Failing Failers and Their Failey Fails


My letter to the Times Union sticking up for my son’s wonderful “failing school”.  It’s full of faily failers, that’s why I chose it for my beloved only child:

Regarding the March 15th editorial “Can We Fix Failing Schools”: I am appalled to see that Andrew Cuomo’s smear tactics have been accepted as fact.  In this editorial the writer used the words “fail” or “failing” 11 times.  Do Albany High students perform lower on standardized tests than students at Bethlehem High?  Yes, they do.  But the reasons surely have more to do with failures of society, like structural poverty and unequal funding, than poor teachers or failing schools.

If a doctor worked at a hospital in a poor neighborhood with deteriorating facilities, understaffing, violence, drugs, and high rates of smoking and obesity, would her patient outcomes, on the average, be poor when compared with a suburban counterpart?  If they were, would she and her hospital be called failing?  Would her job depend on factors that are out of her control, such as patients who miss appointments?  I would guess, if she worked in conditions like this, with less money and support than are offered at other hospitals, she would be lauded.

Why are teachers not offered the same professional consideration? To teach in New York State one must earn a post-graduate degree, pass four licensing exams, submit a portfolio, and undertake hundreds of hours of field experience.  Is this not rigorous enough?  More likely this dissonance is a symptom of the dramatic de-professionalization of the field.

The editorial presents a false equivalence: in the battle between teachers unions and Governor Cuomo, both sides are similarly meritorious and should lay down their swords to compromise. Think of the children!  However, if you look at the battle lines, it is clear who is thinking of the children.  Governor Cuomo asks us to accept a future where a democratic institution, the unpaid and locally elected school board, is dismantled by State Education.  He proposes a school year where third-graders spend more time taking tests than candidates taking the bar exam.  He sees nothing wrong with a teaching force that is constantly in flux, since teachers move on or get removed before they gain experience.  In contrast, teachers and their unions want to get back to the business of fractions, shoelaces, spelling, and inspiring willing minds.

Thing 1: Blogging

Hi everyone!  I am Lucy, a PK-4 school librarian at Saddlewood Elementary in the South Colonie Central School District.  I graduated from library school in May and found my position in August, so it has been a wild year and I am still finding my footing.  I took a course that was similar to this at Syracuse and I remember thinking the whole time “hmmmm, I wish I could take this again when I have a job”.  Grad school is wasted on the unemployed since you have no idea where you will end up;  as an example, I never focused too closely on iPads in instruction because I assumed I would end up in a school with a computer lab.  When I was hired I found out that Saddlewood was the happy recipient of a shiny new mobile iPad lab.  So, baptism by fire ;-)  I am excited to take this course to refresh some of my skills and be part of a community of librarians who have much more experience with the practical side of ed tech than I do!


As with many things, I think the biggest obstacle to blogging (with students, as part of a professional community, and as a reader) is time!  There are so many things that must be done every day, and it is hard to get to the things you want to do.  But with that said, I love blogs.  The internet has shepherded in a democratic information revolution and blogs are a big part of that: giving a voice to anyone with an internet connection, turning long-standing media models on their head, and providing us all with hundreds of nutella recipes with the click of a button.

I have decided, this year, to focus on blogging with students.  I have been interested in getting kids blogging since way before I was employed.  I see the library (both physical and digital) as an social learning space where kids can explore inquiry, reading, and writing through the lens of their own individual interests and passions.   Blogging supports this mission in several ways: writing for themselves and their peers, being part of an informal learning community, seeing themselves as publishers.  One of the third-grade teachers at Saddlewood has a class blog, and reading it is a delight.  She places no limitations of their topics and they have discussed a wide range, from what their dad is cooking to what book they are reading.  The polite, genteel, and invisibly moderated discussion that I see on this blog does so much more for student “character education” than 1000 Stop Bullying! posters.  At a time where kids’ lives are more scheduled and structured than ever before, this informal space to share thoughts functions as neighborhood play used to in past decades.  It is also a low-stakes (ungraded) way to practice putting thoughts into written word, with a built-in motivator: the social aspect.  My plan is to start small, with a book review blog divided by genre, and a separate “junk drawer” for interesting ideas or fun facts.

My next blogging priority will be blogging about my programs.  I LOVE what the Daring Librarian has to say about this, particularly about scheduling it in.  My library is on a completely flex schedule and I sometimes end up scheduling out a week’s worth of preps and lunch.  This is not sustainable.  I need to schedule in time (even if it is at home) for reflecting about programs, sharing successes, and advocating for things that my library needs.  Blogging can help me with all three and I need to spend the time to make it work.

