Muddling through the blogosphere

April 17, 2010
by blogwalker

A Tale of Two Title 1 Schools – What a difference a freeway exit makes!

I’m trying to imagine the climate at Oakridge Elementary School last week, based on my friend Alice’s description:

I arrived at my school Monday to a site abuzz. Coworkers had heard from teachers at other school sites in the district sharing that on Friday, they had received an email that was going out to “a select group of teachers” in our district, offering them the chance to work in high needs schools. Recipients were directed to a site for the Talent Transfer Initiative, a project from the Department of Education ARRA (stimulus) funding. More information about the background of the program can be found on the site for Mathematica, who will be evaluating this project. Although “priority schools” are not mentioned in the email, it’s pretty clear that in the district, my school in particular (being identified by the state as bottom performing) and the other five priority schools are the “target” school or schools for the program.”

It was only last month that the greater Sacramento area was treated to the SacBee’s front page feature story on the possible closing of Oakridge (which I blogged about here.)  I work in the next district heading south down Hwy 99.  Oakridge is situated in south Sacramento. The northern part of my district is also in south Sac. Not surprisingly, there is a good bit of flow through traffic in our transient Title 1 populations, with students starting the year in Sac City USD and then transferring into Elk Grove USD and visa versa. Therefore, ‘those students’ can potentially become our students.

If you continue down Hwy 99, past the off ramp for Oakridge, and take the Florin exit, as I did last Tuesday, and head over to David Reese Elementary School, you will find a more promising environment for teaching and learning – despite that fact that Reese is also in Program Improvement.  The school has had a series of administrative changes, but I’ve heard more than a few teachers refer to their current principal as “a gift.” And how many school websites feature their administrators and office staff dancing in chicken suits?!

My first stop at Reese was Mr. Alfonso’s 5th grade classroom.  I joined SECC cameraman Doug Niva as he interviewed a number of Mr. Alfonso’s filmmakers about their SEVA film entries. Hearing students share what they were learning from movie making (e.g., storyboarding, script writing, camera shots and angles, teamwork) made me wish all Title 1 students had access to project-based learning as part the school day  – even during  the month of April, which is often referred to as “the cruelest month of all” in terms of drill ‘n kill at Title 1 schools.

Mr. Alfonso was not in the classroom during the interviews. An off-track 5th grade teacher was covering his classroom (working with students on a vocabulary building exercise)  while Mr. Alfonso and a film team were somewhere else on campus working on a film production – with a Friday deadline. When the crew returned to the room, I was treated to a preview of The Secret to the CST, a production that would be shown during a Friday assembly to remind students about testing strategies. Hmmm…students consuming AND producing tips on test taking…

Thursday I was back at Reese, this time to join Teresa Cheung’s 4th grade students for an  interview with earthquake relief worker Leisa Faulkner who had just returned from  her latest visit to Haiti. Thanks to two of Mr. Alfonso’s filmmakers, the interview was recorded.

Next week, I’ll be back at Reese to help Ms. Cheung’s students decide which medium (podcasting, movie making, blogging) would be the best tool for taking Miss Leisa’s interview beyond the walls of the classroom and for honoring her request “to not forget Haiti.”

Will the Reese students achieve higher CST scores than the Oakridge students? I don’t know. No matter how demoralized the Oakridge staff is, I know Alice and many of her colleagues will continue to work well past contract hours in their race to level the playing field of  grinding poverty from the surrounding community – as will the Reese staff.  Come September, CST scores will be published. But if I were to place a bet…

Two Title 1 schools, both in PI, only a few off-ramps apart, but while one site is being taken apart from without, the other is rebuilding from within….

Sorry, Alice, but based on the apparent total lack of support coming your way from the “higher ups,” I’m betting on Reese.

March 9, 2010
by blogwalker

3 Area Schools Told: Reform or close

Are you kidding me… close Oak Ridge Elementary School?! In what is already less than a RPOAKRIDGESTUDENTS.embedded.prod_affiliate.4banner year for education in general, it was painful to start my morning with a local story, the Sac Bee‘s front page story: 3  area schools told: Reform or close.

