September 27, 2013

SIx commandments of edu-ese

Filed under: education,teaching — Candace Hackett Shively @ 8:49 am

Why do we learn a new language?

In high school, we take a language to get credit, get into college, and maybe use it when visiting another country. As teachers, we learn a language I call edu-ese to speak among ourselves about professional strategies, the latest research,  or best practices. We use edu-ese as a common professional language that allows both precision and  shared understanding. Terms such as those found on this generator or this one are for teacher-to-teacher talk, much the way that doctors talk to each other about the surgical approach they will take to fix that heart valve or remove that appendix. Eduese is not intended for public consumption. Doctors do not expect us to know what a transaortic valve implantation is, and we should not expect a parent, grandparent, or student to know what scaffolding is or what tiers of intervention are. So why do we impose edu-ese on parents?

If you have been around hospitals with sick relatives enough, you have experienced the varied manners of doctors in explaining things. The good ones never use medical terms without paraphrasing them in the same sentence (providing what teachers might call context clues :) ). Some docs are not so good at this, and we all hope they will be reading xrays in some dark room, not explaining our choices for valve replacement! Yet we, as teachers, are as guilty as doctors of poor “parent-side manner.” I read this post with great sympathy and felt a twinge of guilt for the times I may have sent a parent home wondering what the heck I was talking about. I therefore offer my six edu-ese commandments for myself going forward:

six1. Thou shalt always paraphrase any edu-ese within the same sentence — or not use it at all.

2. Thou shalt offer an edu-ese translation of all terms used in printed handouts sent home or posted on the class web page.

3. Thou shalt provide and reply to an anonymous-submission “edu-ese translate” form (kind of like Google Translate but in an online Google docs form where people can submit anything they wish). This form shall be readily available via a link from the school and class web page so parents and students can anonymously request a translation of ANY term they hear in reference to teaching/learning/education, even if it is not from a source within your class or school.

Perhaps your school PTO/PTA could take on this last idea as a project to serve the entire school community. Ask your teachers with the BEST parent-side manner to act as translators for the edu-ese submissions. Encourage parents to paste or enter ANYTHING they read into the form. Share translations, responses, and explanations on the school web page for all to see.

4. Thou shalt not assume that you know which terms are “foreign” or misunderstood by your audience. Language is very personal and comes with its own baggage of experience. If you are not sure, use an alternate word and look or listen for understanding.

5. Thou shalt never use edu-ese in email. Email is hard enough to understand without complicating it with a foreign language. If you must use edu-ese, reserve it for live, preferably face-to-face interaction. Faces tell a lot.

6. Share these commandments with your colleagues and pledge to remind each other about them when you slip.

And to Dahlia Lithwick, the lady who feels left behind, maybe you can take these commandments with you to your next parent conference.


August 30, 2013

Teacher Dreams

Filed under: about me,deep thoughts,teaching,writing — Candace Hackett Shively @ 9:29 am

Teaching is personal, and so is this post.dream

This week is the anniversary of MLK’s I Have a Dream speech, the moment that gave impetus to so much good (and so much good left to be done). Yes, I am old enough to remember that time period. But no, this post is not about civil rights. It is about having a dream and what that dream can become.

As a brand new teacher several years after King’s speech, I had a dream to bring new ideas about learning and creativity into my classroom.  I was sure I’d be the perfect teacher. I had a dream to make all kids like to write. I dreamed that kids would write and create not just “papers” (so thin a substance!),  but media: television shows or radio shows or photoessays with accompanying writings, anything that could express themselves clearly. I had a dream to change kids’ view of school and get them excited, even amid hard work.

I was sure I could do better than the “dead wood” teachers I read about and occasionally saw in classrooms around me. Most new teachers have a similar dream. For sure, I would never be like the “old” teachers who — to my young view — had decided that change was not worth their effort. I remember looking at those teachers who had not only children, but grandchildren and thinking they would never try my new ideas.

