Backlash.

Not a surprise, really, but there’s been some. Mostly in response to our 1:1 move, more of it in response to our choice to use iPad2’s as our only devices. Not that I feel all of the criticism deserves a response, but I thought a couple of words would be fitting. Here goes.

1. Clearly, 1:1 is no silver bullet for education. Josh Davis, also known as Dj Shadow, has said in more than a few interviews an interesting idea: He states that digging (the act of digging through stacks of old vinyl records in search of rare/unknown/unused gems) won’t, in fact, make a bad Dj good. But it will make a good Dj better, he insists. If a school culture is backwards and broken, 1:1 won’t make it any better or less dysfunctional. If you have a forward thinking, progressive, experimentally inclined staff, 1:1 can facilitate bringing that to new and fertile grounds.

2. The choice that we made to insist on every student carrying an iPad2 was, I firmly believe, the right choice for our school at that time. That doesn’t make it the right choice for your school, or even the right choice for our school in a year or two when it’s time to replace that fleet of devices. We’ve made no promises that our program will forever be a iPad specific one. In fact, our original plan was this: Use the iPad2’s as transitional devices from our (at the time) existing environment to our new (and current) 1:1 environment. We thought (and I still stand by this) that going from nothing in the school to everyone-with-a-different-device would be too large a gap for both staff and students to manage without a massive backlash of frustration. Everyone on the same device simplified this transitional phase. It is by no means a long-term solution.

3. We plan to use this transitional phase on our way to being a BYOD environment. I’d love to have every student/staff/parent well-informed enough to be able to choose a reasonable device for their use in the school. The barrier here is in education, but not just of the students, but also of the parents and the surrounding community. The iPad2’s should serve as a entry point to show the usefulness of this sort of technology integration- the hope is that with some buy-in from parents and the community, students and parents will be more motivated and empowered to research and explore their own options in hardware for students. That’s where we want to be going.

Yes, it would have been nice to simply tell every student and parent that they needed to buy a device for this school year. But the reality is that our program is experimental, and we need to be willing and able to fund it ourselves as a proof-of-concept. Having a wide variety of devices in a school is a great thing; it’s not feasible to go from no devices to such an environment. Our iPads merely mind that gap.

Not to sound too angry, because I’m not. Just emphatic.

t.

How we went 1:1

Been a few days, but January is shaping up to be the busiest month of the year for me yet. Stuff to do all over the place.

Out of all the crazy, a gem has emerged: Some good folks at my work put together a comprehensive ePub of our school’s journey into the land of 1:1. It covers pretty much everything, and is a pretty neat resource/archive of the thinking and work that went into such a big shift. Linkage here.

Also, linkage to the lovely co-worker (and officemate!) Andy Marcinek, for building the thing what looked like one huge pull and having it come out looking so nice.

Also, linkage to Patrick Larkin for pushing all this in the first place. Like he needs the links…

t.

Assembly Lines are Great for Cars…

…but not for students.

The idea that it takes each and ever student four years to get through High School is deeply flawed. The idea that every student needs to sit in a classroom for 990 hours a year is also flawed. And both of these flaws are based on the same mistake:
That all students are the same.

We know this isn’t true.

We know this because we have ed plans. And 504’s. And tutoring. And leveled classes. And AP classes. And night school. And summer school.
All things designed to put flexibility back into a rigid system.

Why don’t we stop putting bandaids on this gaping wound, and address the problem itself:

The system needs to be based on flexibility.

Why don’t we run things on a credit based system? You need (x) credits to graduate from High School. They need to be in the following distribution. If that takes you 5 years, that’s just fine. If it takes you 2.5, that’s ok too. If you’d rather take classes during the summer to speed things up, we’ll offer those. If you want to take a semester off to do an internship, that’s great; we might even grant you some credit.

Kids aren’t all the same, and treating them like they all need the same schedule does them a disservice.

t.

Reading Deep

I’ve been thinking out this concept that I’ve had in my head for a while now.
Reading Deep.

One of the skills I’ve developed for myself over the years is the ability and willingness to read deep- that is, to read not only the core text, but to read the texts related to it. As an example: When I read Lord of the Flies, I read not only the book, but also related subject books. In this case, it includes texts on the Milgram experiment, Stanford Prison experiment, Third Wave experiment, the Bible, and so on. Then I read articles about those books. Repeat.

