Saturday, April 24, 2010

Reflecting on reflecting

Finished up the National Boards and put 'em in the mail two weeks ago.
I first certified in 2001 and it was time to renew. Eight years in, you can re-up if you don't mind paying the $1000 renewal fee.
Looking back over eight years turns out to be a lot of ground to cover. Who knew?
When you are in teaching it is often difficult to see the forest. There are so many trees --probably because a teaching day is akin to a work week in most professions.
I think I can make that comparison fairly since I have done other work besides teaching - radio broadcaster, advertising copywriter, a summer stint at the Economic Development Commission. The only job I found comparable in terms of the sheer number of human interactions among various groups while simultaneously making dozens of decisions was the year I spent working as a bartender.
Most days in a high school match the cerebral firing of mixing and serving the multitudes on a Friday night.
A teaching day is intense and dynamic (and often fun). And in the midst of the millions of decisions made while we stand and deliver, it can be hard to see what has happened.
Reflecting is good.
What did I discover? Some things that are second nature now were learned at great price early on.
For instance, how do you offer highly motivating choices while keeping everybody headed toward the same goal? It's a no-brainer now. It wasn't always so.
How can you prepare students to lead and learn from their own discussions? Scared the heck out of me at first. (Trust them to do it themselves? You're kidding.) Pretty natural now.
How can you get a group of adults learning at high levels and teaching each other? Learn the model from those who have already done it. Set up the parameters and let them go. Most people enjoy intellectual work anyway.
These are the things I know I know--now. After taking the time to reflect in writing.
The writing process lets you define what you've learned. Its all about talking to yourself so you don't forget that the little trees planted have grown in to a full fledged forest.
Taken as a whole, I enjoyed looking back. I had done more than I realized. The change was clear in the 2001-2010 slice of experience and I felt good about it.
Kids need time to reflect too.
Writing down what they have figured out lets them see what they have accomplished. They feel proud. I don't have to tell them they did it. They tell themselves.
Much better than bubbling in a circle on a standardized test.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

In mourning for reading and writing...

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is proposing to de-fund two of my favorite government programs - Reading is Fundamental and the National Writing Project.

Both programs discussed in this New York Times article have been constants in my adult life.
Both are examples of how a small amount of funding can energize and reform teaching, learning, and literacy by engaging volunteers and professionals at the grass roots level.
Both are examples of how the "big stick" of government endorsement can assist and support local initiatives.

I am distressed.

I voted for Obama but have been warily watching Duncan. This alarming recommendation favors the creeping corporatism celebrated by certain reformers. (Read Diane Ravitch's new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System for a full account of the dangers to our children from this kind of 'group think.')
Duncan is proposing that literacy decisions be made state-by-state.

That means that two national networks supporting literacy based on good pedagogy will be dismantled and every state will be left wide open to bidding from lots of "Literacy Experts."

Money currently spent at the local level on projects will have to be diverted to hiring grant writers who must elbow their way between corporate outsiders to gain the ear of decision makers in all fifty states.
Corporate-style consultants generally spend huge amounts money advertising pre-packaged "programs" that make big promises, but may have little to no buy-in by the teachers who implement them.
It will be hard for these two networks of teachers and volunteers to compete with BIG MONEY.

In addition, NWP and RIF will essentially be five yards behind the starting line when the next "race" to literacy begins. Both will have to establish grant writers and glitzy marketing packages to compete with what big players already have in place. It won't be a fair fight.

Generally, corporate-supported programs are presented and sold to districts but provide little to no follow up support.
Both NWP and RIF engage their participants in longitudinal development and change.
Both RIF and NWP develop and sustain the teachers and volunteers in the program, creating systemic, cultural change through a network that extends over years of development.

Currently, most of RIF money is spent on books. EVERY child gets free books. Text-deprived homes are no longer suffer the same huge disadvantage from text-rich homes. The change is immediate and goes directly to the heart of one problem in literacy -- access.

In NWP, teachers are trained, do the consultancy work (at a fraction of what outside 'experts' charge), own and study their classroom work, and continue to be lifelong students of pedagogy. School buildings grow in-house literacy experts who model and spread strong classroom instruction throughout the system and remain in the building as an ongoing resource and model of professional engagement.

I've seen the inside of both of these literacy projects. They aren't flashy, but that is exactly the point. Money is spent where it is needed, not on glitz, advertising, grant writers, or big promises.

Fortunate to be able to stay home when my children were small, I spent volunteer hours working on behalf of the children of my small city.
As RIF volunteers, our team created school-wide literacy programs. We supported teachers by providing field trips, speakers, and annual reading-themed projects. Three times a year we celebrated reading by letting every student shop for a book of their own. All of the children looked forward to RIF days.
Once, we hosted Laura Robb in celebration of a project anniversary at the school. The former first lady of Virginia is the daughter of Lyndon Johnson. Her mother created Reading is Fundamental when "Lady Bird" served as First Lady.
All the money in our budget was spent on books. The work was handed off from one volunteer group to the next making it possible to provide a steady stream of free reading material for over 25 years.

