Thursday, December 31, 2009

Dumbo's Magic Feather

Education has always been considered a "soft" science. I agree, but can't bring myself to discount anecdotal findings as invalid. Critics call this aspect of education study "touchy-feely" in order to dismiss the discipline entirely.
But in the past few days the unquantifiable aspect of success in classrooms keeps surfacing in my reading. This is where classroom practitioners and accountability gurus--those who want to use paper/pencil tests as the only valid measurement--part company.
There's something....something out there that can't be measured, but we know it's there.
The technical term - from the 'science' of education - is affect. Basically, how does the student feel about the subject and their ability to connect with material?
My colleague Nicole and I have dubbed it Dumbo's Magic Feather.
If you recall the movie Dumbo, the circus mouse convinces Dumbo to use his large ears to fly - something he's done once but can't seem to do again - by giving him a "magic" feather. Though the feather has no particular magical qualities, it does give Dumbo what he needs: the confidence to jump off the platform and fly again for the circus act. When he loses the feather, he discovers that he could fly all along. (In the teaching world, we might call the feather scaffolding - an intermediary tool to get a student just a little higher up before we pull the supports out and our students find they can stand on their own.)
When we remediate, Nicole and I have both found that the tool that best helps students who have met with failure repeatedly is the magic feather. Many students just need to be convinced that they can do it. Why do they need this encouragement? When skills are measured over and over again, the glass starts to look half empty instead of half full. Scores often reveal what ISN'T there instead of what is. "I got a 94. What happened to the other 6 points?"
Here's a sports example I read yesterday in Derrick Jensen's Walking on Water. (Those who loves statistics will often accept sports metaphors when they won't accept other kinds of touchy-feely evidence).
Jensen was a high jumping coach. He claims that what jumpers need most is confidence. His method was to always accentuate what jumpers were doing well and place less emphasis on what they weren't doing. Education, he says, is about leading the learner to want to learn on his own what is next needed. Encouragement is the key.
His second tactic was to train his athletes to only speak positively around the pit. Negative remarks - even remarks about poor weather conditions- were cause for punishment - extra laps or push ups. ALL of Jensen's eligible jumpers qualified for nationals. When other teams arrived on bad weather days all they did was gripe. Jensen's jumpers had nothing but positive remarks about how the weather would improve their performance.
Now you can argue that Jensen's jumpers were already pretty-good athletes. Those who couldn't jump to begin with weren't on the team. But you can probably also argue that most students have the raw stuff to make it through the public school system. Those who don't are going to need other tools and supports.
Testing rarely places emphasis on what a student is achieving. Most of the emphasis is on what is not there. Portfolios, a different kind of tool, can help students internalize what they have gained rather than what they have missed. The students locate their own good examples of how they have jumped over the bar - at least once. (Invisible teaching: this means the student already understands that the bar is there, what it looks like, and how high it is! Sneaky.)
Accentuate the positive. Look for growth, not loss.
Here's an anecdote: A weak ninth grade boy exhibits every behavior in class that underscores his view of himself as not-an-academic. After brainstorming to find events that are important to him (not the school), he writes an absolutely brilliant description of flying over the handlebars and landing in the gravel during a particularly traumatic bicycle accident.
He shares it with the class by reading it aloud.
We cheer.
I say, "Wow. That's amazing. You're a poet!"
Magic feather: you can fly. You did it once, you can do it again.
He beams.
From that day forward he writes and writes. One can only hope he continues that throughout the next three years.
When he reads aloud, we can not see any errors, of which I'm sure there are many. There are probably problems with capitals, spelling, punctuation -- the usual measurable skills. But, if he sees himself as a writer, he will be sure to seek out the solution to those issues on his own. Or he will choose to listen more attentively when a teacher points out what good writers do.
Fixing errors is the easy part.
Wanting to is the hard part.
That's why the touchy-feely part is even more important than the scores.
That's why punishing schools for failure is exactly the wrong way to go.
Find out what is working. Build on that.
Conduct your own experiment.
Here - you can use my feather.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Who would ever want to be a teacher?

Not me. I never wanted to be a teacher. I don't even have one of those special teachers in my past that I strive to emulate.
My mother taught.
My grandmother taught.
But me, I wanted to write, not teach. That confession in my first teaching-job interview changed the expression on my interviewers face from interest to: "You'll teach in my district over my dead body." Oops. (Turns out that's exactly what happened. He's gone now. After twenty years of teaching, I'm in the district that took a pass in the first round.)
If ever a career were a calling, teaching has been mine. Somewhere along the line I noticed that I was happiest around children. I like to play. I also like to learn new things, read, laugh, hang out with people who are real. I like feeling young in mind and spirit. Teaching does all of that and, in spite of all the crazy nonsense we juggle, that is why I stay.
A recent gallup poll says that teaching is good for your well-being, since teachers rose to the top on four out of six well-being indexes on the poll conducted from July 2008 to June 2009.
So what's to like about this job? When I talk with students who want to be teachers I stress that this is a dynamic profession. No two days are alike. Heck, no two hours are alike. Change occurs at a rapid pace both within and outside the classroom. It isn't for everyone, though. Those who like to work toward an identifiable end-product are going to be dissatisfied with the work that is less obvious at my end of the scale.
In the junior and senior year of high school we don't make the serious leaps that are clear in the early years. We don't teach somebody how to read. But, if we're lucky, we can make readers out of non-readers. We can make somebody believe that they can write.
I've had other jobs so I can attest: there aren't many like this one.
Hey, come to think of it, this job is an amalgam of all the others: secretary, bartender (in terms of controlling wildly out-of-control clients ;-), full-time mom, news reporter, copywriter, waitress, announcer, researcher, editor.....

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The First Educator?

Grasping for optimism, I began wondering a few weeks back if there is "method to this madness" as we slog through the daily delay tactics, in-fighting, and compromises of the nation's first National Health plan. It's been a long haul since this battle started and there is more to go, but could Obama be letting this play out on purpose? Is he that clever? Am I that desperate for change that I might even ascribe a hidden agenda to this mess?
When I came upon a long comment string on Facebook about particulars in the bill a few days ago among former students who are undergrads right now, I noted one thing: Lots of people are paying attention. Facebook is being used to discuss national policy among the young? That's new, isn't it?
Could this be a huge, nation-sized constructivist project designed to re-orient the nation to it's first job: taking an active role in the government?
What better way to re-engage the public than to draw back the curtain on how the sausage of a new law is made. We have all been educated recently on the power of lobbies, the particulars of compromise, the danger of the filibuster, the definition of corporatism, the names of our senators, and the unspoken rules of that elite body. The machinations of "how a bill becomes a law" is part of every news brief. Extending the argument into Christmas has only galvanized some of those who would not have paid attention otherwise.
I think, too, of my own interests. TLN colleague Anthony Cody has begun his own Facebook group Letters to Obama from teachers anxious to be a part of the next reform wave in education. As more and more of the "new" plan is being revealed, teachers (an often silent majority in the education world) are speaking up. Hallalujah!
This is the way a democracy is supposed to work.
Over the past twenty to thirty years we have been lulled into complacency. Our leaders have taken a patriarchal role and encouraged us to just relax and let them handle things so we can go shopping!
The last overt method to placate the masses was Bush's payout to taxpayers of "their" money to encourage spending and jump start the economy not long after September 11. It appeared to work for a time but was just one more distraction from facing what was really happening in our economy.
Is it Obama's plan to treat us like grownups?
Daily in the news we are asked to face the reality of what happens in government at the national level. The nasty fights are being played out right in front of our eyes. The rules are being exposed and the alliances are spelled out.
Most of us our watching.
And talking about it.
Students make huge gains in learning when they have a fascinating problem that is personally important to them, when they are given latitude to make choices, when the problem features some ambiguity and nuance, and when someone assists by continually handing over resources. We've been getting all that and more in this health care battle.
And like a good teacher we've also been given a deadline. "Discuss this among yourselves, but I need an answer by Christmas."
Obama has been criticized for not forcing the agenda for health care. Maybe he doesn't want to. Maybe he wants us to choose for ourselves and force our leaders to comply.
Maybe it's about time.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Reforming Ed Leadership

