“If you end up with a boring miserable life because you listened to your mom, your dad, your teacher, your priest, or some guy on television telling you how to do your shit, then you deserve it.” -Frank Zappa

Inside of every student I’ve ever taught lives a passionate, curious mind that can either flourish or stagnate, both inside and outside the classroom. The teachers that get it — that get you — are the ones that help bring you there, but that is not all teachers, not by any means. I think everyone, by this point in their life, has had experience with at least one teacher that stands out in their minds as inspirational: a teacher that’s helped you become a greater person in this world.

Become greater.

Image credit: University of Nebraska-Lincoln, via http://www.unl.edu/ucomm/aboutunl/.

Ideally, every one of the teachers a student encounters in their life would be great: would take pride in being the best teacher they can, would love what they teach, would be empowered to teach their own style and their own lessons and curriculum, and would genuinely care about the students as individual people. But not every teacher can do this, and not every teacher knows how to be this.

What makes matters even worse is that this isn’t what the system values. I think one of the most misguided attempts to make teachers more effective has been the focus on standardized testing and rewards based on test performance, as best exemplified in the U.S. by the disastrous No Child Left Behind program.

Standardized Testing

Image credit: Endeavor Tutoring and Test Preparation.

Having students score higher on a standardized test doesn’t necessarily give you any information about what a student can do other than succeed at taking that test. But success on those tests is what’s been financially rewarding for teachers and schools, and so that’s what has been prized by administrators, school districts, and entire states. This is disappointing, to put it mildly, because as I’ve noted before:

1.) There is no amount of control you can take away from a bad teacher that will turn them into a good teacher.

2.) There is nothing worse you can do to a good teacher than take away their autonomy as to how and what they teach to their students in their classrooms.

The teaching system isn’t set up to reward whether teachers are inspiring and empowering students to go out and learn, think critically and competently, evaluate information and sources, see through ruses and faulty logic, and to care. To care about whether they’ve found the more relevant, accurate information, whether they’ve synthesized it logically and consistently, and whether their conclusions and arguments are robust and high-quality. Appallingly, it’s set up to care about a test score.

Testing

Image credit: The Art of Teaching Science / Jack Hassard.

And I’m telling you, right now, that I intend to change that, and I want to get every teacher I can on board to help. Because we have got to let students know that they are not defined by what anyone else has to say about them. They aren’t defined by awards and accolades, nor by defeats and reprimands, and they certainly aren’t defined by how they score on a standardized test, or by how much funding their school gets based on those tests.

But they should take pride in what they achieve, and they should definitely take pride in what they can accomplish, create, and do.

A selection of Presidential Scholars from 1999

Image credit: Jimmy Walker-Pearson.

So, what can we do about it, to help everyone get there; to help every student achieve, and care, and develop these critical skills?

First off, I’d focus not on standardized testing, but on the standards of “what can you do?

And, perhaps unbelievably, there’s a huge push away from the mess that was No Child Left Behind and towards teaching students with the goal that they’ll be able to be mathematically, verbally and analytically literate at a high level throughout their education.

Common Core Logo

Image credit: http://www.corestandards.org/.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) is a collaboration among a number of different groups, including the National Education Association (NEA), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), and National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), to create a set of K-12 standards in language arts, literacy and mathematics that will be suitable for all students, nationwide, in every state.

They’re very transparent as to how they made these standards, what the key english language arts and mathematics points are, what some common misconceptions are, and where you can download the full standards for yourself. So far, across the U.S., they’ve been adopted by 45 states plus the District of Columbia.

Common Core Adoptions

Image credit: Education Week.

They are poised to take effect in these states at the start of this upcoming academic year, and understandably, there’s a lot of anxiety over them. For one, the standards are long, detailed, and difficult to digest. For another, it’s unclear how funding will be tied to these standards; they are still very likely to incorporate some type of high-stakes standards-based testing, which will surely be controversial. And finally, because it’s new, there are no pre-existing, comprehensive educational resources that are compliant with these standards. It’s very likely that many of the early ones will be lazy and uninspiring, and with this push towards standardization, it seems like it’s going to be more and more difficult to create individualized education plans and projects, tailored to students’ individual needs.

And you know that every student has different needs.

For a fair selection...

