Like many other parents around the United States this fall, my wife and I dutifully attended “back to school night” at our local public elementary school this evening. Our two oldest children are now in 5th and 3rd grades. This was a difficult experience for several reasons.
I want to preface this post by noting we have been blessed to have some FANTASTIC teachers for our children at our school since we moved to Oklahoma a little over two years ago. We moved into our current neighborhood because the elementary school has the reputation of being the best in the city. We have selected all three of the homes we’ve lived in since we’ve been married (two in Texas and one in Oklahoma) based on the neighborhood schools. Education is a priority for us, so this is natural. The reality we’ve found both as teachers ourselves and as parents for the past ten years is this, however: No matter what the reputation of the school, it all comes down to the quality of the teachers. You can attend a school with a great reputation and great resources, or attend a school with a terrible reputation and lousy resources. I think the answer is the same. As parents, we want teachers for our children who love our kids, take the time to know our kids, learn how to reach and challenge our kids, and help our kids love to read and love to learn. Knowing your content is important too, but I’ll take a passionate teacher who loves kids over a book-smart teacher who lacks heart any day of the week.
I am certainly NOT saying that money for our schools is not important and doesn’t matter. It certainly DOES matter. I am saying that going to a school in an affluent community does not provide a guarantee of a high quality, learner-centered education. In the end, it comes down to the teacher and the learning tasks and options s/he provides for children on a regular basis. It also comes down to RELATIONSHIPS and CARING. Those are not things which can be legislated or displayed in a bar graph of test scores in the local newspaper. They are, however, the things which matter most in my view as a parent and an educator.
Note I did not make any references to technology in the previous paragraphs. I absolutely do not believe that using technology makes a teacher a great teacher. I subscribe to the philosophy I heard Jeff Allen share via a skypecast in March 2006 regarding technology: it is an amplifier.
Technology can amplify good teaching and learning, and it can amplify poor teaching and learning. I would much rather have my own children attend a school with teachers who differentiate instruction, encourage hands-on, inquiry-based learning, and provide meaningful as well as engaging learning tasks for my kids each day without ANY technology what-so-ever than have my children attend a school where technology is everywhere but is simply used to support a traditional, teacher-directed instructional environment.
That being said, I also think we are failing in our ethical responsibilities to do everything we can to equip our students with the skills they need today and will need in the future if we fail to utilize technologies effectively to help them engage with content and each other. I believe learners should regularly use technology tools to create, collaborate, and communicate. As a parent, I want to be able to peer through virtual windows into the classrooms of my children regularly to see not only what they are doing, but more importantly what they are LEARNING, what they are THINKING, and how they are GROWING. I think most parents want that from their school– certainly I think I can safely say that most parents in our community do. One of the problems I think we have, however, is we (as parents) don’t know how to effectively ASK for that today using technology tools. A sea of ignorance covered by a thick scum of fear surrounds us, and we seem incapable of finding the dry land which is “out there” and offers the promise of mountaintop learning experiences.
With those things being said, here is a tweet transcript of my thoughts and typed quotations from the PTO/PTA presentation about fundraising and the 5th grade teacher presentation for parents this evening at our “back to school night.” I am reversing the order of these tweets so you can read them in chronological order. I tweeted these messages using my iPhone and Twitterific for the iPhone.
At our Elem school back to school nite – PTA fundrsising goal: buy more SMART boards and pay for artists in residence
“we want kids to learn to love social studies” – “in 5th grade kids are expected to assimilate information”
“kids don’t want to write things” (5th grade social studies teacher)
What ways are our kids able to experience the curriculum content through video? (my question I am not asking during the presentation)
The assumption this year in 5th grade is: more departmentalization is better. I disagree.
“you can expect to see homework in math at least 90 percent of the time”
“we want kids to get lots of practice at math.” (yes but shouldn’t the focus be learning and comprehension instead?)