My good TLN friend Ariel Sacks sent along this link to Bob Herbert's op-ed piece in the New York Times. Herbert is concerned about reforming our education system. He's written on this before so I know it's at the top of his list.
He's right. We need to solve the problem of what is wrong with schooling. Especially when we are looking at high drop out rates. (Wake up people! We can't toss our kids out on the street and expect to move forward as a nation.)
His current bright light in the reform issue is a new doctoral degree at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Educational Leadership. The stunning part of the degree is that it will be offered tuition free. Let's hope this is the beginning of a trend. On a teaching salary, pursuing an advanced degree isn't always feasible, and those most likely to pay aren't necessarily the best choice.
But, I have a problem with the description of the goals of the program. The article states that the degree is a collaboration between the schools of business and education. It says:
  • Kathleen McCartney, the graduate school’s dean, explained one of the dilemmas that has hampered reform. “If you look at people who are running districts,” she said, “some come from traditional schools of education, and they understand the core business of education but perhaps are a little weak on the management side. And then you’ve got the M.B.A.-types who understand operations, let’s say, but not so much teaching and learning.”
Let's get off this "schools need to be run more like a business" train, can't we? That kind of thinking has been around for thirty years and has culminated in charts and graphs and nutty ideas like paying teachers based on student scores (a plan ripe for corruption). The business model has led to more and more standardized tests and measurements and narrowed the curriculum to the point where a monkey can deliver instruction. (Ever read a scripted curriculum? Monkey talk.)
Kids are dropping out because school is becoming IRRELEVANT. Who wants to sit in a class when you can go home and write, produce, and distribute your own movie/blog/television show/music album from your bedroom?
And if you're already disadvantaged, who wants to go to a place that reminds you every day that you are far behind everyone else. Better to just drop out and find a job or disappear into the world of drugs or crime or who knows what.
School needs to be reformed, but I baulk at using business as the model for that reform. How can we continue to use that paradigm after what has resulted in the current recession and revealed the corruption in the business world? When Wall Street demanded that gains appear on spreadsheets every quarter, the gains showed up. Who cared how they got there just so long as this narrow measure of success continued to build (unsustainably, as it turns out).
Education is NOT a business. We are NOT producing products. My complaint is the same one doctors make in the current health care debate.
What we do (doctors and teachers) does not result in a measurable profit. At least not one you can see right away. We are involved in building charitable relationships that result in better people. Creating better human beings through an improvement in health and education does return dividends, but not always immediately. It's a bit of a leap of faith, but can be uncovered in the narratives of those who benefit from both good health and good formative experiences.
Harvard's plan for creating leaders is to place them in districts where they can learn from others. But we don't need more of the status quo with a sprinkling of management thrown in.
We need to entirely re-see education and make it meaningful, relevant, and vibrant.
We need to fling open the doors to ideas that engage students, create innovative thinkers, develop future leaders, and feed the dreams of our young people so they can work creatively with others.
It is ironic that the new landscape of this 21st century lies in the freeing collaborative nature of getting and giving information on the web, but that the response to that new world is the same "old-world" kind of thinking: More top-down managers.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Holding on to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones

Just finished this new title by Thomas Newkirk - in just two days. Like a long drink of water, it was just what I needed.
Chapter 8 reinforced for me that I am, all the way to the bones and beyond, a teacher. Duh, you say? Well, for some of us, teaching was not a first choice. Newkirk's chapter on what teachers need confirms the deep insecurity we all live with and either learn to accept or must ultimately flee for self-preservation. For someone who came to the party late, it is reaffirming to discover that all teachers struggle with regular failures: students they can't reach, lessons that fall flat, explanations that are met with by blank stares..... And then there is that inevitable class he describes so eloquently that, because of the time of day, or the season, no one appears to have the energy for learning, and the teacher feels mired in lethargy as well. No one is a superteacher 24-7.
In this chapter, Newkirk argues that we need each other - sharing and discussing student work - to bolster and support ourselves in manageable small community. And, we need to be around grown-ups!
Newkirk eschews the teacher hero we are all so familiar with in the movies. (This has been a recurring discussion at the Teacher Leaders Network). Those idealistic views of self-sacrificing wonders only undermine the confidence of teachers who regularly must face failure in their practice. And generally, teachers must deal with the fact of failure on their own, in isolation. He sees a necessity for teachers to share with their colleagues as the true hope for reform.
Ah, don't we all?
It's the old chestnut: Put two teachers together, and all they do is talk shop. Because: we are never allowed to do it "on the job." Because: no one else knows what it's like. Because: grown ups need grown ups. We can't subsist on a diet all children all the time. Because: we need the perspective of many eyes and many ears. Because: we may all survive to teach another day.
There are many other reasons to read Newkirk's book--I have several new ideas for informal writing with my students for instance. But if you have hit that low place in the school year, you will especially appreciate the chapter entitled "Finding a Language for Difficulty."
There is redemption in the confession of just how hard, and messy, and un-hollywood-like, this work can be.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Edublog Awards

I've been slow to the web 2.0 world. Once I considered myself a frontiersman, but that was way back in 1982 when personal computers arrived on the scene. (Something happened along the way. Aging, I think, and a calcification of my brain....)
But now that I am connected to Facebook, twitter, blogs, etc. etc. via my iphone, I can see how it is changing the landscape of our minds, our social world, and the entire future of education. (The kids I teach are always connected. I'm the newbie.)
So, it is my own education that I turn to now. The web has enlarged my faculty lounge and I can pick and choose who I wish to spend my free time with. The Edublogs Awards are out so I want to nominate those who have influenced me most of late:
  • Best Resource Sharing Blog has to be Jim Burke's English Companion Ning for its sheer scope and accessibility. You can find resources or just answers to questions. The best thing about open nings is the range of conversation. Not everyone has to agree with everyone else and its helpful to have push back on occasion (see below).
Two blogs I never miss are
  • Susan Graham's A Place at the Table. She always amazes me with her ability to see connections across all areas of life.
  • And the political savvy of Nancy Flanagan's Teacher in a Strange Land. Her antennae is always up on the politics of school policy and she knows all the players. Very informative. I nominate Susan for Best Teacher Blog and Nancy for Best Individual blog.
I still don't get around much in this cyberworld. I've never check the Daily Kos daily, like my husband does. I rarely twitter. After all, I've got a pretty intense day job. But I do worry about some of this new landscape. Are all of us just listening to like-minded people?

