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Weekend in Boston

 

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Harvard Selfie.

Last weekend I went to an education conference in Boston and it was simply fabulous.  I learned tons of ideas that are shaping schools and technology and I came away with many new insights.  In all honesty, though, some of these new insights about education were a little disheartening to learn about.  For instance, I was reminded that education is immensely political and polarizing. It is something that humans fight over and blame each other for.  Good people who go into education with the best intentions seem to create enemies out of nowhere, over sometimes seemingly trivial things.  It’s a shame, because we really do all want the same things: for young people to be safe, to be challenged, to enjoy learning and working, and ultimately be prepared to contribute to the workforce and the world.  And yet we usually don’t agree on the pathway to those goals or have the powers of persuasion to move together towards them.

But, don’t fret; I am still I believer.  I still believe that, no matter how politicized it can become, good humans will continue to rally around improving education and we can agree on the fundamental components of a solid education.  Right now I think America  needs to be more deliberate in the steps we take towards improving schools.

Anyway, the conferences was the perfect excuse to romp around Boston on my own; I got into the city a day beforehand so I could explore.  For me, there is nothing more exhilarating and liberating than purchasing that Charlie card and  running around a new city on my own.

 

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Memorial Church at Harvard. My real goal was to get inside the building across from Memorial Church, the Widener library. Widener library has a famously spectacular interior, but alas, you must be a Harvard student to see it.

 

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More Harvard. I love red brick and I can’t get over the windows or that flat-trapezoid-y shape of the building on the left.

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Museum of Fine Arts. Very beautiful.

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We’re heading into our Rome and Italy unit. I took this picture to show my students! I’m excited to learn about Roman pottery with them.

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The MFA had an impressionism exhibit which was my favorite. Renoir is my mom’s favorite.

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Monet is my favorite.

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Copley square, outside the Boston Public Library.

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Boston Public Library. It’s like a Palace, but just for learning. Honestly and truly, its nickname is the “Palace for the People.”

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Yours truly. Taken by a nice Chilean gentleman and I completely, accidentally passed up a chance to practice my relatively lousy Spanish on someone who was probably homesick and missing his Spanish-speaking comrades.

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See? Palatial.

 

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Old red brick ftw! Think I’ll move here.

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Burdick’s hot chocolate. You must taste this decadence. Life-changing!

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LearnLaunch 2015. This is Michael Horn from Clayton Christensen Institute interviewing Jose Ferreira about Knewton and big data within ed tech. Admittedly, Jose used enough techy acronyms that I’m not sure how much of his interview I understood correctly. If there’s anything I gained at the conference though, it’s a new hunger for learning and keeping up with all of the changes in the world, especially in technology.

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My host, the lovely Katherine Boren. We did a lot of eating out as well as a bit of shopping. Here we were taking the T to see “Into the Woods.” It was great. #Merylstreep

That’s my recap!  More substance to come.

LearnLaunch Conference 2015

 

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Outside the Boston Public Library. This building is gorgeous. Why do we spend so much on so many athletic stadiums around the country and only have a handful of exquisite library buildings? If you’re ever in Boston, you MUST visit this beautiful place.

I’m at Harvard!

I’m at an Edtech conference called LearnLaunch. I’ve learned an immense amount in the past two days, had the chance to explore Beantown and, most importantly, I’ve had the chance to meet people who are making meaningful contributions to education in the U.S. and abroad.

I have learned about Universal Learning Design, as well as gobs and gobs of new startups in the Edtech industry.  I’ve shared insights about my experiences with Montessori and learned that the Oxford model at Cambridge and Oxford is actually the adult counterpart to Maria Montessori’s work.

I think the most exciting introduction I’ve had is to the founder of Oxford Day Academy  which will open up in East Palo Alto in 2017.  The school will be socioeconomically diverse and founded on the best principles in education.  The founder has actually researched education in her Ph.D. at Oxford and now gathered the team to start what I believe will be a powerful force for good.

