Thursday, December 27, 2012

Not Just a Teacher - 2

In October I attempted to honor the work done on a daily basis by strong, passionate educators.  Be it remembered, that when you know what your purpose in life is, it is not hard to act with conviction.

From our values extends our purpose.  From our purpose extends our actions.

It is not hard to act when you know why you are here.

These teachers, like so many others, lived their values through their work. They nurtured children.

Rachel Davino, 29, Behavioral Therapist, Sandy Hook Elementary.

Dawn Hochsprung, 47, Principal, Sandy Hook Elementary.

Anne Marie Murphy, 52, Special Education Teacher, Sandy Hook Elementary.

Lauren Rousseau, 30, Substitute Teacher, Sandy Hook Elementary.

Mary Sherlack, 56, School Psychologist, Sandy Hook Elementary.

Victorio Soto, 27, First-grade teacher, Sandy Hook Elementary.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Undone by the Faces of Newtown

Like the rest of the nation, I've found the tragedy at Newtown to be numbing, overwhelming, beyond imagination.

It has also left me speechless.  And, until Friday, uncomprehending.

Though I could point to about sixteen policy mis-steps that have combined to make a Newtown possible, to harp on these at this juncture seems cheap.

As the week unfolded, I found myself in active avoidance of news about the victims: children the age of my grandchildren.  I could not bring myself to see their images.

Monday morning I listened to reports of the first of the funerals.

The town is the same size as mine.  It is easy to understand how the adults keep reaching for each other in a hug, a collective gut-wrenching sob, a tight circle of disbelief, grief, disorientation.

It would be that way here, a place where we all raised our children together and are linked to each other through through the years we sat side-by-side at concerts, parent conferences, PTO meetings, and stood together at bus stops, on field trips, in doctor's offices.  A community is built around the care of its children.  In my town, the school system is the beating heart of our purpose.

On Wednesday night I was ambushed.  A commentator put up the photos of three of the victims, the first I've seen.

It stopped my breathing.  I could not bear it.  I have not looked for others. It is too much.

I teach in a high school.  My peers often wonder: "How do you do it?"  They are referring to the fact that teens, by their very nature, are often cutting, insensitive, hurtful to the adults who reared them.  They sulk and sometimes go out of their way to reject what we hope to accomplish.  Of course, not all of them do this but enough to make other adults wonder how one could willingly subject oneself to a daily torture.

Rejecting adult demands is a part of the developmental process, and to succeed in a high school one must be prepared to confront the very large two-year-olds--as teens are sometimes described--and to avoid, as often is humanly possible, to take it personally.

For the toughest of my customers I've cultivated a deliberate tactic for getting around the worst behaviors.  I go to guidance and look up their file.   School pictures are attached on the front of every file.  Inevitably there is one from kindergarten.  These pictures are similar.  There is a bright-eyed, happy, completely unselfconscious five-year-old smiling into the future. Who couldn't love that kid?  This is the image I take back to the classroom with me.

That child is in there somewhere.  It helps me see how they started the journey.  (It also makes me wonder what happened in between.)  That is the image I attempt to teach for: the smiling, laughing, "isn't life wonderful?" kid that lurks beneath the black t-shirt, the scowl, the apathy.  It is the child that a parent still sees, loves, and remembers.  When the teen won't let us in any other way, I connect with that.

And so I cannot look at those faces now, because they are my kids.

On Friday, the dam broke.

A teacher friend put up one of her relentlessly positive posts about her students.  It is her effort to counteract all the negative press about schools and schooling.  Her Christmas present to each was a magazine cover based on her prompt to write about their plans for the future.  The magazine features an open, engaged eight-year-old face and the lifetime ambition already accomplished.

Here is what these third-graders hope to achieve:

I will be a marine dolphin trainer and I will also be famous for stopping bullying.
I will be a world famous comic book artist and stop all the ugly wars.
I will be a teacher and write songs...maybe about love. 
Oh, Lord help us.

What have we done?

Saturday, November 24, 2012

'Savage Inequalities' Resolved

While my students read, I read as well.  You can get a surprising amount of reading done in just 20 minutes a day...

