Friday, May 22, 2015

Let's Elevate the Teaching Profession

As a 4th/5th grade teacher, I read a lot of middle-grades literature. I have noticed that it is not uncommon for the villain of the story to be a mean teacher or a teacher who doesn't really understand or appreciate children. Of course, as Mrs. Granger from Frindle wrote in her letter to Nick, "Every good story needs a bad guy, don't you think?" (Side note: If you haven't read Frindle by Andrew Clements, put it on your to-read list NOW. It is a modern-day classic, a superb story for kids of all ages.)

I guess in the world of school-age children, teachers make an obvious choice for the bad guy character, and it does make a story deliciously fun, especially when the children (as they so often do) outwit the evil, stupid adult who previously made their lives miserable.
Image Search for "Mean Teacher" 

Yes, there are some stories where the teacher is the protagonist. But have you noticed how, in those stories, the teacher is often portrayed as someone special or unique, a hero because of how they actually care about kids as opposed to the other adults in the school (see Roxanna Elden's humorous take on this in "The Myth of the Super Teacher."

The Myth of the Super Teacher from EdWriters on Vimeo.

We need to stop this.
Right now.

Teaching is an amazingly challenging profession. Hopefully, people who choose to teach do so because they embrace those challenges and care about children. I was talking recently to a friend whose three children attend an exclusive private school. She told me that the parents' behavior toward teachers is, at times, abusive. I know that she is not exaggerating, as I have witnessed this behavior, too. And I believe the level of disrespect for teachers is growing and becoming mainstream, even acceptable.

Are there "bad teachers" in schools? Well....define bad. All of us, at one time or another, do things of which we aren't proud. We make mistakes. We realize that we did or didn't do something we shouldn't or should have done (or should have done differently).

I believe that teaching is much more than a job. It is a life, a calling, an obsession if you will. I believe that all teachers should be hungry to learn and grow, to improve, to write, reflect, create, and share work. I don't think all teachers are equal, and I feel frustrated when teachers act in ways other than as academic professionals. In other words, I hold very high standards for all teachers, and I am disappointed when my standards are not met.

That said, enough with the negative characterization of teachers.
Enough with the blaming.
Enough with expecting teachers to be perfect.
Enough with classifying teachers into "good" and "bad."

Let's explain to our children, ourselves and each other that we can learn something from everyone. Let's work on ourselves first as role models for children (because what are children learning when they see and hear their parents denigrate and complain about their teachers?). Let's maybe work on seeking out the positive.

And, of course, let's set high standards for teachers and students. Let's make it easy for schools to weed out incompetence (without having to pay people while they sit in a room all day). Let's view teaching as an academic profession and expect our teachers to regularly read, write and practice whatever it is they teach. And let's make sure that teachers have sufficient time to do those things!

Monday, April 13, 2015

It's Time to Stop Pretending!

Thanks, Scott McLeod for starting this challenge:
When it comes to education, what are 5 things that we have to stop pretending? Post on your blog, tag 5 others, and share using the #makeschooldifferent hashtag.
Feel free to also put the URL of your post in the comments area so others can find it!

I love it. Here are mine:

We need to stop pretending...

  • that learning comes in a box...enough of boxed and pre-packaged curriculum materials! Learning is messy!
  • that kids come in a are not standardized. Even when they have been born in the same 365-day span, kids have different needs, interests, and abilities. 
  • that it's acceptable to do outdated things because they "worked" in the past. It's not the past.
  • that letter grades are the best and most useful feedback related to learning
  • that covering material and giving a test is the same thing as real learning and growth

Please post your own post and share it here in the comments, as well as on Twitter using the hashtag #makeschooldifferent

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

How to Get A Kid's Eye Perspective on Your Teaching

As a language arts teacher, it is important to make sure my students understand perspectives. We discuss the ways different characters in literature view situations from varying points of view and the clues an author provides to help us see situations through the mind of a character.

As a teacher of young students (4th/5th grades) I need to remember that their perspectives are different, from each other and especially from my adult/teacher point of view. Of course, the best way for me to tune into their perspectives is by paying attention to the clues they give me!

