What’s the common characteristic of most schools that are deemed failing? It’s that they exist in a rough community. Many of the problems that the school has are ones that can carry over from the community including fights, drugs, gangs, and more. It means that failing schools aren’t just school issues, they are community issues. Since schools are community issues, we have to find ways to make that community strategic partners. Doing that will help bring about the needed change.
To start this process in the community, I think you first need to look at what your community needs. Do they need teachers? Computer Programmers? Something related to a business in the area? If you have that need front and center you can then tweak what happens in your school (especially at the high school level) to fill that need. You can add pre-teaching classes and programs. You can add the AP CS classes. Those classes will prepare students who have a vested interest in the community for the jobs that really matter in them.
Just think about one of the biggest issues in failing schools. It’s easily teacher retention, and I got to see it first hand when I was technology coach. During that time, I was assigned to what many would consider one of the worst schools in the city of Atlanta. I did not know what to expect, but to my surprise there was an amazing group of teachers in the building. The issue though was that the group was small. Many times teachers left this building in the middle of the year simply because they could not handle the student population. You know who would be better positioned to handle them? People who grew up there. People who had a vested interest. If this school could ever get a pre-teaching program started, they may actually have a chance to build a staff that really worked for the tough area they are in.
Community involvement can also be other things. I have seen schools have incredible luck with internships, and so many communities have been generous in donating and giving items to schools. I have also seen things like professional sports teams sponsoring STEM activities. The key with all of it is can you creatively find an academic purpose for the community to be involved in that is mutually beneficial. If you can, run with it!
I think there is still some hesitancy to get these programs going in many schools because of the safety concerns that come within opening your building to the outside, but if we lock schools down students are never going to get the full benefit. We have to find ways to make it work. It’s too important to have people that have that investment into making the community a better place.
Let’s move on to the next piece in fixing US education, and it’s one that may seem counter-intuitive. It’s decreasing the scope of standards in many classes! Yes, that means, let’s teach students just a little less content, but before you judge, let me tell you why. This also does not necessarily apply to every subject area as I have seen some (like some ELA standards) that are more focused on specific skills rather than content.
I think for me, this change all starts with my experiences teaching history. I taught both world history and US history courses for years, and let’s just say those standards are a whole lot. In US, we had to teach the entire history of the US before the standardized test, and it included every reform movement you can think of because the politics of a civics class dictate that. In world, we had to teach the entire history of the world in a year, and the timeline jumped from continent to continent which made continuity almost impossible. Thankfully, the world did not have a standardized test. Each class had way too much content, and it made things challenging.
The question with these intense standards is “Why?” Why do we include content at the K-12 level that is really only a need for students who are entering that field of study in college and beyond. Why do we include those content pieces that most students forget before the end of the year is out? It’s one thing to teach content that is a building block for a greater understanding of the world, but it’s another thing to overfill standards with too much content making it impossible for students to get the experiences that make school fun and time to practice skills that will actually carry them forward.
If we continue to give teachers such intense standards, they focus on the content delivery aspect almost exclusively. If states were to take their standards and cut them down to just the necessary content, it would leave time for teachers to have students write, create, act, and practice future ready skills. They could gain deeper understanding of the content they were studying, and students could actually have fun in school! It also makes the state test at the end of the year less stressful for them.
A shrinking of standards though, may help the teachers even more. If you are in one of the classes where the standards are packed tightly, lessening the standards immediately takes some of the pressure off. Those classes are a race to get all of the content in before the test, and so that race of content delivery is understandable. That race means you have to either get creative with your scheduling, or your class is almost all content delivery, or you simply don’t finish the content. All of those choices aren’t perfect, so maybe by lessening the standards impact you can give teachers the time they need to push student learning the right way.
Now is this an easy process? No, it takes the state to make it work, and those politics always get in the way. Hopefully, someday we can lessen that political impact, but in today's world it looks like it may just be increasing. It means it’s time to advocate and make our educator voices heard. Call your state legislators and school boards to make this a priority!
