Conference Like A Champion Today

Heck, I hate ’em, but it’s been a long time, so the title nod (at least on this post) goes to the guys from South Bend.

I’m here in Prague where drizzle congeals for the 2012 Microsoft Partners in Learning Global Forum, and the fun has begun. Re-connecting with colleagues from around the globe like Bram Faems and many others from the European Forum in Lisbon is great. Other, less expected opportunities have cropped up already, as well.

I have sprung brief, very focused monologues about student-centered, constructivist, project-based learning on several edu-luminaries, including one whom I believe may be connected with the French Ministry of Education. Also, upon some visiting professors of education from a number of European countries. I waxed rhapsodic about Turkey to a Turkish teacher, about China to a Chinese teacher, and about my desire to visit India to several Indian teachers.

I’m in my element.

I also somehow immediately gravitated toward two women who engrossed my edu-nerdhood with extreme prejudice: Suzie Boss, who termed our wee cabal “the anarchist’s table” and Lisa Nielsen, who I watched demolish a Twitter echo chamber this week with guilty schadenfreude. Our conversation was excellent because it ranged from who’s interested in PBL in India to the vagaries of education in NYC to strengths (*gasp*) of the Common Core. Also, I was reminded that not everyone has my personal experiences, and that these personal experiences give me an angle on this big topic of teaching and learning that I care so much about. I tell kids often, as they write college app essays, to plug into their personal history, that which they take for granted, because it’s not what their audience has experienced.

So, dude. Come on. Like, heal thyself, too. OK?

I’m excited about learning new things this week and building some strong connections with smart, interesting people who dedicate themselves to helping children have wonderful learning experiences. Also, I’mma write this one up. So stay tuned.

Oh, Good Teachers Have Always Done That…

The cliche says: Man, if I had a dime for every time I’ve heard that. One cliched turn deserves another. I’ve been thinking about backwards design and this concept, what good teachers do anyway.

Very rarely do I say, or hear said: Oh, that’s a great idea that I’ve appropriated for serious misuse. But when I make my big mistakes, it is so often thus. Backwards design from an end that is meaningless, or worthless, or counterproductive, or at cross-purposes to colleagues, or ill-conceived will yield a process that takes us all to this barren shore together, a la high stakes standardized testing and the general, shallow outcomes it yields.

Of course, I can find silly outcomes on my own. However, by identifying what I value most, I can find high-value targets for students to hit. Additionally, I can design curriculum that allows students freedom and choice in their journey towards meeting or surpassing such targets.

Even more powerfully, communities and institutions like schools can come together and make shared decisions about what they value, and focus in on that. For example, when politicians decide that critical thinking has no place in schools, we can expose that conversation and have it at the local level where I feel solidly that few parents would argue that critical thinking and analysis is bad for their kids, even while they worry that (thanks to decades of demagoguery) schools may be undermining religious beliefs and the like.

Simple, focused statements of value are clear and transparent. Simple, focused statements of value can create outcome targets that aren’t obscure or scary, leading to paranoia like that reflected in the Texas Republican platform. Simple, focused statements of value can help teachers do what they’ve always done, better.

Everything we do in teaching is based fundamentally upon what we value. We should endeavor to honor these values with names and descriptors so that we can work purposefully in the same direction within our schools and our communities. I bet that’s something really great schools have always done…

What We Talk About When We Talk About High School

Sometimes, an education blog post crosses out of the Twitter educhat echo chamber, into the larger Twitterverse of politicos, journalists, and ür-parents. Roger Schank is today’s pole vaulter, springing out into the Zeitgeist of our moment, criticizing much that is wrong in high school while engaging in more than a little over-pragmatic, under-intellectual pandering to the lowest common denominator. Hate high school? Here’s why you should, kids. Yet somehow, I feel this isn’t aimed at kids…

Schank writes of English (represent!):

English: this is a subject which has its good points. There is exactly one thing worth paying attention to in English. Not Dickens (unless of course you like Dickens.) Not Moby Dick, or Tennyson, or Hawthorne, or Shakespeare (unless of course, you like reading them.) What matters is learning how to write well. A good English teacher would give you daily writing assignments and help you get better at writing (and speaking). By writing assignments I don’t mean term papers. I mean writing about things you care about and learning to defend your arguments. Learning to enjoy reading matters as well but that would mean picking your own books to read and not having to write a book report. Lots of luck with that.

