Monday, September 22, 2014

This I Believe



For the past several months, I've been lucky to be part of the Central Virginia Writers' Project. At our two-week seminar this summer, we were asked to write our own versions of a "This I Believe" essay. Not only did this assignment give me a chance to distill some of my own beliefs about why what I do in the classroom matters, my eleventh grade team had already decided to use this prompt as our beginning essay assignment. So, I had a ready-made piece to share with my students as I asked them to share their own beliefs, and here it is for you all:




I believe we have messed up just about everything we can when it comes to public education in the United States. We expect students to learn without showing them what great magic learning can work in their own lives and the lives of others. We expect students to learn for the sake of the economy and not for the sake of themselves, and then we berate them for being so selfish as to skip class or not do their homework.


There is still some magic in elementary school. A dear friend of mine recently inspired her students to design and build their own butterfly garden when they can research, write, and sit in awe of creatures they’ve helped to save.


But the magic is seeping out of the walls of our secondary schools. Students are expected to sit still for forty-five minutes, take notes in the preferred method du jour, dutifully pass tests, and move on to the next subject when the bell rings. If they are lucky, they might get two bathroom passes a semester and a few teachers who have decided not to ride the wave of standardized test hysteria.


I believe that if we trust teachers to design project-based assessments, we will have a picture of where our students are succeeding and where they need more help. I believe if we paid teachers a wage commensurate to the many hours we work above our contracts, we wouldn’t have a shortage of bright, dedicated professionals who are respected by students, their parents, and their communities. I believe if teachers had smaller caseloads, students would receive more meaningful instruction. I believe if we created a ladder for teachers to grow professionally without leaving the classroom, we would see fewer than half of all teachers leave in their first five years of teaching.


I believe if we increased the minimum wage, we would increase student learning. I believe if showed students learning to read and read well means they could visit the moon or the ocean or the next Odyssey of the Mind field trip, we would have millions more finish college. I believe if we put students in small groups according to their interests and not any perceived ability level and turned them loose on a project, they’d learn more than they ever would in any Advanced Placement or college prep class.
I believe in the promise of public education to incorporate us all to a cause higher than ourselves. I believe our schools can be places where students delve deep into a topic and come out better learners, citizens, and people, for the experience.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Beating Burnout - Part Three

Have you ever heard of the April Sours? I hadn’t until this year when I got them big time. A blog post I shared then helped me shake them off and realize there are a lot of manageable things I can do to make my classroom and place of joy where meaningful learning takes place. These are some of my plans:

1. Move to a room with windows. - For some reason, schools built in the 70’s tend to be big on the interior classrooms without windows. For the first time in my teaching career, I’m going to be able to see natural light all day every day! I know this sort of dramatic shift isn’t possible for everyone, but shaking up your space might help you get new perspective.

2. Read, Read, Read - This summer I revisited a lot of my teaching bibles to remind myself of the skills I want to my students to acquire. Planning oral history projects with a social justice component have gotten me excited for the work we’ll be doing. I’ve also revisited some texts such as Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities to remind myself of why teaching matters.

3. Accept That School Can Be Fun - In our work-obsessed culture, we are often content to ask why something should be fun. Learning is work, after all. But it doesn’t have to take place in a drab environment designed to suck the creativity out of every human in the room. I’m doing a serious makeover of my new digs: comfy couches for reading, tables for collaborative learning, and a class pet. I’m watching a friend’s bunny while she returns to graduate school and my students are going to help. 

Teacher friends, what are you doing to make this year your best yet? Non-teacher friends, what do you value about your work? How do you make your workspace a space where you’re happy?

Monday, September 8, 2014

Burnout and Back Again - Part Two

Since I started graduate school, I’d never considered a career outside of education. I’ve been interested in jobs outside of the classroom. Moving into administration provides the only meaningful promotion in schools. Policy work has a sexiness about it while also providing an avenue to have more of a voice in the educational policies that I think make a difference in students’ lives but can’t implement within my classroom. But I never considered that I’d leave education.

Last year, however, I found myself thinking about leaving.  I wondered a lot about other kinds of jobs I could have to attack poverty in our country. I wondered a lot about the kinds of jobs I could have where I went home at the end of the day and that was it -- maybe a few e-mails here and there but not a stack of grading.   

I never applied anywhere, but I did talk. A lot. I had coffee with my professors from grad school; I talked to other teachers to find out what they’d done to overcome similar slumps. A meeting with my awesome principal helped things click.

I confessed to her that I was burnt out. You are? She replied in a tone of voice she might use if she were mildly surprised to learn I was getting over a cold or reading an okay book. I felt like I’d made this big confession: I’m not happy teaching and that’s a problem because I have always been happy teaching. Her response really helped me chill out. And once I did, she reminded me of just how many health issues I experienced in the last year.  