Part 2 of my summer series, “How can we fix US schools?” is here, and this time I want to focus on one of the things that is on everyone’s mind, safety. With the events that ended the school year and the seemingly endless parade of school shootings, it seems like something that will never be very far from the conversation. It also doesn’t seem like real actionable steps from the government will address it anytime soon. Like most things, schools are going to need to get creative.
The key question here is, “How do we provide a secure safe learning environment, without making schools fortresses and wasting millions of dollars on it?” Inherently, that’s a tough question to answer because you are toeing a fine line. We have to do everything we can to protect students, but we also want these environments to be open community centers where children can grow and play while parents participate in those proceedings. There is also no room for error when it comes to funding. We can’t pour tax dollars into security measures that may or may not work while the instructional environment is already suffering.
Before we get into what I think may help here, let’s dispel some notions that most certainly will not. Things like arming teachers, fencing, armed security guards, and only one door in and out are not solutions. In fact, most would cause additional issues.
Let’s start with arming teachers. Almost to a person, I have not seen any teacher support this notion. They know the reality of it, and that reality is incredibly dark. In most cases, school shooters have been or are students in the school they are attacking. By arming that teacher, you are asking them to take the life of that student in an instant. That is a terrible choice, and I would think many will get harmed in the process of trying to talk that student down. Any teacher worth their salt also knows the training for this would be terrible. The money just would not be there to make it long enough and worthwhile enough. Finally, almost every teacher has set down their keys, glasses, coffee cups in places in the school building and had to find them. What happens when that is a firearm?
I think the other things that are brought up are at best putting a band-aid on a bigger issue. While some fencing could help, you also want schools to be a place of community, and that fencing could quickly go overboard. I know the feeling I get seeing barbed wire schools in other countries, and I don’t want to see that here. Armed security / police in a school have seemed to help in some instances, but they can also be very negative. John Oliver did a great piece on Last Week Tonight that you can find HERE on the negative impact that school police can bring. With that being said, I do think school police officers need to be there (I have known some great ones), but that process needs to be thought through. Last, but certainly not least, the one door in and out theory (as expressed by Ted Cruz), is just unrealistic. We want kids to be outside, playing, having fun, and doing recess. They need that movement. We just need to figure out how to make it secure.
So, what can we do? Seeing many schools over the years, I think it needs to be a combination of a student centered and technologically driven approach. The student centered piece needs to be more important, and it needs to start with a focus on anti-bullying efforts and counseling. We need to try and reach students who may turn violent before it starts, and showing them effort and love may get us there.
When you look at the whole of individuals committing school violence, what are the common themes? They are bullied. They feel alone. They are angry. We have to try and lower those temperatures before they even start, and there are things we can do to do it. We could make a renewed push into preventing bullying, and change the way we discipline students who are caught doing it. What if we made them do an act of kindness in those instances? What if we tried to get to the heart of the matter of why they are bullying? Could we stop things in their tracks?
A renewed focus on mental health is of course needed to. The problem with it now in schools is that many counselors don’t even have time to focus on it. When you think about counselors at the high school level, what do most of them do? They do college admissions. What if we split that off into separate roles and had counselors who could actually focus on mental health? It might make a world of difference. There would also need to be a renewed focus for them on how to deal with those issues, but just freeing them up is a great start.
From the technological way to keep folks safe, it is all going to boil down to money. Changing this kind of infrastructure takes it and are lawmakers willing to do it. While I am no expert in the field, could simple finger print oriented locks help? Many colleges use them to restrict access to things like athletic facilities, so I would imagine it may be possible. If staff can be part of those locks easily, they could come and go from the building with ease and never have to prop doors or mistakenly leave one unlocked. I think most teachers would gladly trade putting their finger down coming in from recess over messing with their keys. Doors could even be programmed to unlock at certain times to enhance school movement (Many high schools are structured with outside movement), and then lock as soon as that movement is over. You could even program in different access for school events which gives schools an even better approach on what is going on in their classroom.
Another simple tech idea to help is adding an alarm bell to doors that are not supposed to be open during the day. This sounds really annoying, but hear me out. If there is an alarm, teachers in that area know that the door is likely open, and they would be highly motivated to turn off that annoying sound. It doesn’t have to be something incredibly loud, just more a reminder to close up that door.