My students have weekly jobs which inspire them to document their learning. The tweets, photos, and blog posts they share is one way I get to see the difference between what I (thought I) taught and what they got or thought was important/memorable.  

Look at these two photos. I am not sure if they were shared by one photographer (documentarian) or by two different students, but I think the perspective from a child's point of view is so interesting! 
Would you want to be a student in your class? If not, what will you do about it?

Monday, March 30, 2015

Parent Connect: What's So Great About Finland

Today, Karin and I shared a Parent Connect about education in Finland. It is not a topic about which I am very well-informed, so a lot of our preparation consisted of reading and learning. I have heard so much about Finland, and it was interesting to fill in some of the details and discuss with those in attendance.

We opened the session with this video, of which we showed the first 3:25 minutes.

We then shared some background information, including the following points:

  • 50 years ago, Finland had terrible ed system
  • education was a key part of Finland’s economic recovery plan
  • Now they are hailed internationally for extremely high ed outcomes (reading, math and science literacy over the past decade)

as well as sharing some background information about PISA, including:

  • In 2000, the first results of the PISA revealed Finland’s 15 year olds as the best young readers in the world
  • In 2003, Finland led in math, In 2006 they were first (out of 57 countries) in science, 2009 they were 2nd in science, 3rd in reading and 6th in math out of half a million students worldwide

We outlined the innovations that currently seem to be working in Finland.

We then asked participants to categorize these ideas into two groups on a T-Chart, dividing them into things that are normally associated with "traditional" education vs. "non-traditional" education settings. 

Further Reading:

And, for another perspective...(although I am not familiar with this source):

Friday, March 20, 2015

6 Things You Can Learn From Science Leadership Academy

Last week I had the opportunity to spend a little time at Science Leadership Academy, the inquiry/project-based learning school started by Chris Lehmann. Here are several things that stuck with me as I reflected about what makes this school so special. [Note: "Special" is not just my opinion as evidenced by the fact that they have thousands of visitors come to see the school each year, receive over a thousand applications for the 120 openings for ninth grade and host educon, an annual learning conference that consistently draws the best and brightest thinkers and leaders in the world of education.]

These are things your school could should do, too. In no particular order...

1. A Common Language   
Everywhere you go at SLA, you know what's up. It's communicated in the posters on the walls, both in halls and classrooms. Three simple rules: Respect yourself, Respect the community, Respect SLA as a place of learning. As Jeremy Spry, our tour guide, put it, "Basically it comes down to 'Don't be jerk.'" 

I think that one of the most important things a school leader can do is infuse a school with a common language and value system. It is undeniable that Lehmann has done that at SLA. It doesn't mean that everyone has to teach the same way or that there is not room for individuality. It does mean that certain, important ideas, like norms of behavior and core values, are consistently communicated throughout the school. 

2. Kids Over Content                                                                                                                       
If you've read his blog or talked to Chris Lehmann you have heard him say that students should never be the implied object of their own education. In other words, it is clear that teachers are there to teach people. As Jeremy put it,
"Students don't need us for information. They have Google for that. They need us to take care of them, raise them in community, guide them."
I think that is beautiful and so essential to remember. Of course, I like teachers to also be passionate about the subjects they teach, but kids come first!

3. Technology Like Oxygen
Another famous "Lehman-ism" is that technology in schools should be like oxygen- necessary, invisible and ubiquitous. I'm not sure what else to say about this one except that sometimes this is easier said than done, but as a vision, it's the only reasonable choice.

4. School is Not to Prepare Kids for the Real World
I personally despise "schooliness" and think it is one of the most insidious blockers of evolving our education system to meet the real needs of learners. Even young teachers seem to have trouble envisioning a classroom or school environment different from the ones they encountered as students.
Schooliness to me equates with teacher-centered and passive. Students show up waiting to be told what to do. Teachers show up to tell students what and how to learn and "manage" behavior. Learning is low-level and closed-ended.
Why is this still the dominant culture in so many schools?
What I heard at SLA was this: We don't think of our job as preparing kids for the real world. We believe our students already live in the real world. We don't ban cell phones because cell phones and the distractions they provide are part of life.

