Sunday, April 27, 2014

Serving Others Still A Constant In The Changing World of Education

      With so much changing and evolving daily in education, as well as the world as a whole, we are naturally also looking for the constants.  What are things that will seemingly always be relevant to the success of those working in and experiencing EDUCATION?
     I was recently reminded of one of those constants.  It’s really one of the foundational themes for those that work in education.   This is the idea that we are SERVANTS.  Our mission, our passion, our purpose and our calling have to be based on the overall idea of serving others.  Education is a service-oriented endeavor.
     With educators, or anyone working in education, this appears to be the simple dividing line.  Educators and employees of educational institutions who view themselves as serving others tend to be more successful, happy, respected and fulfilled.  Those that often get in trouble (moral or legal indiscretions), or whom have large amounts of dissatisfaction, tend to be those that have forgotten whom they serve, or never viewed their role that way to begin with at all.

    Many educators had some sort of calling to work in this unique field.  There was something about helping and supporting young people, along with trying to make the world a better place that was part of the foundational motivation in becoming an educator.  We often see those that don’t like their jobs or even complain about their jobs in education are also those that may have again either lost the connection to this calling or never had it in the first place.
     There are so many things to improve in education.  And educators need to continue to work to lead those necessary improvements.  However, better curriculum, instruction, technology, support, finances, ideas, programs and more, won’t have the necessary impact unless we also have the commitment to serving others. 
      And this applies to all who work in education.  In my 24-plus years, I have witnessed that some of our best servants, role models and those with a calling, are not only the teachers or those charged with education, but all of the support personnel as well.  I have worked at many school sites and have noticed that students depend on the modeling, counseling, support and personal connections from those in all of the “classified” positions as well.  That’s right.  Our secretaries, maintenance people and food service individuals are not only important to the functioning of schools, but to the heart as well. 
    Notice which of these support personnel are happy, satisfied, successful, liked by students and staff.  They are the ones that approach their positions from the service mentality.  Regardless of their daily student contact, they realize that they are public servants who do serve students, staff, parents and community members. 

      Again, they are working and performing for a higher purpose.  They see themselves as servants and want to make the lives of those around them better.  They do this by serving – modeling, volunteering, comforting, supporting, reaching out, helping and generally going above and beyond their required duties.  Why?  Because they get it.  They know that their role is to help in the success of others.  And ironically, they seem to be the ones that are the most successful themselves.
      Isn’t this what educators should be doing too?  Should we not always be invested in the success of others?  If educators have the calling to serve others and work towards their success, will they go wrong?
    Anyone who works in the public or private sector will have conflicts, critics or even non-supporters.  However, if we are servants who continue to reflect on our original calling and purpose, I imagine that we will also have lots of support, success and happiness.
    Anyone who works in schools will have some rough days and times and may even question things related to their role, purpose or success.  But the solution lies in reflecting and finding the path back to the original motivation for wanting to work in education.  When it’s all said and done, it’s the best job in the world because WE GET TO SERVE OTHERS everyday!!!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

It's Simple....Make School More Real

      A number of years ago, a science teacher colleague of mine asked an elegantly direct, but poignant question.  He said, “Why can’t all school be more like sports and performing arts?”
      At first, I thought he was just referring to the engagement aspects.  In addition to those huge advantages, he was also referring to assessment aspect. 
Why did sports and performing arts work so well for so many students?  The answer is that they were REAL. 
     Yes, they had to practice or rehearse, but there was the game or the performance.  There was a real assessment in the end.  The result of the game, concert, show, production or performance was understood by all; including participants and spectators.  That’s right, the assessment was not only REAL, but it was public.  And being public makes it more REAL right?

     So, are sports and performing arts the only areas in school that are traditionally REAL?   No, but they are probably the most universal and easily recognizable.  But think about other areas in our schools that have always been popular with students and why they are (hint:  REAL).
     What about the visual arts?  Yes, they are typically more REAL than much of school. After a brief period of instruction on technique and then some guided practice, there is a finished product.  And whether the art is brilliant or average, it’s most certainly REAL.  It’s public.  It gets hung up in the classroom or maybe beyond the classroom.  Maybe there is an art show.  Maybe there is an art contest.


