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.