Friday, February 7, 2014

Moving into a MOOC

I started my third MOOC course today, this one from Wellesley College via EdX, on the Greatness of Alexander.  As always my goal is to find the time to finish the course and expand my learning, while thinking about how these types of courses can fit into our school and help students pursue their educational passions.

The first observation that I want to make as I jump into this course is one that astounded me when my professor-Guy MacLean Rogers-mentioned it in his introduction to the course.
You come from more than 100 countries, including all the lands through which Alexander campaigned in the Middle East, the Near East, and Asia.
You range in ages from your early teens to your late 80s.
Some of you are still in middle school.
Others are senior professors or even emeriti of very distinguished
Many of you have studied some aspect of classics or ancient history, though
the vast majority of you have never taken a course before on ancient history or Alexander the Great.
  The possibilities to learn from, and hopefully view pictures taken by students from these areas just amazes me.  As does the diversity of the learning environment that has been created and knowledge base we can all draw from.  Now I just need to learn how to better foster relationships via discussion board.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Back to my Roots

I spent yesterday morning having pancakes at my old Junior High School, McClure in Western Springs, IL.  I walked the halls that I was able to, entered through a new expansion of the school, looked at the theater area where I got my first concussion, and ate pancakes in the cafeteria where as a 7th and 8th grader I tried to learn not only how to grow academically but to survive socially those weird years known as junior high school.  I also came across the sign above the door to the south end of the school that immortalized our Principal Mr. Johnson who retired following my 8th grade year, "Have a Good Day and Pass it on".

Every morning for two years I heard that message at the end of our morning announcements, and I like to believe that hearing it motivated us to do that and helped us all to have a better school environment.  It is also one of the few reminders of my junior high years that has survived to future generations, the records that were set by my classmates, the trophies we won, and the achievements we had were not visible anywhere that I looked in the school, but this great reminder of how to live carried on and continues to motivate those who were influenced by it to do as we were instructed so long ago.

While waiting for my family to wake up so we could go eat pancakes, I spent some time reading John List and Uri Gneezy's The Why Axis:  Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life which brought me back to another part of my life, thinking like an economist.

As an Econ teacher I fell in love with the idea of thinking like an economist particularly the idea that people respond predictably to incentives and that they make rationale decisions to improve their lives with the choices they make.  Unfortunately, school administration has shown me that many of my students are not rational actors.

In learning and thinking about Economics, I have been particularly enthralled with the work of Steven Levitt and his Freakonomics Blog which has been featuring the work of Mr. List and Mr. Gneezy in small article since the release of the book.  One of those articles, and two chapters in the book, deal with field experiments in education in the Chicago Heights School District. 

During these experiments students were paid for improving their grades and attendance.  Each month students who met their educational goals would receive $50 and be entered into a lottery for a ride home in a Hummer Limo.  After one year of doing this with freshman students, they found that the grades of students on the border of failing and dropping out of school could be impacted.

In a second experiment students were given $20 prior to taking a standardized test.  They were told that if they could beat their score from the previous spring, then they would be able to keep the money at the end of the testing period, but if they did not improve, they would have to give the money back.  Students were given a $20 bill that they could see during the test, and were asked to sign a receipt acknowledging that they had received the money.  They then were able to find out at the end of the hour, if they had passed and could keep the money, or if they would have to give it back.  They also had a treatment where the students, if they met their goals, received the money after the test only, where they received the money a month after the test was over, or where they received a $3 trophy.  In all cases student achievement improved over the previous years tests.  Overall they saw gains of 5-10 percentage points on a 100 point scale.

This lead them to conduct experiments with incentives for teachers, parents, tutors, and to design a pre-school program within which to conduct experiments with young learners before bad habits, lack of growth, and the jadedness of being a 14 year old set in.   In all of these cases, the experiments showed growth.  The lasting part of this reading though came at the end of the Chapters on these experiments where the authors wrote:
We must all realize that our public schools are not just knowledge-pumping (or, at worst, babysitting) institutions dedicated to teaching our children how to learn how to become functional citizens.  In reality, they are laboratories of learning for everyone researchers, parents, teachers, administration, and students too.  Just imagine how much we could all discover if more people began running and participating in field experiments to discover what works."-The Why Axis:  Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life page 106-107
 This has me wondering what incentives can we put in place at PHS.  How can I experiment with incentives and our most troublesome students when it comes to attendance?  What would schools that are systemic in pursuing excellence in education look like if scientific method became the basis for our innovation, as opposed to marketing campaigns from education companies?  What new insights might we discover that will push our students to greater heights?  How might we, like Mr. Johnson, make our schools and world a better place?

