Article 26

Take a close look at the photograph above. What do you see? School courtyard? Teachers? Children?

Let me tell you a little about what I see when I look at this photograph. This is East Africa. The photograph was taken a couple of years ago, at an elementary school in a small town. I was standing inside the school's staffroom, looking out the window at the school's playground.

At first glance, there's probably nothing extraordinary about this photograph: it looks like it's recess and the children are enjoying their time away from their desks and textbooks. There are two teachers interacting with the students.

But look closely. Look at the teachers' faces.

This story begins with those faces because they are not happy faces of teachers interacting with their pupils at recess. Both faces are serious. The teacher on the left seems lost in thought. She seems sad.

Let me tell you why.

Only 10 or 15 minutes before I took this photograph, these students were in class. Many of their classmates remained in class. But these students, the ones you see in this photograph, were asked to assemble in the courtyard. If you look closely you will see that the teacher on the right seems to be checking something, perhaps a clipboard or some notes. What she is holding in her hand is a list of students who have been asked to leave their classrooms and assemble here. The reason they had been instructed to leave class and meet the teacher here in the courtyard is because their parents have not paid their school fees. These students are being sent home.

Why am I telling you this? I wanted to share this story because today is Human Rights Day. As a teacher, whenever I think about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whenever I think of Human Rights, and whenever Human Rights Day comes along, I think of Article 26:

Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

And that's exactly what I kept thinking about on that cloudy morning in East Africa, standing in front of that window, looking at a group of elementary school children pulled out of class to be told that they were being sent home. I wanted to help, and I knew I couldn't really do much. I was angry. I was devastated.

All of this took place in a country that had abolished school fees several years prior to this morning assembly that I recorded with my camera. Yet, this was not an isolated incident, and later on the teachers explained to me that this happens throughout their country and many others in their part of the world. Yes, the tuition fees have been abolished, they said, but parents are still asked to pay for meals and for uniforms. In some cases, they have to pay to help cover maintenance fees. In many areas, parents chip in to cover the teachers' salaries. So, yes, it's true, the teachers said to me, the tuition fees don't exist anymore, but education still costs money.

I live in a country where Article 26 is taken for granted. It is taken for granted by teachers, parents, children, teenagers. I also know of many other places around the world where Article 26 is taken for granted. But, I also know of and have visited places around the world where Article 26 and many, many other articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are fundamental human rights only on paper and where, for many different reasons - some of them very complex - human rights, including the right to education, are not respected.

As someone who cares deeply about education, I have spent a lot of time thinking about what I can do and what my colleagues - teachers around the world - can do to ensure that education is not taken for granted and that access to education is respected around the world as a fundamental human right. I believe that it is our responsibility as teachers - the largest professional group in the world that currently includes almost 60 million of us - to teach, every day, about Article 26 and the other, equally important articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Whenever I raise this issue, I am often asked to recommend organizations that accept donations to help improve access to education around the world. I am not going to do that here. In fact, I want to challenge you today not to donate money. Instead, I hope that you will do what you do best: teach.

Make sure that the students in your own classroom know about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that they know that education is a fundamental human right (most of them don't, believe me), and that they also know and are deeply troubled by the fact that there are children around the world who do not attend school and who, for reasons beyond their control, cannot attend school. In doing this, you will be helping to build an army of human rights advocates, of young people who will grow up valuing their education and committed to human rights and global peace. That alone, that focus on human rights in your classroom, will do much more to advance human rights than your cash.

Think also about your own professional development. Teacher professional development needs to be more than attending conferences, reading professional journals, and engaging in online communities to exchange lesson ideas or links to valuable resources. Teacher professional development includes a responsibility to raise awareness about issues that affect teachers, classrooms, and students around the world. If our colleagues working in states run by dictatorships or rebels, in places plagued by conflict or poverty, or in places affected by natural disasters, cannot count on their fellow teachers around the world to make their stories heard and work towards global peace, who can they count on?

