Monday, July 23, 2012

Those who can do.....

We all know how that familiar idiom ends. It is terrible to admit, but when I was not a teacher, I was guilty of saying it, and probably at some level believed it. Why my teacher friends at the time tolerated my use of the idiom and did not slug me is unclear.

After only my first few weeks of teaching, I fully understood how false the idiom is. Of all the jobs I have worked at over the years, there is not one that I have had that was as all consuming and physically and mentally draining as that of a classroom teacher. That is not the main point of this post. Teachers reading already know challenging the profession of teaching is and how ignorant the idiom is.

My concern is what our education policymakers actually believe. They certainly pay lip service to the notion of how demanding the profession of teacher is and publicly are respectful of the job of a teacher. But deep down, if they believed what they say in public, I do not feel that we would have the culture of mistrust that exists between teachers and policymakers in our current system. There would not be the excessive standardized testing mandated by whichever acronym-laden education policy is in place. There would not be the notion that the test scores from those standardized exams could or should be used to determine the effectiveness and evaluation of individual teachers.

Why are the Khan Academy videos so well received? Sal Khan is not trained as a teacher, does not use a script and admits "I don't know what I am going to say half the time". Is it possible that it is so widely acclaimed because his work verifies a deep-seated belief that people that have never taught hold? I am embarrassed to admit that I once sort of believed it. Those who can do..... "see Martha.... Sal Khan did it! And he did not need to be trained or any of that nonsense!"

The second half of the idiom - .....those who can't teach - may be more deeply felt among the general populace and our policymakers than we as teachers might be able to imagine. I surely hope I am incorrect.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Initial Impressions of the Finland Phenomenon

Robert Compton's documentary about the school system in Finland was originally released in late March of 2011. I had not had the chance to see it until yesterday when Dr. Eric Conti, our superintendent, posted the film on the district web site in four parts. (The link is to the first part, just click on Next at the bottom of each page to get to parts 2-4).

The documentary is well worth watching. It demonstrated what is possible in an education system that is based on trust. Embedded in that culture of trust is the respect that is accorded by its citizens to the profession of teacher in Finland. Teaching is a desirable profession and many of the top students in their universities choose to teach. There is little in the way of testing or homework in Finland. The teachers are rarely observed by their administrators. Yet they are ranked as the top education system in the world.. Standards are rigorous but teachers are trusted to do their job and teach and students are trusted to do their job and learn. It was evident in the documentary how relaxed the students were, both in and out of school. But the classroom environment was not one of disarray at all. It was one of mutual respect between teacher and student, collaboration between students and between teachers, and the task of learning was paramount in all that they did. Active engagement of students was the norm and much of their learning was project based and cross curricular, (especially in the elementary and middle school level).

The approach in Finland is in stark contrast to the path our country is currently on. The new Common Core standards have been presented as comprehensive and rigorous. As opposed to the positive feedback loop that Finland has developed with their culture of trust, our series of numerous and lengthy state mandated high stakes tests which supposedly assess what a student has learned and through the magic of growth scores also what their teacher has taught them is clearly a culture of distrust which breeds competition, (Race to the Top?), rather than collaboration.

There is definitely a much better way to go in public education than the path the United States is currently on. The Finland Phenomenon documentary showed one of those much better examples very well.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Initial Twitterings

So it has been five days since I started using Twitter. Even though it is quite early in the game, I thought it would be good to share some of my initial feelings and discoveries.

To begin with, I have been amazed when someone follows me, especially when it is someone that follows me first, I have never met them, and they live far away! It is an affirming feeling. I had read several articles and blog posts over the past year or two talking about the importance of Twitter for educators, its' opportunity for learning and growth, and the power of a PLN. My experience these first few days indicate that those articles and blog posts I read were on the mark and not oversold one bit!

These past few days I have learned about one educators take on the reasons teachers are not using technology and the varied discussions around this post. I have read about the appalling class sizes allowed in the new Detroit schools contract. There was a great article about a research study that showed gains in understanding and standardized achievement in project-based classes in mathematics. These are just three of several articles I discovered through the use of links via Tweets, things you, (the collective you), wanted to share.

I have been a frequent web site and blog post reader but never had posted comments on anything. There is something about the Twitter experience of sharing that has already nudged me further. I have already posted comments on three different articles! I will try not to let the comment posting thing get out of hand as I do not want to be thought of as "that" guy.

