Sunday, May 25, 2014

Leadership is a Choice, Not a Rank

Lots to think about in this TED Talk. Please watch it first, then I have a few thoughts to share after.


Video of Captain Swenson

NextJump - Lifetime Employment. Note their home page:



Barry-Wehmiller Companies - Everyone took time off instead of laying people off. Note their home page:


For me, the key message in this talk was about trust. We need to trust our leaders. More importantly, our leaders need to trust us. I think that may be one of the two or three core problems in education right now.

The Federal Government doesn't trust the States.

The States don't trust School Districts.

School Districts don't trust Teachers.

Teachers don't trust students.

No one trusts anyone. In fact, we don't even trust ourselves. From the talk:
What I learned was that it's the environment, and if you get the environment right, every single one of us has the capacity to do these remarkable things, and more importantly, others have that capacity too. I've had the great honor of getting to meet some of these, who we would call heroes, who have put themselves and put their lives at risk to save others, and I asked them, "Why would you do it? Why did you do it?" And they all say the same thing: "Because they would have done it for me." It's this deep sense of trust and cooperation. So trust and cooperation are really important here. The problem with concepts of trust and cooperation is that they are feelings, they are not instructions. I can't simply say to you, "Trust me," and you will. I can't simply instruct two people to cooperate, and they will. It's not how it works. It's a feeling.
Isn't that the organization we'd all like to work in? Isn't that the educational system that would be the most effective for our students?

Choose.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Last Among Equals

Let me be perfectly clear: I think we put on a good graduation. Let me also say that I think everyone's motives are good and this is certainly not the most pressing issue we face in education. Having stipulated that, I still think the following is worth spending some time thinking about.

We just graduated the Class of 2014. As most of you know, this was a difficult year at my school, but students, staff and the community came together, persevered, and finished strong, and graduation was a fitting culmination for that effort. You can even watch video of our graduation if you want, as our student broadcast club streamed it live.

But each year I get a little more bothered about one part of our graduation (this is twenty-third AHS graduation I've attended). Our graduation starts with the graduates coming in, some opening remarks from students and staff, an amazing performance by our choir and symphonic band (starts at 27:30 of the video), and a keynote speech by a student speaker (who, as usual, was great - starts at 50:30 of the video, note the selfie she took). Then we get to the part where we read the graduates' names and they receive their diplomas. This is the part that increasingly bothers me and, while it's not the most important issue in the world, I still wonder if we should revisit how we do this.

We start by asking all of the honors graduates to stand and be recognized collectively (no names are read yet, this is at 1:07 of the video). These are students with GPA's between 3.50 and 3.79. They then sit down and we recognize the High Honors graduates, those with GPA's of 3.80 and above.

The high honors graduates names are then read first, individually, by the Assistant Principal in charge of Curriculum, with their college choice (or occasionally some other destination) read after their name (at 1:08:10 of the video). We start with the Valedictorian and Salutatorian, then all the other high honors graduates are read in alphabetical order. They come up one by one and receive their diplomas and then return to their seats. (Before I go on it's important to note that all of these students - both honors and high honors - were recognized three days before graduation at our Awards Convocation).

Now all the rest of the students names get read (at 1:28:25 of the video). They are read by two faculty speakers, who alternate reading names one by one from each half of the alphabet so that it goes faster. These students have their names read, but no college choice or other destination, although the honors students get a "with honors" appended after their name.

We end with some closing remarks, the moving of the tassel, and then they exit. All in all, it's a wonderful ceremony. And yet . . .

I have very mixed feelings about the special recognition of the honors and high honors graduates. On the one hand, we are an academic institution, these students have worked hard, and it's nice to be able to recognize their achievement and hard work. I don't mean to discount that at all, I just wonder why we feel the need to raise their accomplishment above others on the day of graduation?

Part of my concern is over how honors and high honors are determined. They are based on grades, of course, with AP classes counting more. ((All of our classes except AP classes are worth 4, 3, 2, 1 for A, B, C, D, and AP classes are 5, 4, 3, 1, so we have a significant number of students above 4.0.) I've written frequently before about my concern with grades, so I won't dwell on this here, other than to say that I have serious doubts about how well grades reflect learning, and I also question the wisdom of determining both the honor and the additional recognition at graduation partially on whether a student decides to take AP classes or not.

