Looking for a change, one (way) over 50 soon to be former educator.

I had intended my first post in a while to be about my experiences at the recent Microsoft Partners in Learning US Forum but today I hit the wall.  Imagine hitting a wall the week before the start of classes.  I didn’t hit the wall because of my students; no they have been awesome and have worked tirelessly all summer on new and difficult projects. I didn’t hit the wall because I was tired and still suffering jet lag and I didn’t hit the wall because I don’t know what to do next with my students.  That isn’t a problem as I have a OneNote notebook filled with ideas (that I may soon be giving away).

No, I was ready to retire on the spot today because of the bane of effective teaching everywhere… the administration.  Let me explain. Yesterday when I returned after my week in Redmond I was blindsided by one of my colleagues who told me that he had taken a job at a different school. Well, this person was the district assigned technician who is supposed to oversee the regular break/fix of the traditional high school’s technology.  My students work with him and assist him in his position and also help by creating OS images to deploy, taking care of networking issues, and creating applications that can better the life of everybody on campus.  I thought, “great now my students and I are going to have 10 times the amount of work in a week.”  and sat down to start plotting a strategy to make a hectic opening of school work. Then this morning, I was told, in no uncertain terms, that I was the cause of this person leaving.  The bearer of these glad tidings was the principal’s messenger.  Now I am sure that every educator who has ever worked in a school knows who I am talking about. The individual that the principal has brought onboard to deliver the talking points about a particular meme. Yep, that person.  I was shocked.  I asked what I had done to be the cause of such an abrupt departure.  The answer, I expected too much.  I wouldn’t cut him some slack, that I wouldn’t trust him with more difficult assignments and that he wasn’t learning enough from me.

Okay, now I have been called an overachiever (in fact that is probably the nicest thing that have been said about me) and tough to work with. In my defense, I expect no less from somebody I work with than I do from myself and no less then I expect from my students. If someone can’t do their job then I can’t trust them with critical systems. But I guess that’s not how it works in our school any longer.

I was also accused of doing everything in my power to further my career at the expense and neglect of my job.  With that I hit the roof and demanded to know what specifically I had done to warrant that accusation.  I thundered down to the front office and demanded an explanation. Well not really, in my mind I thundered down to the front office and demanded an explanation. In my mind I threw my keys on the principal’s desk and used a famous line from Johnny Paycheck.

I sat at my desk doing a slow burn, working with my students who sensed that there was something REALLY bothering me, and trying to just let go.  But I couldn’t. I was getting angrier, more frustrated and telling myself to just get it over and retire already. I couldn’t let go until I got an email from an old student of mind from my Journalism teacher days close to 20 years ago. In his email he wrote:

“ … (but) I did learn a lot of other lessons from you that continue to influence me today. In fact, I think you are the most influential mentor I’ve ever had and I just wanted to say thank you again.

I started thinking of you because when I went to the reunion, I saw this corner of the main hallway that we used to go to make phone calls. I remember one morning when you asked me to meet you at the corner to give me an ass-chewing for screwing around and not taking things seriously. I remembered you told me I was good enough to get asked to come back for a second summer. If that happened, I could get a scholarship and then an internship at the [St. Petersburg]Times. And if I got that internship, I could impress the editors and could potentially land a job as a reporter for one of the best newspapers in the country.

It was the first time anyone ever mapped out a future for me like that. And I realized this weekend that’s exactly how it panned out. I actually did everything you said was possible.

So, thank you again.. Especially for giving me the ass-chewing I needed to stop screwing around and make something of his life.”

As I read those words every bit of anger, resentment and fantasy key flinging left me. I was grounded again.  Grounded in the fact that the reason I became a teacher was not to promote mediocrity and just slide by unnoticed. No, I became a teacher to help everybody I could reach beyond themselves and see what could happen. I became a teacher to help my students reach farther, dream bigger and make themselves better.

So I hit a wall and bounced back only a little bruised.  Still, if the right offer came around right now some fantasy key flinging might just become reality.

Scribbles from the back of my mind…

Last week during a keynote at the Intel Education Visionary Forum Frank Luntz shared some poll numbers on how overwhelmingly parents want their schools to return “back to basics”. As you can imagine this caused quite a stir in an audience that was made up of some of the most vocal proponents of technology in education and that by going back to basics would exclude any creative use of technology.  Well, it is my opinion that “back to basics” just might be ill-defined.

