Friday, August 31, 2012

Do as TJ Said, Not as He Did, Except Sometimes

Martha "Patsy" Jefferson
Let's get this straight: I'm not recommending we follow most of Thomas Jefferson's advice on education.  A forward thinker in many areas, his views on education were often confined by his position as a Privileged White Guy.

Check him out, writing to his daughter, Patsy.  He starts out manipulative, "The acquirements which I hope you will make under the tutors I have provided for you will render you more worthy of my love, and if they cannot increase it they will prevent it's diminution." Then TJ follows with a curriculum entirely lacking in the subjects most interesting to him; math, science, classical history, philosophy, and comparative theory of government:

"With respect to the distribution of your time the following is what I should approve.
  • from 8. to 10 o'clock practise music.
  • from 10. to 1. dance one day and draw another
  • from 1. to 2. draw on the day you dance, and write a letter the next day.
  • from 3. to 4. read French.
  • from 4. to 5. exercise yourself in music.
  • from 5. till bedtime read English, write &c."
Poor Patsy; I wonder if she ever said anything her father was remotely interested in. For future voters, of course, TJ held education in the highest regard. His essays on the topic did what his writings often did, which is to reflect the highest refinement and cleanest meat of the current argument for his side, which was in this case in 1778, the side of public education:

"Laws will be wisely formed, and honestly administered, in proportion as those who form and administer them are wise and honest; is better that such should be sought for and educated at the common expence of all, than that the happiness of all should be confided to the weak or wicked:.."

TJ invented the revolving book holder
I want this so much.
When I can read that without hearing, "except for girls, and black folk like some of my grandkids, and certainly not Indians," I find it heartening and true and still so relevant. If Patsy ever read it, I imagine it got on her nerves.

That's the trick here -- to use Thomas Jefferson as an example of an agile, searching, tremendously creative mind, and as example of someone who did real and permanent good in our society . . . without taking all of his contradictory advice literally.  What's inspiring and admirable about TJ to me is the way he used every bit of what he learned to do something cool--from designing (and redesigning and redesigning) his own house and gardens to using the French he learned as a teen to bring the French around to our side during the revolution and after. He read Plutarch's Lives in Latin and used his analysis of the leadership shown to come to conclusions like the one about education above.

TJ's formal education involved lectures, dead languages, rote memorization, and lots of math and logic problems(1)No self-respecting educator would prescribe such a curriculum to kids of today.  But what his example tells us, or at least me, is that the pressure to purchase or learn the latest curriculum is false.

Even Thomas Jefferson didn't foresee the skills his own daughter would really need or that would make her happy. We don't know that about our kids, either. Instead, the pressure on us as teachers and community members is to help kids recognize internal motivation and to act on their best impulses with persistence and curiosity; to make them capable of pursuing life, liberty, and the happiness in ways we never dreamed of.

This video from of Ewan McIntosh at TEDxLondon  is one of those fun times where someone on the internet says what I'm thinking much, much more elegantly than I have (Am assuming here that my vast readership missed the first time I linked to this video):

So maybe Latin isn't the only way to get kids there. Neither is MangaMath. But I think there are some principles that have given us active, hungry problem finders, compassionate, organized, effective leaders, wise followers, and beautiful voices over the centuries. I'll be thinking about those in this space this year.

1. Peterson, Merrill D., ed., The Political Writings of Thomas Jefferson, (Thomas Jefferson Foundation,1993), 18,19.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

In Which Project Based Learning and Troy Aikman Make My Day

I am so excited about football season starting! If you know me, you may be thinking my account has been hacked, but no, it’s really me. Here’s how we got here:
First, my district is getting fired up about Project Based Learning. So to catch up on the conversation, I’ve been watching videos at Edutopia. I was suspicious about PBL being another “this will change everything!” educational trend, but it’s really just a fancy name for all the coolest things you remember doing in school (like this suped-up soil project).

Second, I was talking with an esteemed colleague (e.c.) about his youth league football season starting up.  He shared an ESPN video that he shared with me (at top: watch it to about 3:10 to get the full effect – goosebumps), and it gave me this epiphany:

Coaches are the most successful teachers in school.

Now, I don’t mean in their health classes or whatever they’re also teaching (I’m thinking of you, Meathead the Physics Coach).  I mean, on Friday nights, their students are so excited about the subjects the coaches are teaching—physical skills, plays, teamwork, leadership and followship—that they are practically throwing up before the game.  They want to win! They want to show their whole town how hard they’ve worked and how much they’ve learned!
Gratuitous Photo of Troy Aikman (Allison v. Smith)
True story, folks: In the history of schools, no one has ever felt that way about an end-of-six-weeks grammar test. 

I want that! I want kids so excited about being successful that they practically pee their pants (but don't actually; that's why I don't teach elementary). When that kind of excitement has been present in my classroom or others I've seen, it's when we've come alongside the kids to make them ready to meet a goal that's bigger than our tiny classroom world. When we've coached.

And I think that's a very old-fashioned, sound educational theory. In TJ's time, kids followed grown-ups around and their educational outcomes were things that really, really mattered and that could make a kid proud: things like "I helped that calf learn to take milk from a bottle so my sister can drink its mothers' milk," or, "I made that stepladder that my dad can use in the storeroom," or maybe, "I learned the Latin phrase that I have to say in front of the grownups at the school exhibition." 

