sing your life
 
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I remember the first time my parents tried to explain to me that we were moving to a new country. I was only three years old, but I remember my father teaching me the pronunciation of “hello.” Close enough to the Romanian “alo,” I was able to repeat it incessantly as we waited to leave Europe.

It took us a little over two years to finalize our immigration papers and get through the Communist requirements that left my parents unemployed for so many months that our family lost everything but each other. In April of 1982, we arrived in Houston. The sheer joy that my family felt when debarking the plane continues to this day every time we speak of our tribulations to get to America. Little did I know I would have many more ahead of me.

Like many foreign students entering American society, I set foot in the public school system unable to speak any English besides “hello.” Yet, experiencing such an overwhelming obstacle was a privilege, because it framed my empathetic nature in low-socioeconomic classrooms. While I was not the only non-English speaking student in first grade, I was the only one who did not speak Spanish in the English as a Second Language classroom. Learning to use cognates from Romanian to Spanish and English helped me later comprehend how to teach language arts to English Language Learners. When comparing current educational settings to my public education, I consider myself lucky in several respects.

The public schools I attended encouraged me to think abstractly, taught me to analyze using higher level thinking skills, sponsored my individual talents, and engaged my multiple intelligences. From these elementary experiences, I took away not only mental dexterity, but also memories that have defined expectations of successful school environments. Via my personal experiences as an ESL student, I know public education succeeds when school culture and curricula lead Americans to pursue their highest goals.

My foremost goal in life has been continuous education, whether it consists of life-long learning or discovery through teaching others. Since my parents never had the opportunities of higher education while growing up in a communist country, they instilled the value of education in me as I progressed through school in America. I have developed a deep respect for learning throughout my life, realizing that an education can never be taken away. For this reason, I look back on one of my most prevalent hurdles in life with sincere gratitude, knowing that I have maximized its moral while educating others.

 
 
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 “I'm calling on our nation's governors and state education chiefs to develop standards and assessments that don't simply measure whether students can fill in a bubble on a test, but whether they possess 21st century skills like problem-solving and critical thinking and entrepreneurship and creativity,” said President Barack Obama on March 9, 2009, in an address to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Twenty-first century skills are of the utmost importance in today’s public educational setting. Yet, as a public school educator in a socioeconomically depressed area, it feels as though each year, fewer and fewer leaders are taking steps towards establishing critical thinking and problem solving educational settings.

With mandates for higher standardized test scores, schools that do not perform at required levels must use state-approved programs that flush out teacher and student ingenuity. Creativity and innovation are no longer harnessed in early grades, while communication and collaboration are shunned for teacher-concentrated lessons in higher grades. The lack of student involvement in personal education goals must be remedied with more options than just paper and pencil activities. America’s public schools are stifling, not only current students, but also future cultural and economic growth.

To address the issue of the lack of 21st century skills throughout American public school students, the following questions must be addressed:

How can public school curricula help students become:

• Critical thinkers?

• Effective communicators?

• Superior collaborators?

• Information and technology literate?

• Flexible and adaptable?

• Globally competent?

• Financially literate?

An educator-based taskforce must guide governors and state education chiefs to move forward, offer students options in education, and pilot the U. S. global consciousness. Brain-growth experts, literacy proponents, and education leaders that are not part of the political machine must be appointed to work in the best interest of all students side by side with lawmakers. Public curriculum that uses Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy and multiple intelligences must be made available to all students, not just those whose schools achieve specified levels of standardized tests. All American students should have access to current technology, must be guided by superior educators, and need to be held to high standards.

Students must leave the American public school system with specific interpersonal and intrapersonal capabilities. Effective interactions with other humans are critical to success, and can only be achieved with adequate communication, collaborative, and leadership skills. Making sense of such interactions requires logical, analytical, and evaluation skills. Personal growth necessitates self-assessment, goal-setting, and metacognitive skills. Allowing students to leave the public school system with anything less is an injustice to society, nationally and globally.

Challenge-based learning must replace the standardized testing norm. Students must be taught to guide their own learning initiatives, while educators and parents must be taught how to fully support students in such endeavors. All parties must be ready to invest time, patience, and effort into what is considerably the most important part of America’s cultural and financial future— 21st century skills.

 
 
So, where is California public education really headed?
 
