2012 in review… thank you.

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner can carry about 250 passengers. This blog was viewed about 1,300 times in 2012. If it were a Dreamliner, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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What 2012 Has Taught Me #4 – The Politics of Education

Photo Credit: Flickr user "DonkeyHotey" - Used under creative commons

Photo Credit: Flickr user “DonkeyHotey” – Used under creative commons

 

I’ll start here: 2012 has taught me that there is no political flagship that is holding a monopoly on the truth.

 

“Liberals” and “Conservatives” have been fighting for as long as I can remember in Michigan over the politics of education. “Liberals” and their unions promote themselves as the defenders of education. “Conservatives” (like our current Governer Rick Snyder) promote themselves as the reformers of education. Then come in all the other pieces: charter schools, state-mandate curricula, retirement and benefits, data, graduation rates, standardized testing… blah, blah, blah. “Conservatives” say one thing. “Liberals” say another thing.

It used to matter a lot to me, like… a lot. In general, I am a “conservative” thinker. I believe in fiscal responsibility, but I know a lot of “liberals” who believe in that, too. I believe in the dignity of all human beings, which is the basis for my anti-abortion beliefs and my skepticism over the death penalty, but I know “liberals” who believe in that, too. I believe we should seriously reduce our military presence around the world. I know a lot of “liberals” who believe that, too.

My masters class this semester was taught by an educator who introduced himself as “the most radical professor in the department.” And in his extreme “liberalism” he showed us video after video of lecturers and speakers who supported his “radical” ideas of supporting lower classes, promoting racial equality, and progressively educating in ways that support all students and give opportunities for social advancement.

Speaker after speaker. Speech after speech. Lecture after lecture. Talking about the dignity of all human beings. The talent that exists in underrepresented populations. The methods and means for effectively educating them. The results that demonstrate the effectiveness. Presented as though those beliefs were “liberal.”

And here I sat: A “conservative” mostly agreeing with all of it. The only part that I disagreed with was the part about those being “liberal” ideas. They didn’t sound like it to me. I knew “liberals”. I also knew “conservatives”. The respect for human dignity at all levels of human life from the super talented and successful to the severely disabled, from the oldest people to the very youngest people (so young they still needed to live inside the womb for a while longer) seemed to be an idea that existed among both “conservatives” and “liberals” and also was willing to be sacrificed by the most politically powerful “liberals” and “conservatives.”

So, 2012 has taught me that the “liberal” and “conservative” labels are as harmful as they are misunderstood. Calling someone a “conservative” means a lot to people who fancy themselves “liberals” because they need an enemy. The same is true for “conservatives” who label someone a “liberal.” The labels work well when the desire is to place blame.

I don’t know what I am anymore because I don’t know what those labels mean anymore. The more time that we spend working to define those words, the more time we waste that could be better spent solving problems. Good education isn’t “conservative” or “liberal.” Once again, there is no political flagship that is holding a monopoly on the truth. 2012 has taught me that there isn’t much value in pretending that it does.

What 2012 Has Taught Me #3 – Inexact Science

Dan Meyer’s work is very well well-edited and professional. For example:

[anyqs] Double Coke from Dan Meyer on Vimeo.

Dr. James Tanton’s work is very complete, well-organized, and layered. For example:

I’m not convinced my work belongs on the same screen. For example:

2012 has taught me that it might not matter.
Certainly well-edited work is better, but should lack of time prohibit me from trying to engage my students with a video?

My expertise is nowhere near Dr. Tanton’s, but does that mean that I have nothing to offer?

Sure, I could borrow videos, and I do, but what kind of example am I being if I never offer any of my own creations for the community to hone? Plus, the students enjoy hearing the stories of how I thought of ideas and how I made the video.

2012 has taught me that there is value in the effort, because it isn’t just about the students learning, but I have much to learn as well.

What 2012 Has Taught Me #2 – Be As Children

An elf made from triangles

An elf made from triangles

Sir Ken Robinson has effected my teaching in a major way. In 2012, I got a chance to read Robinson’s Out of Our Minds, which is an wonderfully readable discussion on the historical background for our modern education system and how it is forcing students into an overly-left-brained way of thinking. It also provides some fantastic advice and some examples of how changing the paradigms can lead to fantastic growth.

This year, we decided to put some of Sir Ken’s advice into play. In previous years, when it was time to study triangles we would start by talking about the different classifications of triangles. Then onto theorems and then proofs. All the while, the only triangles the students were looking at where pictures out of the textbook. The problems involved writing equations and solving for variables.

This year, we started triangles by having them make triangle art. They cut out a triangle (or a few), protractor-measure the angles, ruler-measure the side lengths. Then they posted them up. We gallery-walked around an recorded 15 different measurements and then discussed.

We had powerful discussions around questions like if all you knew was a triangles angle measures, could you tell what kind of triangle it was? What is the deal with triangles who angle measures don’t add up to 180 degrees?