Like many dreamers, I was surprised. I discovered that some of the grandparent-teachers were the most willing to get excited about something new. When I suggested making a six week minicourse in the TV studio part of sixth grade language arts curriculum, the teacher said, “Great! How can I help?” When the kids suggested an Emmy-type awards ceremony (we called them Televiddy awards) at the end of the year, entire teams of teachers jumped in to help pull it off. The dream was alive, and the second year the kids’ writing got even better because they wanted to win a Televiddy. The best part was that it wasn’t my dream anymore. It was our dream.

Fast forward through a long teaching career, and I ask myself whether my dream is accomplished. Never. But I think I have given impetus to some good — and so much good left to be done. I look at the challenges facing enthusiastic, green teachers today and hope they have permission to engage in their dreams. Our kids need the dreams of teachers. They need the chance to feel it, see it, and join in the dream together. I can only hope that those who drive educational change today can see the value of dreams over minutiae and uniformity.

August 23, 2013

Funky Boxes: Embed widgets for learning

Filed under: edtech,learning,TeachersFirst,teaching — Candace Hackett Shively @ 9:33 am

Unpack those funky little boxes. Embed widgets are a very handy tool for teachers.

The What of widgets:

Widgets are clever little gadgets you can add to your class web site, blog, or wiki using funky looking gobbledeegook called embed code. They are little boxes that automatically fill with content provided by someone else from somewhere else on the web. This means that your site can show something new all the time without any time and effort by you. It automatically appears in the little box (widget) on your  page/blog/wiki.

embedWidgets are embedded content, an empty box on your site that fills itself with “stuff” from somewhere else. Some embedded content is simply that: a piece of “stuff” that appears in your empty box but really LIVES someplace else on the web. It might be an embedded version of a video that actually “lives” on YouTube, like the one in this post. It might be the Google Map on a restaurant web page.

Widgets are a special kind of  embedded content because the content DOES something. It changes and updates periodically and automatically. The Cluster Map widget on the right of this blog counts how many people have visited this blog lately. The LIVE Feed one tells where visitors come from and when. Some widgets let the site visitors do something (see the weather widget below), but the site owner doesn’t do anything to make them work. They are embedded widgets that load content provided by someone else.

The Why of widgets (Why go through all this geeky stuff?):

You might be tempted simply because your students will say, “COOL!” That’s certainly OK. but move beyond cool to meaningful by embedding widgets that connect to your curriculum (weather, news from the country you are studying, phases of the moon, news about congress, quote of the day, reading tips, etc.).

The HOW:

HOW you embed a widget depends on both the widget embed code and the site/blog/wiki where you want to put it. For starters, try this blog post on how to embed almost anything. Often the site offering the embed code for the widget will give you tips and directions. But the place where you are going to PUT the code may need to help a bit. If you are using a school web site, try clicking help and searching for “embed.” If you use Wikispaces, they offer help when you click the little icon that looks like a TV set: Screen Shot 2013-08-22 at 3.31.48 PM It even says “embed code” when you roll your mouse over it.

The general rule is that you need to COPY a chunk of code filled with  marks like <> / etc. and paste it into a place on your site that accepts CODE. On this blog, I have to click the text editing view instead of the visual editing view. An important skill for copy/paste is knowing how to select a block of stuff, COPY by pressing Control+C, (Command+C on a Mac), then PASTE in you desired location by pressing Control+V (Command+ V on a Mac).

Widget wisdom: Be careful who you trust.

One potentially dangerous thing about widgets is that you do not control what shows up inside that box. Make sure your widget is a trusted source. TeachersFirst recently introduced a Featured SItes widget for teachers to put on class, school, media center, or other educator web pages.  Those who know TeachersFirst know that our reviewed resources are vetted thoroughly by a team of experienced teacher leaders. In short, we will not embarrass you by sharing anything bad. We will enhance your web page with new, useful content every week, and you don’t have to do anything. See an example of our widget below, and get one for yourself here.

Want more ideas? Here are search results for the term widget on TeachersFirst. This barely scratches the surface of the widgets available out there.  These are a few reviewed sites that offer widgets. Add an embedded Google Map to your class web page showing the country you are studying or the route that a certain explorer followed. Here’s how.

