Teachers instead of Tests

origin_14994024015It is no secret that I am no fan of standardized tests.  I strongly believe that they are killing public education, and I am terrified at what our educational system will look like in 20 years.  We desperately want to be the best, and so we devise test after test to hold students and teachers accountable.

Who is it that we think we need to hold accountable?  We have these mythical “bad teachers” who just aren’t doing their jobs.  Those teachers do exist, but they are a small percentage.  The vast majority of teachers out there are good teachers. Because, you see, teachers don’t become teachers for the money (or even for the summer breaks).  They become teachers because they have a passion for inspiring and educating young minds.

So, the powers that be convince themselves that it’s these “bad teachers” who need to be held accountable.  They need to be forced into teaching properly with test after test after test.  So, perhaps, there are a few teachers out there who were coasting along, and decided to step up their games when standardized testing was implemented.  What about all the rest of the teachers, though?  The vast majority who are GOOD TEACHERS?  The joy of teaching and learning is being replaced with test-prep booklets, scantron sheets, and proclamations from legislators and number crunchers who have never stood in front of a classroom but are oh so sure that they know how to measure good teaching.

And so good teachers find less and less joy in the classroom, on top of their already abysmal pay. They hear that if they don’t get certain scores on a test that they know is invalid, they might be laid off.  They might not be able to feed their families.  Is it any wonder that teachers are resorting to unethical practices to deal with these pressures?

It’s not just about the testing, either.  It’s the opportunity cost of all of this testing. It’s the things teachers can’t do because they’re teaching students to bubble properly.  It’s the 1.7 billion dollars that states spend on testing annually that could be spent on teachers.  What is the impact of these lost opportunities?

We don’t give teachers adequate support from paraprofessionals.

We don’t give teachers adequate time to plan or grade.

We don’t give teachers control over what happens in their classrooms.

We don’t give teachers opportunities for high quality professional development.

We don’t give teachers a chance to be part of a larger community of professionals.

We don’t pay teachers nearly enough.

We give teachers standards that don’t make sense, or are too numerous to address in a single year.

We give teachers textbooks that are substandard, and encourage them to teach from them.

We give teachers pacing plans that tell them which standard to teach on which day, as if we can somehow plan out in advance how a group of completely unique individuals will learn.

We give teachers piles of paperwork.

We give teachers meaningless meetings.

We give teachers 5 subjects to teach in 2.5 hours total per week.

We give teachers endless, flat tests that measure only a small percentage of what we want a high quality teaching and learning experience to be.

We give teachers scores from these tests and assume that they somehow reflect a teacher’s quality, when we know that this isn’t true.

All of these things detract from the ability of teachers to do what we really want them to do: create and deliver engaging, differentiated lessons for their students.

I tell my students all the time that when you’re trying to create a successful classroom, you can go one of two ways.  You can implement a system of rewards and punishments so that students will sit through your boring lessons attentively. Or, you can create engaging, interactive, relevant lessons so that students voluntarily participate and learn because they want more of that type of teaching and learning.  The first option is little more than putting out fires.  It will quickly suck the life out of you, and it leaves little room for creativity, interaction, and mutual learning and growth.  The second option helps both you AND your students to eagerly anticipate walking into the classroom each day.

We’re doing a large scale version of the first option in our public schools.  We dangle merit pay in front of teachers, and threaten them with pink slips if their students don’t perform well enough.  What if, instead, we took that 1.7 billion dollars, and we used it to do things like provide professional development, peer observation time, classroom materials, grading/planning time, or any of the other things that teachers need? What if we made sure that teachers were highly qualified, and then trusted them to do their jobs?

There are 98,817 public schools out there.  What could we do with that 1.7 billion if we divided it up among those schools? That’s just over $17,000 per year per school. Now, sure, $17,000 is a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of things.  I would wager, though, that if allowed to spend that $17,000 themselves, teachers could find any number of productive uses for it.

$17,000 is a computer lab or a class set of iPads.

$17,000 is piles of books.

$17,000 is time for teachers to engage in collaborative planning.

$17,000 is sending a team of teachers to a professional conference.

$17,000 is musical instruments.

$17,000 can be a thousand useful things.

What isn’t useful is obstructive and invalid standardized testing.

“But we NEED to know if teachers are doing their jobs,” you say.  “What if kids aren’t learning?”  Well, if  you really don’t trust trained teachers and administrators to take care of themselves, then we’re going to need a lot MORE money.

