Tag Archives: education

What is Innovation?

When I posted last month about Innovation in Education, I was starting to work on my application for the Google Teacher Academy in Seattle this summer. Well, now that I’ve finished, I thought I’d share my application video with the few of you that read this blog. Before sharing, here is what GTA says they are looking for in application videos:

Create an original one minute video on ONE of the following topics: “Motivation and Learning” OR “Classroom Innovation.” This video is a very important part of your application. We’re specifically looking for educators who creatively address one of the specific topics listed above. You do not need to be in the video, but, the task is designed to demonstrate your technical ability, your resourcefulness, your commitment, and your unique personality and interests. Please do not submit videos produced for another project or videos created by others. We realize that you may have never produced a video before and that you may not own video equipment, but through perseverance we are confident you can find a way to meet this requirement.

With that in mind, here is the video I created. I’d love to hear what you think.


What Should We Teach?

“I would make them all learn English: and then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat.” —Sir Winston Churchill, Roving Commission: My Early Life


Raphael's "The School of Athens"

With all the education reform going on in the U.S. right now, it’s sometimes hard to keep up. But one of the more disturbing changes is the emphasis on “core” content areas (specifically, math and science). As Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University, wrote in a recent CNN article, this shift is not only doesn’t make sense; it may end up having a negative effect in the long run. Liberal arts education are what have made the U.S. one of the most innovative countries in the world, and as he says, “Innovation in technology companies, automobile design, medicine or food production will not come only from isolated work in technical disciplines. Effective vaccine delivery programs, for example, require technical expertise, but they also require cultural understanding, economic planning and ethical reasoning.” This is his “philosophy of education” – that students should learn a broad set of skills and habits in order to better the world around them.

When I was doing my Masters in Education program, one of the first activities we did was to define our own “Philosophy of Education.” We took an inventory of roughly 30 questions, and the scores helped us determine which of 5 educational philosophies we were: Essentialist, Perennialist, Progressivist, Social Reconstructivist, or Existentialist. As it turned out, I came up strongly Perennialist:

Perennialists believe that one should teach the things that one deems to be of everlasting importance to all people everywhere. They believe that the most important topics develop a person. Since details of fact change constantly, these cannot be the most important. Therefore, one should teach principles, not facts…The focus is primarily on teaching reasoning and wisdom rather than facts, the liberal arts rather than vocational training. (Wikipedia)

Now, I have long considered myself a classicist. From a young age, I have loved reading and studying about ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Israel. In high school, I enjoyed reading The Odyssey, Hamlet, and other older works much more than I enjoyed, say, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I simply found the stories more engaging and more interesting to think about. In college, those interests lead me to study philosophy, Shakespeare, and metaphysical poetry. Really, I agree with the Churchill quote at the start of this post – studying the ancients is as much a privilege as it is a necessity. So it should come as no surprise I came up as a perennialist – I did (and still do) believe that there are subjects and topics that ought to be taught because thinking about and discussing those topics make us better people.

For example, I think the subject of ethics and the nature of morality is an absolutely essential part of becoming a rational human being, and as such should be part of every educational curriculum in the world. We all have our own innate preconceptions about morality (largely based on that of our parents), but the majority of us likely have put little to no critical thought into the foundations of those ethical beliefs. It seems that this is the sort of thing that should be studied and discussed in an educational setting. Regardless of the conclusions students draw, there ought to be a place where they can safely study other perspectives, discuss and debate with their peers, and develop their own sense of morality.

What we do now

As an English teacher, I think there is a very clear place for this sort of discussion in the Language Arts classroom if we intentionally design it as such. Lately, as I have been reflecting on our curriculum and the content we teach, I see a lack of this sort of “great idea” thinking in what we currently teach students.

