Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Literacy is Empathy

The teaching of reading and writing goes far beyond imparting two very useful and necessary skills. Reading, of course, is basic to survival in our modern world (think: leases, contracts, small print on the credit card...) Writing, not nearly as much, but is clearly the skill that opens doors.

Not only is literacy the way up and out of poverty, developing these skills improves the world. Yes. They may even pave the road to world peace, saving the planet, eradicating hunger, and a host of other human-created ills.

All of these changes are possible because good readers and writers learn empathy along with their ABCs.

In order to read well (and with pleasure) the fluent reader conjures an entire world in their mind. Like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix we really are having a virtual experience.  We stand in someone else's shoes, have their thoughts, feel their feelings.  We even experience smells, excitement, fear, and love.

All this cognitive practice is transferred to the real world where mind-mirroring grows easier and easier after the accumulation of these virtual experiences.  It is no mistake that my poorer readers have a harder time sympathizing with their classmates. They've had less practice. Pleasurable reading is a long graduate course in understanding our fellow man.  Is it any wonder that the non-reading rabble in Medieval England enjoyed public hangings as spectacle?

And what about writing, reading's conjoined twin?  Writing is also an act of empathy.  Strong writers imagine an audience as they write.  Who will read this?  What would appeal to his or her taste? What does my reader need to know in order to understand my point?

And not only that, the strong writer is often a strong reader who has had years of practice negotiating virtual worlds across continents of imagination.  They need only conjure their own world, and then write it down.  Visualizing experience is the first step in showing rather than telling.

That's why we need to focus on creating readers who love to read, above all else. Even above STEM skills, because what use is engineering, science, technology, and math if you don't know (or have) humanity? And every test--even a math test--is a reading test first.

One day we will expend whatever it takes to create readers out of every child.  We know how.  We just need to commit. Moreover, we need to expand the time students have to learn to read and to learn to love to read. And following on the heels of that will be scores writers.

And one day, we will change the world.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Quoting Oliver Sacks

I'm nearly finished with the Oliver Sacks autobiography On the Move.  With an interest in writing and the brain, Sacks has been a great companion over the years.  In the book he describes both his medical life and his life of writing.

I will miss him when he's gone.  His life is nearing its end, as he has publicly announced and chronicled in the New York Times Op-Ed section here, here, and most recently here.

He reveals all in this life story which was written prior to learning he has terminal cancer.  Very much fun to read.

Of course, ever alert to teaching and learning I dog-eared the following page where he describes working with neurology interns:
At one point, the neurology department asked me to test and grade all my students. I submitted the requisite form, giving all of them A's. My chairman was indignant. "How can they all be A's?" he asked. "Is this some kind of a joke?"
I said, no it wasn't a joke, but that the more I got to know each student, the more he seemed to me distinctive.  My A was not some attempt to affirm a spurious equality but rather an acknowledgment of the uniqueness of each student.  I felt that a student could not be reduced to a number or a test, any more that a patient could.  How could I judge students without seeing them in a variety of situations, how they stood on the ungradable qualities of empathy, concern, responsibility, judgment?
Eventually, I was no longer asked to grade my students. 

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Moving from manipulation to motivation

So, been up to my eyeballs in research for a graduate course: Foundations of Teacher Leadership.  The reading is interesting, but the writing and synthesis eat up all my spare(?) time.

Still, can’t help but tie the reading to my professional life since, well, it’s all about my professional life.

The fun part of research—I think—is following the trail of resources from one study to next, back in time, until you get a cohesive narrative in your head.

The narrative I have formed in my head goes something like this: 

Since about 1994 we have pretty clear evidence about how to create substantive change in schools resulting in student achievement. We have even developed and tested tools that can bring this sort of reform to scale. (see Coalition of Essential Schools, the National School Reform Faculty, the School Reform Initiative,  Institute for Educational Leadership)

It's clear that if there are to be huge gains in effective teaching there need to be two factors in place: strong leadership willing to both define the vision and adhere to it over time while a bottom-up strategy, where teachers work collaboratively to continually learn from and refine their practice, gets the time it needs to focus on attaining the vision.

Nearly all of the reading in the course is linked to the idea of lowercase teacher leadership.  In other words, the teachers lead school reform by keeping professional development close to a study of both their practice and student work with the goal of improving student achievement always at the forefront.  Effective schools are often described as “learning schools,” places where the adults are immersed in self-directed, continual learning.

Yeah. Since 1994. That would be 21 years ago.