Oak Ridge Elementary School is part of the Sacramento City Unified School District.  It also where my friend Alice Mercer teaches. Many readers of my blog also know Alice. And if you know Alice, you know that students who enter her computer lab have opportunities to  connect, create, collaborate, and share – and to experience what 21st century teaching, learning, and citizenship is all about. You also know, through conversations with Alice,  how hard the Oak Ridge team works to level the playing field for their students and to provide them with tools and programs that will take them beyond “basic.”

I’m not sure how to interpret Sac City Superintendent Jonathan Raymond’s response: “It’s not a list you want to have a school recognized on. We’re obviously disappointed about that. But looking at the numbers and the data, it’s not a surprise.

For the sake of the  students, parents, teachers, and administrators of Oak Ridge Elementary School, I hope having their school on “the list of the state’s lowest-performing schools” will not lead the site backwards into “the genteel unteaching of America’s poor.”

Hang in there, Oak Ridge Elementary!

December 20, 2008
by blogwalker

The Right to Learn

In the 140 classrooms studied, both low- and high-achieving students learned most in mathematics, reading, and writing, when teachers emphasized conceptual understanding, complex problem solving, advanced skills and performances, discussions of alternative solutions and points of views, extended writing, and student-generated ideas and products rather than restricted skills practice.” Linda Darling-Hammond, The Right to Learn

I pulled Linda Darling-Hammond‘s book off my book shelf a couple of weeks ago, when I first saw, via Facebook, her name as a suggested candidate for US Secretary of Education. She has been one of my favorite voices of reason since I was first introduced to her research about 10 years ago. In a nutshell, she has her finger on the pulse of teaching in a test-driven climate. I allowed myself to be swept away with visions of “what if…” What if we had a scholar, a dynamic researcher, and a practitioner advising the President?!?

Since the announcement of Arne Duncan as our new Secretary of Education, I’ve been in a bit of a tailspin. Two recent articles by Gary Stager and Alfie Kohn (thanks to Nancy Ludu for sending me this link) sum up my disappointment.

I suspect Tom Chapin’s A Song for Students might make for the perfect theme song:-(

July 8, 2007
by blogwalker

Overcoming the Achievement Gap – Can It Be This Simple?

To pass the time on my flights to and from NECC, I grabbed – and dusted off – a few magazines from my nightstand. The first article to catch my eye was from the April/May 2007 edition of George Luca’s edutopia: Overcoming Underachievement – How a simple writing exercise dismantled negative racial preconceptions. I’ve since reread this short (2 pages) piece several times. The article describes a study run by researchers from Yale, Stanford, and the University of Colorado, with many quotes from lead researcher Geoffrey Cohen. The researchers had a theory that “the disparity in academic performance between white and African American students is partly fueled by a psychological effect called stereotype threat.” To narrow the achievement gap, they proposed using “a simple fifteen-minute writing exercise.”

What really grabbed my attention about the experiment is that the setting could easily have been a middle school from my district: “… a middle school attended by about even numbers of African American and white students, mostly from middle or lower middle class families… this school already had positive forces in play – sufficient resources, devoted staff, academically prepared students…” Nevertheless, an “invisible obstacle” was blocking African American students from “fully exploiting those benefits.”

The 15-minute assignment (randomly assigned with a control group given a different set of choices) was “to choose from a list of attributes the ones they value, such as relationships with friends or being good at art, and write about them.” The researchers believed that allowing students to write about things they cared about would “counter the fear of being stereotyped long enough to boost their grades on the next assignment.” And it did. Grades improved not only on the next assignment, but on their final grades too.

It’s a no-brainer that letting students write on topics that are important to them fosters improved writing. But what jumps out to me is that the significant achievement gains were attributed to a single assignment. Teachers are under tremendous pressure right now “to fit it all in,” but I think they can always squeeze one more thing in if they see the value. I’m going to pass the article on!

Of course, I couldn’t keep from thinking what if… the students were invited to go “live” with their essays in a Web 2.0 environment?!?

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June 3, 2007
by blogwalker

Filmmaking in the Classroom – a different spin on “scripted”

Tuesday night I co-facilitated an event I will not forget for a long time to come, Elk Grove Unified School District’s First Annual Document Your Local History and Culture Film Festival. The evening was the culminating event for a collaborative project and journey I started about six month’s ago with David Byrd, a very gifted history teacher (and A3WP Teacher Consultant) who currently directs our district’s Teaching American History Grant.

