Tuesday, March 27, 2012

When Kids Won't Read

Those of you who know me/survived grad school with me may remember the book When Kids Can't Read: What Teachers Can Do. I love this book. I internalized it's message of modeling great reading behaviors like predicting and thinking aloud. I believed that kids who can't read (not necessarily can't decode) need us to show them some access points. So, armed with some other reading strategies, I set off to get my reluctant readers interested in the written word.

Part of the problem is that I don't just teach reluctant readers. I also teach kids who are very capable readers but aren't confident in their reading ability or aren't sure college is a goal for them. I also think some of them just don't care. Obviously, it's my job to help them see why they ought to care, but I thought I'd gotten a little more buy-in on first block's first whole-class novel Things Fall Apart.

Monday, however, I realized that no one had read the last ten chapters of the book. I'd done reading checks, we'd had class discussions that connected colonialism and parental alienation to our own lives for the first fifteen chapters. After that, I thought I had them. I thought that the summative assessment would serve as our final reading check.

I was so wrong. We had a long talk yesterday about how I hope they go to college and fix the education system to include more student choice. About how some times you have to work at things that don't make sense in the moment. About why studying English matters and how I need them to trust me to help them practice those skills. This conversation served mostly to mask my anger. These aren't my kids from difficult situations. These are kids with two parents at home and collegiate aspirations.

I handed out the review sheet and told them to finish the book and call me with any questions.

What would you have done?

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Go Miss B!

The first guy in this video talks about our awesome chorus teacher. I dare any human being watching not to cry (in a good way).

A Very Special Teacher from CFI on Vimeo.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

"Why Can't Separate Be Equal?"

My last class of the day is reading Night right now. In addition to a basic overview of the Holocaust, we also spend some time talking about the eugenics movement pioneered in the United States. We talked about what was different and what was similar between Eli's experiences in Night and the experiences of African-Americans, Catholics, and other minority groups in the U.S. During the course of our conversation, my students said some pretty horrific things:

"I don't believe it should be a law or anything, but I think it's better when the races are separate so that there's less fighting."

"It just doesn't look right when people who are white marry people who are black."

"Why can't separate be equal?"

My students made this comments very matter-of-factly. They spoke one at a time. They used people-first language like we have talked about and they've also worked on the terms they often use to describe people of color. They even asked me what I thought about interracial marriage and when I indicated I didn't have a problem with it, one boy noted that's probably because I live in a city a ways away from where I teach and that I'm used to seeing "people who are more diverse." No one yelled. No one talked over top of another. No one went nuts when I told them that we'd tried separate but equal and it hadn't worked. But no one advocated for racial harmony either.

A couple of weeks ago, we were reading The Odyssey in my first class of the day. We reached the part where Odysseus shoots one of the suitors through the nipple. The class of mostly fourteen-year-old boys lost it. I don't mean there were a couple of chuckles and then we kept reading, but they could not continue for several minutes. I don't mean to sound like a fuddy duddy or that I never want to have fun or laugh at silly things in my class, but I have spent a lot of time talking to my students about finding that line between having fun and still being able to do meaningful work.

One incident is horrifying and the other makes it hard to do my job, but I think they are both related. I love my students. I have such affection for each of them and their unique talents and strengths, even when they drive me crazy with their chatter or their parroting of views they hear at home. But days like the two above just make me wonder what am I supposed to do? How do I teach tolerance and maturity?

I think that job belongs to teachers whether or not parents have abdicated their role in teaching those virtues. I think that any one who works with young people takes on the task of being a person who helps raise those people. I'm just having a really hard time figuring out how to incorporate those virtues in my classroom. We stop and talk a lot and I like to think those times plant some seeds. We've also started doing weekly community meetings where we can talk about things that are bothering us. I'm interested to see if these help matters any. I'm reading so much about teaching kids how to advocate for themselves and be proud of their heritage. I haven't stumbled across any material about how to teach character in a way that works with a student-directed English curriculum. Any ideas, teachers and laypeople alike?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Please Give Us the Glass Castle!

My very wonderful teacher friend, Ms. Dillon, is working to get a class set of the wonderful memoir The Glass Castle through Donors Choose. These books will make a difference for readers of all levels at our school. If you donate by March 19 and enter the code BLOOM at checkout, your donation will be matched. Please help here!

Obligatory Standardized Test Critique

"I don't think it's a coincidence that standardized examinations of a highly punitive and judgmental character have often been promoted most aggressively by those who also favor market competition in the educational arena, with the ultimate objective of establishing a universal voucher system in this nation." - Jonathan Kozol, Letters to a Young Teacher

I recommend the PBS documentary School to anyone interested in how our education system has evolved since Jefferson first recommend three years of non-compulsory education for everyone provided by the state. Most germane to my students and I last week was the history of the standardized test.