While my concern with grades is certainly a part of my concern over this custom, the main focus of this post is not on the relative worth of grades. It's more about whether it's appropriate at graduation to elevate some students over others. (Again, keeping in mind that these students were all recognized three days before at a special awards convocation that was held just for them, their friends, and their families.) After all, part of our graduation ceremony (all 23 of them I've been at), is our Principal saying she certifies to the Superintendent that all of these students have met the graduation requirements of Arapahoe High School and Littleton Public Schools. And then the Superintendent states to the Board of Education that he certifies the same thing. So assuming we believe that our graduation requirements actually mean something, all of these students have met the requirements we have put before them. So then why do elevate some graduates over others?

There are some students who graduate from my high school that from the day they start as a freshman know they will not be an honors or high honors graduate. Now, before you accuse of me of the "soft bigotry of low expectations", I'm a firm believer that each student can achieve and has amazing potential. I'm also a strong believer in Dweck's concept of Growth Mindset. It's not that I don't think all students can learn, or that they can't be successful, or that they can't achieve, it's just that I think we as educators put a premium on a very small subset of what it means to be successful. Students that can't - or don't want to - fit into that narrow band of school-based, school-defined success are somehow deemed less worthy.

Everyone who has been an educator (or been around kids at all) knows of students who work incredibly hard, who learn and achieve and go on to do great things. They typically have a growth mindset, and they constantly challenge themselves to achieve their own goals. But often that doesn't translate into an A in school, which means they won't get special recognition at our graduation. Just because a student's GPA is 3.79 or below doesn't mean their achievement is worth less recognition, or that their future plans are any less worthy than the high honors graduates' plans.

If we believe that school is for all students, and we believe that what we offer and require of all of our students is meaningful, and that students that meet those requirements have accomplished something, then when and how they receive that diploma shouldn't be differentiated by their cumulative GPA. We should celebrate all of our graduates, and not be silent about their plans for next year simply because they didn't reach an arbitrary number on a dubious scale. They shouldn't be last among equals.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

It Will Take You Less Than 60 Minutes

I'm asking you to do a favor for me.
  • It will take less than 60 minutes.
  • It's not hard to do.
  • It will not cost you anything.
  • In fact, it will most likely save you money.
  • It will be good for you, your children, your neighbors and the environment.
  • It will make me happy.
  • Did I mention it will take you less than 60 minutes?
Here's the deal. If you've ever, even once, found something good on this blog, I'd like you to do this. It doesn't even have to be something I wrote, it could be something I linked to (most likely it was). Maybe even it's something you disagreed with but it helped you think through and justify your own position. Maybe it was a video of our faculty dance that made you laugh. Maybe it was something that made you cry. Or something that made you angry.

But, if even once, you found something worthwhile on this blog, I'd like you now to pay it forward. Many of you are about to have some time off (if you're an educator in the Northern Hemisphere), so it won't be hard to find 60 minutes to do this. Even if you're not about to have some time off, it shouldn't be that hard to find 60 minutes in the next few weeks (after all, most of the shows you watch are having their season finales right about now, so that will free up some time). Please, give me less than 60 minutes and do this.

What is "this"? I want you to make an appointment and have a company come to your house and give you an estimate on solar panels.

Yes, I'm serious.

It will take less than 60 minutes and will be easy to do. If you live in Colorado or 14 other states, perhaps contact Solar City. I have no connection to Solar City, they've just got an excellent reputation. Feel free to contact a different company or, if you're not in one of the 15 states Solar City currently services, use "the google" to find a company that does. Then contact them and make an appointment to come out and give you an estimate. It will take less than 60 minutes.

Some of you are thinking right now, "Wait a minute, he said this wouldn't cost me anything." It won't. Many companies such as Solar City now offer solar leasing. You pay nothing up front, you just pay for the electricity you use and - for many of you - you'll pay less than you are paying right now. That's right, you pay nothing up front and will pay less each month than you currently do for electricity. (Some of you will pay the same, and some of you may pay a bit more, but you just might decide it's worth it anyway.)

Now, if you want, you can choose to purchase the solar panels, which will cost you money up front but, in the long run, will save you even more money. But I realize lots of folks don't have that kind of money available to pay up front, or aren't sure enough of this to wait for the payoff, which is the beauty of leasing. It literally costs you nothing and at worst might not save you much but at best will save you hundreds of dollars (or more) per year. And if energy prices go up (any bets on that?), yours won't.

