A Taste of Autonomy

This is the second in a series of “re-visioned” posts that first appeared on the Teaching Tolerance Blog. Posting them here gives me an opportunity to add photos and/or additional thoughts.

Working in an urban high school has its challenges, and my first “Computer Graphics” class was no exception. The computers were old PCs, and the software a “light” version of a program that had failed to compete with the standard of the graphic design industry. My class contained a mix of special education students, and youths with a reputation for disrupting normal classrooms.
Our computers were never top-of-the-line, but by the time we
got them, they had definitely seen better days.
A former graphic designer myself, I had returned to the classroom with a dream of teaching skills to urban art students that they actually could use to get jobs. But the program would be cancelled if things did not go well this semester.
It was time for an experiment. I spent the summer creating problems of increasing complexity, that these students could read and tackle at their own pace. The students’ first reaction was perplexity. They had never been taught this way before. They weren’t sure it would work.
Privately, I wasn’t sure, either, but I explained that real graphic designers have to think and manage time for themselves, and often have to look up instructions on their own, for ways to do new things with their software. “This is the last whole-group lecture I plan to give you,” I said. “Once we establish some basics, you will move at your own pace.”
One of the locally-infamous troublemakers blurted out, “What if you run out of modules? What if I finish the course before the semester ends?”
“I won’t run out,” I promised, hoping I could keep that promise. “If you finish Computer Graphics I, you can move on to Computer Graphics II.” He looked dubious, but nodded.
Learning to manage one’s own time fruitfully is hard. We had some rough spots. I had to patrol diligently, not only to troubleshoot when someone didn’t understand a direction, but also to ensure no one strayed to websites the school had forbidden.
One of my special education students couldn’t read well enough to follow the instructions in the modules. I made voice recordings for him. His mastery and confidence improved dramatically. Eventually he said, “I think I can do it without the recordings now,” and continued to perform well.
He told me later that seeing the words while listening to me read them helped him, and because he wanted to learn these skills, he finally had a personal reason to read.
He finished all the work I’d designed for Computer Graphics I, three weeks before the end of the semester—before some of the so-called “normal” students. What a proud moment!
One student who started the class did not complete all of Computer Graphics I. She had fairly profound disabilities, but worked conscientiously every day, and fully deserved her passing grade.
Everyone else finished. Most quickly signed up for Computer Graphics II, and word-of-mouth swelled Computer Graphics I to two sections. The program would not be cancelled!
The “troublemaker” who’d spoken up the first day did finish early—by the end of First Quarter. As I had promised, we went on to Computer Graphics II material. His main “trouble” was that he was intelligent, and bored in most of his classes.

It was challenging to produce new modules before he devoured them—but with this student I achieved my “dream goal.” He went on to work in the printing industry.


One more note: The idea of “self-paced learning” is not new, but it is enjoying a revival right now, with the proliferation of distance learning and computer-based learning. Terry Anderson, a Canadian professor and international expert on distance learning, describes it this way


Self-paced programming maximizes individual freedom. Rather than making the obviously incorrect assumption that all students learn at the same speed, have access and control over their lives to march along with a cohort group of learners or are able, despite divergent life circumstances, to begin and end their study on the same day, self-paced study correctly puts the learner squarely in control.”


IMAGE CREDIT: I took the photo of the elderly computers we had available.

A Peaceful Place for Lunch

This is the first in a series of “re-visioned” posts that first appeared on the Teaching Tolerance Blog. Posting them here gives me an opportunity to add photos and/or additional thoughts.


The year I taught art in the dysfunctional chaos of an overcrowded urban middle school with weak administrators, practically everyone in the school—both students and teachers—needed a “safe place.”

Left mostly on our own to enforce discipline in our classrooms, we teachers quickly discovered that detentions were somewhat more effective than many of the other remedies. If students were unable to come to before- or after-school detentions—or were already “booked” with other teachers—some teachers scheduled lunchtime detentions.
Middle school lunchrooms can be crowded.
This one’s in Denver, CO.
I had cherished my quiet lunches, alone in my art room for 20 fleeting minutes. However, I finally tried a “lunch detention” with a seventh-grade student I’ll call Marco. Normally a bright, good-humored kid, he and another student had begun arguing, tripping and throwing things at each other in my class. The other boy skipped school the day he was due for detention, so I escorted only Marco from the deafeningly anarchic lunchroom to the art room for his scheduled detention.
During our lunch together, we talked about the problems he’d been having with his classmate. I gleaned some helpful insights as he explained his side of the story. Marco apologized for his part in the disruptions and we agreed on a way to handle the situation better next time. Then we chatted about odds and ends until it was time for Marco to take his tray back to the cafeteria.
“Ms. G.,” he asked, “Is there any way I could have ‘lunch detention’ again sometime?”
“I enjoyed it, too,” I said. “Want to come back tomorrow?”
“Can I bring a friend?” he asked. 
The Art Room Lunch Group met in this classroom.
The Art Room Lunch Group, as we began to call ourselves, met every day after that. Eventually, I was granting daily “lunch in the art room” permission to between five and eight students. Marco and his friend became regulars, as did a small group of quiet Muslim girls, and a few other individuals. Not really by design, the group included at least one person from each of the racial and ethnic groups in the school.
The students who came for lunch told me many times how much they loved the chance to get away from the relentless noise and rowdiness that filled each school day. It’s a time free of neighborhood rivalries and contests of escalating machismo that kept classroom life in a state of constant tension. In our space, students could relax and build new friendships. They even developed their own code of conduct, and enforced it by “disinviting” any who caused trouble.
Working together, we turned our lunch time into a little island of peace in a difficult and hostile environment.
PHOTO CREDITS: The photo of the middle school lunchroom in Denver is by Tim Rasmussen, in The Denver Post. I took the photo of my middle school classroom, all “spiffed up” for Open House.

