Just Practicing

31 August 2009

With school starting up again, the subject of homework has re-emerged in a variety of venues. Some teacher-bloggers are posting about how to weight homework in their grading scale. Time Magazine has an article about how homework is Maybe Not So Onerous After All, while Teacher Magazine refers to homework as The Necessary Evil. When it comes to homework, there is no dearth of opinions to be found. Including mine, natch.

When it comes to whether or not homework should be assigned, I believe it is okay to do so...with the following parameters:
  • The task must be meaningfully connected to the learning target. This is not to say that popsicle stick projects, poems, dances, and other expressions can't be purposeful in terms of student understanding (and differentiation is a great instructional tool). The guidelines just need to be clear. (Along this vein, have a look at some hilarious student projects.)
  • Homework should be used to practice a skill or reinforce content that students have already worked with. If you teach something new and then expect kids to go home and be successful on their own, you're setting yourself up for disappointment (and probably some pissed off parents).
  • If a student already has shown you that they can meet the standard, they don't need the homework. Don't sweat the idea that some kids will have to do the assignment and some will not. You're focusing on what is equal---not is what is fair for each student.
Beyond these things, I believe that homework is a form of formative assessment and should not be scored. Should students get feedback? Absolutely. Should the task be reviewed and discussed in class so that students have the correct information? Definitely. If you assign some homework and a kid doesn't do it, should they be penalized? Yes, but not with a grade. Address the behavior and still require that they do the work.

Perhaps the term "homework" just needs to go away. I prefer to think of it simply as "practice." Just as athletes hit the gym and field before a performance (as do those who play an instrument), kids also can use various amounts of practice before they are expected to have some facility with information. This practice need not happen at home...need not involve a worksheet (or glue, glitter, craft paper, and sticks)...and doesn't have to take hours of time. We don't need a 10-minute/grade level rule. We don't need to think of homework as evil incarnate. We only have to remember that kids are just practicing.

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Jumping the Shark II: Teamwork

29 May 2009

Last fall, I posted about an educational term that I thought had more or less "jumped the shark": Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). I have nothing against PLCs themselves, but the term is being applied like a giant band-aid for whatever isn't working in schools. I expect that any day now, we will read about how PLCs are being used to cure cancer and end world hunger.

The real PLCs out there are collaborative groups of educators focused on student instruction. While they are not quite as mythical as unicorns and virgins, they are a bit of a rarity. I do see and hear a lot of efforts to develop these functional groups. I think that discussions about professional practice and how it makes an impact at the student level can only benefit kids.

As always, I have a big "but" where this is concerned.

First of all, there should be choice as to whether or not to participate in a PLC---with no stigma placed upon educators who don't want to take part. I was thinking about this over the weekend after reading an article in The Big Fresh about Lone Wolves in the teaching ranks. The basic consensus is to just form whatever relationship you can and not drive yourself to distraction because the person is not a team player.

Which brings me to my current thinking about the word "team" as it applies to the educational workplace. As I've mentioned here before, I find its use somewhat offensive. I'm a person---not a thing---I don't want to be referred to as a collective noun. More importantly is the association of the word "team" with "competition." Education is not a game. We are not out to beat anybody and run up the score. We are here to do the best we can for each child. Meanwhile, "team" implies that there is a "captain" who gets to do as they please while the rest of the group works to satisfy his/her goals---rather than goals in common for student ends. Education is about collaborative action on behalf of a student. A collaborative effort means that everyone's voice is important and each person brings value to the discussion. In a team, one person's voice will always be important and the rest only have value inasmuch as they agree with that person and or can do the specific work s/he wants.

I sat in on a meeting recently where the leader used the word "team" seven times in 30 minutes. Some of us have been keeping count at these meetings (although no betting pool has been established yet about the number of times the magic word will be used. Too bad it's not a drinking game---would sure make meetings more fun.). What we've come to realize is that being part of this person's "team" has nothing to do with collaborative action. The term is used to mask the intent...to offer a false sense of participation so that we might not notice that we're being crapped on (with nary an umbrella in sight).

