Sunday, December 13, 2009

Easier Said Than Done: Lessons Learned From a Born Again Teacher

Now that I'm back in the classroom teaching, I can honestly say there's plenty of things that have surprised, saddened and delighted me. Here are a few lessons I've learned in only 4 months:

It's Not The Administrators; It's The Parents.

Integrating Web 2.0 technology with 10 year olds is easy. They can learn very quickly and totally enjoy it. Feedback I've received over the last few years has been that school administrators are fearful and block teachers' attempts to integrate technology. My administrators have been supportive; for the most part. I don't believe my principal is aware of the extent of the "digital reach" I offer to my students because although I've shared links to projects, our blog, etc. I've not received any response. My assistant principal, on the other hand, has taken the time to let me know that she has checked out some of our work and thinks I'm providing some great learning opportunities.

The stumbling point for me has been the parents who have little connection with today's technology and hold on to mostly unsubstantiated fears. Parents are required to sign a district-approved form that allows online publishing of their children's work, picture, etc. Parents do not have to approve, but they must sign "approve" or "don't approve."100% of my students' parents signed "approve," however a few still express disatisfaction with my interest in having students do some classroom-to-classroom online communication.
  • With regards to commenting on a VoiceThread; "I don't want my child 'chatting' with strangers."
  • Commenting on our class blog; "How do you know who these other people [other commenters] really are?"
  • "What's the big deal about posting my kid's work online?"

    I don't blame the parents for protecting their children; I expect it. However, I'm honestly surprised at the concerns given the age-range of the parents. They are easily 10 years or more younger than I and I guess I thought they'd be more a part of the digital age then they are. At this point, I've only been somewhat successful convincing those few to weigh the benefits with the risks.

    On the other hand, I have to say that most of the parents have been thrilled and have told me so. It's wonderful to hear from parents that their kids are enthusiastically doing their homework, simply because it's online or using a fresh new tool. Most parents would rather not see another worksheet come home.

    They All Have Computers But They Have Even More Excuses.

    I'm lucky enough to teach in an affluent area where 100% of my students have access to computers. Asking students to do some at-home assignments that require the use of computers has been a consistent challenge. I always give my students the opportunity to use the class computers, go to the Media Center or submit their assignment in an alternate form. However, like many kids, some leave their assignments for the last day and only then realize they are experiencing issues:
    • "The place where I type in the web address disappeared, so I couldn't go to the site."
    • "My father won't let me use his computer."
    • (If Java, Shockwave, Quicktime or Windows Media Player requests an update) "My parents won't download anything onto their computers because of viruses."
    • "My parents won't let me use the computer unless they are sitting there with me and my parents are out of town."
    • "My computer won't work."
    • "My dad told me to do this assignment (wrong assignment)."

    There's No More Shame in Admitting We're Preparing Our Students For The Test
    When I was last in the classroom, we weren't supposed to emphasize our state standardized test, the FCAT. Rarely did teachers use the word. Today, not a day goes by when you don't hear teachers AND school and/or district administrators talking about how we are getting our students ready for the test and what they need to do to be prepared for the test. There's no shame anymore in being quoted in the paper talking about test preparation or sending out emails or paper missives letting teachers know what our true purpose is. What happened to at least pretending we are trying to help our students "successfully master and apply the skills?"

    It's Not The Little Stuff That Counts
    Perhaps it's just my school, but just as a teacher rubber-stamps "Good Job!" on students' papers, I see Kudos coming from district and school admins in the form of a rubber stamp. Perhaps all that test preparation and data analysis takes up so much time, there's not enough time to take a moment to look for individual gifts. It spills over to teacher relationships with each other and how they perceive they are being treated. There's a lot of complaining going on. I'm very surprised at how much time and energy is spent on small stuff.

    Giftedness is Everything
    There is a real divide between the teachers (Gifted v. Regular) and you can hear it in the conversations. The implication communicated is often that only the gifted children experience certain issues and the "regular" teachers wouldn't understand. It saddens me incredibly when I listen to these conversations take place among equally talented educators who are all struggling to differentiate instruction in their classrooms.

    Although these students may have special needs, my feelings are that any good teacher would provide for that enrichment as well as remediation as necessary. I am convinced that I am the same teacher I would be with any group of kids.

