I’m Terrible…by the Numbers

I woke from a nightmare. I was taking standardized tests. I bombed. I’m glad it was a dream.

It’s standardized test season, a time that strikes more fear in the hearts of schools than a life-sized poster of the Bieber mug shot. Everyone’s defined by these numbers. The media has a frenzy like Discovery Channel’s Shark Week.

We say we want schools to succeed but it’s completely untrue. Let’s be honest. We want to see blood. It’s a proven fact that Americans produce, consume, and enjoy more bad news than ever. My friend designed a blog dedicated to good news in education. She doesn’t have as many readers as a news story about drama, destruction, and gore. It’s what America wants. 

So, just to prove pundits wrong, teachers spend our valuable time compiling numbers to show our students are learning. I’ve spent an entire year this year logging numbers in spreadsheets. My husband laughs at me and calls me a bean counter. I’m a historian. I’d rather tell you the history of beans than count them–I’m not very good at that.

Screen Shot 2014-01-29 at 6.08.26 AMAnyway, numbers can prove anything, depending on what we want them to show. 

I recently read this TechCrunch article where Facebook and Princeton duke it out using big words and math nobody can understand. Princeton intellects prove Facebook’s about to die and Facebook retaliates by showing on graphs and charts that in five years, Princeton will have no students. And it’s all “good” math.

What it shows is this–I should stop worrying about all these numbers that affect my life and start graphing. Do it in color to boot. In my first job, I prepared diagrams for arbitrations. This was before cool computer programs, so I’d sit down with rulers and colored pencils. Nobody else used colored pencils. I rarely, if ever, lost an arbitration. The key to life is colored pencils. When people see pretty things on paper, they are always predisposed to nod and say, “Yeah…” and agree. I have to make my numbers look pretty. And use colors in my graphs. 

Incidentally, this is why I spend so much time teaching my students to detect bias. 

I wish our educational system wasn’t based on testing and numbers. It’s hard to look at a student and say “Well… you look like an 85….Yes, you, indeed are a 92.” I’ve had smart students miss midterms and had to give them zeroes, as if that one grade made all the difference in their success. It does to the grade book, however. 

So, back to my nightmare. I have taken every standardized test alive. I sort of enjoy them because I didn’t grow up with video games. SATs were the nerd way of beating our friends. I enjoyed the idea that someone out there was trying to defeat me and I had to stop them. Nerd “video” games.

But I fell asleep on section three every time. The silence. The lack of communication. It was like meditation with multiple choice questions. Trivia questions. I fought sleep…then…out cold, drooling. But I always scored well. I wondered what I’d have scored if I stayed awake. 

The point is, test numbers aren’t a solid measure any more than Facebook or Princeton’s predictions. I don’t like basing graduation or teacher careers on them.

If the numbers don’t prove much to me, what does, you ask.

Vision. Creativity. The ability to work and stick with a problem until it’s solved–the recognition that learning has changed and that students have the power to blow things out of the water and follow their passions. All I do is connect it to success. I’m the guide, not Alex Trebec.  If students have those three things they are well on the road to amazing. 

In my dream, I failed the standardized test. In real life, if every adult out there took these standardized tests, I think the media would have fun. It’d show I’ve forgotten all the trivia that once made me great. Made me able to defeat tests even while half asleep. I bet we all have, but we’re still successful. I am. I do a lot, and I like the person I’ve become. 

But if you give me that test, the numbers will show you I suck. 

So today, I pause for a moment to tell students how awesome they are. “You are not defined by the numbers. You are defined by you. Do the work. Stop at nothing to keep learning things you are passionate about–for your whole entire life. Be great…No, don’t be great. Be amazing. Regardless of what the numbers told you you’d become.” 

 

 

[image: valdosta.edu]

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On the Subject of Eggs, Pornos, and Tech Not Replacing Teachers

Screen Shot 2014-01-24 at 6.13.37 AMMy son is walking around talking to eggs. He takes one from the carton and introduces it to me. “This is my son, Steve. I’m finally a dad.” I tell him to put the egg back.

