Friday, December 24, 2010

An Edutalk Happy Holidays

This year we have worked to mesh our outcome-based schemas to innovate proactive relationships.  As we extend our peer-based dialogue to the greater community, our hopes for you this season is that you would embrace over-arching objectives in order to re-contextualize school-to-work niches.  We believe we've done a good job of reinventing metacognitive interfaces to engineer impactful systems.  So may you envision dynamic processes and engage critical competencies. 

If you understood anything that I just said, then you need a holiday.  Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, I hope that you can at least find a day of rest and enjoy a break if not tomorrow, sometime over this break.  And if you have nothing else to do, play with the "Educational Jargon Generator" and create your own masterpiece like the one above.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Part 2-Why I sometimes wish I taught Elementary School

Today's entry is a continuation of the story began on my previous post. If you have not read that portion you should begin there.

So I did what every red blooded American teacher worth their salt would have done. I paused, stared into their eyes and for just a moment and searched their faces for signs of fear, which they should now be unable to hide. But it wasn't there and I went forward. Again no violence or obscenities, no use of the walkie-talkie to call for administrative back-up, nothing crazy...I just began to stand there in silence. This single act of desperation was so unexpected it took them a bit by surprise. In the past they must have encountered teachers who either gave up or lost it, at which time they would revel in their victory and recount it when they gathered for weeks to come. Like some close knit band of soldiers who sit around a campfire describing a battle they had just won sharing a common bond unknown to outsiders who haven't shared their experience. I would at least try and deny them that joy by staying put and stifling their fun.

They seemed to be going on instinct and not sure what to do next. They slowly began to move off and break apart, and it appeared as if the tide was finally turning in my favor. Seconds seemed like hours as I sat with arms folded, eyes glaring, and scowling in their direction. I moved in concert with them remaining at constant distance of about 10 feet. This kept them uneasy, unsettled, like a bunch of nervous animals on some African savanna knowing that just off in the distance beyond their sight were the lions on the hunt. The group now reformed into 7 or 8 students and shifted about resisting my presence and they began to talk about some nonsensical this and that. While it was now clear I wasn't going to win complete victory, I wouldn't walk away and allow them the satisfaction of seeing me retreat. While we were locked in this stalemate something then shifted the fate of all of us forever.

As I stood there trapped, the infamous "Orange thrower" reappeared. The one who had gotten us all into this who had apparently escaped sanction was back. Like many criminals he had returned to the scene of the crime. I wasn't sure at first. The clothes were different and he appeared aloof and unaware. But then he snapped a gaze in my direction and as our eyes met. I immediately saw his guilt and recognized him. This was supported by his bulging backpack(full of the red sweatshirt and the hat he had removed) and the "hathead" which rimmed his hair where the now hidden NY Yankees cap had sat moments earlier. Seizing this opportunity I disengaged with the group and I motioned him over and asked where he went. He decided to play dumb which I exposed through my wit and strategic questioning. His responses were delayed and inconsistent. I then told him we were going to take a walk to the office.

On the way he trailed a few feet behind(so I kept a nervous eye on him) and I asked him his name. "Bob Shapp”(names have been changed) came the reply. I said "Shapp?..." how 'bout we call you "shifty"? This feeble effort to regain my composure through my normal biting sarcasm and humor fell woefully short when it was clear he was unable to grasp the complexity of the remark.

Once in the office I debated the merits of submitting a DR(discipline referral). I went through the standard set of questions... Name?...Grade?..Ever been in trouble before?... the standard stuff. He countered with questions asking why he was there. Trying to introduce doubt into my mind. A second Orange thrower on the grassy knoll?...that sort of thing. It was somewhat sad to watch this all transpire. I interjected that I had known his older sister hoping that the small talk would make us both feel better. He said "I know her better". This helped me feel certain about my follow up. I regained my breath and my blood cooled and systematically and slowly narrated my actions for he and I to hear. While he responded to these statements at first, in the end his spirit was broken and he was either plotting revenge or too angry to play along. I next left him there on the bench for a few minutes while I left(just took a walk to look important and see who was around that administrative hall)and when I returned I closed with a final series of questions. I read the account I had written on the DRs(I wrote two up for the other two students who were the ones who really bothered me..sadly I'm not even sure how to hold them accountable or if I have their real names) and then capped each phrase with "Is that accurate? When he again failed to respond I said "I'll take that as a yes". Interestingly this whole process played out for several minutes next to another student who had been in the office since first period. He found my humor quite refreshing. He would throw in "Did you at least hit anybody?" and between the two of us we brought the entire episode to an uneventful but mildly comedic close(from a legal perspective, in court no doubt a lawyer could gain an acquittal but I when I mentioned we could watch the school surveillance camera he agreed we didn’t need to).

Since lunch was now over I asked what his next class period was..."Mr McMurray" was the response, "Is that MAC or Mc?” I spoke as I filled out the pass….hmmm, my last intellectual jab in this epic was not the most memorable but I had to finish him off. I wrote him a pass and as he left I stated "OK Mr. Shapp I feel like I've done a great service here today and the world is a safer place." Had I sunk that low or had I been pushed that far? The truth was not so clear. Whatever the case it all started with that damn orange and will likely end when I retire or move on from teaching(something that has entered my consciousness more often the last 2 years and something I’d never thought I’d even contemplate) I hung around for a few days and was a visible presence during next few weeks during lunch. Maybe I should have just walked away

In the days in between I spoke to him often and I made a point to actually stop to say him whenever we passed. For the next two years we spoke often. He was later kicked out of school for a serious incident which meant he was no longer welcome at the school.
Anyway I bet Elementary school has a whole different set of problems with the poopy pants and stuff...

Thursday, December 16, 2010

PART 1-Why I sometimes wish I taught Elementary school

Like a lot of the Nation's teachers we have been challenged by some of the recent trends and changes in education. So I thought it time to try and lighten the mood.

It was a tense time at our high school with numerous fights in recent days (2 of which I was involved in breaking up) and there was an overall unsettled feeling among the students. Whether it is the stress of the start of school, the recent hurricanes, or the hot weather everybody seemed to be on edge. It was in this setting that our story begins. I was in my 5th year of full time teaching and felt I was finally coming into my own. While on lunch duty in the schools breezeway(our open courtyard area in the school's center), I saw an orange sail high into the air and strike the ground some 70 feet away. I saw the place of origin of the orange and started in that direction to see if I could gather some "intell", prevent further missile launching, or even find who threw it. Several students noticed my approach and menacing gaze and I signaled to them to come over to me with a point and hand gesture. This act was repeated 5 or 6 times as each of them feigned ignorance as to my request. While I was still some 50 feet away they all began looking at one student and he finally went and picked up his bag and then lugged himself to me. As we neared each other it was obvious that I knew that he now knew that I had zeroed in on him as the culprit based on his nervous demeanor and sunken stance(a skill that teachers pick up once you’ve taught awhile). I asked "what the heck" he was doing and told him to go pick up that orange and then come back over to which time I would have my lecture fully prepared and I would have found some suitable way to instill the necessary guilt in him and make him feel “stupid” in today's politically correct and sensitive world. That would likely have been the end of it.

We could all walk away and go on about our business and the world would continue spinning at its normal speed uninterrupted. But instead something very different took place. He slowly walked away and began to fiddle around with his bookbag veering away from where the orange had landed. Frustrated by his lack of progress I headed towards him and from a distance more sternly stated "Go pick up that orange, and then come back over there!"(pointing to where I had been standing). I turned my back and in the 5-7 seconds in which I returned to my perch on the nearby steps he had ducked down and all I saw was him scurrying away through the crowd. "He's running away?" I asked myself. This I took as a direct challenge on my authority(whatever that may be and in reality a mere facade in many of our schools) and frankly was not a situation in which I often find myself.

