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What is the best way to shape educational policies: through education itself or politics?  This is a question I had pondered for years, but that was rattling around in my brain specifically in the week following the CEA/NEA orientation.  I perused all of my representatives websites to see how they were voting on specific legislation and what their backgrounds were that got them to their current point of political involvement.  It appears that state reps and congressmen rise from local levels, often getting elected after championing local causes and proving their merits (usually) through a long sequence of recognized service.  There was no degree or background in common which starkly contrasts the national level where most involved in the governmental gauntlet have a law degree. This is not a prerequisite as dentists, professors, and other professions also find seats in Washington, DC, but one has to think that a law degree would actually be very helpful in the process of making laws.

In my research, I happened to notice that both Rep. Danny Rovero and Senator Mae Flexer who represent my district were hosting a town hall meeting at the Putnam Town Hall.  Thomas Jefferson once said that the New England town meeting was the “best school of political liberty the world ever saw.” TJ has never steered me wrong before, so I decided to make a nice little Saturday morning out of being an informed citizen.

Freedom of Speech (from Four Freedoms, inspired by an FDR speech), by Norman Rockwell.  The image always comes to mind when thinking about town hall meetings.

Freedom of Speech (from Four Freedoms, inspired by an FDR speech), by Norman Rockwell. The image always comes to mind when thinking about town hall meetings.

The major issues discussed at the meeting were proposed budget cuts.  Mae Flexer is on the appropriations committee and currently making a new budget to submit to Governor Dannel Malloy that shifts many of his proposed cuts.  A hearty crowd showed up to speak out against devastating elimination of funding to the Department of Developmental Services.  Parents spoke out against specific bills that would require their children to get vaccinated.  A few others in the crowd were there to complain about awful cable service and fees they are getting through Frontier, a new provider to the area.

There were, however, two speakers that were much more memorable than the rest.  The first was a man whose opinion the politicians in the front of the room seemed genuinely interested in.  They didn’t just listen to him, they asked questions and solicited ideas.   He was a business owner in MA responding to a radio show response of Flexer’s talking about people leaving CT behind.  He gave us all an economics lesson courtesy of a college lecture that stuck.  There are three ways to create real wealth: make it (manufacturing), mine it (digging or drilling), or grow it (agriculture).  Everything else is just trading.  Due to a 30 year course of irresponsible fiscal policies in CT, this man decided to set up shop across the border.  When Flexer asked why he made that decision specifically, he referenced the high taxes and burdensome regulations saying reminiscing the thought, “I don’t think we’ll grow here.”  Rovero connected by saying that regulations are worse than taxes and referenced that his grand kids who are trying to run an ice cream shop have to answer to TWELVE different agencies.  Holy cow.

State Senator Mae Flexer and State Rep. Danny Rovero at Putnam Town Hall, March 20, 2015.

State Senator Mae Flexer and State Rep. Danny Rovero at Putnam Town Hall, March 20, 2015.

The superstar of the day was Pheasant man, a calm yet nervous fellow who spoke to us all using solid logic and numerically sound evidence.  Every year the pheasant stocking program is funded solely by the previous year’s pheasant hunting tag purchases.  $152,000 was raised for this year’s stocking through last year’s purchase of 5,000-6,000 pheasant licenses across the state.  Malloy is now looking to reallocate these funds to some other program. Pheasant man was arguing the sheer ridiculousness of this as it is a self sustaining program where hunters buy in to be guaranteed a stock in the following year as well.  This is not money that should be in the general fund that is open to reallocation as contractual payment is made with a dictate on what exactly the fees are being used on.  Now I can’t say I had previously thought or cared about pheasants at all in my life, but this man had an excellent point. It pretty much sounded like stealing to me.  Furthermore, Pheasant man cited a UCONN study saying that hunters bring $109 million of revenue into the state each year through lodging, licenses, equipment purchases, etc.  Why would we kill a self-sustaining program that also helps generate additional needed funds for the state? I don’t know.  Good point, Pheasant man.

Whether you like to hunt, oppose hunting, or know nothing about it, the numbers make sense.

Whether you like to hunt, oppose hunting, or know nothing about it, the numbers make sense.

After a few other speakers and our outspoken mayor dropping gems like, “I can’t remember his name, but I talk to him [police sergeant] every week” and “Wish they never did away with the death penalty” I figured there were enough people saying stupid things so I should chime in with something intelligent. Feeling empowered from the union escapades of the previous week, I stood up to speak out against over testing.  The current system of high stakes testing destroys the inquiry of the kids we care about, fails to provide timely feedback, costs a tremendous amount of money, and is used unjustly as a measure of student potential and teacher success.  That’s the sparknotes version, but I hit a two minute stream of consciousness and when done, I was surprised to hear the crowd clapping for me…they didn’t even do that for Pheasant man and he crushed it!  That just goes to show that everyone cares a tremendous amount about their children and the future of this community.  With this being the case across the state, it’s a wonder that we keep enacting measures that hurt our education system and our young learners.

