Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Changing Education Paradigms

I came across this brilliant video via a colleague of mine.

Narrated by Sir Ken Robinson, this short clip provides a neat insight (using animation and British humor) on how and why our education system was designed the way it is and why it will never be as great as we want it to be.

Watch the video in its entirety since you're probably bored at work right now anyway.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

We're the Same, You and Me

Over the past year and a half, I've had a hard time dealing with the idea that the bulk of my students don't value an education.

As outdated as our education system is, we are still much better off than most other countries. I forget that sometimes. I think my students often forget that in this country, a child born into poverty can jump into the middle or upper class simply by going to school everyday and doing what they're supposed to be doing. So why isn't the system built to effectively convey this incredible opportunity? [insert conspiracy theory here]

One of the more challenging questions I've asked myself this year is how the hell did I make it out of this system, given I grew up under some incredibly challenging circumstances? Most of my students and I share childhood trauma which has forced us to "grow up" a lot faster than others.

I think it all comes down to the coping mechanisms we create to deal with our shit.

One of my earliest childhood memories of room involves my mother sitting on a chair planted right against the bedroom door. My father, in his drunken rage, is trying his best to break through the door to get to her. He's yelling dirty, terrible things at the both of us. Meanwhile, my mother sits firmly in the chair, looking calm and stoic. She's sipping her cup of Lipton tea and tells me to put the TV on and turn up the volume. I do as I'm told and get back to playing pretend with my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Donatello is about to save the day because Raphael and Leonardo couldn't stop bickering with each other and now the Shredder has them hostage.

I only had a few, small requests from my mother growing up: be good, get rich, and save her from her terrible life. No pressure. I guess I decided at a very young age that school was something I not only needed in order to "get rich" but it was apparently good for me in another way as well.

School was my escape.

I went everyday. There was something extremely comforting about the bell schedule. I knew exactly when every period started and ended. I liked hallways by department. My notebooks were organized with incredible detail. I liked reading the syllabus of every class over and over again. There's an unusual warmth in knowing the exact dates for exams and projects well in advance. There were routines in place to make me feel at ease from beginning to end. School's safe, simple structure sedated the chaos that grew within me whenever it was time to go home.

How did I make it out alive? I got lucky in how I dealt with my surroundings. The bulk of the students my school takes in deal with problems a little differently than me. I confronted a student in my first period class about why he came to school stoned:
"Brian, what was so necessary about smoking up before coming to school? That can't be enjoyable. Wouldn't you rather be at home during your wake-and-bake?"
"Mista, it just be like that sometimes. Today was one of those days."
I get it now. I guess I always got it, but now I truly understand. We're not really that different, are we kids?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Yo Mista Goes to Washington

I just spent the weekend in Washington D.C. to attend Teach for America’s 20th anniversary summit. Honestly, it’s hard to believe Teach for America (TFA) has been around for twenty years, but I guess that’s because education reform is just now getting the media attention it’s deserved for the last forty years.

Opening Plenary Session on Saturday, February 12th
Photo credit: ABCDE

The summit was sold out with over 11,000 TFA corps members and alumni in attendance. As we crowded into the Washington Convention Center for the opening speaker, I remember feeling incredibly proud: I am part of a national movement to ensure every child in this country gets a damn good education, regardless of where they’re born or how rich their parents are. And I was one of 11,000 there who believed that could happen one day. That was kind of fucking cool.

Here's a link to the opening plenary session.

A few things I learned at the summit:
  1. Change starts with the power and willingness of the young (if you disagree, refer to exhibit A: Egypt in 2011)
  2. This new focus on “teacher accountability” is misguided and another way for a broken system to remain in power; we need new and effective leadership, not rating systems based on test scores
  3. Stop ridiculing teacher unions: they’re doing their job to protect all teachers no matter what, and they’re damn good at it. Learn from them if you want to beat them.
  4. Placing blame for poor student achievement solely on lack of parental involvement is wrong; when parents actually want to get involved, most schools don’t have systems in place for positive and effective involvement within the school.
  5. The head of the IRS is a former TFA corps member and that’s why the FAFSA is now extremely easy to fill out. Small world.
  6. John Legend is a TFA Board Member, WTF?
Maybe I’ll write more about what the speakers had to say in a later post; I really just want to use this space to remind myself how incredible this experience was. Having had work experience in the corporate world, I really don’t need too many reminders of what life was like working an unfulfilling job. This weekend made me feel even better about what I do. It strangely reenergized me for the good fight. Plus, it’s always great to know you’re doing something that other top graduates now seek to do: teach.

I think it’s sad TFA gets a lot of criticism for it’s “two years and out” model. Yes, some criticisms are legitimate, for example: two years isn’t nearly enough time for teachers to hone their crafts. But, at the end of the day, education should be about recruiting top tier, hard-working talent. Why is it that all you need to teach is a certification? How come GPA, college and extra-curricular activities in college really don’t matter? How come public schools don’t set up shop at career fairs on college campuses to actively recruit talent?

In high school, I remember discussing careers with my fellow AP/honors class peers. We were all highly motivated, straight-A students and for us, it was "common knowledge" that we, the “A” students would work corporate jobs or become doctors, the “B” students would work in politics and the “C” students would become teachers. The statement sounds elitist, but could you blame us? This is the reality today. In nations with the highest student achievement, the top third of graduates enter into some field of education. This needs to change, and I don’t see any other programs besides TFA doing anything about it.

I want to end this post by talking about a comment that stuck out to me this weekend. On Saturday, I attended a small panel session regarding the progress of Teach for All, a global partnership amongst countries implementing the TFA model. The CEO of Teach First (Britain’s version of TFA) was talking about the hurdles and criticisms he faced when attempting to get the program off the ground. Critics of the program thought they would never be able to recruit top tier college graduates to teach after college. The critics said “volunteerism” and “being a do-gooder” were American-like ideals that would not work elsewhere. Teach First is now one of the largest recruiters at Cambridge and Oxford.

The belief that "the best of the best" simply aren't interested in helping others is a lie spread all over the world.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Khan Academy: A Helpful Resource

Calling all math teachers with websites: there's a dude out there actually making damn good video tutorials for high school students. His name is Salman Khan and he runs Khan Academy. You can read an article summarizing all the buzz around his project here.

As we know, the traditional approach of teachers imparting knowledge to students during the day then reinforcing it back at home is highly flawed at inner city schools. Poor attendance coupled with students' lack of willingness to do a lot of homework hinders the student. It also harms the curriculum progression, often forcing teachers to spend more time than necessary on certain topics.

"New school" principals are in love with the idea of uploading lesson presentations online to let your kids access them. The problem with this approach is that a presentation is just that, a presentation: you still need someone to guide the student through the work unless the student is a self-learner. Video tutorials have gained a lot of popularity lately but most videos out there are poorly created and too lengthy.

In my opinion, a majority of Khan Academy's videos actually seem to overcome these hurdles. The videos are anywhere from eight to fifteen minutes in length. Salman Khan, who narrates all the videos, is articulate and able to explain complex ideas using simple terms, which is actually quite hard to do. Yesterday, I started linking to his videos on my class website. Here's a sample video.

Of course, you still need students willing to watch these videos online in their spare time. Try working around this roadblock using creative titles for the math videos. I imagine labeling the video for ratios as "2 Girls, 1 Cup" might increase the likelihood of a student clicking the link. Maybe.