At this point I was rather miffed and when I looked at his buddies in the spot where the orange had originated they were laughing. Feeling my status as a respected member of the faculty now in jeopardy I knew I had to put things back into their proper order. On the way over to them I tried to think of quick and witty phrases to demonstrate my superior intellect in hopes it would force them not only to reveal the identity of the student who fled but also restore my status as top dog on the breezeway. With the luxury of time and hindsight I can think of several things I could have said . But upon my arrival all I could say was "who was that kid who just ran away?" They all shrugged their shoulders and continued to laugh. In their huddle were about 7-8 kids, the more intelligent of whom began to drift away sensing my growing unhappiness. I again inquired as to the identity of the perpetrator and was met with simple and muffled replies of "I don't know his name" or "what kid". At this point the tenor of my inquiries changed and it became rather apparent I was beginning my slow and steady rise up the crazy meter. When I inquired a third time one student had the audacity to say "Dude, I don't even know what you're talking about." Well that did it. In an instant things got a lot worse and I would cross a line from which I could not retreat.

No I didn't hit or curse at any of them(although I was thinking about it). Instead I began to rant about how now things had just gotten a lot more serious and "I need some names" yeah... " Let's start with your name"... I stated this quite clearly using the King's English I had been taught to use since I was a child as I pulled the red pen from my shirt pocket(though I had no paper). Still one obstinate, and in my opinion either rather foolish or rather stupid student quipped, "What did you say?" I then began to sound out the syllables and use mocked hand gestures(in hindsight this was in poor taste but would have been funny 15 years ago). I pulled the only paper I had readily available, a bank receipt, from my wallet and scribbled the names of two students onto the paper, which regrettably looked painfully unofficial. All the while I was well aware of not only how callous and overt they were being in their rebuttal of my actions but how they were perfectly comfortable with their behavior and expected me to just take it. At this point we were locked in duel of wills, a duel sadly that only one side could win, but we could both lose.

By now the crowd of friends had shrunk and I was engaged directly with only two young men, their female acquaintance and their buddy who knew enough to stay farther away but still be able to listen and laugh smugly and egg them on. The next step was unthinkable as I went on to explain that I would now make it my sworn duty to be present at this exact spot every lunch and every break and I would be sure to enforce every school rule to the letter of the law. I ranted for some time about how this could have all been so easy but now it was too late and they would be the ones who regret these events and this day,(and that damned orange). Surely these realities must have begun to sink in and scared them and they would now shrink back into their mandated role at the bottom of the hierarchy...sadly no. They continued to smile defiantly and we both knew that their side was winning. I felt all that I had worked so hard for slipping away. In the back of my mind I wished for one to curse at me or even take a swing at me… or at least provoke me into escalating the severity beyond the petty incident that put us into this situation so I could write them up. I began to slip into the beginning of what others might call rage. I myself seldom lose control and cannot recall doing so if it didn't involve someone picking on an innocent and intellectually defenseless student or an behavior so despicable it must be met with contempt, but these did not exist here. They were just acting like jerks who apparently had never been taught the value of respect.

So I did what every red blooded American teacher worth their salt would have done. I


Thursday, December 9, 2010

Exceptionally Effective-Enthusiasm

4 for 10. Great baseball players are lucky to manage that batting average. It means many great ones have days where they go without a hit. Many professions allow individuals to have such "off days" and still be successful. Not so with teachers. You have to "bring it" each and every day. Sports and teaching share a characteristic, to be exceptionally effective you must be enthusiastic and energetic. As a teacher be aware of your energy level and how you project that into your classroom. Teachers should be passionate about both the success of their students and their content. This trait will serve you well in the classroom.

Work to design lessons that allow you to draw energy from your students. Activities, review games, student movement and activity can create enthusiasm. Yoke and harness student energy instead of always expending your own energy. To remain energetic and enthusiastic you have to rest when you are able. Whenever possible leave your work at work. This helps you recharge and show up each day ready to do a little better than a great baseball player.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

What if...

...while moving away from educating students to take their place in a manufacturing economy we've inadvertently begun to educate them to take their place in a consumer driven market.

I was born and raised in a factory town.  My father, grandfather, and every uncle on my mother's side work their lives in them.  My first job was on the assembly line in the factory.  As a child, at least six major Bassett Furniture factories operated within ten miles of my house.  Today, none are left.  When people talk about the changing economy, I've seen first hand how quickly entire regions can be left behind.

Rightfully so, educators fear sending our children into a 21st century economy well equipped with 20th century skills.  So many of us are using the factory metaphor to drive home the point that the old way of thinking is dead.  Our students no longer leave school to enter a manufacturing economy. 

Unfortunately, much of what drives our economy today is consumption.  Remember the tax rebates of 2008.  The administration knew that people needed to spend more money to spur the economy.  I remember the announcement (maybe around 2005) that iPods would have video; the folks at Apple introduced a product for which they needed to create a market.  Unemployment is up, tax revenue is down, schools are struggling to find funding, but technology and consumer products still have a market. 

I remember the factories used to offer good wages to high school students.  Often, these wages were good enough to make us think that we could make a really good living from the factory-- unless we looked at the wages earned by folks who'd been there for 20, 30, or 40 years; unless we could see by the end of the 1980s that an economy based on manufacturing wouldn't last through our working careers.

I hope that as educators we aren't fooling ourselves with progress.  What if instead of producing a productive labor pool for the manufacturing economy we are simply switching cogs and moving to produce effective consumers to drive the economy of consumption?  What if instead of public education being the "farm system" creating obedient and responsible workers for business owners we are now becoming the "farm system" for the new entrepeneurs who need a market for their products?

Are we teaching students to be productive and responsible citizens of the 21st century world or domesticated, obedient consumers in a global economy?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Teacher Voices

We hope to finish up our series on Exceptionally Effective teaching with one more post on the topic, but in the meantime I wanted to share a website from the College Board that I find interesting.  It is called Teacher Advocacy.  Their stated goal on the website is as follows:
 To support teachers by highlighting the critical importance of their work and amplifying their voices in policy debates about educational reform.
Recently I have joined several colleagues in addressing our local School Board and Central Office regarding scheduling changes that have affected our ability to effectively provide a quality education to our students.  These decision-making bodies are in a tough place and are dealing with a difficult financial situation.  We have also been placed in a tough situation, having to make decisions that affect the quality of education for our students.  We are having to choose between timely and quality feedback, breadth versus depth of content coverage, distributed versus massed practice, and unfortunately sometimes between the welfare of our families and that of our students.

I respect the difficulty of choices that the decision-makers must make, but I hope that the difficulty of the decisions that teachers are having to make are understood by the decision-makers.  So far, I'm not sure how far our voices have travelled.  We've shared our concerns with everyone who can make a difference.  I go back and forth between believing that we've been heard and believing that we're being tolerated.  Either way, I am convinced that both locally and nationally the teacher voice is perhaps the most important voice (second to only the student) in education policy and reform, but we spend too much time behind our classroom doors.  That is one reason why I've shared the link today.  It highlights the positive side of education and the individual stories of successful teachers. 

