Thank a Teacher

Seeing so many tweets about teacher appreciation week I felt compelled to “Thank a teacher” myself. As I began to think about this I realized how many teachers had a great impact on my life. Of course there are many teachers whom have had an impact but a GREAT impact is what I was seeking, (and positive of course).

I can remember the names and faces of many of my teachers all the way back to kindergarten; however, as I think about those I have had more recently their names and faces escape me. Those teachers I had in my undergrad and my masters program had to really stand out for me to remember a name and a face but there are a few from higher ed that I put in that ‘great impact’ category.

As I  ponder those people and recall the wonderful memories I laugh because it seems that their impact on my had very little to do with academic content. I learned MORE than subject matter and had a connection with those teachers which wasn’t correlated to my grade in the class.

So I must thank those great teachers.

Miss Olson not only Thank Youtaught me how to play the violin, she taught me patience, persistence and the important of practice. Mrs. Reed who cared so much and were so loving and caring for a frightened 1st grader. Mrs. Moreng who brought a whole new language and culture into my life. Somehow I remember the Spanish I learned in 3rd grade and I still have the book she gave me. Mrs. Benson taught me it is OK to show emotions and be true to myself. Mr. Helgeson taught me a bit about myself as a ‘social butterfly’ as well as sparking an interest in history. Mr. Gora helped shine a light on my creativity giving me confidence in myself. Mr. Hoff taught me that I can do things even when I don’t want to. I will forever credit him for my public speaking skills, (thanks to impromptu speeches in Jr. High). Ah, and my foreign language teachers, Frau Sweden and Frau Olson-you are awesome. I had sooo much fun in all of those classes. You taught me that learning can be fun even when faced with challenge, (and yes, I can still speak and understand some German). Doc Skewes taught me I can do anything I set my mind to. Mr. Hohenthaner taught me how a teacher can make even the toughest subject interesting, (Oh and to trust no one and assume nothing). Mr. Kinney showed me patience like I have never seen in a teacher. No matter how much I struggled in his class he was always wiling to help without judgement. Mr. Anderson taught me autonomy and self-direction. Mrs. Schmidt taught me so much I can’t fit it into a paragraph. The connections I made in that class, the skills and tools I gained are immeasurable.

The Prof’s I had throughout my BA and MA were good but there were a few that were great! The ones that I could go to their office and they knew my name. The ones that were approachable, kind, and helpful. Al Ramirez and Dick Carpenter were two amazing professors that were just that. They had a wealth of information to share and had great rapport with students (myself included) that made learning from them wonderful.

It was these great teachers that inspired me to become a teacher to impact the lives of others the way they impacted my life.

Thank you amazing teachers! You’ll never know what a tremendous impact you have on the lives of your students. And I’ll close with a quote from an amazing teacher who happens to be a colleague of mine (Mr. Keven Kroehler), “Thank you for doing great things for kids!”


The Principals Protest

As an avid user of social media I tend to follow various news articles and trending topics so it is no surprise that I read the New York Times article on education entitled “Principals Protest Role of Testing in Evaluations.” This, as well as other articles, seem to dominate the tweets I was reading last week. After having read it I can’t say I disagree with the protest. If I was in their shoes I would be outraged as well. (Then again, that is one of the MANY reasons I have chosen to leave the traditional school system for a different and more innovative public school system which allows for more autonomy.) Having said that, I find it ironic. The very same high stakes standardized tests were deemed acceptable to evaluate students but now that they they are proposed to evaluate the teachers and administrators there is a protest. Like I said, I don’t disagree that is is wrong to use these test scores to evaluate the teachers and administrators. I just wish this protest would have started years ago when the high stakes testing era began. We as educators and parents should have been protesting the use of high stakes standardized tests to evaluate the students. In my experience research shows that test scores predict future test scores not what kind of person the child will become. Many kids score poorly on exams (for various reasons) and overcome the obstacles to become very successful and amazing people as adults.

Teachers and administrators shouldn’t be evaluated based on a snapshot of their students on one particular day and neither should the students. Students, teachers, and administrators should ALL be evaluated with a more comprehensive approach.

Content or Competencies

In my line of work (the crazy and unpredictable world of education reform) we share our model of education, which utilizes a student-centered approach that requires a systemic change, with many people. The people we meet with always have plenty of questions as to how this works despite the fact it has been successfully serving students for 18 years at our flagship school (The Minnesota New Country School) and the many other replications schools.