Right now, we teach 5 literature units in 9th grade English: The Foreshadowing, a Reader’s Workshop focused on the Hero’s Journey in a selection of YA literature (such as The Alchemyst and House of the Scorpion), Poetry (with a focus on forms such as odes and sonnets), Romeo and Juliet, and an introductory Film as Literature unit focused on genre and basic film elements. It can be a fun curriculum to teach, but there are times when it feels as though our units lack real substance, real depth of purpose. Primarily, we are focused on using the content to teach skills that will be assessed on state tests, so rather than go into great detail on the moral dilemmas and choices faced by Friar Laurence, we focus on whether students can use context clues to interpret vocabulary – certainly a valuable skill, but lacking that “human” value.

Unfortunately, some of our existing units simply don’t allow for extended discussions of philosophical ideas like morality, existence, or knowledge. Novels like The Alchemyst make for good reading and for talking about the Hero’s Journey, but there isn’t a lot of room for discussing those deeper issues.

What We Could Do (My Ideal 9th Grade English Course)

Rodin's "The Thinker"It’s one thing to raise a problem or complain about something, and that’s not my goal here. This whole discussion is the byproduct of some reflection on myself and my teaching – namely, what would I teach if I had the freedom to teach whatever I want?

Now, I must note that this discussion is focused mainly on traditional 9th grade English/Language Arts content – things that are taught in many classrooms worldwide. Thus, as much as I want to, I will not include much in the way of philosophical writing in the curriculum. Rather, since this is my “ideal” course, I can assume students are already discussing these writings in the imagined “Introduction to Philosophy” course, which would cover everything from Plato to Descartes to Kant and would, of course, be mandatory.

With that caveat, I think it only makes sense to begin with the course focus. And since it is something I already teach (and enjoy teaching), I think the easiest focus for me would be to center the course on the Hero’s Journey archetype. In all likelihood, I would borrow ideas (and probably some materials) from Dana Huff over at Huffenglish, who has shared numerous materials, ideas, and anecdotes about her own Hero’s Journey course.

As we started the year, we would likely look at the concept of the Hero’s Journey as a pattern. We would start with the first chapter from a great book, How to Read Literature Like a Professor, which is titled “Every Trip is a Quest…Except When It’s Not.” I would take excerpts from Joseph Campbell’s work – including his interview with George Lucas – and we would put together a map (or perhaps a board game?) of the journey that would remain with us throughout the year. This introductory unit would likely be when we discuss heroic traits, as well, such as courage.

From there, we would move through different eras of history, studying the literature poetry of those eras. Where better to start than with the original heroes of ancient Greece? It would be difficult to choose between several smaller myths – such as Hercules, Theseus, etc. – and Homer’s Odyssey, but I would likely go with the latter because it is both journey and poem. We might look at Hercules or another hero to compare with Odysseus, but the Odyssey would be the primary text. It is also a good place to discuss concepts such as loyalty and integrity.

After Odysseus, I would probably move on to Beowulf – something I have never taught, but a work that fits both the focus of the course and is an important historical text. We would be able to incorporate elements of Norse mythology, discuss ideas such as responsibility and sacrifice, and would also give us a good comparison text for the Odyssey.

From Beowulf, we would jump to Shakespeare, and I would be faced with an intriguing prospect – teaching Romeo and Juliet as a hero’s journey. It may be a good chance to talk about the antihero, look at the steps of the journey from a different perspective (the Return Home sure looks different), and still incorporate the best introduction to Shakespeare I can muster. Thematically, I love discussing the ideas of fate and free will, as well as love and choices when we read Romeo and Juliet. The play would, of course, be accompanied by a look at the poetic traditions of Shakespeare’s time, including the sonnet.

A side note: One alternative I have lately considered inserting here is to do some reading on the American Revolution. I would be curious what stories or novels others might use to discuss this time period in literature classes.

From there, we may move to the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, including my personal favorite, “The Cask of Amontillado.” We would talk about the short story as a genre, the strange version of the journey archetype (and the antihero) in some of Poe’s works, and could look at how poetry was quickly evolving during Poe’s lifetime. Poe also gives us a good jumping off point to discuss death, justice, and humanity in great detail.