Only time will tell if our efforts have made a difference in our district.  As difficult as stepping out and raising our voices has been, our students are worth the trouble.  I hope that all of our teachers, locally and nationally, will find their voice to advocate loudly and effectively on behalf of our students.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Exceptionally Effective- Creativity

  I learned very early in my career that teaching from another teacher's plan is not as easy as it sounds.  One thing that I have appreciated about the research study on effective teachers that we've been exploring is the emphasis on the importance of personality characteristics of teachers.  Because of our differing personalities and styles-- and those of our students-- very few resources can be used "as is."  Learning to integrate and adapt the ideas of others effectively rather than simply "stealing" and passing it off as your own is an essential skill for a teacher.

One of the most encouraging parts of our job comes when we create that unique and effective learning experience for our students that motivates and inspires them in their efforts.  Games and simulations that allow students to really experience the "aha!" moment or new technologies that enable students to engage the curriculum in novel and creative ways on their own demonstrates to us what good teaching looks like.  I've written before about the art of teaching in my post "Teaching and Donuts" and I find the creative element of teaching to be one of the most life giving aspects of the profession.

I would like to think that in the current era of standardization and reform that more people understood this.  Many teachers see active engagement, differentiated instruction, and technology integration as roadblocks and an extra burden on their time.  More and more, that seems to be the piece that we are missing as teachers-- time.

Consider the following story from author Nancy Beach's An Hour On Sunday:
        As an artist at Hallmark Cards, Gordon MacKenzie sought to preserve and protect his own creative spirit. Orbiting the Giant Hairball, one of my all-time favorite books, beautifully describes Gordon's journey.
       Gordon illustrates the tension between management and artists when it comes to production pace. He asks the reader to imagine a serene pasture where a dairy cow is quietly eating grass, chewing her cud, and swishing her tail.
       Outside the fence stands "a rotund gentleman in a $700, powder-blue, pinstripe suit." This gentleman is livid that the cow is not working hard. He doesn't understand that whatever milk the cow produces when placed on the milking machine is directly related to the time the cow spends out in the field—"seemingly idle, but, in fact, performing the alchemy of transforming grass into milk."
       Gordon skillfully compares the rotund gentleman to management leaders all over the country who have no patience for the "quiet time essential to profound creativity."
The classroom teacher must work diligently to find the opportunities to collaborate and communicate with colleagues, and most importantly, to reflect...
       ...about what we're doing
          ... and why we do it
             ... and how we can do it better

I only wish that more people would recognize this and grant me the time to be creative for our children.  But until then I will strive to carve out as much time in my life as I can to reflect and consider the classroom, the canvas for my creativity.

With that, we would like to claim the next four days as holiday and let our minds and bodies rest, because the students we will meet on Monday morning deserve our best, not our leftovers.  May we all find peace and rest, Happy Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Exceptionally Effective- Caring About Students

As a twenty-something taking Ed School classes to become a teacher, I grew tired of the cliché “students don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”  Fifteen years later, I cannot remind myself of that fact enough.  Rating in the top five qualities of the Exceptional Teacher study, “caring about your students” is an absolute prerequisite for a k-12 teacher.

Caring gets easier the longer you teach.  I have established many relationships with the parents and students in our community.  So when a brother, sister, even cousin or family friend of a former student enters my class for the first time we already have a little “history.”  Even when a student comes into the classroom unconnected with my life, I usually find something in their life with which I can relate:  a common friend, sport, community organizations, etc.  

Sometimes caring gets harder the longer you teach.  This might sound strange, but I keep a spreadsheet with the name of every student I’ve ever taught.  That number is approaching two-thousand now.  When you add over one-hundred to that every year, remembering names gets tough.   I would argue that a class should never start without students sharing their names.  On the first day of class this year I taught a senior coming into our school for the first time.  When I saw him in the hall the next day I called him by name.  I was taken aback the way his eyes lit up and he responded surprisingly, “you really remembered my name.”

We also show that we care by holding students accountable for their behavior and their academic performance.  It is easier to “go with the flow” and keep everyone happy than to hold students accountable.  A caring teacher knows that sometimes “caring” means consequences while other times it means forgiveness.

I’m not surprised that “caring” was near the top of the list of effective teacher qualities.  Several of my colleagues, Lindsay included, sat down to lunch today with a former student who came back to visit us.  A student who experiences a caring teacher does not learn from them for a year, they learn from them for life.  This is all the data I need to know the importance of caring about my students.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Exceptionally Effective-A Sense of Humor

It is essential to have a sense of humor if you are going to be a teacher. The job simply demands that you be able to sit back and laugh, especially at the variety of predicaments in which you will find yourself. Laughter is a survival skill. But exceptional teachers don’t just make themselves laugh; they can find ways to make their students laugh. They use humor in a way that is useful to learning and helps them teach.

Not all great teachers are funny but everyone can use humor to improve their instruction in a variety of ways. There is the simple use of the youtube clip, cleverly woven into the lesson and used to start discussion or illustrate a point. If nothing else it usually gets kids attention. But there is a fine line between funny and silly. A skillful instructor knows the latter does little to improve the learning environment.

In my class I have stumbled across several "tricks" that seem to keep the class engaged. One of my favorite is when someone enters my room they are politely applauded. I instruct my students to begin a soft golf clap when an outsider enters the room. Be it a student delivering a pass, a principal doing an observation, a teacher getting something off my printer, they are all met with a round of gentle applause. It is funny and welcoming. It alerts me to their presence, which is necessary when I do not notice their arrival. Rarely does a visitor merge seamlessly into the room so acknowledging them in a humorous fashion helps me remain in control of the disruption. Most visitors now have come to expect this.

Fun games can also be humorous. The internet is crowded with activities from teachers who have shared such resources ranging from simple jeopardy more complex creations. I have a template similar to the game Taboo, where students have their partner try to guess the vocab word. My colleague, Mr. Turner, has been known to play "Name of Drug or Metal Band" in his Psychology class. These less formal strategies can still produce learning and it doesn't hurt to laugh when things don't go as planned.

Another trick is to relate stories from your personal experience. Since you are "older" you have been where they are in life and can offer insights in a funny way. I usually clean these up as needed and occasionally embellish them to amplify the humorous effect. Experience has taught me to use self-deprecation in these and whenever possible. Maybe people relate easier to those they feel sorry for, I am not sure. I guess Charlie Brown would be a great teacher.

To some these may seem a waste of valuable instructional time. But being willing to take 5 minutes to make kids laugh in exchange for engaging them rest of the period is a trade-off well worth the effort. Students might even enjoy attending the class and on occasion even pay attention. Learning is generally more enjoyable when you are having fun.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Exceptionally Effective- High Expectations

Challenging/ Has Reasonably High Expectations

In my class, I strive to balance the fact that my students are in a twelfth grade college level class with the fact that they are still twelfth grade high school students.  They should leave my class able to take responsibility for their own learning, but while they are here, I must take my share of responsibility for their learning. 

This means that I must help them discover the expectations and outcomes that earlier in their education would have been clearly outlined for them.  I cannot be ambiguous and unclear, but my students must also learn self-direction and begin to set academic goals that balance their desired outcome with the expectations of the course.  By nature, this becomes an individual process with some students entering the course completely capable of taking full responsibility for their academic success and others requiring a greater level of teacher and parent involvement.

Earlier in my career I taught ninth and tenth grade students and this requires a different approach.  Indeed, this year I teach a predominantly ninth grade elective for the first time in several years and I am learning to readjust to their needs.

Personal experience informs this philosophy.  As a junior in high school, my AP U.S. History course was taught as a college class.  The teacher assigned reading and students were assessed periodically with tests.  I never read, but managed to remember enough from test to test to manage a B which weighted to an A.  By the time I took the AP test in May, I scored a 2.   Most of my other classes required homework, but I only completed it when I knew it would be graded. 

