The second chapter of Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence discusses the importance of school culture in student learning. If you have ever worked in a school with a negative school culture, you will find yourself nodding as you read and highlighting several sentences in every paragraph. Reading this chapter, I reflected on the school cultures in several schools where I have worked or attended as a student, and Berger is absolutely right that culture is the bedrock of a successful school. If the school culture does not celebrate excellence and is not a safe place for students to learn (not just safe from physical or mental abuse or bullying but also a safe place for taking risks), then it is nearly impossible for individual teachers and students to hope they can be successful. Several movies about excellent teachers show us examples of teachers who successfully fight against a negative school culture to help their students achieve, but the fact that these teachers have movies about them should tell us how hard it is. If it were easy to fight a negative school culture, we wouldn’t have movies about the teachers who did it.
It did not take long for me to understand that administration is key to establishing a positive school culture. When I was a student teacher, I didn’t really see what, exactly, administrators did all day. It seemed to me that all the important work in schools was done by teachers and students, and administrators mattered very little. I said as much in a journal I wrote as part of an assignment in my English Education program. We had a doctoral student who graded some of our work in that program. She was a veteran English teacher. All she said in response to my journal was “I would be interested to know how you feel about this in a few years.” She didn’t tell me I was naive, but that’s exactly what I was. I kept her comment in mind, and later, when I realized what she meant, I truly felt like an idiot. Unless an administration is behind the culture and is a positive influence on the culture, it’s just not going to happen. Berger begins this chapter by describing visiting a school where the principal clearly didn’t want him there and clearly didn’t want to be there himself. He was marking time until retirement. He refused to meet Berger when Berger visited the school. There are a few teachers who want to hear what Berger has to say because they want change. But, as Berger says about the school, “Conditions are so bad that I hardly know what to say” (33). I actually want to ask Berger about this school when he visits us in preplanning precisely because I have a hunch they are still struggling, if they are still around, because their leadership was unwilling to establish a positive school culture. Their leadership didn’t even want to try. Unless the leadership is willing to make changes, nothing will happen, no matter how earnest the faculty and students are. It is too much of a losing battle to fight. If they were able to make some positive changes, then they likely did it after the principal left the school.
Let me tell you about the cultures of a few schools with which I am familiar.
The first school is a small elementary school. Funding has been slashed to the point that the school has no librarian, but parents volunteer to staff the library. Student artwork adorns the walls. Creativity is celebrated. Students are given the opportunity to engage in a variety of arts: music, visual art, drama, and dance. Sixth graders are paired with kindergarten buddies, much as Berger describes his own school doing. The buddies meet regularly, and the older children serve as mentors and friends. The principal knows students. Every student is accountable. It’s a small school, and students are not lost in the crowd.
The second school is a rural combined middle and high school. Students tend to come from backgrounds that do not celebrate academic achievement. Gangs are problem. Yes, even in this rural school. But the principal largely ignores the major behavior issues in the school and prefers to stick his head in the sand because he’s not sure how to change it, or maybe because he isn’t willing to try. Students threaten violence against teachers, and the students might be suspended, but then they are back, and the teachers and students have that issue hanging in the air. Students lock a teacher out of her classroom, and the principal thinks it’s funny. One of the administrators’ own children leaves a classroom without permission, through the window. Thankfully, the school has one level. An administrator tries to convince a teacher to change a student’s failing average from a 40% to a 70% so he can graduate. Otherwise, she says, he will wind up in jail. He had retaken three courses in that same subject that year, and he needed to pass all three of them. He passed two.
The third school has students are fairly good, for the most part, and they understand the importance of a good education, or at least good grades, but the kind of excellence celebrated at the school is not respect for the excellent work done but rather the grade or AP score achieved. Unfortunately, there is a bully at the helm of the school. Certain teachers and staff are regular targets of verbal and mental abuse. Unfortunately, there is little recourse because the bully is in a leadership position. A great deal of attention is paid to appearances, but the school has a foundation built on sand, and there is little attention paid to the most important aspects of building a positive school community.
