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Update: Got a reply from SFER USC chapter’s President! – Here’s my reply back.

So last night, I decided to do something daring and send an email to my SFER chapter, voicing my opinions about the Vergara vs. California lawsuit. And I got a reply late last night, which I then responded to this morning.

I won’t publish his reply here, for the sake of his privacy but in a nutshell, he found me misinformed, asked ME to question both sides (and trust me I have been doing that before opening this blog which I only did after I took a clear stance), and brought up his personal experiences with teachers’ unions and working for Parent Revolution and how those pushed him to support the corporate education reform movement. He says we “need high stakes testing”, “accountability”, and basically ignored my points about a better more comprehensive solution to getting rid of “teachers” in favor of simply bashing teachers and tearing down unions.

I could go on, but you can glean most of what he said in my reply:

Hi [omitted for privacy],

Thanks for the prompt reply! I was really looking forward to hearing your thoughts on these issues.

Before I respond to individual parts of your argument I want you to know that I have looked into both sides, very carefully. I actually was once a fierce supporter of the corporate education reform movement. I felt change was necessary, and I had hope that ed reform leaders would create change.

It took a LOT of evidence for me to change my mind. After looking at not only the stagnant progress but also the dire consequences this movement has inflicted upon our public education system, I cannot bring myself or my conscience to support such a movement. From Chicago public school closings, to Philadelphia budget cuts, to charter schools “creaming”, to Atlanta cheating scandals, to student opting out of tests all over the country, to teachers having to form a Badass Teachers Association to get the point across that they actually want to teach (more on this later), to my students (who were from charter schools) asking me why the “rich white people” who partly fund their school can’t give them paper towels in the bathroom or a soccer field with grass (this isn’t even the full list). I know injustice when I see it. I’ve only started it voicing my opinions about education after I fully understood both sides’ arguments. I’ve thoroughly questioned both sides, actually questioning my current side much more than the corp ed reform side.

I recognize that you’ve experienced many things throughout your own educational activism journey. I appreciate you bringing those experiences to light and working hard to fight for what you believe in. That is something very noble. I have my story too, and very good reasons that fuel my passion against the education reform movement. I’ve stepped into classrooms, listened to what students are saying, listening to dedicated but frustrated teachers, worked with students and understood how incredibly difficult yet rewarding it is. I was also lucky enough to receive a high quality education, something I want every student in America to experience.

Now let’s start at the top: I know you’ve studied Geoffrey Canada, religiously. I’ve studied him as well (probably not religiously) but I know enough to know that I cannot side with him when it comes to his views on accountability. I only quote him because he is one of the few reformers who gives a damn about bettering the communities around schools, and that is something I can respect. I believe that that has been the key to his success. If it isn’t, then why does the high stakes testing model elsewhere do more harm than good?

High stakes testing and data-driven accountability are something I cannot support. This is one stance in education that I have held since the start of my high school career. High stakes testing puts too much emphasis on test scores, outcomes, stats and far too little emphasis on student growth, learning, and humanity. You can celebrate stats all you want, but I prefer to celebrate humans. Learning (we can talk a whole lot about education but forget to talk about learning… isn’t that the point of this all?) cannot be encompassed by a test number. Anyone who’s ever gone through the education system can tell you that. The corp ed reform movement, which promised change, just takes a broken model that hasn’t worked for 40 years and does it even more, using up more learning time and money for resources and inflicting more harm on the quality of students’ education. It’s ridiculous, terribly poor data analysis, and it needs to have stopped yesterday. Countless evidence shows that high-stakes testing is harmful to students, and if you don’t believe the evidence from professional psychologists and researcher-educators, then at least listen to what students are saying and DOING (walking out of tests, boycotting). Teachers aside, high stakes testing is doing the most harm to students in school.

Instead of reform, I support a learning revolution that builds a solution from the ground up, starting with students. We need to eliminate structural forces that hinder true learning, critical reasoning, creativity, classroom collaboration, active discussion, and a well-rounded education that includes the arts, humanities, and civic engagement. If you really want to put students first, think first about the purpose of education and then the purpose of high stakes testing. Do those purposes line up?

