“His parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. And when He was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem according to the custom of the feast. When they had finished the days, as they returned, the Boy Jesus lingered behind in Jerusalem…Now so it was that after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard Him were astonished at His understanding and answers.” ~ Luke 2:41-47
The presentations at the Education Innovation Summit left me with little hope about the future. Our panel discussion that followed, however, did provide a glimmer of opportunity.
At the very least, it created a buzz similar to the boy Jesus at the temple (again, forgive the Biblical references…I’m on a roll).
The panel discussion that followed the presentations would be in the Palo Verde Room, a space slightly smaller than my classroom with lower ceilings and worse light. Even worse, the chairs were arranged in the typical convention manner: rows of tightly-packed catering seats facing a speaker of nominal importance.
To make it a true discussion, the seats were arranged in concentric circles, with my colleagues and I occupying most of the center and the conventioneers taking up space in the periphery. Even as the minutes started to tick toward our start time, I–and most of us, for that matter–weren’t even sure if we could fill the room.
To everyone’s surprise, the room filled rather quickly. Seat after seat was occupied, leaving many of the attendees to huddle around the perimeter wall. Within minutes of the presentation’s beginning, the crowd was so large outside the room that a microphone was needed to broadcast what we were saying.
Believe me, we said a mouthful.
The panel was moderated by Michael Horn, founder of the Innosight Institute and an author on digital learning. It featured the LearnZillion teachers answering questions about education technology, the new start-ups we saw, and the road ahead for education. Horn is best known for his book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation will Change the way the World Learns, so his role seemed very apropos to manage a group of educators not happy with things as they are.
I’m not going to critique the comments from my colleagues; it would be unfair, and their thoughts were as varied and as valuable as the people themselves. One (my friend who loved Bloomboard) who’s very tech-savvy and extremely enthusiastic, hit on the need for a more harmonious development of ed-tech products, using tech buzzwords like “convergence” and whatnot. Another brought home the need for a more active role for teachers in the product development process—a tenet LearnZillion stakes its reputation on. Others stressed the need for more content instruction (science and social studies), less reliance on numerical data, standardized testing, and the need to reach all learners.
I was one of a handful of teachers that spoke multiple times—and among the most biting and vicious, at least in my opinion. Here’s some highlights of what I said:
The “Kid-Friendly” problem – This was really pointed both at ed-tech developers and some of my colleagues who raved about certain programs that provide “kid-friendly” graphics and animation to assist in learning. Now, most readers of this blog know my thoughts on terms like “kid-friendly” (hint: it has to do with waste products). It’s a buzzword that too often is used to dumb content down. Furthermore, it misreads the student population: my kids have grown past most “kid-friendly” content and want real, rigorous, often controversial material to read and analyze. Developers should not be afraid to let children explore the world in a real, meaningful, grown-up way—they’re more ready than you think.
The “Teaching Experience” problem – In an effort to achieve much-needed credibility from both investors and the education community, many of the ed-tech companies tout their collective experience in education. Their PowerPoint slides show various numbers of years experience on the team “20+ years K-12 experience,” “Over a decade of experience.” What that actually means is a mystery, and I made it abundantly clear to them: “We’re not fooled…when your pitch says ’20 years experience’, that could mean one teacher with 20 years experience or 10 TFA nitwits with 2 years in who all jumped into the corporate sector. Not all experience is the same.”
The Content Knowledge problem – Here I’m harping the Core Knowledge line, but it’s a good one nonetheless: the achievement gap goes hand in hand with the knowledge gap. Without content knowledge, students cannot translate their newfound language and math skills into results. The new Common Core based tests are heavy in content, so for those of you who pushed aside science and social studies all these years in order to put in more ELA and math time: who’s sorry now?
Even if the content is difficult (and it usually is, in my class anyway), the key to reaching all students is not changing the content, but the approach to the content. Break up large documents into smaller texts. Differentiate activities on a text based on ability and readiness. Don’t dumb down history and science: make history and science accessible to all your students.
