Thursday, November 11, 2010

Interview with Jason Flom: Teacher, Blogger, Cyclist

Jason is a 5th grade teacher at Cornerstone Learning Community (CLC) in Tallahassee, FL. As a teacher, he works to balance laughter with challenge, standards with relevance, and experiences with reflection. He earned his bachelors and masters in education from the University of Florida, before pursing outdoor education. A chance to help open CLC’s elementary school in 2001 convinced him to leave the woods for the classroom. He founded Ecology of Education as a collaborative, multi-author blog in March of 2009 to give voice to a range of professionals working in the field of education. He is also the moderator for Edutopia’s Green Schools Group & an ASCD Emerging Leader class of 2010. Follow him on twitter (@JasonFlom).

Will: Who is Jason Flom? Why teaching? How long have you been an educator? How long did it take you to feel comfortable in your skills as an educator?

Jason: I’m a 5th grade teacher in Tallahassee, FL. When not getting schooled by my students, I spend my time with my two girls trying to instill in them a deep and abiding love for superheroes. 3 year old likes both Marvel & DC, so I’m feeling pretty good about that. 10 month old likes to eat the books, so I’m hoping for appreciation through digestion for her.

I realized I was going to be a teacher during my 6th & 7th grade years. In both cases my math teachers really inspired me in a way that remains relevant today. I remember watching them and thinking, I could do that. In fact, I think I might really like that.

I’ve been teaching for 10 years in the classroom and did 2 years of outdoor/environmental education before that.

In terms of comfortability, I guess I would have to say that I’m still not comfortable. I’m confident I can make a difference, but I try to keep from getting comfortable in order to not become complacent. I daily expect my students to move past their comfort zones and into their stretch zones. I’d be disingenuous if I didn’t hold myself to the same standard.

Will: What is your educational philosophy? How does technology play a role in your philosophy? And how are you using social media?

Much of my education philosophy came out of my days working at Outward Bound and can be summed up in 3 quotes:

1.“I regard it as the foremost task of education to ensure the survival of these qualities: an enterprising curiosity, an undefeatable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible self denial, and above all, compassion.” – Kurt Hahn

2.“To serve, to strive and not to yield” – Outward Bound motto

3.“A ship in harbor is safe – but that’s not what ships are built for.” – John A. Shedd

Technology really doesn’t play that big of a role. We use computers for some research, writing, blogging, and the like, but I see it as a supplemental tool rather than an integral component. That said, I think it is important that it play a role in preparing students for the “real world” (whatever that is, because for students & teachers, school is pretty real). However, when it comes to cultivating students as lifelong learners with the qualities in the Kurt Hahn quote, technology is not necessary, IMHO. It helps make school more meaningful & relevant, but going outside and doing water quality samples can be equally valuable, perhaps if not more so.

We use social media lightly in 5th grade. A few of the students have e-mails, but most don’t. We have a class blog that the students work on regularly and I always show them the power of twitter. However, the power of the collaborative curve is a leveraged often. We discuss & debate everything. There is a great wealth of knowledge and insights within our classroom and I seek to tease it out everyday. Sometimes we’ll just talk about what’s going on in literature for an hour, relating it to their lives, choices, and challenges. Whenever we take summative assessments in subjects where we’ve explored topics together and in depth, I find their thinking much richer. And the thinking is transferable. So, while social media is light, social learning is heavy.

Will: For the past year, there has been a concerted effort by politicians, corporate interests, media personalities and fly-by-night “educators” to blame teachers for the current shape of public education. Do they have a legitimate argument?

Jason: Yes & no. Yes, teachers matter. We make a difference in students’ lives (positive, negative, & somewhere in-between). At the heart of their argument, if we could peel away the blaming & bitterness, I think we’d see a respect for teachers. They know the power we wield.

At the same time, their argument seems to rest on the notion that every one of society’s ills should be solved at school, in the classroom, with a script. This just isn’t the case. There’s a misperception that the outliers (the success stories), should be the norm. And while I do not disagree with this narrative in theory, in reality it cannot be achieved on the narrow backs of teachers. The problem is that teachers are a tempting & visible scapegoat for the much larger systemic issues at play.