The EdVisions model doesn’t include bells, hallways with lockers, a course/classroom curriculum, GPA’s or class rank. This isn’t your traditional middle/high school and wasn’t designed as such.

This model does so many things differently but I’d like to focus on the curriculum. The EdVisions model cites ‘The world is the curriculum.” This is an accurate assessment as students garner the required standards, subjects, credits, etc. via a personalized curriculum unique to each student’s individual needs. This personalized curriculum blends a full-time multiage advisory, student-directed project-baseds, seminars, online-classes, college courses, internships/job shadowing and field experiences.

This tends to cause many traditional teachers to cringe. Why? Many fear they are no longer needed. Others state their concern for how the students will “get all of the standards checked off.” We focus first on the learning then the actual content. Yes, the students still get all of their required standards in order to graduate but that isn’t the end all. It is far more important that students have all the tools required to be able to learn things on their own after they leave the safety and security of high school.

Again, this can be a frightening thought for some people. I can understand their concern when the current US education system is so focused on content and standardized testing to demonstrate mastery of this content. The flaw in this thought process is the assumption that students learn and retain 100% of that content. Let’s use biology as an example…say a student completes all the required biology standards…they probably actually learned 75% of them. Would it have been better for the student to have focused on 75% of those standards to begin with allowing more time to dig deeper into those areas and actually learn all of that 75%?

I would argue YES. Why? Because the process of learning (engaging, discovery, exploration, explanation, evaluation, reflection…) is far more important for life long learning than simply route memorization.

I feel it is far more important that students have skills/competencies such as time management, responsibility, resiliency, persistence, independence, creativity…Providing students the proper tools in an environment most conducive to learning so they can continue to be curious and hungry to learn more.

It is not what in education it’s about WHO….

In the past few weeks something has really gotten under my skin, (And yes I am very aware that I can be easily irritated). I spend plenty of time reading about education on fb, twitter, blogs, and of course old-fashion print. For whatever reason it seems so much of what I have been reading or hearing about has more to do with the adults than it does the kids. It seems to me that many in education spend so much time fighting one another about what education is or should be losing sight of what is most important. It’s not WHAT education is, was or should be but rather WHO is education for? I may be a bit naive but I think if we took a step back to gain a little perspective we might see there are children everyone who are counting on us to do what is best for them. Yes, do what is best for THEM, not any publishing company, research firm, teacher, CMO, union, etc. I understand politics and the actions that drive politics are a fact of life but maybe, just maybe or one minute we can all step back, see those children’s faces and try to work together and do right by the children.

Common Core vs. Common Comprehensive

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are getting more and more attention in the press and are being adopted by states quite rapidly. Like all other educational initiatives you either love it or hate it. We’ll, once again I am sitting up on my white picket fence in Mayberry.

The name “Common Core” sounds as if it would be a list of common basic standards to be accepted across the nation so students have the same basic educational foundation regardless of the state they are in. Pretty straight forward right? Not so. If you take a look at them you soon discover they are not so ‘core’ but rather ‘comprehensive.’ This is where I get up on my fence. I am all for have a basic list of standards for every student to master (not cover). I have a problem when it morphs into a ridiculously comprehensive list of standards.

As always, I’ve got an analogy to explain my point. You are going to go grocery shopping. If you are anything like me you make a list. So, how do you decide what to put on your list? You check the cupboards, pantry, refrigerator and freezer. You put on the this the items that you need. If you are shopping for the staples or basics you’ll probably have bread, butter, milk and juice on your list. Imagine having various produce, canning, and food companies deciding what you need on your list. Kraft Foods would insist that you need Mac-n-Cheese, Green Giant would demand you put green beans on your list and Proctor and Gamble might even chime in requesting you add some of their products to your list too. That sounds crazy right? Of course! This may be a stretch but sounds an awful lot like putting a group of educators with their content hats on together in a room to determine what kids need to know before they graduate. The English Language Arts person will most definitely have an extensive list of poetry & grammar to learn, classic books to read and famous authors to study. The Mathematician will of course have an equally complete list of standards to cover as will the Historian, Scientist, etc.

We all select a content area we enjoy and are passionate about so obviously we will be skewed just as a major company would be interested in promoting their own products.

