• The Promise of Publishing For Everyone

    Posted by Dr. Louis Moore on 2/5/2020

    Last month the NJ DOE Digest celebrated efforts at RBR to elevate student voices through podcasting.  Podcasting is booming and a major hurrah is due to April Bunn, Kelly Ann Moylan, Federica Proietti-Cesaretti, Jeff Mauro, Gabriela Castro, Irene Vergis, and Kaitlyn Muller who made this possible.  POD-cast fans will be glad to hear that the new Media Center will have a dedicated studio space for this work.

    Why has podcasting taken hold?  Part of the explanation is that it presents everyone with the opportunity to find their voice and take a stand on an issue that’s important to them.  In addition recording mandates sustained effort and a commitment to craft. Creating a script, selecting the right word, and speaking in the appropriate tone all come together in a successful podcast.  Finally, podcasting does not follow the conventional assessment pathway. Unlike a test or a quiz, this work is not going to stop at the teacher’s desk. Instead it’s going to be pushed out, shared, and celebrated.

    For many students at RBR, publishing, presenting, and performing their work is woven into the fabric of school.  During midterms, students in Ashley Studd’s Engineering Design and Development class shared presentations on their senior projects.  Students provided updates on their progress and sought honest and critical feedback in order to improve their final product. Similar experiences occur throughout the academic year in other academy programs.  Think of the frequent VPA performances, showcases, and capstone experiences that happen all the time. Giving students the opportunity and agency to create and share work defines what our 4-year academies are all about.   

    This approach should be expanded to all our students across all subjects with the aim of celebrating academic work in the core.  This caveat should be kept in mind: the model can only be applied to a limited number of assignments because publication is a process that requires time--time for drafting, receiving feedback, and revising.  But the process is just as important as the final outcome and can be a powerful motivator for deep learning.   

    In addition to intellectual development, the publishing process generates social and emotional benefits.  It often supports collaboration and is both empowering and fulfilling. Revising an essay, creating a documentary, or preparing a podcast clarifies our thinking, sparks creativity, and reduces stress.  

    What’s next?  For the rest of our academic year, I’d like to start a school-wide conversation on ways to encourage all students to publish, share, and celebrate their academic work.  This is not an elusive dream. In fact, because of our many strengths, the foundation has already been established. In addition to podcasting, the Buccaneer also welcomes student submissions on a wide-range of topics.  Thanks to Cass Dorn, students have a great forum to share ideas and report on issues that are important to them.  

    Another source of strength, is the increased emphasis on writing across subjects.  As Tom McDonough mentioned at our meeting, students have started using digital writing portfolios to maintain a record of their work for themselves and their teachers.  A priority has been placed on providing students with feedback and opportunities for revision--essential aspects of the publishing process.  

    In addition, many students, with their teacher’s encouragement, have already shared and submitted their work for publication in the New York Times Learning Network.   (The current Network challenge is a Stem Writing Contest.)  

    Let’s build on these strengths and insist that students become invested in their academic work by building up opportunities for publishing.  A digital non-fiction journal can be established to publish, showcase, and celebrate academic non-fiction. By design it would provide a platform for both long and short papers, films, recordings, and commentary.  Writing is the immediate “go to” for this work, but films, recordings, etc, would all be welcome.  

    Emerson observed that the “ends” should be implicit in the “means” we employ.  If we want our kids to be deeply invested in learning, we must mandate tasks that require emotional and intellectual engagement.  Prioritizing the publication, sharing, and celebration of academic work is a strong step in this direction. 

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  • Unplug and Read!

    Posted by Lou Moore on 12/5/2018

    If you are concerned that passive screen time is taking up too much space in the lives of young people, you are not alone.  A recent study found that the average American 18-year-old spent over nine hours per day connected to some form of media, including over four-hours per day on smart phones.

     

    Managing screen time is important, both for our intellectual growth and mental health.  Besides, as author Anne Lamott reminds us, “almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.”

     

    One of the best alternatives to passive screen time and aimless browsing is reading.  Sustained and purposeful reading requires active engagement--both emotionally and intellectually.  Walt Whitman observed that  “reading is not a half sleep,  but in the highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast’s  struggle”.

