Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Stop the Bus!

After reading Joe Bower's post on covering the curriculum, I find myself conjuring up images of Eddie Murphy and his stand up routine where he talked about chasing the ice cream truck, screaming "ICE CREAM!" at the top of his lungs.  Only I'm yelling "STOP THE BUS!" and I'm the bus driver.  Not quite six weeks into the school year, and I have to figure out what I'm going to do about my route.

You see, clearly, a large portion of my students have failed to learn some key concepts.  With such a large number, the obvious answer is to reteach it.  But how many times?  Do I stop the bus or simply slow it down and leave the door open, hoping the kids will be able to jump on with minimal injury?  How do I use RtI?  Can it be the back up transportation plan or just an excuse I use to not stop the bus?

My heart says stop the bus.  My brain says stop the bus.  At least part of my brain does.  The other part sees the standard course of study mandated by the state.  That same part of my brain sees learning goals like the one prompting this post and thinks they SHOULD HAVE been learned before this year anyway.  Do I keep 80% of the kids from their destination because 20% are too slow?  How do I drive several different busses at once?

It really is a no-brainer - the bus HAS to be stopped.  But it is SOOOOO much easier to say than do.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Embracing Uncertainty, part 1

In The Future of Management, author Gary Hamel argues that one of the reasons leading companies and corporations fall to the back of the pack is not so much the incompetence of its leaders but the "frantically accelerating pace of change" (p42) that is to blame.  They will eventually adapt, but only after it is too late and they have fallen behind.  This idea triggered an "A-HA!" for me regarding our current educational system.  Now I realize this is not a new insight - others have called attention to it before ("Shift Happens" among others).  My a-ha was more in the form of "most of my colleagues are ill equipped to handle the rate of change, regardless of any other philosophical beliefs they may have."  I began to feel a burden that perhaps is now part of my responsibility to assist them in this area.

Since graduating from college twenty years ago, I have worked in what I believe are the two industries that rank first and second on the "resistant to change" scale - the church and education.  I won't deal with church issues here - I have another seriously neglected blog for those matters.  Just because our environments are averse to change does not mean change won't come a knockin'.  In fact, the rapid rate of change hits every year with a new set of directions and I keep hearing, "So much has changed.  Can't we just keep something the same for more than a year?"

I asked for help identifying resources that might help teachers deal with this rapid pace of change.
anyone out there blogged or read anything re: helping tchrs adapt to rapid speed of change in society? looking for thoughts besides my ownWed Aug 04 03:37:46 via TweetDeck
(I'm still looking for input by the way!)  I was eventually directed here, an interview with Alexandra Michel and Stanton Wortham.  The first two clips are the best, though I would recommend them all.  Be sure to check them out.

It's ironic how, according to Michel and Wortham, all the methods we employ to minimize change actually work to minimize our ability to deal with even minor change.  Curriculum is standardardized.  Assessments are standardized.  Lesson plans and PLC's are becoming standardized to the point that you can actually purchase scripted lessons.  This trend weakens our skills as educators.  It causes us to create students who are no longer learners (processors of information) but regurgitators of facts.

So, back to my initial question - how do we help our colleagues deal with this rapid rate of change?  If Michel and Wortham are correct, we need to embrace uncertainty.  We need to remove the routines from our classrooms and our schools.  Am I advocating chaos?  Maybe, but only to a small degree. You should see my sock drawer.  

I think an easy way to begin is really implementing the idea of PLC's and data analysis to their ultimate theoretical ends.  Instead of me teaching EVERY math objective to all my classes and my colleagues doing likewise, let's split up the topics.  I'll teach linear functions to ALL the classes and Mrs. Jones will teach factoring polynomials, etc.  This will require us to alter the sequencing of topics.  In fact, we may need a different sequence every year if we let the data decide.  It becomes "planned" uncertainty, which is a small step.

Can teachers handle this lack of consistency?  Of course they can.  They are professionals who are knowledgeable of the content right?  Does order matter that much?

I have another way to help teachers embrace uncertainty though it would be quite unpopular with many and unenforceable anyway - forbid the recycling of lesson plans.  A better solution would be to report X number of new things you have done during your annual review.  Hamel details how Whirlpool Corporation began a five year quest to create a culture of innovation.  Part of that process was requiring divisions to report the number of innovations and percentage of income derived from them.  Teachers could do this very easily.  Instead of making it a burdensome requirement, it could be touted as, "Share with me the awesome new things you tried that you are proud of.  How did they turn out?"

I have some ideas about how to change the type of student we are creating.  That can be for part 2.  For now, I would like to hear your thoughts on this issue and how you are helping your colleagues embrace uncertainty.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A summer of big things - Picking a good hill

I don't know how other teachers spend their summers, but mine is usually spent teaching summer school so I can get paid.  I use my free time to do some official and unofficial PD.  Most importantly, I plan for the coming year. I'm a planner and a dreamer, so I can't help it.  I don't plan in the sense of developing individual lesson plans.  I basically sit around and dream of all the ways I can do it better.  I think of crazy schemes and projects I want to try out with my new batch of students.  I inudate flood my teammates' inboxes with all my crazy thoughts.  Sometimes they respond.  Sometimes they just write it off as more maniacal musings.

This summer my biggest "project" was revamping the way I teach math.  I will teach three different levels of seventh grade math class this fall and I want to do it differently than I ever have before.  I'm tired of the demonstrate the skill, guide their practice of the skill, send them home to independently practice the skill, then quiz them the next day routine of teaching math.  I've decided that I will set up some type of center approach with rotations that hinges on an inquiry-based methodology.  I have less than a month to get a lot of details sorted out on that one.

Deciding on such an approach has naturally led to the biggest change in how I do things.  I experimented with standards based grading last year in science, moving away from the traditional 100 point scale.  Implementation of RTI at our school helped set up a favorable environment to do so.  Even so, my grading practices remained more similar to the traditional way of doing things than to anything new.  This year will be different.  I am taking the full Nestea Plunge (pardon the dated and obscure reference) into standards based grading assessment.  I will no longer give grades of any type.