At this point, I would want to move into the 20th century and read a novel, though I am completely torn about what novel to choose. I definitely want to juxtapose the novel with poets like Robert Frost and modernist poets, so early- to mid-20th century would be ideal. I would also like to use the novel to discuss war, morality, and/or freedom. I’m really quite open to suggestions and would love to hear suggestions.

Finally, I would end the way my 9th grade class currently ends – with an introductory “Film as Literature” unit. We do a Reader’s Workshop style unit where students select a genre, watch 2 films in that genre, and use those films (as well as outside films) to discuss both genre and visual literacy elements. Not only is this a great way to end the year, but is a very solid look at how the medium of storytelling has evolved, especially looking in hindsight at the growth from epic poem to play to novel to movie.

So that’s my dream curriculum. Obviously it’s just a dream at this point, but I would love to get some feedback – what would you do differently? What ideas do you have? What is your dream curriculum?

Which One is “Real” Education?

I have to share a quick story from a colleague that frustrates me. [A quick note – this is my frustration, not his. He was telling me about this class and I asked him what this past week was like, thinking it must have been an amazing teaching opportunity. He was, and is, quite professional about the whole thing and is wise enough to recognize that he has no choice but to move on. I, on the other hand, remain perturbed on his behalf.]

There is apparently a class at the high school called “20th Century War and Terror.” It sounds like a fascinating class, covering everything from the Armenian genocide and World War I to the Desert Storm conflict. If this class had been an option at my high school, I would have signed up in a heartbeat; looking at history through the lens of warfare fascinates me.

Needless to say, the last week could have been an amazing opportunity for students to study the subject matter in real-time as the Osama bin Laden story unfolded in front of their eyes. Talk about relevant learning – it would be like teaching a class on theatrical tradition when Shakespeare or Christopher Marlowe died, or studying music history when John Lennon was killed. I can only begin to imagine the possibilities.

I say “could have been,” though, because the class was not allowed to use computers this past week. 8th graders in our district were taking the online version of the state’s standardized test all week (and into next week), so teachers and students across the district (including those in this class) were asked to minimize internet use as much as possible.

So rather than analyzing the reactions from different parts of the world, discussing the ramifications on international relations, or researching similarities to other historical deaths, students were left to quickly gloss over the topic and then continue on with their regularly scheduled programming.

So I’m left with the nagging question – which one is real education? The state (and federally) mandated testing or the clearly relevant current event intricately connected to the course content?

Jake Locker and the Wisdom of the Masses

Jake LockerFor 5 years now, I’ve had the privilege of watching Jake Locker develop as a quarterback at the University of Washington. I have seen every game he’s played in as a collegiate athlete, and I’ve seen the impact he’s made off the field, as well. Last week, “Montlake Jake’s” college career reached its end when he was drafted 8th overall to the Tennessee Titans. As a Husky fan and an admirer of Locker’s, I couldn’t be happier for him.

That Jake was the first Husky QB ever drafted in the 1st round, however, is not what I’m thinking about right now. Rather, I am reflecting on the entire draft process, specifically from a media perspective. Beginning last year, the draft hype around Jake has been fascinating. First, Mel Kiper said it was “etched in stone” that Jake would be the first pick in the draft. From there, other “experts” and talking heads all hopped on the bandwagon.

Of course, they all forgot that Jake played for a team that was still only a year removed from the worst season in Pac-1o history. So when the Huskies, and consequently Jake, struggled, the “experts” suddenly agreed that Locker was overrated and had made a bad decision. All along, Locker insisted that he had no regrets, and continued telling the “experts” that, all the way to San Diego and a Holiday Bowl victory. Did Jake suddenly get worse? No – the perception of him changed based on his circumstances.

As the season ended and Locker became a pro prospect (again), there was much discussion about him. As some said, he is a polarizing player. On the one hand, nobody doubts his character, work ethic, or even his athletic ability. Coaches, players, fans, and “experts” alike agreed that he had all the physical tools (arm strength, size, etc.) for the NFL, and all agreed his character was above reproach. However, the “experts” had problems with Locker’s numbers – specifically, with his 53% career completion percentage. There was much bandying about Jake’s accuracy in college, with one side of the debate focusing on him and the other side focusing primarily on his team (offensive line and receivers).