     

    As  teachers and parents,  we know that strengthening reading skills and encouraging students to be avid readers are essential.  But whether or not high schools systematically attend to it is another question. In my own teaching,  I practiced the “osmosis” method and assumed that students would develop the ability to comprehend  complex text on their own. After all, I was a history teacher, not a reading teacher. I am older  and wiser now (at least I like to think I am). It’s clear to me that the osmosis model must be abandoned   in favor of shared strategies that explicitly build up the reading capacity of students in all subjects. This is  certainly a priority at Red Bank Regional. Our revised curriculums and related assessments stress reading and writing across all disciplines.  A new reading specialist position to support students and teachers has been established. All first year students are screened to identify potential deficiencies in reading.  

     

    At home, families can support reading by setting time limits on phone and screen time.  We can make it a point to ask students about what they are reading in their courses and outside of school.  More important, parents and guardians can put time aside for reading to set a good example. (Education Week published these tips to in a  “Spotlight” to make reading a bigger part of all our lives.)

     

    As a parent of teens, I know that the steps suggested above are not easy.  But the benefits are worth the effort. Actively mentoring students to become  confident and capable readers enriches teaching, learning, and ultimately delivers lifelong benefits.  Keep an eye out for updates from the RBR Media Center on activities to encourage reading!   

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  • Pulling Things Together: The Promise of a Connected Curriculum

    Posted by Lou Moore on 8/20/2018

    A number of years ago, I asked a group of students what made high school different from elementary and middle school.  Many commented on increased workloads, greater independence, and the excitement of meeting new people. I enjoyed hearing from the students but one insight really stood out.  “We see our learning as a whole,” one student declared. “High school separates it.”

     

    This was not what I hoped to hear but when you think about it the observation makes a lot of sense.  Despite many changes, the basic organization of most public high schools has endured. Curriculum is separated by discipline with an emphasis on discrete content.  Teachers usually do most of their work isolated in departments with little time for collaboration with educators in their own disciplines let alone across subjects.

     

    Since I started teaching in 1990, secondary education in the United States has been buffeted by many changes.  Academic rigor has increased, teacher evaluations are more demanding, and schools have implemented high-stakes standardized tests in almost every grade.  But pursuing strategies to integrate and connect learning across subjects has not been a priority. This is a shame because pulling things together would deliver substantial benefits.

     

    Most importantly, greater integration promises to boost learning and understanding for all students.  An emphasis on content and skills that connect disciplines would challenge students to transfer knowledge to new problems.  Furthermore by seeing themes emerge across the curriculum, students would be more likely to see the value of what they are studying.

     

    RBR is already way ahead of the game on the coherence front and we take up the challenge from a position of strength.  Our academies promote links across subjects and establish real world connections. Moreover, RBR is fortunate to have a talented and dedicated staff who collaborate effectively and encourage students to link and transfer knowledge across subjects.  As we revise and develop curriculum, teachers are infusing vital literacy skills across multiple subjects. This will be readily apparent in the revised sophomore core curriculum that will be implemented in 2018-19. These courses of study reflect an important shift in emphasis away from fixed content and toward the development of the skills, attitudes, and habits of mind that are rooted in the subjects we teach.  In addition, we are building in more time in our district calendar for collaboration among our teachers to develop learning experiences that stress an interdisciplinary approach to subjects. Moving forward we will continue to review and revise curriculum with these goals in mind and we will look for other ways to increase program coherence.

     

    Connecting learning between subjects will require sustained effort, time, and some rethinking about the high school experience.  But the potential benefits are great for both teachers as well as students with the ultimate aim of making high school academics more rigorous and rewarding for everyone.

     

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  • Schools Will Not Be Secure Until We Address Access to Lethal Weapons

    Posted by Lou Moore on 3/13/2018

    Since the tragedy at Columbine High School almost 20 years ago, school districts have implemented measures to protect students and staff from the threat of a mass shooting. Entrances have been hardened with “mantraps” and bullet resistant glass.  “Active shooter” drills are now regularly conducted along with fire drills. New security staff have been hired and all staff are trained on best security practices.

     

    Yet the brutal massacre in Parkland, Florida demonstrates that schools remain vulnerable  and the threat is ongoing. In addition to Parkland, there have already been 13 shootings at schools and and colleges this year.  Some argue that an appropriate response is to boost the number of security personnel allowed to carry guns. It has even been suggested that arming qualified teachers is the best way to protect against the next assault.

     

    But before we start an arms race in our schools, it’s time to pause and start to consider actions that will actually help to improve things.  Let’s start by acknowledging that regardless of how carefully we secure our schools, we will never be doing all we can until our society puts responsible limits on access to deadly firearms.  Common sense precautions that New Jersey and other states have established should become nationalized. These include instituting permits for handgun purchases, setting strict limits on magazines, and requiring licenses to own certain types of weapons.  At minimum it must be mandated that all gun buyers be subject to appropriate background checks. Current estimates are that 30 percent of gun sales take place--including gun show purchases--without this essential precaution.