Do high school students still write book reports? Probably, but that still feels 25 years out of date. Parentheses abuse aside, I can’t quibble with Schank’s points; indeed, I model my English classroom after them. While students don’t write daily, they structure oral, written, or media communication in class most days. The problem with daily writing is that is difficult to ensure quality feedback for each, or most writing opportunities. Daily writing can be longer form, as well, with guided practice from day to day as formative feedback. Again, Schank more or less nails it on all counts. I particularly like the choice reading concept, which I am incorporating more and more into how I teach. Each of my classes includes choice assignments, with the digital journalism courses being almost all student choice. As in math, as in science, students should grow in English proficiency by doing, by critically examining texts and media and by communicating in a variety of styles and genres.

But where Schank’s argument grows facile is its treatment of academic subjects like economics as so abstract as to be meaningless (emphasis mine):

Economics. This subject in high school is beyond silly. Professional economists don’t really understand economics. The arguments they have with each other are vicious and when they economy collapses there are always a thousand explanations none of which will matter to a high school student. What should you be learning? Your personal finances. How to balance your check book. How much rent and food costs. How you can earn a living. What various jobs pay and how to get them. A high school student needs economic theory like he needs another leg.

How to balance a checkbook? I can barely type that sentence without an F-bomb in it, the concept is so ridiculous. Who’s out of touch – the person teaching economics as case studies and the application of theories or the person who still has a checkbook? How can one earn a living? A job. Entrepreneurial application of self. Holes in the tax system, nepotism, irresponsible banking. Spurious reasoning breaks through breathless disregard for all things high school, subject silo by subject silo, and a smattering of fair points are quickly subsumed in a tide what the reader already expects (American education is all bad!). It’s as though Schank has never heard of students doing actual things in school, or working together effectively – it happens, regularly, and it’s not useless learning.

I regularly wish that the discourse around education in America was more constructive. I regularly read shock titles that look good in tweets and witness them leading the discourse. At least Schank didn’t use the words crisis or war. It’s too bad that, as a reaction to responses to this sensible article in The Washington Post, Schank chose the lowest hanging fruit in this blog post.

Edu-Drama, and My Response

In early June, a great friend and colleague of mine, Geoff Grimmer, was abruptly terminated from his position as Principal of Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy. I wrote the following letter to Dr. Sandra Smyser and the Eagle County School Board in response and in support of Geoff. I also attended the public appeal hearing where I spoke in support of reinstating Geoff.  In my remarks, I expressed great surprise at Dr. Smyser’s unfortunate characterization of good principals as “middle managers” and about the power of modeling as good leadership. In my opinion, firing Geoff for being a poor “fit” in the district and for a perceived failure as a middle manager signaled that returning to teach in Colorado would be impossible for me in the future. If one gets fired for success in public education, we have major problems. Happily, the Board voted not to uphold Geoff’s termination and he will return to VSSA this year. 

Dear Dr. Smyser,

I am writing today to express my extreme shock at your failure to renew the contract of Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy’s Principal Geoff Grimmer. Mr. Grimmer is a former colleague of mine and an inspiration to me in my teaching practice as an English teacher and department chair at Zurich International School in Zurich, Switzerland. Mr. Grimmer is an example of an ethical educator who places the whole student firmly at the center of his practice. My only consolation for the loss of such a leading educator to the children of VSSA is that we may be able to lure Mr. Grimmer to our school.