The fourth school has collegial, hardworking, intelligent leadership with great ideas. The students are polite and hardworking. They take pride in their work. The school is not only invested in building a strong school culture, but in establishing itself as a positive member of the neighborhood and city community at large. The expectation in the school community is that people help each other out. Doors are held open. People help out with heavy loads. People greet each other warmly. Achievement is celebrated.
It is just about impossible to overstate the importance of establishing a school community that supports all of its constituents. Berger describes how positive peer pressure is a part of his school community, and I have seen positive peer pressure be a force for good in my own experience, as well. When students expect excellence out of each other and hold each other to high standards, you’d be amazed what can happen in a school; as Berger notes, it is a powerful motivator.
Berger says that “Every effective school I’ve seen has a strong sense of community,” even if their resources and settings differ wildly (41). And community only happens when all the stakeholders—faculty, staff, students, parents—have a voice and take pride in being a part of what is happening at the school. Berger describes building a foundation for community, starting with the building. His description of an inner city school he visited is compelling enough to quote in its entirety:
The building was surrounded by trash: fast-food boxes, plastic bags, food, broken bottles, wet newspapers, shopping carts, and needles from drug users. People sat on the curb in front of the school drinking from paper bags; the liquor store was across the street. The building had the architectural look of a prison—massive exterior walls of water-stained concrete with few windows. The front entrance was a battered metal door covered with graffiti; if you banged loudly enough they would buzz you in for inspection by a security guard. The boy’s [sic] bathrooms had stalls with no doors, broken toilet seats, and graffiti on the walls and metal mirrors.
This was an elementary school. (45)
I have to say I nearly jumped out of my seat when I read that last sentence. Can you imagine? As Berger says, “If politicians or business leaders were compelled to send their own children to this school, I would guess we’d see changes in the building fairly soon” (45). He says that “Architects point out that it’s easy to see what is valued in a culture by looking at which structures are built with expense and care” (46). The sad thing about the description of the inner-city school that Berger visited is that I wasn’t shocked that a school like that existed. I was only surprised it was an elementary school. As Berger says, if we are expecting students to go to dilapidated schools that look more like prisons, it is no wonder the schools are underperforming.
I enjoyed reading this chapter a great deal, and I agreed with what Berger says. Building a strong school community is not easy and takes time, but it is important work. It can be done anywhere, even in places with few resources, but it has to start with leadership that cares enough to support the work. And frankly, it isn’t the kind of work that is being supported by a society driven by test data as the only marker of success.
The message of the first chapter of Ron Berger’s book An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students is the importance of student models. I think a lot of educators are afraid to use models because they want student ideas to be original, and they are afraid students will simply copy the models. It is our job as an educator to ensure that they don’t. I think most students really want to be creative and original. Sometimes, however, they don’t know how to start with project until they see how someone else did it. Models give us all something to strive for.
Berger also shares his process for collecting student work. He says, “One of my jobs as a teacher, I feel, is to be an historian of excellence, an archiver of excellence” (29). He doesn’t just use the models and portfolios of student work to show his students. He also uses them to show others what his students have learned and what they can do. Several anecdotes describe the surprise followed quickly by skepticism that others can feel upon seeing his students’ work. If the students are given time to draft, revise, refine, and really wrestle with their learning, they can produce amazing things. I have often found that giving students choices about how to present their learning really awakens them. I have also had students that were much more concerned about their grades than learning and doing excellent work they could be proud of, and that pressure was often external as much as it was internal. Sometimes I really wish we could do away with grades completely, as I think grades become the point of learning instead of learning being the point all on its own.
Another issue Berger describes with great honesty is the fact that his students are mostly white and rural. When he has presented to audiences teaching students of color in urban environments, they are skeptical that their students can do the same great work. Berger says it is about a school’s culture. Teaching is hard no matter where you do it. It’s harder when you don’t have what you need.