“It’s my son.”

“It’s not your son…” We argue.

“Kids come from eggs.” I don’t want to discuss this now. I want to bake cookies. I tell him to choose between his son and the cookies. I need the egg. After a heart wrenching moment, he chooses cookies.

“Goodbye, dear son. I love you. I’ll miss you.” He caresses the egg, a tear coming to his little eye. He kisses the egg goodbye.

“It is not your son.” I crack the egg.

He waves a sad little wave as the yolk membrane crushes and the egg blends into the batter. “Take care of yourself in there….”

I feel like a real jerk, making the kid kill his son so we can eat cookies…Is this what every mother chicken and cow feels before humans eat dinner?

No. He will not draw me into his insanity. It’s an egg…I wipe his tear. We make cookies. We eat cookies. A person can really question their sanity raising a six-year old. I start to see, talk to, and put plates out for imaginary friends

He takes another “son” while I’m not looking.

“Put that back before it…”

Splat.

Too late. Eggs are impossible to get off the floor. I’m unhappy. Declan’s devastated. I clean the floor and plan a funeral at the same time–good thing I baked cookies for it.

Screen Shot 2014-01-24 at 6.12.58 AMOne day, my boiled eggs went missing. “Look, Mom, twins!” I was hungry, but at least boiled eggs don’t splat all over the ground. Turns out, they crumble. “This is Steve’s heart.”

Back to cleaning floors…

I still need to eat so I attempt a frittata . As soon as the carton comes out, there’s Declan, reaching in…

“I’m having another child. I’m a good Dad.” If that were true, Steve wouldn’t be on his fourth life.

“No more children!” I say. “Dinner!” His little lip quivers. He wants to be a dad.

“But eggs are where children come from.” This question’s not new. I’ve answered it–we watched medical videos on YouTube. YouTube is where every parent turns when they don’t want to answer. If I don’t answer, he’ll just ask Siri or Google. He thinks they’re real people. I think they’re jokesters–they sometimes show inappropriate things.

When Declan has something on his mind, he’s all in. He’s focused. He gets the answer. If he’s not interested, there’s nothing I can do to keep him on task. It’s no different in my classroom. We’re so busy standardizing curricula, we don’t see the tree through the forest. Each individual tree is a beautiful thing to behold.

People ask me if technology will replace teachers. No, it won’t. Technology won’t replace teachers because not all teachers have technology that works. Mostly, it’s broken, blocked, and banned. But when it isn’t, kids still need a guide–someone to help process the information. Someone to who will clap, say “great job,” guide them to the next level, and tell them the amazing things they can be.

There are many paths to the top of the mountain. Tech allows kids to meander around looking at the flowers and trees on the way. They’re engaged. They learn. And sometimes parents get a moment of rest.

Screen Shot 2014-01-24 at 6.13.22 AMDeclan still wants eggs. I try something different. Plastic Easter eggs.

“Here’s your egg.” I pick a shiny blue one.

“Thanks, Mom!” He hugs the egg, “I missed you, Steve.” He turns to me. “I need four more. We’re going to school.” I get them. Soon, the egg-kids are lined up efficiently in school. Steve gets broken. I explain we can’t keep replacing Steve. Good moms and dads take care of their kids. Declan cries. I get him a new Steve.

Steve’s the troublemaker at school. He stays in for recess.  He’s a lot like his “dad.”

“Hey, Mom,” Declan says. “Kids come from eggs. Let’s watch those videos again!” We watch medical videos that speed up nine months of pregnancy. We skip the ones that show how the baby got in there and how it gets out. No pornos here! Nothing to see!

Screen Shot 2014-01-28 at 5.13.17 AM“Hey Mom,” he says. “Can we watch a video about how the baby gets in? And how it gets out?” Kids don’t miss a thing.

“No. And don’t ask Siri or Google.” I pick another plastic egg out of my pocket and tell him Steve’s friend is here to play.