Neither approach served me well.  I did not learn the value of study and practice.  In college, I continued to only do the work required for a grade-- my learning and GPA suffered.

Having reasonably high expectations means that we set the bar high enough to reach, but this might be higher than the student believes he or she can reach.  It also means that if one must fully extend and balance on the tips of their toes to reach the goal, sometimes they will fall.  To set reasonably high expectations  for our students we also have to teach the value of failure and the resiliency to learn from failure instead of letting it define our futures.

The biggest challenge today is finding the time to set these challenges AND to stand behind each student as they strive to achieve.  As "factory schools" pile more and more bodies into the classroom the problem of effectively challenging students becomes greater and we fall back on setting the benchmark that we know everyone can achieve instead of pushing each individual to achieve every bit that they can.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Exceptionally Effective teacher- Enthusiasm

4 for 10. Great baseball players are lucky to manage that batting average. It means many great ones have days where they go without a hit. Many professions allow individuals to have such "off days" and still be successful. Not so with teachers. You have to "bring it" each and every day. Sports and teaching share a characteristic, to be exceptionally effective you must be enthusiastic and energetic. As a teacher be aware of your energy level and how you project that into your classroom. Teachers should be passionate about both the success of their students and their content. This trait will serve you well in the classroom.

Work to design lessons that allow you to draw energy from your students. Activities, review games, student movement and activity can create enthusiasm. Yoke and harness student energy instead of always expending your own energy. To remain energetic and enthusiastic you have to rest when you are able. Whenever possible leave your work at work. This helps you recharge and show up each day ready to do a little better than a great baseball player.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Hollywood or Classroom

Perhaps our understanding of "student engagement" could lead to unintended consequences.  I know what engagement means and pride myself on my ability engage and relate to my students. I do have my limits and know I am not always successful.  Many factors affect this, ranging from the fact I teach Ancient World History to what is going outside the classroom in the student's life.  But I've heard and it bears repeating that the expectation, solely on the teacher to find a way to engage 100% of the students 100% of the time might be just a tad unrealistic.

The comparison of a classroom to Hollywood might take a while to explain so bear with me, I will try to be engaging.  Almost every television network today devotes at least some of its programming to the lives of the Hollywood stars. The minutia of their lives playing out before our eyes and most notably when they run amuck with the law.  Fear not because one thing I have learned is that personal responsibility is not stressed in the world of stardom.  Responsibility for ones own actions and behaviors seems an alien concept to the people we see on the TV.  Which brings me to my point.  When a child is not engaged that appears now to be the responsibility of the teacher and no longer the child.

Obviously teachers play a huge role and should strive to engage kids. When I was in school and said "my teacher is boring" or "I don't like math" that didn't excuse me when I did poorly or didn't learn.  But it seems to be moving in that direction.  How did this shift occur? Setting my curriculum and any specific academic skills aside there is a lot I'm trying to teach to my students that is part of the "unwritten curriculum".  Things like a good work ethic, manners, self advocacy, how to work with others, critical thinking, how to respond to failure or a challenge.  Perhaps most important would be responsibility.  Good teachers do what I think we are talking about and make every effort to engage their students in learning.  They need to understand the importance of differentiating based on the student's needs and characteristics.  Cognitively speaking this is a different equation for elementary and secondary students (who are the ones that I teach).

You can easily locate strategies to engage students but doing so effectively is really what separates the science of teaching from the art that we practice as professionals.  To me it means keeping them interested and involved.  Making them want to learn.  But they are kids after all.  Here's a revolutionary thought: on occasion they should remain interested and involved because they will need to in order to succeed.  Learning to combat boredom and keep your head up and pay attention is a skill.  Maybe worthy among those I mentioned above that I work hard to impart.  Making this happen is not so simple as catchy expressions, funny PowerPoint clipart or asking challenging questions.  Sometimes I can accomplish this with humor, energy, student involvement in learning and sometimes I fail.  There is no silver bullet.  My approach is to build a level of rapport where they will realize they should want to do well and I have a role in that.

Be it the push to not give zeros, even if the student does nothing(see the power of zero) or looking at teachers when kids are not engaged, not teaching kids about their responsibility for their education could potentially have a huge impact on them later in life.  We need these kids to grow into responsible citizens or their behavior in our communities will resemble the behavior in Hollywood.  Parents, teachers, everyone needs to work together to engender them with a sense of responsibility.  We need to continue to emphasize the the role the child plays in their own academic success.  Yes we need to engage but to point the finger solely at the teacher, what is the lesson there?  Having responsibility will take them a long way in life, maybe not all the way to Hollywood, but that isn't always a bad thing.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

"New and Improved" or "Just New"

When purchasing a home or car beware the presence of "Wet Paint". You can hide just about any flaw with a coat of new paint. It seems educational reformers love change or "fresh paint" as well. Not just for the sake of change but I think they feel that if you change something it must be improving it. People who work in a school building welcome improvement, but know that changes are not always an improvement. A funny example was when a school board member visited our computer lab years ago and stated how wonderful it was to see students using technology and we needed more of this. The student in question was playing minesweeper.

Much of the reform that arrives at the schoolhouse door is merely a centralized form of the innovation many teachers are doing already. While I do not presume that reformers are ill intentioned, quite the opposite, I do feel it is difficult for them to grasp the impact of their changes on the classroom teacher and students. Arne Duncan is no doubt a learned man and well versed in the challenges faced in education from his decade of service in the Chicago City Schools. But he is helping drive nationwide change based on a system where the makeup and needs of the community are potentially very different from elsewhere. Implementing these ideas everywhere may in fact impede and disrupt much of what is being done well. Reformers love to point to results and too often fall into the trap of falsehoods. Improvement is linked to a single indicator or solely to reforms that have been instituted. When the gains stop, it must then be time to switch to something else.

Let's think about the iconic image of American education, the yellow schoolbus. The bus driver is tasked with safely navigating the bus with precious cargo intact. Imagine if you will that the bus was now driven by a national reformer, edupreneur, staffer or administrator at the division level who is years removed from the classroom or never spent time there. As they pass side roads they would be attracted by shiny objects or the fresh pavement and smooth surfaces. They might jerk the wheel sharply in order to change the direction of the bus thinking this is an improvement. The effect would be felt most by the passengers(students, teachers and parents), helplessly hanging on for dear life. Turn after turn...change after get the point. By the time the bus opened its doors to unload, folks are worn out.

My image of a bus driver evokes that of an old kind-hearted and grizzled figure who knows all the roads by heart and has driven them for years. They worked on buses and know every inch of the darn thing. They greet each passenger and appreciate how important they are to their parents. Maybe they even transported an older sibling in the past. They drive slow and wave as they pass, but you could set your clock to them. Some outsiders in their own cars who are trying to get to their own destination quickly get annoyed with the lack of progress, these drivers represent the most vocal critics of our public education system. The ride is smooth, measured and safe. The bus driver chats with the other drivers via the radio or in the lot while awaiting the rush of kids at the end of the school day. They spend hours caring for the bus, mopping the floor, returning lost items, maintaining the bus and wouldn't dare seek recognition. They are the human element in education.

Their reward is knowing they have done a solid job as they always have, and always will. I admit this is a bit idyllic and different from some of the years I rode the "Cheese Wagon". My most memorable driver was Mrs. Dubell. She lived up the street and blew a whistle when we got too loud, which seemed to happen at least two times per trip. She got us there every day, cared about us, did her job well and was left alone to do her job.