As you get to like any site, watch for widgets they might offer.  Watch for cool widgets on other teachers’ site and click “get this widget,” usually offered below the widget. As your students learn new creative tools, watch for the ability to share their products using embed code— not a widget as much as simply embedded content, but it is YOURstudents’ creative work, pulled into your web page or wiki. You can gather tproducst from many places into ONE class web page or wiki using embed codes. The ability to share products using embed code is one of the Edge Features mentioned at the end of TeachersFirst reviews.

Just to get your brain going, here are some examples of embedded widgets:

Weather widget for world language teachers or classrooms studying geography, weather, or temperature conversions:


Here is the TeachersFirst Featured Sites widget looks, available here:

And here is a helpful Reading Rockets widget for parent tips, from among several options on this page:

Are you ready to widget yet?

August 16, 2013

A chosen few: A practical plan for personal PD BINGO

Filed under: edtech,learning,Ok2Ask,teaching — Candace Hackett Shively @ 10:25 am

As the new school year begins, teachers attending OK2Ask® sessions are noticeably more stressed and overwhelmed. During these sessions, we share many, many resources and teaching ideas. We pack the sessions with choices: so many tools, so many interactives, so many strategies for organizing lessons that put technology tools to work for learners. Those of us who prepare and teach these sessions are steeped in the stuff. We can name (or at least retrieve) dozens of creative tools and strategies for any learning need : tools to make multimedia presentations, tools to comment and interact with peers, tools to learn about vocabulary and word choice, ways to improve digital citizenship. Honestly, even we are overwhelmed as we narrow down our offerings to fit 75 or 90 minute OK2Ask sessions with eager teachers from all over the world. Practically speaking, none of us can do it all. It is time to give yourself permission to limit your attention to a chosen few.

No, I don’t mean a few students or a few curriculum concepts. I mean give yourself permission to master a chosen few new tools and lesson strategies. Choose one– and only one –of each:

tool for collaborative writing

tool for graphic organizers

tool for sharing images and adding text to images

tool for “collecting” things like web links, pieces of text, images, drawings

tool for creating or clipping video

Is this enough? A handful is plenty. If you are in a BYOD school, you might want to find DATs (device agnostic tools) to do each of these so every kid can use the same tool and collaborate across devices. Or you can assign your students to find and learn one of each type that they can use on their own device. If you are using school machines and network, be sure your chosen few all work inside your web filter.

Then what? Make your choices meaningful by focusing on the learning instead of the tool. Challenge yourself to complete a chosen few “bingo” board that has five tools by five learning strategies that students will do (the possibilities are endless — I just chose 5):

Collaborate to create a group product

Prioritize/choose and justify choices

Practice and teach a skill

Publish, then respond to others’ reactions

Discover new information and organize it in an intentional, understandable way

Make a bingo board for yourself and keep it handy on your desk (or computer desktop). Or use this freebie I am sharing on Google Docs. (Open it and SAVE A COPY for yourself so you can edit.) As you plan an activity this year where students use one of your chosen few tools in one of the learning strategies, put a brief description of the activity  and date in the square. Aim for Blackout Bingo by spring! Think of it as your personal professional development plan. Happy New Year!

 Screen Shot 2013-08-16 at 10.14.35 AM

August 9, 2013

Social learning and student writing: A delicate teaching dance

Filed under: myscilife,teaching,writing — Candace Hackett Shively @ 11:19 am


As teachers, we all work to balance high expectations while differentiating for various abilities and needs. When we set “requirements” in a digital, social learning community, it is indeed a delicate dance.

Example: You set a high bar for all students in your science class for written expression students in a shared learning community with other schools like MySciLifePosts must use complete sentences and correct conventions of written English.  The powerful tools of authentic, social learning today: online learning communities, blogs, wikis, and collaborative projects, all motivate kids to show their best writing. Alas, one student’s “best” may invite embarrassment, comparison,  or — and this is the worst — digital muting by his peers. Kids simply ignore posts they cannot understand or that they deem “dumb.”  They even exclaim,” Hey! This kid didn’t use complete sentences, and you said we had to!” Either way, the struggling poster’s voice goes unheard.

Students who struggle with writing — for whatever reason — need more scaffolding and support outside the social stream. Few content area teachers are familiar with strategies for writing help, and many do not realize how much they may hurt. Dealing with a student’s writing is like doing surgery on his larynx. You are dealing with a voice here!

