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Monday, February 26, 2018

#HackLearning Chat Q and A's: Are You an Education Hacker?

What is an education hacker? In a nutshell, an education hacker is an innovative problem solver who finds solutions to problems in education other people do not see. Education hackers are willing to take risks and to push boundaries. They are leaders.

Educator and entrepreneur, Mark Barnes @markbarnes19, is the brainchild behind the Hacking movement. Yes, it is a movement. Mark has published a slew of books addressing ways to hack everything from assessment to homework. Hacking books are toolkits for teachers with practical steps to guide teachers towards innovative problem-solving.

Every Sunday morning educators from around the world come together for 30 minutes to answer three questions around a topic. A guest moderator leads the #hacklearning chat. The fast pace fuels the positive energy created by educators coming together for the purpose of connecting with others and sharing their thoughts and resources around a common topic. Sunday the "hacky topic" was English Learners (ELs). 

As the guest moderator, I was given the freedom to choose a "hacky topic" and then co-wrote questions with Connie Hamilton @conniehamilton, a.k.a. hacker extraordinaire. 

I chose this topic based on "hacks" I have learned as a graduate research associate with a federal grant, ELLevate! I drew from my experiences co-leading a weekly after school book club for bilingual newcomers and co-teaching a summer literacy institute.

The federal grant is a partnership between the university where I attend and a local school district to support teachers in the instruction of adolescent newcomers.

To learn more about the Hacking Movement go to
Chats are posted weekly on Twitter by Hack Learning @hackmylearning. 

Confession Reflection:
  • What perspectives might English Learners have about school and learning? #HackLearning
  • How can monolingual teachers communicate with newcomers little/no English speaking students?
  • What strategies can teachers use to support the learning of ELs?
In case you missed out on Sunday's chat on English Learners, check out my Q's and A's

Monday, January 1, 2018

Ringing in the New Year with My All-Time Top 10 Favorite Confessions and the Lessons I've Learned

I have posted my top 10 favorite posts and the lessons I've learned. If you want to access the post, simply click the title.

10. Secrets from the Crypt

Henry (not his real name) was obsessed with Egyptian history. So when he purchased a Gregg Shorthand manual at Half-Priced books, I assumed Henry thought it was an instructional manual on how to read and write using hiergriphics. Needless to say, Henry got the last laugh!

I learned the importance of letting go of outdated methods of teaching and embracing new literacies.

9. The Butterfly Effect 

The Butterfly Effect was inspired by Stephen King's novel 11/22/63. I was brainstorming a story for my blog when I remembered the events of what was (at the time) the worst day in my teaching career.

I truly believe had it not been for a mommy mouse and a bag of Cheeze Its, I would not have grown as a leader and become a transitional coach and curriculum writer. The hilarious chain of events that resulted in mayhem breaking out in my social skills classroom, keep me laughing to this day.

I learned to fail forward.

 8. Lost in Translation 

What happens with a lesson plan goes very, very wrong? A jolly rancher, lesson plans gone awry and a tenacious student turned a literacy project on its head.

I learned the value of letting go of my perceived "perfect lesson", the crème de la crème literacy project, and focus on matters of the heart.


7. SpongeBob SquarePants to the Rescue!

The blogposts begins..."I'm standing outside the Pearly Gates confronted by parents of a student I once taught and I thought to myself, SpongeBob, you ruined me." To this day, this post evokes so many emotions inside of me.

I learned to guard my tongue until I've learned all the facts.

6. Alien Matters: Keychains, Bobble Heads, and Refrigerator Magnets

My creativity unleashed on this post. Sometimes I read this one and think, where on Earth did I get that idea from? It's fun to read and highlights the amazingness of Edcamps!

I learned....I'm not sure what I learned. I already knew Edcamps are out of this world!

5. The Future is Calling: Are We Listening?

A personality test inspired this post. It seems
 that "futuristic" is my top leadership attribute. While writing this post I explored my beliefs.

I learned the importance of advocating for today's generation of students.

4.  What's a Lugnut? (And of other Pertinent Questions)

What is a lugnut?