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Every year, the Connecticut Education Association takes $489 from my paychecks.  The National Education Association takes $183, and my own local union takes…well I’ve never actually looked into it since the deduction is automatic and I can’t stop it anyway.  I teach units in US History about the importance of unions, workers’ rights and collective bargaining, yet I regarded my own union as a convoluted pyramid scheme I was locked into since there is no “opt-out” option.  How’s that for professional cognitive dissonance? I know they negotiate our contracts, which being the arrogant, invincibility-complex young man that I am, always left me wondering if I could have done a better job striking a deal on my own.  The only other thing I knew about our teacher’s union was that they will provide a lawyer if you either do something bad, or get accused of doing something bad.  As I didn’t ever plan on doing anything wrong or making any enemies that would bring false allegations against me, I felt this money to be unjustly stolen.  Around $800 each year is taken and I have gotten nothing in return.

CEA Orientation Group, 2015. Taken from CEA Facebook page.

CEA Orientation Group, 2015. Taken from CEA Facebook page.

 

The CEA boasts 43,000 active members and 6,000 retired members, who can either pay a lifetime membership fee of $250 or $55 each year.  They also boast 3,000 student members, but I’m not sure what the financial obligation for a college student is.  Overall, this inflates the Hartford cash-cow to $22 million of annually flowing dues money.  Now, rest-assured, every single penny brought in is also spent, as verified by outside CPA firm audits; but what does such a powerful sum of pooled capital really get? How is it put to use? What does it buy?

 Had I been as resourceful as I pride myself in being, I could have just logged onto the CEA website and figured all of this out.

The CEA headquarters across from the Capitol is owned outright by CEA and was built in 1991.  CEA itself is housed on the 5th and top story where membership, media, policy and all of the things one may associate with the union actually go down.  Each floor below it is devoted to its own specific role that is vital to CEA’s mission and a whole 292 parking spaces exist in the convenient underground garage to support the individuals working in this 113,000sq.ft. facility.  All of this is according to Glenn Silva, Director of Technology, Administrative, and Building Operations.  I’m not sure why one job title covers technology and the building, but if it works, it works.

CEA Board Room

CEA Board Room

It is up on the 5th floor where Vinnie Lofredo, Director of Government and Political Relations organizes testimony to be given before the General Assembly.  He showed off his stylish lanyard and tag that all lobbyists are required to wear in conjunction with regulation policies that require they report all money and time spent politically.  I’m absolutely positive these regulations came amid the shady, closed door dealings for which lobbyists are renowned in pop culture.  While many policies that make the legislative agenda through the time and effort of his team seem like they should be common sense initiatives anyway, I recognize I am looking at this from the bias perspective of an educator.  If the existence of lobbying is necessary in this modern day labyrinth of laws, I’m happy to have the gears of the political machine greased by people in my own self-interest.  At least the peculiar organization that is the education lobby is funded by educators as opposed to some sketchy third part conglomerate and maintains wholesome and moral goals.  At the end of the day we are trying to shape laws to benefit all students and provide more equitable learning opportunities.

Of course, political relies on public opinion and a valuable asset to any reform is to win the hearts and minds of the people.  Laurel Killough is the New Media Coordinator/Editorial Assistant for Communications who connects educators and the general public to the issues.  Utilizing tried and true methodologies like the CEA Advisor, coverage of special events and projects, 21st Century media tweets its presence as well.  Social media of all types are leveraged which in part help provide a platform for digital content which go beyond blogs and standard web applications to include sublime videography most recently coming out with this official commercial:

 

The CEA will help local chapters establish a web presence and give tips for growing a platform that will function properly and attract real usage from the membership.  Dave Canales, webmaster and lead designer at CEA has invested three years of coding his golden vision into CEA.org to transform it from an antiquated plop on Google’s baziliionth page of search results for “CEA” to a number one result that offers streamlined and user friendly information diffused through a gorgeous web platform.  The site houses resources that union members want, need, and use. All negotiated contracts are posted on the site, so if members are entering negotiations and want to see what other districts have used for legal language to establish a clause for sabbatical, or class size caps, the previously unavailable information gives teachers negotiating power.  Teachers can see decisions being made in Hartford that will affect them and unite to take courses of action in support or defense of proposed policy.  One other beautiful feature of the webpage is a listing of upcoming sponsored events, many of which the union covers costs for.  Want to learn about racial inequality in education, teaching sexual tolerance, education and the law, or connect with other educators at political events? There’s an event to suite your needs! The webpage is an important tool that unites us as a profession.  Knowledge is power and that’s exactly what the CEA website offers us all.