“District policy is to require 20 min of reading per night. We really encourage them to read fiction”
I so dearly want my kids to attend a school where teachers embrace blogging
“we will be sending home writing prompts directly tied to our state test”
By February the kids will need to be able to respond to all the 4 types of writing prompts
Question I have “Can my child bring his laptop to school and use the school wireless network?”
Now showing a MS Office TIFF image of the agenda used in class
This is the only use of technology we have seen from our teachers… And we should buy more SMART boards why?!?!?
A symposium is being used. Some parents think this is cool. Reality check: this is being used just like an overhead projector
My question: when do our children get to touch this fancy technology to create, communicate and collaborate?
I so want to teach in an immersed laptop environment… Maybe I should have taught at Crescent. Maybe I can adjunct at OC next spring?
So the only example of tech use we have seen tonight is using a symposium as an overhead projector. I am not impressed. Unfortunately some R
Why is the homework not just published to the web? Is copying down the homework each day a best-practices learning task?
How much time and energy is spent each day just copying down the homework assignments?
What if the student needs more feedback than will fit in the small box provided on the agenda?
Seeing this makes me very motivated to complete the curriculum DVD I am making and remix lesson plans for our museum field trips….
“we had 1 parent make their child lug every textbook home for weeks. That was a wonderful learning experience.” [for the child]
Lots of emphasis on recording reading minutes each day. When do we emphasize the ideas we are reading about?
“if you are absent, check with a friend to get the notes”
“I am not very good talking in front of parents”
It is a very interesting cultural experince to be a parent of kids in a very affluent community” Lots of assumptions made here.
Your 5th graders have at least 3 teachers.
“you can email us when the website is up and running”
The kids should know cursive now. It is amazing how many of them can’t read cursive.
@garystager I have mixed feelings for sure. Should I tweet this? I am not sure. I hope it is ok to. about 4 hours ago from twitterrific in reply to garystager
I asked if our kids will be able to blog so we can see their work and comment on it. Answer: No. We can see their work at school in folders.
The greatest moments of cognitive dissonance for me this evening at “back to school night” were these:
These are photos of some of our 5th grade teachers showing the crowd of parents their textbooks. Holding up the textbook, not opening it, and saying, “This is our textbook.”
In some ways, thinking about this later, this could have had some parallels to a scene from Exodus when Moses returned from the summit of Mount Sinai with the 10 Commandments. I’d be stretching things a bit to say that, but the thought IS there. “Here is the book of written text which we’ll use this year. Behold! I hold aloft the holy words!”
What were we supposed to think as parents as our 5th grade teaching team held aloft the textbooks for the year? “Oooo. Ahhhh. Look how pretty the cover is!” Come on! Give me a break. Here are the things which I DID think while listening to the teachers discuss these textbooks.
1. What a tremendous WASTE of money these textbooks are. Several of the teachers stated that the students wouldn’t use the textbooks very much. Yet as taxpayers we are paying THOUSANDS and THOUSANDS of dollars for these instructional materials which we do not fully utilize! My position is NOT that we should read the textbook more, it is instead that we should embrace digital curriculum and provide laptop computers for all our students (3rd grade and above) so they can not only access curriculum content in textual forms but also with visual images, audio, animations, and video. Hello! Are we living in the 21st century or the 19th century here? Why are we all sitting in our seats nodding our heads as the instructional leaders of our children hold aloft atomic texts which they admit are of only limited utility for teaching and learning via traditional means?
2. I deeply desire to have authentic windows into the classroom learning environments of my children. By holding up the textbook and showing us the cover, I know each teacher was wanting to help share with us (as parents) a little bit of what to expect in 5th grade. Sadly, however, these actions communicated little except the fact that our children are going to receive a VERY traditional educational experience this year. I want my children to attend a school where they are invited (and even required would be ok) to blog each week. Where I can comment as a parent and give them feedback. Where their grandparents could read their ideas and give them feedback. Last year we set up a family learning blog, and I’m asking our kids to post to it intermittently, but this is something they should be doing REGULARLY at school! The one question I DID ask during the Q&A session after the teacher presentations was, “Will our kids be writing on a blog each week so we can see their writing and provide feedback and comments to them?” The answer to this question was “no.” The teacher said student work would be in a portfolio we could come view in November when we come for our parent-teacher conference, and it would be displayed in the hallways of the school for us to see.
