My Work for Teaching Tolerance

The Teaching Tolerance logo

I’m Honored to be part of the Blogging Corps

I have been following the work of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and its Teaching Tolerance project, for several years, and I like what I have seen.  Their message is compatible with my own philosophy of showing genuine respect for all.

I therefore was very interested when they sent out a call for experienced teachers to write blog posts for them.

To my delight, they accepted my two “Tryout” posts, which both have now been published.

Better yet, I’ve just been informed that I have been added to their blogging corps!  They post a new item every day, and the result is a daily dose of insight, inspiration, and encouragement that when we struggle to make our students’ live better, we are in good company.

If you’d like to see the posts I already have written, I’ve embedded the links below.  Watch for future links in this space, as well!

My first post, which they titled “Detention Leads to a Lunchtime Community,” was posted August 30.  The second went up just a few days ago, on October 5: “Graphics Class Offers Success for All.”

IMAGE CREDIT: Many thanks for the Teaching Tolerance logo to Gary, a fellow educator and blogger for Teaching Tolerance, who tells a similar story on his “Follow your Bliss” blog!  Best wishes to him!

Reality Check for TFA

A meditation on respect for the Teaching Profession
I’ve talked a lot about respect for students in some of my recent blog posts, but today I’d like to address one aspect of respect for TEACHERS that I think needs to be examined.
McCoy Elementary in the KCMO School District was closed in 2010.
I recently talked with a friend who is one of the few remaining veteran teachers in a Kansas City, MO elementary school. Such seasoned veterans are actually somewhat rare, because of recent moves by the district to close approximately half of their schools, and to lay off hundreds of  teachers.
I asked my friend how things were going.  She sighed deeply, and said that this year much of the staff in her school is drawn from the ranks of Teach For America
TFA is the darling of the hour, but if you look closely you may not like what you see.
We both knew what that meant–much of the staff is recruited from college graduates who plan careers in other fields, but have taken an intensive course in one summer, and committed to working as a teacher for a couple of years, before they get on with their “real” careers.  
This also means that they are much cheaper to hire than fully certified teachers–but also that they are less thoroughly prepared. I know that’s a controversial statement in the current political climate. And I also know that schools of education are not doing an overly awesome job of preparing new graduates for the rigors of urban teaching, either.  
But my friend’s report genuinely shocked me.  She said that the “TFA kids” in her school have been given basically no support or mentoring, now that they actually are assigned to classrooms. That’s insane, I thought: Once a person is actually in the classroom, that’s when MOST of the practical questions arise.
Wendy S. Kopp, founder of  TFA,
frequently speaks about its benefits.
According to my friend’s report of what the TFA group has told her, they did their practice workshop in a private school in California that was nothing like the urban elementary where they are now. As one of the very few veterans left in her school, she finds herself not only struggling to keep her own “head above water” with an overlarge class of boisterous second-graders, but she is the go-to “wiser head” for all of the TFA kids who, in her words, have been “thrown to the wolves” with no mentoring or support.
As someone who has taught in urban schools myself, I know very well how it can devour someone alive, if one is not properly prepared and supported. Urban teaching offers rich rewards, but it is not for the faint of heart or the ill-prepared. What my friend described is unconscionable. If this is truly the TFA approach, then it deserves NONE of the kudos it so frequently receives!
Actual, certified teachers with urban experience were let go again this year to make room for the new TFA group. This serves neither the children of the district, nor the idealistic kids who signed up for TFA and now come to my friend in tears on a daily basis. It is a classic case of the bureaucracy serving its own interests before those of the students in the district, because of budget cuts that force wrenching decisions.
And it is precisely this kind of situation that we must avoid if we are serious about an ascendant future for the United States.

Pushback from the Education-Industrial Compex

Textbook publishers resist the digital trend.

“Bye-Bye”? Maybe not yet.

Apparently, some industries insist on replaying their own version of the 1990s music industry’s resistance to digital music–and the major publishers of textbooks are totally there.

In my last update I talked about the potential of e-textbooks as opposed to traditional, printed and bound “dead trees” textbooks. My post focused on the versatility and vastly-expanded possibilities e-textbooks could offer.

Unfortunately, that kind of versatility and useability do not describe the way things are right now.

Just like the old record companies, textbook companies are doing their best to resist the new realities of the digital landscape. Some of their techniques make digital textbooks a very bad “deal” for students.

They persist in charging high prices, yet often make their books “expire” after 6 months–making them more of an overpriced rental than a purchase. Sometimes they embed copyright enforcement measures that make digital textbooks impossible to sell, and they place stiff restrictions on sharing, as well.

All of these measures hinder accessibility, jack up expenses, and hinder the use of the book. (And in spite of all this, textbooks still get pirated anyway.)

Add to these problems the unpredictability of platform options, and you begin to understand why such an apparent “no-brainer” hasn’t really taken off yet.

Reading textbooks on laptops, with their backlit screens, is hard on the eyes. But other options are unpredictable.

Cautious districts are sticking with paper versions for now.