That can't be a good thing. When, on occasion, I have stumbled across posts and comments that are decidedly anti-teacher -- even violently hating teachers -- it is like a cold water bath on the tundra. I'm a bit unprepared. But they are out there and we can't all be talking in our own echo chamber all the time, no matter what our issue is.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Back from 3-D World

This weekend I spent time with colleagues in real-world, real-time at the NWP conference with a quick sidetrip to the NCTE conference--both held in Philadelphia. I heard, via a bookseller at Heineman, that this was the highest attendance at an NCTE convention.
Could it be that we are all aware that this may be the last one for awhile? He didn't see it that way, but knowing what won't be available in funds next year, I was inclined to see it as a last gasp before a long dry spell.
Highlights of the meetings include my favorite: break-out sessions replete with mad brainstorming on how to improve sites, inspire kids, and fill up the energy reserve. Within minutes, table-mates act like old buddies and the ideas fly around. I have pages of notes.
Second only to that was hearing and meeting Billy Collins, a poet who has done much to build my confidence in teaching the genre I struggle with the most. His humor is what has given me entrée into a world I've never quite "gotten."
And finally was the connection with the three-dimensional versions of the online colleagues I have come to know through their writing: Claudia Swisher of Oklahoma, and the Wicked-bad Laurie Wasserman of Massachusetts. We've 'known' each other for five years. Still, a live meeting brings a dimension not found virtually. And then there's the moment of hesitation as you try to absorb the living breathing version that you've known only through deep, written conversations. There's a kind of, "Huh? What shall we talk about besides saving the world?"
These meetings are important, I realize every time I come back from one. Removing yourself from your daily context shifts the discussions. Seeing and working with others who have the same struggles is important.
I wonder who will be able to go next year....

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Trying to go Viral

This week I joined with fellow TLN'r Anthony Cody in sending an open letter to President Obama and Arne Duncan. Rather than reform through policymakers, we want reform through teacher voices.
I post the link so any fellow teachers can join their voices with others from around the country in getting lawmakers to heed the advice of career educators. We now have the electronic tools to make the classroom teachers' voice loom large. In addition, we are not affiliating ourselves with a union message - just talking about good practice and what works with our most struggling students. If you wish to have your voice included, please take a look at the site and add your vision.
From perusing some of the messages posted thus far, it is clear that accomplished teachers have a similar messages: Teaching is about building relationships, creating safety so young minds are willing to take risks, and running alongside our developing students rather than standing at the finish line keeping score.
From my own perspective, I see the creeping influence of organizations and companies that have profited from the last eight years of testing as a measure of what students are learning: the testing companies themselves. If teacher voices are to take center stage, we need to be aware that large corporations with money, resources, and the time to lobby and influence decision-making may be speaking in our stead. Though everyone wants accountability, a reliance on test scores is a dangerous, easy way out. In my experience, tests damage education by narrowing the scope of outcomes.
This is a national mistake.
Historically, America has led the world in innovative thinking. Narrowing our curriculum, and rewarding students for "think alike" or "think little" by testing through the narrow window represented in multiple-choice format and other standardized responses will damage our future prospects. Who will lead innovation? Only those who drop out or resist the current reforms.
Please take a moment to add your perspective.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The theory of everything and education

There's an exercise I do with the kids, and some adults too, to show how humans are programmed to make connections (like metaphors, analogies).
They write a random question on a card, turn the card over and pass it to a classmate. Without looking at the question, the classmate writes a statement that qualifies as an "answer." The card is then passed to a third student who must read the question and the answer and then write an explanation about how the answer is a legitimate response to the question.
Most of them can do it.
Most of the time the explanation is plausible.....and funny.
So, I shouldn't be surprised to discover on a recent adventure in retail that I can tie everything to education. Maybe I think about school too much.
Here's my story:
I went to a local department store to get a refill for my makeup base. They were out. I asked, "When will you have it?" Answer: "I don't know. We get shipments sometimes twice a week, but we never know what they'll send."
I didn't try to argue, but I knew one thing: I wouldn't be making the trip across town again to buy my makeup from them anymore.
Too bad.
This is the third time I have deliberately made a point of buying products I like locally, even though I know it would be more convenient to go online and have the product delivered.
I stopped buying my running shoes locally.
I stopped buying my perfume locally.
And now - no more Clinique.
I make an effort to shop in my hometown because I want the retailers to continue to thrive, and I want the sales tax to stay at home supporting my roads, police, and schools.
In these three instances, I've had to give up. I think the large corporations aren't making it easy for me to go to a brick-and-mortar.
Like the above incident, the local representatives are often clueless about the products they sell. Is this by design? (Hmmmm. Not to indulge in conspiracy theories, but what would be in it for the corporation? Oh. No middle man, same retail price - plus shipping - and I have to do the ordering.)
Who's getting my tax dollars?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

