Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A school board member at Educon?

Educon was overwhelming. 

The Educon gathering is "
an innovation conference where we can come together, both in person and virtually, to discuss the future of schools. Every session will be an opportunity to discuss and debate ideas — from the very practical to the big dreams."

Philadelphia, PA. It's old-home weekend for hundreds of people who have been coming together to share and learn for six years. 

It brought on the same self-conciousness that tends to fall on me when I'm in rooms full of happy talking people catching up. I was told repeatedly, "Just start talking to people," and every time I did that, I was rewarded by a nice conversation and an exchange of some common ground.  I wouldn't let myself leave a room until I initiated two (2) conversations. Then after sufficient connections made, I'd allow myself to run home to the hotel.

By Sunday I realized what Educon means for me. I tweeted out, 

It was like taking a bath in chocolate.

After a conversation (Educon's name for breakout sessions) about how to close the gap between public education today and the public education we all want, (Mind the Gap) I ran after one educator with whom I shared some thoughts at the session, and asked, "Can you tell me, am I right to mistrust curriculum? Am I right when I have a negative reaction to any curriculum, because it imposes learning from the outside instead of starting with the student?" She hesitated and then said, "Yes," and we parted. I'm sure there's more to the story, but the important thing was, she knew exactly what I was asking. I need the confirmation from people with a lifetime of educating behind them, that I am on the right track for kids.

Hundreds of educators were in the same building (and expect a blog post on my thoughts about the Science Leadership Academy, where Educon takes place) eager to learn and share their experiences about putting children directly in the center of their the center both intellectually and emotionally. Chris Lehman, (SLA's principal), in his session on "Creating an Ethic of Care" said that they provide "professional development on caring" for SLA teachers. It's an acknowledgment that learning done well involves the whole child, and a whole community engaged in caring and inquiry.

Focusing on children as the center of education is a sea change in public education today, and needs a special kind of leadership. Chris is that leader, and "his" teachers are, as well. But there were leaders in every session, both in the front of the room and at the tables. 

When called upon to introduce myself, I found myself saying, "I'm a renegade school board member, which is to say, I have no power." People were surprised to have a school board member there; as far as I know, I was the only one in the building. It makes it all the more difficult to come home from Educon. I can't take anything I've learned and put it to work in the classroom. All I can do is...well, what I do. Stay on my Board. Keep trying to ask the right questions, incite conversation, expose people to different ways of thinking.

I can't transfer my Educon experience to my school board colleagues, much as I try. It's a game of throwing ideas at a wall, and seeing what sticks. If people are curious about this intersection between progressive education and technology, there's stuff to view, to read, to listen to. I'll post as many of those resources here as I can in the coming days. 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

A well-educated public?

Sometimes a reader will ask a really good question, and I get to advance my own thoughts in the process of articulating an answer. Chris C. commented on Can Learning Be Joyful...

"How do you reconcile your ideas about allowing kids to pursue their own passions (which I agree with), with that grander idea of a well educated public?" (for the full comment, see the post.)

and here is my response (slightly edited for clarity):

Hi, Chris, thanks for "throwing me a bone" to chew on. The fastest answer is that right now, by pushing education at kids regardless of their interests, we are NOT getting an educated public. The well-educated public is my ideal as well. If we do honor and support the interests and passions of children, we WILL reap the benefits of having not only an educated public but an empowered and connected one.

Big Picture Learning, the secondary school model developed by Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor, is based on a foundation of following kids' passions. And because they work very hard to develop a respectful culture, it doesn't matter if teachers think that interest seems un-scholarly! They help them pursue it. It could be doing nails. It could be a rap group. They make sure and find internships and projects that will help kids develop those interests. But here's the never stops there. Kids who are allowed to open their own doors NEVER stop there. A girl who studied Tupac Shakur went on to be one of a friendship tour to South Africa and is an activist for human rights. The girl who wanted to be a hair stylist went on to be a youth leader and will probably have her own spa someday. These are all examples from the various books about Big Picture.

