Dec 10

NY Times Room for Debate: Federal Standards and Federal Funding

The New York Times Room For Debate asked me if I would weigh in on the following question:

The Common Core State Standards, adopted by 48 states and supported by the Obama administration, have worried liberals who question their quality and conservatives who fear they erode states’ traditional responsibility for education. At the same time, the budget pressure of the impending “fiscal cliff” could reduce federal support for education, which would add to the state and local responsibility.

As these trends collide, Americans can take a step back and ask: Should education standards and funding vary by state?

This gave me the opportunity to talk about an issue that too often goes un-talked about in the current education debate – inequitable education funding. Little did I know I would be debating the question online with folks like Pedro Noguero, Jeb Bush and Rick Hess. Here was the start of my response:

The Common Core standards are the latest federal educational initiative, making the argument that creating national standards will somehow raise achievement nationwide while ignoring what is a far more important state-to-state and district-to-district variability: funding.

Disparate funding levels in the United States are the single most anti-democratic policy in our society. Where children live should not have bearing on how much money is spent on their education. And the variability in funding levels is deep and profound.

The rest is over at The New York Times, please go give it a read. (And wow… the New York Times. I’m kind of really excited. Really, really excited.)

Dec 09

A Thought From #BlackInAmerica

[Influencing this post – tonight’s CNN documentary – Black in America]

I watched Black In America for a lot of reasons tonight. First, much of the documentary was shot at SLA, focusing on the incredible work of the poets of PYPM and one of PYPM teacher / mentors, Vision. Whenever you get to see people you like and care about on television, doing amazing things, you watch. But the show was thoughtful and powerful and explored issues of racial identity and how that racial identity is defined. One of the stories they followed was the evolving sense of self of a young bi-racial woman, raised by her white father.

I’ve seen a lot of bi-racial students struggle with identity over the years, and much of it has been about the word “or.” “Am I black or am I white?” And, in so many ways, that’s an impossible question that forces kids to somehow deny some piece of their identity. It strikes me that American racial dynamics — largely defined by a dominant white culture — has been so oppositional for so long that we want these kids to choose a single identity, rather than embracing the complexity of what makes them who they are. It should not be as hard for a kid to say, “I am black and I am white” or “I am Afro-Latino” as our society makes it.

I watch the kids of SLA deal with issues of race and racial identity in ways that both seem familiar to the questions of twenty-five years ago when I was their age and also deeply unfamiliar. I see them engage with the issues of race with an openness and honesty that I would have been unable to do when I was their age. But I see so many of the same challenges and issues still around. And I still see too much pain as kids figure out the complexity of who they are in a world that still wants to put people into too many neat little boxes that rarely represent the complexity of their lives.

Thank you, CNN, for focusing on the amazing poets of PYPM, and thank you for the work you are doing with Black in America. With luck, it made a lot of people think tonight.

Apr 25

SLA in Scholastic Administrator Magazine

Science Leadership Academy is featured (along with High Tech High and New Tech High and Gary Stager and Jane Krauss, nice company!) in this month’s Scholastic Administrator Magazine in The Power of Project Learning — an article about project-based learning. In addition to some cool shots of Gamal Sherif and Matt VanKouwenberg (and a nifty one of me, I admit), there are some great quotes such as:

Sometimes the results surprise both the teacher and learner, says Zachary Chase, an English teacher at SLA. To learn about the oral tradition associated with Homer’s The Odyssey, students were charged with finding a family story, getting a first-person recording of the story, and preserving it to pass onto their children. When one student found a bunch of letters from an uncle who had left his family to go to California during the Gold Rush, he used GarageBand to record himself reading the letters. He altered the voice to make it sound like that of an older man, Chase says. This project not only outstripped the teacher’s demands, but the success of the final project even surprised the student, he adds.

But be sure to read the whole article.

Jun 29

Transparency, The Police and Youth

[Update: According to a local Arkansas news station, the officer has been put on administrative leave. Also of note, within a few hours of posting this, a reporter for a local Hot Springs travel magazine had posted a comment on the blog. Wild.]

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach pointed me to this. Watch it.

Here’s the original posting.

