Monday, April 14, 2014

Senior Skip Day 21st Century Style

It's not a new phenomena, but senior skip day in the modern high school is exponentially more effective today than even five years ago. Thanks interwebs.

I remember my high school days, the tradition of senior skip day fell on the same day every year. I can't be sure, but I bet it was even partially engineered by teachers and administrators to give students a little sense of power or maybe just a little outlet for some harmless rebellion.

When I started teaching, students had taken the initiative to call the "senior skip day" at their pleasure. It was a tricky task because one could never be certain that the message would spread, or even heeded if so. The skip day had to coincide with expected good weather and some other motivating event like prom or a three day weekend. Calling the skip day came with risk, because if a critical mass didn't participate, students could miss too much at school that day.

I guess we can blame it on twitter. Senior skip days are now more effective and efficient than at any other time in history. A premature call on the skip day will quickly be shot down by others, and lack of participation comes with early warning and I've known of more than a few events that have been called off at the last minute.

Today was not one of those days. Out of sixty-five students who were supposed to be in class today, I had twenty show up. Ten of them were juniors. The AP test for my class is exactly three weeks from today. We've missed over a dozen days of class this year. We had a full week (plus one day) of Spring Break the week before last. Today seemed like a good day for a skip day.

Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?

Friday, April 11, 2014

Is Oppressive Homework a Myth?

A recent report from the Brooking Institute making the media rounds claims that the homework burden of students today have not significantly changed in the last several decades. Surely the headlines will vary, but from what I've seen already, I expect the narrative will shape itself around a lack of rigor and preparation of 21st century students. Like most issues, I'm sure this one will be treated with simplicity. Here are a few thoughts:

1) Lets assume that students today have less homework and the complaints of so many parents and students are unfounded. What then is different that leads to this perception? Students today have many more expectations than those of twenty years ago. In addition to the pressure of earning a class grade, every student has a battery of standardized tests adding to the pressure of school. On top of it, many others deal with AP testing, ACTs and SATs in their junior and senior years. (and some in freshman and sophomore)

2) The days of "math 9, math 10, math 11, math 12" are over. Every student takes higher level math courses. Most students twenty years ago were taking Algebra and Geometry in 9th and 10th grade or later. Today its more likely to be 7th and 8th grade.

3) At the end of junior year into the fall of senior year of high school, the college application process can seem like an entire additional class worth of work.

4) Graduation requirements have increased. In the time that I've been teaching (since 1996) the number of classes that a student takes have grown from six to eight in a year.

5) Students are expected in many cases and required in others to engage in community and civic service.

6) The number of extracurricular activities available to students has grown, and "travel" sports are much more common today.

7) Because internet. I've been known to spend a little more time getting my work done when working on the computer at home. Twenty years ago we had a single landline in the home and a few dozen channels on the tube if you were lucky for a distraction. I guess we had Mario and the NES by the late 80s. Kids today have many more distractions today that will fit in their pocket than kids 20 years ago had in an entire house.

8) The 21st century value of choice, options, and individual attention: Twenty years ago we might have said "you can't have your cake and eat it too." Today's mantra is "I want it all, I want it now."

Maybe students today do less homework. But they're doing a whole lot of something else. Conversations about 21st century education get stuck on the use of technology, but there's something bigger than that. It's an all out culture shift and we're all struggling to adapt.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Is it really fair to label reformers as "Eugenicists"

We've really slowed down on the blogging lately. We'll blame it on our day jobs. Not to mention the fact that winter just won't seem to pass. This post was originally intended for Monday, March 3. With several snow days between then and now, it got lost in the shuffle. It starts with a little "declaration" of sorts, because oddly enough from the TU, it defends the reformers a bit. But only just a bit. We can't get too carried away.

I believe that “corporate reform” is bad for U.S. education. I believe that test based accountability has gone too far and become a hindrance to progress. I believe that education is an integral part of the economic and social structure of our society, but not the single driving force. I don’t doubt that nearly everyone involved in public education policy and debate want to create a better system of education in the United States, even if I question their ability to understand the reality of these complex systems.

If you’ve read most anything we’ve written, you know our position.

I needed to write that because I’ve noticed lately an increasing rhetoric pointed toward those who disagree. I’m appalled by how many people have begun tossing around the accusation of “Eugenicists” toward people who hold a different view of how students learn and how to best serve them. The most recent and perhaps highest profile use of this accusation came from Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union.

She summarizes a brief history of testing that every high school Psychology teacher should know. An honest test devised by Binet in response to Universal Education Laws in France. A test to identify and best meet the needs of children arriving in school. For much of the rest of the twentieth century, this style of testing and identifying would devolve and became a backbone of the science of Eugenics. A science that resulted in great harm and immoral actions by individuals and societies reaching it’s apex under Adolph Hitler and the Nazis.

It is important to stay mindful of the past and avoid its mistakes (an understatement in this case) but, equating current proponents of test based accountability and Grit with Eugenicists is a logical fallacy pushing the discussion of what’s best for students on the backburner while the adults who think they know best attack one another over who is right. (And might I take the time to point out that while this is going on, a caring teacher is in the classroom doing their best to take care of and educate their children)

Frankly, I’m surprised that any conversation comes from this type of talk.