Neuroscience, behavior science, metacognition, all these areas of study tell us something we already know: that people learn best when they are interested. Simple. If you are allowed to follow your interest you become connected.

Also, not to make this into a book or anything, but the curriculum right now, because of NCLB and the Common Core, is morbidly obese. We teach kids a very very little about an awful lot but dig deeply into nothing. Surely we can afford to drop a couple things that individual kids show no interest in, when their own interests might lead them there and they'll learn the stuff better that way...and the disregard for what they really do want to learn is causing them to disconnect from education in general?

Thanks for asking such a good question and let's keep the dialogue going!


On Twitter: Let us know the reasons you think we should #listen2kids!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The testing rebellion & opt-out movement in NYC has a supporter -- inside Tweed

Guest Post By Leonie Haimson,

A nationwide backlash has erupted against the obsession with standardized testing.  In February 2012, the Texas Commissioner of Education, Robert Perry, announced that testing had become a "perversion of its original intent.” Over the last year, 86 percent of Texas school boards representing 91 percent of the state’s students, havepassed resolutions against the use of high stakes testing. The view is now so mainstream that in his introductory remarks before the Legislature, Joe Straus, the new, conservative GOP Speaker of the Texas House recentlyannounced,

"By now, every member of this house has heard from constituents at the grocery store or the Little League fields about the burdens of an increasingly cumbersome testing system in our schools…Teachers and parents worry that we have sacrificed classroom inspiration for rote memorization. To parents and educators concerned about excessive testing: The Texas House has heard you."
Joining the movement is Joshua Starr, the superintendent of Montgomery County, Maryland, who has called for the nation to “stop the insanity” of  evaluating teachers according to student test scores, and has proposed a three year moratorium on all standardized testing. Starr has joined forces with Heath Morrison, the newly-appointed superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina, a Broad-trained educator no less, who calls testing“an egregious waste of taxpayer dollars” that won’t help kids.  
Then last week, the movement jumped into the headlines when teachers at Garfield High School in Seattle voted unanimously to boycott the lengthy computerized MAP exams, which take weeks of classroom time to administer; the teachers were supported by the school’s PTA and the student government.   Other Seattle schools have now joined the boycott, and yesterday, more than sixty educators and researchers, including Diane Ravitch, Jonathan Kozol, and Noam Chomsky, released a letter of support for the boycott, noting that "no student's intellectual process can be reduced to a single number." [Full disclosure: I was among the letter's signers.]
Even before this, more than one third of the principals in New York State had signed onto a letter, protesting the state-imposed teacher evaluation system, which will be largely based on test scores, and Carol Burris, a Long Island principal and the letter’s co-author, has more recently posted a petition that has now over 8200 signatures from parents and educators, opposing all high-stakes testing.

Though many NYC teachers and principals have spoken out against the particularly onerous brand of test score-based accountability imposed by DOE, with decisions over which children to hold back, what schools to close and which teachers to deny tenure to, based largely on the basis of test scores, no one inside the halls of Tweed, DOE’s headquarters, has up to now been brave enough to speak out publicly against the system.
Until now.  As reported in yesterday’s NY Post, Lisa Nielsen, the  newly-appointed digital guruat Tweed, has not only stated that she believes that high-stakes testing is severely damaging our children and schools, she has also offered creative suggestions of activities that parents can offer their children rather than allow them to be subjected to the state tests.  On her personal blog, the Innovative Educator, she writes:    “There are so many ways kids can learn on opt out of state standardized testing days.  All it takes is community coming together to take back our children’s freedom to learn.
Lisa also runs the Facebook NY State Opt out of Testing page, and has pointed out the “12 Most Unconventional Reasons to Opt Your Child Out of Standardized Testing,” including the fact that they are a “horrific waste of money”, and cause unneeded anxiety and stress.  She adds: 
“Instead of spending billions of dollars on funding testing this money could go toward providing resources for children or lowering class size. Let the teachers do what they were trained to do — teach and assess. Keep big business out of the equation. Keep the billions of dollars out of the pockets of publishers and let it remain in the classroom.”