The current state of education is as varied as our population. We make the mistake of boiling it down to numbers & stats and then get all Chicken Little about what the numbers tell us. “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” The frantic push for change, while well meaning, keeps us from actually making a generation long goal. We compare our numbers to Finland, flip out, and then treat each year like it’s a horse race.

“Achievement is coming round the first turn and looking good, with Performance on his hind. Merit Pay is fast approaching coming out of the bend pushing Math Scores to really beat those hooves. Achievement Gap pulling up the rear but looking strong in the second turn, giving Teacher Accountability a run for its money. Reading Scores falling behind but rumors of a new trainer will sure improve his performance later in the season. On the home stretch Data surging ahead while Achievement falters. Student Performance looks like it may take this one, but Tenure takes the prize.”

Each year is a litmus test for one year’s efforts without the benefit of implementing long-term investments in systemic change. The Finns realized the need for this. A generation ago they began reforming their education system and are now the envy of the world. Three teachers per class, no standardized tests, and a teaching corps from the top tier of their collegic ranks. All students (all people really) have access to health care services and students arrive ready to learn. The teachers in this scenario are one part of a much larger system dedicated to capitalizing on the potential of each student. In this way, the argument that teachers can overcome all is not legit. There must be a broader commitment to truly reach, care for, and serve each child.

Will: Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows that I had/have a big problem with NBC’s Education Nation and Oprah’s venture into conversation. Both filled their panels with non-classroom teachers and with individuals who clearly have the agenda to break teachers’ unions. What are your thoughts? Did they cross the line? Is tenure the problem they present it to be?

Jason: I just read an article about the Philly super who was a signee on the recent manifesto and then distanced herself from the final published copy (she had only seen a draft). She makes the point that over half of Philly’s urban teachers have been teaching less than 5 years and many will leave by the time they reach 5 years. Tenure is not the issue. Look at Finland (widely respected for its consistent international score achievement). They have tenure and strong unions. Plus, as I understand it, before a teacher is given tenure, he/she is much easier to fire. Surely an astute supervisor can tell the difference between an educator with potential and one without.

The myopic version of education and edreform heralded by Oprah & NBC has had two fortunate outcomes – 1. People are talking about education, nationally. 2. Teachers are uniting against a perceived foe. Any opportunity for teachers to band together and stand up I think is a good thing.

Will: Always. Always. Always. We hear about the miracles being done by charter schools, when in fact, they are not fairing any better than traditional public schools. What is your take on the push for charters?

Jason: I’m not an expert on charters, but from where I stand, I’m bummed about what’s become of them. I was an early supporter (and still am, selectively). I’m a small school advocate and early on it seemed that charters represented an opportunity for progressive educators to break out of the standardization-for-all approach of traditional public schools. In this regard they really were labs for innovation. I saw (and still see) a number of successful efforts. Here in Tallahassee there is a very high regard for a local charter, School of Arts & Sciences. I’m among the cheerleaders (even though we often lose students to them).

Ultimately, I think we need schools that meet the needs of the community in which they exist. Therefore no one model will work for all situations. We need a diverse arsenal of schools. Charters, at first glance, seem to be an answer to that. Small schools, flexible management designed to give those on the ground floor voice, and opportunity to look beyond the standardization to give students something more personalized. However, when boards of these larger corporate-style charters do not have teachers or parents on them, and are made up of mostly hedge fund managers I begin to question their motives. Are we replacing one standardized system for another?

Will: With all of the talk about the ills of public education, we are failing to speak honestly about the communities and homes students from urban areas come from. Should we expect schools to address the social ills that affect student buy-in and student and parental participation? Is it fair to pile on that responsibility to teachers?

Jason: I’m among those who feel teachers have a moral imperative to address social ills. Schools should be models of egalitarianism, in my opinion. Ideally, schools are the level playing field of America. We know this isn’t the case right now, but that doesn’t mean we can’t strive for it.

However, the idea of putting these additional correctional responsibilities on teachers is unreasonable. At the same time, there is no way to sanitize curriculum. Everything that schools are sends value messages to students, either perpetuating or challenging the social norms they find themselves in.

I think we need curricula that exposes students to content that is uncomfortable and forces them to confront injustice (though not developmentally inappropriate material), gets them angry, unsettled, and even a bit righteous. Such passion and emotion can be a powerful ally in creating opportunities for transformative learning experiences. As part of our integrate social studies/literature program we read a number of books that address the glaring injustices of racism throughout the history of the SE.