What became fascinating for me during this debate was not the argument itself, but the way these opposing sides adopted certain “facts” about his accuracy that may or may not have been true. For example, one comment I heard often from the pro-Locker “experts” is that his receivers dropped an unusually high number of passes, leading to the lower completion percentage. Unfortunately, that is not a statistic that is publicly kept, so we have no way of knowing if it was true or not. Nevertheless, it quickly became a common theme in the discussion, both among fans and among talking heads.

Similarly, on the other side, there were a number of anti-Locker talking heads who adopted several “facts” of their own. For example, some pointed to the Nebraska game, saying that this was the “only pro-style defense Locker played against” and pointed to Locker’s poor statistics in those games. Of course, they neither define “pro-style defense” or explain how, say, USC is not a “pro-style” defense. In fact, Nebraska’s “Peso” defense may be less of a “pro-style” defense than most Pac-10 teams. Nevertheless, the critique became commonplace – both the “experts” and fans began spouting the same criticism of Locker without delving into further explanation.

Sadly, nobody – from scouts to coaches to players to fans to talking heads – ever put all the pieces of analysis together. As a result, there are a number of questions about Jake that never were really answered – What actually caused the 53% completion percentage? What kind of incompletions did he throw? Did his receivers drop an inordinate number of passes? Did he have less time in the pocket than other prospects because of a faulty offensive line? How many passes did he throw away compared to other QB’s? What specifically is wrong with his “footwork” (which is always the default problem when people can’t pinpoint a quarterback’s specific mechanical flaw)?

Since NFL scouts don’t really speak publicly, the answers, arguments, and “evidence” in response to these questions all begin with the so-called “experts” that make a living analyzing the NFL draft. Before Mel Kiper made his “etched in stone” comment, Locker was barely mentioned as a draft prospect. Afterwards, it is restated ad nauseum as the gospel according to Mel. The same story appears with Jake’s completion percentage, the dropped passes, and the defenses he faced. These become common wisdom only when a proclaimed expert declares them to be the case.

Of course, the NFL draft is not the only place where this sort of thing happens. Many teachers can probably point to a few examples in the last few months of the media demonizing educators and teachers’ unions and how their communities have adopted the same arguments. Did the teachers change? No – the perception of them did. The same salaries that were considered “noble” for teachers to make given the work they do suddenly became “selfish” because some talking heads said it was. But I digress.

See, it’s very easy for the “experts” to be critical (I’m looking at you, Todd McShay and Arne Duncan). They can form any opinion they choose and if they’re wrong, oh well. I hesitate to adopt the views of anyone in that situation. The people I want to hear from are the ones whose livelihoods are affected by the decisions they make. I want to hear from the scouts that evaluate players for a living – the guys who get fired if they badly predict a players’ future. They have a lot more invested in being right than the talking heads.  I want to hear from the teachers, who work day in and day out with the students and know those students’ learning habits better than their families do, whose butts are on the line when test scores are lower than expected for some reason. What do they think is going on? I want to know what really happened – the intricate web of causes behind the low test scores or the accuracy numbers. I’m tired of the critics offering up the easy answers.

At the end of the story, Jake Locker was still drafted 8th overall by the Titans. In spite of his supposed accuracy issues, and likely because of his character and work ethic, he has achieved his lifelong dream of being an NFL player. Whether the talking heads and “experts” agreed with the pick or not, scouts said that Locker was a franchise quarterback. And fans in Seattle (myself included) hope those scouts are right.

Standards-Based Grading Revisited

A while back, I posted some of my thoughts on how I might adapt our standards-based, 4-point writing rubric to fit the 100-point grading scale traditionally used in schools. That post turned into a great discussion – so much so that it has reached 30 comments (far more than any other post on this blog) and is now the 3rd result when you Google “standards based grading.” As a result of the apparent interest in the subject, I wanted to revisit the topic from a more philosophical perspective, share some updates on where we’re at and see where others are at in this process.