 

The CEA contract section has tons of valuable resources.  Looking at job postings and wondering what the salary schedule is for certain districts? Look it up at cea.org

The CEA contract section has tons of valuable resources. Looking at job postings and wondering what the salary schedule is for certain districts? Look it up at cea.org

 

Linette Branham, the director of Policy, Research, and Reform took from and center of the CEA boardroom to explain her role in the noble cause of education.  She first warmed us up by saying that there is an “Evaluations” tab on the CEA website to see policy letters that the Governor and other higher-ups send to Superintendents.  I think everyone was pleased to learn of the transparency available and the fact that if we wanted to see initiatives or political information coming down the pipe, we could easily do so.  Loving this option, she next stated that she was in charge of TEAM.  Now her immediate inclination was to go on a jaunt about how superior this program is to BEST, the old system of new teacher training and induction. Being one of the only young bloods around the table, I think I was one of a handful who understood the stressful fury of TEAM, but I also recognized that compared to BEST, this was a cake walk.  I have in fact never, EVER, heard one good thing about BEST, so am thrilled it has been trashed.  As I pondered on the words Linette spoke and thought about my own early education excursions, I realized just how important the program was.  While it was a stressful struggle to be a new teacher and balance the million things a new classroom bombarded me with, I had to research and experiment in the classroom while tracking results, being observed, and log a final report.  The process for 2 years was daunting, but I can honestly say it made me a better educator.  I still use pieces of a token economy I implemented in year one and all of the research in innovation has led me to where I am today: constantly trying new things.  I have flipped my class, gamified learning, and am rolling out Mastery Based Learning and Standards Based Grading next year.  My mentor has continued to be my guide in the district long after the program has finished, and knowing that many educators don’t get the guidance to find current trends in education post-college, I always provide information on that topic at the start of professional development seminars I run.  So, TEAM, to me you are like high school English class.  I hated you at the time, but looking back, I am so fortunate you were there to give me the skills that are contributing to my current success.  Thanks, Linette. Just for fun, if you want to see an unknown draft of my first TEAM paper, you can do that here: Brian’s First TEAM Paper.

The entire fourth floor of CEA’s building is devoted to workman’s compensation, which is a legal matter that my mind has never dwelled on much.  Still this seems like a floor worthy cause, especially as we are first of all a labor union and also looking to include mental impairments in coverage as well. For more information on that, please see the following article: Workers Comp to Cover Mental Impairment

The third floor houses legal counsel.  Everything I gleaned about their operation comes from Chris Hankins, head of that department. From his seven minute synopsis, I could tell this is the type of guy I’d love to have a coffee with; authentically enthusiastic and humorous at the evening hour he spoke with us, his demeanor definitely made him a joy to listen to.  Chris and the two other members of his counsel have a 72 page booklet for distribution called “Teachers and the Law” which they will bring to a PD of the same name if 30 or more educators in the district attend.  He says the 3rd floor is rather empty, but that legal has to have its own floor because when the press comes to cover CEA activity, if they caught crying teachers seeking consultation, it would be bad publicity.  On that topic, Chris says it is their official policy to have a box of tissues in every single room and that “men cry harder than women.” He hit a noticeable number of tangents cursing DCF, so while legalities restrict him from talking about what exactly he sees teachers for, it is not good.  The hierarchy for problem solving in the union goes like this: 3,000 building reps–>157 Union Presidents–>24 Regional UniServ Reps–>3 Counselors.  We were assured that the counselors get involved only after the hierarchy has been exhausted and it is almost certainly a career ending event.  Basically, if you see Chris Hankins come into your school, you’re going to want to talk to him because he’s probably an awesome guy, but you’re also about to have the worst day of your life.

 

Men cry harder than women.

 

The second floor houses the American Federation of Teachers, which I believed was the other “rival” union in the state.  When I worked in New Haven, they represented us and as I learned in orientation, they serve mostly large urban districts.  Apparently in the 1980’s these two unions were poaching each other’s members.  If CEA was perceived to not handle something properly, a teacher from a district where this happened was likely to call AFT who would then rally the district to switch the entity that represents them and the long, expensive tug-of-war with membership would begin.  By the late 80’s the strain had been seen, and for the greater good, both unions called a truce.  They decided to join their powers and collectively bargain with politicians for better schools, better support, and better outcomes.  So while the unions remain two separate entities, they act as friends of a common cause that have united to improve the lives of educators, students, and families which will have an untold ripple effect across our state and nation.

