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So You Want To Be An Online Teacher

11 Jul

I have finally finished my first year teaching for the largest charter school in Georgia, which also happens to be part of a larger company that is the largest online K-12 school in the U.S. And it has been quite an adventure on so many levels!

This past year, I was a special education teacher, co-teaching algebra 1 to mostly 9th grade students. This alone would have been a challenge for me in any setting, since math is not exactly my best subject. Unfortunately, this is true of most special educators as most teachers who have a talent for math end up teaching it regularly. And those with a talent for both math and teaching are even more rare than those with the temperament for teaching special education. So I would have been breathing rarified air in any case, but the fact that I was doing it in an online environment made it even moreso.

The first question I always get is “How do you teach special education in an online environment?” Sometimes it is more generic, as in “How does online teaching work?”

It involves some of the same skills and routines as regular teaching, but the environment is totally different and it involves some new skills in communication and technology.

Most of the same things that hold true for online learning apply to online teaching. There is a steep learning curve, more work spread over more hours. While there is some flexibility and environmental benefits, it is not easier or less rigorous than teaching in a regular brick and mortar (B&M) setting. If someone is considering teaching in an online environment there are some things they need to know. Now I can share a few things that I learned over the past year.

The first and biggest adjustment I had to make was realizing that my school never sleeps. Ever. I think the closest thing my school came to taking a break was on Christmas and New Years and maybe the 4th of July. That does not mean that we as teachers don’t have breaks, but it does mean that the company is a constant task gin and taking vacations, taking time off and otherwise being unplugged results in a backlog of things that will be waiting for you when you plug back in. If you are the sort that likes a tidy desk with all things completed at the end of the day you will be in a constant state of stress and frustration. And I was one of those people who enjoyed some sense of completion and closure. This was doable and possible when teaching in a B&M setting with individuals with severe and profound disabilities, because I worked diligently during the day and could have most things done when I went home, even if I had to stay for a few extra hours. During IEP season, I might be there as late as 7 or 8 at night but when I went home it was done and there were few things carrying forward to the next day.

This is not even remotely possible in this environment. People take advantage of the flexibility, and so a teacher or administrator with young kids might wait until their kids were asleep to delve into the their major work tasks. So if I decide to check my email at 10 at night, I might find a dozen new things to do, many of which might be due by noon the next day.

My peers in the B&M setting are currently on their summer break, and have been for a couple of months. I get one month off, but there is some assumption that I will plug in and check my email and complete some tasks during that time. This assumption is a bit grating, as I am used to work being work and time off being time off. I still have some things to learn about managing the time and finding balance.

So just what ARE these tasks? Public education has become an endeavor that is data driven, and so much of what I do involves inputting, tracking and doing things with that data much more so that my friends in the B&M environment. Being a special education teacher adds an additional layer of compliancy that is not present anywhere else. In this setting, whatever the maximum caseload size is, you can count on having it.

In the B&M setting, spring is typically “IEP season.” However, within my setting, with a caseload of the maximum 26, it is year round with assorted amendments that have to take place constantly. Last year, the state did a sort of sumo belly flop on our department, trying to use special ed. issues to close the school and revoke our charter. This resulted in us having to work diligently until the wee hours of the morning over the course of several months in order to meet the various state-mandated deadlines, changing our IEPs into state-mandated language. It was an oppressive, stressful environment that made me wonder why I was here and what I had gotten myself into.

My day starts off with a commute of just a few feet to fire up my laptop, during which time I might go get something to eat and perhaps even take a showers. Note to perspective online teachers: taking a shower more than once a week will make you feel better! If I wait until 8 to wake up and log in, I do have the flexibility to sneak a shower in later in the day.

We do have live class sessions, which most teachers enjoy as this is where the most direct interaction occurs with the students. My first one was not until 9, so the first hour of my workday was checking my email and kmail and responding while making out my task list for the day. This list was in a notebook, and usually things carried over from one day to the next and the closest I got to a clean desk was scratching off each thing I completed as I went through the day. Math had more sessions than any other subject, which was 4 times a week 9-10, and then 3 times a week 1-2. There were also weekly school meetings, weekly trainings and weekly special ed department meetings as well as other weekly staff meetings with math and high school and high school special education. Each of these meetings were opportunities to get some more tasks and work to add to our list.

If I paint a picture of a lot of administrative work, that is because it is the lion’s share of what we do. The academic classes on the high school level are huge. I co-taught in a section of 160-180 students. Most of the work that students do is independent and fairly self-directed, which is a huge adjustment for most of them. This is why the learning coach is such a critical component of the online learning equation.

Up to this point, it might look like a bleak picture. Perhaps I can make it a little darker by pointing out that we do get paid substantially less than our B&M peers. The benefits are fairly competitive, but you will pay as they do take a huge chunk out of ones paycheck.

So to summarize: longer hours, less time off and less pay. You still want to do this?

We attract a lot of women with young children who want to spend more time at home with their kids and see this flexibility as a way of doing that. However once in, many realize that this is not necessarily working out like they had hoped. A lot of time is spent in meetings and on the telephone and kids and pets (and perhaps spouses) have an uncanny knack of knowing just when to make lots of noise to get mommy’s attention. So the demands can seem fairly constant, now with children and job both crowding in often at the same time. I’m fortunate to have a wife who can take care of the kids while I work, and kids old enough to know to stay out of the office when I am busy. But that is not to say that y parents, students and fellow teachers will never hear the sound of baritone practice, video games or other loud sounds in the background.

Haha…Let me reward those of you who got this far with a few rewards!

Aside from the benefits of saving on wardrobe and commuting, there are other benefits. But these two things are not unsubstantial. Everyday is pajama day if you want, though I would caution that getting showered and dressed might help to differentiate work time from not-work time which is something every home-worker has to struggle with. It is otherwise easy to get in the pit of all the time being work time. But even wearing jeans, shorts, no shoes or whatever I might want to be “work clothes” is a big benefit. In my former B&M school, the principal would reward teachers with “Jeans Day” or perhaps would sell tickets to wear jeans to raise money for some cause or club. Our kids go to live events wearing shirts saying “I love going to school everyday in my pajamas!” and teachers have something similar about teaching in their pajamas.