     

    Yet all this is only a start.  If we are truly serious about school safety, we need to demand that whole classes of firearms be taken off the marketplace.  AR-15s and other assault rifles are the most notorious symbols of our country’s permissive attitude toward firearms access. But handguns with high capacity magazines exact an even greater toll on the innocent.  A child is shot or killed by a gun every 30 minutes in the United States; over the past five decades a staggering 160,000 children have been lost to gun violence. In 2016, the American Journal of Medicine reported that that among two dozen of the world’s wealthiest nations, this country accounted for 91 percent of firearms deaths among children 14 and under.

     

    Emotional claims that the right to possess lethal weapons is sacrosanct discredits the wisdom of the Constitution’s framers and ignores our own legal history.  Despite outcries from extremists that access to guns is threatened, the United States remains a society awash in firearms. Americans make up about five percent of the Earth’s population but they own nearly 50 percent of the world’s gun supply.  Until quite recently, the Supreme Court continually upheld the right of Congress and state legislatures to place substantial restrictions on access to firearms while respecting the Second Amendment. In practice this meant that Congress took sweeping action to ban weapons such as machine guns, assault weapons, and sawed-off shotguns while protecting the rights of responsible gun owners.

     

    Young people from Parkland, Florida and other communities throughout the nation are forcing all of us to come to terms with this issue.  This time we owe them more than platitudes, non-solutions, and nonsense. Ongoing improvements to school security are certainly necessary and we will continue to do our part.  But if Americans really want to avoid another tragedy, we must deal with the root cause: the irresponsible and permissive access we allow to guns in our society.

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  • Protecting Discourse and the Exchange of Ideas in Schools

    Posted by Lou Moore on 6/22/2017
    Public schools cannot be the unregulated “marketplace of ideas” that John Stuart Mill envisioned for the larger society. Nor should they be.  Children need to be guarded from the hate speech and nonsense protected by the First Amendment in the public square.
     
    Nevertheless, schools should aspire to encourage an open and responsible exchange of ideas around vital topics, including controversial ones. 
     
    The current political atmosphere makes this especially challenging.  Recently in Wall Township, school officials were criticized after pro-Trump slogans were airbrushed from a student’s t-shirt in his yearbook photo.  Ultimately new yearbooks, with the original photo in place, were made available.
     
    The remedy addressed the immediate issue and protected self-expression but the underlying issue remains.  Many of the aggrieved parties in Wall and elsewhere are on the political right, but the real victims are the students.  Left unanswered, toxic partisanship and the ranting of extremists will undermine civil discourse and distort how teachers handle critical topics in their classes. 
     
    A recent study conducted by Penn State and the National Center for Science Education on the teaching of climate change in the United States illuminated the issue in stark terms.  The report concluded that the “median teacher devoted only one to two hours to the topic” and “at least one in three teachers bring climate change denial into the classroom, claiming that many scientists believe climate change is not caused by humans."
     
    While the study did not examine the cause of the confusion, it’s reasonable to assume that many teachers are choosing to tread lightly, fearful of offending those who perpetuate the myth that climate change is a hoax.  Students across the nation, meanwhile, remain victimized by our politics, under-informed about the most important economic and environmental issue of our time.
     
    Schools did not create the current divisions in American politics.  However, they can play a central role in making things better.
     
    Last fall I met with students after the outcome of the presidential election and proposed that we form a Public Policy Forum at RBR to discuss the vital issues facing our country, such as reducing college costs, expanding economic opportunity, and protecting our environment.  I suggested that we do this in a non-partisan way that puts aside the rancor that emerged in the campaign.
     
    At our first forum in March, Joseph Amditis, the associate director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, discussed the rise of “fake news” and the importance of digital literacy.  Students and teachers asked questions from various perspectives and respected each other’s viewpoints.  Moving forward, we hope to host future sessions on climate change and healthcare. The students and their teachers set a superb example that illustrated the importance of civil discourse and objective discussion in school.
     
    The issue goes beyond yearbook photos and political self-expression.  Schools cannot abandon their responsibility to inform, spark responsible debate, and prepare young people for engagement and citizenship even if our politics appear to be broken.  At the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention Benjamin Franklin was asked what kind of government the delegates had formed.  "A republic, if you can keep it," Franklin replied, reminding everyone of the indispensable role that informed, educated, and active citizens play.
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