Can something else achieve the purpose of high stakes testing without dulling the quality of our students’ education? The answer is yes. I highlight more in depth my proposed solutions herehere, and here. Short answer: data is useless if it’s not accurate, even if it’s objective. Do we value our kids’ learning and development enough to put in a little extra time to get data that’s meaningful, holistic, and useful? You don’t need numbers to hold people accountable. There’s other kind of data that people collect, other kinds of data that have proven to be much more revealing and valuable than the objective data the corp ed reform movement funds so vigorously.

Now back to what we are discussing, which is teachers. I think you completely misread my point. I am NOT arguing to keep these protections. There is evidence, student, parent, and your testimony, that these protections are harming a number of students. That testimony is valuable and should be honored. What I have a problem with is the current method by which we measure teacher effectiveness.

Removing the protections but still tying teacher performance to test scores is what demeans the profession. Not only does high-stakes testing prevent student learning it inaccurately measures teacher effectiveness. And what really is the point of data that’s inaccurate?

Just as there are better ways to look at student performance, there are better ways to look at teacher performance. Schools are communities in and of themselves. They are not businesses. Corporate privatization never works outside the financial sphere and if you want to think of students as standardized products then I cannot support your goals. Teachers should be given respect and autonomy to teach and foster creative and thoughtful young minds. Students’ work should be valued FULLY, and their growth celebrated, rather than reduced to a chart. I said it before and I’ll say it again: Assessment is not a spreadsheet. It’s a conversation.

Now, I want these terrible teachers out of the system as much as you do. But is targeting the entire teaching profession really the answer? No, that causes way more problems than solutions. With the current implemented methods of evaluating student work, more truly effective teachers would be fired than truly ineffective ones. And students would continue to receive test-centered education. Is that a price we want to pay? Collaboration cannot be forced. You (not you specifically, but the whole reform movement itself) have angered countless people who truly care about children. How do you not expect people to fight back?

Believe it or not, teachers go into teaching to teach students! I know it’s hard to believe but teachers actually don’t go into their profession for a pension (you can get that in many other places), or to test students until their brains are numb, or to kill a child’s love of learning! They have been reduced to being defensive after many threats on their profession and many years of being trapped in a terrible system that works AGAINST the very people they’ve dedicated their lives to working FOR. We need to start with doing the right and smart thing, eliminate a system that harms both students and teachers.

[And if we’re going to talk about teachers and their pensions, how about talk about billionaires that fund the corporate education reform movement and their tax breaks? I’m not saying that every reformer ignores poverty. I’m saying that I’ve never heard a single billionaire who is funding the corp ed reform movement mention tackling the issue of poverty and working on building safer, healthier communities for students. Ask yourself why that is.]

You want accountability and for teachers to become more skilled. You want the terrible “teachers” who are completely unfit for the job to begin with to go. I completely understand that and I want that too. But you want to get rid of a problem without looking at the other problems tied with it. That’s not going to lead to any solutions.

You mention in your second email a process that I think should be implemented. “This is a job, if a worker isnt good at their job, you give their professional development, if that doesnt fix the issue, you fire them.” Sounds like a plan to me! Guess how we can get to this process and still do something that benefits students.

  1. Get rid of the system of high stakes testing and data-driven accountability.
  2. Let teachers teach and let students learn.
  3. Evaluate and hold schools accountable through student voice (testimony), student work (Student project portfolios are a great way to track growth. It’s a win-win because they also encourage and foster rather than prevent learning and student growth), and peer evaluations (teachers will work as teams, collaborating, helping one another)
  4. Work WITH (not against) unions to immediately fire anyone posing a danger to students. Continue to work with them to revise tenure and seniority laws.
  5. With new useful, meaningful, and holistic data, provide valuable profession development for teachers to improve and continue excelling at their job.
  6. If they don’t show improvement, move to fire.

All of this can be done before the Vergara vs. California case goes on trial in 2014. Seriously, it can. And if you don’t believe it can, than you’ve never experienced believing in the nearly impossible. That’s something that teachers do every day for their students.

The solution is not either unions or no unions. It’s looking at the system in which both teachers and students are trapped. If we wait for unions or union opponents to “do the right thing and work for kids, we will be forced to wait idly by as history will crucify us for failing to fight.” Your words ring true and that is why I am fighting. I am fighting against a system that puts everyone in danger.