The Teacher Involvement problem – I didn’t introduce this topic, but I did add to my colleague’s discussion of teacher involvement. Too many products in the education universe have little if no input from teachers in their design and implementation. It still amazes me that an education technology conference like that one never involved teachers at all until now. Shouldn’t an end user play a meaningful role in product development, as they are the ones that need to use it for their students?
This is the reason I pinned my star on LearnZillion. If Eric and Alix (the co-founders) simply cranked out video lessons and sold them to school districts to be shoved down teachers’ throats, I wouldn’t have given them a minute of my time. Yet they didn’t, to their infinite credit. Their model is, admittingly, more complex, more labor intensive and I would guess more costly. Yet hiring real veteran teachers as product developers makes sense in ed-tech: end users as developers virtually guarantee a product that is professional, high-quality, necessary and useful. If other companies really care about their products’ effects on education, then their development requires at least a partial bottom-up approach. Teachers have to be part of the development process, period.
One audience member asked what they can do to help define the Common Core. I answered that she was asking the wrong question. The real question is “How can we turn your ideas about the Common Core into tangible products for the classroom?”
The Teacher Evaluation/Data Collection problem—I really hope Bloomboard boy was in the audience to hear this…I saved my most venomous comments for this part. Someone had mentioned a trend in the corporate pitches towards different products for data collection. It was as a follow-up that I shared my thoughts on the Bloomboard presentation with the audience and thus my central point: if these collection and evaluation systems are meant to provide meaningful feedback to teachers, then the systems must be more than a dump of numbers. A number in a category on a spreadsheet like a box score does not define my practice. Observational, qualitative feedback does. Data-based systems simply give administrators a number to (a) give to higher administrators, and (b) fire “bad” teachers. Any ambulance-chaser of a lawyer can fight these evaluations easily.
On this not, one particular colleague of mine said the quote of the conference, and I want to honor him personally. Cory Howard is a math teacher from Indiana who seems, at first, like a typical shit-kicking hick. He fools a lot of folks with that drawl.
He’s far from a typical country boy: getting to know Cory, he’s among the most honest, down-to-Earth, and among the most prescient thinkers I’ve ever met. When asked about evaluations and the use of data, he brought the house down with the following (and I’m paraphrasing):
“You can measure a pig all you want…but it won’t make it grow any faster.”
Apparently, our panel was the hit of the conference that day. Twitter feeds were ablaze as the crowd outside our room grew and grew. Horn mentioned to me that it was the easiest moderating job of all, simply passing a mike to each of us who had loads to say. The room didn’t empty right away as audience members lingered to speak with us.
This was a good sign…or a bad sign.
Now that I’m in my classroom, reflecting on the weekend, I take stock in that the discussions and feedback we gave could be a huge step in changing the way education technology is created. If the moneyfolks and the entrepreneurs really took our advice seriously, it could create a shift in process and focus that could finally combat the glut of inferior education products that serve little purpose to classrooms and students.
On the other hand, they could be simply paying us lip service and continuing with business as usual once we left. After all, despite all the posturing and proclamations of doing it “for the children,” it’s doubtful that a class of struggling students in the South Bronx is getting a profit share in the IPO. No student in Harlem, Detroit, south side of Chicago, southeast DC or south-central Los Angeles is securing seed money for expansion of these folks.
This is, after all, about making a buck.
My only worry is that the chase for the almighty dollar overshadows the need to educate our children.
Eggs, Bunnies and a Dude on a Cross: The Problem with Easter
The Easter story is the central tenet of Christianity. It also reads like a nightmarish B-grade horror film.
A poor, disheveled mystic–who claims to be descended from the divine–attracts a following with feats of power and thoughtful wisdom. He runs into problems with local authorities that fear his ministry will “rock the boat” with both the local priests and the powers that actually run the joint.
After a meal where he makes his followers consume his “flesh” and “blood”, he is arrested and beaten within an inch of his life. The mystic then carries a wooden beam through town, amongst jeering crowds and impatient soldiers to a hill where his is stripped and nailed to this hunk of wood. Hanging in horrific agony, he calls on everyone but the kitchen sink before he finally tunes out—only to “rise again” like a beatific zombie a few days later.
If the movies are to be believed, his hair is perfect.