We purchased solar panels for our house a little over four years ago (leasing wasn't available to us then). We haven't paid for electricity since. In fact, at the end of each year we get a small check back from our utility company because we generate just a little bit more than we use. We'll break even in the next couple of months on our up-front costs, so from here on out it's all money in the bank. Here's what the last 12 months looks like:



Not sure you believe it? That's okay, but give me 60 minutes anyway. Contact a solar company in your area, have them come out and give you a bid, and see for yourself. For some of you it may not make sense. Perhaps you have large trees around your house, or perhaps your roof is oriented really poorly, or perhaps in your state the built-in incentives aren't quite as good, and you won't save money. If that's the case, then no problem, all you're out is 60 minutes.

There are a whole bunch of people, including many of our so-called leaders, who don't think we are capable of making good decisions. They don't think we're capable of educating ourselves, or making decisions based on the long-term, so they pander to us. They manipulate us. And, if you're like me, you often feel like there's not much you can do.

But there is. You can do this. Will it change the world? Maybe not. Will it solve the climate crisis? Perhaps not. But if enough of us do this, it will start to make a difference. And it will demonstrate to our leaders that not only are we capable of making good decisions, but we are capable of leading ourselves. And perhaps they should follow us.

So make that appointment. And if you decide to install solar panels, then I want you to share that information. Blog/tweet/facebook/instagram it (you could even leave a comment on this post if you want). Tell your friends and family. Tell your neighbors. Share your experience and ask them to do you a favor.

Tell them it will take less than 60 minutes.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

What's the Best Way to Provide Feedback on a Paper?

So, my last post has generated some really great conversation in the comments. No easy answers, but lots to think about. As a result of one of those comments, I thought it might be good to solicit ideas from you guys on some of the ways you provide feedback for students on written work (in this case, thinking about the typical English paper, but it doesn't have to be). (Turnitin apparently does a nice job of facilitating that feedback and I don't have any angst over that part of the service :-).

Again, same caveat as on the last post, I'm not a Language Arts teacher and I do not claim to have any special pedagogical insight into providing feedback on papers. Let's also agree to stipulate that one-on-one conferences with each student to go over their writing is better than anything we're going to submit here.

But, given that it's next to impossible in most schools to have the time to do those one-to-one conferences with every student with every piece of writing, there is a need to provide some kind of feedback that's asynchronous. That's what I'd love to have you address in the comments: what strategies, tools and techniques have you used to best accomplish this?

So, from my non-Language-Arts-teacher perspective, my initial thought of the best way to provide feedback would look like this. The teacher reviews the student's writing on an iPad or similar tablet. This allows them to directly annotate on the written work just like they previously have on a written/printed document. But as they read through and annotate, they record a screencast that allows them to also record their verbal feedback, explaining the annotations and giving them more depth.

To me, that seems like it provides all the functionality of annotations (on either a written/printed piece or an electronic piece submitted somewhere like Turnitin) while also providing some (not all) of the benefits of a writing conference with the student. It also wouldn't take any more time than the traditional grading/annotating of a paper. (Okay, it would take a bit more time to encode and then upload the video for the student to review, but I don't see that as a huge time commitment. I could be wrong.)

So, Language Arts folks, what ways have you found to do this well? What about my proposed solution above doesn't work for you (or how would you improve it)? Would love to hear your thoughts.

Friday, May 02, 2014

Why I Wouldn't Turnitin

I am not a Language Arts teacher, nor do I play one on TV. I do not have 3-5 distinct Language Arts preps, a student load of between 120 and 220 each semester, or the number of papers to grade that comes with that student load. I am not trained in how best to help students learn Language Arts, nor am I steeped in all the Language Arts standards and habits of mind that we'd like our students to develop.

Now that I've thoroughly destroyed any credibility I might have to talk about this issue, I'd ask you to continue reading anyway.

My school is probably going to adopt Turnitin next year. If you're not familiar with this, it's a service that allows you to have your students submit their writing to Turnitin where it is rapidly checked against their massive database of other student work to check for plagiarism. It also helps teachers and peers provide feedback. From their About page:
Turnitin is used by more than 10,000 institutions in 135 countries to manage the submission, tracking and evaluation of student papers online.
I have not used Turnitin, so I can't comment on how well it does what it purports to do, but I've heard that it does a good job and is pretty user-friendly for both teachers and students.