Currently I am reading Savage Inequalities by Jonothan Kozol, borrowed from a co-worker when I spotted it on his "favorites" shelf.  He models reading and talking about books with his students every day. (A simple move with big results: students choose from his favorites and then a chat around books begins...)

I feel like I should have read this book 20 years ago, but didn't.  But I also feel that I have read this all before since the situations Kozol outlines in this groundbreaking book have been an acknowledged part of my education reading for years now.  Kozol unabashedly reveals the failure of our nation to provide equal opportunity in education for our nation's children.  The descriptions I've read make me want to cry in frustration. (Horrible buildings, no textbooks, no supplies, a poorly trained and transient teaching force...but only for the poorest of the poor.) And this book is from 1991.  In some ways things are worse now.

As I read, I sit in a school with close to 50% free and reduced lunch, a growing second-language population (close to 20% now, I believe), a stable faculty that includes many highly experienced teachers, and a building dating from the 1920's that was recently totally renovated and fitted with smart boards, energy saving lighting and other gorgeous amenities (fully stocked library, updated auditorium, public space for kids to gather....).

The new building is a source of pride for the students and the community as well.

How do the students exhibit that pride?  The new building has been occupied for four years now.  There is no graffitti anywhere.  One hallway features reproductions of art that go unmolested.  Student work has hung outside my room for over two months and has been admired but untouched. (Though its time to get it down since the crowds tend to turn up the edges....)  Kids voluntarily pick up trash.

The setting makes a difference.  Whether the students are aware of it or not, they are getting a visual message from their community every day: No matter who's child you are, we care about you.

Not so everywhere else.  But it could be possible. (Ugh. East St. Louis, Southside Chicago, the neighborhoods of New York....)

Here's my "pumpkin pie in the sky" wish for a new year, under a newly freed Obama administration:

  • Stop spending money on Race to the Top initiatives that are squandering funds with little result.
  • Use the money to bring every school building in the nation into the 21st Century.  If the feds really want to do something that makes a difference, turn every school building into a federal building and keep them all wired, updated, and havens for research, development, and community centers. How I'd love to live in a nation that tells it's children everyday: We care about You.  The current message is: Some are more Equal than Others.
  • Force colleges of education to meet guidelines of effective practice--and partner with surrounding districts by training to fulfill needs, rather than turning out a glut of graduates without prospects--by providing full scholarships to top students who want to become educators.
  • Shift the competitive drive of RttT from pitting schools and states against each other into making teaching both lucrative and competitive.  Scholarships would only be offered through identified regional schools that meet the needs of the pre-service teacher.  Several accreditation programs have already stipulated what is needed in an effective program. Endorse these and drive the best and brightest towards them.
  • Include a long clinical phase in the teacher prep program.  Expect universities which receive scholarships to partner with surrounding districts.  Teaching interns would work alongside professionals in a "teaching" school.  (This is the kind of school where Arne Duncan and Barack Obama sent their own children.  The advantage is low teacher-student ratio and an exciting and progressive workplace for the adults resulting in the kinds of gains in learning and experimentation the current RttT reforms are trying to 'inspire' in a ham-handed way.)
  • Use the leveraging proven to be effective in currently building the misguided Teacher Evaluation programs into forcing states to drive education dollars into teaching as a career to be sought after.  (Funds freed from the "hardware" of education--buildings, laptops, textbooks--could funnel into the "software": paying teachers, providing release time to collaborate, extended professional development programs.)  The new profession would include a career ladder that makes it possible for teachers to ascend quickly into competitive wages. The title Teacher would trump all others as masterful teachers take on the facilitation of buildings, instruction, teacher training, community outreach and other roles that are best fulfilled by practicing educators.
Oh, and dump the standardized testing--and all those who profit from them.  I'm pretty tired of doing the scut work for the testing industry.  Hold teachers and schools accountable by having neighboring districts evaluate each other against standards.  This is the Finnish setup and it is a win-win.  As teachers evaluate other programs, both teams are learning from each other.

An exit test might be useful to graduates, but that would be my criteria for testing: how does it serve the student?

Looking forward to a holiday season that gives some real gifts....

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The soft bigotry....