Now for the other points that you bring up:

  1. Thank you for acknowledging that the corporate education reform movement is funded by billionaires. I don’t care if billionaires want to donate their money to helping education. That is a good thing to do! But what is happening is that they profiting from this system. SFER members, I really encourage you to look into this issue yourselves. Here’s a good place to start (but remember to always check the facts and question everything!)
  2. Finland wasn’t doing so well before. Their country was in economic turmoil and their education system was lackluster for decades until they put their differences aside and worked towards building economic inequity. It’s something everyone on the right and left agree on. Poverty was just as widespread as it was here. As a sociology major and someone who has studied the intersections of race and class tirelessly, I definitely understand the intricacies about how “we got here”. That’s why I understand the importance of working together as a country to eradicate poverty in children’s’ neighborhoods. The reason I bring up Finland is that they don’t have high stakes testing, and the professional educators over there scoff at our system for caring so much about scores and even tying those scores to teacher performance. They aren’t surprised that teachers over here are angry about this.
  3. Your last point about unions preventing fair discussion cannot be brought up until we systematically implement fairer ways of evaluating teachers and students. Once that happens, if unions still fight back, then I am with you that we need to “cut off [their] heads”. But I doubt they will because unions are also fighting for what I am fighting for: ensuring that every child has access to a quality education by eradicating a flawed model of high stakes testing. That is the real civil rights issue.

Thanks for reading! I hope we can continue this discussion.

Hope to hear more from the members soon! And of course to see how the president of SFER USC would reply to me.

Thanks for reading! As always, post your comments and questions below! 🙂

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The Hardest Job Everyone Thinks They Can Do – by Dennis Hong

Dennis Hong, a molecular biologist turned biology teacher, writes in this wonderful post about the profession that is the backbone of this country, but it still so disrespected and underestimated.

Here what Hong says is the reason why people have delusions that anyone can do what a teacher does, but doesn’t have those delusions when it comes to other fields of specialty:

Have you ever watched professional athletes and gawked at how easy they make it look? Kobe Bryant weaves through five opposing players, sinking the ball into the basket without even glancing in its direction. Brett Favre spirals a football 100 feet through the air, landing it in the arms of a teammate running at full speed. Does anyone have any delusions that they can do what Kobe and Brett do?

Yet, people have delusions that anyone can do what the typical teacher does on a typical day.

Maybe the problem is tangibility. Shooting a basketball isn’t easy, but it’s easy to measure how good someone is at shooting a basketball. Throwing a football isn’t easy, but it’s easy to measure how good someone is at throwing a football. Similarly, diagnosing illnesses isn’t easy to do, but it’s easy to measure. Winning court cases isn’t easy to do, but it’s easy to measure. Creating and designing technology isn’t easy to do, but it’s easy to measure.

Inspiring kids can be downright damned near close to impossible sometimes. And… it’s downright damned near close to impossible to measure. You can’t measure inspiration by a child’s test scores. You can’t measure inspiration by a child’s grades. You measure inspiration 25 years later when that hot-shot doctor, or lawyer, or entrepreneur thanks her fourth-grade teacher for having faith in her and encouraging her to pursue her dreams.

Maybe that’s why teachers get so little respect. It’s hard to respect a skill that is so hard to quantify.

Amazing article, definitely check it out for yourself. He brings up some other really great points.

This is a perfect segway into a piece I’m working on about Teach for America. All I’m going to say now is, people who think they are fantastic teachers after 5 weeks of training are not only embarrassing themselves, but also being incredibly disrespectful to the teaching profession.

Reinventing the Education System… with a business model of technology?

So tomorrow… I am traveling to Thailand and Vietnam! I’m pretty excited but that means I might not be posting as much. I have a LOT of drafts saved though, so I will do my best to find time (and internet connection) to blog.

Since I have to start packing soon, I will just do a brief post (you will soon learn that I love lists and bullet points).

Here are some of my thoughts on this article about reinventing rather than fixing the education system.

Yes, it’s from Forbes, which made me wary at first and it did feature some pretty appealing education rhetoric which, from experience, I know is hard to analyze because it makes you just want to agree with everything being said.

The author’s basic argument is that the education system is “not broken” but simply “obsolete” in that it no longer caters to the needs of the current generation. Thus, to solve the issue of education, we need to reinvent the system, and move away from the monotonous “assembly line” style of education that is currently implemented in our schools in order to move towards making education experiential, exciting, and as “addictive as a video game.” This means promoting creativity, critical reasoning, and collaborative learning.