$1.7 billion dollars won’t even come close.  You’re going to need trained observers at school sites.  You’re going to need to buy administrators and teachers out of time they are currently spending elsewhere so they can engage in peer observation.  You’re going to need assessment instruments that aren’t scored by a machine, which means training and paying professionals to hand-score each assessment.  You’re going to need assessments that reflect the unique needs of each school site.  You’re going to need assessments in multiple languages, because I don’t care how many times you make them take it, a math test in English can’t gauge the math skills of someone who is still learning English.  You’re going to need to implement dynamic assessment practices, which will involve training teachers on how to scaffold learners during assessments.

Or, we could just, you know, let teachers do their jobs.

 

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How to be Successful in Grad School

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I spent a lot of time in grad school (with the loans to prove it), and I’ve been teaching exclusively grad students for the last 5 years.  So, I fancy myself somewhat of an expert on how to be successful in grad school.  Now that the new academic year is almost upon us, here are some tips for getting the most out of your grad school experience:

1. At the beginning of the term, make a calendar of important information. Don’t just put it in your phone.  Print out, purchase, or copy an actual, physical calendar.  Write in every class session, note when assignments are due, and – and this is the most important part – note which days and times you will need to block off for study and writing in order to get the assignments completed.  If you have options about which assignments you complete and when, select the assignments that give you the most balanced calendar.  If your instructor offers advance feedback on assignments, write in the due dates for that, too.  Now post it somewhere where you can’t miss it.  The physical act of writing this all out will help you better grasp and remember your workload for the upcoming term.

2. Prior to your first class session, read and annotate the syllabus. Write down questions in the margins, and ask the professor your questions during the first class session.  Under no circumstances should you arrive to the first day of class without having done this.  This is for YOUR benefit, so that you are confident about all class policies and procedures moving forward.

3. Make checklists. Chances are, for each class you’re taking, the professor will have his or her own set of requirements for composing and submitting assignments.  If your professor doesn’t give you a checklist of these requirements, make one for yourself.  This will save you the grief later of having to dig through syllabi and notes to find out if a professor wants your paper saved as a PDF or a DOCX.

4. Make yourself known, for the right reasons. Speak up in class.  Ask questions.  Arrive early and stay a little late.  Don’t be forgettable.  When the time comes for a letter of recommendation to be written, you want to have a whole bunch of professors who all remember what a hard working, professional, and personable student you were.  Think of your courses kind of like a long job interview; you want to make the best impression possible. Now, some students are very memorable for the wrong reasons.  They flip out over tiny things.  They grade grub. They constantly ask for special treatment.  They email the professor weekly to ask when things are due, even though it’s in the syllabus.  Don’t be that student.  Be remembered because you were a thoughtful, hard working student who participated fully in the class.  I write much better letters for B students who worked their tails off and asked questions than I do for A students who coasted through and never spoke up in class.

5. Don’t be afraid to take risks.  Ask your professors if you can assist with their research.  Ask if you can do something above and beyond the norm for an assignment.  Have you been assigned a paper? Ask the professor if you can submit a multimedia presentation instead.  If you can show value and rigor in what you want to do, many professors will allow it.  At worst, they say no.  At best, you end up creating something unique and memorable while still learning the content.

6. Be a leader. Be the one who puts a study group together, or creates a video tutorial for other students who are having trouble.  Volunteer for leadership positions in student organizations.  If an organization doesn’t exist, create it.  Take an active role in improving the educational experience for yourself and your fellow students.

7. Read all the things. Yes, really, all of them.  Be smart about your reading, though.  Has your professor given you a list of key questions for each unit?  Great!  Read those questions FIRST, put each one on top of a big index card, and as you read, jot relevant information down on the appropriate card.  As you read, also make note of any additional questions or connections you have.  When you’re done, on a new sheet of paper, summarize your answer to each question in one or two sentences, and then list your remaining questions and connections.  Bring that with you to class with the goal of having each of those questions answered.  If they don’t get answered in class, stay after and ask the professor to either help you or recommend sources where you can find answers.  Don’t commit the cardinal sin of grad school reading: skimming the text an hour before the class.  You might as well not even bother.  You might remember just enough to fake your way through a class session, but you won’t remember that information long term.  Showing up to a class without doing the readings is scary, but completing a degree program and realizing you don’t actually know all that much is even scarier.  So what if you haven’t planned adequately and are left without enough time to read properly.  Show up to class and get what you can from it, and if the professor asks, or if you’re placed in small groups, ‘FESS UP.  Apologize for not being prepared, and ask if someone can help get you caught up.  Then plan properly for the next week.

8. Give yourself enough time to do it right. Everyone works at their own pace, but here’s my starting recommendation.  Allow 1 hour of reading time for each 15 pages of academic writing you need to read (less for fiction or nonfiction books for the layperson).  Allow 1 hour per 2 pages of academic writing you need to produce.  You may end up needing far more or far less time, but I can guarantee you an hour right before class isn’t going to cut it.

