Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Race To The Top of….What?

Subtitled :How Many School Districts Are There on the Head of a Pin?

I recall a Superintendent in my bygone days who, when queried about our district's insatiable need for more money during hard times, quipped: "I never met a dollar I didn't like." I suspect that applies to many of us, even if we're not running a school district. $4.35 billion in RTTT funding is a lot of dollars to like. So how much of the meager energy we have left after our days and nights in the classroom, or supporting same, can be spent on winning the Race?

What are we to make of these well-meaning feds, from the President to the Secretary of Education, to say nothing of those reading proposals from the likes of us, and who are dangling these golden RTTT carrots in front of us…the "us" being the we being who pull and push the school district's ancient oxcarts, loaded with kids who want to learn? These are the kids who need to learn, but far, far too often aren't learning nearly well enough. These funds won't likely go to the schools, being left behind, nor the students, nor the districts, but to the states!

There are 16,000 school districts in this nation and if there's one out there who doesn't need more money, please raise your hand. Of course, no amount of printing more money would provide enough for even the deserving top ten percent….whoever they are and whatever "deserving" means. If 20 states split the pot, each would get a couple hundred million dollars to split among school districts. If a state had, say 400 districts, the dollars would average $500,000. By the time it gets divided again amongst the schools, the pot of gold has shrunk to a more molecular level, nowhere near enough to address the lofty requirements of the RTTT manifesto.

It wouldn't be so bad if these funds actually helped us leave no child behind. But most of the states, districts, schools and classrooms that need them most probably won't see a nickel of it. Our local school district has to cut 25% from its strapped budget in the next 2-3 years. It would be higher if there weren't temporary federal funds for this year (unless more money is printed). Class sizes of 50 students?Yet, higher standards? More teachers fired and more schools closed? Another "Newsweek" diatribe?

On top of that we are all being asked to ensure all the the children we teach are soon above average. Never mind that the standardized tests that measure this are designed to replicate a normal curve and ensure that only half are average or above. How can that strategy possibly help in leaving no child left behind?

Did I mention that all of this depresses me greatly? I have been looking for a silver lining or at least some answers.



Monday, March 8, 2010

Syllabus or Silly-bus? A New Way to Learning!

One of my teenage sons used to refer to the syllabus in his high school course as a "silly-bus." In many ways, in today's ever-changing world, it still is: "Silly"; a learning "Bus", if you will, and far too often to a new destination, or at least one whose route has changed.

For many of us, the courses we teach today change as we teach them, right in front of our collective nose. The content we chose on Monday has been tweaked by someone on Tuesday, and repackaged before the week is out. What we thought was good and useful gospel may now be considered whimsy, or worse. If we had put our syllabus on a Wiki, it would be no longer what it was. It might be a lot better, too.

Some may claim, for example, that a math syllabus may be exempt. I taught math for many years and Euclid may be as immutable as parallel lines, but just as there's often more than one way to a do a proof or solve a problem, there's more than one way to learn.

I have prepared many a syllabus in my 40+ years of teaching. Like lessons plans, many educational institutions from K-12 to higher-ed require a syllabus. Truth in packaging. Syllabi are the blueprints for our courses, the GPS on where the nuggets lie, the product information booklets for education. We may not offer guarantees when we teach, but there should be full disclosure and recourse.

Take textbooks, too, for example....please! I can't use a textbook anymore. The content changes by the time it's published. Used to be in olden days that the textbook was the syllabus for many teachers.

Here's what American Heritage Dictionary has to say about the word "syllabus":

[Medieval Latin, probably alteration (influenced by Greek sullambanein, to put together) of Latin sillybus, parchment label, from Greek sillubos.]

Here are some non-traditional suggestions on this tradition-bound issue:

1. Invite your students in to help create or modify your course syllabus.

2. What should be included or left out in the syllabus?

3. How should it be learned? What's the best lesson plan for today and tomorrow?

4. What are the effective ways to show what we know? Let students help make the rubric.

5. Can rubrics differ for different learners? How can we all show that we know?

6. How can we gather useful feedback to improve the syllabus for the next group of learners passing through this chartered territory?

In today's ever-changing world, a syllabus needs to be dynamic. Even more, it needs the learners as active participants. Both teachers and students should be owners and doers and helpers. What's a village for, if we all want an educated village?

For education to become better, we must all become co-learners and co-teachers. The Wiki concept is a powerful model to help make that happen. Google, too.

I'll bet there are many more ideas out there on how to make a syllabus come alive with our synergy.

We are all of us smarter than any of us. But we already know that. Let's use it.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Out of the Box and Into the World of Learning

Of all our out-of-the-box educational thinkers, I find Michael Wesch among the most engaging. He uses out-of-the-box ways of showing us his ideas and conjectures about cultural and educational change.

How does it differ? He uses his students at Kansas State to share what both he and they are learning. My guess is that these students contribute greatly to his unique message, with their unique massage of it. Here's an example from his youtube site:

There's a lesson here for all of us: invite your students in as fellow teachers and learners. Give them the power, and they will give it back to you as an empowered Classroom Learning/Instruction Community (CLIC).

This CLIC is a new kind of clique and kids will find it way-cool to belong. It will liberate them from the box too.

There is virtually no static syllabus any more. As Wesch, and Marshall McLuhan before him, remind us: the medium and the message are changing right before our eyes.....continuously.

We need more teachers and learners in every classroom. Promote your students to a greater team role. They'll do you proud and promote you right back!