Sunday, February 27, 2011

Whither did you go, free time?

Isn't it amazing how quickly free time just disappears. Amy and I had a great week off, catching up with some friends we haven't seen in a while and making some great progress on "projects," and now it's Sunday night, and I am barely planned and prepped for the week. It felt SO good to live this past week (as the three weeks leading up to it were non-stop school). And, I must say, the weather in good 'ole Nyack was so fine today! Got a two-hour walk through town with the dogs and some Runcible coffee, sun on our faces...

I so do not want to go to work tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The # engchat Daily

Just found this on Twitter, as my colleague Pete Rodrigues has a featured post...check it out on The # engchat Daily. And, feel free to join the convo on Twitter!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

What does a "0" really mean?

Just read an interesting blog post by Tom Schimmer, "'0' Influence, '0' Gained." His basic premise: a 0 on an assignment is both meaningless AND counterproductive.

I have had similar thoughts as well, that certain kids just "play" the system and continue on with whatever they were doing pre-0...and not learning what we want them to learn in the process. For instance: I had a senior last semester who is incredibly bright and completely apathetic about school - when he was present, he was brilliant; when he wasn't, he totally checked out.

He managed to earn a 7% (ish) for the second quarter of the semester class (if you add in 0's for all the missing work). Now, according to Mr. Schimmer, he should receive an INC for the missing work (I fully support this, by the way). BUT...with college looming near, and second semester transcripts being sent out, I was told I had to give him an F, as I couldn't leave an INC on his transcript.

After reading Mr. Schimmer's post, I think back to my student: what is the more important lesson here - that he have the failure shoved in his face and be given another chance (in a new class) to graduate, or to have to actually make all the work up before moving on? The same argument might be made in early grades as well: if little Johnny has not mastered his multiplication tables, why should he move on to Algebra? Keep the student where he is and provide the help he needs until the material is learned...

My question is: how do we instigate these sort of changes in our schools? Something like this is a paradigm shift, and I can guarantee MANY people in my school, at all levels, would not support this.

TANGENT: Incidentally, I purchased a book over the summer that I have yet to read, Punished by Rewards, by Alfie Kohn. Has anyone out there read it? Any thoughts or comments would be appreciated.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

This brings, uh, "tears" to my eyes

While cleaning out some old emails (goal is inbox zero), I came across this, sent from my sister-in-law. Thought it would fun to be repost. Enjoy!

To call things by their right name...

We just finished watching Into the Wild in one of my senior classes, and the ending of the movie always sends chills down my spine. When Chris writes his final note, and signs it with his true brings the entire movie into perspective for me. And, every time I finish watching it, that line sticks with me for a few days.

This time around, that line has combined itself with the other current thoughts swirling around me head (sorry for the other unrelated news, the newest game app I purchased for the iPad is Pirates vs. Ninjas vs. Zombies vs. Pandas...every time you get ready to launch a pirate, you get a good ole' "ga-harrr): why aren't we looking at the state of education in this country and seeing it for what it truly is? Why can't we step back and call things by their right name.

I came across two items on the web, both shared with me by my colleagues. The first was shared with me last Spring, as our contract was up for renegotiations, and the threat of "student-progress-as-a-part-of-teacher-evaluation" loomed near (brief footnote: I am not against this...I just don't trust any lawmaker who wants to make such a significant decision on paper and then "figure out what it looks like" after the fact): this idea (from superintendent John S. Taylor) takes these ideas surrounding teacher evaluation and applies them to dentists...the resulting analogy goes to show how ludicrous an idea can be when applied to a slightly different context. The second article appeared recently in the Washington Post on The Answer Sheet entitled "Why Teacher Bashing is Dangerous": it is an edited commentary by Stan Karp, a man with some excellent insight into the state of education today (be is a LONG piece, and that is only the edited version - full version can be found from link on that page).

The first piece is just entertaining to read, but I think it sheds light on the fundamental issues with the current thinking behind teacher evaluation - if the cavity is the bottom line, and cavity count is all you measure, is that a true assessment of "dental skill"? What if the "clients" are, in fact, consuming too much sugar outside of the dentist's office, or what if they don't brush often enough? Or what if they have a fear of the dentist's chair, and put off showing up for a check up, thus complicating the problem?

A now-retired teacher (who was, incidentally, my 11th grade teacher as well) gave me a great piece of perspective that got me through the really rough days: "you only see them 44 minutes a day, 5 days a week. They are making decisions that are beyond your reach during the rest of the day." When will the lawmakers realize that? Give me any student, and I will give you a set of decisions that child is faced with that are completely beyond my control (context: I teach high school). Those decisions will affect the child's education, and somehow I should be responsible for that? It seems to me that we need a social shift - the "blame" falls across all the failed areas of society (an entitled population, a lack of stable family life, the instant gratification of NOW, etc.).