In the beginning, these tests were used to sort students into academic tracks, according to the series. Then, they were used as a benchmark to give teachers and school leaders ideas about how students were progressing and where they might need help. Many readers may remember the Standford 9s all ninth graders used to take here in Virginia.

Then came the "accountability" movement (quotations because I still haven't figured out who is supposed to be accountable to whom and by what means). We started using the tests to evaluate whether or not students were prepared to graduate and then if schools ought to be accredited. Most recently, these tests make up various percentages of teacher evaluations.

I don't have a problem with tests -- standardized or otherwise. I give my students assessments on a near-daily basis. Assessments aligned to objectives can lead to a rich and responsive curriculum that creates the sort of critical thinkers our society sorely needs. I have not seen one shred of evidence to suggest that the standardized tests the president wants to make part of the way I'm evaluated as a professional have anything to do with what happens in the seven weeks I had with my students before they took the English 11 Writing SOL. It makes no sense to me to argue about whether these tests should be 20 percent of a teacher's evaluation as they were in the recently-released (and much maligned) NYC teacher evaluations or 40 percent as my governor has suggested. We are asking these tests to do something they were never designed to do.

More importantly, these test seem really detrimental to students. I'm still amazed when students ask how a creative assignment will help them on the SOL or demand more explicit test prep because they know that the best way to increase test scores isn't a rich content knowledge but having an arsenal of test-taking strategies.

So, I can't help but wonder why we spend all this time hemming and hawing about how and when and why to administer these tests. Why don't we just make new ones correlated to real student outcomes and encouraging the critical thinking skills schools ought to foster rather than the test-taking strategies many seem to emphasize? We might also spend some time mulling over this reminder, often attributed to Albert Einstein, “not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Beg, Borrow, Steal

Hi teacher friends! I promise I have a very eloquent post on the SOL madness all eleventh grade teachers just went through, but I wrote it in my writer's notebook which I left at school. Right now, I'm looking for more post-reading activities to help students sort out thematic elements and have fun. We did Facebook pages for The Odyssey. We made some collages comparing and contrasting our own thoughts about the American Dream versus the dreams presented in Of Mice and Men. What have you got?

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Why I Love Using Pop Music to Teach Grammar

Me: So, why do we use the subjunctive here?
B: Because Beyonce said so!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Pizza for Points

I've really struggled with my late work policy. First of all, it's nice to know when to expect a weekend of full of grading. More germane to my students, they need to learn that in the real world, there are deadlines. You need to meet them in order to keep your job, renew your driver's license, or not default on any sort of loan repayment. But those deadlines have real consequences, right? The consequence for not turning in work in high school is that your grade suffers to the point you may have to repeat a class. For someone who already dislikes school and feels unsuccessful there, is lowering his or her grade going to teach any sort of lesson?

The answer is no in my classroom, apparently. Last semester I had no late work policy except that work had to be turned in by the end of the six weeks. Driven to distraction by the constant grading, I decided that this semester I would take off two points for every day an assignment was late. We're on a four-point grading scale, so this gives students one "gimme" day and then they'd drop a third of a letter grade the next day. Seemed reasonable to me. I didn't consider, however, that of course these students aren't motivated by "good" or "bad' grades. If they were, they wouldn't have ended up in my classes. Late work has not been any more or less of a problem this semester than last.

So, I've decided as the only person in the room who definitely values education, as the person responsible for teaching these kids to do work in which they can take pride, I would hound them. I would round them up as they walked the halls in the morning and make flashcards to review for that quiz they never made up or plug in a computer and talk through a thesis statement. I still had a lot of missing work.

On Wednesday, we had a breakthrough. I offered pizza after school to any one who wanted to come and do make-up work as the six weeks ended Friday. I had twenty-five students show up. I ordered the pizza once everyone got there so they had to work at least forty-five minutes before grabbing their slice and leaving. Most people stayed after the pizza came.

I went from eighteen Ds and Fs to six. Three of those Fs will get incompletes for the six weeks as they all had some sort of long-term medical absence. So, I have three Ds and Fs to work really hard on as we begin the new six weeks on Tuesday.

Some people might think I'm coddling these kids, setting them up for real failure in a world that doesn't allow flexibility for deadlines. Well, let me tell you about my last two semesters at the University of Virginia. I got an extension on every single paper in the first semester of my last year because I had mono and that was the only way to avoid a medical withdrawal. My last semester, I had more extensions as I traveled for job interviews and figuring out post-graduation life. I made Dean's List twice. I got inspired to become a teacher. I started to feel successful at college in a way I never did when I tried to hold myself to the same standards as kids who had gone to more rigorous high schools and had a better idea of what to except from the work. I decided to come back for more a year later. All because some teachers decided it was important that I do the work well rather than hew to some arbitrary deadline.

I want my students to see that if they work hard and turn in quality work, school can be a good place for them. If it takes thirty bucks for pizza and deadline flexibility to teach them that valuable lesson, I say that's a small price to pay.