The original post evolved out of a department discussion on how to adapt our new 4-point rubric so that students were getting a more “fair” grade. Ironically, it’s a year later and now secondary schools in our district want to have the same conversation because our district reading and writing assessments aren’t being graded “fairly.” And that’s the rub. What is “fair” when we’re talking about grading? Here’s the basic summary of what I discussed previously:

  1. In secondary schools like ours, grading is typically done on a 100-point scale, in which 90’s are generally given an “A” grade, 80’s a “B” grade, and so on. Typically, anything under 60 is considered an “F” grade. 
  2. For many schools and teachers, there has been a shift  from this traditional 100-point scale to a simpler 4-point scale. On this scale, students are usually given a 4 if they “exceed standard,” 3 if they “meet standard,” 2 for “approaching standard,” and a 1 if they are well below standard. Our department now uses a rubric like this one.
  3. A problem arises when we try to take a standards-based (SB) score and give it a percentage or letter grade. If we were to directly transfer scores from a 4-point to a 100-point rubric: a 4 would still equate to a 100, a 3 score (“Meets Standard”) would now be a 75%, or a C. Moreover, a 2 score (“Approaching Standard”) would equate to a 50%, or an F. For most teachers, this grade equivalency does not seem fair.

The question, then, is twofold. First, what do we mean when we say, “This grade is not fair.” How do we define “fair”? Second, what other solutions can we implement that would better match our definition of “fair” grading? These are the two questions I want to address in this post.

The Problem: “Fair” Grading

The primary concern with converting SB grades to traditional letter grades has to do with the percentages involved. If all grades were given based on SB scores alone, there would be no problems at all – a 4 (100%) equates to an A, a 3 (75%) equates to a B, a 2 (50%) equates to a C, a 1 (25%) equates to a D, and a 0 (0%) is an F – that just makes sense.

Problems arise, though, when we use traditional 100-point grading scales. When I was in school, this is the scale we used, and it looks much different than the SB percentages. In our department, for example, a B is between 83 and 87%, while a 75% would be a solid C grade. Similarly, a student getting 50% would not get a C – he would get an F. Needless to say, a 0 on a 100-point scale is devastating to a student’s grade (read The Case Against the Zero for more on this difficult subject).

This is how grades have worked for as long as most of us can remember, so it is easy to see why the SB system is such a struggle for us to understand. Certainly the 100-point scale has its benefits. However, in order to fully convert to SB grading, we would have to complete a massive paradigm shift and reach a point where we essentially abandon the 100-point scale for grading. I don’t think many schools are willing to do that – mine certainly isn’t.

Thus we have a dilemma – we want to grade students based on whether they have met standards in our content area, but we also want to use the familiar 100-point scale and traditional letter grades in doing so. To borrow an analogy, we want to put new wine into old wineskins. The question becomes, can we do it? And if so, how?

Finding a Solution

The first step in finding a solution to this seems simple enough, but draws out a lot of underlying assumptions and beliefs about grades (as I discovered reading through the comments on the previous post). Very simply, a solution requires answering one question about what grades actually mean:

Where is the line between “below standard” and “meets standard”?

Does a SB score of 2 merit a C or an F? Is a 3 equivalent to a B or a C? Does a 4 equate to 100%? These are all questions that stem off from the critical question of where that line is between meeting and not meeting the standard. Dana Huff of Huffenglish put this problem a different way – we have to decide what an absolute zero would be. For example, if a student got zero on an assignment, what percentage would he/she receive? From there, you adjust the scale to fit the points available.