I feel the need to impress upon students that understanding a subject isn’t a matter of reading any one book, but reading a wide swath of books on the subject, and even beyond that, understanding the dialoge that is currently taking place on the subject. We can’t make students experts- it’s on the of reasons I take issue with the use of the word “mastery” in education. Mastery is a journey that we start, but not one we ever really reach.

But I digress.

I’m thinking about how to inspire this sort of deep reading in students- how to make it a part of their natural behavior and habits to dig a bit.

Or maybe it’s not ever going to be part of the majority of student’s behavior- maybe it’s not part of the majority of people’s behavior.

My dirty secret.

I’ve been wary of saying this publicly, but I think it’s something I can’t dance around anymore. So here it is:

I throw everything out at the end of each school year.

Lesson plans.
Handouts.
Presentations.
Quizzes.

Actually, there are maybe half a dozen lesson that I’ll keep from year to year- but I only keep the idea of the lesson, not the stuff attached to it.
I’m saying this for a simple reason: I’ve been bombarded for years with people trying to move stuff they’ve made from one format or platform to another, newer one. I usually try to help, and the efforts are usually messy and only partially successful. They always ask how I’m managing the transition, and I always say that I don’t have the problem. I think they must assume that I have some secret method for reformatting my teaching resources, but the truth is more simple. I simply make new stuff, all the time.

I think it’s because I bore so easily. I can’t imagine re-using something I’ve already used. Or maybe it’s because I believe that each year’s students are fundamentally different than the last, and the things I’m using to teach should reflect that. Or it’s that I believe that my job, as an educator, is partially to create content, and if I’m using content from years ago I’m shirking my duties. I think that if I taught the same thing the same way twice, that would be me saying that the lesson is perfect and cannot be improved. Which is never the case. Otherwise, why wouldn’t I change and improve it?

Whatever it is, it keeps life good for me. I’m always solving new problems, always re-imagining how things should be presented, always looking for a better way. And I never have to deal with moving my stuff from one platform to another.

t.

Control the Content

I’m looking at this from the standpoint of a High School English teacher.

The reality is that it doesn’t matter much which books I teach my students. While I like and have predilections towards more thoughtful literature, I really don’t need to use those books to do what I do. If this seems strange, I blame it on my labeling as an “English” teacher. I don’t teach English. Never have. Don’t even know how, really. What I teach is skills via literature. And if we can all agree for a moment that the “skills” part of that is the important part, then it becomes clear that the literature is really just a prop to help me teach those ever important skills. I honestly don’t really need any specific prop- I just need something to work with.

All that said, I’ve become increasingly agitated by the constant questions about “text books.” So let’s talk about those. First off, textbook companies exist for one reason: To make money. That’s it. Any motivation they have to provide a quality product is dependent on that product being able to make them money. As a result, it’s in their best interest to create a product for the largest possible market. Practically speaking in the US, that means building textbooks that fulfill California and Texas’ requirements. Everybody else gets to buy it too, but the content is engineered for those states. Fine. Second, textbooks were a thing created out of need. There was no practical way for an educator to compile all the resources they would need for a year’s worth of instruction. Books could be rare (or obscure), there was a lot of writing to be done, and a huge amount of organization to be undertaken. All of which is to say that we got lazy. We started to think that it was easier to just buy a textbook than it was to build what we wanted for ourselves. We were led to believe that we should leave such stuff to the “experts.” Here’s the thing: we are the experts. We are the educators, we do know what we need in the classroom.

Several years ago now, I spearheaded a project at my school to have the senior English text be an in-house self published book. We did it in one summer- and yes, it was a lot of work. But from that effort we had exactly what we wanted- nothing more, nothing less. Once that initial push was made and the text existed, every year we could revise it, tweak it, modify it to fulfill our ever-shifting needs as educators. I’ll also tell you that self publishing a textbook was wildly less expensive than buying one- printed commercial textbooks were $80-100 each, and our books were less than $6. It was so much less expensive, actually, that we could give them to our students every year- they would keep them, write in them, take contextual notes in them… and it’d still be cheaper than buying some published book. Now, given that my school has gone 1:1, things are looking even better. We’re slowing the printing of texts and moving to ePubs. We’re building a modular contextual vocabulary unit that will allow each teacher to pull from the same bank of words, but easily re-order their vocab books to reflect the order in which they intent to teach texts.

If we can’t, as educators, be bothered to take control of the very content that we teach- if we hide behind the facade of a textbook, then we do ourselves and our students a profound disservice. We become the same as a chef who takes no interest in the quality or provenance of his ingredients. We become a farce.