So, what accounted for the change? I think that there is a huge rush to make our classes academic. As if that were a badge of honor. I think math teachers fall prey to this temptation more than most (although I don’t have a ton of data on that). But most of our students aren’t academic in the sense that we are thinking. Academic, to most, evokes this image of someone who appreciates the value of reading dry texts, preparing for tests, and doing homework. It isn’t necessarily that they enjoy it, although they might. But they understand the value of it all.

2012 has taught me that my students don’t appreciate the value of things like textbooks, homework, and notebooks. So, what is my task? To help them to appreciate the value of those things? Or to help them to learn mathematics. I’ve traded out “academic” for “engaged” and “obedient” for “creative.” They are willing to take ownership of the class, which, of course makes class tougher to control at times, but that’s an adjustment I have to make.

2012 has taught me that we shouldn’t be in any hurry to grow these kids up. Let them cut with scissors and create with construction paper. Let them write their thoughts instead of writing proofs.  There is value in managing the experience of the learner (an idea I stole from a very good post from a math teacher from Chicago). It isn’t about making everything fluffy and fun, but it is about designing a class they’ll engage in. Sure, it probably isn’t as sophisticated or academic, but the students are willing. The students are engaging.

Indeed, the students are learning.

What 2012 Has Taught Me #1 – Public Opinion

I teach in Michigan where “right-to-work” is brand new. It hasn’t even taken effect yet, that’s how new it is. Before that, the public education sector has undergone many changes to the retirement system, laws capping benefits, curriculum overhauls complete with new standardized tests, etc. The transitions are swift and seem to be ongoing.

The opinions on this are as diverse as they are extreme. From the left, it’s called “attack.” From the right, it’s called “reform.” Whatever you call it, it seems like everyone and their mother has an idea of how I should do my job, what my students ought to look like when I’m done, and how I should get compensated for the time I take to do it.

It also seems like an awful lot of educators are getting very caught up on all that attention. The fact that so much is being made of what is wrong with public education is distracting to many. At times, it is distracting to me. But 2012 has taught me this:

The job of a teacher is not to sway public opinion. In fact, it is time we stop being surprised how the public views us. It isn’t new. It isn’t even a problem just here in America. Shoot… scrutinizing society’s educators isn’t even new in this millennium.

Sometime in the 6th decade after the birth of Christ, a Jerusalem man who came to be called “James the Just” wrote a treatise after the stoning of his friend, a Christian deacon named Stephen. In his treatise, James the Just writes:

My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.

Translation: Be cautious in becoming a teacher. You will be held to a higher standard. You will be scrutinized for more of your actions. If you can’t handle that, teaching isn’t your calling.

(By the way, that quote was taken from the opening of chapter 3 from The New Testament Book of James. You can read about his friend Stephen in the 7th and 8th chapters of the New Testament Book of Acts, if you’d like.)

I can remember during my undergraduate studies in the college of education being told about the nobility of teaching, the challenge of teaching, the skill of teaching, and so forth. No one was preparing the students for scrutiny of teaching. A scrutiny that isn’t new. A scrutiny that shouldn’t be surprising. This is the way of it.

I do not believe that people simply do not like teachers. But we have all been taught. We all have experience in this field. Everyone can tell you with the utmost conviction a favorite teacher and a teacher who wasn’t fit to park in the parking lot. In reality, the favorite teacher might have been a dreadful educator and the hated teacher may have been very skilled and successful.

When the entire society has the means to form an opinion, the scrutiny will be intense.

2012 has taught me that there is no sense fretting over it. The more I fret over it, the more energy I am devoting to worry that won’t make me better at my work. Because if I am trying to stop something that was being commented on matter-of-factly almost two millennia ago, it doesn’t seem like I’m going to have much luck in changing it.

What 2012 Has Taught Me: A multi-part series

A trip to MSU Gardens in East Lansing

A trip to MSU Gardens in East Lansing

2012 has been a very good year.

My son was born. My daughter turned 4. I turned 30. So did my wife.

I also feel like I am establishing an identity in my work. I’m an educator. This is my work. This is the work God’s given me. I can’t say whether or not I’m any good at it. There are others whose work is to evaluate me. My work is to educate young people.

I’ve been at this seven years, which isn’t very long. But thanks to the community of people I work with and my social community, who is largely made up of educators,  I am beginning to understand what I believe about education. My professors at Western Michigan have played a large role in that as well. Also, the online community that is sharing, challenging, and discussing has given me lots of ideas to bounce around.

The point of this multi-part series is to take some time to offer to the community my reflections on where these last twelve months have brought me. I have learned the power of reflection and I will close the year with that. There is also a risk that I will soapbox at times. I apologize in advance. I am still making sense of the lessons that 2012 has provided me. You can help me with that.

 

Thanks everyone for a great year. I wish you the very best during the holiday season and to quote the legendary Garrison Keillor:

Be well. Do good work. And keep in touch.