A. A powerful fictional character known as a Decepticon
B. A large, rounded nut that fits over a heavy bolt.
C. An object of scorn and ridicule
D. All of the above

The correct answer is all of the above.  It depends on your perspective!

I learned the importance of teaching vocabulary IN context and knowing our students.

3. To My Principal...I Must Confess 

Before posting, I called my principal and confessed to my lie thinking she would be mad. Instead, she started laughing!  I later republished with pictures April 2012. The orginal post was my first and I wasn't sure if anyone would even read it.  Boy, was I wrong!

I learned that I could never work for the CIA. I would break.


There is a tie for #2. I like them both equally.

2A. Summer Slide Is No Walk in the Park

This blogpost tugs at my heart like no other. Summer reading loss (or summer slide) is an epidemic in America. I had spent the summer working alongside a university professor conducting research to help a community center secure donations to keep their program alive.

I learned that there are children in my community who go to bed hungry. Until poverty is addressed in schools, the literacy gap will continue to widen.

2B. The Ghost Plant and other Potentially Fateful Tales

I fear we have created a generation of writers who believe a exemplary rating on a state assessment or perfect score on a rubric define good writing. As a result, creativity is stifled for fear of being wrong. This post exemplifies my experience as a writing teacher.

I learned to look at what a child does right.

And my favorite post of ALL TIME is.....

1. The Importance of Classroom Environment: Lessons from a Colt Named Carl

Carl (the colt) was a stuffed animal I purchased at a Goodwill for a whopping $3.50. But did you know it was a million dollar purchase? More than any pricey curriculum, technology gizmo or gadget, this purchase changed the learning environment of my classroom.

I learned that students learn and thrive when the classroom environment is safe.

Join me as we enter another year of growing and learning from reflection.

Happy New Year!

Tamra Dollar

Confession Reflection:

  • What are the benefits of teacher blogging?

  • Why is it important to reflect on lessons?

  • How can school districts validate the important of teacher blogging? (Credit for PD; documentation on teacher evaluation forms; make time for teachers to blog).


Sunday, December 10, 2017

Heart Maps under Construction: A Lesson on Learning and Relationships

Think about your ideal lesson. Hmmm. What did it look like? Perhaps your lesson became part of your teacher portfolio and put you in the running for Teacher of the Year (TOY) on your campus.

Now think about the lesson that didn't go the way you had planned. How did you feel? Maybe you went home and ate a gallon of your favorite Ben & Jerry's or seriously considered early retirement.

Sadly, I believe teachers often feel shame when a lesson doesn't look like the polished examples on Pinterest. If you think about it, our society thrives on perfection! Student work examples in our curriculum and teacher posts on Twitter are prime examples. To up the ante, district teacher evaluation systems feed into the idea of "product over purpose."

This past summer I helped design and teach a high school summer literacy institute for bilingual newcomers. The class was part of a grant from my university called ELLevate! My co-teacher, Tricia, and I believed the idea of Heart Maps would be a fun and engaging first day lesson. The multimodal design helped level the playing field for students with limited English speaking abilities.

The first day of class, we introduced the Heart Maps by asking "What is special in your life?
Think about the people, places, and memories most important to you."

Next, examples of completed Heart Maps from past classes were shown to students as models. Instructions were clear. Crisp templates and colored pencils were sharpened and ready!

I was surprised when the Heart Maps went unfinished the first day...
         and the second day...
                   and the third day....
                          and the fourth day....
                                                    and on and on and on.

At the end of our summer institute, not ONE Heart Map had been completed!

What happened when a multimodal lesson for newcomers went unfinished? 

1. Relationships were built.

Students in our class were all Latina but came from diverse backgrounds and experiences. I learned that if you were from Venezuela, you spoke a different form of Spanish than if you were from Mexico. Color coding would often be interrupted by a story or memory in a student's heart. Students were engaged in learning and listening to one another.

2. Writers blossomed.

One of the purposes of a Heart Map is to inspire writing. It's so easy to get stuck in this mindset of the "five paragraph essay" or fixated on "writing to the prompt." Instead, students are able to choose a section from their Heart Map when writing reflections.