Diana Senechal, who was guest-blogging over at Joanne Jacobs' place, wrote about The Worship of Change and how those who don't automatically embrace new ideas in education are viewed as impediments and are defective. (Reminds me a bit of the Fundamentalist and Believer theory.) There is some truth in that observation---and I certainly count myself among the guilty in making that assumption on occasion. But I think that a lot of how you look at it has to do with the intent of the Lone Wolf/impediment/not-a-team-player. If their motivation is just to be obstructive, regardless of issue, then yes, a person is a real impediment in the derriere. However, some people slow down processes because they can't see how the change would be good for kids.

This is where collaborative action---not teamwork---comes in. This is where there is discussion and search for common ground. It's not a time for the captain to lead to the field and crush an opponent. Teams may well have their place where games are the focus and winning and losing matter, but they have no more use in educational settings. RIP: Team.


Base Jumping

30 March 2009

Since the advent of No Child Left Behind, public education has been throwing the term "research based" into nearly everything. I'm all for schools having a reason behind what they're doing...but I don't think that the term has been fully defined. Or, perhaps I should say there is no definition that is commonly shared/used.

I have my own ideas about what constitutes a research base. It's been shaped by my recent doctoral work. When I think about the term now, I envision reading the actual research. Studies published within the last five years are preferable, but sometimes it helps to go back and see the staying power of various ideas. Looking at the original work also gives some insight on the relevance of current work.

Now, here is where I start to diverge from most of the educators I run with. A book by an educational researcher? This does not make something research based. By "something," I mean whatever project you're working on: a piece of legislation, a grant proposal, review tools for curriculum, budget decisions, and so forth. The book itself might have some synthesis of work, but it is not the original research. It's filtered and shaped. It often does not contain the opposing citations. You are trusting that the author has correctly interpreted things (and has the background to do so) and picked the very best information available. The book may well make particular ideas accessible to a larger audience...but it, in and of itself, is not a research base. At best, you can say that you've gained some background knowledge in reading it.

I understand that when selecting pieces of actual research to use that we can get into a whole other quagmire about the rigor applied to the design. But I think most of us can tell whether or not something passes the sniff test. We're not writing dissertations. We just need to look as see the kinds of situations where a particular strategy works before jumping to claim "It's research based!"


Jumping the Shark: PLCs

07 September 2008

If you're new to the term "Jumping the Shark," it is defined by JumptheShark.com as "...a moment. A defining moment when you know that your favorite television program has reached its peak. That instant that you know from now on...it's all downhill. Some call it the climax. We call it 'Jumping the Shark.' From that moment on, the program will simply never be the same." Why the weird term? For you youngsters out there, "The aforementioned expression refers to the telltale sign of the demise of Happy Days, our favorite example, when Fonzie actually 'jumped the shark.' The rest is history."

There are several ways a program can show that demonstrate that it has run its course, many of which happen after the public is fatigued of hearing/reading/talking about the show---overexposure making the producers think they need something "fresh."

I got to wondering about whether or not this happens in education after reading Polski3's post about PLCs. If you haven't heard of PLCs, the acronym (we do luvs us some acronyms in education) stands for Professional Learning Communities. According to SEDL, PLCs are groups of "teachers in a school and its administrators continuously seek and share learning and then act on what they learn. The goal of their actions is to enhance their effectiveness as professionals so that students benefit." (As an aside, anyone who can find a single place on the SEDL website where they explain what their acronym stands for should get a big shiny gold star. It's apparently a State secret or something.)

There's nothing wrong with the PLC concept---in fact, there's a whole lotta right with it. Teachers talking about student learning and instruction? Downright awesome. But it is perilously close to jumping the shark when mass implementation occurs without the necessary structures in place. It becomes another one of those things that schools say they do, but---to borrow another perilously poised on waterskis term---don't "implement with fidelity." (RtI, anyone?) We toss out the idea of PLCs to teachers without working through issues of time for meetings, protocols for discussions, and coaching on which changes to instruction will move more kids forward. We assume that every teacher already has the skills and desire to make PLCs work. Worse yet, we think that PLCs will be a one-size-fits-all mode of staff development that will best serve all teachers. We do this because there is some good research coming out about the effectiveness of PLCs. Admins and teacher leaders go to conferences and drink the kool-aid. Some teams of teachers will thrive, others will implode due to personality conflicts, lack of administrative support, or other reasons.