First and foremost, I am surprised at your decision to terminate Mr. Grimmer’s contract. Mr. Grimmer is a nationally recognized leader in education, as noted in coverage by The New York Times of the great success of students at VSSA. Negligence or incompetence on the part of an educational leader is not mentioned by the journalist in this coverage; rather, success and positive innovation aimed at helping students realize their highest potential form the backbone of the article. Mr. Grimmer was also very recently featured in Microsoft Vice-President of Worldwide Education Anthony Salcito’s “Daily Edventures” blog aimed at uncovering “global heroes in education.” Do you disagree with Mr. Grimmer’s view of education as expressed in these two media pieces? Is the vision that Mr. Grimmer expresses so out of touch with your vision, or the vision of Eagle County Schools, that this represents grounds for termination? If so, I would be interested in learning the areas in which you disagree. On your “Office of the Superintendent” page, you state that “Eagle County Schools is an innovative district that pushes the boundaries of what public education can do.” Surely VSSA, created and led by Geoff Grimmer, stands as nationally-recognized proof of such a statement. Is this grounds for termination in the Eagle County Schools?

Perhaps more surprising is that by any objective measure, VSSA is flourishing under Mr. Grimmer’s leadership. As your district reporting on 2010-2011 CSAP results states, “Eighth graders at VSSA and GCMS improved their [math] scores from 55 to 79 and 62 to 77 this year“ and scored “79% proficient or advanced” on the reading portion of the test. Your report goes on to note that VSSA students and 8th grade students district-wide “boasted stellar improvement scores at 79, 76 and 70 percent proficient or advanced.” If such success as measured by the admittedly questionable instruments of Colorado state standardized tests proves grounds for dismissal, have you failed to renew the contracts of Mr. Grimmer’s similarly successful colleagues? Of course, as you declare on your Superintendent page, “We are clearly a district that is serious about student achievement – not just test scores, but meaningful learning that is relevant, interesting and promotes abilities like critical thinking and problem solving. We expect that every student can function at high levels, and we are determined to help them achieve.” As VSSA allows students with exceptional talents to pursue their skills at the highest levels while at the same time employing 21st Century learning platforms to maintain high standards of education, it seems a model for your claim. In the design and implementation of this innovative model for learning and teaching, what failed to meet your expectations, or the expectations of the Eagle County Schools?

Finally, I wonder by what standards you assess your instructional leaders? By the ISTE NETS-A standards for administrators, Mr. Grimmer is an outstanding example of educational leadership in the digital age. Beyond areas previously mentioned, Mr. Grimmer understands key metrics for evaluating success in a diverse, unique environment like VSSA and has clearly utilized them to provide a safe, positive environment for individualized instruction – best practices all around. Per the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium, Mr. Grimmer clearly meets all standards and, most importantly, is a reflective educator and lifelong learner dedicated to continually improving his practice and the learning community under his charge in a healthy, humane manner. Even the inconsistent Colorado Principal Standards provide a steady list of strengths attributable to Mr. Grimmer or areas in which growth can easily be realized. While I am certain that Mr. Grimmer “Exemplif[ies] a personal and professional commitment to ethical conduct and respect for others and their rights,” I cannot be sure that he does not hold the bar for student achievement higher than “Colorado State Model Content Standards” or that he always “Convey[s] respect for the roles of elected officials and administration.” What is unclear in the Colorado Principal Standards are the benchmarks upon which a meaningless abstraction such as respect for elected officials and administration are judged; does the absence of a positive, for example, prove a negative? Of course, ethical behavior and the holding of high expectations seem minimal expectations taken for granted until compelling evidence of their absence is uncovered. In lieu of such evidence, surely it is incumbent upon you, Dr. Smyser, to present findings worthy of termination of employment for an otherwise fine educator.

Dr. Smyser, as an experienced educator yourself, you must recognize the relationship between objectives or benchmarks and judging performance. By measures qualitative and quantitative, Geoff Grimmer is a successful educational leader of Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy. When district leadership suddenly terminates the contract of a successful school leader, especially so very late in the school year and without any prior notice, they risk deeply undermining the trust and authority placed in them by the community, and so should not do so without a volume of compelling evidence. If gross negligence or incompetence was obvious before, why did you not act earlier to mitigate the damage? In fact, such a decision fails to meet all communication and environmental management standards for administrators such as those linked above. For these reasons, and for the children of your learning community, please accept this statement of protest of your decision not to renew the contract of Principal Geoff Grimmer of Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy. You should reconsider this decision immediately and move to renew Mr. Grimmer’s contract today. The health and vibrancy of your learning community demands it.


