Friday, February 26, 2010

At-Risk Kids: What Are We Really Saying?

I constantly battle an attitude that is displayed by many of my colleagues. I call it the Our Kids syndrome. The symptoms are: a tendency to say "our kids" or "at-risk" when what you mean is poor and minority, an ability to blame educational failures on the fact that "our population" is different, and a well honed ability to generalize and stereotype students by their race and economic situation.

As a part of the annual Minnesota Online Learning Alliance (MNOLA) conference today, I attended a 'break-out" with the super-catchy title, " At-Risk High School Students and Online Learning: Characteristics, Needs, and Instructional Strategies." It was the low light of an exceptional day of learning.

We were treated to a long explanation of a Delphi study that was undertaken by the presenter as a part of a book she is writing. Her purpose was to come up with a definitive list of instructional strategies for at-risk students. The study started out by asking a group of high school educators, parents, and college professors for a list of characteristics of at-risk youth, and to narrow that list down to the characteristics that 80% of them could agree to. Here are some examples:
  • Have a limited or poor ability to read
  • Lack study skills
  • Mistrust the educational system
  • Have self-doubt about their educational abilities
The study went on to name some things that the group thought at-risk kids needed, things like:
  • Frequent contact with instructors and counselors
  • Flexible school work times
  • Curriculum modification
  • Critical thinking skills
At this point, besides being bored out of my skull from the description of the particulars of the study, I was beginning to get annoyed.

Does it occur to anyone that it is unreasonable to assume that because a kid is a so-called at-risk student, that she has a problem reading! What kind of assumption is that? Is it fair to assume that it will be difficult to teach certain students using online methods because they don't have access to a computer or the Internet. Can we assume that? Is it fair to take a group of students who are doing poorly - because of poverty, or teen pregnancy, or abuse, or drug addiction, homelessness, mental illness, or undiagnosed disabilities - and attach "needs" that apply to all of them?

Absolutely not.

Furthermore, as I reread the handout and the terms assigned to at-risk students, I realized that the same set of characteristics and needs could be applied to plenty of non-risk students. So who are the at-risk students? Are there any non-risk students? What the hell do we mean when we say "at-risk?"

As educators, we know that no one strategy works for all of our students. We are talking about individual human beings whose educational and instructional needs are varied and unique. This thinking should never be thrown out the window just because the kid doesn't look and act like the kids on the Disney Channel.

Let's do all of our students a favor and stop referring to them as "our population" and start calling them by their true names: like James, and Latonya, and Raven, and Hank. They are individuals after all, not just members of a group.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Vimeo Goes Mobile

Good news for Vimeo users with iphones - Vimeo is now supporting mobile versions of your videos that can be played on your phone - as well the ipod Touch, Android phones, and the Palm Pre. This is a big deal for educators who use Video to display student work, especially considering the number of young people who do the majority of their web browsing on mobile devices.

For those who don't know, Vimeo is a video hosting site, much like YouTube, but different in a couple of ways - ways that are especially important to educators and serious filmmakers. First of all, Vimeo's quality (both HD and DV) leaves YouTube in the dust. Like any video sharing site, users only get the quality that they put in, and that video you shot with your grandpa's phone isn't going to turn out very crisp, but if you start with quality footage and follow Vimeo's compression guidelines, your videos will look like they're hosted on Hulu. Just the fact that they provide easy-to-find guidelines for prepping your video is a big bonus.

The Smother, "The Snuggie Without the Holes" from MTS Digital Media Academy (if you are on a iphone or other mobile device as you read this - click here for the mobile version of the video).

The other thing that sets Vimeo apart is the content on the site - important to the people who decide what does and doesn't get through school filters - there is no juvenile videos of kids knocking over bike riders or pirated music videos. This is a site that is geared toward serious audiences and they keep the garbage out, including inappropriate content.

I have several channels on Vimeo to showcase work from different classes and school years and I'm pleased that my students and their friends will now be able to check out their work on their phones and ipods.

For more information on how to convert your Vimeo files to mobile files, check out their blog.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Thoughts on Unions and Charters

Just came across a series of responses to a Joanne Jacobs blog on charter school misconceptions and unions in school districts. You can check out the whole thing here...

...but here's the best of what I had to say in response to a posting that cited a terribly inaccurate blog from the Seattle School district.

Trey Wodele
October 8, 2009 at 11:39 am

I can’t talk about every charter school in the nation, nor would I want to. By their very nature, charter schools are unique institutions and to lump them all together is not a realistic or fair way to judge them.

I can only talk about my employer: one of Minnesota’s largest, oldest, and (in many ways) most successful charter schools. I can only state what I know from experience, but for a very easy-to-read and informative document outlining Minnesota’s laws surrounding charter schools, you can look at the Minnesota House of Representatives research department’s information brief on charter school law:

I can also counter some of the general claims made by the Seattle Education blog you cite. Remember though, while I am writing about Minnesota charter schools, the Seattle Education blog refers to the nation’s many charter schools and in very general terms. In reality, each state is different in the way they regulate charter schools and some of what I am reporting will not be true in other states.

1. In Minnesota, charter schools are sponsored by a private organization, a public school, or even a post-secondary institution. They are managed by an elected board of directors. There is absolutely not, “complete control of the school by a private enterprise.” Decisions are made by the board of directors which (by law) includes educators, administrators, community members, and parents.

2. While the blog’s claim that most charter schools do not hire union teachers is true, the phrase, “they can demand the teacher work longer hours including weekends at the school site and pay less than union wages,” is troubling. Again, I can’t speak for every charter school, but I am on a contract which states very clearly when I am and am not expected to work. I was aware of the requirements (which include a three week stint teaching summer school) when I took the job and I’m fairly compensated. I’ve never been forced or coerced to go beyond my contractual obligations.

3. My charter school does not, would not, and cannot expel a student, “(who) it doesn’t believe fits within its standards or meets its level of expectation in terms of test scores.” In fact, many (but certainly not all) of our students are kids with academic, social, and economic troubles. We are the last hope for many inner-city parents who have tried everything and who cannot afford the cost of living in the successful suburban districts or the tuition costs of private schools as an alternative to public schools.

By Minnesota law, charter schools have, “an obligation to enroll an eligible pupil who submits a timely application unless the number of applications exceeds the capacity of the program, class, grade level, or building.”

In addition:

-My school offers high quality and innovative programs like: a Digital Media Academy featuring Video Production and Editing, Screenwriting, Music and Sound Recording, and Graphic Design; a Medical Careers Academy; a Carpentry Careers Academy; and a Sports Careers Academy. These are the kind of programs that just don’t exist for many students at inner-city public schools.

-We embrace new ways of teaching using technology and the Internet, Google Apps for Education, and Moodle – among others.

-Our high school classrooms average around a dozen students per teacher.

-Our teachers are paid a competitive wage, our medical and family medical benefits greatly exceed those offered by the local public district, and we have the opportunity to earn performance pay through Minnesota’s Q Comp program.

Are charter schools the only answer? Absolutely not. Do they fail sometimes? For sure. But ask yourself the same questions about traditional public schools and your answer may be the same.

But most importantly, we must look honestly at charter schools, voucher programs, public schools, alternative schools – and any other education solution. It is difficult for those of us in the field of education to discuss policy without looking at it through the window of our own self interest. But these are our children we are talking about, and those of neighbors and our fellow citizens.

Let’s stop misstating facts, tearing down solutions, and complaining about what does not work – and start offering suggestions, solutions, and advice to the people who are trying to make a difference.