Thursday, September 25, 2014

Taking the Underground Out of the Ground

Just because we teach in a basement doesn't mean that's where we always stay. (Just most of the time) Recently my co-author took his classroom out-of-doors for an authentic experience in learning how we learn about Prehistory. Here's the video from our local news:

NBC29 WVIR Charlottesville, VA News, Sports and Weather

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

It's Go Time

Go Time Indeed
So tomorrow marks the official end of summer for teachers in my division with the arrival of students back at school.  The week long formal preparation has come to an end.  Most teachers have been prepping on some level since school got out in June but day 1 sneaks up quickly and you must manage the butterflies and find ways to serve your future students.  This year with 1 to 1 rolling out at our school there has been a bit more preparing than normal, but preparing is a rite of passage for teachers in August.

As I did prepare I was making a few copies in our new "Paper-Lite"(buzzword anyone?) technology blended workplace, I overheard a younger teacher ask a much more seasoned teacher if they were ready for school to start.  The reply fit the moment.

"You are never really ready...You just go."

That statement epitomizes my feelings exactly. And tomorrow is go time.   I could spend a whole month getting ready for the arrival of students and still find in many ways I still eel unprepared.Truth is I hate Pre-school week as I spend the majority of it in meetings or engaged in Organized Procrastination ( We can all get a little blue from the start of school).  Yep...some might say I seem intent on rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic instead of getting down to preparing in ways that really matter.  I focus a lot on my room.  Learning spaces are important...and recent trends to continue to place focus on shiny new spaces.  So I spent much of this week removing dated furniture, storing rarely used texts and finding a way to open things up a little by removing the clutter.  Hopefully it will be an improvement.  But we are still in a basement you know.

Another reason I don't enjoy this week is that there are no students in the building.  If the school building is the body, the staff is the skeleton that holds it together and the students are the blood in the veins.  The place lacks life without them.  Save the occasional visit from those getting a head start and mapping out their travel plan or those fixing scheduling issues its been just us teachers.  As energetic as we've been we can't replicate the buzz created by the young folks when they fill the building.  This year especially they will really FILL our building but until tomorrow it has just seems stale and empty.  At least when they are there going crazy there's some energy in the place.

So no I am not complaining about being back at work, quite the contrary.  My sister who teaches in Southwest VA has been back for 2 weeks already so I count my blessings for a little extra time with the family.  Sure I'd need my head examined if I didn't secretly wish for a few more days(or weeks)  of summer.  But it is go time.  Time to get back to the routines, the normalcy, the unpredictable chaos.  Schools in our area will fill with the young and the not so young but the mission is the same.  Help them grow, learn, think, engage, understand, cope, create, discover and do our best to educate them to the best of our ability.

Students, parents and teachers alike will lay our heads down tonight with a curious blend of anticipation, anxiety, excitement, and even dread.  In the months ahead we will will journey together with all of life's little adventures.   It will take time to learn each others stories and there is so much to do but at 8:55 tomorrow we get down to it.  Best of luck to all those who will greet the new and old faces and wishing everyone the best for a safe, successful and memorable school year!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

How I Missed My Son's 8th Grade Graduation

I'm pretty sure it was the largest class to ever graduate from Jack Jouett Middle School. Somewhere close to two-hundred and fifty eighth graders. So large, they moved the graduation down the road to Albemarle High School. It worked out well for me, that's where I teach. I wouldn't even have to take leave to slide down to the auditorium for a short middle school graduation.

My wife and I found good seats in the standing room only crowd. Like most graduations, we were there to watch our son walk across the stage, literally, from one stage of life to the next. But I missed it, and all I got instead was this lousy picture.

Bearing my name, I knew he'd be in the second half of the second half of the alphabet. I patiently waited for the "S's" to remove my phone from my pocket to ready the camera. I tried out the angles and settings as the first "T" was called and sat prepared to capture my son's milestone.

They called his name. As he walked up the steps I snapped a shot and inspected. "Too soon, that's no good, I've got time for another." So I tried again. "Too far away, I need more zoom." By now he's reaching for his certificate. "Last chance, better make it good." As I inspected the picture above, he started down the aisle, walking toward the back of the room and I realized, "I didn't even see him graduate."

I'd gotten so concerned about documenting and preserving the experience that in the end, I missed out and all I've got to show for it is a poor quality picture. That image would mean so much more if I'd paused to savor the moment, paid attention to what was happening, and allowed that memory to process for me to hold in my mind forever.

But I've learned a valuable lesson moving forward into this school year. The moment is so much more important than the documentation. We've become a culture that values the proof more than the experience. It's not enough to do. There has to be evidence that it's been done.

This is true of our vacations that we document on social media and it's true of our classrooms where the shiny project for display takes precedence over learning.

I'm not missing out this year, and I'm not going to let my students miss out. I'll still snap pictures when something cool is happening, I'll still have students produce projects to complement their learning. But I'm not going to waste so much time "trying to take the picture" that I miss out on the important things that are going on.

This happens in many ways in our classrooms:
1) The grade becomes more important than the learning
2) The project becomes a showpiece instead of a learning process
3) The teacher evaluation becomes self-promotion instead of honest self-reflection
4) The student work is displayed to demonstrate the creativity of the teacher instead of reinforcing the effort of the student.