Watching the boys in the ESPN video talk about the "fire inside" as they approach the field, watching the coach remember his the coaches who'd mentored him after he lost his dad, watching Troy Aikman remember the pride he felt walking through the hallways on Friday nights...I get all tingly. and it's not all because Troy Aikman is the cutest thing ever. It's because this is why we all got into the kid business to begin with.  We wanted to put fires inside kids that keep burning throughout their lives.  We wanted to give them clear eyes and full hearts.

So I'm excited about football season because I plan to learn a LOT about how coaches have been way ahead of the curve on this stuff.   And because I can see more of Troy Aikman. He's still playing, right?     Right?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

App Review: Little Bird Tales

Good news/bad news about the app/webpage, Little Bird Tales: The good news is, it's super fun. TJ and I approve. Bad news: I didn't discover it before the end of summer.

Little Bird Tales is a slick update of ye olde "write a picture book and record yourself reading it" project. I still have my first self-published storybook somewhere, with the tape that I recorded on the classroom Sony portable.  The best-seller featured a unicorn/pegasus (pegacorn? unisaurus?) who rescued a princess, and the turn-the-page sounds were made by my friend Andy clanking the teacher's keys on a coffee can: very high tech.

In the 21st Century (dun dun dun!) version of this project, Little Bird Tales provides a one-stop shop for combining the pictures (hand-drawn or photos) with narration. Kids can publish to the web and share with family members or even the Little Bird Tales community.  Like, check out this adorable how-to I found. How cute is her voice?

For the classroom, one of the things that stand out to me is the photo option--lots of teachers were imaginative little kids, but our students today are often more comfortable with nonfiction. Reluctant readers, kids on the autism spectrum, ESL kids, even just regular red-blooded American boys may be reluctant or unable to produce stories that are made up. 

If the goal of the activity is to practice, say, the parts of a story or descriptive writing, nonfiction can be more solid ground for these kids. I can imagine an English Language Learner writing about a day in the life of someone who still lives in her home country, or a third grade boy writing about his uncle's motorcycle. In both cases, photos and found illustrations would make the project look great and still meet the goals of the lesson.

At home, I think this is a great way to handle thank you's and momentos. Having the kids send "What We Did on Vacation" stories to grandparents would've been fun ways to keep the girls writing this summer, but I'll just have to remember this around the holidays. We'll write thank-you notes using pictures from Christmas morning and some drawings from the kids. With a few clicks, I can package the story and send it off to the grandparents via a simple link.Who says you can't torture children with manners and writing lessons at the same time?

TJ and I say:
  • Does it do what it says it'll do? It says it encourages creativity and expression. It does; simple and straightforward, the app doesn't push kids into a box and allows for a lot of experimentation.
  • Does it solve a current problem in the classroom?  Kinda. Kids need to hear themselves read and this is one way to help them do it. It's also another of many publishing options for projects, and it accomplishes work that I'd normally combine other apps to do.
  • Does it create a new opportunity in the classroom?  Yes. Great end product for group projects, and there are many ways to use it...and you don't need an iPad for every kid to make it work.
  • Would Thomas Jefferson think it was cool? Yes. He liked writing, pictures, and listening to himself talk, from what I can tell. I think he'd like seeing kids tell stories, true or made up.
Little Bird Tales gets a thumbs-up.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012


Y'all, I'm flipping out.

It's a zillion degrees and that means a new school year is looming. Brand new in my role as a technology trainer, I panicked a little this week.  I've been worrying, "Will I have all the right answers? Do I really know enough?"

As usual, panic has not spurred me to action. It's had me zoned out in from of the Olympics with my iPad open to some educational tech story.  Fortunately, somewhere between reading about flipped classrooms and watching Gabby Douglas flip her way to gold, I remembered that I had my thinking all backwards.

You've heard of flipped classrooms, right? In a flipped class, the teacher videotapes her lecture and students watch it at home.  Then, during class, the teacher and students work together on practice problems and assignments.  I like the sound of this model because it makes the teacher a coach, watching the kids solve problems and correcting their form.

I'm not sure that the lecture is the only thing that needs to flip in the classroom. Ewan McIntosh gave a thoughtful and inspiring speech at TEDex London asking if the whole "problem-solving" mentality needs to flip as well.  Watch this clip below and think about the way gymnasts like Gaby learn and set goals.
(give it a second and you'll clue in to his accent)
McIntosh says, "I want a generation of young people who can go out into the world and find problems that need really solving and have the capacity to go out and start solving them."  I love how this way of thinking embraces failure, misdirection, and restarts. I love how it brings teachers, students, and the rest of the world into a community of learning, one where everyone can and should be contributing to their fullest potential.

And I really love how it lets me off the hook on the knowing-everything issue.  It just isn't my job to know all the answers: even if I did they might be answers to questions no one cares about. Helping teachers and students ask good questions, to listen to each other, and to hear from and interact with their community...that's my job.  I don't think that's too high a bar for me to flip over.
photo by Mike Blake, Reuters