30 years in the desert

Over the summer I joined the "World's Largest English Department," a social-networking Ning begun by Jim Burke, author, practicing teacher, and titular head of said English Department. I've only used the Ning sparingly, but I'm glad to have it there because I know I will turn to it often.
I have a long history (if 7 years can be considered long - and I suppose in the electronic world that's practically a century) of relying on my digital friends for support, education, feedback, humor, support, resources, technology training, support and - oh, did I say, support?
More than anything, I value the voices of my peers to shore me up during the storms of educational reform. I value the voices that keep directing our efforts to what matters most: making sure students are continuing to achieve and find pleasure, growth, and relevance in our classrooms.
I have waited most of my career to have the System of Education endorse--through the allocation of resources--the most valuable development of my skills and knowledge as a teacher: working with other teachers.
I came to this resource accidentally, in my third year of teaching in 1981, but it was like water in the desert.
At that point in my career I had gotten over the "what will I do tomorrow?" phase of learning how to teach and was beginning to look at what I was accomplishing with my students.
Not much, is what I thought. I felt like a failure.
My students weren't responding and the veteran teachers around me seemed much more capable and self-confident. I taught lesson after lesson that only seemed to get through to a few. I'll admit that I began looking for clues to what my colleagues were doing by "stealing" their mimeographed tests and quizzes from the workroom. In those days no one shared anything. On top of that, the curriculum did not always match my students abilities. (Should I be teaching persuasive essays when my students didn't seem to know - or even care - what a sentence is? Augh!)
In 1981 I took a course through the Northern Virginia Writing Project called Writing Across the Curriculum. In that course our coordinator, Marian Mohr, broke us into writing groups. She had us writing for each other and for our own purpose. She brought in classroom teachers who shared a best practice and - for a novice teacher, the truly helpful part - those teachers shared student work. And that student work looked familiar: Veteran teachers had students who needed lots of help "getting it" just like mine did.
The doors of other classrooms were flung open, and I found that my struggles were shared by all the teachers in the room. I wasn't alone! We were ALL trying to get students to care about sentences or literature or the lesson-du-jour. We talked about what worked, what didn't, our frustrations. We were encouraged to try something different, something that didn't look like the room down the hall. Then we came back together and shared what worked, what didn't, all over again.
That year I went from potential teacher drop out to a comrade-in-arms. It was a marvelous bonding experience that fueled me for a long time. It modeled a professional relationship that our department sought to recreate in our shared work space.
Ever since, I have hungered for the voices of teachers, but that goal often is hit or miss, depending on the leadership. Or I had to find it independently on my own time. Creating the atmosphere of sharing has been a personal goal wherever I've worked. I need the community of my peers. Without it, the work of a classroom teacher can be a joyless stab in the dark.
And, sadly, its been nearly thirty years since I discovered the wealth and power of talking with fellow practitioners, and this is still not a job-embedded expectation for every teacher in every school. Teachers must find their own communities as an "add-on" when they are finished all the other demands of the job.
The electronic world has made PLC's more accessible. Jim Burke's Ning is the latest incarnation of electronic voices that have evolved from listserves to the web 2.0 world. (My first electronic community was the JEA, Journalism Education Association, listserve and a lifeline for teachers who are the "only one" in a building. I am forever grateful to my colleagues across the nation who held my hand through some scary professional arguments over student first amendment rights.)
We have PLC's in our building now. I embrace the idea.
But the implementation is leaving much to be desired.
The goals are being set from above rather than generated by the teachers themselves - which is where the real power of a community is built.
If you doubt that teachers can and will set their own agendas, just visit the English Companion Ning and read the voices of those who are pursuing their own questions without any interference from supervisors. Teachers desperately want to be effective with their students.
My second complaint about the adaptation of PLC's is that the goal seems to be to generate lots of paper in order to verify that teachers are actually working. Our group works quickly through the mandated goals of the division so we can pursue tools and strategies to help our students achieve. We've already worked together on reading workshop, a grade level vocabulary unit, handouts for teaching reading competencies, and sources to make use of our smartboards, computer carts, and adolescent literature libraries.
And finally, our mandated PLCs are now add-ons to already overburdened teachers -- not embedded practices that could include common planning time, opportunities for classroom visits, or lesson studies. Meetings occur after school. The required reports fall on someone's shoulders to complete after the daily work of shepherding students through lessons, grading, posting grades to electronic boards, posting work to school web sources, etc. etc. Rather than feeling exhilarated, teacher morale is low. In a time of budget cuts, larger class sizes, and the ratcheting up of NCLB AYP benchmarks, adding more work to the day is crushing us.
If you want your faculty to reject a very good idea follow these easy steps:
  • Require more work.
  • Provide no additional time to complete the work.
  • Apply no additional compensation.
  • Reject teacher voices as a beginning point for problem solving.
Unfortunately, I fear that add-ons will only add to the number of teachers leaving the profession rather than build the kind of community that is ready to take risks to ensure student achievement. I WANT a PLC but I really want to do it right.

Sunday, October 11, 2009


The Washington Post Sunday opinion page has Five Myths about Paying Good Teachers More. This is the second time in recent memory that the Sunday Op-Ed has featured school reform in its "5 Myths" feature. The last time was Five Myths about Education Reform back in February.
His take? Earlier stabs at merit pay didn't really work. One reason: the higher pay was not all that much higher, and two, decisions were made by somewhat arbitrarily by school principals. (Still a very bad idea in my estimation. Too political. Too ripe for abuse.) He adds that basing higher pay on narrow standardized test scores is a poor plan indeed if we want to turn out kids who can think and problem solve.
What does work? Teachers who were polled would forgo a pay raise to work in a building where the administration supported them.
Yeah. I'm for that.
These two Myth columns taken together provide a pretty good overview of the issues in education reform for an uninitiated public.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Giant Pool of Data

I downloaded a podcast of This American Life which is
a.) cool
and then listened to it as I ran my daily jog which is
b.) double cool.
Don't know why it took me so long to glom on to this.
The first episode I received is titled The Giant Pool of Money, explaining the economic meltdown once again. Much of it I'd heard in general outlines: Money changers want money, little guy is played for willing patsy. Whole mess fails. Little guy holds the bag.
Yadda, yadda.
But this time Ira goes into more detail and starts explaining how the whole industry fooled itself by its heavy reliance on data. Data that kept saying everything is 'cool.' We can keep handing out mortgages to people without assets, or even a visible income, and it won't really hurt the investor's bottom line too much. Data which defied common sense.
The education community always lags behind the business community and now this love affair with data has invaded every level of our school systems.
Call me old fashioned, but when it comes to humans, I much prefer narrative over numbers.
The tests say: "are kids is learning" -- but at what cost?
When I invest my energies into making sure my students pass a multiple choice reading test, and they pass it, but I know they will have a hard time reading important documents like credit card agreements or a lease on an apartment have I done my job?
Data says yes! Gut says no.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Michelle Rhee

The Washington Post Magazine launched a new look this week and chose Michelle Rhee as the cover story for their unveiling. She probably agreed to an interview with WP to repair her own look after the disastrous Time magazine cover featuring a stern looking Rhee wielding a broom.
After years of teaching The Crucible, I have a knee-jerk reaction to images of women with brooms... Ouch. Not good.
I took particular offense to the many witchy images of Hilary Clinton during her recent campaign, but after reading Rhee's mimicry of classroom teachers, making them sound like whiny complainers, I was inclined to see Rhee's portrait in the worst way.
She comes off a little better in this article.
Of course, she has a monumental job. It's clear that the white and middle class have abandoned the public schools of DC. Resurrecting schools that primarily serve impoverished children reveals the true extent of the charitable, dare I say Christian, inclinations of this nation.
You have to give Rhee props for trying. Too bad she chose to first lay all the blame for failure at the feet of the teachers, rather than including a public that continues to dole out a Darwinian justice.
Warren Buffet is quoted in the article. The captain of industry maintains that the only hope of reforming public schools lies in outlawing private schools.
Now there's a man who know the true root of the problem.
Money talks.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

What does testing test?

In the junior and senior year of high school we are awash in testing. The juniors take the whole alphabet soup: PSAT, SAT, ACT, SOL, AP etc. etc. But what is being tested? In the Washington Post last week, the Answer Sheet explored that question in regards to SAT testing. It's a pretty interesting conversation with an employee of Princeton Review, Edward Carroll, who sits for the tests regularly so he can better design the tutoring sessions.
I've always been interested in this one: what exactly do we know our students know when we are done with the testing? He says, what I've thought, "If you're brilliant but slow, you'll only get an average score." Every year I have several students who fit this description. And yet, all of the important college level testing situations come with a time limit.
Here's what I wonder: Do we want fast thinkers?
In terms of innovation, I don't think we do. Who is going to come up with the truly new ideas if we continue to reward speed?
In terms of EMT's, physicians, soldiers, police officers, we need fast thinkers. Or at least we need our technicians - who work within a finite information system - to respond quickly and efficiently.
The Answer Sheet does a great service in educating the public about the limits of the tests our students take. If parents want a real picture of their students' academic abilities they should consult with their teachers.
My daughter's kindergarten teacher was a highly experienced woman whose opinion came with far more weight than the standardized test she shared with me. She counseled me once to ignore my daughter's tests results, because she had observed her in the classroom and knew how she had thought herself beyond the limits of the readiness test. Now that was a well-rounded evaluation I could value.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Blogging Hiatus

