Dusting off the cobwebs…yet again.

Ahem…good morning! As is obvious, I have done a stellar job of ignoring my blog and, in the process, failing to write about many significant educational moments in one way or another. For that, I am sorry. If you know anything about teachers (and if you're reading this, you do), you know that we get into those long stretches where all we can think about is our job and the many responsibilities that come with it. Needless to say, I fell into that trap and am not afraid to admit that I became a little lazy when it came to writing even a short blog post. I'm one of those people who feels the need to write substantially, but I do myself in when I don't have enough to fill three paragraphs. It's funny: I teach timed writing and constantly tell students that they need to condense their thoughts and that they can write solid essays without a ton of quotations or references. Maybe I should follow my own advice! Starting today, I will. Whether I post a few thoughts on a personal experience or share an article or commentary I have read, I will write more. In the words of the venerable band Whitenake, “Here I go again on my own.”

I have so many thoughts that I could post here, but I want to share an experience I had a couple of weeks ago when I served on a Visiting Team for a school evaluation. (For privacy reasons, I will not share the name of the school, except to say it is a beautiful prep school in New Jersey.) Teachers rarely get to see colleagues from other schools in action, so I jumped at the chance to do just that. As I migrated my way through the school's hallways and observed the different learning experiences taking place, I also noticed something that, until that point, I had ignored in all of the school's I previously had seen: classroom design. The classrooms in this school seemed more like learning centers, very student-focused and designed to appeal to all sorts of learners. Even though the school was built in the 1960s, I could tell that the school's architect planned not only for those present-day students but also for students that would fill the halls in subsequent decades. In other words, future planning became a key part of the school's construction. Of course, it cannot be assumed that today's building is an exact duplicate of the original structure; after all, technology alone has grown by leaps and bounds since that time. Still, it seems that while many schools built in the 1960s and later now show their age, this one does not.

When we think about the 21st century classroom, we not only need to consider the content and the learning taking place within the room, but also the physical space itself. Many schools have very little wiggle room with respect to redesigning classroom spaces; cost, location, and even building materials (the dreaded cinder block) make it difficult to convert yesterday's classroom to tomorrow's learning center. However, if a school wants to ensure its own survival, it must at least give thought to the types of learning that will occur in the next decade or so. Then, it becomes a matter of future-proofing classrooms and school buildings to stay ahead of the curve. Such changes also can reinvigorate and re-energize school communities that might feel stuck in a time warp.

This future-proofing will become a reality for me very soon, as my classroom is scheduled to receive a significant upgrade over the Christmas break. I know for a fact that the remodel will allow me to refine and to expand my teaching methods in very positive ways, and I'm looking forward to showing my students how a new space can enhance their learning and their appreciation for literature and writing.

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New school year, new tech!

While it has been some time since my last post, I hope that all teachers out there have enjoyed smooth beginnings to the school year. Can you believe that we just finished Thanksgiving and are on our way to Christmas? I don’t know about you, but I’m already itching for that next break. The life of a spoiled teacher, right? 😄

In any case, I am always on the lookout for innovative technology to enhance my instruction and/or classroom management. For example, one struggle that many teachers face involves students failing to check homework sites for their daily assignments. Our school currently uses Moodle as its course management system; while I appreciate the ability to post assignments and other important information, I have noticed that Moodle has become a bit too big for its britches, so to speak. The result: students (especially when they are absent) do not log on to ensure they have completed the necessary work. Rather, they email their teachers to find out the status of missed classes and assignments. That said, they often do not check email for important information. Indeed, email slowly is going the way of the dinosaur. However, I read about a relatively new app called Remind (formerly known as Remind 101) that allows students to subscribe to text alerts sent by teachers. In my case, I use the app to remind students of upcoming large-scale assignments (essays, projects, etc.) as well as last-minute changes to coursework. Parents also can subscribe to get the alerts so that they know some of the major work being done by their children. The beauty of this app is that no phone numbers are exchanged! This ensures privacy for all parties and no hint of impropriety. I highly recommend Remind for anyone who works in a group setting and who wants to remind people of events without having to send out a mass email.

