Here Comes the Goose Stepper

 

Last week, I came across this phenomenal video on my Twitter:

First, I thought, “That’s rather funny and clever.”

Then I thought, “Man, what a bunch of goose stepping morons.”

Then, I started thinking about teaching because that’s what I do. And what I thought – forgive me – is that we’ve got some goose stepping teachers walking around and they should probably knock it off.

We watch a video like the above and shake our heads. We chuckle a little over how goofy the soldiers look, even without the Bee Gees. Because the goose step is strongly associated with the Nazis, North Korea, and other dictatorial regimes, we see it as backwards, a symbol of blind obedience. George Orwell captured most westerners’ opinion of the goose step when he wrote that it was only used in countries where the population was too scared to laugh at its military.

But here’s the thing about those goose stepping soldiers: Some of them, maybe even most of them, are thinking about how much they’re killing the thing. Pick a soldier out of the above video clip and this is probably pretty close to what’s going through his or her head:

Look at me, crushing this march. Nobody goose steps like I do. Watch me swing my legs. Perfectly straight! Not like Chan-woo over there. Man, I feel good! I’m goosing the hell out of this step!

Which goes to show you that people have an amazing capacity to feel proud of themselves even where they’re doing stupid things.

And that brings me to teaching.

We do a lot of stupid things. Things that have little to do with helping students learn and become better people. And a lot of us are damn proud of these things.

We spend an hour on a bulletin board to impress other adults who happen to pop in or walk by our room. We’re proud of our work – as proud as a goose stepping Nazi – but that bulletin board isn’t going to make much of a difference, and we just spent 60 minutes on it.

We’re proud of our fancy newsletters with their decorative borders, perfectly arranged text boxes, adorable clipart, and copious information for parents. Look at us, establishing a consistent home-school connection! Nevermind that half the newsletters never get seen, another quarter of them don’t get read, and most of the information can be shared in an email that would take five minutes to write.

I’m guilty too. I feel all proud of myself when students are working quietly when the principal pops in. I’m strutting like a peacock when my straight line of third graders go marching walking down the hall in complete silence. Student compliance warms my heart far more than it should. I once nailed a lesson on rhombuses and felt great about it.

Until I remembered that knowing the characteristics of a rhombus is about as useful as knowing how to goose step.

The lesson is this, and it’s one I hope at least a few of those North Korean soldiers realize:

or

Some things are worth doing well and feeling proud about. These things include:

  • Taking the time to build relationships with students who will do better because of those relationships.
  • Teaching engaging lessons where students learn things.
  • Providing quick and targeted feedback that helps students improve.
  • Showing patience, tolerance, and grace in front of your class when a kid loses his shit.

But other things are just goose stepping your way past the reviewing stand with a silly look on your face.

Figure out the difference and spend more time on the stuff that matters. If you don’t, someone might just take a video of you marching down the hall with your silent, obedient class and add a Bruno Mars song to it.*

* If you know of such a video or can make one, please share.

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Want to know more about optimizing your time and focusing on what matters the most? Check out my book, Leave School At School, which does that and more.

 

 

 

 

How Can Educators Navigate the STEM Technology Desert?

By Frankie Wallace

STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) jobs are set to increase over the next year and likely beyond — demand has been growing for the past decade. Yet, there aren’t enough graduates pursuing STEM-related careers after graduation. Additionally, teachers who are skilled in these subjects and can teach them in a compelling way are few and far between.

STEM subjects are taught in schools everywhere, but students aren’t as excited about them as art, physical education, or theater (let alone lunch or recess). STEM classes are required, but electives and creative classes are what students get excited about. However, by approaching STEM education in a new way, teachers can show students just how thrilling STEM classes can be.

To start, they simply need to skim news headlines: From increasingly sophisticated AI finding its way into our classrooms to the possibility of insect droids pollinating Mars, what seemed like science fiction a decade ago is now reality. Technology of the future is all part of STEM, and giving learners a window into these developments is sure to spark interest.

But what can educators do once they’ve caught students’ interest? Let’s explore some ways we can improve STEM education in technology deserts.