I'll admit it. I've been ignoring my blog. I have failed in my self-imposed assignment to write at least once a week. I give myself a 'F.'
Here's why I've avoided the weekly summing up: It's been depressing out there in the world of political wrangling over health-care and education in the midst of a bleak economy.
In health care, I want it all: public options. For personal reasons as well as professional.
I want my son, a new father who works hard every day, to be able to have the peace of mind that health care brings. He's a breadwinner who has NO safety net. AND he works in a physically threatening job: landscaping.
I want my under served students to be able to eat and stay healthy. Their families should not have to choose between good health and food on the table or a roof over their heads. Those are pretty basic needs that our country should be able to offer. Many of the families I serve live under the stress of that threat daily.
In education, I want REAL reform. Not a new test, but a whole new way of looking at the work of teachers.
Following the political debating from day-to-day has been depressing. I needed a break.
But in the weeks of watching the arguing, I have found a parallel in the health-care/education realms.
It's all about the love.
I listened to doctors explaining how the corporate world of health-care for profit has changed the landscape of their daily work, and it reminded me of teacher complaints. We are in the same business: making people's lives better. How can wall street profit from that?
And yet, in both education and health care, other interests are making demands on our time. Doctors' work is translated into less time spent with patients (dictated by the cost formulas of insurance companies).
Teacher work is carved up into testing graphs, CFA's, curriculum maps, all to serve outside bean counters. Time is continually robbed from students by shifting teacher attention to work outside the classroom.
One doctor, at the end of a 45-minute documentary I saw about changing the focus of the entire medical profession back to the patient, expressed it as love.
In essence he said, "What we are really offering is love, not a product. When one person gives of himself to help another that is the basis of love. That is what healthcare is all about."
That is what teaching is too.
I had that notion confirmed today in this Washington Post review by teacher Nancy Schnog of Bel Kaufman's 1964 book Up the Down Staircase. I never read the book but I will have to get my hands on a copy. Bel, who Schnog had the opportunity to meet this summer, still says that all of teaching happens in the human connections.
The rest is just window dressing.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

School's in session...

Yay! The kids are back and we are off and rolling. The beginning of a school year has to be the quintessential season of hope and promise. Everybody can see that an unsullied notebook full of fresh paper is where anything can be written. Nothing gives you another clean shot at recreating yourself like the first day of school.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Teachers Teaching Teachers

I am at the point in my summer odyssey with this year's cohort in the Summer Institute when I, along with all the fellows of the group, must take stock of what we have accomplished this year. My focus for my current position is on the power of simplicity.
With all the talk of reform roiling around in the education world, I have yet to see a program as transformative and lasting as the work done by the National Writing Project. Like Occam's Razor suggests, I believe its power lies in its simplicity. Over my years of teaching I've found that the fewer goals I have for my students, the easier it is to direct them to their own learning. The same holds true for the work of the project. The precept is simple.
The NWP model dictates that reflective teachers join with one another in examining a best lesson. Though most teachers can identify a high point in their teaching year, that is just the starting point for the deep work they engage in as they discover the underlying principles of effective pedagogy. It is one thing to read about pedagogy in a pre-service textbook, it is quite another to incorporate those theories into daily practice.
The simple premise of self-study is often the hardest work these professionals encounter and results in professionals who can speak confidently about what works with their students in their chosen subject area.
It is empowering.
The best conversations of the summer, in my opinion, center around the evaluations of the presentations done with small groups of professionals who have observed the lesson and are willing to dive into a focus on "What worked?" "What didn't work?" The conversations sometimes cover wide areas of practice but are often one of the few times these professionals have been involved in a deep discussion with other practitioners about teaching rather than the usual focus on system or school-wide politics.
The emphasis of the summer is to always return the inquiry questions back to the learner, in this case a teacher. New knowledge is then constructed by the teacher and ultimately changes their view toward both their classroom work and their image of themselves as professionals.
The key to reform will always be in improving the quality of our teachers and their teaching. To heck with all the other mandates. (Back to Occam's Razor: Keep it Simple Stupid.) Just ask Bill Gates, who spent 4 Billion figuring out that we need high-quality teachers.
As a classroom teacher I know that getting teachers to collaborate during their working day, properly done, - which would mean less time in the classroom and thus a call for more teachers - can grow good teachers and create a solid, sustainable profession. It would take training in how to work with one another, but I've seen it work in other professions. (Nursing, for example. I watched many health care professionals work effectively in teams for the benefit of patients. We can do the same with the focus on our students' achievement levels.)
Reform dollars can be spent on developing a quality teaching force. The model is already out there. We don't need to reinvent the wheel.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Summer Institute

Oddly, I've been in the Writing Project Summer Institute and haven't had time to write....on the blog at least. We HAVE been writing, and writing, and writing. But mostly its been reflective, fictional, or deeply personal, but not on the blog.
The Writing Project philosophy is that the best teachers of teachers are teachers. And that's what we're doing: teaching each other what we've learned from our work with students.
The Writing Project espouses that the best teachers of writing are those who write. So we are doing that too. And it ain't easy. And the philosophy goes on from there - the best history teachers are historians, the best chemistry teachers are chemists, the best reading teachers are readers. Walk the talk.
Though I am ostensibly leading the group, I am learning alongside them, something I try to do in the 'regular' classroom as well - continually learn.
Here's some big aha's from this group of teachers:
One teacher asked us to list what we would buy for our classrooms if we had an unlimited budget. No one struggled to come up with anything: books for reading, comfortable chairs, more computers, money for field trips, money to hire someone to coordinate the field trips, and on and on until the sharing sheet was too short to hold all the ideas. If teachers are so positive about what it is they need to enhance learning, why aren't they ever asked?
Another big idea: learning happens from the inside out. You can't pour learning onto someone (child or adult) like pouring ketchup on a hamburger. The hard part is getting the student into the position where they are asking and searching for the answers to their own questions. Real learning looks very different than what we claim as learning when we are giving students tests.
More to come. We are in week three of our five week journey together.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Governors say: We Need New Standards!