When students are given voice and choice, writing becomes authentic and relevant to their lives.

 Here are some of the examples from student writing journals:


3. Teachers and students became co-learners.

The Heart Map lesson created a space for students and teachers to become co-learners in the classroom. There is a fixed mindset in classrooms today that the teacher is in control. I've heard it called, "Sage on Stage" which is what many classrooms look like. The teacher lectures, the students take notes, all followed up by a test. 

When a lesson doesn't go as planned, students have a sixth sense and can pick up on teacher insecurity or frustration. Letting go of preconceived ideas of what the lesson should look like invites innovation and creativity into the classroom.

This is when learning begins.

My twitter post! 

Confession Reflection:
  • How would student learning outcomes have been different if a grade was given based on completion of the Heart Map template?
  • Why is it important for campus evaluators to avoid comparisons between teachers based on student work? 
  • Have you ever had a lesson that didn't go as you had planned? How did you feel?
To learn more about the ELLevate! grant visit:

You can learn more about Heart Maps from Georgia Heard

Sunday, November 12, 2017

5 Things Bad Teachers Do Very, Very Well and New Teacher Strategies to Keep Them at Bay!

You are a new teacher and eager to implement the strategies and new literacies you learned as a college student in your education courses. If you're lucky, you have a digital portfolio to show the awesome things you did as a pre-service teacher.

During your interview, you even answer questions to demonstrate your understanding of 21st-century literacies and how important it is for students to be engaged in learning and to have access to technology. But once hired, your dreams and visions are crushed.

It seems that Bad Teachers have mastered the martial art of suffocating your ideas. When you do feel a moment of boldness to speak up during lesson planning, a look or a comment, crush your hopes for being the type of teacher you know you should be.

Do NOT lose heart!

There are teachers (maybe not the vocal ones) who are amazing. Unfortunately, the bad ones are in schools, as well. Bad Teachers are polished and believe what they are doing is right. Sometimes this is affirmed by a "Teacher of the Year (TOY)" nomination or elected as a team leader.

I have listed 5 Bad Teachers and what they do very, very well along with strategies to keep them at bay:

1. Mr. Ima N. Kuntroll: Ultimate Disciplinarian
Bad Teachers run their classrooms with military precision. Desks are in neat rows. You can hear a pin drop. Not only are their classes in perfect order, the Bad Teacher will be quick to point out to the principal (or even a School Board Member or two) how the new, unruly teacher across the hall has let his/her class run amuck.

The Bad Teacher has no tolerance for students talking, moving around, using technology without the constant supervision of the all-seeing eye. Past performance records reflect their "well-run" classroom. Mr. N. Kuntroll prides himself on being the Captain of his Ship!

New teacher strategy: Appeal to Mr. N. Kuntroll by remaining courteous. Ask questions about campus policy. This Bad Teacher will respond to respect and will enjoy talking policy. In the meantime, don't yield to the belief that a "well-run" classroom means students sit quietly in rows. Group desks so that students can collaborate. Stick to your beliefs.

2. Ms. Claire Itty: The Lecturer
The Bad Teacher is able to teach with their eyes closed. Their voice is most often monotone and assumes their students understand every word they're saying.

Strategies, like introducing academic vocabulary before a unit or providing background knowledge, are meaningless endeavors, especially since these tidbits of instruction were part of a prior grades' curriculum.

The Bad Teacher readily accepts the responsibility of teaching the grade-level curriculum. No more. No less. Ms. Claire Itty will be the first to tell you, "It is the student's job to ask questions when they do not understand."

New teacher strategy: During team planning, ask your team to share types of formative assessment to check for understanding. Countering Ms. Clair Itty's belief system with a proactive stance will give you leverage as you plan your lesson. Hopefully, this Bad Teacher will have a change of heart.

3. Mr. Wunsize Fitzall: The Lesson Designer

The Bad Teacher is indubitably gifted in the art of lesson design. He is able to take state standards and seamlessly design a lesson to fit all students regardless of age or ability level.  Special Needs? Gifted and Talented? English Language Learner?

Response to Intervention? No problem! Each of these students will be expected to master the learning material without scaffolding or differentiation.