Here’s another thing we know.  Tough “command and control” management will result in some gains, but only small ones.

One recent search led me to my friend Rick Wormeli who wrote the 2014 article “Motivating Young Adolescents” for Educational Leadership.  In it, Rick prompted my thinking when he offered a distinction between manipulating students and motivating them. 

Manipulation involves carrots and sticks: usually grades. And we all know we can get kids to “do stuff” if we offer the right carrot (better grade) or stick (a zero).  But the student is distracted by the carrot and becomes convinced that, having attained the carrot, he's gained something.  Worst case scenario (and this happens very often) the student decides he has no interest in the carrot and could care less about the stick.

Motivation, on the other hand, happens through “a classroom culture that cultivates curiosity and personal investment, one in which students feel safe to engage in the activity or topic without fear of embarrassment or rejection.” (Wormeli, 2014)  The outcome of this sort of impetus results in student-owned knowledge because the student has both initiated the question and found the answer.


So this classroom culture--where kids succeed--happens to mirror descriptions of the collaborative communities teachers need in order to create change in their practice.  The teacher community of learners should be inquiry-based, reflective, built on trust (where risk-taking can occur without fear of embarrassment or rejection), teacher-led, and focused on student learning and teaching. 

You know, kind of the same things kids need in order to thrive.

Stuff runs downhill people.  We need everybody in the building working to create their own knowledge.

But what have we had instead? Carrots, sticks, manipulation.

And what have we gotten?  Not much.

In keeping with my current focus, you get the APA approved citation:

Wormeli, Rick (2014). Motivating Young Adolescents. Educational Leadership. September, pp. 26-31.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Real Professional Conversations

I'll admit I was not too keen to get up on a Saturday morning in April at my usual "work hour," but I did hoist myself out of bed to meet with five other colleagues of the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project at 9 a.m.  Our meeting place was about a 50 minute drive from home.

Why would anyone do that?

Ah.  The morning was such a respite from the usual meetings and grind that it truly has "restoreth my soul."

Rappahannock Cellars in Hume, Virginia generously provided a quiet back room for writing and sharing.  Though we were only there for two hours, my notebook spilleth over with ideas, books to read, and inspiration for much, much more. The morning quelled a raging spirit, and the feeling of peace lasted throughout the following work week. We are in challenging times as spring quickens student restlessness and teachers struggle to maintain attention as we head full force into the 'testing season.'

The morning was everything my usual 'professional learning communities' at work generally are not.

First, the setting of the winery is gorgeous.  Just on the east side of the Blue Ridge, the winery is built with long windows facing the mountainside to the west, now sporting the tender green color of new life, weak blossoms, and that hazy, yellow-green tinge of new buds.  It is a true retreat from the usual institutional setting.

We met in a large, light filled room.  This beautiful space communicates warmth and the sense that the occupants matter. It holds areas for small groupings, tables and chairs spaced widely, large windows, a fireplace, and outdoor seating on a deck.  Lovely.

The conversations ran the gamut, first catching up with each other--both work lives and personal--ranging from the frustrating to the uplifting.

Our only agenda: get a prompt for writing if you need one, write in silence for 40 minutes, rejoin the group and share.  After both gripping and celebrating, we went to our corners and wrote, generating the kind of electric hum possible only when all minds in a room are ruminating at once.  We returned to a cluster of sofas by the fireplace to share.

I learned more in these two hours than I had the entire semester.  Our writing led to our classrooms, our classrooms led to ideas and strategies, our ideas led to books we had read, our conversations led to further growth and plans for the future.  Though it is easy to find like minded professionals in twitter chats and online blogs, face-to-face dynamic interactions take on a life of their own that cannot be re-created in the digiverse.

The outlines of professional conversations are simple, really.  Just provide a minor stimulation along with the time and space for reflection.

Grown ups do know how to control their own work.  Some will even escape their workplace to expand and refine what they do.  I continue to be grateful to other teachers who help me find both joy and peace in the midst of the storm we generally abide in.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

On Teacher Leadership vs teacher leadership

Like a sore tooth I have been tonguing the problem of Teacher Leadership for about a year now.  It is a worrisome thing.

It started last year when Arne Duncan launched his Teach to Lead program at the now annual Teaching and Learning Conference in Washington, D.C.  (I plan to visit the education luminaries again this March 14.  Hate to miss out on all the noshing but feel a bit at arm's length from this fete. Too many commercials?)