9. Form a support network. When you attend your first class session, look for the other people who are on the right track.  They’re the ones who are sitting near the front of the room (or who are always looking at the camera if you’re online).  They’re the ones actively taking notes and asking questions.  They’re the ones who ask the professor if they can turn in work early for review.  Surround yourself with people who want to be successful and are serious about their education.  Exchange contact information, and consider pooling class notes or proofreading each other’s work.  Go to these people first after you miss a class session and ask what you missed; as a side note, never, ever go to your professor when you’ve missed a class session and utter these words: “Did I miss anything important?” YES, the whole class was important!

10. When you find a professor you click with, stay in touch!  You can still get a lot out of the professor student relationship once a course has ended.  Need a letter of recommendation? Looking for a job?  Encountering a particularly challenging problem in the field? Experiencing success because of something you learned in his or her class?  Reach out to your professor and share that with him or her!  There is nothing I love more than hearing from former students!

This is my best advice for you.  However, there are a lot of different programs out there, with a lot of different professors.  So if you do none of the other things on this list, do this.  On the first day of class, ask your professor:

“What are the top 5 things I can do to get the most out of your class?”

Don’t ask how you can get an A.  That’s an entirely different question!

 

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Why I don’t lecture

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As a professor in the Rossier School at USC, I occasionally get a question from a student that goes something like this:

“I enrolled in this program so that I could learn from the top-notch USC faculty.  So why am I spending most of my time talking to my classmates instead of listening to YOU tell us what is important for us to learn?”

I appreciate it when a student asks this question, because I think it takes guts to speak up when you think a learning experience isn’t working for you, or isn’t being productive.  I think it is an important question to ask.  WHY, when I have a very expensive and hard-earned set of letters after my name, would I sit back and let my students teach each other?  Why am I not bestowing this wisdom upon them? How are they getting their money’s worth out of a prestigious program from USC, when the professor isn’t the center of attention? Shouldn’t I be lecturing about Bandura and Piaget as so many of my academic predecessors have done?  Lecturing is a time-honored tradition in academia, so why am I not honoring it?

Here’s why.  I am not honoring it precisely because this is a prestigious USC program.  I am not honoring it because I have a great deal of knowledge about effective teaching and learning.  I am instead choosing to honor something different.  I choose instead to honor the idea that intelligent, hard-working students, with the facilitation of a learned professor, can achieve greater understanding of the content than if I were to lecture at them for 2 hours.  I choose to honor the research-supported idea that my expertise is better used in designing high-quality activities and coaching from the sidelines as my students struggle through  (and eventually master) the concepts than reading from a PowerPoint.

Sure, I do a bit of lecture here or there.  I occasionally spend 5 or 10 minutes explaining a particularly difficult concept, or sharing an anecdote about my own experience (my game show failure – below – as an example of the critical difference between “identify” and “recall” in terms of cognition is a favorite of mine).

The focus of each class session, however, is my students.  To that extent, here is my process for designing a class session.

1. Look at my notes from the previous year/term.  If I’ve taught a class previously, I most likely have a solid set of notes that tell me what concepts students struggled with, and which were easy to grasp.  I draw this information from class sessions, but also from out-of-class assignments.  For example, in the behaviorism unit of my Learning Theories course, students tend to struggle with the concept of negative reinforcement, so I always make sure to put that on the list of things to highlight during class.

2. Review the objectives for that unit.  I’ve either done the advance work myself, or another professor has, of making sure that the learning objectives for a given unit are well written and focused around real-world applicability of skills and concepts.  So all I need to do is look over these learning objectives and refresh my memory about what I want these students to be able to accomplish by the end of the unit. I drop these objectives into a PowerPoint.

3. I spend a few minutes jotting down the main points from the unit immediately preceding this one, so that at the beginning of the course I can reference this previous content for my students, thus activating their prior knowledge and preparing them to make connections between units instead of seeing each unit as isolated. I drop these points into the PowerPoint.

4. I come up with 3-4 small group or whole group activities that directly address the learning objectives.  These activities run the gamut from watching and responding to a TED talk (one of my favorites here), to planning a lesson, to responding to discussion questions in a modified jigsaw format, and more.  I put all of these activities into the PowerPoint, and I may use all or only a couple of them during the actual class session, depending on how the session goes.

5. I think through what information students will need to be readily available during these activities.  I then, generally, put that information into easily accessible slides or documents that they can refer to during the activities.  For example, in my unit on Social Cognitive Theory, I make sure to include a slide with the triadic reciprocity model.  Prior to the activity, I briefly explain the slide and encourage students to use it as a reference during their small group work.

