A roller coaster ride at the Nobel Prize Museum

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While in Stockholm last week, I had the opportunity to visit the Nobelmuseet, a museum chronicling and showcasing the creative endeavors of the past 112 years of Nobel Laureates’ work. As I walked up the steps facing Stortorget Square and made my way through the etched glass doors,  I imagined how I would bring this experience to my students, having no idea of the emotional rollercoaster I was about to get on.

the ride itself

nobels_willThe backstory is intriguing. Alfred Nobel made a name for himself even on his deathbed.  His controversial will, written in beautifully flowing cursive, was not well-received by many in his immediate family.  In fact, after a lifetime of success as an inventor and industrialist, he caused a prolonged dispute when he penned in his will that each year forward, a portion of his fortune would be awarded to persons making significant contributions in five major fields: physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace.

The current exhibit in the central hall of Nobelmuseet is dedicated to Swedish poet and winner of the 2011 Nobel prize in Literature, Tomas Tranströmer, including objects, texts and images representing his life’s work.  One of the central components of the exhibit was his extensive childhood insect collection featuring hundreds of carefully labeled specimens indicative of the artistry Tranströmer would later employ in his writings.

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I was initially drawn to the cases of insects by the sheer aestheticism of them:  meticulous rows of precisely pinned bodies, colorful wings and appendages delicately protruding upwards in frozen poses, patterns of light reflecting off the glass separating living from lifeless…

…it was all very attractive at first glance.

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the initial climb

But as I leaned in closer, I was struck by the pointlessness of it all.  Were all of these living creatures, I wondered, robbed of their little bit of time on earth, just to satisfy a child’s hobby?  Even if it was for the greater good of science, did that matter to the copris beetle I was staring at, a carcass stabbed through the chest with a metal pin?

bugs4bugs5Knowing that I would want to explore this further, I took care to photograph them and then pulled out my iPhone, found a bench in a quiet corner off to the side and began exploring the necessity of this process.

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building potential energy

I came across an article by biodiversity researcher, Greg Pohl, who defended the practice by stating that although “each species is important in the ecosystem, a given individual of each species [does] not have equal ecological importance.”

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That’s all well and good. . . save for this specific, individual copris beetle, destined to dangle lifelessly in its glass tomb at the Nobel Museum.  That is the problem with being focused on the collective instead of the individual.

the decent

Now put this in the context of the thinking I’ve been doing lately about how standardized texts rely on the concept of an “average” learner, at the expense of the individual.  So whereas a few minutes prior I was thinking about the limitless possibilities for my students to become innovative creators, now I was feeling the tension of viewing them in light of a world that devalues the individual…and it was looking pretty bleak from where I was standing…

everything slows down

Perhaps Alfred Nobel was feeling the need to reconcile his role in the invention and production of dynamite when he first envisioned the Nobel Prize; or perhaps, in an even more noble gesture, he understood the significance of promoting innovation and ideas. Luckily there was much more to see in the museum and I spent the remainder of my time in awe of the contributions I was able to witness.

There is no doubt that by the end of my visit, the more than 800 Nobel Laureates showcased in the museum certainly inspired me to reflect on humankind’s ingenuity and potential, despite my rocky start with the insect collection.  As I finished my exploration of the museum’s corridors, I dreamed up ways to transfer some of that inspiration and motivation to my students back home.

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the. best way to cross a frozen lake. ever.

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What happens when we turn the educational hierarchy upside-down?

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There is no doubt that the federal role in U.S. public schools has increased dramatically over the past decade with the adoption of No Child Left Behind and its equally intrusive successor, Race to the Top.  Local and state control has eroded significantly as mandates (surreptitiously disguised as incentives in the latter) force states and local districts to give up control of assessment and curriculum.

With the locus of control shifting further and further away from the classroom,  external curriculum modules and standardized assessments attached to the Common Core dictate what is happening in classrooms. In an attempt to implement a one-size-fits-all education reform model, the individual needs of students and communities at the district level are being plowed over, leaving students, teachers and schools pressured to comply with a top-down hierarchy that many feel is inescapable: a hierarchy that sadly puts teachers and students at the bottom.

Maybe Washington can take a page from the Finnish National Board of Education, and re-imagine how we look at the educational framework.  Here’s how the Director General, Timo Lankinen, represented the Finnish education system:

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This decentralization of steering powers, coupled with the autonomy of local education providers to organize schools and implement educational policies, leads to communities and educators playing a much bigger role.  But more importantly, rather than relying on the concept of an “average” learner, students’ needs, diversity and differences in motivation in the specific educational context of an individual school district can dictate what is taught and how.

Students at the top…imagine that.

Democracy works when citizens are able to change their minds when presented with new information.  In the U.S. we have been challenged by the Department of Education to think differently and to fight for quality education and social justice. It is time we all challenge ourselves to think about the early effects of these initiatives manifesting in our local schools and classrooms; it is time to think about what education might look like if we were to turn the top-down hierarchy upside-down.

