Friday, October 21, 2011

Ed Reform, or Finger Pointing?

Two posts in two days...can you tell it was a rough day?  I stepped back from self-paced language learning  and pulled my classes together for some cultural inquiry in preparation for National French Week (Nov 8-14 for all of you who had a burning desire to know!)  Silly me, I thought I'd have them read a couple of English, of course, since they're novice learners of French.  No brainer, right?  Wrong.  Eighth grade.  You would have thought the world had stopped spinning.  Many of my students can't read.  Eighth grade.  Difficulties ranging from "a bit of a struggle", to "it might as well have been written in French".  Major eye-opener.  Needless to say, that lesson was an


Extreme Perseverance Is Crucial       First Attempt In Learning

I restructured my lesson, and it worked better with my next two classes, but it got me thinking about all the finger-pointing that goes on in the so-called ed-reform movement.  (I hate that term because it's so politically charged and ideologically motivated).  My reflection about my students, their issues, needs, and where they come from made me want to paraphrase some statements that either have been or could have been (based on circumstances) made to me by students with whom I have had contact over the years.

  • English isn't my first language
  • My mom's an exotic dancer
  • Call me Vicki -- that's my street name.  I'm a prostitute.
  • I have ADHD.  I don't always take my medication.
  • We haven't had electricity at home in over a month.
  • I have a learning disability.
  • I smoke pot.
  • Sometimes I can't control my bowels.  I smell bad.
  • I have to go to court to testify against my uncle.  He molested me.
  • I get bullied every day.
  • I won't be in school tomorrow.  I have to help my mom pack.  We got evicted
  • My rapist just got out of jail.
  • My mom has cancer.
  • None of my teachers look like me.  I'm black (Hispanic, Asian, Native American)
  • My parents are divorced.
  • My parents are dead.
  • I live with my grandparents because my mom can't handle being a parent.
  • I'm pregnant.
  • I think my girlfriend is pregnant.
  • I got so trashed last night!
  • My mom lives just down the street, but she doesn't want to see me.  Ever.
  • I'm afraid to come to school.
  • There's no food in my house.
  • I won't be in school for a while, because I'm going to rehab.
  • My family likes my sister best.
  • I cut myself when I'm sad.
  • I'm mentally ill.
  • I've been in trouble for dealing drugs.
  • My dad committed suicide over the weekend.
  • I'm autistic.
  • My mom is mentally ill.
  • You think my mom was drunk at Open House?  You should see her at home.
  • I have Asperger's Syndrome.
  • My 17 year old sister died of emphysema.  My mom has forgotten all about me.
  • If you call my house, make sure to talk to my mom, because my dad hits me.
  • Nobody else cares, so neither do I.
  • I'm on probation.
  • I have no friends because I smell bad.  I smell bad because I don't wash.  I don't wash because it keeps my cousin from waking me up for sex.
  • I'll never be as good as my sister.
  • My mom's afraid of my dad.  So am I.
  • I'm a kleptomaniac.
  • I'm a pathological liar.
  • My mom's in a nursing home because she's too obese to take care of herself.  Or me.
  • My father died. My mom doesn't know how we'll pay the bills.
  • My 20 year old sister has been taking care of me and my brother since our mom died, but our house just burned down, and we have nowhere to stay.
  • I'm in your class because I threatened to kill the other teacher.
  • I have speech problems.
  • I'm hard of hearing.
  • I'm blind.
  • I'm a junior.  I just came back to school after having my baby, but now my house burned down.
  • I think I'm going to kill my father.
  • I bashed my stepfather in the head with a shovel so he would stop beating my mom.
  • I'm in a wheelchair.
  • My parents use me and my brothers to hurt each other.
  • My stepfather is mean when he drinks.
  • I hate my mother's boyfriend.
  • My parents punish me by making me dig holes in the backyard until dark with no food.
  • I can't read, but there is not enough of a discrepancy between my IQ and achievement scores for me to qualify for special ed services.
  • I sleep most nights in a tent in the backyard with my boyfriend.  Our parents don't care.
  • I have to take care of my parents.
  • My boyfriend hits me, but my mom says I have too much invested in the relationship to break up with him.
I've only been teaching for sixteen years.  Every one of these statements comes from a student I have known in that time.  I teach in suburban America -- perhaps in a neighborhood like yours. 

To all who would point fingers at who is to blame for these students' failures, (inability to read at eighth grade):  Who would you say is at fault when they don't learn? Can you really put the bulk of the blame on teachers?  Budget cuts?  Unions? Public education? Parents? Society? Youtube?