We need to take off our content hats and think more broadly about what future generations will need. A laundry list of very specific standards sounds more comprehensive than core.

Common Core State Standards have the potential to allow for all kinds of innovation. Common Comprehensive State Standards scream to be made into a nice-neat prepackaged curriculum to be sold by a major textbook and or testing company.

Let’s collaborate & innovate so the future of this world has the ability to think for themselves, loves learning, can be creative and can analyze and solve problems that don’t involve a #2 pencil and a scantron.

We can do it. And when I look into the eyes of my own 4 children I know we HAVE to do it!

The Spinning wheels of educational change….

We’ve all been there. Proudly riding your big-kid bike. OK, so it’s got training wheels. Excited for your new freedom pedaling your little heart out only to find yourself not gaining ground. If you grew up on a gravel road like I did where there was plenty of pot holes and washboards to suspend my back tire and thwart my efforts to  ride up and down the driveway you know exactly what I am talking about.

The feeling of trying hard and not getting anywhere hasn’t gone away. I still see it and get just as frustrated as I did as a child. Ironically, the spinning tires aren’t always an accident.

It seems there are many educators, schools, district, etc., who say they want innovation & change. Yes, they have no problem saying how much they desire for this innovation and change but when it comes down to it, they have little to no intentions of actually doing it.

Putting ideas on paper and planning for the implementation is pretty easy. When it comes to actually DOING those things is when it gets tough and that my friend is when people back off from their plans and make as little change as possible. For whatever reason, the big plans for an extreme school make-over become more of a fresh coat of new paint. In fact, if you are lucky it is different color of paint.

“Doing the same thing over and over, yet expecting different results, is the definition of crazy.” I love this quote and find myself hearing it more and more in conversations regarding education. Continuing to use the same curriculum, instructional methods, school facility, etc., expecting to improve student outcomes is ridiculous yet that seems to be exactly what happens time and time again. Taking the traditional method of teaching (direct instruction, desks in rows, teacher dissemination of knowledge, etc.) and wrapping it in a different box with a pretty bow doesn’t  make it new and innovative.

Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things.”

We have to learn to avoid those potholes and as scary as it might be eventually we have to take off the training wheels and travel the road ahead.

You’ll never know if you can ride without training wheels unless you try.

Enjoy the ride 🙂

If you are not with them, you must be against them…

Why are things so black and white? What happen to shades of gray and other beautiful colors? (Last I checked Crayola had plenty of colors to choose from. Just ask my daughter who has 2 overflowing crayon boxes.) In all seriousness, why is it that if you aren’t “for” something you are immediately lumped into the “against” category without thought to there being any other options? Think about it for a minute…Some of the most emotionally charged issues are portrayed in a black and white, stark contrast. Apparently there is no fence to sit on to find any common ground.

Where am I going with this? As much as I would like to share my thoughts on the many examples flying around in my head, I’ll try to stick to the one which spawned this post.

Ed Reform-Yeah, a word people tend to shy away from. By definition it means changing education for the better. This sounds like a good thing to me. We always want better for our children than we had. I thought that is how most generations work. There are some people who view ed reform as a bad thing not because they don’t want better for the next generation but because it insinuates that the current system is broken, wrong, or some other negative connotation. So from my desk it certainly seems if you are an ‘ed reformer’ you are saying the current system is broken, or wrong, you are against teachers….and if you are a ‘traditionalist’ you are pro-union, anti-charter, etc.

I have read plenty of articles, blogs, etc. It’s all the same you either are or aren’t there is no in between. I am here to say I will NOT be lumped into categories. I will blaze my own trail into my own category. I have been told I am a spit-fire, spark plug, get-it-done kind of person so I guess this fits my personality well. 🙂

I consider myself to be an ed reformer; however, I have my own thoughts, views, beliefs that I feel put me in a gray area. I don’t think the U.S. Public Education System is broken, just obsolete. I am not pointing figures or blaming people or positions. Just saying that we as a society have outgrown the current system (which I might add has been employed for hundreds of years). I don’t care for teacher unions but that doesn’t mean I think teachers are bad. I am one!! I would simply prefer to negotiate for my own salary based on my own merits and purchase any additional insurance on my own. While we are on that subject, just because I don’t care for teacher unions doesn’t mean that I believe in evaluating teachers based on student test scores. I think there are far better ways to evaluate teachers in a more collegial and professional manner. Yes, I am a charter school supporter; however, I must add if you have seen 1 charter school, you have seen 1 charter school. They are all different.
Ultimately, I think teachers are crucial

to a great education. I should add GREAT teachers are crucial to a great education. We all know there are bad teachers out there and yeah, they should find another calling. (It’s the same for all fields, who wants a bad plumber, lawyer, doctor, secretary???) In fact, I think teachers should have more voice in their schools and schools should have more autonomy. Students (and their families) should have more voice and choice in their educational journey. School should be fun. Yeah, I said it “Fun!” Learning should be a joyful process.  School should NOT be a place where kids ‘do their time’ to get it over with.