Not having to drive everyday is also a big benefit, as the morning and evening commutes in larger cities are considered a major stressor for most people. I don’t have to be out there worrying about getting hit by another car or what the weather is going to be. Of course that precludes snow days for me, but it lends to a more consistent schedule for the school.

The next biggest benefit as a teacher is not having to spend all the time we usually would spend managing behavior. This is a huge attraction for parents, students and teachers as the dangers and risks associated with being in a crowded classroom disappear when you are in your own house. A school shooting for our school would have to involve driving to every county in the state, visiting 12,000+ separate homes. We do take measures to keep the kids safe from cyberbullying but even these risks are greatly diminished when kids are not herded up and crowded into close proximity every day. Most fights in schools nowadays seem to spawn from something someone posted on Facebook and Twitter in a high tech variant of typical he-said she-said drama.

Teachers can see and monitor every singe thing said in their classrooms and can simply turn off or disable chat on an individual or a class-wide basis. We encourage and model appropriate online behavior in these settings and it is a boon for many who are otherwise socially awkward.

Not having to deal with behaviors like this makes it infinitely easier to deal with students 1:1, even in our huge classroom settings. And it makes it much easier to talk to kids who are already comfortable communicating digitally. It makes it easier to like them.

And I do like ALL of my students and their parents and families. In fact, I adore them. In group face-to-face settings, kids often put on a false face, trying to look cool or not wanting others to see their weaknesses. So they hide behind a false front. They can easily do this digitally, too, but all kids have a need to connect on a personal level. The words are pixels on a screen but the feelings and emotions behind them are very real and kids have become more and more adept at projecting and expressing those using technology. In B&M they often project badness in groups but teachers have to go 1:1 in order to get under that tough layer. I get to do this every day, all the time. With both parents AND students.

And this is, by far, the most satisfying part of my job. Touching kids is something every teacher lives for, and our kids thrive on the individual attention. And I thrive better as a teacher when I can do more of that. When I am feeling overwhelmed by my task list, I go to the kids and parents that need my help and it lifts us both. And they all are grateful and I have gotten SO much great and positive feedback that I never got in the B&M setting from those I have had the pleasure of working with this past year. It’s not about the pay, the vacations, the benefits or the flexibility. It’s about the connections and relationships. Being a bit of a misfit teacher, my students and I readily connect on a unique level that would not be possible in any other setting.

There is a need for more online teachers all the time as the waiting list for our school seems to get longer ever year, especially in high school. You think you have what it takes?

- You need to have a good work ethic that you can self-manage

- You need to be flexible because the only constant here is change, and often with little or no notice

- You need to be comfortable with technology as it is ALL done with the computer. Major tools for use include Outlook, Word, Excel, Powerpoint as well as some other tools. You can get a feel for the live environment by attending one of Steve Hargadon’s Future of Education sessions live or recorded in Blackboard Collaborate.

- Communicate using all modalities. Chat, writing, live and over the telephone are all ways to get the message out.

Like I said in the post about students, there is a steep learning curve. Its even steeper for teacher because you will have to be able to help families navigate a foreign system while it is still somewhat foreign to you!

We do have live face-to-face conferences, workshops and professional development activities about every other month where you get to put faces to the voices and emails. New teachers meet for several days at the beginning of the year for orientation and training.

I’ll be looking over comments for anything I might have missed, but will be back at work on Monday 7/16!  So even if it never gets read, at least it is getting my head back around toward getting back to what is important.

So You Want To Be A Student At An Online School?

11 Jul

I have finally finished my first year teaching for the largest charter school in Georgia, which also happens to be part of a larger company that is the largest online K-12 school in the U.S. And it has been quite an adventure on so many levels!

I am working on an article about being an online teacher but realized that I also needed to write something about being an online student since these go hand-in-hand. Since far more people will eventually be taking classes online than teaching them, I decided to lead off with this one.  All online teachers end up being online learners, so this is naturally a good place to start understanding what happens in an online school.

Our school is the largest in the state with over 12,000 k-12 students serving all 159 counties in the state. And we serve students in all grades with most disabilities including some with severe and multiple disabilities.

Families search us out for a variety of reasons, some of which I’ve covered in prior articles about charter schools. I have personally served students who have been shot, stabbed, beat up, ridiculed, harassed, bullied and otherwise traumatized within the more typical brick and mortar setting. Some students were themselves bullies or were kicked out of their regular schools for being disruptive. Some students are professional actors, athletes or have other interests that simply do not work well with a traditional schedule. Some students have extensive medical needs that can not be met in a traditional setting or it poses an undo hardship. Some parents chose this option because, for whatever reason, they found themselves being called into the school to come and get their child, conference with administrators, or deal with other problems in the school often totally unrelated to a child’s education. Some of these are young teen parents themselves who want to take care of and raise their children without having to drop out of school.

Whatever the reason, families are coming to us from all corners of the state from all backgrounds. Over 50% of our students were eligible for free and reduced lunches in their regular home districts. While these students don’t get the free or reduced lunches in our setting, they are eligible to receive free laptops, printers and equipment from our school including the means to access the internet if they don’t already have it. Our school is a free, public charter school which does not discriminate based on age, race, gender, gender orientation, income or academic ability. In general, we have similar admission criteria as any other public school except we also do not discriminate based on ones zip code as long as they live in the state of Georgia. If you live in my state, you or your child can attend my school.

However, SHOULD you or your child attend my school? And if so, what do you need to know?

The first thing any perspective student and their parent should realize is that online education is not easier, less rigorous or less work than a regular school. It is more flexible. In exchange for eliminating some of the problems of scheduling and social pitfalls, it poses some extra challenges that are not present in more traditional educational settings. The work still has to be done, the standards still have to be met and the standardized tests still have to be taken and passed. These are state mandates for all public schools that do not go away just because the bus is not coming to the door.

Parents and students attending us for the first time are often a bit overwhelmed by the amount of work that is expected, having had some misconception that this would somehow be easier and less work. This is probably the biggest misconception of online education and it is the downfall of most students and parents entering our setting for the first time.

