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Taking a Gap or Bridge Year – A Growing Trend

Our sister site,, recently took an in-depth look at the growing trend among American students to take time away from formal schooling to pursue other interests. The idea of a “gap” or “bridge” year may have originated with European or Australian students but the concept is being redefined by American students.

nullInstead of taking the equivalent of an extended vacation, American gap or bridge students are creating a set of organized experiences: doing volunteer work, taking classes, working to earn additional funds for school, traveling or tackling outdoor adventures.

Ultimately, instead of being a year off, the time serves to give students a chance to broaden their horizons, experience potential career options and perhaps even help pinpoint a college major. The Student Guide to the Gap or Bridge Year Experience takes a look at some of the programs available, the rationale for taking the time and reviews the many benefits of a gap or bridge experience. Students interested in possibly taking a year off will find Q & A’s with six students: Conor Farese (a senior at the University of North Carolina), Gaya Morris (a freshman at Princeton), Aaron Flaster (a sophomore at Lewis and Clark), Hilary Brown (a freshman at Occidental College), Chris Scanzoni (a sophomore at UNC), and Stacy Tasman (a recent graduate of the University of Florida).

These “gappers” provide first hand accounts of the wealth of options available, everything from high end paid programming experiences to backpacking through Asia. Their stories will also provide significant comfort to parents who are concerned that the time might be unproductive or could lead students to think about not attending college upon their return.

March 13, 2011   1 Comment

College Graduation Rates – As Big a Problem as College Access?

For the past 50 years we have seen a focus on the need to improve high school graduation rates. During the majority of that period, post-secondary education received a pass.

Simply stated, there was a perception that American higher education represented the best the world had to offer. That perception was greatly enhanced by the volume of foreign students seeking the opportunity to be educated here.

But over the last ten years we have seen a push towards holding higher education accountable for its product. In one of those areas, graduation rates, it is clear that American Universities are falling short, abysmally so.

College Graduation Rates

Here are the attention-getting numbers courtesy of the Department of Education (pdf) based on data collected through 2008:

At public colleges and universities only 29.0% of students graduate in the traditional four-year time frame. Even when the Historically Black Colleges are factored out, the rate climbs only to 30.3%.

GraduationOf course, the timeframe most used to discuss graduation rates is the six-year window. This timeframe appears to be used because here graduation rates pick up substantially. At public schools the percentage of students that graduate within six years nearly doubles to 54.7%.

Given even more time, the percentage of students who graduate does increase to 58.3% if we measure the period over 8 years. This minimal increase is dismal when weighed against the cost of two additional years of college.

One might think those more expensive private, non-profit schools would have significantly better numbers. They do in fact have better numbers but given their overall selectivity the rates continue to be extremely disappointing.

Over the four-year timeframe, we see that private schools graduate 50.4% of their students, a number that nearly mirrors the six-year of public institutions. But in this sector, an additional 2 years yields just a 14.2% increase in the grad rate and an additional 4 years yields only a total rate of 66.4%. Here again, once one moves beyond six years, very few additional students finish.

Where the numbers really disintegrate is when we move to the for-profit industry. Like public colleges and universities, the for-profits struggle to graduate their students in the four-year timeframe as only 26.8% earn their sheepskin in four years. While most would insist that for-profits are geared towards part-time, working students, the study looks only at those individuals who started as full time students.

But whereas public schools see a massive bump when the time period is extended to six years, for profits see very little gain. Just 33.9% earn a diploma in six years and 37.7% when given eight years.

Abysmal Results

If we move from percentages to simple assessments we find the following:

If you take any three students attending a public college, you can expect that two of the three will not earn that diploma in the four-year period. Furthermore, just one of every two students will graduate in six years. Even at private colleges, roughly one of every two students fails to earn his or her diploma in four years.

And unlike American high schools, every one of these institutions has some form of entrance criteria and application process. In fact, the highly selective private sector college admission criteria fly in the face of these final graduation statistics.

College is a very expensive proposition for students and the costs associated with attending school are multiplied by every year of attendance. But the multiplication is astronomical for those who spend exorbitant sums of money and time only to come up empty when it comes to earning a diploma.

Some insist that college graduation rate data is not really that meaningful. After all, in America we want to provide every one opportunities and that is what colleges are doing, providing options. Under such a view, it is the students themselves and not the schools that are to blame for these poor results.

Of course, once upon a time that was the line given by public schools. Today, the federal government insists that schools educate all students or face sanctions under the No Child Left Behind Act.

It seems only right that colleges and universities be held to a similar standard, especially those schools that have entrance criteria and admissions policies that limit student access to their programs.

December 27, 2010   5 Comments

Classroom Success and Stereotype Threat

With each passing year, we enter new worlds when it comes to understanding inhibitors to learning. As but one example, back in the mid-1970’s when this educator was going through his teaching program, the concept of stereotype threat had not even been conceived of.

But there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that stereotype threat is not only real, there may be ways to actually address the issue. Of course, teachers cannot tackle an issue unless they have an understanding of what the concept entails.

iStock_000006603367XSmallBut then again, many of the teaching fundamentals already employed by educators of our youngest students may actually be critical to addressing this new found learning inhibitor.