Struggling students want to be heard and to join in the  online conversations — and they should, but they need time to build to a level of competence that does not invite criticism or giggles.  As teachers, we dance delicately. We can suggest offline drafts (think Google docs or even — gasp– paper?) so the struggling student  can improve his/her writing before he posts. We can encourage him to have a peer read it back to him aloud to be sure it “sounds right.” Offer some sentence starters in a Word doc,  diminishing this support over time. Even use his own sentence starters derived from his previous posts. We can focus on major conventions, but we also need to focus on the science content. Offer some words he can drag and drop to form sentences, including required science terms.

Remember that larynx! We do not want to mute his voice by over moderating, rewriting, or constantly disapproving his posts. He needs the posting and social learning experience even more than others. So we eventually allow him to post in the stream and hope that others will be kind. Our delicate teaching dance includes promoting digital citizenship so other students do not demean or digitally “mute” those who struggle. Encourage kids to reply to posts who have received no comments. Reply to a post with a thoughtful question that will help you learn more from that person. Give bonus points for interactions that go above and beyond by asking questions that help another student explain more clearly.

Writing is tough. Writing is personal. Remember the larynx and tread carefully as you tiptoe the delicate dance!

July 26, 2013

Gameworks: Gamifying “seatwork” (choke)

Filed under: iste13,learning,teaching — Candace Hackett Shively @ 9:11 am

monopolyI had a conversation this week with a sixth grade teacher/university teacher-educator about the concept of “seatwork.” Many years ago, after teaching in middle school for nine years, I moved to an elementary gifted teacher position and was stunned to hear this term. “Seatwork” simply was not part of my teaching vocabulary or repertoire.  Frankly, I choke on the term and the idea of keeping kids busy during transitional times using pieces of paper whose primary value was to fill time.  I do not mean to offend or condemn teachers’ need to preserve their sanity during bus arrivals and instructional times while they pay attention to a small group and others are working on something “in their seats.”  We all plan lesson times where students work independently — from kindergarten to high school seniors. But let’s get rid of “seatwork” for the sake of soaking up time. Let’s gamify ” seatwork into Gameworks! (A tribute to #iste13)

Kids love games and invent their own all the time. (Watch a playground!) Even teens invent challenges for each other (not necessarily safe or positive ones). Instead of handing out “worksheets”  and filling time with “seatwork,” have kids create games and challenge their peers with their creations. Yes, you will may have to show the littlest ones how to make a game, but having an audience and purpose for their efforts will generate more meaningful practice with the spelling words or colors or numbers. The game creator and the subsequent players all benefit as you create a community of game-players (and even build some sportsmanship). Arrange the “seats” into  game circles or pairs. Bingo! (oops, pun),  you have gamified “seatwork” into Gameworks. In single computer elementary classrooms, use student computer center time for students to create games, then share them during Gameworks time.

Here are some simple tools to get you started  gamifying seatwork into Gameworks in a non-tech classroom. The TeachersFirst reviews give more details and the links.

Puzzle maker (TeachersFirst review) Use this oldie but goodie to make traditional paper puzzles or get a little tricky and use them electroncially on an interactive whiteboard “gamespace” for student gamers.

Bingo Baker (TeachersFirst review) Create Bingo games. Yes, Gameworks bingo will make some noise, but it will be on-task, productive noise.

Word Search Builder  (TeachersFirst review) Another word search maker. This one makes both printable and online versions you solve by clicking the letters to highlight them in yellow. There is no way to SAVE the online version, though. This is great for game-making on the fly. Try it on tablets for student gamemakers to pass to a neighbor to solve (does not use Flash).

How do You Play (TeachersFirst review) Find rules and ideas for nearly every game you ever knew and some you never did! Gameworks creators can invent their own games on ANY topic using these ideas. There are even simple games for little ones.

Tools for Educators (TeachersFirst review)  Among the many useful items on this site are game board makers and more. Kids will LOVE being the new Parker Brothers!

Online Egg Timer  (TeachersFirst review)  Handy for game players or to declare the end of Gameworks time.