Image credit: origin unknown, retrieved from Vincent Chong.

But I think I can help, at least for high school-level (9-12) classrooms where any reading, writing, or analysis is required. If you can forget about the tests and focus on education, on your students learning, staying interested and engaged, on finding and pursuing their passions, then this is for you. For the past seven months, I’ve been working for a company called trap!t, growing and developing their science and health sections for quality, breadth, depth, and — perhaps most importantly — the truth. (I’ll keep on doing that, and writing here, so don’t worry about either of those suffering.) But you don’t have to restrict yourself to the topics I’ve chosen, nor to science and health; each user can create their own collection of high-quality content on any topic they choose. For example…

Trapit on the Mexico Drug Cartel

Image credit: screenshot from http://trap.it/.

Maybe you teach history, but even the most up-to-date textbooks don’t cover current events. So you tell each student to pick a current event that interests them, and to write a paper on it, citing and evaluating sources. Or you teach biology, or physics, and want your students to write about a recent discovery / breakthrough / controversy. Or maybe you want to teach them how to make a written argument, and so you allow them to choose a politically polarizing topic. All of these (and more) make excellent assignments, and trap!t can be an invaluable resource to a classroom; just put your topic in to the discovery engine and let it go.

What they get out is a collection of relevant articles from websites across the world, chosen from over 100,000 quality sources, on that topic. This works for any news, science, environment, politics, education or health issue, as well as for recent books, theatre productions/performing arts, and media topics. And it gives them this information with a strong visual interface, with quick and easily scannable summaries, a variety of perspectives, and in an extremely organized layout.

Neutrinos via trapit

Image credit: screenshot from http://trap.it/.

But best of all, it’s trainable and personalizable so that each student’s experience will be unique. By liking and disliking (with justified reasons!) different articles, students can be at the controls of their news-gathering experience. The ability to perform quick, simple research on any topic, to follow breaking and timely stories, and to train and personalize their own experience is a unique new tool in this age of digital learning, and it couldn’t come at a better time. How do I know?

Because I, personally, have gone through the new Common Core State Standards Initiative for literacy, language arts, and for subject-specific reading and writing goals, and have synthesized for you a short version. Below, you can see what the general reading, writing, speaking/listening and language standards are for high school students, as well as (in yellow) what standards trap!t excels at helping students meet, and (in green) for what standards trap!t is a truly exceptional tool.

Broad Content Goals 1

Image credit: created by me, synthesized from the CCSSI.

Broad Content Goals 2

Image credit: created by me, synthesized from the CCSSI.

This has also been vetted in actual classrooms, so I know it can be a tremendously positive experience! In fact, here’s what a public school teacher who used trap!t in her classroom had to say:

I love the way their faces light up when they realize that this isn’t a typical search engine, and that research doesn’t need to be tedious. [...] It’s also fun watching them become meaningfully engaged in something that’s digital.  When they’re on the computer, they’re switching back and forth between many different websites, and it’s hard to get them to stay focused.  But Trapit “traps” them; it caught their attention, and held it.  When a site is sticky, then I know it has great potential.

By providing current, breaking news in a way that no textbooks can, with a variety of hand-checked, quality sources that no single periodical or newspaper can match, and combining it with the students’ abilities to personalize it and tailor it to their own particular interests and point-of-view, I am convinced that this is not only a great tool from a student’s perspective, but from a teacher’s, as well.

A Digital Classroom

Image credit: Mother of Many, taken at Crenshaw High School from the LAUSD, my old teaching grounds.

The ability to incorporate digital learning into a classroom is crucial, but not as crucial as the ability to get a student internally motivated in furthering their own education. The combination of being able to make individualized assignments while simultaneously meeting the new core standards is going to be one of the toughest challenges for all teachers, and trap!t gives everyone a great tool — maybe even the best tool — for making it happen. But I can’t make this happen on my own; I need your help if we want to improve education under these new standards and keep classrooms from being invaded by micromanagerial administrators and curriculum experts, and particularly from test-preparation companies.

What I need are teachers and educators — preferably public high school teachers, but any educator, including home-schoolers, is still extremely helpful — who are brave enough to be willing to give this tool a chance. Would you be willing, during the first couple of months (September or October) of the school year, to give it a try?

