E D U C A T I O N

My Educational Utopia
The worst thing I could grow up to be was a Chi-honky—a Chicana who believed herself to be white. And, while I don’t recall a dinner-time kind of discussion about what exactly constituted a Chi-honky, the hidden curriculum of my surroundings gave me ample opportunity to associate the term with someone who succeeds—someone who earns a high level of education; marries well; raises children in a middle-class, suburban neighborhood; and whose income reaches above poverty level. The sting of the phrase has dulled because, when my family and I reminisce about what I was like as a child, we can all vividly recall the quirkiness of my make-believe schoolrooms that traveled with us to each new living residence—I had desks, a real chalkboard (commandeered by my grandfather when an old schoolhouse was being torn down), out-of-print textbooks, and an over-abundance of coloring utensils.

• I believe in education
The statement may seem like a meronym for an educational utopia, but it deserves inclusion. Far too many educators seem not to believe in the intrinsic value of education. They complain without a discernable ambition to change what it is they are frustrated with. They scoff at every new reform effort and label those who seek a new vision “impractical optimists.” Every school has them, but what has been truly disheartening is their existence even in every level of education degree program. Educators, and all those directly associated with the field, who do not believe in the inherent value of it should be—perhaps not shot—but certainly, strongly encouraged to find where else their passions might lie. For, as Ayers (2001) states, “Teaching is intellectual and ethical work; it takes a thoughtful, reflective, and caring person to do it well” (134).

• I believe an educated populace is a more just and humane populace
Lack of education allows people to stay in their own enclaves. They do not have authentic opportunities to interact with others, and therefore, are free to develop opinions about others without ever having those opinions challenged. Authentic, in this sense, is used as a distinction against “grocery-store” kind of interaction. While people living in any community may come in direct contact with others from outside their affinity group, they do not genuinely engage in dialogue with them about matters of value. Ghandi says the following of his own worldly education: “A variety of incidents in my life have conspired to bring me in close contact with people of many creeds and many communities, and my experience with all of them warrants the statement that I have known no distinction between relatives and strangers, countrymen and foreigners, white and coloured, Hindus and Indians of other faiths, whether Mussulmans, Parsis, Christians or Jews” (compiled by Kripalani, 1972, p. 24).

It is not solely interaction with others that creates this empathy but also encounters with ideas hitherto foreign. Teachers can, and should, purposefully provide opportunities for students to challenge their own cultural values and perceptions.

• I believe every individual needs a mentor outside of the nuclear family unit. The cliché “It takes a village to raise a child” should not be overlooked. Contemporary American culture has moved so dramatically away from this ideal, it might be arguable that it is no longer “cliché.” On the contrary, there is a new term in use to describe the absolute opposite—helicopter parents. A large portion of today’s parent population seeks greater and greater control over all aspects of their children’s education and everyday experiences. While parents are a critical attributing factor to a child’s success and sense of well-being, they cannot, should not, be the only source of mentorship for a child. Governmental restrictions meant to guard children’s privacy need to be re-examined. Many cultures honor extended family members or even valued family friends as a key component to their children’s well-being. The Latino-Catholic community, for instance, honors god-parents as compadres, which in direct translation means “co-parents.” And some children, despite having parents, need other caring adults to also intervene on their behalves.

In addition to the re-examination of regulations which may make it difficult for mentors to have direct involvement in a child’s education, schools themselves ought to actively identify outside mentors for their students, for we currently do not “encourage teachers to develop links to the often rich home lives of students, yet teachers cannot hope to begin to understand who sits before them unless they can connect with the families and communities from which their students come” (Delpit, 2006, p. 179).

• I believe in universal concepts, not universal texts
21st Century Learning skills ask for the following five precepts: a) problem-solving oriented critical reasoning skills, b) ability to collaborate, c) self-directed motivation, d) information literacy, and e) ability to be innovative. Every educator working in today’s schools, public or private, understands that we are preparing students for jobs that have not yet been invented but will undoubtedly demand that they be ready to be successful in. The abundance of field knowledge and dialogue surrounding what is truly essential in the educating of our youth is overwhelming—no single educator could ever truly be an “expert in the field.” He or she must resign to be an expert in a sliver of a discipline within the broader scope of the field.