Timer-Tab  (TeachersFirst review) Online alarm clock/timer for your Gameworks that displays the countdown in the actual browser TAB

Countdown Timer (TeachersFirst review) An online timer that looks like the kitchen classic. (Don’t forget to turn up your speakers.)

Next week I will share some “tech” tools for classrooms where students have access to laptops or other devices to play the games.

July 12, 2013

Awesome Foursome: Writing ideas with a twist

Filed under: creativity,gifted,Ok2Ask,teaching,writing — Candace Hackett Shively @ 9:10 am

I must share this awesome foursome of writing resources that grabbed my creative eye as I prepare for an online OK2Ask session  in August. twist2

Gone Google Story Builder (reviewed here). Layer writing on top of digital storytelling about writing using this tool that plays back the writing and editing process as a video. Here is a tongue in cheek (?) example. Imagine assigning students to write s story about writing, portraying two or more characters in the process. Suddenly, the writing matters because we are highlighting the actual process of writing. But the metalayer is that we can “see” the persona doing the writing. What a wonderful way to make students aware of narrative persona and of the thinking processes involved with writing. It would be great fun for a student to show an internal tug of war as he/she writes, such as the impulse to be wildly creative and the impulse to please admissions committees reading a college essay. To actually use this in class, you might have to start by simply brainstorming characters who could be writing and editing a piece together:  a parent and a teen, Jekyll and Hyde, a dog and a cat, Hemingway and Dickens, etc. It also might be easier to make this a partner project. Then ask students to jump back and describe the message of the writing “story” they have told. Layer on layer…

Five Sentences (reviewed here). This is simply a challenge to become more succinct and get to the point in emails. Email is a boring old people medium, but it is also a workplace (and adult) reality.  It is a very practical way to focus writing for a purpose. Students could start with examples of long emails they or their parents have received, rewriting them in five sentences.  Then they could write their own five sentence emails for a real purpose. [Five sentence end here…got the gist?] Many web sites have “contact us” boxes with limited text fields, so the five sentence limit is good practice. Brainstorm things teens might be asking for: a refund, a replacement for a defective product, information about something, etc. Then have them write the five sentences. Make a five sentence rule for emails to YOU as the teacher, and promise to respond in five sentences. Do you think parents would comply?

750 Words (reviewed here) Everybody needs a place to mind-dump. This private space is a good one to vent, collect pieces of writing you don’t know what to do with, lines from songs you like, or angry words you should never actually send via email or text. If your students have email accounts, they can have 750 words accounts. These personal spaces are great for daily write-to-think time, but they are even more likely to be used if students have permission to write off topic at last part of the time. Instead of having them write for you, have them write for themselves.  Keep a class 750 words account where students can enter simply the TOPIC they  wrote about with their own 750 Words today. That list will become inspiration for others.

Quest (reviewed here) Write a game. A long time ago on devices with small black and green screens, there was a game called Adventure. Players made choices about their moves based on text descriptions of where they were and what their options were. The writing must be very clear and consistent, but the option to use vivid description and clever plot twists makes text-based game-creation addictive. A science or history teacher could incorporate writing and gaming to reinforce concepts. For example, a game written by students could include accurate geologic formations or chemical reactions. A game set in a certain place and time in history could include encounters with actual historic figures. This seems a perfect collaborative task for a group of 2-3. Just realize that it could spin into weeks of game obsession. Got gifted? Toss this one at them as a way to use what they know and write their way much further.

I love summer for getting the creative juices flowing.


November 2, 2012

Thankful Fridays 1: Inspirations

Filed under: about me,creativity,teaching — Candace Hackett Shively @ 8:30 am

November has five Fridays this year. In the tradition of Thanksgiving, my weekly posts will share things for which I am thankful. I begin by sharing how grateful I am for inspiration sites. These five  thought-provokers offer visual and verbal sparks. If  my brain starves for the stimulation of a quirky question or a glorious graphic, I can inhale bracing breezes for the brain. I am grateful for:

1. Good. The name says it all. I click to find things tagged creativity or DIY or design, and I marvel at cleverness and surprise. I am thankful to see so many examples of people “doing different” as they “do Good.” They explain:

GOOD is learning, doing, improving–together

These are the people who– a few years ago– brought us the Wanderlust interactive reviewed here. Thank you for inspiring me to learn, wonder, and share.

