Content-Specific Marketing

cc licensed Flickr photo by neptunecanada

I read this article today on CNN’s Schools of Thought Blog: “Want more kids to take calculus? Convince mom first,” by Jamie Gumbrecht. In the post, there is research stating that involving parents in talking points about math and science electives will be more likely to influence kids to choose those classes:

“These are the critical years in which mathematics and science courses are elective, and our results indicate that parents can become more influential in their children’s academic choices if given the proper support,” the study says.

How simple was that support? Just a couple of brochures, a web site and a little guidance about how to use the information.

My initial reaction after reading was one of wanting to push back.

First, as some of you know, I tire of the constant push for more STEM, more STEM, more STEM. Please don’t misunderstand. I love math and science! When I had the options in school to select electives, I chose calculus and advanced science classes. As a teacher, I get all geeked out with my students when we stumble upon interesting activities that involve math and/or science (read “geeked out” as getting extremely excited about all the amazing learning possibilities). [photo credit: Science Lab by neptunecanada]

BUT… shouldn’t we be concerned about pushing certain content areas at the expense of others? What about the kids who really don’t have an interest in pursuing careers in math, science, engineering, etc? I believe in exposing kids to many areas so they can discover what they don’t know they don’t know, as well as to start to put the pieces together to understand the world around them.

And how about the misguided information from those who form education policy stating that we don’t have enough scientists or engineers? Read:

Do We Really Have A Scientist Shortage?

US Pushes for more scientists, but the jobs aren’t there

(There are many more… I’d be glad to link them here if you add them to the comments section.)


We know that what is valued eventually becomes policy. And in current US education, that also means what is assessed. Again, placing too much emphasis upon certain content areas does so at the expense of other areas… and at the expense of kids.

My oldest daughter graduated high school in 2007. She liked science, and declared biology as her major at university. After almost two years of that, she called me and was rather upset. She felt she needed to change her major to English. After a long discussion reassuring her 1) that changing her major was not a horrible thing and 2) that she should do what she loves, she promptly changed her major. She adores writing and editing and is now an assistant editor for a local publication company. After the fact, I asked her why she was so upset about changing her major. She said she felt pressured to go into something “more academic,” and she was worried about availability of jobs for a BA in English. Science and math classes were heavily encouraged in her high school.

Now to argue with myself – sometimes “marketing” helps kids to see themselves in a future they didn’t realize was possible. This could be due to stereotypes based in race, gender, status. My favorite way to ‘combat’ the stereotypes is to share examples with my students of strong role models who cross those lines. Is that enough, though?

Marketing can go horribly wrong, though, as evidenced here: How not to market science to girls

(That’s fodder for another blog post.) Moving right along…

Another question I  am still wondering and have blogged about before: why do we continue to teach content areas only in isolation? I agree that there are concepts that probably should be taught separately to avoid confusion and to allow deeper exploration. However, if we want kids to be able to think about what they want to learn and how they will apply that to a career or lifestyle, they must see how those concepts apply in their world. Content areas must overlap, because that’s what they do in everyday life.

In other words, in order to specialize later, they must see how everything fits together at an early age. We are  not doing this in most schools.

So again… having mom and dad sit you down with a glossy brochure (as noted in the calculus/science article I mentioned at the beginning of the post) essentially marketing math and science classes… is that really where we want to take our kids? Aren’t they already get enough marketing thrown at them every single day?

I’m not sure exactly how to feel about this. I do know I sat with my own kids when they were filling out their choices or class schedules. We talked a lot about options and how those choices could possibly shape where they wanted to go in their learning adventures.

Help me, please… share your thoughts.



It Is About The Students

Student-centered learning. Do you know what that really looks like?


Sometimes I feel like a lazy teacher in this student-centered world at Anastasis Academy… but that’s only because the majority of my teacher training in undergraduate (and most of my graduate) classes prepared me for a TEACHER-centered classroom.

You are the teacher. You are the deliverer of information, knowledge, skills.

