Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Planning for Upcoming Year During the Summer

As I took everything down from the walls in my room in the hopes it could be painted for the first time in 15 years I remembered that my colleague and I had floated the idea of putting tables and chairs in our rooms to replace the desks. The furnishings we have are somewhat dated and showing their age(most have been in my room longer than me). We thought the table setup might allow for a more effective environment to learn. We'll see what happens with that plan.

In the meantime I thought I'd pass along this photo and invite anyone interested to add a fitting caption or two in the comments section. Good luck.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

We Are Never Alone in the Classroom

I came across a site recently authored by a teacher who shares our effort to raise awareness about what is happening in education as we see it at the classroom level. His perspective is different and he has it tougher. Much tougher.

Among the provocative posts this one makes me stop and think, especially since our nation doesn't like to talk much about socioeconomic issues in general.

As refreshing as it is to hear from someone this honest who works in a classroom, it is also unsettling. I also read this and found it equally unsettling.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Testing and the Flux Capicitor

Imagine having the power to influence the future.  You could go back in time and undo all the wrongs and make things "right." Essentially that's what every teacher has when they administer the SOL test to their classes.  Of course that would only be if we received the proper feedback after testing.  The social studies EOC reports are less than helpful and seem designed to keep everyone involved as much in the dark as possible about what actually went on.  For my kids that pass I receive a nebulous number which means very little to anyone who lives in the real world and not the criterion referenced normed testing world.   I spent the better part of 6 hours trying to determine what pass proficient(400-499) and pass advanced(500-600) mean only to discover they mean very little.
 Most movies I recall dealing with time travel involve the moral dilemma of changing the future and touch upon the unforeseen consequences of trying to do right and fix the past.  Looking at my results I am not sure I would actually know what to go back and do better.  For me movies on time travel tend to be predictable and boring...my hope is to avoid the same fate for this post.  My recent SOL results have been anything but predictable.   The most notable film was Back to the Future.  That is exactly where we are headed with all this testing.  Backwards.  No one except Dr. Emmett Brown(Christopher Lloyd) knew exactly how the Flux Capacitor worked and it caused a bunch of trouble for Marty(Miachael J. Fox), these tests are much the same.  Difference here is we don't see them so we wouldn't know what to fix.

I observed recently while my students took the World History up to 1500 SOL test.  It was a painful experience and makes you feel about as powerless as one could possibly be. This feeling is one which today's teachers are growing more familiar with.  As I monitored them with the other proctors I could not help but imagine they were missing all kinds of questions as they took the 60 question online assessment.  Surely they were making stupid mistakes on content we have drilled on in the previous weeks and more importantly learned earlier in the year.  These were smart kids and most wanted to do well on this SOL and yet somehow I could just sense they weren't....ARGH!  Much of this anxiety stemmed from the results of last semester's test, which were unexpectedly lower than they had been in the past. 

So there's your plot for the movie.  The protagonist... the teachers... against this antagonist testing culture.  I could have walked around and looked at the test and maybe grunted or found some other way to inform them of their mis-steps.  But I did not, which is unlike what appears to have happened in DC and elsewhere.   Believe it or not most schools are actually staffed by ethical people who follow the rules.  Though these individuals are overlooked by the news in favor of the student punching, criminal, just plain bad people teachers who do sometimes hold jobs in our profession.  But back to the testing ...the whole process is cloaked in so much secrecy it can sometimes be rather dumb.  I'll admit I am not even certain what they are being asked and how it is being asked and I teach the course! 

During the test I sat stone faced with the other proctors while they worked and my mind played out all the scenarios.  I knew many of them were missing questions.   Would that mean little Susie will fail?  What about little Johnny...he's not that good with tests and can't concentrate for more than 5 minutes.  I know I had asked similar questions of them recently in the run up to the test, but I had likely done so in a slightly different way(I'd say better). Will that mess them up?  For those that don't know these tests are in fact rather easy for most kids.   Higher level kids know this and as a result few do any "real" preparation.  I did ask them to take a post SOL survey on how many had "studied" beyond the reviews we had done in class.  Only 7 of 29 students raised their hands.   Awesome.  Speaking generally all they care about is the test and yet, it appears they don't care.  Despite being "easy" to pass it appears hard to receive a Pass Advanced score.  And what of the kids whose skill set means any form of testing is a challenge?  I have found too often their level or preparation quite similar.  But too many of them do not do as well.  Thinking more globally on the impact the weeks leading up to the test we went into test shutdown mode and these weeks after have been like waiting in line at the grocery store(all you want to do is get out).  Tell me again how this is learning?

Thanks to the State Board of Ed what they did now affects how I am evaluated.  Am I mad?  What do you think?  All I know is this test doesn't really hold them accountable.  School yes, teacher yes, them no.  When they miss a bunch of easy questions it hurts me not them(and the scores say they did miss questions).  I would be hurt no matter the result if they did poorly which was the case for some of them.  These kids wanted to do well but not quite as much as I wanted them to do well.  I think that's part of what makes them kids.  The only impact from recent value added legislation so far is that I am more disillusioned with the whole process.  And keep in mind this I am referring mostly to the highest achieving population at our school.  Our district ranks pretty well compared to the rest of the state. So does this really measure me as a teacher?   Click Here to Link to an executive summary that was sent along with individual results.  It is an overall summary sent to each teacher measured by the assessments.  It is highly scientific and I think I understood it properly.    It was signed by John Winger.  Seriously though... I questioned my impact when I saw a big drop in Pass Advanced scores for my kids.  I'll save my analysis for another post but the process of analysis was mind numbing.  One might understand my frustration when you see there is nothing on the VDOE site that references or even defines the terms Pass Advanced/Pass Proficient/Fail  for social studies End of Course Tests.  Click here for Detailed Performance Level Descriptors