As an aside, I also love what she says about not starting off by apologizing for not writing.  How presumptuous to assume that anyone cares/notices :-)  But it does point to some anxieties that I imagine are common among bloggers.  You spend your time writing, and most likely you will be one of five people to ever read it.  But it IS accessible to anyone, and if it gains a wider audience, let the nitpicking begin!  I had one thing that I wrote go a little viral (a thousand views) and it was hard to not take criticism from strangers personally.  But is it even worse if nobody reads it to begin with?  Blogging, by nature (unless you blog for HuffPo or have a ton of followers) is a strange combination of private thought in a public space.  Of course, social sharing is part of the audience equation and should garner more readers.  So here I am!  I am looking forward to learning more about cool tools (hopefully RSS to learn how to become a more efficient blog reader) with any of the five who happen to be reading this!

Bad Urban Schools

I sat down with Chris Churchill’s Christmas wish-list column with anticipation.  He always writes about the issues of the Capital Region with insight and wit, and I, along with many of my local friends, really enjoy his work.  I found myself nodding in agreement at the first two items.  Yes, local pride!  This area has so much history and natural beauty.  We need to start celebrating it.  New bus station! The bus station has been deplorable for decades.  It is a really terrible first impression of the area.  Then I got to the third wish and had to stop cheering.

A wish for better urban schools.  As a life-long Albany resident, I found the points quite familiar.  I graduated from Albany High School in 1998 and during my 12 years as a student in the Albany City School District there were definitely some cringe-worthy moments, from mean and miserable teachers to terrifying classmates, to an overall lack of supervision.  Yet, when I moved back to the area to raise my own child here, I chose Albany schools because I thought that they offered the combination of benefits that I was seeking for my son’s education:  high-quality and caring teachers, robust offerings of extracurriculars, diversity of student body, and the largest selection of high school academic offerings in the area.

I did not look at the data; of course I see my own son as an individual and as he grows older I feel confident in his abilities to perform well on the battery of standardized tests that are a daily reality for all stakeholders in NYS public education.  I did not know if he would test well when he was starting school at age 5, but I did know what has become the best kept secret in education today: poverty affects test scores (!).  I grew up in a middle-class home that values education, enjoyed the opportunities that AHS offers to those who look, and went on to get a couple of college degrees like most of my middle-class counterparts.  Many of my lower-income classmates did not.

So, anecdotally, poverty affects one’s educational prospects.  If I had looked at the data during my school selection process, it would have supported this theory.  I have not been able to find disaggregated data for Albany schools that account for income, but it is possible to compare the different elementary schools, which vary widely by income.

In 2011 the school I chose for my son, Delaware Community School, enrolled 69% children living in poverty,  as measured by the number who qualify for free lunch.  The test scores for 2011-2012 (pre-common core testing) are unimpressive: of our fifth-graders, only 33% scored a 3 or 4 on their ELA tests, and only 50% scored 3 or 4 in math.  Next, visit Sheridan Preparatory Academy, with 91% students living in poverty, and the results are more dismal: 31% of students performed satisfactorily on ELA tests, and 30% in math.  But when you take a short trip across town to New Scotland Elementary, you find a different picture: with a mere 28% of students living in poverty (still close to ⅓), 66% of students are passing ELA tests and 72% are passing math.

 So, there is a correlation between higher incomes and higher achievement rates on NYS standardized tests.  Correlation doesn’t prove causation, and maybe lower-income kids are faring worse because their teachers are lazy, don’t care, and are only there because they couldn’t find anything better.  This is where my twenty-eight years of experience as a student, student teacher, and parent in Albany schools inform me.  I have seen extraordinary hard work and personal investment.  I have seen teachers spend their own money year after year to buy clothing, food, and school supplies for their students.  They stay at school hours after their contractual day ends to make sure they have fun and valuable activities planned to dilute the boring skill and drill activities that NYS makes them use.  I have seen parents who tirelessly volunteer and fundraise to be sure that there is a robust PTA, wide range of clubs, and strong sports programs for all students to take part in.  I have seen teachers and parents who take time to help overstressed and bewildered low-income parents navigate bureaucratic systems of school registration, social services, and nonprofit organizations.  I have seen art, music, gym, and other “specials” teachers shuffled between 3 schools per week to save a tiny bit of money that is used to provide more of the special education teachers, school social workers, and school psychologists that impoverished children need just as much as they need “good teachers”.

 The teachers and parents of urban schools do not care less or work less than their counterparts; they care more and work harder.  They are there because they love and believe in the kids, and they spend their days engaged in a heartbreaking triage system, trying to help as many as they can with the resources allotted.  Meanwhile bureaucrats in NYSED and consultants who were hired to nitpick and micromanage teachers’ work look down their noses.  Friends and relatives of Albany residents ask why they don’t move out of the city for “good schools”.