The photograph I shared with you at the beginning of this post does not depict an isolated incident. You and I know that access to education is being curtailed around the world. According to estimates by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 68 million children of primary school age were out of school in 2008. The reasons are varied, but this fact remains the same: millions of children around the world do not have access to education, to a fundamental human right.

Take a look at that photograph again and imagine being one of the teachers in that courtyard who have been told to interrupt their class, stop doing what they so passionately love, assemble a group of students, check off their names on the roster, and send them home.

Then, imagine walking back into your classroom to face their classmates, those fortunate enough to be allowed to stay, and to learn.

There's a lot of work ahead of us, but I am hopeful that we'll manage. After all, there's almost 60 million of us.

Thoughts on Assessment

My presentation at EduCon 2.1 helped me conceptualize some of my thoughts and research efforts on assessment in the 21st-century classroom. My interest in assessment emerged out of my research on blogging communities and adolescent literacy. The student participants in my study engaged in writing and reading through a variety of complex and rich interactions. They posted their own work on their blogs, commented on the work of their peers, linked to each other’s work, and initiated numerous conversations in the class blogosphere. My biggest challenge as a teacher-researcher was to figure out what kind of role I should play in the community. The traditional role of the teacher seemed inadequate. I knew that, as active bloggers and communicators, the students would not respond well to a teacher who enters the class blogosphere only to assign work or to evaluate their writing. Then another issue arose quite quickly - assessment. Once I started responding to student work in a readerly fashion and participating as a contributor, reader, and not just an evaluator, I realized that it would be unfair to the students to reduce all their rich interactions and complex online presence to a B+ or a 13/15. I realized that I needed to develop an assessment strategy that would take into account the complexity of student interactions online and recognize the process as much as the final product.

The students themselves helped me arrive at this realization. Only two days after I asked the students to compose a written response to the work we had covered, they began to use their blogs not only to brainstorm but also to request feedback from their peers and engage them in discussions about the work they were doing for this assignment. The assignment itself gave my students a lot of freedom - they could compose a personal reflection, an essay, a narrative account of their engagement with the material, or even a creative response in the form of a short story or a collection of poems. Two days after we discussed this task in class, I noticed that they turned to the class community for help. What follows is a list of individual blog entry titles that I found in the class community two days after the task was assigned:

Here's my plan - could you comment?

Work in progress. Please comment everyone.

Rough draft. Comments would be greatly appreciated.

My essay unfolds ... any thoughts?

Thesis improved (again). Tell me what you think.

Essay ... it's coming along. Pls post ideas and suggestions.

Improved introduction (after some comments and suggestions)

New and much improved planning post - expecting comments. Thanks.

I was very impressed - the students had turned to the community of their peers to request feedback. Then, I realized that none of the children asked me for feedback. It didn’t take long to realize that, a) they didn’t see me as a contributor in the community, and b) they associated me with corrections and grades. At this stage, they were not ready for corrections yet - they were simply interested in having conversations about their ideas. They needed somebody to talk to and, as their teacher, I was not at the top of their list.

Hardly surprising, I know. But this experience helped me realize that we don’t spend enough time providing feedback for our students and that most of what teachers consider teaching and assessment consists of marking and correcting student work. This kind of practice does not engage our students in those rich interactive processes of talking about their work and their ideas.

Initially, my role as a teacher was limited to first presenting the material (and engaging the students by initiating conversations) and then marking their work. I was absent from that rich part that happened in the middle where the students continued our classroom conversations online by brainstorming on their blogs, requesting and providing feedback, and engaging in conversations about some of the key ideas in the course. Instead of engaging with them, I just waited for them to submit their work.