I doubt that my principal was the first person to remind me that this school year was full of bike accidents, shingles, and a bunch of other things I’d rather not list on my blog. But at that moment, my thick skull finally got it: my life outside of the classroom matters more than I have ever realized. I’ve spent these last three years riding the teaching high of the first magical moments in the classroom and figuring out how to recapture them. I’ve picked up every yoga class I could, tried to organize my time efficiently, read all the articles on life-work balance. But I’ve had it all backwards. I’ve been treating my work life and my home life and my friend life as separate entities. In reality, they’re all facets of my life life.

My readers are pretty smart, so you all probably figured this out before I did. Thanks for sticking with me to this point. I know I’ve rambled a lot, but it seemed important to me to tell this story: how I went from loving teaching from the very first day to pushing myself through the day. I started blogging about teaching to show what really happens in our classrooms. To show my work. And this year, my work was to get through the day and figure out how to have better ones for my students.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Burnout Series - Part One

Last year was been tough for me. I got engaged and then married. I had an amazing group of talented and creative students. I began work with an innovative and invested administrative team. But I sure did struggle.

During the worst times, I felt like I was checked out of school. I was doing the bare minimum to take care of my students and finding very little joy in my work. I’d spend my lunch period browsing blogs on line rather than doing the things that used to make me feel invigorated such as reading up on education research or taking a walk outside to clear my head and get ready for the next class.

From almost the very beginning of the year, my grading load felt next to impossible. Figuring out ways to mitigate that really helped me, and I started feeling better. But the joy I’d had in my first two years of teaching dissipated, and I didn’t know how to get it back. I used to come home every evening from school exhausted and impassioned and with a “teacher high” from the sense of wonder I felt at being a part of students growing and learning every day.

In addition to my joy, I also lost a lot of my anger at watching really bad reform policies. I couldn’t muster the same sort of logic and statistical analysis when I saw another cheap, easy, and poorly-designed standardized test coming down the pike. As you all probably noticed, I stopped blogging about ways to craft meaningful and rigorous assessment.

No one event or student or situation drove me to this malaise. My students were just as wonderful. Our administration was really supporting innovative ideas. I was just going through something that happens too many teachers: burnout.

This isn’t meant to be a sob story. I’ll give away the ending here: I got better and some specific things helped. In the next few days, I want to share what worked for me and find out what’s worked (or not) for those of you who teach or have ever been able to work through burnout at a stressful and demanding job. I think teachers don’t talk enough about what’s happening in our classrooms -- the good and the bad. And the whole point of this blog is to change the conversation around teaching.

Monday, August 18, 2014

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

Happy back-to-school time, everyone! The teachers in my division have been hammering away at new bulletin boards, exciting lesson plans, and team building activities since last Monday. I've really enjoyed my time with my colleagues and was especially impressed with how our division handled back-to-school professional development (more about that in another blog post).

Usually on this blog, I post a summer reading list of books I want to read that summer and hope we'll all read together. I usually cross off two or three of them and then move on. So, this year, I didn't even do that. I knew I'd have to read at least one book for our school's summer reading program and one for the class I took in July. Otherwise, I just let books good books happen to me.

Our school did away with required summer reading where a student writes an essay when we're all back at school a few years ago. I never had to do that in high school, but I understand it was a common practice. We've struggled with wanting to encourage kids to read over the summer but not wanting to squelch any burgeoning love of reading under the heavy stacks of "have to" reading. 

The school's new librarian came up with a couple of ingenious plans. First, she set up student-teacher book clubs. Teachers could select from books we thought kids would enjoy and she facilitated students signing up with a funny video and class visits. We then had two book club meetings in the community over the summer. At one of them, another kid we knew, who had also read the book, stopped by and talked with us, too. Our group read Into the Wild and it spurred a lot of interesting discussions about what it means to be adventurous versus stupid and cruel to your parents. I haven't heard how other book clubs fared. On Friday, we have our last meeting where we'll eat pizza, watch the movie, and talk about the differences in portraying a story across different media.

I also read two great teaching books this summer I want to tell you about. For the Central Virginia Writing Project, I read Penny Kittle's Write Beside Them. This book really helped me refine our writing workshop in my class and create a more structured peer conferencing program. It's definitely an English teacher book. I also re-read Teaching for Joy and Justice which just got me excited as I reminded myself why I got into teaching in the first place: to help students find their voices and project them in healthy ways. I underlined just about every activity in this book. The book's author co-teaches a history/language arts class with her husband, so she's got some great ideas for teachers in other disciplines.

One of my good friends loaned me her copy of I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith of One Hundred and One Dalmatians fame. You know those books that you're sort of angry when you're done because you loved it so much and now it's over? This book made me that kind of angry. C also devoured it and he hasn't read any fiction since the last Game of Thrones book came out.