But what I have liked just as much is the information discovered that was not solely education related. There was a neat flashmob video of Ode to Joy. There was the story about the Aaron's last wish $500 pizza tip which I learned about through Twitter links well before it was being carried on There were very nice personal pictures of the first rainfall from the summertime Arizona monsoon. (For me, weather pictures will never get old!). These are just a few of many rich examples of stories and connections that were shared and resonated with me, independent of education.

All of this was discovered by only following 30 Twitterers, (as my list is still small), and most of this information was not duplicated in what I thought was my pretty well rounded RSS reader feed. I will have to figure out how to set up lists and how to favorite things so I can organize my Twitter stream as my following list grows. And I should probably look into an app like Tweetdeck to help me organize things. Because I can tell that Twitter will be something important in my learning and growing as an educator and a person. My main problem will be figuring out how to time manage this new feature in my life. (and I have not even delved too much into the #mathchat Twitter feed yet!).

This is a bit corny but I want to say thanks to everyone for sharing so much. I hope to be able to return the favor by being interesting and sharing what I may come across too.

Thursday, July 12, 2012


So here I am with my first blog post. I had been lurking, (and learning), on the sidelines for a year or so coming up with excuses of why not to start a blog or to be on twitter myself. The excuse that resonated with me the strongest was that with my position as a teacher, it was too risky for me to have a public face. How nonsensical when you think about it. I am responsible and smart enough to know what is appropriate to publish publicly. Then this post by George Couros at The Principal of Change was enough to give me the final nudge. So I now have a twitter account, @fjvitale, and a blog to share my thoughts.

That would be small potatoes if it were the only change to accomplish. 

I am fortunate to work in a school district that values and gives me access to excellent technological tools. A few years ago, the math teachers in my school were given access to Smartboards and Smart Notebook software. I eagerly incorporated this technology into my teaching on nearly a daily basis. It was a step up in the way I could display and deliver my lessons. In truth, it only improved the way I delivered those lessons. 

Towards the end of this past academic year, each teacher at my school was given an Ipad2 and a new laptop. For the next school year each room will also have access to an Apple TV set-up. The high school in my district successfully implemented a 1-1 Ipad2 program this past academic year and there appears a good chance that a 1-1 Ipad2 program will soon be implemented in my school as well. Exciting but somewhat overwhelming news. How can I incorporate all this new stuff in my classroom?

While "lurking and learning" I admit to having been somewhat skeptical of the overall benefits of a 1-1 environment, especially at the middle school level. But one Saturday morning in early May, an experience with my grandson, Emanuele, then two and a half, changed my thinking in an instant. He asked his grandmother, who was in another room at the time, if he could play one of his favorite games, Memory!, on her Ipad. She said yes, figuring he would wait until she came back into the living room where he was. Instead, Emanuele went directly to her Ipad and very quickly and deftly opened it, selected the game icon, navigated the choices he wanted, and got started before she walked into the living room. I watched him do all this in amazement! He had no previous instructions on how to do this - he had just watched his grandmother start the game a few times. It hit me like a 2 by 4 across the head. This is the world he will grow up in! These will be the tools he learns with and will use to learn! This is the world my students already live in and these are the tools that largely they will use to learn now and in the future.

Being May and well into the "difficult behavior" period of adolescents, I then thought about the common refrains I was feeling regarding my students lack of attention, lack of motivation, and lack of memory. How could they seemingly have forgotten much of what we had "covered" during the year as we were heading towards our state mandated standardized test! And I realized they were just plain BORED! And had been for quite awhile. The way I was teaching them had little relevance or meaning. In truth, they had been pretty tolerant of my "delivery" methods during the school year and, for the most part, were trying to overcome those methods the best that they could.

So armed with my new technological tools, the technological tools they possess and bring to school each day, and the knowledge that I have a lot of modifications to make in the way I teach, it has been a busy summer of thoughts of change and learning. It will not be easy for me. I am much more comfortable being the deliverer. But I will change my teaching - significantly. The situation and my responsibility as a teacher requires it.

One of the ways I will use this blog is to share some of the ups and downs of this transition. It may make for some interesting reading. 

In addition, from time to time, I may post on topics that are not directly related to education. Hope you come back once in awhile to see how things are going.