To say that I am suspicious would be to describe an essential character trait.  I am pretty much always suspicious, not trusting that which is relentlessly sold.  I make a bad salesman since I can even find the holes in my own arguments.  Perhaps it is why journalism appealed to me as an undergrad.

So when Duncan launched the program, with little funding behind it, I thought "Well let's just see about that."  Still, ever the hopeful compromiser, I accepted the invitation to receive Teach to Lead emails, visited the website, and watched from a twitter distance the three Teach to Lead Summits held to date.

This and the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship still bother me.

There are some hopeful signs that this is a serious movement:  There is a long list of supporters on the Teach to Lead website, groups that have resonance with teachers.

The TAF (as the fellows refer to themselves) argue that they are being taken seriously at the DOE, though you couldn't tell it by me. The DOE's official statement surrounding the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind law has too much emphasis on testing and measuring teacher effectiveness by student test scores.  If there is teacher voice in this policy, I'm not hearing it.

There are other issues that nag.  The Teach to Lead ning exhorts exemplary teachers to do what they have always done: come up with new ideas on a shoestring and commit their own resources of time and energy beyond the school day to fail or succeed on their own.  Some of us have done this for years and know just how wearing it can be.  If anything, this is a chief driver of teacher burnout: doing what is right without the official endorsement of both time and money.  Teacher as saviour once again.

But no, it's something else that is nagging me.  Perhaps it has to do with how I have been both led and hope to lead with fellow teachers.

The source of my unease seems to stem from this:  All of these initiatives still have the bitter taste of top-down management.

In all discussions Teacher Leaders are often referred to as elevated.  The anointed ones speak of the jealousy of their peers when one teacher is lifted above the others.  In all the rhetoric, it appears that Teacher Leadership is now another rung on a hierarchy which, in my opinion, is the very root of systemic problems in educating youth. The model implies that some leaders must move aside to make room for more leaders, some of whom will be Master Teachers.  Oh you lucky few.

This is a mistake.

Top heaviness does not work. It creates a steady drip, drip of initiatives that rarely, if ever, create real change in instruction.  That much the last decade must have proven, if nothing else.  It also implies that only some teachers can be good enough--something I don't believe about teachers or students.  The hierarchy itself is both fate and predestination.  Fait accompli.  It constricts rather than expands.

Like education itself, the spark and hunger for change must be ignited within the teacher so that transformation in thinking and subsequently transformation in instruction occurs.  It may sound like magic, but there are models for this that work.

We do know how to facilitate this kind of change in both teachers and students.  (See Finland, see Singapore, see soon-to-be China...)

The workplace must reflect the same model that the best teachers create in their classrooms: collaborative think tanks where sharing is encouraged and expected.  Education, after all, is an inside-out process--not the other way around.

Like many of my peers, I did not learn how to ignite that spark in my students from management. I found it outside the regimented structures.  All of the transformational learning that occurred in my teaching came from a single source: other teachers.

I found my first mentors alongside me at work, trusted teachers who led me to the clear refreshing water of understanding and owning my own work--all outside of the workplace.  The first long drink came in the National Writing Project Summer Institute where we examined our work and thought deeply about teaching and its goals. Then I engaged in the self-study of the National Board process--then online in Nings and twitter chats and two engaging listserves: the Center for Teaching Quality list (now the CTQ Collaboratory) and the Advanced Placement English listserve.  I go back to these sources over and over because continual learning with peers is invigorating, alive, and intellectually fulfilling. It continually engages me in my work.

All of these experiences have one thing in common:  committed teachers are brought together to discuss practice, to share, to problem solve, always with the work of students in front of us, coupled with trusted theoretical models.  The learning is deep and personal and carries the ring of truth that a school system's program du jour does not.

If we really are to both lead and own our profession, it calls for a flatter structure that encourages collaborative grouping.   It is through this that teacherS (capital S) will lead the profession, not an appointed Teacher Leader who is but one more bureaucratic administrator of teaching excellence.

My unease, I think (still questioning), stems from the idea that the term Teacher Leadership has been co-opted by the current structure into an elevated position handed over by the powers that be.  Those who currently sit at the top of a hierarchy see only one methodology and, I fear, will defeat teacher leadership in the end.

True collaboration is invigorating, not defeating (the way official Teacher Leaders describe the response of their former peers).  Leaders LEAD by invitation, modeling the joy of discovery and the pleasure in sharing a success, and then step aside to let the process drive the change.  Like teaching itself, there is an egoless component, since the true goal is to achieve that satisfying moment when students take over and the leader is no longer needed.

