Even with limited resources, effective educators keep ‘learning afloat’ by making use of free technology tools, school resources, community members, and a little ingenuity to ensure that rigor and relevance don’t drown.
Years ago, when I was younger and much more dim-witted, I thought of the ocean as something beautiful and friendly. That was, until I actually went there. I was only 13 at the time, but can still recall the excitement and anticipation following my parents’ announcement that we would all be taking a vacation to the beach. Like any kid might do, I imagined myself surfing the waves, exploring the reefs, and skimming the crystal waters of an exotic island in a wave runner. One can only imagine my disappointment as we pulled in to Galveston, Texas, barely a year after the Mega Borg oil spill. The beaches were a dull, dingy grey, and due to the recent environmental disaster, balls of tar littered the surf and sand.
The worst part, however, was the undertow lurking just below the surface of the water. I had barely waded in up to my chest when I was pulled from my feet and found myself being swept away from the shore. I flailed and swam as hard as I could, but to no avail. Any screaming for help only resulted in a mouthful of gagging, tar-filled sea water. Before long I was exhausted and struggled to keep my head above the surface. To make a long story short, I was rescued by a burly beach lifeguard named Larry and lived to tell the tale. Moving to the Midwest seemed like the surest way to steer clear of the ocean and future near-death experiences. But ironically, nearly twenty years later, schools all over the region find themselves in a similar predicament—fighting to keep their heads above water. News headlines and conversations in teachers’ lounges over the past couple of years reveal tales of schools struggling with issues that include new curricular standards, teacher evaluation, meaningful assessment, and half a dozen other things. While these issues warrant attention, all have been forced to a take a back seat to a single, pervading dilemma—how can schools improve college and career readiness in an era of increasingly limited resources?
I’ll admit that I am still new to this. I lack an in-depth understanding of the intricacies of school finance and have just barely hit the ten-year mark in the teaching profession, yet I already find myself referring to the “good old days.” If my thirty-something memory still serves me, it seems that when we first waded in to No Child Left Behind over a decade ago, no one really complained too much. After all, public schools reaped the benefits of a “boost” in educational spending that resulted in valuable additions like early childhood education, differentiated curriculum tools, professional development, instructional technology, interventions for struggling students, and enrichment activities for advanced learners. But over the past five or so years, piece by piece these crucial learning initiatives have been dissected like lab frogs by ever-shrinking budgets. Years ago at the beach I learned firsthand just how quickly sure footing can be lost. Likewise, the recent plummeting of state and local funding has put these (and other) vital components of education at risk. I visited with a district superintendent who resigned recently who commented, “I have been forced to spend the last few years dismantling the educational system that it took us decades to build. I just can’t do it anymore.”
Recently, a series of visits to various schools and professional development organizations around the state has reminded me that one of the best survival tactics is our ability to ‘tread water.’ To tell the truth, I was worried that as I popped in and out of classrooms and visited with educators, I would find learning crippled by a lack of funding. However, what I found was completely the opposite. What I found instead were “teacherprenuers,” as my friend and fellow educator Barnett Barry calls them. Educators in rural Kansas were utilizing free, social learning platforms like Edmodo, Schoolbinder, and Weebly to cut costs, engage students and streamline communication. Their administrators seemed happy with the savings that a paperless classroom brought, while students enjoyed opportunities to engage in learning with other students. A handful of secondary educators in a much larger city were enhancing standard-based learning tasks with problem-based challenges. Their classes were busily engaged in a science unit on the laws of physics. Teachers challenged students to use their knowledge of inertia and Newton’s laws to build balloon cars out of recycled materials found in bins around the campus. In a nearby elementary school, teachers and students were working together at the beginning of a unit to formulate exploration questions on a topic and then identified community resources and local experts in the field that students could contact via Skype for more information. An example could be provided for nearly all of the sites I frequented.
Looking back, it all makes sense. If anyone is equipped to weather a financial crisis, it would be educators. After all, choosing teaching as a profession seems like the surest route to a small home, an ugly car, and a checkbook riddled with negative integers. Our fiscal creativity pays the gas bill and keeps food on the table. So…despite a dangerous financial undertow, the water remains safe. What a relief it was to observe effective educators ‘on watch’ all over the Midwest who refuse to be deterred by the current budget. They keep ‘learning afloat’ by making use of free technology tools, school resources, community members, and a little ingenuity to ensure that rigor and relevance don’t drown. Lifeguard Larry would be proud.
Berry, B., & TeacherSolutions 2030 Team. (2011). Teaching 2030: What we must do for our students and our public schools : now and in the future. New York: Teachers College Press.