I’m Still Waiting Mr. Governor

Once again you nailed it PK. I think the historical bent of the GOP towards private schools is more of the subtext here in Iowa than the more recent Libertarian/Tea Party/anti-tax angle. Remember, Terry educated all of his kids at Dowling Catholic which is not really the bastion of inclusivity. But that is not what the GOP wants. It is the party of “I got mine on my own, so why would I help you get yours?” Although they really didn’t. Thanks Pat for continuing to put this issue in the front.


Dear Governor Branstad,

It seems like you are feeling better these days. I’ve seen a few pictures of you signing bills with school kids around you.  You looked good in them.  The kids were smiling and that was nice.  I was just checking in because I haven’t heard from you (actually I assumed I might hear from Ms. Fandel, as I know you don’t use email).  I have had over 80,000 people read my letter to you online.  I swear that I had no idea it would get out like that.  I truly just wanted to share my thoughts with you about your funding proposal and to share my frustration that I couldn’t get any response from the legislative Republican leadership.  What happened was a little shocking to me.  Of those 80,000 viewers to my blog I had hundreds contact me.  Most of them shared their frustration that Iowa’s politicians…

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DM Register Takes Aim at Teacher Levels – A Response

The Des Moines Sunday Register reported a study of Iowa’s number of teachers drawn in contrast to both academic performance and student enrollment.  The subtext of the analysis is that over the past five years Iowa’s teaching ranks have grown and we have little to show for it in terms of achievement gains.

I have a love/hate relationship with the Register’s reporting on education.  On one hand they are the only Iowa news organization committing significant resources to reporting on the subject.  However, they are seldom able to report more than mere numbers, ratios, and scores; they tend to take education officials at their word; and they present headlines that are readily used by politicians to argue against funding of teacher salaries and public education in general.

This article has many of the same weaknesses.  While there was an effort to understand how teaching levels have risen despite overall declines in student enrollment statewide, the article did not uncover any alternatives.  And, the usual list of experts were consulted: big school superintendents, small school superintendents, state DOE officials, and ISEA representatives.  Add an analyst from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (who called current staffing levels “unsustainable”) and we have the typical Register run-down of policy wonks that are consistently called upon to construct our portrait of just what is going on in Iowa’s schools.

I would have liked to have heard from teachers, students, and parents about their impressions of the situation.  Would they have talked to me I could have shared my own analysis of student-teacher ratio (my current situation is  178-1) and my own ideas for how to create a more sustainable and cost-effective school structures:

1) Get back to neighborhood schools.  Students would spend less time on the bus and more time in the classroom.  Communities would become more involved in their schools and each other.  Districts would certainly save money on transportation.

2) Mixed grade classrooms.  The one-room schoolhouse had some distinct advantages.  Teachers could provide acceleration and remediation in every subject.  The reality is we have always had students who perform at “grade level” (the Register’s Freudian slip ‘trade level’ made me chuckle) in some subjects, above in others, and below in still others.  Mixed-age classrooms/structures have been used to some success in urban schools, why not get back to this in our rural districts?  Plus, their biggest advantage is to provide leadership and teaching opportunities for students who already are achieving.  These students would deepen their understanding by teaching and gain valuable skills and experiences they can take into the workplace.

3) Completely invest in student access to technology.  Textbooks should be a thing of the past, web 2.0/social networks should be a daily component of every child’s educational experience, and individualized assessments and projects should be created and stored in the digital realm.  This is the component that would tie my first two proposals together.  Imagine a small school physical setting with university scale access to content, research, and specialization.

Competent teaching is the needed ingredient to bring results to any educational reform effort.  A willingness to engage in lifelong learning (therefore continual change and improvement) is the first pre-requisite for any good teacher.  Perhaps my suggestions for restructuring would result in fewer teachers, perhaps they would not.  They certainly would allow more flexible assignments and the ability to put teachers where they are needed most.

What Iowans need and should demand is reporting that moves the debate forward and uncovers alternatives, rather than merely describing the situation and going to the fallback of scapegoating teachers for the failures of the system.  The stakes are high, but the future is bright!

An iPad in the Band Room?