I believe that the “back to basics” movement is push back against all of the failed experimentation that has taken place in the schools over the course of the last 50 years. If you really sit down and ask a parent if they want schools to return to the 1960s, the answer will probably be no.  I think that parents want schools that work.  They want pop psychology, experimental social programs, extremist curriculum and failed pedagogy put to an end. They want excuses to stop and real learning to begin.  Parents are tired of their children’s “seat time” being wasted on ill-defined goals, alternative programs of study and meaningless assignments. Children are not lab rats and they want the experiments to end…NOW. 

They want their children to graduate with the skills and acumen to succeed in a technologically advanced world but not at the expense of a classical education. It is our duty as educators not to just prepare them for the next test but to guide them in the pursuit of knowledge, to build life long learners who can ask the good questions and then search for the answers.

Context Matters

In another life I was an English teacher.  I was reminded of this recently when a student of mine hit me with this comment: “Mr. Zulli, Ms. Palmer says that you were one of the best teachers and readers of Shakespeare that she ever knew. Why Shakespeare?” I sat back and looked into the deep recess of my mind looking for the answer. I took a deep breath and said, “Andrew, you have to understand the time and the place.  Shakespeare was never intended to be read and dissected like it is taught today.  You have to imagine the Globe Theatre with the groundlings, having only paid a penny, standing in the pit in front of the stage; vendors selling oranges with cloves stuck in them so that the groundlings could hold them to their noses to overcome the smell or throw them when they didn’t like what was on stage.” I told him that this was the environment that Shakespeare was performed.  That’s why his dramas were so big, his comedies so bawdy with action so physical and acting so over the top as to engage the “rabble” in the pit and the more well to do patrons sitting in the three levels of the theatre. “Shakespeare needs to be experienced for what it is; entertainment that touches on universal themes of life, love, courage, despair and honor.”  Andrew sat back in his chair and looked at me for a moment and said, “Wow, nobody ever explained that to me before. I never looked at Shakespeare in that context.”

And that is my point, context does matter.  The how we teach means as much to understanding as what we teach.

Today I teach Information Technologies and by extension Computer Science. IT and Computer Science do not need to be taught in isolation. By teaching the relationship that each has through project based learning the natural synergy that each discipline has can be exploited to the advantage of both. By using IT as the context students are immersed in project development, collaboration, business process development and high level critical thinking. The students identify problems and design meaningful solutions that directly impact the quality of classroom instruction. They work in a collaborative project environment where IT and CS teams must work together to be successful and they learn enterprise level development that prepares them for similar project development in college or business.

So why can’t we extend that thinking to the rest of the curriculum.  Today I have a student who is designing an interactive Kinect enhanced history timeline of the Civil War.  He is designing it so that a student can stand and manipulate a historical timeline of the period and “grab” artifacts corresponding to dates on the timeline and bring those to the forefront to interact with.  This student is becoming an expert on the Civil War; more so than if he would have sat in class and been exposed to this information in the more “traditional” ways.  He is learning American History through the context of Computer Science.

This past summer I was part of a team of educators thrown together at random during the Microsoft Partners in Learning US Forum. We were challenged to create a lesson based on a place our team visited during the course of the conference.  Our team was tasked with the historical Pike Place Market in Seattle. During the pre-planning our group took stock of the individual expertise in the group; three Computer Science teachers, a Math teacher and a Digital Media instructor and tried to find the common ground that would leverage our talents, something that would be our context.

Building knowledge and creating life long learners is the most important job of an educator.  If we continue along the path we are on today, with high stakes testing as the only educational context a generation of students knows, then we will not have built knowledge nor created life long learners. We will have created a generation of test takers that hate learning and fear failure because that is the only context they have known.

Evolution, Part 2

There is a fundamental disconnect between the way students think, learn, and communicate and the way schools interact with them. Transforming our schools to be more student-centered through the use of effectively applied technology can make their education more relevant, their coursework more meaningful and allow both teachers and students to communicate more effectively.

In 1994 I was offered an opportunity to test this philosophy.  A new magnet program had just opened where I was teaching and it needed a new network administrator.  The previous two had not worked out and they wanted a teacher in that position, someone who understood a classroom and how technology should be deployed.  I jumped at the chance.

It took three years to correct the mistakes of the previous network admins and to implement some changes to both the physical plant and the way technology was administered in the magnet program.  I must say that the faculty was exceptionally supportive and pleased that a person with classroom experience was now in place and they afforded me every measure of professional courtesy and help.  The program paid for my technology training and I eventually earned Microsoft and Novell System engineer certifications. In 1997, after all my changes were in place I began my big experiment.