When my students arrive in September, many of them have been dealing with the aforementioned issues (and this list is by no means comprehensive) for a lifetime, years, months, weeks, or maybe an issue comes up mid-year in the blink of an eye.  I know adults who would be brought to their knees by lesser problems than I have seen teenagers defeat and rise above.  Others flounder, and slip through the cracks of an imperfect system.  Still, some continue to insist on laying blame, because finger-pointing is easy, makes a good sound bite, and gets politicians elected. (It can also make you temporarily feel better when you're frustrated, and I'm certainly not above it from time to time, but the good feeling never lasts, and it never solves anything.)

Learning is complex, and there are any number of variables which can affect learning outcomes -- many of which are utterly outside the realm of control of any current system, or any system proposed by ed reformers.

So here is my challenge:  before you point a finger and demand accountability, take ten steps back, and look at the big picture.

Let me know if you're still pointing that finger.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Setting Goals

In a lot of ways, goals to effect change are what this blog is about.  In the words of Mahatma Ghandi, "Be the change you want to see in the world".  If I'm writing well enough, and making my points effectively, there are teachers out there (at least one?  maybe?)  who have set goals for themselves based on the challenges I put forth.  Goalsetting can be a useful strategy in every aspect of life.

It's been almost a decade since my school district moved away from the traditional annual teacher observation to the Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) model which begins with a SMART goal.  (If you are unfamiliar with SMART goals, please check out this SlideShare by Elona Hartjes.  This is what I used to present the concept to my eighth graders.)

When SMART goals were first introduced to us, it seemed to make a lot of sense -- a lot more so than putting on a dog and pony show once a year (although one of the highest compliments I ever received from a student was that I didn't act "different" on observation day).  SMART goals seemed a very common-sense and effective way to plan for and measure change.  As the years passed, I often wondered what was wrong with me that I could not write an acceptable SMART goal.  I consider myself to be a reasonably intelligent person (feel free to disagree) and I would say the same for my colleagues.  But being sent back to the drawing board umpteen times, or having an administrator just plain rewrite it for me becomes demoralizing after a while.  It was as if adminstration found a sound theory in SMART goals, but decided to sharpen it to a fine point and stab their teachers to death with it.

So out of frustration I was pretty down on the whole SMART goal concept for awhile.  This year, with the self-pacing I'm doing with my students, I realized very quickly that I needed to hand over the reins (see my post on Control ) and instead of giving them each their tasks at the start of class each day, they should be setting their own goals, and telling me their daily plan.

Easier said than done.  Experience (read:  prior bad judgment) has taught me not to approach something like this without first training students.  "Ok class, write a goal" will likely result in responses from "IDK" to "sleep" to "beat level 15 on Angry Birds".  So I started researching goal-setting with students.  You guessed it -- SMART goals were the basis of virtually every example I looked at, and with good reason.  So, after yers of moaning and complaining, I slapped a Band-Aid on my bruised ego (being stabbed to death might have been an exaggeration...) and got to work.  I showed my students Hartjes's SlideShar, and walked them through the goalsetting process using a website called Goalbook.  (fantastic site -- definitely worth checking out!)  They completed their first goals yesterday, and I was impressed.  Some of their metacognition was surprisingly insightful, and I think they were pleased at being given an additional measure of control over their learning.

So my challenge to you is a double-edged goalsetting challenge:  Set a goal for youself to teach your students how to set their own learning goals -- for one topic, one unit, one project, even one class period.  Let me know how it goes!

Saturday, October 15, 2011


TI was enjoying breakfast this morning in a local diner with my boyfriend (diner food -- a guilty pleasure) when two women entered with two boys aged approximately four years.  These two boys seemed very sweet, and amused themselves by playing a peg game:

Their food came, and shortly after they finished eating, one of the boys stood up on the bench and very loudly started saying "BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! BEEP"  Mom seemed upset, but what first occurred to me was that it must be his timer going off -- the internal timer that says "can't sit still any longer!"  Of course I was in no way responsible for this child, but all I could do was laugh.  Things progressed in similar fashion, and the moms finally packed up the boys and left (embarrassed) after one of them tipped the syrup bottle to his mouth to get a bigger taste.

I thought to myself that someone who left before the boys finished eating, would have a different interpretation of the boys than I do, as would someone who did not arrive until after the food had been eaten, and the "beeping" began.  Same boys, different points in the spectrum of  their tolerance of what was being expected of them.

