To Better Develop Your Students, You Must Continue to Develop Yourself!

Again this year, I attended the Philadelphia College Prep Roundtable (PCPR) Annual Conference, their 8th. This organization is a consortium of education professionals who care deeply about how best to help students navigate their postsecondary success journeys. But that caring starts with their own professional development as educators. In addition to their annual conferences, there are monthly networking meetings where they come together to discuss relevant topics, with presenters from both the secondary and postsecondary arenas who address various current issues & disseminate information. I have been involved with PCPR for quite a few years, as a member and a conference presenter (most recently this year) and cannot think of a better way to stay current with the issues that impact student success as they move forward from high school.  As a long-time educator by training and experience, I know that it is critical to interact with fellow professionals to remain relevant and learn how to better serve the students we care about so much.

If you are local to the Philadelphia area, I urge you to go to PCPR’s website (http://collegepreproundtable.org) and find out more about who they are, what they do, and strongly consider getting involved. If you are in another city, find out if there is anything like PCPR where you live; if so, join them…if not, why not start something like it yourself! Our students needs our help every day, and our colleagues need to know that there is support available for this important work that we do. So get out there and get after it, people! 

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College & Career Readiness: The Ongoing Challenge

Several years ago, I attended a 2-day conference put on by the dynamic group, the Philadelphia College Prep Roundtable.  During those two days, jammed packed with great sessions, information and conversations, many ideas about how to best prepare high school students, and even some older adults students, for the rigors of post-secondary education were presented and discussed.  One of the things that really struck me – both then and now – was the passion of the nearly 200 people in attendance to help students to be successful beyond high school or community training programs.  However, from my participation in the conference – along with my own nearly 30 years of helping to prepare students for post-secondary education or the workforce – what has become increasingly challenging is the ability to persevere in spite of the landscape in front of us. Getting students to understand the importance of sharpening their foundational skills in English, science and mathematics is really hard work. Getting school administrators and state departments of education to understand what truly engages students, in a high school classroom or an out-of-school-time program, can be even harder. And let’s not even talk about the lack of adequate funding that school districts and community programs have to face! Yet while those of us with the “fire in the belly” keep trying to make legislators and others understand what is really needed to make our educational system work properly, we still have students to educate in the meantime.  There is still so much work to be done “in the trenches” to provide a viable, adequately educated workforce that will keep our country competitive in the global marketplace. To keep going, in spite of the lack of understanding of so many with the power – and the purse strings – to help, is a tough job. To instill hope in our students, in spite of their own attitudes about what obstacles or opportunities lie ahead, is what we have to work so hard to do.  This is the underlying, ongoing challenge for those of us working to help our students successfully move forward.

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Standing Up For Our Children (A Not-So-Instant Replay)

When people ask me if I’m ready to retire, I am very quick to answer, “No, there’s still too much to do!” At 65, and having been an educator for some 30 years now, most of which has been spent in one urban setting or another, one might think that I’d had enough and that I’d love nothing more than to sit on a beach with an umbrella drink in my hand and watch the tide roll in – though that does have its appeal! But when I think of the students that I’ve worked with over the years, especially the last two school years, and the challenges that many of them have faced and overcome…in all good conscience, I cannot site on my ass-ets and not stand up for them all. It really burns my bacon that policies and regulations continue to be passed that have no hope of setting students up for success in the real world – I’m not going to lament here because I’ve published those thoughts previously. This is simply a battle cry to those of us who know that “the struggle is real” and ongoing, and that if we don’t continue to stand and fight, who will? So if you’re like me and you sometimes feel like giving up, remember what I’m sure you have told your students at some point: what you do with your life is is supposed to make the world a better place because you were here…don’t stop now; there’s still too much to do!!

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EducationWeek Blog – Education Futures… .

The following link to a new blog looks like it will pick up several of the expressed concerns from my most recent post…please check it out!

http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/education_futures/2013/07/welcome_to_educational_futures_emerging_trends_and_technologies_in_k-12.html

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What’s The Alternative?