Will the Kindle fizzle out or take off, as a textbook platform? Will more people adopt the Nook, the iPad, or some other platform for textbooks? Will the book for any given course be available in the right format? Will any of these suffer the same fate as the HP Tablet?

To continue with the music industry comparisons, no school in this age of shrinking budgets wants to be caught with a storage closet full of expensive “8-tracks” in a world that has settled on something different.

 In spite of all this, I think grassroots demand is likely to turn the tide eventually. Especially on the college level, we’re beginning to see it rather strongly. Some colleges are pushing for all e-text adoption, or e-textbook rental. I know of more and more professors who are beginning to eschew single, or even multiple “dead-trees” textbooks in favor of online resources. Most scholarly journals are available online, and have been for some time.

The world as a whole is going digital. How long can the textbook companies resist?

The “Bye-Bye Textbooks” graphic is from the website. 
Many thanks to The Beaumont Enterprise newspaper for the image of piled-up “dead trees” books.

Troglodyte Textbooks for Digital Natives

Why do US schools miss an apparent “No Brainer”?

For anyone who actively uses digital media to explore their world, it seems obvious that schools need to move away from the traditional “dead trees” textbook format, and begin using digital textbooks.

The advantages are many.

Inkling from Bulent Keles on Vimeo.

The digital option offers an interface that:

  • Can open from the main text to a variety of detailed supplementary information.
  • Is capable of being lavishly illustrated with zoom-enabled photos, video or audio clips, and interactive maps, charts, and graphs.
  • In the best-designed examples, allows individual users to tag, annotate, bookmark, and/or archive notes and passages.
  • Is near-instantly searchable on a wide variety of variables.
  • Costs a fraction of what a copy of a traditional textbook costs.
  • Weighs only as much as the digital device into which it has been loaded.
  • Requires no special accommodations for storage, beyond digital memory capacity.
  • Will always be a “brand new” copy to each user.
  • Can be updated frequently by authors and publishers, because updates can be done at relatively little expense.

By contrast, traditional textbooks:

  • Offer only a single “static” text with at most a few sidebars.
  • Are limited by practicality to a handful of illustrations, charts, maps, etc. on any given page–none of which can be made interactive.
  • Generally cannot be annotated by individual users without leaving a permanent mark.
  • Can only be searched via laborious visual scan or a (limited) index.
  • Cost a lot of money to buy.
  • Are often heavy and cumbersome, especially for younger children.
  • Take up a lot of storage space, when not in use.
  • Are subject to wear, tear, and vandalism.
  • Are difficult and expensive to update.
Back problems from too-heavy school backpacks reached a peak of awareness around 2005.

South Korean students in Goesan use tablet PCs as textbooks.

“Everybody” (on the blogosphere, anyway) seems to believe it’s the way of the future, the coming  trend. South Korea and Singapore already have begun riding this wave.

But the switch to digital textbooks in the US has been hit-and-miss, emphasis on the “miss.”  Why aren’t more US schools joining this trend?

I think there are several reasons, and most of them stem from the basic institution, which is structured so it must prioritize its own needs above those of students.

Politics is one major dis-incentive, in at least three ways.

Federal, state, and local education budgets have been slashed repeatedly, throughout the last decade. Digital textbooks may be a fraction of the cost of traditional ones, but schools already have storage rooms filled with traditional textbooks. And outfitting an entire school or district with e-readers is not cheap. Many schools just don’t have the money.

A significant and vocal group of voters is old enough to look upon digital devices in schools as an extravagant luxury, and therefore a waste of money. They tend to complain, and they unfortunately are more likely to vote than more moderate thinkers. Thus, their views sometimes dominate school budget battles.

Finally, US school districts have traditionally been governed by the decisions of a local school board. Unlike Finland, South Korea, Singapore, and many other nations with widely-admired educational systems, our schools are not centrally managed by the federal government so that all schools are treated the same. Local control and dependence on local property taxes for a financial base make US schools an uneven patchwork. No Department of Education recommendation can decree that all schools will use e-textbooks. You may see that as a good thing or a bad thing, but it is the way we operate. Districts will (or won’t) adopt digital textbooks individually, as they see fit.

This illustration demonstrates textbook capabilities of iPad tablets.

Another important dis-incentive to using digital textbooks is the confusion and discomfort many educators feel about e-readers. Even those who have mastered web surfing, email, and Facebook may be baffled by the dizzying array of options in the rapidly-expanding e-textbook field.

How should educators evaluate the merits of a Nook (left) or a Kindle (right)?

What kind of digital reader should they use? The wrong choice means a whole lot of money ill-used. But there are arguments both for and against using the iPad, Nook, Kindle, and a whole slew of other devices. Which give good advice? Which are just glorified ads?

Textbooks must offer sound, readable information that is aligned with the school’s curriculum–and most educators understand how to judge a traditional-format textbook. But what makes a good digital one? And if they do find a good digital reader, is it supported by all of the textbooks their school needs?

They may be dog-eared, but most schools have piles of textbooks.

No wonder so many schools are still relying on the laptop cart in the corner of the classroom, and digging their old paper-bound-in-cardboard textbooks out of the library storage room each year! Besides, with all the other things they have to pay attention to, what educator has the time to do a genuinely-rigorous comparative evaluation?