Brigid Shulte's Overwhelmed helped me think about how I buy into the ideal worker culture that privileges face time in the office over meaningful work that we finish before going home to our families. Two of my new academic year resolutions are to stop trying to multi-task and to let go of trying to feel on top of my work. Teaching, by its very nature, is never done. There are always newer bulletin boards to put up, better ways to arrange desks to facilitate student learning, a cool update to make to the class website. I want to do these things. But I don't want to do only these things. I want to write and practice yoga and spend some time camping. I've never been one of those teachers who can leave things at school on Friday and pick up where I left off on Monday. I don't think I ever will be, but this year I'm going to take one weekend day off from work and try to be more efficient the other six days of the week. I'll let you know how it goes.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Education Improvement Myths that Need to Die

Do you read Edutopia? I love that George Luca's educational foundation looks for evidence-based interventions and works hard to spread those ideas around. A couple of weeks ago, Mark Phillips published a review of 50 Myths that Threaten America's Public Schools. Phillips highlighted the eight myths that he thinks are most damaging, but he didn't link to the relevant research.

I hope every policy reads the book, but for those of you with a little less time to devote to ed policy reading, I thought I'd share some of the compelling work out there that shows maybe we're not focusing on the interventions that will help the most disadvantaged students.

Myth #1 - Teachers are the most important factor in student learning. Socioeconomic status and parents' education level actually play much bigger roles in student learning.

Myth #2 - Homework boosts student achievement. Research on homework actually tends to be pretty mixed. This coming year, I'm going to try to give students homework designed to help them develop a personal reading practice. I'm interested to see how that goes.

Myth #3 - Class size does not matter. This myth really gets me as I've seen my caseload increase year after year. This increase diminishes my ability to differentiate, and class size could also have an effect on students' wage potential.

Myth #4 - A successful program works everywhere. I think we've seen this not work in nearly every charter model that has yet to be brought to scale. Humans are a difficult variable to control.

Myth #5 - Zero tolerance policies are making schools safer. Researchers have been finding for a long time that automatic suspensions or expulsions don't do much to make schools safer. They also do plenty to increase socioeconomic and racial achievement gaps.

Myth #6 - Money doesn't matter. This did get linked in the Edutopia piece and you should watch it. And read pretty much everything by Linda Darling-Hammond you can find.

Myth #7 - College admissions are meritocratic. Inside Higher Ed found differently when they surveyed college admissions directors in 2011.

Myth #8 - Merit pay for teachers works. Research in both Tennessee and New York City suggests paying teachers to improve students' test taking skills rather than focus on authentic learning have done little to improve either.

Of course, a lot of these studies are based on what a mentor teacher of mine calls the "McDonald's of testing" -- standardized tests that are cheap, quick, and not healthy at all. I'm still trying to figure out how we can get divisions and states to adopt learning measures that are more useful and statistically less noisy. But that's a post for another day.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Best Three Reasons to Be a Teacher?

I recently heard the phrase "There are three good reasons to be a teacher: June, July, and August." I've heard the sentiment, if not the exact words, before, and I still get just as angry.

Most school divisions around here will end in mid- to late June with teachers reporting back in early August. So, I guess that just leaves us with July.

Some teachers quantify their "earned" summer vacation by pointing out that we work an average of fifty-three hours of week. If you're contracted for thirty-five hours as many teachers are, that's 576 hours we're working past our contracts a year. Those hours equal over eighty-two additional teaching days.

But I think we're not acknowledging something important when we talk about teachers' summer vacations.  I think of a vacation as something I can take or do while still getting paid. As a teacher, however, during summer break, I've essentially been laid off and have chosen to split my paychecks from the academic year up into small enough chunks that I can continue to eat and pay my student loans.

What's the answer to this problem of de-professionalization? Year-round schools (and if that's the case, when do we have the chance to recharge, plan, and attend classes)? Contracts that reflect the time most teachers put into their classrooms? Summer work relating to policy and curriculum?

I haven't found the answer yet, but I know that I'm a teacher no matter the season. 

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Why We Don't Need Teacher Appreciation Week

While the PTO breakfast, the Facebook posts, and the e-mails lauding teachers are sincere and heartfelt this week, they all ring a little hollow as I look at my stressed-out students and our overworked school psychologist who bounces between three buildings trying to meet the mental health needs of over 1400 students -- needs that must be met if kids are to thrive in the classroom.

For fifty-one weeks a year, I hear a lot about how teachers are the problem, the school I spent tens of thousands of dollars to go to is garbage (for the record, I felt well-prepared by my program), and tests designed by people who have never worked in the classroom are the best way to monitor student progress and teacher quality. 

We don't need Teacher Appreciation Day. We don't need Teacher Appreciation Week. If we valued the teaching profession the way our kids and country need us to, people would be aware and appreciative of the teachers working to build knowledge and our economy throughout the year.

Here's my teacher appreciation wish list:

  • some type of entrance exam into education school designed by practicing classroom teachers
  • a rigorous two-year course of study that includes one thousand hours in the classroom and also courses in classroom organization to help teachers develop the systems necessary for a smoothly-running classroom
  • a wage commiserate with the value we add to the economy 
  • a national teacher licensing exam, also designed by practicing teachers, that includes plenty of emphasis on using understandings of cognitive development in the classroom
  • smaller caseloads so teachers can make meaningful impacts in kids' lives by building relationships
  • a decreased emphasis on statistically noisy, poorly-designed standardized tests and an increased emphasis on project-based learning designed and evaluated by master teachers
  • room to grow professionally without permanently leaving the classroom. 
I have a lot of other wishes for making meaningful changes to public education. In fact, I keep a running list. But during this teacher appreciation week, I think the list above wouldn't be a bad start. 