I designed a course where juniors and seniors could learn the fundamentals of networking and the intricacies of hardware and how it all ties in to programming. By the end of their career a network assistant could have a wealth of knowledge not only about servers but about computer code and the various solutions deployed in our program. I wanted these students to leave with a marketable skill and an industry certification to prove it. I also wanted students to learn, early on, the value of teamwork and dedication

Since 1997 the students enrolled in the CAT Network Systems Administrator Program have engaged in project based learning.  As Network Assistants, they have been an invaluable asset to the school while helping with technology issues.  They have also taken over running the different school websites.  With the continued improvement in technology the mission of the Network Assistants changed over time from one of break fix to one of development, innovation and creation.  This in turn opened a new world of opportunities as we are no longer limited to what we could do; we are only limited by time and imagination.

My students identify problems and design meaningful solutions that directly impact the quality of classroom instruction, communication and campus management. And, they have been doing so, in one form or another, for 17 years.  These students are actively involved in the campus environment, their projects are democratic, the activities are interactive and student-centered and involved in a process of learning in which students are encouraged to be responsible and autonomous. Each project team has to rely on and communicate with every other project team as often the different projects use some of the same technologies. They have to involve server and network administrators for server specific functions as well as the graphics team for any particular branding they want. Also, since projects are designed with specific audiences in mind it is imperative to involve the different stakeholders.

The course changes every year as the needs of the school, the personalities of the participants and the product technologies change.  This keeps it fresh, exciting and unpredictable. What doesn’t change though is my commitment to project based learning and the continued involvement of the students of the Center for Advanced Technologies. Applications to my classes are up again this year as they have been every year since I began the program.  We have also decided to make a fuller commitment to mobile app programming, over all three platforms (Windows Phone, iOS and Android), integrating apps with our campus solutions so we can remove all access barriers to our students and staff.  When BYOD comes (Bring Your Own Device) we will be ready.

If you would like to read some of my students’ thoughts on what it is like to work in this type of environment I urge you to visit here.

Evolution, Part 1

Okay, I admit it I was a lousy teacher. Back in 1977 when I started in the classroom I was just plain lousy. My English students had that numb, blank “Ferris Bueller” look on their faces even as I tried to spin my most dramatic lectures on the symbolism of The Call of the Wild and the difference between a gerund and an infinitive. Yet, some of those same students were the most engaged and productive when they were in my Drama classes or involved in a student production.

Two years later I moved to a different school and took over the Journalism classes and student newspaper, which is what I had majored in. I still had the same anesthetizing effect in the regular English classes but those same students were again engaged, active and producing award-winning publications. I mean, I was stumped. I was teaching the way I was taught to teach. I was covering what I had to cover. I was following the prescribed methods and covering the essential questions and checking off all the benchmarks and standards. What was the difference between my methods? What was the spark that fully engaged these “young skulls full of mush” and got them to push themselves, just like my Drama students had?

By now you probably have recognized what would take me a couple of more years to figure out, that the student became fully engaged when they were involved with creating something of value. Students had voluntarily enrolled in the two, very different classes, so they could produce something of importance to them. And there was the answer. Not that they were interested in the subject matter, no it was so they could produce something of importance; something that could be read or watched and remembered. Something that would leave a mark on the school, that said “I was here and made a difference.” It is the same concept that drives athletics and competition but is so often overlooked in academics.

So I changed. I started incorporating more and more projects in my regular and advanced classes that allowed my students to create something and I made sure that we would not just use it as a classroom exercise. We produced literary magazines, created TV shows for the closed circuit campus system and started our own radio shows broadcast through a carrier wave system. All in an effort to better teach writing, grammar, media and journalism; and it worked. But I wanted more.

I wanted to know what would happen when a full year curriculum was taught with nothing but project based learning. No lectures, no tests, no quizzes and especially no daily worksheets. What would happen if I had students in this environment for a full year, creating projects of value and letting them perform as if in a real business environment. What would be created, what would they learn, and could it be built upon over the years?

All it takes is a little imagination

Last week at the Microsoft Partners in Learning Global Forum I had the opportunity to meet Steven Ronsijn from Ghent, Belgium. clip_image002Here is Steven as he is awarded First Runner-Up in the Cutting Edge Use of Microsoft Technology for Learning category. Steven and I were partnered together on a Learning Excursion team that was visiting the Smithsonian Green Houses. During the bus ride over he commented on how lucky we Americans were with access to all this technology. I looked at him and said: “Having technology is not always the answer. Having the imagination to use the technology is.”