Three Ideas for Better STEM Education

The best STEM lessons combine interesting, hands-on activities with computer-based learning. Without both components, students don’t get a well-rounded introduction to STEM. A common STEM lesson is the egg drop challenge. You’ve probably seen this in sitcoms, or maybe you’ve even designed one yourself. You have to build a vehicle that can keep a raw egg safe when dropped from a second story.

Thanks to technology, STEM lessons today can go far beyond this basic challenge (though it still may good to include in classes). Here are a couple lesson ideas:

  • Split students up into groups of four and have them compete in a design challenge. Assign them a specific task and then have them work together to plan, design, and build the solution. Lego Mindstorms makes a STEM education set for this type of lesson, combining hands-on design with computer science.
  • Hold a quiz competition similar to “Jeopardy.” This is even better is if you have the students design the game system. You can then populate it with questions.
  • Get your students involved in a robotics competition where they can compete against teams from other schools. Not only will students work together on a STEM project, but they’ll meet other students who share their interests. This may work especially well for introverts who feel left out of other types of school activities.

Teachers who evolve their lesson plans will prepare students for going into real world STEM fields. Adopting new technology into your classroom is and utilizing it to its full potential is a recipe for educational success — and doing so doesn’t even have to break the bank.

 

STEM Lessons Can Be Affordable

Despite the fact that STEM often includes new age technology, lessons and projects don’t have to be expensive. The Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem proved this with their “hack-o’-lanterns,” a month-long project where students created modified pumpkins using what they learned about analogue and digital inputs. The pumpkins had features like flapping wings, eyes that lit up, and dancing components.

The technologies used were open source and inexpensive, which made it affordable for the school budget and allowed students to take projects home with them. Students worked with Arduino boards, which are programmable “mini computers” that can be designed for practically any purpose. The school found that the project kept students engaged even when they were home — emails would come in in the middle of the night or early in the morning as the kids continued working on their pumpkins.

Combine STEM Lessons With Other Subjects

Students who can’t seem to get interested in STEM may find lessons more interesting if they’re combined with other subjects. Using STEM teaching tools can improve your teaching dramatically by helping you bridge gaps between subjects.

  • Connect with the English teacher and have students create 3D floor plans for a home that’s featured in a book the English class is reading. This is particularly helpful for literature set in historical or futuristic settings, where students may struggle to visualize environments within the text.
  • Students who love their history class can use the Scratch app developed by MIT, to write their own games. Students can then present their app to the class to teach them about specific events or people.
  • Partner with the art teacher and ask students to design a robotic arm that can paint on its own. Students could also recreate famous paintings on their computers.
  • Gym classes can have students wear fitness trackers. The information collected can then be used in biology class to demonstrate about how physical activity affects the body.

It’s important for students to understand that STEM education isn’t relegated to just the science or math classroom. In order to encourage them to pursue highly relevant STEM fields, it needs to be tied to real-world issues. A perfect example of this is bioengineering and environmental engineering, given modern industry’s focus on sustainability. Students should be given a broad range of knowledge about the many different ways STEM is used today.

In practically all fields, understanding STEM concepts is a major help. For example, even working artists should have some concept of STEM in order to market their work or streamline their processes by using analytics and data collection. Students who live in rural communities may not have access to the same technology as those in more urban areas, but things like social media and video conferencing can still connect them with companies and other students to increase their learning potential.

 

Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash

Teachers Should Not Feel Guilty About Taking The Summer Off

It’s that time of year once again. The time of year when teachers try to convince people who don’t teach that they really don’t have summers off.

Teacher Nicholas Ferroni, who enjoys a large Twitter following of mostly fellow teachers (it might have something to do with his looks, though his pandering to teachers probably doesn’t hurt), got an early jump this year when he asked teachers to share with him all the work they’ll be doing this summer.

He’s calling it #NoSummersOff and he’s been sharing videos of teachers explaining how many humps they’ll be busting between this year’s final bell and next year’s welcome-back-to-school-time-wasting-PD-day.

Ferroni explained that the campaign is “not intended for sympathy or to complain, but to crush the myth that only NON-educators believe: teachers have summers off.”

But why do teachers feel the need to crush this myth instead of embracing it?

I believe it’s because of guilt, that feeling teachers seem especially susceptible to.

Teachers who don’t work over the summer might feel guilty because we live in the most overworked country on the face of the planet.