The second thing parents need to know is that they are going to be more involved and doing more work themselves. In our school, they are called “learning coaches”. While a learning coach can be any adult, it is most often a parent or guardian. Students of all ages need a certain level of support in our environment, and the parent needs to be willing, or know someone who is willing to fulfill this role. In the younger grades, this means that the parent takes on the role of being the primary teacher. While this lessens with age and grade level, it is still a critical component even in high school. It is a rare student that can manage themselves alone even in high school, especially if is their first year with us.

The benefit of flexibility is also a pitfall that many students and parents fall into, becoming a crater that they find themselves struggling to escape from. Most students who go back to the regular setting are ones who fell into this early on and struggled to get out of simply because they could not adequately manage their time. Procrastination is the biggest enemy of all in this setting and the online environment makes it exasperatingly easy to find other, more interesting things to do.

This is a new system and environment for most students. There is a new language, new technology, new system and an entirely new way of doing things. The learning curse is VERY steep. Even though we might spend an entire month trying to orient new students and parents, there is a still a lot to learn and the volume of new information can be overwhelming. There is an entirely new language to learn in the ways of the OLS, LMS, class connect, blackboard collaborate, Kmail, and navigating the system.

So if you are considering this environment, both parents and students need to have their eyes open.

- Are you willing to devote MORE hours and time upfront to learn the new language and system?

- Are you willing to keep up with the constant and steady flow of new material and information?

- Are you willing and able to structure your time into a daily/weekly routine that will allow room for changes and disruptions?

- Is the student/learning coach relationship robust enough to endure stress, hardship and trials by fire?

- Are you able to persist through many challenges that extend beyond just the academic material, but also the challenges of technology?

Discouraged yet?

Online learning IS the wave of the future, and just the virtue of reading this blog shows that you are plugged in some how and investing a considerable amount of time in learning and researching. So I hope I can reward your efforts with some advice, if you are still considering this route.

1. Don’t get behind. In fact, get ahead if you can. Things come up and Murphy’s law will be there to frustrate you. One of the biggest benefits of this setting is that you CAN shoot out front and build your own buffer. Do it and you won’t regret it.

2. If things come up and you DO get behind, communicate with the teacher. We always have catch-up plans and can help prioritize to get you back on track. One thing about my fellow teachers and I is that we never give up. As long as you are willing to do the work, we’ll hang with you.

3. If you are new, give the system a chance until Thanksgiving break. Persist and hang with us through the tough learning curve. I found most new families DO feel overwhelmed at first, just like I did as a new teacher. But it DOES get better.

If there are additional concerns or questions, I’ll do my best to address them in the comments. But in just a few days, my summer will be over and I’ll be back working again! And I already have a stack of work waiting for me. But it is a subject near and dear to my heart, which I will address in the next article about being an online teacher.

Myths About Charter Schools

11 Sep

The Georgia Charter School Amendment is gearing up to be one of the hottest items on the fall ballot for the state of Georgia, outside of the presidential race.  I have wanted to write on this for some time, as I am now intimately connected to the charter school movement.  I am currently working for the largest charter school in Georgia, so it might be fair to say that I might be a little biased.  At the same time, both my children still attend their local non-charter public schools.  And I do have experience teaching in public schools for over 20 years.

I am writing mostly in response to the article by Matt Jones, 8 Myths About the Proposed Charter Amendment which was published in the AthenPatch site.  I was originally going to write about myths, but Mr. Jones beat me to it!  So, I guess I’ll have to play the role of Mythbuster for a minute.  I do admit that my experience is confined to the Georgia Cyber Academy, but I did not see where he had taught at any charter schools.

When I first heard about this amendment, I was worried about the implications of a state agency leaping over a locally controlled one, and thereby robbing the local community of tax dollars without representation or oversight.  But a few things have taken place since then which have changed my views.  One of which was working for the GCA.  Another of which was the horrific meltdown of our local school board and administration into a hopeless morass of infighting, nepotism, sniping, circling the wagons and otherwise failing to exercise leadership.

It is useful to read a bit of background about what happened in Cherokee County.  This is what was being mirrored around the state in many counties.  In fact several counties joined in the Cherokee County lawsuit.

So let me look at this issue through the lense of Mr. Jones, and clarify a few things.  His article is worth the read, simply because it provides a handy repository of half-truths and its own share of myths.  Many of the myths around charter schools could be avoided if people would simply do a little diligence and read the DOE’s website on the topic.

Myth: The State Does Not Have the Power to Approve Charter Schools That Were Denied by Local School Boards

Fact:The Georgia Department of Education currently has the authority to review and approve state charter applications.

According to State School Superintendent Dr. John Barge, “with the state charter schools review process already in place, why does Georgia need another state agency that can do the same thing?”

It is true that the State DOE does have the power to approve state charter schools: those that are considered special schools.  From the DOE FAQ:

Who are charter school authorizers in Georgia?

In Georgia, local boards of education and the State Board of Education are charter school authorizers. In order to be granted a charter, schools must be approved by both their local board of education and the State Board of Education with the exception of state-chartered special schools which are authorized by the State Board of Education only.

We’ll talk a bit about funding in a bit, but basically the approval and funding of charter schools are intimately tied together.  Gov. Deal approved HB 797, but that law hinges heavily on whether or not the state has the power to approve charter schools over local board objections.  And that power can only come from a constitutional amendment, at least according to Georgia’s Supreme Court which argued that the state did not have the constitutional authority to over ride local school boards on this issue.  So while it IS true, it is only sort of true.  If this amendment fails, the same schools who presented the first case are poised to launch into a second round against charters already established.  And Dr. Barge and the DOE have already expressed opposition in word and deed to the state charter schools.

Moving on:

Myth: Charter Schools Are More Innovative and Flexible

Fact: Charters are allowed to “kick out” students for behavior or academic reasons.

And Mr. Jones hasn’t heard of “suspension” “expulsion” or “alternative school?”  Our regular public schools find innovative ways of getting rid of students with behavior problems all the time.  Not a lot innovative there, true enough.  An odd, and little known fact is that in my home county we have exactly one locally approved charter school.  That school has never made AYP and yet it is allowed to exist.  Why?  Because it is a nice handy place to send students with behavior and academic problems.  This street runs both ways.

Fact: Charters are able to hire uncertified teachers/staff and ignore class size caps.