I've already written about this on Jason Bedell's blog here so I won't reiterate those boring details.  I prefer to use this post to evangelize, speak in fiery tones, and stake my claims.  If you read my other post, you will see I lay out the possible opposition.  I don't yet know how my principal will respond to such a method.  I'd like to think that he will love it based on our previous conversations.  The more I think about it, the more I want to talk about it with my colleagues.  Most of my colleagues will never go for such a scheme.  They still operate from an "everything has to be grade-kids have to learn responsibility-all these retakes without penalty isn't fair-we're preparing them for the real world" and so on mindset.

But this has become a Damascus Road experience for me.  Why have I never seen the light of this before?  Why have I feared trying this?  Is this not the only true way to assess (or "grade" if you must) a student's learning?  Is this not what education is supposed to be about?

Lest I begin sounding self-righteous and pompous in my newly enlightened state, I assure you it is not my intent.  But nothing else makes sense to me.  There will be barriers and they must be overcome if this is the right thing to do.  Technological and software constraints are trivial - those are easy to work around.  The real barriers are the ideological ones.  The rebel and revolutionary in me anticipates, maybe even longs for, a fight.  But I have picked a hill for this year.  It is on this hill that I am willing to die this year.

Friday, July 23, 2010

It's a story, of a . . . .

Raise your hand if you immediately began singing the theme to The Brady Bunch.  If you haven't already, you will now.  I came across this post at the Cooperative Catalyst and the need to share our success stories.  Our little success stories.  Not our "Teacher in Shining Armor" stories where we helped every kid who was four grade levels behind in math build their own manned space ship to the moon.  Those little stories that another teacher will appreciate.

After twenty years of doing this, I have been able to collect a few stories of small success.  And when I say "small" I mean small.  This is my latest story.  It's a story about a boy we'll call "Paul".  When you first meet Paul, you see the dark graphic tee and the "I don't care" swagger.  If you look really closely, you see a kid who is extremely intelligent, quick to make connections to everything he is learning, but even quicker to hide this fact from those around him - teacher and student.  The easiest thing to see is Paul's lack of impulse control that manifests itself in saying whatever comes to his mind at that moment.  And even though what he says is usually true, it also usually said in an inappropriate manner or at an inappropriate time (usually both).  Oh, and don't ever try to bully Paul.  That means don't stand over him and try to exert your authority.  Don't embarrass him in front of his peers.  And if you are another student, you better back up your words with action cause you will pay for them.

Paul walked into our school as a sixth grader who had already repeated fifth grade.  He was described as a problem child who had extreme difficulty reading.  He was projected by his previous teachers to score a low 2 on his end of grade test. (Three is passing.)  And here is where the story ceases to become my story, but my team's story.  We recognized the other side of Paul early on.  We would not except less than his best.  No fuss.  No fighting.  No arguments.  Just go back and redo it.  We all know you can do better.  By third quarter, Paul was acing all his language arts assessments.  He was finding his own story in the poetry of others.  He even softened and told us, his teachers, his own story of an abusive, drug-addicted environment.  He told us of his felt need to protect his mother and little sister.

In one month, Paul will walk back into our school.  My team was given the privilege of moving up to the seventh grade and getting about 85% of our kids back, including Paul.  We have scheduled Paul for advanced language arts and advanced math.  He's still going to say some inappropriate things.  He is still going to need to be reminded of how smart he really is and that it's okay to succeed.  But he will be back.  Best of all, he wants to be back.  And honestly, there is nothing small about that story.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

"How'd you get your kids to do that?"

That was the question asked of me yesterday at the end of the school day.  Another teacher and I were just chitchatting about our days.  The conversation began with her asking, "How was your day?" To which I replied, "It was awesome.  I'm done. I don't have to teach anymore." (We have two weeks left, approx half of a semester). I continued, "I have the students teaching now.  I told them they have taken all this before.  They already know it.  It was time to step up."  To which she asked our title question today.

I was surprised at her disbelief.  Her response was, "My kids are too retarded for that." With that she left the room.  So how did I get my kids to do this?  And for the record, they are doing an AWESOME job.  Their peers are being assessed just as if I had been doing the teaching and they are doing well.  It all began on day 1 when I told them that none of them were stupid.  Most of them were repeating the class in summer school because of poor work ethic, personality clashes with the teachers, and a bunch of other reasons that had nothing to do with their intellectual or academic abilities.  They have been required to synthesize and analyze their knowledge everyday and intelligently write about it.  They have taken part in two other inquiry based projects already this summer.  This was the logical next step.  Getting to do this was actually pretty easy.  They can probably do even more.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Blind Side Tomatoes - Providing Student Support

One of my tomato plants has a problem.  It's a good problem to have - it's growing too big.  I put a "cage" approximately two feet in diameter made out of fencing wire around each of my tomato plants.  The cage provides support for the plants as they grow larger and begin bearing fruit.  The plant in question has already produced two tomatoes weighing one pound each.  On average, its fruit weighs about ten ounces.  The problem for this plant is its branches have grown over the top of the cage and continue to get longer.  Right now it's not a problem.  In a couple of weeks when that branch has anywhere from two to five pounds of beautiful orange-red tomato flesh hanging from it, those branches will be drooping over the edge, possibly breaking.  I'm trying to figure out now how I'm going to provide support for the plant.

A few weeks ago I finished reading The Blind Side: Evolution of the Game by Michael Lewis.  The movie was great, but it doesn't come close to conveying how much support the Tuoys provided for Michael Oher.  If you don't know the basis of the movie and its true story, click here for a synopsis.  In the book, Leigh Anne Tuoy said her goal was to provide as much support for Michael as possible so that he, a gifted young black athlete from the worst part of Memphis and with virtually no education, could navigate and succeed in the academic AND white world of privilege.  Forget for a moment, if you can, that all of this was motivated by the selfless love of this family.  The list of support measures is endless - tutoring, constant dialogue with his teachers, coaches, and recruiters; financial intervention, social skill intervention . . .

