State of the New Teacher

I’ve been terrified to write about anything within a hundred miles of politics since I became a teacher. I don’t want to be known by my students, fellow teachers, parents, or readers as anything but me. I’m not “Mr. Moore, <insert political adjective> Teacher,” I’m just Mr. Moore and I care a whole lot about the kids in my community and everywhere else in this country for that matter.

 That being said, I have a hard time dealing with some of the political rhetoric in President Obama’s recent State of the Union address.

 “To win the future … we also have to win the race to educate our kids.”

My layman’s opinion of Obama is that he’s more hungry for a bi-partisan issue than for a superlative solution; in education, he’s found his golden calf. Oh, and is he ever worshiping it.

I’m sick and tired of politicians and people who’ve never set foot in a K-12 classroom outside their own record as a student mandating what should happen in mine. Race to the Top isn’t quite as bad as No Child Left Behind; I suppose I choose it as the lesser of two evils, but I’m not entirely convinced. At least there’s the promise of a little carrot with
RTTT unlike the threat of a big stick with NCLB. Then again, that’s exactly the issue; my generation of educators will be defined by our ability to respond to the false choice of carrots and sticks.

What motivates me to teach isn’t merit pay, a stable teaching job market, tenure, the promise of retirement, or the hope I’ll cultivate a crop of Ivy-Leaguers who will drop in to pay me laudatory visits. What motivates me is intrinsic and personal. I crave the benefit for my students that I had with two loving parents. I want them to graduate and go to college and graduate again, but I want both of those pieces of paper to mean something more than “I followed the rules, I did the tests.”

I think our inability to learn from the kind of “A” students who brought us mortgage-backed securities will mean a lot more than the mirage of Sputnik flying faintly overhead. C’mon Obama, where’s your hope? Why the switch to fear?

I’m not providing an in-depth analysis of his agenda in education, but the continual focus on words like “race” and “win” pit student against student, school against school, and community against community. Do we value citizens who collaborate or disparate tribes who deviate?

I’m upset with the kind of conversation that Obama’s rhetoric is leaving us with, but I hope there are a few diamonds in the rough. For instance, I was very skeptical at first about The Common Core Standards Initiative, but once I actually read through it in detail, I found it was much more broad than I expected. Rather than a blueprint on how and when to do X, Y, and Z, I found a narrative guideline about broad subjects. It wasn’t the prescriptive, rigid national curriculum I feared.

I’m also encouraged about the changing practices in higher education loans subsidized by federal funds and the push for more access to higher education in America for all. We just need to change how we prepare students to get to higher ed institutions. Right now, we can’t seem to get past the idea that standardized testing is the best and only way to motivate schools, teachers, and students.

 As a new teacher, an urban core teacher, and a formerly burnt-out overachiving suburban student during the NCLB era, I hope we can change the conversations about K-12 education and RTTT to make them about learning and not winning.

Just Throw It Up and See What Happens

Here at the end of the Digital Literacies Resource Development Retreat, I’m brought to my laptop in reflection. When I look back at the last three days I see in my mind the shadows cast by many incredible educators. I hear the voices of people from many corners of the country, and I feel the effects of being where trying new things is encouraged.

Being able to step away from our familiar desks at school, offices or couches at home, or that old familiar coffee shop affords us a unique perspective. While being disconnected from those locations, but connected in person to a cadre of high functioning professionals, there was a general feeling that a lot of important work was going to be done.

The retreat did not disappoint. Aside from breaking for meals and stopping around 7:00, there was near non-stop writing, developing, conversing, questioning, and thinking. There was never a moment when I wasn’t able speak my mind or pose an honest question to a variety of people and expect a thoughtful response.

With all the possibility for continual chatter, it struck me that so many of us were able to spend a majority of our time working independently. The collaborative atmosphere waved above our heads as a flag deeming that we had claimed this space and time as our own. There didn’t need to be a schedule about who would meet with whom at what times or in what ways; we just worked.

This weekend made me think about my dream classroom, about that school-topia we all wish to create for our kids. We want learners to be in control, but not be afraid to give it up. We want learners to write without fear of letting the words go in favor of new ideas. We want groups of learners to collaborate and work independently at their own pace in a way that allows the most authentic progress on projects.

The spirit of innovation and tinkering seemed inherent in our crafting of resources for the space on Digital Is. My resource evolved hourly it seemed, as I conferred with Christina Cantrill, Troy Hicks, Tracy Lee, and others. Being in an environment where learning, writing, and collaboration were all so closely tied emboldened me to tell new stories, ask different questions, and listen in new ways.