“Come on, Steve, you can get out of time out. Hondo’s here to play…”

Steve and Hondo play, I eat my frittata sans guilt, and I hide Siri…so she can’t make trouble later on.

Paying the Idiot Fee

boilerI just got a bill for fifty bucks. I had a leak in my boiler. As a rule, I don’t fix things that explode, flood, or have the potential to cause international incident. I’ll sheet rock a hole, patch, paint, lay flooring like a drunk Irishman, tile, and hack. I’ve got my own power tools. I once created and installed a system of shelves in my closet using just a jig saw, the “f” word, and piece of dental floss–an organizational breakthrough in a house that had one 18″ closet.

But leaking boilers are above my pay grade. The oil company sent out a super nice man–a trained musician who liked my dog. He’d decided that music wasn’t making him enough clams to eat at a sit-down dinner, so he went into something “practical.” Now he can fix anything. I could’ve listened to him forever.

It took him a full five minutes to diagnose the problem, four and a half of which were hanging the light, finding an outlet, and bullshitting with me.

“I checked under the boiler,” he said, “And I noticed that the leak’s not coming through the foundation.” I’d checked that. That one’s in the Moron 101 Handbook, which I read from cover to cover since I do things like put fans in closed windows and troubleshoot appliances that aren’t plugged in.

“Here’s the problem. A small leak right here.” There was a tiny pinhole leak in the 1939 copper pipe. It was spraying water on my head like a sprinkler system. A fine mist. But a mist nonetheless. Anyone with glasses who had looked up and really thought outside the box would have wiped off her glasses and noticed this fine mist. I don’t recall looking up. Just staring at the puddle on the ground.

“I can fix this, but it would be better for you to call your plumber.” “Better,” meant “much more economical.”

He recommended that I buy the insurance plan for all these parts which are not covered under the regular plan. My plan didn’t include water parts. Just oil tanks blowing up in the event of the apocalypse. As such, three days later I received a bill for $49.99. That’s approximately $600/hour if I subtract the time we spent bullshitting and run the math. He was a great guy. I’d pay $50 for the conversation, but still…

This made me think about my career choice. There’d have been no chance of me being a musician, because I suck, but nobody ever told me I could learn to fix pipes and boilers and make $600/hour while petting people’s dogs. I’d have paid off all my friend’s mortgages if I’d done that.

Heck, I’ve memorized and forgotten more facts and figures than I care to admit, but when the chips are down, I call in $600/hour musician-fix-it-genius to tell me water is falling down on my head.

I don’t want to make my students groan doing a “close read” of a bunch of Lincoln speeches because it’s listed in the Common Cores. I want them to read a ton of things about which they are truly passionate, ask questions and discuss when they need my guidance, dig deeper because they’re interested, then make a million dollars doing something they love.

Or better yet, take my money and fix that pipe. Because no one taught me how to do it.

 

The Science of Dog Biscuits

My kid eats dog biscuits. I don’t encourage this. I’ve given up.

“It’s the only meat I eat, Mom, it’s good for me.” I can’t control it. He gets out of bed or sneaks around when I’m not looking, stealing them from the cookie jar like they were chocolate chip cookies.

The dog sighs. She doesn’t challenge him. She knows she’s going to snag the roast off the table anyway the moment I turn my head. I’m fighting on two fronts. I suppose Milk-Bones are healthy for boys if they’re good for dogs. Declan tells me they are.

dog biscuit

Look carefully. You are seeing a dog biscuit fragment sailing high above Kung Fu Panda.

Two things my boy loves–dog biscuits and science. On Thanksgiving, he managed to integrate the two. His goal was to determine the size a dog biscuit would have to be in order to float on a mylar balloon. My job was to tie and secure the slipknots around the biscuit, cheer if it flew and look disappointed if it did not.

First, we tried a full Milk-Bone, which securely anchored the balloon to the ground. Declan’s face scrunched, finger to his cheek.

“I guess it’s too big,” he said.

“Not necessarily too big, Buddy,” I hinted, “Too heavy.”

