Give me Liberty or give me learning?

So, I noticed that Washington Teachers had a post about the failures at Liberty High School, which quotes heavily from this Seattle Times piece.

Liberty High School is an interesting case. They opened in 2003-2004 (my senior year at Glencoe) to great promise. The building is state of the art – a technologically-inclined educator’s dream. TVs in every classroom (and a “broadcast journalism” course to back them up), a beautiful new football field, a gym that could host graduation ceremonies… the works! Of course, this sort of thing is always my dream. Forgive the impending digression – it’ll come together, I promise.

When applying to be a second-year resident assistant at Whitworth, my first choice was Duvall Hall. Why? Several reasons, of course. But one of the the biggest ones was that it was a brand new, state-of-the-art building with ample space for programming and student activities. As I watched Duvall’s unique community grow and develop during its first two years, I found a few things. First of all, I was right about the programming aspect. They did some really cool things there, most notably a student-led “prayer labyrinth” that used most of the building. However, there were a few little problems with Duvall. The towel racks wouldn’t stay on the walls. The “pod” setup made it easy for students to hide alcohol and difficult for RAs to connect with students. The showers spewed only cold water for much of the year. Hall activities were sparsely attended because you either got an entire pod (6-8 people) or none of them – and frequently, none.

Duvall’s design was experimental. Nobody really knew what its effects would be on community and student life at Whitworth, but they gave it a shot. It has its ups and downs, but students and leadership are learning more and more what to expect. Most importantly, the student life staff is dedicated to fostering community in Duvall despite the inherent difficulties in the building’s design.Duvall Hall

Liberty has a similar problem. Its “academy” design was certainly experimental. It was hypothesized that by giving students focused programs of study (much like collegiate majors), the students would be more interested in their studies and perform better in class. But like the aforementioned news article stated, that just wasn’t the case. Students were given more freedom, but it seems as if it ended up being freedom to slack off and forgo college preparation. In the wake of a nation-wide emphasis on preventing students from falling through the cracks, Liberty was doing just that – and it seemed as if they were doing it on purpose.

Well, we’ve just finished Year 5 of the Liberty High School experiment, and the data is starting to shake out. More students are dropping out of Liberty or graduating without the skills needed to get into the University of Oregon than any other highs school in the Hillsboro School District. That’s not okay.

When Liberty opened, they took most of their teachers from Glencoe and Century, as well as a few from Hilhi and some newly-hired ones. The teachers I knew that went over to Liberty from Glencoe were top-notch Liberty High School(Kulle, Fink, Wunder, Leifer, Toth, Mahlum, etc), and I’ve heard that some great teachers from Century ended up there as well. So, why the issues? If there were good teachers there, what happened?

Well, there are conflicting reports of what is happening within the walls of that beautiful new school on Wagon Way. Some say that Liberty is still a great school, despite the rumors. Some chalk the school’s troubles up to “growing pains.” The Seattle Times article reports that “students say administrators seemed so caught up in tinkering with the small schools’ structure that they didn’t pay enough attention to the quality of teaching.”

From what I’ve heard about life at Liberty in the first five years, that last description is spot-on. The academy structure was broken when they opened the box, and the first principal was more worried about fixing that structure than fixing the quality of education that her students were receiving. As a result, the school got bogged down in petty politics and students got left behind. Oh, and she got canned.

Now, I have to admit that I’m not yet a teacher. I’m a candidate in an MIT program. I didn’t go to Liberty, either. I have close friends who did, however, and I do have sources on the inside. But what I’ve been told about the school’s inner workings (especially for the first couple of years) makes me mad.

So, what? Why am I painting this picture, as bleak as it may seem?

It’s important to realize that there is no panacea for education. Most “cures” for what ails today’s students end up being snake oil. But if I ruled the educational system, here are five ideas I would hope that every school keeps in mind. Please don’t think I’m pointing at Liberty specifically with these. It was an example that got me rolling on this idea. And yes, I realize I’m idealistic, but bear with me. I think a dose of idealism could do everybody some good:

  1. Students have to come first. If learning isn’t happening, something is wrong. You may need to throw out your innovative ideas for their sake.
  2. At the same time, you can’t be afraid to try something. The academies don’t seem to have worked at Liberty, but I do admire the fact that the inaugural staff went out on a limb and did something to try and help improve education. It didn’t seem to have worked, but you’d have to think that it was worth a shot after all they put into it.
  3. This may seem obvious, but when you hire new teachers, hire really, really good ones. Don’t worry, they’re out there. For example, I’ll be looking for a job in a few months. :)
  4. You have to encourage extracurricular activities at your school. Sports, choirs, bands, visual arts, yearbooks, newspapers, dance teams, student councils, etc. are the lifeblood of a student body. They generate school spirit, which can only lead to enthusiasm about the school itself. If students are excited about their school, they might actually become excited about their studies.
  5. If you’ve been blessed with a great school facility, don’t squander it. There are a million things a teacher of any subject could do with a facility like Liberty High School, and I would love to have a chance to experiment there. Likewise, if you aren’t blessed with a great facility, you have to be resourceful and dig deep to make the most of what you have. Students can learn in a concrete box, sure- but a great teacher can make that place shine as if they have NASA’s annual budget behind them.

