Listening circles

“listening circles”

Each such circle pulls in students from different social, racial, and interest groups from around the school to identify and solve problems related to campus climate. Adults sit outside the circle, in a “listen only” mode


What could listening circles do for the climate in your school?
What could listening circles do for educational reform and policymaking?

A high school senior’s view of textbooks and worksheet packets [guest post]

[This is a guest post from Tucker, a recently-graduated high school student. He wrote this for his senior year Comp class.]

Hearing the phrase “Get out your textbooks” from a high school teacher makes me want to throw up, and it is something I have heard for the last four years in almost every class from almost every teacher. Textbooks are filled with valuable information but are often boring, outdated, and even physically damaged from past use. In this day and age of “21st Century Learning,” it is insane that we are using 19th and 20th Century teaching strategies.

Most students today do not respond to textbook learning, and yet it is one of the most common ways for teachers to dispense information. Teaching out of a textbook is easy. It does not require teachers to step out of their comfort zone and find new ways to connect with students who are so eager to learn something useful that they can actually apply to their lives. The stereotype of students today is that they are uninterested in anything the school system has to offer. However, that is a complete lie. Students simply become uninterested because each school day seems to them like they have woken up in the movie “Groundhog Day” and go through the exact same motions as the day before. There is not a problem with the students, but with the dreaded textbook that has been around for so long it has become the status quo of teaching tools.

I will agree that the information in textbooks can be valuable to students. The information is not the issue. The issue is that many teachers today will hand out a packet they did not even create, tell the students to look up the information in the textbooks and copy down the answers word for word, and then go back to their desks where they will get on their computers and check their Facebook and Twitter feeds. Sometimes they may even see one of their students tweeting about how bored in class they are, and yet they will go right on down the page hoping to find something that makes them laugh out loud instead of things that make them consider how well they are doing their job. I am afraid that this routine is something the next generation of teachers will find themselves well accustomed to.

I want my classes to be interactive and exciting! I want to be moving around the room, working with other students to solve a real world problem that can eventually tie back into what we are actually learning in the class. Students should want every class to go on longer and be surprised when the bell rings because the period went by so fast. They should not be checking the clock every five minutes hoping for a random fire drill that will speed up the hour, and then waiting at the door for five minutes at the end of the period staring down the second hand as it travels endlessly around the clock. Textbook teaching allows these things to happen, and it is really a tragedy for both students and teachers.

Every day teachers should be standing in the front of the room challenging their students to a higher level of thinking, and in return the teachers will be challenged themselves. Where is the challenge in handing out novel-sized textbook packets to students who will most likely not remember anything they copied down? To truly challenge the students, teachers must actually spend time outside of school researching new tools that help connect with students on a more personal level. The more teachers push themselves to connect and interact with their students in order to boost their ability to critical think and retain knowledge, the better the teacher will become. Over time, there is no limit to how good a teacher can become if they have that mindset and expect the most out of themselves. On the other hand, the more and more they use textbooks, which is the easy way to do things, the worse they will become at teaching and inspiring their students to actually want to learn. That is why textbooks have become the crutch of high school teachers. They are so incredibly easy to lean on, but if they were taken away many teachers would be absolutely lost because they have not challenged themselves to create more of a 21st Century learning environment in their classrooms.

The new job market requires students to have 21st Century learning skills, so it is not a surprise many students struggle when they get out of high school and college because they have been taught in a 19th and 20th Century learning environment. If schools want to create students that are competitive and indispensable in the job market they must ditch the textbooks and challenge their teachers to challenge themselves, and in return inspire students to achieve a love for learning, which can truly take them anywhere they want to go.

Image credit: The eventual destination of the Thursday folder worksheets: The circular file

Teachers are only part of the student learning equation

Here’s a slightly-modified version of a comment I left over at The Des Moines Register regarding teachers’ impacts on student learning outcomes…

Sure, what happens in the classroom matters. But peer-reviewed research shows over and over again that between 2/3 and 4/5 of student achievement is based on non-school factors. Schools only contribute about 20% to 33% to students’ overall learning outcomes.

In addition, teachers are only part of the school equation. They’re the most important part, but non-teacher factors such as administrators, curriculum, other students in the school, available learning resources, and so on also impact student achievement. So teachers are responsible for about half (or so) of the school impact, but the rest lies outside their domain.

When you add all of this up, good teachers clearly are absolutely critical to student academic success. But their overall impact on student learning falls around 10% to 17%. Other in-school and out-of-school factors account for the rest. What this means is that – the occasional tale of heroic, exceptional teachers and schools aside – we should be making state and national policy based on what the research shows generally occurs, not exceptions, anecdotes, personal intuition, or unsubstantiated policy/political claims. And we definitely should not be holding teachers 100% accountable for outcomes for which they’re only 1/6 to 1/10 influential.

We need a much broader (and smarter) conversation about what it means to educate our nation’s children.

Image credit: Bigstock, Teacher and students

Forward tutoring: Educate, volunteer, improve [guest post]

[This is a guest post by Dustin Lewis, a 5th grade teacher at the American International School of Budapest.  Originally from Phoenix, Arizona, he has been teaching internationally for four years, with a previous stop at The Anglo American School in Moscow.  Dustin also works part-time promoting First Tutors, a UK-based tutoring service that specializes in finding the right individual tutors for each student.  In his spare time, Dustin enjoys reading and Asian cuisine.]