Judge for yourself what you think of the officer’s behavior. My two cents: I think that his behavior crossed a line. It was pretty obvious those kids weren’t threats to anyone but his own sense of authority. And the kids YouTubed it. Good. Let the world see, and let the world judge.

If you are offended. If you think that this shows a real problem between youth and authority. And if you think it might be a good time to use the power of the internet to speak truth to power, then politely call or email or fax the Hot Springs Police Department. I have. For the record, the officer I spoke to says that they are not accepting comments on this, which is too bad and speaks to a larger problem because it appears that they have no feedback loop for the public, which I would say is a major issue. But that doesn’t mean we can’t call and let them know that we all are watching.

This from the original poster’s entry:

Oh and just in case you were interested, the officer’s name is Joey Williams, and he works for the:
Hot Springs Arkansas Police Department
Phone: (501) 321-6789
Fax: (501) 321-6708
Chief of Police, Bobby Southard

Jun 01

The End of Productivity

Facebook now has online roshambo. So much for being a productive member of society.

(To make this an entry worth reading… it’s moves like this that makes Facebook so well run. As opposed to MySpace, Facebook makes major chunks of its API available so that third-party developers can create apps for Facebook. It’s not quite open-source, but it’s close, and it means that Facebook will continue to add all kinds of functionality. It’s a really smart Web 2.0 strategy.)

Feb 09

Getting YouTube in the Classroom

For all those folks who work in districts that block YouTube or GoogleVideo and therefore have been frustrated when they haven’t been able bring that amazing video into the classroom, here’s a post from on how to download GoogleVideo and YouTube to your computer.

I’m excited about this in the short-term because it’ll allow me to show the Web 2.0 video to students… but in the long term, I’m wondering about this.

On the one hand, this is good because it allows teachers and administrators to bring the content they view appropriate into the classroom. Now, anyone in charge of filtering can say, "Just download the video and bring it in… we trust your judgment to bring content into the classroom, but now we don’t have to worry that the kids can view any of the inappropriate stuff on YouTube."

That seems like a good thing, prima facie. It’s exactly the kind of hack that a lot of policy-makers would probably love. But I’m not sure it’s a good thing because it sidesteps the larger question of how we, both as schools and as citizens, deal with the growing amount of information and content in the world. It feels like a 1995 solution to a 2007 problem. We need to teach kids how to make sense of more than just the content we present them with. We need them to make informed, intelligent decisions about what is and isn’t appropriate, what is and isn’t academic, what is and isn’t true. YouTube is a growing source of information, entertainment and culture in our society… it’s a bit of a muddled mess, and on a lot of levels, it is therefore the perfect place to ask a lot of these questions. But most of our schools can’t even entertain that question because the site is blocked.

So yes, I’ll use this hack, and I’ll encourage SLA teachers and students to use this hack when they find content that they feel belongs in our classes, but I think it’s a short-term patch to a much larger, much more interesting, much more troubling and much more thoughtful question.

Feb 08

The Machine is Us/ing Us

If you are an SLA community member reading this at school, read it at home or on a network where YouTube isn’t blocked. It’s a really interesting, provocative piece about Web 2.0 technology and some of the changes it may cause in our society.

I’d love to see a discussion start around this video and the questions it raises.

(And if you are a blogger who has seen this linked to four hundred other blog sites already, I apologize…)

Jan 31

Teacher Movies

So I read this post on Dan Meyer’s blog today, referencing an Onion piece entitled "Inner-City Teacher Inspires Students to Stab Him", and I admit I was angry.

The Onion piece is what it is, meant clearly to poke fun at The Freedom Writers movie and Hollywood’s tradition of making the Heroic Teacher movie (Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, etc….) but it rubs me the wrong way. Here’s the entire piece:

LOS ANGELES—23-year-old Teach For America participant Jonathan Fitzsimmons remains in critical condition today at Cedars–Sinai Medical Center after he inspired some of the most troubled, hard-to-reach students in his 11th-grade English class to stab him Monday. "Before Mr. Fitzsimmons came along, nobody had been dedicated and hardworking enough to show us that we had the power to make a difference," said student and stabbing participant Gabriel Salazar, who added that Fitzsimmons’ innovative teaching games and insistence his students do their homework were just two reasons the class sacrificed their free time after school to inflict nearly 20 wounds to his arms, chest, and side. "He motivated us to show him—the world, even—what we were capable of." According to a statement released by Fitzsimmons’ parents, the "impact these kids had on our son’s life will never be forgotten.