Stereotype Threat

To get a quick definition of stereotype threat, we head on over to Wikipedia where we find this very direct synopsis:

Stereotype threat is when a person who belongs to a group that has a negative stereotype attached to it subconsciously conforms to the negative stereotype by performing a task to a lesser degree than they would otherwise.

The site offers this simple example:

Black people have the “less intelligent” stereotype attached to them, so a black person might perform poorly on an IQ test. If said person was either unaware of the stereotype or knew the stereotype to be wrong (stereotype threat is not present) then they would perform better.

Another way of thinking about the idea is to think about the traditional stereotypes associated with a specific subgroup: about a female student focusing on traits associated with being a female or of an African-American focusing on traits associated with being an African-American.

Wikipedia goes on to note that the typical issue found in education is one where a subgroup performs poorly because of the prevailing stereotype. It could be the case of poor standardized test performances by blacks on the SAT. Another typical subgroup performance issue involves young women in either mathematics or science.

Latest Study

A recent study by researchers at the University of Colorado reveals that the issue of stereotype threat in the sciences is very real for young women. The study also reveals that educators can take some very simple steps to help reduce the impact of stereotype threat in the classroom.

In the case of the Colorado research, it appears that two simple 15-minute writing exercises administered early on in the semester boosted the scores of female students in an introductory physics class. Perhaps even more amazingly, the writing exercises had nothing to do with physics and everything to do with making these young women more comfortable with being women even while they were in the science setting.

iStock_000007512419XSmallFor their writing assignments, the students were asked to write about things that mattered to them: things like relationships with family and friends. It appears that those young women who were allowed to hone in on things they care about provided additional affirmation that then helped them perform better on the science tasks when they were presented with them.

At Slate Magazine, Amanda Schaffer has dissected the results of the experiment featuring 399 undergrads in a calculus-based physics class. Some students were randomly assigned to write about two or three items from a list that included “learning and gaining knowledge,” “belonging to a social group,” “athletic ability,” “relationships with family and friends,” and “sense of humor.” These individuals were then asked to reflect on why these things mattered to them.

The second set of students was provided the same list of values. In an amazing twist, these students were asked to select the values on the list that were least important to them but to explain why these values might be important to other people.

The writing assignment came early when students were theoretically feeling the most apprehension about the course: the first week of school and then the week before the first midterm.

The results of this activity were amazing. Schaffer explains that most of the women who “received C’s in the class were in the group that had written on values they cared about least” while most of the “women who received B’s had written on what they cared about most.”

In contrast, there was no effect for the women who were receiving A’s or for the men in the class irrespective of grades. Later on in the course, those women who had affirmed their own values also “scored higher on a standardized exam of key physics concepts, taken at the end of the term.”

The theory being suggested is that those students who were able to write about the things they cared about felt some additional comfort early on in the class. The assignment may have reduced some of the anxiety associated with stereotype threat and thus allowed the students to relax and let their true intellect come through.

The key of course is that each positive development helps build confidence over the course of a semester. A slightly better performance on test one leads to greater motivation and thus leads some to work harder. That work then transcends to understanding of the material that then leads to greater confidence and even further motivation. As Schaffer states, “it’s easy to imagine such a virtuous cycle.”

Praise and Success

We have written previously about the importance of praise in the learning process for our youngest learners. But it seems that we should rethink how important this concept is with older students as well.

From this latest study, we see that how students feel about themselves in a particular classroom setting is critical. Therefore, finding ways to help students feel comfortable in a classroom setting is critical to helping them believe in themselves.

Lastly, there does appear to be an exceedingly virtuous cycle, one where comfort and belief in oneself leads to additional levels of success that can in turn further a student’s motivation and effort level. And when it comes to learning, it is the work ethic of students that matters most.

Ironically, the steps teachers can take to address any and all of these characteristics appear to be similar in scope to what educators must do to address the issue of stereotype threat. The key is finding age-appropriate methods for doing so.

December 7, 2010   No Comments

Parental Steps to Helping a Child Deal with School Bullies

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.

That was a phrase I heard many times over as a child – I have to say I wasn’t sure that I agreed with it then and certainly don’t now, but the message was unequivocal.

The idea, of course, was that the verbal teasing could get under your skin only if you let it do so. The message was buck up, believe in yourself and hold your head high despite the mean-spirited critics around you.

iStock_000002634427XSmallFrom my memories as a child growing up, I can attest to the fact that bullying and hard-core teasing were concepts we dealt with on a daily basis. I can say from a voice of experience that those who insist that the issue is unique or somehow worse with today’s young people are flat out wrong.

Four Bullied Teens, One Ohio School

Memories of mean spirited classmates came flooding back to me when I read Meghan Barr’s piece on the tragedies that have befallen one high school in Ohio. Four teens, all with one commonality, bullied by their peers, have ended their own lives in the last two years. It was a striking article as I cannot comprehend anyone taking their own life for any reason.

Barr goes through each one’s story in candid detail. Sladjana Vidovic, a 16-year-old native of Croatia with a very thick accent, hung herself. Eric Mohat, a flamboyant young man who preferred to wear pink most of the time, used a gun to take his life.

Three weeks after Mohat ended his time, Meredith Rezak, 16, also shot herself. Jennifer Eyring, an accomplished equestrian who had a learning disability, died from an overdose of antidepressant pills.