Whether you prefer traditional public school with bells and 7 period days or one that utilizes project based learning. A charter school with traditional classes and extended hours or one with multi-age classrooms and an individualized curriculum it really doens’t matter. It’s the choice that is important to me. (We have so many choices as to where to buy gas, shop for groceries, buy stamps, etc. why should education be any different?)

I think if we focus all of our efforts in education on the students and not the adults we would have a much better education system to offer future generations.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All…..

Imagine you are going to be evaluated at work today. This evaluation is going to determine any raises, promotions, changes in your role at your employer and what types of things you may do after-wards. You were so nervous you couldn’t sleep last night and almost threw up at breakfast. You leave for work on a empty stomach on edge for the upcoming evaluation. You arrive at work and everyone is sitting in desks which are in rows and your boss is at the front of the room next to the company’s CEO. They have a large box. As you watch everyone else in the room (who also appear nervous) you see the anxiety on their faces. You are told to remove everything from your desk. The walls are blank as well as they have already removed all posters and other items from the wall. The CEO explains the evaluation is going to begin at the stroke of 8 o’clock and you must be completed by noon. You cannot talk or leave the room without permission. Raise your hand if you have to go to the rest room. The CEO then goes from desk to desk passing out what appears to be clothing. Everyone looks perplexed. As soon as the last desk has clothes deposited on it the clock strikes 8am and the CEO says, “You may begin, good luck.” You look at these clothes and wonder what is going on? What kind of evaluation is this? You raise your hand and ask quietly, “What am I supposed to do with this?” Your boss replies softly and sincerely, “I am sorry, I can’t answer that. Use what I’ve taught you and do your best.” You notice a note that states to put on these clothes. Everyone soon finds the note and the room is filled with people trying to decipher what is going on.  All wearing or trying to wear the same clothing items. Some people are drowning in the clothes, some are trying to squeeze them on, and others fit just right. You realize that you are being evaluated based on these pieces of clothing…..

This sounds insane right? Everyone being asked to wear the same size at the same time? Think of children…you are in first grade therefore you will all wear a size 7 clothing and a size 12 shoe. That isn’t how we as humans develop right? Exactly, yet we evaluate students with high stakes tests as if they all develop at the same time in the same way.

I am not blaming the teachers, I am not blaming the principals or superintendents. Heck, I am not even blaming the governor or the president. I am blaming the testing companies.  We all know there are plenty of politics involved with this. The testing companies are making profits and swimming in their millions. Don’t take my word for it, look for yourself….Check out the profitst of ACT, inc (a division of McGraw Hill, ETS (they have a for-profit arm), NCS which merged with Pearson, Riverside testing (A houghton Mifflin co), Harcourt Educational Measurement….

Testing is BIG business. As you start to look into their profits you’ll see connections between some highly influential political figures and some pieces of legislation that have changed education and those that are still in the process. Whether it’s NCLB or the new Common Core State Standards, they are all linked to testing and not far behind sit the testing companies counting their money.

SO what is the answer? I don’t think there is one right answer but I can tell you I think the assessments should be more holistic and comprehensive. Student evaluation should be determined more locally. Teachers, students and parents need to be involved in such an important issue.

Cold Lunches, Chocolate Milk & Drivers Licenses….

Cold Lunches, Chocolate Milk & Drivers Licenses….

I don’t claim to be a twitter expert but I tweet and rather enjoy this form of social media. I think what I love best about twitter is I can get all of the articles, news updates, blogs, etc which I find to be the most interesting. I love being able to filter my news if you will… I tend to read about parenting and education. Big surprise right? So In the past few weeks I have read about schools banning cold lunches because they aren’t healthy enough, schools banning chocolate milk to curb the childhood obesity crisis and of course my personal favorite the bill in the MN legislature linking driver’s license privileges to high school graduation.