One of my favorite supports was the realization by Leigh Anne that Michael had more than his physical prowess going for him at left tackle.  In middle school, he had scored in the ninetieth percentile on "protective instincts".  Could there be a better skill for the player most responsible for protecting the quarterback?  To me, that's just an amazing example of helping a student identify his strengths and then use them for his success.

The start of the school year is just over a month away.  I'm very excited about this year because I am looping with a majority of my students from last.year.  Last year was so successful on many different levels, in part because of the new support mechanisms we put into place.  Like many schools, we began implementing RTI. Another support was a reading remediation program called Language!  Before, that program was only used with our lowest exceptional children students.  We realized it had many benefits for our low performing students in the regular classroom.  The results were amazing in terms of their end of grade testing scores AND their overall performance in the classroom.

These are great measures, but we can't stop there.  A lot of these students need 1:1 mentoring.  Where are we going to find to enough mentors?  The home situations of many of these kids is unsupportive.  How will we as a school step in and fill the gap?  How will we empower the family to provide that support themselves?  How can we assist a middle school student to say no to pressures and cultural norms that glorify gang membership and denigrate academic success, regardless of your ability?  As a school we must become Leigh Anne Tuoy.  We must find whatever resources available to provide the support.  Creative partnerships must be forged.  A new way of thinking must be inculcated that breaks out of all the old patterns of doing things when they were designed to serve the average-already-going-to-succeed student.  And yes, we probably need to prepare ourselves to do a little more work.  These kids are going to bear so much awesome fruit if we do.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Ed Reform? How? An #edchat response

For those people who like to call #edchat an echo chamber or a shallow attempt at real change or too fast to accomplish anything or all the above, tonight will hopefully change that perception.  The topic for the hour was "What actions are needed to move the education reform movement from conversation to action? Are educators up to the challenge?"  I think educators ARE up to the challenge.  Not all of them but not every citizen is up to political involvement and action either.  I'd argue that educators, at least the ones in my PLN, have a much higher percentage of ready, willing, and able people than the general populace.  There are some that are not and the reasons are as varied as the number of people.  That's okay.

So for those of us who are ready for the challenge, here is my two cent opinion on how to get it done.

1) We have to decide what "reform" means.  As usual, tonight's chat had at least three concurrent streams.  One dealt with policy and law-making issues.  Another dealt with tech integration.  And another focused on pedagogical changes.  Some may think the three are so intertwined that they cannot be separated.  I'd argue against that.  These issues are better addressed in separate spheres of varying sizes.  Pedagogy cannot be successfully "reformed" on a national level.  You cannot mandate PBL or any other current acronym as the method of choice.  However, you can advocate for its implementation within your building and see successful results.

Likewise with tech integration.  This is probably a district wide issue.  Districts control the filters.  Districts create the price lists of approved vendors.  Districts sign the contracts and divvy out the money for technology purchases.

Finally, there are big issues, really big issues that have to be addressed on state and national levels.  These are issues like mandatory standardized testing used to rank and sort schools, teachers, and students.  These are issues like NCLB and RttT.  Change, or reform if you prefer, can only happen at that level because these have become legislative issues.

2) Politics CANNOT be removed from the equations.  If it makes you feel better, think of it as relationship building.  Let's look at the scenarios above and see how this would play out.  For school level reform, who are the stakeholders, powerbrokers, and decision makers for the particular issue at hand?  Maybe the element that needs changing is something as simple as the attitudinal climate.  At my school, we had a lot of naysayers.  At least it seemed that way.  They put down any idea because it was someone else's idea.  There were a lot of teachers who seemed more concerned about how miserable they could make student lives than they were in creating a positive student-centered learning environment.  Our principal was pulling his hair out, trying to get them to change.  I asked him who the positive, forward thinking people were.  I gathered those people together and we began to talk amongst ourselves.  We realized there were more of us than we thought.  We began to talk to others.  There is still a slightly negative climate at school, but it is less acceptable.  Other people are stepping up and saying this isn't the way it should be.  It's all happening because relationships are being leveraged and built.

If you're trying to change pedagogy in your building, share success stories with your PLC or bring a positive conversation to the teacher's lounge for a change.  Talk about how much the students enjoyed it, how much they learned, and when/how you plan to do it again.  Do this enough and others will soon try it.  I watched it happen all last year.  I even changed some of what I was doing because of other people's success stories.

District level changes are a little tougher.  You might find some like-minded colleagues at another school.  They might be able to network through a third school.  Soon you can a diverse group from a broad range of schools that demonstrates the wide support the issue has.  Does your district have any type of teacher advisory council?  Is there anyone from your school who takes issues to the district.

If we look at the technology issue as an example, who pulls the strings?  Do you have a connection with the district level administrator?  If not, is there someone on the next level?  If your only relationship is with your school's technology person, how well connected is he or she?  In my case, I made a point to attend several district sponsored technology workshops last summer.  One reason was it enabled me to meet all the lead technology staff.  They do not have the power to make some of the changes I'd like, but they have the ear of those who do.  Several times throughout the school year they were happy to help me get small changes made.  I gunning for some bigger ones this year.

One last district level technology suggestion.  Push to make your class a pilot project.  Get parents to sign off on anything that's social media related.  Show examples of other places that have had success with whatever tech you're pushing for.  Get good records and at the end of the year show off everything you have done, even the things that flopped.  Just be sure to demonstrate what you learned through that failure and how you adapted to make the next time more successful.