Two of the parents are currently suing the school for not taking action to stop the harassing behavior. In Meghan Barr’s story, one national anti-bullying expert placed the problem squarely with the school.

Barbara Coloroso told Barr that the school ‘is allowing a culture of mean to thrive, and school officials should be held responsible for the suicides — along with the bullies.’

“Bullying doesn’t start as criminal,” Coloroso is quoted. “They need to be held accountable the very first time they call somebody a gross term. That is the beginning of dehumanization.”

Whether the school is at fault or not, we cannot say. But we can say that there are concrete steps parents can take to help their child deal with such behaviors when they witness them.

What’s a Parent to Do?

If you take the time to read the article we have mentioned, you will no doubt be fearful of how your child may be treated in the school setting. It is important to note that the vast majority of students make it through the school years positively with most indicating the school years were a good experience overall.

Left OutSimply stated, preventing your child from ever being harassed or bullied is not a reasonable expectation. There are people, who by their very make-up, will seek opportunities to bully and harass others.

Parents must take the steps to help their child reduce the possibilities of being mistreated as well as teach them how to deal with the issue when it occurs. In doing so, we do not recommend using the proverbial line of old, sticks and stones…..

The first step is to help your child build a core group of friends early on in life that he or she can rely on at school. Beginning with any form of early organizational activities, from T-ball to dance class to time at the Y, getting your child into activities develops interests where they meet and develop relationships with others.

Next, having other early social opportunities such as birthday parties, playground picnics, and other such low-key events is a great way to help your child learn to socialize. These events, organized and unorganized, can help create an early peer group of youngsters that hang together. These youngsters will then tend to look out for one another when they get to new settings or uncomfortable developments at school.

The second step is to make your child aware that this type of behavior may occur and prepare them for the possibility. All too often, parents hope for the best and then try to react when a situation develops.

Educating your child that there will be some people who will exhibit this behavior and then giving them concrete strategies for dealing with it is essential. The first step is to insist that your child not follow along when someone is being teased, that you will not tolerate them mistreating others. In other words, they must understand that the behavior is wrong and that they are never to be involved in such behavior.

While we might want our child to stand up for the one being targeted or to the bully targeting them, the simplest step is to have the child remove him/herself from the situation. If they have developed a core peer group, they can encourage that group to also remove themselves.

A collective stance is far easier to take. Most importantly, they, as a group should alert the adult caregivers of the situation whenever it occurs with others, not just when they are recipients of the harassment or bullying behavior.

Ongoing, Abusive Treatment

Lastly, if your child falls victim to serious harassment or abuse, you must take the step of meeting with all of his or her teachers and school administration. By the term victim, we are not referring to someone looking cross-eyed at your child or refusing him or her a certain place on the playground or in the lunchroom.

But if your child is called vicious names and is the victim of taunting and teasing, you must alert school officials as to what is taking place and where. In doing so, avoid the fist-pounding and the threat of lawsuits befalling the district if they don’t get a handle on things.

iStock_000000394126XSmallInstead, discuss calmly and rationally what is taking place and then develop a concrete plan for how your child will alert school officials when the behavior is an issue. At the same time, ask teachers if they will kindly look out for your youngster, to keep an eye on the areas where issues have developed in the past.

Seek a commitment from them that they will watch but at the same time empower them to call you the parent, if by chance your child is the responsible party when a situation develops. Such an approach will demonstrate that you want the behavior to be limited so that all children have a positive school experience.

Bullying Will Always Be an Issue

To be frank, bullying and various forms of harassment are certain to occur to some extent even in the best schools. The difference is that the schools that take the issue seriously will respond and respond strongly when they become aware of the problem.

Most schools today take a very active approach and offer a general education anti-bullying component. We are not sure what is taking place at the aforementioned Ohio school but most take the issue very seriously.

Clearly, given what has happened in Ohio, parents also need to take the issue seriously as well. In fact, it is imperative that you give your child the tools to handle the challenges – it is easily the best step one can take.

October 10, 2010   No Comments

Helping Student in Need Gets Coach in Hot Water

Doing the right thing by kids.

The story of the Florida high school coach suspended for housing a homeless student has a lot of folks talking and most raising an eyebrow, at least initially. One major network hit the nail on the head with its assessment of the situation.

Fox Sports writes:

In the movies, taking in a homeless high school kid who turns out to be a heck of a football player makes for a heartwarming story.

In real life … not so much.

iStock_000006877044XSmallOn the surface, it appears that a coach with a humanitarian streak was suspended for trying to help a kid in trouble. The reports from the Orlando Sentinel indicate St. Cloud High School coach Bill Buldini sat out his team’s most recent game with Edgewater after the school self-reported a violation of Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) code that is theoretically designed to curb the recruitment of athletes.

The rule that was broken is pretty clear – it states that school employees or representatives of the school’s athletic department cannot provide or promise free or reduced-cost housing for a potential athlete in their program. The apparent issue also seems clear, the coach provided housing for a player who had become homeless.

Of course, there are two distinct ways to view the issue. One is that an adult with connections to a teen learned of his negative circumstances and stepped in to help someone in need. That is the good Samaritan angle and the one we hope tells the true tale.

The second is that a football coach, fearful that one of his players might not be able to play football, ensured his continued participation and thus the potential continued success of his program. This angle gains significant consideration if the young man just so happens to be one of the best players on the team.

