How Google Works (and how it can work for teaching)

Do you ever read books, not entirely or even not at all related to education, and your mind just spins with the possibilities and implications it has for teaching? It’s one of the reasons I love to read nonfiction, especially from disciplines other than my own. It broadens your perspectives and gives you fresh ideas that revitalize your approach to teaching (in addition to being entertaining). My husband is in the business world, and once I sampled a little of this book about the successful ideologies of Google written by the people behind Google, I stole it away to finish–and was thrilled at multiple points with thinking how it could relate so well to teaching . . .

From How Google Works by Eric Schmidt & Jonathan Rosenberg:

One of the concepts that most resonated with me was the idea of the “smart creative”. Isn’t this really what a teacher must be? Isn’t it what we want to be–autonomous and highly effective in our own classrooms? Their description of a smart creative brings new ideas on how a teacher can function effectively in this day and age of education. In order to not violate fair trade guidelines by quoting entire chapters of this book to you, I’ll settle for summarizing and listing just a few of the things they say about smart creatives:

  • Have a deep technical knowledge
  • Comfortable with data, understanding “its fallacies and is wary of endless analysis. Let data decide, she believes, but don’t let it take over.”
  • Innovative, and not always just during the hours they are being paid for
  • a “power user” who “understands her product from the user or consumer’s perspective.”
  • a “firehose of new ideas” who has her own perspective but can see things from other perspectives too
  • “always questioning, never satisfied with the status quo . . .”
  • an “open creative” who collaborates and “judges ideas and analyses on their merits and not their provenance”
  • “communicative creative”–communicates with flair and possibly charisma to diverse  audiences

The authors are fair in also mentioning how not every smart creative possesses all of the characteristics that they discuss. Smart creatives are diverse but can also be found in all places. They are “the ambitious ones of all ages who are eager (and able) to use the tools of technology to do a lot more. Their common characteristic is that they work hard and are willing to question the status quo and attack things differently. This is why they can have such an impact.” (page 18-20)

Isn’t it exciting to think of teachers as smart creatives? People with deep subject knowledge, who are innovative and curious? It almost goes without saying that teachers are hard working–doing the work even beyond the normal hours. A “smart creative” teacher can combine those things with technology and the many digital and other literacies demanded by students these days and achieve amazing results. As a teacher, do you think of yourself like this–as a smart creative?

And a word on passion (cause obviously we’re not in it for the money):
“Passionate people don’t wear their passion on their sleeves; they have it in their hearts. They live it. Passion is more than resume-deep, because it’s hallmarks–persistance, grit, seriousness, all-encompassing absorption–cannot be gauged from a checklist. “ (page 101)

I can’t think of a better way to describe a teacher. Deeply passionate about what they do, of course. But also possessing those things that we are coming to realize make a big difference for students when they are young and in our classrooms, and also when they are people out there in the real world: persistence, grit.

Lastly, I thought these ideas on the “learning animal” are particularly prescient for the teaching profession:
We know plenty of very bright people who, when faced with the roller coaster of change, will choose the familiar spinning-teacups ride instead. They would rather avoid all those gut-wrenching lurches; in other words, reality. Henry Ford said that “anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.” Our ideal candidates are the ones who prefer roller coasters, the ones who keep learning. These “learning animals” have the smarts to handle massive change and the character to love it.” (page 102-103)

As educators, we know that this business is a roller coaster ride. From changes in policy and curriculum to the changing dynamics of the students that come in and out of our classrooms, change is something we must accept. But embracing it, and even taking it a step further; as teachers we must always be learning and growing, particularly in this time of widely available information and technology. Keep up with the times and teach your students the things that will help them be successful for the world today. How can we expect our students to be lifelong learners if we don’t make the effort to learn and grow with the times we live in? It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, sure, but that doesn’t make it any less important. I love thinking of teachers as intelligent people who make the best of the change they are constantly faced with.

teaching for creativity: demand calls for reversing the downward trend

I read a fascinating article this week that briefly discusses one of my favorite undercurrent topics in education: creativity.