This is where we should be headed: a profession that takes over for itself and does not need the endorsement of the ruling class.

Consider teacher leadership, lowercase.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Not your Public School Anymore...

January 21 federal HELP (Heath, Education, Labor, and Pension Committee) hearings begin on the federal No Child Left Behind law, (NCLB) which has been controlling the work of public schools for twelve years.  View hearing here.
Even if you do not have a child in school, never had a child in school, or despised your own schooling, you need to pay attention to this debate.

Why?  Because your tax dollars have been funneled into a variety of boondoggles, mean-spirited rulings, and questionable educational practices that have made some private individuals very rich while impoverishing, shaming, and sidelining others.  

Meanwhile children have been submitted to the largest un-tested social experiment ever perpetrated on a helpless group of citizens and are suffering under a narrowed and constricted curriculum.

Here is an argument you are likely to hear, first from Charles Barone of the Democrats for Education Reform (DFER).  Barone spoke last week in support of Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s decree that the law must be repealed, but not the tests.

"I don't know how else you gauge how students are progressing in reading and in math without some sort of test, some kind of evaluation," Barone said. "If you want to see a kid's vocabulary, how they write, if they can perform different math functions, the only way is to sit them down and give them a test."

In this argument, Barone presents an either/or logical fallacy that appeals to common sense.  Either you test them--as we have been doing for the past 12 years--or you have no evidence of student ability.

Most adults will accept this argument on it's face. (Of course! You have to test them.) But, in addition to its insultingly facile nature, it simply isn't true.

The facts are that teachers have always relied on a variety of forms of assessment to gauge where their students are and have reported these assessments in a variety of ways: report cards, parent conferences, remediation, specialized groupings.... (Surprise: we've always known who struggles.)

Teachers also use assessments to celebrate and encourage all students to find success in something: school plays, art shows, band and choir concerts, debates, school newspapers, spelling bees, repairing cars, wiring a house, building a tennis pavilion, welding, creating an architectural drawing, drawing blood, entering a variety of contests both athletic and academic--every one of these activities are authentic and evaluative.

Nothing provides greater feedback than a real audience, a public display, a finished product, or a scoreboard.  Nothing is more "real-world" than these activities.

A multiple-choice test is as "fake" an assessment as any devised.

Barone also ignores that since 1969 the nation has had the National Assessment for Educational Progress, also called "The Nation's Report Card," an annual, standardized test that provides reliable, valid data on the achievement of our students in all of the various reported groups, but does not punish school systems by withdrawing funds or testing every child every year.  The data from these tests is used diagnostically to look for broad areas for improvement in the delivery of education.

Ironically, this national tool has been used to measure the effectiveness of NCLB.  The verdict: a steadily rising rate of achievement among all students flattened once NCLB was put in place.  In some areas the achievement gap between sub groups has closed--but primarily because the top group dropped down, not because the bottom rose.

Against this assessment the high-stakes-testing-hold-all-schools-accountable initiative has been an abject failure.

So why would we repeat, at great expense, work that is already being done?

Barone, DFER, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have been speaking for business groups who stand to gain financially from a policy designed to prove every public school a failure.  The options offered for "failed public schools" are always about shifting public dollars into private hands: charter schools run by private groups for profit, online courses run by private groups for profit, testing created by private groups for profit.

As a single example consider Pearson, the British-owned testing behemoth.  Your tax dollars have supported this outfit for years.  Hired to "hold teachers accountable" this group has been siphoning off local dollars with little oversight, shielded by the very loud "you gotta test 'em" voices.  Operating profits (that's profits, not sales) for 2012 alone were $1.4 billion.  In large part, this is money derived from taxes paid by citizens.

Current law ensures the profits will keep rolling in.  To wit: when our students test, teachers sign a legal document--every time--that stipulates they can have their license revoked if they read the test. The argument implied is that teachers cannot be trusted to teach well if they know what the kids will be tested on (huh?).

The truth is that released tests would require the creation of a new test every year.  That is expensive and would cut into the 1.4 billion in profits.  Our Virgnia legislature supports these business interests through law.

This also conveniently keeps out any oversight by experienced educators.  We can't know for certain what students are asked to do.  Additionally, these tests do not provide the valid information from tools we used to rely on to gauge student ability: The Iowa Test of Basic Skills or the Stanford Achievement test.