Mr. Wunsize Fitzall will be the first to tell you, "Our job is to prepare students for the real world. Adults don't get a scaffolded tax return."

New teacher strategy: This is an easy one. Scaffolding has become a mainstream practice and is supported by research. Remember you learned about Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) in your strategies course? Differentiation is also a staple of Response to Intervention (RtI), Individual Education Plans (IEP's) and ways to support English Language Learners (ELLs). Stick to your guns on this one. Unless Mr. WunsizeFitzall changes, he will be "retiring" in the very near future.

Ms. Fave Ortism: The Affirmer
The Bad Teacher is able to recognize the brilliance in her students, in spite, of what other students tell her. She wears the proverbial rose-colored glasses. Be rest assured, when end-of-year award
nominations come out, it will be the student who is: studious, quiet in class, courteous and is able to sit for extended lengths of time without the slightest shift in his/her desk.

On the flip side, The Bad Teacher will be ready, at the drop of a hat, to give zeros in the grade book and points off in an effort to shape the unacceptable behavior of distracted and talkative students. Ms. Fave Ortism recalls with fond memory, "I am able to spot the class pet within the first week of school. It is a pleasure to read and grade every assignment. I never tire of giving this student an A+ +  +."

New teacher strategy: Take my word on this one. Ms. Fave Ortism will never see the error of her ways. Her rose-colored glasses are here to stay. Use this Bad Teacher as a reminder to see the value in EVERY child. A child's ability to sit quietly, or a "reading level" should never define a child. ALL children need and deserve your love and respect.

5. Mr. Smartie: The Know-it-All

Bad Teachers are experts in their subject area. Their students are merely empty containers in need of the teacher's vast expertise to fill their empty minds. Regardless of advancements in technology, the Bad Teacher knows more.

How is this possible? Why they have had more life experience and most likely have a master's or even a doctoral degree in their field of study. This is in no way to trivialize continued education!

However, the Bad Teacher will forever remain the smartest person in the room. Mr. Smartie is quick to raise the point: What will happen when computers break?

New teacher strategy: Mr. Smartie is highly intelligent and has knowledge and insight from years of practice. However, knowledge alone does not make them a good teacher. If that were the case, Google, should replace teachers. No! Excellent teachers relate to and listen to their students. Explore new concepts about teaching and learning such as Understanding by Design, (UBD), Genius Hour, or Project-based learning (PBL). Edcamps will also inspire you!

NEW TEACHERS: Do NOT LOSE HEART! There are Good GREAT TEACHERS like Ms. Cher Moore, Mr. Ed Kamp, and Mr. Yewcan Dewitt in classrooms. Seek them out.

In the meantime, do what you know is BEST for kids. Remember, you were hired for a reason. Stay the course!

I highly recommend Todd Whitaker's book: Shifting the Monkey: The Art of Protecting Good People from Liars, Criers, and other Slackers.

Confession Reflection:

  • What are some ways instructional coaches and administrators can support new teachers?
  • How can new teachers be empowered to take risks and to implement new and innovative ideas?
  • What are the dangers of rewarding bad teachers (TOY nominations, department chair, service on campus committees)? What message does this send to new teachers?
  • Why is it important for teachers like Mr. Wunsize Fitzall or Mr. Smartie to engage in ongoing professional development?
Clip from Ferris Bueller's Day Off: Anyone, Anyone?

Monday, October 9, 2017

NaNoWriMo: A Teacher's Best Kept Secret to Inspire Young Writers!

I confess to experiencing a slump every October. While I am no longer in the classroom, I don't think I'll ever forget the weariness that set in this time of year. The beginning of year hype, drummed up by the convocation keynote and the "thumbs-up, go-get 'em" attitude from administrators, no longer inspired me.

One year, I secretly downloaded a free "Count Down App" on my Iphone. (I hang my head in shame). I indulged in watching the clock countdown to the last day of school.

In 2011, I was assigned to teach two elective creative writing classes. I looked forward to August and September because of the synergy coursing through my students' veins. New clothes, back-to-school pep rallies, kept learning engaging. October was ripe for writing scary stories and a dead-poet unit.