     What about shop classes, Ag classes and others?  REAL right?  Why is FFA the largest high school leadership organization in the nation?  Again, it’s all about REAL.  They raise REAL animals, travel to REAL colleges and place, compete in REAL contests and enjoy large professional networks of REAL people.
     As a former journalism instructor and publications advisor (newspaper and yearbook), I also experienced the value of REAL first-hand.  My students had a finished product that again was public.  It was judged or valued by others, got reactions (positive or negative) from others and was even purchased.  They could potentially enter contests, change public opinion, educate others, and advance a particular cause and more.

     Let’s take it another step.  Most teachers should be able to indentify with these scenarios:  Why would students often want to do an errand for a teacher vs. an in-class assignment? And why would some students, believe it or not, rather clean the campus vs. doing some ‘academic’ work? 
     It’s simple.  It’s because these things are REAL.  That’s right.  Think about it.  Students like to do things that matter no matter how seemingly simple or small they are.  They want to see immediate results for their efforts.  They want to see a difference in something based on their individual efforts, work or time.
      Recently, I was reminded of this first-hand again.  A business class at my school launched what seemed to be a simple business project involving two classes competing who could have the most successful cookie company.  They each launched similar products of the cookie recipe in the jar model.  The idea was not new and the product was certainly not the most sophisticated idea they could have conceived.  But why was it wildly successful?  That’s right again.  It was REAL. It was something that they could complete in a timely manner and have to quickly go public.  Before too long, they were in the throws or real-world experiences of marketing, advertising, production, competition, sales and more.  All of the class member were suddenly engaged and involved. 

     So, what can we learn from the lessons of REAL and apply to what all students need and want in their educational experiences? How do we make traditional academics more REAL?
     Well, isn’t that what the STEM or STEAM movements are all about?  They are trying to get students to make things, create things or solve things that are relevant and exist in the world – REAL.    
     Why is the Maker movement so alive?  Again, it’s REAL.  People, young and old alike, are realizing they can take their ideas and do something REAL.  And there are REAL results.  Whether the results are feedback, financial gain, expanding social networks, fun, etc., they are certainly REAL. 

      How can we take these to our traditional academic subjects?  What about history as an example?  What if instead of just studying our wars and conflicts, the labor movement, women’s rights, civil rights as a few examples, we had our students interviewing actual participants or witnesses to any of these historical topics and produce documentaries?  Don’t we see these documentaries on cable TV all of the time? That is what history is now.  We need to model that in school.  Heck, they can take these documentaries and share them, publish them, enter them in contests and even try to sell them to the cable shows or networks.
     What about English?  That’s easy.  Instead of just studying famous writers, let’s try to make all of our students famous writers.  That’s the simple twist.  Yes, it’s about doing/experiencing vs. just studying, but it’s also about maximizing the individual application and possibilities.  Our technology and global networks now allow and encourage the individual voice and unlimited opportunities for all to be published.  Why are blogging, social media and other digital outlets so important to be used by our students in school?  Again it’s so simple – it’s what the REAL world is doing. 

     What about Science?  Labs in our science classes have always had the right idea.  They were hands-on and students could see and experience the results.  But we have to go beyond that now.  We have to go beyond jellybeans and pennies or other simulations.  We need to move to real experiments and labs where we are attempting to solve REAL world problems and challenges.  With all of the needs and challenges we have related to our environment, food, water, air, climate, animal species and more, we’ll never be short of relevant and current challenges facing us that our high school students could address in science classes.  Not only will it be REAL, but also they might be the ones to actually solve any of these current and future problems or challenges.

     Finally, let us realize the truth.  The idea of making things in school more REAL is not just about engagement and relevance.  It’s ultimately about advancing the success of all of our students and making them all capable of competing in the new global market place.   If we are able to transform educational into REAL, we’ll actually take academics to a higher level where individuals are truly thinking at unprecedented levels.  Simple?  Maybe not.  Obvious?  I hope so.  Necessary?  Most certainly.  So, get REAL and keep it REAL.