The state of Virginia has received a waiver on the No Child Left Behind act.

There were concessions.

The state had to agree to implement a Teacher Evaluation process that relies heavily on student growth measures.  40% of teacher evaluations must be based on this measure.  Multiple measures, to be sure.  For now we are permitted to establish our own group of students, identify the goal, collect data, and prove that the teacher realized growth.

OK, I think I can live with that since I hope I have been trying to move students along a continuum ever since I started teaching.  The challenge, frankly, will be in working this collection and study into an already full workload.  But it is doable.  Wish it came with some time....

Apparently, another concession was to move from AYP (Annual Yearly Progress) to AMO's (Annual Measurable Objectives--semantics?).

OK.  So what does that mean?  According to the State Department of Education it means these are goals for reducing proficiency gaps between low-performing and high-performing schools.

The AMOs represent the percentage of students within each subgroup that must pass Standards of Learning (SOL) tests in reading and mathematics in order to make acceptable progress over six years.  While the AMOs represent yearly goals for low performing schools, all schools must meet these objectives.  (My emphasis, not theirs.)
They used the actual pass rates of student subgroups in low-performing schools to set the percentage of students who must pass in order for accreditation (I assume?).  They will determine the subgroup pass rates on Reading after the new SOL test, which is predicted to depress scores, is administered this year.  So here they are in Mathematics.

For 2012-2013, pass rates in Mathematics:

All students:                             61%
Proficiency Gap group 1:         47%
 (students with disabilities, limited-English proficient students and economically disadvantaged students  
  regardless of race and ethnicity)
Proficiency Gap group 2:         45%
  (African-American students, not of Hispanic origin, including those counted above)
Proficiency Gap Group 3:        52%
  (Hispanic Students)
Students with disabilities:         33%
LEP Students:                          39%
Economically Disadvantaged   47%
White students:                         68%
Asian Students:                         82%

Here is the Virginia Department's argument that this is not discriminatory or expecting less of our students.  Guess we're only going to leave some kids behind.  In the case of those who are African American, only 55% of kids in the next six years.

Is this not the same thing Florida is up in arms about?

Anybody want to agree that we should be done messing with numbers and figure out how to get all kids off to a good start so that learning for every group is possible?

Here is what we ALREADY KNOW works.  Read Nick Kristoff's recent editorial that discovers (huzzah!) that quality preschool instruction and nurturing of kids can overcome all the above "sub-groups."

But we wouldn't want to spend money there....

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Not "Just" a Teacher...

I've spent my free time recently preparing remarks in response to recognition as an Inspiring Educator by my alma mater Shenandoah University.

So, I'll cheat a little here and just post those remarks.  Warning: it's lengthy.  Also, I cribbed some from earlier posts.  My remarks are directed toward other teachers and, I hope, inspire others to take action.

For those who prefer not to read: Not "Just a Teacher"

Not “Just a Teacher” but the Hope for America’s Future.

         When you’ve been asked what you do for a living have you ever replied, “Oh, I’m just a teacher…”  Or maybe you have heard others consider what they might want to do with their lives, and they throw teaching into consideration.  As in: “I think I will teach.  Then that will give me time in the afternoons to….(fill in the blank)  write my novel, pursue my acting career, take classes for my real career.” 
         Those of us in the teaching field who have spent a lifetime working to create a better future for the following generation are at a distinct disadvantage. Teaching is probably the only career where nearly every person in the nation has watched the work on a daily basis.  We have all been taught, so naturally we feel that we can do the job easily enough.  It certainly looks easy from a desk in the room.
         Of course those of us who have been in the field for a while know the full scope of the job and snicker at the “I’ll use my afternoons to pursue another career” commentary.   We wait with our arms folded to see how that plan works out.
         If I were to get my wish I would expunge the phrase “just a teacher” from all conversations, and would especially insist that teachers themselves never let these words pass their lips.  No coffee cup of mine (or anyone else’s for that matter) would ever read: “Those who can, do.  Those who cannot, teach.”  Because teachers in this nation do, and do, and do, and do for nearly every child of every parent in the country.
         But just what is it that teachers do?
         In 2010 and 11 I was privileged to serve on the National Education Association Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching.  Our charge was to envision a teaching profession, led by the teachers themselves.  For me, this was an opportunity to realize a lifelong dream: to see teaching established as a true profession.  One of the other commissioners on the team was Mary Hatwood Futrell.  You may not remember her, but I do.  She was the NEA president in 1983 when "A Nation at Risk" was released.  At the NEA convention Futrell called for the same thing that was recommended in the 1983 report: a Teaching Profession.  I watched her speak on television.  I wanted that then.  I think we are long overdue for it now.  To serve with her has been a chief satisfaction of my career.
         In our work on the commission we were frequently reminded that the definition of a profession is that it claims a clear, rigorous, universally accepted body of knowledge and skills.   So the question of what is it teachers know and are able to do was central to our work.
         Though the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards had, I felt, already defined much of this work, we set out to examine the entire continuum of a teaching career from pre-service through a career ladder that would ensure that teachers who grow and excel in their career might continue to enjoy challenges, growth, and financial reward without leaving the classroom.  Keeping talented teachers in front of students should be a chief goal of any educational system.     
We defined the following knowledge as necessary for success in today’s and the future’s classrooms:

  •    *  Knowledge of the content matter.
  •      8Child, adolescent, and abnormal psychology
  •       *English language development and second language acquisition strategies
  •       *Instructional methods, strategies, and practices
  • ·      Curriculum models and practices
  • ·      Instructional technology practices and information technology use
  • ·      Standards-based curriculum design
  • ·      Content-based reading and writing strategies
  • ·      Instructional adaptations to address students’ individual learning styles, readiness to learn, and level of independence
  • ·      Instructional accommodations for students’ special learning needs
  • ·      Impact of socioeconomic background, ethnicity, race, gender, language skills, disability, and other factors on teaching and learning
  • ·      And classroom management strategies
And that is just the knowledge that every teacher today needs in order to serve our diverse population.  In addition to those, teachers need to learn how to do the following:

  • ·      Plan instruction
  • ·      Guide students through a variety of learning experiences
  • ·      Assess student progress
  • ·      Analyze student learning out comes
  • ·      Diagnose special needs, prescribe learning strategies, develop remedial plans, and adjust instruction to suit special needs
  • ·      Reflect on practice
  • ·      Collaborate with colleagues
  • Incorporate 21st century skills, such as critical thinking and problem solving, into teacher practice.
It turns out that teaching is rocket science.
         Though that is the knowledge we identified, the best teachers have so much more. And the disposition to teach is much less easy to quantify, but I will make a stab at it.
         Since most teachers are women, their supposed frailty as the weaker sex often leads to an outsider's view of teachers as clueless, sheltered idealists, out of touch with the world.
         Nothing of the sort.
         A career teacher has seen every permutation of human behavior and dealt with it at eye-level: students who have been abused, students who abuse others or drugs, incidents of criminal behavior, mental illness, extreme poverty and homelessness, sexual aggression, bullying, breakdowns, violence, along with smaller matters like broken hearts, illness (think everything from vomit and bloody noses to a shocking death), fire drills, bomb threats, lockdowns, extreme weather, car accidents—the whole panorama of human conflict. 
         Teachers cannot afford to be cowed. 
         No flinching allowed.
         They plow in to find the source of a problem and then model the strength and skills to move students beyond those realities to imagine a different life.  
         Just part of the job.
         It is a balancing act that excellent teachers can make look very easy.
         It isn’t. 
         Not everyone can do it.
         It means hearing about student struggle without blinking. Or running away.
         It means acknowledging situations with compassion while exhibiting confidence.  Kids need to see adults who can handle “whatever” without wigging out.
         And then teachers will insist on and assist kids to cope and continue learning.
         Teachers who fail make mistakes of two kinds: coddling hard-luck kids and expecting less than their best, or going overboard by ignoring hindrances and focusing solely on curriculum.  
         One instructional text puts it this way:  Some teach kids.  Some teach their subject.  The best teach their subject to kids.
         And then there is a sense of humor.  That is a must.
         We laugh in the face of puke or public breakdowns – both extremes every teacher faces in the classroom at one time or another.
         We feel the emotional tenor of a building as it ripples through the school year, and shrug off both up and down days to face the next day with the same equanimity as the previous day.
         It is a tightrope walk teachers – primarily women – enact in full view on a daily basis.
         Good teachers know more about the realities of their community than their sheltered friends in business.
         Good teachers are about as real as they come.
         Good teachers are smart, and flexible, and ruffle-proof.
         Good teachers are tough – and warm – and funny. 