Another highlight was hearing about Knewton, the biggest adaptive learning infrastructure existing right now. That sounds like pure gibberish and I’ll explain what it is in another post.  The founder Jose Ferreira, spoke and totally blew me away with facts and figures about the amount of data we are collecting in education.  Which, by the way, creates even more privacy issues than what we’re currently facing.  Privacy.  She is becoming an increasingly more ominous beast.  Nothing is sacred anymore.  With more technology in the classroom (and everywhere) Innocent little children just trying to learn and grow can and will have extremely comprehensive data on their achievements and failures– data that can be stolen and used against them in the future.  It’s actually quite frightening.

I think more than anything though, I was impressed at what issues and questions were not addressed: the lopsided market of educators, social justice issues in education, the lack of partnership between educators and ed tech developers.

Anyway, it was a great privilege to be around brilliant and devoted people who working to make a difference in what I think is the most important field.

I will write more about the things I’ve discovered soon!  In the meantime here is a short, thoughtful article from our friends over the pond about our inequality in education in America. I really appreciated the ideas in it.

Thank you for reading!  Have a lovely rest of your weekend.

Silicon Valley, the show

I moved to Palo Alto in September of 2013, after spending a summer living out of a suitcase, applying and interviewing for jobs.  I got a good job teaching young kids at a private school. I don’t work with adults in technology, so I really don’t see the true culture of Silicon Valley, but I’ve seen enough to appreciate the HBO series about it.

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Gavin Belson. I think his character is mocking Steve Jobs, among others.

 

Here is a better description of the show than I could write.  The show is hilarious.   I have a small crush on Richard but my favorite character is Jared (his real name is Donald) and all the characters are funny.

Also, Ivory Tower comes out today and I need to see it.  It’s a documentary exposing the staggering price of higher education. For all the faults of my alma mater (and there are gobs), I feel really lucky to have gotten an education for 3k/year.  I think schools that are charging 50k+/year should be ashamed of themselves and I’m hopeful that  innovations and alternatives to traditional college will disrupt the market and pull tuition down significantly.

Thanks for reading!  Happy Martin Luther King day. 😀

Schools in Korea

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Seoul, South Korea. My brother took this picture in 2010, when he presented a paper at a computer graphics conference.

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My brother and his Korean fan club.

Chapters three and nine of The Smartest Kids in the World talk about schools in Korea.  I think we have some things to learn from them.  Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • Korean students do not use calculators in their math classes.  At all. In fact, they hardly have any technology in their classes.
  • Korean schools rank their students and everyone knows everyone else’s scores and standing.  As a side note here, I think we concern ourselves too much with self-esteem here in the U.S. We overanalyze it a bit too much.  I’m not a big fan of making a huge stink over ranking students, or permanently labeling anyone ‘smart’ or ‘stupid’ but posting scores is a necessary evil sometimes, and it creates accountability, especially when the effort is acknowledged as the deciding factor in success. I think this should be explicitly addressed in the classroom.  In a healthy classroom, students should feel they can improve their outcome, based on their efforts.  We don’t need to coddle anyone and protect them from the reality of consequences.
  • Korean students clean their own schools.  They mop the floors, take out the trash, clean the chalkboards and for a punishment, clean the bathrooms.
  •  Korean students have school until four, then cleaning, then test prep after cleaning time, then dinner at school, and then a study hall, before they go to hagwons which are private tutoring academies.  Hagwon curfew is at 11 pm.
  • In other words, Korean students study from the wee hours of dawn, until about 11 or 12 at night.  Koreans study their lives away.
  • Korean students sleep through most of their morning classes.

Why is Korea this way?

After the Korean War, Korean government re-evaluated their priorities.  Korea didn’t have any resources, so they poured their efforts into the human capital, education.  In so doing, they created an extreme meritocracy.  They attracted the best and brightest to the classroom and created their  version of the SAT after high school.  In Korea, it is a test that determines their lives.  Students with the top scores go to top universities, go on to successful careers with lucrative salaries.  So it creates a brutal system– a pressure cooker.

I like how pure of a meritocracy Korea seems.  A poor person can rise to enjoy a much higher status in society, solely based on their studies.  I wish that happened in America.  But Korean students waste their entire lives (and an enormous amount of money) studying for this test– no hobbies, no travels, no fun. I don’t like that.