Image credit: Suite 101.

I want to help you help your students across all disciplines, improving their reading, writing, and critical thinking skills. How do they evaluate the quality of information in a source? Can they identify bias and perspective? Can they determine what’s a fallacious argument, and apply their own reasoning to discriminate between two opposing points of view? Can they justify why articles are good or no good, and what makes a source reliable vs. unreliable? And will you join me on the cutting edge of this education frontier? Leave a comment below and/or email me at — ethan AT trapit.com — if you are willing to do any of the following:

  • Incorporate using trap!t with students in a classroom during the upcoming school year,
  • Provide any feedback or ideas as to how trap!t could be integrated in a specific classroom,
  • Be willing to help answer questions that ensure students will have a high-quality educational experience,
  • Design a lesson plan that can be used in any digital classroom that both incorporates trap!t and the CCSSI,
  • or, most usefully, be willing to use trap!t in your class and participate in a Proof-of-Concept study, which means filling out a Q&A sheet and possibly having a conversation with me about your experience.

You know how passionate I am about giving everyone the highest-quality educational experience we can, and I’m working to marshal all the resources I have access to in order to help make that happen. If you know of a school, classroom, or teacher where this might help, spread the word and pass it on. Trap!t is free for all users, and if you have any issues, technical, political or otherwise, I’ll do everything in my power to help you overcome them.

Education with trap!t isn’t the answer to everything, of course; students need more than any one tool, no matter how good it is, by itself. They need great teachers who care about them. They need to make and accomplish things. But they also need to learn how to find, sift through, analyze, think critically about, synthesize and evaluate information, and communicate what they’ve found effectively. Don’t just help them get there; help them blaze their own paths towards that goal!

Comments

  1. #1 Douglas Watts
    June 21, 2012

    Thanks, Ethan. Kids are smart. They know that capitalism doesn’t value kids. It’s only about who you know and how rich your parents are. Teachers are just adults telling poor kids lies which the poor kids already know are lies. The kids know that the rich kids will go to college, no matter what their grades, and the poor kids will have to get A’s just to even have a chance. Kids know the game is rigged.

  2. #2 nessuno
    June 21, 2012

    Hi Ethan,
    I am not a teacher, and I live in Switzerland, so I am not in the category you are looking for. But I have two children, and your post is extremely interesting. Their language at school is French; do you know if trap!it can return French material? Otherwise it could give them another good motivation to learn English, which they should do anyway.

  3. #3 OKThen
    June 21, 2012

    This post has two parts

    Part 1)
    Students are curious, teachers need to love what they teach, the system doesn’t value such teachers or such students.
    Exhibit A: Socrates and the students he was supposedly “corrupting”

    Part 2)
    Trap!t
    Hmm?
    “Trapit works for you 24/7, capturing what you want, serving it up fresh and spam-free all day long.”
    I’m not sure I want to be served up anything 24/7.

    My bias: about 3 years ago I was on Facebook for about 4 months, after which it took me about 1 day to delete everything off of my Facebook account and then it took about 1 month to get completely off of Facebook and deleting my account, It was very tricky. Privacy and the ability to manage my content was my issue.

    But here I am trying to evaluate again how to use Facebook and Twitter in a way that serves my needs (not Facebooks). So I am biased about a service like Trap!t that traps you into using either Facebook or Twitter.

    Having said that, I know Ethan that you are an excellent and dedicated teacher. and I know that the majority of students are using Facebook or Twitter. So after I get Facebook or Twitter (probably anonymously); then I will try Trap!t. Ethan you just keep forcing me to learn things against my stubbornness. Thanks.

  4. #4 magista
    June 21, 2012

    Do you have to be a US teacher? I’m in Alberta, teaching high school physics, and my department head and I have just been discussing ways to move away from the ‘chalk and talk’ to more hands on, student-driven learning.

    I’d love to give it a try.

  5. #5 Brian Campbell
    NC
    June 21, 2012

    As a music teacher, I’m always extremely disappointed on the short shrift our curriculum — even this new one — gives LISTENING and SPEAKING.

    Reading is, fundamentally speaking, an AUDITORY process, not a visual one. When someone is effectively reading, they are ‘hearing’ the words in their head (the term for this is ‘audiation’ as it relates to music, but I believe it to be critical to ALL languages).