2.  Places that put vastness of scale (and the meaninglessness of minutiae) into perspective: Scale of the Universe 2 (review and teaching ideas here) and Magnifying the Universe (review and teaching ideas here). I am especially thankful to be able to put stressors and annoyances into perspective  and to draw upon the vastness these interactive spaces provide. The very words space and  size melt into a chance to rise above or delve below whatever preoccupies me. I am thankful for the change of perspective.

3. The Art of Science (complete review here). This find from Princeton offers visual proof that science is art and art is science. I would never call myself a scientist, but I am fascinated by the visuals science offers (see #2). I am even more thankful that the scientists  who share images on this site are prove that not all scientists are about data,data, nothing but data. I am grateful for images about seeing and wondering.

4. 101 Questions (complete review here). OK, this one is a little odd, but it does get my creative juices flowing. There is nothing like a visual prompt to get ideas (or questions) moving. If the prompts are good, the questions move from factual and surface level to pretty deep stuff. I am grateful for questions.

5. Co.Create is even better than Good. Why? I keep finding more articles. Just when I am hooked by one title, there is another one. I find myself wishing I could read in two places at once. I honestly have not spent time figuring out who the writers are or where the content actually comes from, but there seems to be an endless stream of things to intrigue and inspire. I am thankful for their “You might also like.”

Why do these matter to a teacher/ website editor/ed tech person? Because I know I need a broader stream of inspiration than simply #edtech and #edchat on Twitter. This morning I ran across a quote from Steve Jobs:

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.

– Steve Jobs, Wired, February 1996

Doing my job well — being creative — means I need to continuously expand my repertoire of experiences, and this inspirational five offers endless avenues to creative questions, questions, and images.  I hope every teacher has sites like this and is thankful for the role they play in making you a Thinking Teacher.

Next week: Five things that keep me organized — and I am SO grateful!

October 25, 2012

Break something to make something

Filed under: creativity,edtech,gifted,learning,teaching — Candace Hackett Shively @ 10:51 am

What can I do to beat this, break this, or make people laugh?

When I taught gifted kids, their first approach when faced with a new technology tool, game, or toy was to beat it, break it, or make people laugh. I saw this reaction back in the day of early computer games we loaded from a 5 1/4 inch floppy disks. In the pre-PC days, my students — gifted or not –had the same reaction when faced with a special effects generator in the school’s black and white TV studio. (OK, now you can guess my age.) They wanted to make special effects that cut off heads or caused the TV monitors to go crazy.

Kids, especially middle school kids and older, will want to break, outsmart, or use any tech tool to make their friends laugh. We are missing a bet by not using this impulse to help them learn. There is a misconception, well debunked by Bill Ferriter, that technology itself is motivating. Ferriter is right. It isn’t motivating to ask kids to do what a tool is intended to do. It is motivating for kids to show their prowess in defeating it or molding it to their own purposes, preferably for an audience. The same social impulse makes them want to share on Facebook or YouTube. There may be some gender differences, but the stereotypes say what the boys break the girls will secretly redirect to their own purposes — giggling.

The makers movement challenges kids to MAKE things to fit a challenge. The gamification movement invites kids to create games to construct learning. I think we miss a bet by not asking kids to break things to meet a challenge. How can you use a tool of your choice to do something new and productive that it was NOT intended to do? What tool can you break to solve this unrelated problem? Give students the web full of  “tools,” and they will want to combine them or use them every way except as intended, especially middle and high schoolers. So let them.

Instead of  assigning kids tech tools to make a project using a specific tool, maybe we should simply allow them to break or “redirect” tools at will. The final rubric should certainly include curriculum accountability:  the result must show what they know about the prescribed curriculum. In the interest of teaching life skills and preserving our own jobs, we must include a requirement that the products have no more than a PG-13 rating (at least not in the version they submit for a grade). Share the rubric and any relevant acceptable use policy, but let students do it any way they want. Humor, even deviousness, can be a far greater motivator.  The teacher pleasers will ask for tools to be assigned, and that’s fine. The most able, most motivated,  and most creative will break something to make something. Isn’t that the innovation we want to build in our students?  The examples of “broken” or redirected  tools can serve to lure the timid into trying something a bit more adventurous themselves the next time.