Institutionally, public schools have never had either the funding or the functional incentives to operate at the cutting edge of technology. Unlike businesses, they have faced no compelling need to compete, so they have had to be dragged, late and unwillingly, into the computer age.

Will that history repeat itself for digital textbooks?

The video clip at the opening of this post is from the iPad In Schools blog/website’s “The Future of the Textbook” post. The three views of iPads as textbooks is from the same site’s “Why the iPad Should be Used in Classrooms” post.
The cartoon panel from Lynn Johnston’s For Better or for Worse comic strip came from the Eclipse Wellness website.
The AP photo of the elementary students from Goesan, South Korea is from the Daily Herald (Chicago area, IL) online.
The photo of a textbook on a Nook is from the Barnes & Noble Booksellers website. The image of the Kindle is from the GEV website
Finally, the image of piles of traditional textbooks came from the Beaumont Enterprise (Beaumont, TX) website.
Many thanks to all of these sources!

You may also find these articles interesting:
The website’s “Digital Learning: Final Chapter for Textbooks?” page.Classroom Aid‘s post, “It’s a Digital World, Why not a Digital Textbook?”
Statistics on the Worldwide Center of Mathematics Blog website, in the post “The state of the Textbook Industry: Facts and Figures,” by Brian L.
The Kindle-adoption experiment at  Clearwater (FL) High School, as described by the Techno Buffalo site.

    Slight Delay in the “Digital Natives” Series

    Next time I’ll consider digital-vs.-dead trees

    I apologize for another slight delay in this series. I am running another art show, and it’s pulling me away from this effort a bit more than anticipated (stuff always takes longer than you think it will!).

    I hope to have the next installment of this series posted during the upcoming week!

    My topic will be the relative merits of digital textbooks vs. the dead-trees version!

    This image is from the interesting blog of Dr. Patricia Fioriello, on K-12 Education Practices and Issues. the particular post from which the image came is “Digital Textbooks Online.”

    Teaching Like It’s 1980

    Rethinking the way Schools (dis)Respect Digital Natives

    Most classrooms still look like this
    2010 photo of a 4th-grade room.

    Most of today’s educators were born too soon. We are not digital natives. Moreover, developments that you might call “market forces” in the last several decades actually have held most teachers back from fully participating in the digital revolution.

    As a result, we really don’t “get it.”

    All too many of us are still teaching as if it’s 1980 . . . except with a computer cart in the corner, to use sometimes.  Oh, sure, some of us have “smart boards” where our blackboards used to be, and some of us are required to keep in touch with parents via email.

    But most educators just fundamentally see digital media (by which they mean “computers”) as a sort of add-on.

    • We still think of textbooks as physical, printed-and-bound objects.
    • We make our students turn off or put away their cell phones when they come to class.
    • We restrict access to the Internet, except for narrowly-defined assignment objectives.
    • We often absolutely ban Facebook, Twitter, and other social media from our classrooms.
    • We demand undivided attention when we are speaking to the class.
    • We believe that, to be readily available, facts must be memorized.
    • We call it “cheating” when our students look up answers.
    • When we make websites, they are almost invariably really lame.
    I am pretty sure we have managed to get all of these things (and more) exactly backwards.
    That’s because it isn’t 1980 anymore.  I actually remember teaching in 1980, and a whole lot of my colleagues do, too. For us and for our students, that is unfortunately a problem. Today’s students have grown up using technology that never even existed when we were growing up. This has changed the way they see and interact with the world. It also has fundamentally altered the kind of world their future holds. A “1980” education is simply not going to cut it, for these kids, even if we do pull out the computer cart from time to time.
    In upcoming posts, I intend to explore each of the points I’ve listed above, and look at the reasons why we should revise our practices regarding every single one.
    Many thanks to “Gourmet Spud” for the fourth-grade classroom photo from the “Parent-Teacher Night” post on the Food Court Lunch blog. 
    Enthusiastic appreciation also is due to the Tulsa Public Schools Department of Instructional Technology for the Pirillo & Fitz cartoon.

    Gone Again!

    I may get to see this scene in person, this week!  

    By the time this is posted, I plan to be in San Francisco. Yes, I know I just started posting entries again.  Those reasons were highly stressful.  This reason is not.

    The vacation was an unexpected opportunity, not to be missed! Passionate as I am about education reform, meeting deadlines and doing my work as usual is not a helpful way to enjoy a vacation.

    So I hope you’ll enjoy this prize-winning view of the City by the Bay, until I return in a couple of weeks. While you’re at it, you might enjoy other views of US historic landmarks that won the 2005 contest, “Imaging Our National Heritage.” This view of the hillside, bay, cable cars and Alcatraz was photographed by Thomas Fake, and won first prize in the competition, which was sponsored by the National Historic Landmarks program of the National Park Service.

    By the time I return, I hope to have been in fruitful contact with all of my digital-native respondents, and have one or more posts to offer, about ways that schools can respect the needs and perspectives of the current “digital” generation.