By November 1st, my students were experiencing sugar withdrawals from eating excessive amounts of Halloween candy. Major store chains began selling Christmas trees; giving my students the illusion that winter break had begun.

As a result, border-line panic hit. How could I hold my students' interests? Afterall, this was an elective!

An ELAR teacher on my campus learned about NaNoWriMo and passed along the word. Seriously, it was like manna from heaven!

What is NaNoWriMo YWP? NaNoWriMo YWP stands for National Novel Writer's Month Young Writer's Project. The goal for students is to plan and write a novel between November 1st and 11:59 PM on the last day of November.

This short video will allow you to see the benefits of the NaNoWriMo project.

I can tell you first-hand how the NaNoWriMo experience transformed my classroom and created pathways to authentic student learning and engagement.

In addition to the benefits expressed in the posted video, here are three additional ways this project transformed my classroom.

1. NaNoWriMo became a path to student engagement and creative written expression.

I always looked forward to introducing the lesson: "You are going to write a novel." Some students looked terrified at the novel-writing challenge, but by the time November 1st arrived, they were anxious to start their stories.

This is because NaNoWriMo has abundant resources to support students and teachers. For example, mid-October, I began integrating the Writer's Notebook into daily lessons. (See NaNoWriMo resource link here: Using a class account, my students were able to download and save a user-friendly file to a flashdrive or to their student document file. Students could complete self-paced lessons on plot mapping, character development, etc.

Students used Google docs to draft and write their stories. This allowed me to watch their novels in progress! I discovered Twilight fanfiction, zombie apocalypse stories, tragic romance dramas, adolescent underdog sagas, and coming-of-age stories. My students begged to keep writing to the last minute of class!

8th grade students write their novels using Google docs

6th grade students brainstorm topics for their novel
2. NaNoWriMo became a path to collaborative learning.

Collaboration is a future-ready skill our students will need to succeed in their careers. If you doubt this, think of ONE job where collaboration is not needed. Hmmm.

However, our educational system is designed to privilege isolated learning often under the guise of "individualization."  Walk down the halls of your school. Are desks in rows? Are students required to finish their homework alone? Would these student supporting student interactions outside of school be considered a form of cheating?

NaNoWriMo breaks down invisible barriers and allows students to become resources to one another.

For example, my students became collaborators in their writing. They would share their drafts with each other to find ways to develop a character or to resolve a problem in their story. Some students were natural born editors and helped others with the conventions of writing. Some students were especially creative and saw places where a plot twist could enhance a scene.

As my role shifted from being a "sage on stage" to a facilitator of student learning, natural relationships developed.

6th graders share drafts and get feedback from peers

3. NaNoWriMo became a path to authentic publication.

What if students could submit and have a completed novel published AND receive free copies of their book? I know. I didn't believe it either...until Melanie.

Melanie was a newcomer and her first language was Mandarin. She was also an avid reader. Think about the student who sits alone at lunch and reads or walks down the hall with their nose in a book, well, that was Melanie.

Melanie with her published novel
When I introduced my students to the  NaNoWriMo writing project, Melanie seemed relieved. Her writer's notebook replaced her nose-in-book lunch periods. She began coming to my room after school to talk about her NaNoWriMo draft.  Melanie shared her ideas and I was able to affirm her. She didn't need my ideas, Melanie needed to know that the answers were inside of her.

When the NaNoWriMo window closed, Melanie continued editing her novel. She had read the fine print on the NaNoWriMo YWP site. Little did I know that she had spent the winter break polishing and submitted a fifteen chapter novel, until she handed me an autographed copy! Inside the cover she had written:

Thank you, thank you, thank you. I can't say that enough. And, please, please, please wherever you read this, remember that you made half of it.
My heart felt thanks,

Melanie (last name omitted)

I recently reconnected with Melanie this fall. She is now a student at a Texas University on a full scholarship. While I am not able to say with conviction NaNoWriMo was the turning point in her life, I do believe she was given the confidence boost she needed.

Make this November part of your classroom success story by taking the first flying leap today!