The philosophy of the retreat, to quote one of my fellow developers, seemed to be just throw it up, and see what happens. That attitude disarmed us all as we allowed it to permeate our thinking.

It wasn’t a philosophy that came about in a committee or a study group. The words uttered are simply a casual sampling of our evening activities. After a long day of work, we retreated to playing pool in the lounge. After considerable failure, at the price of great entertainment, it was Lindsay Sorenson who tried to encourage us to be confident in our play.

I’ve always thought that the willingness to participate and the ability to discover were closely related. The National Writing Project provides educators with such a rich variety of learning opportunities to participate in and then helps ensure that discoveries are able to happen.

If we can exploring the meaning of digital and how it affects what we call writing–a challenge both broad and complex–in such a setting, think about what such an atmosphere would allow our students K-12?

Deep in the Heart

Here at the Purple Sage Ranch in Bandera, TX, I am removed from the physical world I’m used to. The National Writing Project’s Digital Literacies Resource Development Retreat provides a space and time for me to do some much needed processing.

Being removed from our usual surroundings is an important factor in reflective writing. Doing any sort of self-assessment begs for new perspective, for a vantage point high on a hill or a stone seat deep in a river’s valley.

When I hear the word “digital” in my head, my brain’s gears shift and click into position. I’m on guard about this word: it’s loaded.

Being at a retreat focused on what Digital Is, I’ve promised myself time to meditate on paper as well as in digital space. I feel like my own removal from familiar mediums is vital in securing the fidelity of my time and thought.

I hope to write more this weekend about how we understand the spaces in which we write and learn: from Gibson’s dark cyberspace to TED’s beacon of light in learning.

Our first task: write a 140 character text which describes our purpose and exploration this weekend.
Wow, someone actually checks these alt texts? You win a prize!This tweet lays out some of the core ideas that I hope to tinker with. In fact, I should have included the word “tinker” in there now that I think of it. I foresee a product that packages my pedagogical philosophy into a sort of passport for people on the precipice in their practice. Now, say that five times fast.

Time to Exhale

This week, in an effort that may or may not be connected to the recent change in date, I tried something new: Yoga.

My life is wonderfully hectic and the draw of slowing down and unplugging is always under the surface. When I attended my first class the other night, I didn’t expect any personal revelations or quick fixes, just a time to remove myself from normal habits. After nearly an hour of controlled breathing and slow stretching we laid on our backs and did something interesting. Starting with our faces, we worked on contracting different muscle groups as much as we could while still breathing. The tension in each group made it difficult.

I feel like schools have been doing this with high-stakes testing and top-down control for a long time. We’ve been contracting and tightening our schedules and expectations so much that we’re blue in the face.

The next part of the exercise is releasing the tension. The contrast helps you understand how to let go of the stress you carry in different muscle groups.

It’s time for our schools to exhale.

We need to release all of this test-anxiety driven tension about global scores, rankings, and deficits and focus on what our schools are intended to: encourage learning, curiosity, and creativity.

Even with the most well-meaning of efforts, our leaders in education continue to push our conversations away from learning and toward measuring. Don’t get me wrong, I love data; I love Excel spreadsheets, SPSS, and analyses that aid me in doing my job (encouraging learning in kids) in a smarter way. But since I’ve started teaching (and long before that as a student) I’ve felt our focus as a profession has been misplaced. The role of schools is not to sort out dumb from smart, Ivy League from JuCo, or gifted from the herd. The school is an institution where every child deserves to find value and connection.

If we want our children to be ready to solve the problems of our future, we need to think about how we meet them where they are today. The 24-hour news cycle has us fixated on fast and flimsy data that fits into a lower-third or a soundbyte. We’re not going to beat–as though it were a win/lose situation–countries that have massively different social and economic structures; we need to work within our democratic structure and enable all kids to learn. When we can do that, we won’t be “ahead” and we won’t have “won,” but those shouldn’t be our goals anyway.

I see it like the difference between a body-builder and a performance athlete. Sure those countries “ahead of us” have some serious stats to flex, but what are they using them for? Have you ever seen a body-builder score a touchdown or run a marathon? I didn’t think so. Successful performance athletes and successful schools know it’s not about the muscle, it’s about the whole person/child.

In my own quest for better health, I’ve been trying to control my breathing and make slow deliberate improvements. In my quest for a kind of personal learning that I share with my students and peers, I’m learning to lose the unneeded stresses of immediate feedback and fast but flimsy data and find my center line. Now that my shoulders have hunched back into that familar tension, it’s time to step back from the keyboard, and breathe: something my students and I both need to do more often.