Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The knuckleball and innovation in schools

RA Dickey is a pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays. He throws the knuckleball.

While a member of the New York Mets RA Dickey won the CY Young Award - emblematic of the best pitcher in baseball. Knuckleball pitchers don't win the Cy Young Award. Dickey was the first to do so.

When Dickey accepted his Cy Young Award he said:

We live in a culture now that's got a very progressive mentality, which is fantastic as far as the association of the knuckleball goes. And that's a compliment to the vision and the imagination of the writers who voted. They didn't see the knuckleball as a trick pitch. They didn't see it as some kind of illegitimate weapon that you can use that isn't worthy. They saw it as a legitimate weapon. 

So what does RA Dickey winning the Cy Young Award have to do with innovation in education?

Perhaps, and this is just a hunch on my part, we are turning a corner. Perhaps, we are beginning to see that it is the outcome that is most important and not the means.

RA Dickey won the CY Young Award because he won a lot of games. It didn't matter that he threw the knuckleball. It didn't matter that he was not a typical fastball, curve ball kind of pitcher. He won because he won.

Schools exist to help students learn. We should use any means available to us to help students learn.

In the past we have viewed learning as "legitimate" only if it was teacher directed. Teachers were rated as effective if they were the primary "talkers" in the classroom. Teachers were rated as effective if they commanded the attention of the students in the room.

But that is not how students learn anymore.

Students are more independent. Students have a voice.

Student have developed their voice by gaining access to information through the Internet, by connecting with people from around the world through gaming platforms, by sharing ideas through Twitter and Snapchat.

We can no longer say that students should not have a voice in our classrooms. We cannot say that the only legitimate learning that occurs is in the classroom between the hours of 8:00 and 4:00.

Learning occurs throughout the day, throughout the night, throughout the year.

The definition of legitimate learning has to expand. Students have access to too much information.

The question is how do schools capitalize on this and expand learning opportunities inside of our schools?

The baseball writers accept that the knuckleball is now a "legitimate" pitch.

Can we as educators accept that student learning is different now than it has been in the past? And if we can accept that, how does it change how we do business?

Friday, April 29, 2016

Do we expect more from technology and less from each other?

Sherry Turkle gave an interesting TED talk in 2012 about the rise of technology and the fall of human connectedness. It is worth 19 minutes of your time.

In the talk, Ms. Turkle states that technology provides "the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship."

Friendship is messy. It requires time. There is a give and take. Through friendship we will experience deep grief and profound joy. But these emotions demand an investment of ourselves in the lives of our friends.

Sometimes it is just easier to text our friend. That way we give the illusion that we want to share in their grief or joy without actually having to get messy and caught up in this complicated thing called life. Instead of investing we "dabble" in the conversation.

As I listened to this TED talk I thought about how some people tend to place their trust in technology to solve the problems of education. Give every kid a laptop. Let them learn at their own pace.

To me this provides the illusion of learning without the demands of thinking.

Learning is messy. Learning requires time. Learning requires the guidance of a great teacher who can moderate the give and take that is required to learn. 

Learning is more than knowing facts and figures. Learning is figuring out how to think, how to reason, how to understand how things fit together. That requires that we develop the capacity to reflect and understand another perspective and see how that there is more than one way to solve a problem.

Technology is a great tool. Technology provides access to information. Technology provides access to networks of people that previously had been unavailable. Technology creates wonderful opportunities for learning.

But technology does not guarantee that you will learn. Students need teachers to help moderate and navigate the complexities inherent in learning.

At times technology appears to be a better answer to learning that our standard and common classrooms. That happens when teachers do not take the time to create engaging, meaningful, and powerful classrooms environments that call for the best from students. At times teachers and students tacitly agree that they will not push each other. Teachers and students agree that they will coast.

But just because that happens does not mean that is the way it is supposed to be or the way that it should be. Great teachers create classrooms that push students to learn, engage them in meaningful and purposeful reflection, and demand thinking.

Great teachers care for their students in ways that technology cannot. Technology can be a tool. But technology can never replace the wonderfully engaging classrooms that passionate teachers create.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Distracting ourselves to death

A random tweet on a random Tuesday makes me think that we pay too much attention to "what" we are teaching and not enough attention to "why" we are teaching.

While content is clearly important, perhaps more important is why we want students to learn the content in the first place. Whether it is the Common Core, the Michigan Grade Level Content Standards, or the High School Content Standards, I would hope that we would agree that content for content's sake is relatively unimportant.