I'm sure there's more. But I think all of it is solved by committing to be fully present to our students and their needs in every interaction we have with them.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Testing, the Blob, and the Great Escape

It is a monster.  I've seen it terrorize thousands of children.  They can't run.  They can't hide.  It will catch them eventually.  I've seen it kill kids...or at least kill their love of school and learning.  Like the movie monster Frankenstein it is a freightening patchwork, but in this case not one of used body parts but of misdirected education policy of our own creation that sparks fear, misunderstanding and even panic among people.  But Frankenstein wasn't bad...just a little nervous.  When I was little what scared me was the blob.  Testing is worse than the blob. But the description from the 1958 movie poster of "Indescribable! Indestructable! Nothing Can Stop It!"  sure does fit.

By now you certainly know that large scale testing has had a dramatic effect on American Education.  It has literally change the way we learn and teach.  Depending on who you believe, or trust, that is either a really good thing, or a really bad thing.  The voice from educators who work directly with kids seems to express the consensus that it is not so good.  Surprise surprise. 

"Testing Season," as it is un-affectionately known, begins in May and basically normal school grind to an abrupt halt.  It puts parts of the school and large portions of our student body on lockdown for weeks on end.  We do testing in 3 or 4 main locations but during that span our gymnasiums(we have 2) are sealed up tight.  Student routines and teacher days are changed to feed the monster.  We all are forced to proctor.  I am always thinking there is a certain indignity involved when you have to escort a student to the restroom for both us, and them. I won't even begin to enumerate the actual number of tests kids take in our state...but were well into the thousands just at our school alone.  It makes everyone grumpy.

 Testing leads to a curious phenomenon...testing fatigue.   It overcomes a usually vibrant and energetic group of people.  It is a real monster. Upperclassmen "check out" both mentally and physically.  The courses I teach with underclassmen become ineffective as on any given day half of the students or more may be missing.  testing has forever altered the end of school.   I stated before how unfortunate it is that the days of engaging and interesting activities serving to tie everything together have been undermined by all the crap we have railed against on this blog.

Radiation ...reform...what's the diff?
Lange's + Bridges' best work :)
Testing arguably destroy schools and the people within them.  It the worst of all the most famous monsters.  Like Godzilla it is a beats of our own creation.  Like the blob it grows more powerful and entrenched the longer it is around.  Like Dracula it sucks the life out of victims.  It has the potential to yield great profit like King Kong and that is what causes the problems.  Like Kong it is hard to control but unlike Kong it is rather unsympathetic.  Like the Mummy it has the potential to be around for a very very long time.  It has tentacles that reach out and touch just about every aspect of education, like the Giant Squid from 20,00 leagues under the sea.  It seems to function as an agent of some greater diabolical purpose like the creatures from Alien.  have I made my point?

  Like I said it can be destructive.  This is not an assemblage like that of Disney Pixar's Monster's University.  Fortunately the standardized testing has not overtaken those campuses yet.  But in our
I put this image in for my kids
public schools this destruction is incremental and hard to perceive.  I have witnessed many times just as I did this year the reaction of students when they learn they didn't pass.  They are certainly disappointed, even upset, but that deflation is quickly replaced with a callous "I don't care."  Sometimes that is true.  but when it is not it is sad to see the efforts of student go unrewarded  there's more to learning that just being able to pass a test.

For a teacher it might mean that they literally no longer have a job or a school to work in. It is a very helpless feeling watching your students take a test.  In my state, as I suspect in many others, there is no real way to improve the students efforts.  Worse yet is once they have taken the test, there is no real way to target remediation.  I can't tell what they did well, I can't tell what they didn't.  If it is merely supposed to be one of many tools used by teachers...I hope we kept the receipt.  I would also offer we should stop buying things off late night infomercials. 

Proof it is a poor tool is evident in the Student Performance By Question(SPBQ) report.  It is even more non-descript that the blob.  It is arguably less useful.  This despite the "helpful link" on the VDOE website intended to make this report useful.  I can find out what questions a student got correct or incorrect, but I cannot find what that specifically that student did or did not know. Allow me to share a few other gems from my efforts to make such a report useful:

This one illustrates the non-specific language that all our testing efforts produce.
So a couple million buys you some "maybes"?
So once they take the take I should be wary of using it to figure out what they do and do not know.
So its OK for everyone else to overstress SOL results, just not teachers.
Well, I might teach differently if I knew where to start.

Fighting the Monster
There are literally thousands of examples of teachers crying out against the testing machine.  But it must be fed.  Raw Scores, Scaled Scores, Failing Scores, remediation, and Online Testing all took time to entrench themselves in our schools.  But maybe there is light ahead and we are entering a new era of education where parents and students, even districts like our own join teachers in saying enough is enough.  Is it likely that we can together defeat the monster?  I don;t know.  There is a lot of money tied up in all of this.

The testing monster will be tough to rid ourselves of.  It will take a collective effort and not be an easy task.  Even still it is likely to be a worthy foe.  Reliance on political leadership from statehouses and capital domes will likely mean we'll just confront sequels of the same terror, in scarier form.  testing has its place.  But massive, poorly done, standardized testing is nothing but a destructive and undesirable force that must be stopped.  Maybe if we had a champion like Steve McQueen was in the 1963 film, he could lead us in The Great Escape.   Lest we not forget in that one he didn't actually escape.  Maybe one day we will.