And here we reach an underlying difficulty – our expectations are different. And if our expectations differ, our beliefs are likely to differ as well. Here’s an example: I think that a student who is barely meeting standard earns somewhere in the neigborhood of a C+/B-. Some of my colleagues argue for a B, while others say that meeting standard falls in the low-C or D range. For some, failing to meet standard means a student should not be passing, which means a score of 2 should equate to an F grade. And all of these equally valid points of view factor into a discussion, eventually (hopefully) leading to some kind of consensus.

Even when we reach a consensus on where to draw the “standard” line, there are still lingering issues that must be addressed. I think one problem that will arise is disagreement from parents, who don’t think the same way about grades as we are trying to. Like us, they grew up with a more traditional 100-point letter grade system and that is what parents understand. We can certainly expect them to hold the same perspectives we are fighting within ourselves.

In addition, there is the matter of what to do when a student does not meet standard on a given assignment. By using SB grading, I am committing myself to getting students to meet specific standards. When I grade an assignment, it should be an assessment of whether students have met one or more of those standards. If they do, they can move on and attack the next standard. However, if they do not meet the standard, what do we do? Logic dictates that, if my goal is to get the student to meet that standard, I should reteach and give the student another opportunity to meet standard. But how often does this happen in most schools? How often do we simply move on and hope the student can catch up?

The final issue you’ll likely need to address on this topic is what we do when a student doesn’t meet standard all year. Again, basic logic seems to tell us that the student needs additional opportunities to meet the standards at that grade level. Unfortunately, that’s not usually what happens for students. In some sort of quest to soften the blow to students’ egos, we pass them on to the next level. Now, while they may be with students their own age, they are now expected to pass more stringent standards. Even though they haven’t been able to meet the lower standards, we will hold them accountable to higher ones. Isn’t this setting students up for a career of failure? The question we have to address is a tough one: do we hold back students that aren’t meeting standard?

In our district, we hold students back at the secondary level. A 9th grader in our building cannot move on to the high school without meeting a certain minimal set of standards. Unfortunately, by the time they get to us, many students have been below standard for several years and have been passed up through the elementary grades. Based on conversations with teachers in other districts, this is a common trend – pass them through elementary school, then start expecting them to meet standards at the secondary level.

Final Thoughts

As I’ve gained experience with standards-based grading, I’ve come to appreciate the simplicity and efficiency of the concept. There were certainly some difficult transitions – grasping the nuances between a 3 and 4 as opposed to an 86 and 87, for example – but it has been a positive process for me. I think the long-term evolution involves a complete overhaul of how we do grades and committing to a 4-point scale across the board (which in turn changes how we calculate GPA), as well as committing ourselves to requiring students to meet standards from day 1. However, I don’t see a complete overhaul of how we assess students from kindergarten through graduate school as very realistic in the near future. In the mean time, we must simply press on toward the goal of helping all of our students reach the bar we have set for them, and pray that we don’t let them down.

Thoughts on “Race to the Top”

I’ve been reading lately about the Obama Administration’s “Race to the Top” fund and have read a couple of blog posts about it. I thought I would post my response to a post on Seeking Shared Learning, as it sums up my thoughts on this new funding/mandate from the Secretary of Education. Feel free to comment.

– – –

“It will certainly be interesting to hear your perspective as more details of these guidelines become clearer. I have yet to read all 80+ pages of the guidelines, so I can’t say I know everything about what is being proposed.

Even so, my wonder at all of this – dating back to ESEA – is the constitutionality of this sort of move. In my eyes, the whole thing seems shady at best.

As the government has no constitutional standing to make educational mandates (that being left to the states in the 10th Amendment), it seems that the federal government has found its loophole, along with a way to wholly influence the education system through federal funding. While initially it was a series of grants, once schools were accustomed to the money (and it had been factored into state budgets), conditions were attached. States and schools had two choices – accept the conditions and continue receiving the funding they had come to depend on, or refuse the conditions and turn down a massive amount of money that would benefit your school/district/state. The funding issue became a lose/lose situation for many districts.