Yes, I did get approved for a grant to bring the new iPad technology to my classroom this spring!  It is a very exciting project and there will be lots to report.  Therefore I have launched a new blog:  http://ipaded.wordpress.com  Please go check it out and offer your ideas.  I feel that this is the cusp of something revolutionary for education, but to fulfill my ideas I’m going to need a lot of help!

‘Mozart’ Effect Takes Practice?

One of my co-workers turned me on to an article by Melissa Healy of the LA Times: http://bit.ly/9bAMtf .  It turns out that merely listening to classical music doesn’t make us smarter.  We have to actually participate in making music in order to reap the neurological effects.  And oh, how amazing these are: not only higher IQ scores, but a brain that is better wired to communicate with itself (across the hemispheres).

Whenever these types of research articles are released it makes me wonder what it takes to realize the benefits of musical study.  Anyone who has ever mastered a musical instrument can tell you that it is hard work. It takes time, and singular focus, and sacrifice – something that is hard to sell to a child.

The RSS Resource

I have to confess that other than using the built-in RSS reader in Safari to search Apple Hot News or New York Times articles I had never used RSS to compile the various news sources that I frequent on the web.  In just a few days of use I can already see how useful a tool it can be for not only reading the news, but organizing information from a variety of sources into more manageable streams.  I find myself thinking of new feeds to put in my reader every time I use it.  Plus with iPhone integration (I’m using the free ‘MobileRSS’ reader) all of these resources are now available with one click in the palm of my hand!  The most interesting result so far is that I have noticed a shift in how I perceive point of view in what I am reading on-line.  Before using RSS I would read local news on the DM Register website, national news using NPR’s iPhone app, and my school district’s news from our district website.  Using my new RSS reader I now find myself using broader sources and throwing off the labels I had previously associated with specific news sources.

As a teacher I feel that I would have more use for this tool in compiling research and resources than as a classroom tool, but it could also be a powerful experience for students.  They too are so often limited by points of view: the textbook, their friends, culture, teachers.  For example wouldn’t it be a wonderful tool for a government class subscription to ten different feeds that represent a variety of points of view from liberal to conservative?  Imagine the possibilities for literature, the arts, and physical education.  I’m curious to hear how other educators are using RSS readers directly with students and what the response has been.

Wikis in Music Education

There are a multitude of directions available to students and teachers engaged in the study of music.  An entire course of study could be devoted to major topics such as performance, analysis, criticism, theory, composition, acoustics, physiology, or history.  In performance-based courses, which are the backbone of most secondary school music departments, historical context, elements of composition, and comparative criticism are mentioned in passing or as elements of program notes presented in concert.  Most often the level of depth achieved in these areas is tied to the teacher’s own areas of interest and expertise.  Students are rarely given an opportunity to share their own knowledge and experiences with music or to investigate and create meaning regarding the works they are currently performing.

The use of a wiki could be the antidote to this problem.  Students, grouped randomly or by area of interest, could be asked to research and contribute entries on a work’s composer, musical genre or era, compositional techniques, or historical significance.  This tool could add meaning and relevance, while freeing valuable classroom time for rehearsal of performance skills.

What if on-line was the class?

As I sit here on the fifth snow day of the 2009-10 school year (technically today was an ice day) I am wondering how we educators might develop ways to maintain momentum in our classes through severe weather, H1N1 outbreaks, and other inconviences to our schedules. Lately there has been much talk of using on-line delivery to make up for lost time in the classroom. It is intriguing, but much as the difference between our sub plans and what we actually do in the classroom, the buzz about additional on-line experience has the subtext that it will be remediation, review, or enrichment. In other words a back-up plan, not the main event.

What if we reversed our thinking? Imagine the same courses we now teach with the same objectives. Now write the entire architecture of the course for on-line delivery. Suddenly face to face time with teachers and other students in class becomes the enrichment rather than the place that low level facts and procedural instructions are aquired. Time spent together in school could be devoted to perfecting real world performance tasks, higher level questioning, and more collaborative interactions with peers and instructors. Would we have less problems with discipline, attention, and ultimately absenteeism? Would our students have much greater opportunities to direct their own experience with the material and create meaning? Would writing sub plans be easier? It may be time to turn the idea of on-line instruction on its head and let our creativity lead instruction, rather than the weather.