When Berger comes to visit our school in preplanning, I hope he brings his students’ work. I have to admit I am curious about it after reading his description of it.
A teacher on the English Companion Ning recently posed a question about which apps to buy with the $50 her school was giving her to outfit her iPad. You can find these sorts of posts all over the edublogosphere, so perhaps my contribution isn’t worth much, but for what it’s worth, these are the apps I think an English teacher should have, along with their current prices.
Notability ($1.99). Notability is a note-taking app that allows you to type your notes or write them with your finger or stylus. You can import PDF’s, annotate them, and export them out again, which is great for literary analysis and annotating texts. It has a fairly intuitive interface with several kinds of editing tools, including a pencil, highlighter, eraser, and scissors for cut/paste. You can record and play back audio and incorporate other media. It does a lot more than the Notes app that comes with your iPad, though that is the app I frequently see people use when they are taking notes on the iPad. It’s an incredibly useful note-taking app.
iMovie ($4.99). iMovie is a great movie-making app. The iPad app is a scaled-down version of the iMovie app for Macs, but it still has a lot of options. You can use the app to create tutorials for students or presentations, and students can use it to demonstrate their learning of a concept through digital storytelling. One of our teachers reported that he liked it better than the Mac version because it was more intuitive on the iPad.
Explain Everything ($2.99). This app is great for demonstrating concepts, similar to Khan Academy-type videos. One of our teachers uses apps like this to have students explain their learning. The videos can then be exported and posted in a place where others can view them. If you are looking for lighter apps, Educreations (free) and ShowMe (free) are also good, but they don’t have all of the features that Explain Everything has. If you teach younger students, you might also look at ScreenChomp (free).
Evernote (free). Evernote is fabulous. I take almost all my notes on the computer in Evernote. Be sure to check out Nick Provenzano’s Epic Evernote Experiment to learn more about using this app. It is so easy to clip websites and insert images into this app, and what makes it nice is that you can use it on all your devices, and it will sync so that your notes are available everywhere you go. You can even log in to your account on the web and access your notes from a computer that doesn’t have the program installed.
Flipboard (free). You can use Flipboard to create personalized magazines full of content you are interested in. What makes Flipboard a game-changer and nudges Zite, a similar app, out of the way is Flipboard’s ability for you to follow Twitter hashtags using the app. One I would recommend you follow right now is #engchat. A few others, particularly if you are integrating iPads are #ipadchat, #ettipad, #ipadedu, and #ipaded. You can also integrate the app with Facebook, and there are several suggested topics if you don’t know how to start. Browsing on Flipboard is as much like browsing through a print magazine as is possible on an iPad. I love it.
Shakespeare’s Sonnets ($13.99). This app is expensive, but it is so worth it if you spend any time teaching Shakespeare’s sonnets in your classes. It includes all of Shakespeare’s sonnets, both in print and read by actors and scholars such as Sir Patrick Stewart, David Tennant, Stephen Fry, and James Shapiro. In addition, it includes the Arden Shakespeare notes and commentary by David Paterson. It’s a fairly large app, as you might imagine with all that media. I am continually having to remove it to free up space when I’m desperate, but I always wind up adding it again. It is the 800-pound gorilla of Shakespeare apps.
Shakespeare Pro ($9.99). Shakespeare Pro has all of Shakespeare’s plays, all of the sonnets, other poems, and Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, as well as a concordance and a glossary. It also includes, if you care about that sort of thing, a collection of portraits and quotes. I find I don’t use them that much. Through the app, you can also create an account with Shakespeare Passport, which will give you discounts at all kinds of Shakespeare venues.
Book Creator ($4.99). Book Creator allows you to create multimedia books on the iPad. You can send them to friends, submit them to the iBookstore, or read them in iBooks. Students of all ages can use it, from pre-K to college. Teachers can use it to create their own books, too. It has an intuitive interface and allows for importing pictures, video, music, and even recording your voice.