    This is happening in EVERY student’s mind. Whether it’s happening WELL is another matter. Students that don’t learn by first listening to readers and then reading aloud themselves don’t learn effective skills, and that’s why comprehension is so awful. (Basically, their “mind’s ear” is just listing words in rapid succession, rather than imparting meaning to their sequence.)

    Young students need more time being read to (while having the text in view at the same time), and more time reading aloud — with an emphasis on reading in a communicative way (inflection!).

    And older students need to spend way, waaaaay more time WRITING than they do reading. I think that’s where TrapIt comes in, but it’s one of the last links in the chain…

  6. #6 James Sweet
    United States
    June 22, 2012

    I’m not quite as down on standardized testing as you, though it’s still obviously not a great solution even when presented in the best possible light. But, I want to make one point here:

    1.) There is no amount of control you can take away from a bad teacher that will turn them into a good teacher.

    2.) There is nothing worse you can do to a good teacher than take away their autonomy as to how and what they teach to their students in their classrooms.

    This is indubitably true, but presumably the point of standardized testing is to sort the good teachers from the bad ones, so you can have more of the former. We can argue all day over whether standardized testing achieves the goal of discerning between good and bad teachers (probably not much, if at all, though if too many students are performing very poorly on a reasonable standardized test, that is probably not a good sign), but all of that is irrelevant if you don’t allocate enough funding to allow the hiring of good teachers.

    In other words, even if we buy the premises behind standardized testing, it’s stupid if you aren’t willing to back it up with lots of money. Which we aren’t. So… yeah.

  7. #7 Wow
    June 23, 2012

    “1.) There is no amount of control you can take away from a bad teacher that will turn them into a good teacher.”

    But why does this have anything to do with standardised curricula? If a bad teacher WANTS to teach creationism but is forbidden because the curriculum says so, then the fact that they’re a bad teacher is irrelevant.

    “2.) There is nothing worse you can do to a good teacher than take away their autonomy as to how and what they teach to their students in their classrooms.”

    Nope, you can do far worse than that. Fire them from teaching for a start.

    A good teacher with a constrained curriculum will be making the things necessary to cover more interesting and easier to learn.

    So, although I don’t necessarily disagree with the statements, it is rather like me not disagreeing that “red is a deeper shade than green” on the subject of teaching.

  8. #8 Wow
    June 23, 2012

    “And you know that every student has different needs.”

    Followed by a pithy, if pointless, cartoon.

    I don’t know about YOUR schools, Ethan, but at mine we only had human beings in the class.

    No elephants. No goldfish.

    Just humans.

    And they ALL have the potential to learn ANY of the things we can teach them in school. Even Gym classes.

    A curriculum that includes what society itself things are the core learning elements that we’d like to see widespread in society (so not just the three R’s, but chemistry, music, art, geography and shop classes), then each child can find out whether they have an aptitude for something.

    How many people would have been wonderful mathematicians except they were from too poor an area to be taught maths?

    How many women (before teaching women was acceptable) would have been the precursor of Mme Curie if they’d been allowed to do “the hard stuff that’s too complex for delicate women”?

    How many women would have made good managers but didn’t because women were not allowed in the boardroom as anything more than a typist?

    We teach kids by a set curriculum for the same reason we do not allow sexual discrimination in the workplace.

    When they’ve sampled what’s possible, we then given them a choice of what specifically they want to follow.

    Hopefully because they like the subject. But many will choose based on parental pressure. Which is ANOTHER reason why “force” childfren to do “useless” classes.

    The cartoon really doesn’t say anything other than “I’m an arrogant prick” from the cartoonist and the one thinking it had something usefull to say.

    But in schools, we don’t have anything other than humans being taught.

  9. #9 Jason
    June 25, 2012

    Ethan,

    Your post is good, and the trap!t project seems interesting. One comment on your presentation of it, however – if you go back and read the post starting with, “The Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) is a collaboration …”, it makes perfect sense. Everything before that was just you venting at a straw man – totally unnecessary and distracting. In many ways, Common Core Standards are an evolution from, not the opposite of, NCLB. In a political world, sometimes we take two steps forward after one step back. When you want to tell us about the forward steps, try not to dwell on the backward.

