Monday, July 21, 2008

Generation E: Educating America's Youngest Generation

The population of the United States might seem quite large when we compare ourselves with most countries. But next to China and India, U.S. population begins to seem rather puny, especially when we break down the demographics. There are a combined 625 million Indian and Chinese children below the age of fourteen. The United States, with its aging baby boomers and low birth rate has only sixty million children in the same demographic. (CIA Factbook, 2007) It’s time to begin calling this group of children America’s Generation E. I mean, E for ESSENTIAL. If this generation of Americans enters the workforce armed with a competitive edge in the new global marketplace of the 21st Century, then our nation, and the individual liberties we value, will endure. If the American system fails to prepare Generation E for global competition, then every great American quality we’ve come to treasure is at risk.

The children who comprise Generation E are America’s most scarce and precious resource. This Essential group of Americans must be the best educated generation in American history. Even if our friends in India and China educate only ten percent of their population, they will not be giving us leeway to sort out and discard any member of our Generation E. The need to guide each Generation E boy and girl to his or her highest potential is not just about ensuring American prosperity. The potential for creating a better world exists in each one of these children. None of them are expendable. Clearly, American educators must prepare all sixty million members of Generation E for the essential role they will play in keeping our nation and the world strong.

Thankfully, America’s teachers are uniquely well suited for this task. We are a part of the American value system which is replete with stories of individual acts of courage. Our collective history is reflected in stories of rugged pioneers risking all to move their families across a continent to a better life, immigrant families abandoning hopeless futures by crossing oceans to realize their dreams in a new world, poverty stricken, jobless men of the Great Depression era being fed and cared for by the families of strangers who were barely able to feed themselves, the sacrifices of courageous soldiers who gave their lives to save others, and civil rights protestors who withstood much more than police dogs and fire hoses to ensure the promises of liberty would be granted to all our citizens. The stories of American heroism in the face of difficult odds are countless and true.

And now, American educators can add their names to the list of citizens who have stretched beyond old limitations to create new and better worlds; worlds that have benefited not only Americans, but countless citizens of our planet. Educators are as essential as the children of Generation E in guaranteeing a promising future for America. In the Sarasota County, Florida school district, teachers who are working to acquire the special set of skills needed to guide Generation E students are called Next Generation teachers. Perhaps we should call these teachers Now Generation, because our children need them right now.

The leading edge of Generation E will enter high school this fall. What is in store for them in high schools across America? Have secondary educators made the reforms Bill Gates so passionately outlined in his 2005 address to U.S. Governors? We are nearing the end of the first decade of the 21st Century. The alarm bells are ringing now. The time to act is now.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Summertime Musings . . . Revisited

Summer vacation is here again, and I thought I would recycle this article I wrote regarding the value of time off. I hope you enjoy it and spend your summer learning and relaxing.

Everyday I meet people who say they just couldn’t do what I do. They tell me how much respect they have for anyone who has the patience to teach, and many express great curiosity about how I handle difficult children, manage irresponsible parents, and assess mountains of student work. Even after I assure my admirers that working with middle school students is far more rewarding than they could ever imagine, I still fail to recruit them to the profession. But I know there is one thing about teaching that appeals to nearly everyone, and that’s summer vacation. When friends, acquaintances, and even my dear husband begin to turn a faint shade of green as they contemplate the fun I must be having as I lollygag through ten weeks of free-time, I wonder if I could ever explain that getting a little time off may be vital to the teaching profession.

I sometimes think of each new school year as being very much like getting a fresh chance to swim the English Channel. There’s no doubt about the challenge that lies ahead. When the swim begins, the pier is lined with cheering fans, wishing me well, but about ten hours into my swim, when I’m lonely and cold, my arms and legs start to feel like lead, and I know I have about twenty more hours of swimming before I get to the other side. As I fret over how I’m ever going to make it, I just keep pumping those leaden arms and legs until, miraculously, I find myself on the shores of France. For those of you who’ve gotten lost in this metaphor, in the teaching world, reaching the month of June is the equivalent of swimming ashore in France.

Just like making it across the English Channel, excellent teaching requires lots of training and preparation. Of course you must be physically ready for the challenge, but mental preparedness may be the key ingredient that propels both the swimmer and the teacher. Summer break is my prep time; a time to increase my knowledge of how to be a better teacher. And even more importantly, it gives me a chance to restore my mental toughness, renew my creative juices, and get ready for the coming school year.

Naturally, I begin each summer break with a family vacation. The summer trips my family and I take are determined by how much we can learn from the experience. Is there some historic, cultural, environmental, or otherwise educational insight we can bring home from our summertime journeys? I’ve scoured gift shops at Alcatraz, Harper’s Ferry, and the National Archives for books, videos, posters and artifacts that will make their way back to my classroom. My husband and children are my partners and experimental students on these trips. As always, their patience and love sustain me as we all share in the fun of learning.

Summer is not an “off” time for me. Along with many teachers I attend workshops and conferences designed to refine my skills and send me back to the classroom at full speed, ready to guide students through joyful learning experiences. The more I learn, the more I am helping my students become the life-long learners demanded by the 21st Century workplace.

I admit that not all my summer break is spent preparing to swim the English Channel. During the school year, I never have a free weekend. There is always work to be done preparing good lessons, evaluating student work, and keeping parents informed of student progress. In the summer, I have the time to reclaim my rose garden, paint my son’s room, read some great books, and sometimes just wander mindlessly through a day or two.

I know it seems unfair that teachers get a whole summer to work and play in the relaxed environment of their homes, surrounded by their families. I concede that ten weeks is a bit much, and I would surely be happy with a little shorter break But I trust that those who truly understand the strength it takes to be a good teacher will also understand how the extended summer break helps us be the kind of teachers they want guiding their children. And for those who are still green with envy, maybe I can arrange to have them spend the day with twenty-five thirteen year-olds.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

No One Is Ordinary

For the past eight months, I have been working with a group of secondary Literacy Coaches here in Sarasota County to build a professional development course called CAR-PD, (Content Area Reading Professional Development). One section of this course deals with helping students become motivated learners. The teachers who developed that portion of our training used this film as a motivational tool.

While I watched the film, I could not help thinking about how teachers view their students. We have sorted them by their FCAT scores and created classes just for "gifted" students and placed our "low achievers" in their own ghettos. What are we doing? What are we thinking? I do not believe any test, or battery of tests, can accurately predict human potential. We do not have a crystal ball or the Sorting Hat from Hogwarts. If you view this film, I hope you see that none of the children we teach are ordinary. In fact, they all have the potential to be extraordinary.