The irony of this push to put teachers on the hook for solving the social challenges is that it comes on the heels of a push to ensure that students aren’t exposed to anything controversial or possibly offensive. However, life is controversial & offensive. We need to give students a curricula that actually reflects their lives, if we aim to prepare them for “real life.”

Will: Keeping with the theme of expectations, should we expect all students to learn and thrive in a system that is designed to produce students for the traditional 4 year college/university route? Why aren’t schools developing academic programs aimed at addressing the different academic and career interests and strengths of students? Is doing so such a major undertaking?

Jason: I’ve wondered for a long time why we don’t have more occupational tracks in our schools. We’ve got a situation in which students graduate from high school without any applicable skills for the workplace. They graduate bubble sheet ready, but not job ready. With a massive decrease in apprenticeships in craftsmanship occupations (as well as the economy that supports those jobs) there is a bottleneck in our education system. Everything channels in one direction.

Why aren’t more engaging real world skill programs being developed? I’m not sure. I wonder if it is the same reason that we are seeing so little real innovation & differentiation: standardization. In the quest for “achievement” and “performance” we’ve replaced Learning with Scores on Assessment Batteries. The narrowing of the curricula in order to achieve efficiency & increase scores prohibits development of programs that aren’t testable and immediately quantifiable.

At this stage of the game, I think finding a way to include anything that isn’t currently tested and doesn’t produce immediately crunchable numbers would be a incredible challenge. Applied engineering? No way. Sustainable architecture? Not a chance. Hydrology in human systems? Yeah, right. But these are the precise sort of challenges our students will face as adults. Including them in any kind of education reform to any meaningful degree would not be just a major undertaking, it would be nearly complete reversal of course.

Will: Let’s talk about school leadership and organizational development. I haven’t conducted a formal survey, but from what I have gathered from my conversations with teachers all around the country, there seems to be a dearth of leadership throughout all levels within K-12. What is going on? Why hasn’t leadership taken responsibility for their role? And what characteristics do you look for in a leader?

Jason: When we look at leadership in companies, CEO’s come from within the ranks. Perhaps not at the companies they head, but from comparable business enterprises. However, in education, little time is spent cultivating the ranks of the teachers to groom leaders. Sure, most principals were once teachers, but many of the district admin & state DOE admin come from a different model all together.

I follow @EdReformPR on twitter. He’s got a parody account lampooning the edreform effort. He recently posted a few tweets dedicated to skewering the appointment of a publishing executive to the head of NYC’s school system. In one he wrote: BREAKING: Publishing giant, Hearst, hires a teacher as new CEO! "Seemed fair since 1 of our execs will head #NYC schools." I’m not sure why, but it made me laugh, thinking how unlikely it would be for a teacher to find appointments elsewhere, yet not uncommon for people so far removed from education taking the helm. The reality is not funny, but gotta laugh at something.

The good news is that there are efforts to increase teacher leadership. ASCD is working hard to do this, as are a number of other groups. The recent development of Huffington Post’s ed page has given a few talented teachers a chance to publish on their site. I think there is real merit to the idea of greater teacher professional topography: Apprenticing teachers work under a veteran before getting their own class. Eventually they earn the chance to mentor others and gradually take on more leadership roles while keeping one foot in the classroom. But the reality is that such a model is a long way off. Still I dream.

Will: Top five books on education?

1. Roland Barth: Improving Schools from Within
2. Neil Postman: Teaching as a Subversive Activity
3. Ralph Peterson: Life in a Crowded Place
4. John Dewey: Experience and Education
5. Theodore Sizer: The Students are Watching

Will: Jason, I want to thank you for the interview. Do you have any final thoughts?

Jason: Thanks for the opportunity, Will. I appreciate that you are working to give voice to those in the field. I think in closing that there is great potential in networking to develop the relationships that will provide the grounding & learnings for tomorrow’s educators to harvest the seeds we sow.

“When you get into a tight place and everything goes against you, till it seems as though you could not hold on a minute longer, never give up then, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.” - Harriet Beecher Stowe

I hang my hat and rest my head on the hope that the tide will turn, that our fight for the good of the students is the right fight.

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