We now have our own anti-testing advocate at Tweed, and  we should all celebrate Lisa’s honesty and her courage in speaking the truth. 

Pasi Sahlberg, expert on Finland’s renowned educational system, had said that if his government decided to evaluate their teachers on the basis of test scores, the “teacherswould probably go on strike and wouldn’t return until this crazy idea went away.” 
It’s time for all our educators to join the movement, follow the inspired leadership of Lisa Nielsen and the teachers in Portland, go public with their opposition, and refuse to participate in this oppressive system any longer.

Monday, January 21, 2013


Lately I've been tweeting to the hashtag, #listen2kids. Every so often, I think of some way to illustrate how and why we should #listen2kids more. Here is a video that Joe Bower featured on his blog today.

As adults we give ourselves permission to dismiss what kids say. But kids haven't learned cynicism. They haven't learned corruption. They are much closer to being pure of heart, and they are way better at getting down to the heart of an issue -- if you give them the chance.

And as Joe Bower says, they are always watching us.

Go to Twitter and tell us how you will #listen2kids today!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Send In the Clowns

The New York Post
NY Post's "journalism" features this photo 
of Nielsen at a birthday wine tasting 
in an attempt to damage her reputation.

Dear Editor,

Clearly from the headline “Ed big is a class clown,” authors Susan Edelman and Candace Giove intended their article to be a real expose of shady practices, a denunciation of a city employee. I suppose the authors were hoping for shock and outrage. My response was more along the lines of, “Oh, good! An education bureaucrat who is doing her job -- standing up for kids!”

Standardized testing rules the education world. What do you think this does to the classroom? Enliven it? Enrich it? Make kids love coming to school? Love learning? Love taking those tests?

No. Constant testing shrinks the curriculum of our schools only to that which can be measured on a multiple-choice, short-answer test. But how do you test for the ability to ask a good question? Solve complex real-world problems? Work well with others? Be innovative? Be compassionate? Be a good citizen of a democracy?

You can’t. And that’s why our education system is failing.

So Lisa Nielsen takes risks. So she uses her influence to stand up for every child’s right to meaningful learning. You don’t denounce a person like that. You send them flowers and a thank-you card.

I wish Lisa Nielsen the best of luck. And I am ready to stand with her.

Lisa Cooley
School Board Member

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Who are you?

You can look at students in terms of how to fashion a curriculum to fit their interests and needs; 

Or you can look to students for the curriculum.

That's what I mean when I say the student and the standard can't occupy the highest priority slot at the same time.

It will come down to a matter of how you look at students. They have either strengths or weaknesses. You look at a student and think, "How can you learn this?" or you look at a student and think, "Who are you?"

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Minds of Kids Presents...

The Homeschooling School Board Member!

Observations made by my daughter and myself as we create our own learning space and continue to think about public education.

Homeschooling So Far, by Francie

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Ignite Passion...Leave School Behind

Mid-way through my daughter’s first term in 7th grade, she declared her desire to be home-schooled.

She made the announcement the day after she performed the last Nutcracker of the season with the Atlantic Ballet Company in Camden.

It’s always a jam-packed November for us leading up to the show. The Monday after it closes the family takes a breath, re-assesses what we’re doing (and gives a little gasp at how little time we have to prepare for Christmas). That Monday morning in early December, when my husband was driving them both to school, she made the announcement.

She has requested that I not go into detail here; suffice it to say that she was just not connecting to what her teachers were doing. It’s more than partly my fault; she hears me talk pretty much constantly about what I consider the ideal learning environment  -- how students should choose their own learning pathways and discover and pursue their passions -- and I can see how that led her frustration level to rise above what she could easily endure.

At any rate, she’s home, and as I’m writing this she’s playing chess with my brother.  (We have lots of learning resources here at husband and I work on her writing, she and I read together and write play scenes, my brother is a math teacher so they have plans to work together, and she’s chosen to learn the Constitution. We’re thinking about a foreign language option and she’d like to start designing houses and making models. Every day opens new possibilities as she explores the freedom of learning that she owns and controls, and there are never enough hours in a day.)

