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Friday
Jun282019

Why free college is a bad idea

It may be apocrypha, but I remember hearing a story about the Seeing Eye program's early years. As this version went, early recipients of the dogs received them for free. It was discovered that some of the animals were not being well-treated. The organization then began to charge a nominal sum ($100) for the dogs to all who received one. The mistreatment stopped.

I think of that story whenever I hear about people getting something for nothing. And that includes a college education.

Anyone who wants an education past high school should be encouraged to pursue it. Whether at a state, private, or for-profit institution, additional learning is good for the economy, the country, and for an individual's personal development. Anyone of any age should be able to take classes, do guided self-study, or become an apprentice. Period.

But should it be free? A couple presidential candidates are proposing forgiveness of current student loan debts and making college free for all. While a far better way to spend tax dollars than a new submarine or subsidizing a multi-billion dollar corporation, I would not support such a program.

Back in the dark ages when I was an undergraduate at the University of Northern Colorado, I distinctly remember a few students with whom I hung out in the smoking lounge whose parents were paying their college expenses. And often when a course became to difficult or an assignment too time-consuming, those student would simply drop the class. 

I worked my way through college. The total aid I received was a $500 National Defense Loan which meant I worked 42+ hours a week while usually taking 12 credit hours of classes. Trust me, after spending my hard-earned money on a course, there was no way in hell I would drop it and waste that money.

Given the cost of today's higher education, I don't know if I could do this now. But I would like to think I am financially literate enough not accrue debt the equivalent of a mortgage on a house. I am sure I would still work. I am sure I would pick a school with lower tuition costs. I would live frugally. I would be aware of every penny of my own money paid to the school. I would not expect others to pay for my schooling.

We place less value on those things we are simply given than those things we ourselves earn. That is why I am not helping pay for my grandson's college while he is attending. I have pledged to help him with car expenses, had given him money for savings, will probably give him generous birthday and Christmas gifts or cash, and will see if I can help him with any debt he accrues while in college, but he will need to pay his own way. I want him to value his education.

Might learning to pay one's own way might be the best educational experience of college?

Monday
Jun242019

The glamorous life of a professional speaker

Multiple attributions to this quote

I was amused by John K. Coyle's article "What it's really like to be a public speaker" (Strategy+Business, June 19, 2019. He writes:

There might be better jobs out there, but I doubt it. Think about all of the highlights in an average public speaking gig. You take an all-expenses-paid trip to a luxurious resort or hotel — often at the beach or in one of the world’s coolest cities. Usually, there is a reception the evening before the speaking event, and you’re introduced to the host organization’s leaders and event sponsors — all inevitably interesting people who open up to you about their lives. You have some fine wine and a great meal, more conversation, and then finally return to your hotel room, where there is often a welcome gift waiting for you. Unlike with consulting and many other road-warrior gigs, you don’t have to stay up late preparing materials for your talk, because you know the material cold.

For 25 years, I did paid public-speaking on the side from my day job. From 1992 to 2017, I spoke at 110 conferences (some multiple years) and did consulting for 75 school districts and education agencies. 95+% were paid gigs. In good years, I made the equivalent of 50% of my school salary in just the 30 or so days I was on the road. Each year when I renegotiated my contract with my public school district, I asked for more days off rather than a higher salary. It seemed to me a win-win, and I eventually wound up with about a 180 day contract (and a very empowered staff).

Like my professional writing work, my professional speaking career was not intentional. I was asked to speak at conferences, I am guessing, because people foolishly thought that since I could write (books, articles, columns, etc.) I could also speak. I think did a fair job and received a good deal of positive feedback so my ego was fed and not just my bank account. And to be honest, I hoped my messages to librarians, teachers, and administrators suggested positive ideas that bettered the lives of students. I took the work seriously and worked hard at becoming an ever-improving presenter.

Some of the "perks" that Coyle mentions above, were indeed a part of my speaking experience. I did get to wonderful places like Sydney and Cairo and Beijing and Nairobi and Cartagena and Tallin (just to mention a few) and I believe I spoke in every state in the US except four. Many times I was able to add on a few days to be a tourist in the exotic place to which someone else had paid me to travel. I would probably never hiked Kilimanjaro or explored Angkor Wat or rafted the Snake River had these adventures not been added to a speaking gig. I loved my Platinum frequent flyer status. Swank hotels I did not find appealing except for the Shangri La in Bangkok. Were I a billionaire, I might just live there. I don't remember the fine wines Coyle mentioned, but then perhaps he was not speaking at library and school tech conferences.

As glam as some of the jobs might seem, the bulk of the work I did was right here in the good old USA. A typical trip would consist of leaving work in my school district about noon to catch a 4pm flight that would get me to the city where I would speak about 8 or 9 pm. I'd need to be up and ready and down to the conference venue by 7 am to check the AV stuff, meet the host, etc. I'd give my talk(s) and head to the airport for a late afternoon flight, arriving back in Minneapolis usually after 10pm. After a 2 hour drive home, hit the sack, and be ready for the next day at the real job. Most speaking work required hours of customized preparation to fit conference themes and organizer goals in advance of the conference as well, so many of my weekends were less than recreational.

Over the years I sometimes thought about ditching the day job and speaking full time. But I never really felt I had the chutzpah needed to make a real career of it. I've never felt comfortable self-promoting - feeling there is a little snake-oil salesman in all keynote speakers/consultants. (Sometime the more snake oil, the bigger the speaker.) I prided myself that my talks were always grounded in the genuine experiences of my work as a technology and library director. I wasn't all theory and prognostication. Were I to leave the regular job, I would lose what kept me grounded and authentic. I also liked that steady paycheck and now I am happy to have a pension. I really had the best of both worlds - speaker and regular Joe employee.