    "B" is the new "D"
    Perhaps a "gifted" student/parent thing, but it seems that as soon as a student receives a "B" on an assignment, the question of whether or not the child needs a tutor comes up. Of course, "Johnny puts a lot of pressure on himself and was extremely upset over this grade," is the standard reason for wanting a conference due to that particular assignment, however I'm not sure whatever happened to helping Johnny learn that a "B" is quite good, nothing to be ashamed of, and "get used to it, Buddy, there's gonna be more of these in your future!"

    Being Flexible Requires a Willingness to Admit You're Wrong
    Over the last few years, I've learned to be extremely accommodating. In my previous job, we would go to great lengths to resolve issues, in the most friendly manner, even if it wasn't "our jobs." If a parent has a concern, I don't mind explaining myself and asking if they have any suggestions. If there is a conflict of any kind, I believe my willingness to listen and adapt is serving me and my students very well. I believe the best way to communicate with someone who is defensive, is to ask them what you can do to help. I can see the difference in how parents react to teachers who dig in their heels. I used to be one of those teachers.

    You Don't Need to Spend Hours At The Copy Machine
    When I last taught, I remember spending hours copying pages of worksheets for my kids to work on as "seatwork." I remember having stacks of these worksheets prepared and on shelves so that as I did my planning, I just had to choose the next page in the pile and it was already there. I knew in advance that I'd be moving from one page to the next in that particular resource book. I also remember having stacks of papers to grade every week. Even if I didn't grade the papers, I felt the need to check every one and leave my mark.

    Although I'm sure I do my fair share of copying, I don't have piles of papers pre-prepared. I only copy based on what I'm planning and I don't feel the need to grade every paper. I also find that most of my lessons don't involve seatwork on fancy worksheets with pretty pictures. Students can take notes or do a lab report or draw diagrams in spiral notebooks. I can give a "drive-by" glance as they are working and conversing to assess if they understand. I've discovered that by involving my students in my lessons, using engaging technology and providing for plenty of hands-on activities and opportunities for them to work together, there's no need to test them constantly or kill them with endless repetitive tasks.

    Yeah, We Still Need Textbooks
    I've been preaching about how we shouldn't need hard copies of books anymore. All of our textbooks are online, so "technically" the students don't need to take home any books. Unfortunately, the reality is that young (and many not-so-young) children don't always do well reading from a computer screen. Many still need that book to hold at different angles that fit right for their eyes. Kids still need to be able to study in the car and elsewhere there is no Internet connection.

    We are told that the textbooks are not to be used as our curriculum (I agree). HOWEVER, when 10 year olds have a test coming up, their parents want to help them study. Giving them a chapter or prepared notes is only humane! These parents who want to be appropriately involved are trying to help their kids. No textbook? Try telling a parent that the test next Friday is on "levers" with no chapter from which to study. The alternative is for me to create a study guide for the students (which is a cheat-sheet for the lousy chapter in the first place). Sorry, but we're not there yet.

    The Light Still Shines Bright
    I've forgotten how easy it is to make a 10 year old laugh. And I've rediscovered the feeling inside when I witness kids learning something that may not be interesting or was difficult for them. I love how forgiving they are when I'm not perfect. And how willing they are to share their stories with me. Every day at least one of my student shares an extension of something we've done in class:
  • At least 4 of my students created their own blogs.
  • Every day one or more of my students comes in with their own version of Guess The Wordle for us to figure out.
  • I receive emails from my kids with stories they are writing using some online tools and writing prompt generators I've shared with them.
  • After I recently Elfed Myself on our class blog, many of my students couldn't resist and created their own.
  • Students are finding their own online resources that support what we are learning in class.

    So What?
    I'm really proud that my kids are learning to be resourceful. They are learning how to interact appropriately online and they are discovering many ways to produce content that does not involve a piece of paper or a diorama.

    I'm happy that I can now assign some technology-related homework assignments and receive a few less emails from parents who were initially shell-shocked. Even the parents are learning to be resourceful (or at least letting their kids take more ownership of their assignments).

    I've been preaching to a choir over the last few years and immersing myself in an echo chamber of educators who think like I do. I'm convinced now that we need more diversity in our PLNs. We need more challenging voices to make us think and all of us should spend real time in the classroom now and then.

    It's Easier Said Than Done


Jerry Swiatek said...

This year has been quite an eye-opener for me as well. For the previous 4 yrs, I was the technology specialist at my school. At the end of last school year, I was informed that my school was the only school in the district eliminating that position, so I needed to go into the classroom for the first time.

Our classroom is paperless and has been all year long. I, too, have experienced the same sort of push back from some parents. In one breath, "I'm impressed and happy that my child is doing the things he is doing." In the next breath, "I don't want my child adding an mp3 file to his online slideshow because this seems like more "fun" than "learning" (it was a slide show on a European nation.)