Haiku Deck (free). Haiku Deck is a presentation app that allows you to create beautiful presentations. It finds images that match your words, or you can personalize it with your own photos and screenshots. You can share it via the web to be viewed on any device capable of surfing the web.
Blogsy (if you blog, $4.99). Blogsy is great for blogging on your iPad. It connects to WordPress (.com and self-hosted), Blogger, TypePad, Movable Type, Joomla, Drupal, and Tumblr, among others. You can drag and drop images into the post using Picasa, Flickr, Facebook, or Instagram, and you can even pull videos from YouTube and Vimeo into your posts. Text formatting is easy.
Google Drive (free). Using Google Docs used to be painful on the iPad if it even worked at all, but Google Drive’s app is really easy to use and WORKS. It does not have all the features that Google Drive on the web has… yet. For instance, you can’t see the revision history, and it doesn’t allow access to multiple Google Drive accounts, which makes it harder to use in schools when you have students continually signing out and signing back in, but you can get around these issues with an app called GoDocs ($4.99) if these are features you need right now. My advice would be to wait because I have a hunch that Google Drive will include at least revision history in a future update.
You will notice that most of these apps are not English/literature/language arts-specific. You are better off establishing use of a series of apps that allow you to work and create on your iPad rather than focusing on subject-specific apps, which too often are simply drill-and-kill and lower quality.
Some years ago, after reading Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, I started a wiki for teachers to learn and share UbD units and ideas. Despite having over 500 members, the wiki doesn’t see a lot of new content. At this stage, I think only two members regularly contribute new content, and one of them is me.
If you are interested in helping, this is what we need:
- Units and ideas from teachers in a variety of fields. Perhaps because I am an English teacher, and mostly English teachers keep up with this blog, most of the early contributors to the UbD Educators wiki were and still are English teachers, but as I said, aside from me, only one other English teacher is still actively posting units. I admit to using it myself just to keep track of my unit plans, which is fine, but it isn’t very interactive. If you teach using UbD, especially if you don’t teach English (but even if you do), please consider sharing your plans.
- Chapter reflections. Miguel Guhlin made shell pages for chapter summaries. I admit I am conflicted about this because ASCD, Grant Wiggins, and Jay McTighe have been so supportive of the wiki, and I would hate to do anything that might prevent people from purchasing their book (which I think all teachers should read). However, I think it might be a great idea for people to use those pages to share their reflections and insights from chapters. If you have insights to contribute, please do.
- What’s missing? What subject areas do we need to include? Links? Resources? If you think something should be on the wiki that isn’t, please add it.
Despite the fact that the main page has included a note that all the materials can be viewed by lurkers, and that you do not have to join the wiki to see anything, I still receive requests to join at the rate of one or two people a week, and none of the new members has made contributions in years. I don’t mind lurkers. If the early contributors had minded lurkers, we would have put the information behind some kind of registration wall. I am opposed to making people jump through hoops to access the materials, but I think this wiki has the potential to be a much greater repository than it is, and it can only become a great repository if we build it together.
I would be interested to know if people join with the intention of contributing but then feel shy about sharing their work online (overheard and paraphrased at the ISTE conference: Share your work. Teachers don’t share their work because they don’t think they’re doing great work. They ARE doing great work, but no one knows about it if you don’t share). Do people skim over the note about lurking and join because they think they will get to see more more materials if they do? I am genuinely curious, and I am not sure of the answer.
My hunch, as much as I hate the idea, is that folks are joining without reading that page, thinking they will access more materials if they do. The reason I think this might be the case is that I had a wiki for my students, and even though I clearly stated that only my students would be permitted to join the wiki, I still received requests until I finally had to turn off the ability to request membership because I was really tired of processing the membership denials for teachers who simply didn’t read. In the case of the UbD Educators wiki, over 500 people have joined, which is awesome, but they haven’t contributed, which is a lot less awesome.