As we’re seeing, this process only continues to intensify, through NCLB and now RTTT. Again states are left with a choice – accept the conditions/mandates attached to the billions of dollars in funding, or turn down billions of dollars in federal funding because they believe in the kind of education they are giving students. It seems to me that this is a hazy issue, and if this had different players and wasn’t about funding, I think we would consider it a despicable move (give someone a product for free, then once they’re hooked on it, slowly raise the price on the product), but that’s just opinion.

The more practical question is what effect this will have on our district’s curriculum efforts. If we believe that thinking skills and habits of mind and our outcomes and indicators are what education should really be about, does the RTTT “fund” really help us reach that goal? Does putting more emphasis on test scores – particularly as a way of rewarding/punishing teachers and principals – really help us teach students these skills?

My gut answer is no. I expect teachers and administrators would act like most creatures do. We would either pursue the reward of higher compensation by focusing students almost exclusively on test results, or we would act in self-preservation and try to keep our jobs by focusing entirely on test scores. In either case, it is the things Tahoma espouses – thinking skills, habits of mind, etc. – that would be sacrificed in the exchange.

Of course, I’m just a small fry in a vast ocean of educational politics, and could be completely dramatizing the situation. Even so, I wonder if, from an administrative perspective, you see this (RTTT) in the same way, or if you are envisioning greater benefits from this set of guidelines than I currently foresee.”

Obama’s Inauguration Speech: Reflections and Implications for Education

I had the privilege of watching the inauguration this morning with my students. Our school was kind enough to extend our first period so we could finish listening to President Obama’s inauguration speech. First, a couple of thoughts on the process:

  • Since we don’t receive any sort of cable signal, our building tried an interesting idea: stream the video to one computer and send that out over the school video connection. It was somewhat successful, except that the feed was jumpy due to the high volumes of traffic. We eventually resorted to some less tech-savvy methods: internet radio and actual radio. One staff member even quipped, “Anyone have a pair of rabbit ears for my TV?”
  • It was interesting to see how the opportunity to watch this event was received by the students. A good number of them (maybe 75%) were simply entranced – they listened and hung on every word. Others could have cared less and felt it more important to discuss more pressing issues like what so-and-so was wearing.

As soon as the speech was finished, I searched for the full text of the speech. I wanted to look it over and see if it was usable as an example of good writing. Not surprisingly, I found a copy of the speech within seconds of it ending (isn’t the web an amazing thing?). I highlighted a couple of impressive lines and thought I’d reflect on the implication for education in the Obama administration.

  • “The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.
    In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. “

    • One of the lines from this speech that may be engraved on a statue some day. Again, a rephrasing of another writer (“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”). I think this line reflects what we want to provide our students: a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.
      One of the interesting debates we have with students at the secondary level is whether or not they should go to college. Of course, some students will not attend college. Unfortunately, many that don’t simply stop caring about school. I see my goal as a teacher to encourage those students to work hard to be successful in school, not so they can go to college, but so they can at least have the opportunity to do so if they choose. I believe that choice to do as one pleases captures the ideas President Obama (or his excellent speech-writer) had in mind – that is true liberty and true happiness.
  • “For the world has changed, and we must change with it.
    • How many times have we heard this in education, particularly as it relates to technology? In spite of the almost cliched status of this line, it still rings true. As Microsoft begins to roll out the Surface coffee table, our students will begin learning how to use a new technology. The skills they develop now – risk-taking, flexible thinking, problem-solving, and creativity – will determine how successful they are as the world around them changes. And we continue to test students’ ability to solve quadratic equations or identify possessive pronouns…
  • “Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends – hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism – these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths.”
    • I think this idea has huge implications in education – the tools are ever-changing, but the ways in which we use those tools and the goals we strive for continue to be the same. Plato and Socrates advocated wisdom as the primary goal of education – something we have termed “critical thinking” and “habits of mind.” Helping students develop this kind of mentality has always been the primary goal of education. Now we have different tools and strategies to help students reach those goals.

It will be interesting to see how these thoughts evolve over the next four years. My only hope is that education will not take a back seat to the economic problems as I fear it will.