Wednesday, August 22, 2012

About Those Hats

Today was the first day of school, and school is so much better with students! I decided to let hats in the classroom. About three students took advantage of the allowance. I'm ultimately glad I did because I think it showed my students I am willing to figure out where they can have choices and where I need them to follow (a useful life skill, always).

School isn't working for a lot of students. They don't put school in what Glasser calls their "Quality World" (which is just a fancy way of saying that, for some students, educators haven't done a very good job of showing students why and how school matters. If it takes wearing a hat to let a student know that this is a place where he or she is welcomed, I'm willing to let that piece of my culture go. I trust that as we all work to show students that we have their best interests and hopes and dreams in mind, they'll listen when we say you shouldn't wear a hat to a job interview (or a job).

Ultimately, I took my direction from other teachers on my hall who know the school culture better than I. Nearly all of them allow hats. Nearly all of them seem to enjoy very meaningful relationships with their students. And all of them have students who go on to be very successful in a variety of ways. With and without hats on.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Writing Workshops

Tomorrow I'm supposed to give a little workshop to my new department about the way I do my writing workshops. So, I'm going to practice on you!

1. Free writing
We start off (nearly) every day in my classroom free writing for about ten minutes. I try to give one prompt related to the content, one prompt related to pop culture, and a free write option. This year, we're writing about poems every day in twelfth grade, and I'm really excited about that!

2. Choose a topic (or genre)
Students can choose a free write to expand into an essay. If you need them to focus on a particular type of writing, assign free writes that can lead to persuasive writing or what have you. Or, skip step one and just assign the genre.

3. Rough draft
Students write. At my previous school, I was pretty adamant about handwriting. Since everyone has access to technology here, I'm thinking about relaxing that requirement this year and allowing students to keep all their rough drafts on an access-restricted blog. 

4. Peer Editing
Teachers don't read the rough draft. It's a place for students to work out kinks and think about the revision process. Students switch papers and fill out a TAG sheet. The TAG sheet guides peer editors to Tell something you like, Ask questions, Give advice. Once the student gets his or her paper and TAG sheet back, there's a section for the writer to make a plan. Students write three goals for their second drafts.

5. Revision Rubric
After making their goals, students create revision rubrics. They identify three (or more!) areas where they can improve (examples include conclusion, word choice, and conventions). They use their goals created on their TAG sheets to identify the areas. They then assign each area its own color using colored pencils.

6. Second Draft
Students write a second draft keeping their goals in mind. These drafts should be typed. Once they're printed, students underline the areas where they think they've met their goals. This draft, the rubric, the TAG sheet, and the rough draft are turned in. Teachers should read this packet and comment on growth -- if you need a grade here, it's for completion to show students they've been successful in growing. If you think they haven't grown, that's a completion issue that needs to be addressed before they turn in a third draft. 

7. Third Draft and Reflection
Taking into account teacher comments, students write a third draft. They turn these drafts in along with a paragraph explaining how their writing has changed over the course of the project.

This workshop allows students to see writing as a process and not as something that needs to be perfect the first (or second or third) time. Lower- and higher-proficiency students benefit from understanding the process when they have to do it much more condensed forms. Also, this way seems to make writing a little less stressful -- and maybe even a little fun!

A note about hats: I appreciate everyone's feedback about the hat situation. I have a follow up post coming about it taking what y'all said into account; I promise!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Hats Allowed?

My new school allows teachers to choose their policies on two highly contentious teenage possessions: hats and cellphones. I feel like I need to give the administration a little shout out for giving teachers the space to decide what works in the classroom, but I don't know what to do about hats!

I was raised that men always took their hats off upon entering a building. Women wearing ball caps also took those off. This action communicated respect to the people around you, especially your host. It also showed professionalism.

One of my colleagues pointed out that disallowing hats for that reason is making a cultural value judgment. What if your home culture doesn't equate respect with removing your hat? I definitely agree with being as open to other cultures as possible in the classroom (with the caveat being that I think it's also my responsibility to teach how students will be expected to act at jobs and college). I also like being able to see a student's face at all times.

So, what would you do?

Friday, August 10, 2012

Fall Reading List

I had so much fun with the summer reading list, but I didn't get to finish all my titles. I thought I'd try to make a list of books I'd like to read by the end of the year. You can read along or offer suggestions. Also, I plan to disappear from normal human life the day Junot Diaz's new book comes out, in case you are wondering.