  • In the U.S., 86 percent of men and 67 percent of women work more than 40 hours per week.
  • According to the ILO, Americans work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers.
  • According to the BLS, the average productivity per American worker has increased 400% since 1950.

We embrace work. We glorify busy. We live in a culture where work is valued much higher than leisure. People regularly brag (although they mask it as complaining) about how many hours they put in on the job. Even when they have opportunities to take breaks, they refuse. According to Glassdoor, Americans use only about half their vacation time. Just one in four uses all the time they’re entitled to. 10% take no paid time off at all.  When they do take a vacation, 56% of surveyed workers admitting to checking in with the office during it.

The idea that we teachers could have two months free from work feels like a luxury that we should not indulge. And so a lot of us work, not because we really need to, but because we’re surrounded by people who work too much and who place too much value on it. In short, we’d feel guilty if we took this time for ourselves, so we don’t.

You can see this guilt in the explanations teachers give for why they’ll be working this summer. People only go out of their way to explain their actions this much when they’re worried about what others think, and we teachers are forever trying to convince non-educators that hey, we work summers too! We’re essentially saying, “Look! We’re just as foolish as the rest of you!”

As teachers, we also suffer from the feeling that we can never do enough. This guilt follows us around like a new puppy and it’s reinforced almost daily. There is rarely a lesson that goes perfectly; some student always needs more help. No matter how much time we put in, we could always put in more to make the lesson, or the bulletin board, or the student materials just a bit better. With new research and new technologies and new instructional methods, there’s always more for us to learn.

Another book to read.

Another conference to attend.

Another Twitter chat to join.

Given all we don’t know and can’t yet do as well as we would like to, how can we justify taking two months off every year?

I don’t know. But I do know that other professionals don’t feel the same way. They don’t feel the need to justify their perks. CEOs rarely bother trying to convince non-CEOs that they’re actually worth the outrageous amounts of money they’re paid. Business execs feel no shame over their season tickets and access to the company luxury box. Doctors don’t feel bad about their summer cottages.

Let’s call time away from the job what it is: a perk. And let’s stop apologizing for it. Let’s stop being guilted into giving it away. Instead, let’s embrace it.

The next time a non-educator tries to make you feel guilty for having two months off by asking, “So, what are you going to do with all that time?” smile and say, “As little as possible. It’s great!” Then tell him, “I hear there’s a teacher shortage. You should become one!”

Instead of videos of guilted teachers talking about how many classes they’ll be taking, or the curriculum they’ll be writing, or the lessons they’ll be planning, I’d much rather see a string of videos of teachers explaining how they will be taking the summer for themselves and their families. I’d rather see them proudly doing nothing on a beach, or visiting national parks with their kids, or catching up on their favorite Netflix shows while eating a giant bucket of popcorn.

And they shouldn’t feel the need to justify or apologize for any of it.

 

 

My Day Observing and Interviewing Young Teachers

 

I had the pleasure yesterday of serving on my school’s interview team for a third grade position. Five candidates, four of whom just finished their student teaching and one of whom has five years of teaching experience, competed for the job. They each taught a 15-minute lesson and answered questions for a half-hour. Here are five thoughts:

Our kids are in good hands

I’ve been on interview committees a few times before and I am always impressed by the quality of the candidates. While the data says that our “best and brightest” are going into other fields, I’m forced to take issue with their criteria. These are high-quality people who are signing up for a difficult job because they want to make a difference and help kids. With teacher strikes, social media, a Secretary of Education who’s hostile to public schools, and teacher resignation letters regularly going viral, no one goes into education today ignorant of the challenges. These people are signing up anyway. The banks can have the valedictorians; I’ll take the idealists.

It’s a limited sample size, but the young people who are becoming teachers today seem better trained than those with whom I competed almost 20 years ago. Frankly, just-out-of-college me would not compare favorably to the current just-out-college teachers-to-be, with their higher-than-mine GPAs, overseas teaching experiences, and volunteer hours at tutoring centers and summer camps. Most incorporate classroom practices that took me years to figure out and can speak intelligently about education topics I only know about because I’m in the thick of it day in and day out.  They even know most of the damn acronyms.

Expectations Are Everything

After watching five lessons, one thing above all others stood out as making the greatest difference between a smooth lesson and one in which both students and teacher struggled a bit: Expectations at the earliest possible moment.