I don't get asked to speak anymore. The world has moved on and younger, brighter, and more energetic people now inspire and inform and entertain today's practicing educators. And that is the way it should be. I am hugely grateful for the opportunities I was given over the years. But it is also pretty nice to be a "has been." My vacations are vacations and my weekends are my own.

Sunday
Jun232019

BFTP: Features of school cultures that embrace creativity

Does your school’s culture inhibit or encourage creativity in its students and employees? Often formed over dozens of years, the values, habits, and climates of school buildings are incredibly difficult to change. Culture outlasts teachers and administrators; lean and rich budget years; and a vast array of new programs, theories, and strategic plans.

I would never discourage anyone from attempting to change a school culture - especially one that is having a negative impact on students and/or staff. But sane people also look for jobs where a positive culture already exists. Were I looking for a school in which to work (or in which to enroll my children), I’d be looking for some of these attributes:

  1. School climate. Funny how a person can sense the safety, friendliness, and sense of caring within minutes of walking into a school. Little things like cleanliness, open doors to classrooms, laughter, respectful talk, presence of volunteers, and genuine smiles from both adults and kids are the barometers of school climate.

  2. Student work is honored. The hallways, display cases, and teacher bulletin boards should all be used to show and recognize products and accomplishments of the students currently in the school. OK, you can have a wall of famed alumni or old sports trophies, but make sure today’s kids get a chance to share their original work and ideas publicly as well. This also goes for the virtual hallways of the school website.

  3. Public contests and fairs. Science fairs, history days, math competitions, knowledge bowls, speech contests, inventors’ competitions and a host of other possibilities should play a role in students’ educational experiences at all grade levels. A public display of creativity and innovation gives students the opportunity to display the courage needed to be a change agent.

  4. Arts for all in the elementary. In our mad rush to insure all students are capable of demonstrating the “one right answer mentality” on standardized tests, elementary schools have misguidedly cut regular art, music, and physical education opportunities to obtain more time for direct reading and math instruction. Schools that maintain arts offerings for all students maintain the chances for all students to demonstrate creativity.

  5. Elective and extracurricular offerings. What happens in class is important. But so is what happens during the other eighteen hours of the day. Elementary schools need to offer after-school clubs and activities that develop social skills and interests. Secondary schools must be rich with art, sports, technology education, music, and community service choices that develop individual talents, leadership, pride in accomplishment, and pragmatic innovative problem-solving abilities.

  6. Good libraries. The quality of the library is the clearest sign of how much a school values reading, teaching for independent thinking, and lifelong learning. A trained librarian and a welcoming environment with a well-used collection of current physical books and magazines - along with e-resources and minimally filtered Internet access tell a parent that the teachers and principal value more than the memorization of facts from a text book, that a diversity of ideas and opinions is important, and that reading is not just necessary, but pleasurable and important. And that creativity is valued both in production and appreciation.

  7. Open classrooms. There are two facets to open classrooms. The first is the classroom with an open door, uncovered windows, and guests within - parents, volunteers, specialists. The second facet of the open classroom involves openness to new ideas and expressions. Lively discussions and open-ended genuine questions are the hallmarks of this openness.

  8. Project-based learning. Demonstrating competencies through projects and performance are the primary opportunity that students have to practice all three elements of creativity: originality, effectiveness, and craftsmanship. When authentically assessed using a formative assessment strategy, student creativity grow. 

  9. Technology used to create, not just consume. Aligned to this project-based model is how technologies are being used in the classroom. Is that table just an e-book or video monitor or is it used to produce original graphics, podcasts, videos, writings, and other communications?

  10. Commitment to professional development. The amount of exciting research on effective teaching practices and schools is overwhelming. Brain-based research, reflective practice, systematic examination of student work, strategies for working with disengaged students, and the effective use of technology are some of the findings that can have a positive impact on how to best teach children. But research doesn’t do any good if it stays in the  university or journal. Good schools give financial priority to teaching teachers how to improve their practice. These schools honor the knowledge and professionalism of their teaching staff by finding means for teachers to work together in Professional Learning Communities on a regular basis during work hours.

  11. Individual teacher quality. Overall school ratings may be deceptive. Five-star teachers who promote creativity can be found in one-star schools and one-star teachers who primarily teach to the test can be found in five-star schools. And you or your child may encounter either situation. I always listened to what other parents said about the teachers my children might have, and insisted that my kids got the teachers with good reviews - to the dismay of many a school principal.

  12. Genuine student governance. Schools with positive cultures respect students and no greater respect can be shown by giving students themselves a role in the governance of the school. Whether it’s in the form of a student council that has real power, a student selected and directed school play, students serving on building committees, or teachers asking students to formulate classroom norms and rules, adults in schools give students real world problem-solving abilities by giving them real-world problems. And trust.

Students can demonstrate creativity in many different ways. A school with a creativity-positive culture will not have a single great program, but give students the chance to shine in many different ways - artistically, athletically, academically, and socially.

Whether we like it or not, in many states, school “report cards” based on a very limited test-driven data set are ratcheting up competition among schools. Schools with high test scores wave them like a banner to attract parent-consumers. But schools’ self-evaluation (and public relations) efforts need to go beyond bragging about test-based data and need to include other quality criteria as well. Parents do understand that creativity, perhaps even more than calculus, is a critical ability. 

What signs do you see in school and classroom cultures that embrace creativity?

Original post March 25, 2014