A year ago, David and I had the good fortune to attend a workshop one county over (Placer County) on filmmaking in the classroom. We met via an interactive videoconference with an independent filmmaker from Canada Nikos Theodosakis. Nikos is passionate about the need for young people to have opportunities for learning and thinking and creating and growing. He sees filmmaking as a great avenue for students to realize their highest potential. By the end of the workshop, David and I made a commitment to bring filmmaking into our classrooms, in whatever format would work best for teachers willing to work with us. We headed back to our district with little more than a vision, but no real idea of how to make it happen or how it would all turn out. David pointed out that if we spent too long just thinking and talking and planning, instead of just jumping in and trying to muddle our way through it, the idea would die and be thrown on that great heap of other ideas in education call “Great Ideas That could Have Made a Difference…But No One Had the Courage to Try.”

Thanks to David, we could tap into a couple of funding sources: Our district’s Cal Serve Grant, which supports service learning for students, funded 12 digital history kits, including a digital camera, microphone and audio equipment and an external hard drive. Our district’s Teaching American History Grant, which supports professional learning for Humanities teachers, brought Nicko Theodosakis in live from Canada, via videoconference, for two all-day sessions. I knew I could count on support from my department, EGUSD Tech Services. We were ready.

In January we launched the project: “Documenting Your Local History and Culture.” Twelve teachers volunteered to pilot the project. Representing classrooms from grades 4 -12, we had a great group, ready to experiment and learn with us. We starting thinking about the possibility of having a spring film festival. The teachers would have less than four months to guide their student filmmakers through the process of creating documentaries. Many teachers started with one idea or concept of how this would work…and they finished with quite another. There were a lot of frustration along the way, mostly of a technical nature.

But the teachers persevered and their students persevered. And on the evening of May 29, over 100 teacher, students, and guests assembled in the Little Theater of Florin High School for our first-ever film festival, in which 30 films produced by teams of 2 – 20 students were previewed and showcased. It was an amazing event!

As the teachers stepped into the limelight along side their students to share something about the learning experience and to accept accolades and awards, David and I stood back in awe of all that this group had accomplished and in recognition of the power of filmmaking to take students beyond the four walls of the classroom.

This post is in response to two separate but related conversations shared with me on the heels of the highly successful film festival:

  1. From Florin High School teacher Bob LeVin: Florin HS will possibly become a remediation high school in the fall, which basically means no electives, just remedial classes. Having spent time in his wonderful English classes, where students are given opportunities to move beyond paper and #2 pencil tasks and are encouraged to work in teams to solve problems in order to produce multimedia projects, I am hoping that come fall, FHS will remain a traditional high school. But, not to worry, Bob has assured me that filmmaking will continue in his classes. All students should have access to a curriculum that prepares them to live in a rapidly changing world.
  2. From NWP colleague Glen Bledsoe: Glen’s superintendent has informed him that in the next school year, the district will embrace scripted lessons, with all teachers expected to be on the same page. Fortunately, for the students who enter Glen’s classroom in the fall, Glen plans “to continue to be innovative and creative–administrative micro-management be damned.”

I realize that administrators are under great pressure to raise test scores. I am also pretty sure that regular attendance helps students succeed and that students are more likely to attend classes if they find them interesting. So I am wondering how the “one size fits all” approach impacts attendance stats? I am also doubtful that following a set of scripted lesson will foster the kind of process and product found in the comic book style piece Glen shared via the NWP Tech Liaison listserv or the animation piece Kevin Hodgson posted to the Using Technology to Tell Stories site.

Next week, David and I start planning for the Second Annual EGUSD Student Film Festival. “Scripts” not “scripted”!

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January 28, 2007
by blogwalker
1 Comment

“It’s not on the Test”

Song writer Tom Chapin is my newest hero. Earlier this month, NPR posted his song It’s not on the Test, a humorous lullaby for stressed out students – and a sad commentary on the pressures classroom teachers are under to raise test scores. The first verse pretty much sums it up:

The test is tomorrow
But you’ll do just fine
It’s reading and math
Forget all the rest.
You don’t need to know
What is not on the test.

That digital divide just grows wider at many Title I schools, with a full day of reading and math – but no science or social studies. I Googled It’s not on the Test and saw, to no surprise, that it’s a popular topic in the blogoshpere, with several home school bloggers siting it as a reason to flea public schools.

But I still laugh every time I listen.

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