I wouldn't use it.

I have several concerns about the use of Turnitin, but I'll focus on just two here. First, by contracting with Turnitin, you're basically agreeing to submit your students' work to a large corporation so that they can use that work to make money. The more folks that use Turnitin, and the more student work that is submitted, the more valuable it becomes for Turnitin. You're allowing (actually, enabling) a corporation to monetize the intellectual property of your students.

Now, I realize this argument will seem rather esoteric to many folks. They'll suggest that elevating our students' work to "intellectual property" is a bit of a stretch, and that the goal of using Turnitin is to actually help the students, and it's okay if people make money along the way. Both of those may have some validity, but I'd ask you to think about this scenario. How would you feel if your school district took some of your work as a teacher and then sold it, and kept the profits? (By the way, they probably can do that since it's work product, but my question is how would you feel.) It's essentially the same thing for our students, except they didn't have a choice (you did when you accepted this job), nor do they get paid for their time (you get paid for your work, even if you wouldn't get the proceeds from the sale of your work product). I find it somewhat ironic that we are attempting to teach our students that copying is wrong by copying and sharing their work with someone who will profit from it.

Second, and this is the bigger issue for me, is the assumption of guilt. By using Turnitin we're essentially saying to our students, "you are guilty until proven innocent . . . by Turnitin." We don't trust you, we assume you're going to cheat, and in order to deter that we're going to submit everything you do under the assumption that you are cheating.

Now, last time I checked, one of the basic principles of our country is the presumption of innocence; the assumption that you are innocent until proven guilty. Not only that, but there has to be probable cause to pursue the matter to determine your guilt. What kind of message does it send to our students when we flip that on its head?

I get why Language Arts teachers would want to use this product. I get the overwhelming workload and the frustration of dealing with student plagiarism. If I was a Language Arts teacher I might even swallow my concerns and use Turnitin myself. But I'm not, and that's the beauty of this post, I can at least attempt to evaluate the use of Turnitin from a big-picture perspective without the annoying reality I would face as a Language Arts classroom teacher. And, evaluated on the "rightness" of using it, it's no contest - don't do it.

So how would I address the issue of plagiarism? I don't know, at least not to any level of detail. I think there are certainly some partial solutions that can help, such as not giving standard assignments with standard prompts that are easy to plagiarize, or having students complete writing tasks in class. But I realize those only go so far, but I think it would be worth our time to flesh out that list and perhaps we could come up with a more complete list that might - on the whole - be a better alternative to Turnitin.

I can foresee some folks asking question like, "But don't you value Literature? And don't you value writing?" And my answer is that I very much value Literature, and I very much value writing. Do I value writing about Literature? Not so much. That doesn't mean I think writing about Literature is necessarily bad, not at all, as long as that's what you want and choose to do. But I do think that forced, mandatory writing about Literature that is assigned to you that you then turn in for a grade is perhaps not the best way to help students become better writers or lovers of Literature.

A serious question for Language Arts teachers: When is the last time you wrote a paper about a work of Literature? And, no, graduate school doesn't count. You don't get to justify doing something to your students in school because someone else did something to you in school. I'd even ask a follow-up question, when is the last time you wrote anything longer and more involved than an email? If (school) writing is so important, so critical to our students, that we would spend some of our budget on a service that assumes our students are guilty until proven innocent, then I think you need to show the writing you do in your life.

I know many of the folks reading this will be able to do that, because if you're reading my blog then there's a better-than-average chance that you're a blogger yourself. But I wonder what percentage of Language Arts teachers write anything significant on a regular basis? And of those that do, I wonder how much of that writing resembles the writing they are asking their students to do and then submit to Turnitin? I wonder how many Language Arts Departments - all the teachers in the department combined - have written even as much as I alone have in the last eight or so years on this blog? That's not to say there's anything special about me for writing on this blog, but that is suggesting that they should put their (school district) money where their writing is.