What are the most frequently used words in marketing? New and improved.
And that's what were about to get from the The National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). A new set of National Standards in English and Math, all by December.
(These must really be the brightest kids in the room!)
More standards.
And they'll be new.... and improved.
I'll bet there will be some more tests too.
You know, if I were a test maker, say Pearson, The College Board, Holt and Reinhart, I'd be sure my people were having lunch with their people.
Check out the list of participants. Looks like The College Board and ACT got the memo.
And, finally, with a new set of standards those silly teachers will be able to see that line in the sand and make sure they get their kids up to it - or else.
And just to make sure those teachers don't get any crazy ideas about suggesting other options, there's not a classroom teacher in sight when it comes to these new and improved discussions.
Here's a news flash: when I work with students I can find out pretty quickly who's on target, who's way ahead and who's waaaaay behind. It's that last group that challenges me as a teacher and keeps me awake at night. Sometimes, frankly, I don't know how to make the needed gains in the time I have.
I could use some help.
Not to worry.
There will likely be a new round of tests so we can see just how far we have to go....
Now won't that be an improvement?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Lazy days of summer

I've been out of school a week. As usual being relieved of the daily pressure to meaningfully fill three ninety-minute classes with engaging activities, read and respond to student work, contact parents, sit in on meetings, yadda-yadda-yadda has resulted in a burst of energy to get my own agenda out of the way.
What agenda is that? Read ahead for the two new courses I have to teach in the fall for one. (Already read or re-read and done my own assignments on Seamus Heany's Beowulf, Waiting for Godot, The Elephant Man and part of Robin Hood) started The Book Thief for fun, piled up three or four professional books I want to get through, read through 350 AP listserve emails and gleaned three new techniques (gonna try Interrupted Reading in the poetry unit - always looking for a way to get kids to think their own thoughts), wrote the outline of the syllabi for AP Lit, cleaned and repainted my office, tossed out papers, sorted piles and piles of books.....and mentally began designing a student newspaper and functioning student team...whew.
That's week #1 and just a partial list.
Summer is the time when many teachers reconnect with their personal lives too. I always count on the summer to get myself back into good health and make exercise a priority - visit with family, take a trip to somewhere I've never been (that starts tomorrow).
Then there's the push to get ready for the Writing Project summer institute. That will mean loading a truck and physically moving into a space we'll occupy for five weeks - then moving out again. Teachers are professional schleppers.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Lake Woebegone

So everybody's up in arms about teacher evaluations - all above average it seems. Jonathan Alter says "we already knows what works" but he doesn't say much about how to get'r done (which I think is to spot fund the programs George Miller is championing - hard to tell from this editorial more bent on pointing fingers than solving problems) The New York Times says its time to Tell the Truth.
Now that we (The BAD Teachers of America) have your attention for the nano-second that counts for media coverage these days, LISTEN for a minute.
There are some programs that actually identify and support effective teachers. All of those programs have the same hallmarks: they put teachers at the center of the work of evaluating each other and their own practice - where the evaluations occur in a collegial climate that develops sustained growth based on reflection, continued study, and goal setting.
The gold standard of teacher evaluation is the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Its rigorous, reflective, and peer evaluated. Even veteran teachers quake at the idea of putting their practice on the line for review.  But it proves that teachers CAN and SHOULD be the ones in charge of evaluations. 
Ask any NBCT.  Its tough and it changes teachers in the process.
What happens in most districts?
An already overburdened administrator jumps into a teacher's classroom for a few moments, fills out a check sheet, may - or may not - meet with the teacher later and moves on to put out other fires. 
Administrators are the least effective evaluators for a variety of reasons. Chief among them is their own personal survival. Can't go around firing all your teachers, can't take any more time to 'teach' the teachers, can't sit down to revamp an entire school all while parents, school board members, testing schedules are pounding at the door. Administrators may be passing on teacher effectiveness because holding on to a teacher serves some other interest
So why aren't the teachers in charge?
This kind of work takes time out of the day.  (The time that no one is afforded - see administrator work load above - because time is money.)
But, though initial start up would seem costly, investing in teacher evaluation would pay dividends in the long run.  Professionals in charge of their own work tend to a) work harder and b) find more satisfaction in their work and stay for an entire career.  (Another great peer-to-peer program, the National Writing Project, has proven this in their legacy study.)
The other dirty little secret neither Alter nor the Times mention in their effort to tidy up the edges of the big education pie is that teachers are leaving in droves every year before they even begin to understand the scope of the job.  And proven, effective teachers are retiring just as fast. Evaluations won't matter at all when teaching is a revolving door profession.  (Could you even call it a profession at that point?)  
New teachers will only have to know how to get kids to turn on the computer, fill in the forms, and then lock up for the day.  
And evaluating those employees will be easy enough.  
Just check to see if they have good attendance.

Monday, June 8, 2009

"If I had a million dollars...."

Even though nobody's asked, I have a opinion on how to spend the stimulus dollars some of us may never see... Here's my proposal.

Sunday, May 31, 2009


People communicate primarily through metaphor because it draws attention to the patterns we see in our world.  "Hey!  This......looks/feels/smells  like...."  We can't help ourselves. We are comparison machines. 
I think humans learned to talk and write so they could find a way to stop pointing at everything, always yelling out to each other, "Look!  Look!"  My little granddaughter (that's her two posts back on Mom's day) does this all day long: point! point! point! look! look! look! When the words come it'll be one comparison after another that we'll scrabble to write down because of their adorable truths.  
That's just the way we roll.
Here's a metaphor I start thinking about this time every year:  Ritual as punctuation marks. About ten years ago I decided I really like the ceremonies that center around big moments - a wedding, a funeral, a baptism, a graduation.  They are the  punctuation marks of our lives.   And if a funeral is a period (.), then a graduation is an ellipsis (...)
I've lost count of the graduations I have been party to - as participant, observer, interested relative.   There have to have been over 30 by now.
But I never tire of them.  They are the most hopeful days of the year and a chance to celebrate with our students a major transition in their lives.  Our jaded high school students get weepy and then turn to the adults in their lives to give honest thanks.  And even though none of us are ever out of contact anymore thanks to non-stop twittering, texting,and facebooking, they begin to act as though they will never see each other anymore.  I remember one class clown declaring, "This has to be the saddest thing I've ever done!"
But we do see each other.  And this is the gift most teachers cherish.  If you live in the community where you teach, you see the whole continuum.  Students move on to the other phases of their lives: parenting, working, often serving their former teachers in health care, the armed services, or other public service.  Many don't forget their teachers and years later the teacher is surrounded by good friends - people you have had the privilege to help develop.
Its graduation week.  Time to watch another group head off to enrich the fertile fields.

On testing...

OK.  Like I promised.  Here's my take on the day long scoring of student portfolios.  
  • I liked doing it because I wanted to learn the process so I'd understand it from the classroom side - especially if I were to have to collect for a portfolio myself.  (I picked up a number of time saving tips from looking at various methods.)
  • I'm glad teachers were the scorers.  We all learned about our students and the teachers who work with them.  We all will be better at evaluating and collecting work down the road.
  • A lot of money was spent that day.  
There were about 30 teachers, some of whom worked the whole 8 hours.  All of whom had to go through mandatory training prior to the scoring day.  All of whom had to be paid for the training time and scoring time.  (Hey, I don't mind making a little extra money....)
There was a lot of material provided by the testing company.   More money.
There was a computer program for collecting, checking, aggregating the scores.  More money.
And then all those computer collected scores go on to be verified at the state level. got it.
I kept imagining the program being reproduced all over the state and the money spent kept piling up in my imagination.   
And this is just a small part of our end of year evaluations. There are End of Course tests in most classes that my students sit in - and all of those tests have to be bought and paid for. (Note to self: upon retirement check job availability at Pearson or College Board.)
Is this the best way to spend our education dollars?  
In the old days we trusted our teachers to evaluate students.  Were teachers different then? Maybe yes, maybe no.
I know teaching and learning was different then. (I've got my old report cards to prove it. We spent years of class time on handwriting in elementary school.  It was called Writing and had nothing to do with essays.  It was penmanship. We've got other things to teach these days.)
Ironically, as we sorted through the samples of student work the one comment that kept coming up was that student work was always easier to score when A TEACHER wrote a comment of her/his own on the paper to describe what was observed.  Hmmm, narratives by teachers - still the strongest bits of evidence.  