As a music teacher, some of the workshops I attended helped me realize that the kids have to experience learning to gain knowledge and skills. Very few undergrad or grad classes did this.

So what does this student-centered classroom REALLY look like?

Some days, it looks pretty chaotic from an outsider’s point-of-view (actual statement from a visitor to our school).

Some days, it looks like kids working together on a project they have designed themselves.

Some days, it looks like a child excitedly running up to me, saying, “Mrs. Baldwin! Look at this! I found this really cool information about…” x,y, z.

But most of the time, it looks like kids satisfying their own curiosity without much interference from me.

I’m on the sidelines, and I love that.

Honest disclosure: it took us a while to get to this point, because even at 8-10 years of age (those are the ages of the kids I have), these kids have been programmed to look to an adult for answers. And questions. And direction. And time management. And so on. Some days are better than others. Recently, I feel like they have regressed a little bit in independence, and I have to force myself NOT to step in.

What I know in my heart, though, is these kids are developing skills that will serve them well throughout their entire lives. They are not memorizing facts provided through notes or worksheets from me. They discover… they experiment… they reflect… and they are learning to hold themselves accountable for their own learning.

The student-centered classroom is about the STUDENTS. It’s my job as their teacher to help provide an environment in which they can learn, experience, problem-solve… and then get out of their way.


Plagiarism Obsession

I need to get better at updating this blog! Hoping I can get back into the swing of things starting with a goal of weekly blogging. Perhaps I’ll get back to daily updates after the new year… but my lack of writing is not the point of this post.

Lately, in education networks, I’ve noticed a lot of advertising for tools to catch students plagiarizing. It’s a pretty big business. A quick Google search for the terms “plagiarism detector” results in 1, 350,000 returns. Many school districts, including the one I left this past year, have spent a lot of funds on tools such as

I’m always skeptical of businesses who make a lot of profits on tools designed to catch students (or anyone for that matter) doing something wrong, unethical, etc. Internet filters, monitoring systems to, for lack of a better term, spy on kids’ online– I’ve seen the vendors for many of these companies at ed tech conferences, and it amazes me that school districts spend SO much money on something that, in my opinion, is not worth the expenditure. Reactive products, especially those that generate a lot of profits, have no interest in resolving the issue in the first place.  Turnitin, and others like it, don’t benefit from teaching students NOT to plagiarize. In fact, advertisements for internet filtering tools and plagiarizing detectors sensationalize the problems to ensure that those with budget authority feel the need to spend massive amounts of money to catch those in the wrong.

Plagiarism is obviously something we need to help our students learn about. WE know it’s wrong to plagiarize, and it’s our duty as educators to ensure students know that it’s wrong. But this is where I think we fail… by implementing tools to catch them doing something wrong instead of educating WHY it’s wrong seems like a setup.

The other issue is that I think that a lot of plagiarism could be easily avoided by changing the activities we ask kids to do.

Yesterday, I tweeted this:


There is such a huge focus on secondary research for kids as early as primary grades, and that lasts throughout post-secondary education. Why?

Yes, knowing how to research is a skill we all need, and learning to properly cite sources is important, too. But I think the emphasis on secondary research instead of primary research is completely unbalanced. Don’t we WANT our students to discover and inquire about things that haven’t already been researched?

What about activities where kids create and produce their own works? I would much rather have my students create new, original works than spend their entire school career ONLY reading the research of others. If we want our students to become problem-solvers, that balance has to change. We can’t always find new answers or new solutions to problems if we only look at the work that has already been done.

Additionally, when kids are creating and producing their own work, they will then begin to understand ownership of work– and this will help them learn more organically why plagiarism is wrong. I’m planning an experiment with my students where I will have them create something original– a drawing, a story, a song… whatever they choose, and then I’m going to post it as MY work (temporarily, of course) without giving them credit. This activity will help them understand ownership of work and how important it is to ensure credit is given where credit is due.