I think writing is more important than ever. But I think the most important writing done today doesn't look very much like school writing.
  • Important writing is done because you want to accomplish a task, you want to change something. School writing is often done just to get a rather dubious grade.
  • Important writing is done for an authentic audience, for an audience that cares about and needs what you are writing about; it's meant to be shared. School writing is done for an audience of one, and that one usually has to read between 30 and 200 other pieces of inauthentic writing at the same time. It's rarely shared.
  • Important writing is often (although not always) done collaboratively. School writing is rarely done collaboratively.
  • Important writing today frequently uses hyperlinks that allow you to actually click through and read the source material, and we frequently do. School writing frequently uses citations in MLA or APA format, where we seemingly care more about the appropriate placement of punctuation then we do about the usefulness, relevance, and importance of the source material. Rarely in school writing does anyone actually read the source material.
  • Important writing is difficult to plagiarize, because you have something to say, and it's yours. School writing is often easy to plagiarize, because you may not have anything to say, and it's not really yours.
There's one more interesting piece to this (assuming you've found any of this interesting), and that's the fact that my daughter will be a ninth grader at my school next year. Some folks are undoubtedly wondering whether we will "opt her out" of Turnitin. The answer is probably not, just like we haven't opted her out of standardized testing. But what we will do is give her the choice of whether to opt-out, just like we have with standardized testing. (So far she's chosen not to opt-out of standardized testing, because she doesn't want to be "different." Oh, how apropos, not opting-out of standardized testing because you don't want to be different.) If she should decide that she does want to opt-out of Turnitin (unlikely as that is), we will support her.

Does this mean that I think Language Arts teachers who use Turnitin are "bad" or "evil"? Not at all; as I said, I can see where it would be helpful to them in dealing with the realities of their classroom situations. But it does mean that I wish we would question the realities of our classroom situations and perhaps, just perhaps, spend our time and energy on changing those situations instead of using a flawed and ultimately harmful tool.



For an interesting discussion of copyright and other issues related to Turnitin, this article from the Florida Law Review (pdf) is very interesting (and lengthy).

Thursday, May 01, 2014

What Does It Take to be an Elite Athlete?

I posted this on my Algebra class blog, I thought I'd share it here as well.



Watch the video below to find out, but basically innovation, democratization and imagination. More specifically, math, science, technology and mindset.




Huh. Math. Science. Technology. Mindset. Kinda sounds familiar . . .

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

An Open Letter to the Littleton Public Schools Board of Education

This post is kind of an addendum to my last post. On Tuesday of last week the district asked our Math Department for a list of our concerns over the materials that were being recommended. Since the Board meeting was on Thursday, the department met after school on Wednesday and generated the letter below. The letter was shared with the district and, to their credit, they shared some of the bullet points with the Board when they made their presentation. To the best of my knowledge* (see update at bottom), the entire letter was not shared, so I thought I would share it here.

There are two other high schools in our district, plus a small, alternative setting. At the Board meeting the Math Department Chair of the next largest high school (we are the largest, 15 teachers in the department) spoke against the materials adoption, stating that 10 out of the 11 math teachers in her building opposed it (you might recall from my previous post that we had been told something different). The third high school is apparently in support of the materials although, again, we're hearing second hand from at least some of those teachers that, and I paraphrase, "we felt like we didn't have a choice so why fight it."

The School Board will decide on the materials adoption at their next meeting on Thursday, May 8th.



To: Littleton Public Schools School Board
From: Arapahoe High School Mathematics Department
Re: Concerns over materials adoption


As you know, LPS is in the process of adopting new materials in order to implement the newly revised Colorado Content Standards in Mathematics (which, in turn, align with the Common Core State Standards - Mathematics, or CCSS-M). As is the usual process, a committee was formed to preview what materials were available, then review selected materials, then make a recommendation to the Board on what materials to adopt. While this process has worked reasonably well in the past, we have concerns that the materials that are being recommended this time are not in the best interests of our students.


First, a bit of context. While there has been a lot of discussion both locally and nationally around the Common Core State Standards (not just the Mathematics ones, but the Language Arts ones as well), it’s important to keep in mind that these standards are still relatively new, especially in the context of textbook development cycles. Consequently, many of the choices that are currently available from textbook publishers are not (yet) of the quality we would like.