Of the five teachers we observed, three stood apart. They were the same three that introduced themselves and then quickly laid out expectations for student behavior. All three made it crystal clear how students were to respond to questions and all three established an attention signal right up front. Two of them had practiced their attention signals before the interview team even entered the room. The other two taught fine lessons but had to go back later and set expectations after students started blurting and giving silly responses to open-ended questions. Which brings me to…

Avoid Open-Ended Questions

One candidate started her lesson with an open-ended question, which made me cringe. She then continued to ask more open-ended questions. Things were fine at first, and open-ended questions do encourage more involvement. Students were certainly engaged.

But you probably know what happened. It wasn’t long before students were gustily blurting out answers, and it wasn’t long after that before those with the greatest need for attention were blurting out answers solely intended to make their classmates laugh.

Asking open-ended questions and allowing students to blurt out can improve student engagement, but for most teachers and most classrooms, it’s too hard to maintain the kind of climate where learning will take place. Most teachers would be smart to stick with other involvement strategies, such and turn-and-talk, the use of whiteboards, or a digital response system and ask for hands to be raised the rest of the time.

Education Research Is Not Getting Through

I asked each candidate about best practices in ELA and Math instruction. You would think in the age of data and Marzano and Hattie’s effect sizes, that prospective teachers would be able to knock such a question out of the park. You would be wrong. With very few exceptions, each candidate addressed the question as though the phrase “best practices” meant “things you do in the classroom that you/your students like.” Not one candidate used the word research or effect size in their answers (and providing timely feedback is a no-brainer, man!) and not one supported their answer by claiming they did their own research and found that their best practice was in fact a best practice because they had data to support it.

If those just coming out of college aren’t aware of what “best practice” means and if they don’t know what the current research suggests works, then we have a long way to go.

I don’t blame the candidates. This is something their colleges of education should be teaching. As impressed as I was with the candidates’ use of learning targets, engagement strategies, and formative assessments, I was underwhelmed by their apparent lack of knowledge when it came to effective teaching practices. If colleges of education aren’t teaching those, then what are they teaching?

It shouldn’t be up to individual teachers to research best practices. That information should be shared with teachers in college and then throughout their careers. We still do a poor job of informing our teachers about the practices that are most likely to lead to higher student achievement. We need to do better here.

Specificity wins 

After sitting through five interviews, the one piece of advice I would give prospective teachers is to be as specific as possible when answering questions. This is one area where the teacher with five years of experience had a clear upper hand. Having her own classroom for five years meant she had used the standards to plan lessons for five years. She had used different curriculums and universal screeners. It meant she’d solved more problems than the recently graduated candidates had ever faced. Her answers were better because she was able to talk about specifics while the others could only talk in generalities and hypotheticals.

That wasn’t entirely their fault. There’s no replacement for on-the-job experience, especially when it comes to teaching, where there is no substitute for the real thing and the realities of the job can’t be replicated in a college environment. But that doesn’t mean the recently graduated can’t be more specific in their answers.

When asked about classroom management, don’t just talk about the importance of building relationships. We all know that; you get no points for saying it. Talk instead about a student you had during student teaching with whom you made a connection that led to an improved effort. If asked about the important components of a math program, don’t just recite what your mentor teacher did; talk about what you will do in your own classroom and connect it to your own experiences and research on what works. Vague generalities and edubabbly cliches become background noise that interview committees have heard too many times before. If you want to grab your interviewers’ attention, say things other people haven’t already said. The easiest way to do that is to get specific about what you’ve done or would do.

 

Do As We Say, Not As We Do

For as long as I can remember, education has been accused of being stuck in the stone age and resistant to change. You can’t spend a day on the socials without someone lamenting that schools haven’t adapted to the new world and still operate like 20th-century factories. One way out of our morass, these critics say, is for education to work more like medicine. We should be more scientific, and only do things that have been proven effective through rigorous research.

As teachers, we’ve been inundated with this message. A cottage industry has grown up around studying and reporting on what works in education. Whole libraries have been written. Our evaluations are mostly based on whether and how well we implement research-based practices in our classrooms, with principals ticking them off on checklists. It’s no longer acceptable to use the instructional methods our teachers used with us. Professional development focuses on recent research. Educators shame each other on Twitter over what they perceive to be dated and harmful teaching methods. My school has a poster of John Hattie’s effect sizes hanging – of all places – in the teachers’ lounge; we can’t even escape the guy when we’re eating. There’s a What Works Clearinghouse and the Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit, two resources whose sole purpose is to provide educators with evidence of effective practices.

