Thursday, February 16, 2017

How Can We Reach Absent Students?

After 12 years in the classroom, I find that I still have many questions, many areas of the craft where I still need to reflect and consider on my methods.  One area which has always left me pondering is how best to ensure that students who are absent truly understand what we discussed in class. Especially on days where a new concept has been introduced, or on the few days where our classroom might feature a more formal seminar, the only options seemingly available for absent students to gain the information were study sessions after school, or for the student to talk to his or her fellow classmates.  Recently, however, I have started using live streaming, and I'm excited about the possibilities that this will offer.

The How
I've long had a webcam through which students in our class have communicated with politicians, professors, and (hopefully soon) other classes.  Now, thanks to a little bit of help from our technology department, I am able to put this webcam to use for a live stream of our class.  Not every class is streamed, of course; as teachers we all know we have those days where students are working on test corrections, reviewing for a test, etc., where little would be accomplished from actually tuning in.  But on days when new concepts, discussion, explanation of an assignment, and the like are being covered, the stream is live.

We set up the webcam in the back of the room, and placed the camera so that it captured the whole of the front of the classroom, and kept as many of the kids out of the view as possible.  Going into this endeavor I knew that some parents might not want their students on the stream, so I have placed the camera in such a way so that few students are actually seen.  The start-up for this project took all of 5 minutes, but required the creation of a Youtube Channel.  When ready I simply open my Youtube account, access "Video Manager", and then select "Live Streaming." I then select "Events", and schedule an event.  I title the event with the class and the date, which makes it easy for students and parents to find the day missed.  After hitting "Go Live Now" Google Hangouts is automatically opened, and we are ready to stream.  The stream is accessible in live form through the Youtube channel (which is linked on my class website), but once the stream has been terminated, the captured video automatically uploads to the channel for later viewing.

What You Will Need
1. Webcam- can be purchased for as little as $20.  Make sure that the webcam has a multi-directional microphone, however; you will need this to record your voice, and it will allow you to move throughout the room.
2. Youtube Channel- this is easily created, and the link can be posted on your website or Google Classroom.

Things to Consider
Based on my initial efforts with this new resource, I have found a few things that should be considered when implementing this into your croom:
1. Make sure when scheduling the event through Youtube (see instructions above), click on "Advanced Settings" and turn off the "live chat".  Trust'll thank me later.
2. Strongly consider making this resource known to parents, both so that they can help keep tabs on student work, but also because it will give them an opportunity to let you know if you might need to move their child.  Often school acceptable use policies will take care of this potential issue, but it is a good way to ensure that you are covered.
3. Remind the kids that, while streaming, the microphone and webcam is picking up every word they say, and everything they do.
4. Watch for copyright issues.  I often use clips of video footage in class, but if it is live streamed the original makers of the video may report the use to Youtube, which will flag your recorded discussion.

When streaming class I often want the kids to see what is on my computer as opposed to the classroom itself.  In the actual class students can see my projector, but the projector usually does not come through well on the webcam.  Fortunately Google Hangouts allows for screensharing, meaning with one click I can switch to the computer.  In the short time that we've made use of this resource I've already had several students mention that they've tuned into the live stream on a day when they were sick, or ahead of time when they knew they need to leave early.  The benefit to the students seems clear, but I'm also excited for the potential for parents.  Giving the link to the parents allows for them to tune in and have a first hand look at their child's educational experience!  As a parent myself who would love to know what my son is doing from time to time, I see this as a benefit for our parents.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

"Qualified"- How Important Is That Word?

Sometime today, 50 United States Senators and the Vice-President will approve Betsy Devos as the next US Secretary of Education.  Such is the nature of a republic, but this vote will culminate in the selection of someone who is remarkably unqualified to hold a leadership position in education, or any position in education period.  Policy disagreements with Mrs. Devos aside, the biggest buzzword in this debate has been "unqualified."  Thousands of teachers across the country have spent the past several weeks contacting their Senator, sounding the call for her denial.  Several senators have publicly spoken out against her confirmation.  And the voice has been the same- Betsy Devos is unqualified for this position.  But this public outrage begs the question- how important are qualifications in the field of education?