In addition, we are very much in a transition period between print resources and digital resources. While we clearly are headed toward digital resources, textbook publishers have not yet figured out the best way to utilize this new medium. (There are also questions of how the publishers will maintain revenues and profits, but we will not go there as part of this discussion.) Many publishers initially just tried to port their existing print resources to an online format, usually as some combination of non-editable PDF’s and non-editable web pages behind a login. While that was a natural first step, it really didn’t provide any advantages for the end user over a print textbook (in fact, it was probably more difficult to use). (It did, however, provide a cost-savings to the publishers as digital is much cheaper than physical; a cost savings that sometimes was passed along to the customer, but often was not.) This is an example of “Substitution” phase in the SAMR model that LPS uses for 21st Century Literacy.


Over time publishers began receiving feedback that customers did not like this and began to investigate better ways to take advantage of the affordances of digital platforms. The Agile Mind materials that the committee is recommending we adopt is an attempt to both address the new CCSS-M Standards and take advantage of those digital affordances. In our opinion, however, they have not successfully addressed either one.

Here’s a brief - although not comprehensive - list of some of the concerns we developed in a department meeting.

  • Much of it is not editable (exams, lessons, activities in PDF form or online) - can’t be easily customized. A physical text would not be editable either, but we feel like other digital resources are much more customizable (our own fledgling efforts on ck12 (still very much in alpha form), test generator-type software from previous publishers, Google Sites/Drive, etc - all have the ability for us to modify).

  • Not adaptable across our level of instruction such as remedial, on track, and advanced. This ranges from concerns from our Learning Support Services folks about reading level of the text (not adaptable to lower reading levels) to concerns about the ability to extend for our more advanced students. This also includes concerns about how we implement the various intervention models we have developed in our PLCs over the last few years using these materials, including how our Study Center personnel will utilize it.

  • There are not enough examples and daily practice provided without considerable supplementation.

  • There are concerns about being able to utilize the Smart Board environment like we currently do while simultaneously accessing the Agile Mind materials on screen. Many of us have developed many digital resources that we use with students in class. We understand that you don’t have to follow the Agile Mind script exactly, but that calls into question what the advantages are of buying this resource.

  • These materials are built to be delivered in a fairly particular way. While the publisher argues that the teacher has great flexibility, the materials themselves only work for a while if you follow the “script”. While teachers are under no obligation to follow that script, if they do not, then these materials are not of much use to them. In addition, the Agile Mind script requires more days of instruction to complete the curriculum than we currently have.

  • There is a concern with all students having access to the Internet at home in order to fully utilize this program. While that is certainly a goal of ours and we are heading that direction (both at AHS and in LPS), the district currently cannot guarantee this. If we are going to adopt materials that are only available with an online connection, then we would have to guarantee (and provide for those who cannot afford it) both equipment and high-speed Internet access for all of our students. (In comparison, the ck12 book we are creating is online, but can also be downloaded in PDF, ePub, or mobi formats for use offline without an Internet connection if necessary).

  • While we haven’t had time to explore the materials fully, we have already discovered some technical issues (for example, there are issues on pages with scroll bars and the “interactive” dragging and dropping). In addition, the user interface is not particularly well designed. There are issues with the size of the print (if you’re projecting and kids are very far back in the classroom). While there are zoom options available on browsers, the interface itself doesn’t adjust well making it not very usable with a class.

  • Cost (including additional cost of printing the student activity sheets). While we have not been told an exact cost, we’ve heard numbers like $500,000 thrown around. Whatever the final number is, we think that would be a reasonable investment in materials that would help our students become better learners, but we don’t feel it is a reasonable investment given the quality of these materials. Especially when you consider the following budgetary concerns (these are just three recent examples that come to mind):

    • Our Deaf and Hard of Hearing Teacher is being let go due to budgetary reasons, despite the fact that we still have students in need of those services, and the fact that we have two sections of students who are taking ASL as their World Language and will now not be able to continue with that.

    • Apparently spending $15,000 on blinds to cover the windows next to our classroom doors is too much, even though we need them in a lockdown situation in order to prevent intruders from seeing into our classrooms and targeting our students.

    • Apparently we can no longer as a district support individual student logins to the network. Instead, all students at Arapahoe will use a single login. This affects all students and teachers, but particularly affects instruction in Technology Education, Business and Journalism.

While not a comprehensive list, we feel these concerns are more than enough already to question the adoption of these materials. We want to be clear that we are not resistant to change, nor are we unwilling to look at new approaches, we just don’t feel like the materials we have seen so far (and, specifically, the Agile Mind materials), meets the needs of our students. Instead of adopting - and spending the money on - materials that are not up to our quality standards, we would propose the following.