So, I should get to the point.  How many times have we had or overheard the discussion in the teachers' room about a single student and two teachers who view that student in a completely different way?  "She's such a handful for me!"  "That's interesting, because she's an angel in my class."  Too often the easy answer is to 

a.  blame the student, or
b.  blame the teacher

when in truth, there are so many more variables that could be at play.  At what time of day does the student perform better?  Is she not a morning person?  Is he burned out by the last class of the day?  Are there gender issues -- does the student relate better to males or females?  Is the class right before lunch, and does this student arrive to school having skipped breakfast?  Is the teaching style compatible with the learning style?  Is the student on medication, and at what time is the medication administered?  At what time does it begin to wear off?

My challenge to you, is to think about one student you are having trouble reaching.  Talk to other teachers -- current or past -- who have had success with that student, and try to find patterns.  Talk to parents, counselors, the school nurse, AND THE STUDENT.  Make your own observations of what seems to work with this student in your class when you do have moments of success.

Let me know how it goes!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Flexible Space

Flexibility, to me, is one of the two most important qualities for an educator to have, and yet I find so many teachers to be rather rigid in their thinking, practices, and how they deal with students.

I am in my fifteenth year in the school district where I teach now, and over my career I have been in about nine different classrooms beginning full-time at the middle school, then traveling between the middle and high schools when the ninth grade moved to the high school.  At that time, the middle school was on a 40 minute every day schedule, and the high school was on an 80 minute every other day block schedule.  After that, I was moved to the high school full time, adding a new course to my repertoire.  Not too many years after that, the high school went to a modified block schedule with 80 minute classes every other day for all classes except freshmen math and foreign language, which would meet for 40 minutes every day.  I straddled both schedules until this year, when we reverted to the 80 minute every other day block for all classes except I'm back at the middle school for four of my classes.  I teach from a cart, and do not have a classroom of my own.  Flexibility is a matter of survival.

Having given some of my professional background, I'll focus on the topic at hand -- flexible space.  My current absolute preferred teaching space is the middle school library because of the opportunity for flexible space.  Our middle school library is the best in all the land.  No, really, we have an award that says so.  Our librarian, Sue Kowalski is one of the most phenomenal educators I have had the pleasure of knowing.  So when I teach in our library -- (which it truly is.  I've worked with librarians in the past where I might say "her library", but this library truly belongs to the school community, most especially the students.  But I digress...)  as a technophile I am there because it is a 1:1 environment, and much of what I do with my students is much easier when each student has access to a computer.  However, off to the side there are rectangular tables, where I can split off students individually, in pairs, or in small groups for low-tech activities, or to access material on my laptop or tablet.  Between two bookshelves is a casual circle of comfy chairs that a small group can use for collaborative work.  Behind the rectangular tables, and separated by a book display are round tables.  On the wall, is a standard erasable whiteboard --  I have several students for whom that is their preferred method of practice.  There is even an area with beanbag chairs and pillows.  In short, aside from kitchen space (I'll have to negotiate some time in a FACS room for that) there is space in our library to meet the learning needs of my students in a variety of situations.

I feel very blessed to be back at the middle school at this particular time, because we are on the verge of some groundbreaking change in the area of flexible space.  We have what has been dubbed the "STEAM Team" STEAM, of course, being Science, Technology, Arts, and Math.  Part of what's so fabulous about what this team is doing, is that they are playing with physical space in such a way as to make it suit learning needs, rather than the traditional model of adapting instruction to four walls and one desk per student, let learning happen as it may.

Science and the technology labs have large double doors like you might find leading into a cafeteria -- fire doors if you will -- and there is a large common area in the hallway where folding tables can quickly be set up to expand space.  At any given moment you could see mini traffic cones set up with students collecting data about cars they've built.

Jason Fahy, a teacher for whom I have the utmost respect, is the science teacher for the STEAM Team.  He admits to being outside his self-described "very narrow" comfort zone (sorry Jason, I've heard too much about your cutting edge teaching from my students, most notably my daughter, to buy that you hide out in a tiny safe comfort zone!) and I think that's the biggest barrier to more teachers using flexible space -- "comfort zone" issues -- either their own personal/professional comfort, or in some cases the comfort zone barrier may belong to administration, and without administrative support, there are limits to what can be done.

Also, there is certainly some amount of chaos that accompanies flexible space.  This may not work for all students, and we need to keep that fact in mind.  I have requested a couple of old-school study carrels for one of the classrooms where I teach, in order to accommodate those students who need some extra structure and/or a quiet place removed from the rest