Thursday, January 24, 2013

Thoughts on the Leave No Child Inside Conference

[Update 6/17: the title of this post has been corrected]

Finally! Some time to write about the Chicago Wilderness Leave No Child Inside conference at Triton College a couple Saturdays ago (you can see my tweets from the sessions here). While its focus was more on the importance of getting kids outside as opposed to  full-on nature education, I learned abut a few interesting programs teachers can incorporate into their lessons, particularly their science lessons:

Budburst is a program sponsored by the National Science Foundation where anyone--children or adults, groups or individuals--can contribute to scientists' understanding of plant cycles and seasonal changes by observing trees or plants anywhere at all--in a forest preserve,  a city square, or back yard. These "citizen scientists" fill out a very simple form to collect data points. There's a website and a mobile app for ease of collection; folks can do it just once or regularly, for one plant or many. Data points submitted by people all over the country are freely available for anyone to see. There are plenty of resources for teachers on the site. The Chicago Botanic Garden, project Budburst's local partner, has additional resources.

The Alliance for the Great Lakes sponsors beach clean-ups, which not only remove garbage from shorelines and water, but--as important if not more so for the Alliance--provide an opportunity to gather data. Adopt-a-Beach volunteers are encouraged to log the garbage they pick up as well the wind, temperature, and other conditions. Scientists can use this data to understand better how conditions affect the spread of garbage and therefore how to target initiatives for healthier beaches and waters. As wth Budburst, anyone can go to the Alliance website and look at the results of thousands of people's observations.

The Forest Preserve District of Dupage County has an ambitious Citizen Science program in the works. Kids and adults can track animal and plant sitings in Dupage County and submit their reports to the Observe Your Preserve website. A searchable database will be created from these data points combined with basic information about the creatures and plants--it looks like a beta version, at least, is already up.

In all three cases a teacher could coordinate a many-faceted science lesson around observation, data collection, and data comparisons and analysis, as well as anatomy of flora or fauna or weather patterns. There are other resources for teachers on these sites, too, for things to do both inside and (especially) outside the classroom.

The other session that I'm still thinking about was on encouraging ethnic and cultural diversity in the get-kids-outdoors movement. The presentation, about a successful collaboration between the Field Museum and the Bronzeville Historical Society, was fine, but I found the discussion afterward pretty deflating. The presenters asked us what we've done or could do to bring greater diversity to the outdoorsy-kid projects we were engaged in. While, after some initial perplexed silence, participants talked about the importance of building relationships with leaders in the target communities and taking measures to ensure said leaders have a key role in the planning and outreach, few in the almost entirely white audience seemed to have implemented those ideas, at least with any sort of strength or confidence or consistency or success--though, granted, that would be why they were at the session--but nor did I get the feeling the session left anyone feeling more equipped to address the issue in their programs. The discussion just seemed sort of hollow to me. I can certainly sympathize--this sort of reaching out across cultural realms is difficult and fraught with potential gaffes, especially in an ethnic archipelago like Chicago, even more especially from the confines of a distressingly white milieu such as the environmental movement. How to authentically change the demographics of a movement or habit or behavior? It's an important question, and it's certainly not an easy one. Well, here's a pretty thoughtful article on the subject...but the trick is implementation, right?--consistent, authentic, knowledgable, and widespread implementation.

Next month I plan to visit a few nature schools and/ or experiential schools. I'm really interested in where they get their curriculum from, and in how they answer the diversity question.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Saturday: Leave No Child Indoors Conference 2013

This Saturday I am attending the Leave No Child Indoors conference put on by Chicago Wilderness. I am excited! This past week I spoke with folks involved with the Children and Nature Forum in San Francisco and Islandwood in Seattle, and have read about similar programs elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest, but have barely begun to explore the nature-based education available here in my own region.

UPDATE: Assuming there is a signal in the conference area, I will be tweeting sessions using the hashtag #ncli. Follow me @Hear_K12 and the conference's feed @lnci.

On PBS's article, "The Battle Over Education Reform"

This past Tuesday, PBS's Azmat Khan wrote about K–12 education reform as part of the Frontline series, The Education of Michelle Rhee. I have not yet watched the series, so perhaps some of the things I talk about below are addressed there. But the article, anyway, at once summarizes the divisions in ed reform and illuminates why this frustrating debate is going nowhere.