 I have heard the talk about bad urban schools for my whole life (“The houses are so charming in Albany, but then you have to factor in the cost of private school”).  I have a thick skin and am laughing my way to the bank as my son gets one of the most well-rounded educations around for the cost of school taxes.  The reason I feel compelled to speak up this time is that right now, especially in NYS, urban public education is under attack from all angles.  There are the national “reform initiatives”: Teach For America programs (funded by the Walton family) that replace veteran teachers with roots in the community with a revolving selection of inexperienced novices who are unprepared for the challenges that they face in urban public schools.  There is the charter school movement, which was sold as a sandbox for educational innovation but is shrouded in secrecy, lines private pockets with public money, operates in competition with public systems, and violates FAPE in many cases by denying access for students with special needs.  Finally, there is the engine behind these initiatives: absurd federal measures like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, which put accountability and assessment over all else, even learning.  Local school districts are forced to implement these destructive, experimental, and unproven strategies or lose the funding that keeps the doors open.

 These are the challenges that public educators have gotten used to over the last few years while plugging away wiping noses, teaching long division, and assembling materials for their evidence binders into the wee hours of morning.  I write this now because Andrew Cuomo has big plans for the sale of urban public education, spurred by his corporate backers and inspired by successes dismantling public education in other states.   In his recent letter to the board to Regents, Cuomo has promised an “aggressive legislative package” to reform public education.  Many of these reforms (merit pay, more emphasis on standardized tests to determine teacher effectiveness, raising the cap on charter schools) are directed squarely at “failing urban schools”.  Does Cuomo stay awake nights worrying about the plight of the impoverished urban youth?  Probably not.  If so he would be touring schools, talking to parents and kids, including “effective teachers” in the dialogue, funding public schools at (at least) the same levels as 2008, and distancing himself from soon-to-be former Commissioner King, a man who believes in public education so much that he pays more than $10,000 per year to send his own children to private school.  Nope, Cuomo (a man who has absolutely no experience with public education as a student, parent, or educator) sees a huge cash cow for his backers, which can pave the way for his own grandiose political ambitions.  By aggressively promoting policies that target low-income and thus low-achieving schools, Cuomo can funnel public money to his hedge-fund donors while only minimally disrupting the “good schools”.

For my entire life it has been conventional wisdom, accepted as fact, that urban public education systems are failing their kids.  Of course, as with most things, the real story is more complex.  Have urban schools failed their kids?  Yes, some urban schools have failed some kids.  Some suburban schools have failed some kids too.   This air of inevitability never bothered me much before; I could never imagine that public education would ever really be in danger in a state like New York.   But now it is, with Cuomo and his army of reformers on one side and Sheldon Silver standing on the other with his thumb in the dike.  The reformers have bypassed proven community-based programs that support low-income families from pre-natal days to preschool years in favor of an approach that identifies teachers as the only factor in student achievement (as measured by standardized test scores). If we, as a society, really care about urban low-income families and children, we should be celebrating the teachers who work in urban communities and asking them and the families they serve how we can help.

To BYOD? Or not to BYOD?

“If we teach today as we taught yesterday, we rob our children of tomorrow.” -John Dewey

There are many tools for learning, collaboration, and creation that are available online.  Unfortunately many students don’t have access to a home computer, don’t have a study hall to come to the school library, and can’t get to the public library because of geographic distance or restrictive hours.  Many schools are shifting instruction to a digital platform by incorporating google apps for education as a learning management system.  These apps are essential tools for maintaining communication outside of school hours and adding flexibility in instruction.

Instruction can go beyond even google apps to allow students create unique products to demonstrate learning using the myriad of web sources and Web 2.0 tools that are available free online.  Incorporating online tools also allows students to learn and practice online research and digital citizenship skills that they will use for the rest of their lives in a place where they are moderated by teachers.  These tools have many benefits including accommodating various learning styles and special needs.

A Pew study found that teens living in the lowest-earning households (under $30,000) are just as likely as those living in the highest-earning households ($75,000 or more) to own smartphones. That study also found that they’re “just as likely and in some cases more likely than those living in higher income and more highly educated households to use their cell phone as a primary point of access.”

According to the same Pew study, 41% of students who live in a household with a yearly income of $30,000 or less go online using a mobile device(Pew, 2012).  Yet, these devices are not allowed in schools.  Students from higher-income homes are more likely to have an internet-connected computer at home.  They are provided with instruction on how they can use their internet-connected computer to enhance their learning and connect to learning environments at school.  The students who have only mobile devices are denied this instruction because the devices that they own are persona non grata in the school building.  Many apps for learning (including google apps for education) are widely available on mobile devices, and a BYOD device policy can allow teachers to show their students how their mobile device can work for them.