I teach mostly 3 and 4th graders now, but I’ve taught every age of child in K-12 schools. This activity can be used with any age student, not just younger kids. I know this, because I’ve done it before… and it WORKS. The more my students created and produced their own work, the more likely they were to remember to cite sources in secondary research of the works of others. Balancing secondary research with primary research and creating original works is key.

One of the arguments about the necessity of secondary research is the amount of secondary research required of students in post-secondary education. This argument is ridiculous in my opinion. We should continue practices that are not in the best interests of our K-12 students’ learning because of continued practices in post-secondary that are not in the best interests of undergraduate and graduate students?

Please note that I am NOT advocating that we discontinue all secondary research in the K-12 level. Rather, my point is let’s do a little less secondary research and focus more on creating and producing original work. Balancing between these two will do more to overcome the issue of plagiarism than punishing a student after he is caught. Assuming that students will intentionally plagiarize is yet another example of how little we trust students to do the right thing… and also how little we value children and their learning.

I welcome you to share your thoughts with me in the comments and tell me if I’m way off base here. Thanks.




When Competition Fails Us

trophyThere are many discussions amongst world leaders, economists, business leaders, and educators about the pros and cons of competition. Some of the most spirited debates in which I’ve participated have centered around competition and students. Arguments usually include the following:

[cc licensed photo by mtsofan]

  • Students will face competition at every level of their lives. They need to learn to compete early and often.
  • K-12 students will graduate and compete for a prime spot in a college or university.
  • University students will graduate and compete globally for their own spots in a global economy.
  • We have to prepare them to compete. Period.

I’ve taught in both the secondary and elementary levels in public K-12 education. I’ve witnessed kids competing for spots on athletic teams, music performing groups, art awards, National Honor Society and other honoraries… for grades, for representing the class as valedictorian, for speaker at graduation… to be first in line for lunch, first in line for recess, for the fastest time at Field Day, for a solo at the 4th grade program…

… for the biggest helping of lunch (because it’s probably the only meal of the day)… for that coat in the lost and found (because there isn’t enough money at home to buy one)… for the attention of the teacher (because attention from an adult is rare and precious outside of school)…

It seems to me that kids live and breathe competition every day of their lives.

When do they learn to work toward the good of all?

Maybe I’m just getting old and sentimental, but watching the news out of Japan after the horror they’ve experienced in the last month has me really thinking… if we spend so much time on competition and racing to be the best, that leaves a LOT of people in our dust. What if people need our help? What about those people left behind? Should we sit and smugly congratulate ourselves on being the best and beating everyone else? How does that help us as a society in the long-term?

Don’t get me wrong… I’m not advocating that we give out “participation” trophies or ribbons for just showing up and not putting forth any effort. It just feels like we’ve cultivated a culture of competition at any cost, and that’s where I see so many problems.

In my music classroom, my students and I often discuss that our goals are very different than they are in other classrooms. No matter what we’re doing, whether it’s preparing for a concert/performance, or simply learning a song for the sake of the music, we’re learning together. “In math class, it’s all about YOU. In music class, it’s all about US.” They probably tire of hearing me say that, but it sticks with them. I heard one of my students explaining the concept to a new student one day.

When we learn something new- a new recorder song, for example- there are going to be some kids who learn more quickly than others. In our environment, those “advanced” kids now have a special responsibility: help those students who haven’t yet learned the song. We do a lot of peer group work, and I am either walking around as a guide or am working with those who need the most help. With shared responsibility in the class, we see improvement in all. More importantly, I see my students building skills in patience, empathy, and caring, as well as their own musical skills.

Now for a little disclosure: I’m a highly competitive person; but I think as I’ve grown up, it’s become more about competing with myself and less about competing with others.

At what point does competition, whether it’s in the market place or in the classroom, do more harm than good? When corporations throw ethics under the bus to eke out higher profits, everyone suffers except for the people at the top. When we push kids to compete against each other in everything they do, they learn that the SELF is more important than the collective GROUP.

And in the end, nobody wins… especially not kids.

I know there are a lot of people who disagree with me on this subject, so let’s have it. Debate me in the comments, please.