 
I have a confession to make: this past week, I taught a poetry unit based on music and rap, and my class actually loved learning. I didn't dare supplant, but I decided that the texts I'm required to use were lacking, especially in the rhythm and music department. I know how important a real musical education is from personal experience: I would have missed out on a quality education if I had not been in choir and orchestra from elementary through high school. Now, as a non-music teacher, I have to make every effort to bring music back into the public education system, with little or no help from parents or the district.

As a few of my sixth graders get ready to start another year in band, I thought about the 25 out of 31 who are not getting the musical experience that comes with the pull-out program. My ability to teach with music is limited, since the school I teach at is in Full Implementation Program Improvement, which is just one step short of scripted lessons. I have been putting together resources for lessons that correspond and supplement what I already have to teach. Yet, I feel like I'm leaving a very important aspect out of the whole that comes with musical training-- the actual use of a musical instrument, whether it is a voice or a man-made piece.

The Internet is not enough to teach or learn music theory effectively. As I was watching PS22 Chorus for inspiration, I realized that music needs to be experienced through several senses.  One needs to not only hear music, but if one can move to, touch, see, or even smell instruments that make music, the brain can wrap around such an abstract thing. If I were to present music theory to students using a cello, I would not only show them a photo of a cello, or play a recording, but also try to have them experiment with a real instrument. Students need more than just one option when learning a new concept, so using only the Internet to teach music theory would not be recommended. With that said, I've decided to review two websites that could be used to incorporate music into the non-music class, two sites that have been part of my PLC for over a year now, but never given much thought to.

MusicTheory
leans more toward the behaviorist philosophy of teaching because it really only requires stimulus or imitation response, using vision and nothing else. According to Skinner’s behaviorist view, children acquire their first language by stimulus response connections, or imitation and reinforcement, which could show that music is as natural as a first language. The most obvious first language teachers of young children are mothers, who usually start singing and cooing to children during infancy. Children mimic sounds they hear, and try repeating them when a positive response is given. Any student of this site would not be able to hear the notes that are practiced through the interactive quizzes, which in my opinion, is necessary when learning notes. Unfortunately, because MusicTheory lacks sound, it is limited in teaching music theory thoroughly.

CreatingMusic
consists of more interactive options, where the user can not only see, but also hear the music that he creates. This constructivist site has games that allow the user to test and listen to what he makes using the tools provided. Because the user is constructing the meaning behind the music, the brain learns through different methodology. Unfortunately, this site isn’t a complete area in which to learn music theory, since most of the music that can be made does not have explanations for notes, key, meter, scales, or harmony. (Levitin, 17) The rhythm band game is one such area, where the user must know what pieces of percussion make what sound, and how to interweave them to make the piece sound “good.” Even though this site is less technical than MusicTheory, it is more motivating because the user can test out several sounds, rhythms, and instruments. Since I am not a music teacher, nor am I trying to teach my students music theory, I would prefer to use CreatingMusic for my students to experience music creation.

These two sites are incomplete when teaching theory individually. Together, they are more comprehensive, but do not necessarily complement each other. One seems to be written for older musicians who are studying the technical side of music, while the other is made for a younger audience, starting as young as five. Both could be used to lead to deeper understanding of music, but neither could alone teach music theory effectively. Mere exposure to music, written or heard, is not enough; interaction to trigger mind processes that mimic and comprehend deeper communication concepts are needed. On one hand, children need guidance and reinforcement to attain certain music skills. On the other, the human mind is pre-programmed to understand music and manipulate it to communicate. (Gardner, 103- 104) Both work together to lead to music attainment, and thus, require more than just Internet activities.

Music’s effects on the mind and body can be controlled in the classroom through conscious selections; using certain music for specific outcomes can elicit responses that may not otherwise occur. (Jensen, 74) Being able to understand how differing rhythms, beats, harmonies, and notes can affect my students benefits my teaching because I can stimulate creativity, sensitivity, and deeper thinking. (Jensen, 75) All in all, bringing music theory back to the non-music classroom isn't as easy as playing a song on the radio, but in today's arts-deprived public education system,  I have to start somewhere.