         So please don’t tell anyone that you are “just” a teacher.  In fact, if I am an inspiring teacher, I would wish that I could inspire you to stand squarely and claim the revered title of Teacher with a capital “T”.   But I wouldn’t stop there.
         As a member of a profession whose sole objective is to advocate for children, I would ask you to go further by speaking out about the current state of education and the past decade of so-called reforms.
         In 1983, my hero/mentor/role-model Mary Futrell told People magazine: "If we sit back and do nothing, they will push us around.  Teachers are no longer going to be the passive little old ladies who accept what's handed to them."

         Well, I feel that in the current era of reform they have been pushing us around.  In the void created by the failure to establish a true teaching profession—a  hallmark, by the way, of the nations who score at the top of the often reported international PISA exams—policymakers have entered our arena and defined our work for us, often based on assumptions that are neither valid nor true for what it takes to create a climate for effective teaching and learning.
         For instance, we now have standardized tests that teachers neither see, create or assist in scoring, creating the impression that teachers cannot be trusted to either assess or evaluate their own students.  This work has been taken away from the teaching force and added sometimes hobbling costs to localities.
         In an effort to improve scores, scripted lessons and stringent curriculum maps imposed wholesale by systems remove the possibility for individualized teacher decision-making in the immediacy of the classroom, where teachers can assess student’s abilities and understandings and can re-teach or re-group when children fall behind the approved schedule. Researchers who have observed and documented teachers involved in the real work of classrooms, estimate that a teacher makes approximately 1,320 discreet decisions in a day.  Scripts and timelines strip away the decision-making autonomy of a professional teacher.
         Other seemingly benign efforts to improve schools, like Teach for America or Career Switcher programs, place the emphasis on content knowledge and give scant training and attention to the other skills of an effective teacher.  Programs such as these imply that anyone can teach, a premise which puts children in the hands of novices who are often overwhelmed by their new careers.  Frequent turnover of instructors and instability in the neighborhood school is the result.
         Finally, the most recent reforms are teacher evaluations tied to student test scores which have at their core the assumption that one test on one day is an accurate measure of the time, effort and talent a teacher puts into instruction.  The other suspect premises are that all children proceed at the same rate and that it is a valuable use of resources and instructional time to submit students to relentless testing in order to evaluate the adults in the room.
         The debate has been going full throttle on every side of the aisle for ten years and all corners have been heard loud and clear except from the teachers themselves.  Those who have had sway in these new directives are now threatening the very fabric of a touchstone of our democracy, a free and public education for every child. 
         So what can we do?  First, know your students.  Know your work.  Continue to learn and grow.  Be proud of what you do each day for the children of our community.  And in the confidence borne of effective practice, demand that the work of teachers be recognized as a profession. 
         The outline for establishing a teaching profession exists in the document created by the members of the Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching.  Secretary Arne Duncan has given the report his support through his R.E.S.P.E.C.T. program.  Seek out the report and the initiative and make sure it becomes a reality by insisting that teacher organizations you belong to join in the efforts to create a new profession.  We need to stand on our authority as the deliverers of instruction and speak in a single voice in defense of a joyful education as a necessary right for every child.  Every child should have access to a rich curriculum that includes music, art, and physical education.  Every child should be able to go to a neighborhood school and learn in safety beside their diverse neighbors.  Every child should have a well-trained, well-compensated teacher leading them in lessons that are appropriate for the child’s age and abilities.  Every child needs a well-lit, well-resourced classroom where the message “You are valued” is apparent in their surroundings.  Every child should have access to the joy that comes from learning and the opportunity to find and leverage their own potential.
         Please join me in working toward a true teaching profession, where the voice of those who know, love, understand, support, encourage, and challenge the children of America are heard with the respect due to those who have the knowledge, skills, and compassion to build the next generation every day in every classroom.
         And never say, “I’m just a teacher” again.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

What Chicago (and other) teachers fight for....