You could even get more fancy with the technology side of it as well. I have no idea how much they cost, but what if even just high schools added the security scanners that places like Disney and Six Flags have? I am talking about the ones where you just walk through and then they pull you out of line. While not perfect (Disney still does bag searches), they are less intrusive than a metal detector. You also almost forget it’s there unless you are stopped, so it takes that fortress level down.
I am sure there are hundreds and thousands of other solutions out there, but hopefully lawmakers at some point can take even more additional steps. I think the key here is we have to remember how this additional security and safety affects students. If it affects them negatively, it’s probably not a good solution.
This is a very special blog for me to write, and at the same time it’s a real odd one. In May, I turned 41, and now that it is a month later, I have officially lived longer than my own father. My dad passed almost thirty years ago around 1 month after his 41st birthday from cancer, and with me passing this strange milestone, it’s a great time to reflect on my life, and to thank the men who played an enormous role in it.
You see when my dad passed, I was at about the worst age to handle it. I was a 6th grader. 6th graders in general are that really weird age between elementary age children and preteens. There is tons of stuff going on in their heads, and they are still starting to handle adversity. To make matters harder, it was only my second year in the school group that I was with. My parents had made sure that they moved me to a better area with better schools only a year prior which was wholeheartedly the right decision, but at the time it made all of those events in my life even tougher. It’s really hard when you move away from the friends you grew up with, and you have to make a whole new group.
That time in my life was tough. It would have been understandable if I came through it with all kinds of emotional issues, but my mom was determined to not let that happen. She handled that time better than anyone could have imagined helping me and my sister put one foot in front of the other and keep on living, and one of the most important things she ever did for me was make sure I had strong, positive, male role models in my life. They almost always came in the form of coaches.
Talking about this group of men who helped shape the person I am today has to start with Mack Cobb. Mack is somewhat of a legend around the Pope Football program, and I know for a fact there are hundreds of stories about him that are similar. I actually started playing football in 5th grade, and by time I got to 6th it was time for me to move into the Pope Junior program. I can only imagine how nervous my mom was about this transition, but Mack instantly put her at ease. His way of making sure that every kid felt a part of the team, teaching life lessons, and just being a father figure made an impact on so many. I will never ever forget the Spring practice that I went through when my dad was dying. The fact that Mack took care of me during that time and let me have that release made all the difference in the world. It’s still one of the best sets of practices I ever had. This man meant so much to me that I even invited him to my wedding party (I got married in Colorado) almost 15 years after he was my coach.
There were tons of others in the Pope Junior program as well. All of the dads of other players who were coaches at the time continued to look out for me all the way through High School. People like Frank Brennan, Keith Logue, Rod Sawyer, and many others took it it upon themselves to provide a sense of normalcy for me. Honestly, the one thing I will never forget from my Dad’s funeral was walking down the aisle after the casket and seeing Frank and Roscoe in the center of it. I have never told them how much that meant to me, but seeing two people who I knew were there for me has stuck with me for the almost 30 years.
As I moved into high school, that mentor group changed, but it still came in the form of coaches. Talking about my high school coaches, it always has to start with my wrestling coach, Jim Haskin. Jim was really young when he came over to Pope having only coached a few years in a nearby county. I also hated wrestling when I first met him after two terrible years of experience in middle school. His personality and excitement won me over though, and the experience with him was forever life changing. He was like my older brother that looked out for me and made sure I went down the right path. I could not have asked for anymore from him. I shared so many ups and downs with him and both of us can still tell those stories today. In fact, I was even a high school wrestling coach for a while which I would have called impossible entering high school. When I think about positive influences and mentors in my life, there has been no one more influential than Jim.
Wrestling wasn’t my only sport though, and there were so many other coaches along the way that helped me get to where I am. It even includes another Pope legend, Jeff Rowland. I never played Jeff’s number 1 sport (he is a Georgia Baseball legend), but like many coaches when he first got to Pope he coached many. He was actually my freshman football coach (and helped me learn a whole lot about perseverance that year), and coached me early on in wrestling. My athletic career would have not been the same without him and some of my fondest memories are the fives he would always give me in the warm up lines when I was finally starting on the Varsity Football Team.