This is How You Lose Her -- Junot Diaz
East of Eden -- John Steinbeck (for real this time)

How to Be a Woman -- Caitlin Moran
Class Meetings That Matter 9-12 -- Susan Limber
Teachers Have it Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America's Teachers -- Dave Eggers, Daniel Mouthrop, Ninivie Calegari
Conscious Classroom Management -- Rick Smith
Classroom Instruction that Works -- Robert J. Marzano, Debra J. Pickering, Jane E. Pollock

Young Adult Lit
Little Brother X -- Cory Doctorow
Divergent -- Victoria Roth

That's kind of a lot, so we'll see how it goes! I hope y'all read along.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Poverty in the Classroom

Have you ever taken part in a poverty simulation? I had as part of my Americorps training in 2008, but I was surprised about how much I'd forgotten of that feeling that, no matter what you do, you cannot get enough money to meet your basic needs and those of your family.

As part of the new teacher orientation for my new school division, we took part in such a simulation. Put into teams of varying sizes, participants work to have enough money to pay rent, buy food, while making sure that all dependents are cared for. Each "week" lasts fifteen minutes, and there's just no time. If you have a full-time job, you have to spend five minutes "working" in order to get your check. Then, you have to go to the bank (where you probably don't have enough money to open an account and thus must pay fees). Oftentimes, your movement is interrupted by the need to go buy more bus tickets. This leaves no time left to sign up for social services, check in with a kid's teacher, or attend any sort of classes to help you advance to the middle class (I'm getting stressed just typing this as I remember the frenetic pace at which my family ran trying to get jobs, secure services, and navigate a world of volunteer "business owners" willing to take advantage of our situation).

Sometimes people make bad decisions and take their kids along with them. Sometimes people have medical disabilities. Sometimes one family member bails, and you have to figure out a whole new way to run your household. A friend summed it up best after a class about education policy: Think about what you would do in a situation where your family didn't have enough money. Do you really think the people living that reality are so different from you?

My new school division serves a lot of different kinds of kids, and every kid has something going on in his or her life that comes before school. Educators have to find ways to reach students and make school meaningful in light of a student's problems. It continues to be unbelievable to me, however, that some think we can overcome educational inequality without overcoming inequalities in standards of living.

As one of the participants said, "When I was at school, even playing a nine-year-old, I couldn't help but think of my family and all they had going on. I couldn't concentrate on school." Maybe those interested in bettering education should concentrate on some of those problems that distract our students, too.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Summer Reading List: The American Way of Death Revisited

I've had three good friends lose immediate family members this summer. Watching them grieve and not being able to do much but offer a chance to talk or a few canned phrases has been hard. What's also hard to watch is the way in which the funeral industry takes advantage of the grieving. In one friend's case, advertisements were presented alongside the live stream of her sister's memorial service.

Jessica Mitford died before live streaming funeral services became routine, but after reading her book The American Way of Death Revisited, I can imagine her take on the matter. Mitford explores how funeral directors often tell families that embalming is legally required when that is the case in only very certain, very rare circumstances. When the federal government took steps to ban that practice, cemeteries--often owned by the same three corporations that own most funeral homes--began to require embalming.

Using trade publications, interviews with funeral directors and consumers, and her own research, Mitford explores the ways in which funerals in the US differ from most other post-industrial nations in terms of cost, focus on the body, and terminology. If this all sounds a little depressing, I have to say that this book was surprisingly un-morbid. In fact, the section that describes exactly how the embalming process works has been anthologized in several writing textbooks.

Mitford doesn't gloss over the abuses of an industry that consistently takes advantage of families who are grieving or people thinking that by paying ahead they're saving their family money (the family still usually gets a bill that includes adjustments for increased fees). This book is very honest and, at times, very funny.

Because teenagers as a general rule like to question the status quo, I think many high school students would like this book. It could be very instructive for a creative nonfiction writing. A teacher could also use it as a literature circle pick paired with other books that look at how industries often take advantage of consumers (The Jungle seems like a logical choice). If nothing else, the unusual subject matter could be a great way to hook a reluctant reader.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Teaching the Teachers

A central tenet for many education reformers is that if we just fired all the bad teachers, our educational problems would be solved in the US. Even before I became a teacher, I questioned whether or not the statistics claiming that most teachers come from the bottom third of their classes. Even if that's true, how do we fix it? Can we elevate the profession if we're routinely telling teachers they are stupid, lazy, and the main source of educational inequity in our country?

