The Ruminations of a Former 10-Year-Old

old_classroomI am an educator.

There was a time in my life when I attempted to ignore the gravitational pull of my vocation, but I know now that the outcome was inevitable.  I remember the day the die was cast.  Mrs. Johnson, try as she might, could not make a math concept clear to one of my 5th grade classmates.  I knew what she meant, and I knew what he heard, and I knew the conflicting thoughts were hurtling toward an intersection of despair and frustration.  It wasn’t my place, but I just had to intervene.  The subsequent success left my classmate and my teacher relieved, and left me with the unspoken knowledge that I would one day have a classroom of my own.

That day in Mrs. Johnson’s class was the first time in my recollection that I considered instructional best practice, but it has remained a focus of mine ever since.  Thirty-four years later, I find myself discussing this very thing with the staff at Zionsville Middle School.  Instrutional best practice has changed quite a bit since my days at Lindbergh Elementary School.  Conceptually what was good practice then is still good practice today.  The difference is the number of tools that currently exists to allow teachers and students to use these practices as never before. 

It’s an exciting time to be an educator.  With 21st century tools, the means of getting to the minds of students are more numerous than ever before, and yet precision is enhanced as well, making improvements in both quality and quantity.  Access to the Internet provides a window to the world for our students, and authenticity — which Mrs. Johnson had to manufacture as best she could — abounds.  Collaboration, always an educational goal, is enhanced by giving access to documents to multiple users, allowing for multiple editors and the ability to view changes in real-time.  The audience for student work, an essential source for student motivation and purpose, is expanded beyond the eyes of the teacher.  Access to computers has fundamentally, for the better, changed the what, where, and how of education.  Exciting times, indeed.

It’s also a trying time to be an educator, however.  Media and politicians seem particularly interested in highlighting any shortcoming within the realm of public education.  Taxes, high-stakes testing, budget shortfalls, accountability, and failing schools dominate the discourse.  Funny, the word “learning” is rarely part of the discussion.  That is a pity.  Even worse, none of the things listed above really has anything to do with children or their learning experience.

Our 1:1 program is not the way of the future, as many would describe it, but the way of the present — and even then it was a few years late in its arrival.  But more and more I’m beginning to understand that we are making a mistake in calling it a “program.”  It is not a program with a step-by-step procedure or a start date and an end point.  It is not a separate curriculum.  It is using best practice.  It is using every tool available to make a child’s learning experience the most it can be.  It is exposure to authentic and varied materials.  It is developing a way of thinking and problem-solving not possible with traditional tools.  It is education as it should be, and any other way is inferior.  Our task, ultimately, is to prepare students for their future, not for our past.

And so I find myself in a similar position as that little boy in the 5th grade classroom.  The potential exists that children could be denied the tools necessary for their 21st century education — the education of today.  Every survey that we have ever done indicates that our teachers, students and parents believe that the 1:1 environment is more effective and preferable.  Proliferation of 1:1 instruction for ZCS, however, has met some opposition, and the future of expansion hangs in the balance at the next school board meeting: May 24 at 6 pm.  As I have professed, I am an educator, not a political activist.  As such, I don’t call for protests or demonstrations, but I do strongly suggest that parents advocate for the best possible instructional experience available for their children.  If you have a thought on the matter, do not hesitate to share it with me, our superintendent, or our board members. 

Lindbergh Elementary closed its doors over 20 years ago.  No doubt it produced several future educators.  The same is true for ZMS.  My only hope is that the ones chosen to follow this line of work do so after being inspired by best practice, not out of frustration with bad examples.