I also had a whole host of football coaches that shaped me in some way. Butch Burden is the first that comes to mind and he taught me both toughness and resilience. I think almost every guy needs that one coach that yells at you like no other, but you also know would give you the shirt off his back if needed. Butch was that for me. He was the offensive coordinator and I played offensive line. That means if I had any screw ups I for sure heard about them. I could not take it personally. I had to be tough, and I can see those instances where I need that continue to come in my life. He also was the one that called in a favor and had the college I went to look at me. He means more than he probably knows.
Others like the late Steve Sparks and Brett Hubinger kept me down the path I wanted to go and continued to push me. Steve was the head coach but he was also my position coach, and I just felt a sense of confidence with his belief in me. Brett was never my position coach but he played my position and he always took a liking to me. He was the one who would take me aside and give me pointers and also pushed me in the weight room. Both men contributed to that work ethic that I have today.
What is interesting to reflect on here is that in some ways all of these men stepped in for me when I needed that father figure. They taught me those life lessons, and they helped keep me on a straight path. I even see some of their lessons come back in my interactions with my own son and what I am trying to teach him. I am lucky enough to call these men friends, mentors, and so much more, and as I have progressed in my life god keeps putting those father figures in my way like my father in law Alan Welp. I know my dad had a hand in that too.
Ah ISTE, how I missed you. If you have never been to the craziest ed tech showcase (they have not had them live since 2019), you are missing out. There is no other conference that brings together almost every thought leader and every company. You go originally to see the spectacle and then it keeps you there because everyone comes. I can’t wait for it!
At this year's conference you can really find me in two places. I do have a session which is detailed below, but I also have the privilege to show off free Tynker resources in the Byju's learning booth. Byjus is a company out of India who recently acquired several well known US education brands such as Tynker, Epic, and GeoGebra as well as Osmo who has been with Byjus since 2019. This will be the first time we are all together!
My session at this conference:
As we move into summer, I think US schools have major issues. Teachers have been through an incredibly stressful time in the pandemic, and now education seems to be a political football that politicians are running on and being successful. It’s causing teachers to leave, and it may push the US education system to a breakpoint.
Schools aren’t something to make a political football, and anyone who has been in or around education knows that many of the issues politicians are complaining about in the media are at best centered around bad teaching practices and at worst don’t exist.
Just think about it in a logical way. Public School teachers are required to follow state standards. While there are bad lessons, the vast majority of teachers are so concerned about requirements and their jobs that they are not going to color much outside the lines of those standards. Private Schools can formulate their own education theories and pedagogy, and if parents don’t like they can move schools. Basically, what I am telling you is that if you see it on the news, pay attention to the name of the school first, and if it’s a public school pay attention to what the school does as an effect of the bad lesson.
What’s happening though is that politicians are running with stories of bad lessons and are passing laws that affect teachers in negative ways. In some states, teachers are now required to turn in their lesson plans incredibly early and they are public for parents. In other states, parents are going to be able to sue teachers if they don’t agree with the content being taught.
You know what this is doing to teachers? It’s making them want to get out. Teachers as a whole are a profession that does it based on the love for it, and by adding punishments and intense requirements kills that love. Teachers who don’t need the job to survive (maybe they have a spouse whose job makes that possible) will immediately exit, and others will turn to other professions who like teachers like instructional design.
I am not arguing that there does not need to be a standard set. Schools and teachers should have some oversight to make sure that there is a level of education in the public school system. It just needs to be something that is set by actual educators. Really, state and federal legislatures should set the structure of where these decisions are being made, but then they should turn the decisions of what happens in the classroom to people who have actually been in one.
I am finally going back to AETC! Yay! What Pandemic? AETC was actually my first major conference outside of Georgia, and I am so excited every time I get to go. Just like anywhere in the deep south the hospitality is great and so is the food.
I have 5 sessions at AETC and they are:
I Know Coding is Important, but How the Heck do I get Schools to do it?