 

Sandy Hook Memorial. It was promised to be built on Capitol property, but was denied for unknown (to me) reasons. It's now housed in the CEA lobby across the street.

Sandy Hook Memorial. It was promised to be built on Capitol property, but was denied for unknown (to me) reasons. It’s now housed in the CEA lobby across the street.

To see the high resolution photo album from the trip, click here: Brian F Germain’s Flickr Account, CEA/NEA Orientation Album

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Today, I just happened to stumble upon this article on CNN entitled, “America’s Students Failing to Learn History.” (well except there weren’t capital letters in the title because CNN doesn’t do that for some reason).  The statistics actually broke my heart a little bit, as they would any history teacher or anyone who cares about the future of our nation.

It’s vital that young Americans learn the history of our amazing nation.

Being an American requires knowing what it means to be an American. It’s the fabric that binds us together and helps us understand who we are.

Today, unfortunately, many of our students are failing to learn American history, including our founding principles and values. And they’re failing to learn why America remains an exceptional nation.

For two generations, we’ve watched our nation’s memory of the past slip away.

The problem of historic amnesia is widespread, as evidenced by alarming results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which tests students in grades four, eight and 12 in several broad subject areas every few years.

Among the survey’s most frightening findings is our students’ lack of knowledge in U.S. history. Just 20% of fourth-graders, 17% of eighth-graders and 12% of 12th-graders were at grade-level proficiency in American history in the 2010 exams.

This lack of knowledge goes to the very basics.

Only one in three fourth-graders could identify the purpose of the Declaration of Independence. Less than half understood why George Washington was an important American leader. And a majority of fourth-graders didn’t know why the Pilgrims left England.

These are frightening statistics, indicating that our children lack an understanding of our nation’s history and the traits that have made America great.

As the author of three children’s books on American history, I’ve visited many classrooms across the country to share the adventures of Ellis the Elephant, my time-traveling pachyderm, with children ages 4 to 8. I’ve found most young students to be energetic, enthusiastic and eager to learn.

We can get children engaged in learning at an early age if we as adults have enthusiasm for learning as well.

Our history includes wonderful role models. In writing “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (published this week, in which Ellis the Elephant discovers the American Revolution), I was reminded that the brave men and women who fought to win our freedom were surprisingly young. Thomas Jefferson was 33. James Madison was 25. James Monroe was just 18, barely older than a high-school graduate. And yet these patriotic heroes were engaged in profound, often dangerous work. They were models of sacrifice, civic-mindedness and determination.

With education surveys showing dismal results, we must find creative ways to teach our children American history. In “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and the Ellis the Elephant series, my goal is to highlight the wonderful achievements of our country, to arouse a love for America and to communicate why America is indeed a special nation.

Like children’s books, educational video games, too, have enormous potential to make history come alive. And we are only beginning to see the potential of online systems like Khan Academy to revolutionize learning. There are many ways to improve the challenged state of education, but parents, teachers and mentors must pursue them eagerly.

It was 232 years ago this month, on October 19, 1781, that the British surrendered to George Washington’s Continental Army at Yorktown. This pivotal moment concluded an eight-year war in which thousands of brave men and women gave their lives to win the freedom we enjoy today. Yet we are for the first time in our history beginning to lose sight of our founders’ sacrifice and wisdom. We must fight historical amnesia to ensure that future generations continue to appreciate the greatness of our nation.

-Callista Gingrich

Callista Gingrich, while presenting data that makes me want to scream also presents the important point that all across the world, we now have unprecedented potential to get people hooked on history by making it FUN.  Every day in my classroom, I strive to make history come alive the way my teachers in high school failed to do for me.  I’ve ventured into the flipped class and gamification because of the benefits it offers students. Engagement is up, learning is increasing and visible daily, and we are acquiring more skills overall.  It used to be enough to simply teach facts and dates, but in this day and age, teachers need to be curators of interesting content and entertainers.  My students don’t care about how many little random facts I know, but they do care about how fun we can make learning together.  If we want students to fall in love with history, we have to make them fall in love with the way we teach.

I once worked for a man who called himself Mr. Salmon (no joke), but I’m not one to fight the current and swim upstream on everything.  My students are digital natives and grew up with Youtube, cell phones, and video games.  Leveraging that technology has been a gift from the heavens in terms of how they consume information under my supervision.

*Side note: While pivotal and of the utmost importance in the Revolutionary War, the surrender of General Cornwallis did not effectively end all fighting, as battles raged on for almost another year.