  • Don’t adopt anything at this point. Perhaps some outstanding materials will come along in the future that will be worth adopting but, at the moment, these are not outstanding materials.

  • Instead, let's use a small part of the money that would’ve gone to this adoption and invest in professional development. Since we’re beginning this transition with Algebra, why don’t we get a group of Algebra teachers together and develop materials and come up with the types of activities we want to do with our students? We feel that we could come up with materials that were at least as good as those proposed for adoption, and probably better for our students, for substantially less money.

  • In addition, that professional development is much more likely to impact our students in a positive fashion than simply purchasing these materials. Learning theory tells us that humans actively construct their own knowledge and are active meaning-makers. This is not only true for our students, but for our teachers as well. Adopting canned, pre-scripted materials is unlikely to actually impact classroom practice or student learning. If we want to actually impact classroom practice, then professional development - with teachers co-creating materials and activities - is the way to do that.

We feel that there has never been a better time to be a teacher or a learner. We fully agree that the affordances of digital technologies and resources can improve our instruction and our students’ learning. We simply disagree that the Agile Mind materials - or any of the materials that were previewed - will actually do that. We feel that investing in professional development - investing in us - would not only be less expensive, but much, much more helpful for our students.

You trust us with your children, please trust us with this.

Sincerely,

Arapahoe High School Mathematics Department


Update 5-1-14: We've been told that the entire letter was shared with the Board of Education.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Burden of Proof: A Textbook Example

My district, like many I imagine, is in the process of making the transition from our existing math curriculum to one aligned with the updated Colorado Math Standards (pdf), which in turn are aligned with the Common Core State Standards - Mathematics. This post is not going to be about the Common Core State Standards themselves (you can thank me now), but about the "Materials Selection Process."

Traditionally in my district (as in many), when new curriculum is adopted a committee is formed to select new materials to support that curriculum. (Although, interestingly, I recently found out that in my district there is no dedicated budget for that, they just "find" the money each time they need to do this.) Once the committee researches, previews, and reviews the various materials available, they make a recommendation to the Board of Education. After a period of time for public comment, the Board then decides whether to adopt the materials.

In many areas, particularly Math, this has traditionally been a textbook-selection process. I was not part of this committee, but the process this year was a little different for a couple of reasons. First, because the Common Core State Standards are still fairly new (at least in terms of textbook publishing cycles), there are not a lot of good choices out there. Second, we are clearly in a transition period between the traditional print-based textbook and online "techbooks".

The committee ended up deciding on Agile Mind. (Well, sort of. Apparently some folks on the committee weren't entirely thrilled with the choice, and others felt like they really didn't have much choice so didn't say anything. But, in any case, that's the recommendation that's going forward.) The math teachers at my school were then asked to review the materials briefly before a webinar from the company and to share our thoughts and concerns. Here are some of my thoughts.

To summarize those thoughts, my feeling is that this isn't a good choice. While I like some of what Agile Mind is doing (I've used some ideas from the Dana Center in my Algebra class), overall I wasn't really impressed with their online techbook (with the caveat that I haven't spent enough time with it to do a fair and thorough review). It just doesn't seem to leverage much of the affordances of digital over print (see the thoughts for more on that).

I found it both interesting and convenient that for the webinar Agile Mind chose "Topic 18: Modeling with Quadratic Functions" to demo their product. I had recently taught an abbreviated version of this topic (abbreviated because we are transitioning to the new curriculum this year, so we have some of the old and some of the new), so I could compare what they clearly felt was their "good stuff" with what I had just come up with on my own.

Conveniently (again), Agile Mind starts their unit with a modeling activity built around shooting a basketball. They have an animation of two players shooting a basketball, one overhand and one underhand. You really have to see the animation to get the, umm, full effect, but I'll share a screen shot here that should give you an idea.

Source: Agile Mind, Algebra 1 CCSS Edition, Topic 18, Student Activity Sheet 1
It turns out that I used a similar activity borrowed from the MTBoS (MathTwitterBlogosphere). Which version do you think makes better use of digital resources? Which version do you think is better pedagogically? I think the MTBoS version is much better, but that's certainly debatable. What's not debatable, however, is that I can modify, alter, adjust, customize, and add to the MTBoS version as I see fit, where it's difficult to do that with the Agile Mind version (their techbook is behind a login, student activity sheet is a PDF, you can't customize their techbook).