The Super Spark: 60 Tools to State the Fire
Make Something Delicious with Microcomputers
Building a STEM Inclusive Classroom
The Super Spark: 60 Tools to State the Fire
Time to talk about the last tool in our Alternative Uses of Google series, and that’s Jamboard! Jamboard is such a new tool and such a multi-use tool just at it’s core, that there aren’t a whole lot of alternative ways to use it. It’s more your imagination on how to build collaboration through this environment that makes it go.
Jamboard is also a fascinating backstory. It started as the software companion piece that goes with what they call Google Workspace. Workspace is basically a $5000 SmartBoard that was intended to be the collaborative environment for things like board rooms. People could add a ton of things on the board digitally including drawings, images, text, sticky notes, and more. The innovation was that you really did not have to be in the same location to do so, as the collaborative WhiteBoard lived online.
Google eventually turned that collaborative software that drove Workspace into its own product, and now it lives in Google Drive as JamBoard. It allows you to open a board with all the same sharing and permissions that permeate Google products and collaborate with any one wherever they are.
The key is that these are in Drive so Google schools can use them for FREE. It can turn into an incredibly idea generation tool that you could share with all of your students to get their input and knowledge on a topic. It could also be an awesome way for students to begin the collaboration piece in a student project.
Those school uses are pretty straightforward right? Well since it’s a tool not many know is there or use, we are going to consider them alternative!
Aw summer… It’s that time where teachers get a break for their students, but they now have to put up with their own children for 2 months straight non-stop (I love my children dearly, but school is nice especially when you work from home most of the time.) Many think that this is a time of vacation, and those on the outside world think that this is a time that makes teachers' jobs super easy. In reality, it’s that time of year where you actually get to work on yourself, and we really need to embrace that.
Working on yourself could mean a load of things, and it absolutely includes taking some time off and that much needed rest. The school year is VERY long, and most people don’t understand that it simply does not stop with the school day because during that day you don’t have nearly enough time to accomplish things like grading and planning lessons. Those are part of the job too, so you are usually taking those things into your evenings, on the weekends, or on holidays (I remember grading essays in the back of my father in law's car during Christmas). All of that being said, it means when you get to summer you can just use some of those days as comp time! Think of all those extra times and days as the times you get to take off in the summer, but in reality it still won’t add up.
Summer can also be a great time to learn. It’s a great time to read, and it’s also a great time to participate in professional development. I am not talking about the district oriented required kind though. What I am talking about is times that allow you to pull away with teachers of like minded perspective that can really set you up well for the next school year. Think of it like summer camp for teachers and you will have a blast. I know for me, I run a couple of these sessions around computer science concepts. They are virtual this year, but I can’t wait to take them back live.
Summer is also a time for you to get ahead for the next school year. You can really get a jump start on planning and plan some incredible creative activities if you just start a little early. Is this working on yourself? I sure think so because it gives you a sense of calm for the next school year and you can go in knowing you have a month or two head start on what you are going to do. It gives you more time to focus on your students in the fall which will always make you feel good about yourself.
Are all of these ideas fun? Not necessarily, but that really working on and building yourself up not only in the immediate but also for the future school year will help you prevent that burnout that everyone is experiencing now!
It’s on to the next one, and today we are going to talk about My Maps. My Maps in general is one of the least used tools in Google Drive, but it can be a great learning progression and student activity if you think about it in new ways.
The general idea behind My Maps is that students can open up a Google Map and they can plot points that include media and links on different parts of the world.
To start, this is a great student activity. You could open up a My Map and share it with the whole class where they could plot some instances collaboratively. You could also have individual students plot things like explorers, battles, and other historical events. Really, it’s up to your creativity!
Another interesting idea I have seen with My Maps is to use it like a HyperDoc. The basic principle would give students an activity or link they can use at locations that make sense, and from those ideas they could then use it as a process for creation. You could do something like have them go to different civil war locations to do things like idea generation, research, prototype, and reflect. Each of those locations would have some type of link to an activity that allows them to do that step, and all the while they can explore what that looks like today.
I am a former Social Studies teacher and My Maps make so much sense to that curriculum, but it can be used effectively by almost any other subject. Give it a try today!