Google has content. People have context, nuance, understanding.

Google has content. People make sense.

What is clearly more important that making sure our students "know" the content is ensuring that our students have the ability to think, to listen, to reason, to communicate, to create.

Instead of arguing about "just" the content, I want us to make sure students know why they are learning.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Dear Novi Students: Meet my Uncle Gordon

Dear Novi Students,

You probably have never heard of, never been to, and don't know much about Vinita, Oklahoma.

Guy Fieri, celebrity chef, once visited Vinita to see Clanton's Cafe for his "Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives" TV show. So there's that!

I've been to Vinita many times. It was home to my Uncle Gordon and Aunt Lenora.

Uncle Gordon owned a gas station in Vinita. Full service! Whenever my family would visit, which was almost every summer when I was young, he would let me spend an afternoon pumping gas and washing the car windows of customers.

Uncle Gordon loved politics. I think he was a Democrat, although I never really knew one way or the other. He could get pretty worked up about either party. He'd bust out a "dad gum" or a "my oh my" or a "heck fire" whenever politics was the topic of conversation. I can still see him pacing back and forth as he talked with my Dad and my uncles about this or that thing the Democrats of the Republicans were doing.

Uncle Gordon cared deeply about how people governed and how taxes were spent. He cared deeply about how politicians treated people and how well government worked for people. And, as you know, sometimes politicians don't govern very well and waste tax dollars. Sometimes, politicians seem callous toward the needs of people and government doesn't work very well. At other times, our elected representatives do a wonderful job and make significant contributions that improve the life of the people that they govern.

Regardless of his perspective - good or bad, I never heard Uncle Gordon call someone that he disagreed with a "loser." He never called politicians names. He never made fun of his governor or his state senator or the President.

Uncle Gordon grew up in a state that has had a bit of a complicated history with race and diversity. Yet Uncle Gordon never argued that our government should isolate or watch or ostracize certain groups of citizens. 

Uncle Gordon had strong convictions. At times he believed he knew what was best. But if his Governor or his state senator or his US Congressman made a decision that he did not agree with, Uncle Gordon did not advocate rioting or violence.

Here in the Novi Schools, we (your principals, your teachers, the adults who work for the school district) work hard to help you learn lessons that will prepare you for life. We think a lot about how we teach and spend significant amounts of each day helping you learn math and history and how to write and how to read. It is critically important that you learn those lessons.

But, in our district, of approximately 6,500 students with over 55 languages spoken in the homes of our community, with a wide variety of ethnic and religious groups, with houses that range from modest to well appointed, and with over 1,000 students who are classified as English Language Learners, it is also important that we spend time talking about and providing examples of how to work with and talk with and be with each other.

If you have paid attention to this presidential election season, you might have seen examples of behavior and heard comments that I would view as unacceptable. Yelling and name-calling are common. The candidates appear more interested in speaking than listening. Insults have been hurled at each other and at groups of people.

This is not how I want us to act in our school district!

We can have disagreements. We can have different perspectives. We can take different sides on any variety of issues.

But in order for our democracy to work we need to learn to work with and for each other.

I am proud of you - the students in Novi. You have shown me through your actions that you have learned and are learning how to respect one another, how to work with people who do not look or sound like you, and how to listen and talk with each other.

Are we perfect? No!

Do we sometimes make mistakes? Yes!

But together we - students and adults - are trying to build the skills that we need to create a society that we can be proud of and live in.

You would have liked Uncle Gordon. He helped me learn how to listen and when to speak. He helped me learn to think about problems and how to solve them. My hope is that in addition to reading, math, history, and science, we can help you continue to learn those lessons as well.

Dr. Matthews

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Don't sit still!

I have had a hard time sitting still my whole life. As an adult it's not too bad. For the most part I can move when I want to move.

So I do.

I stand. I walk. I spin in my chair.

But when I was a student I was often told to sit still. I frequently found trouble because I did not have the ability, nor really the desire, to sit still at my desk.

Thankfully, times have changed.


We now have a more enlightened view of learning. Learning no longer is confined to sitting still in a chair at a desk.

Learning is active. We now understand that movement enhances learning. Providing students with the ability to make choices on where they will learn allows students to exercise control over their environment and their learning.

Allowing movement and choice comes with a price. Teachers give up some control. Classroom noise may increase.  Classrooms are no longer neat, orderly boxes.
But the trade-off is worth it. No longer do students have to pen up all of their energy and enthusiasm. No longer will students have to use their intellectual capital to focus on not moving or learning only in one place. 
Learning increases when students do not have to sit still!

