Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Useful Tips for Saving Teacher Time

Writing helps me think about things that don't seem to make sense at first.

This morning at our weekly staff development session we learned about some new features that are available to teachers on the district electronic student database. The student database now has an ILP form that was created so that teachers can use it with parents at conferences. Since the IT department doesn't want teachers to have printers in their rooms, printing the completed forms will require teachers to send the completed forms with the information that parents have just shared to a printer down the hall some place. Teachers will need to leave the room and go get the printed form and hope that someone else hasn't sent a big job to the printer or left the printer out of paper or toner. Printers aren't yet considered useful educational tools, at least not useful enough so that a teacher could actually have one in the classroom where instruction happens. Is teacher instruction time less valuable than printer toner?

We learned that "Fractions would be easier for teachers to input into the database than percentages." The fractions are numbers which report student performance on a reading assessment. Fractions like 7/10 and 5/7 are all put in the same list. I'm having a hard time understanding why fractions are better than decimals for this score. I hope there's a reason other than the assertion that fractions are easier than decimals for teachers.

Then, in response to a very good question asked by a teacher, we were told, "I'll check on that and send an email about what I find out to your principal and assistant principal." I suspect that was just a learned response in a system that insists on that kind of response. Why couldn't the response be made to the all of the teachers at our building via the same email and save the principal or assistant principal the trouble of forwarding the response on to teachers? This seems a bit like what Miguel Guhlin recently wrote on his blog about the top down command and control of information? Those old habits of paper passing to reinforce hierarchy are hard to break.

Also today, deadlines were announced for completing the inventory of the collection of books that were recently delivered to each elementary teacher's room. The books cost about $1500 per room. The first two boxes of books contained about 150 books; there's supposed to be another couple of boxes coming soon. The inventory consisted of four pages of book titles and a letter of the alphabet that signifies its F & P level. The ISBN number was also included on the list, but not the author. The list was not organized by any of the fields of the list. It was a list of the books in a totally random order. The list was actually in the order that the books were packed by someone in the warehouse. I discovered that piece of information when I sent an email to the president of the company that was the vendor of the books. The vendor president said that was the way their inventory software generated the list. I suggested to her that they didn't have any business being in business and certainly shouldn't be doing business with the school district where I work and where my kids go to school if that was all the better they could do for an inventory list. I said I thought an electronic list that could be searched and sorted should be sent to each teacher along with the boxes of books that the teacher was required to inventory. The next day, the vendor sent me a pdf file of the list in alpha order. I wrote back that that was better but still not satisfactory. Pdf files are dead-end documents. You can't really do anything with the information in a pdf document except print it out or copy it by hand. To the vendor's credit, I got an Excel spreadsheet of the inventory later that same day, the authors weren't included - "That wasn't in the contract." Was the electronic file in the contract? The person in charge of buying the books for the district stopped in to visit me (I was called to the principal's office during my instruction time) a few days later and said that I was being too harsh on the vendor. I said that I thought asking teachers to inventory a couple of boxes of books with a random list was too harsh.

I'm fortunate to have U of Mn practicum students spend a few hours in my classroom each week. My student teacher suggested that completing the inventory would be a good task for the practicum students; He's showing a real talent for using resources effectively. They did a great job and had the list done in about 20 minutes complete with dividers they made out of card stock separating the different levels. When I showed the random list to the practicum students and asked them if they would have liked doing the inventory using the random list instead of the sorted list the response I got was, " I'd rather wash windows." Now that's harsh. I hadn't thought of that; apparently there's a teacher out there somewhere who's asked practicum students to wash windows - they all compare notes back at the sorority. I'm not sure if my colleagues in the district have received an electronic inventory that can be sorted and searched. I'll ask around.


As it turns out, I've been viewing a problem from my own narrow perspective again. I've done that before. The problem with the inventory of the leveled books library for each elementary classroom, that costs about $1500 dollars per room wasn't just a problem for classroom teachers strapped for time at the beginning of the year (I'm not sure the time of the year makes all that much difference when it comes to time for things that could be done in a more efficient manner.) The inventory was also a problem for someone at 807 (district HQ.) I'm not sure exactly what the problem was; I haven't been told. I only know that the deadline for finishing the inventory has been pushed back indefinitely.

I got to thinking about things beyond the world of MPS classroom teachers and wondered what was going to happen to all of the inventories of books that arrived somewhere. Doing an inventory with a five page random list of books isn't just a problem for the person checking off the books; it's also a problem for the person who then is responsible for doing something with that collection of random lists of books. I think there's about 300 or so elementary classrooms in the MPS. That's a pretty big stack of random lists to sort through. I guess the whole point of doing an inventory is so that somebody can keep track of all the books that have been scattered around the district-about $450,ooo worth of books. Maybe using one of those new fangled computer things that can sort and search lists of things like books might be useful. Can a collection of books that is not organized in any manner other than the order in which they were packed in a warehouse actually be called a library? I'm going to ask one of my cousins who has a masters in library science - at least three of my 64 first cousins are masters of library science , and all of them have the ability to offer opinions, a skill necessary for psychological survival in large Irish Catholic families.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Is There a Whiteboard in this class?

"Is there a Whiteboard in this class?" That was the second un-prompted question asked by a student in my class this year; he's new to our district, having moved in from the burbs. We had just moved into the circle of benches in front of the room for our morning meeting. The question that had come up just before was "what is that flashy thingy?" - the student was pointing to the blinking cursor at the end of the text on the 'Daily Schedule' on the screen.

The second question came (very politely asked with a raised hand first-it was the first day of class) as I was in the process of using that first question as an opportunity to explain about the computer, cable, projector, document camera, and screen combination that I use a lot. (That would be a variation on the standard Responsive Classroom guided exploration model.) The answer to the 2nd question was "not, yet." I then asked for opinions about whiteboards and six students offered why they thought I should get one. Another student new to the MPS had had one in their room last year. Nobody thought I shouldn't and I actually fished for negatives. 'You can have us all write stuff on there and then save it and print it out and even put in on a web page if you want.' I've been holding off on a whiteboard while encouraging my colleagues at Marcy to use them - I've been focusing on making Moodle work for elementary teaching and learning, quite successfully, I'll add, unabashedly.

Then, when I got home my 10th grade daughter excitedly reported "Dad, you're gonna really like my English teacher. He sings Bob Dylan songs and is going to have us use Nicenet" [an early Moodle type of learning collaboration tool.] I started a Nicenet forum for MPS middle school math teachers back in the summer of 1997 (it didn't go anywhere because the heads of the math dept didn't even use email in those days.) Moodle does way more than replace Nicenet, but I'm assuming her teacher is still using Nicenet because there's been such a paucity of support, sometimes actual resistance, for using Moodle in our classrooms.

So, learning how to use a whiteboard effectively in a 3rd and 4th grade multi-age classroom will be on my professional development list this year. Stayed tuned and chime in, please.