No global publishing. No videoconferencing. No read-write web tool use at all. Zero. Zilch.
I have tried with VERY limited success to facilitate some videoconferencing and the use of VoiceThread at our school with our teachers, working with school and district administrators. I did record a video message for our school board this summer and send it to them on DVD, but as I realistically anticipated nothing has come from that effort. That was like spitting in the wind.
My best hope at this point is to invite the teachers of our own children and others at our school to participate in our statewide oral history project, “Celebrate Oklahoma Voices.” That is an initiative in which I continue to invest myself, and perhaps some of the benefits of this professional development program could benefit some of the teachers at our own school. I hope that will be the case.
On the bright side of things, I was delighted to find a BUNCH of twitter replies waiting for me in my Safari RSS feed menu this evening when I logged online. Thanks to everyone in my personal learning community for your encouragement and messages– You commiserated with me and brought a smile to my face after a difficult “back to school night.” These were the messages I received, again in reversed order so they are chronological:
garystager @wfryer Their priorities are backward
garystager @wfryer Ask for another teacher – now
garystager @wfryer Can’t tell from your tweets. Are you happy or not with the teacher’s approach/attitude? Should you be tweeting this stuff?
garystager @wfryer We agree. Departmentalization in elem school is a terrible idea unsupported by research or common sense. It just reduces tchr prep
TeachaKidd @wfryer I agree with you about departmentalization. Hate it in elemenatary school!
dancallahan @wfryer just fiction? yikes. you’re making this all up, right? RIGHT
garystager @wfryer RUN FOR THE DOORWAY! Blogging/no blogging should be so far down your priority list given what you’ve described.
Laurenogrady @wfryer might need to open your own school
garystager @wfryer Are you going to speak up or tweet?
TeachaKidd @wfryer Have your child respond to the writing prompts on her blog.
garystager @wfryer That is only true if you allow it to be. My kids didn’t take the state tests. We opted them out as is our right as parents.
wmchamberlain @wfryer I have my students write too. They put their stories on the blog. This year we are recording them on video for their own blogs.
garystager @wfryer Why would you allow people do things to your children that you disagree with? Or don’t you disagree?
garystager @wfryer Good question. Smart boards will only reinforce their non-thinking reflexive helpless disempowering practice.
garystager @wfryer Seriously, inaction only hurts your kid and their peers. Raise your hand and signify that you are not going along for the ride.
TeachaKidd @wfryer Only during free time when they have finished all their work. Don’t you get that? Sheeesh!
cfanch @wfryer just jumping into your twitter stream and may not be up to speed, but Smartboards ARE just fancy overheads – in the wrong hands.
dancallahan @wfryer dude, while I’m all for the tech use, i’d be more worried about the scary-sounding pedagogy than that
garystager @wfryer You need to separate your teaching desires from the education your kids are enduring – seriously. The kids are the immediate issue.
garystager @wfryer Ask why there is homework at all. Cause their heads to explode.
wmchamberlain @wfryer kids need to get ready for the paper work they will be required to do when they become teachers.
tag156 @wfryer Respectfully, I don’t have time to type up and post homework assignments every day. (Am a teacher) So much other stuff to do already
shazzandrob @wfryer I agree – just a time filling exercise for teachers that one, a lot of that goes on still though I’m afraid to say
cfanch @wfryer I agree. WIth a webpage, the homework can be posted for weeks ahead and the daily write down is unnecessary.
KarenJan @wfryer &how abt those “homework checks” that kids on IEPs have 2endure @ the end of each day?just post it online where any1 can retrieve it
lnitsche @wfryer So we need to educate both teachers (administrators, school board too) and parents if we hope for change.
TeachaKidd @wfryer Kids are lucky if teacher even checks the homework.
