Dear Mother, Dear Teacher

Dear Mother,
I wanted to update you on your son’s grades for biology per your request in the last email.  He could really use someone quizzing him the night before a test on the vocabulary.  I give flashcards out so it makes studying a little easier, along with a review sheet and practice problems for each test. If Zach is studying he is doing it passively, like reading through his notes, but what he needs to do is actively write down or perform practice problems, with the notes put away, so that he sees exactly where his weaknesses are and study those topics.
I think Zach tends to coast along and he could do with some more study time at home.  It is hard for soph boys to see how mediocre grades can affect their future track in life.  I think expecting B’s from Zach is reasonable and he could do it, if he gets a little more organized and motivated.  I also wanted to tell you that I update powerschool at least once a week, so you can always log in and check on his progress there.  You can also check on his attendance record and number of tardies for the year.   It is a great tool for Zach to monitor himself and for you to feel like you know what is happening while letting him remain autonomous.  You can set it up to send you emails once a month or biweekly, so you don’t even have to remember to do it. I also have a moodle site that has all of the homework assignments and upcoming test dates, so that you can help Zach become more organized and prepared. My moodle site has guest access so you don’t have to log in, but you will need to login to Powerschool with a username and password.
If Zach could get his homework done well and on time and spend a little more time studying for tests, I think you would see a drastic increase in his grades in class and on tests. Zach is always polite in class and has a smile on his face, so his personality will get him far and with good grades he would have even more opportunities. Please contact me if you have any questions or comments, Teacher
Dear Teacher,
Thank you for getting back to me.
As I read your report on Zachary I am reminded of an article I read recently.
I hope you will read it and read it with an open mind.  It talks about how kids these days are different in terms of their technological savvy.
Here it is!!
We are teaching a new generation and while flashcards may or may not have worked for us, this is  a new generation of  thinkers!  As a fellow educator I feel it is our job to figure out where they are and to meet them there…at least half way.
Zach’s lack of engagement is often labeled as “lazy” or as you stated that he does not “study well”.  What exactly does it mean to study well and who has ever taught any of our kids to actually “study well”?   What if flash cards don’t work for all students?  Haven’t we come further than flash cards and rote memorization? Or could those flashcards perhaps at least be digital and interactive somehow?
I just want to ask that you read this article and consider that I am in schools all over the state where  I am seeing first grade classrooms with smart boards where kids are constantly using and engaging with technology and even Skyping with their penpals out in California!  In a 3rd grade classroom teachers are using Edmodo to allow their students to ask questions in on online community where they can feel safe to explore subjects of their own choosing.  Fourth graders are blogging, 8th graders are a part of Good Reads and the list goes on.  Unfortunately, short of power point, I cannot think of even one technologically driven assignment that Zachary has done and our High School was built completely outfitted for such advancements.  Have you seen that television recording studio?  Why aren’t students creating TV shows that talk about the impact of biology in their community…just a thought!
I would expect A’s of Zachary and beyond because he is smart and he gets things easily.  You would only expect B’s.  How sad.  Shouldn’t we expect A’s from all of our students and help them get to A’s if they are not there??  The problem lies on many levels though.  He IS motivated and organized when he is invested in something.  School is out of touch for him and for many around him.  And while the prospect of learning biology through a video game might seem outlandish, I can tell you that when there is even the slightest hint of using technology in an assignment Zachary is all over it.  He spends hours taking and editing his own videos.  What if he could “create” something to show his learning to replace an assign and test kind of teaching?  Can you imagine the possibilities and all we could learn from these Digital Natives?
I teach in classrooms from first grade through the graduate level and my question to myself is always the same…if they (my students) are not getting something then what can I do to help them to come to a fuller understanding?  I want thinking…not just memorization for a test that is gone the next day.  I want my students to connect and interact with what they are learning  and how what they are learning might impact who and how they are in the world.  Biology has so many implications for this kind of thinking…but right now I don’t think Zachary thinks biology has anything to do with him.
My daughter went to Phillips Exeter and she LOVED biology because they sat around and discussed biology!  She is now at Kenyon college as  a Biology major.  I wish that Zachary had an opportunity within the public schools to learn in a socratic method…but for some reason we rule that out as impossible and we stay with what we know.  Assign and test.  Assign and test.
The irony is that the technology that teachers have been given, powerschool, is one that only encourages the mentality of assign and test to get the grade.  Emphasis is SO heavily  weighted on  grades and not what is being learned.  So many of our kids are not motivated by grades anymore.   And the stories I could tell you about parents fighting with their kids over homework EVERY day!  I did that all last year.  It nearly killed me and my relationship with my son. Powerschool only added to the anxiety as we would look at the grades and he would talk about the things that had not yet been posted…the homework that he did pass in and every teacher is incredibly different in their use of Powerschool.  I stopped looking at Powerschool and am now looking at my son.
This kind of constant helicopter parent monitoring is not only ruining parent child relationships, but it is also sad that it is the part of technology that teachers have been offered in a world of SO much more to be offered.  I can tell you there are parents who check powerschool hourly.  How is that creating responsible and independent learners to go out into the world?  They need to fail in order to learn, but there is very little room for risk-taking and failure of any kind for our kids.  I feel sad for them as the greatest things I ever learned in life often came from failures.  Are we afraid to let our kids fail?
And your final paragraph speaks of opportunities….and the lack of opportunities Zachary will have because the opportunities offered to him right now are so narrow.  THAT is the greatest rub of all.  It says conform to or your chances in life are well…less than stellar!  The system as is, is designed, particularly with Powerschool, to work against students.
If Zach gets a 0 on a homework it takes 5 A’s for him to make that up.  The scale is heavily weighted towards failure…NOT success!  In my mind an A and an F should average to a C?  Right?  No.  In this point system it averages to an F.  There is very little room for risk taking and even less room for less than perfection.  It is a tough world for these kids to thrive in when their other worlds are so rich with color, light, movement, flexibility, technology and a fast paced life where they are connected.  Zach is unplugged at school…I only wish you could see him “plugged in” in the worlds that matter to him and that together we could find a way to light up the hallways of our schools where classrooms were interactive and students were truly engaged and not just  “getting through” this period to get to the next.
But I am a dreamer.
Please do take a moment to read this article and consider it’s implications as well as the fact that it was written in 2001….and perhaps consider dreaming alongside me and leaving the flash cards behind.
Thanks for “listening”.

Totally worth your 12 minutes. What ARE we preparing our kids for?


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To arm them with the relevant, timeless skills for our rapidly changing world, we need to revolutionize what it means to learn. Education innovators like Dr. Sugata Mitra, visiting professor at MIT; Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy; and Dr. Catherine Lucey, Vice Dean of Education at UCSF, are redefining how we engage young minds for a creatively and technologically-advanced future. Which of these eduvators holds the key for unlocking the learning potential inside every student?

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