At this point it is not clear if the second view is pertinent in any way. The student’s name has not been released for privacy reasons so it is unclear if he was an impact player or just one of many boys participating in the program.

Interestingly enough, the violation of Florida athletic code did not mirror district policy regarding employees though news sources indicated that district “regulations call for the district to work with homeless and dispossessed students directly rather than rely on its employees.” If the district felt that the coach had acted inappropriately they certainly did not indicate as such. After sitting out one game, Buldini has been reinstated to both his coaching duties and day job as a social studies teacher.

iStock_000002103737XSmallBut according to new sources, the FHSAA is continuing to look into the matter. And if they find he has acted against Florida regulations new sources indicate the association could fine the coach monetarily and also act so as to vacate some of the team’s victories.

Unlike the college athletic environment where coaches are paid millions, Buldini is paid a $3,850 annual stipend for serving as the football coach. Clearly his actions, even if they were to help keep a valuable player in the program, are doing little for his financial future.

But the school has taken the step of holding the player out of practice and games for the time being. This step of course eliminates any potential conflict of interest and ensures that the humanitarian effort is not about winning football games.

While a logical step, those who work with high school students know that athletics actually keeps many kids in school. Without the chance to participate, that could well be the eventual outcome here.

It is a challenging situation and mirrors the complexity of today’s world. Sadly, it is a situation that furthers the view among our young people that society isn’t about helping them.

But there is one clear lesson here. Too many of our adult rules work against people trying to do right by kids.

October 2, 2010   No Comments

Book Learning vs. Wisdom – Where to Place One’s Emphasis

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education – Mark Twain.

Our new, wired world has brought forth many positives. One of the simplest, yet powerful, of the new tools available is the ability to bookmark worthy Internet materials for future use.

Even more powerful is the ability to share those materials indirectly through the use of sites like Delicious. We subscribe so as to have the most popular education bookmarks forwarded to us on a daily basis.

iStock_000002953485XSmallOver the last few days, two noteworthy pieces have proven most popular. The first is a copy of a speech given by a teenager at her graduation. The class valedictorian’s address essentially articulated that famous quote from one of America’s most celebrated writers, Mark Twain.

The second piece drawing extensive attention involved a visual representation of what it means to study for a Ph.D. While far less incendiary, it nonetheless gave this reader some very negative vibes.

But the two in total offer a very important lesson for those who work with young people.

The Speech

The valedictory address from Erica Goldson begins with this simple little story:

There is a story of a young, but earnest Zen student who approached his teacher, and asked the Master, “If I work very hard and diligently, how long will it take for me to find Zen? The Master thought about this, then replied, “Ten years ” The student then said, “But what if I work very, very hard and really apply myself to learn fast — How long then?” Replied the Master, “Well, twenty years.”

“But, if I really, really work at it, how long then?” asked the student.

“Thirty years,” replied the Master. “But, I do not understand,” said the disappointed student. “At each time that I say I will work harder, you say it will take me longer. Why do you say that?” Replied the Master, “When you have one eye on the goal, you only have one eye on the path.”

Offering rare insight for one so young, Goldson acknowledges that book learning is not the same as wisdom. The valedictorian notes that her position at the top of the class is not as meaningful as most would have it.

“…in retrospect, I cannot say that I am any more intelligent than my peers. I can attest that I am only the best at doing what I am told and working the system. … I have successfully shown that I was the best slave. I did what I was told to the extreme. While others sat in class and doodled to later become great artists, I sat in class to take notes and become a great test-taker. While others would come to class without their homework done because they were reading about an interest of theirs, I never missed an assignment. While others were creating music and writing lyrics, I decided to do extra credit, even though I never needed it.”

Of course, what makes the speech so impressive is how unassuming this young thinker is. Yes it is a scathing rebuke, but it is clear that this young lady is someone of merit, even if she wants to toss her class ranking on the scrap heap. She clearly did more than learn how to regurgitate facts, developing some incredible thinking skills along the way.

iStock_000003015755XSmallIn mid-stream, she further displays wisdom beyond her years as she turns to those who helped shape her education over the last few years:

”For those of you that work within the system that I am condemning, I do not mean to insult; I intend to motivate. You have the power to change the incompetencies of this system. I know that you did not become a teacher or administrator to see your students bored. You cannot accept the authority of the governing bodies that tell you what to teach, how to teach it, and that you will be punished if you do not comply. Our potential is at stake.”

And most notably, she in turn gives thanks to her classmates for the role they played in who she has become to date:

“So, here I stand. I am not standing here as valedictorian by myself. I was molded by my environment, by all of my peers who are sitting here watching me. I couldn’t have accomplished this without all of you. It was all of you who truly made me the person I am today. It was all of you who were my competition, yet my backbone. In that way, we are all valedictorians.”

Everyone involved in the field of education should read and contemplate the content put forward in this magnificent speech.

The Illustrated Guide to a Ph.D.

Biased to a fault, I think educators are a special breed of people. One of the strengths the best teachers display is the ability to break down sophisticated ideas into easy to assemble chunks.

Such is the case with the second piece earning so much attention, Matt Might’s post. In it the assistant professor in the School of Computing at the University of Utah shares with readers a presentation he uses each fall to explain to first-year Ph.D. students just what a Ph.D. is.