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Wal-Marting of US Public Schools

Friday's New York Times had an article detailing the amount of money the Walton Family Foundation has given to charter schools in the last decade or so.  The Waltons inherited their money from Sam Walton who started Wal-Mart -- the store that actively seeks to sell you as much cheap junk from China as possible.

I have to admit that I felt my educator's heart sinking as I read the story. I'm not anti-charter. I hope to lead my own school one day, and I applaud American Federation of Teachers Presidnet Albert Shanker's idea of essentially creating a research and development arm of typical public schools. These teacher-led schools would be an environment to try new and innovative approaches to education with a population that was invested enough in school to leave the typical neighborhood school. Teachers at the charter could take what they learned about their interventions back to their colleagues at the neighborhood school and work together to make sure that all public schools in the US supported all students.


Thanks to the foundation run by the family behind Wal-Mart, however, charter schools have lost their original mission. They've become billed as band-aids to our current education "crisis" and replacements for the neighborhood schools that are painted as failing by virtue of test scores that were never designed to measure what we're using them to measure. They also fail to educate students in need of special education skills and one large charter chain recently sought to oust students with high needs from their home school.

The parents in the story seemed caught in between wanting to support their local schools and believing that the local schools couldn't provide what charter schools can -- including better libraries and technology.

But I'm not a parent yet; I'm just a teacher who sees kids labor in a system that works for them sometimes and doesn't work for them others. I think our public schools could use some visioning and some investment in that vision. We'll get nowhere, however, in creating public schools that educate every child in the US to the highest possible expectation if we let the same people who brought us Wal-Mart bring us the next generation of public schools.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Getting to the "Main Event"

Over the weekend, my mentor teacher from my first teaching job posted a link to this blog post. The teacher implores students to realize that the content learned in school is not the "main event." The teacher argues that the social and emotional learning that goes into getting up, getting to class, engaging with the material and others, and getting the work done is the main event of school.

I think I've always believed that. I nodded emphatically in graduate school when we were told we were going out into the world to teach students not content. I've embraced one-on-one conversations with students about how to change their attitude and believe in their ability to meet adversity with grace (instead of the oft used alternatives of yelling or shutting down).

But I'm not sure I've communicated to my students outside of our weekly community meetings why school's main events are about so much more than grades and sitting quietly for forty-five minute stretches. I'm going to share this blog post with them and discuss what it means to not quit and what support they need not to just make it through these last few weeks of school but to thrive in them. I'll report back on what I hear.

One of my teacher friends with whom I shared this link said she planned to edit out the "grow a pair" statement not for it's "colorful" aspect but because she doesn't want students to see success as gendered. I think Ms. C is spot on, and I'll be doing the same.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Education Reading for the Weekend

At the beginning of the year, a student told me that he didn't believe that our public schools are more segregated than they were in the years following Brown. This in-depth article in The Atlantic proves it's true. I wish they'd focus more on the ways in which de facto segregation have affected students in other parts of the country rather than assuming we have a regional problem, but it's an important read nonetheless.

I missed this important debate in the New York Times about parents opting their kids out of testing. I look forward to thinking about the implications of those choices. 

The American Statistical Association came out against the value-added method of evaluating teachers based on their students' test scores on the grounds that the data provided by standardized tests doesn't actually measure teachers' contributions to student learning.

Finally, I got to guest blog at the Curry Blog last week. Thanks, Curry folks!

Have a great weekend! Try not to grade too many papers.

Monday, April 14, 2014

What's the Right Level of Parental Involvement?

In this week's Sunday New York Times, Professor Keith Robinson and Professor Angel Harris examined ways in which parental involvement had the greatest impact on student achievement. Their work defined student achievement as standardized test scores and grades. While I think that our students and policy makers both need a more nuanced understanding of achievement. I haven't figured out exactly how to quantify it (but that's a subject for another post entirely), and there is still much to learn from the data we do have.

Harris and Robinson found that "observing a child’s class, contacting a school about a child’s behavior, helping to decide a child’s high school courses, or helping a child with homework, do not improve student achievement. In some cases, they actually hinder it." The pairs research also suggests that parents had similar levels of involvement regardless of race which can hopefully lay to rest the old canard that some racial groups care more about eduction than others.

So, how should schools engage parents in ways that will help students become successful? Students from all backgrounds often seem to struggle with seeing their thirteen years of public education as a gift and investment in their futures. Parents can provide wisdom and help students develop positive feelings toward school. Parents can also model respect for teachers and their wisdom as professionals who sometimes see sides of kids not on display at home.

Teachers, what are some of the most meaningful parent interactions you've had? Parents, what do you need from schools to be able to support your children? Do you think we'll ever be able to bridge the divide between home and school?

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Costa Rica: Day 7 & 8

Hola, familias! Sorry for the radio silence. Our Wi-Fi connections haven't been as seamless as we assumed they would be. But, we have had a great couple of days to share!