I don’t know, I freely admit that I might be overly sensitive or wrong on this one. It might be that I was teaching in New York City when Jonathan Levin was tortured, shot and stabbed by a former student, and I remember how devastated all of us at Beacon were when he died. Maybe it’s because I met his mother a few years later, after she had become a teacher to honor his memory. I imagine that the writer at the Onion might be young enough to not remember that, and perhaps Dan doesn’t remember that either. And perhaps, I shouldn’t conflate the two…

But there’s something else too… teachers take it on the chin a lot. I mean… I must have seen a dozen "Teacher Sleeps With Student" cases this year. Much of the NCLB conversation feels to me to be really anti-teacher. And everyone who has ever been a student seems to think they know what schools need. And then, every now and then, a movie or TV show comes along and celebrates — in its Hollywood way — the accomplishments of a group of students and a teacher.

And yes, the movies can be cloying (full disclosure, I have read a TON about Erin Gruwell and her students, but I have not see the movie) but I’m glad they get made. I hope it’s amazing. I hope Hillary Swank wins an Oscar. I hope teachers all over the country go see it for free this week, and most importantly, I hope a few thousand young people see the movie and decide to become teachers.

And let’s step back here for a moment — we hope we can change lives the way Ms. Gruwell did. We hope we have the kind of profound impact on students that she did. She had 150 kids in that project, and 150 kids went to college. I never did that. Not once. Not one year. The highest college rate Beacon ever had in the nine years I was there was somewhere around 95%, and we were pretty damned proud of that. She had 100% college attendance rate. Many of her students are studying to become teachers. Her life — and the lives of those kids — matter. And if that’s worthy of a Hollywood movie production, I’m really o.k. with that. Beats yet another "Saw" movie as far as I’m concerned.

In fact, I think we need more inspirational movies. We’ve got YouTube now.. we’ve got vlogs. Let’s make a call to arms. Let’s ask every one we know to tell the story of a teacher who made a difference in their lives. Let’s make a patchwork quilt of 10,000 videos of people taking two minutes out of their lives to tell the story of how a teacher made a difference. And let’s make sure it’s a two way street. Let’s make a vlog of teachers taking a moment to tell the stories of the students who changed our lives.

And let’s leave our cynicism behind when we talk about our profession. There’s enough about our lives as teachers that can depress us, dishearten us, frustrate us. When the moment comes when we can celebrate what one of our colleagues has accomplished, let’s do so.

Or maybe I’m overreacting.

Dec 29

Rocky Balboa, Nostalgia and Simple Messages

You have to understand… I grew up with Rocky.

I saw the first Rocky on TV. I saw Rockys II-V in the theaters, three of the four with my dad. I’m from Philly where we treat Rocky with more reverence than we treat real sports figures.

I loved the first two movies. I enjoyed III as a fun movie, I hate admitting that I stood and cheered (with my dad) with Rocky IV. I even watched Rocky V a second time when I saw it on TV.

And when I heard that Stallone was making Rocky Balboa, I cringed. Then I saw the previews. Then I got excited. I decided I had to see it, but that I’d go in with no expectations.

I saw it tonight. I loved it. Is it Stallone’s metaphor for his own life? Sure… but hey, so was Rocky. Did I love it in part because there were scenes in the movie that were a block from the theater? Of course. Does it mean more to see this movie in Philly, yep.

And is it a totally unbelievable, hokey, silly movie? Of course. But it also is a wonderful coda to the character, and it returns to the roots of the story. It’s a slow movie that cares about its characters and shows what we originally loved in Rocky, the character. He’s an optimist, and he’s a sweet, caring guy. And, let’s face it, no movie has ever done the "inspiring training montage" sequence as well as the Rocky movies.

I saw the movie at the Roxy, one of Philly’s more artsy movie theaters, and even in an artsy theater (and all you need to know about Philly is that Rocky Balboa was playing in an art-house theater), folks were cheering during the fight seasons, and everyone stayed for the credits.

And hey, everyone is allowed to believe that they’ve got one last great moment in them, aren’t they?