Given the challenges of articulating such a concept in words, Might uses a great set of visuals to express the concept concretely. The visuals represent another element that great teachers consistently employ, the concept of modeling.

The model in fact may do the job too well. By the time his concentric circles and protruding radii reach the outer point where the Ph.D. appears, the bump that forms represents yet another analogy we have heard all too often (something about the pimple on the behind of…).

PhDKnowledge.010Indeed, while the presentation completely expresses what it means to earn a Ph.D., it does not conjure up positive educational thoughts for this writer. Instead, it reeks of what the young lady so artfully railed against, book-learning versus what we might call wisdom.

Even the bachelor’s degree imagery is less than flattering to this reader. My guess is it would reinforce the notion of those who see a college degree as a waste of time for so many students.

And the final image? Well it articulates that pimple analogy far too well.

The Educational Challenge

In a nutshell, these two pieces represent the challenge teachers and professors face as they seek to motivate the next generation. There is little doubt that pure knowledge is not necessarily a bad thing – not for individuals and certainly not for society as a whole.

But the world will move forward only when knowledge is combined with that element we have come to call wisdom. As educators, our task is to understand this critical difference, to be certain that we instill in our charges an understanding that there is a difference between these two concepts.

Perhaps our system does promote one without the other – after all we do seem to place so much emphasis on the accomplishment (high school graduation, earning a Ph.D., or becoming class valedictorian) that we have little opportunity to recognize the process. But that is where individuals can and should make a difference.

The question is – what do you place the greatest emphasis on with the students in your classroom?

August 16, 2010   2 Comments

Creative Commons Launches Catalyst Campaign

Readers of our blog no doubt understand our fundamental mission statement featuring that very simple phrase:

Free education for all.

And that we license our work under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

Given our fundamental commitment to providing cost-free educational resources, we featured a three part series on the need for a free, unregulated Commons, a series that featured Ahrash Bissell of the Creative Commons and highlighted some of the amazing projects underway based on the Creative Commons concept.

Our support for the movement today leads us to help the folks at CC with their new effort, the Catalyst Campaign, a program designed to raise seed funding for projects around the world devoted to increasing access and openness.


Launched June 1st and continuing for the entire month of June, the Catalyst Grants program is designed to help individuals as well as organizations harness the power of Creative Commons. Grants could theoretically support a study of entrepreneurs using Creative Commons licenses to create a new class of socially responsible businesses or enable a group in a developing country to research how Open Educational Resources can positively impact its community.

Jane Park, Communications Coordinator at Creative Commons, explains the Catalyst Grants will “empower individuals and communities that are deeply rooted in the principles of openness and sharing” while spurring the capacity for “CC adoption in much needed areas” including education.

“With the Catalyst Grants program, Creative Commons will seed activities around the globe that support our mission,” explains Park. “Our goal is to scale our community’s efforts and support them in becoming self-sustainable—hence, the grant sizes are around $1,000-$10,000 to catalyze communities into action.

“We are expecting at least a good number of CC jurisdictions to apply (currently, we have over 70 jurisdictions), and perhaps a few non-jurisdiction or jointly developed project proposals.”

According to Park, many of these jurisdictions could use the grant to jumpstart projects in open education, open web, open science, etc. The key is to help provide funding for those jurisdictions that are lagging behind other, more well-funded peers.

“We want to do all we can to help them become sustainable so that they can continue to do the great work they’re doing,” adds Park, “or start on innovative open projects that could transform the web.

cranberry shirtThe goal, to raise $100,000 from CC supporters, is off to a great start. The Milan Chamber of Commerce got the program off and running with a generous donation of EUR 10,000.

But the program could well rely on the basic generosity of thousands of small donors. With that in mind, donors offering pledging as little as $75 or more will be entitled to a limited edition “I Love to Share” t-shirts.

For more on how readers and fellow bloggers can ignite openness and innovation around the world, visit the CC Grants page.

June 16, 2010   No Comments

Republicans Soil Reputation with Next Generation of Voters

Maine GOP sets an example, albeit a poor one, for middle school students.

In the realm of you can’t make this stuff up, students in the King Middle School “Four Freedoms” learning expedition recently received a concrete lesson in free speech courtesy of the GOP. The school served as a private meeting space for members of the Republican Party while the large-scale convention was held May 7th at the Portland Expo.

It seems when Paul Clifford, an eighth-grade social studies teacher, returned to his classroom the Monday after the convention he found that a poster celebrating the labor movement had been removed from his wall and replaced with a Republican sticker. According to news sources, the poster offered this quote from union leader Eugine Debs: “Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization born of agitation. It is agitation or stagnation.”

Upon returning to school that morning, Clifford found his labor movement poster had disappeared, replaced by a large sticker with the following inscription: ‘Workers Vote Republican.’ In addition, the teacher found a note on his desk that offered these words: ‘A Republican was here. What gives you the right to propagandize impressionable kids?’

Response to Student Collages?

iStock_000003288724XSmallClifford told reporters that the note appeared to be a reaction to several student-made collages that were displayed in the classroom. However, it seems that the group had not only left their mark on his classroom, they also had called school officials to complain about student collages posted about the room as well as copies of the U.S. Constitution they found in his classroom.