I could go on about things I don't particularly like about Agile Mind (as well as things I like - for example, it has a cohesiveness and flow that a "put-together" set of lesson plans like mine may lack), but the point of this post is not really to criticize Agile Mind. The point (I knew I would get to it eventually) is that the "materials selection process" we (and I imagine many districts) have in place is fundamentally flawed. The default assumption is that if we are revising the curriculum, then we need to purchase new materials, and those materials are going to be in the form of a textbook (either print-based or digital, but still essentially a textbook).

I think that is wrong. I think it's a fundamental misunderstanding of the context of what it's like to be a learner today. It completely misses the advantages and affordances of digital over print (or at least open digital over pre-digested, closed digital resources). I think that for all "materials selections" from here on out, the default should be to not purchase a new textbook. That doesn't mean a new textbook can't be purchased if it's decided that's the best option, but it means the burden of proof should be on those that want to purchase a new textbook to justify why we should. To use the trendy term, what's the "value add" of these materials?

We haven't been told how much this adoption is going to cost, as I don't think they've negotiated that yet, although the figure of $500,000 has been thrown around (not sure if that's an initial cost, or a 7-year cost, or what). I'm going to assume that this will cost somewhere between $50,000 and $5 million. Whatever the final figure, I think that's an egregious waste of money.

Here's what I propose instead. Don’t adopt anything at this point. Perhaps some outstanding materials will come along in the future that will be worth adopting but, at the moment, these are not outstanding materials. Instead, let's use a small part of the money that would’ve gone to this textbook adoption and invest in our teachers. Wouldn’t it be amazing to get a group of Algebra teachers together for two weeks over the summer and come up with the types of activities we want to do with our students? (Maybe $15,000 or so, depending on the number of teacher and number of days - we currently pay $150/day stipends for teachers doing curricular work.) That would give at least one full day to work on each unit in CCSS-M - wouldn’t that be a better use of our time and money? Wouldn't that end up developing materials that were at least as good as - and perhaps better - than the materials we could purchase for substantially more money? And, more importantly, wouldn't investing that money in teachers developing the activities be much, much, much (did I mention much?) more likely to impact teachers' practice?

Adopting Agile Mind (or anything else I've seen out there) isn't likely to change what happens in the classroom with kids. (Or, if it does, it will change it in a negative fashion by providing a script-like experience for students.) But give teachers time, guidance and resources (including tapping into the MTBoS), and I think you will not only develop an outstanding resource that will get implemented in the classroom, but will also influence teachers' practice, and therefore student learning.

If the burden of proof is indeed on those wishing to adopt/purchase new materials, I would suggest that they haven't fulfilled that burden in this case. And I would suggest that districts and School Boards everywhere reevaluate the processes they have in place for curriculum adoption and materials selection. If you can't justify how and why a new curriculum or set of materials is going to help your students become better learners, then you can't justify the purchase price. Instead, consider investing in your people, and their ideas. That's truly a better way to develop agile minds.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

What Will Your Verse Be?

I posted this on my Algebra class blog a few minutes ago. Thought I would share it here as well.


I'm sometimes (okay, often) not very good at expressing myself. Thankfully, I have other folks I can turn to that can perhaps convey what I was trying to say better than I did today in class. Case in point: Walt Whitman.
O Me! O Life?
By Walt Whitman (from Leaves of Grass, 1892)
Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?  
Answer.  
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
This is what I was trying to get at today in class (albeit very poorly). My hope for you is that you may contribute a verse.

The following is a commercial for a product, and it pulls dialog from a movie, but I still think it's powerful.



From Dead Poets Society (1989) 
We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, 'O me! O life!... of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless--of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?' Answer. That you are here--that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be? 
Tom Schulman from "Dead Poets Society"

What will your verse be?

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

I'm a Candidate for PERA Board of Trustees

This post is for Colorado folks . . .

I'm a candidate for the PERA Board of Trustees, in the school division. I'm running for the seat being vacated by Scott Murphy, my Superintendent, who has served multiple terms and has decided not to run again.

If you'd like more information and/or would like to help, please visit my website. If you're an active school member of PERA, you should receive your ballot in the mail in early May. Ballots have to be completed and postmarked no later than May 31st.