One of the most contentious movements in ed reform now is the charter school movement. Charter schools started as grass-roots, small-scale alternatives in communities important to the individual founders. This was its state when I taught in San Francisco at the turn of the millennium. Nowadays, many charter schools are run by large networks with a central office resembling something between a business and a school district. These networks are often backed by wealthy foundations and, with some notable exceptions, the teachers are not unionized.

And therein lies the hullabaloo. Where some see innovation and opportunity, others see privatization and carpetbaggery. In the public discourse, at least, there are pro-charter reformy types and anti-charter teacherly types, and never the twain shall meet. Of course, there is a multitude of nuanced opinions one may have, but those are not given much breathing space.

So back to the article. Khan describes charter schools' structure, their financing, and their promise as well as their pitfalls, and then summarizes the carrying on in the edusphere about whether charters yield better results than traditional public schools.  Pro-charter folks say the data favors charters;  anti-charter folks say the (same) data doesn't. This horse-race calling is never ending. It's  also an empty proxy for philosophical differences and territorial disputes. Isn't this data based on test results? Test results are a tiny component of what makes a high-functioning school. Educators all know this, whether they are charter school supporters or detractors (though charter school funders and policy-makers don't seem able or willing to understand this, and that unfortunate ignorance has railroaded  education policy for the past twelve years). What about student safety? What about teacher safety, for that matter? What about study and work conditions? What about facilities condition and management? What about orderliness, clarity of function and purpose, a caring tone combined with an expectation of excellence? Children's needs, and schools' success along a multitude of vectors, are poorly represented through test scores, to say the least. Test scores being equal, one school might still be vastly preferable to another.

It seems to me two things have to happen: first, policy-makers, legislators, and the wealthy people and institutions who invest in schools these days need to develop a better understanding of the uses, and especially the limitations, of testing; and secondly, as the article mentions, folks on all sides need to get serious about culling the stuff that works at charter schools and applying it to the traditional public school system without either side starting a spitting contest. Until then, charter-lovers will use incomplete, interpretable data points to make the claims that benefit the beliefs they already have, and charter-haters will do exactly the same, with the same data, and nothing will change.

Next up: teacher reforms. The article outlines the discussions around teacher tenure and tools for evaluating teacher quality. I'm not going to get into how flawed evaluating teachers on children's test scores is--that's been discussed enough elsewhere, and the Khan article doesn't dwell on it either. It spends more time talking about attempts to improve teacher training programs, which I'm glad to see, but there's another big piece here that is missing and that just doesn't come up much in the discourse.  There is little acknowledgement that the last century's working conditions are not conducive to this century's expectations, and that last century's attitudes about teachers and teaching are disrespectful and out-of-touch in the lens of this century. Yes, let's ensure smart people well-suited to teaching enter the profession--but let's also be honest about the disconnect between what America expects of its teachers and what America thinks of them and provides for them.

Those are the two most controversial items, and the ones for which the debate simply must be reframed lest we hurt ourselves with all the gnashing of teeth and cracking of knuckles and hitting of heads against walls. The article also touches on character education programs and the search for the best way to instill values such as curiosity, self-control, and grit (note to funders and pols: not testing!), and on the strategy of improving schooling through deep investment in whole communities, such as with the Harlem Children's Zone.

Khan notes that some question whether investment in a community's health, nutrition, and safety is "the practical way forward." I was dumbfounded by this--what could the argument against healthy kids growing into adulthood in an environment relatively free of violence, uncertainty, and fear possibly be?--so I looked at the Brookings Institute report Khan cites and...I'm still processing it. I guess that is a blog for another time.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

2013 Predictions?

It will be interesting to review this list of predictions for 2013, put together by past NEA president John Wilson, and see where they've gone. It reads more like a wishlist than a set of predictions to me, but I am congenitally incapable of donning rose-colored glasses, so maybe I'm just not seeing it right.

EdWeek's Rick Hess makes 2013 predictions, too, infused with tongue-in-cheek hyperbole (which strikes me as an excellent way to hedge against coming out too terribly wrong 365 days from now--clever!). His overlap some with Wilson's but strike me as more realistic, less utopian, and more nuts-and-bolts.

Hack Education's Audrey Watters opted out of making ed tech predictions this year, citing her incorrect predictions last year--and sounding as super articulate and insightful about her own self-doubt as she does about any other subject she covers. Do you read her blog? It's smart.

2013 ed predictions: What are some of yours?