Here’s what a colleague of mine had to say in reference to the above article:

Here’s my theory on this…

  1.  The popularity of STEM education.  Less focus on history and social studies.
  2. The popularity of getting students “career ready.”  Don’t need to know history and social studies if you’re an Accountant or Engineer, etc.
  3. The popularity of a Howard Zinn approach to history and social studies.  Washington and Jefferson owned slaves is what kids remember rather than their other contributions to our government.
  4. The popularity of comparing U.S. students to Finland, China, etc, and how we do in Math and Science, but not history or social studies.

Humanities departments in colleges are facing enrollment issues in history, religion, philosophy, etc. majors.  My view is that not everything in education or college should always have to translate to “skills needed for a future job.”  Sometimes, it’s good to know our history for the sake of being an educated, well-rounded, and civic-minded citizen, not just seeing the world in dollars and cents.  Thank god our Founders knew their history when creating our government.

P.S. – This reads like an op-ed but I think about this topic a lot.”

Spoken like a true analytical thinker, especially when considering this email was fired off in the four minute passing period between classes.  This is no surprise to any historians, as earning a degree in this worthy discipline really just means you know how to think critically, analyze anything thrown your way from Puritan thought to the NY Giants (lack of) offense, and write with such a connected flow we seem like children of Ernest Hemingway and Diana Ross.  Weird combination? Ok, so we are strangely clever too.  We need more historians in the world and more historical education.  Long live history!

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In the afternoon keynote address session at the 2013 RIDE Technology Conference, current Superintendent of the Year in the United States of America, Mark Edwards addressed a surprisingly small crowd of attendees.  In fact, from his presentation, I’m pretty sure he would also win the same title in Taiwan, Singapore, and several other countries if they were allowed to vote for him. Among this prestigious accolade, Edwards has also earned countless other serious awards for educational leadership and excellence that rolled off the tongue of the introduction speaker so quickly, not even Mavis Beacon herself could have typed them all fast enough.

Dr. Edwards earned his Ph.D. in education from Vanderbilt University, which consistently ranks as one of the finest colleges in the nation for Educational Leadership.  This title matters very little to anyone hanging on every word spoken in a soft southern accent because as William Wallace says in Braveheart, “Men don’t follow titles, they follow courage.”  Courage is the definitive virtue it took to show up at a less than perfect district and shift the antiquated educational paradigm leading to learned helplessness by putting old axioms to rest.

The great irony of the day was realized immediately as Dr. Edwards opened up his talk by saying what a big fan he was of acclaimed author and pop psychologist, Malcolm Gladwell who is known best for his two works, Outliers and Blink.  Dr. Edwards himself as well as his district are outliers on a plot of educational success and fortitude.  Although as a nation, we look at the model his district provides in Mooresville, NC and desperately want to secure that same level of success for ourselves and our posterity, we have yet to do so.  So what is it that makes this man Superintendent of the year?  What makes thousands of visitors flock to his district like bees to honey every year? In one word: Hope.

From Grade 3-Graduation, every single student has their own laptop in Mooresville, NC.  Dr. Edwards has figuratively tossed the books out the window as he has not purchased a single textbook since his tenure in the district began. Part of the reason for this is the cost he can save and devote to laptop purchases.  The inspirational line that hit the twitterverse instantly as he spoke it was, “For the cost of textbooks, our students have access to the Library of Congress times a million” The main logic justifying this move is how rapidly the world (and thus relevant knowledge) is changing and evolving.  Turning to the crowd to prove his point, he solicited answers to the challenge of naming the 10 largest cities in the world.  The group of educators with a quick glance estimated average age of 60 embarrassed themselves by failing to guess a single one.  When the question was modified to simply name the country where the top 3 are, no one hit the target.  “India, Brazil, China, United States” people yelled. One man who needs to return to 8th grade geography class even boldly guessed, “Africa”.

For the cost of textbooks, our students have access to the Library of Congress times a million.

The answer was Pakistan.  With that, Dr. Edwards highlighted how important it is to have access to the most current information as the shifting globalization and connectivity of the world offers us answers to all our basic knowledge questions in real time.  What we as human beings do with the information available to us is what matters most which is why applicable skill building needs to be the focus of effective education.  Just consider the research of Dr. Benjamin Bloom and his famous educational taxonomy; knowledge is on the bottom of the learning pyramid which means it should be the most basic step.  The more time spent worrying about simple comprehension, the less time spent on the imperative top of this pyramid.  Technology helps to take care of this need.

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Anxious participants file into the RI Convention Center for the morning keynote panel.