“I gotta fix it.” He broke the Milk-Bone in half. I started to tie the knot. He switched the halves, giving me the small piece. He knew it would weigh less. I put the slipknot around the smaller piece. Meanwhile, he ate the bigger one.

The balloon sank to the ground. Even the smaller part of the biscuit was too heavy.

“Can’t we just use pencils or crayons or something? I can weigh them on my bread scale. This is disgusting.” I try to be a good Mom.

“Nope.” His word was final. He took a bite off of the small biscuit piece and handed the remaining fragment to me. I tied the string around the slime. It sunk to the ground. But bounced once on the way up. 

“Look, we almost did it!” Science. It’s exciting when science goes right.

He looked at the biscuit. He poked it a bit. The biscuit very much wanted to soar free like the bird it once may have been. I’m not sure what “meat byproduct” actually means. It all tastes like chicken, I’m told.

He picked up the piece, nibbled a bit off of each end, held it back, examined it, and nodded his approval. Not only did he intuitively recognize the relationship between size and weight, he knew about balance, too. The string had to be centered.

He had also figured out a bit about efficiency by simply biting off the ends instead of untying and retying the string around the biscuit. Efficiency is big in science these days. It makes money in business, too, I’m told. Entrepreneurs read and write books about it, must be important.

He released the string and biscuit. It flew. It flew around the living room. The dog considered reclaiming it, but she was in her post “I begged for turkey” slumber. Every dog knows half a turkey is better than a Milk-Bone.

photo 1One Milk-Bone gone, several principles of science learned. Today, he is measuring things and making comparisons. He usually writes these things in his field journal, a spiral notebook filled with pictures of animals, dinos, and bugs. It’s the holiday weekend. He’s taking it easy.

But if I ask him about school, he says, “Boring.” Already. Despite his fantastic teacher who is the definition of awesome. So maybe it’s not about school but about the methods of inquiry and intrinsic learning. He wants to learn about dinos and write them in a field journal. And measure things. And learn about photo 2balance points, gravity’s relationship with dog biscuits. And entrepreneurship–because I had to pay a lollipop, again, to secure the rights to these photos.

I think school could be fun. Kids have the ability to knock things out of the park. We just have to let them.

Then someone has to let us do just that.

What Would You LIKE to Learn?

I’m writing my “Welcome Letter” to students. It’s going to a blog post this year. I’m trying to save trees–it’s a pain in the ass to get more paper when I run out. I have to requisition paper just to make the forms to get the paper, and I can’t really afford a virtual assistant. So, digital, here I come.

When I start the school year, I think of my most difficult customer. The kid who doesn’t want to be looking at my ugly face for 180 days and prays for a snowstorm or natural disaster to relieve him of that obligation. I don’t target nerds like me…they show up politely whether they like me or not. If I can convince school haters, I’m golden.

So, within the first day or two I’ll ask a question, “What would you like to learn?”

Life is about learning. The problem with education isn’t that policy’s bad, teachers suck or kids are stupid, it’s a failure to provide an intersection point.

Screen Shot 2013-08-24 at 9.16.15 AMImagine a graph–any graph. There is generally a point where the two lines meet. On a supply and demand or pricing graph, you have a bunch of people trying to not pay for stuff and a bunch of people trying to overcharge. Depending on the amount of stuff in circulation, the lines meet and you get a dot in the middle. If the lines don’t meet, that means you didn’t sell your product.

I wasn’t good at math. I had to go to the Psych Services tutor in college to understand this stuff. She told me, “You’re okay, take a deep breath.” The guy in the next cube over was being treated for his fear of spiders.

Anyway. A graph is a graph. Right now what we have in education is a graph where the lines don’t always intersect. We have one group of people deciding what will be taught and evaluated, another teaching, and a third wishing they could learn something else entirely. Lines that don’t meet. When the lines don’t meet, that means you didn’t sell your product. My product is education. Not just education, but the LOVE of education.

