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.