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Like December all Over Again

In the Ed world, May is a crazy month.  Almost as crazy as the run up to the winter holidays.  And so my weekends - writing time for me - have been crowded with other activities.
One weekend - scoring portfolios.  More on that in another post.
One weekend - visiting. A luncheon, a shower, a graduation party.
One weekend - memorials of all sorts.
And on the weekdays there are things to be tidied up for the year. Preparation for big end of course tests, presentations, dinners, awards banquets, meetings over next year's schedules, and preparation for the Summer Institute.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Mom's Day

Sunday is Mother's Day.  A new group I stumbled across came via an email that turns your favorite mother into "Mom of the Year" in a CNN-style news video.  Pretty cool technology. 
You can make your own here and send a personalized greeting to the mom of your choice.  I sent off a bunch to my favorite moms.
The video is fun and one of those times where I conclude that computers totally rock!  
(The day I really fell in love with computers occurred when I was able to choose a wedding present for a friend in Florida while still in my local Virginia J.C. Penney's, pay for it with my credit card, and have it wrapped and sent from the local Florida store!  Awesome! That transaction took a half hour vs. the previous shopping, wrapping, packaging, mailing that would eat up the better part of a day/week.  I try to remember these happy  moments when that annoying paper-clip guy in Microsoft interrupts my powerpoint to ask me what I'm doing!)
The group producing the video is Mom's Rising.  And since the video might just go viral its a great vehicle for getting the word out.  
I hadn't heard of this group before even though, according to their website, it's been around since 2006 and came out of the model. 
But I am with them on their issues, listed as: Maternity & Paternity Leave; Open Flexible Work; TV & and After School Issues; Health Care for All Kids; Excellent Childcare; Realistic and Fair Wages; Sick Days Paid. (Look! The issues spell MOTHERS)
The marginalizing of mothers through policy ultimately affects all of us - and schools and their effectiveness.  Here are a few facts from the site:
Check it out for yourself.  
And this year really honor your mother by making her more than a second-class citizen.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Built in Conflict of Interest?

The buzz in School Reform Redux under Arne Duncan and the Obama Administration is to hold teachers accountable for the job they do.  (Nobody else has been held accountable lately--memos change 'torture' to 'extreme measures', ponzi schemes on wall street, underhanded realtors push adjustable rate mortgages on uneducated buyers--but teachers are a special breed and should be held to a higher standard.)
Ok, ok, no whining here.  No one likes an ineffective teacher less than I, so we should have some method of ensuring that teachers are earning their salaries.
But are student test scores the right way to go?  There have been many arguments that there are too many variables in student abilities to hang all the outcomes on a single teacher.  
But there could be other arguments against this method.
A local story got me thinking.  Tying raises and advancement to student achievement could build in a conflict of interest - the teacher's self-interest trumping what is best for children.
The local paper reports that a stellar athlete has chosen to sit out the spring season of her senior year.  She wants to avoid running regular weekly races that would interfere with a different sort of training.  Her - now former- coach declined to comment.  
There may be many things going on in this story that have gone unreported and I have no idea what the many reasons are that she is not running or why the coach won't comment. 
But I could understand that a coach might be frustrated in losing a top athlete at the end of what has been a very long career shared by the two.  Perhaps this is the year she would drag the rest of the team with her to states-and reward the coach for the years of sustained support.  But suppose it IS the best thing for the student - developmentally and over the long haul of a sporting career.  
Therein lies the problem.  A coach interested in building a reputation on the performance of an outstanding athlete may be tempted to use his considerable influence to counsel a student to stay to meet school goals over student individual goals.  
Teacher reputations are often made in just such a way - when a gifted student performs at their peak for a teacher or coach.   
If we institute a system where teachers are measured against student performance--and tie bonuses, raises, and new positions to such a system--in addition to already documented cases of cheating tied to meeting strict percentages, we could see an explosion of the exploitation of children.  
There are many ways to motivate people to produce results (torture-for instance).  Some can produce long-lasting damage.
In the main, teachers are great people, but they are people, and most human beings act in their own self-interest first.  See Campbell's law.
We'd better be sure we get this right before tying big stakes to narrow, one-dimensional measurements.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Choosing Silence

Lucinda Roy has a new book out No Right to Remain Silent: The Tragedy at Virginia Tech. I remember her well. 
My son graduated with an English degree from Tech in 2006, the year before the tragedy. Roy was serving as the department chair and was a spirited, entertaining, and witty speaker. I liked her right off, recognizing a humanitarian who clearly loves young people.
Her part in the tragedy was to have tutored the shooter, and to urge everyone she could find - and him- to get help, because he was clearly in a frightening psychological place.
Having failed at that -- marshaling other adults and professionals to rally around a young man in trouble -- her reward is to have her nights haunted by sleeplessness and the guilt associated with not being able to ward off a tragedy.
It could have - could - happen to any educator.
I have a pin my sister gave me, which, tongue in cheek, reads: "I'm a teacher. I know what you're thinking."
But, if you read the writings of students like Roy has done, that can be true.  And occasionally it is clear that a student is struggling with mental illness.  In the K-12 world resources are extended to the classroom teacher to help these students, and their families if necessary, and it can be as easy as filling out a form or picking up the phone. But because you cannot prove a negative, we don't really know how many tragedies have been avoided.  We only know when things go horribly wrong.
But when things are working -- and nothing bad is happening -- its really hard to argue for some of these costly positions.
One student from my past had the kind of selective  mutism Roy describes in the Tech shooter. Very early in the year the school psychologist was brought in to work with my student and the family.  Tragedy avoided?  We don't really know.
I do know this.  The next year our school psychologist position was cut.  My immediate concern was the end or reduction of resources for this situation.
A school should be a hub of resources making life better for all the students - social work, psychological resources, dentists, clothing closets, meals, you name it.  By law, we know where those students are at least part of the day.  That is the time to make intercessions.  When students reach the age of majority, we have less opportunity to interfere in mental and physical health.  That choice is left largely to the discretion of the patient - a patient who may be in no position to make a rational decision.
The irony is that when nothing is happening, things are working.  It just isn't always easy for those outside the school to see what it is that isn't happening.  
But if you drive by a quiet, orderly school each day, where nothing ever happens, we thank you for your support.

Saturday, April 11, 2009


Brain research might just make my job obsolete. A stunning article in the New York Times reveals that scientists have been able to erase memory by the injection of a drug in lab rats. The scientist offered that this treatment would be helpful in removing debilitating traumatic memories or the influence of addiction on memory.
Would be kind of a bad thing in the wrong hands......
Then on the radio I hear the results of a huge marketing research project on how we are manipulated to buy products through our senses.
For instance, the smell of fresh cut grass pumped into a retail outlet makes buyers yearn for the products of their youth.
I SO get this. On my daily walks that cut-grass smell always takes me back to Saturdays on Grant Avenue. Add a little sunshine and I get a craving for Lik-'m-aid and comic books bought in the Kensington drug store.
So, all these studies circumvent cognition.
Who needs to think anymore?
What me worry?
About test scores?