Awhile back, I wrote a post about how Google inconceivably broke apart Google Drive and spun off Docs, Slides, and Sheets into separate apps. In doing so, the company did not include basic folder access in the new apps, thus resulting in a great deal of app switching between Drive and Docs, for instance. For me, the grading process became more difficult, and I had thought about going to Office for iPad for the handling of all student work. After some time with Microsoft’s product (and a bevy of enhancements to it), I safely can say that Microsoft’s iPad suite officially is my favorite productivity bundle to use on my tablet. Microsoft has managed to take its full-blown Office suite and make it extremely tablet-friendly; this past Fall, it also made Office available for iPhone. Productivity fans rejoiced! Okay, that might be a stretch, but after it took the Seattle-based company some time to arrive at the party, Microsoft made great strides with its mobile products in a short amount of time. The most recent announcement involved allowing non-Office 365 users to create and edit documents on their iPads and iPhones, essentially rendering the apps free. I slowly am weaning my students off Google Docs and plan on embracing Office from hereon out. You should, too. Kudos to Microsoft for listening to their consumers!

My last tech note is somewhat of a plea: a plea for more teacher-centric apps, apps that make our job easier. For example, if there’s one app most teachers would want, it would be a calendar/attendance/lesson planning app. In all fairness, such an app already exists – it’s called iTeacherBook. I used it to help me track attendance for one of my sports teams but quickly found the app too buggy and lacking in updates. As you can see, the developers have not updated the app in over a year, instead spending their time on the student version (called iStudiezPro). While I understand the need to push the student app (a larger clientele means more money), teachers deserve just as much assistance with their daily tasks. While many corporate task managers are present in the App Store, how about one for teachers that hasn’t turned into a pumpkin?

Keeping on that same theme, I also have to take Blackbaud to task for its mishandling of an app for which I consulted. Our school uses Netclassroom and FAWeb, two products part of Blackbaud’s grading platform. While the web versions function pretty well, other companies have mobile apps that allow teachers and students to input information on the go. For example, if I was at a function and quickly wanted to input grades without turning on my computer, I theoretically could do so with other products, but not FAWeb. Last year, Blackbaud reached out to several individuals (I was one) and asked us to help them develop a mobile app, set to be released this year. Then, just as the app was taking shape, the company shelved it with no explanation or updates. In this day and age, every major educational company should have a mobile presence or run the risk of becoming yesterday’s news. Time to step up, Blackbaud!

Let the Christmas countdown commence…now!

The Changing Literary Canon

As an English teacher, I often get bored teaching the same books year after year. Sure, students need to know the “classics” from various genres, but will their lives really suffer if they don’t get the chance to read The Scarlet Letter? (For the record, I do enjoy teaching Nathaniel Hawthorne’s masterpiece.) Some teachers would answer “Yes!” to the preceding question; in their minds, students need exposure to great works of literature in order to appreciate many of the books they read for pleasure.

The aforementioned falls under the much-discussed idea of a “literary canon” of novels, plays, and other works. In short, the canon consists of the “best of the best” in literature. But who determines the canon? That’s a difficult question to answer because so many scholars have opinions on what constitutes literary merit. For example, most would agree that Hawthorne’s work belongs in the canon, but why? Memorable characters? A rich storyline? A lasting influence on society? (Think about the scarlet “A” as a pop culture icon.) No one really knows, and those that say they do likely are putting forth their own opinions and not those of their contemporaries. The thought still exists among many English teachers and literary scholars that the literary canon cannot possibly include mass-market fiction, books that any average person could purchase in the Barnes & Noble bestseller section. However, while I respect literary traditionalists, I must disagree with their narrow-minded viewpoints toward the canon. The time has come to re-evaluate how we define a work as canonical. As Bob Dylan sings, “The times they are a-changin’.”