But times change. Drivers were forced to endure change in order to improve the system and make it more efficient. Routes were shifted and demands increased to "maximize" this efficiency. Mrs. Dubell's bus no longer sat in her driveway and it was now parked in the county lot. She had to go get it each day only to drive it back towards her house to begin her route. It wasn't long before she stopped driving all together. This began a laundry list of drivers on our route, none of which knew me, and few of which I can remember.

This story applies because the bus, analogous to the education system in general, I am on now is jerky and changes course frequently. Standardized testing, NCLB, formative assessments, schedule changes, online courses, push for common practices among classrooms, grading changes, increasing class sizes and work load, staff turnover, declining morale, technological overload ,the list of changes goes on. Much of this change is unproven and quite profound. It carries the power of mandate which is often unfunded consuming resources which could be used elsewhere. I am being asked to do pretty much the same thing I was doing well earlier in my career, before I was expected to change to something else. And now there's a whole lot more of it. Honestly it is getting hard to do anything well. I guess my choices are hop off this bus and walk(too far) or suggest ways the driver can improve.

The problem for me is the same as it was for the old bus driver. Determining my role in this new landscape and wondering if the relationships I forge with the students will have as big of a place in the equation? As my own child nears the age where she will depart on a schoolbus for the first day of school I know I prefer she ride with the old seasoned driver. I will want the same one each year who does their job well. I wonder what changes she will encounter that may not be improvements?

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Death of Public School Factories

Critics and reformers alike invoke the factory system metaphor to point out the greatest flaws in our public education system. In the 21st century, the factory is an anachronism and a factory system of education is destined to follow the same road as its manufacturing counterparts. I have never met a teacher, student, or parent who would favor an "education mill" type of education, yet many would argue that much of our public school system is stuck in this 20th century pattern of production. This begs the question "how do we move into the 21st century?"

We move ahead by expecting teachers to be more than assembly line workers. The ideology of a factory works this way-- divide the labor into smaller specialized pieces, take the skill out of the task, and add complexity to the system. It becomes easier to find labor to fill these roles because the system becomes more important than the worker. As long as the worker can "follow the plan”, everything runs smoothly. This has been done everywhere from McDonald's to GM. This is the way teachers are expected to act more and more, and we wonder why our schools look like factories.

We teach from common curriculum, give our students common assessments to measure benchmark performance and at the end the quality of our work (teaching) and the quality of our product (students) is judged by standardized testing. "Data" gathered from isolated educational specialists inform the "best practices" to which teachers are expected to conform. Increasingly, teachers are evaluated in five-minute bursts as administrators use a standardized checklist to measure performance.

Factories are run on a strict hierarchy—
Board-->Plant Manager-->Divison Managers-->Department Foremen-->Assembly Line Worker.

How does this compare to a school system structure?
School Board-->Superintendent-->Asst. Superintendents with specific duties-->Principals-->Assistant/Associate Principals-->Classroom teachers.

Factories are governed from the top down. Decisions are made at the top; workers at the bottom follow rules. When the workers start making decisions, the system fails. The further down the chain you go, the more employees are governed by policy, protocols, and manuals. In many cases, the workers are too busy to make decisions because the highest priority becomes producing more.

How do we kill the factory system of education? We stop treating teachers like assembly line employees. When they do a job well, we do not reward them by giving them more work. We protect their time to guarantee they have time to reflect and make wise decisions regarding individuals and instruction. Finally, we stop treating them as a monolithic labor force and value their individual contributions to a collaborative system of human development.

How do teachers ignite this process?  By remembering what we were taught in ed school, that students want to know that we care before they care what we know.  No matter how many students we're given or how many classes we teach, we must never lose sight of the fact that our relationship with an individual student is the most important factor in any system of education.  We need to engage the leaders of our building and systems in productive forward moving discussion.  We need to recognize the autonomy that we still possess and use it to the advantage of our students and communities. 

When teachers are given the opportunity, and take advantage of the opportunity to creatively and actively engage the learners of their community, the factory will become a relic.

Friday, November 5, 2010

All You Had to Do Was Ask

The title of this post alludes to a trend I think is more and more common in schools. Increasingly reformers are asking for "data" on kids to determine how they are performing and in the process too often becoming oblivious to the voice of experience and wisdom. Data does indeed have a place in reform but is it becoming too important? My school system could be a case study in this folly of innovation and reform, but then again that is just my opinion and no one is asking for it. So according to all this effort and all this testing how are my kids doing? I already know.

Recently our division signed on with a slick corporate Student Information System. With lots of bells and whistles it is a powerful tool that integrates records, grades, testing, curriculum, name it. Now it does not do any of these things particularly well and I have come to feel it was actually designed by folks who never thought to consult teachers, counselors or school administrators. Frankly there are numerous issues with basic functionality. So in a way it seems a perfect tool for the current wave of reform. As we "work out the kinks" it becomes apparent that all too often this "solution" with which we have been provided only creates more problems and makes simple tasks much more complicated.

The obvious problem is that this platform was not really designed by or for teachers. Taking attendance, properly calculating grades, printing a transcript, all are among the major issues. I cannot imagine the experience for a more seasoned teacher who might be less comfortable with technology. I don't think this is really a tool for me. It was implemented to make us more efficient and to measure and improve performance. The worst part is it currently does nothing to help me teach.

On the front end I can give an online test. I was doing that eight years ago. Creating and setting up these tests is like going to the DMV or the dentist for a root canal. It is a painful and laborious process which takes way too much time, something I am already lacking. Point being that once I administer this "benchmark assessment" I will be able to identify which kids are under performing in any specific curriculum strands.

Here's the rub. I already know that. This is just a way for someone else to look that up and then measure a specific teacher's performance. This system tells me what my overall grades already show. So "grades" no longer seem as valuable in the realm of data driven decisions. Where I am having trouble is finding ways to use this which allows me better serve my students. Worse yet, the people who are paid money to create, run and improve the system have yet to make it clear how that will happen.

Teachers are the first to get on board with technology if it is easy to use and helps them do their job. Maybe that's why I can't find too many folks around here who feel that way about this particular technology. All I can find are people who feel the opposite. We have to input our questions, share our resources, populate it with materials and only then will we be able to actually "get" something from it. Where it is most sorely lacking is that in the race to be fancy, integrated, web based and flexible it has missed the main point of effective education reform. It does not help kids learn and it doesn't really help teachers teach. It just says which individuals among those groups are not doing well. To accomplish that all someone had to do was ask.

Stuff Teachers Like #5- Subs Who Follow a Lesson Plan

This week is “Stuff Teacher’s Like” week on Teaching Underground.  We know the idea is “borrowed” from several other sites that have perfected the “Stuff____Like” model, but we haven’t seen anything out there from teachers.  So, in no particular order, here it is.

Subbing is hard work.  I used to hate being a sub in elementary schools.  Elementary teachers do such a great job of establishing routine, and no matter how good their plans are, the can’t write every detail of the routine.  And for children under twelve, the slightest deviation from routine spells disaster.  I don’t want to bash subs; I know how tough it can be, but…

It is far more difficult to miss a day of work than it is to show up when you are a teacher.  Creating plans to engage students is tough; creating plans for someone else to engage students is tougher.  Usually, I try to leave something we would be doing in class already that requires minimal teacher input—a video, reading assignment, self-directed practice, etc.  I try my best to 1) make the class time useful and 2) keep the class moving forward in the content area.