Some quotes from Karp's piece that struck me:

  • First with No Child Left Behind, and then with Race to the Top,Democrats have been playing tag team with Republicans building on the test and punish approach. Just how much this bipartisan consensus has solidified came home when I picked up my local paper one morning and saw Gov. Chris Christie, the most anti-public education governor New Jersey has ever had, quoted as saying “This is an incredibly special moment in American history, where you have Republicans in New Jersey agreeing with a Democratic president on how to get reform.”
  • We need accountability systems that put pressure on schools to respond effectively to the communities they serve. And in my experience, parents are the key to creating that pressure and teachers are the key to implementing the changes needed to address it. Finding ways to promote a collaborative tension and partnership between these groups is a key to school improvement.
  • Teachers count a lot. But reality counts too...
  • Spending more money on standardized tests is like passing out thermometers in a malaria epidemic. People need better health care, more hospitals, and better-trained doctors, they don’t need more thermometers.
  • (from the comments below) Let's face it, 50% of all kids will be in the lower half of their class. 

Why don't the people with power listen to the people with the right ideas? (How's that for the utopic- naive statement of the day...). I am afraid of what the lawmakers are going to do, and I think they forget that any change they make will take 12 years (k-12) to cycle through to the results - and by then, four other change will have been made. And who deals with all the upheaval? Teachers.

And, far more importantly, students.

Folks, let's open our eyes, blinder-free, and take a serious look at what CAN work. This needs to be a conversation between ALL members involved, not a one-sided, corporate-politico discussion.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

On Being a Teenager...

They say a picture is worth a 1,000 words, right? What if the picture is words?

I spent the better part of today with my juniors doing a brainstorming/pre-reading activity for The Perks of Being a Wallflower. They brainstormed away, and then I inputted their ideas into Wordle. I plan to use this visual tomorrow as a reflective assignment: is this image reflective of your generation?

Here's what they said:

Period 1:
Wordle: BeingATeenager(1)

Period 5:
Wordle: BeingATeenager(5)

Period 7:
Wordle: Being a Teen (7)

All periods combined:
Wordle: Being A Teenager (compiled)

I'd be curious to hear reactions...

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Teachers-to-be? 0r, Effort ≠ Achievement

Let me set the stage: taking two online grad courses right now, and taking a 3rd "in person." Have had three student teachers in as many years. I am concerned about what I see.

First, full disclosure: I am taking these classes to max out on my salary scale. Not that that changes my perceptions, but it might be useful to know that I am doing this for the money first, and for me second. (Hey, daddy-to-be is watching those future $$$ slip away to baby...). Second, because of all the crazed turnover in my department in the past 5 (ish) years, some consider me a veteran teacher. At 7 years in, this terrifies me. I still make rookie mistakes (I know, we all do), and do not necessarily feel "qualified" all the time to teach someone how to teach.

Now, the benefit of a hosting a student teacher is that it forces you to become more aware of what you actually do in the classroom; for those 7 or so weeks, the introspection-scope is turned up to 11. The "meta" level becomes really real, really quickly (thanks, literacy class!). And, hanging out in meta does provide opportunities for reflection that might have slipped on by otherwise (the ruts I think we all get into time and again).

Stop me if you've heard this one before: I'm sitting in class, and the prof hands back our first writing assignment. And, can you believe it? Some kids didn't do it right [sic]. But we get a chance to rewrite it, but only this once. Only one do-over in this class.

The comments from the prof astounded me. First (and let me remind you this is a grad class is literacy education, meant for future teachers-to-be): your tone is off, it's too conversational. "I don't want a conversation, I want a reflection." Second: many of you have comma issues, so I made a list of the 7 times you ever need to use a comma. Third: many of you didn't do the assignment, which was to reflect on literacy education (does anyone else see the irony here? They don't understand the work, in a class that deals with basic comprehension? Come can't make this up). So, you can redo this one, because I don't want to give out 1 out 5's to anyone, I really don't.

Huh? Commas? Really?

Let's do the time warp, back to my previous "you've-hosted-a-student-teacher-so-we-give-you-a-voucher-for-a-free-grad-class" class...this one was about Technology in Education. Right up my alley, right? First day of class, prof tells the students to click in the upper right corner on something. A gentleman behind me raises his hand and says he doesn't understand. Prof replies pick up the mouse and move it to the upper right.

The gentleman grabs said mouse and lifts it off the desk. Vertically. Airborne mouse.

I sh*t you not.