Since our constitution theoretically represents the fundamental guiding document for all government operations, one has to wonder how convention goers could find fault with such documents being present in an eighth grade social studies classroom. But then, the documents had been donated by the American Civil Liberties Union, and apparently to make matters worse in the eyes of the Republicans using the classroom, they also featured a “know your rights” section.

But while the poster and collages were in plain site, the copies of the constitution were actually stored in a closed box on the floor. When discussing the behavior of the Republicans, Clifford pulled no punches with Randy Billings at The Forecaster.

“We allowed someone to use our building,” Clifford offered noting that other teachers also reported problems with litter and stray fliers. “They came in and searched our stuff. Stole a poster. Left our building trashed. And then called us to complain about what they found when they searched our house.”

Punishments Forthcoming?

The Portland School Department has indicated that it would not seek criminal charges against the group of Republicans though going through and removing school materials clearly crosses a behavioral line that educators would not tolerate. And though Superintendent James Morse indicated the actions of the delegates set a bad example for students, he was not interested in pursuing the issue further.

“For me to file a criminal complaint against them to me seems like I would be sucked into the political game and it’s not a game I want to play,” Morse told Billings. “I think it (would be) a waste of precious taxpayer’s money to push an issue because a group of grown-ups behaved badly.”

School Committee member Sarah Thompson was a little stronger in her outrage, indicating any damage done to facilities (we would assume that would include clean up costs) should be the responsibility of those who used the school.

“I think there should be repercussions,” she said. She further noted that if the weekend incident involved students, they would likely have been punished.

iStock_000000345726XSmallGiving some hope, Christie-Lee McNally, the executive director of the Maine Republican Party, issued an apology on the party website. “The Maine Republican Party does not condone the destruction of property,” she stated nor does it encourage the lack of tolerance that these people demonstrated.”

But while the head of the party seemed chagrined, it seems some Republicans did not agree that an apology was necessary. Aroostook County Republican Jim Cyr noted that his group met in a different classroom in the school. There they found disturbing material including a bumper sticker on a classroom wall that said: “Do something nice for the environment. Uproot a Bush in 2004.”

Cyr went on to blame the media coverage for failing to provide a balanced assessment of the issues. Instead of concentrating on the removal of the poster, Cyr thought the media should focus on the larger story that children are “being used as pawns in an indoctrination war.”

A Teachable Moment

In response, Portland High School senior Simon Thompson, a student representative on the School Committee a year ago, penned a letter to the Maine GOP.

“I am not brainwashed, I am not a puppet, I am not anti-American or anti-religious,” notes the King graduate. “Paul Clifford’s class taught me to think critically, to deductively reason and, if anything, to appreciate America for all the freedoms with which I am ensured on a daily basis.”

iStock_000012634608XSmallMeanwhile, as all good teachers would, Clifford’s ultimate response was to use the incident as a teachable moment for students. He informed students that when some people believe in their own ideas so strongly they sometimes forget others have a right to their own point of view.

“This is not an opportunity to trash somebody,” he summarized. “We know this is not something that would be condoned by the Republican Party. This type of stuff happens on both sides of the party line.”

Amidst the political rancor engulfing our country, Clifford’s balance is most welcome. He even publicly noted his initial bemusement with the ‘Workers Vote Republican’ bumper sticker.

As one looks at the incident independently, it seems that the teacher asked to educate the next generation of voters is doing just what is expected of him: teaching students the importance of intelligent discontent. Too bad convention attendees have not had access to such lessons.

May 16, 2010   4 Comments

Personalizing Learning – The Important Role of Technology

It wasn’t that long ago I began my high school teaching career. Fairly early on, I worked with one teacher who epitomized the mindset of many secondary school colleagues.

“My job is to present the material in an interesting and meaningful way,” he would say. “It is the student’s job to learn that material.”

Implicit in his statement was the idea that it was the student’s role to adjust to the various styles employed by different teachers. Whether the teacher featured a lecture format or a hands-on approach was immaterial – the assumption was that students were the ones who needed to be flexible, especially if they were thinking that college was to be part of their future.

In addition, any failure on the student’s part to master the material was not the responsibility of the teacher. If students were unable to learn the required subject matter, the consensus would be that the student simply had not worked hard enough.

At that time (and still the dominant theme in many classrooms today), students moved along as a group, each doing the same set of assignments, each expected to master the exact same set of learning objectives by a date set forth in the syllabus. Adjusting any parameter for the group was deemed as watering down expectations while differentiating for a specific learner was perceived as showing favoritism.

New Viewpoint – Personalizing Learning

iStock_000009648196XSmallClearly, that mindset has changed. With learning styles now a part of the educational landscape today’s teacher is expected to adjust to the varied preferences of students so as to maximize the learning potential of each individual in the classroom.

Such an approach has been characterized by the global term: personalizing the learning experience. The concept is considered as critical to the next generation of teachers as it is for the next generation of students.

Personalizing learning involves differentiating the curricula, including expectations and timelines, and utilizing various instructional approaches so as to best meet the needs of each individual. Essentially, students should be able to do varying assignments and have the freedom to work at a pace that is conducive to their abilities and skill set.

Not too surprisingly, individual elements of a personalized learning environment are well known to current educators. The challenge is not so much what those elements consist of but how to piece the elements together to form a cohesive strategy.

Most importantly, personalizing learning for the current generation of learners demands specific technologies. Educators need to understand that children are growing up in a media-rich environment.

