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!