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

To my Novi students

Dear Novi students,

It's 9:00 AM on Wednesday morning. And it is snowing!

If you are willing, there is a life lesson to be learned today:

You can't count the snowflakes until they begin to fall.

I know that you are excited right now. You are hoping, praying, believing that tomorrow will be a snow day. A wonderful, glorious, exciting snow day!

But we don't know that yet. We won't know that for several hours. There is a chance that it will keep snowing. There is also a chance that it will stop.

We can't get to tomorrow until we know what is happening today.

Life is full of twists and turns. You will have many in your life. I have had many in my life. I would encourage you to look to the future but remember to be present for today.

You can plan, you can prepare, you can anticipate all you want. But you have to live today to get to tomorrow.

Many of my high school senior students can't wait to be done with high school. You already have next year planned out. You know where you will go to college. You know who your roommates will be. You know what your college major will be. You see the plan!

But plans can change. Unless you are present for today and tomorrow and the day after that you may miss great things in your final four months of high school. Heck, you might even get so caught up in tomorrow you forget to study and then you don't get that grade you needed and then you don't get into that college that you wanted to get into and then you don't get to room with your best friend and then . . . . 

I hope you get my point!

Today is a metaphor for the rest of your life. You can always look toward the future but you have to live for today!

You can't count the snowflakes until they begin to fall.

But for today  . . .

Here's hoping for snowy weather!

Dr. Matthews

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Custodial care is a shaky justification for schools

When I think about why children should come to school, I need a good answer. John Merrow, a talented, passionate education journalist, recently pointed out the dilemma that haunts, frustrates, and seemingly bedevils those of us who care about public education. 

"Parents used to send kids to school because that's where the knowledge was.
They were also interested in socialization and custodial care.
That's all changed.
And it's not clear schools have responded as briskly as they should have.
Today knowledge is everywhere with the internet.
We have apps for socialization.
And custodial care is a shaky justification for schools. 
Educators need to find their way in this new world."

If it was ever true, schools can no longer can say that we have access to knowledge that students do not have.

If was ever true, schools can no longer say that the only place to socialize with other children is at school.

So why then should parents willingly send their children to our public schools? Why should children willingly and eagerly attend our public schools?

These are questions that those of us who believe in and care for public schools must answer - and answer well.

Here's are two answers.

We send children to our public schools because we believe what James Comer, the Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry at Yale University, said:

No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.

Public schools, the schools in our community with the students from our neighborhoods, create bonds that allow learning to take place. The time spent in classrooms allows students and teachers to build a community of trust and acceptance. Working side-by-side for days and weeks allows students to build friendships, learn to ask questions, take time to share wrong answers, fail, try again, and discover right answers.

Shawn Achor, a gifted writer on happiness, argues that our brains are designed to understand and connect to others. The real measure of students' knowledge is not what they know as individuals but what they can build with others in a classroom. The deeper our social connections the more our brains will function at a higher capacity.

So why should we believe in public schools? Because the power of the community that is built within the walls of the school can and will improve the ability of students to learn. The relationships that we build with and between students and teachers allows students to think more clearly, understand more deeply, and apply learning more concretely. 

School is also a place where I found adults - other than my family - who cared deeply for me. I knew my mother and father, my grandparents, my aunts and uncles cared deeply for me. But, outside of my family, did I matter?

I found that answer in school. Through the care and comfort and courage and challenge of Miss Harriger in 2nd grade, Miss Hixenbaugh in 4th grade, Mr. Robbins in 6th grade, Ms. Zellner in 7th grade, Coach Braig in high school, Ms. Ely in 10th grade, and many others, I found myself. A child who was not at home in school, who felt left out because of physical handicaps, who was painfully shy, found adults in school who not only taught me the curriculum but made me feel like it was important that I learn. In school I found adults who championed me. 

These adults did not forget me or humiliate me. These adults cared for who I was and helped me see whom I could become. 

So why should we believe in public schools? Because kind, generous, positive adults enable all children - the shy, forgotten, lonely children and the engaging, outgoing, confident children and all those children in between - to begin to believe that a bright future is possible. 

Mr. Merrow is right - custodial care is a shaky justification for schools.

My justification for schools is that the power of the school community of learners improves and deepens learning.

My justification for schools is that adults help students learn not only about the curriculum but about themselves and their potential.