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My Letter of Resignation

featured in The Washington Post’s The Answer Sheet
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I applaud the resolution of educators such as Gerald J. Conti and Kris L. Nielsen, for publicly deciding to remove themselves from the classroom, especially because they have used their dissent as a platform to spread awareness about current issues in America’s education reform. If you haven’t come across their widely-read letters of resignation, you can find them here and here, respectively, and they are worth the read. After having spent the past month in Finland, however, gaining new insights from the Finnish education system and having the freedom of time to reflect on my own experiences as a teacher in New York, I have a different kind of letter. Call it my Letter of Resolution. I wrote it because I have had enough. I can’t handle any more top-down; I am ready for some bottom-up. I hope you will join me.

Mr. Arne Duncan
Secretary
Department of Education
400 Maryland Avenue,
Washington, DC 20202

Dear Mr. Duncan,

I will not be leaving the teaching profession anytime soon. This is despite the fact that current educational reform efforts are continually pushing some of the best and brightest educators closer and closer to the door of the classroom, if they haven’t already left.

In spite of the fact that you consistently attempt to find new ways to hijack the time I spend teaching, planning, collaborating, reflecting, researching, conferencing, bettering myself, and addressing my students’ needs, I manage to complete all of the menial administrative tasks you mandate in an effort to comparatively measure my efficacy in the classroom.

I ignore the fact that you ignore the fact that I earned a Master’s degree, received numerous teaching awards and have nothing but exemplary observations in my personnel folder.

I dutifully administer tests that narrow my curriculum and steal time away from the authentic assessments my co-teachers and I spent years developing to encourage student growth and reflection on their own learning.

I allow you to make your deterministic assumptions that the most effective means to an end can be externally defined, controlled and measured in a “standardized” manner, ignoring my students’ diversity, prior knowledge, skills, beliefs, attitudes and differences in motivation and attention.

I seek out meaningful professional development on my own because every faculty meeting consists of me and my colleagues being force-fed new mandates, while we watch our autonomy wither as hastily as our morale.

I do all of this despite the fact that during this time, you remind me repeatedly that I need to be patient because we are “crossing a bridge as we build it” –an unbelievably ineffective metaphor that is worrisome at best and at worst, absurd.

But I thank you for it.

And not because it isn’t inane. It is. But it made me recognize something that has reignited my commitment to my students into a flame that even the most ineffective and watered-down standardized assessment can’t extinguish:

This impossible, hap-hazard, horribly thought-out metaphorical bridge my colleagues and I are on right now, it also contains (in my metaphorical pockets, if you will) my students, their parents, our community, and our collective future as a society …and I refuse to stand by and watch while you let us fall into the abyss because you are too busy catering to private industry rather than listening to what your own Equity and Excellence Commission advises you to do.

By next September, many of my fellow American teachers will have thrown in the towel and even more potential teachers, who are graduating at the top of their classes and might have made the finest educators our schools have ever seen, won’t even consider entering the profession because of the debacle that has resulted from the misguided effort to fix our schools.

But I will be in my classroom.

…because the country does need educational activists, like Kris Nielsen and Diane Ravitch and Anthony Cody and countless others, who spend their days and nights fighting against the harmful effects of the latest wave of reform measures. But what the country also needs are more Mr./Mrs. ________________ (insert the name of that teacher you had who inspired a passion for learning in you, Mr. Duncan).

This is the end of my resignation; although I will remain in my classroom, I will no longer be a silent, complacent bystander, or worse, participant, while you have your way with the American education system; I have invested too much and there is too much at stake; neither my students nor I are going to end up in that abyss …not while there is still time to turn things around.

Sincerely,

Christine McCartney
English Language Arts Teacher
Newburgh , NY


I am mailing this letter tomorrow (10-April-2013) via snail mail from Finland, so it might take a bit…

If you are inspired to get involved/educated/read more, here are some great places to start:

http://unitedoptout.com/

http://www.fairtest.org/get-involved/opting-out

http://www.networkforpubliceducation.org/

http://atthechalkface.com/

http://mgmfocus.com/2012/12/18/this-is-how-democracy-ends-an-apology/

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What a Dean at Harvard and a science teacher I know have in common:

In this interview in the New York Times yesterday, Nitin Nohria, the first Asian Dean of Harvard business school, was asked to respond to a statement about the “narrow” academic trajectories American students were expected to stay on in order to be successful.  His response was that it was “quite sad that we put children through this extraordinary stress. It takes a long time to discover what you are really good at.”

Similarly, my colleague, Barbara Laird, a high school level science teacher in New York, commented on a post of mine by questioning whether we “give our students the space and time needed to grow.”