5. Passion Matters!
Jeremy told us about the process by which students apply to become SLA freshmen. He said they receive over a thousand applications for around 120 open spots. Admission process is by interview, and interviews are open to anyone. The interviewee shares a learning project about which he or she is excited. What they are looking for is passionate learners. I compare this with high schools that base admissions on grades and test scores. Passion for learning is a much greater indicator of success. 

6. Good Design Required!
Art is a required course at SLA. Jeremy explained that visual literacy and design skills are not optional in today's digital world. I agree, and I still see many presenters, otherwise highly qualified, who use outdated slides that lack visual appeal. It is obvious that SLA makes thoughtful decisions, based on what students need rather than what has always been considered important, when designing their curriculum. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Edu-Innovation is Becoming The Same Old Song & That's a Good Thing!

After I returned from last week's North American Jewish Day School Conference in Philadelphia, I felt, as I often feel after a high-energy conference, excited and overwhelmed.
The conference theme was "Uncommon Connections: Schools, Systems and Success" which referred to the idea of systems intelligence. As a big-picture thinker (who sometimes gets lost in the minutiae,) this theme really captured my attention and imagination. 

As I began to think about sharing my notes and thoughts, to reflect on what I learned and what I would do with that learning, I decided to try sketch-noting as a reflective practice. I am working on practicing this new way of making my thinking visible. I wonder if you can read my sketchnotes to understand my thinking. 

What stuck out in my mind was how overlapping and repetitive many of the themes were, or so it seemed to me. Not only am I starting to hear the same messages repeated (the same old song), but it appears that "everyone" is on-board. For example, instead of arguing against the "school should not be preparation for real life; school is real life" philosophy at SLA, it seems as if people agree completely. Of course, my observations are not scientific. There is no control group. The group who visited SLA chose to go to SLA. Does that make all the difference? 

Between the visit to SLA and Grant Lichtman's sessions on innovative schools (informed by the research from his book #Edjourney: A Roadmap to the Future of Innovation), I heard several recurring themes, outlined in my notes:
  • Abolish Schooliness
  • Passion Matters
  • Keep Kids First
  • Create a Culture of Learning
  • Create a Culture of Risk-Taking/Fail Forward

 These are the same thoughts about school innovation that I have also written about (over and over again in different ways) on my blog. These are the same thoughts about school innovation that those of us who have, in the words of Alec Couros, "walked through the same door on the Internet so we could think together" have been trying out in our own schools for years!

So....why are we still stuck? Lichtman's response to this question was, "Fear and inertia." I would add lack of imagination. do we vaporize (or at least minimize) fear, inertia and the lack of imagination that keeps our schools stuck in a time-warp? 

My answer is this: we do it one step at a time. We ARE doing it. We keep on doing it. We educators look into our own hearts and minds and weed out our own fears. We stay connected. 
Someday soon, everything will be different, and no one will know how hard we fought to get there. And that, I believe, is how it should be. 

The Great "Just Jake" Book Giveaway + Interview

Jake Marcionette, the NYT bestselling author who wrote his first book, Just Jake, at age 12 emailed me to see if I would be interested in interviewing him and sharing a giveaway of his new book on Edtechworkshop. Of course, I emailed him back to say that no, I would not interview him, but my 5th grade students would love to interview him! Jake, now 14 years old, is excited for the publication of his second book, Just Jake #2 Dog Eat Dog, which will be released on March 31st.

Jake Marcionette
#2 Available March 31st

BOOK GIVEAWAY! Enter by March 21st! 

I am thrilled to be hosting a giveaway of Just Jake #1.
If you would like to enter the giveaway, leave a comment on this post before the end of the day on March 21st saying why you would like to have a copy of this book. Make sure to enter your email correctly because that is how I will contact you if you win. I will choose a winner on Sunday, March 22nd. Whether you are a kid looking for a funny read or a middle-grades teacher looking for a great book for your classroom library, you will want to have this book!

My class loved talking with Jake via Skype. He was so full of energy, telling us how he became a published author and talking to each student, individually, about his or her passions. The class also wrote interview questions for him, and here are his answers.