There are more costs associated with testing: Every district must provide computers and reliable internet access ($$).  The tests must be administered to very careful guidelines, usually by someone in the building whose job is dedicated to this ($$$). Data must be collected, reported, printed, published which requires personnel and software in every district and state ($$$).  Teachers must create specific goals that can be quantified, measured, reported, described (time and $$). This, more than anything else, is driving good teachers away--and affecting the quality of teaching.

All of these local costs support the testing multiple-choice monster, but Pearson profits!  The organization is also clearly overextended, promising and profiting on products they cannot produce. For instance, they have hired freelance writers--not educators--to write test questions and seasonal employees--not educators--to score them.  Shoddy products, indeed.

Yes, kids will always have to take tests.  But they do not have to be mandated by law, shift public money into private hands, carry damaging labels, and destroy the lives of children.

Educators already know who needs support for learning. Our money would be better spent in achieving equity of resources for all of our students--well-equipped school buildings, access to books and enriching experiences, and well trained and supported teachers.

Repeal the law.  Dump the tests.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

More Joy...Less Stress

"Be kind, for everyone you meet is carrying a great burden." Philo, 1st Century.
"I grow old.  I grow old.  I will wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled."  T.S.Eliot

School is back in session tomorrow.  With one semester ended and new courses beginning, it is deja vu all over again: first day of school.

The last post described my schizophrenic existentialism.  Survival mode means focusing on the details of the day and ignoring the larger picture as much as possible--which includes ignoring the utter lack of interest and passion among the seniors.  Age?  Or 12 years of testing mania at play?

My mantra for the fall was: "If nothing else, we are going to have some fun."  So....lots of smiling, laughing.

That is an old person's prerogative: just let the little things go.  We don't care so much anymore.  The trousers will be rolled.  Your paper is late?  No sweat.  We will work on a way to git 'er done.  Fell asleep in class?  You must be uber tired.  Sleep is probably better than what is going on right now. No breakfast?  Here's a granola bar.  Screw the no food, no drink rule.

Highlights from the fall where I was completely unaccountable and did not do my job collecting data and leading from the front of the room:

  • Getting the chance to really get to know my students while wandering around the city library on a field trip.  Exploring the building, talking about favorite places to eat, laughing at the name of the old guy in the painting (it is a funny name).  You know, just talking?
  • Joining in on a technically inappropriate joke in class.  But, hey, it was hilarious.
  • Letting the kids interview me as practice before their interviews with other adults.  Talk about engagement.  Everybody sat up straight and joined in that day.  (This should tell us something about how kids want to interact with the grown-ups. They think we are kind of interesting.)  I gave honest answers. They mostly wanted to know what it was like when I was young, how I met my husband, stuff like that.  No one asked me about grammar....
  • Helping the kids develop the questions for our British literature study.  (Again, not doing my job.) They were given the topic: The Evolution of the English Language.  They came up with doozies: What is English? Why do other languages borrow from English? When and where was the English language created? How was it influenced (and how frequently)?  How old is the English language?  How long did it take to develop?  How many countries and people speak English? We hung the questions up.  They knew the answers later.
  • Putting kids in groups to read and share their own writing.  Many highlighted this as their favorite exercise.  They learned without me...
  • Dancing to a students' rap music played through his phone until he was so disturbed by my old lady, white girl moves that he put the phone away (trousers rolled).  That's another day when I can say that every student was fully engaged...and laughing.  I didn't write him up.
  • Watching kids explain their work to their parent/grandparent/guardian sometimes in Spanish or Bulgarian, on a conference night where I did not lead the conference. Don't I wish I spoke more than one language like so many of my students....?
  • Hearing a student share a poem (written in 7 minutes) and enjoying the snapping and applauding from the kids after...followed by an instant evaluation: "You need to put that in the creative writing magazine!"  Who needs a gradebook? Who needs a teacher?
  • The day we wrote about someone we were grateful to have in our lives. And then called them. And read it to them.  That assignment was never turned in.

So much of school is not kind.

We tend to rule from a deficit model:  start with 100 and take away whatever is not there.  We measure what you're missing, not what you came with.

We hold everyone to the same due date (for fairness) when what goes on outside and inside school is not really fair.

We sort kids into groups and everyone knows who the Bluebirds are.  We make the same rules that everyone must follow.  We ask everyone to pass the same (stupid) tests.

But some kids have more access than others.  Some have more support than others.  Some have more healthy food than others.  Why does school always have to have these "fair" rules when everywhere else the scales are tipped?

We'd be better off teaching and modeling some empathy or, perhaps, how to have some fun everyday.

Mantra for the spring:  "If nothing else, we are going to have some fun...."