Resources:

Adams, R. (2000). Ricki Adams' musictheory.net. Retrieved May 13, 2009 from, http://musictheory.net

Gardner, H. (1999). Intelligence reframed. NY: Basic Books.
Jensen, E. (2008). Brain-based learning: The new paradigm of teaching. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Levitin, D. J. (2006). This is your brain on music. NY: Plume Printing
.
Skinner, B. F. (1957). Verbal behavior. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Subotnick, M. (1999). Creating Music. Retrieved May 13, 2009 from, http://creatingmusic.com/

 
 
For the past week, I've been in limbo about this blog post. I have wanted to write about many ideas bouncing around in my head, but then again, I want to make sure that I explain exactly where those ideas are coming from, since nowadays, people are quick to misjudge any show of patriotism.

Let me make several things clear:
1.) I was born in Romania, and immigrated with my family to the U. S. in 1982, during Ceausescu's regime.
2.) My parents had many trials receiving their American citizenship, which included the Communist Romanian government disallowing them to hold employment during the three-year application process.
3.) I spoke no English when I started first grade a few months after arriving in Houston; by second grade, I was fluent in English not because I was smart, but because to function and assimilate in America, I had to try my best to learn to communicate with other students and teachers.
4.) My parents have instilled in me a sense of responsibility and respect for the U. S. because this country has allowed our family to succeed, to further our education, and to build a solid foundation for future family members.

All in all, I am an American, and I am embarrassed that other immigrants who come to this country do not feel the same sense of patriotism for America that they do for their motherland. When I heard about what happened to the students who wore the American flag on Cinco de Mayo last week, I was livid.

I'm so tired of people who come to this country to use resources and enjoy freedoms, yet refuse to assimilate into American society, to improve and to build American culture with respect and responsibility. I'm annoyed at people who hate America, for whatever reason, but still reside here. I'm sick of people who have no clue how long and arduous legal immigration can be, and take living in this country for granted because they have never had to fight to be able to enjoy the rights and freedoms that come with being a citizen of this nation.

Yet, what really chaps my hide is the fact that the students at Live Oak High School who protested against their peers wearing American flags on Cinco de Mayo don't understand what America is about. The free speech double-standard Live Oak administration supported only propagates further abuse of the five founding American ideals: equality, rights, liberty, opportunity, and democracy.

When was the last time America cried no to outside flags, cultures, or religions? When did America last say, "You can't wear that because it disrespects my beliefs?" Why is wearing a symbol of freedom, justice, perseverance, and bravery misjudged as a symbol of racism, inequality, or discrimination? These students have no idea what they are protesting, or how their indignant behavior is affecting immigrants like me. I feel no sympathy towards these students; do they even know why they are celebrating Cinco de Mayo?

Obviously, we have not done an honorable enough job of teaching students what American patriotism means, and what it does not mean. It's time to remind Americans, because that's what you are when you live and breathe here, what this nation was built on: unity towards a better life.
 
 

Dear Mr. Orsini:

When I first read this article about you, a New Jersey principal who sent out an email urging parents to ban all social media access from their children, I was aghast. I have been tossing your email in my head for the past couple of days, thinking about the pros and cons of social media in the hands of our youth. As an educator who's taught at the middle school level for several years, as well as being a journalist in three different mediums, I feel my background knowledge sustains my belief that your request is doing our youth and parents a disservice.

This specific quote upsets me to the core:
There is absolutely no reason for any middle school student to be a part of a social networking site!

Of course there are, Mr. Orsini! Here are just a few articles explaining why some of the most popular social networking platforms are important in today's educational settings:

Twitter:
NYC’s 140 Character Conference Explores Twitter in the Classroom
Twitter for Learning – 55 Great Articles : eLearning Technology
Twitter in the classroom: 10 useful resources
Twitter in the Classroom: Studies Find Increased Student Engagement

Facebook:
25 Facebook Apps That Are Perfect for Online Education
100 Ways You Should Be Using Facebook in Your Classroom
Facebook Strategies For The Classroom

YouTube:
How to Use YouTube in the Classroom
Using YouTube in the ESL Classroom
A
llowing Safe Access to YouTube in the Classroom

Social Networking in general:
How to Use Social-Networking Technology for Learning
Social networking in the classroom?!

Wikis, Blogs and Social Networking in the Classroom
How to Use Social Networking Technology for Learning


Another part of your email hit me like a ton of bricks:
Some people advocate that the parents and the school should teach responsible social networking to students because these sites are part of the world in which we live. I disagree, it is not worth the risk to your child to allow them the independence at this age to manage these sites on their own, not because they are not good kids or responsible, but because you cannot control the poor actions of anonymous others. 