Class size caps?  Mr. Jones again ignores facts and the sad state of education in Georgia.  There are NO class size caps in the state of Georgia!  Our beloved legislature lifted all that over a year ago.  So whining about Charters doing it seems very ill-sighted indeed.  As far as uncertified teachers, this is another blatant falsehood and I have no idea where it came from.  We have this thing call No Child Left Behind, with the flagship provision of being HIGHLY QUALIFIED!  Charter schools are still public schools and can not opt out of Federal laws and regulations, as per our friendly and helpful GA DOE site:

Charter schools and systems are subject to all provisions outlined in O.C.G.A. 20-2-2065(b). In particular, charter schools may not waive state laws or State Board of Education rules pertaining to health and safety, funding formulas, or accountability provisions. In addition, charter schools may not waive any aspect of federal law. This includes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (also known as No Child Left Behind), the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and all applicable civil rights legislation.

Due diligence, Mr. Jones.

Myth: State Charter Schools Will Not Take Funds Away from Traditional Public Schools

Fact:If the proposed charter amendment passes, charter schools authorized by the Commission will be 100% funded by the state.

Actually there is some truth in your fact because charter schools, will in fact, take money away from the traditional public schools.  I’m not going to deny it at all.  This is because some of the money is bound to follow the student, as parents vote with their feet.  When students leave the traditional school, much of that money departs with them, which is a good incentive for traditional schools to try to hold on to their students and keep as few other options open as possible.  But the cut is much deeper than the money, albeit it is a very painful cut to systems already strapped.  The worst part is that the parents who take the initiative to start a charter or move their children into a charter are the ones most school really like.  The involved parents who care about their children’s education and the ones willing to make certain sacrifices in order to make that happen such as providing transportation and packing a lunch.

Fact: The state has a constitutional obligation to fully fund and provide for an adequate public education for every student in Georgia.4

Currently, the state is not meeting its constitutional responsibility. Most Georgians understand that budget cuts were necessary due to the economic downturn, but the passage of the charter amendment would bind the state to additional funding obligations.  

This assumes that Georgia was meeting its responsibility before the economic downturn, and that responsibility is limited to providing funds.  By almost any metric. calling Georgia’s education system as “adequate” is generous at best.  Charters exist and have the support that they do because parents crave an option.  Americans like choices, especially if the only one that exists isn’t that good.

Myth: Charter Schools Are Public Schools

Fact: There are many elements of charter schools that make them appear more private than public.

Again, Mr. Jones might wish to do some research into “Theme Schools” and “Magnet Schools.”  In my county, we have a “Parent involvment” theme school which my youngest attends.  They have criteria for admission that would prevent my oldest son who has high functioning autism from being admitted.  They also make parents sign a contract, pledging to do so  many hours of service.  They don’t provide transportation but DO provide the yummy lunches proscribed by our beloved USDA.  This school has the approval and support of the local board of education, but it has more elements that make it look private than and charter school would be allowed to do.  Why is it allowed here?  The same reason it allowed the charter school mentioned above, only on the other end of the spectrum.  At least this way, they keep the kids and their funding.  Local boards do this in response to parent demands and that is a GOOD thing!

Fact:The charter movement has close ties with the pro-school choice movement. 

Heaven forbid parents might actually CHOOSE.  I hear people complain about the lack of parental responsibility with their kids and yet many of these are the same people who want to block the school house doors and keep kids trapped.  Choosing a school or how to educate their children is the most responsible and involved thing a parent can do, and yet systems do all they can to block that avenue of responsibility.  The Anti-School choice movement has close ties with socialism and Communism, but I’m not going to make that an issue in this debate.

Myth: Charters Serve All Students

Fact: Many charter schools use lotteries to avoid qualifying for AYP testing, making it difficult to compare their success to public schools. 

The lotteries are simply a tool used to insure the distribution of students matches the district demographics within the smaller size of the charter school.  This is like saying “Many Georgians use cars in order to avoid buying new shoes.”  Small sample sizes do make comparisons difficult, but its erroneous to accuse them of deliberately keeping their sizes small just for AYP, especially when you’re going to accuse these same players of ties to big business designed to maximize their numbers.

Fact:Overall, data suggests that students who are the most challenging to teach and require the most resources are not being served by charters in the state.

I’m one of a large number of special educators currently serving students with disabilities in the largest charter school in the state.  And I happen to be certified and highly qualified.  Whatever data you have can suggest what it wishes, but the facts are much different.

Myth: Charters Seek to Put the Interests of Families and Students First

Fact: Proponents of the proposed charter amendment wave the banner of families and children, while advocating the interests of business interests over students’ interests.

You mean like those teachers on strike in Chicago?  Schools of any size are businesses with stakeholders that include families and students and all the other business entities that serve them.  The people making the textbooks in your school are businesses and they have lobbyists and marketers targeting people in your district.  They are also political.  However, unlike the traditional schools, charters DO have to be able to attract students/parents and retain them over time.  Parent satisfaction is critical to their existence!  Or at least higher satisfaction than the neighborhood school.

Fact: For these groups and individuals, support of the proposed charter amendment equates to making a business investment, instead of investing in all of our schools and all of our children.

The reason there is money to be made is the high dissatisfaction among families with their neighborhood schools.  But it’s hard to know a person’s real motives.  What I do know is that traditional schools have struggled with the disruption caused by technology and the social changes of the last decade.  They are trying to give their children every advantage they can.

Myth: Charter Schools Increase Student Achievement

Fact:Multiple Studies and Reports Call Into Question the Effectiveness of Charter School

This fact is actually not too much of a myth, at least for our school. We do track and strive to achieve success but our results are not always at the state level.  But test scores only provide part of the equation.  I’ll have to give a narrative composite sketch of our students next time.  You’ll be surprised at how it looks.

Fact:Charter school proponents regularly cherry pick data and make broad comparisons.

Sorta like Mr. Jones’ critique of the pro-school choice movement??  Actually, making a few broad comparisons is better than just making stuff up.

 

Myth: Charters Will Expand Choice and Create Competition 

Fact: Passage of the charter amendment does not guarantee that charters would be added to areas that have chronically underperforming schools. 

But the failure of the amendment will almost certainly prevent them from moving in.  It is probable that many that already exist will die off from lack of funding or be sued out of existence from the opponents.