No driver’s license for dropouts. Let’s think about this for a minute….Is that enough to keep kids in school? Is that the extrinsic motivation they need? Will that make school better for kids? Will it actually work?

This is ‘Menne’ thoughts so you have to know I have many thoughts on this issue. No, I don’t feel it’s enough to keep kids in school. No, extrinsic motivation isn’t enough for teens. Of course it won’t make schools any better for kids and finally no I don’t think it will work and here is why.
Consider the kids who regardless of the driver’s license incentive would drop out. If a high school diploma isn’t important to them neither is attendance so driving legally probably isn’t at the top of their list either. And while we are talking about it these kids will still need to find some kind of income and if they can’t deliver pizza or drive to a job they will be forced to find an alternative source. This alternative may be dangerous and/or illegal. Either way, will put an additional strain on society.

I’ll stop down off my soap box for a minute to get back to the chocolate milk and cold lunch debate. As I was getting my children out the door and off to school this morning they decided they were discussing the lunch menu and what they planned to eat. I told them how lucky they were that they had so many choices and explained the bans which are being placed on various items in schools. My 6 year old looked at me with a strange face and a very matter-of-fact manner said, “Don’t the kids in those schools have grown ups to make sure they are eating healthy and not eating too many sweets?” Yes folks, even a child gets it. Whether it is what’s in the school cafeteria, what kids bring in their sack lunches or gaining a driver’s license the decisions should be made at home. It seems there are much large issues schools and politicians should be focusing on.

Same story, different day…

I work as the director of program and evaluation for a non-profit educational development organization, EdVisions Schools. We work with schools, communities, and other organizations in the U.S. and abroad. We have a network of just over 40 schools across the U.S. which we have helped create or transform. I have been lucky enough to teach at 2 of these schools which are absolutely amazing. (If you are interested in education, education reform or just plan quality public education you have GOT to visit one of these schools Anyway, we spend our days fighting for quality education for all students, quality educational options for parents and policies to allow for safe and supportive school environments which foster student engagement, grow student hope and raise student achievement. ( There are many days which I feel like I need a target that says, “bang head here.”

Each year 1.3 million students drop out of school. Every day there are students who don’t want to go to school because they don’t feel safe at school. They may be bullied, picked on, harassed, left out, hit, kicked….(and we don’t have to go far to see this, the YouTube video of the kids picking on the larger boy which made national news went viral) There are students who are bored, those who are so confused both of whom get frustrated and disenfranchised with the entire educational system…..

Meanwhile, we have continual budget cuts, consolidations, NCLB, National Common Core Standards, acronyms galore with for high stakes tests, teacher pink slips passed out like Pez candy…….

Even those in edreform are fighting against one another for what ‘real edreform’ looks like.

What should the U.S. Education System look like? Should we as a nation continue to strive to be #1 in education? Is it even possible to go from #22 to #1? Do we consider international comparisons, standards and assessments? Do we focus on closing the achievement gap? Do we allow for more educational options? Charters? Vouchers? CMO’s, EDO’s? Do we give schools local control? Do we leave it up to state departments of education? Do we continue to utilize a model of education which has been employ for hundreds of years? Should all schools be exactly the same? How should we fund schools? How should we evaluate teachers? What form of instruction should be use? Blended learning? 21st century learning? Differentiated instruction? Project Based Learning? Inquiry based learning? Do we address the whole child? Social emotional learning? Positive youth development?

There is certainly no shortage of questions.

This massive complex problem boils down to one word. Children.

Everyday that I struggle with the projects I am working on or hear ridiculous examples of people putting other things above the needs of the students I remember why I am here doing what I do. So that more students, families, communities can have quality educational options that meet each students individual needs. I am here to fight the fight for the students, families and communities that can’t.

Life doesn’t come with multiple choice questions and a scantron. We can’t even conceive the global challenges the youth of today will face tomorrow. We must provide them with the proper tools, skills and knowledge so that they may think for themselves to tackle those problems they have yet to face.

I believe it takes a village to raise and child and if we teach them how to fish they will fish for a lifetime.

I work each and every day to spread the word of innovative educational options that do just that.

We all need to do what is in the best interest of the children and sometimes that means giving them a voice to tell us what that might be. 🙂