The realities of teaching are daunting, to say the least.  Low pay and increased standards have led to a dramatic dearth in pre-service teachers, percentages at their lowest in 70 years.  According to a survey done last year by the Chronicle for Higher Education, only 4.2% of college freshmen expressed an intention to major in education.  Combine that with the impending retirement of the baby boomer generation, and one can understand the fear of many school districts across the country in being able to fill its classroom with teachers.  Most states require a degree in education, specialization in a content area (particularly at the secondary level), and a valid teaching license.  In my home state of Indiana, secondary teachers are expected to hold a degree in the content area and minor in education, at minimum.  But, in the face of a teacher shortage, districts across the country have begun to hire non-certified teachers to lead classrooms.  At a time when debates are raging over the qualifications of the person who will lead the US Department of Education, are we discussing enough the qualifications of the persons who will lead our individual classrooms?

I take education very seriously, not just as a professional, but as a father of two sons.  As a professional, I have found myself, after 12 years of teaching, to be a passionate educator who has never once questioned my chosen field.  I am decorated and proud to hold a position of respect at the state and national level.  But among the highest sources of pride for me is knowing I have earned every bit of it.  I believe in the importance of humility and I think most who know me would agree that I am not a "horn-tooter."  But I do appreciate positions of leadership and respect, and believe that I can fill those because I have worked extremely hard to earn those positions, and have a voice that lends experienced and credible insight.  Those educators of whom I have the utmost respect are those who bring similar credentials to the table and I have had the good fortune to have learned with, and from, some incredible educators.  

It is never lost on me that each day parents send their most precious gift to our school and our classroom, and trust me to provide them with quality teaching and guidance.  This is a heady responsibility and it has long been the guiding influence behind my drive to not only pursue further education, but continuous professional growth.  I want to be the best teacher possible for my students. I want to be the teacher I want my own sons to have.

I have no misconceptions regarding a belief that every classroom possesses a great teacher.  As much as I want this, it is impossible.  And I know that simply having the qualifications of being a teacher does not necessarily correlate with good teaching.  But I also know that caring about kids or being a good person also does not correlate with good teaching.  Passion for teaching is key, perhaps the most important element in effective teaching.  But it cannot, repeat CANNOT, be the only qualification.  I have no doubt that I am a better teacher for having had the opportunity to reflect on methods and theory, to have had the chance to learn from examples of real teachers, both good and bad, as a pre-service educator.  These "hoops" through which I jumped in my preparation were absolutely key in my growth as a teacher.  The teachers I remember, the teachers I respect, and the teachers I hope teach my own children are those that possess both qualifications and passion for the kids.

Full disclosure: I am not an administrator and therefore am not directly involved in hiring.  With that in mind, I am aware that some might find me naive in my view.  I fully understand that, as a nation and as individual states, we face a teacher shortage.  But the solution to that problem cannot be to fill those positions with those who are unqualified to hold the position.  It insinuates that anyone can walk in off the street and teach a class.  The solution seems clear- make the career more enticing.  I love what I do and would never leave for another field.  But even I recognize that the benefits for teaching are scant.  This must be considered or the education system runs the risk of being filled with unqualified employees.  In a climate focused on test scores, performance-based pay, AYP, and other like factors, does anyone think that these foci, as misguided as they may be (a subject for another blog) will be met or exceeded by an unqualified teacher?  

I am a professional, one who considers teaching to one of the great things I will get to do with my life and as such, I want to teach with other educators who will share that passion and the qualifications and expertise from which to speak and grow.  

I am a parent and as such, I want my children to be taught by teachers who are well-qualified in their field every step of the way.  I know that the passion for education will not be in every teacher my children have, or each I work with, but I do not believe that it is too much to ask for those teachers to be qualified.

Although, when a national standard is set so low as it just was (as I finished writing this Vice-President Pence cast the deciding vote on Mrs. Devos), perhaps this is too much.  

Friday, February 3, 2017

Why Teaching Government Has Never Been Harder

One of my favorite movies is "Gladiator".  Great acting throughout, even if a bit dramatic at times. One of my favorite Richard Harris roles without a doubt.  His time in the movie is short, but features a great bit of dialogue between Harris' Marcus Aurelius and Russell Crowe's Maximus- "There was once a dream that was Rome.  You could only whisper it.  Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish, it was so fragile."  The Caesar was making a reference to the "ideal" of Rome, and how it compared to the reality.  He was expressing a desire for Rome to live up to its ideal.  I've thought a lot about that recently.