Hopefully, Liberty is on the way up now. They’re onto their second principal, and they’ll be opening their doors for their sixth year in the fall. There are good people working there, trying to make it an environment where students can succeed. It takes a long time to change a culture – the Portland Trail Blazers can tell you that – but it can happen.

It just takes baby steps.

Baby steps.

Transitions

Hey, one quick note before bed:

The stories we wrote for our Jan Term class last year (Article and Feature Writing) are now online. They’re for the online alumni magazine, Transitions, and most are about Whitworth alumni. I wrote my story about my high school youth pastor (and a major reason I went to Whitworth), Jeremy Watson.

Most of the students got one or two of their stories posted, but for some reason all three of mine are up there. You can see the entire list here.

My three stories that I wrote were:

So, there you go. A lot of you know that I was a Journalism major for most of my college career (long story), but haven’t seen much of my writing. I hope you enjoy reading these stories as much as I enjoyed writing them!

Whoa! Thumbs-up for ingenuity!

Remember when I wrote about SMART Boards on this post?

Well, this guy found a way to build one using a Wii Remote for a total cost of roughly $60 (not counting the price of the projector). As Robby Miles might say, “That is so COOL!” Watch this video for a demo:

Thanks to Teen Literacy Tips for the link.

Dispositions

What makes a great teacher?

In a way, this is the question that every Whitworth MIT student is dealing with right now. We want to become great teachers, and that can’t happen unless we know what we’re shooting for. One of our major benchmarks that we have to pass in order to continue through the program is “disposition.” That is, who are we as a person? What is our mental outlook? How do we live and work with others?

Today in “Educational Foundations and Critical Issues,” we each thought of one teacher who has influenced us (either positively or negatively) and then wrote down some words describing the dispositions of those teachers. We then brainstormed in a large group, coming up with two lists on the whiteboard: positive and negative traits of teachers who have had some sort of impact on us. I wrote them down and decided to post them here for your perusal:

Positive:

  • Optimistic
  • Respectful
  • Hopeful
  • Passionate
  • Energetic
  • Loving
  • Enthusiastic
  • Authoritative
  • Creative
  • Approachable
  • Sense of humor
  • Truthful
  • Reliable
  • Resourceful
  • Competent
  • Leader
  • Confident
  • Understanding
  • High Expectations
  • Motivating
  • Reassuring
  • Caring
  • Inspiring
  • Demanding
  • Authentic

Negative:

  • Uncaring
  • Mean
  • Boring
  • Discouraging
  • Impatient
  • Spiteful
  • Severe
  • Smelly
  • Disengaged
  • Unstable
  • Intimidating
  • Clueless
  • Critical
  • Creepy
  • Disrespectful
  • Demeaning
  • Violent
  • Incompetent

Now, the questions: Are there any traits of either great or terrible teachers that we forgot? What, if anything, does this indicate? What has your experience been? Do you think more people become teachers because they had good teachers or because they had bad teachers?

Philosophy of Teaching (part II)

If my “Why Teaching?” post was a look at my philosophy of teaching, this post is the second edition in that series. I look forward to updating my philosophy as I go through the MIT program, student teaching and beyond. Onward and upward, right? Hopefully, I will be able to look back at this series and track my personal and professional growth through the year (or years?).

Of course, no blog post or paper can fully contain an entire personal philosophy of teaching. But I hope that the bits and pieces will come together to form a fuller picture for you, the readers. My friends, family and readers who are shaking their heads and thinking, “What is he getting himself into?”

What follows was actually a paper that I wrote for my Classroom Management class. The prompt was to write a two-page personal paper “identifying the role the teacher has in creating an effective learning climate for all students.” Within the paper, we were to:

  1. Identify our skills and strengths that will contribute to this environment;
  2. Any areas that are now questions and new learnings or thoughts;
  3. Any areas that will become important to explore and learn to do well;
  4. References and comments that created these statements or thoughts

Anyway, without further ado:

The teacher has a crucial role in creating an effective learning climate for all of his or her students. The students have to ultimately decide whether they will learn or not, but the teacher is the one who has to make the room physically and psychologically conducive to learning and academic success for students.

My energy and enthusiasm will definitely contribute to this environment. Not just my enthusiasm for teaching writing and literature, but more importantly, my enthusiasm for people and relationships. In high school, my best teachers were enthusiastic about their subjects, but more importantly, passionate about their students. My professors at Whitworth have been very much the same way, and I hope to respect the great examples they have given me by applying that same sort of care to my students.

Through the past two years as a resident assistant at Whitworth, building relationships has become one of my strongest skills. The “Hearts and Minds” article said that “for most teachers, their relationships are their teaching.” That will certainly be the case in my classroom. I don’t have to be every student’s best friend, but I will be intentional about building senses of professional camaraderie and rapport between myself and the students in my classes.