Case in point: this year in my AP Literature class, I taught a book that came out less than three years ago and that was written by one of my favorite modern authors. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini tells interlocking stories focusing on the lives of two young girls growing up in modern-day Afghanistan. The novel, a follow-up to his world renowned work The Kite Runner, instantly became one of the most successful books I have ever taught in ten years of teaching. The students, some of whom previously had read it, became attached to the characters, ideas, and themes like no other book we studied last year. The novel might not be difficult to read, but Hosseini takes his readers on a rollercoaster of emotions that leaves them much more knowledgable of life in Afghanistan. Not many resources (in terms of lesson plans or scholarly criticism) exist in connection with the book, but that just empowered me to come up with meaningful methods for approaching the book. My students enjoyed the book so much that many of them used it as their “work of choice” in the AP exam free response question.

Despite the positive reception, however, some (including in my own school) have refused to recognize the quality of Hosseini’s work. They see his novels as nothing more than fluff with no substance. Unfortunately, the detractors fail to grasp the true impact that such writing has on those that read it. Let’s go back to Hawthorne and the questions I asked about The Scarlet Letter, applying them to A Thousand Splendid Suns. Does Hosseini’s novel contain memorable characters? A rich storyline? Yes, and yes. Does it resonate with the public? Absolutely. Oh, and was The Scarlet Letter once a mass-market book designed to appeal to the public? Yup. Why, then, should Hosseini be left off the canon? Because he still is alive? Because his novels are much more modern? If you answered “yes” to either question, you need to open your mind and realize that the age of literature has nothing to do with whether or not it is canonical. Plenty of old works exist that are utter rubbish! My point is this: literature doesn’t have to move you to tears or make you ponder life’s existence in order for it to count as canonical.

To their credit, the College Board has begun to modernize its list of works considered of literary merit, indicating a shift in thinking when it comes to the canon. That shift needs to continue and to make its way into the minds of those with literary tunnel-vision. I once heard a radio station ad that went: “It doesn’t have to be old to be classic.” I hold that the same applies to literature.

 

Google Drive shifts into reverse.


Teachers of the world, let's face it – technology has made our jobs much easier. While I admire those who still record their attendance in a paper book, I absolutely do not miss the days of hard copy grade books and planners. My appreciation of technology has increased over the years, especially as it has helped me grade countless essays on a regular basis. I love teaching English but, until technology intervened, shuddered at the thought of taking a stack of essays home and grading them. Several years ago, I moved to electronic essay grading, having my students upload their essays via Moodle (our course management system) and then returning the essays using the comment feature in Microsoft Word. That method worked very well for awhile, but I soon wondered if there was an easier way to accomplish my task.

Enter Google Drive.

Beginning as Google Docs/Slides/Sheets, Google Drive appeared to be everything I wanted in an online writing system: easy, convenient, and most of all, fast. Because our school subscribed (and still subscribes) to Google Apps for Education, our students have access to Google Drive and can compose and share documents in no time. What does that mean for me? Well, rather than downloading and uploading 30 essays, I could have my students write their essays in class (or at home) and then share their essays with me so that I could grade them. No downloading, no uploading, no problem! As if that wasn't enough, I also could grade the essays on my iPad (or my iPhone, if I desired) and avoid having to haul my laptop around with me. Talk about convenient, right?

Then, Google Drive changed. And the world wept.

Okay, the world might not have wept, but I (figuratively) did. Last week, Google announced that it had spun off Google Docs, Sheets, and (coming soon) Slides into separate iOS and Android apps. What did that mean? Simple: rather than go into Drive to compose an essay, a student might open Docs, type the essay, and then “save” (it autosaves) it to their Drive. Without a doubt, this was Google's response to Microsoft releasing Word, PowerPoint, and Excel as separate Office apps for the iPad. Fine, Google was copying Microsoft. What's the problem, you might ask?

While Google emulated Microsoft in several ways, the one thing it did not do was port the folder hierarchy to Docs. While Microsoft baked in OneDrive access in each app (Word/PowerPoint/Excel), Google failed to do that for Docs, Sheets, and (I assume) Slides. For me, then, if I wanted to grade on my iPad, I could not go to my Drive folders in Docs and grade essays. Rather, I had to go to Drive, open the folder, choose a document, and then wait for it to toggle to Docs. Yes – I would have to repeat this 30 times if I had 30 essays. No more smooth opening and closing in Drive.