Probably not.

A small study of Cincinnati's Teacher Evaluation System suggests that targeted, teacher-led can help struggling teachers improve. Teacher evaluators (who are also currently teachers) give targeted feedback to struggling teachers. In Cincinnati,  teachers in the bottom quartile of the corps and the TES program were able to become average teachers after one year. This measure is based entirely on student test scores and only worked for math teachers.

Are tests really an accurate and fair representation of student learning? Will we ever figure out exactly how the language acquisition parts of our brain work? These are big questions worth answering. If we continue to shame teachers and insist that they are the only hope in a system riddled with inequitable funding, unresponsive curricula, and 25 percent of students experiencing the food insecurity associated with poverty, we aren't going to attract people into the profession who help students become the kinds of people who answer those big questions.

[Update: I think that anyone living in poverty experiences some sort of food insecurity. My boy Rikesh would like for you to know that the people who compile things have figured that just over 16 percent of kids live in food insecure households.]

Friday, August 3, 2012

Summer Reading List: Looking for Alaska

In the spring of 2010, my young adult literature professor suggested a number of books to us that I'm just now getting around to reading (this class was where I first heard about The Hunger Games). Among that list was John Green's boarding school novel Looking for Alaska. I had a hard time picturing my public school students being able to relate to kids with the means to go to school away from home (there were a lot of questions when I showed eleventh grade Dead Poets' Society).

Looking for Alaska, however, focuses mostly on students who have earned scholarships to a prestigious, fictitious boarding school in Alabama. The protagonist and his roommate explore the death of their close female friend Alaska. In doing so, they hit upon a lot of your basic YAL fare: identity, understanding money and class, love, sex, drugs, a little rock 'n' roll.

What makes Green's novel stand out (and it's starting to hit some bestseller lists seven years after publication) is his absolute honesty. With a lot of YAL novels, I sometimes think that authors have forgotten how teenagers talk to each other. Green hasn't, but that means there are copious curse words and sex. While I think that most teens would really enjoy Alaska, I can only recommend it as a free choice novel made available to students or incorporated as a lit circle book if you have a very supportive administration who understands this philosophy of young adult lit.

My next two summer reading list book reviews will be surprises not from the reading list. Get excited, fellow reading nerds!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Amen, Brother

"If a doctor, lawyer, or dentist had forty people in his office at one time, all of whom had different needs, and some of whom didn't want to be there and were causing trouble, and the doctor, lawyer, or dentist, without assistance, had to treat them all with professional excellence for nine months, then he might have some conception of the classroom teacher's job." -- Donald D. Quinn

I can't wait to go back, but it's always nice to feel a little solidarity.

Reward Me

Fellow teachers and other education enthusiasts, do you all subscribe to Education Week? I get their Teacher Update e-mails as well as their daily digest of interesting education news. Yesterday, I had an epiphany while reading about this study.

Students did better on tests and got better grades when they were rewarded before taking the assessment. The students also had to write briefly about what they planned to do with the rewards (older kids got money and younger kids got trophies). The paper posits that students did better because they were mentally holding themselves accountable for the reward they already received.

Even though this study looked primarily at extrinsic motivators for learning, I think I can get some great ideas for classroom management next year week. Those of you who followed along last year remember the work we had to do in first block to get students to act appropriately and foster a learning community. One thing I tried at another teacher's suggestion was a point system. We talked as a class about what specific behaviors would earn them points (taking turns talking, writing for the entire free write time, etc.). When they got to ten points, we had a party.

I hated that system. It felt manipulative. Students would often lose focus as they tried to point out to me that they had earned the point (resulting in the new expectation that points wouldn't be requested). But the system did seem to focus them on thinking about appropriate behavior in the classroom and that was what we needed.

I think a system that rewards first and asks questions later can create that same focus. I really like the idea of giving my students something (a pizza party, a few minutes to just talk, baked goods) and saying this is because I know you are going to do great things in here. That sort of system feels less like a bribe and more like a relationship. Any other ideas on specifics for this way of rewarding students?