Define Success

successIn many school district mission statements I read, the words “success” and/or “successful” often appear.  Preparing children to be successful after a PK-12 experience… what exactly does that mean?

Will their education provide them with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in their world? Is that how one becomes successful? Is it about attending a post-secondary institution?  Is it about a paycheck? Is it about contributing and giving back to society?

[cc licensed photo by RambergMediaImages]

The other day, I had a conversation with some friends about the push to send more kids to college. I brought up the fact that, perhaps, not everyone needs or should go to college. There was a hushed silence right after I finished my sentence… imagine a teacher saying that maybe college isn’t for everyone?!?!

I quickly followed up with an explanation- my point isn’t that some kids aren’t worthy of a college degree. In fact, it’s quite the contrary. For some kids, college isn’t worthy of them. Not everyone needs to spend exorbitant tuition fees (and dormitory costs, and textbooks, and…) to find their niche in life.

There’s a young man I know, about 22 years old, who attended a trade school and learned about auto mechanics. He LOVES cars. He can tell you nearly anything you want to know about an engine. He can fix nearly any vehicle. At this time, he is employed by a very large company in our city, and he makes a very nice living. More importantly, he’s very happy doing what he does. A typical four-year institution was not in his master plan.

I told his story, and instantly, a friend replied, “Oh, and he will probably make more money than most of us will in our lifetime and not have the same amount of debt from all those college loans!”  A few others replied with more statements about how much money this kid would go on to make.  As I asked them a few questions, it became very evident to me that their measure of success was the amount of money he would make.

Is that what we’re supposed to be preparing kids to do after they leave school? Make a lot of money? Is that the measure of “success?”

Silly me, but I thought it was something as simple as this:

  • find your strengths
  • find your passion
  • find a way to make the world around you a little better than how you found it

That’s MY definition of being successful. What’s yours?

The EduCon Experience- A Collaborative Reflection

I was so fortunate to facilitate a conversation at EduCon 2.3 with Kyle Pace, Yoon Soo Lim, and Elizabeth Peterson! We are four very passionate educators, and talking about Cultivating Connections through Arts Integration is obviously something about which the four of us are deeply passionate.

We wrote a reflection, along with Andrew Garcia (who attended our EduCon session virtually) about our experience collaboratively in Google Docs. Elizabeth has posted the “finished product” on her blog. Please take some time to visit and read about the continuing conversation (#artsint on Twitter)!

The EduCon Experience- A Collaborative Reflection

This Is A LEARNING Class

Numerous times throughout my teaching career, I have had students ask me something along the lines of… “Why are we talking about science/English/social studies stuff in here? This is MUSIC class.” I almost always respond, “No, this is a LEARNING class. Besides, it’s all connected anyway, right?”

Why anyone decided that it would be best to teach kids to learn subjects in isolation is beyond me. When my oldest daughter was a freshman in high school, her freshman history teacher told me at parent/teacher conferences that he was amazed at how well my daughter was able to make connections. He explained that, when they discussed a certain topic in class, she was able to quickly draw an example from a seemingly unrelated event and make comparisons. He said that the majority of freshmen in his classes were nowhere near to having that ability.

This is the same child that struggled miserably on standardized tests, yet still did very well in school. Would you be surprised, however, to learn that she is very gifted in music and has been surrounded by music and  musicians her entire life? When she was in Kindergarten, she came home singing the Queen of the Night’s Aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute.  She then explained the entire plot to me, from her 5 year old perspective and then told me how much it was like a story she had read about people falling in love. What??? And she was actually spot on.

Okay, so this post didn’t start out to be a synopsis of how brilliant my child is. She is brilliant, but that’s another story. (ahem, proud mom)

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that she is able to make connections so easily. She was introduced to the piano literally days after birth. As a toddler, she sang along with the voice students who used to come to our home on Saturday mornings. We played every type of music for her- classical, pop, jazz, country, rock. She began dancing at the age of 3. To say that music was a huge part of her life would be a gigantic understatement. We talked all the time about music – what the music was about, where it came from, etc. I could cite research about how music helps brains to for connections, but that’s really not where I’m going with this.