Though the Chicago's teacher's strike has tentatively come to an end, getting the issues fairly addressed in the media as been a struggle.  Here is what they are fighting for int he words of a Chicago teacher.  Please pass it on.

"...the mainstream media is not covering all of the issues for which the teachers are striking.  It is unsettling, but that is where we come in.  It is our job to talk with friends, colleagues, and neighbors to illuminate the struggles that the students face in Chicago.  A school with 1000 students does not have a social worker.  Teachers use economic text books that are 12 years old.  Our curriculum has become more and more narrowed to teach finite skills on absurdly written tests, tests which close our neighborhood schools and unfairly evaluate us.  In CPS once test scores drop, the district begins to divest in the school and take away parent, teacher, and administrative voice, leaving the schools left to improve with fewer resources..."

If we care about children, we can do better.  Detractors paint teachers as selfish money-grubbers who work few hours for high pay.  That is not the issue.

The issues are:

Do we really want to assess teachers based on student test scores?  Not only has this been repeatedly proven to be unreliable, it means that students will have to sit for tests--all the time.

Try to imagine being a student who must take multiple tests in every grade.  Now try to imagine how teachers and systems might try to ensure that all students are read to take the tests.  Right.  More tests to make sure they are ready for THE test.  (This is already the way many students experience school right now.)  Now, try to imagine how an adult, who's livelihood depends on the test scores, might behave.  Getting a little ugly, isn't it?

Who, in this fight, is really thinking about the children?

Why is there NO money for air-conditioning or new texts but there IS money for charter schools and multiple tests?  (Both of which have been proven to have very poor track records for improving education.)

Who, in this fight, is really thinking about children?

Why is poverty an EXCUSE for teachers but not for public officials?  Children make up the majority of those who live in poverty, but that's okay?

Who, in this fight, is thinking about children?

Monday, September 3, 2012

Feeding the Data Machine

In 1978 when I began teaching, I was handed a plan book, grade book, curriculum map, test book, and a schedule.

Off to work I went, writing things down, assessing kids all by myself, and reporting grades.  (To be honest, I can't remember how we did this!  Were high school report cards hand written?)

Today, all teachers must be conversant with a wide variety of software: grading software (that keeps parents continually updated), a student-accessible website (that must be continually updated), and a large variety of behind the scenes software responsible for collecting data (that ultimately must be kept 'fed' by the classroom teacher).  All of these duties take more time than the old-fashioned method.  (But if its in a computer then it must be true!)

Every school year, each program must be updated with the current rosters.  This year we are adding individual online student accounts to access the textbook - as I'm sure is occurring all over the nation as textbooks gain an online presence.

This takes considerable time and often results in a mad scramble at the beginning of the year as kids are put into the system, taken out, moved around, and on and on.  Yesterday, (Sunday of Labor Day) I spent five hours in service to some of these tools.  I will spend more time updating the course website later today.  (Computers: So convenient you can continue to work from home!)

Sometimes things go awry.  We are not a Fortune 500 corporation with legions of data crunchers and IT specialists.  In public schooling it is every district for itself when it comes to meeting the data-driven demands in terms of salaries and techy tools.  Each year these tools take up more and more of the budget pie.

But the data machine must be fed, and it is getting worse rather than better.  The reformist love affair with numbers means that nothing is real unless it is quantifiable with a number.

The classroom teacher provides all the raw data.

And so, just like the day I realized I was working for the machines in my life -- car, household appliances--rather than the other way around, I find myself increasingly chained to a computer. (Thoreau: We do not ride on the railroad.  It rides upon us.)

And it's not helping.

Recently, in an effort to get our struggling students some additional help as soon as possible, rather than waiting on the official data, we asked teachers to look at their previous year's rosters, highlight the names of kids who could benefit from some enriching activities, and send the lists on.

It took about ten minutes.

That's what can happen when you rely on professional judgement.

Still waiting on the "data."

Sometimes it feels like we're spinning our wheels.