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

You Play How You Practice

Yesterday we had our monthly administrative cabinet meeting which involves all of the administrators at each level of our school corporation.  During the meeting we were discussing ways in which we could define our win that go beyond state mandated testing.  During this discussion, one of the items discussed was student attendance.  This is a complicated topic for me, because I spend a lot of time calling parents, speaking to students, and yet it also something that I feel is vital to the success of our students.  It along with tardiness are my pet peeves, and also my most frustrating issue, because the remedies often mean that students who do not change their ways end up missing many days of school, and my remedies give them permission to do so, which is often what they want.  The frustrations of this reality are material for another post, psychological counseling, and hopefully some helpful hints from others.  It is also bizarre because our attendance rate, while not perfect, is consistently at or slightly above 95%, but I digress.

It seems this week that many of my students are channeling Allen Iverson, except that they are not "talking about practice" but rather "talking about school".  I many of the conversations, it seems as if they are merely replacing his use of the word "practice" with the word "school".  A typical conversation goes like this:

"Billy (all people examples in my life have always been Billy and Suzie, so these are not real student names) you have been tardy to your first hour class 19 times this year, out of 32 days."
"But Mr. Olson, it is only like 30 seconds each time.  Are you really telling me that I have to stay after school for 2 hours for being 30 seconds late, that is ridiculous!"
"I agree that it is ridiculous that you can't manage to be in class on time.  If this were a job, you would be fired by now."
"But it isn't a job Mr. Olson, it is ONLY SCHOOL.  If this were a job I would be here everyday because I would be gettin PAID!"

Here is where the practice line comes in.  See in the minds of my students, and maybe yours as well, school is merely practice, a job is the big game and when it is time for the big game, I will show up ready to win, even without practice.  Problem is, this more often than not isn't the case.

When I was a swim coach, we consistently told our swimmers that you play how you practice. We won a lot of races and meets not because we were the most talented team in the pool, although we had great talent, we won because we played the way we practiced and we emphasized doing the all important little things correctly every day, and if we were not doing those things we started over.  The mundane of swimming, turns and finishes, are often the least practiced parts, but often win the biggest races.  We practiced these daily, not by doing special sets to practice them, but by insisting that our swimmers do them at race pace and as if in a race every set.  Sloppy turns where they would breathe in and out of walls were not tolerated, slow turns did not happen, and finishing a swim with any style of finish that did not jam your outstretched fingers into the wall was unacceptable.  

In swimming, as in life, it is often the littlest things that propel us to greatness or keep us from the prize.  We play like we practice, because if we can not sustain excellence in practice, we will fall short when it counts.  For proof, ask Milorad Cavic if he wishes he had finished hard all the time.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Multiplying my Math Musings

image from Wikimedia Commons

It is hard to believe that we are almost through the first six weeks of the school year and that October is upon us.  It is not hard to believe that I have not written a blog post since August however.  The fast pace of the school year is upon us, and it seems like the days are traveling faster than the Millennium Falcon at hyper-speed.  But just because I have not committed them to digital paper, it does not mean that I have not been thinking for the last month.  In particular I have been thinking about math.

I am not, nor will I ever admit to being, good at math.  It was not a subject that I enjoyed, or excelled at, while I was at any level of my schooling.  With my love for economics and problem solving, this should be a surprise, but I just can't seem to make math make sense in my brain.  When I have students come to me who are struggling in math, I can easily sympathize, but not so easily help them and this extends now to my own daughter Sophie.