I teach government.  I love politics and government.  I am more than aware of the expectations leveled on a government teacher.  As a public servant it is my job to help ensure that my students will leave our four walls knowing, at the least, a basic understanding of how their government operates. You can see it in the prologue of the Indiana Government Standards, which state:

United States Government provides a framework for understanding the purposes, principles, and practices of constitutional representative democracy in the United States. Responsible and effective participation of citizens is stressed. Students understand the nature of citizenship, politics, and governments and understand the rights and responsibilities of citizens and how these are part of local, state, and national government. Students examine how the United States Constitution protects rights and provides the structure and functions of various levels of government. 

Interesting words here- "purpose", "responsible", "effective", "citizenship"'s an expectation of me to push these words, these ideas, to inspire a desire to participate, vote, trust in their government.  That has never been harder than it is right now.

Now before anyone starts claiming that this teacher is now going to start pushing some kind of agenda on his students, check it.  I've always held the philosophy that I must ensure that multiple perspectives are heard in our classroom, and that this requires me to keep personal thoughts largely to myself when in the croom.  But my students are not blind.  They read the news, they watch the proceedings on C-SPAN.  They really do.  And they see what I see:  a government focused on political game play rather the best interest of the people.

Yesterday I posted my reasons for fighting against the confirmation of Betsy Devos as Education Secretary.  I've been joined by countless educators, parents, and private citizens across the country in calling our Senators and expressing our frustration in such a pick.  By any measure Mrs. Devos is remarkably unqualified to hold this position.  She is unqualified to be a teacher for that matter.  In a recent interview with Erica Hill on "On The Story", a Devos surrogate defended her with the claim that she met "minimum qualifications" which point I shook my head in bewilderment.  In a country filled with actual educators, the best we can do is someone who meets "minimum qualifications" (a statement which is, in itself, questionable).  Monday morning, at 6:30am, the Senate will begin voting on Mrs. Devos, and it would appear that, despite two Republican Senators stating that they will not vote for the nominee, the vote will end in a tie, at which point the Vice President, as his Constitutional duty prescribes, will cast the tie-breaking vote putting Mrs. Devos into the position of Secretary of Education.  The reality of this is sobering to say the least, but what this represents is far more depressing.

As I mentioned in my post yesterday I've been around politics for a while.  I know that I won't like everyone elected to public office, I won't like every decision they make, and I won't like every Cabinet Secretary a President nominates.  I don't have to, as it is the nature of American republicanism that the officials elected to represent us are not always the ones for whom I voted.  But I should be able to expect qualified individuals to hold a position of influence and power.  I should expect that someone who will be "America's Top Educator" to actually be an educator.  But that won't happen; on Monday the Senate will confirm Mrs. Devos.  And in the absence of a vote based on legitimate qualifications, I have to assume that the "yea" votes will be based purely on politics, and not out of a true desire to do the right thing.  This. Is. Depressing.

And it is not a Republican problem; Democrats are every bit a part of this problem as well.  I'm tasked with teaching the "ideal" when my students are fully aware of the reality, and when they ask me the inevitable "Why" when it comes to government action, it is getting increasingly harder to answer.  It is truly difficult to combat increasing levels of cynicism in our students when I'm trying to combat it myself.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Why "No" To Betsy Devos- Here's my Answer's been quite a week.  And that's putting it mildly.  But for many teachers, the concerns with President Trump began well before he took the oath of office and officially became President of the United States.  It right and truly began when he nominated Betsy Devos for the position of Secretary of the US Department of Education.  Over the past several weeks I have joined thousands of educators around the country in working for and very vocally calling for her nomination to be snubbed.  Last night I was asked, very fairly, why.  All bullfeathers (wink to President Teddy) aside, what is my problem with Mrs. Devos, and how might her confirmation affect our children 2, 4, 10 years down the road. goes.

Let me begin by focusing thought on the primary criticisms which have been leveled at Mrs. Devos, of which there are three:
1. Her substantial donations to the campaigns of several politicians, some of which sit on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, in front of which she had her hearing;
2. Her advocacy for school choice and voucher initiatives;
3. Her lack of experience in education.
With this focus in mind, allow me to talk about my reaction to each, and make my issues with her clear.

Fact- Betsy Devos has a ton of money.  Fact- she, and her family, have given that money, in large sums, as donations to candidates.  Fact- she has said that she expects some return on those donations.  Fact- Some of the politicians to which her money has gone have influential positions in the US Senate from which to help her secure her confirmation.  Fact- this doesn't bother me.  This might surprise some, but the fact is that I've been around politics a long time (I worked my first election when I was 7).  Perhaps it is a sad indictment of where we are, but as a realist I tend to not get wrapped up in who gave money to whom as much as I focus on other issues.  Money is a reality of politics; it's hard to get elected without money.  Would I prefer that Senators like Todd Young (who was given a substantial donation from Mrs. Devos) recuse themselves during a vote like this- yes.  But that is not reality, and we can talk all we want about unicorns, but it doesn't mean I'll ride one in my lifetime.