Ian W. Hoke

English Teacher & English Curriculum Area Leader

Zurich International School

On High Stakes Testing

I just read a fascinating blog post from Will Richardson entitled “The Parent Factor.” In it, Richardson discusses his experience with the superintendent of a New York school district’s meeting with 15 parents about changing their curriculum “from a traditional classroom to a more student centered, authentic, inquiry based classroom” and the possible impact on test scores. Richardson notes that high stakes tests are frustrating both parents and children, but that “test scores are seen as a hugely important factor in maintaining property values and in tracking student achievement.” I highly suggest giving his entire piece a read.

What struck me the most reading this was how truly crazy the entire situation behind this meeting is. The tests don’t actually track student achievement in a meaningful way. The superintendent knows that, Richardson knows that, and the parents suspect that, but the stakes are so high for communities, from housing values to teacher employment to maintaining school funding, that they are forced to maneuver in convoluted ways to avoid the brutal punishment of NCLB censure: In Need of Improvement, Restructuring, and so on. A metaphor flashed repeatedly before me: It’s like a village knows more or less how to meet all of its own needs, but there is a moody and capricious dragon in their midst that must be consistently appeased through repetitive, time-consuming, mind-numbing ritual. Time is taken away from sowing fields, from teaching children, from playing games, from commerce, from conversation. Appeasement, managing the basics always to avoid the dragon’s scorch, overrides all other concerns.

I strive to make my views of high-stakes testing clear. My views of these tests became clear the day I saw a Navajo student in Tohatchi, New Mexico, try to answer this question on a state test:

Where are you most likely to see a motorboat?

  1. In the sky
  2. On a lake
  3. On the highway
  4. In a volcano (or something silly)
  5. Again, a silly option

Now most students will recognize what answer the question wants, but this question is not the right answer in Tohatchi. A child in Tohatchi is far, far more likely to see a motorboat go by on the highway en route from Denver to Lake Powell than anywhere else. This test question could never judge achievement; it judges cultural capital. How can the good people of Tohatchi appease this dragon in an ethical manner? Why would they want to, if the fate of their schools and their children did not hang in the balance? My heart goes out to educators working to shape authentic, student centered curriculum as the dragon lurks. At long last, when will we free our children from this abject nonsense and work to solve the actual problems at hand, rather than paper over them with bubble sheets?

Thoughts on The Future of Schooling

At Zurich International School, we’ve got a weekend “InnovateZIS” think tank approaching in which the topic is “Schools Out: Learning 2030. Will schools as we know them be needed in 2030?” A series of essential questions have been posited, including:

  • What is the role of creativity in school?
  • What core elements should the curriculum of the future contain?
  • How will Learning 2030 affect social relationships in schools?
  • Should schools prepare students for the world of work?

Two other questions deal with learning spaces, which is an important and fascinating topic that I have been thinking about regularly since a recent visit to Microsoft Switzerland’s headquarters. But beyond physical environments, what is the future of curriculum, creativity, and relationships in school, particularly in terms of what students should know after they leave school?

Thinking about the future of school is tricky. As Dr. Seymour Papert pointed out, “It is impossible to predict what the school of the future will be. History always outsmarts the futurists.” A large disconnect already exists between what the world of today is and how schools operate. Schools are inherently conservative institutions, where change comes slowly. As such, we continue to sort by age ( rather than interest area or fluency level, for example. As such, kids are robbed of a diverse community of learners, one more socially traditional than the hierarchical age model. Learning 2030 should be about social relationships predicated on a shared journey of discovery across age groups, including a student-teacher relationship of cooperative learning. As a teacher, I’d rather be a learner than an authority – a guide with experience in my areas of interest who creates opportunities for students to learn and build meaning individually and socially. As Papert goes on to say, “But it is easy to predict what it will NOT look like. I am sure that the practice of segregating children by age into “grades” will be seen as an old-fashioned, and inhumane, method of the “assembly line” epoch. I am sure that the content of what they learn will have very little in common with the present day curriculum.”