My inability to help Soph with her math is not something new, as she exceeded my current math memories when she began taking pre-algebra 2 years ago, but 2 weeks ago it all boiled over.  It was a rare evening when I was home earlier enough for Sophie to still be doing her math homework and as she struggled she asked me a geometry question:  "If two sides of a triangle are congruent, are the angles congruent?"  I am sure my high school geometry teacher Mr. Allen would love for me to say that some 29 years later I was able to quickly answer this problem, but the reality is I could vaguely recall what congruent meant, but had no idea what the answer was, so I turned to Google.  Google quickly informed me that this would be true, and I went back to reading an article titled Why Nate Silver Can Save Math Education in America from Mindshift.

Sophie, quickly then interrupted my thoughts with another question, which I cannot recall, and I in frustration asked her how it was that she had just watched my Google the previous answer that she could not take her phone, which was sitting next to her, and do the same thing that I would be doing for this question.  This was not one of my finest parenting moments and did not go over very well.  My frustration was being driven by two things, one the embarrassment and frustration of not being able to help my daughter (and painful realization that she is mathematically much smarter than me) and the frustration that she was not using the technological tools she has been given to problem solve on her own-but that is a topic for another post.

After the residue of my frustration had again settled, I apologized to my daughter, finished the article I was reading,  and found her some pencils from the Rose Hulman homework helpline Ask Rose (1-877-Ask-Rose).  The article, however, struck a chord with me, because of 3 quotations that I have excerpted below:

 Paul Lockhart, a math teacher in New York, writes in A Mathematician’s Lament [PDF] that if he had to design a system for the express purpose of destroying a child’s natural curiosity and love of pattern-making, he couldn’t possible do a better job than is currently being done. He explains that he simply wouldn’t have the “imagination to come up with the kind of senseless, soul-crushing ideas that constitute contemporary mathematics education.”
Across the land, kids hate math. You can hear it in their constant groans and see it in their deranged faces. They ask their teachers, “When am I ever going to use this in life?” On most occasions, they never will. Even President Obama agrees. He recently said on the Tonight Show, “The math stuff I was fine with until seventh grade. Malia is now a freshmen in high school and I’m pretty lost. It’s tough.” 
There are lots of reasons for this. In the current system, students’ confidence in their math abilities becomes undermined, according to a Duke University study. Math is taught as computation rather than a means of exploration and discovery. Instead of engaging in meaningful problems and learning in depth rather than breadth, kids are assigned frivolous, repetitive problems. And finally, the way math is generally taught has no relevance to real life. School has become a practice of learning tricks for the test one week and forgetting the next.
These statements resonated with me,  because there was a time, that I vaguely remember in the far reaches of my mind, when I was good at math.  When I was in the highest math group, and I enjoyed math-6th grade.  But after that, math became the drudgery described above for me, the relevance left, and I moved on to other subjects that I enjoyed more.  This is not a post blaming my teachers, or even the system that taught me that I am not more engaged in math, but it is one to ponder about why it seems soo many students seem to hate it so.  So I have spent the last two weeks talking via email with math teachers on our staff, reading more articles about math.  The two most impactful being an ASCD article on Real World Math by Dan Meyer and a blog post by Mike Thayer on his Hyperbolic Guitars Blog in response to Nicholson Baker's September 2013 Harper's article on Algebra 2 in which he (Mr. Baker) advocates that we stop teaching math without a narrative and that instead of requiring all students to take the math sequences we now offer in school (Algebra, Geometry, Algebra 2, Pre-Calculus, etc..) we require a math survey course and then allow students who desire more math to pursue the higher level courses as electives.  

Both of these resonated with me for different reasons.  The blog post by Mr. Thayer exposed me to discussions that appear to be happening more frequently in the math education community about how to restructure math, many, but not all, driven by the changes to come with the Common Core Standards, but also made me think about how eliminating the requirements for higher level math might further widen the achievement gap in the United States.