When the lines meet, you get a dot in the middle of the graph. You need the dot in the middle of the graph. The dot represents the place where we all come together and agree on something. Cost effectiveness. The price we’re willing to pay. The salary we’ll take. Work efficiency. Break-even point. The willingness to teach and learn. It’s all the same. The lines need to meet.

I’m a writer–I don’t generally write about graphs.  But the truth is the truth whether I like it or not–the dot in the middle–the point of intersection–is the truth in all things. In math or relationships, we need that common ground.

One student put this in perspective, “You write a lot of curriculum. Teachers meet for this. Why don’t students meet with teachers and write it? ” Brilliant. Especially at the high school level where students are my customers. They express what is useful to them. Then, I guide them on paths to the top of the mountain.

So, this year, I’ll be asking “What do you want to learn?” We’ll decide together.

“Casey,” you might say, “How will they know what they need?” You’d be surprised. Given guidance and an objective, they soar. When I get customer dissatisfaction in the ranks, I say, “Here’s what I was aiming for. How can you achieve this to show me you learned?” Most of the time, they do far more than I’d have assigned.

Learning isn’t top down. I learn from my students.  This year I learned from the world. I’m a better writer, a better person…I have the type of friends who push me to be great. I push my students to be great. Better than me. Students often ask me a question.

“Miss, why are you teaching?” You see, everyone views teaching as the job you get if you can’t get another job. It’s a perception I’m trying to change.

“I’m here because I love you guys. I want you to be better than me.” It takes a while for that answer to sink in. When it does, when students believe this truth, we learn great things together.

This year, I’ve learned things I love–things I wanted to learn. Why would my students be different? That is why we will start with the question, “What would you like to learn?”  

And then, we’ll accomplish that goal.

[image: investopedia.com]

Education Should Emulate McDonald’s

Screen Shot 2013-06-21 at 2.02.57 PMIt’s been the best of years, it’s been the worst of years.

I had great students, but this was the year I wanted to quit teaching and go work at McDonald’s again. I felt standardized, burdened with paperwork, and completely beat up by the media and society. It was tough feeling like one of the people who singlehandedly–intentionally–sabotaged American education. Like I personally slowed down the Race to the Top so Finland could  pass me like Usain Bolt.

I love teaching, but the pull to go back to the Golden Arches was great.  I worked at McDonald’s in high school. I was a good employee. I was respectful, I smiled at customers. I told them to have a nice day. Though I don’t eat meat and I didn’t like smelling like grease even after I showered, I learned a lot of things–learning is important to me. Here’s what working in one of the world’s largest franchises taught me:

People like their burger the same way. There’s a reason that the burger is the burger, and a great amount of effort goes into standardizing that so that we can predict the burger’s quality, temp, size, and features. America likes predictability. They don’t like when you throw surprises at them.

Standardizing things isn’t easy for me, but I could see the McPoint. A smile and a burger. Easy enough. I think differently on occasion. McD’s let me be different–sort of. I was the only vegetarian working there. They didn’t discriminate. If you’re going to be an outlier, that’s a rough place to try it. But if you’re creative, even in the midst of standardization, you can survive. During my lunch break, I’d go to the Big Mac toaster in the back, take a bun, flip it inside-out, commandeer a slice or two of cheese, and put the sandwich with the flipped bun into the toaster, and press it down. It’s a piece of equipment that, until now, you never knew existed. I made myself many marvelous manifestations of grilled cheese–with onions, pickles, tomatoes–whatever non-meat items I could find. That was two decades before “Chopped” and “Iron Chef.” I could’ve been a contender.

I learned, though, that while we sometimes crave standardization–it’s easy, and we can guess the results–one size does not fit all, even at the world’s most regulated chain in the world. Although I don’t eat fast food, I marvel at the operation–it’s marketing heaven. You think McDonald’s is standardized, and in many respects, you’re right, but if you look deeper, one of the largest and most successful franchises on the planet adapts constantly. It doesn’t simply stamp out burgers and call it a day. It has regional nuances for customer preferences–a McD’s in the Southwest isn’t the same from one in historical New England, India, or Russia, international menu offerings that reflect cultural food tastes, and when society changes, the largest recognizable food franchise in the world changes, too. They even respond to trends in food followed by sustainability food freaks like me.

