As SLJ’s editors roll up our sleeves in final preparation for our annual Leadership Summit, in Philadelphia, October 26-27 (www.sljsummit2012.com), and our “Digital Shift: Libraries, Ebooks and Beyond” online event on October 17 (www.thedigitalshift.com/beyondebooks), I’m inspired by both the big ideas in education and the ground-level work I’ve seen in school libraries across the country.
I’m also aware of the vast challenges we face as we strive to give our kids the best educational experience possible. A recent event highlighted the realities at hand. On September 13, I attended the New York Times Schools for Tomorrow conference, on “Building a Better Teacher.” The day’s conversations tackled the problematic nature of teacher assessments, the impact of compensation on the recruitment and retention of great teachers, and the need for targeted professional development. And, of course, the promise of technology coursed throughout those discussions.
In a week when the Chicago teachers’ strike (which affected 350,000 students and ended as this column went to press) underscored these very issues, it was notable that, said Times columnist Bill Keller, the day’s program featured very few classroom teachers. Those who were there, however, represented on-the-ground innovation that directly benefits kids.
Tak L. Hui, a lead teacher at a public intermediate school in Queens, NY, for example, created his own digital math games (www.xpmath.com) when he couldn’t find any suitable ones. Lauren Sanders, a head teacher at the Rebecca School, connects with her students, children with neurodevelopmental disorders, by fostering empathy. One tactic: she adapts fairy tales to make them more relatable (a male teaching assistant named Zach subs in for Jack in Jack and the Beanstalk, and pancakes replace Goldilocks’s undesirable porridge). Romulo F. Gabriel Jr. and his Bronx middle school students won a spot on the space shuttle for a science experiment, and got to experience the shuttle launch—the experiment failed, Gabriel said, which presented another teachable moment since failure is often a key to scientific process.
These real accomplishments, however, felt removed from much of the program, which addressed the larger barriers to classroom success, not the least of which is lack of funds. Mark Edwards, the superintendent of Mooresville Graded School District (NC), was perhaps best at articulating where strategy and tactics meet. His school’s 1:1 laptop initiative points to a potential model, and not one that necessarily requires a big budget. Mooresville, he said, “ranks 100 out of 115 districts in funding and second in terms of academic achievement.” So what did they do?
“We’ve blended building the culture along with digital resources,” he said. All kids from grades 3 to 12 have laptops, and the school’s content largely resides online. That goes hand in hand with “ongoing systemic support” on methodology and “emotional support” through long-term mentoring for new teachers, be they veteran or green, and collaboration with parents. “You blend the culture with the tool base and then the systemic support, and we’ve seen great things happen,” said Edwards.
The conversations at the Times event were complex, and at times heated and controversial (and most of it is available on video at nytschoolsfortomorrow.com). They demanded that leaders across diverse sectors embrace multiple perspectives and take action.
Speaking about her district’s experimentation with teacher assessments, Kaya Henderson, the chancellor of DC’s public schools, hit a universal nerve when she addressed the need to innovate quickly. “Allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good is not going to get us where we need to go,” she said. “We don’t have the luxury of time.” Her point was that kids are growing up and out of our schools every day, and they need our best efforts right now, even if they’re imperfect. I couldn’t agree more.
It is by bridging the reality of today with the best visions of tomorrow that we will improve our schools. That effort begins with what happens in our schools now.
Rebecca T. Miller