Hirsh’s (2006) Core Knowledge, a popular argument for the use of universal texts, has the right intent—the intention of providing a means for accountability, a means for clear assessment, and a means for those on the bottom of the social spectrum to gain access to knowledge which might otherwise be reserved for the elite. However, the critical error is in attempting to provide a canon of core texts from which this knowledge should be mined and from which these intentions met. Rather, as we are finally acknowledging as a society with our new focus on 21st Century Learning skills, it is the skills themselves that are of primary importance. Therefore, universal concepts which can be found in any text the individual teacher might have association with, should be the tool necessary for experience with the desired skills. For example, collaboration is a precept of 21st Century mandates—surely, there is not just one text that stands out above all others in its ability to provide students with the opportunity to collaborate. Universal concepts such as justice, equality, well-being, etc., can be found in multiple texts. I myself can freely admit that I have not read every text in print (or digital form). Information literacy is not just important for students, but for educators as well. Access to free, educational material is in such high abundance that no two teachers could possibly have the same warehouse of core knowledge. We too need to accept the fact and then use the gems we know and love to our best possible advantage in the classroom.

• I believe an educator’s familiarity and passion (or lack thereof) will impact his or her learners.
Like writers who are constantly instructed to write what you know, educators “must learn to imagine possibilities within the context of their teaching” (Schubert cited in Urmacher & Matthews, 2005, p. 21). Adjunct instructors are instructors who often have very little say in what they teach. The textbooks are ordered for them before they sign their names to the dotted lines, and their syllabi are housed in a database awaiting their revisions. Most adjuncts, however, have an uncanny ability to adapt—they read the pre-designed syllabus, page through the textbook—and adapt. “This I like, this I can’t stand—I’m not even sure what that is . . . .” They transform the course into something they can find passion in. In most cases, this passion translates to favorable outcomes. The worst possible scenarios in education are those that happen when a teacher is forced to teach something he or she has little knowledge of and minimal passion for.

Administrators worried about state-mandated standards need to focus less on the actual content and more on giving educators the license to be innovative (again ironic coincidence that those skills we ask our students to acquire are the same ones we deny our teachers from exercising). Universal concepts—not texts.

And finally, I will end with a relatively self-explanatory one that is directed at teachers themselves. Too often we become overly accustomed to the physical space at the front of the classroom. We are being asked to teach students in ways we ourselves were not taught—and that is sometimes an anxiety-causing hurdle. If we are truly educating today’s students’ with their unique futures in mind, futures we ourselves will not be able to enter with them, we must trust them to collaborate not only with one another—but with us as well. As stated by Alan November:
The essential question is not “What technology should we buy for our schools?” The much more important question is one of control: “Can we change our traditional culture of teaching and learning so that students are empowered to take more responsibility for making important contributions to their own learning and to their learning community?” (p.193)

* I believe teachers must be willing to dance with their students and be able to anticipate when to allow their students to lead—and when to gently reign them back into the rhythm of the song we are playing for them

References
Ayers, W. (2001) To Teach: the journey of a teacher. (2nd ed.). New York:
Teachers College Press.

Delpit, L. (2006) Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom.
New York: The New Press.

Gandhi (1972) All Men Are Brothers: Life and Thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi As Told
in His Own Words. Ed. K. Kripalani. United States: UNESCO, World Without War
Publications.

Hirsch, Jr., E.D. (2006) The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. November, A. (2010) Power Down or Power Up? In H.H. Jacobs (Ed.). Curriculum 21:
Essential Education for a Changing World. Alexandria: ASCD.

Schubert, W.H. (2005) Sensibility and Imagination: Curriculum Contributions of Elliot W. Eisner. In P.B. Uhrmacher & J. Matthews (Eds.). Intricate Palette: Working the Ideas of Elliot Eisner. (pp.17-32). Upper Saddle River: Pearson.


Education & Inequalities
Monday, November 15, 2010

The last three weeks have been difficult ones for me as an educator. I am now in my fourteenth year of teaching. A rough estimate of the number of students I have interacted with in my classes totals somewhere in the 2500’s. I do not consider myself, therefore, naïve to the struggles concerning education. However, all fourteen of my years have been confined to Colorado schools along the Front Range; furthermore, of the six institutions I have taught in, four of them are institutions of higher education; one is a small K-12 private school; and the last one is a public charter school. While I knew inequalities in education existed, that knowledge was always abstract. I now realize my abstract idea of the inequalities between institutions of education in America was sorely inaccurate. What I have not yet come to terms with is why those inequalities exist to the degree that they apparently do. This intellectual hurdle then, will serve as the “new fact” by which I attempt to support or negate the “old ideas” of Marx, Weber and Mills.

