Sunday, March 25, 2012

Planting a S.E.E.D. for Literacy

Yesterday was the annual Bernadette Mulholland Glaze* Language and Learning Conference at George Mason University.  This annual convergence of teaching professionals celebrates all that is good about effective practice in language classrooms.

The annual rite features a leading voice in the world of writing and reading.  The keynoter spends the afternoon with K-12 teachers after a morning of presentations by the Teacher Consultants of the Northern Virginia Writing Project.

The philosophy of the project is on display: teachers leading teachers and offering choice in professional development to thinking practitioners.

The assumption is that practicing teachers know what they need to know (choice) and are best at translating theory into effective classroom practice (demonstration lessons).

The presentations are hands on.  Teachers try their hand at using writing as a tool for learning, writing creatively, thinking in writing, sharing, discussing.  In other words: making meaning for themselves through coached inquiry.

This year was no different, and the keynoter was a Writing Project Teacher Consultant writ large: Donalyn Miller, a sixth grade teacher from Texas who is known to most classroom teachers by her nickname and self titled book, The Book Whisperer.

She drew in over 350 teachers who voluntarily spent a Saturday honing their skills.

In her presentation Donalyn was warm, humorous, and student-centered--just what one would expect from a teacher of excellence. She used pictures of her sixth graders throughout her description of research-supported classroom practices.

Her classroom is real. She pointed out where not everyone was on-task every minute--just in case the audience might assume her kids "weren't like everyone else's."  Her students appear happy in a book-stuffed room as they zoom through self-selected books.

In her budget-reduced, student-swollen classrooms (all of her classes are over 30 students each) her students read anywhere from a low of 19 books to a high of over 70 last year.  (Have you read 70 books this year? Have you read 19?) All without brow-beating, threats, grade deductions, public humiliation....

The Writing Project, long the gold-standard for professional development--and so frequently used as an exemplar in national reports when indicating the standard for collegial, intellectual, transformative, and sustained teacher development that it is almost cliche--lost its funding from Congress last year.

Luckily, robust local sites like the NVWP housed at George Mason University have been able to maintain services while planning for an uncertain future.

Earlier this month, some of that funding was restored.  The National Writing Project was awarded an 11.3 million grant, roughly less than half of the $24 million lost in last year's Congress.  The money came through Title II's Supporting Effective Educators Development (S.E.E.D. - the DOE is big on acronyms) program.

Yay for the Writing Project.  This is money well spent because the dividends reaped in building effective teachers has proven to have a rippling influence within schools and across districts.

The SEED money is awarded through a competitive application--yet another "race" proposed by the office of our basketball-player-in-chief Arne Duncan.

Others who benefited from this round in the competition: TFA and the the New Teacher Center in Santa Cruz.

The Absolute Priorities were Number One:  Teacher and principal recruitment, selection and preparation -- especially in areas that serve high-needs students.  That would cover TFA and TNTP,  though I would argue against the effectiveness of TFA practices where student achievement is concerned.  TFA received $8.3 million - on top of the $50 million awarded in yet another competition last year. The New Teacher Center received 4.98 million for work in Hillsborough County.

Priority two includes "Professional development enhancement of teachers of English Language Arts with a specific focus on writing."  That would be the NWP, an organization that has proven itself time and again in its ability to improve instruction in writing and in building teacher leadership.

Apparently the SEED money ran out before those who met Absolute Priority Three were awarded funds: Programs that result in Advanced Credentialing.  The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards did not receive funding.  I cannot put into words the irony of funding TFA over the NBPTS.

The Obama Administration wants to beef up the funding for the SEED program in the current budget cycle.  (Good luck.)

For this early spring, at least one worthwhile SEED has been planted in my backyard.

Donalyn Miller's visit was rejuvenating.  Here is a teacher who lives the project philosophy:

  • Teachers who read and write for and in front of their students are better teachers. (Only as an aside did she point out that all of her students pass "the tests."  She devoted exactly that much of her two-hour commentary to standardized testing, demonstrating the lack of faith accomplished teachers have in these measurements of student achievement.) 
  • Teachers who have investigated their practice in a Summer Institute carry this habit of mind into their classrooms and continue to revise practice.  Donalyn peppered her talk with ongoing decision-making and student-watching that is part of her daily mindfulness. She openly testified that she would not have written a book if she had not gained confidence in writing through the Summer Institute.
  • Teachers who have confidence in their abilities influence their peers (a best selling book? an auditorium of over 350 teachers? a blog? Need I say more?  This was federal money that has reaped far more than was sown.  Other popular Professional Development books have been penned by NWP Teacher Consultants, including Tim Gillespie, Kelly Gallagher, Sheridan Blau, Linda Christensen, Harvey Daniels and on and on.)
  • Teachers who use writing as a tool for learning grow critical thinkers who make meaning rather than memorize facts.
  • Teachers who teach teachers model professional demeanors and habits.  See all of the above.
Thanks for a rich day of celebration.