To kick off the conference, the keynote panel made mention of a few pieces of vital information that made every tech guru in the audience embarrassed on behalf of American education as the wifi booted off several mobile devices regularly.  In Singapore, long renowned for having a worldwide dominant math learning culture, every student has an outlet in his or her locker.  Susan Patrick, President and CEO of iNACOL (http://www.inacol.org/) read from notes to make sure she got the line right saying, “Every home in Mongolia and even in the remote jungle has access to 3G” As she continued on to channel Lev Vygotsky and discuss the zone of proximal development, it became clear exactly how much of an advantage access to technology can make in creating autonomous and confident learners.

Every home in Mongolia and even in the remote jungle has access to 3G.

At the onset of the TED Talks 2013 Season in February, a $1 Million award was given to Sugata Mitra for his educational research he refers to as The Hole in the Wall Gang. (http://www.ted.com/talks/sugata_mitra_build_a_school_in_the_cloud.html) In  multiple poor, rural areas of India, Mitra set up computer in a wall and tracked what happened as uneducated and poverty stricken youth began to access a machine they had never even knew existed.  Amazing things started to happen as children learned and taught each other how to surf the web, discovering that their computer was slow and leading them to request new specific parts.  By the end, the Hole in the Wall Gang had explored advanced topics like DNA replication learning terms like protein synthesis at the ripe old age of 8 and posing insightful questions.  Oh, and one more detail: these children only surfed the web in English, a language they were unfamiliar with in the beginning.

Let’s piece all of this together and try to wrap our heads around it for a moment.  Not only did a group of children learn to use a computer at a young age, but once they understood the mechanical operations of the machine, they had to learn English so they could use its processes to complete something worthwhile.  Only after these two steps were complete could they consume a seemingly limitless amount of information leading to advanced topics most can agree is well beyond their years.  The initial experiments were so successful and intriguing that funding was secured to replicate them in several different countries across the world, all of which validated the insanely captivating story of this self-organized learning with technology.

Mitra stresses how vital autonomy and curiosity are and that top-down instruction by itself does not get the results in education that we so desperately seek, something that Dr. Edwards echoed in his small group session. The adage that we must transform our instructional practices from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side” shows its face here.  There is no authority that has a more diverse or quicker line of information and answers than the web.  Not even Ken Jennings could beat super computer Watson on Jeopardy.  Google has become the answer to all of our information woes which is both scary and exhilarating.

Mitra argues that the computer has become the center of the education domain.  How can anyone who has been exposed to modern technology really argue with him?  The world has drastically changed, but for the most part we continue to employ an industrial-age, transmission model of education.  We must minimize the emphasis on basic content acquisition and instead focus on fostering student-driven inquiry, collaboration, creativity and innovation.  To truly embrace the rapidly changing world and apply these changes to education, we must also empower learners through effective student uses of technology.

Dr. Edwards took time in the morning keynote panel to advocate for some changes that education in our country needs to take.  He spoke out against sitting in traditional rows by saying, “we need work teams and groups to build, collaborate and create.”  This he says can not be done clinging tight to traditional thoughts of brick and mortar schools with rote memorization at the heart of learning.  This conjures up images of Scandinavian countries, which by the way are all kicking our butts in multiple measures of educational aptitude, that have abandoned traditional classrooms in favor of unique workspaces. Susan Patrick added that “We are locking kids into seat time instead of mastering concepts.  What technology does is it masters your time so you’re able to create.  It’s not just about the technology though, its about the personalization. We don’t know where the future is going, but we need the tools and the skills technology provides.”

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A pioneer in progressive education, this school was the first in Sweden to completely eliminate classrooms. Instead, there are collaborative workspaces throughout the technology infused building.

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The unique design of work space in this Swedish school encourages students to explore their creativity and take ownership of their learning. Images: Kim Wendt/Rosan Bosch from smartplanet.com

Research with students also supports the necessity for new approaches in education.  According to a Pew Survey cited by Dr. Edwards, “90% of high school students see no connection between high school and their future.”  Such a dismal statistic only means one thing: education needs to improve.  At the very least, it needs to get to the point where our students have hope.  In Mooresville, hope may have been lacking at one point.  The district that Dale Earnhart, Jr. graduated from has 40% of students on the free and reduced price lunch program, although 70% qualify, but pride keeps them from accepting assistance.  Out of 115 districts in the state, Mooresville ranks 114 in funding per student at $7,000/student/year.  With 6,000 students K-12, this $42 million bill may look like a whopping sum to the unsuspecting taxpayer, but there is so much that goes into producing citizens who contribute to society while maintaining fulfilling lives, that any price tag actually seems supremely inadequate.