Karl Marx, Max Weber, and C.Wright Mills
“There is, even today, a ‘hidden’ population living more miserably than Americans are able to appreciate . . . . Behind the work of Marx was the driving animus of a desire to comprehend the inhumanity of people toward other people” (Cuzzort and King, 2002, pg. 270).

This is how Cuzzort and King choose to open their section on Marx, and it seems particularly fitting to borrow. Let’s begin with the examination of Marx’s idea concerning the separation of surplus wealth as it pertains to the discussion of the current state of our schools. At the state level, there is a per pupil distribution of surplus wealth. In addition to this distribution, there is also the additional taxation of property within districts. Taxation is a form of “legal force” to obtain the necessary monetary needs of a school district. And yet, it is also an optional application of legal forceful procedure in that members of a community may vote on that taxation. The higher the property taxes of a given area, the more surplus wealth the community will have to collect. This provides an intellectual reason for why inequalities may exist. Highly-populated affluent areas will have more to give than do sparsely and/or low-economic areas.

As Cuzzort and King suggest, this intellectual reasoning is without moral judgment. It is rather a working explanation of how the current inequities may have come into being. Now let’s complicate the matter with Weber’s ideas concerning bureaucracy. Some education theorists suggest that bureaucracy within the education system itself is partly to blame for the disproportionate distribution of wealth and resources between schools. Weber might say that school officials make a habit of siding with “the interests of the bureaucracy rather than the interests either of the individual or of the broader moral issues” (Cuzzort and King, 2002, pg.251). Teacher unions might be characterized as just such a bureaucracy. It is obvious to see why teacher unions came to be and to what purpose they were meant to serve. However, they have evolved into an operating body which too often makes decisions that favor the idealized structure of the educational organization with little or no contemplation of individual factors or the larger moral implications of its actions. It is difficult to fire bad tenured teachers. Nearly impossible, in fact. When teacher unions back all tenured teachers regardless of individual performance they unjustly, and even immorally, jeopardize the schools as a whole. Inequalities between schools have to do with more than just facilities and resources—but with teachers as well. Well-funded districts attract a competitive workforce. Poorly-funded districts often have the misfortune of inheriting the non-competitive leftovers.

And finally, we must come to the contemplation of Mills theory of “status panic.” Given that we have the public educational structure we do, community members are well aware of which schools have the best reputations, and therefore, carry with them the highest prestige as we decorate our bumpers with slogans such as: My student is an Honor Student at Such-And-Such High. Of course, we all know that achieving honor-roll status at “Such-And-Such High” is much more desirable than achieving honor-roll status at say “So-And-So High.” Members of a community may inherit their “prestige from the capacity to identify” their neighborhood school as one “that does, in fact, have recognition,” thereby achieving a kind of status glow “from the real or imagined associations of [the] white-collar workers” whose children dominate the school (Cuzzort and King, 2002, pg. 370). And there we have it. Society itself reinforces the need for the inequalities so that we can satisfy our own misguided “status panic,” because elimination of those inequalities may just result in a kind of “profound disillusionment” whereby we would no longer be capable of discerning the value of our work against that of the blue-collar workers whose children are resigned to their own neighborhood schools.

Granted this refection is ending in a tone of anger not unlike that of Mills; however, I do not believe we can end there. Acknowledgment of the how’s and why’s ought to become the necessary means for synthesis, leading to a new state, using Marx’s theory of the dialectic. Thesis is the current state—creating its own antithesis (a growing population of concerned citizens who see the current state of educational affairs as unjust). We can only hope.

Preserving the Desire to Learn
Sunday, August 22, 2010

My seven-year-old sees the start to a new school year approaching—my seventeen-year-old sees the end of summer vacation approaching. In homes across America, similar perspectives are being aired. Parents are either waking to a little one’s anxious inquiry, “Tomorrow?” or they are blocking out the grumbled complaint over breakfast “Ugh, only one week left.” As natural as this is, as an educator, I find it disheartening. The desire to learn is innate. If each year, students dread returning to our learning environments, we are doing something wrong. Is it unrealistic to think we can inspire teenagers to want to go to school? Not if we make learning more naturally compliment the cultural and social learning practices they are already continually engaged in.