On a side note, most of the visits to this blog are from folks looking to read UbD-related content, so I know there is real interest in the subject, and I know that teachers are looking for guidance and ideas. It might be nice if we could build up the wiki a bit so that they had some resources. In case you are worried, the materials are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, Noncommercial, Share-Alike license, meaning that work posted there can freely be used and remixed with credit given to the original author, but not for profit.
I guess I will get into how I feel about sites like Teachers Pay Teachers some other time. Not sure I want to stir that particular pot right now, and to be honest, I’m not really even sure why I feel the way I do about the site, so until I can articulate my thoughts more clearly, I’m just steering clear. I will say I think teachers fall into two camps when it comes to sharing: 1) people who share everything; 2) people who refuse to share anything. I have been lucky enough to know a lot of teachers who share, and I have benefited enormously from their ideas. Through their generosity, they have made a better teacher. At it’s core, that is all the UbD Educators wiki is about—sharing ideas so that we can all benefit and become better teachers.
What PD reading are you doing this summer?
I’m reading the following three books:
An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students, by Ron Berger. This book is an all-faculty read. Ron Berger will be visiting our school to do some professional development at the beginning of the school year. Here is the jacket blurb: “Drawing from his own remarkable experience as a veteran classroom teacher (still in the classroom), Ron Berger gives us a vision of educational reform that transcends standards, curriculum, and instructional strategies. He argues for a paradigm shift—a schoolwide embrace of an ‘ethic of excellence.’ A master carpenter as well as a gifted teacher, Berger is guided by a craftsman’s passion for quality, describing what’s possible when teachers, students, and parents commit to nothing less than the best. But Berger’s not just idealistic—he tells exactly how this can be done, from the blackboard to the blacktop to the school boardroom.”
How to Read Novels Like a Professor, by Thomas C. Foster. I have already read and enjoyed Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor. I have had this one on my shelf for a couple of years and just never read it. This book is an English department read. Here’s the jacket blurb: “Thomas C. Foster—the sage and scholar who ingeniously led readers through the fascinating symbolic codes of great literature in his first book, How to Read Literature Like a Professor—now examines the grammar of the popular novel. Exploring how authors’ choices about structure—point of view, narrative voice, first page, chapter construction, character emblems, and narrative (dis)continuity—create meaning and a special literary language, How to Read Novels Like a Professor shares the keys to this language with readers who want to get more insight, more understanding, and more pleasure from their reading.”
Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, by Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary Stager. This book is my own choice after attending sessions on making at ISTE this year. “There’s a technological and creative revolution underway. Amazing new tools, materials and skills turn us all into makers. Using technology to make, repair, or customize the things we need brings engineering, design, and computer science to the masses. Fortunately for educators, this maker movement overlaps with the natural inclinations of children and the power of learning by doing. The active learner is at the center of the learning process, amplifying the best traditions of progressive education. This book helps educators bring the exciting opportunities of the maker movement to every classroom.” Edited to add: Check out the website for Invent to Learn for more resources.
So what do you think? Do they look good to you? If you want to read along with me, feel free to join me. As I have in the past, I will be reflecting here. On at least one occasion, it turned into a book club that became the UbD Eduators wiki.
I am still gathering my notes on the ISTE conference last week. You can see them in this public Evernote notebook I’ve shared. Sometimes it’s not the most helpful thing to try to parse someone else’s cryptic notes, but for what it’s worth, feel free to have a look.
I thoroughly enjoyed the conference, but I have two pieces of advice for anyone who is using a slidedeck to present at a large conference like ISTE.
- Don’t put text on the bottom of the slide. If the room is really crowded, some of the people in the room will not see the text. They will stand up a little to see better, which only makes the view worse for people behind them. I know lots of templates have text on the bottom, and it looks pretty. I have done it, too. You just never know what the room will look like, however, and text on the top is more accessible.