School Choice
Here is where my issues begin to take shape.  Honestly, school choice is something with which I am ok.  For me, there are three great things that I'll get to do with my life- be a husband, be a father, and be a teacher.  I take my job very seriously (some might say too seriously, but...I don't understand that thought, so whatever).  I look at education from the perspective of both a teacher and a father.  Very little means more to me than good education.  And to that end, I believe that parents should have a choice about where their child goes to school.  But, I am also a consequence guy.  I believe that every choice comes with potential consequences, and these must be weighed with the choice.  Every student is given the right to a free public education (and yes, I do believe this is a civil right).  However, if a parent does not wish for their child to attend a public school, that is their choice.  They can send their child to a private school, charter school, Montessori school, etc.  I will always stand up for that choice.  AND, I truly have no issue with these schools teaching a curriculum of their choice (even though I personally wouldn't want my own children to be taught in such a fashion).  So...what's the problem, because it sounds like I am aligned with Mrs. Devos in this belief.  Here's the rub- the reason those schools can teach what they want is because they do not receive any money from the government, at least they are not meant to.  It's this pesky thing called "separation of church and state" (I know, I know- this phrase isn't in the Constitution, it was used by Tom Jefferson in a letter to a group of Baptist ministers in Danbury, CT, but the First Amendment seems pretty clear on this subject).  BUT- these schools are receiving government money, in the form of vouchers, which help parents pay for the often very high tuition of a private school.  Uh oh, there are those consequences- by passing on the free public education you have to pay the tuition of a private school.  So taxpayer money is going to a school teaching a curriculum that may be religiously focused.  That doesn't sit well with me, but I can even make my peace with that issue.  Here is where I have a real issue:  these schools are often not being held to the same standards as a public school.  They should be expected to deal with the impact of standardized tests, and they certainly should be held to the same standards of accessibility to students who may face disabilities.  But they are not.

Honestly, this is my biggest hangup with Mrs. Devos.  She has no experience in public education.  None.  I've heard many of her supporters argue against this point by saying that she cares about our children.  That is, without a doubt, important.  In fact I would argue that the most important qualification for anyone in education is passion for our kids.  But THIS SHOULD NOT BE THE ONLY QUALIFICATION.  Every single American should care about our kids.  If I were in a position to hire/fire, I would never hire someone who didn't have this passion, but I would also not hire anyone who only had this qualification.  For all the talk about education, it is a job that is truly impossible to understand without first-hand experience.  Teachers are often handed the blame for poor school performance, and we shoulder that blame.  No one feels the pain of failure quite like a teacher.  Few ache for our students like a teacher.  Quite frankly, I'm insulted that any teacher would be made to look to someone who doesn't have that first-hand experience.  Say what you want, but until you have stayed up until 1am to grade papers and plan a lesson, and then gotten back up at 4am to finish; until you have sat down with a student, and listened to them share the pain in their life, and cried with that student because you see that you love and care for that student more than most others in their life; until you have dealt with the realities of being a classroom teacher, please do not make the assumption that you have any idea what being an educator is really all about.  The day to day work with our students is not a business transaction; it is an endeavor in love.

How could the confirmation of Betsy Devos affect our kids directly?  In some ways- not much.  Much of education is still handled by Boards of Education at the state level.  But if the Department of Education at the federal level does nothing else, it can affect national policy on vouchers, which could result in millions of dollars, which are meant to be used for the improvement of public schools, being taken from said schools.  This means less money for facilities, curriculum, professional development, resources, teacher pay, etc.  And it certainly is there to ensure the basic rights of every child in schools across the country.  If there was no other reason to fight her confirmation, it would be enough to see her lack of understanding of national law like the IDEA, or Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which works to ensure that our students with disabilities are given the resources that they require, and more importantly, deserve.  When asked about this law in her confirmation hearing, Mrs. Devos appeared to know very little about these requirements, and that alone should scare anyone.

Why have I, and countless other figures in education, fought this confirmation?  Because Betsy Devos simply does not have the resume to warrant such a position.