Schools must deliver a product that engages students and generates within them the desire to learn. Today’s curricula must involve liberal uses of technology whenever it is relevant to the task at hand.

But technology also plays a more important role in the personalization process. Ultimately it is the conduit for teachers to move to a learning approach that features materials developed for each individual student.

Learning Platforms

One of the critical elements to a cohesive strategy involves the concept of a learning platform, a phrase featured prominently in Europe. It is a strong descriptor or label, one that befits the concept of personalizing or individualizing the learning environment for every student.

Such a learning platform involves a number of fundamental principles. First teachers must have a clear understanding of the learning needs of each student. Those needs must be documented from year to year and access to such information must be readily available.

In addition to understanding each student’s individual needs, teachers must monitor and assess student progress intently if they are to help each student achieve to his or her full potential. To facilitate this monitoring and assessment process, both the student and the teacher must have access to a wide variety of technological tools.

iStock_000011294728XSmallLearning paths must then be created that match the aptitude and learning styles of every individual. Once that path has been constructed, the teacher must make a commitment to supporting each student’s progress along that path.

Such a step also requires access to a wide variety of technological tools. In Europe, students in each and every school are expected to have access to a safe and secure personal online learning space. In fact, that commitment has been in place since March of 2008.

The European personal online learning space consists of the following elements:

  • anytime/anywhere access to the learning resources created and stored by or for the student;
  • communication tools (email, messaging, etc.) to enable dialogue between a student’s peers and mentors;
  • management tools to monitor and assess progress.

It is important to realize that only with such a space can true personalization be put into action. First, students can work at their own pace at all times and do so in the environment that allows them the greatest level of productivity.

Second, teachers can work more closely with each individual and work towards improving engagement by tailoring the material to each student’s ability and interest. Here again, technology is critical, allowing teachers to organize and store what can be an unwieldy body of work.

Third, technology ensures the maximizing of time and resources. Teachers can coordinate and share resources with other educators at other schools. Perhaps even more importantly for teachers, technology ultimately streamlines administrative tasks significantly.

It’s All About Technology

Personalizing the learning experience has shifted the aforementioned philosophy that still tends to exist within most high schools. While that fundamental shift has some specific parameters, there is clearly no one method for implementation.

iStock_000006762221XSmallOne of the first elements is increased communication among educators themselves as well as with their individual students. Teachers must understand that ongoing contact between themselves, their students and the parents of their students, is a must for personalizing the learning experience of every child.

That means increased use of email; teachers must be willing to accept and subsequently respond to emails from students or parents when students arrive home without a clear indication of that day’s assignment. Better yet, it means posting that assignment online for students and parents to access directly.

It also means that teachers must begin posting syllabi, study guides, assignments, and learning tasks in a conspicuous area that is available to other teachers as well. Of course such an area must first be created. But more than any other attribute, personalization requires an end to the days of teachers going inside a classroom and closing their door to the outside world.

In the new arena, educators must figuratively open their doors, adopting a mindset that materials can and should be shared among colleagues as well as educators in other school systems (in addition to parents and students). Teaching has too often been an isolating activity – personalized learning requires that teachers become collaborative.

No one educator could possibly create unique learning materials for every single student, day after day, year after year. Not if the teacher is to handle his or her traditional workload. There simply is not enough time in the day to realistically do so. But if a variety of materials are available in an organized online repository, teachers can begin the process of personalizing the learning experience for each student.

iStock_000007517489XSmallAs we noted, in an ideal world, these materials would be web-based so that even parents could access whatever has been posted. Perhaps the greatest shift in mindset for 21st century education involves making materials available to parents and other adults who can then assist the student with any and all tasks.

Building Capacity

An expectation that all teachers are ready for such steps is destined for failure. Therefore, the first step to personalizing the learning environment for each student is to assess one’s current tech capabilities. While such a step should originate with school administration, there is nothing to prevent individual teachers from taking this step themselves.

But school administration must work diligently to build the technological confidence and capabilities of the staff in their respective buildings. In addition, leadership must foster collaboration and hold staff accountable for personalizing the learning environment.

But everywhere one turns, whether it is the instructional approach or the management of the materials to be used, technology is at the heart of the 21st century classroom. And when it comes to the notion of personalizing the learning environment for students, it is today’s technology that makes such an individualized environment possible.

For more on technology and the specific concept of learning platforms, visit BECTA.

April 6, 2010   5 Comments

School Improvement – The Turnaround, aka the Sledgehammer Approach

A Rhode Island high school recently took one of the more radical steps towards school improvement when it fired 93 staff members. Citing an inability to reach agreement with the teacher’s union on a plan for teachers to spend more time working with students, the school board of the Central Falls School District voted 5-2 to terminate 93 staff members: one principal, three assistant principals, 74 classroom teachers, guidance counselors, reading specialists, physical education teachers and the school psychologist.

The simplistic, sledgehammer approach, often called the turnaround model, set off a firestorm with unions of every form. But while the step seems nothing short of hideous (are we to believe that not one educator in the building was performing up to expectations?), the situation does beg a simple question: What is the school board to do when the union rejects all proposals set forth to increase student performance at a poor performing school?

Percussive power.Central Falls High Data

By all data models, Central Falls High has been struggling. Of course, providing a quality education in a poverty-ridden school district is never easy.