  10. #10 cmacsciteach
    PA
    June 25, 2012

    As a public school teacher, I couldn’t agree with you more about the use of national and state standards and standardized testing to evaluate the learning of students and the value of teachers. This system persists in the US because it’s government funded. Why would the government shut down something they’ve put money into? Standardized tests are much easier to evaluate than any other type of assessment, and as a result, cheaper too. No measurement is perfect in and of itself – I’ve always thought that a combo of different kinds of evaluations, such as the ability to create a product/project, the ability to use a set of skills successfully in an activity, etc. (not JUST testing), would give the nation a better picture of the state of education in the US. And if those kinds of evaluations were used instead of just testing, students would be learning more than just memorizing facts. We would actually be preparing them with real life skills and thought processes, and a chance to develop their creativity and innovation, traits necessary for success in any field. I’m interested to see how the Common Cores play out in the next few years. It’s great to have standards but I want to see how will they be implemented by schools – both by admins and teachers alike. Will they lead to actual learning (used by students to accomplish something other than do well on a test) or just memorization of content?

    I set up an account with TrapIt! and to be honest, it’s my new internet addiction. I’m using to stay current on ideas in educational technology but can see many other personal and educational applications. I haven’t signed up to test it out in my classroom yet as I want to be sure I have a specific lesson or task in mind first. Also, my school district is quite slow with adding student computer accounts/logins (they have to be new each year, not sure why). I don’t know when my students will have school computer access as a result and not all of my students have computer/internet access from home (we have an impoverished section of families in our district). That said, I do want to implement it in my teaching and will stay in contact with you as to how I do it.

  11. #11 Wow
    June 26, 2012

    I think one problem is that there is a VC-investor view infecting everything today. Even things that shouldn’t be there. It’s where you MUST IMPROVE each and every year, or you’re failing.

    Then binding money to success.

    In teaching, this means that you teach to pass the test because that is a better guarantor of success for the school.

    And, since spending money helps the school’s success, paying a school for its students passing the test is inherently unstable.

    Unless you increase the budget overall (therefore a school isn’t starved of the money they need to improve if they’re not as good as the others).

    But that would NEVER be allowed, would it.

    And it’s this “balanced budget” that really screws the pooch on this.

    If your school improves 1% but the average school improves 5%, then even though you did better, you’ll get less money next year.

    It’s not improving any more, it’s cutting down others. You can only succeed if others lose.

    And that inherently doesn’t work with education, since companies gain from an educated workforce but do their best to avoid taxes to pay for it (and even if they paid it all, their money doesn’t go proportionality to education). Hence the benefit of the improvement goes to a different group from those that pay for the effort of improvement.

    Inherently broken.

  12. #12 joemac53
    June 26, 2012

    When school ratings began to place heavy emphasis on AP courses and successful testing I felt bad for my students. For several years I had taught a physics/calculus integrated program during senior year. Since AP Physics covers so much it is not recommended to try to cram it into a single year, so we didn’t try. Our version was Joe Phys/Joe Calc. My students were of course exposed to the topics I liked most and became quite advanced in a couple of areas. The colleges they attended noticed, and for a while I was a semi-famous teacher. I had great kids with great attitudes and we had a lot of fun.
    I was lucky that my boss supported me all the way. I also feel a little lucky that I retired a few years ago before Race to the Top let the Feds call the shots for short money.
    I was also lucky to teach each of my three daughters in my classes. I had a great job in a great school.

  13. #13 Jay
    Utah
    August 2, 2012

    Ethan,

    I am dual certified and have taught High School, Middle School and now in Elementary (upper grades). I currently teach in an eMints school where I have technology (1 computer for every 2 kids, iTouches, digital cameras and recorders etc) where we use inquiry and constructivism to increase student achievement. I will use trapIt in my classroom to enhance learning and extend learning for my students. This should allow me another tool to adapt the curriculum to meet the needs of a variety of learners, from advance to typical to those who are below. This way they are learning and expanding according to their interests while we seek to accomplish the goals of the common core. Most importantly, I hope it will helps students to begin the process of critically and creatively thinking and problem solving that they need to be successful in our society.

Current ye@r *