Sounds pretty much everything I fight for right? Well… let’s see.

Here’s what I agree with, or at least find interesting:

  • First of all, I have to say that I was really happy to see an article about education on Forbes.
  • Very true that our current education system seems to be outdated… I think I’m going to devote some time to looking at the history of education in our country…just to see the path it has taken.
  • Yes yes yes to everything about:
  • fostering creativity and critical reasoning
  • embracing students’ various learning styles
  • promoting experiential education and interdisciplinary approaches to learning
  • making education that works for, not against, its students (“If they can’t learn the way we teach, why don’t we teach the way they learn?” – Ignacio Estrada)
  • moving away from standardization, which limits individuality and what I like to call out-of-the-scantron-bubble thinking
  • implementing well-rounded and exciting curricula for students

Here’s what I’m not so sure about:

  • “I want all entrepreneurs to take notice that this is a multi-hundred billion dollar opportunity that’s ripe for disruption.”
  • NO NO NO
  • Okay, I am a social entrepreneurship minor at USC, which is a minor in the School of Business. So I hear this all the time. And it literally makes me cringe.
  • I am pursuing social entrepreneurship because I have realized that current movements of “education reform” do not fit the model of social activism that I wholeheartedly agree with. On my journeys as an aspiring educator and educational activist, I have come to realize that in order to make the best difference that I can in education, I have to pave my own path.
  • My social entrepreneurship minor equips me with the tools and skill sets to put my educational theories and philosophies into practice.
  • What I don’t appreciate, however, is corporate agendas and motives of profit, because no matter how much you want to make a difference in education, those two things get in the way of truly and genuinely working for and with students. They dilute the focus on students and educational equity, which are the real focus here.
  • Education is not a business to be profited from. Period. If you want to make a real difference, work from the bottom up. Really get to know students, work with them, listen to them, and start with local change. Slowly, students everywhere will have equal access to the quality public education they deserve.
  • Also, I feel like the article was moving in a direction of using technology as the core of education, rather than a tool.
  • “It is time we flipped the model on its head and used technology to focus on our learners.”
  • I believe that while technology is definitely very useful in the classroom, its influence on curriculum should be limited to only a tool.
  • To have technology infiltrate every aspect of education in a classroom for the purposes of creating curricula that works for all types of students is… a little counter-productive in my opinion.
  • Not all students learn with technology, and there are many more methods and styles of learning that don’t need technology (lively discussions/debates, collaborative projects, creative projects, field trips, hands-on learning)
  • Also, technology can be very limiting for students, since it can tend to think for students and doesn’t really leave room for the student to create something him/herself. Well there goes that whole “fostering creativity” bit.
  • All in all, technology should assist learning, not dominate it.

Those are just my thoughts on this article! If you agree/disagree/have an idea of your own, feel free to comment!

When Real Education Changed My Life

To elaborate more on my second educational philosophy:

I guess the biggest reason I have a problem with the dominant culture of standardized testing is that it undermines the importance of social justice/civic education, which is the one thing that made my education magical. 

I didn’t really start learning until sophomore year of high school. Before that I hated history because I thought it was just memorizing facts and I wanted to be a doctor because that’s what my parents wanted and I guess I felt more content memorizing facts about the human body than about humans. But I was never learning, or at least never engaged with my learning. I hated it when my teachers asked me “explain” or “analyze” because I didn’t know what that meant. But hey, I had a 4.0 and was deemed a genius according to my test scores so I must have been educated right? 

Don’t worry, the story gets better because I met my match sophomore year. Her name was Ms. Garcia (more affectionately called Mama G) and she challenged my thinking like no other. She was one of my teachers in a program called “Facing History and Ourselves” (you really should check it out, it’s a lovely program that taught me so much), which basically delves into social justice issues in history and society to foster socially responsible leaders committed to fighting injustice. I clearly remember crying after a lesson because I just couldn’t contain my feelings. And that was the key. For the first time during my education, I was feeling and experiencing what I was learning. I was doing an inherently human thing, and my education was coming alive. 