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A Vision Cast

IMG_1415For many of us, Spring Break offers a time to get away from it all, to find a remote beach, to bask in the warm glow of the coastal sunshine, to hear nothing but the crashing of powerful waves as they reach the shore.  While this sound is immense, it provides a delectable white noise that leaves one alone with one’s thoughts, an enjoyable solitude void of the bluster of everyday life’s trivialities.  In the education arena these days, white noise is necessary to allow those of us in the field to focus on our real mission: creating student learning and growth.  Talk of tax caps, the state’s failure to meet economic predictions, budget shortfalls, staff reductions, ISTEP+ scores, graduation rates, and races to the top are all topics of distraction.  While none of these issues is trivial, each takes away from the meaningful discussions about teaching and learning.

A few days back, as I waded through several educational blogposts, I ran across one that particularly intrigued me.  The topic was the new national educational technology plan, and the post suggested that the U.S. Department of Education had successfully created a vision for 21st century education.  I quickly followed the link to the document entitled “Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology.”  As I opened the document and looked through it, I was metaphorically moved to a tropical paradise.  I read:

“The challenge for our education system is to leverage the learning sciences and modern technology to create engaging, relevant, and personalized learning experiences for all learners that mirror students’ daily lives and the reality of their futures. In contrast to traditional classroom instruction, this requires that we put students at the center and empower them to take control of their own learning by providing flexibility on several dimensions. A core set of standards-based concepts and competencies should form the basis of what all students should learn, but beyond that students and educators should have options for engaging in learning: large groups, small groups, and work tailored to individual goals, needs, interests, and prior experience of each learner. By supporting student learning in areas that are of real concern or particular interest to them, personalized learning adds to its relevance, inspiring higher levels of motivation and achievement.

“In addition, technology provides access to more learning resources than are available in classrooms and connections to a wider set of “educators,” including teachers, parents, experts, and mentors outside the classroom. On-demand learning is now within reach, supporting learning that is life-long and life-wide.”   

I remember where I was when ordinary citizens took sledge hammers to the Berlin Wall, when the space shuttle Columbia tragically exploded during its ascent, and when the Colts beat the Patriots on the way to winning the Super Bowl.  Similarly, I believe I will always remember the day when our nation’s DOE recognized the need to employ all of the tools available to us in making our classrooms relevant and meaningful, and in order to structure learning based on an individual student’s needs, abilities, and interests.  I am thrilled that the technology plan for the nation’s schools sees technology use as a means to an end, not as a goal in and of itself.  I am elated that technology is not viewed as a one-way delivery system for one-size-fits-all content, but rather as a vehicle to differentiated content and as an instrument to create meaningful, relevant, and connected student work.

I am also proud that Zionsville Middle School is well down this road.  Oftentimes a document such as this one produces as thought such as, “Well, that sounds great, but how would we ever make that work?”   Thanks to a supportive community and a visionary, hard-working teaching staff, Zionsville Middle School is tasking itself not just with making it work, but with making it the best it can be for the benefit of our students.

May you enjoy your Spring Break, and find relaxation and happiness whatever your endeavor.  The knowledge that your child’s school embodies in the present what others envision for the future may not be your equivalent to a tropical island getaway, but I do hope it can provide some white noise amidst the dour education headlines of the day.

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ZCS Collects 1:1 Feedback

As was our practice during our pilot 1:1 program (2008-2009), teachers, students and parents recently pariticipated in a survey in an effort to help us learn about and assess our one-to-one initiative.  This year’s data include responses from Zionsville Middle Sschool and Zionsville West Middle School.  An astounding 91% of the ZMS parents responded to the survey! 

Below are the links to the survey results:

Teacher Survey

Student Survey

Parent Survey

Parent Orientation Meeting for 1:1 Program

netbookopeningIt is my hope that the 5 minute screencaptures linked below prove helpful in describing to you our 1:1 program.  This digital version of our parent meeting is intended to inform parents who are unable to attend the “live” meetings on September 16 and 23 (Eagle Hall, 6 pm).  The links below are sequential, and last approximately 5 minutes each.  In order to view all of the meeting’s content, it will be necessary to see all six links.  Thank you for “tuning in.”

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

Part Six