Sometimes a sub will judge your plans as busy work and allow students to slack, or even worse, carry out their own plan.

A few years ago, after attending an all day conference, the math teacher in the room next door came to school several minutes before the end of the day.  He peeked in my room to ask why they were watching a movie in his class.  Apparently, his sub decided that his lesson was not good enough so he showed a video on perceptions so the class could have a meaningful discussion. 

We later found out that the same sub had done this numerous times and a few students saw this video three or four times that year—instead of doing the meaningless work left by their classroom teachers.

That’s why teachers like subs who follow the lesson plan.  Any other stories about sub plans gone awry out there?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Stuff Teachers Like #4- Kids Who Say Thank You

This week is “Stuff Teacher’s Like” week on Teaching Underground. We know the idea is “borrowed” from several other sites that have perfected the “Stuff____Like” model, but we haven’t seen anything out there from teachers. So, in no particular order, here it is.

“Thank You.” Simple words, but very powerful ones. How much does it say about a kid if they use them? I don’t think they are intentionally being rude or ungrateful but many students seem to have forgotten the function and benefit of those precious two words.

Most kids know they are supposed to say thank you, they just don’t. How sad is it that I actually notice when kids say “Thank You”? There’s the habit kind…like when you pass them a handout. That’s nice…says they were taught manners. A second type, when a kid looks at you and says it differently. Maybe walks a few steps as they read a paper or even stuff their backpack. They stop, turn back, looking you in the eyes and say, “Hey Thanks.” That’s meaningful.

When they make a special trip to your room and thank you for something you did for them that speaks volumes. Not about what you did, but about them. In a rare instance they will take the time to put those words into writing. I have received many of these in my years teaching. No matter the length nor what they are written on they are far too precious to discard and occupy a special drawer in my desk. They often arrive out of the blue when I am having a tough time. One of my favorites was brief but said the following: “Mr. L. you once told me I had the potential to be a really sharp young man…but I also had the potential to be a real idiot(paraphrased). I am now in college and am working hard to become the former and not the latter.” To the young man who wrote that note, “Thank You.”

Little gifts are thoughtful too so including those, what is the best “thank you” you ever got from a student?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Stuff Teachers Like #3- Two-Hour Delays

This week is “Stuff Teacher’s Like” week on Teaching Underground.  We know the idea is “borrowed” from several other sites that have perfected the “Stuff____Like” model, but we haven’t seen anything out there from teachers.  So, in no particular order, here it is.

This one may draw the ire of parents who are left to scramble for childcare or transportation for those unexpected school delays, so I’m sorry and I feel your pain, but…

…in my mind, nothing beats a two-hour delay.  For one, if you get the call early enough you can manage a full two extra hours of sleep.  You still see your students, so while you can’t get through everything you planned, you don’t completely lose the schedule of your pacing.  Sometimes, if you need the extra time, the extra two hours becomes a “mini-teacher-workday” if the roads aren’t too treacherous to travel by car.

So just what makes the two-hour delay superior to the all out Snow Day?  No make up days.  The shortened day counts as a full day of school.

Any other parents or educators care to weigh in on the subject?  I’m open to debate the merits of my choice.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Stuff Teachers Like #2- Scantrons

This week is “Stuff Teacher’s Like” week on Teaching Underground.  We know the idea is “borrowed” from several other sites that have perfected the “Stuff____Like” model, but we haven’t seen anything out there from teachers.  So, in no particular order, here it is. 

Do I really need to elaborate?  This entry might anger some, but take a minute to think about the benefits of the Scantron.  I know of very few classes that don’t make use of multiple-choice assessments in some form.  Even if multiple choice is not a teacher’s preferred method of testing, at some point nearly everyone will use it.

The main problem as I see it-- teachers who over-rely on the multiple choice assessment and scantron out of laziness.  But in my situation, I have 155 AP Psychology students who will take a multiple choice AP test in the spring.  For every 50-question test I give, that translates to 7,750 answers.  Multiply that by 16 assessments in the school year and that equals 124,000 questions to grade.  If it takes one second to grade a multiple-choice question by hand, that would be over 34 hours of grading this school year. 

Thanks to the magic of Scantron, 155 tests, 16 times a year equals 2,480 tests.  Graded at a rate of one test per second, that adds up to about 41 minutes of grading over the course of a year.  Honestly, how smart would I be if I chose to spend 34 hours grading something that could be done in less than one hour with comparable quality?

Can anyone top that as a time saver?  I challenge anyone to name one piece of technology that has saved you more than 33 hours in a year.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Stuff Teachers Like #1- The Short Work Week

This week is “Stuff Teacher’s Like” week on Teaching Underground.  We know the idea is “borrowed” from several other sites that have perfected the “Stuff____Like” model, but we haven’t seen anything out there from teachers.  So, in no particular order, here it is.

Do any other teachers out there have a three-day work week this week?  Many schools around the country serve as polling places for elections, so Election Day has become a de facto holiday in many districts.  Monday is a workday, and Tuesday is often a “trade-off” day, which means we’ve spent two evenings at school for conferences so it counts as a work day.

Short workweeks often mean we still work, but students are gone.  This is great for many reasons.  I enjoy the “rolling chair” hallway races.  When kids are at school, principals frown on teachers riding their desk chairs through the halls, but when the kids are gone, all bets are off.  If you walk around the building on a workday, you can also usually find a pick-up game of “trash can” basketball if you look hard enough. 

Another perk of teacher workdays-- the ability to use the bathroom whenever you get the urge.  You don’t have to time your potty breaks for the seven-minute break between classes.  We also take advantage of the ability to go out to lunch and take more than twenty-three minutes to eat.

In all seriousness, a great benefit of workdays is the time afforded to converse with other adults in our profession.  Workdays give us time to catch up and sometimes even get ahead.  The break of daily instruction gives teachers the chance to look back and reflect while planning ahead for our students.

So what do you enjoy about the short work week?

Monday, October 25, 2010

What does School Reform mean to me?

"What does good school reform mean to me the teacher?" Hard to cover fully on a short blog. Forget all the glittering generalities uttered by the movers and shakers. How will things be different/better in the classroom? Teachers are increasingly taking blame for all the ills that everyone claims are present in our education system. In some cases the overt targets of organized forces with questionable motivations. (I am waiting for a guy in front of a microphone to claim he has a list of 205 teachers responsible like they were 1940's Communists).

There is a growing chorus of "experts" that seem to point the finger squarely at me, the classroom teacher.This upsets me. First comes the open ended statements about our schools failing...followed by a ranking...usually a list of how the U.S. ranks against some other nation in something. Next comes talk of how unions are protecting the bad teachers who are responsible(maybe so...I'm in a state without one so I can't say for sure, I doubt it is as dramatic as made out to be). But what doesn't come up is my question and it is important. How will proposed changes make things better? (assuming the system still relies mainly on teachers and classroom)

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery so I'll point some fingers of my own. To start, what I don't want from a teacher's point of view. I don't like politicians coming up with ideas on education. I don't like when people twist numbers about performance or use research alone to draw conclusions. I don't like private for profit business running our school systems(whether in charter schools, resource management, consulting, selling testing software or influencing decisions with their money). Why not you ask? Because I have seen what this can mean in the classroom. And it scares me. Sometimes makes my job harder.

