Sunday, December 30, 2012

Let's Close the Door on Open Houses

A few years ago, I walked into the home of a friend who also happened to be a school administrator (the two often seem to go together).  Expecting him to greet me in a relatively normal fashion, I was a bit surprised to find him frantic and on the phone.  Apparently, his school had just botched their open house and he and his fellow administrators were now scrambling to schedule local parlor meetings and other ways to reach out to the community to get out the message that they had failed to effectively communicate that morning.

What struck me as funny about this was how unnecessary this all should have been.  Yes, his school has several local competitors, but the fact is that most prospective parents and students could probably have told you more or less what made this school unique from the others, which students already attended the school, what the word on the street was about the school, and so on and so on.  In other words - what was the purpose of the open house in the first place?

This issue bothers me every year as we prepare for the open house in my school.  Every school in my area holds one of these events, and the costs in money and time are staggering.  While I am not privy to the specific budget involved, schools spend money on consultants pushing the latest cool model for open houses, for ads in local Jewish papers, for decor and food, and for who knows what else.

On top of that, and perhaps a bigger drain on the school, is the amount of human time involved.  Meeting after meeting of administrators and teachers and lay leaders to make sure that every detail of the open house is planned just so in order to maximize the positive buzz that emerges from the evening.  On top of that, it is almost impossible for an open house to be a winning moment - if it goes well, then you did what was expected.  If it goes poorly, people ask how you can mess something up when you had four months to prepare?!?!

And what is actually the goal of the open house?  On the elementary school level, and perhaps the high school level as well, the main goal is to get people to come back to take a tour when they can get a truer and more unvarnished look at the school - the school in action during the day and not the school when it is dressed up for a two-hour show at night with no students present.*

*Kind of funny that an open house trying to sell a school has everything except the actual students.  I am not counting those students who are carefully selected to serve as smiling faces at the open house, kind of like the smiling kids on the tarmac greeting foreign dignitaries to North Korea.

There may be a second goal of the open house - to give the prospective parents or students a warm fuzzy.  In other words, the open house aims to make an emotional impact that hopefully will carry the day when families are making their decisions.  As I noted before, there is not really much of an intellectual decision to make - most people learn much of their information about schools by talking to people who already attend or by picking up the general "word on the street."  No, the open house tries to paint a rosy picture of the school that will be difficult for you to forget when you are making your decision.  In other words, it aims to sway a $100,000-$150,000 decision based on a gauzy video and some nice presentations in an extremely controlled environment.**

**In no way should this post be seen as denigrating the work that people put into the open houses.  I have seen many dedicated and talented people devote and donate much of their time to producing impressive open house productions.  My point is that all of that work could be better directed towards helping the schools in a thousand other areas.

My colleague, Rabbi Steven Penn (@stevenpenn1) has an idea which I think is brilliant, and is actually done at a higher level of education.  His suggestion is for all schools that serve a given area to have one showcase night in a neutral location.  Each school will have a booth and can do with the booth as they wish, with the goal being for everyone to sign people up for tours.  Obviously, schools who seek to impress with new buildings or flashy productions will lose that aspect of the night, but the savings in man-time and money should be well worth it.  Basically, this is what Yeshivot and Seminaries in Israel do.  At least in the New York/New Jersey area, there is one night in each general region where all Israel schools send a representative in order to present and arouse interest.  After that evening, students and parents investigate their chosen schools, perhaps take a trip to Israel to go on tours, and ultimately come to a decision.  On the whole, it seems to work, and I am not sure why Jewish Day Schools and High Schools in areas where there are choices should not aim to follow their model.

What do we think?  Can this work?

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Newtown Tragedy and the Teacher's Dilemma

This is not going to be a post trying to understand what happened this past Friday in Newtown, Connecticut.  I don't think that anyone will ever or possibly can understand what possesses an individual to murder 26 innocent people, including 20 kindergarten children, in cold blood.  And, honestly, it won't matter all that much even if  the police manage to piece together a motive.  Nothing is going to bring those children or the adults who cared for them back to this world.