To be human is to learn—you cannot shut it off. Each of us continually acquires new skills and new knowledge on a daily basis. Just this week, you may have learned how to stream movies from your Netflix account directly to your new HD television. And last week you learned how to set up that Facebook account because your daughter located your old neighbor on it. If you’ve ever watched the news, read the newspaper, read a book or magazine, watched Food Network, or even PBS with your children, you have engaged in the act of learning. Learning is a given—but content is not. Content is at the heart of every educational debate. It’s not that students reject the act of learning—it’s the process by which they are expected to learn that they take most grievance with. According to “A Vision of K-12 Student Today,” a video produced by B.Nesbitt, the average male student games 3 ½ hours a week while the average school-age child will spend 16 ½ hours watching television. An estimated 5 ½ hours will be spent on a computer, yet 76% of teachers are still not using technology in their classrooms.

Technology as an educational tool can more readily utilize best practices we as teachers have always believed in to not only engage students, but help them think, analyze, create, apply and evaluate. Regardless of the approach, use of technology can enhance a teacher’s curriculum—not interrupt it. The most common argument from teachers against the use of technology is that they will have to “learn a whole new program when they really just want to teach.” Or, “integrating technology into this assignment will be too time consuming . . . .”

There exist many examples of easy, free ways to support and enhance the curriculum. Teachers do not have to learn a whole new language to operate them—if you can use a word processor, you can use a blog or a wiki. The dashboards of most web tools today mirror the toolbars of word processors.

Best Practices

Begin With Learners Themselves

Educational theorist Ralph Tyler emphasizes the desirable outcome of forming educational objections by first assessing student interest. In his classic book, Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction, he reminds us:

. . . it is essential to see that education provides opportunities for the student to enter actively into, and to deal wholeheartedly with, the things which interest him, and in which he is deeply involved, and to learn particularly how to carry on such activities effectively. (p.11)

This was just as true of education in 1949 when the book was first published as it is today “because one of the functions of education is to broaden and deepen the student’s interest so that he will continue his education long after he has ended his formal school training” (Tyler, 1949, p.11). Tyler was speaking for his potential opponents who might argue that knowledge of student interest is irrelevant to the function of education. However, his refute of this claim was that “even these educators recognize the value of beginning with present student interests as a point of departure” (p. 11).

With advancements in technology, the possibilities for teachers to gather information regarding student interest are numerous. The creative technologist educator might actually ask students to pull out their cell phones and text in answers to a set of questions. The teacher could have the projector illuminate and graph students’ answers in real-time. Talk about an engaging first day of class!
What about a student interview? While it is often too time-consuming to interview students one-by-one (not to mention the creativity needed to figure out what the remaining students ought to be occupying their time with), today students and teachers can meet online outside of the normal class schedule. Teachers could opt to conduct an instant messaging conference—complete with video if they choose.Teachers using the help of survey software could quickly and easily create an online survey for students to complete in a lab early in the year or in the comforts of their homes.

Understand Their World and the Kinds of Demands Awaiting Them

According to Eliot Eisner, “Schools as institutions and education as a process ought to foster the student’s ability to understand the world, to deal effectively with problems, and to acquire wide varieties of meaning from interactions with it. The development of cognition is the primary means to these ends” (1994, p. 20). Note the emphasis—the development of the ability to come to know or to perceive—not a set standard of things to recall. None of us are magicians. We cannot adequately predict the “what” that students will encounter. It is believed that many of the careers awaiting students have not yet even been invented (Golden, 2010). So what are educators to do? They cannot teach what they do not know. Contrary to the reform efforts of standardization, even the best teachers cannot prepare students with a knowledge base adequate to all they will later encounter. As most educators instinctively know, however, that has never really been the goal. The goal has always been, and will continue to be, helping students prepare to encounter new knowledge by helping them develop a means of evaluation, analysis, and problem-solving.

As the world has recently witnessed, engineers, economists, environmentalists, inventors, and government officials had to all collaborate to problem-solve the BP oil spill. Tomorrow, the necessity for that particular problem-solving will most likely be obsolete and be replaced by some new unforeseen outcome of some new advancement in energy acquisition.