“Re-visioning” My “Teaching Tolerance” Posts

Teaching Tolerance logo

Sometimes it’s not a bad idea to return to an idea you’ve previously explored.

As some of my readers may remember, I have become one of the regular bloggers for the Teaching Tolerance blog. Teaching Tolerance is a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and I am delighted to be associated with this excellent organization. 
My agreement with Teaching Tolerance allows me to re-post pieces that originally were posted on their site, after a certain period of time has passed. It occurred to me that doing so would give me an opportunity not only to share my thoughts with a different audience, but also to add photos, which their format does not allow.
Thus, over the next few months I intend to devote one post a month to a slightly “re-visioned” story or essay that originally appeared on the Teaching Tolerance Blog. As I do there, I will not use people’s real names, but the stories I relate are true. I hope you’ll find them interesting!
IMAGE CREDIT: The image for the Teaching Tolerance logo is from fellow educator Gary’s “Follow your Bliss” blog: http://followingyourbliss.blogspot.com/2011/07/teaching-tolerance.html

Are We on Digital Overload? Can We Protect our Kids?

Many people today watch the expanding role of digital media in our everyday life with—let’s be honest—mostly feelings of fear and dread. They focus wistfully upon things that we are losing or moving away from, in the changing cultural climate: things they value, such as silence, long stretches of uninterrupted time, or the act of reading a physical, bound, made-of-paper book.

And they worry—a lot.

While he’s clearly not a young student, this man is juggling many different kinds of inputs. Is he on “overload?” Are our kids?

They worry that our digital gadgets put us on “overload,” and that this goes double for students. They feel that these devices keep kids (and all of us) too over-stimulated, that they load too much of the wrong kind of artificial light into our eyes, and that they keep us too sedentary on our ever-expanding buttocks.

They also live in terror that through social media their children will become entrapped by sexual predators and identity thieves, that they will become addicted to pornography from exposure too young, or that they will become addicted to games.

They worry that in the name of “multi-tasking,” we are doing more and more things superficially, distractedly, and just plain badly.

Online predators are a genuine threat to young Internet users.

Unfortunately, all of these things can and do cause problems. People who have concerns about digital media and the “information” or “services” they can deliver have many very valid points. There are a vast array of downfalls, dangers, and unintended results associated with digital media. And all of those fears/worries go double for the people who run schools. In most parts of the world, educators are operating in loco parentis legally. All sorts of bad results could rain down upon them if they fail to keep the students entrusted to their care safe from such threats.

How do they attempt to protect kids? Usually they clamp down, restrict access, and seek to control as much as possible how and when students use the Internet. They install blocking software, patrol computer labs relentlessly, and the best practitioners also talk seriously and frankly with students about the dangers that can lurk “out there.”

This is perfectly in keeping with a custodial role. But we need to think carefully about what we restrict and how we restrict it—or we can end up impeding the very education we are attempting to enhance.

Take as an example the story told by Susan Einhorn about her daughter and some of her classmates. They were preparing for an exchange-student trip to France. They developed friendships with their French “opposite numbers” through Facebook . . . but they couldn’t communicate with each other via Facebook at school, because the site was blocked.

This single example is hardly definitive, and it in no way diminishes the genuine dangers touched upon here. But it represents a dissenting opinion. As this series continues, I’d like to explore some of the ways that the use of digital media has become controversial, and some of the new and imaginative ways in which it can be used to deepen learning and enhance thinking skills.

IMAGE CREDITS: Many thanks to the University of Phoenix for the “distracted man” illustration, which they ran with an essay about digital distractions. The “online predator” illustration appears to have originated in Latvia(?), but I was unable to track down the artist’s name. I first located the (unattributed) image in a post about tips for parents on the “Tech Welkin” blog. 

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?

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