I’d be interested to see how this translates to their workforce and economy.  My brother mentions how technologically savvy and advanced the Koreans are in his recap of his trip there, but they’re certainly not ahead of America.  I’m not sure where to find the best evaluation for comparing the two.

Anyway, that’s my Korea recap, at least until I get to chapter nine.

 

In other news, I found this list of words every high school graduate should know.  I’m embarrassed to admit I need to look up a few!

I also devoured this article  about East Palo Alto (where I used to live).  I loved learning the local history, but in all honesty, it broke my heart.  Us humans have been so rotten to each other over the years, especially to Hispanics and African Americans.  And now it looks like the long time minorities are about to be forced out of EPA, because all the tech companies are vying for the property.  I hope that is not the case.  The community needs to rally together and fight hard to keep it from happening.

I also googled how much money exists in the entire world , because why not?  And because I get sick of people trying to impress and control each other with money and somehow this bit of information alleviates that annoyance for me.  It can’t be particularly accurate, because….. internet, but the good people from this website seem to have taken a decent stab at it.

Thinking of signing up for this meditation class  that I hear marvelous things about.  Actually I remember hearing about a school in Oakland that began incorporating twenty minutes of school-wide silence and concentration and saw staggering results in many aspects of student learning and achievement.  I would love to learn more about that.  Someday I’d like to open a school, and I certainly think that will be a tradition to better our brains and ourselves.

 

Next week I head to Boston for a conference about ed tech at Harvard.  I’m excited but I get cold just thinking about it!

 

Thank you for reading my lovely section of the internet and for investing your time and thoughts into education.

Isolating Variables: Low Achievement and Poverty

In my recent readings and discussions I’ve realized there is a philosophical debate going on about what the biggest cause of low achievement in poverty-stricken areas is. This debate is important because it determines what our plan of action should be to support this demographic. From my perspective,  the United States of America barely lifts a finger to improve these school systems, and I think addressing and improving upon any of these issues is a big step in the right direction.  Of course, we should aim for an efficient solution though, rather than just running around in circles.   Here are the conflicting philosophies I have run across:

1. Poverty causes low achievement.  Students who do not have a healthy diet or enough money to pay for necessities like glasses, doctors appointments, or birth control (arguably a necessity) simply do not have a shot in the classroom.  These students are likely to have a generational history of poverty– illiterate and perhaps neglectful parents.  Occasionally these families are terrified at the thought that their children will succeed in life and perhaps abandon them– in other words they hold their children back.  But more often, these students simply have no social capital.  They don’t know how to get or use a library card.  They don’t know what foods to eat when they’re sick.  They don’t know that your body needs water to stay hydrated.  They don’t know how to use the internet or who to ask when they have a specific question.

These students are likely to face terrible neglect, abuse, and deep depression  in their lives.  I taught high school in the projects and I remember that it often felt as if I hit a wall of darkness when I walked in to class.   Emotions felt heavy and overwhelming; sleeping, whining, unending sicknesses, pain. I had students who, had they stayed home for every sickness they had had in the school year, would have never come to school.

Students cannot learn when their basic needs are not met.

I love hearing brand new teachers (or non-educators) talk about having ‘high expectations’ for this demographic.  Of course, every good teacher must have high expectations for his or her students.  That is non-negotiable.  But high expectations are different for every student.  They are extremely subjective and good teachers develop and refine their instincts (over years) to gauge what is challenging for each individual student.  Most of these students have hundreds of little holes in their skill sets and it is very time-consuming for teachers to individually identify these holes.  The spectrum of abilities in this demographic is much broader than students with cultured, literate parents. In fact, I found taking inventory of this demographic and then creating differentiated work to be completely life-consuming.

And humans simply do not learn when they are starving, sick, uncomfortably cold,  deathly sleep-deprived, or wanting to die.  For many students who live in abject poverty, that is reality, every day.  I don’t know the solution to this, but I know that we need to do a better job of tackling poverty head-on, as a nation.

