb the violence in and around our schools, maybe the students will be more willing and able to focus on what they need to: their education.
I am a proud member of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
While I may take issue with certain parts of the PFT and teacher's unions in general, I am a firm supporter in the idea that we need and deserve some kind of support structure for ourselves. There are too much grudges, too much animosity, and too much political wrangling (see earlier post
) - we need some kind of support structure.
Yesterday saw a large win for our union. Hope Moffett, English teacher at Audenreid, was let back
to her building to continue building her student's community in the best way she knows how: education. The union fought and won her right to come back into the classroom days after it was announced she would be fired. That is the purpose of unions - to support those who are wrongly in danger.
Moreover, there is some data to show that unions - for whatever reason - may actually help
the student population. A recent editorial
in the Washington Post analyzed this and showed how states with strong unions tended to perform better on national assessment than those that didn't. While I don't claim to know everything about this study, it does make a somewhat compelling argument.
Instead of focusing the conversation on blaming the teachers, student, parents, or community, can't we bring everyone together to agree that our general society has a lot to do with it? If my students went home to a safe home every night to supportive families at home when they got there (i.e. not working to support the family), no need to impress others by buying or stealing the latest fashion, and no worry about losing peer support for being smart, then maybe things would be different.
One of the ways you can tell I'm just slightly more stressed about the budget of the School District of Philadelphia is that I attended the Community Budget Meeting this past Saturday. For those of you who do not know I try very hard to "cease work" on Shabbat (Friday at sundown to Saturday at sundown). Attending any kind of meeting for the School District definitely qualifies. That being said, I couldn't attend the meeting that took place on Thursday and wanted to know more information about the District's budget and how it could affect me next year.
The meeting started about 20 minutes late (bothersome because I was rushing to get there on time) and then we listened to about 40 minutes of explanation regarding the District's budget and where, specifically, the $465 million gap was coming from next year. It was enlightening to get to see, in person, Chief Financial Officer Michael Masch (bio
) explain where all the money goes to and how the State and Federal governments are pulling out QUITE a lot of money.
In the meantime, the SDP has to deal with all of this. So, they split the participants into various classrooms (divided into groups of staff, parent/community members, and students and gave us this
document. What they kept emphasizing was that we were providing input into what the District would like to prioritize. Often there would be a comment or question referring to cutbacks on these programs and the District folk were VERY hesitant to use that phrase or respond directly to it.
The unfortunate thing about this document is that it does not contain an itemized list of ALL the expenditures of the District. Rent for buildings, HVAC systems, initiatives like the Renaissance program - they are not mentioned at all here. You can bet that the teachers and other staff in my breakout session brought that
All of these meetings and articles I am reading are really getting me to understand and believe that I need to get more involved and educated on the subject of politics at the state and federation level. I've gotten to know who my representatives are in Harrisburg (and the fact that PA is losing one very soon) and I recommend you do as well. If you want to call, email, write, text, facebook, tweet, or whatever to your representation in PA, check out this
website for more info.
In the meantime, just keep updated on what's going on so that you can give an educated response to anyone discussing the School District with you in the future.
This morning I made an immoral choice because of the potential legal ramifications.
I was on my normal public transit route to school when my bus broke down about 15 minutes into the ride. Luckily, I called a coworker and was able to hop a ride with her all the way to our building. Unluckily for the student who usually takes the bus with me from Center City is that due to current teacher political issues, we did not offer him a ride. Potentially, if we took charge and brought him with us we could have gotten in trouble for not having parent permission, signatures, etc. We would have been "endangering the health and safety" of a child.
Before I go any further, please note that this students gets to school quite early so all that needed to happen was the next bus to come around and get him to where he normally disembarks. He got to school with time to spare.
But take a moment to analyze the morality of this situation. Due to POLITICS and LEGAL ISSUES, we made the choice NOT to help someone who was in the exact situation that warrants it. I am somewhat ashamed of myself for my actions this morning but I also find myself between a rock and a hard place when these situations occur. If the current system of education is stomping on the creativity of our students by mandating testing in certain subjects and redistributing funding based on it, then at the very least it could provide a moral backbone.
Apparently that's not happening and I am partially to blame for not having a backbone of my own. Education is more than just reading, writing, and arithmetic. It is providing the fabric of understanding for the world around us. We need a better method for doing that.
I spent the weekend in Boston attending my second-cousin's Bat Mitzvah. Before you begin asking "what exactly is a second-cousin and why do I care?" please be informed that I know my family very well. My senior project in high school was researching my ancestors - I now have over 1100 people on my family tree and I keep adding them. But I digress.