Fact:True competition can only exist if the same system of rules and regulations are in place for all participating parties.

Again, this street runs both ways.  Fact is, my charter school is undergoing a lot more scrutiny on compliance issues compared to the traditional schools because the state DOE does NOT like us and would rather we did not exist.  Dr. Barge has already stated his position which is that no charter school should exist while other schools don’t have enough money.  And since NO regular school district EVER has enough money then we should not exist.

Charter schools employ many of your former colleagues who were otherwise unemployed or laid off.  Charter schools also educate students that traditional schools have been either unwilling or unable to serve.  And they do so at a much smaller cost to the tax payer much of the time.

Having choices is a very American thing.  Having choices in education is a humane and just thing, especially if we can offer free and public choices.  People will vote with their feet.  Since most charters have waiting lists and most traditional public schools have declining enrollments, it might be wise to look around and recognize that times are changing.  The present structure has existed for at least the last 40 years and Georgia has never been in the top 10 in education but consistently been in the bottom 10.  Mr. Jones makes an appeal to fix the system in place, but that system has consistently refused to allow itself to be fixed and it is way past adolescence.  We need real change as it is too important to put off any longer.

Educational Disruption

25 Jun

Almost a year ago, I wrote a little post about the Future of Education.  Ever since reading Clayton Christensen’s book Disrupting Class and even prior to that, I have been watching and waiting for public education in this country to come around and catch up to what I had been thinking about and doing.  The salient components were creating, collaborating and distributing ideas, lessons, materials and then having students do the same.

Back in 2010, these ideas were not welcome in public schools and to a large degree, sharing things publicly is largely discouraged, which includes teacher blogs.  Teachers are highly discouraged from being active in public media, forums and discussions on an individual level.  And heaven forbid there is anything posted that might be construed as dissent or dissatisfaction.   Schools fear transparency for a pretty good reason.  If parents really knew what was happening in classrooms, they might react with shock and horror.  We need more transparency in our schools, not less.  And attempts made by systems to censor through fear and intimidation need to quashed.

Despite or perhaps because of the negativity in education nowadays, th disruption predicted by Christensen is coming closer and closer to reality.  As budgets become more strained and as dissatisfaction increases, new opportunities are beginning to appear and technology is becoming a very key component to that.  When I start thinking about what I see in schools and look at what can be offered in a virtual environment, the traditional factory modeled schools become a tougher and tougher sell.

First of all, I think about the benefits to the students.  First off, physical bullying is nonexistent in this setting.  Bathroom graffiti; nonexistent. Pink slime in the lunches: nonexistent.  Need a pass to use the bathroom?  How about being interrupted by a fire drill?  Then there are the issues around riding the bus.  Some might argue that students will miss out on valuable social skills from the interaction with classmates.  I have seen and experienced these ‘social skills’ which include learning how to curse at adults and each other.  Or how to sag your pants and show your butt.  Or how important having the latest designer clothes and gadgets is to social status.    I could do without a lot of the social lessons that are being passed around in todays schools.

There are benefits to teachers as well.  not having to take a lunch count, not having to supervise halls and lunchrooms and playgrounds frees up time to actually work and interact with students.  If a student gets unruly or disrespectful in an online session, it is all there and recorded and they can removed with a push of a button, denying the offending student an audience.  A teacher in this environment does not have to worry about being assaulted or having their car vandalized in the parking lot.  While some online sessions can have many more students, many more can be accommodated through watching recordings of the live sessions.  Why should a teacher have to present the same thing 6 times a day when one recording can work as well?

The single biggest downside to the virtual learning environment is that it involves a significant investment by the parent.  Not necessarily in money as most homes already have the technology and connections necessary, but in time.  The parents have to take over the custodial role for their children, instead of the school.  And this is significant especially if both parents are working in full-time jobs.

The disruption is already taking place all over the country and it remains to be seen if or how positive the impact will be on the education of our students.  But times for traditional schools are getting tougher all the time with school budgets tightening around the country causing increased class sizes and decreased number of days in schools.  With the shortening of the school year, parents are already having to find other ways for their children to be looked after while they work.  And herding more students into smaller spaces brings the task of control to such prominence as to totally overshadow the supposed main goal, which is education.  It forces the culture to have more in common with prisons than with places of learning.

Accelerated Reader: Undermining literacy while plundering library budgets

12 Apr

A recent report about the lowering of reading scores is making news in educational circles. 

Sandra Stotsky, holder of the Twenty-First Century Chair in Teacher Quality in the department of education reform at the University of Arkansas, says American high school students do not read challenging books, whether they are assigned by their teachers or chosen for leisure reading.

The report is put out by the same company that sells the Accelerated Reader, more commonly known as AR in a school near you.  Basically, AR is built for data.  Books are rated and organized according to reading level and length and then quizzes are given to students after they read the books and awarded points based on how well they perform on the quizzes.  The quizzes are all computerized thus facilitating the data driven instruction favored by the leaders in educational reform today.

Here is a great article by Gary Stager on the shortcomings of AR and how it drains schools of scarce resources while creating and exacerbating a problem that it is claiming to address.  What I want to add to the conversation is first-hand experience with how AR, and its implementation has had a detrimental effect on reading in our household.

In my youngest son’s 4th grade classroom, he is assigned a sort of individualized reading goal of a certain number of points per month.  Making this goal is a substantial part of his grade.  The goal is fairly well-written, in that it is precise and can be efficiently measured, since AR is a like a dream for people who are data driven. Plus it can be individualized based on ability.  You would think a behaviorist like me would love it.

 

My 4th grader has the dubious honor of being able to read on about the 6-7th grade level.  So the grade level he is restricted to is at the 5-7th grade range.  If he reads anything at too low a level, he doesn’t get enough points.  If he reads to far above, he can’t comprehend enough to pass the AR test.  So AR should be aiming at his sweet spot of about the 6th grade level.  The problem is, is that my quest student has a goal that makes him read a book about every week.  In 4th grade.  On top of the rest of the homework he is being assigned.  So right away, we are digging into his non-homework time at home, as the school day is extended 2-4 hours every afternoon and night. 

But there is another problem with this AR system besides the bone-numbing reduction of reading into data points.  It is also expensive and it creates additional and needless drain on resources while at the same time  it decreases accessibility and options.  The true limitations of AR didn’t really hit us until we decided to buy a Kindle Touch with our own scarce financial resources.