For the first time in recent memory, I have a serious problem with one of Google's products, a problem that might force me to re-evaluate whether it is worth it to use as my primary online essay source. After all, now that Microsoft Word comes on the iPad, I can instruct my students to share their Word documents via Office 365 and then grade them on the iPad without having to upload and download. Word for iPad also works very well, and while many have complained about the need for an Office 365 subscription, I have found it to be well worth the price – and so have 27 million others. Office always has been the gold standard when it comes to productivity, and now Microsoft can boast a smoother and more fluid document management system than Google. Whoever thought that would happen, right?

My hope is that Google realizes the error of its ways and, at the very least, improves the functionality of its individual apps. They really are great for students and educators alike in that they offer superior collaboration opportunities and great ease of use. However, if no changes are made, I likely will go back to old faithful and make Office for iPad my suite of choice. Google, you're officially on notice.

I'm interested to hear from other educators who may be using Google Drive and/or Office for iPad. What are your thoughts on the changes? Does anyone use other products besides the two I mentioned? Sound off in the comments!

 

What’s your pleasure?

“So much to do, so little time.”

 

If ever there was a motto for today's average student, the above might be it. Let's face it: most high school students are overcommitted when it comes to classes, extracurricular activities, after-school employment, and…oh yes, schoolwork. We can place the blame on multiple parties, but the fact remains that students are spending most of their days attempting to juggle multiple responsibilities. In doing so, they fail to realize that something has to lose – and that “something” might be their sense of direction and purpose.

 

Ask the typical student what he or she seeks to accomplish, and you'll probably get a laundry list of goals and achievements. Academically speaking, students desire to take as many advanced classes as they can fit into their schedule. Or do they? I recently overheard one of my students complaining about her AP Biology class, to which I inquired, “Why are you taking it in the first place?” She responded that she did not know but that she was recommended for it, so she took it. Did she seek a career in the life sciences? Not a chance. In essence, she added hours of studying to her weekly workload because she qualified for the course. Sadly, she is not alone, as many students continue to enroll in upper-level courses not because they want the challenge, but because they feel obligated to take on extra responsibility. They feel pressure from parents, guidance counselors, and their own peers in selecting courses that may not interest them but look good on a transcript. One has to wonder if they regret their decisions once they arrive at college and are forced to make choices.


Heavy course loads (yet another future blog post) can have detrimental effects on student wellness, especially when combined with a rigorous activity schedule and lack of sleep. I remember one year when a student of mine declared that she only slept for two hours the previous evening. Of course, she was taking five AP courses and participated in several high-demand extracurricular activities, so naturally her schedule left her little time to sleep. She did work very hard and ended up attending a great college (and law school), but I still wonder (and would love to ask her) – did you take on that schedule because you enjoyed sleeping two hours? Or because you felt obligated to overcommit yourself? More importantly, did you manage to find YOUR path? I hope yes, but I believe no.

 

Students need to challenge themselves – I firmly believe that. However, they also need to discover their true passions in learning, whether it be studying classical languages or pursuing a career in engineering. They cannot do that if they spent every waking hour…awake. In short, educators at every level must ensure that students love what they do and do what they love.

 

The New SAT: A Long Overdue Revision

I have made it no secret in my classes that I am not a fan of the SAT. Actually, that's an understatement: I utterly detest the SAT with a passion. (Wow, it feels liberating to type that.) As most teachers would agree, the SAT in its current form measures absolutely nothing when it comes to academic prowess or high school intelligence. The test measures no degree of intelligence and seems as antiquated as the “sage on the stage” teacher who drones on for an hour or more while students keep their mouths shut – or even worse. Even with the introduction of the writing section a few years ago, the test resembles nothing more than a “guess your way to a perfect score” exam. The fact that test prep companies and private tutors can instruct students on tips and tricks for mastering the exam – as opposed to showing them how to prepare academically for it – leaves the current SAT as nothing more than a money grab for the College Board. (I could say the same about the AP program, but that's a post for another day.) The test doesn't cater to high school students' classroom strengths and instead forces them to master the art of educational guessing. Having a bad day? Too bad, so sad – you still have to take the exam and hope that your guessing works. Don't have fresh batteries for your calculator? Oh well, you still have fingers! In short, the current SAT is a joke of a test. Teachers have been calling for reform for years, and colleges have begun looking closer at the ACT and have even gone test-optional. Throughout all of this, the College Board has had its head in the sand.