Yesterday, we headed to the beach at Manuel Antonio National Park. 


We made some new friends. 

And ended the day with an amazing sunset. 

Today we set out for San Jose, but first stopped for a nature walk at another national park. 

The guys are standing in front of BIG roots. 

Can you spot the monkeys? 

After a few stops for lunch and shopping, we made it back to our original hotel in San Jose. We've seen some spectacular aspects of Costa Rican flora and fauna, met cool folks, and played a lot of cards. But we all agreed this afternoon that we're ready to be home. See you tomorrow!

Friday, April 4, 2014

Costa Rica: Days 5 & 6

Hola! I'm sorry we didn't get the chance to update y'all yesterday. We have some fun zipline pictures to share, but they're on another device. Look for them soon! 

Today we left Monteverde and headed for the Pacific. On the way we stopped for a crocodile tour. 

We motored down the T├árcoles river. 

And our crew was ready to see some crocs. 

At first we saw mostly birds -- over thirty-one types. These are some snowy egrets or las garza nibosas in Spanish. 

We eventually found a few crocs, and Captain Santiago fed them some chicken. 


When we stepped off the boat, we were greeted by some traditional musicians. 

After all the excitement on the river, we made it down to the Pacific. 

We wnt into town and peaked in some souvenir shops before returning to play in the pool and enjoy anothe delicious Costa Rican meal. Tomorrow, we'll spend most of the day playing on the beach. 

Until then, buenas noches! 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Costa Rica: Day 4

I Today was a day mostly of travel. We left La Fortuna this morning and headed west. 

For our first activity, we planted trees at a reserve intended to restore biodiversity in Costa Rica. 

Afterward, we went on a nature walk and saw lots of beautiful plants. 

Some bougainvillea with another unidentified flower. 

Our guide explained the symbiotic relationships between plants in the cloud forest. 

We climbed to the top of this tower to find an amazing view. 


Tomorrow we're off to zipline and find other adventures. The weather forecast is great for where we are. Buenas noches! 

Monday, March 31, 2014

Costa Rica: Day 3

Buenas noches! We're still dealing with the same tricky WiFi, AND we had a lot of water activities today. So, I don't have too many photos to share. 
We started the morning visiting a school where the older kids performed a traditional Costa Rican dance for us. 

We also found plenty of time to play around. 

Afterward, we hiked to La Fortuna waterfall. We got to play around in the water, but my camera did not. 


We followed the waterfall with a visit to hot springs heated by this volcano. 

Our hotel provided another delicious meal after which we had some free time to visit a church, hear a talk about Costa Rican coffee, visit the local sporting goods store, or just relax. 

Tomorrow we'll spend most of the day traveling to our next base of operations. More when we get there! 

Saludos,
M

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Costa Rica: Day 2

Hello, everyone! We're settled in for the night here at hotel. Due to some finicky wifi issues, this evening's blog post is coming to you from my phone.

Today we went to inBIOparque, a park that has replicas of the three different types of biomes here in Costa Rica. Afterward, we visited a volcano that hasn't erupted...lately. On the way to our hotel, we stopped to look at a roadside waterfall. I really hope all these photos go through!













Saturday, March 29, 2014

Costa Rica: Day 1

Hola, amigos! Another teacher and I are spending our school's spring break taking the Model United Nations club to Costa Rica. Today was mostly a day of travel.



We left the US bright and early and had a quiet flight down to San Jose.





Once we arrived, our tour company made sure we got to our hotel. We spent the afternoon enjoying the sunshine, the pool, and some ice cream:



Tomorrow morning, starting at 6:30, we're off to inBIOparque and Paos Volcano National Park. I promise a more exciting blog post (with better quality pictures!) then.

Saludos!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Real-World Research Projects

When we did diagnostic testing at the beginning of the year, I found that most of my students came to me relatively prepared for the year's coursework in all but one area: research.

During our zombie unit, our media specialist and I introduced some of the basics of research in the Internet 2.0 era: web evaluation, understanding copyrights, and exactly how Wikipedia can show you sources without actually serving a source.

When we came back from winter break, we began our research work in earnest. First, we all chose dystopia books from a wide selection including I, Robot, Animal Farm, and Fahrenheit 451. After three weeks of literature circle activities including reading articles relating to themes in our books and in-class essays about how power is displayed in our books, we moved into the research part of our unit.

Students explored social issues inherent in their books such as class stratification in Brave New World or spying in 1984. They then looked through recent editions of the New York Times to find examples of these social issues at play in today's world.

With our media specialist, we conducted lessons on pre-outlines, databases, and, of course, Easy Bib. Students could choose from two possible products: a letter to a person with control over their issues or an editorial for the New York Times Student Editorial Contest. For students who had their editorial writing interrupted by our most recent snow storm, the student newspaper also offered the option to submit a guest editorial. At one point during the project, one of my students who struggles the most asked if we could just write a "regular" research paper because this one required so much work in deciding whom to address.

