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.