6. I think through what students will need to be aware of in terms of assignments for the next unit or even the next few units, and I put some reminders for them into the PowerPoint. I try to always comment on how this week’s content relates to what is ahead, to further reinforce that connection between the units.

During the class session, I follow a few rules based on both my own research and 5 years of teaching in this online setting.

  • Wait as long as necessary for students to respond to questions, and provide clarification if needed.
  • Anything I plan on saying that I feel is important should be written somewhere in the classroom – either in the PowerPoint, the chat pod, or the notes pod.
  • Directions for small group work should be explicit and written, so that groups don’t veer off task.
  • Spend small group time jumping from group to group to observe and facilitate.  Take notes during this time on what is working and what isn’t.
  • BUT, don’t intervene unless it’s absolutely necessary.  Let them struggle, and only step in if they haven’t realized something isn’t working, or if they ask for help.
  • EXCEPT to provide positive reinforcement when students are doing something really well.
  • When students are in small groups, communicate via chat pod first.  When the professor starts talking, the students stop, so the professor jumping into a room, camera and sound on, can easily derail a group.
  • In the whole group, a student’s response ALWAYS comes before my response to a video, task, question, etc.
  • Do what you need to do to meet the learning objectives.  If that means spending 40 minutes on an activity that was supposed to take 20, then do that.  If that means adding or scrapping an activity, do that.  If that means making a whole group activity into a small group activity, or vice versa, do that.
  • As the professor, my role is to guide the students in reaching their own understanding of the content, not to tell them what my understanding of the content is.  As long as they leave the classroom with a conceptually accurate understanding of the content, then the class session has been successful.

This whole approach can make some students (and some professors) uncomfortable.  Most of us have been indoctrinated into the idea that the professor is a font of knowledge from which we should fill our cups.  My perspective, instead, is that professors merely show us how to turn on the faucet, and make sure our cup gets filled.  I’m certainly not a perfect professor, and I have a running list of things that I am trying to improve upon in my teaching. However, I strongly believe, based on both my own experience and on the body of sociocultural, constructivist, and social cognitive research that supports collaborative and student-centered learning, that this is the approach most likely to result in deep, meaningful learning experiences for my students.  In a setting like the one in the MAT@USC, this collaborative, student-centered approach is even more valuable.  It isn’t at all out of the ordinary in our program to have a small group made up of a twenty-something teaching English in South Korea, a mid-fifties retired former LAPD sergeant beginning a second career in the suburbs, a mid-thirties teacher’s aide in the United Arab Emirates, and a mid-forties veteran classroom teacher in an American high needs school.  All bring unique and valuable perspectives to what is happening in the classroom, and if the class session focused around my experiences and education, those critically valuable voices would be lost.  Taking a student-centered approach makes every single class session unique, and catered to the needs of the students in that session.

Fellow professors of education, what approach do you take to teaching your preservice teachers?  Preservice teachers, what approaches to teaching and learning do you find to be the most effective?

 

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What Teachers Really Want for Teacher Appreciation Day

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Today, as you are probably aware, is Teacher Appreciation Day.  The desks of teachers across the country are filled today with trinkets that represent their students’ affection, parents’ gratefulness, and no small measure of sucking up.  Most of this stuff will be trashed later on, because the sheer amount of CRAP that you collect as a teacher is immense; I always ended up bringing huge boxes of gifts home at the end of the year to quietly be disposed of in thrift stores or the dumpster, so my students wouldn’t see. One giant stuffed Betty Boop became a dog toy.  Of course, when gifts are meaningful and given with love, we tend to keep them, strange as they may sometimes be (a porcelain Santa in a sleigh for Valentine’s Day? Why not.).  However, many of these items are gifts of obligation; I remember returning from a Teacher Appreciation Day breakfast at the school where I used to teach in LA with a tissue-paper-wrapped bottle of Two Buck Chuck.  The administration spent TWO WHOLE DOLLARS to show me how much they appreciated me! Plus, I got the extra bonus of explaining to my 4th graders why I was carrying a bottle of wine to class.

This gift-giving tradition is generally well intentioned.  The administrators were trying to show their appreciation for our hard work (or at least show that they cared enough to respect obligatory holidays).  Well meaning parents and students want teachers to know how much they mean to them.  And teachers do appreciate the thought.  However, I can confidently say that there are other things that would be a much better show of appreciation for teachers.