I was a school counselor at an alternative school for the first time this past school year, and I cannot begin to explain the challenge of working with these students who, though not much different from the students I’ve dealt with over the past several decades, have a concentration of “issues.”  The students I worked with this school year were placed in this “alternative” setting because they did not experience success in the “traditional” school environment for a myriad of reasons. In consideration of this situation, what I have found to be one of the most troubling aspects of my job is the continuing stream of education reform models that are parading past school districts like mine. Each model professes to be the next best practice to improve student achievement and performance, but too often fails to consider the reality of what actually happens in a classroom! Having worked in and around a large urban school district for three decades now, I have seen so many reform models that it makes my head spin. And even though I was closely involved with one of the oldest and most successful of such models – career academies – various other models that have presented themselves over the years continue to reach for – and miss – the ever-elusive goal of creating competent, productive citizens ready to successfully move into post-secondary education/training or the workforce out of high school. The talent development model with its ninth grade “academies,” outcome-based, project-based, competency-based or standards-based education, charter schools, alternative schools…all of these models have or continue to portend “best practices” to get students ready for the next step in their lives out of public or private educational settings. So, with all these, why is the United States ranked 17th in global educational rankings?

I have a theory that is quite simple and which I’m sure you’ve heard in a number of different ways: if you keep on doin’ whatcha been doin’, you’re gonna keep gettin’ whatcha been gettin’!! Dr. Bill Daggett, of the International Center for Leadership in Education, has made it clear in numerous presentations that we, as educators, cannot hope to change student outcomes if we keep teaching students like we did in the 1950s. Geoffrey Canada, of The Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), recently asked the question in a TED Talks presentation: why does education continue to use a business model that does not work? The fact that “alternative” schools are necessary for some students, (regardless of their reasons for being placed there,) and are actually growing in numbers, is clear evidence that what they are the alternative to isn’t working for larger numbers of students.

The word “reform,” by definition, means “to amend or improve by change of form or removal of faults and abuses.” [Merriam-Webster, emphasis added] Yet, I feel quite safe in saying that, by and large, educational reform has done very little to move towards a significant  “change of form or removal of faults and abuses” in American education for decades.  The pockets of success, such as career academies or HCZ continue to be looked upon as niceties, and not the clear pathways to student success that they truly are. Why else would their ongoing success not catapult them into widespread replication and unilateral support, from the legislators who have oversight over local, state and federal funding for education, to foundations who claim to be dedicated to student success? I have a theory about this, too, yet it is not such a catchy phrase as the first: …because it takes real work and real commitment, along with the realization that there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to learning. Different students learn in different ways, at different rates and through different methodologies…and they learn better from people who show genuine concern for them and whom they like!! And yet these fundamental concepts are not emphasized in any funding legislation, nor are our teacher training programs promoting nearly enough the concept that those who wish to enter the field should actually like their students and want the best for them.

This is a concept that I have long believed to be at the core of helping students succeed, one which Dr. James Comer of Yale University and the great George Washington Carver both believed as well: no real learning can take place without significant relationships and the understanding of those relationships. It’s not so much about the subject matter, but rather about getting students to want to know what you’re teaching, connecting whatever knowledge or wisdom you are trying to impart to what it means to them! This includes helping them to understand that they do have significance to the world beyond their immediate sight, whether that means helping to prepare them to earn a family-sustaining wage – legally – or helping them feel good about wanting to continue their education, regardless of their socio-economic circumstances. Students of all ages and abilities also need social and emotional support in order to achieve, along with life skills integrated into the curriculum for traditional, non-traditional and alternative learning situations. How can a student focus on schoolwork or homework when home is work? What good is it to know biology if you cannot relate it to the necessity for good nutrition? What difference does learning the Bill of Rights make if you don’t understand your obligation to stop legislators from cannibalizing it?

Let us, as educators, really take a hard look at what we call education in this country and stop being afraid to blow it up – that is, make it new from the ground up. Throw away the “one size fits all” ideas of the past and allow education to become the individualized learning experience that it should be. Some may see this as radical – what great change hasn’t been viewed that way?  Others may say it’s too expensive to have enough teachers to give each grouping of learners that kind of option. But what is the alternative? (pun intended!) For our nation to remain behind the academic 8ball globally? For our economy to suffer because corporations must continue to spend billions of dollars on remedial training for new employees? The world around us is changing more rapidly than ever before and we must understand that we are preparing our students to succeed in a world that is/will be very different from the one we were educated in.  We have to take a fresh new look at the work we do and remember that it really isn’t about us…it’s about our students and giving them the right tools they will need to build a better future for everyone.