Where do you live now? What school do you go to?
I live in Saint Augustine and attend St. Johns County virtual school. It’s easier for me because I travel a lot speaking to schools and promoting my books.

You were only 12 years old when you wrote your first book. How did you get to be such a quality writer at such a young age?
Practice...Practice...Practice. Lucky for me, my mom “encouraged” me to write when I was younger - couldn’t go outside until I did. And from there it has definitely grown into my passion. Also, I had a great deal to write about. I went to five different schools in six years so during that time I met a ton of interesting kids and experienced a variety of classroom cultures.

Did you ever get frustrated when you were writing your book?
Sure. I think anyone who writes a lot experiences a certain level of frustration. Especially for me since I focus on writing humor/comedy. I want every joke to kill so I often go back and rework/edit until I’m happy with the end result.

Were you ever worried or nervous about the book and how it would turn out?
No, not really because in the end I was happy with the final manuscript. It felt right and I thought I delivered on my goal to write a piece of middle grade fiction for kids from a kid’s perspective.

How long did it take you to write your two books, Just Jake and Just Jake 2?
Each book took about 6 months to write, edit and submit a final copy. That might seem long but I’m also in school full time which tends to demand a lot of my time as well. Right now I’m super excited that Just Jake #2 Dog Eat Dog is being published March 31st so look for it on Amazon and in book stores.

Do you have any advice for a young writer?
Write about what you know. I look at what my sister used to read and I know I could never be successful writing about vampires, gossiping mean kids or mythical creatures because I don’t know anything about those things. I love to laugh and really love being a kid. So, Just Jake is about a bunch of 6th grade friends doing funny stuff in and around school. I was confident I could deliver on that front.

Do you have any advice for other kids who want to get their writing published?
Be persistent and get ready for rejection but don’t let rejection derail your dreams. Never give up.

Were there any authors that inspired you? Were you inspired by any of your friends or teachers?
You bet. I’ve been really lucky in having great teachers who answered all my questions (and there were lots) and took the time to help nurture me as a writer. Jeff Kinney is without question one of my major influences. I love the fact he is so real and doesn’t try to sugar coat it like some authors who write for kids.

What was your family's response when they found out your book made the New York Times Bestseller List?
They were so angry! Kidding! Actually, we couldn’t believe it. Everyone was shocked and for me it was a dream come true.

How many literary agents did you call until one agreed? How do literary agents work?
I called ten agents and got offers of representation from two of them and eventually decided that Dan Lazar from Writers House in New York City was the perfect fit. Agents are responsible for introducing their client’s manuscripts to publishing houses and negotiating publishing deals.

We watched a video of you on your blog. It was the one where you were on the news. You were talking about you trying to get a literary agent, and one person yelled at you. What did you feel then?
Yeah, that was so funny. One of the agents I called started screaming at me, saying “I was doing it all wrong...” and how “I need to know the rules”. She wasn’t happy. I was surprised by her reaction but it certainly didn’t prevent me from picking up the phone and calling others. Remember, you need to be fearless and determined.

How did writing these books affect your life? In a good or bad way?
I’m happy to report I’m still the same kid and all-in-all this experience has been nothing but positive. Writing is my passion so I love what I do. But it also provides me with a platform that affords me the opportunity to get out there and try to motivate other kids. I’m no different from any of you. I firmly believe that any kid is capable of achieving great things no matter what their age. You just need passion, a plan and relentless determination.

We are very impressed with the quality of your website. Did you build it yourself or did you pay someone else to build it?
Thank you! No, I didn’t have to pay anyone. My mom is a multimedia technologist. She is the founder of and she was happy to help me out with my site. Thanks Mom!!!! 

Friday, March 13, 2015

Is Being a Reader Genetic?