Administrators, if you really want to appreciate your teachers, offer to teach a class for them one day while they get other things done that they really want to do.  Offer them time to collaborate with their peers on a project they’ve been itching to complete.  Support them in seeking professional development opportunities.  Provide them with opportunities for leadership in the school, and highlight their accomplishments from the past year.  Give them thoughtful feedback and encourage them to take risks.

Parents, if you want to show your appreciation for your child’s teachers, volunteer to spend some time in the classroom.  Your child’s teachers are overworked and could use the extra help.  Spend a day serving as an aide in their classrooms, filing papers, cleaning up workstations, or giving one on one assistance to students. Write the teachers letters about the impact they have had on your child.  Ask the teachers if there is anything they’ve been wanting to buy for their classrooms and buy it, or take up a collection from parents to start saving for it.

Students, if you want to show your appreciation for your teachers, then PUSH TO BE YOUR BEST SELF.  The best reward a teacher can possibly have is to see his or her students be successful.  And if you feel that your teachers have really made a difference in your life, then tell them! Write a letter, sing a song, draw a picture, record a video.  Do something to actually show them that they are meaningful to you.

When all else fails, go for the Starbucks gift card, but if you have the time and really care, you will also give of yourself to show your appreciation for how teachers give all they have to give every single day.

Why You Shouldn’t Become A Teacher

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As a former classroom teacher, and a current professor of education, I’ve met hundreds, if not thousands, of current and future teachers. As in any profession, the people in it run the gamut from outstanding to how-on-earth-did-someone-award-you-a-degree. It benefits us all when we have strong educators in classrooms, because education improves society, not just the individual. I’m happy to say that in my time as a professor, I’ve run across very few students who shouldn’t be in the classroom. However, as a classroom teacher, I ran across quite a few more. In service of making sure that people who end up in classrooms actually should be there, here are a few reasons why you SHOULDN’T become a teacher.

 

  1. You just want a steady job. I hear you. Teaching is a steady paycheck, and it seems like anyone can do it. This is true. Virtually anyone who is currently breathing can pass out worksheets and keep a class full of kids alive through 3pm. What is much harder, however, is making the students LEARN something; this is a very difficult set of skills that is only mastered through study and years of practice. There are easier jobs with higher pay and less controversy than teaching. Go find one of those.
  2. You just love kids because ZOMGkidsaresooooooocute!   They will stop being cute approximately 5 seconds after they vomit on you. Yes, if you are teaching the tiny ones, they WILL vomit on you. And paint on you. And wipe snot on you. They will also be adorable, but a teacher is not sustained by adorable-ness alone. If you want to have a job full of cuteness, go put pictures of cats on the internet.
  3. You want to be admired for your noble pursuits. Well, unfortunately, pretty much no one is going to admire you. If you teach the littles, then they will worship the ground you walk on, most of the time. But adulation from your fellow adults? That is a rare jewel, my friend. You’re going to hear a lot about those who supposedly can “do” and those who can’t. If you want to be admired, I would recommend perhaps something in the field of curing major diseases?
  4. You want to tell people what to do. If you become a teacher you can, in fact, wield power over WHOLE CLASSROOMS of students. You can be in charge of 30 or so children at a time! The power is practically maddening. In reality, though, if you want to do that whole “making them learn” thing I previously mentioned, you’re going to have to learn how to give up that power, not wield it like a demigod. You’re going to have to let students make decisions, and you’re going to have to be willing to apologize and sometimes be proven wrong.
  5. Summers off, bro! Sure, you might get “summers” off (which often ends up being the couple of short weeks between when the school year ends and summer school begins), but here’s what you’re going to do the rest of the year. You’re going to wake up around 5 or so, so that you can get yourself dressed, fed, and in your classroom by about 7. You’re going to spend around an hour dealing with paperwork and prepping lessons. Then you’re going to spend approximately 7 hours dealing with demanding, energy-filled young people. If you are very, very lucky, you might get a planning period during that time, which you will use to catch up on grading. You will get approximately 12 seconds to eat your lunch, as you walk to the front office to make copies and meet with a parent for an IEP. After that 7 hours is up, you’re going to spend an hour or more working with your students on remedial or advanced work. Following that, you will grade some more, do some more planning and prep, and leave for home somewhere around 5:30-6pm. Did you count those hours? That’s an 11 hour day, with virtually no break, 5 days a week, for the whole school year. This, of course, assumes that you don’t run any extracurriculars. Sports coach or music teacher? Even worse. But regardless of what you teach, every second of your vacation time (and more) will have been paid in advance by your work during the school year.
  6. You want to coach a sport. I can certainly understand that coaching is a passion for many people.  However, if you’re teaching JUST to be able to coach, then you’re doing a massive disservice to your students.  I can’t even tell you how many teachers I’ve met who coach a sport as if the world depended on the outcome of each game, but can’t be bothered to truly teach their academic classes.  The problem is that those academic subjects that they’re coasting along in?  Those are incredibly important, and students deserve more than assigned reading and the review questions at the end of the chapter.  If your primary goal is to coach, then great; just make sure you teach as well as you coach.