I have been learning from conversations with both Finnish teachers as well as fellow fulbrighter, Karen Lee, that in Finland they seem to be addressing this issue in a preferable way to the United States. For starters, only about fifty percent of Finnish upper secondary students attend traditional high school after age 15, while over forty percent attend vocational schools instead. Because the culture is not one of competition (in fact, many seem to frown upon our competitive nature) and laborers are recognized as vital members of the community, vocational schools are viewed as honorable paths for students to embark down.  The fact that would most please both Nohira and my colleague is this: if students change their minds, they have options.  There is hardly a “narrow academic path” that students are all packed onto, which completely disregards students’ interests; they can change schools or return to the traditional schools if they feel they have chosen something that does not suit them.

This striking difference from American schools stems from the fact that Finnish schools are focused on honoring student choice, and it only logically follows that this helps create students who are intrinsically motivated to learn because they are active participants in navigating their educational paths, rather than passive recipients.

I’m not saying their system of providing time and choice is perfect by any means, but it certainly seems like a step in the right direction…

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5 things you always (or never!) wanted to know about Finnish hockey

So after a hockey filled day Saturday, including a trip to the Finnish Hockey Hall of Fame and going to a playoff game to see my hometown team, the Tampere Tappara, win their third game in a row in a seven game series, I thought I’d throw in a non-educational related post and school you all in Finnish Hockey instead.

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So here we go: Five things you always (or never!) wanted to know about Finnish hockey: Continue reading

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The trouble with Accountability

(I originally sat down to write a post about the hockey playoff game I went to last night, but somehow got distracted looking for my pen, found some old notes, and opened up this can of worms…)

I was at a conference recently, where a doctoral candidate defined accountability as a spectrum with blame at one end and empathy at the other.  Then she quickly moved on to something else.  But it had struck me.  I drew it in my notepad.  It was simple, and yet paradigmatic. I was totally into it.

IMG_0242I came across those notes just now and couldn’t make the pieces fit, so I really started thinking about accountability.  Maybe that spectrum was too simplistic for what I was trying to work out.  Accountability has been a word that, in regards to education, has been championed by some and abhorred by others; three words and a line on a piece of paper wasn’t really cutting it for me (or maybe I had just taken horrible notes…). In any case, I was glad it prompted this inquiry.

The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines it as “an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.”  The more I thought about it, I kept getting hung up on the difference between being accountable for someone or something and being accountable to someone or something.  Even the dictionary definition has two sides to it –taking responsibility and having to account for, seem to be two very different things to me.

The former, to me, implies an obligation towards someone or something; in the case of my profession, towards my students and their learning.  Whereas the latter implies proving that what I am doing is working, which is also important in my classroom.  But here’s the thing: it is important to me so that I can ensure that my students are learning, adjust my teaching when necessary and give timely feedback so that my students can see their progress and reflect on their growth.  But what I see happening is it being used to measure both me and my students in a way that not only narrows what we are doing and learning, but is creating an atmosphere that devalues innovation and creates a culture of competition and even fear.

I came across a Kettering Foundation study by Jean Johnson focusing on the gaps between how leaders define accountability and how parents define it.  Parents seem to define accountability more along the lines of responsibility –holding parents, students, surrounding communities and schools equally responsible for what is happening in schools.  Leaders, on the other hand, have a more pragmatic definition –focused more acutely on the schools, their employees, and their outcomes.

So then I started thinking, do these varying definitions and perceptions of what accountability means become an enabling factor for entities to claim that they are using accountability to show effectiveness, when in actuality their goal is to point out ineffectiveness?

That might not be such a problem, if I, like so many others, weren’t so convinced that there has been an attempt to skew public perception of the American education system in a negative direction…but who could blame me (or anyone else) when the same Kettering Foundation study cited this gallup poll, which states that “nearly 8 in 10 [Americans] say they are “extremely” or “very concerned” about the number of students who don’t graduate from high school,” which is up from less than half who said the same in the seventies.  This is despite the fact that the other day I read this article from the Washington Post stating that the high school graduation rate is the highest it has been since the seventies… Did 30% of the American public become that much more cynical, or are there some hidden forces that are at least partially behind this sway in public opinion?

Then there is the whole other side of the accountability coin.  It has to do with who the people making the decisions are accountable to.  I would love to think that politicians are only accountable to the public, but we all know that is not one hundred percent true, otherwise there would be no such thing as lobbying.  So then you add the fact of the blurring divisions between public education and private entities, who are founded by and beholden to their own set of stakeholders, and this question arises: Are those institutions accountable to their investors and shareholders, or the students they are claiming to serve?  Also, if they are driving some of the educational reform, who is that accountable to –the private companies or the public?

Some fodder for further research I guess. In the meantime, I tried to redraw it, but only got to this and then wished I had just stuck to the hockey post…there’s always tomorrow.

IMG_0245In the meantime, I’d welcome comments to further my thinking on this.

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