An Aside:  This article by the way, completely flipped my view on higher math from a year earlier after reading Andrew Hacker's NY Times article Is Algebra Necessary?  that had appealed to my desire to spare others my frustration with math and got me to think more about how we teach math vs. is math necessary.  Hacker's argument to get rid of a required subject, just because students dislike it and see no relevance in the "real world" could be applied to any subject.  History teachers often hear this same complaint and Bob Knight once famously said (of sportswriters) "All of us learn to write in second grade, most of us go on to greater things" yet we still require English courses at all levels despite protestations of students and rarely do we hear of calls to eliminate those courses.

The second connected because as I watched the video from Mr. Meyer, I realized that this is what I wanted math to be.  I don't want to watch my daughter be frustrated doing problems 1-25 odds only on a nightly basis, I want her to be able to connect her learning to the world around her.  To be using the math she is learning to solve real problems.  To see the joy and pride that she has in the house she designed on Minecraft applied to her using math to design real houses.  To watch her ponder how to build a better tree house on the Simple Physics App but to have the lessons of that exercise made more concrete through the skill of a math expert. To see her again be doing math online during the summer, simply for the joy of doing math. To end the "hoop jumping" that my colleague Michael Delp so passionately expressed last fall.  My only remaining question is this:  If our math teachers are recognizing the futility and frustration they are causing, if the common core is set to force students to use math in a much more applied fashion, what is keeping all of us from teaching more like the video below?


Sunday, August 18, 2013

Where Do We Go From Here

Creative Commons License use from 96dpi (Andreas Levers) at Flickr
Every summer we spend time interviewing potential new staff members for jobs at Plymouth High School and as I reflect on the answers to the questions we ask, I often use my drive time home to think about how I might answer a similar question when the time comes for me to seek a principal position.  One of the questions that has always troubled me is "Where do you see yourself in five years?"  It is troubling in many respects, the first and foremost being that while wanting to sound ambitious and desiring to move up, you don't want to be viewed as being overly motivated by the desire to have the job of the person hiring you.  In today's world of education though, it troubles me more because I no longer know where we might be in five years as an industry.

When I was growing up teaching was one of the most stable professions in the world, so much so that this has become one of the chief complaints/criticisms of the industry as the reform era has dawned.  Despite recent high turnover, according to a 2011 Huffington Post article the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future estimates that 50% of teachers leave the profession within 5 years of entering it, in my educational life as a student (Lyons Township High School Class of 1987) it seemed as if my teachers never left, and where still there when I went back to visit unless they retired.  Today, with the pace of change that future can no longer be assured.  I often wonder if I will still be in education long enough to retire, not because of a decision by me to leave what I love, but rather because education as a profession will no longer exist in a form that supports the education enterprise.

I am not bemoaning change, in fact over my years in the profession I have not only embraced it but chased after it, but rather I ponder how those changes will come and what they may look like.  A few weeks ago I read an article in the Wall Street Journal titled the The $4 Million Teacher, that might show us a window into what that five years from now world might look like.  It both exhilarated and scared me at the same time.  I was exhilarated at the possibilities of how we can use technology to better connect our students to resources and truly differentiate the learning they receive.  I was scared because of the wide chasm that the system described has created between those who have access to private teachers outside of school hours and those who do not and must rely on what schools can offer within their budget restrictions.  In a perfect world, all students would have access to the best and brightest teachers and know how to connect with quality resources for learning.  In the real world, the basic economic problem of scarcity will continually raise it's head and swat away those dreams and aspirations.  It is our challenge as a nation to see how we can pursue the dream of equality in education as it competes with the myriad other budgetary goals, entitlements, and Bridges to Nowhere.

Four years ago when I came to Plymouth High School I was asked where I wanted to be in five years.  I can no longer recall my response, but here is how I would answer if asked today, and it really is not focused on the position I would want to be in, but rather the type of school system I would want to work in.

I want to be a principal in a progressive school system.  One that is on the cutting edge of education, that embraces the changes and challenges of the profession, is a leader in expanding opportunities for students and meeting them at their point of need not our point of instruction, one that is built on a foundation of continuous pursuit of knowledge to improve the craft of teaching.  I don't know where that place is exactly, but I want to be a part of making this place become that one.  

What would your answer look like?  More importantly, what are you doing today to bring that ideal place into your current one?