I'm not sure I understand how not teaching children or students about something that is a part of their world can lead them toward being more responsible, safe, or respectful. Instead of sharing ideas, role-playing situations, and engaging in deep discussions, do you really believe it would be better to act like the social networking gestapo? How could parents have open and honest discussions about anything with their children after your suggested reaction?

If I were to continue using your logic, I would also say parents should ban many books, most television and radio programming, and pretty much everything on the Internet. The basic message says, "Parents, there are bad people outside, so don't allow your children to go out there, not because you can't trust your children, but because you can't control anyone else." Parents never know when someone else will try to influence their children, but, according to you, it's better to just cut off all ties to the real world than try to teach children how to deal with real-world situations.

Maybe you have not had positive experiences with social media, Mr. Orsini, and therefore have decided to severe it completely instead of using other methods of fighting cyber-bullying, immaturity, and illegal Internet use. Here are a few suggestions that I feel would work better than an all-out social networking ban:

1. An Acceptable Use Policy (AUP), either school or district-wide, should be shared with all staff, parents, and students at the beginning of the school year, as well as throughout the year.

2. Teach media literacy either in all subjects or as a core subject. This Edutopia article explains how to use media literacy to foster critical thinking, which might be beneficial to your students beyond just the standard "because I said so" expression.

3. Update your pedagogy, whether through college classes or online webinars, of how to help students and parents progress with 21st century technology, instead of fighting it.

4. Give parents tools for all that you ask them to do, even the items you listed in your email. Many parents may not know how to log onto Facebook, search Internet history, or  set parental controls on tech gadgets. Show them how to not only access their children's information, but how to speak to their children about such issues. Hold parenting classes for media and communication.

5. Last, yet certainly not least, remember why you became an educator. You are part of your students' lives for a short amount of time. How (not only what) you teach them now will affect them for the rest of their lives.

 
 
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This blog post is dedicated to Wine Harlots and their quest to help spread literacy. This quote they posted on fb really explains what literacy means to me:
 
"Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. It is a tool for daily life in modern society. It is a bulwark against poverty, and a building block of development, an essential complement to investments in roads, dams, clinics and factories. Literacy is a platform for democratization, and a vehicle for the promotion of cultural and national identity. Especially for girls and women, it is an agent of family health and nutrition. For everyone, everywhere, literacy is, along with education in general, a basic human right.... Literacy is, finally, the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can realize his or her full potential." — Kofi Annan

Please support this or any other literacy cause if you can.

 
 
Bob Henderson wrote, "Factors keeping teachers "in the box" of traditional education are the physical and psychological environment, the moral setting, and staying true to the discipline. 'Out of the box' teaching is experiential, student-centered, interdisciplinary, and cooperative."

Ahhh, Mr. Henderson, you make it sound so easy, and as hard as I may try, I still find it harrowing to bring student-centered, cooperative education to kids who don't want to learn, much less show how they are progressing. I have had to train my brain to constantly plan lessons  and activities that cross Bloom's Revised Taxonomy with multiple intelligences, even when my students say, "Just tell me what to do 'cause I don't want to figure it out myself."

As I try to teach out of the box of state-adopted, NCLB- approved material I've been handed, I remind myself it hasn't always been like this, and it's not like this everywhere in California. I remember a time when I taught in a Central Coast public middle school that allowed me to build student-centered activities with differentiated approaches, such as Socratic Seminars, PowerPoint games, interactive Web 2.0 cloze activities, monthly challenge-based learning projects, and hands-on collaborative class work.

This is not a magical make-believe place, as some educators might think, but a school where teachers are considered professionals, where administrators believe these professionals are highly qualified to guide students towards common standards and higher thinking skills, and where Program Improvement is never given a thought. Maybe one day it will be every school in the U. S.
 
 
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This week, as part of a class I'm taking for my Reading Specialist credential (sounds much more formal than what it really is, doesn't it?) my professor asked the class to read and respond to this article published by Learning Point Associates. If you know anything about LPA, they "help" Program Improvement schools get out of the standardized test-score gutter. I'm not biased against or for such programs, but I always wonder how much magic they can actually work on all the problems that plague American public education? Since I work in an 80% poverty-level school, I'm skeptical-- what can I say?