Back to the classroom examples: in my classes, if we learn a new song, we learn about the song’s origins. Where did it come from? What language is this? How do we sing it in this language? Why was it written? What is the subject? If it’s about butterflies, let’s talk about the life cycle of butterflies. Can we find someone to Skype with us about this song? Let’s write our OWN song about butterflies. What should that sound like? Through the music, we can see that LEARNING isn’t reserved for those topics listed in the syllabus or title of the class.

In my classroom, I have the luxury of no state testing for which to prepare my students. We don’t have to practice for tests. We get to spend more time learning about our world and how connected we really are. When you give children the tools to help them see connections for the first time, they get better and better in making connections on their own. They realize we are not the only ones on this planet– and though we have differences, we also have a lot in common with other people around the world. Our music might be different-sounding than the music in Ghana or Tibet or Indonesia or Iceland… but it’s still music. It is still created by people about themselves and their surroundings.

My job is to teach children to LEARN. The fact that I do that job in a music classroom is secondary to that at all times. And yes… I am lucky that I have the opportunity to use music as the tool to make those connections.

Learning Through Discussion

I’m sitting in Edubloggercon 2010 in Denver this morning with a few hundred educators from around the world. Together, we have decided what we want to discuss that is relevant and meaningful to us. We have divided ourselves into smaller discussion groups, and our natural seating arrangement is a circle. 

I’m fairly certain the majority of the attendees today will leave feeling that they have 1) learned something new, 2) reinforced a previously held philosophy, and 3) thought of a different way to teach when they return to school. I know I have already, and I’m only just now sitting in session 2 of 6.

This is great professional development. How are you facilitating opportunities like this for your school?


About a month ago, my friend Deven, aka spedteacher, blogged about his new Four Word Education Plan. In this post, he discusses what he wants to hear from his students in class: “I’m not sure, but…”3364591795_621f67fe7a

After I read Deven’s post, I thought about the children in my classroom. I teach Kindergarten through 5th grade music. I try to ask as many open-ended questions as possible to help my students really think. Sometimes, it’s successful… but mostly, it’s the same kids raising their hands every day.

For a while, I countered with, “I need to see some new hands,” and encouraging smiles at those who did not raise their hands. Sometimes, that worked, but mostly I still have those eager ones who always want to try.

From Deven’s ideas, I decided to have a quick time-out with all of my classes… even Kindergarten. I asked them what was more important: answering correctly or learning from our mistakes. We talked about how our brains learn, and that when we work together and learn from mistakes, we all learn better. I asked them if it was embarrassing to answer a question with the wrong answer. Some of the kids said they were afraid the others in their class would think they were stupid. We all agreed that we can help each other learn by understanding some of us know a few things that others don’t. Wouldn’t it be great if we all shared that knowledge together? We could help each other be smarter!

Wow. What a surprise I had the next day. I thought that, since they all had enthusiastically agreed about our new learning plan, things would be better. Nope. That’s when I thought about the Four Word Education Plan: “I’m not sure, but…”

We took another brief time-out. I modeled how to answer a question with those four words. I asked for other examples from the kids: “What else could we say when we answer a question?” Some proposed, “This is just a guess, but I THINK…”

Glory, Hallelujah! They are thinking. Not just answering easy, rote-learned answers, but thinking!

We talked about how guessing, especially guesses that take into account what we have already learned and what we haven’t yet learned, are GOOD! Without guessing, inventors wouldn’t invent anything. Discoveries would never be discovered.

I still had a few holdouts. There are some of my kids who like to stay tuned out and let others in the class answer all the questions. So I added one more component to my learning plan: “Please raise your hand before answering, but I might call on you even if your hand isn’t raised.”  Guess who likes using the “I’m not sure, but…” option the most?

[Photo credit]
Image by Kevin Dooley under Creative Commons license. / CC BY 2.0