I have absolutely no personal stories to share on how I helped bring about reform on a state or national level.  I think the same principals apply though.  Just do what citizens do when they want zoning changed, lotteries brought in, new and improved "bans" established.  Write your representatives.  Write them again.  Get someone else to write them.  Find a group that writing and calling them.  A teacher on my hallway is a local rep for one of the professional organizations.  She was invited to speak to the legislature this spring.  They know her face and name now.  I'm gonna call her.  Anthony Cody and Teachers Letter to Obama on Facebook is another great example.  Or maybe you simply are the one who is able to start the big ball rolling.

3) Finally, reform is not just about stopping something.  It's about advocating for something else.  What is the alternative you want to see put into place?  Don't come to the table without a solution.  Anyone can point out problems.  We don't need more of that.  We need viable answers.

So now, what change are you going to help bring about?  Who are you going to enlist to help you do it?

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Independence and Public Education

As our little community Fourth of July Parade wrapped up today, I began to think about the place of democracy and independence in public education.  In particular, I was thinking about all of this in the context of these words:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. (emphasis added)
Before anyone panics, I'm not saying we should storm the Bastilles of district offices.  I am thinking aloud about what such a declaration as the one above means for our role in public education.  The Founding Fathers did not take this Declaration lightly.  It was no easy vote to break off.  They were unsure of what it would take to establish a sovereign nation from the ground up and they knew it.  But they finally reached the tipping point where they deemed no other course available.

How should all this play out in the public education arena?  What actions need to be taken, not just by teachers or unions, but by parents and students?  At what point do we collectively say that this system which has supposedly been established for our good is no longer serving that purpose, peaceably or otherwise?  There are only so many changes and tweaks we can make on small scales within our individual classrooms or even schools.

Perhaps serious consideration needs to be taken with regard to the large scale at which we are trying to implement standardization.  Another sticking point for the Founders was the notion of being the UNITED States versus a collection of independent states.  Should there be national standards or even state standards?  Should teacher licensing be standardized?  Is it possible to identify a set of standards of any type that should be included in every school everywhere?  Or, as part of our declaration do we assert the need for every local context to determine and design what is best for the community it serves?

I've got no real answers or even suggestions.  Just a bunch of questions.  I hope somebody will ask them with me.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Providing equal access - #edchat 6/29/2010

Tonight's #edchat asked the question "How do we ensure those without privilege have equal access to quality education?".  Interestingly, we dealt with a very similar, but more specific topic on 5/4/2010 - "How can we ensure that all students have equal access to technology?".  What's interesting is that one of the main threads running through tonight's discussion was specifically about technology.

Some of the comments that I reasonate with are:
Russ Goerend - "Access to the Internet = access to quality education"
Tim Furman - "access to books would go a long to help an impoverished child"
Mary Beth Hertz - "Equal access means that all students have the opportunity to learn from a teacher who is a lifelong learner and dedicated to his or her students"
I'm sure there were others, but I had to cut out early due to guests arriving at my home.  Looking back over the archive, I found this statement that probably best sums up my feelings.
Ms. Bethea "As long as the underlying system is broken, there will always be inequality in education regardless of access."
If we can fix the system, we will address the other comments and so many others. I going to try an avoid sounding like a broken record in this post.  Instead I'll point you to my vision for how school school should look in order to speak directly to these issues.

First of all, I think "equal access" goes beyond access to technology.  I take tonight's question at face value - how do we ensure equal access quality education, which is a much bigger issue.  I do think access to technology helps.  Access to technology and the web opens up access to a wide array of resources not available otherwise.  As I said earlier tonight, we can rearrange our budgets so that money being spent on textbooks can be spent on technology.  If the technology is integrated throughout the school, throughout the day, lack of access at home is not as big a factor as it once was.  Proper internet access opens the doors to open sourcing education.

Some of tonight's discussion dealt with the socioeconomic factors that are associated with access.  Being an idealist, I want to assume that the teachers of John Doe Impoverished Neighborhood School are just as good as the ones at Charles Moneybags Suburban Gated Community School.  I want to ideally assume that teachers will receive (and seek on their own) the necessary professional development to help them be quality teachers.  So don't comment on either of these issues.  They are for another time.  This is about a broken system.

By the way, I've taught at both schools and it is certainly is "easier" at the latter.  However, that can only go far in terms of providing excuse in unequal access.  As Will Richardson said earlier last week, you may not have caused the problem but now you own so do something about it.  We cannot control the environment from which our students come, at least not in a free state.  But there are lots of things we can do to deal with that environment - free and reduced lunch, parent outreach, parent engagement, before/after school programs, etc.

In order for any of this work, we have to change the system.  We can't just tweak it.  It needs serious overhaul.  I'm not saying that all textbooks are bad.  I am saying we need to seriously take at look at the money we are spending on those books.  What would be the net effect of using technology to provide the same (or better I would argue) access?  We have to look seriously at things like testing.  We must stop playing the role of cash cow for testing services and developers.  We must fight the conventional (yet contrary to what people actually in the know and in the trenches say) wisdom regarding the validity of these tests.  

We have to change what we measure and how we measure it.  If equal access means something different from equal treatment, why are we using the same metric for everyone?  Throw out promotion schedules and report cards.  Provide access to a guaranteed success at accomplishing learning goals without a stigma regarding how long it takes.  Providing equal access is not that hard.  But it requires changing the system, and that's really not that hard either.

Curriculum - Part 2 of "Does it really matter?"

Please, please, please comment on this post if you disagree or agree in any way.  This post is a work in progress as I process my thoughts on important issues like curriculum.  As I mentioned in part of "Does it really matter?" I am teaching earth science this summer.  I hate to admit this, but I can't think of a single good reason for kids to take this class.  When I examine the standard course of study (SCOS), there is not a single item that will ever be used again in their lives unless they enter a very specific career.