This is also not going to be a post about how the concept of school as a fortress has been once again shattered.  After Columbine and Virginia Tech and who knows how many other such tragedies, schools have had in mind the possibility that some deranged individual could, in a flash, turn a ordinary school day into unspeakable horror.  My school, in accordance with State law, conducts drills every month preparing us for what to do in case a dangerous individual is inside or outside of the building.  My sense is that we are all going to take the next drill a lot more seriously.

No, this post is about something that teachers struggle with from time to time when dealing with difficult students.  We are being told that the murderer in Newtown was a loner, the type of kid who would avoid prolonged interaction with others.  He was apparently intelligent, but had personality issues that probably led some of his teachers or guidance counselors to wonder if he was in some way classifiable.

And, let's face it, every school has kids who are like that in some way - withdrawn, shy, socially awkward, perhaps the target of bullies.  After Columbine and other tragedies, there was much talk about how the perpetrators had been socially marginalized and speculation ensued that if we could make schools more inclusive places then we could undercut some of the emotions of exclusion that were suspected to have led to murder.  As such, the past decade has seen a tremendous amount of discussion and programming and legislating about bullying, to the point where certain states have developed "anti-bullying" laws that require schools to file all sorts of paperwork every time one student says anything demeaning to another student.

But now we come to this case, and we have to go back to the drawing board.  This murderer does not seem to have been subject to bullying.  His social marginalization seems to be self-inflicted and there are as yet no accounts of his having been made to suffer at the hands of others (of course, we may yet learn that he was).  At this moment, a mere 60 hours after the tragedy, it seems that the murderer was some who had been mentally ill for some time, and somehow something snapped that brought him to this - or a series of events eventually led to this moment.

And that is where I get to the dilemma that teachers face.  There is an article being passed around social networks today written by a woman whose 13-year old son displayed such violent behavior that she eventually made good on her promise to bring him to a mental hospital after he threatened her over a dispute concerning the pants he was wearing.  While the behaviors of the boy in this article are more extreme than any I have ever seen in my almost 20 years of teaching tweens, I have definitely seen behavior that is a mere few steps below his on the extreme-behavior ladder. Should I ignore a student who locks up when things do not go as planned?  Do I call the school psychologist? The principal? The police?  I would hope that at least the latter two options would be considered a gross overreaction, but I cannot help but think that there are people in Newtown today who knew the murderer a few years ago and are questioning whether they should have done more back then so that 26 people could still be alive today.

It is a bit of a tightrope that we, teachers and parents, walk when it comes to extreme behaviors.  We want to believe that our children are having a rough stretch or are learning how to work through conflicts or are just a bit on the quiet side.  We don't want to be alarmist or offend anyone or stigmatize a child before he or she has had a chance to mature and develop into the fine young man or woman that we are sure they can become with the right guidance and love and nurturing.


But the more that these tragedies continue to dot the landscape of our consciousness, the more that there is a tiny voice in the back of our minds that wonders about that kid who is a little too impulsive, too detached, too difficult to reach.  Does this child have the capacity to, God forbid, do something unspeakable?  Is it OK for me, as a teacher, to think that about any child?  If yes, then is there something that I should be doing, even as minimum as throwing up a red flag to those people who can be helpful?  If not, am I running the risk of ignoring a child who, at the end of the day, needs help?

The answers are not easy, but it is important that we grapple with the questions.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Changing the Culture, One Teacher at a Time

As technology rushes into schools at an ever-increasing pace, we are constantly bombarded by talk about whatever happens to be hot this week.  Khan Academy! Ipads in classrooms! Skyping with your teacher! Attaining warp speed, Mr. Scott!