2. Incompetent teachers with low expectations cause low achievement.  Teachers who are burned out, lazy, lacking a vision, feckless, unprepared, behind, emotionally unstable, pessimistic, faithless, you name it.

These teachers exist and they make the learning process miserable for their poor students.

The worst of these teachers is the faithless teacher.  Because, as long as you have faith in yourself and in your students, you’re automatically moving in the right direction.  The vision will come; the plan will come; the preparation will come. But without faith in your students, you’re dead on arrival.  You will fail, and when you fail, you won’t have they energy to return to  battle.

I was surprised at the number of faithless, pessimistic teachers I ran across at my underprivileged high school. I heard of teachers who spent their entire day shopping online in front of their students  and then had the gaul to give F’s to their students– all of them!  I’ve seen teachers who had no respect for their students or for their questions and teachers who sort of fooled around and made it look like they were teaching; but in reality they didn’t do much at all.   Fortunately, most teachers are hard-working, generous, and capable professionals, but there are some really bad teachers out there.

But then again, as I’ve written earlier, we don’t do much to attract our best and brightest to the workplace.  Our weeding out/ teacher preparation  process is not exactly rigorous from the get-go.  So what do we expect?

2b. Perhaps a sub-category could be poor working conditions and lack of administrative support and professional development for teachers cause under-achievement.

Our working conditions do not make for a sustainable lifestyle.  I’ve been reading the blog Gatsby in L.A. by Ellie Herman and she nails it:

“What’s unsustainable? Working more than 60 hours a week in relentlessly stressful conditions without adequate supplies, mentoring, peer support or time to collaborate, learn or think. Working in a state of continual crisis, with students who are often in crisis, without resources to help or even time to listen. Being continually told that you are “ineffective” because your 11th grade students came in reading at 5th grade level, their self-esteem in the toilet, a negative history in school, low attention span due to possible trauma and instability at home, and over the last few months you have not succeeded in ratcheting up their reading levels so that they can go to college after next year. Being presented every year with a whole new way to teach everything, to replace last year’s whole new way to teach everything.”

My brother works at Google.  He has a healthy breakfast, lunch and dinner to eat each day there.  They offer exercise programs to keep their employees healthy.  They have a nap room!  Google wants their employees to have what they need to be effective.  If we’re not going to pay teachers like professionals, let’s at least give them some options to keep them healthy and sane.

Let’s attract better teachers with a sustainable salary and good working conditions.  Let’s weed-out the incompetent teachers before they get to the classroom.  Let’s  treat teachers like professionals.

3. Socioeconomic Segregation causes low achievement.

The United States pays for its schools via property taxes.  So parents who want their kids to go to good schools move into nice neighborhoods and families without money get stuck together in the leftovers school systems.  Students who need extra interventions and care end up in school systems that can’t pay for enough teachers to support them.  Our self-segregation makes our education system exponentially worse.

I don’t know how to deal with this but I have a feeling that Europe does.  I don’t know why we as humans are often so distrustful of people who are different from us, but it’s not helping anyone in the classroom, or in society for that matter.  My ESOL classroom  felt so segregated from the school.  Everyone was the same color, the same level of literacy, and incredibly poor.  And the feeling was of crabs at the bottom of a barrel. The bad students pulled the good students down and the good students, even when they ignored the insults of their peers, had no idea how far behind they were from most other teenagers.  It was an incredibly unfortunate scenario.

Again, I don’t know the solution to this, but I do know we need to find one.  We need to mix the different types of people around in our schools.

In my current classroom (which is a Montessori elementary class) the students have several choices once they have finished their assignments.  And one of those choices is to help teach something to someone who is struggling.  And you know what?  My sweet little students relish the chance to help another student.  To them, it’s a great privilege to explain addition, subtraction, long division or capitalization to a friend.  And that’s how it should be.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we all had that same mindset?

 

So there you have it.  Those are three of the variables that I know are debated in the education realm. In reality, a society of 300 million is very different from a science experiment and perhaps we can’t simply identify one variable that could fix education.  In my opinion, we need to address all three issues in order to improve achievement for students living in poverty.

 

Education matters!  Thank you for reading along and for caring.    What do you think the solutions are?