And this is the most important lesson I learned from Facing History and Mama G:

Learning is felt. It is not the 2 digit percentage on the Calculus test, or the 4 digit score on the SAT, because we cannot attach digits to learning, we cannot measure something so endless and profound. Learning is something that is felt. It’s the ache in my heart when I learn about the Holocaust, the churn in my stomach when I hear about minorities being denied their basic human rights, the refreshing confidence when I make a philosophical point that is uniquely mine, the excitement that shakes me when I connect something in science to something in history, and most of all, that feeling that I can’t quite name, the one that gets my head all hot and my insides queasy and my muscles just aching to get up and go out and do somethingLearning is experiencing what someone teaches me, letting it soak through and change me. 

Through my learning, I was able to become a more socially and politically conscious citizen and an overall better person. My mind and heart were opened and I grew in both intellect and character. I cared, not only about what was going on around me in society, but also about my education as a whole. I wanted to keep learning, keep analyzing, keep thinking, keep exploring, so that I could figure out the best way to contribute to society.

I realized after that year that I am not meant to be a doctor. I am meant to be a teacher. I love learning and I want nothing more than to share that love with my future students. I want them to feel what I felt. I believe that learning can not only be fun, but it can be life-changing, monumental, magical, even electric. My experience of true learning was the spark of electricity that set off a current in me, and education is now the passion that pumps vigorously through these veins.

And now… introducing… ME!

“I want to teach them how to be not only good students, but also good people. I want to open not only their minds, but also their hearts.” 

Now I won’t tell you who said that… but once you’re done reading this page, you will probably know who it is.

But anyway, greetings! Thanks for visiting my blog! My name is Hannah Nguyen and I am here to pave my own path in this highly complicated but incredibly rewarding and magical field of education. I want to be an educator and educational justice activist because real education changed my life and I think every student, no matter who they are or where they come from, deserves the opportunity to experience this kind of magic

¡Mira! Magic at school! (yes, I am a Harry Potter fan and proud Gryffindor)

But unlike the magic that’s in Harry Potter, the magic I want to share with my students doesn’t make snow fall indoors or turn a frog into a teacup. But it can turn someone into a magician. It can teach them to believe that they have magic in them, that they have potential to do great, that they can work their magic and help the world in their own way.

I call my learning experience magic because it changed my life forever. And that’s what I think education should be. Life-changing. Monumental. Magical. My education has taught me that I am a part of something greater, and to ignore that is essentially criminal. I am an individual, but I live in this world, I am a part of this society, and I want to contribute in the best way that I can.

And this is why I’ve decided to start this blog! My biggest passion is education. As I said, real education changed my life, and I want every single student to get the chance to get a real education.  One that isn’t limited by test scores and standards. One that is well-rounded, enlightening, and stretches beyond regular confines of today’s curriculum. One that isn’t overshadowed by politics and corruption in the system. One that opens the mind and heart. I wholeheartedly believe that really focusing on education and investing in the younger generation will lead to a better future for this country and for all. If we can achieve educational justice and equity, then we move so much closer to creating a more just and peaceful world. 

Although my ultimate goal is to become a social studies teacher in a public school, how can I even begin to teach social justice in a system full of injustice? I want need to fight for educational justice as well. I am so tired of seeing potential go to waste because of inequalities in the system. I am so tired of hearing my students tell me that I’m the only one who will listen to them. I am tired of seeing creativity, critical thought, and innovation squashed by restrictions and “the-way-it’s-always-been”. I am so tired of hearing politicians and authority figures talk about students as if it’s their fault they are failing. I am so tired of decisions being made on behalf of students without anyone consulting their thoughts, ideas, or feelings. I am tired of the lack of student voice in a system that is supposed to be working for and with its students.

This is where this blog comes in.

Each and every day, I am still learning about all the components and factors that contribute to the state of our public education system today. The whole picture is extremely complex, with various moving parts and dimensions. So, this summer especially, I want devote extra time each day to learning, critically analyzing, and writing about these issues so that I can develop a deeper and more holistic understanding of who/what I will be fighting for/with. I will be reading books, articles, watch videos, visiting organizations in my area, and (hopefully) attending conferences, to learn as much as I can. I feel that only once I become more fully aware of the underlying issues and am able to critically analyze them can I truly figure out how to address the entire social justice issue as a whole. 

Although this is mostly a place for me to record inspiration I encounter and ideas I develop on my journey, you are more than welcome to follow along. If you have anything you want to show me that you think would really help me along this journey, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me!

This will be posted under my “Introduction” tab as a future reference if you’re ever reading my posts and wonder why the heck I’m posting so much about education. Thanks for reading!