My biggest frustration this year has been the lack or absence of any enthusiasm from my administration. At the beginning of the year, they were all very excited (or gave the appearance of) about the things we would be doing in my classroom. Since then, no matter how hard I've tried, I cannot get any of them to spend, even a minute, in our classroom to observe the successes of my students.

I was also surprised (shocked might be a better word) at the amount of non-classroom related work we are required to do outside of the classroom. This has severely limited my ability to plan, which in the long run has affected the things my students can accomplish. We need to ease up BIG TIME on the "extra" non-classroom related stuff we are asking them to do and let them, once again, focus on the kids and their educations.

Dean Shareski said...

Thanks so much for your perspective and reflections. I would kill to have a few more of our teachers in my district offer such insightful stories from the classroom.

IMC Guy said...

I agree with Dean. I'm not sure there are many teachers I work with who would be so willing to be candid online. Good for you.

There are not a lot of people willing to make the jump back into the classroom like you have, I'm proud of you for doing that. Your students are truly benefitting from the time and effort you are sharing. I bet they will have a huge letdown next year when you aren't their teacher. They will be saying, "But last year we...." and the new teacher will not be happy - but I think that's okay.

Keep sharing your thoughts on the return to the classroom. With NCLB, you never know what might happen to the rest of us down the road. We may find ourselves back in the classroom, whether by choice or not.

mantz's_mission said...

You have once again written a great post. I am glad you are willing to speak your mind as well as listen to the parents. It is this willingness to listen and collaborate that makes the great teachers stand out. The transition back into the classroom is a class move as well. Those students may not realize it now but down the road they will all greatly appreciate how you provided the opportunity for them to learn how to make decisions when it comes time to decide which path to take. The question then will be "Will they take the path less traveled?"

Lee Kolbert said...

I agree that the amount of non-instructional busy-work is incredible. I didn't think to include that in my post, but that would have easily taken another 3 paragraphs. The tedious nonsense that we have to do to "show" what we're doing (forget whether we are actually doing it or not) is really mind-boggling. I think it comes from too many cooks in the kitchen trying to prove that their stew is the best. Thanks for your comment, Jerry!

There are not many here who are willing to speak up either. Many are afraid (perhaps I'm just stupid). I don't think I posted anything too offensive but there is always that concern that someone will read themselves into your words. Thanks, Dean!

You never know Chad! It's nice to be on the right side of the decision-making process. I'm glad I made the switch, however I'm not completely there yet. I still don't completely feel like I fit in and I still miss my old team and miss a lot of my previous responsibilities but I'm sticking with it for now... I hope what you say isn't true though about next year's teachers because I've been there and it creates resentment. I'm not going to let that stop me though. :) Thanks for your thoughts!

@Mantz's Mission
Hey Dean, thanks for those encouraging words. I do hope I'm doing right by them. As I said in my post, they are very forgiving when I'm not perfect, so if anything, they will learn along with me. Thanks for commenting.

Jim said...


Thanks for the interesting post. The last little part on extending your PLN is something I have been thinking about for some time. Are we limiting our thinking by listening to a set of like minded people? Perhaps our view of education in skewed because we "follow" people who see technology as an answer to every question.


DeronDurflinger said...

Great Post. Your perspective is insightful and interesting since you are moving back into teaching. Parents typically are the greatest resistance with anything new in schools, because it is different from their own experience, and that is all they know. I agree with you about our PLNs. It is always best to have a diverse sounding board, but the problem with many of our PLNs is that if we believe in technology, those that don't aren't using it and it is more difficult to communicate with them unless they are local. I enjoyed reading your thoughts.

Mike said...

Great post - I am going to get my pre-service teachers to read this. Lots of wisdom & insight.

Karen Bosch (karlyb) said...

Very interesting post. I also spent the past 8 years in a computer lab and last August found myself reassigned to a 5th grade classroom. I've enjoyed being back in daily contact with students and love having fresh meaningful content to integrate with technology. But my frustration has been the large amount of my day that is spent doing the mundane - correcting, recording grades, chasing late assignments - many days I spend more time with those things than with the areas where I excel and can offer something unique. Thanks for all your candid insights. I identify with many of the things you said and your insights gave me some things to ponder!

Anonymous said...