Confession Reflection:

  • What are some contributing factors to teacher post-convocation stress? How might unconventional projects like NaNoWriMo alleviate stress?
  • What ELAR/English Common Core or state standards (TEKS)  are supported by projects like NaNoWriMo?
  • How would projects like NaNoWriMo support student agency?
  • Do you know of an educator who would benefit from the NaNoWriMo project? If so, spread the word!
To learn more about NaNoWriMo Young Writer's Project visit their website at:

This link will connect you to step-by-step instructions on how to sign up, set up your virtual classroom,  how to enroll your students, and resources to get your students started:

Sunday, September 3, 2017

How to Not Beat a Dead Horse when the Sky Continuously Rains Cats and Dogs (and other Worn-out Phrases)

Does your head spin after reading four out of five essays in which a student claims they are able to "run as fast as a cheetah"? Does the phrase "It's raining cats and dogs" play in your head like a broken record? Do you feel like pulling your hair out when you hear similar expressions?

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, this blog may be right up your alley.

Here are five insights from my own teaching experience that will help you avoid beating a dead horse and keep learning fun and relevant.

1. Add sparkle to creative writing experiences.

At the beginning of the year, I had my creative writing students brainstorm a list their favorite expressions, namely idioms, on individual strips of paper. The idioms were added to the mix of other student created prompts and placed in a shoe box dubbed our class "prompt generator".

It never failed for the worn-out expression "raining cats and dogs" to make the list. The day the prompt was selected, I felt a twitch forming in my left eye. Lo and behold, one of my students, Jared (not his real name) did something so creative!

He fused the prompt with a previous prompt and drafted a story titled: The Day it Rained Cats and Dogs was the Day the Animals Escaped from the Zoo! Jared collaborated with a first grade classroom who then illustrated the story! Jared shared his story with his elementary illustrators on World Read-Aloud Day using Skype.

2. Ditch idioms from the stone-age and teach in context. 

Unless you've been hiding under a rock, pop artists like Taylor Swift's mega-hit, Shake it Off, or Justin Timberlake's Can't Stop the Feeling contain a plethora of figurative language expressions. If you're in need of a fun and relevant activity, I suggest creating a Scavenger Hunt, old school style, and have students work in teams to find these jewels tucked away in their favorite songs.

Another activity is to have students collect phrases that have emerged in their lifetime. I had a middle schooler explain to me what a person meant when they used the expression, I can't unsee it. Online Memes are also popular for holding modern day phrases.

During book clubs or when teaching poetry, my students would play "I spy". During read-alouds, my students knew to be listening for figurative language expressions. We would add these expressions to others on a word wall. The expressions had meaning and context and students were able to access and include these phrases in their own writing.

3. Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

One year I had my middle school students work in small groups to  investigate the origins of an expression or develop their own theories. Idioms such as when pigs fly and don't let the cat out of the bag have fascinating histories!

I got the idea after an art student gave me a coffee mug he had designed in art class that showed a pig flying. It was one of my favorite mugs, until he shared the gruesome story involving pigs leaping to escape from being slaughtered!

I began challenging my students to investigate the history of idioms. They discovered that some of our common figurative expressions date back as far as 397 A.D. If my students were unable to find the origin of a expression, they were encouraged to generate a hypothesis. It proved to be a productive way to get my students researching and reporting their findings.

Hint: I found that my middle schoolers (especially boys who were gamers and liked gore) would hit the pavement running if I said something to the effect, "Be careful sharing these stories with others who have a weak stomach."

4. Step out-of-the-box and create opportunities to celebrate diversity.

Students who come to us from different cultures have their own figurative language expressions. I suggest giving students who come to our school from other countries, the opportunity to share expressions unique to their culture (and in their first language).

This is an awesome way to celebrate our differences and learn from one another.

Here is an example. Create a template that include these questions:
1. What is the saying?
2. What language or dialect?
3. What is the literal English translation?
4. Is the saying a proverb? If so, what is the lesson?

A fun extension activity is to play pictionary or heads-up and include the expressions.