However, once we clear through all of the hype and excitement, the fact remains that no technology is going to change anything in a classroom without teachers who not only understand how to use that technology, but - far more importantly - understand how that piece of technology can have an impact on the way that learning takes place in their classrooms.  A teacher who has students use an ipad as a cool notetaking machine or who skypes with another classroom or an author as an activity in between curricular pieces is pretty much wasting someone's money, specifically whoever laid out the dough for all of that fancy technology.

The real challenge for school administrators is how to encourage teachers to adopt a mindset that sees technology as a powerful lever that can help them to alter their classrooms to produce more authentic and deeper learning.  The traditional answer has been through large-school professional development where the guru of the month comes in, gives a speech that wows everyone and gets them thinking about how they can employ these new ideas in their classrooms, and then everyone has another cup of coffee, sobers up, and continues teaching in the exact same way as before.  Thankfully, this approach is on the wane, but that still leaves us with the issue of how to move teachers towards incorporating technology in an effective and meaningful fashion.

The approach in my school is to narrow my view.  Instead of saying "How can we make our school a place where all of the teachers practice effective use of technology as a means towards better learning?", we turn our focus to one teacher at a time.  In our minds, there are teachers who already understand how to do this effectively, and they need only general support and encouragement from us to keep doing what they are doing and some guidance on how to take it to the next level.  That is usually enough, as they instinctively know what we am looking for and how to get there.

The real work on our part is with the next category of teachers - those who are willing to learn but are not sure where to begin.  With these teachers, we work one-on-one, on a regular basis, exploring their current curriculum, speculating about how it can possibly be taught in a more effective manner, and only then finding specific pieces of technology that can be helpful.  It's kind of PBL for teachers - we figure out the problem that we are trying to solve and then locate the means and the tools to help solve it.  As a result, we am slowly increasing the number of teachers that are on board.  The key word is slowly- we will not have a full faculty teaching in this manner by the end of the year. But then again, the guru or large-scale approach was not going to do it either.  My hope is that this approach will eventually increase the number of teachers who focus on 21st century skills and good technology integration to the point where they help to set the overall tone within the school.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Thoughts on ipads in the Classroom

As readers of this blog well know, I have just jumped back into PBL in my 7th grade class, with a revamped version of my original PBL Korbanot unit.  In addition to the changes that I have made to the unit, I now have the added advantage of our school's newest ipad cart, thus giving us the ability to have access to either  computer or an ipad every day of the week.

What has been so amazing to watch in the first couple of days with the ipads is both the ease with which the students began using them and the fact that every student used them in a slightly different way.  The ease of use was a no-brainer - several of them have their own ipads already, several more have parents or older siblings who have them (including my son), and many of the others have ipods and so they were at least familiar with the basic interface.

What was more interesting was the way in which each student set out to use their new devices.  I have created a wiki complete with links to source material, instructions, videos, images, and many other resources that they will need to access in order to construct their learning.  But aside from that one constant, the students discovered a wide variety of apps that they can use for taking notes, and many of the apps have different features that sometimes speak to each student's strengths - whether it is ScratchWork with its split-screen ability or Pages and its powerful set of tool or Evernote and its cool elephant logo (and ability in take pictures and insert them into notes, among other things).  I learned a great deal about my students' work habit and I picked up a few tips for apps that I promptly downloaded onto my own ipad.

This highlights one of the real strengths of Project-Based Learning, the freedom for each student to decide how they want to proceed through material, and more importantly the freedom for them to learn how to collate and organize that material.  As my 7th graders move from a stage where they expect notes to be handed to them to the more mature stage where they will have to be create meaningful notes that eventually lead to a meaningful product, the different ways in which they use their ipads shows that they are quickly learning this very important skill.

One other note - I have had almost total student engagement in class the past few days.  I don't mean silence - students can be silent if they are surfing the web on their ipads.  My students have been highly focused and highly motivated, asking crucial questions about material, struggling to understand what their overall purpose is, and learning how to work within their groups so as to maximize their learning.  Again, I see this as one of the main goals of PBL - ensuring that every student is actively learning for as long as possible during the course of the class period.  So far, so good.