I wrote along side my students from start to finish, and I'm pretty proud of that fact. I've been trying to model our work for them from my very first days as a teacher, and I finally did it! I ended up writing a letter to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio about his pre-k initiative after considering how parental circumstances defined outcomes for kids in my book Gifts by Ursula le Guin.

I'll spend the rest of this week evaluating the students' work, but I can already tell you that Michael Rogers is getting quite a few letters from some citizens in Central Virginia who have a lot of ideas about why casting such a large spying net inside the US can lead to some pretty disastrous outcomes. I can't help but beam with pride that so many of my kids know who Michael Rogers is.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Help! My Students Have Read All My Magazines!

A few days ago, my students asked me if we could get some magazine subscriptions. We're trying to raise money to get some engaging, immediate texts into our classroom. Could you help us out?

If you donate within the next seven days and use the code INSPIRE, the Donors Choose team will match your donation.

Thanks for helping us out!

Get a Student Teacher

Sorry for the radio silence, loyal readers! C and I recently moved and are Internet-less as we carefully weigh our provider options in rural Central Virginia. In the flurry of the move and the last few weeks before spring break, I've managed to find some time to update you all on how things are going in our  classroom. 

In the spirit of showing my work, here's how I generally spend my weekdays:

Hit the gym for some running or yoga, attend a morning meeting with teachers who teach the same grade levels or a guidance meeting with a student, (a) parent(s), and other teachers to discuss issues make a collaborative game plan about how to helps the student be more successful at school, teach for forty-eight minutes, collect work for students working in the in-school suspension program, teach two more forty-eight minute classes, meditate for five minutes, eat lunch while responding to e-mails, start grading, work on our SOL tutoring program or attend another student success meeting, teach two more forty-eight minute classes, tutor or attend a faculty meeting, go to my Spanish for Educators class or second job depending on the day, spend a little time eating some food with a friend or my sweetie, finish grading, take on more swipe at my inboxes, and get ready for bed. 

I need two of me.

My students really two of me.

This semester, I haven't mastered the art of adult human cloning. However, I did volunteer to have a student teacher. This decision has turned out to be one of the best I've made in my teaching career so far.

Ms. R. has been another consistent, caring adult with whom my students can connect. She takes on my duty two days a week and organizes student work after I've graded it. She's also gotten involved in our tutoring planning. 

Is there a way to give every teacher in the US this sort of support? Or perhaps the teachers in schools that have high-needs populations? The research on teacher residency programs such as the ones in Boston, Seattle, and Chicago so far has used testing outcomes to measure the programs. Researchers at Harvard found that the Boston program only "modestly" improved student achievement once residents moved into their own classrooms. 

Veteran readers of this blog might suspect that there are a few things I value more than standardized test scores. The Harvard research also found that teachers who came through the residency program were more likely to stay with the district, providing stability in a division that has nearly 50 percent turnover.

Residency programs or student teacher support may be difficult to scale in that we don't need a 1:1 replacement rate in our schools. What we do need, however, is a way for teachers to grow in the profession without permanently leaving the classroom. Residency programs could provide this missing professional growth piece.

Residents could work in classroom support for three years, gradually taking over more of the day-to-day management of teaching, lesson planning, and the like. After they transition to being the the full-time teacher, the mentor teacher could then spend time working as a master teacher who provides vertical alignment, common assessment planning, classroom teacher evaluation, and the many other administrative tasks that could be completed by someone without an administrative license. The master teacher could then transition back into the classroom with new ideas and a refreshed attitude to mentor a new teacher resident and work with a new group of students.

Fellow teachers, until this virtuous cycle becomes a reality, let me offer you some advice: get a student teacher. 


Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The American Teachers Association

I want to first make it clear that I don't think the 3.1 million men and women who wake up early and state late to make sure our kids get educated enough to participate in our democracy are committing any sort of act of treason. I question the narrative that our schools are failing or are even doing worse than they've done in the past (and please read Diane Ravitch's Reign of Error for some in-depth unpacking of how we've cut the race-based achievement gap in reading nearly in half since 1978, or enjoy these charts).

But as an overworked and underpaid teacher, I recognize that some things in my profession need to change. We need to attract and retain talented young people to the classroom -- not just for two or three years but for long enough to hone their craft and pass on lessons to the next crop of novice teachers. Students most at-risk of dropping out often have the most chaotic home lives and would benefit the most from stable school communities we could create if teaching were something a person did for many years in the same place. Instead, we have a profession where the annual turnover rate is 4 percent higher than it is in most other professions.

There's a lot local school boards and state superintendents could do to change this situation, but it seems like perhaps teachers need to take matters into our own hands. Last year, ATF President Randi
Weingarten (you may remember her as the villain from Waiting for Superman) backed a proposal to create a national certification exam for teachers. She joined Education Secretary Arne Duncan among others in this idea that just didn't seem to catch on. I think we need to go one further: teachers' associations should be in charge of licensing teachers.