Until shown differently, a cell phone is a window to the world of texting, games, and communications with friends.  These uses are fine for leisure time but do not impact learning in a meaningful way.  A trained teacher can unlock the learning potential in a cell phone or other mobile device by teaching students how to collaborate with google apps, have a Q & A with a famous author via twitter or skype, access articles and other resources for learning during downtime, and compose emails to ask questions as they come up.  In short, students will become familiar with the information-seeking behaviors that most educated professionals take for granted.  We are all most comfortable working with our own personal devices, and teaching students to unlock the learning potential of their own devices is one step toward creating a community of lifelong learners.

A clear BYOD policy lets student know where they stand.  There is a lot of well-justified concern for student safety when implementing BYOD.  There needs to be not only a clear and well-understood BYOD policy for use in the school, but also a clear policy for misuse.  There are many grave concerns with young people and internet use, from bullying and inappropriate content to simple inefficiency and misuse of instructional time.  The school can balance these concerns with the need to provide 21st century instruction by focusing on student behaviors rather than trying to establish bullet-proof filters and security measures.

GIE: Minecraft with Joel Levin

Benefits of Minecraft: Problem solving and critical thinking, independent thinking, creativity, engagement because kids love it and it is relevant.

Minecraft is flexible: you don’t change your lesson to fit the game, you change the game to fit your lesson.

The game has a wide appeal and is rapidly gaining in popularity.  Kids love it!  Student-driven collaborative learning.  It is immersive and encourages kids to do research and develop transferable skills.

Michele McColgan: Can be used extensively in STEM programs: create worlds and have learning objectives.  Use Minecraft as the focus of the lesson and find lessons that really belong in Minecraft.

Digging in a virtual sandbox

Potential is limitless.  It is a constructive game and people work together to create farms, working pianos and computers, cities, or roller coasters, to name a few.  It inspires creativity.  It inspires people to make things in real life!  It can connect to the real world.  Problem-solving skills blossom!!

Digital Citizenship

Allows students to work problems out in their little communities in a virtual space.  Minecraft can start a discussion about digital citizenship: privacy and how to treat people online.  Should you steal in Minecraft?  Can we start a convo about colonization perhaps?

Massively Minecraft Miner's Guild combines the best ideas and mods of all of the teachers who are using the game in school.  There are lesson plans and ideas out there that are ready to be plugged in.  Quests and badges!  Programming experience!  It can be combined with creative writing or journalism.  It encourages kids to research their project.  Minecraft can be like authentic problem-based learning in a virtual world!  What??

GIE: When the Internet Chooses You with Lucas Gillispie

A primer on Viral Videos, Memes, and Internet Subculture for Educators

I have been interested in integrating internet culture into education for a long time, in fact I have made lesson plans that have kids create political memes.

Soooooooo why?  Why pay attention to memes?  They are funny, current, and relevant to kids.  And also they are the most completely democratic media messages we receive, where people are in control, and they hold up a mirror to society.  It’s a sometimes scary and often absurd reflection.

Memes are ideas that become mainstream, and they are pretty easy to make since the internet has become a thing.

So how did we get here?

1982.  :-) ;-) :-P :-0  Emoticons!!!! 1989.  Internet Oracle. 1993. Trojan Room Coffee Pot is first ever webcam

Then………..worldwide web!!!!!!!!!!!

Dancing baby!!!  Email chain letters!!  Photoshopped silliness!  Hilarity ensues!!

Flash!  Homestar runner!!!

Youtube, meme generators, social media for distribution, RICKROLLING!!!

So what place do these have in education?  Can memes be a starting point for substantive discussions.  Take a look:

Science and science deniers?

Presidential debates?

Memes hold up a mirror to our culture.  People take control of the culture!  Democracy in media!

I think that this Marxism in media is a mostly good thing, and even if I’m wrong it is an unstoppable force.  Contrary to the wishes of dictators everywhere, you can’t just unplug the internet.  We live in a remix time.  SO DIG IT!

This presentation is awesome.  Take a few minutes and click through.

<div style=”margin-bottom:5px”> <strong> <a href=”; title=”When the Internet Chooses You – Memes, Viral Videos, and Internet Subculture for Educators” target=”_blank”>When the Internet Chooses You – Memes, Viral Videos, and Internet Subculture for Educators</a> </strong> from <strong><a href=”; target=”_blank”>Lucas Gillispie</a></strong> </div>