I hope Dr. Papert is right. A responsive curriculum is no curriculum at all. Curriculum tends to focus on facts that need to be learned or a banal, arbitrary “spiral” of skills; learn persuasion in 10th grade English as you read Julius Caesar, learn comparison in 11th grade English as you read Othello. Dr. Papert also described an “intellectual diet” of content for children and a broader curriculum predicated on fluencies in various skills like accessing information with “knowledge technologies.”  Teachers engaged in a mutually engaging, constructivist process of learning with students can craft this diet to help kids explore their passions by doing things. Doing is creating, permanently, temporarily, or ephemerally. The role of creativity in school is central, or should be. Standards and curriculum can’t really address that without being extremely broad.

At the end of the day, I don’t know any happy people who make a living doing something they hate. As such, preparing students for the world of work means helping them build positive working relationships, understand their areas of interest, build fluencies in skills essential for life in the 21st century (most of which were essential in the 19th century), and create habits of mind and habits of work for success, happiness, and ethical engagement in society.

Observations on the SAT

I understand that higher education is an industry that must manage huge numbers of applicants. I understand that processes and sorting operations are therefore necessary. I understand that much more than admissions hinge on tests like the SAT and ACT, scholarship decisions and so forth. However, I had a moment while serving as a proctor for the SAT this past weekend that illuminated part of what is crazy about this whole system.

As I wandered slowly through an aisle of earnest test takers, I realized that a student from our school who has written a software program for education that seeks to rival Moodle and, which I can testify to personally, that absolutely would win in a fair fight, was filling in bubbles before me. This young man has created software, started a company, capitalized his business, and is poised to launch. What university doesn’t want this kid? Still, there’s the hoop. Better jump.

I don’t have the solution, but I think I can see the problem.

On Arbitrary Division – A Visual Metaphor

Sometimes, humans don’t do such a great of classifying things. While the Twilight series envelops my reality, it may not be nonfiction, yet.  A Million Little Pieces is identified as semi-fictional by Wikipedia, which can serve as a comment on your choice of social concepts. In school, we divide everything up into distinct chunks and keep them separate.

Genre at Zurich Airport

Science is somehow different than mathematics, math is not language, history is not literature, athletics are not poetry, art is not history, unless it’s art history. The more I think about the compartmentalizing, stereotyping processes of the human brain, the more I believe that careful ordering of educational experiences can help unlock the potential of these processes. Rather than the current model of subject areas, an open model that was based on drawing connections between vast fields of information and experience might lead to learners able to solve problems in new ways (or old ways that predate subject areas!). Or, if not, it might be more interesting than our existing model of school.

Internet Privacy and Social Organizing

Having read the ZIS COETAIL offerings for this week and then Dr. Cornel West’s Twitter feed, the contrast between fears of sharing information online and the power of social movements organized through social media stands starkly apparent. Dr. West was arrested at the Occupy Wall Street protest with 19 others and is publicly sharing the information (@CornelWest) because this information has power. When compared to the advertising scare piece about the dangers of posting underwear pictures online, Dr. West’s use of technology speaks loudly about the potential of sharing. Others like @Newyorkist are reporting events and curating content from others in real time. Yes, people are noticing. No, they aren’t stalking the protestors or asking about their underwear. The Guardian has a section devoted to the Occupy Wall Street movement. John Stewart is taking on media coverage of the protests in a manner informed no doubt by information garnered from social media because he seems to actually know what is going on, which would be next to impossible for someone following only the mainstream news narrative. The fears explicit in the ad linked above are planted in reality – there is a loss of privacy in the digital age. However, we shouldn’t fear how powerless we are as a result; we should marvel at how powerful we may become as a result.

The second narrative has promise and power for students, as well. Howard Gardner perhaps overstates his case about the end of didactic roles for teachers, but his emphasis on teachers coaching ethics in digital contexts is spot on. Once students begin to understand the power of public discourse through social media, I think they’ll be turned on by the ethical power of action. I also follow Jeff Jarvis, author, new media columnist at The Guardian, and professor at City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism (@jeffjarvis) on Twitter, and am looking forward to reading his new book, Public Parts. Jarvis, as he wrote on his blog, argues

that in our current privacy mania we are not talking enough about the value of publicness. If we default to private, we risk losing the value of the connections the internet brings: meeting people, collaborating with them, gathering the wisdom of our crowd, and holding the powerful to public account. Yes, I believe we have a right and need to protect our privacy — to control our information and identities — but I also want the conversation and our decisions to include consideration of the value of sharing and linking. I also want to protect what’s public as a public good; that includes our internet.