So on the first day, I'm looking at the class of students who are repeating the course and I'm trying to find an answer to the unasked question, "When am I EVER going to use this?"  There is always the standard answer of you will develop thinking skills that will used in other areas of your but honestly, that's a load of manure.  Don't get me wrong.  I'm all about learning something for the sake of learning it.  I love talking rocks, minerals, soil, weather, plate tectonics, etc. and how all these things are intricately linked together in systemic ways.  I teach with enthusiasm and passion about how cool all the connections are.  I look for real world, current events to illustrate each concept.  And students enjoy my class. . . . because I'm entertaining.

I know it is a bit idealistic to ask repeaters, especially those with historic problems in school, to suddenly become passionate about all this.  I don't expect them too.  I see my four and half this summer as an attempt to plant a seed, light a spark, redirect the ship only a single degree in order to avoid disaster . . .

All of this leads me to some serious thoughts about the place of curriculum.  Why have we dictated the courses a student must pass in order to earn a high school diploma?  What is the process whereby we determined A, B, and C must be mastered in order to move from middle to high school?

Here in NC, our State Board of Education has adopted a new set of guidelines for freshmen who entered high school this past year.  It's called the "Future Ready Core".  Besides requiring earth/environmental science, students must pass algebra 1 and 2, geometry, and a fourth math that is tailored to their post high school paths.  Excuse me for a moment, but as a math teacher, why would I require a future plumber or diesel mechanic (who make very good money by the way and are still much in need) need algebra 2?  What math do they they take next in the sequence?

I realize that my post is losing its coherency to singular topic because I'm beginning to move into rant mode.  So I'll wrap it up with a few questions that will perhaps frame it all for me.
- What is the purpose of school?
- Which is more important, content or skills?
- Why are trying to force everyone onto a college track?
- If high school is supposed to preparation for real life, shouldn't there be a little more freedom in the requirements?

Again, I state my plea.  Please comment because I'm really wondering if it matters.

Does it really matter?

Teaching summer school this year has caused me to ask that question over and over again.  I have twelve 9th graders who need to pass my class, earth science, so they can be tenth graders next year.  They've all had it before.  A few I know because they went to my middle school.  One of these students is here because of chronic absenteeism - just like in middle school.  Another is here because she attended SIX different high schools in one year!  That student has even more problems going on in her personal life that make earth science the last thing on her list of important things.  More than a few are really here because they were discipline problems in the classroom.  They weren't paying attention.  They disrupted others.  They missed class time.  And when they semester ended and they were on the bubble - the bubble was popped from underneath them.  Perhaps what bothers me the most are the two or three who are behind at least three grade levels in their reading and writing skills.  Were they passed along?  Were they written off?  Why are they potential tenth graders and this hasn't been addressed?

So now, I have four and a half weeks to instill a love for something they probably hate.  Honestly, that doesn't matter.  My mission for the next four and half weeks is to help these kids be successful in life, whether they can repeat the theory of plate tectonics or not.  That's what matters.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Let's just do what we're already doing

This afternoon, Greg Couros asked this question on Twitter

If standardized tests are not the best for data for schools, what data can we use? I would love to hear your thoughts.                                                                                                                      

I've wondered this same thing many times myself.  I can even think of a few (very few) good reasons for standardized tests, but that's a hill I'll die on later.  My response to Greg was simply to use standards based grading and evaluate student portfolios.  Let me give you a real life example from right here in good ol' North Carolina where portfolios are used as the "unofficial" trump of all of our end of grade, standardized testing.

Here in NC, we administer end of grade (EOG) tests for third through eight grades.  Many of the mainstream, college prep courses in high school have end of course (EOC) tests as well.  We also have what are called "gateway" grades - third, fifth, and eighth.  If you do not pass your EOG's for this grade, you are given five hours of remediation and a retake.  Incidentally, my district has determined to really make sure students are ready and have made EVERY year a gateway year.  If after the retake you still do not pass, then you have the option to go through the waiver process.  A waiver committee hears the case presented by the teacher and sometimes the parent on why the student should have the EOG standard waived so that he or she can advance to next grade.

I have prepared waiver portfolios for my own students.  I have served on waiver committees for other teachers and schools.  Every grade and course has a standard course of study (SCOS) divided up into goals. Among other things the portfolio contains, the most important are sufficient samples of the student's work that demonstrate proficiency for the individual goals within the SCOS.  I do not have good solid stats on this, but from what anecdotal evidence I've been able to gather from my colleagues and my own experience, less than five percent, perhaps lower, of the students taken to waiver are actually denied.  In every case that I have personally experienced on either side of the waiver table, the decision to waive was justified as "Student has made adequate progress".

Here's what gets me.  Every teacher, EVERY teacher, hates the EOG.  Every teacher and committee member look for proficiency in individual goals.  If this is how it's going to go down anyway, then why don't we start there and save literally billions of dollars each year on tests?  If teachers are going to use standards based grading to justify a student's progress, why aren't they already using it on a regular basis throughout the year?

It is true most of the samples submitted show that a student got 80% of the questions right,so some changing still needs to happen there.  But why, in the name of all that makes sense, why the heck aren't we doing what we are already doing anyhow?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

What every teacher needs

Tonight's #edchat dealt with the topic of what every first year teacher needed to know before stepping into the classroom.  The early discussion centered on more practical experience, more theory, "my program didn't prepare me", and "no program can adequately prepare you".  Suddenly the topic of needing a mentor came up and this dominated the discussion for the rest of the hour.  The discussion began to take two parallel paths - how a mentor can help a beginning teacher and how everyone should have a mentor.

It is that last path that motivates this post.  Every teacher should have a mentor. Or several.  Really expand your network and get a PLN.  Underlying this need is a prerequisite attitude that must come before having a mentor or PLN will be effective.  It is the attitude of having a teachable spirit, seasoned with a desire to continue to learn.  If this isn't present, your wasting a lot of people's time, including your own.

Here in North Carolina we have NCCAT.  It's free and was set up just for teachers.  It was established while I was in college.  I could not wait to go there when I became a real live teacher.  I was shocked at how all my colleagues, the much more experienced ones, pooh-poohed the idea.  I was dismayed at how most of my fellow teachers saw conferences as "vacation days" or even worse, not worth it because of having to make sub-plans.  Where was the desire to learn?