Teacher and a class blogosphere

As my research continued, however, I realized that I needed to spend more time with them in the community that we had created together. I needed to not only give them the freedom to interact online but also support them as they engaged in virtual conversations about their work and posted planning/brainstorming entries. That complex and interactive process of knowledge building (represented by the middle square in the diagram above) required more of my involvement. It offered a great opportunity to support student learning and to learn more about the students as learners and individuals.

Unfortunately, teachers often don't know how to participate in that process and tend to focus on assessing the finished product. They tend to concentrate on the two areas in the diagram above where their roles are clearly defined. They focus on presenting content and then evaluating the quality of student responses to assigned tasks. These roles represent familiar territory, but they fail to take into account that teaching, learning, and assessment are interrelated. The problem with limiting ourselves to teaching and evaluating is that these roles alone ignore the potential to initiate and sustain rich interactions with knowledge. They ignore the opportunity to support our students as learners.

These traditional roles of provider and evaluator also reinforce the hierarchical relationship between teacher and student. However, a teacher who enters a community of independent learners/writers/researchers to support and encourage student learning removes that hierarchical structure and encourages students to become more involved in the assessment process. Assessment in this situation can become more collaborative because the teacher and the student have opportunities to discuss/co-construct the task itself, the criteria, the process of learning.

Imagining Better Conversations

A few days ago Will Richardson shared on his blog a conversation that he'd had with his daughter. I found his post to be very discouraging and, unfortunately, indicative of what often masquerades as education in many classrooms. I thought about this conversation for a long time and then decided to try to re-write it based on my ideas of what young people in 2009 should be doing in English class. The part in blue is the original conversation from Will's blog. The remaining part is my idealized view of what should have happened:

Heard while driving home from Tess’s basketball game earlier.

“But Dad, I’m the only one in my class who doesn’t have a cell phone.”

“I know Sweetie, but that’s not a great reason for getting one.”

“But Dad, it’s like embarassing.”

“I’m sorry Tess, really. Mom and I will talk about it again, but for now…”


Silence for a few minutes.

“So, anything happen at school today?”



“Ugh. We got a writing assignment.”

“A writing assignment? What kind?”

“We’re learning persuasive essays.”

“Persuasive essays? Well that’s kind of appropriate.”

“Like, what do you mean?”

“Well, don’t you have something you want to persuade me to do?”

She looks at me and smiles. “Cell phone!” Pause. “Ugh.”


“I can’t do it on cell phones.”

“Why not?”

“Because our teacher said we should focus on things we’re really interested in.”

“Aren’t you interested in getting a cell phone?”

“No. Well, yes … but this is … different. I wanna write about sharks.”

“Makes sense. You know a lot about them. But how would you make your essay persuasive?”

“People are prejudiced against sharks. Everyone thinks sharks are bloodthirsty, violent creatures. It’s not true. Not all of them are ... and they can work together, too. I wanna write about that.”

“And your teacher said yes?”

“She did, and … get this, she said I could interview this expert on sharks from the University of …  uhm, I forget. But she is a researcher and an expert on sharks.”

“Is ... she coming to do a talk at school?”

“No, dad. I will be meeting with her online, and with some other researchers that work with her.”

“Online? Just you? What about other kids?”

“They have other topics, so they’re working with other people.”


“Yes, online.”

“So, you’re going to find out more about sharks from this researcher in … where is she again?”

“Somewhere in California, I think … yes, she has a blog and some of her research is also online. She posted movies from her previous research trips on YouTube … we’re chatting tomorrow during class.”

“That’s soon!”

“We have to meet this week. She’s leaving for a research expedition, for two months …”

“… so you won’t be able to get in touch with her after she leaves.”

“Well, she’ll be sending updates to her lab from her cell phone … I guess her assistant could email them to me.”

“… or you could get your own cell phone.”


Paulo Freire always claimed that we should use our imagination to reframe our reality - to see beyond that which we find oppressing. This re-working of Will's conversation is my attempt to imagine a better classroom and to emphasize that what teachers need today - and more today than at any time in the past - is imagination.