It doesn't take a long time to find the grizzled veterans in a school---the ones who don't buy into anything new presented to them because they either believe "This, too, shall pass." as have hundreds of other initiatives over the years or because "Everything old is new again.": they've seen and done it before, only with a differently named package. Either way, they can smell a shark a mile away. Are there ways to prevent this? Education doesn't have a very good track record of starting something and then leaving it in place long enough to really determine if its working. With PLCs, you're talking about a significant change in the way many schools do business. Are we going to take care with how we do this...or are we just going to let it go and wait until the next feeding frenzy?

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The Problem With Hodgepodge

14 April 2008

The field of education is replete with "educationese": all manner of terms which make us feel special and enlightened. They are the pretentious secret handshake of the profession. It was with great relief that one of the terms associated with grading is not nearly as precious as "transparent" or "capacity." It is darned plain. The word is "hodgepodge," and it is used to refer to a single grade which represents both learning and student behavior (e.g. on-time work, effort...).

Hodgepodge was the first word to come to mind when I read the piece in the WaPo on Do Grades or Standardized Test Scores Make the Student? The mother writing in is distraught because even though her son is topping out on AP tests, the SAT, and other standardized indicators---he is having trouble getting into college because his GPA is only a 3.275. Why is there the disparity? Because her son doesn't do his homework. He knocks the top off the classroom tests---he shows that he knows the information---but he doesn't play the game. Therefore, his teachers average in a lot of zeros. Their grades represent the hodgepodge problem. If they only considered learning, the child would have a 4.0.

This is very common with secondary school teachers---there is plenty of research out there documenting just how very unwilling they are to let go of hodgepodge grading. The primary reason cited is that teachers believe that work ethic behaviors are important. I agree with this, but I don't agree that they belong with a grade for learning. They should be reported separately. As a teacher, do you care more that the student has learned the material...or that he learned it in exactly the way you prescribed at the specific moment in time you prescribed it?

It is my suspicion that hodgepodge grading tends to play "Gotcha!" with boys (especially gifted boys) more than any other population. (This would be another great research project for someone.) I've had any number of young men over the years who refused to do their homework, but could ace any test. Punishment by zeros was in no way motivating. They had their own learning goals and that was that. I sense a similar attitude in the young man described in the WaPo article and also in something happening to Ms. Bees (read Part I and Part II of "Wonder Mother"). A young man turned in a project late: "He received a 248 out of 250 before the 50% penalty. The note I left him on his project indicated how disappointing it was for me to have to give such a low mark to such a good project, and that I hoped he would manage his time better in the future." Guess what? Mom is upset now---as she should be. In this case, Ms. Bees is only applying the grading practice set forth by the mentor teacher she is paired with, but one hopes that this lesson becomes more instructive about best practices in grading rather than parent dodging---because frankly, the practice (long-standing or not) is indefensible.

I would love to relegate the word "hodgepodge" to the same dustbin in which other educationese terms belong, but I don't see that its application is going to disappear anytime soon. As long as teachers---and colleges---continue to value grades more than learning, hodgepodge will be part of the classroom.

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The Sphincter Factor

13 April 2007

Some of us in Curriculum have been joking about using a new rating scale based upon The Sphincter Factor. As far as I know the first reference to such a system was in The Abyss, when a character stated that "I got to tell you, I give this whole thing a sphincter-factor of about 9.5." Even without further explanation on the character's part, you understand that it's a good way to rate the stress of a situation.

We're assuming that this is a 10-point scale, with 0 - 2 meaning that a situation is just in a "heads up" or "FYI" status. I'm okay, you're okay...but when we start getting into 3 territory, more curiosity is raised. In the middle range, we've got issues that likely need some attention or perhaps intervention before something bigger happens. It implies a sense of unease about things. Above 7? You're headed into full-blown crisis mode. Something is having a major impact on your ability to function. There's a situation that needs immediate and concentrated attention.