5. Keep an open mind to new interpretations.

One year I was assigned a social skills class for middle school students on the autism spectrum. My students took words and phrases literally which presented unique challenges. One of my students, Kristy (not her real name) was especially puzzled by the idiom "it's raining cats and dogs."

Kristy showed me a picture she had drawn of a landscape  with soft, squiggly lines falling from the sky.

I thought, "I've really blown this lesson!"

I stopped and asked Kristy to describe her drawing.

She pointed to the squiggly lines and explained matter-of-factly, "Oh, instead of raining cats and dogs...I changed it to know, just in case it's only sprinkling."

Have a great 2017-2018 school year and go break a leg!

Confession Reflection:
  • How does figurative language enrich our oral and written language? How are these expressions reflective of  history and diverse cultures?
  • Why would it be important to teach these expressions in context rather than in isolation? (Worksheets, multiple choice, matching activities).
  • Are there some figurative language expressions that we should abandon? Why or why not?
  • How many idioms can you spot in this blog? 
figurative language (n.) language that uses words or expressions with a meaning that is different from the literal interpretation.  Idioms are under the umbrella of figurative language and include English colloquials as "hold your tongue" or "easy as pie."

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Future is Calling: Are We Listening?

I confess that I think about the future probably more than most people. It may have been predestined. 

I was born the same year the future-themed, Seattle World's Fair opened and I was a member of the Race to Space generation.

Growing up in Renton, Washington, also had its benefits. I can vividly remember looking up at the Space Needle and wondering if the top part could fly into space. (Afterall, it was called the "Space" Needle). I stepped into an elevator that beamed me and my family up to the top of the Space Needle at unimaginable speed. Standing on the outer balcony, the floor below me rotated too slowly for me to feel, and yet the Seattle skyline changed every few minutes. 

I entered kindergarten in 1967 at the height of the Race to Space years. The school I attended was an experimental school funded by Science. Unlike traditional schools that had desks in rows and subjects segregated by topic, my school was round and had walls between “classes” that open in the day to allow my class to move to different stations to be taught by different teachers. 

Reading, math and writing revolved around science. Since Renton, Washington was the hub of aerospace engineering, we frequently had visits from astrophysicist and engineers from the nearby Boeing Plant.

I remember learning by experience rather than text books. I learned how heat molecules were light in weight and density by pouring hot water dyed with red food coloring into a tank filled with ice-cold water and watching the red dye rise to the top. I remember watching cold water with blue ink drop to the bottom of the tank. Instead of reading and writing about Dick and Jane, I read and wrote about famous scientist like Ben Franklin. 

Learning was meaningful and relevant to our school mission: Land a man on the moon before the Russians.  

Sadly, the funding for my school went away after the moon landing and I experienced a different type of learning where the end goal was to find the correct answer. 

Correctness was privileged over wonderment. 

The mysteries of space were replaced with over-priced text books, end of chapter questions that required me to define ambiguous vocabulary terms detached from meaningful experience.

I demonstrated my understanding by using a number two pencil to correctly “bubble” an option of a, b, c, or d, or all of the above. 

I spent hours upon hours tracing letters of the alphabet on ditto pages (now called worksheets). In middle school, English Language Arts required me to progress through "SRA" reading passages.

I learned how to be good at school. I lost my joy of learning.

Today, I fear that our students are being groomed as early as Kindergarten to privilege assessment over learning. Reading and writing are associated with levels, lexiles, preciseness, and scores. 

Our learners are immersed in acronyms that have flooded our education system and have become a language of its own: IEP, RtI, STAAR, CBS, CAS, ELPS, and so on.

I believe it is our moral obligation to move beyond prescriptive methods of teaching that have held our learners (and teachers) hostage. Classrooms should no longer resemble the classroom of the twentieth century. It's time to move beyond the known, and free our learners to explore the unknown!

The future is calling, but are we listening?

Confession Reflection:
  • What are some ways we can equip students with future-ready skills in order to be successful in the workforce of tomorrow? 
  • Does your curriculum make room for 22nd-century skills to be taught and practiced? i.e. entrepreneurship, experience with digital tools, second language acquisition.
  • How can instructional coaches and administrators support resistant teachers to embrace a growth mindset without shaming or blaming?