The school is 65 percent Hispanic and for most of them English is not their first language. According to news accounts, half of all students are failing every subject. A total of 55% have been deemed proficient in reading; a mere 7% in math.

Central Falls High also had a reported graduation rate of 48%.
So, in one of the state’s tiniest and poorest cities, federal and state education officials are insisting that dramatic steps are necessary to transform this poor-performing school. But on the other side, the unions see the move as an attack on the very working conditions they have worked so hard to obtain.

Despite the poor performance label, the president of the Central Falls Teachers Union insisted that the teachers were simply being made a scapegoat. Union leadership also cited a 21 percent rise in reading scores and a 3 percent increase in math scores in the last two years as signs of progress

Furthermore, George McLaughlin, the guidance counselor who had been terminated, questioned the accuracy of the calculated graduation rate. Citing a transient population, he insisted that three times as many students are accepted to colleges now than five years ago.

The Firings

In what has to be one of the toughest moments anyone could imagine, on the night of the 5-2 vote to terminate, the board read the names of every staff member being fired. In an effort to help put a face to a name, each teacher attended the meeting and stood as his or her name was read.

Many were dressed in red, one of the school’s colors. Some cried while others lashed out verbally at the board members and School Superintendent Frances Gallo.

Sadly, the situation came from a set of stalled negotiations. Gallo and the teachers initially agreed on what is called the transformation model (no one is terminated) but reportedly the talks broke down when the two sides could not agree.

iStock_000009105380XSmallGallo wanted a set of six conditions that included teachers spending more time with students in and out of the classroom. That time included a longer school day of seven hours, a one-hour tutorial for students weekly outside school time, teachers having lunch with students, and a 90 minute session with students every week to discuss education. She also sought a commitment from staff to attend training sessions with other teachers after school and during the summer months.

Ultimately, the sticking point was not the time request – the deciding issue instead centered on pay. Gallo offered to pay teachers for some additional duties (not all) and to do so at $30 per hour. Union leaders sought $90 per hour.

When they could not come to agreement on the steps to take, the superintendent decided the best option was the turnaround model.

Opposing Views Rampant

Education Secretary Arne Duncan defended the termination action. “Students only have one chance for an education and when schools continue to struggle we have a collective obligation to take action.”

Indeed, the firings come directly from a step Duncan has taken to require states to identify their lowest 5 percent of schools according to their performance on standardized tests and graduation rates. As for fixes, there are four options: — school closure; takeover by a charter or school-management organization; transformation; and “turnaround.” It is the latter category that the Central Falls High board has taken – the step requires the entire teaching staff be fired and no more than 50 percent rehired.

And B.K. Nordan, one of the two dissenting votes, still blistered the high school’s teaching staff at the end of the meeting.

“I don’t believe this is a worker’s rights issue. I believe it’s a children’s rights issue,” Nordan was quoted. “…By every statistical measure I’ve seen, we are not doing a good enough job for our students … The rhetoric that these are poor students, ESL students, you can imagine the home lives … this is exactly why we need you to step up, regardless of the pay, regardless of the time involved. This city needs it more than anybody. I demand of you that you demand more of yourself and those around you.”

But comedian and social commentator Bill Maher clearly articulated some of the flaws in the strong-arm approach being used.
“It’s just too easy to blame the teachers, what with their cushy teachers’ lounges, their fat-cat salaries, and their absolute authority in deciding who gets a hall pass,” writes Maher. “We all remember high school – canning the entire faculty is a nationwide revenge fantasy. Take that, Mrs. Crabtree!

Job Loss“But isn’t it convenient that once again it turns out that the problem isn’t us, and the fix is something that doesn’t require us to change our behavior or spend any money. It’s so simple: Fire the bad teachers, hire good ones from some undisclosed location, and hey, while we’re at it let’s cut taxes more.”

Maher went on to add:

“What matters is what parents do. The number one predictor of a child’s academic success is parental involvement. It doesn’t even matter if your kid goes to private or public school.”

An Indication of the Challenges

And therein lies the difficulties with school reform measures. On the one hand, poor performing schools are asked to work with students from families that do not value education. Students from poor families arrive at school having had more limited learning opportunities from day one and no academic reinforcement as their schooling progresses.

By the same token, it is clear that great teachers, and particularly schools with large numbers of quality educators can make a significant difference. As Nordan states, the kids at Central Falls are in desperate need of teachers willing to step up and to do so regardless of the pay and the time involved.

And that, in my estimation is what separates the really good ones in this noble profession. It is what has always separated those that make a difference with their students.

They are willing to step up, to do what needs to be done, irrespective of pay or recognition or the time involved. And though taking a sledgehammer to a high school seems a painful way to reinforce such a point, there is a lesson to be learned.

According to Duncan’s criteria, no more than 50% of those teachers may be rehired. There are no doubt some very talented individuals who will have to swallow some serious pride to find it in their hearts to reapply.

But those that do so will be applying for work in a school that is now setting a standard as to what it wants and expects from teachers. Nordan is right, this is not a union issue, it is a kid’s issue, and school leadership should be able to insist on steps it needs to take to ensure that the kids needs are met.

And that means that maybe some time a sledgehammer just might be necessary.

March 16, 2010   5 Comments