I know that for some the desire to learn is there but the pride and fear of appearing incompetent keep them away from new things.  So an ancillary (am I using that word correctly - I teach math and science, not English comp) attitude would have to be a willingness to fail or at least look incompetent.  I constantly seek the guidance of others, even those that don't like me or I don't like myself, if they know something I don't know.  I don't care what anyone thinks - I need to do my job the best I can.

I'm bummed that I'm going to miss out on mentor training this summer.  I would love to mentor a beginning teacher.  For now, I'll have to do it unofficially.  I'm hoping my principal will let me do a workshop for the faculty on developing a PLN this fall.  I'm sometimes amazed at how important this is to me.  It's not because I think I'm some expert.  I guess I've become a PLN evangelist because of how it changed my life.

Every teacher needs to learn and grow.  Every teacher needs a PLN.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Japanese Beetles

Yes, this post is about education, inspired by those annoying little bugs.  In the spring I become Matt Guthrie, Suburban Farmer.  This year I've finally planted the type of garden I've always wanted, although it's a little small. One day I'd like to have acres to farm, instead of just square feet.

Each year I battle a variety of pests.  Japanese beetles return every year to wreak havoc on my plants.  They have devastated several of my bean plants.  I bought a beetle trap and that has captured quite a few.  Problem is it has not captured all of them.  Every evening while I'm out watering, I still find quite a few ravaging the tender leaves of my crops.  I usually handle them one of two ways.  Sometimes I'll capture them by the handful then dump them into the trap.  Other times, if there is only one or two, I'll squish them on the spot and spread their remains on the leaves.  Like most creatures, japanese beetles don't like to be in the presence of their own dead.

Saturday night as I was dealing with the evening's infestation, I began to see parallels to our efforts in education.  So many times we find a sure fired way to solve the problems our students are facing.  It might be a remediation effort, a skills diagnostic assessment, an after school program, or a beetle trap.  It does a great job meeting the needs of  majority of our students.  When the program doesn't work for the minority, we have a couple of choices to make.  We can watch the minority struggle and just let the beetles not caught by the trap eat your plants, er, I mean write off those students as unreachable.  Or we can add a little more attention to the minority, combined with the efforts of the program and help these kids.  Think of it as catching the beetles and putting them into the trap by hand.

Sometimes the program has to be abandoned and a different approach taken.  Sometimes you have the seize the opportunity to squish an individual beetle or work deliberately in another fashion with a struggling student. 

What do you do when the specified method you have to use is a beetle trap the local school district will only pay for beetle traps?  Every system and school has it pet program or excitement about the latest idea.  Those are great and should be used.  But the reality is that it's all about the students.  You have to find a way or you'll go without beans.  Saving the crop of students is really what it's all about isn't it?

Friday, June 18, 2010

My Vision for Education

Prompted by Shelly Blake-Plock's post about revolution over at Teach Paperless, I've decided to try give shape to my vision for education.  Plus it will keep me from posting a War and Peace size comment on his blog.  If I ever get the opportunity to start my own school, it would look something like this: student centered, community driven, project/problem based, and 100% differentiated.

One key element is seeing this vision come to pass is the implementation of an apprenticeship model.  Grade levels where EVERY student has to move up at the end of a nine to ten month cycle do not exist.  Not to mention the fact that if a student isn't able to move up at the end of the cycle he has to wait another TWELVE months for the opportunity to move up again.  Instead of grade levels, students just move to the next topic or skill.

The activities (or lessons if you prefer) would center either on completion of a project or solving a problem that requires the use of the current skills and topics being studied.  People, like parents, with real live jobs relating to these issues can serve as mentors, guest speakers, and knowledge resources.  Students would be able to choose which problem or project they wish to complete based on their interests.

Gone also are the needs for standardized testing and the various abuses of the proficiency data relating to teacher and school evaluations.  Are students growing?  Are students moving forward?  If not, why?  What are the forces outside of school that either hinder or prevent movement?  If so, what are the important factors that need to be measured at the moment for that student?

How is such a vision community driven, beyond the use of guest speakers, etc.?  Community is built into the school.  Students help one another.  Collaboration is encouraged, in fact integrated into everything.  Projects and solving problems that benefit the community outside of school are the norm.  These projects don't have to meet curriculum goals either.  They can be done "just because".

Let's do it.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Sounds of the Season - Testivus Carols

It's Testivus time again.  Or for those of you who are more politically correct, Happy Show What You Know.  For me, I prefer to stay the time honored and more sacred name of Testivus.

As we regale in the splendor of this season, enjoy these meager attempts to touch on the true spirit of Testivus as  we share Testivus Carols together.

Deck the Halls

Deck the halls with lots of tests
Fa La La La La, La La La La
See the students and teachers stress
Fa La La La La, La La La La
Mul-ti-ple Cho-ice Que-stions
Fa La La, La La La, La La La
Cheat our students of educations
Fa La La La La, La La La La

When the scores come back we'll see
Fa La La La La, La La La La
That no one is better than me
Fa La La La La, La La La La
As we Race to the Top
Fa La La, La La La, La La La
When will the madness stop?
Fa La La La La, La La La La

Here Comes Testivus
(to the tune of Here Comes Santa Claus)

Here comes Testivus! Here comes Testivus!
Right down Testivus Lane
Score based reform and teacher blame
are pulling on the reins
Cash registers ringing, test companies singing
for them it's merry and bright
Why are we so happy to do this
'cause none of this just ain't right

Here comes Testivus! Here comes Testivus!
Right down Testivus Lane
It's got a bag that's filled with tests
for boys and girls again
Critical thinking, creativity
all of that has been nixed
So join your voices and say your prayers
'cause all of this must be fixed

O Wondrous Test
(to the tune of O Holy Night)

O Wondrous Test, whose questions are so probing
You are the one who will show how well I've taught
All of my students, will be marked for life
As either bright or the ones who'll hold us back
A feel of dread the weary teacher has
For yonder breaks the same old failed methods

Fall on your knees
Plead for reform to come
O test designed to show us nothing
O test, o test so badly designed

Long lay the school in test prep centered instruction
because no one wants to seem inadequate
Gone are the days of relevant curriculum
As we strive for the magic number of gold
Students will learn all the factoids that we choose
Instead of real concepts of what they should

Fall on your knees
Plead for reform to come
O test designed to show us nothing
O test, o test so badly designed

Truly we know that there's a better way
To assess what our children really know
We all hate you Test, yet we still bow down
Because we want the government's money
Are we really helping out our country
or are we merely holding ourselves back?