Several key points stood out for me when reading this article. First and foremost, the following quote completely hit home with me because of the reality that it illustrates:
"Why are we evaluating? What are we evaluating? How are we evaluating? How well have we evaluated? Instead of being used as a process for judging and improving program quality, evaluation becomes something teachers or administrators are required to do in order to satisfy externally determined needs. When this situation occurs, teachers have no ownership of the evaluation plan or the generated data. The result is that often no one seems to know why the assessment information was gathered or how it can be used to improve instruction."
Teachers don't feel comfortable with walk-throughs, coaching, or observations because of the lack of investment they have in the whole process.

Another quote that I agreed with, but was disappointed to see marginalized was the point made about socioeconomic status:
"Children from families of low socioeconomic status often attend schools facing other problems attributed to at-risk students. These schools typically have many students with high mobility rates, severe behavioral and emotional problems, and limited English proficiency. In addition, children of low socioeconomic status may come from culturally diverse backgrounds (Knapp & Shields, 1990)."
Teaching in one of the most disadvantaged school districts in the state has made me realize that no matter how much effort a teacher puts into her teaching, students and parents will always decide if that effort will be of use or go to waste. It is quite unfortunate that such a decision can make or break a student's future, an educator's career, and a school's budget.

It is unfortunate that admin doesn't understand how to create a school climate that encourages higher level thinking, character, and parental involvement. One of the most important parts of student achievement is high standards, yet when parents complain that students are being held to standards that are higher than what they were held to, or what they are comfortable with, then admin backs down from those high standards, appeasing parents. This is one of the big mistakes I see in low-performing public schools. This is not the case in schools which may have low socioeconomic students, yet require students to perform at a certain level if they wish to stay at those campuses. I've seen several charter schools (Yes Houston, KIPP, Achieve, Inc., etc.) in high-poverty areas that require contracts from parents and students, and I feel this is one of the best ways to maintain high standards. If we are to hold teachers to specific performance levels, then all parties, including parents and students, must be held accountable for their learning and education, as well. Otherwise, the three-legged stool that holds up public education in America will be left to stand on one leg, and teachers are exhausted already.
 
 
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For anyone who looks to the Internet for socializing, discussing personal and professional ideas, and building a network of real and virtual connections, there are plenty of sites to keep one engaged for hours a day. It's a fact: Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, and Second Life, among other social media sites, suck the life out of life sometimes. Now, studies about the black hole of virtual socializing from OSU and UNH are sending educators, administrators, and even students mixed messages about the real-life implications of time spent in a virtual world.

So, does social media help or hurt students? Is social media a time suck, or is it the answer to collaboration and communication restrictions? It all depends on how students use social networking, and of course, on whom you ask.

Take, for example, this Edutopia poll, where readers were asked if they believed social media helped or hindered learning.  Several responses supported the view that technology is important in today's learning environments, yet the face-to-face experience of discussing and interacting with peers must not disappear just because technology has made communicating via phones and computers so easy.

The most difficult part of using social media may be the ability to stop and listen, then think, before responding. Twitter discussions may not be the best place to try and engage deep conversations. Just try to keep up during an #edchat session! Social media is, after all, self-centered and narcissistic, but that doesn't mean that education can't take advantage of bringing people (students, professors, professionals) together who want to talk about their experiences and opinions on a given subject matter. Social media goes hand-in-hand with education because education has a social core. For real-life learning to occur, social concepts of cooperation and compromise, as well as being able to express ideas and thoughts to a group of people, are required.

One crucial component of using social media in the classroom is to make sure the medium reflects the amount of depth that questions require. For example, use Twitter for quick, to the point answers, or wikis to examine longer questions with layers of opinions. Facebook and MySpace can be used for interactive conversations on specific interests or application-worthy discussions. YouTube can be used for video responses that illicit even shorter written responses as comments from viewers. Second Life and Flickr can be used for those students who need visual illustrations to accompany conversations.

Obviously, the uses of social media in educational conversations are boundless, but in the end, what really matters is not how much students say, but what they say using technology.
 

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    cristina

    educator, student, yoga enthusiast, roller derby girl

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    The views expressed in this blog are my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of my employers, colleagues, friends, family, or pets. Thanks for visiting!

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