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Is our job children or data? Or is the question that simple?

I was very moved by Susan Sluyter's letter in the March 23 Washington Post "My job is now about tests and data - not children. I quit." After teaching for 25 years, she sadly concludes:

I have watched as my job requirements swung away from a focus on the children, their individual learning styles, emotional needs, and their individual families, interests and strengths to a focus on testing, assessing, and scoring young children, thereby ramping up the academic demands and pressures on them. 

Each year I have had less and less time to teach the children I love in the way I know best—and in the way child development experts recommend.  I reached the place last year where I began to feel I was part of a broken system that was causing damage to those very children I was there to serve.

I’d describe our current period as a time of testing, data collection, competition and punishment. One would be hard put these days to find joy present in classrooms.

I was trying to survive in a community of colleagues who were struggling to do the same:  to adapt and survive, to continue to hold onto what we could, and to affirm what we believe to be quality teaching for an early childhood classroom.  I began to feel a deep sense of loss of integrity.  I felt my spirit, my passion as a teacher, slip away.  I felt anger rise inside me.  I felt I needed to survive by looking elsewhere and leaving the community I love so dearly.  I did not feel I was leaving my job.  I felt then and feel now that my job left me.

The actual letter goes into detail explaining the amount of assessment kindergarten teachers like Ms Sluyter are expected to do in Cambridge MA schools and that impact on her students. (Read it all.) I can't help but think that any parents reading her rational, well-supported, heartfelt resignation would actively question their children's school board about the amount and effectiveness of testing done at all grade levels.

Call me a sentimentalist, but I see pre-school and kindergarten not as college prep, but a time to build a positive view of education, of learning to work and play with other children, and to discover new ideas.* Our Scandinavian educators have an excellent solution to making sure all children read well. They don't start formal reading instruction until a child is at least seven years old - developmentally ready.

It is getting harder and harder for me at leadership meetings to speak unemotionally when even more testing is suggested as a solution to a real or imagined problem. Like the author of this letter, I feel what I consider why education is noble calling is leaving me - not the other way around.

But here is what really worries me. Since Ms Sluyter is a veteran teacher with over 20 years in the classroom, she remembers a time before NCLB, before RtI, before the craziness where we insist all children progress to the same level at the same rate regardless of what it takes. 

Our newest teachers - no matter how good, how dedicated, don't have that frame of reference. Unless they remember it from their own days in kindergarten.

I worry for my grandchildren...

I would be very interested in reading a counter argument to Ms Sluyter's letter that is child-centered.

*Come to think about it, I feel this way about all levels of education.



Get out of your office

Creative thinking in business begins with having empathy for your customers (whether they’re internal or external), and you can’t get that sitting behind a desk. Yes, we know it’s cozy in your office. Everything is reassuringly familiar; information comes from predictable sources; contradictory data are weeded out and ignored. Out in the world, it’s more chaotic. You have to deal with unexpected findings, with uncertainty, and with irrational people who say things you don’t want to hear. But that is where you find insights—and creative breakthroughs. Venturing forth in pursuit of learning, even without a hypothesis, can open you up to new information and help you discover nonobvious needs. Otherwise, you risk simply reconfirming ideas you’ve already had or waiting for others—your customers, your boss, or even your competitors—to tell you what to do. Tom and David Kelley "Reclaim Your Creative Confidence" Harvard Business Review, December 2012

OK, fellow tech directors, how often do you get our from behind your computer screens and purposely engage with teachers, principals, and students in their native habitat - the school itself? My goal is to visit each of our 16 sites at least once a month - more whenever possible*. I travel with clipboard in hand and ask any staff member who is not engaged with students "How's your technology working for you?" And I listen, I record, and I solve quite a few problems. 

Mr. Kelley's quote resonated with me when he says that by going out and talking to the people we serve we hear things we may not want to hear. (Oh, the wireless network is not quite as robust as we thought?) But I would also add that sometimes things aren't as bad as we think they are. (Oh, you didn't actually have any problems after the system update ? I thought everybody crashed and burned.) But you don't know unless you go. Surveys, e-mails, and formal meetings just cannot take the place of short conversations in hallways, teacher lounges, the librarian's office, or bus pick up areas.

I would also agree that creative solutions to problems come from listening and emphasizing.

You'll find more answers in your school hallways than on Twitter.

 * This winter in Minnesota was not very conducive to school visits. I may have slipped a little.


BFTP: Format bigotry

A weekend Blue Skunk "feature" will be a revision of an old post. I'm calling this BFTP: Blast from the Past. Original post February 24, 2009. This post was reincarnated as a column that you can find here.

These kind of questions drive me bonkers:

  • Should we ban games from our library?
  • Should block social networking sites in our building?
  • Should kids be allowed to access to YouTube in our district?

These questions make about as much sense as asking:

  • Should we be ban books from our libraries?
  • Should we allow kids to have pencils and paper in our building?
  • Should kids be allowed to watch DVDs in our district?

Why, when thinking about what we give kids access to, do adults so often start with format as opposed to the content of that format?

The sense of banning a website based on the information's container (game, social networking site, wiki, blog, etc.) is as logical as saying, "Since Penthouse is published in a magazine format, we cannot allow students to bring magazines to school."

For some reason I've been asked a lot lately about gaming in school. I don't know that much about games and haven't been a big computer game player since Loderunner for the Apple IIe. But of course that doesn't mean I don't have an opinion (as with so many topics):

Let’s be clear that there are games and there are games -- just like there are movies and there are movies; there are books and there are books. Games vary widely in type -- from first person shoot em’ ups to skill attainment tutors with complex management programs. Games vary in taste, rating, maturity level, and even factual accuracy.

The question shouldn’t be “Do we permit students to play games?” but “Which games should we allow our students to play?" Game On! October 2007 Tech Proof column on the Education World website

Why are we as adults so willing to ban resources based on their format instead of their content? Quicker, I suppose. Decisive. New formats are always a little suspicious. The inability to distinguish between medium and message?

Forming an opinion of a website based on its format makes about as much sense as forming an opinion about a person based on his ethnicity. We've got to get beyond format bigotry.

Kids have.


From the column...

Format bigotry, of course, extends beyond what is filtered on the Internet. Our adult prejudices against certain formats of entertainment, information and communication take many guises. You may be a format bigot if:

  • You have different rules surrounding the checkout of videos and laptop computers than you do books.
  • You allow voluntary free reading of books, but ban personal audio players with audio books.
  • You believe reading novels is preferable to reading graphic novels.
  • You accept research findings in print but not as a multimedia product.
  • You ask kids to read something else when they’ve read one book multiple times, but you purchase movies just so you can watch them again and again.
  • You require at least one “print’ reference in student research papers, but not at least one audiocast, video or blog reference.
  • You allow, and even encourage kids come to the library to play chess on a chessboard, but not chess on a computer screen.

The chance of anyone who is reading this column is “literate” is pretty high. That is literate in the print sense anyway. Our own education focused on books, writing and oral communication. The chance of today’s educators being “media literate” is much lower. While we understand and respect the vocabulary, syntax and power of the written word, we are far less comfortable creating and learning from video, audio, and visual materials.