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Swimming in a Sea of Politics

Yesterday I swam a mile, I think. I lost count. It takes 64 lengths to reach a mile. I was swimming really hard and really fast but I lost count on account of my current count of the number of times I've been duped by countless, dirty, lowdown, no good, no count politicians.
It was a good thing to have that physical outlet. It put the latest insult to rest for the afternoon at least.
The spigot of money for schools has opened and is just as quickly being siphoned away by localities and for that I feel like, you know - duh - did you really think that anything would change?
It appears that all over a similar scenario is playing itself out.
Schools were asked to prepare budgets by their governing bodies which reflected huge cuts.
Said budgets were prepared, cutting out essential and non-essential personnel, supplies, transportation, summer school, etc. etc. All salaries were frozen (but not the health insurance premiums). Some teachers have even voluntarily taken pay cuts so that positions won't be lost. We're all in this together. Things are tough all over. Take one for the team. Play nice. Be fair.
Then the amounts for the local stimulus packages were announced.
Governing bodies returned to the schools to request more budget cuts beyond the first go-round, which in many cases, coincidentally - match the amount of funding about to be released.
Huh? Now who's playing fair?
Things were supposed to be different this time around.
This time we were going to put our money where our collective mouths are and make sure that kids don't pay for everybody else's mistakes.
Have you ever met a politician who didn't run on an education platform?
Have you ever met a politician willing to do the hard work and make sure that initiatives and the will of the people are funded, even if it means raising taxes?
Pfff! For those of us in Virginia who are old enough to remember, that's how we got our Lottery tickets. All the money would be for schools! Yeah! Who wouldn't want that?
All the money went in the General Fund and from every pet project but schools. AND - overwhelmingly it is the poor who buy those tickets and then send their kids to underfunded schools. Brilliant. Imagine buying a dream like that.
And now, stimulus money = general fund. Let the shell games begin!
I feel another 64 lengths coming on.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Young and Restless Writers

Yesterday was one of those fun days when a whole lot of work pays off.  The Teacher Consultants of the Shenandoah Valley hosted a Young Writer's Workshop at Shenandoah University.  It wouldn't have happened without the support of the staff at the NVWP offices at George Mason.  Mark Farrington and his student staff did all the behind-the-scenes paperwork that gets the kids, parents, directions, fees, and publicity together.For overworked classroom teachers, that is the only way that an enterprise like this could take flight. Thank guys.
And Young Writers Director Erin Hubbard was the uber-organized leader of NHS volunteers, an accommodating schedule, and Teaching Consultants from surrounding schools that made the morning run with precision. 
On a rainy, wet Saturday, 22 fourth through twelfth grade students trekked, sometimes from long distances, to pursue their interest in writing starting at 9 a.m. on a Saturday!  From nine to one they were prompted to record their imaginative wanderings and share them with their peers.
It's teaching heaven.  Rewarding work for those who often labor throughout the week before an unwilling audience.
And grown ups too, were a part of the fun.
Parents were welcomed to a free workshop on supporting their young writer.  Later they could sit in on a workshop of their own to develop inspiration for personal writing projects.
In the adult workshop, I found inspiration from my own prompts for a writing that has already begun to take shape.  Writing in a room of silent, scribbling writers IS inspiring.  In the summer institute, in my own classroom, in workshops, there is an energy that isn't matched when sitting solo at a computer all alone.  Writing in community is a powerful muse.
How does that work?   Hmmm......

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Ya Gotta Love the Numbers!

Bernie Madoff was once a respected businessman.
In fact, he was once the chair of Nasdaq.  
It was his earlier reputation which shielded him from the kind of scrutiny that would have quickly exposed his scandalous Ponzi scheme where he duped his investors into believing that money was being made when, in fact, nothing had been invested at all.
In his defense, Madoff claims that the pressure to show quarterly gains led him to fake the billions he assured his clients they were earning.
A lame excuse, but at least it acknowledges how human behavior can be manipulated by the rules.
I see parallels in our current emphasis on proving student growth by distilling learning to sets of numbers.  Though we like to think that numbers don't lie, when personal fortune rises and falls with the numbers, it is a sure bet that some of those numbers will lead the public into a false sense of security that "Our children is learning."
Here's an example:
The math scores in one building were not showing gains.  The solution: at the halfway mark of the year, take all the students who are not showing learning gains (i.e. they are failing) out of the course.  Create a new course that repeats the first semester.  By renaming the course, these students do not have to sit for the spring state tests until much later.
Result: Big jump in scores that year because only students who are adequately prepared take the test.
Well, you say, what is wrong with that?  The students who aren't ready are given the opportunity to relearn the material, aren't they?  The scores jump. The school is no longer 'failing.' Our children IS learning!
Here's where I take issue with scores as a representation of true progress and gains in student learning.
Like Inigo Montoya says to the Sicilian genius Vizzini in Princess Bride, "You keep using that word. ['Inconceivable' for Vizzini. 'Learning' for the rest of us.] I do not think it means what you think it means."
Scores did jump, but it was a deception played on the public.  Nothing was essentially changed except slowing the pace of instruction for some students.  As a result, many who struggle with math are doomed to repeat the same material presented in the same manner, or are subjected to mind-numbing drills designed to prepare them to pass the test.
True reform would exhibit itself in helping teachers locate new ways to engage students who struggle.  And there ARE new strategies out there.  But it would take time for teachers to re-think, re-learn, re-tool an entire course.  No time and resources were part of the scenario described above.
It would mean spending money on professional development for teachers, helping them help students find a way into and through the math puzzle.  No money for that.
But enormous pressure, along with piles of money spent on the bubble tests, must show immediate progress or heads are going to roll.  Desperate people do desperate things.
YOU do the math.
So, what happens to students who must sit through math again?
I envision my recurring nightmare: I have missed a course in high school and they drag me out of my current life, back to my old school to take the WHOLE YEAR OVER AGAIN.  In the dream I am panicked and disheartened.  My whole life is disrupted and, on top of all that, it's boring me to death because I know I can do the work in a week!  But they won't let me!  I would drop out, but I know it would be the death of all my hopes.  The whole dream is bathed in an overwhelming feeling of asphyxiation.  I can barely breathe and wake up in a sweat.
Well...  Some of our kids do drop out, anxious to get on with some kind of life outside of school. Who can blame them?
Our current love of data extends beyond those we consider left behind.  Students in upper-level courses are distracted by numbers represented in SAT scores and fall into a single-minded obsession with high grades in order to compete for colleges.  It perverts their thinking.  And -guess what?- sometimes they cheat.
Just like Bernie Madoff.

Should we hold teachers (well, the whole system, really) accountable?  You betcha.
How can we do it in a way that honors both teaching and learning?  
Some teachers have made suggestions.  Check out this plan formulated by the teachers in the workforce and a part of the Teacher Leaders Network.
Let's get honest about what we are hoping to do and be sure that everything is being measured - including our support for true learning.