KarenJan @wfryer I tried to get our HS PTO to stop paying for the agendas – waste of money, inaccessible 4 many kids, unnecessary for others, but no
johnsoj2 @wfryer Wow, this is just too much. How are you managing even to sit there? Keeps getting worse and worse…
jennar @wfryer well, and really, is most homework a best-practices learning task? mostly busywork from what I’ve seen
mrmayo @wfryer this one really stands out “we will be sending home writing prompts directly tied to our state test” wtf?
jepcke @wfryer I’m finding your tweets fascinating. Makes me think back to the dozens of open house speeches I made! Had a parent videotape me once
ijohnpederson @wfryer Be strong.
KarenJan @wfryer its not just amazing how many kids cant read cursive,its more amazing how few of them are able to use technology to promote learning
cyberteacher @wfryer I feel your pain! Wait until your kids get into MS and the teachers require reading nightly & sit in rows! about 5 hours ago from twhirl in reply to wfryer
johnsoj2 @wfryer I think you’re just making all this up. Can it really be this bad in ’08? about 5 hours ago from TwitBin in reply to wfryer
timstahmer @wfryer Why not tweet about it? Unfortunately, the situation at your child’s school is not unique.
KarenJan @wfryer I can feel your horror here in MA!
garystager @wfryer You are speaking martian to teachers from the 1830s. What do you expect?
wmchamberlain @wfryer They are worried about liability or the extra work. These two things are the bane of the teaching world.
garystager @wfryer Why is your focus so technocentric when the fundamentals of the school sound like such a mess?
mrmayo @wfryer man, I would love to get that question from a parent!
todbaker @wfryer Who is the “we” in that answer?
bwatwood @wfryer – That certainly prepares them for the REAL world! Sheeezzzzzz!
snappity @wfryer all these tweets remind me why I no longer teach public school, and intend to be That Parent when my own kids enter it…
MikeGras @wfryer Come work with us. We can make space on our server.
erindowney @wfryer it sounds like it’s going to be a long school year 🙁
ehelfant @wfryer check out US History pages-http://micdsus.squarespace…. student work online/all course materials there-no text (even in AP chem)
staceyfranks @wfryer and it only gets worse when you send them to college.
jymbrittain @wfryer public schools are for no child to be left behind. After school family time is for enrichment if you want yours to lead the pack.
chocxtc @wfryer All your questions would be appropriate for the school board as well!! Unfortunate you are seeing more the norm than an aberration
kstevens77 @wfryer advantage of using SMART Board. many of our teacher post notes taken during class on boards to web as PDF. dont need friend’s notes
bethstill @wfryer Surprise! Surprise! What reason would ANY student in America need to blog? They must practice for the testing season!
hvoran @wfryer Meaning the parents can see their work at school in folders?? Meaning you have to come to school to see your child’s work??
beckcollect @wfryer “An affluent community” and yet they seem to be way behind with technology use. Bugger the Smartboards, use the money for PD!
gaylor @wfryer Maybe when our kids are parents 🙁
gaylor @wfryer My daughter is in high school…they now have a website…now if only all of the teachers would post their assignments.
gardenglen @wfryer feel your frustration at back2school. Showed “Vision of K12 Students” b4 MiddleSchool back2school. ALL teachers putting work online
gardenglen @wfryer now. I am helping principal encourage teachers to use Internet more. Online writing now happening – working on podcasting next.
Dowbiggin @wfryer You need to move to San Jose and send your children to Milpitas Christian School. Yes, I work there . . . teaching technology.
Dowbiggin @wfryer If you had any idea the tech integration projects we’re doing and how much our kids LOVE social studies AND writing, you’d flip.
Dowbiggin @wfryer In fact, you’re making me want to send you my year plan.
Dowbiggin @wfryer So, you think OK to CA would be a bit much, commute-wise, for a 5th grader?
I may feel frustrated, but at least I am not alone. That is significant, and your encouragement fuels my own desire to keep pressing forward to help others understand and join the learning revolution. Thank you for your supportive words.
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