*Bernadette Mulholland Glaze, Bernie to those of us who worked with her, was a long-time member of the NVWP who influenced legions of teachers and students through her roles as teacher, instructional coordinator at Fairfax County Schools, and as a Co-Director of the project.  She devised the Language and Learning Conference and sadly left us when she succumbed to cancer.  We still miss her energy and vision.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Hammers and Nails

There was an old anecdote in my family about my uncle's lack of skills when it came to repairs.  He seemed to have only one tool: a hammer.  This was clearly the wrong tool when it came to delicate repairs around the house, like fixing pieces of antique furniture.  But apparently he pulled it out on numerous occasions, to the horror of those witnessing the repair work.

Sometimes I feel like that is all we are offered when it comes to problem-solving in America.

In school reform, bringing down the hammer has meant browbeating teachers and systems into producing better test scores and -- theoretically--students who have learned more (though research shows we have been running in place for about a decade).  The recent report on teacher morale shows how ineffective it has been to use the hammer of teacher evaluation based on test scores and public humiliation to bring about change in our schooling system.

I doubt that the real objective for these measures is an improvement in instruction.  Efforts to 'hold teachers accountable' appear to be aimed more at destroying public schooling than fixing it.  If that is the objective, the hammer has been doing a pretty good job of smashing things up.

If anyone is seriously entertaining the goal of improving our system of schooling through these various hammers, all evidence leads to the contrary.

It ain't workin'.

There are other places it feels like leaders wield a hammer where a screwdriver, a chisel, or a dental pick might be more appropriate.

In an online discussion with journalism colleagues about building relationships, the subject of food in the classroom came up.  Teachers weighed in on when, where, why or why not food might appear in the classroom.

The response was interesting.  Schools all over the country have strict rules: No food under any circumstances--or else. Teachers shared what punishments are handed down when the rule is broken.  Personally, I keep some packaged food in my room and have, on occasion, fed a student who seems wildly distracted by his or her hunger.  Interestingly, when an obviously hungry student gets some food nobody clambers for "their share."  Usually the student is grateful and then gets back to work.  But none of that judgement can be carried out under a strict no exceptions ruling.

Others commented on how their administration has responded to the obesity crisis: by punishment.  Rules apparently exist against classroom parties, no sodas anywhere, anytime.  In short, the response has been to broadly punish rather than educate.

The conversation moved on to discuss how other cultures bring food education into the school day by setting aside time to enjoy a well-prepared meal over a mealtime conversation.  France values its food culture so much that mid-day meals includes extensive preparation and instruction on behavior at meals.  The Ontario school system made a concerted effort to re-educate the food production staff--and then consequently the students--on the pleasure and enjoyment of healthy, delicious choices.

Apparently, that won't be a choice for most of Amerca's students.

The hammer comes down in other areas too.  When new reforms are introduced, teachers are "held-accountable" to system-wide professional development by providing a paper trail to prove they are implementing new strategies.  Once the hammer of accountability is removed, teachers often return to their usual habits and the classroom initiative is lost.

The National Writing Project turns that model on its head by inviting teachers to investigate a success in the classroom (rather than a failure) and use inquiry methods to determine why and how it worked so the teacher can reproduce the results in multiple situations.  Most teachers claim to be transformed by the process.  They own their new knowledge and often go on to explore more self-directed learning experiences from their own classrooms.  Helping kids identify successes has similar energizing results.

The hammer is obvious when students interrupt instruction through poor behavior.  Usually the student is removed (as it should be), but often are sent to be punished rather than counseled.  The raft of rules in most schools often have the effect of removing responsibility from the student. (I've been told "There's no rule in the handbook on that" when a student is clearly not behaving in appropriate manner.  Do we really need more than one rule?  "Treat others the way you would want to be treated."  Everything else is just a variation on that. )  Oddly, rewards often have the same effect on a student's (and teacher's) sense of responsibility.

The top-down structure of our school systems have long been hammers looking for nails, but that mind-set also extends into the current American philosophy of criminal justice and political reality.

We can't really punish everyone, can we?

I'm ready for another tool.