The message is clear: Teachers make a big difference, and it’s what teachers do that makes the biggest difference. Teachers who use the most effective practices are going to get better results than those who don’t. Just as you would never take a drug that hadn’t been proven effective through rigorous study, we shouldn’t put teachers in classrooms unless they know and will follow the evidence.

Many teachers have understandably jumped onto the evidence-based bandwagon. They want to do best by their students. They want to be effective. They want to make a difference.

But one thing that may be holding teachers back is the rampant hypocrisy practiced by those in power. Hypocrisy, it should be noted, is not an effective practice, and I don’t need John Hattie to do a meta-analysis to tell me so.

If education is going to be evidence-based, then every time those in charge ignore research because it conflicts with their beliefs, or the way things have always been done, or because it costs too much, or it’s politically risky, the whole notion of evidence-based education is undermined and teachers have every reason to ask why they’re being held to a standard that their bosses ignore.

Benchmark assessments

Robert Slavin recently wrote this: Benchmark Assessments: Weighing the Pig More Often?

Here’s an excerpt:

High-quality, large scale randomized evaluations of benchmark assessments are relatively easy to do. Many have in fact been done. Uses of benchmark assessments have been evaluated in elementary reading and math (see www.bestevidence.org). Here is a summary of the findings.

Number of StudiesMean Effect Size
Elementary Reading6-0.02
Elementary Math4   .00
Study-weighted mean10-0.01

In a rational world, these findings would put an end to benchmark assessments, at least as they are used now. The average outcomes are not just small, they are zero. They use up a lot of student time and district money.”

Despite the lack of evidence supporting these assessments, almost every school district gives them and many states mandate their use. How can you claim to be evidence-based when you do such a thing? How can you expect your teachers to follow the research when you so willfully ignore it?

Start Times

Those who want education to operate more like medicine might be interested to know that the Centers for Disease Control recommends that middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 am so that adolescent bodies can get the sleep they need to function at their best. But according to a 2014 study, 93% of high schools and 83% of middle schools started before 8:30.

If, in the face of clear evidence and a recommendation from as venerable an organization as you’ll find, you can’t do something as simple as swap the starting times of your elementary and high schools because of tradition, or football practices, or after-school jobs, or busing schedules, then your teachers are going to wonder why they should upend their comfortable teaching practices. Leaders who want evidence-based teaching in their classrooms must lead by example by following the evidence even when they’d rather not, because that’s exactly what they’re asking teachers to do.

Recess

It’s abundantly clear that recess is good for kids’ wellbeing and their academic performance (some of the research is referenced in this article from Time) and yet even today, many states and schools put strict limits on it. If you’re a teacher who works for a district that doesn’t allow kids recess, then you work for a district that isn’t serious about using evidence. You’d be well within your rights to ask, “If you’re not going to follow the research in your district policies, then why should it in my classroom?”

Of course, maybe school boards and superintendents who ignore evidence are simply following the lead of government officials. When the folks who are running your state ignore evidence, it shouldn’t be a surprise when those who run school districts feel they can do the same. Take retention.

Retention

The effect size for retention, John Hattie found, is negative .32. In his book, Visible Learning, he wrote:

“The effects of flunking are immediately traumatic to the children and the retained children do worse academically in the future, with many of them dropping out of school altogether. Incredibly, being retained
has as much to do with children dropping out as does their academic achievement. It would be difficult to find another educational practice on which the evidence is so unequivocally negative.”

Despite the one-sided research, 16 states require retention for students not reading proficiently by the end of third grade. Another eight allow for retention but don’t require it. Two more are currently considering legislation that would require retention. 

Evidence-based education may, in fact, be the solution we’ve been waiting for. It might lead to better teaching and learning. By doing what the research says, education might make the sort of progress seen in the medical world.

But evidence-based education has no chance to make a difference if the people who make education policies at the state and local level continually ignore the research.

Until they do, evidence-based teaching feels like just another example of people telling teachers to do something they themselves are unwilling to.