Aside from the fun with my family, the service, the massive amounts of food (hey, we're Jewish after all) I had one of the most intriguing discussions with little sister of the Bat-Mitzvah girl. She is 11 years old and explained to me quite well why "Columbus was bad" in reference to the Taino tribe occupying the West Indies in 1492. Granted, she simplified the experience quite a lot, but the fact that an 11-year old is learning about the nuances of colonial travel and its effect on the local population excites me! She continued to tell me about her math class and how to subtract negative numbers correctly by using manipulatives, something I never did in elementary school but is becoming standard practice across the country - something proved to work with research to back it up.
I don't really have a moral to this blog post - I just wanted to share my experience with this wonderful girl. I hope she grows up to be as fun-loving and educated as possible.
(As an aside, immediately following our conversation, she collected all the balloons from the luncheon and looked like she was going to be lifted in the air by them)
Feedback is a critical component of teaching and I have espoused a specific way I find to be the best kind of feedback I have been a part of: Critical Friends. I am actually so excited about this idea of a program that I was happy when another colleague of mine observed me last week on 5 seconds notice. She asked if I felt comfortable with it and of course I said I was - any feedback I would receive with open arms.This is even true of my students - I would love for them to critique my teaching methodology and supply me with recommendations of how to make myself a better educator. That being said, when they get feisty in the moment it is not always a good time to get that feedback.Unfortunately I have found that the official feedback supplied by the School District of Philadelphia is second to many. It seems to me that the observation tools so often used by administrators are implemented to punish teachers instead of help them learn and grow. Education changes constantly and so a teacher needs to be constantly ready to alter his or her style in order to enliven the new generation of classrooms. Recently I have heard many stories of friends of mine being "observed" and received low marks on a scale that is being used punitively more than educationally (I use quotation marks because I think a 15 minute walk-through is hardly enough time to make an accurate observation of an educator). Also, I am angered by the fact that while the official observation tool has many criteria that describe the wide range of things a teacher has to worry about, these new tools seem to have a very narrow focus, and they are not implemented fairly. When teachers start thinking of feedback in terms of punishment instead of growth it becomes almost useless. When administrators do the same thing it becomes a grudge. When the state or federal government do the same thing it becomes fascism. We need to seriously evaluate how our District evaluates its teachers.
I've been having some interesting email conversations with various educators across the Philadelphia region about a tool we use at my school called the Learner Log. I wrote about it in a previous guest post on Frank Murphy's blog, City School stories
. If you are intrigued and want more information, do not hesitate to contact me.
--------------------------------------------------------I just started teaching in the School District of Philadelphia last year. As a recently graduated teacher, I am trying to learn as much as I can about how the district operates. I want to get up-to-speed as fast as possible.That being said, I think there are a few really innovative things going on in the School District and I can share one with you now from where I am – the High School of the Future.Since student-teaching three years ago I have been working on creating systems that document student-teacher and parent-teacher interactions in a way that is searchable and easy-to-use. I began in the 2008-2009 school year by creating an Excel Spreadsheet for all of my students and inputting information on a student’s page if I called home, had an incident with them in class, or just wanted to provide feedback on how they were doing. It was an internal record for what was going on.In the 2009-2010 school year I expanded that by placing the same spreadsheets on Google Docs. I was at West Philadelphia High School and many of the teachers were familiar with Google Docs so we all started contributing to these pages. This way I knew if another teacher had an incident or called home for a student that I had as well. It was an amazing boon for CSAP as all we had to do was click the print button to document anything goings-onNow during the 2010-2011 school year, with the help of my new colleagues at the School of the Future, we have made an improvement on that system (something I didn’t think possible). Using the online portal system we have at the school, a co-worker of mine has helped me create a database system that all teachers (and administrators, secretaries, anyone we deem necessary) have access to. It works similarly to what I described on Google Docs except that it is COMPLETELY searchable – by name of student, person who input the information, date, type of activity, etc. We even input absence notes into the system so advisers can easily share their information with the rest of the school and the attendance secretary. This system is GREAT for collaborative efforts with teachers across the school and shares information instantaneously.Many people complain about things going on at their schools and I’m sure if I started I wouldn’t be able to stop, but I wanted to highlight something we are doing well and offer to help others create a similar system in their schools. This is something that can help people immensely by savings time and energy otherwise spent filling out LOADS of paperwork.