Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Brain Pop

Short videos are great ways to engage students, and when the videos are specifically designed to describe and explain key topics, even better. I just gained access to what seems to be an amazing tool: BrainPop.com. This website has over 50 videos for World History and I intend on using many of them in my class this year; there are similar numbers for math, science, English and other topics.

Now, if only we could get access for our students so they could watch at home as enrichment? That would be ideal.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Question of National Standards

Should the United States move towards national standards? A few weeks ago the NY Times reported that nearly every state in the nation had declared intentions to participate in the crafting and adoption of national standards, and many voices, from Arne Duncan to Randi Wiengarten, have expressed their support for the move. While some supporters qualify their support, including the aforementioned union leader (Wiengarten), over the past several years playmakers from all different dimensions of education have come to acknowledge the sense the US developing and adopting national standards. If the Europeans and Japanese do it, and they get better test scores, shouldn't we?

I support the development and adoption of national standards for most of the reasons commonly cited: uniform measures of accountability for students, teachers, and schools across the country; coherence of basic core skills and knowledge for all Americans; "economies of scale" in terms of developing instructional materials and curricula that can be transferable across state-lines; and feasibility of teachers to move without their experience loosing a its value due to considerable changes in content.

And then, the other shoe drops, the long expected "but." In our conversations about national standards, I sometimes hear opponents mention the loss of autonomy for schools and teachers (and states), and the related limitations national standards might place on local communities as they try to accommodate local challenges. These are valid concerns, and actually point to a larger issue, which could be converted to an opportunity: as we move toward national standards, we ought have a national conversation. If we as a nation are to adopt national standards, now is the time for people at all levels of society to speak up about what is important for the next generation to learn. How should schools look in the 21st century? What are the challenges that the next generation will have to solve? How can we impart them with the skills and knowledge to face these challenges and prevail?

I'm not hearing this conversation, and the fault for that is widespread. We should adopt national standards, but that should occur as we as a nation come to some kind of agreement about the manner and priorities our education system should embody. Inevitably, Americans will agree that some level of autonomy for schools and teachers should be maintained. Where we draw this line, however, (as well as many others), should emerge out of a vigor debate. So far, I'm still waiting to hear.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

East Africa and the News

African history, politics and economics has had a long, slow introduction into the core curriculum of American education, and it couldn't be too soon. As our world increasingly globalizes, the significance of Africa's problems and successes will have ever closer links to our lives, and the next generation will need to be prepared to face the realities coming out of Africa head on.

But herein lies the problem: too often all we do is talk about "Africa," as if everything there is the same. Our modern understanding of Africa is a mosaic of images and headlines, from famine in Ethiopia, genocide in Rwanda, and the the World Cup in South Africa, yet somehow Americans still confuse Africa for a single country. Therefore, when the headline "The threat from East Africa" crop ups in the Washington Post last week, the reader needs to have some prior knowledge to digest the treatment of terrorist threats in Uganda and Somalia. How do we insure that that young people in middle school or high school today are getting the education necessary to fend off threats in the coming decades? 

To understand foreign cultures, polities, and economies that shape our world, students need a rigorous education at the secondary level. When it comes to Africa, for instance, students need to know the regional differences between East, West, Sub-saharan and North Africa. They would need to know about the distribution of natural resources, about the patterns of religion and language, about the formations of collective security and pockets of anarchy. Currently, students will only get exposure to these ideas as a unit or part of a unit in a world history class, and maybe will read a book like Things Fall Apart. I think few people would argue that these treatments of Africa are sufficient; the same could be said of our average urban school's current curriculum offerings regarding the Middle East, China, and India; finance; linguistics; health; hands on skills and the arts. 

As we open the "paper" each day, let us run a test in our minds to see what skills and knowledge someone would need to understand a headline article, and more importantly, respond to it. Then, let us reflect on how effectively we build our school curriculums to guarantee that students gain these skills.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

New York's Planning in Light of Higher Standards

New York State raised the bar this year on their state tests and the results are discussed last week here in the NYTimes. In schools across the state, test scores dropped dramatically, and the reality that half or more of New York's students are below proficient has been exposed.

In light of these results, little has yet been said about what kind of changes will need to take place so that we can actually see the various achievement gaps close: the absolute gaps between the standards and our kids' performance, and the racial and socio-economic gaps in performance between over and under-privileged kids.

What will we do? New York City has put 27,000 kids who scored lowest on their tests into summer school. However, summer school is usually Monday-Thursday, 8AM-1PM, runs only 4-6 weeks, and is usually taught identically (only faster) than the way subjects are taught in the school year. We are going to need to implement much more change for the gap to close.

Education reform has introduced all kinds of new changes in the past decade, from charter schools to merit pay. At last the most successful movement of "accountability" and testing are forcing to the surface information about our students' true lack of achievement. It is now time to look at some more substantive changes to our system's curriculum and pedagogy. Reforms that focus on interdisciplinary, problem-based learning would be one important area to focus on; providing more support for systematic differentiated instruction (ie, diverse course offerings) would be another.