- Why not share your presentation via Google Presentation or SlideShare? If you do that, seeing it in the front is a moot point, and you can put text wherever you want. The presentation is now in the hands of your audience, and they can more easily annotate it, download it, and (dare I suggest it?) remix it.
I came away from the conference excited about the possibilities of maker spaces, and after an energizing presentation by Sylvia Martinez, I downloaded her new book, co-written with Gary Stager, Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom. I can’t wait to learn more about making and engineering. One statement she made, which I will share here, is that we wouldn’t be talking about how to integrate the arts into schools and turning STEM into STEAM if schools hadn’t artificially removed art. She said you cannot stop kids from being artists. She shared the example of her daughter going through art school and how she learned that artists are on the cutting edge of technology.
One focus of the conference was gamification, and I am interested in exploring that topic further, as well. You have probably heard of the Mozilla Open Badges project (if not, check it out). I am excited to see how this project develops, particularly after Bill Clinton endorsed the idea. To be dead honest, my instructional technology masters was almost completely useless in terms of preparing me for what I do. And don’t get me started again on the test I had to take to add technology instruction to my certificate. It helps to have the degree on your résumé, I guess, but I hope, in light of how expensive education is (and it’s getting more expensive) that we can consider alternative credentials. Put together with endorsements, similar to LinkedIn, and I think badges could be more valuable than wasting money on classes with content you never use again. I’m just thinking out loud, and I don’t have the answer. Certainly some attention to personalized learning is in order.
It is huffenglish.com’s 8th birthday! To make it even more special, I’m celebrating by writing this post in the Blogger’s Cafe at ISTE!
Of course, a cursory glance at my content for the last year or so reveals very little actual blogging.
Why is that? Well, I moved 1,000 miles away and started a new job. I now work at Worcester Academy, and this summer I begin my second year as their Technology Integration Specialist. I can’t think of a more wonderful place to work. They value my professional development enough to send me to the premier educational technology conference in the world, and I work with some truly amazing educators.
I have been really dissatisfied with the quiet on this blog. Even though I made some major changes in my professional and personal life over the last year, and I gave myself permission to let the blog go for a while, I have always maintained that people make time for things they consider important. People used to ask me how I had time to blog, tweet, etc. You know, all the social media. I said I made time to do it because it was important to me. And it is still important to me, but clearly not as important as some other things going on. I am announcing today that blogging has once again moved to my front burner, and if it’s not on the very front burner, at least it’s on the stove again. It’s been relegated to the recesses of the freezer as I tried to acclimate to my new home and job, but because blogging is important to me, I’ll be making time for it again.
Why is blogging important to me? It allows me to reflect on what I’m thinking and learning. Sure, I can do that offline in any one of a variety of note-taking apps I use or even with a pen and notebook, but the kind of thinking and reflection I do here on this blog transformed me as a teacher. Eight years ago, when I started this blog, I was an English teacher, and I had no idea technology integration specialists even existed, much less did I dream of ever being one. I assumed I would spend the rest of my career as an English teacher in Georgia. I am still teaching one English class, by the way, but who could have imagined I would be helping teachers integrate technology in Massachusetts? I didn’t even like technology when I started teaching, and I certainly didn’t think I was any good with it. Now I teach others how to use it in their lessons. Is that crazy?
You really never know what trajectory your career is going to take, and it is smart to make connections with really smart educators online and off, to participate in chats with other teachers when you can, and to tap all those great resources online and in your community. You just never know where your life will take you, and even if you plan it, opportunities will arise that you never foresaw, and doors will close where you expected them to be open.
I am the happiest I have ever been in my life right now, and a lot of that happiness has to do with my professional satisfaction. But only a few years ago, I felt like I was at a professional nadir, and my dissatisfaction at work made it hard to enjoy everything else. It is really true that if you find something you love to do, you really don’t ever work again.
Here is hoping you can find what makes you happy, too.
Happy birthday, huffenglish.com. To many more years of blogging! (And I mean real blogging.) Cheers!