One often hears a desire to elevate the teaching profession to one on par with doctoring and lawyering -- a job that kids from upper-middle class families seek out in order to remain firmly in the upper-middle class while making some sort of meaningful contribution to the world around them. Both doctors and lawyers design, administer, and certify the tests that result in the licenses of their practitioners. These professions also take away the licenses when their practitioners have been found delinquent in meeting their professional duties. Why shouldn't teachers, instead of the people who bring you the poor predictor of college success, the SAT, have that same sort of professional autonomy? 

I'm not sure that this sort of autonomy would attract and retain talented teachers, but what do I know? I'm just someone who gets to stand in front of a classroom five days a week because I took the courses set out by my state legislature and passed a standardized test.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Who Should Decide What Students Learn?

NPR had two interesting pieces on education issues last week. Last Sunday, Alan Greenblatt explored how state legislators try to walk the line between setting standards that insure every students receives a free and appropriate education and micromanaging the classroom despite the fact that aren't (usually) trained educators.

On Monday, Eric Westerveldt looked at the perceived lack of students learning computer sciences. Students as young as three are learning coding and the work implies that schools leaving this discipline out of their classrooms are doing students a great disservice.

Do all students need computer science? I can see the importance of having a basic understanding of how to program that devices that have become so iniquitous in the developed world. And cognitive science research suggests that learning cursive activates the brain in particularly important ways.

In both of these pieces, I see a more important question: Who should decide what students learn? Last year I asked why do we send kids to school in the first place and suggested that our schools can never truly achieve their meritocratic promise until we answer that question as a community electing a school board and a country electing a president who appoints an Education Secretary crafting policy and tying its implementation to federal tax dollars.

But it seems like the question needs to go even further. Who gets to decide what students should learn? Is curriculum the purview of parents, voters, teachers, principals, or even the students themselves? I think until we can create a cadre of education professionals our society trusts, we'll continue to have disparately developed and implemented curricula across the country -- no matter how much we'd like to believe otherwise.

And a shoutout to Sarah Blaine writing in the Washington Post about just how little your typical public school alumnus understands about how teaching works. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Can State Assessments Create Authentic Audiences?

In graduate school, we talked a lot about how to get students students writing for authentic audiences besides just teachers and the occasional peer editing session. However, every spring in Virginia, we send off thousands of student essays from our school to Richmond to be evaluated by a minimum of two graders who have at least completed college and preferably had some sort of teaching experience, according to the Pearson document provided to teachers. Could these essays be considered directed to an authentic audience? If not, would creating an authentic audience in our assessment practices improve student achievement and buy-in?

At first blush, this system seems research-based in that it encourages students to write for someone real who isn't their classroom teacher. However, students never interact with graders in Richmond nor are they asked to write about anything meaningful to their own lives. Here are some recently released prompts. None in particular ask for the sort of careful reflection and analysis that will continue to make the U.S. one of the most innovative places in the world. Perhaps an advanced student could make meaningful writing out of them, but that student wouldn't see his or her work again anyway.

Students need work that is meaningful and long-term. Students could create portfolios of many different types of writing - persuasive, analytical, research, and, gasp!, creative. These portfolios could follow students who move to different divisions. A few requirements could be dictated by the state to insure that all students leave our public schools with firm grasps of how to write a coherent argument and a basic understanding of the research process. The rest could be left up to local schools (which are after all just buildings comprised of teachers, administrators, students, and democratically elected school board members) to determine what their kids need.

Master teachers at the local school could evaluate the portfolios for additional pay and prestige. They could give students blind feedback before another sending the portfolio to the state for feedback. Master teachers at the state level could then provide more feedback that students actually receive. This evaluation method not only provides for professional growth opportunities for teachers without taking them out of the classroom permanently, it also demonstrates to students that writing is a process to be refined over and over. Writing is not a scaled score you receive on a printout.

Of course, you'd have to pay the teachers who give students feedback. I can't find exact amounts on how much the state of Virginia paid to Pearson to create, administer, and remediate for the Standards of Learning last year, but I know that the privately-held, UK-based corporation made over 1.5 billion dollars in 2012. I think we could get use some of our savings from lining their coffers to provide research-based assessment solutions for our students. 

Some might think that this system could be manipulated by teachers and administrators. It could be. But the system we have now is open to that exact same manipulation. Furthermore, if we stopped punishing schools for having students who need more time to master the basics and instead helped them support these students, cheating wouldn't be necessary. We'd all want to have complete pictures of how our schools are doing so we can help them instead of punish them.

But that's a topic for another blog post. How do you think we ought to assess student learning? And what do you think is the purpose of student assessment anyway?


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

How Do You Talk About Race in Your Classroom? Do You?

I teach two classes where I am a minority in the room. While I'm still the teacher and the one who ultimately holds authority over when someone can get a bathroom pass or needs to take a moment to collect oneself with the discipline secretary, issues of race run deep and obviously.

In honor of Black History Month, my teaching associate and I organized a discussion about Black History Month -- its history, meaning, and usefulness to us today. First, we looked at the different stages of multicultural education. Next, we looked at an overview on perspectives about Black History Month.