Plenty of other thinkers, like Clay Shirky (and in video), were making this point before the Arab Spring made it for them. It’s not all bad.

Of course, students need to have the positive models that Gardner speaks about showing them that online spaces like Facebook and Tumblr are not private rooms, but public squares. We should model the best possible uses of these squares. This is a time of change – a photo taken of you might have me in the background, and that photo might wind up online, public, and out of my control. But I am reminded of a photo taken of me in profile and of a good friend who is smiling radiant and gorgeous on a sunny Sunday afternoon right into the camera of a stranger. Years later, she was stopped on the sidewalk in New York by another woman who was shocked, said “Oh my God! It’s you!” She took my friend’s address and mailed her the photo that she had taken (on film. Remember film?), a photo she had always enjoyed having tacked to a corkboard in her house. My friend mailed the photo to me in Kyrgyzstan.

Privacy is an illusion in analog, too, and the public nature of society is often as nice, or as powerful, as it is menacing.

Schools are Messy Places

Yesterday, a colleague unearthed what she thought to be one of two missing video cameras “belonging” to a course I now teach. Tucked deeply away in a closet, amidst a snarl of cables and battery chargers was a camera. Not one of the cameras, but a camera. As we marveled a bit at the mysteries of schools, she said (and I paraphrase) that without a more relaxed approach to some of these items, to inventory, to the organizing of stuff, our school would not have come so far so fast with technology.

Which got me thinking – hard as it may be to swallow, schools are messy places. Schools will never serve their most important functions in our society and be cost efficient, totally personalized, streamlined pods where students dutifully follow their playlist for the day, tick the box, score points, or earn Mario Brothers-style gold coins while teachers stare into their digital dashboards and adjust their classes of seventy like an America’s Cup skipper. Some like Tom Vander Ark spout wild, jargon-laced treatises and sometimes even almost start schools, but the underlying dream of all corporate reformers is a shiny new kind of school running with for-profit efficiency, even if not-for-profit.

Of course, even the shiniest, ivory Apples can’t seem to stay neat and clean, yet the image of the squeaky clean corporate model persists. Imagine: Apple loses a prototype for each of it’s last two iPhones and the buzz seems to be that it’s a publicity stunt on Apple’s part. Because Apple is hurting for publicity, right? Maybe the easier explanation is that programmers like to get hammered on tequila, too, and that the iPhone is a slippery fish in a trouser pocket. But, how could this happen again? Because it’s worth it. It’s worth it to have the phone in the real world, the real, messy world, where people spill drinks and throw down their backpack and cycle with their phone on the handlebars and get frustrated about a particular function and then change the function. Messy is dynamic and dynamic is successful.

Likewise, schools are messy, dynamic places when they function well because learning is messy and dynamic. Just today, a student I’ve never met before gave me a lesson on a new Adobe web design software that I’ve never heard of before and showed me his photo website that he just built with it. If his laptop didn’t allow him to install software or had crazy admin hurdles in place, he wouldn’t have built the website. Sometimes, when the powers that be cede control and let things happen, stuff gets broken, lost, misplaced, misused, and sometimes abused. It’s expensive – messy is often expensive. But, it beats a rigid bureaucratic or authoritarian approach because that cost is an investment in creative energy. School reformers who lead with efficiency should have their hands slapped with rulers because school is an investment in the future, and investments take courage and a stomach for delayed gratification, neither of which are values of the “efficient” corporation.

Do I wish someone would have slapped a sticker on one or both of those video cameras? Sure. Heck, I would settle for having noted the location of the shelf in this out of the way closet where they were stored. But, if we had those cameras, we may not have embarked on our current, messy iPad pilot that involves students as experts in their own learning and explores what’s possible with these tools. The outcome may be unimpressive, but nobody is going to be hurt. In fact, kids given such opportunities may learn to take agency in their learning process. It’ll be hard to test the results, but the kids will know. That’s messy for you.