My “locus of control” score was 95 – five points off of the maximum number. This means that I have a very strong internal locus of control. I subscribe (at least, informally) to the words of William Ernest Henley from his poem “Invictus”: “I am the master of my fate: / I am the captain of my soul.” I interpret the closing lines of this poem to mean that if I am to accomplish something, I need to take initiative. My level of intentionality plays a role in whether I succeed or not in any given task, and it is often the most crucial factor. Being intentional with students means giving my best effort to maximize the time I have been given – my 1000 hours need to be spent wisely and intentionally if students are to succeed in my class.

Although I have been excited about teaching for several years now, I still have very little experience leading a class of high school students. It seems to me at this point that there are pressures coming from many different levels, especially in this program. I will be feeling the heat from my professors, my mentor teachers, my students, their parents and others if I do not perform. The biggest challenge that I will face (at least initially) is just learning how to operate professionally and live the working lifestyle of a high school teacher. The potential stress gives me pause, but I am confident that I will be prepared when the time comes.

However, I cannot assume that the mechanics of teaching are going to come easily. I am comfortable working in front of groups or behind a microphone, but I could see myself becoming tempted to use that comfort level as an excuse for exceptional daily preparation. As Kathryn Picanco noted in yesterday’s Educational Psychology lecture, “Education is not common sense. It just doesn’t work that way.”

I tend to do alright academically, but that includes quite a bit of leaning on common sense and using time-saving strategies in order to end up with a decent grade and a semi-reasonable schedule. However, leaning on common sense and taking shortcuts will not cut it for me in the classroom. I have many preconceptions about how education works and what effective teachers do to serve their students, but I wonder how many of those conceptions are inaccurate. If I rely too much on my ‘common sense’ knowledge, I may fall victim to the laziness that plagues so many bad teachers.

Technology in Education (part 3)

MIT Day 5, Technology in Education part 3. Friday was a half-day; one session before lunch and none afterward. This was also the last Friday all summer that we’ll have class, which sounds like a pretty good deal to me. We just used one tool today:

  • Podcasting / Audacity: Audacity is a free audio editing program that enables the user to make podcasts, which are essentially little radio shows. The example we listened to had elementary-school kids giving reports about the science of weather (and some weather jokes). Podcasting is a cool way to do creative end-of-unit projects, much like making videos or tri-fold posters would be.

All in all, this Technology in Education class was pretty cool. We learned about a lot of great tools that I will definitely use in the future if my school is fortunate enough to have them. Some things (like blogs and podcasts) can be done almost anywhere, and I’m planning on trying to find creative ways to use them. Part of our assignment for this class was to write about our “philosophy of technology in education,” as well as some ways we could use the tools we learned about in class. Here are a couple of my ideas that I wrote down:

As an English teacher, integrating technology may not be the easiest path for student work. It will be easier for me to use it in my presentations and to increase my productivity, just because of the way the material needs to be taught. However, if I use as much technology as possible in class presentations and let the students know that the tech is available to them, some will choose to use it when doing their own projects for the class.

As a newspaper staff adviser, it will be much easier to integrate technology into the classroom (especially blogs and podcasts) because it has an obvious connection to the professional world of journalism. Every newspaper has a website, and a great number of those sites have blogs written by reporters or podcasted news updates available for download. I would give a summer blogging assignment to each member of the newspaper staff, and those who do exceptionally well could become ‘blogger –reporters’ on the school paper’s website throughout the year. This would get the staff ready for real-world reporting and a quick news cycle, as well as offering a cool unique feature on the school newspaper’s website.

So, yeah. Tomorrow I start “Classroom Management” and “Advanced Educational Psychology”. While these classes may not be as easy as Technology was, they will certainly be eye-opening. We’re getting down to business!

Technology in Education (part 2)

Okay, so today was Day 4 of MIT and Day 2 of our Technology in Education class. Which means, of course, that I have several more sweet tools to show you. Let’s get down to business:

  • SMART Boards: Oh my goodness, these are the coolest things. Hook up a projector and SMART board to your computer, and suddenly you essentially have a huge tablet PC. You can do so many sweet things with this. Check out the video for some great examples of how to use a SMART board in an elementary class:
  • Inspiration: In this program, you can type an outline and it will automatically get turned into a flowchart. You can also do it the other way around. I made a great map of the characters from Romeo & Juliet and then replaced the default images with pictures of actors that I chose to play the roles of the characters in the play (which, by the way, is a great class activity for understanding Shakespeare).
  • Blogging: The instructor talked about how most school districts require each teacher to have a website with contact information at the bare minimum, although most teachers put more content onto their site. He also showed us Edublogs, a place specifically set up for teachers and students to create blogs for class. Here’s an example of a sixth-grade blog that a teacher set up to record his students’ homework assignments throughout the year. Our instructor also pointed out Blogger, a free blog website which is all well and good. But of course, I now have company loyalty to WordPress. That’s where I think you should go if you aren’t associated with education or using it for a class project.
  • Document Camera: Seeya later, overhead projectors! Document cameras are taking your place. Instead of using transparencies, the document camera digitally projects whatever is placed underneath it onto the screen.

Tomorrow we’ll be finishing up the class (!) by talking about podcasting and Audacity. Also, after class I have my first meeting with my potential mentor teacher over at Mead! Whoa! I’m going to get some sleep now so I can be sharp for that. Happy Friday, everyone!