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Superintendent's Message

November 2, 2011

Some Thoughts on Today's Classrooms

 


There’s a cynical joke about education.  Rip Van Winkle awakens in the 21st century after a hundred-year snooze and is bewildered by what he sees. Cars are zooming by at alarming speeds.  People talk to small metal devices pressed to their ears.  Video images both fascinate and terrify him. Older people defy death and disability with hips made of metal and plastic. Airports, hospitals, shopping malls—every place Rip goes simply baffles him. But when he finally walks into a schoolroom, the old man knows exactly where he is.  “This is a school,” he declares. “We used to have these back in 1911. Only now the blackboards are white.”

I have been thinking about Mr. Van Winkle while spending the past couple of months visiting classrooms all over the district.  Yes, like yesteryear, the classrooms of today feature teachers and students.  But the interactions between and among students, teachers and the outside world are changing dramatically.  Technology plays an increasingly influential role in this dynamic, as does our thinking about differentiation and collaboration.  When we combine innovation with sound methodologies, we can give our students the most powerful educational experience possible.

When I think of classrooms today, I think about how permeable they are.  We used to talk of “self-contained” classrooms with everything a teacher needed physically present in the classroom, save perhaps the shared film projector.  Technology has changed all this and is most vividly seen in the near ubiquitous use of interactive whiteboards as an integral part of instruction.  These devices are present in almost all of our classrooms thanks to a school construction bond passed in 2007.  This technology is in the process of replacing the traditional whiteboard as it allows teachers to save everything that happens in terms of instruction and explanation and then post it to the Internet.  A document camera, the Internet and a “smart” interactive whiteboard combine to bring the world into the classroom.  And, in the hands of a skilled and wise teacher, dramatically change the experiences for students. 

Increasingly, other educators–reading, math and English language learning specialists, classroom aides and others who help differentiate instruction–are present in the classroom.  A classroom teacher must manage this instruction, deploying resources in ways that maximize learning.

In our elementary schools, we are particularly blessed with librarians, music and physical education instructors and Spectra Art teachers who share their passions and expertise with students.  Besides adding tremendously to the richness of our students’ educational experiences, the time our elementary students spend in the library, on the playfield or in music instruction frees classroom teachers to work collaboratively with each other.  Our school staffs are at their best when they learn from each other and spend time discussing the students they share. 

Speaking of our permeable schools, a unique element of American education is the presence of parents in so many aspects of our children’s education.  Nowhere in the world are parents so welcome to share their talents and become full partners in the education of their children than in our country. 

Finally, the experiences of students are so different today.  Learning is much more active and collaborative.  At every grade level, students move more quickly and purposefully from activity to activity.  I rarely see classrooms with rows of desks facing the teacher.  Instead, classrooms feature pods of desks with teachers guiding instruction and leveraging the power of the group to advance knowledge and learning.  Through this organization, we cultivate in our students the teamwork and interpersonal skills that will serve them well as adults.

This new education landscape makes being a teacher more challenging and demanding than ever.  The best environment for students is utterly dependent upon educators’ commitment to keeping up with the changes in their profession.  As a district, we must work to create this culture for everyone. 

A former truism about schools was that, if you wanted to know the classroom of the future, take a good look at the classroom of today.  While I am not an educational futurist, it seems clear that the forces shaping our schools forward today have accelerated.  Upon deeper inspection, a modern day Rip Van Winkle couldn’t help but find our classes more effective than those of 100 – or even 10 years ago.

 

Kevin Skelly, Ph.D.,
Superintendent

 

 

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The purpose of this publication is to provide information to our community about some of the ongoing issues facing the Palo Alto Unified School District. The trust and confidence of our community is vital to our success. To that end, we think it might be helpful to give you a regular report about our work and point out resources where you can learn more about specific topics. Although not everyone has time to attend Board of Education meetings, we recognize that many of you care deeply about the successes and challenges facing our administrators, educators and students. Our goal is to keep you informed about our ongoing efforts as we strive to achieve educational excellence for every student, every day.
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