The idea was that eyes strain from staring at a computer screen for long periods for just reading might be alleviated by the more natural experience offered by the Kindle.  And that we could have more access to more books, free books, using the Kindle.  And indeed there are free classic books to be had.  Most of them freely available through the Gutenberg Project.  And they are classic literature, time tested and things that many of us might have read when we were kids and our kids might discover and are completely appropriate for school. 

The first book I downloaded on our brand new kindle was a book called Toby Tyler or Ten Weeks with the Circus.  It has some pretty heavy themes but there is no bad language and there is a less on to be learned.  The book is slightly on the low side for my 10 year-old at about a 4-5th grade level.  But I thought he might enjoy it.  But he will probably never read it because if you search the AR book finder, it is not there.  And neither are several free and classic works of children’s literature.  Basically, we are totally limited to those books that have tests because he has only a limited amount of time and he has high expectations for himself and will push himself to reach certain goals including getting straight A’s.  So AR books, and his grade, have a much higher priority than reading for enjoyment. It is NOT enjoyable to read for him, it is a CHORE.

His less conscientious classmates choose books from the AR list, but compare that list to the Netflix/movie list in order to “finish” a Harry Potter book in about 2 hours.  They basically game the system as much as possible.

Let’s talk a a bit about the less motivated brother who just turned 13.  He likes to read, but his interests are so restricted that they hardly even appear on any AR list at any reading level.  Titanic, trains, and….that is about it at the moment although we are gradually working on expanding the list.  For awhile he was interested in entrepreneurship and read books about the founding of Coca cola and McDonald’s which I think I enjoyed reading more than he did.  But those were each only worth one point despite being on a 7th grade reading level just because they were relatively short.  Getting him through a novel is a LOT of work.  We had to work overtime to get him through the book Where the Red Fern Grows which included having him watch the movie more than once.  And he has developed a fixation toward getting coon dogs now.  This is a fine story, but it was SO hard getting him to read the book.  But we also didn’t want to add the expense of an audio book on top of the book and the movie we bought. 

One thing about the free classic works of literature, is that they are available in audio as well as free electronic book form though Librivox.  So now a person can listen with their Kindle Touch while they read along.  Every book can be made into a read-along-book.  And it is free.  And these are challenging books.  these would be a much better choice for both of my kids because they are presented in multiple formats and widely accessible.  Being in the public domain also opens up all sorts of possibilities for manipulating these stories and putting on plays, doing illustrations and basically having fun without the worry of copyright and cost restrictions.  This would be leveraging technology properly, although it does not lend itself especially well to the data driven approach favored by the education czars of both Bush and Obama administrations.  And I see nothing that convinces me a new president will make any positive changes. 

AR is an expensive program that limits and saddles a school with only certain books that happen to have quizzes in them.  The entire idea of reading as an enjoyable endeavor is abandoned in favor of turning both my kids into data points.  It is not cost effective to limit its use to only those students who might benefit from the point system, so everyone has to use it.

I happened to witness another casualty of the AR system.  It encourages cheating, which turns the poor librarian into a sort of guard who has to make sure that kids are not looking over another’s shoulder and getting answers.  I saw this while substituting in a 4th grade classroom.  The lone librarian (she had no aid as those positions had been long cut) was exasperated with trying to monitor my class, the AR test takers plus check out books and organize the huge stacks behind her.  I’m sure when she entered the field she many idea of how she might promote literacy and a love of reading to children everywhere.  I have yet to meet one that had anything good to say about AR.

 

 

Mightybell: PLN

18 Jan

Previously, a PLN was a “Professional” Learning Network: a somewhat fixed group of people that you join or are asked to join for your professional development. Now PLN is being used instead to indicate a “Personal” Learning Network: a very personal (individual) set of people you choose to follow or communicate with for your professional development, usually outside of any formal requirement.

Today’s Mightybell, like many of the other ones, consists of something that I have done somewhat naturally without necessarily doing it with the explicit purpose of building the network.  The main point of today’s exercise was using the RSS feed in order to subscribe to various blogs and websites, and then using some sort of service or tool to aggregate this information.  I actually do use both Google Reader and iGoogle to gather and organize my RSS feeds and information.  iGoogle is my tool of choice because the layout is more appealing and I can pick and choose what I want to read much easier.

I also use RSS to subscribe to various podcasts and use iTunes or another open source program like Banshee in order to subscribe to podcasts.  Podcasts are actually slightly better for me because I often find my reading time at a real premium.

In fact, te single biggest complaint or concern from fellow Mightybell travelers is pretty much the same: having too much information and sifting through it all.  I almost always get behind on all of my subscriptions and end up only reading or listening to a fraction of what I have coming in.  I’ll talk a little more about this overload in the next exercise, but it really is a concern even though I am not even using all of the tools available.  I have lots of interests, it is just a matter of managing them all!

For me there also has to be some balance between reading and writing.  Reading more makes me a better writer for sure, but I need to find a balance in order to continue to be part of the network and environment that I choose to participate in.  The two go together for me, so the PLN is a crucial piece.

The biggest weakness for me, at least at present, is how to leverage this network into something that has a more tangible benefit professionally.  I have interests and enjoy pursuing those through reading or writing.  But it is only recently that I have been concerned about these pursuits having some sort of monetary value.  I have always seen the reading and writing as a sort of sideline hobby, but it IS something I enjoy doing.  I still scratch my head when I consider that people would actually pay to read something that I write.  The Thinking Person’s Guide To Autism is at least a step in helping me see some potential in that direction.  But generally the biggest satisfaction for me is derived from helping other people  which is what I think underlies most of the content and people in my PLN.

 

 

 

The Internet and Learning

6 Jan

Today’s Mighty bell asks about the internet and learning.  That task is supposed to take 15 – 30 minutes.  I’ll probably spend more time on it…

  • What sites do you go to regularly to learn new things?
  • Are there authors or sites that you “follow?”
  • When does the Internet or the Web help your learning, and when does it distract from good learning for you?
  • How do you feel about technology and learning?