Fall on your knees
Plead for reform to come
O test designed to show us nothing
O test, o test so badly designed

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Really? I mean , really?!

Join me in singing . . . "It's the most wonderful time of the year".  Yes, that's right boys and girls, it's high stakes testing time so that all our legislators, talking heads, and other people looking for a false sense of security or superiority can feel better about how things are going.  It's the festival of Testivus.  To properly celebrate this festive ritual, we, your hard working test taking guides, I mean teachers, are being thoroughly trained so that we don't mess up.  One of my favorite rituals associated with this time of the year is going through the testing code of ethics.  It's a wonderful piece of holiday folklore that gets retold every year during Testivus.  You can read the entire myth here.  I would like to highlight my favorite parts.

This part of the myth explains why we celebrate Testivus:

In North Carolina, standardized testing is an integral part of the educational experience of all students. When properly administered and interpreted, test results provide an independent, uniform source of reliable and valid information, which enables:
• students to know the extent to which they have mastered expected knowledge and skills and how they compare to others;
• parents to know if their children are acquiring the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in a highly competitive job market;
• teachers to know if their students have mastered grade-level knowledge and skills in the curriculum and, if not, what weaknesses need to be addressed;
• community leaders and lawmakers to know if students in North Carolina schools are improving their performance over time and how the students compare with students from other states or the nation; and
• citizens to assess the performance of the public schools.
I'm so glad that Testivus enables us to know whether or not our students are acquiring the necessary knowledge and skills.  Unfortunately, with the secularization of Testivus, the real meaning has been lost.  Our shallow celebrations of Testivus in today's modern era have been reduced to regurgitation of factoids, what some call "content".  Real skill assessment has been totally removed from Testivus, as evidenced by legislative actions that have mandated the removal of these "religious" aspects of the holiday.

As part of the ritualistic preparation for Testivus, we, the test-taking guides, must meet all the following ethical guidelines:

Teachers shall provide instruction that meets or exceeds the standard course of study to meet the needs of the specific students in the class. Teachers may help students improve test-taking skills by:
(A) helping students become familiar with test formats using curricular content;
(B) teaching students test-taking strategies and providing practice sessions;
(C) helping students learn ways of preparing to take tests; and
(D) using resource materials such as test questions from test item banks, testlets and linking documents in instruction and test preparation.
Part of the joy in helping students celebrate Testivus is doing all the above.  At least it is supposed to be.  Unfortunately, I feel like I am violating the sacredness of Testivus when I practice the secular, meaningless, aspects above.  In the past I felt like I needed a month of ritual purification after doing such.

Fortunately, the Testivus fun does not have to end when the last test is administered and the last bubble filled in.  Christmas has Boxing Day and Testivus has Remediation!  In NC, we are required to provide 5 hours of remediation to every student who fails, oops, I mean, only scores a 1 or 2, on the test, then allow them to retake the test.  So for those lucky select few, they get to endure 5 hours of intense test taking practice in one shot, not long after finishing one celebration and right before taking part in another.  Those who are REALLY lucky get 2 DAYS of remediation if they don't score high enough on both parts (reading AND math).

So, in this most sacred time of the school year, my prayer for you is that your classroom is filled with the joy of Testivus.  And for those of you, like me, who find reasonable doubt in the myth of Testivus, join me in saying, "Really?  I mean, really?!"

Thursday, March 25, 2010

To Grade or Not to Grade - An Open Letter to My Colleagues

If you were to take of poll of the hot button issues in education, grading practices would easily rank in the top five.  If not the top 5 it would definitely make the top ten.  We are currently debating grading practices at my school.  Among the issues on the table are the zero policy, how to handle retakes, and whether or not we will record a grade on our regular common assessments that are also used to identify students with remediation needs.  For the record, I would never give another grade of any type if it were completely up to me.  I advocate for an either "you learned it" or "you are in progress" system.

For the last twelve months, I have been soul-searching, researching, and people searching to help me find another way.  I have been looking for creative ways to satisfy both sides of the debate (even though there are probably more than two!).  Along the way I have read the works of Alfie Kohn, perhaps the most popular anti-grade activist on the planet today.  I have read the summary of Black and Wiliam's study Inside the Black Box. I have come across a host of other resources.  They all say the same thing - grading inhibits performance, motivation, and quite possibly learning itself.

I have to be honest in my thinking though.  Grades in themselves are not bad things.  They do provide a measurement of our learning.  You can't drive a car if you don't pass the test.  You can't perform surgery if you don't pass the test.  You can't even coach intercollegiate sports if you don't pass the test.  What has created this mess we have today if the way grades have been used.  Instead of providing a measurement of learning, grades have become competitive measures, reward (and punishment) systems, and proof that I have memorized a set of facts.  This shift is a result of the way behaviorism and "accountability" has permeated our culture.

As I write that last sentence, I am struck with an internal inconsistency that is forcing me to deal with an incomputable dilemma, ala HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey.  I am a staunch cognitive behaviorist.  At least I used to be.  Perhaps I am slipping into some other primary mode of thinking.  Even so, I do believe that we learn certain patterns of behavior based on the negative or positive responses we receive for that behavior.  I still believe that such an approach to the classroom has merit, even when it comes to learning.