Compared to last year the message was clear...overall average-down, number of perfect scores-way down, pass advanced-down, the trend is uniform and absolute.  My results were similar to those from my first semester students though my year long classes did perform slightly better(Click Here to see my reaction earlier in the year)  Most teachers shared  similar experiences.   One senseless revision to the testing process is the fact that when they are done I now read from a script when they submit their test.  Hypothetically speaking if a student has left 3 questions blank and says they are done, I am forbidden from saying something like "Hey there Bobby-Joe, you left two questions blank, come on now... let's finish up and maybe answer those last couple...what do you say?"  I know, I know a kid that leaves questions blank deserves what they get.  But it could be they have to use the restroom and just want to finish.  Maybe they can no longer stand being in a gym filled with 200+ kids.  Maybe their parents got in another drunken brawl last night and for the moment at least this test doesn't matter much.  Get my point?  Yet I cannot do the most human thing and remind them to answer all the questions.  How does that assess what they really know or even what the teacher has given them in terms of value?

This test and all the tests leave much to be desired as does how we value and use them.  I'll play devil's advocate and ask why since 2000 they have only released 1 full test and only 13 additional questions in Social Studies  (This page shows every other testing area has released tests).  For some reason Earth Science and History are kept locked inside Fort Knox Kentucky.   Sad to think this is the best we can do.  I know we could do better.  I have and do all year long in my classroom yet the last weeks schools are consumed by this maelstrom of testing.  The disjoint between those IN the classroom working with kids and those IN control of policy only continues to grow wider.  Who is at fault?  Based on everything I read it is the opinion of policymakers that the problem must be at the bottom. That mentality is our biggest problem.   If you've been down with the Underground then I think you have a pretty good idea how I feel about that.  So if I could travel in time what would I do?  I'd don't think I'd go backwards so much as forwards....That would then give me the proper insights to affect positive change today.  I'd find that bolt of lightning that finally saved Marty and generated enough electricity to propel the DeLorean to 88 MPH and use it to steer our schools in a better direction.  Towards the future.   Deep stuff ... I know...

Hey the Underground is gonna be at half speed for summer so there will be a drop in the frequency of our posts.  We'll do our best to maintain the quality but come on...we are teachers after all.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Is it really this complicated?

The embedded video above comes from NBC 29. It first appeared on June 7,2011. The video relates to the move from a seven to eight period academic schedule for students in Albemarle County High Schools.

Woody Guthrie once said, "Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make it simple."

To say our division (at least the students, parents, and teachers) has struggled with the implementation of recent schedules would be an understatement. Misunderstandings abound, evidenced by the rampant misuse of the terms 4x4, block scheduling, and the like. Perhaps input from others might bring some clarity and potentially momentum for improvement...even if it might not matter next year. TU would love to hear thoughts and concerns about scheduling from those affected. (Try to be constructive, leave the complaining to us)

Monday, June 6, 2011

Mr. High School Goes to Elementary

This year I teach a Leadership class made up of mostly freshmen.  For most of the second semester I've traveled with my class to a local elementary school to provide assistance in the classrooms.  My own children have been in elementary school for five years, but this experience has provided a different perspective for me on elementary education.  I've seen many things go on at this elementary school that I would love to see transfer to the high school level.  I'm sure not every school is the same, but these are the things that I've loved watching at Hollymead Elementary school in Albemarle County.

1) The building is filled with adults who all seem to have a role to fill hands on with students.  If I sit in the lobby for more than ten minutes I will see three to five people walking down the hall with anywhere from one to six children.  When I walk down the k-3 hallways, every classroom has at least one other adult than the teacher.  I haven't figured out how many are volunteers and how many are staff, but the impact on the climate of the school is quite notable.

2) The building is filled with color.  Most newer high schools I've visited are colorful places as well.  My high school has several additions that feature natural lighting and lighter colors, but the older wings are still quite dark and cavernous.  It is easy to underestimate the impact that environment has on attitude and behavior and I would like to see even older facilities kept up to better reflect this.

3) The building is filled with sound but not noise.  I rarely passed a classroom without some sort of interaction going on.  Students have so much opportunity to interact.  This can quickly turn into non-productive chatter, but having so many available adults helps keep the activity directed.  For the most part, teachers seem to work with this sound without letting it reach the level of distraction.

4) The building is filled with students working actively.  Whether moving about in the hallway, or quietly producing something at their tables (not desks, I noticed very few desks at the school) students were continually engaged in learning.  My first day at the school I witnessed one class working on paintings of leprechauns and rainbows. (It was close to St. Patrick's Day).  It was a nice activity, but when the teacher reinforced the pattern of colors in the rainbow using ROY G BIV, I knew this was more than just a fun holiday exercise.

If I have the opportunity next year I plan to continue this involvement with elementary school, hopefully playing a more active role myself in the classrooms with my students.  It has been an excellent professional development opportunity for me.  Perhaps greater interaction among teachers actively engaged in the work of instructing students could serve all educators better if the time and opportunities existed.