Where I go depends on what exactly I am learning about.  If I want just a general overview of something I have never heard of, I have no problems going to wikipedia.  I have no idea what a Higgs Boson particle is, so I can go there and learn something about it.  Easy, right?  But I might have never gotten curious enough to learn about it, if it wasn’t for a Youtube video about the subject.  And I discovered that video through this person’s main channel, which is just one of several Youtube channels I subscribe to because, well, because I’m a nerd!  The point of this being that even a distraction can lead to learning.

But the other side of it, is that the internet seems to be built for distraction.  For instance I start this blog post and start looking for Higgs Boson particles, and enter the world of Youtube, the mindless distractions are just a click away.  And it is SOOO easy to say “OH, this is only 2 minutes”…and an hour later I still haven’t finished this because I got lost in videos, Facebook and emails.  This was only supposed to be a 20 minute task!

I have an iGoogle with all of the news and interest sites in one place that I like to regularly read.  I have an education page and a technology page as well as a general news/weather/email/calendar page.   There is so much information, it is almost impossible to keep up with everything!  Another important tool in my internet arsenal is my podcast subscriptions.  I’m going to be on the road a couple hours per day, and the podcasts are a way to continue to learn while on-the-go.

I’ve made a conscious decision to kind of avoid Twitter for the moment, because I sometimes I feel as if I am already swimming in information as it is with blogs I can’t read, podcasts I haven’t gotten around to listening to and other things I have had to skim over.

To be sure the internet is an incredible resource for learning and teaching, and I’ve done my share of both through this blog, Teachertube and other resources.  I notice a lot of other teachers who have joined in and we are looking for ways to leverage this technology to better reach students.  One of the unique and interesting things about Mightybell is that you can support and cheer on colleague through comments or just clicking the “cheer” button which is more or less like a ‘like’ button on the Facebook.  And I notice that feature on my blog as well.  So I can imagine a time when students might be writing and producing content, posting it on the inernet using it as a sort of virtual refrigerator, and then everyone can view it and ‘like’ on it.  Now that seems a lot a lot more realistically motivating than grades or test scores.

My Moodle Site

9 Oct

Someone asked me about it and so I thought I would share.  I have no idea how long it will remain up, since I’m not under contract there any more.  But it IS a resource that can still be used by those in the distract or anyone else.  But I have to warn you that this is not a very flashy or polished site.  It was designed to be a work-in-progress and it STILL is!

I’ve been involved in the internet and bulletin boards and usenet for over 2 decades.  I was SO happy when it looked like our district has something where teachers could build and collaborate together.  That tool was Sharepoint.  Each school had its own site and each department eventually had its own site within the school’s site.  I was excited about the ability to have discussions and share things with colleagues within the school, as well as possibly with teachers from other schools in the discussion forums.  But as it turns out, the discussion forums were the least-used areas of all.  No one posted anything except me.  To my knowledge, Sharepoint is still not a place where teachers share thoughts and idea, as they seem to still prefer and rely upon email.

So I began using it to store documents and anytime someone needed a form I gave them the url for sharepoint.  It was the perfect place to store forms or anything else that needed to be shared with everyone, but again, email is still the primary vehicle that is used for this.  Today, the school is beginning to use it as a repository for lesson plans, thanks to a technologically savvy assistant principal who makes the teachers put their plans there.

After about 5 years of being “the Sharepoint guy”, the one who was always trying to get teachers to use this tool provided by the district, I finally managed to make it the tool of choice for our special education department.  The killer app was not the discussion forums or even the file sharing.  It was the calendar.  Anyone could go in and edit that calendar, so that is how we began collaborating on an IEP schedule.  Each teacher could input their name, time and place and then another teacher who needed a meeting for that day could look at the calendar and schedule around what was already there.  As cancellations happened, it became easy to change and adapt the schedule.  Withing the department, it became a very important tool and I feel pretty good about helping them take advantage of it.

There are many better and more advanced Moodle sites than mine.  Anyone with any degree of creativity could make one more appealing, but mine was designed to do several tasks in one place, which is what makes this such a powerful tool.  In our district it is called eLearn, but you can clearly see the Moodle icon when you open up a tab to visit my site.  I also have other courses, but this is my main page and one that I still occasionally work and fiddle with.

I originally was going to make this a real course that new SID/PID teachers could take to orient themselves with the field.  Most of the course elements remain from when I took a staff development class on making the site.  I quickly realized that this was a much more robust platform than Sharepoint was for sharing and collaborating.  However the learning curve here was much steeper, so I still tried to get others into Sharepoint while I worked on my owm eLearn.

In the center is all the course materals.  Sorry if sone of the Teachertube links are broken but they are all still on my channel.  And the server does house a few videos not shown anywhere else.

On the right side, there is a calendar that is linked to my Google calendar.   The main use of this was to share with my paras, and anyone else who needed to know, my schedule for the coming week as well as the scedule for any outings that we had coming up. Again, the calendar is what drove most people to my site as it also had the school holidays and other events built into it.

Below that is just a few links that I would use most frequently as well as my mug shot.  HTML blocks are extremely versatile for customizing content even if you don’t know html natively…which would be me.  I also have a box for behavior terms which shows a random word out of a list of maybe 10.  But some teachers have “Video of the day” or “Word of the day” included on theirs.  On the left side I have an html block with resources that I, or other teachers, frequently use.  I just updated this last week as the paras wanted a way to get to resources for their brand new active board.  Since my site is open to anyone, they could go their regardless of whoever logged into the computer it was connected to.  Thus is was a way to preserve bookmarks.

Moodle is an amazing tool for teachers, students and parents.  My wife and I have often consulted the sites of our children’s teachers in order to see if there was homework, or if they forgot the worksheet atschool we could print it from the site.  But alas, most teachers still do not have their own site or do not update and use it.  At some point, it would be nice if they could all collaborate and pool their mental energy to create a grade and subject specific site.  But alas, despite a lot of lip service to the concept of “learning communities”, true collaboration becomes an afterthought if it appears on the radar screen at all.

The Future of Education?

1 Sep

Once again, I am back in my old room as a substitute and meeting a new teacher for my old students and a few new ones. It’s just like riding a bike…it just becomes a natural extension of you as you know what to do instinctively. And so it is with this population of students. I kind of amazed myself with how quickly I was able to bond with the new students. A bit more about my status later.