Under NCLB my kids(and I) are judged solely by a statewide test and I don't need to rehash the flaws with this approach...(you know how to use google) but basically its rewards teaching to the test to get scores up. This approach places less weight on my professional more global measure of their performance(I call it a letter grade). Not to demonize them but I picture a big conference nowhere near a school made up of people far from the classroom who have written books or edupreneurs seeking to peddle their ideas and gain access(thus money...don't believe me?...check out the speakers at the VA Educate Innovate agenda from Oct 27 ... It appears one whole live classroom teacher spoke). They are smart but I really can't stand how many of them seem to dismiss my feelings, knowledge and experience and those of my colleagues whenever we speak up against their ideas. We are smart too. Again...this lack of civility just doesn't seem too American. But they have the pulpit and it seems some people are so polemical on these issues they refuse to even listen to my perspective.

Maybe that's a little harsh. Some of these folks bring new ideas or resources that help and actually make learning and teaching easier and better. I know tons of great administrators who keep the classroom in mind. Heck I know a ton of awesome private schools. But I am skeptical because these gatherings tend to put wheels in motion in public schools where ideas, information and resources become proprietary...owned by companies. Thus not willingly shared. To me this is just not consistent with the idea of "public" education. When I do finally get a say the wheels have frequently turned too far to be rolled back. When will people listen when I say things aren't good ideas? There are exceptions, but they are too rare.

I am getting off message. My focus has been on one of the problems I see with reform. My question about the classroom leads me to more questions. What specifically is not working and how do we fix it? How do we measure successes? What do we do with kids where education isn't their priority and might be disruptive? How do we keep teachers(me) from bailing out? What can we do better for kids that need more from our schools without messing up what is working well for others? How do we measure charter schools against traditional schools (should we even do that)? How are colleges fitting into this push? How much should we rely on technology? What role are parents playing in all of this? When/where do we stop and look at the impact of change and reassess?

There has always been and will always be education reform. But as a classroom teacher I appreciate the license to continue doing what I find works. I'm quickly tiring of the newest professional trend in the name of reform without knowing where it'll take me(nor do I want to stay cemented in the past). Not too many of my "clients" (parents and students) complain but sure I agree we need to improve. I'd suggest good school reform is generated "in the schools" and not elsewhere. From there I think we can all work together to develop some ways to help respond to the growing number of questions concerning our schools.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Teaching Kids to Shine

Recently, a senior asked me to fill out a standard reference form that guidance counselors use to prepare college recommendations. After filling out countless forms, I've grown frustrated at the number of students for whom I can only give a mediocre reference. The form asks for three adjectives that come to mind when you think of the student. By now, I hate to think how many times I've used "friendly", "outgoing", "responsible", "polite", and other variations of the same. But the most difficult part of the form asks: "List one major contribution this student has made in your class. Be as specific as possible."

I wondered how students would respond to this question, so I created a sample reference form to give my ninth grade Leadership class. I did not duplicate the form exactly, but I explained that when they become seniors they will give a similar form to several of their teachers. I asked them to eliminate their favorite and least favorite, then select one teacher from the rest. They would fill this reference form out for themselves as if they were that teacher. I wanted them to see that in four years, most students can learn to be respectful, responsible, and cordial, but they need to learn how to stand out in a positive way. I thought the question about one major contribution would stump them as it often stumps me, and I hoped they would become motivated to make a difference in all their classes.

There was one response I was not ready for. "What if we aren't given any opportunities to contribute to a class?" These students have only been in their high school classes for about two months, and they only have 4-6 classes at this time, but the comment made me stop to think. The absolute cream of the crop student might make a major contribution in any environment, but most 13-18 year-olds are entrusted to adults for a reason. They need nurture and instruction. If we want our students to shine, we need to provide opportunities for them to do so.

At the end of four years, "turned every assignment in on time", "never got detention", "present every day", "never tardy for class", "scored in the 80th percentile on standardized tests" and the like may look nice, but are these really the qualities that are going to get noticed by colleges and employers. Even more important, are these the qualities that are going to enable young minds to become young adults that will make a difference in the world.

Whether you're a teacher or not, what are you doing to give children and youth opportunities to shine?  I don't ask that because I assume most people are not doing anything, but because I suspect that many people are and the rest of us could benefit from hearing about it.  So what are you doing?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Teachers "Too" important? Seriously?

I recently read the following on The Answer Sheet, a Washington Post Education Blog. It was from noted UVA Psychologist Daniel Willingham. "Teacher Quality is the most important in-school factor that influences kids’ schooling. I’m not so sure that’s a good thing." Now this guy is way smarter than me and no doubt in some ways I trust him more than I trust myself, cause come on... I mean he studies the brain. But that last part struck me. Not a good thing...what does he mean?

I often think a teacher can't "make" a student learn anything. This fits with the view of one of the first great teachers, Socrates, and also with my times in the classroom when I felt less than successful. Teachers motivate, support, guide, nourish, redirect, comfort and inform. I would not dare suggest though that teachers are "too" important(after all I am one). Of course they are too important...just as parents, family and experience are too important. I guess the only time teachers get really noticed by those who don't have direct contact with them is when they are doing a poor job. That is where too much of the focus can go. I personally think it is the non-teachers that are too important to the classroom(that comment requires a bit of interpretation).

"Any teacher who can be replaced by a computer, deserves to be"...this hangs on my wall and helps remind me that I need to do more than just instruct. When teachers do a wonderful job they deserve commendation and recognition. But to see that teacher's approach as "the way" is a perilous path indeed; a simplistic and maybe outsider view of what teaching really is and always will be about, the interaction between student, teacher and what is to be learned. I think Willingham was stating that curriculum maybe helps avoid the pitfalls of bad teaching. He also acknowledges the unintended effect this has on some of the best teachers.

These are lessons hard to remember in our data driven society. In our compulsory public schools kids are still kids and need good, no, great teachers around to help them out. Too many of our young people just don't see schooling as a priority and sometimes great teachers can change that (sadly only some of the time). I only have a BA and frankly wasn't that good of a teacher starting out, but I now feel I have become a very good teacher despite the lack of higher degrees and training. I continue to grow but it is hard to look too far forward since the only real way a teacher can become more important is to leave the classroom for an office. Something I consciously choose not to do.

Let's keep teaching on a human scale and not lose sight of the power of relationships within the research. Let's allow schools to generate ideas for reform from within rather than dictate what they must do and stifle their creativity and flexibility. If you're not sure whether Teacher Quality should be the most important thing in a kids might be looking at the classroom from the outside. Socrates might tell you something like this..."Who should guide and shape the minds of the young?" Giving them the questions (the curriculum) is only one part of the process. This must also be accompanied by the moral example set by the teacher for the student to observe. It was perhaps the personal influence of Socrates that made Plato so successful.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

What teaching teaches

I’m a teacher? I often point this out to myself because it still seems so unlikely…especially to those who knew me when I was younger. I did not like school. I mean I didn’t mind being there; it was the work that got me. I was smart enough but I’m still embarrassed when I look back by my poor work ethic and the lack of impression I must have made on anyone.

I remember going to check my class rank with a friend of mine and the surprise I felt when I was ranked 134 out or 322(she was 135, life is cruel). I took to collegiate academics about the same. So if you were looking for the best and brightest to hire as a teacher, you should have skipped over me. But somehow I think I grew up some and ended up back teaching at the school I attended, hired by a teacher who gave me the D- I deserved in 12th grade…and I guess I’ve learned a few things since.

So what have I learned since I became a teacher? It’s hard to explain, especially since I am so busy I don’t give it enough thought. One funny thing I saw and have posted in my room reads “The 2 most important rules to being a successful teacher…#1 Never tell your students everything.” Even the brightest kids will ask about #2 time and time again, only to feel cheated when they realize that their teacher seems to take pleasure in their confusion.