As a teacher, when my voice is countered with the argument “it’s about the kids, not the adults”, I’m out of the dialogue. Whomever says this to me has indicated they believe I’m making decisions for my own benefit and not that of my students. If they really believe that’s true then they should have little reason to respect anything else that I say.

Likewise, if I truly believed someone’s primary motivation is rooted in the desire to purify the gene pool, I wouldn’t want to even hear their opinion.

So, let’s watch the rhetoric. It might sound good and get a rise out of people. It might lift your profile and get people talking about you on the internet. But, from where I sit everyday facing a hundred or so children, it doesn’t do anything to advance the cause of our students in public schools. So stop. And do something helpful.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Why I'm Tired of People Arguing About Grit

I’m tired of the online arguing and posturing over the concept of “Grit.”  At first, it sounded like a good idea, successful people have attitudes that lead to persistence and hard work, allowing them to overcome obstacles and reach their goals.  We can teach these qualities to students and increase their chances of success.

Then the critics come to say that is just elitist B.S., even calling some of its proponents modern day “eugenicists.”  Grit is fine for the privileged they say, but citing Grit as the reason for success is just another way to “blame the victim” and place the fault of failure squarely on the shoulder of our children and not the systems that place obstacle after obstacle in their way.

So they endlessly chatter. And chatter some more. Baiting each other into argument and reveling in their intellectual exchange.  All the while ignoring the damage their polarizing attitudes, rooted in theory divorced from practice, can have on public school students in America. It creates a false dichotomy.

Haven’t we learned anything from the polarized politics of Washington and our state houses that seem to miss the reality of people’s everyday lives?

So what do our kids need?  Grit or Slack.

If you are in a classroom everyday the answer is easy.  Both.

Every child is different and every day is different.  Still, in many ways, they are not much different from us.

For example, I get a tax refund every year.  (we can debate that wisdom later)  Knowing that my government owes me money, I am motivated to file early, so I’m hoping to file by Monday.  For most Americans who owe Uncle Sam, what day are they most likely to file?  That’s right, April 15.  Some might even take the hit and file late.

When do students complete their work?  That’s right, when they have to.  Just like you and I, a deadline or a due date is the day that you finish what you have to finish.  Without compelling reason or reward, you just aren’t likely to finish early.  And sometimes you shouldn’t.  It is wise to use all of your allotted time to do something well.

Sometimes a student needs a deadline.  They need to know that it means something.  If it is not enforced then it is no longer a deadline. 

Sometimes a student needs a break.  We know they have had issues that other students have not dealt with.  We know their reason for not doing what they are supposed to is understandable. 

Not always, and sure we get it wrong sometimes.

So why not err on the side of the student, right?  Give them the benefit of a doubt.  As the mantra goes, “it about what’s best for the student.”  What is best for the student?

I got the benefit of a doubt too many times in high school.  I could remember almost anything I heard and so long as I paid attention in class, I could count on doing well on tests.  If teachers required additional work, I did just enough to keep an “A” (or a “B” if it was an AP because those were weighted).  I knew that in most classes teachers would not bother to penalize me for poor work habits if I could score well on their tests.

This relates to Carol Dweck’s ideas on “mindset.”  I didn’t achieve because of effort, school just came easy to me.  I relied on my abilities and didn’t even get that my effort (or lack thereof) mattered.

It was good enough to earn me admission to the University of Virginia, but I barely escaped my first year without an academic suspension.  I never opened a book to read for biology or psychology, the teacher went over homework in math every Friday, so I didn’t bother to do it ahead of time, and Latin homework wasn’t collected or graded so I never did it.

I spent the first three weeks of the summer of 1991 on the assembly line of the Bassett Furniture factory where I’d worked the last three summers wondering whether that was the place I’d spend the rest of my life.

Taking my excuses for not doing work and giving me second chances when the grade I had earned at the end of a marking period was not as high as I wanted wasn’t in my best interests.  After the scare of suspension and prospects of life in a factory (which would have turned into unemployment) I tried something different.  I actually read the texts assigned on schedule.  I did assignments even when they were not graded.  I found other people in my classes to study with.  I did this because after a year of college I learned that effort matters.  I finished college with a decent GPA, but more importantly, I learned in the process.

What I am advocating is not a “no excuses” attitude.  Nevertheless, there is a little truth to the old teacher mantra of “don’t let them see you smile until Christmas.”  Any successful teacher who has been at it for more than a few years does not need an armchair quarterback to explain how students work.  Grit and the qualities of perseverance are vital.  Students need to learn self-control, emotional intelligence, and interpersonal skills vital to success in the world.  They need external standards of accountability.  They also need to be subject to the spirit and not the letter of the law.  Situations require flexibility and because there is a relationship between teachers and learners, teachers recognize that there is a time for slack.


Writing books and engaging in theoretical arguments are fun, but when you deal with the reality of whether a student is going to graduate or not and struggle with the question of whether they will walk into their future equipped for success or set up for failure, that’s when you really understand the question “What’s in the best interest of the child?”