From the outside looking in, it appears the Mooresville has the odds stacked against them.  Perhaps this is what intrigues educators, journalists and everyday fans of underdogs around the world. Despite being second to last in funding in the state, Mooresville is 2nd from the top in graduation rate.  How is such a complete dominance of the odds even possible?  There has to be more than finagling the funding to afford new Mac Book Airs for every student and the banning of books from a Superintendent who was once VP at a prominent textbook company. It may start with laptops, but that is not the whole story; thousands of schools have 1:1 programs that empower children with the technological ability of giants.  Time to dig a little deeper.

Reports cards have been around since the dawn of formal education to communicate academic progress. Parents, neighbors and friends of the family all have old copies from their youth archived in a plastic storage bin in the attic no matter how old they are.  Just because they are a staple in education, doesn’t mean the philosophy behind their existence sits well with everyone.  After he laid the smackdown on textbooks, Mark Edwards suplexed report cards.  In the age of connectivity, they were a frivolous additive without benefit to students, teachers, or parents.  Instead a new Learning Management System (LMS) was adopted that provides reports in real time.  Grades are updated daily so no one ever has to play the guessing game with progress or achievement.  This has led to an untold increase student accountability which is a skill that has dwindled in the 21st Century with dire effects.

Teachers in Mooresville find themselves in a more progressive role, which definitely has the late, great proponent of evolving education, John Dewey smiling in his grave.  There is no chalk and talk in Mooresville where ABSENT are neatly lined rows of desks that all face the teacher in the front of the room.  “Teachers are roaming conductors who teach from the middle of the room,” Edwards said. The classrooms have collaborate workstations around the room where students work like different sections of an orchestra while the teacher checks in and gives each section the support and feedback they need.  In fact, Dr. Edwards believes that students will learn more from each other then they will from the teacher.  At an earlier session, a student from Pleasant View Elementary School said, “Sometimes we have really great stuff and if teachers and parents don’t listen, we might miss it” Mooresville employs the idea of student empowerment more than most would dream of.  Students are driven by inquiry and in an instance last year, a group wanted to join a robotics competition.  Without formal training, or much focused guidance by an educator, they put the skills they did have to use and coupled with determination, they found themselves state champions a few months later.

Sometimes we have really great stuff and if teachers and parents don’t listen, we might miss it.

In modern times, all of the youth educators encounter are considered digital natives.  They grew up in the world of social media like facebook, twitter, instagram, and even youtube where they all have a unique little world that revolves around themselves.  Some post every thought they have, some send racy pictures, some bully others.  How does a school mitigate all these risks that immediately scare other districts out of buying into such a technologically rich system?  Dr. Edwards compares the issue to a previous piece of revolutionary educational technology- the pencil.  To critics who blame the technology for cyberbullying, sexting, or other instances of misuse, Edwards responds with saying that we wouldn’t blame a pencil for a rumor that is written on the bathroom wall; we would blame the student who wrote it.  The same holds true with technology where as learners who view, create and curate their own content, students are always held responsible for their actions.

The district buys in to Common Sense Media (http://www.commonsensemedia.org/educators) which is a program that teaches digital citizenship and receives a 1hr/month time commitment from everyone in the district.  Students learn about digital footprints, social media farming, cyber etiquette, and more; all necessary lessons in the district that once rolled out the largest laptop enterprise in the world which garnered the attention of Steve Jobs who spoke there in 2001.  Teaching digital citizenship is a vital pillar of the school’s laptop program that was most certainly not implemented by accident.  One of the main themes of the day was that no one should ever buy into technology before they have a plan.  Many districts fail on this front because they secure a grant and purchase iPads or a laptop cart before they have a real plan for how to effectively use the technology, including training all parties involved.  Money should be the last concern as Mooresville is currently operating it’s laptop system on less than $1.25/day including all hardware, software, updates, and support (this does not include infrastructure). That’s the price of a bottle of Coca-Cola!

No one should ever buy into technology before they have a plan.

Really what has happened is that in Mooreseville, NC an empowering, engaging culture of education has been forged.  Everyone has bought into it from students and teachers in the classroom to community members whose tax money provides support.  A sense of pride has been instilled in everyone so that any deviation from the path of success becomes a violation of a strongly expected norm.  There are no external rewards here, no tricks, no smoke and mirrors.  Students don’t get paid for perfect attendance or good grades as other school systems have tried.  The task of painstakingly transforming a district to breed intrinsic motivation has been adopted by all in a manner that would leave Drive author, Daniel Pink with his jaw dropping on the ground. Certainly, it takes a village to raise a child.