One of the best parts of learning in community is the spontaneous discussions. Yesterday, we wondered if being a reader is something we inherit from our parents through genetics. Since I have some strong ideas, myself, about how we become readers, I recorded the discussion on video.
You can also join our discussion. Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Thinking About Reading from Andrea Hernandez on Vimeo.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Parent Connect: Reading Lives Vs. Reading Levels

These are the slides from a recent Parent Connect session I led with Karin Hallett. We use AR at our school as a tool to help us in our choice literacy efforts. AR is far from a perfect tool, but it is what we have, and I find that it does help me acquire data that parents want. The problem is that parents can become overly attached to the numbers AR and STAR Reading provide. As a teacher, I assess my students' reading growth in a wide variety of ways, these tools (AR, STAR) being only one piece of the puzzle.

Karin and I have noticed with dismay how many parents are pushing their students to read higher AR book levels. I have had several students tell me, "I can't read that book (a book I have suggested I think they would really like). It's below my AR level, and my mom doesn't allow me to read books below my level." Karin has had parents come into the library demanding to know why their child isn't reading at a higher level.

Sadly, many parents seem to have the schooly belief that the whole point of reading is achievement and that pushing children to read higher-level books will equate to "better" readers. There is so much wrong with this I don't know where to start dismantling the argument. It's yet another symptom of the disease of schooliness we are suffer from here in the US (I can't speak for other countries, but I postulate that it is the same or worse in many other places in the world).

Parent Connect: Reading Lives vs. Reading Levels from Andrea Hernandez

Note: The carrot picture on the last slide. I really wanted to include that, as I love what it communicates. However, I've not been able to find a source for attribution. You can see that it is posted all over the web without attribution. If anyone can share a source, please do! In the meantime, I am going to leave it in my slides. 

Friday, January 30, 2015

School or Learning?

It's been such a long time since I have blogged here. There's no time. I'm too busy planning, teaching, grading, blogging on my classroom blogs, responding to student blogs, and the email....don't even get me started on the burden of the email!

The more I don't write, the more I have to write. I miss writing for my own reflection, to look into the mirror of my mind and see what I see there! I decided today just to write. Of the many possibilities, this is what bubbled up to the surface.

Passion Can Not Be Boxed
After 25 years of working in this field I have moved beyond the confines of schooliness. This is not to say that I don't feel tremendous pressure from the outside nor that I don't have to do tasks, such as giving grades, in which I see little value.  I have moved to a new place in my own mind where I trust my instincts more, where passion has triumphed over fear, where playing small no longer serves me (if it ever did). This perspective has been attained only through years and years of incredibly hard work. This is the view from the top of a mountain that has taken my whole adult life to climb.

I think about schooliness a lot. As far as I know, that word was coined by Clay Burell, whose blog, Beyond School, I used to read regularly for inspiration. Although we work mostly in schools, the most passionate educators I know believe that schools need to evolve completely in order to become places that nurture learning and learners, that value joy and curiosity. What does it mean to be educated? Why don't we ask this question more often, of ourselves, of our society?

Why School?
Schools in America have become assembly lines of preparation for more schools which are supposed to be preparation for a good life. Are we asking ourselves if we are, indeed, creating a good life for all? What is a good life?

Here is Florida, the public schools are rated and graded. Parents, naturally, want their children to attend schools that are "A-Rated." What does it mean? It is all based on tests and more tests. AP classes and tests. Rigor. Homework. More homework. These have become the signposts people use to identify "good schools." Joy, curiosity, questioning, thinking....we KNOW these are important, but where is the time? Teachers are demoralized, and many of the best and brightest are leaving schools in order to teach.

Teaching is, at its core, not a job. Teaching is not the sum of the parts of managing a classroom, planning lessons, giving grades. Teaching is a relationship. The teacher-student relationship is archetypal and not in any way dependent on the thing we know as school. Sadly, many people with the job of teacher lack understanding of this truth.

Having an educated populace is more important than ever. Our planet is not in good shape (to put it mildly). We need amazing, educated, thinking people who want to share passion for life and learning with the young. We need to not try to shut those people down. We need to stop trying to measure the unmeasurable.

I suggest a new measurement we can use for if our education is working. Instead of the bubble tests that measure, among other things, ability to guess the best answer out of four, why don't we look around at our society. Are there less school shootings? Are there less suicides? Is the growth of the giant pile of garbage in the ocean slowing or reversing? I could go on and on....