The article in Forbes, “How Kids Lose Their Creativity As They Age (And How to Prevent It)” points out that creativity scores, measured yearly since the 1950’s by what is called the Torrance Test, have been dropping in American children since the 1990’s. It was this bit of evidence that initially pulled me in; while dropping test scores in any area aren’t exactly fresh news, it’s that this article’s subtexts link this sad fact strongly to the nature of the workplace. A modern workplace that is constantly changing, and greatly values creativity and innovation– as seen in countless successful companies and organizations.

Which leads me to ask . . . Is creativity rising among  the valued workplace skills, even as evidence shows creativity is falling among American children? This Forbes article would have you believe that it is, and that we need to do something about it.

While praising teachers and offering preventative measures against creativity loss, the Forbes article also makes some interesting claims: that the “school factory system”, “teaching to the test”, and teaching essentially with one goal or to form one type of student is destructive when it comes to creativity. This line of thinking reminds me of some of the things that one of my education heroes, Sir Ken Robinson, has been saying for a while now:

“I believe our only hope for the future is to adopt a new conception of human ecology, one in which we start to reconstitute our conception of the richness of human capacity. Our education system has mined our minds in the way that we strip-mine the earth: for a particular commodity. And for the future, it won’t serve us. We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we’re educating our children.” (Sir Ken Robinson, “How Schools Kill Creativity“, TED February 2006.)

On the plus side, by acknowledging multiple intelligences and cultivating creativity like Sir Ken Robinson promotes, we are better able to engage students in learning. I’ve found this to be true for my students on both ends of the spectrum–the advanced and the remedial. So how to do this? The recommendations that the Forbes article makes aren’t anything new, but rather a compilation of ideas and research that have been developed before. For example, two of the five recommendations:

  • Teach kids to challenge assumptions instead of accepting things as is (also a basic concept of the critical literacy theory)
  • Teach that mistakes are not evil and should not be feared (an idea central to the concept of the growth mindset and also involved in the idea of “grit” and how that helps children succeed)

It’s worthwhile to think about creativity and education, especially in light of the modern workplace and culture they are a part of. A final quote from the Forbes article, “creativity has become the currency of success for us all” makes me think that now is a particularly good time to think how we as teachers can help students develop their own unique type of intelligence and creativity to prepare them for careers and life.


P.S. If you haven’t watched SKR’s TED talks, you need to. Here’s a link:

this is just to say

As a teacher, have you ever had a bad day? It seems a bit silly to ask that question, since it happens to all of us–when you have a hard time making transitions between activities, when you stumble over your words, or when your class is just out of control.

I’ve been having a lot of those lately. This year has been much harder than any other, as far as managing students who are very demanding (we’ll leave it at that). Yes, it’s one of those years.  I hope I’m not coming across as complaining! Rather, I think I have learned a lot this year, and will continue to learn more as I struggle to make this a positive and effective year of learning for my students. I value the learning I have had to do–I definitely think that it’s made me a better teacher.

Yesterday, when I finally collapsed behind my desk at the end of the day, all of the frustration surfaced, and the following resulted. Not meant seriously, of course.


This Is Just to Say (s/o to William Carlos Williams)

by Mrs. Sorensen

I have graded
all of your
for this class

and now
you all

Forgive me
or not
it’s your work
after all

the 25 book challenge

This is the handout that I gave to parents at the beginning of the school year. I had a couple requests for it, so I thought I would share. Leave a comment . . . what do you think?
Why Read?
The 25 Book CHALLENGE!
Why? The Need to Read . . .
A CAUSE FOR CONCERN: Some Surprising Statistics
·      Forty percent of high school graduates lack the literacy skills employers seek (National Governors Association, 2005).
·      Lack of basic skills costs universities and businesses as much as $16 billion annually (National Commission on Writing, 2004).
·      Only 1 out of 3 students is a proficient reader (Lee, Grigg, and Donahue, 2007).
·      1 out of 4 twelfth-grade students is a proficient writer (Salahu-Din, Persky, and Miller, 2008).
·      1 out of 5 college freshman must take a remedial reading course (SREB, 2006).
·      3 out of 10 high school students do not graduate on time (Gewertz, 2009).
·      Over half of adults scoring at the lowest literacy levels are dropouts (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2005).
-from Writing to Read, a Carnegie Foundation Report, page 7
The bottom line . . .
“No single literacy activity has more positive effect on student’s comprehension, vocabulary knowledge, spelling, writing ability, and overall academic achievement than free voluntary reading.”
-Stephen Krashen, “The Power of Reading: a Meta-Analysis”
What Can We Do?
At School:
In Mrs. Sorensen’s class, students will be required to read a minimum of 25 books during the school year. To ensure and aid in completion of the requirement, and also in an effort to help students find books that they enjoy reading, students are asked to read a certain number of books from specific genres. Those are as follows:

Poetry/Poetry Anthology: 1
Traditional Literature: 3
Realistic Fiction: 3
Historical Fiction: 2
Fantasy: 3
Science Fiction: 1
Mystery: 1
Informational/Nonfiction: 2
Biography/Autobiography/Memoir: 1
Student Choice: 8

Students will receive many supports in the classroom to complete this course requirement, such as: reading time in class, book recommendations, visits to the library, and personal conferencing with the teacher. They will also have minimal homework, with the thought that their “homework” in this class will be reading at home.
How Can Parents Help? (The Need for Reading Role Models & Reading Support)
In a 2007 an Associated Press Poll reported in the Washington Post that the average adult American read only 4 books that entire year.
            -But that doesn’t even tell the whole story: of adults that read, their average was 7 books. However, 25% of the respondents didn’t read a book at all!
**Parents can be reading role models for their students at home. They can also encourage students to read at home, help facilitate visits to the library or bookstore, and talk with their students about what they read. 

big winner books for boys

After reading Michael Smith & Jeffrey Wilhelm’s book Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys, I’ve been paying a lot more attention to the reading habits of my male students. Having just finished looking through my class evaluations and student reflections, one (of the many) things I learned through reading those this year was which books were a big hit. Some of them are ones we read in class, some of them are ones that I had on the shelves in my classroom library. Just thought I would share some of those with you (most of these were also favorites among the ladies as well):

Ship Breaker
Where the Red Fern Grows
Alex Rider series
The Red Kayak
Boy in the Striped Pajamas
Pretty much anything by Brandon Mull
Anything by Mike Lupica (Million Dollar Throw was the favorite)
Rough Waters
Hunger Games series
The Maze Runner & sequel The Scorch Trials
Ender’s Game
Calvin & Hobbes
Lightening Thief series
Lightening Thief graphic novel
ESPN magazine
National Geographic Junior magazines
And in class they loved reading And Then There Were None, The Outsiders, & Deathwatch.
In general, I got a lot of comments stating that they liked books that had anything to do with the outdoors, and not a ton of romance. (Although I did notice several boys throughout the year trying to hide the fact that they were reading the Twilight series . . .)
Any other great reads for guys?

daydreaming teacher

On the dreary days at school

when the air is still
and students are sleepy
I wonder
what would make today better?
If a bird flew in the window!
sending students in a craze
feathers and pencils flying.
If I found a fifty dollar bill
on the ledge outside my window!
“Happy weekend”
Ulysses S. Grant would say.
If the plant on the windowsill in the corner
started to grow candy!
as quick as we could pick it.
Chocolate, preferably.
If all the missing books
from my now meager classroom library
magically appeared back on the shelf!
Oh, the stories they would tell.
If I could whistle like Cinderella
my students scurrying like mice
washing the whiteboard clean!
with a song on their lips.
If Mario Batali did the catering
for school lunch.
No PB & J today!
If the cloning project for the science fair
was a success!
and the others of me
insisted on finishing ALL my grading.
See? Teachers can daydream too.
-Whitney Sorensen, April 2011

language fun: dialogue

We were just discussing how to use dialogue to enhance our narratives in my Language Arts class, and I conveniently found this nice piece while digging around in a file for something else. I think I might try having my students do an exercise with writing a short story completely in dialogue–similar to something that Tom Romano suggested in Writing with Passion, Life Stories, Multiple Genres. I love playing with language and structure!

First published in 1950 in the Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, by Ned Guymon:
Conversation Piece
“You didn’t!”
“I did.”
“Just now.”
“You know.”
“I don’t!”
“You do.”
“With whom?”
“With you.”
“She didn’t . . .”
“She did.”
“We didn’t . . .”
“You did.”
“You knew?”
“I knew.”
“How long?”
“Long enough.”
“What now?”
“Why later?”
“Guess again.”
“Tell me!”
“Oh, no!”
“Oh, yes.”
“You can’t!”