Loved this post and consider your insights right on target. One thing I would note about parents' concerns is this. While I don't dispute the value in publishing student work, there are times when the identity has to be protected for valid reasons. I have custody of a child whose biological mother would be a danger to him if she could find him. We have upset people at our school because we do not want his name published in any public venue. We do not object to private classroom blogs but if it is accessible to the public, we have the right to object. I'm just pointing out that there are a few times the fears are justified.

Lee Kolbert said...

I agree that our vision is somewhat scewed and that's what's eye-opening being in the classroom. When we share our best practices for integrating technology, I think we might need to be a little more practical. Thanks for your comment.

I've always known that parents can be tough but perhaps it's the demographics of my school that creates a sense of entitlement to dictate what goes on. It's a lot easier to explain why and how you teach what you teach, but for me the technology thing appears to be very "out there" for most. Thanks!

Thanks. I'm curious what their thoughts will be.

Have all those mundane tasks always been there? I remember a lot of nonsense we always had to do, but I don't remember having to spend so much time every week for the sole purpose of being "showy." For example: proving I'm teaching vocabulary by using a mandated Word Wall. I appreciate your comment.

I absolutely understand and agree. My point is though, if you sign a release (as all of mine did) then that apparently isn't the issue. I appreciate your insight.

mshertz said...

Lee, great post. I have been experiencing some of the same issues, even though I teach in a high-poverty school. My admin is not really aware of what goes on in my classroom (I've been formally observed twice in 5 years), so I kind of do what I do how and when I want to do it.

When planning a podcast, I had a few parents check the "Do not grant permission" box for the project. On a history project blog we are doing, a parent refused permission for her child's work, voice, picture or anything be allowed on the blog. This denied some of my students the comments and feedback that online publishing allows.

Now, if I were Fox News wanting to interview their child....what would their answer be then?

Lee Kolbert said...

Their answer would have been, "Yes, great!" Most don't realize that during a school event (football game, for example) anyone can come on campus and shoot pics of anyone and publish. The news publishes students pictures and names all the time. That's familiar territory for them. I don't thing we're that far off, but we're not there yet.
Thanks for visiting my blog.

Eric Roth said...

Thank you for writing and sharing that illuminating primer on the pleasures and perils of integrating web 2.0 technologies into your classroom.

We all learn, however, when we are willing to make "good mistakes" as we expand our teaching techniques.

Steve Ransom said...

Your post has been waiting for me to get to since you first posted it... and I am so glad that I finally read it this morning. What first strikes me here is that many of the issues that you bring up are the same ones that I struggled with years ago when still teaching full time in the elementary classroom (not talking about the technology, of course). I'll just list them here: mildly interested administration, mundane homework, homework excuses, trivial evaluation, test prep, grade inflation, differentiation, gifted education, parent communication, photocopy fanatics, textbooks vs. authentic sources/project-based learning, peer faculty cohesion, teacher professionalism,...

What this brings home for me is that it is these things (and more) that we continue to struggle with, regardless of the technologies available out there. These are the things that make teaching such a challenge. We say, "don't sweat the small stuff", but it is often the small stuff that places obstacles in our paths.

Your echo chamber comment is right on. I'm going to be sure to have my graduate edtec students read your post, as it brings some much-needed reality into the conversation. Dreaming large/being visionary is critical, but we also need to have realistic strategies and goals for implementing many new (old, actually) ideas that harness the many new possibilities afforded to the learner with new technologies.

It is indeed much easier said than done. This applies not only to effectively implementing new technologies, but implementing effective teaching practices. True project-based learning, constructivist, constructionist, progressive, differentiated,... whatever other terms one would like to use, is so much more complex/difficult than simply following the basal series and flipping the pages to the next lesson, chapter, unit... Our teachers are ill-prepared for it, our school structure runs counter to it, our parents don't understand it, and our administration often does not support it.

Then you throw in the issues surrounding new information technologies...

It is indeed much easier said than done.

We need to stop pretending that it's not. Thanks for sharing. Your students are very lucky to have a teacher that can reflect on their learning experiences and strive to make those as meaningful as possible. Please keep sharing your struggles, their resolutions and your successes. I realize it is a little risky to do so, ... I won't pretend that it is not ;-)

Anonymous said...
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JaymeJ said...

Does anyone have suggestions/handout/information for parents to better educate them about the "lack of danger" (for lack of a better phrase) when using web2.0 tools? Most of our parents agree, but there are a few with unfounded "publicity" fears. I'm sure I could create one...but if someone would like to pass a link to one on - why reinvent the wheel? Thanks in advance!