Well, I began thinking about that throw away sentence and the more I thought about it the more I really believed that is what we were celebrating at the Partners in Learning Global Forum. As a participant I could walk up and down every isle of displays and see amazing imagination used to bring life to classrooms all around the world.

Projects like Steven’s where he allowed the students to take the role of educator, designer and developer of movies and games designed to teach concepts and technologies to younger students. Or, like Gareth Ritter’s project from Wales whose students used Photostory, Screen Recorder, AutoCollage and the Kinect to create video tutorials to support learning of others at the school. These recordings also supported production of the school’s podcast station and resulted in an album being recorded in the school studio. clip_image004Here’s a picture of Gareth accepting his First Runner-Up award in the Innovation in Challenging Contexts category. What these two projects, like all the others, at the Global Forum have in common is the imaginative use of technology and having students using that technology to create something of worth.

I cannot begin to tell you how many classrooms I visit where a teacher claims to use technology but is really just substituting it for tired old methods. How many of you reading this can point to an educator that uses their brand new SMART Board (good grief I hate those things) as nothing more than a 21st Century blackboard. They hook up their laptop to a projector and hook that to the SMART Board (usually with your help) and then throw PowerPoint slides up and expect the students to take notes. Or, call it interactive by asking the student to come up and supply an answer using the notebook function. Yeah, they spent thousands of dollars to replace a blackboard and are doing the same tired old thing. No imagination!

While the Partners in Learning Global Forum and all the associated regional forums focus on technology and the use of it in education, what they really celebrate and encourage is imagination. Best practices that transcend borders and countries and language. Projects that can be plucked from a classroom in South Africa and dropped into a classroom in Tampa, FL and still have relevance. So when I am asked what I learned in Washington last week, it’s that. That the world’s best educators all have the imagination to use the technological tools at their disposal to create something that engages their students and allows them to be an integral part in their own education.

Looking from the outside in

The Microsoft Partners in Learning Global Forum is over and the barrage of Tweets, emails, Facebook posts and text messages have slowed to a trickle; which should please my wife since we were getting overage notices from AT&T on the text messages. Yet I find myself missing the constant ‘ding’ that let me know there was something important, relevant, informative or funny to be read and responded too. I know today, which marked the official return to the ‘real world’ was… different. I was different today.  I was disconnected.

I had been away for a week wrapped in a cocoon of creativity and an environment of encouragement. I spent a week in an educators dream; sharing ideas, methods, projects, anecdotes and outcomes.  I was treated royally and looked on as a professional and not “just a teacher”. In short, I was celebrated as much for what I do and listened to because of what I know.  

So nothing got done today.  In between fielding congratulations from my colleagues and conducting interviews with our school news show and newspaper I was sharing the week with my students. I showed them all the videos and pictures. They reveled in the diversity of the attendees and creative projects on display.  They listened to my replay of the awards night and got excited when they saw me onstage. Reliving the week each period I found myself missing my USA teammates more and more. These young men and women (and I can say that because I’m older than all of them) are the most creative, dynamic individuals I have ever had the pleasure to know.  Rest assured if you are reading this and you have a child as one of their students, that child is getting the best education you can hope for!  Team USA at the American History Museum

Team USA at the Partners in Learning Global Forum reception held at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

So, I am disconnected. Not because what I experienced or learned or shared with the attendees; that was a highlight. It is not because of the awards I won; that was humbling.  No, it is because it took 34 years for me to experience this.  In those years I have been forced to endure professional development courses, seminars and meetings that claimed I would grow as an educator.  What they were really set up to do was justify the continued employment of the individuals running the sessions. For the life of me I can’t remember a single bit of information that I could effectively use when I was in the classroom or helped me discover the key that would unlock learning in my students. So I developed my own theories and practices, my own methods and ignored what the professional development teams were telling me to do.  You see, what they were trying to sell never once called for real student engagement. What they called for was micro management and control and that only leads to teachers going through the motions and students unwilling to try.  It leads to over inflated grades and fear of failure. It leads to what is exactly wrong in so many classrooms today.

Do I have a solution for this… no. Except to point to the common themes and success and individuals that I met last week and to tell you to talk to them.  Find out what they are doing and before you know it you will begin to hear the same story and the same theme. You will hear stories of student engagement and high level learning. You will hear joy and excitement and most of all, you will hear pride at being a teacher.