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Tivo my Life

When I was growing up Thursday nights on NBC where consistently the best night of TV.  Hill Street Blues, The Cosby Show, Cheers, etc... Each of those shows became something you had to watch.  By the 90's, when Friends, Seinfeld, Fraser, and ER dominated Thursday night and it had become Must see TV.  Today however, appointment TV has become whenever and where ever we want it to occur.  We can Tivo our shows, to watch at a later time (5 of them at once if you have Directv's Genie), can watch anything on our phones, including football, and can watch live tv on our tablets.

But tonight's post is not about television and my by gone youth.  Nor is it about disconnecting from our hyper connected world.  Rather it is about a random thought as I walked out of school.  What if I could Tivo my exercise.  I am not talking about Tivoing shows to watch them later, while I am on the treadmill, but rather being able to pause, rewind, or record my actual workouts so that they fit better into my life.  Last year I did a wellness journey for a local wellness facility.  I worked out regularly, wrote about my experience, and in general enjoyed myself.  Then, when the time to promote ended, so did my journey.

Even when I would schedule a workout or class as an appointment-it wasn't Must see TV, and thus it often went undone.  Even the negative incentive for missing workouts-money I was paying for access to the club that I was not using being money that was basically being thrown away-was not enough to get me back on track.  As our Director of Guidance said in a meeting last week, the pace of our school is incredibly fast, and it is.  That became incredibly evident this week when the first two days of school sped by with me barely being able to find time to each lunch, and students haven't even arrived yet.

This week with school beginning again, I had made the goal of beginning to work out again.  The goal being to go to 2 classes a week (cycling and yoga) and then run/walk a minimum of 3.1 miles on my own 2 days a week.  So far I am oh for two, and it is not looking better for the rest of the week.  It is not so much that I don't want to be healthier, but rather time seems to slip so quickly by, and before I know it the day is done and my workout is not.  I need to find a way to insert more time into my day.  To be able to pause what is going on, spend my 30 minutes working out, and then pick back up where I left off.  In reality I need to not Tivo my Workout, but rather Tivo my Life.

Now if I could only figure out how to invent an app for that, or at least find a working method to make exercise happen...

Friday, August 9, 2013

The Joys of the Young

I spent tonight working on a presentation for our students with my daughter.  Normally, my work stays at school, or at least gets done outside on my deck as oppesed to being done in the house with my family. Tonight was different though, first I was attempting to make some informative videos regarding computer policy at our high school, and I wanted to have some fun doing them, so I used the Tellagami App to do them. If you have not used them before, Tellagami allows you to create gamis, which are full body avatars that you can create from scratch. You can choose the gender, eye color, hair color and style, skin color, and clothing of your gami, and best of all you can give your gami an outsized head. For a background you can use a pre-made one, or upload a background of your own from your photostream. For these gamis I used noticeable places from around our school, and then enlisted my youngest daughters help to design the gami (she consulted on mine and then designed 3 of her own) and then record 3 of the four messages. Per family policy, whenever I use either of my daughters in my work, or mention them in my blog or in class they are paid, so this would cost me $5 for creative talents, but the joy it brought was well worth it. It was fun to watch her as she practiced her lines, recorded her speeches, in her normal voice and her English accent, and acted out her gestures as she spoke. The best part though were the multiple takes. For each script she read through it silently first, asking for help with words that were beyond her 4th grading reading level, then practiced two times before hitting record. After each take she would listen, critique her work, and if not satisfied start over. It was a great way to spend and evening, but the best payoff was yet to come....When we finished with our gamis, she sat down at her computer and began typing out scripts for some gamis of her own. I can't wait to see what she produces. As an added bonus, while recording our gamis, I thought that maybe we should use some of the gamis to illustrate our dress code, create one dressed appropriately, and as my duaghter would say one "not so much" (must be said in a snooty English accent for best effect). My wife then suggested that instead of using the limited dress of gamis, maybe she would model appropriate and not so much appropriate outfits and give her opinion. For a girl who changes clothes 5 times a day, this was too good a deal. So tomorrow morning we will be up early, filming some dress code videos to share with the faculty, and hopefully continuing to have a blast, even if it will cost me a few dollars more.