(photos courtesy of Minarets High School)

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Students Have Only Gotten Better, Not Worse - We Should Quit Blaming Them

    As an educator, it has always bothered me when another educator makes blanket negative or critical proclamations along the lines of “students are just lazier than when we were in school” or “students are not interested in learning or working.” 
     Indeed, I have also been bothered when people from one generation make fun of a younger one just because things are different or have changed.  As an example, the older generation is always disgusted with the younger generation’s music, dancing, clothing styles and more.  This is normal and predictable.
    But when it comes to education, these types of statements or ways of thinking are more damaging and dangerous.  Teachers should know better. Are students often lazy, unmotivated, uninterested, disengaged and even seemingly apathetic?  Sure, they are.  Were we not the same when we were students?  If one’s memory is lost, then let me reassure you that we all were lazy, unmotivated, uninterested, disengaged and even seemingly apathetic at one time or another. 
     First, isn’t our primary job as educators to motivate, engage and facilitate interest in learning with our students?  Some teachers still expect all students to arrive this way all day everyday in their classes. 
     Second, isn’t this similar to what happens to older people when they put down younger people for their music, dancing or dress?  Our perception has changed.  We’re forgetting that we, as students, were really the same in general.

     It took those special and passionate teachers to change that.
     But in addition to having to be reminded of our primary roles as educators, as well as being aware of the natural trickery of our own memory/perception challenges, we also need to show and share with one another the truth. 
    The truth is that today’s students are performing and producing at higher levels in so many areas beyond what their predecessors accomplished.
   There are thousands of teens worldwide who have started their own businesses in the global economy using the Internet and other tools.  Regardless of the technology making it possible, my generation or others did not have these young entrepreneurs launching companies and products that they created.
    When I was in high school, I do not recall anyone doing much volunteer or service work.  And certainly, no high schooler was organizing service projects for others to participate in for worthy causes.  In my various positions in schools over the last 15 years, I have seen students organize, lead and facilitate professional level service projects that not only benefitted their campuses but their global communities. 

    These includes things like blood drives, benefit fashion shows, special Olympics and events for special needs students, diversity and tolerance events and programs, full blown benefit concerts and multimedia shows and so much more.   They are partnering with off campus professional service and non-profit organizations at unprecedented level.
    In terms of documented academic progress based on standardized tests, data supports too that students are more successful and productive that before.  According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress and their annual The Nation’s Report Card:  Trends in Academic Progress, there have been many gains from students over the years.
     9 and 13-year-olds are outperforming their 1970’s counterparts.  Indeed, students scored higher in reading and math.  In reading, these groups improved at every level, so even the lowest-performing kids now are ahead of the lowest-performing kids then. In fact, kids in the low and middle range showed the greatest gains.
   Today's high school students are taking more math and science courses and more are going straight to college after graduation than their peers from a generation ago. That's the finding of "The Condition of Education 2012" a report from the National Center of Educational Statistics, which covers all aspects of education, from preschool through college.

    According this report, as of 1990, only 49 percent of high school graduates had taken chemistry and only 21 percent had taken physics. But, by 2009, the number of high school graduates with a chemistry class on their transcript had jumped to 70 percent, and 36 had taken physics. Most encouraging of all, in 2009, 30 percent of high school graduates had taken biology, chemistry, and physics in high school, up from only 19 percent taking all three in 1990.
     There was also a slight increase when it came to advanced math classes. In 1990, only 7 percent of grads had taken a calculus class, and a mere 1 percent had taken statistics. By 2009, 16 percent of seniors had taken calculus and 11 percent had taken statistics. The rigorous coursework is helping to ensure that today's students are prepared to go to college immediately after graduation. In 1979, only 49 percent of students headed to either a two-year or four-year college right after high school, but that jumped to a high of 70 percent in 2009.
     But beyond all of this data, it should be obvious that today’s students are producing more and performing at higher levels.   They are using technology and resources at unprecedented professional levels consistent with their adult counterparts.  They are starting their own businesses, service projects and more.  They are often assisting or co-facilitating in classes and teaching one another.  They are taking college classes in high school.  They are learning at home and on their own continually.  They are asked to do more, compete at higher levels and have higher expectations from others.
     As a nation, our educational, as well as our social and economic challenges, are daunting and significant to say the least.  We have lots of re-thinking and innovation to do in order to be truly successful in this rapidly changing global economy.  I certainly don’t have all of the answers.  But I do know that blaming the students is not one of them. 

(photos courtesy of Buchanan High School, Minarets High School and Foter)