When I returned to teaching I sought the notebook I kept from the National Writing Project course taken before I left. This single course, led by classroom teachers, impacted my teaching more than any other professional development program.
I never looked for a pre-packaged binder from an outside consultant.

The two projects are more than the sum of their parts.

Teachers get more done with less than any corporate entity. (We've been doing it our entire careers.) Money spent on NWP courses and workshops lives on in the professional network that exists for years beyond the initial training and contact with NWP.
Volunteers in RIF spend countless hours that never show up on the books and pass their knowledge and expertise on to the next cadre ready to step into volunteer slots.

The government support means that funding goes directly where it is needed - not to administrative work that weakens the stream of resources to our children.

We cannot let these two go without a fight.

Friday, April 2, 2010

It was a very awkward evening...

Here's my view of an online discussion with the DOE about the Blueprint for reform. For other views by participants, scroll to the bottom.

When I was in high school I received an invitation to a party as an act of charity. The invitation was extended by the daughter of my father's new boss in our new small town. "Let's invite the new girl, even though she's not really a potential new friend, being from the wrong social class and all..." Though I had assumed that the invitation was sincere, it became clear that I was there to help my hostess fulfill her Christian duty. It was a very awkward evening.
And they were right.
We never socialized after that.
This April Fool's Day was "deja vu all over again."
National Board teachers were invited to a webinar with the federal Department of Education representatives. The invitation was advertised as a discussion:
National Board Certified Teachers are invited to participate in a discussion with U.S. education officials via a Webinar about the U.S. Department of Education’s “Blueprint for Reform,” the Obama Administration’s proposed framework for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (in its current form, known as “No Child Left Behind”).
Though only slated for an hour, the first 35 minutes were devoted to a powerpoint presentation by our guests, Judy Wurtzel and two National Board teachers who are currently working inside the Ed Department. Only twenty-five minutes were left for our questions.
That was frustrating.
With approximately 250 NBCT's online, most of whom we can assume had done their homework and already read the Blueprint that was then presented to us, there was no way our concerns could be adequately addressed. Instead, we were held hostage to our computers as we watched the presentation unfold and the time tick away.
And we have many concerns.
As the national whipping boys for any failed programs, we want our concerns addressed. Many of us have made it our business to know what is going on in the world of education policy and want a voice in changes to the ESEA legislation that has ruled our classrooms for the past eight years.
Sadly, I was left with the impression that our 'conversation' would be evidence of "input from board certified teachers" and was another check mark on a long list of charitable to do's. Having been the token teacher on other rubber-stamp committees, it was a familiar feeling.
It was clear that the blueprint is set, and we were there just to hear the plan.
If I were to give real input, I would have given the following:
  • Thanks for removing some of the punitive measures of No Child Left Behind. Celebrating success works much better as a motivator in the classroom than punishment. It will help to motivate our teachers and building leaders, too.
  • Thanks for at least including the wording of collaboration in your blueprint. After the presentation I still see no legislative heavy hand in seeing that it will become a fact of our working lives. I'm sorry the DOE won't weigh in on how an "effective" or "highly effective" teacher can be identified.
  • My question was answered, but I did not like the answer. It appears that much of the DOE money can, and most likely will, be spent on necessary tools and personnel to establish and keep a flow of data on student outcomes (and teacher performance, I am assuming) flowing into the DOE. The changes at the classroom level may only be a trickle down after that behemoth is up and running. I smell more monies diverted to big testing companies. I'm reminded of the increased workload on teachers when IDEA was passed. No doubt the legislation was worthwhile, but it increased workloads and cost dollars in unexpected ways.
  • One question brought chuckles from Ms. Wurtzel. Asked if NBCTs could be forced into low-performing schools because of the wording of the blueprint, Wurtzel claimed that to be in no way the intention of the law. Well, the reason committees meet is to explore the law of unintended consequences, and there were many under the ESEA law now up for reform. Who better to raise the concerns of unexpected outcomes than those who have seen how the current law played out in their school or district? This is the very reason teachers want to be in on the planning, especially those who have lived at the bottom of sweeping changes. We want to address the "what ifs" of any new legislation.
  • I also wanted to understand how eliminating the National Writing Project and Reading is Fudamental plays into the plan. The NWP is highly researched professional development that results in well-documented effective teachers. RIF puts books in the hands of low-income children several times a year. I know. I've worked for both. By putting these two programs out for state-by-state bidding means dismantling two national networks and eliminating the Fed's endorsement of strong, effective literacy programs. The states will be easy prey to corporate driven literacy programs which means more dollars spent on less effective programs. (NWP is totally teacher driven, totally researched based. No one can squeeze more out of a dollar than a teacher. RIF runs on a network of volunteers.)
  • Too many of the initiatives sound like a marriage to the interests of big business and a "free-market" system. (Like the Race to the Top contest declaring winners and losers.) It still appears that those with the biggest bank account get the largest voice.
Thanks for the invitation, but it felt like an afterthought.
Clearly, those who are above our station had already held the real party months before.

For more discussion go to:
David Cohen at InterAct
Renee Moore at TeachMoore
Nancy Flanagan at Teacher in a Strange Land