(oddly, this is the second time I've seen this happen in my lifetime.)

And this man wants to be a Technology leader?

Back to my most recent student teacher. He had ideas. He had energy. He tried REALLY hard. And he fell apart.

I have never seen someone implode so quickly in one week. After 6 weeks of heartache (and him not listening to me or his advising teacher), he finally realized what teaching was like. This was an epiphany to him. This was borderline ridiculous to me.

His line in the classroom: My teaching is effort based. If you try hard, you will succeed with me. (My often-response: a student can try really hard and still be wrong - effort does not equal achievement.) The kids ate this up (of course) because, as we all know, they all try REALLY, REALLY HARD.

His line to me, at the end of his time with me: Thank you for the experience. I want you to know that I tried my best. My thought-response (not spoken): effort does not equal achievement.

And, if you want "data" to back up his effort-based teaching: on average, the individual student average dropped 5% from Q1 to Q2 (to be fair, that is a weighted stat, with some other factors I don't want to list here).

The sad part is that he was a former student of mine (granted, I was a leave replacement, he was a second semester senior in a digital video yearbook elective). A colleague of mine has been trying to work on a profile of our graduates...I pointed my colleague at my last student teacher. I think he is representative of what high school churns out.

We have created a generation of students who do not know how to take responsibility for their mistakes (emphasis on not knowing - I believe they could take responsibility, but they really, truly, do not KNOW how to. That toolbox is, sadly, defunct). And, as any teacher can tell you, this job requires the highest level of responsibility, as we are (literally and figuratively) prepping the minds of America's future. We cannot shirk this responsibility.

I know that we have all these debates about the future of education and un-motivated students, etc., and I know that it all is true. But with funding being cut from teacher ed programs, and more pressure being put on teachers to be more effective (student performance counting for 1/5 of teacher evals), this seems to be a losing situation for all. We call it a problem, and then we actively remove supports that can address the problem.

You want better educated students? Create better educated teachers.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Crisis of Conscience

So. One and one half years later. Married now. Baby on the way. Amazing how time just...passes. Inspiration struck tonight, so I sit here, beer in hand, decompressing. It's late, and I will pay for this tomorrow, but the cost is worth it.

I just attended a District viewing of Race to Nowhere, a film that takes a closer look at the culture of education we seem to have created. This is the culture that keeps pushing, keeps scheduling, keeps demanding more from the kids. This is the culture that is harming those same kids. The effects of parental, federal, and social demands are damaging our students, our future.

I used to joke with my class a few years back that I was terrified that they would soon make decisions that would impact my future. Then, I would stand in front of the room (where else?) and inform/complain about the decline in academic skills in my class. This year, I am having a crisis of conscience (sounds worse than it is): I realized that I am a player in this convoluted game.

So I change my tune. My class website is called A Shift in Perspective, and my philosophy (stated often) is "choice and consequence." I begin answering the question "What's the answer?" with "I really don't care about the answer, I care about the question." And I mean. And it confuses them. Rightfully so.

I realized quite recently that my focus is off in the classroom, that I needed to shift my own perspective and realize that there were consequences to the choices I make on a day to day basis. Welcome to my crisis of conscience.

There is no doubt - my students are weaker than ever in the realm of English skills. We have developed a culture of righteous apathy - "I will complain loudly, though I really don't care!" When we focus on answers and not questions, we stay in the realm of basic information and avoid critical thinking. "Why should I figure out the answer...I can just Google it." Soon, we will all have Android logos stamped on our foreheads (and this coming from an avid Google supporter).

This film came along at a perfect time, meeting my soul in a head on fight (there is no clear victor yet). The film raises SO many excellent questions about the state of education. Some new studies have shown that doing less homework results in better performance (think: playtime, family dinner, less stress to "achieve"). The over-scheduling of our lives has surpassed the tipping point, and we, as individuals, as a community, as a country, are in desperate need of rebalancing.

A mother stood up after the film and said that her 2nd grader is suffering physical pains from anxiety over her schoolwork. What, 8 years old...and this is what we are teaching the student to focus on? This reminds me of a George Carlin skit, where he laments kids today not having playtime ...

(and I paraphrase): What ever happened to sitting in the yard with a fucking stick. And you dig a fucking hole.

As a parent-t0-be, I am a bit freaked out by this paradigm we have created. This year, my District has disallowed (ain't that a great word) physical contact during recess. Translation: no freeze tag.

What. The. Hell.

Let kids be kids. Let families be families. Let's work towards a change and let life feel real again. I am filled with hope at the prospect of change, and dismay that it will not happen. I don't have enough faith in the parents of my district to create a united front for change. After all, how will their kid get to Harvard if we relax the rules?