 

So, given these reasons, why would anyone in their right mind want to become a teacher? Why would you willingly go into a profession that is fraught with controversy, that pays you less than you are worth, and that has a massive workload? Here’s why.

You are going to be pursuing one of the few professions that will allow you to make a significant impact on hundreds, maybe thousands of people. You are literally shaping the future when you teach. Those young minds are watching you. They are listening to everything you say. They are, daily, making choices about their futures based on what you share with them, what you model for them, and the questions you ask them. You are going into the profession all other professions rely upon. Every doctor, lawyer, scientist, politician, firefighter, chef, engineer, artist, mother, and father was first a student. Everything they create or achieve is in some part due to their teachers. That Top 40 hit? That engineering marvel? That inauguration speech? They’re all due, in no small part, to a teacher. To many teachers. To all of us, as educators, working together to build the future. You’re going to be sustained, daily, not by the faculty meetings and state testing, but by the A-ha moments.  You’re going to keep that dirty plastic tiger on your desk like it was the Congressional Medal of Honor, because it was a kid’s most prized possession, and they chose to give it to YOU.  You’re going to get letters from students who tell you that if it wasn’t for you they’d have never made it: to college, to a good job, or sometimes just to adulthood.  You’re going to see parents weep when their child achieves something they never dreamed possible.  You’re going to go to bed every night totally and completely exhausted, and wake up the next morning itching to get into the classroom.  By the end of the school year, you’ll be beyond ready for a margarita and a beach, but after a couple of weeks you’ll be stashing away school supplies again and planning the arrangement of your room for the new year.  You’re going to boast about your students as if they were your own offspring.  You’re going to rejoice with them in their victories and cry with them in their defeats.  You’re going to make them believe that they can BE change in the world, and teach them how to do it.  Sound cheesy? Sure it is. It’s beyond cheesy, but it’s also true. So if the first 6 points scared you off, this profession wasn’t for you anyway. But if you’re ready to do this right, then jump in with both feet; the kids are waiting for you!

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5 Things I Wish People Knew About Online Learning

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I’ve been teaching in a fully online setting through the MAT@USC for just about 5 years now.  It’s been an amazing experience, but I still encounter the same pervasive incorrect ideas over and over from people who haven’t experienced what online learning in the 21st century looks like (or should look like).  I’ve often wished that I could include on my business cards as a tagline “Online learning really isn’t what you think it is.”  So, here is my list of things I wish people knew about online learning:

1. Online learning is so much more than discussion boards and recorded lectures.  The standard assumption seems to be that all I do is grade papers and discussion boards, or that I never interact with my students.  This couldn’t be further from the truth.  The courses I teach are a blend of asynchronous and synchronous instruction.  That means I interact with my students over a webcam during regularly scheduled class times.  We see everyone at the same time, Brady Bunch style, and we have polling pods, multimedia, chat pods, and breakout rooms.  The online classes I teach are dynamic and interactive.  When students aren’t in class, sometimes they do watch videos or engage in discussion boards.  These aren’t your mother’s videos and discussion boards, though.  These videos have embedded interactive questions, and the discussion boards allow for sharing of multimedia content.

2. Online learning is equally, if not more, rigorous and effective than face to face learning. When you have the old model of online learning in your head, it’s easy to imagine online learning as being ineffective.  However, when you look at new models of online learning both in K-12 and in postsecondary settings, the preliminary research is showing that students are learning MORE in online settings than they do in face to face settings.

3. You can form strong connections with students in online settings. When I teach online, my classroom extends into the homes and offices of all of my students.  I see their children listening quietly on their lap.  We talk about the posters on their walls.  They show me the flowers their partner sent them for their anniversary.  They upload photos of friends and family.  They share links to favorite songs, movies, and books.  They do all of this in addition to the academic work that happens in the classroom.  There is no question that in my online classes, we are a community, not just a collection of strangers in the same virtual space.

4. It isn’t more work than teaching face to face, but preparation is key.  There was a time when teaching online meant grading reams of papers and discussion boards.  That time has passed; if it hasn’t passed for you, then ask your department WHY!  If you’re doing your job right when teaching face to face, then you are putting ample time into designing your lessons, providing feedback to students, etc.  The same things happen online, but teaching online is often teaching without a safety net.  You have to have your materials created and uploaded in advance.  You can’t expect to just throw a diagram up on the board with a dry erase marker; you need a high quality .jpeg to upload ahead of time.  This can take a lot of work in the beginning, when a course is first starting out.  However, once your course is created, your course can be cloned, and you can save your materials for future terms.  If you’re doing it right, it’s not more work.