Educating the youth in our society falls primarily on school systems and teachers.  In many cases, children don’t receive the specialized and individual attention they need to work through tricky concepts or difficult material.  To combat this, some parents hire private tutors to work with their children.  In this blog post, I will detail a new tutoring concept that will not only help children learn, but will provide them with opportunities to become socially responsible as well.

“Serve while you learn” may be the most fitting tagline to describe the concept of forward tutoring. Forward tutoring is beneficial for both students and the community, as it combines the process of learning with the idea of giving back to those that have helped you.  Students get online help for the subject of their choice while in return, they will participate in community service projects contributing towards the betterment of the community they belong to. The online help offered is, in most cases, as good as classroom coaching except in a personalized one on one setting. The students have access to a number of qualified tutors, in a range of subjects and specialties.  Unlike normal tutoring, however, the payment is not in paper currency, but in the form of community service and volunteer projects.  Forward tutoring combines serving and learning in an innovative way through the use of technology, helping out not just the students, but everyone in the community that this project touches.

Forward Tutoring Removes Financial Barriers to Tutoring: For most children, the school day ends when the bell rings.  Sure, many will go home, do their homework, and study for upcoming exams.  For many children, however, this is simply not enough.  In larger school districts where the teacher to student ratio may not be ideal, most students do not receive the individualized attention required for them to succeed.  In this case, one option for students and parents is to hire an after school tutor.  For many families, however, this just isn’t a realistic possibility due to the expensive nature of the tutoring industry.  Forward tutoring breaks down these financial barriers, and allows any person from any social or economic background access to personalized and specialized tutoring.

Forward Tutoring is Promoting Student Volunteerism: Nothing can match the vigor of youth. Non-profits are always looking for helping hands to work towards various noble causes, but finding professionals from various fields that offer volunteer help is almost impossible to find. Thus, forward tutoring provides the framework for students to take action.  Many times students either want to volunteer, but don’t know of the opportunities, or aren’t aware of the positive social ramifications until they actually help out in the community.  Hence, students go through the dual development by being aware as well as educated. Forward tutoring allows the learners to pay forward the learning in the form of helping non-profits, supporting various kinds of community service.

Online Tutoring is Effective, Efficient, and Rewarding: The best part of forward tutoring is the actual learning that takes place.  Qualified students go through a comprehensive qualification process, where they are given tools and training to support their struggling peers.  These students are learning or have learned the exact same material that many of the learners are struggling with, so it is a perfect match for support.  Countless studies have supported the fact that to peer-to-peer learning is one of the best and most effective ways for a student to learn.  It works even better when the two students are of different ability levels.  Take a look at this study by the National Education Association for more evidence.  The goal of all tutoring is to improve and enhance academic performance in the classroom.  Peer tutoring has proven to be an effective method for facilitating this improvement for the learner and the tutor alike.

Benefits for the Student Tutors: It may seem that forward tutoring is a great way for struggling students to get support and for everyone to get involved in the community effort.  You may ask then, what benefits do the student tutors who give up their free time, without any compensation, receive?  In the short term, the answer is simply volunteer hours and the macro perspective of facilitating a peer’s learning to improve one’s own understanding of the subject matter.  However, if we look at longer term benefits, forward tutoring has teamed with supporting organizations and corporations that will provide internship and scholarship opportunities.

Forward Tutoring is Open for All: This concept is open for all. Since the backdrop is volunteerism, the only drive that is being considered is willingness to come forward and help, while getting educated in return. The forward tutoring project is a novel concept that is imparting a new meaning to internet tutoring and social welfare that is all tied into classroom achievement.  In the end, this project works on the basis of helping others, but consequently many of the students will in fact learn a lot more about themselves.

My Experience:  My experience with forward tutoring has been nothing but positive.  Having children become socially responsible is one of the most important aspects of my job.  Forward tutoring has given me the framework to push children into volunteering who normally would be too shy or unwilling.  Our community has also benefitted greatly.  We have teamed with two large community service projects during the program.  One is a Hungarian version of Walk the Wish and the other is a local dog shelter.  Getting participation in both of these activities is never easy, but forward tutoring makes children extend themselves in ways they never thought possible.  I’ve had several students tell me that they never imagined community service could be so much fun or rewarding.  Children want to do good all they need is a little help and direction.  Let forward tutoring help you and as a result help your entire community.

Forward tutoring is the wave of the future.  It combines technological platforms with the ideals of helping of others and peer to peer education.  Forward tutoring creates a perpetual cycle of learning, volunteering, academic success, and community betterment that will enhance the performance and self-esteem of the children we educate.

I think I’m going to be on NPR’s All Things Considered today

I think I’m going to be on NPR’s All Things Considered today as part of its All Tech Considered segment. I was interviewed last week about the New York City Schools’ new social media policy for employees. Regular readers know that I’ve written about this in the past. If I am featured on the show, I’ll add the link here afterward. If you hear me, let me know what you think!

UPDATE: Here is the NPR All  Things Considered story and the New York Times SchoolBook story.