Just think of the possibilities here. You can use it in the subject line of your e-mails to alert the boss. For example "5: Not enough subs available for the conference." Or, as a check-in with participants at meetings. It's a great conversation opener: "What's the sphincter factor on this?" Perhaps you start off with a really tense situation (someone is a 9) and as things go along, hopefully people can unclench a bit and move away from the full blockage end of the spectrum. At the end of the meeting, you want them to be a 2. It's a way to see if you've met your goal. Have the group hold up the fingers representing their personal spot on the scale at a given moment...or even better, write it and hold it up on a card...or use something like those paddles the judges have on Dancing with the Stars. Could be fun, don't you think?

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In Other Words

07 April 2007

One of the items I bumped into during the last week was this:

They are billed as being able to "get you multisyllabizing like a results-driven tycoon in mere days. Study alone or with a team player, then embrace your golden handcuffs as you blamestorm your way up the ladder!"

I think we need a version for educators, don't you? What a great place to store all the eduspeak: transparency, capacity, paradigm, authentic, scaffolding, best practices.

What other terms would you suggest? What are the ones that make you bite your tongue in order to keep from laughing out loud during meetings? The overused ones that cause you to roll your eyes after hearing them one...more...time? The words you wish would be banned from education?

Think of the comments area as a suggestion box. Leave some ideas and I'll put some cards together. If you have a particular definition or usage you wish to suggest, all the better.

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22 January 2007

The word of the moment in the office appears to be "transparency." In this case, the term is meant to imply that there are no cigar-filled back rooms making decisions or that information will be otherwise hidden from the masses. The idea is that we all have equal access and input; but, let's face it: there is no such animal. Someone always has an agenda that they're not quite willing to make public. The whole notion of a power structure is such that one person has much more information than the others. A school district is not "flat."

I've worked in the south. I've been the underling in a good ol' boy network. There are some undesirable features of that system, but on the upside, you always know where you stand and there is a party who is responsible for making decisions. The buck does have a place to stop. What I don't like is being in a situation which claims it's more egalitarian...but isn't. Don't say that you're transparent and then surprise everyone in a meeting with a pre-determined decision.

The original Boss Lady had a great tactic. She, too, was not always transparent, but she had such a knack for asking questions and prompting thinking that led people to an idea (which happened to be the same as theirs). It made people feel like they had ownership in things, even though they were doing what the Boss Lady had originally intended. She coached people through issues.

The transparency trend is already wearing a bit thin. It looks like "capacity" is the up and coming buzz word for the coming year. Maybe I'll try it on for size. :)

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Because I Said So

29 July 2006

My school district, like many others in the area, has spent a lot of money with the BERC group. The Baker Evaluation, Research, and Consulting (BERC) group is run by Duane Baker---a former teacher in this district who now has his own little piece of the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation in order to help with school improvement issues. Baker is a dynamic guy and his firm has done a lot of research in classrooms and worked to develop some tools for schools.

The administration here is very excited about Baker, as are some of the teachers. I'm supposed to be on this bandwagon, but there are a few things that bother me. If he's such hot stuff, how come he doesn't publish? There aren't any citations in the professional literature that refer to him. It seems odd that he has not engaged in any peer review of his ideas. In addition to that, he offers no independent support for his ideas. We are supposed to think they're grand simply because he says so...and I'm afraid that reason is not quite good enough for me. Where is your data for us to examine? What other professional researchers can corroborate your work? Whose work has influenced yours?

I don't think I'm the only skeptic in the district, but that's a difficult thing to gauge. Administrators are pumped up and there are some good conversations about effective instruction (finally) taking place. I just hate to think that in a time where budgets are growing ever tighter that we might be spending our precious monies on a prophet for profit.