One practical concern of this idea is that kids will take a long time to figure out the gimmicks and potential humor of the tools they choose. Let them do this on their own time. Schools have no walls, right?

Many years ago, I learned that comedy is far more difficult to write than drama. Parody, satire, and humor challenge the greatest minds. (I know how long it took to write a barely-adequate spoof of  “The Raven” last week!) If we can motivate kids to go above and beyond in their learning by following their impulse to break, trick, or make others laugh, we  have gone above and beyond our own curriculum. We have “mashed up” the student behaviors we can barely control with the curriculum we want students to master.  We have encouraged innovation. And we might even get a chance to laugh together.

October 5, 2012

Time for MacArthur Teaching “Genius” Fellowships

Filed under: creativity,teaching — Candace Hackett Shively @ 10:13 am

The annual announcement of the MacArthur Fellows this week generated the usual media blitz about a fresh batch of surprising, creative, and potentially influential people stashed in little-known pockets and corners. Dubbed, “genius” awards by the media, these grants recognize “individuals who show exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for still more in the future” and offer generous funds so recipients can continue their work with the greatest freedom and  flexibility.

The process by which MacArthur Fellows  are nominated and selected, contrary to what the media, guidance counselors, and tiger parents may say,  proves that accomplishment and recognition can happen to those who do not actively campaign for it or plan a deliberate path to a perfect pinnacle. These people are creative because it is their passion and their life, not their career goal. MacArthur is remarkably successful in keeping both nominators and nominees completely confidential. The rotating pool of nominators assures a never ending stream of potential candidates from an ever expanding (U.S.) world of possibilities. As nominators come and go, the process nears perfection like a mathematical function approaching its asymptote. There are no winners or losers because no one even knows who is in the game. The fellows are unaware of scrutiny until recognized, and that is an important part of the process. These are people who are chosen because they are likely to spread and share the brilliance of their light. And light can come from any angle and in any color or wavelength. The pool is blindingly large, but somehow MacArthur finds a prism to separate out the light of these individuals. Will they find them all? Not likely, but they will continue the quest with a process that mimics the “genius” of the winners.

It is time for MacArthur Teaching Fellowships. Grassroots efforts to change teaching today proffer exemplary new ways for students to grow and learn in this era of education reform. Most programs must struggle for funding or meet bureaucratic requirements to gain recognition and  continue their success. These efforts are institutional, however, and they at least have a process to try. They may be magnet schools or charters or university pilot programs. Yet we miss the isolated light of an individual teacher who shares surprising, creative light in unexpected classroom corners or even outside school walls. He/She may not be the principal’s shining star, suitable to be nominated as “teacher of the year.” He/She does not self-advocate and may actually be a thorn in the side of colleagues, an “odd duck” or a manic and disorganized genius. This is the teacher whose unusual ways or odd approach “show[s] exceptional creativity… and the prospect for still more in the future.”  A single, intuitive “genius” of a teacher may have discovered something that could spread a new light, perhaps engaging would-be drop-outs or highly gifted social outcasts. Or maybe he/she is a middle school math teacher whose students make poetry of Pythagorus or an English teacher whose students sculpt sentences at the town hall.

How would we ever find them? The same way MacArthur finds Fellows. A rotating pool of nominators adds letters of nomination on an ongoing basis. The process is silent and secretive, but finds them. We know “genius” creative teachers are out there, and they may never receive a pat on the back any other way.  But we could learn so much from them. With the generous, flexible fellowship funds to pursue their passions, who knows how many students could benefit.

Forget the Hollywood “inspired teacher” movies. I want to be inspired by the genius teachers. They are perhaps the ones who never intended to teach — or who could never imagine doing anything else. It does not matter to me what kind of prep they had or what happy meteor landing put them among our children. They are the light  that Departments of Education cannot see, the infrared to our “professional” eyes.

It’s a thought, anyway. Anybody want to fund it?