But first I want to talk about a podcast that aired recently on the Future of Education website. You can listen to it too!

I bought Bob Compton’s 2 Million Minutes documentary, and he made a lot of astute observations about the education systems in India, China and the U.S. In his latest documentary, he teams up with Dr. Tony Wagner (The Global Achievement Gap) whose book I have read and even gave a few copies away to administrators. The Finland Phenomenon explores the education system in Finland, often regarded as the top system in the world. Compton and Wagner wanted to find out more about the Finnish educational system and why it is as good as it is.

I have not yet seen this film but do plan on seeing it and reviewing it. But I wanted to talk a bit about some things Compton said in this podcast. He talked a bit about barriers to true and genuine innovation and I was struck by his description of how large organizations try to kill or squash innovation. Basically, if there is someone who starts to excel, it makes the rest of the organization look bad or at the very least exposes mediocrity. And since no one wants to feel bad, the out-lier is attacked and either put in their place or ostracized almost out of existence. This is just the organization striving for self-preservation. People don’t like change and innovation has a habit of forcing change upon people. This is also discussed in the book about educational disruption in education that I read a couple years ago about the time I was also reading Tony Wagner’s book.

So…could that be the answer to the question I am too embarrassed to ask or talk much about? During my tenure teaching individuals with severe disabilities I was innovating and shaping things way beyond what anyone else was doing at the time.

  • I had an active Moodle site that was a repository of knowledge to help other teachers who teach students with severe disabilities.
  • I had an active blog, informing other teachers, future teachers, policiy makers and parents the effects of certain government policies on the classroom
  • I recorded and posted scores of videos on Teachertube, sharing best practices in how to use different types of technology in the classroom
  • I experimented with many different types of technology including mp4 players, open source programs and various switches and AAC devices
  • I encouraged the faculty to use the collaboration software that the county had purchased in order to collaborate and share their ideas and thoughts rather than burdening the email system.
  • We experimented with research-based interventions such as electronic social stories and video modeling to teach new behaviors.
  • I tried to get school leaders to use technology to reach or teach the staff asynchronously in order to afford greater flexibility with staff development and to leverage the technology to build capacity for more staff development options and offerings.
  • Participated and attended staff development activities such as Future of Education webinars, and subscribed to various educational podcasts, even experimenting with my own podcasting site.

These efforts were not always greeted with open arms. Sometimes there was active opposition to some of the ideas but most of the time efforts to reform practice was met with a polite smile and then people continued to do what they were used to doing. I was clearly out in front of most of my colleagues when it came to technology and ideas for building capacity especially in regards to staff development using multimedia and social collaboration.

And these activities are STILL regarded with a great deal of resistance and suspicion from many people who make decisions about education. Being an innovator is often very politically risky and I have to admit to being often very naive when it comes to politics. My thought is that the needs of the students should be greater than the need for any particular political vendetta. We might disagree about certain policies, but in the end we are charged with the trust of caring and educating all students.

I’m a bit lost as to what to do about whatever it is that keeps me from getting back into the classroom full-time and need to look at all other options. Surely some of these skills must translate into something else that is useful to someone.

OH…by the way, look at some of the other blogs who made the list!  What an honor and a treat to be listed alongside so many other excellent special education bloggers.

Update Post Holiday Break Edition

6 Jan

We went back to school, the kids and I, for the first time in 2010 today (Jan 5th). Originally, yesterday was supposed to be a teacher workday, but the school board moved that workday to the end to try to make room for more furlough days should the state legislature decide that there is too much of a budget shortfall. I was totally fine with that move but I know a lot of teachers really needed and wanted that time to prepare their classes for the new semester. In my program, in matters less since we continue to do what we started last semester despite new course titles and course numbers. I’m the only one in the school with more separate classes than students!

My break was uneventful and calm…just the way I like it! I did my best not to get too entangled in the holiday madness even though some of it is unavoidable. I am dealing with a slight case of Second Life (SL) withdrawal, though. Of all the things I’m plugged into (blogging,youtube, Classroom 2.0, Teachertube, Facebook and the FB game Farmtown) SL has me the most hooked. It combines a lot of nerdiness, with heavy role play with social interaction and the only limit is imagination which is nearly limitless because other people are constantly creating things from their imaginations. I was in-world a lot over the break, up late at night. Back to work means getting to bed earlier which means less SL time.

My students who returned today all seemed glad to be here, albeit some were tired by the end of the day. I know I had a period right after lunch when I was sleepy! but I thinki the restoration of a consistent routine is good for me and most definitely good for my students and my own kids at home. We just do better with a regular schedule rather than too much unstructured time. But to be honest, my oldest did really well with all of the unstructured time. He loves the computer and TV, of course. but also likes doing imaginative play with his brother using Legos or stuffed animals. For the past 9 months his obsession has been the Titanic. When he gets on the web, he is reading all about the titanic. He watch YouTube about the Titanic. He wants to know everything there is to know about the Titanic. His interest does branch out a bit to other ships in the White Star line and other ships in general that sank and finally to just ships. So what to do with someone who has a seemingly narrow obsession?

I bought a book last fall by Paula Kluth called Just Give Him the Whale: 20 Ways to use Fascinations, Areas of Expertise and Strengths to Support Students with Autism. I have to admit that this is not a game changer, but then again I have not found many books about autism that really grab me anymore. I do like that these are simple and practical suggestions of how to incorporate a single fascination and use it to open new doors and expand personal interests in the process. So for those who have kids higher on the spectrum, it might be a handy book to have around.  It is a place I will go when puzzling about what to do with narrow interests areas of expertise of my oldest son.

And this blog is about to turn 4 years old! Whoo hoo! There have been some threats to it since I started and the present climate is every bit as threatening or more so than it was 4 years ago. School officials at every level (building, county, state, national) are simply not comfortable with some unauthorized teacher writing news and views without some explicit control or without their own front-person calling the shots and spinning things to make everyone look good. While I’m not out to make anyone look particularly bad, neither does it have to look good all the time. I think people will respect the honesty involved in saying “Hey, we screwed up! We’re willing to admit it, fix it and move on!”

2010 is going to be a wild and woolly year, I have no doubt about it!

I wonder if I’m the only one who would like a snow day later this week?

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