The data is clear in presenting a picture of all around improve academics. In the last five years, out of school suspensions have dropped 64% and continue to go down.  As Dr. Edwards mentioned that he was approached by the NAACP his very first week in district with a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination in the disparity of discipline in his schools, it is important to note this suspension rate is proportionately equal across all racial and ethnic demographics.  The high school graduation rate is an impressive 97% and still continues to climb.  Last year, a 1% jump meant that hundreds more walked across the stage to receive their diploma than the previous year.  The children of Mooresville continue their journey at ivy league schools and the finest universities across the nation that cater to all their worldly ambitions.

Dr. Edwards attributes this not just to technology, or alternative teaching styles, but to love.  When he first wrote his educationally earth shattering book, Every Child, Every Day, (http://www.amazon.com/Every-Child-Day-Conversion-Achievement/dp/0132927098) his publishers told him to leave out talk of love.  They thought it wouldn’t bode well with readers in the Northeast who apparently are stereotyped to be of a hardened nature. Sticking to his beliefs, he described the impact of positive mental and emotional supports that led to higher student achievement.  As a superintendent, and even as former principal in Mufreesboro, TN, he made a point to visit teachers’ classrooms just to say thank you.  This simple action set a tone of compassion in the district which was then cultivated in teachers and students alike.  In a world of stress and struggle to achieve the highest test scores, many often lose sight of the human factor in education.  We are all seeking love, approval, and success, so Dr. Edwards makes a point to take a holistic approach by ensuring the souls of everyone in district are smiling.  Kids don’t learn when they are mad, and teachers aren’t effective when they are experiencing negative emotion.  Curriculum is important, but love is what makes a kid jump from good to great.

Curriculum is important, but love is what makes a kid jump from good to great.

In the studies of Sugata Mitra previously mentioned, many adults (usually retired teachers) were hired to provide virtual encouragement to groups of kids via skype.  They lauded the accomplishments of these young learners and motivated them the way an effective office manager would his workers.  As humans, we all want to be successful; nobody ever wakes up and says, “I want to fail today.”  Students have the desire and ability to be champions of whatever is put in front of them, but sometimes they just need the love and encouragement that educators too often forget to provide in the educational equation of scholarly success.  Educators don’t teach a subject, they teach the student; if America can get back on track with making education all about the student again, there is hope yet.

When Barack Obama visited Mooresville Middle School on June 6, 2013, he spoke to the nation about the potential in leveraging the best educational practices and particularly in harnessing the power of technology to give all learners the opportunity they deserve. “So that’s the spirit that’s reflected in the motto of your school district — “every child, every day.”  It’s that fundamental belief that no matter who you are, no matter what you look like, no matter where you come from, every child can learn.  Every child can succeed.  Every child, every day, deserves that chance.  We’ve got an obligation to give every young person that chance.” Read the full speech here: http://bit.ly/MooresvilleTech

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The Commander in Chief gets a tech tutorial while viewing a math project during a tour of Mooresville Intermediate School on Thursday, June 6, 2013. President Obama was in Mooresville on his “Middle Class Jobs and Opportunity Tour.”
(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Cynics will say there are too many obstacles to make Mooresville the norm, that they are a simple outlier and our nation as a whole could never achieve the success that Mooresville has. However, if we had half the grit that the students who come from that district, we would find a path to educational glory and turn to naysayers to proudly proclaim, “Yes We Can!”

Prominent Puritan and founding father of Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop said the colony must act as “A city upon a hill” to provide a beacon of hope for all those around.  The early settlers of this Bible Commonwealth were striving to be a shining example for all colonists to emulate. This is exactly what Mooresville does.  They have found a model that is both functional and feasible which they have been executing for years.  So while changes in the world of education sometimes move as slow as molasses in a New England winter, educators and policy makers must not only embrace the evolution of education, but push for constant changes in the name of progress; the stakes are too high not to move forward.  Mooresville has provided a gold standard as a “City upon a hill” and given us all something to strive toward.  We must all heed the words of the teachers and students at Pleasant View Elementary School in Providence to know that “Good enough is not enough when better is possible.”  Mooresville is the shining example that something better is possible.

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Photos courtesy of Deborah A. Gist, Rhode Island Commissioner of Education

For more information on the digital conversion of Mooresville Graded School District, view the Cisco report: https://www.cisco.com/web/strategy/docs/education/CiscoEduEveryLearner.pdf

For more information on the 2013 RIDE Technology Conference, visit the event website: http://www.ride.ri.gov/StudentsFamilies/EducationPrograms/VirtualLearning/TechnologyConference.aspx

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