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Urban Education: Is There Such A Thing??

I have a Master’s degree in Secondary Education and have worked with inner-city high school students for over 25 years. And though the term “urban education” has been bandied about ad nausium for decades to identify the education (or mis-education) received by students in large urban school districts, I have never in all that time heard anyone refer to the education I received in a suburb of Philadelphia, PA as “suburban education.”  Granted, what I took for many years as the norm for what a student should know coming out of high school was far different from my inner-city counterparts.  Nevertheless, as far as I can tell, the impartation of knowledge from one person to another person or group only varies by methodology. Since the definition of the word “education” does not change whether a school is in the center of Cleveland or Shaker Heights, Philadelphia or Bryn Mawr, Chicago or Champagne, I contend that there truly is no such thing as “urban education.”

 

I risk making this contention, even as an educator myself, because I have witnessed students in various environments gain new knowledge, as well as be resistant to learning, with little or no regard to where they live as an independent variable.  I have seen students learn in dire circumstances that many thought would preclude their eagerness and/or ability to learn, as well as seen students in “ideal” learning environments make minimal progress in learning. The difference in how, why or whether students learn in whatever circumstances they may live, seems to be much more dependent upon the methodologies and exposures than their external environment.  Consider the example of Marva Collins’ Westside Preparatory School, whose story was first nationally telecast on 60 Minutes back in 1979 and for which a television movie was later produced in 1981.  The story is instructive: despite the neighborhood in which they lived and the minimal space & resources, the students thrived with a rich investment of time and attention.  I have seen the same first-hand in my work with high school students in Philadelphia.  So then why do the powers-that-be put forth the notion, by using the term “urban education,” that there is some distinctive, implicitly sub-par type of education that is relegated to urban schools? I personally believe that somehow the idea has germinated in the minds of those charged with preparing teachers that it couldn’t just be the effort or attitude of the educators that makes the difference…that there has to be some kind of idiosyncratic body of education that only urban students can absorb.  Consequently, schools of education throughout the country have created majors in “Urban Education” to which students come with various mindsets regarding the true meaning of the term, not the least of which is that the capabilities of students in urban schools cannot be equated to those of their non-urban counterparts.  Others may truly feel that they have a calling to step into the challenging world of education and pay particular attention to making an impact in urban environments.  Regardless of the mindset with which students who want to teach enter their preparatory phase for this career, it is essential that they understand one thing: education is education is education.  What makes the difference in whether it “works” or not, regardless of the environment, is the time and effort you put into it.  Education in urban settings (now there’s a more appropriate and accurate name for a major!) can be just as effective, have just as much impact as education in any other setting if and only if those who are doing the instruction care about their students as individuals and creating a nurturing environment that perpetuates the belief that learning is possible for everyone.

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Cyber Education – It’s A Whole New World!!

Now that I am working with a cyber charter school – 9th through 12th grades – I am learning more and more about the controversy there seems to be about the advantages or disadvantages of this style of teaching and learning.  On one hand, there are those who feel that online education of any kind takes away from developing students’ interpersonal skills to the detriment of their social development.  On the other hand are those who feel that this style of teaching and learning helps to mitigate some of the deleterious effects of bullying, peer pressure, stereotyping, etc.

Being the mother of an MG son, who is now finally back in college finishing his chemical engineering degree, I know the struggle my son had trying to fit into the “molds” that are created in brick and mortar schools among students, and even in the mindsets of teachers. I feel that customizing education to the different learning styles of students is more critical than ever in order the maximize the potential within all of our students.  Being a student in good standing in a cyber school requires discipline, dedication and a sense of independence that needs to be mastered, regardless of a student’s individual learning style, or whether they are online or in a physical classroom.

Being an educator for more than 30 years, and having seen all types of students with many different talents and challenges, I truly believe that there is room in the educational arena for all types of teaching and learning models.  Cyber education was started by home-schoolers, who felt the need to give their children a more hands-on, specialized educational experience.  I believe that this concept, if kept in focus, will take cyber education out of the realm of controversy and into the mainstream of acceptance.

What do you think?

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