They change as a result of customer demand. They now have organic and fair trade offerings. Newman’s Own! That’s a big deal. They listened to food freaks like me. Education can listen to all the parties, too.  Even though we have to measure, assess, and figure out the best way to improve education nationally, we might emulate the World’s Most Successful Franchise in a couple of ways:

1. Pivot. It’s an overused word in the tech sector, but underused in education. I think it’s time we adopt some business vocabulary and behavior. We don’t have to be cold, hard, uberefficiencymongers, but we can consider honest feedback from all stakeholders–parents, students, businesses, higher education, educators, and educational leaders.  That’s the hybrid group that should revolutionize education. Together we can identify areas of opportunity, and create the freedom to change direction when necessary. Communication and innovation are foundations for success. 

2. Customize. Really take a look at the clientele. For me, it’s my students and their families. I often ask “What do you think?” My end of the year survey gave me areas where I exceeded student expectations and suggestions for next year that I will incorporate and write about so they can see their feedback in action.  A good professional should be able to anticipate needs or simply ask “How can I help you today?”

3. Listen and Be Flexible. Sometimes I have to say the following, “What would you like me to do for you given that we have these goals?” It’s a powerful statement. It gives over the control of the class to the student. Not a lot of people are comfortable giving over control. When I do that, more often than not, the students grade themselves more critically, pick and design activities that were more challenging than any I’d have designed, and go way above and beyond my expectations. All I had to do is listen and be flexible. Flexibility is the key. The greatest innovations happen in flexible environments where creative people are not afraid to fail. We’re not there yet. But we could be if we study the greatest corporate and educational successes out there and steal the ideas that make them great. I’ll steal like an art thief to create an ed utopia. 

I bet I’ll field a couple critical questions in comparing public education to McDonald’s–especially given my status as a vegetarian food freak, but I can’t help the analogy. America loves burgers.

I want America to love public education, too.

 

Look at These Eggs!!

Eggs from the farm

Eggs from the farm

Look at these eggs. I doubled back, putting the five dollars in the envelope in the cooler that said “Fresh Eggs.” I took the last two dozen. Quite a bargain, I think. The cooler had done its job. It could rest quietly in front of its farm. I pass this farm when I run a lot, but never noticed the “Fresh Eggs” cooler out front. I must have been running slow enough today to see the sign.

I cracked open the cartons. Each one of these eggs is unique. Beautiful. I picked several out and studied them.  I marveled that so many eggs could have so many characteristics. I marveled at this fact.

“You need some serious help,” said one of the voices in my head.

“What a nerd,” said another.

“Don’t you have anything more important to do than stare at the color of eggs?”

I answered them.

“Absolutely. I have exams to grade, curriculum to standardize, I probably should shower, and my favorite Twitter chat’s coming up in a half hour. But…these…eggs…are….stunning.”

“Stunning? Get some help. Shoulda used the five dollars for a copay,” said the voice before going silent. I’m not listening anyway.

Look…at…these…eggs. Every one is different. Unique. Perfect. The way life should let us be.  It shouldn’t put us cartons marked the same, “Grade A Medium White,” or “Extra Large Brown.” Whoa to the egg just a little bit larger, a little bit of a different color, and God help the double yolk.

Nature shows us uniqueness should be celebrated. Creativity, beauty, different thinking, the road less taken. I struggle when I see hate, discrimination, or pressure to conform. I’m sad when I see standardization, negative peer pressure, or the desire to churn out people who are all uniquely…the same. It seems to be the trend in society today. Maybe that’s because I’ve always been like the egg that never quite fit in the carton at the factory when they were measuring.

But these eggs…every single one says, “I have personality! There’s no one like me!”

Being unique is what makes us beautiful. It’s what makes me want to live. It is the magic of life. Strange that I can see it in something as ordinary, or maybe not so ordinary…as an egg.