5. All online learning is not equal. I’ve been teaching with this synchronous/asynchronous technology for the last 5 years, and during that time I’ve seen schools create and promote online programs that are using technology that was outdated 5 years ago.  Or (and this one really kills me), a program will pay for software and then only use a fraction of what it is capable of doing.  Don’t pay for Adobe Connect, and then only use it to broadcast lectures one way!  What works on the ground doesn’t necessarily work online, and instructors need to take advantage of the tools the software offers.  Use the chat pod! Share multimedia! Don’t stick to trying to recreate online what you have on the ground.  What you create online should be different from, but equal to or better than what you’re doing on the ground.  Additionally, there ARE online schools out there that are just diploma mills.  Do your research when choosing where to teach or learn.

So what have your experiences with online learning been like?  Do the programs you teach in or learn in follow a 21st century model of online learning, or are you stuck with flat technologies?

7 Tips for New Teachers

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It’s that time of year again!  Time when the backpacks are full of fresh school supplies, the desks are clean, and the bulletin boards eagerly awaiting student work.

More importantly, a newly minted group of teachers is welcoming their students, ready to change the world.  With all of my recent graduates in mind, I share these words of wisdom for the new teachers out there:

1. This year is going to be hard. Really hard.  You are now going to be faced not only with applying all of that knowledge you soaked up in your certification program, but also with managing the ins and outs of a working classroom.  Manage your time wisely, and leave your classroom each day with everything ready to go for the next morning.

2. Remember how I said this year was going to be hard?  You’re going to mess up.  Sometimes you’ll see the screwup coming a mile away; sometimes it will sneak up on you silently.  Sometimes that lesson that you put hours into planning will fail spectacularly.  Sometimes you will lose your cool and say something you wish you hadn’t said. It’s okay.  We’ve all been there.  The first year of teaching is, in many ways, like the first pancake.  It’s ugly and a little burned around the edges, but it still tastes okay.  The next pancake is better, and so the next school year will be better as well.  Teaching well, consistently, takes practice.

3. Find your teacher tribe.  You need a community of strong, like minded educators to support you through the tough times and celebrate the successes.  You might not find this community at your school; stay in touch with the teachers you went to school with.  This support system will be critical to your success.

4. Stay in touch with your favorite professors.  They have been where you are, and they will be able to help you with important issues and big decisions. They can also provide you with lots of resources that you might never have thought of asking for during your certification program.

5. Leave your work at work.  If at all possible, don’t take assignments home to grade, and don’t give out your home phone number.  If you want parents or students to be able to contact you after hours, use email and set up a Google Voice number; you can get both voice calls and texts there without having your phone ring during movie night.  Giving yourself uninterrupted time to NOT be a teacher is vital to your mental health.

6. Reflect on everything you do.  I know you have a thousand papers to grade, and you need to set up lab equipment, and you have an inservice meeting to go to, but take 10 minutes and think, write, or talk about your successes and failures each day.  Not only will it reduce your stress level, but being honest with yourself about your teaching practice will help you to consistently improve.

7. If it’s not in the best interests of your students, don’t do it.  This is the dangerous piece of advice.  You are going to be asked to do things that are not in your students’ best interests.  You’ll be told to use a particular book, or give a particular test, or that “this is how it’s done here.”  Use your professional judgment, and critically evaluate everything you are told to do.  If you think it is going to have a negative impact on your students, talk to your administrators.  If they won’t budge, then DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. Significant change will never happen as long as teachers agree to maintain the status quo.  Be critical, and when you bring up an objection, be prepared to back it up with research and evidence.  Remember that you are not just a teacher; you are also an advocate for your students’ needs; you are often the ONLY advocate for your students’ needs. Know what hills you’re willing to die on.

Keep your chin up, let negativity roll off your back, and start teaching.  You got this.

Reflections on AERA: Where Do I Fit?

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I’m in the air right now on my way from San Francisco, to Dallas, and then home to Louisiana, after 4 days at the American Educational Research Association conference, and my brain is full. I experienced (and live tweeted!) many great sessions, spoke with a number of very interesting people researching important questions, presented my own research findings with a colleague, and did a little sightseeing. However, throughout my trip, I kept returning to one thought over and over. What is my role in all of this educational chaos?