Both my kids have always had an option to homeschool that they are welcome to invoke at any time. My son, a sophomore at Mt. View High School, wanted to be able to enjoy algebra more, so he learns that at home (actually, my brother bears that responsibility). We have the kind of flexibility that comes from luck, lots of extended-family support, and a life designed around poverty-by-choice.  And I love having them home. (Read, “The Homeschooling School Board Member”)

What I want for my district is for every child to have these kinds of choices. It’s not good enough that I can provide for my own kids’ learning. But after nine years on the RSU 3 school board; after doing my best to learn what I can about public education -- about learning, children, institutions, teaching, assessments (formative and summative), learning standards, learning progressions, accountability, creativity, innovation, success, failure, neuroscience, meta-cognition, literacy, numeracy, technology, games, projects, proficiency, competency, mastery, practice, engagement, connection and multiplication -- and then taking a hard look at our own public education institutions, I’m allowing myself to consider the possibility that it simply cannot change.

I recently discovered the concept of “connected adjacencies.” It was conceived with business models in mind. Its creator, Saul Kaplan, says on his blog, It’s Saul Connected, ”Don’t go to war with current models and systems.  Too many are in love with them and you will lose.  Create the future through connected adjacencies.”

He goes on to explain, “Instead of going to war to transform an entrenched operating model, create real world sandboxes right next door in which a new generation of transformative operating models can be explored.” So what the heck am I doing this for?

Public education may not be significantly change-able--except possibly to allow in a fatally flawed system that will take the Common Core State Standards (a state-mandated K-12 course of study that was adopted by Maine in 2011), handcuff our schools to them, and throw away the key. This is the proficiency-based system that you may have some experience with if your children are students in RSU 3.

The proficiency-based system may be a well-meaning attempt to bring some measure of control to students over their learning path. But in reality, it’s an acquiescence to the juggernaut that is muscling its way through public education in the USA. We can hardly remember a time when schools were not held to learning standards imposed by the government -- before the Common Core national standards, we had our Maine Learning Results, instituted in the mid-90s. We barely remember pre-NCLB, when test scores were first attached to school funding and school curriculum contracted and shrunk and our schools became drill-and-kill test prep factories. So now we have the Common Core, and one by one, like dominoes, states are falling down and accepting what seems like the inevitable. We will standardize our children come hell or high water. Corporations are making too much money producing standards, curricula, supporting materials and, of course, national standardized tests, nicely aligned so our children can all be compared with one another, nationwide, like apples to apples.

The theory of connected adjacencies makes a lot of sense, if you are getting a bruised head from beating against the brick wall of the public education system, in an effort to create a system that truly values and respects the desire to learn that lives in each child. I can’t give up on the system...I won’t willingly give up my seat on the RSU 3 school board. As I told unschooling advocate Laurie Couture ( when she urged me to walk away from the system, “I have to keep fighting. It’s like a disease”.

But in these first few weeks of homeschooling Francie, I’m looking ahead to making more connections among the homeschoolers here. I want to start paying attention to what they have been building, right next to our public schools.

I wonder about the kids I’ve seen at expulsion hearings. I wonder about the kids who will never connect to stuff someone else tells them they need to learn. I wonder about kids who believe the lie that good grades are important to their learning. I wonder about all the kids who survive school by figuring out what adults want from them, and giving them that, hoping they won’t ask for more. I wonder about teachers who joined the profession because they love kids and learning, only to find that their abilities are not respected, and all they are allowed to do is deliver the Common Core to their students.

I wonder if we can create a model right next door; one that will explore learning, creativity, and innovation; a place or places where kids from all backgrounds can find their strengths and their passions and pursue the learning that is most meaningful to them as far as the resources of the world can take them.

If what’s going on inside a public school building is failing so badly, and the system is giving us a kinder, gentler way of pushing standards into our kids’ heads and calling that progress...let’s build a fire in the vacant lot next door; kindle some real learning, and find a way to invite the whole neighborhood to join with us.


Shameless parental promotion: Francie's blog