The vote in Grosse Pointe tells a bigger story

It was election day here in Metro-Detroit yesterday. Well, for a few communities, mainly voting on school bonds. The most notable bond issue was in Grosse Pointe, an affluent community that borders Detroit along the river. Grosse Pointe Public School proposed a $50.2 million dollar bond issue, to upgrade their outdated tech infrastructure, upgrade security systems and create an one to one technology device program. The community overwhelmingly voted the proposal down. (Detroit Free Press article)  There is more to this story than disappointed teachers and bond committee members. It speaks volumes about American Society.

The Grosse Pointe story shows educators that schools aren’t supported. GP has historically been a community for the privileged who hold education in high regard. The schools are points of pride for the community. The district and supports crafted a plan, held informational meetings and gained vocal support. The community responded by voting down the proposal. When I talked to a few teacher co-workers who live in the community they were upset and frustrated. Mainly at their business minded spouses, who joined the majority in voting down the issue. “We went out to Valentine’s dinner and it cost $275, for one night out! The bond would have cost use about $550 a year but would have been so much better than a night out!” Responded one upset co-worker.  Sums it up for me: Our society is more concerned with their personal entertainment that education. Two nights out on the town are more valued than a year’s worth of education! Truly a sad sign of the times, that needs to be fixed.

Where is the motivation in our schools structure?

Before children enter school, motivation comes naturally. Infants want to learn to walk, to get where they want to go. They learn to talk to communicate their needs. Motivation seems like a natural instinct. As 5 year-olds enter our schools they are self-motivated to learn, and explore. Discover in itself seems to engage and keeps students moving down the learning trail. Then out of nowhere students seem to loose the spark. Not all of them, but enough to make a noticeable difference. Teachers have to put on a “show” to engage learners, often struggling to hold their complete attention. It seems these students start loosing the fire for “School” learning around 4th grade and it stays un-sparked till high school. Why is this? Could it be school structure?

There are many reasons students, loose the desire for prescribed learning during these “middle” years of school. I am going to focus on ONE key reason that educators should examine for change. SCHOOL STRUCTURE: Here are a few questions to ponder:

1. Is it appropriate to place 9-14 year olds to sit in desks, quietly for an 8 hour day, expected to learn, surrounded by 30 of their peers? Do adults learn well in this environment?

No, not appropriate. Students need to have freedom to move around, get comfortable, socialize and have private spaces. Schools should look more like coffee shops or book stores, filled with comfortable seating and meeting places. Teachers should move freely among the students asking questions, checking in, giving feedback, while allowing students to learn at their on pace. Look at the office environments of Google and Mircosoft of inspiration here.

2. Would you work hard to learn, knowing you will move on to the next topic/level after a period of time?

After a couple of years in school, student realize that the they move on to the next level with or without effort. Grades might suffer but they are just LETTERS. Do any of us really like to work hard? (Well we do when we find passion) Students are still exploring for their passions, hard work always meets resistance at first. Schools need to foster passions, not force work towards the unknown. Students are turning off on subjects because they are hard before passion has a chance to set in. A current student told me he was bad at science. His passion was working as an audio technician at a teen night club. It took awhile but now he is excited to learn about sound and waves in science class. Schools structures make it too easy for student to sit back and arrive at the next level instead of earning it.

3. Should kids be told what is important to learn? or discover what is important to their lives?

The curriculum in schools is to defined. Requiring specific units of study, without giving students time to explore a topic based on their own interests. In my science curriculum we spend so much time studying the plant kingdom, heredity and genetics during our biology unit. Students always ask great questions about Animals. While I do answer their questions we don’t have time to explore the animal kingdom as much as students desire. Teachers are told to teach to students learning styles, isn’t their learning desires apart of their style? Curriculum needs to be more open ended. What students learn in school isn’t really important it is HOW they learn that is. Once a student learns how to learn anything will be accomplished.

Value of Educational Conferences

I recently read a post by Tom Whitby, titled “Are Educational Conferences Relevant?” His post made me think about the true value of educational conferences. As a teachers there are really 3-types of conferences we can attend. First the Un-conference: more commonly referred to as an Edcamp, Second: a state conference (Examples MRA, MAMSE or MACUL) and Third: The National Conference (Example: ISTE, NSTA or AMLE). All 3 types of conferences have benefits and drawbacks. The attendee really determines the ultimate value of any conference.

Over the past few months I have had the pleasure of attending all three types. (AMLE, MCTE, and EdcampOU) Here are the Pros and Cons I see.

Un-Conferences/Edcamps: These conferences rarely have predetermined schedule. Attendees vote with their feet by walking out of sessions that give them little value into other sessions. All of the sessions are lead by educators in the field working with students and building their craft. Conferences are manly free or low cost, on weekends. The value of un-conferences is in the attendees. A well attended Edcamp with eager presenters means the day will be enlightening. Poor attendance or reluctant presenters can lead to a long day (or early departures). Since the conference is “Free”, no vendors come to sell products. The sessions (if you call them sessions more like conversations) are intimate. 10-25 teachers in a room talking about a topic with passion. Everyone has a voice and feels empowered by the face to face meeting. In this day an age of slashed budgets, I feel the un-conferences will continue to rise in popularity.

State Conferences: Sessions are scheduled. Speakers are brought in from the “educational consulting” and “Edu-Author” realms. Most attendees planed to hear one or more of the “name” presenters. Often many of the teacher lead sessions are over looked due to the popularity of the Keynote/ out of state presenters. State level conferences often have a higher cost, therefore vendors are brought in to help cover the costs. To create a program of scheduled presenters, proposals are submitted 4-9 months ahead of the conference. School leaders and teachers attend to sit and get information. Some conferences have been adding hands-on and quick sessions to liven the conferences up. Some educators get lost in the size of the state level conferences, I find the connections invigorating. Focusing on the small conversations and not the large presentations.

National Conferences: Mirror the state conferences but on a grander scale. Proposals for sessions come 6-12 months before the conference. Every author and Ed-consultant in the field will be presenting to sell their services/books. The main difference at national conferences is the demographics of attendees. More administrators attend and less teachers, mainly due to the cost of travel to the conference. Vendors are present to subsidize costs.Some don’t like vendors at educational conferences, but where else will teachers get to know about their products?  At AMLE this year, the clear passion about Middle Level Education was evident everywhere. Sessions are larger than the other types of conferences. The conversations and connections with other attendees were wonderful, since they were from all over the world.

The most important part of any conference is what you take away. All conferences have value to educators. Find conferences you enjoy attending, where you make meaningful connections, and learn new ideas. Go where you feel comfortable and can afford to attend. Everyone will have different opinions about conferences, find ones that make you grow as an educator and add value to your classroom practice.