What if we set our expectations on the basis of whether you have learned or mastered a set of material instead of centering the the approach on the grade you receive?  I could provide several anecdotal accounts of where that is working.  Given a short amount of time, I can provide research to back it as well.  From a behaviorist perspective, you can then condition the student to value learning and maybe even become intrinsically motivated.

The bottom line in this debate is what is best for the kids?  We must take an honest look at that answer, considering everything we know to be true about how students learn, how their brains work, and what the data tells us about all of it.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

At-Risk: The teacher trying to reach at-risk students

Tonight on #edchat we will probably be talking about how to reach at-risk students.  I'm looking forward to the chat because it is an issue near and dear to me.  Reaching at-risk individuals in any arena or context has driven every vocational choice I've ever made.  It's especially timely for me personally as I survey my class rosters and identify those five-percent-ers.  What I mean by that are those five percent of my students that I just have not been able to connect with or impact in a positve way.

I do a pretty good job forming relationships with my students, always have.  It's one of those things that has been integral in getting me hired at the schools where I've taught.  When I walk through the lunch room or down the hall, students from all grade levels shout out a hello, even those I've never taught or whose name I don't even know.  I'm not trying to paint myself as Mr. Popularity here.  I'm just saying I work really hard at building positive relationships because I think they are integral to the learning process.

We have approximately one-third of the school year left.  The tension in the relationships with my five-percent-ers is growing.  They are becoming more disengaged each day, and not just in my class.  They came into the school year as at-risk students and they will leave the same.  They have worked hard to maintain that status quo.  And it breaks my heart.  It wears me out emotionally.  It's the kind of thing that causes me to ponder my own effectiveness in the classroom.  Yeah, I know.  I made a tremendous impact on the other 95% and I shouldn't be dismayed.  But I can't forget those other five because I fear no one will care next year.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Hmm. . . . what CAN we do?

I brand myself as a visionary and a dreamer.  It's because I'm an idealist.  I like to believe that we can actually do the things the way we should and that the results will be what we hope.  That's one of the reasons I am always looking for ways around the system that blocks innovation.  That's why I look for ways to see what we CAN do in the face of restrictions.  Maybe we cannot adopt all the changes we'd like, but what ones can we implement?

This "what if. . ." post by Jessica Luallen Horton energized to think about my philosophy above even more.  I love her post.  My comment to her was where do I sign up?  This energy fed into other thinking prompted by Joe Bower and this post about grades.  So now, one of the things I have to find time for this weekend is finding a way to implement some of these crazy ideas.

Now, what CAN we do?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Building Student PLN's

Tonight's #edchat was about how social media can/is changing education.  Social media's influence has greatly benefitted me.  My PLN, built primarily around Twitter, has enabled me to change so much about how I teach.  My personal growth over the last year has been exponentially greater than my previous eight years as teacher.  Part of my learning has resulted from the sharing I do as well.

What if my students' could build PLN's?  How would their learning change?  What would be the impact on their education?  After tonight's chat, I'm determined to begin that process tomorrow, even if there are only 12 weeks left in the school year.

So how do I get this started?  There are some important logistical and legal issues that must be considered.  Some I have thought of.  Others I need your help on.

  • Find a service permissible and properly secure for your age group that is accessible on your school network.  This includes getting them email addresses.
  • Find an avatar creation site so kids won't have to use their real pics.
  • Teach them proper digital citizenship.
  • Model and demonstrate how a PLN can be used.
  • Create an IMMEDIATE use for them.
What am I missing?  What services would you suggest?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Assessment Gone out of Control

About a week and half ago I received the following email from a former student:
I have a second grader who came home today with a notice that he is below grade level in math and needs to go to after school tutoring. He is really bright and is already in AIG because he reads on a 5th grade level. Based on what I have seen, he can do math just fine, he is just really slow. 
When I told him he was going to have to go to after school help, he cried because he doesn't want to do extra homework. We have friends whose son goes to Kumon for math work, should I look into it? What questions do I need to ask the teacher so that we understand how to help him? Flash cards? I know second grade isn't your thing but do you have some advice?

In short, my recommendations to her were to get more details on this tutoring and how his need was determined.  Specifically I advised her to ask to see multiple work samples and ensure that this determination was not based on a singular assessment.  Today I received a follow up.

Just thought I would update you.  I have spoken with both "L's" teacher and the program coordinator at "L's" school.  He is actually doing really well in math with the exception of this one test that they are using to determine the need for intervention.  It is a two minute timed test that is scored on how many digits (1 and 2 digit addition and subtraction) they get correct in the time allotted.  On all of the other assessments that the teacher has given including word problems, graphing, three digit addition, small fractions, etc he is above the rest of the class. 
The school has yet to be able to tell me exactly what they will be covering in the after school tutoring and the teacher informed me that most of the children who were targeted are declining because they are all in similar situations of good math skills but slower than the target on this particular test.  
We have picked up flash cards to speed up his addition and subtraction of numbers that he should know right off the bat.  I won't know until May if it is paying off but it can't hurt and I can see where he is getting faster as we practice.  I think if we work on that he will be fine by 3rd grade.  I also can't help but think how I had such a mental block during pre-cal my senior year that I almost failed and then made an A in calculus in college.  Sometimes your brain just can't process with everything else going on.
I really appreciate your thoughts both as a teacher and a parent.  I'll let you know how he does after the next test in May.
I was appalled at this practice.  NCLB, RttT, and all other accountability measures have really driven common sense out of our schools.  I asked if I could share this story because I feel it is important for us to discuss.  Her response was, "Yes, please share. I think this also should highlight the need for administrators to communicate better with teachers about which students should be identified as needing help before notifying parents so that teachers are prepared for questions. "

So many things to discuss with this one.  Where do we start?