Technology inherently holds an effective means for setting up a learning environment that challenges students to meet the demands of cognition. It is now possible for teachers to set up multi-sensory frameworks to engage students’ interactions with their environments.

With the use of a classroom web site, a social networking site, or an integrated web documents/email tool such as Google Apps, teachers can incorporate audio and visual tools to compliment their lectures and texts.

One of the earliest and most influential educational theorists, John Dewey, emphasizes the importance of problem-centered learning (Eisner, 1949, p.82). This problem must be “genuinely meaningful” to students (Eisner, 1994, p. 82). It’s not that classical education or even so-called “canons” of education ought to be eliminated—just better integrated. I love teaching To Kill a Mockingbird, for instance. Society thankfully does not face the same problem of racism the novel explores. But we do still encounter racism—and students years from now will still have to problem-solve the conflicts that arise because of differing cultural attitudes. With the use of a wiki, a teacher teaching To Kill a Mockingbird can provide historical background of racism in the 1930’s and ask students to argue and support whether they feel racism still exists in today’s American society. Students and teachers can upload newspaper articles, video, and radio segments to support their stances. Students can collaborate and argue with the integrated use of a chat widget. If the teacher was really advantageous, he could solicit a teacher from another state to join his students on that space, thereby adding a layer of potential influence of regional perspective.


Promote Cultural Pluralism

While technology tools can be used to enhance any curriculum, they are particularly useful in engaging students with an eye toward cultural pluralism. Teachers dating all the way back to Socrates knew the effectiveness of dialogue—what better tool than a blog? It encourages every voice to be heard—and those voices most often quiet or non-existent can suddenly become deafening loud.Consider the following quote by bell hooks concerning the often quiet nature of multicultural students:

Making the classroom a democratic setting where everyone feels a
responsibility to contribute is a central goal of transformative pedagogy. Throughout my teaching career, white professors have often voiced concern to me about nonwhite students who do not talk . . . I have taught brilliant students of color, many of them seniors, who have skillfully managed never to speak in classroom settings . . . Accepting the decentering of the West globally, embracing multiculturalism, compels educators to focus attention on the issue of voice. Who speaks? Who listens? And why? (p. 83)

Be Willing to Change Roles

The other important aspect of this new approach to curriculum is that it allows students to surprise you—you provide the framework, but because they live in this world, their understanding of what can be done with even these basic tools is often far more advanced. It’s a wonderful thing when you are pleasantly surprised by the outcome of your open-ended assignment. Trusting students enough to share a collaborative space with them for facilitating their learning, you simultaneously demonstrate to your students that you are willing to learn from them. Your credibility with them increases triple-fold.

Technology offers students creative ways to demonstrate knowledge—and encourages additional research from them. Students can be challenged to seek means to convey their thoughts and feelings about a topic in multi-sensory ways. Use of web technology is sort of like the digital bulletin board where students can “post” knowing full well others will be viewing/judging their work. Because it is no longer simply going from student to teacher’s inbox, back to student, students become enthusiastic about demonstrating their abilities. They self-edit, self-critique out of unspoken peer pressure to measure up against classmates.

Enthusiasm

Too often in our society the educator is depicted in a stereotypical image of a tired, monotonous, self-absorbed character. No colleague I have ever worked with has ever matched that image. Few teachers came to the career for money or prestige. They too hold a kind of fire within them linked to the ongoing thirst for knowledge. The integration of new technology into education holds exciting possibilities to ignite that fire. It is a pathway that affirms the kind of belief that there does indeed exist a “great truth of teaching—to do it well, to do it justice, requires fire” (Intrator & Scribner, 2003, p. xiv).


References

Eisner, E.W. (1994). Cognition and curriculum reconsidered. 2nd ed. New York: Teachers College Press.

Golden, M. (2010). “Message to students and IT Pros: Prepare today for ‘careers of the future’.”Microsoft News Center. Retrieved August 8, 2010, from
http://www.microsoft.com/presspass/features/2009/sep09/09-21techlearning.mspx

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge.

Intrator, S.M., & Scribner, M. (2003). Teaching with fire: Poetry that sustains the courage to teach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Tyler, R. W. (1949). Basic principles of curriculum and instruction. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.