We discussed the value of a more inclusive curriculum not just on students' and teachers' feelings about school, but also to give us a more complete understanding of history, literature, and scientific contributions. We brainstormed how to move from a "Heroes and Holidays" view of including other perspectives toward social action. To my delight, many students cited the letters we wrote after reading the New York Times series on a young girl who is homeless as well as the letters they are crafting at the end of our dystopia-based research project (more on that later).

Some students, however, weren't ready for the conversation. They wouldn't focus and, as teenagers are wont to do, chose sneaking cell phone use over a difficult conversation without a clear or prescribed answer. At first, I got upset that students made these choices when we'd put so much work into designing a discussion that met so many critical thinking objectives with such high-interest material. A kind (and wise!) administrator reminded me that this job is above all a process: my classroom is a place where we all get better at thinking and expressing ourselves.

So, fellow teachers (and others who love real conversation with young people), how do you address issues of race in your classroom? What issues do you see? What solutions are you finding?

Monday, February 10, 2014

A Little Less of a Bad Thing

A bill making its way through our state legislature would decrease the number of standardized tests students who have to take. The reduction would take place mainly in the primary grades and reduces tests in the disciplines outside of reading and math. However, if lawmakers keep the high stakes associated with the tests, school personnel will (reasonably) be encouraged to focus on those subjects that are examined.

To truly decrease the amount of testing in schools, we have two options: outlaw all benchmark tests and teaching test-taking strategies or come up with assessments that truly evaluate students learning while figuring out exactly how to evaluate a teacher's support of that learning.

For this second option to work, we need to introduce a little backward design into politicians' thinking about our schools. This highly-regarded instructional planning technique begins with the end in mind. What objectives do students need to achieve with a given lesson? What assessments will help teachers' determine whether or not they've met these objectives.

Because we've yet to answer exactly what we want from our students and our schools, it's no wonder that legislators cannot mandate an assessment system that promotes student engagement rather than rote learning and bubble testing.  What if Pearson used the millions of dollars that it makes on tests, test-prep materials, and curriculum to commission assessments that are meaningful and not nearly as noisy as tests that assume students have the patience to deal with malfunctioning testing technology or focus for fifty questions after spending the night in the emergency room with an ailing family member? Why are we so reliant on data that isn't good data?

What do you think schools should be providing students (and ultimately society)? And how would you test that in a way that enhances student learning and classroom engagement? 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

I Just May Have Figured Out This Grading Thing

Dear teacher friends and friends of teachers,

I think I've figured out how to not let grading take up every ounce of my free time but still give students meaningful and useful feedback. Here's what I've been trying in our classroom:

1. Keeping a classroom blog - Every Sunday evening, I update a blog with the week's plans, free writes, and homework. Using the page views function of Blogger, I've been able to see that most students actually check the blog at least once a week. Not only have the rates of work completed skyrocketed, students (and I) are much more organized. This organization helps with the next change.

2. Students keep track of their own work - For our most recent units, I've given each student a handout that lists the unit's essential questions, objectives, and assignments. At two points during the unit, I have a day or two of student-teacher conferences where students show me the work they've completed and explain how the work has helped them work toward the objectives. I can then grade the work on the spot with the buy-in of my students.

3. Grade one class a day - I have five classes and there are five work days in the week. For those larger assignments (such as our upcoming research paper), I plan to grade one class a day. If I get behind, I can use the weekend to get caught up. So far, however, I haven't had to do that.

I still think there are a lot of systemic issues that prevent me from giving the number of assignments and assessing them exactly how I think would most benefit students. Schools, classes, and teacher caseloads should be smaller. We should have more time with students on a daily basis to assess work more holistically, but I think these new systems are addressing those issues in the most immediate way I can. What do you use to keep your classroom humming and students receiving feedback that helps them grow?  

Monday, February 3, 2014

Teacher to Teacher

I know I've neglected my blog shamefully. In my defense, the second half of 2013 was full of a lot of life in the third dimension. Before I get back to the nitty gritty of showing my teaching work, I want to make sure you dear readers know some things that kept me from you.

In the very beginning of June, I was biking to brunch, and a car hit me as the driver made a right turn. I broke my elbow, and it was a long, slow road to recovery. Last week, I had my (hopefully!) last follow-up with my bone doctor. I am now back to pulling chaturanga dandasanas though I've yet to get back on the bike.

I've come to realize the importance of the asana part of my yoga practice to my teaching practice. My school is starting a yoga and mindfulness meditation class for teacher on Thursday. I'm so excited (and grateful)! Teachers, what are the healthy treats you give yourself to keep sane, active, and mindful in the classroom? Or is that feeling like a pipe dream for you right now?

In October, my wonderful C and I decided to get married. That's happening in October of this year, and I think I could write an entire blog on getting married with a big family on a teacher's budget, but that's not why you came here. Later this week, I'm going to share some tips I've (finally!) picked up and made my own when it comes to the grading game. I'm happy to report that I've managed to spend the last two weekends not doing any work but catching up on e-mails and posting to my classroom blog, and I don't think that classroom learning has suffered. If anything, students are taking more ownership over their work, and I'm just a happier teacher person to be around. More to come!