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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 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?