Until now.

Bowing to pressure from colleges, high schools, and instructors around the country, the College Board recently announced sweeping changes to the SAT, changes that will arrive in 2016 (sorry, sophomores and juniors). While I won't review all changes here, you can go to the College Board's new website “Delivering Opportunity” to see the breakdown. English teachers, however, should rejoice at the forthcoming changes, which include more analysis and fewer “guess the answer” questions. The essay, while optional, will have students read and critically analyze a short passage, rather than compose a response to a fairly predictable (format-wise, at least) essay prompt. Those piles and piles of flash cards? Burn 'em. Random vocabulary words? Forget 'em. The College Board finally has recognized what really goes on in the English classroom and, in some ways, has affirmed the work of English teachers who focus on skilled writing and critical analysis of literary text. No argument in this corner! I preach revision in my English classes, and the College Board has revised the SAT to the umpteenth degree.

While one might expect near-universal praise for the new test, that clearly has not been the case. Kathleen Parker of The Washington Post opines that the changes will cost teachers valuable information as to whether students can put their thinking skills to work in short timeframes. Parker then takes a swipe at schools themselves, suggesting – no, flat-out accusing – them of grade inflation to pacify students and parents alike. She adds that the changes will result in students not learning “rich vocabulary” and not using diverse sentence structures in their writing. FairTest public education director Bob Schaeffer calls the new SAT “a different test, not an improved one” and argues that grades are the best predictor of college success and that test-optional policies ensure equality and fairness to all applying to college.

Parker's and, to a lesser extent, Schaeffer's, arguments represent the general consensus for critics of the new test. However, like many of those critics, neither Parker nor Schaeffer are classroom teachers and likely rely on research and sheer conjecture/opinion in crafting their responses. Parker's claims about loss of vocabulary and meaningful writing are false; students still can put those tools to good use when composing essays and responses on the new SAT. She seems to feel that memorizing facts, figures, tips, and tricks measure a student's intelligence, but nothing could be farther from the truth. My best students are not those that use flash cards for vocabulary quizzes, but those that look at a text and examine the literary techniques used to compose it. (In fact, and in light of the forthcoming exam, I likely will abolish all vocabulary quizzes and instead have students display vocabulary knowledge responsibly in their writing.) The aforementioned leads me to another point, which is that the College Board is guarding against something many English teachers deplore: the random addition of advanced vocabulary to inflate otherwise weak writing. How many times have we English teachers seen words in essays that clearly do not belong? Students may right-click to find synonyms, but those synonyms may not duplicate the exact meaning of a given word. In the students' minds, however, the new word “sounds” better. The fact remains that writing essays and even short responses are necessary in any English classroom, so intense, critical textual analysis – not meaningless vocabulary and multiple choice exercises – is a must. Parker seems to laud the current SAT essay, but does she realize the utter predictability of the essay prompts? Take one look at the prompts over the years and you will see the pattern: a) a quotation or thought, b) a short reflection on the quotation or thought, and c) the assignment that calls for an essay with support from literature, history, or personal experience. Oh, and if you don't have a personal story, you can make it up. Is that what we want to encourage in the classroom, too? More importantly, what intelligence does that measure? (Perhaps this.)

I refuse to administer multiple choice book tests because they do not measure whether students comprehend the material; they only measure rote memorization. Parker might pine for analogies (abolished in 2005), and they are important in helping students think, but they certainly are not worth an entire section on the SAT. Likewise, when students write essays, I do assess their technical and mechanical skills, but I focus more on their content and analysis of a given topic. Can you tell me the significance of Hester Prynne taking off her scarlet A for a short time in The Scarlet Letter? That's what concerns me most. Students today learn in so many ways, and kudos to those who are memorization masters. However, the public needs to realize that now more than ever, not all students are cut from the same cloth. Like many critics, Parker might want to spend some time in a 21st century English classroom before jumping to conclusions.