Sticking to that list’s some more of what I’ve learned. Not so much life lessons, just what it takes to be a successful teacher.

Like people, kids and even their parents.
- Have a sense of humor
- Be part warden, expert, comedian, counselor, politician
- Be a little crazy (I occasionally swing my heavy wooden door shut as proof).
- Expect the unexpected.
- You have to work really hard and that's no guarantee things will work
- Pay attention to minutia.
- Be an optimist
- Learn to think on your feet.
- Have
thick skin.
- Be willing to change.
- Be able to accept defeat.
- Be humble.

Teaching can indeed be a very tough job. But I’m just a teacher. There are tons of people whose jobs can be a heck a lot more important at any given moment. I was once told by a more experienced and wiser teacher that “Teaching is sharing”.

So share your story of lessons from the classroom by posting a comment below.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Teaching and Donuts

Carpe Donut Mobile Donut Shop
I had the most unusual experience at a wedding this weekend.  Instead of a cake, the bride and groom rented a "donut trailer" from Carpe Donut.  For several hours, guests were able to have a cup of coffee and enjoy all the sugary freshly made donuts they wanted.  Almost as enjoyable as the donuts was the friendly banter of the "donut chef"/owner Matt Rohdie and the sight of this donut shop on wheels.  For a time in Charlottesville, we had the opportunity to watch the freshly made donuts rolling down the assembly line of the local Krispy Kreme, but something about this outfit is special.  It is surprising and it is novel, but more importantly, the owner appears to be a true craftsman.  The company is committed to organic and local ingredients, the oil used to fry the donuts is converted to biofuel when it is no longer useful for cooking, and there is complete transparency in the production; you can watch everything being made from start to finish.

So what does this have to do with teaching?  We claim that teaching is an art.  Compare the description of Carpe Donut above to stopping in the supermarket or local Dunkin Donuts and picking out a dozen assorted donuts.  Clearly, anyone can make donuts.  It has been reduced to a science.  Donuts can be mass produced and shipped anywhere, and probably bought cheaper than you could get Carpe Donut to set up shop.  But why would you choose that when you could choose art?

What do we do in our teaching to make the experience, well, just that, an experience?  The art of teaching involves more than just following the curriculum and producing results.  Teaching is a craft that requires the flexibility of this donut shop, we must be able to set up shop in any location and practice our art.  Our ability to influence a student doesn't come off a shelf, sold by the dozen, but it comes in our ability to show each person that we care enough about them to understand their individual needs.  Teachers are individuals with varied strengths and weaknesses, and part of our art is learning to shine through our strength without letting the weakness bring us down.

Ultimately, the owner of Carpe Donut could have chosen to buy or lease a storefront, set up a kitchen in the back, and hire others to sell generic assembly line donuts.  But he didn't.  Everything above this is art-- the unique store, the attention to responsibility, and the personal and friendly connection with the customer.  There is a basic process to making a donut and anyone can do it.  Likewise, there is a basic process to teaching, and most anyone can do it.  Everything else is art.  A gift that you give to your students, your school and your community.  It is a gift that will return itself to you through the satisfaction of knowing that now, you have begun to make a difference.

I didn't request permission to use the photo above, and I did not let the owner of Carpe Donut know that I wrote this piece ahead of time.  So here is a link to their website, hopefully they will appreciate the positive review.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Are We Failing?

From time to time, public education reaches the forefront of public debate; it appears that we are in the middle of one of those times. Usually someone or group makes the case that our public education system is failing, or at least falling behind the best efforts of the rest of the world.

Whether we believe this or not will profoundly influence the way we view change and reform. The honest question to answer is “do you believe that public schools are failing, or not?” If so, we need to radically abandon the past and move on. If not, we need to figure out exactly where change is needed and leave the rest alone.

One of my grad school professors, a man named Frederick Hess made an impression on me with his 1998 book titled “Spinning Wheels.” He argued that outcomes for public education are fuzzy at best. It is easy to measure the effectiveness of my trash pick-up service. If the trash is still on the curb Thursday night, they’ve failed. If it is gone before I get home from work and I can return the can to my garage, it is working. Not so easy with education.

I think (I can’t represent his point of view, and could be wrong) that Hess and others use this fact to call for more accountability by measuring student performance. It is a move in the right direction. We can’t allow publicly funded schools to operate without any sort of checks on quality of instruction. Reformers and pundits in this regard have attempted solve the problem of “fuzzy” outcomes in education. By clearly defining the desired outcome, it becomes possible to measure it. For many years, and perhaps still today to some extent, public education has not had clearly defined desired outcomes.

Try for yourself. Can you clearly state the most important desired outcome of our public education system? Don’t be fuzzy now, what does a life-long learner look like, what do we measure? If you have any ideas, leave a comment below; can you name THE desired outcome of a public school?

Friday, October 1, 2010

Should we trust Superman?

As a young boy I recall the film "Superman" and an indestructible plastic figure of the character I threw around the room. My specific memories are lost to time but I remember how great a film it really was and how it helped to transfer this comic book character into a cultural icon. This guy could fix anything and embodied all that made America great. As an adult, I have a greater appreciation of what really made this film great, the talents of Reeve, Hackman, Brando, Ford, Beatty, about talent. There is another film coming out that draws on the collective memory of Americans, "Waiting for Superman" and it has caused a lot of buzz, even before it opened. In the 1978 film, our hero saved Lois by spinning the Earth backwards. Not seen in the film are all the people who suffer unintended consequences as a result of Superman's actions. The focus stays fixed on that trench that appeared on that road and the fate of Lois Lane.

The steady drumbeat of education reform has grown increasingly loud in the past decade. Much of it fueled by experts that seem to appear from every corner of society, it now is more like a deafening roar. Guggenheim's "Waiting for Superman" plays to this and at the least is expected to provide more momentum for dramatic action. As we watch it is perhaps worth reflecting on how much trouble the educational "system" is actually in and take stock of where we are. The battle cries of educational reformers have echoed throughout the land since the time of Sputnik calling on more and more changes to be enacted. Some say the debate has reached a tipping point. The questions before us is which way are we headed? Like Lois into the abyss of a trench, swallowed and covered over by developing nations; or, steadied back to the plane of measured and incremental "improvement" upon the system up and avoiding the trench.

We have a unique perspective on all of this change as it affects what we do everyday, teach. We are kind of on that road with Lois(with those kids). That lens no doubt affects our views but perhaps also gives us insight as to what goes on beyond the bright light of the camera in that scene where Superman saved his love by spinning the Earth in reverse. Superman didn't debate too long on whether what he was doing was right, or even consider everyone else affected. He just did it. As you watch that movie you weren't supposed to even think about that. The people of Earth didn't get to choose whether they wanted this to happen. They were just along for the ride. A feeling many of today's Students, parents and teachers can relate to.

But if asked wouldn't the humans in the movie want to save Lois too? Maybe Superman could have asked for help from someone? Even solicited ideas. I mean we trusted him, didn't we? But he made a choice, an expedient one and it seemed to have turned out OK. But that process doesn't seem too least to a kid like me raised on 70's movies. While the public debate about education is polemical and centers on children left behind, unions, merit pay, standardized tests, "failing schools" and the like, maybe we ought to just pause for a second, ask for some input and figure out what to do. Perhaps we could find the educational equivalent to Reeve, Hackman, Beatty and the like to help us out and make things great. Whatever course we choose, rest assured that our decisions will affect more than Superman's did and that won't be hidden from view. For better or worse we will all deal with the consequences.