In a nice addendum, the same dude rises to heaven, promising to come back and go medieval on all the fools who wronged him: a divine Charles Bronson, if you will.
Of course, this is a crude, even blasphemic retelling of what is considered the “Passion” of Jesus Christ, the story of his torture, death and resurrection as told through the Gospels of the New Testament. It is impossible to understand Christianity without this story—gory and fantastic as it may be.
Yet the Easter story can be very troublesome in a classroom, particularly in the elementary setting. That said, it’s probably best to avoid it altogether.
“Not so fast!”, you say, “What about Christmas? That’s a religious holiday that’s at least given lip service in most American classrooms!”
If you think Easter has been made tame by bunnies, chocolate and hard-boiled eggs with paint on them…you better look again, because Big J’s horror story will always reel its thorn-laden head.
Here are a few reasons to bypass the Easter story in your class:
1. The Religion is still Center Stage. – the bunny just won’t cut it. There’s no Santa Claus, Frosty or tits at Mardi Gras to drown out the Bible here. Jesus really IS the reason for this season, and the minute you talk about him is the moment the First Amendment and the ACLU come to whip you in the ass with an organically-grown hickory switch.
2. There’s too little secular material to tie in. – You can even date when Christmas was stripped of its Christianity: 1843. This was the year Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was published. It became a best-seller, and completely remade Christmas as a secular family gift-giving holiday. To date, no such transformation has occurred with the opposite end of Jesus’ life.
3. The story is gruesome. – There’s no way to candy coat torture and crucifixion. It was a painful, agonizing death that was suffered by thousands during Roman rule. In fact, Jesus had it easy: his loincloth was kept on for modesty, and only his limbs were nailed down. Scholars have discovered remains of naked victims nailed in some bizarre areas: the armpits, the neck, even the genitals. Makes you feel sorry for the Roman legionary who drew the short straw for nail-in-the-junk duty.
4. Competition from another important religious holiday. – As much as it galls the religious right, Jesus’ Last Supper was a Passover seder, as he was an observant Jew. Passover and Easter are forever tied together, both by Scripture and history. Passover, the celebration of the beginning of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, is not the most important Jewish holiday religiously, yet the most influential historically. The Passover story reverberates throughout Jewish history, as the dispersal of God’s Chosen People harkens back to those first movements from Egypt. Furthermore, in places with large Jewish populations, like New York City, a long spring recess has more to do with Jewish than Christian religious tradition. Easter can’t exist without Passover, and both stories need a lot of context to be explained.
5. No good secular entertainment. – Rankin-Bass and Charlie Brown aren’t exactly kosher on Easter (no pun intended). All the movies associated with the season have to do with the season literally. There are plenty of Jesus movies—and Moses movies, for that matter—to fill an afternoon, but they come dangerously close to evangelizing. Even Monty Python’s Life of Brian won’t cut it, although I would love to meet the high school teacher with the balls to show it in class.
6. The whole story is such a downer. – When Christians celebrate Easter, they rejoice in the very end of the story. Most of the narrative of Jesus’ last days on Earth is tragic, violent, gruesome, blood-curdling and altogether depressing. It only gets good at the very end (the “zombie” phase). Hence the pastel suits and chiffon dresses: wearing that on Good Friday is akin to showing up at the funeral in a red dress.
I’ve seen decent, God-fearing teachers make a point to sneak in Easter activities like egg-dying, Easter bunny-coloring and the like. It’s cute, I know, but the minute one kid asks why they are doing this, the teacher plays with fire.
That fire—from constitutional law and the courtroom—is far more painful than any conjectured netherworld. You can avoid Hell. You can’t get out of a subpoena.
In high school classes, this shouldn’t be an issue. Jesus is a historical figure, and his death should be treated as such—you can even go nuts on the crucifixion thing. The scripture complicates things, but teenagers should figure out what is history and what isn’t.
With little kids, however, the scripture is the history. It’s the only narrative that a kid will understand at that level, and in a public school that’s construed as religious instruction. Avoid Easter, avoid Jesus, heck avoid the bunnies and eggs (they bring about too many questions).
Leave that for a later time when the gruesomeness of the Passion has a slightly cool quality. You gotta love teenagers.
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