I do agree with Schaeffer in that grades should always serve as the primary method of evaluation for colleges in reviewing high school students' applications for admissions. However, with more students applying to colleges, the colleges need more than a GPA (grade point average) to determine academic promise. The new SAT (and the ACT, for that matter) will, at the very least, help break the tie between two students who might have similar profiles but who have different test results. Yes, test-optional policies are increasing and someday may become part of the majority of admissions programs, but for now, universities should have a more accurate set of test results that correlate with academic achievements.

Sure, the changes to the exam are as much of a business decision as they are an academic one. The College Board has lost significant ground to the ACT due to the ACT's proximity to high school curriculum. So, are the changes to the SAT designed to increase the coffers of the College Board? Absolutely – and we could say the same about the ACT seeking close alignment with science, English, and math, all at the high school level. The real money grab, however, occurs with test prep programs, classes, and private tutors (and in full disclosure, I am one of the latter). The test prep industry has become a monster, with students spending thousands of dollars to learn the art of mastering a test by using tips and tricks, not intelligence or knowledge. And for what? Will a 50 point increase make a huge difference in whether a student gains admission to a highly selective college? How many students see significant increases after taking test prep classes? I could go on and on, but The Brooklyn Math Tutors do a great job of explaining my thoughts on test prep in more detail.

We all will learn much more about the new SAT after the first year of administering it to students. I still am not a fan of standardized tests, but these changes are beneficial to students, so I clearly support them. For now, we must be guardedly optimistic that the College Board has created a better test and will continue to work for the students while not undermining teachers. No test of any kind represents perfection, and if the new SAT proves faulty, we'll surely wait for yet another revision. Perhaps by then, all standardized tests will be a thing of the past.

Now, about those AP exams

 

Yesterday’s education in tomorrow’s world…today!

Hello, and welcome to my new blog! I have had a few “false starts” with blogs in the last few years, but I blame that on my desire to cover topics that, although significant, seemed too out of control to explore. This blog, however, really draws from my experiences in education and thus should be much easier – and more fun – to manage. So on we go!

Having taught English for ten years in private schools (at both the high school and college levels), I have seen the educational system in our country experience a seismic shift with respect to how schools operate, how teachers instruct, and how students learn. The name of the game today is: tomorrow. More and more, education is looking to future ideas and technologies that can be implemented in today's school setting. That said, the American educational system seems at a crossroads right now, pitting “old school” (no pun intended) educators with “new school” thinking. Many schools confuse “traditional” with “antiquated” and refuse to change their methodologies and operational procedures. Often, the schools that resist change are the ones with poorly prepared students and disgruntled faculties and staffs; those that at least consider modernization account for more positive environments. Gone also are the days when teachers and professors can stand in the front of the class like a “sage on the stage” and lecture endlessly while flipping transparencies in a dark classroom. Sure, some instructors still teach that way, but often with fruitless results. Today's teacher successfully incorporates some modicum of technology or interactivity into the daily lessons, often for the students' benefit.

In addition to teaching, I also have studied the “nuts and bolts” of educational administration and operations. How and why do schools and colleges operate the way they do? What are they doing to plan for the future? More importantly, DO they have plans for the future? The aforementioned questions (and many more) became part of my studies and, ultimately, my interests as an educator. I still am exploring answers to those questions – that's assuming I even will find answers in the first place!

What, then, is the goal of this blog? To put it simply, I want to create a means to discuss what I call the “21st century school zone” and its many components: administration, teaching and learning, technology, student performance, and much more. Now, you might say to yourself, “But Matt, the 21st century isn't the future – it's now.” You would be right if you were talking about anything BUT education; unfortunately, in many ways, today's education remains stuck in yesterday's world and appears to be spinning its wheels. My goal is, in a figurative sense, to help push the car out of the mud and to get it back on the highway. To that extent, my posts will consist of reporting on (with appropriate discussion and commentary) on educational news; review of instructional technologies and/or products; reflection on new educational trends and research; and commenting on my “life experiences” that seem relevant to the discussion at hand. And that's just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

I know I won't change the educational universe by maintaining this blog – that's impossible! However, if I can even get people thinking more about the direction of education, I have accomplished my mission. Join me, won't you?