For those of you who don’t know me, and what I do, I was a bit of an educational jack of all trades before getting my doctorate and becoming a professor at USC. I’m currently an offsite clinical professor, which means that I do my work from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, even though I am employed by the University of Southern California. A few years back, the Rossier School at USC began an innovative program, in partnership with 2U, called the MAT@USC. It’s a hybrid program, meaning that our students do academic coursework online, in a 70% asynchronous and 30% synchronous format, and also do observations and student teaching on the ground in physical classrooms wherever they are located in the world (which includes students in 43 states and 27 countries, last I heard). One of the greatest misconceptions about this position that I hold is that I don’t see or interact with my students. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Each course I teach holds a 2 hour, live class session each week, where my students and I can see each other over our webcams (all at the same time, Brady Bunch style), and we can hear each other speak over a teleconference line. We also use a chat box, video, PowerPoints (non-boring ones only!), poll questions, virtual whiteboards, and a number of other technologies. Our classes are dynamic, interactive, and student-centered, involving lots of small group work and student led discussions. I’ve been teaching in this program for almost 4 years, and I think I’ve maybe lectured for 2 hours TOTAL over that entire time. My students engage with me via our Learning Management System, but also through Twitter, Facebook, and via texting. I review draft after draft of papers and projects, and meet with students individually to talk about their work, their families, their hopes, and their fears. I stay in touch with them, and encourage them to pursue doctoral work or to find classroom placements in high needs schools, or to come back and serve as mentor teachers once they’ve got some experience under their belts. I grade, grade, grade, and actually enjoy it. I watch the “game tapes” of my classes (every session I teach is recorded) and continually try to improve my practice.

What do I do outside the classroom? I engage with other faculty on curriculum development. I serve on school wide committees. I mentor new faculty and doctoral students. I create and distribute technological tutorials for faculty and students. I read and make decisions on applications to our program. I present at national and international conferences on the best practices we’ve honed in on through our teaching, and even do a little research here and there, though its not technically part of my contract. In fact, my first publication should be coming out shortly, and I’ve got 2 other research projects in the works. Not bad for someone who teaches 32 units a year and has no research funding or grad assistants.

Above all, though, I am a teacher of teachers. Sure, I dabble in research when I have a question I need answered that the literature hasn’t addressed (and in my field at the intersection of education and technology, those questions are many), but primarily, I’m a teacher. It is what I love to do, and I dearly hope that this is a job I’m able to retire in. Teaching is my passion, and working with adult learners via innovative technologies is my niche.

So why is it that, when I come to a conference of educators and researchers, I am often met with puzzlement or disdain when they find out what I do? Is it that they aren’t aware that people like me exist? Is it that they aren’t able to fathom something between an adjunct and a research professor? Is it that they believe that, because I don’t have a long list of publications on my CV, my voice doesn’t matter? It occurred to me more than once during this conference, that if, instead of pursuing a doctorate and becoming a teacher educator, I had continued in my position as a classroom teacher in a high needs school near East L.A., I would have commanded far more respect from some of the people I met.

They were often surprised to see me at a conference like AERA. Surprised to hear that, when I encountered an area that desperately needed research in my field (finding articles for the lit review was a challenge), I worked with another offsite clinical colleague and did some research. Surprised that my school would support me in doing this, since it “isn’t my job.” I am fortunate, I know, to be at an institution that DOES value my contribution. That hired me on full time, compensates me competitively, gives me resources like technological tools and faculty funds, and allows me to participate and be a voice in the department, and not just in the classes I teach. What I don’t understand is why this is such a rare and shocking thing.

OF COURSE we need clinical (teaching) professors; we are educators, after all, and having highly skilled and effective teachers in a school of education is critical. I think we all know that there are some research faculty who do not fill this need (nor should they; they are brilliant at answering questions I couldn’t even begin to address). OF COURSE we should provide a voice for these clinical professors, so that they can engage fully as stakeholders in the process of educating teachers, and bring their teaching and content area expertise to program and course design. OF COURSE we should support them to be part of the research community, either as critical consumers bringing back best practices from conferences, or as small scale researchers answering questions that might be overlooked by the larger scale research community.

I don’t think I have an answer yet for this question of where I fit in in the educational chaos. I know where I fit in my school, and I am deeply satisfied with that role. So for now, I don’t think I need to know where I fit in on the larger scale. I do think, however, that this is a question that will need to be answered by the larger educational community very soon. People like me are important to the equation, and are becoming more prominent; I hope we continue to be for a very long time. And I hope that, as the years pass, and I visit AERA again and again, that the attitudes shift from incredulity, confusion, and occasional disdain, to acceptance, support, collegiality, and a focus on how we can all help each other do what we do best.