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Walking the Talk

25 July 2006

The final segment of my current grad course is focused around developing a more personal sense of leadership: figure out where you are so that you know where to head next. One of the tasks involved a Philosophy of Education Inventory (You can take it, too! Just like a quiz in Cosmo!). Developed by Lorraine Zinn, it's a way of examining where you stand in relation to five major viewpoints of the purpose of education. They are
  • Behavioral Philosophy - “to teach children to comply with certain standards or expectations set by societal leaders or professional experts.
  • Comprehensive Philosophy - “liberal arts…to provide a broad-based, general education rather than a specialized or vocational education.
  • Progressive Philosophy - “educating people to live responsibly and resolve problems cooperatively within a democratic society.
  • Humanistic Philosophy - “education for self-actualization, or self-initiated development of a person’s skills and potential to lead to a fulfilling life of challenge and growth.”
  • Social Change Philosophy - “education as a primary force for achieving social change, or transforming society.
Really, without completing the inventory, you can probably see one or two areas that appeal to you. When I originally did the inventory last year, it was within a larger context: how do you work with other teachers who have a different philosophy than you? I think this is a much better way to view the inventory. My beliefs are one thing---but I don't work in a vacuum.

The other thing about the inventory that is interesting is to look at these philosophies in terms of generations. When you think about your school and the "humanistic" teachers...how old are they? What about the younger set---are all they "behaviorists"? One's philosophy develops and changes depending on what the educational schools value at a particular time and also the stage of life you find yourself in. I bet we all start off a "Social Change" types and then reality smacks us in the face.

Me? I'm equal between "Behavioral" and "Comprehensive," with a good dose of "Progressive" thrown in. I didn't score high enough on any of them to consider it my dominant vision. I think that reflects my change in job and the different hats I have to wear. How I view my role in the classroom (Comprehensive/Progressive) is very different from the role I serve with the district (Behavioral). The important thing here is not necessarily to label people, but rather to use this as a starting point in working with others.

I'm going to have to dig through my files at work. The workshop I attended last year had some great things to share about bringing together these various philosophies when trying to work toward a goal. It will make more sense now that I've done more reading---and perhaps others in my class would appreciate seeing how our current "module" can be applied. It's one thing to talk about these philosophies, but quite another when it comes time to walk with them.

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Organized Abandonment

25 June 2006

I learned some new educationese this week: organized abandonment. This is another immigrant term from the business world:

The first step for a change leader is to free up resources that are committed to maintaining things that no longer contribute to performance and no longer produce results. Maintaining yesterday is always difficult and extremely time-consuming. Maintaining yesterday always commits the institution's scarcest and most valuable resources--and above all, its ablest people--to nonresults. Yet doing anything differently--let alone innovating--always creates unexpected difficulties. It demands leadership by people of high and proven ability. And if those people are committed to maintaining yesterday, they are simply not available to create tomorrow.

The first change policy, therefore, has to be organized abandonment. The change leader puts every product, every service, every process, every market, every distribution channel, every customer, and every end use on trial for its life. And the change leader does so on a regular schedule. The question it has to ask--and ask seriously--is "If we did not do this already, would we, knowing what we now know, go into it?" If the answer is no, the reaction must not be "Let's make another study." The reaction must be "What do we do now?"

In three cases the right action is always outright abandonment:

1. When you think that the product, service, market, or process "still has a few good years of life." It is the dying products, services, markets, or processes that always demand the greatest care and effort. And we almost always overestimate how much "life" actually is left. Usually, they are not dying; they are dead.

2. When the only argument for keeping a product, service, market, or process is that "it's fully written off." To treat assets as being fully written off has its place in tax accounting, but for management the question should never be "What has it cost?" The question should be "What will it produce?"

3. When for the sake of maintaining the old and declining product, service, or process, the new and growing product, service, or process is being stunted or neglected.

For every product, service, market, or process, the change leader must also ask, "If we were to go into this now, knowing what we now know, would we go into it in the same way we are doing it now?" And that question needs to be asked about the successful products, services, markets, and processes as regularly--and as seriously--as about the unsuccessful products, services, markets, and processes.
---from Change Leaders by Peter Drucker in Inc. Magazine, June 1999

My understanding about this as it applies to education might also be called "How to Remove Outdated Responsibilities." We consistently ask teachers and principals to add items to their routine, but we never offer them ways to remove others so that the job is reasonable. We ask people to keep doing what we've done because well, we've always done it that way.

I know I'm oversimplifying things. As nice as it sounds to be able to work with people to get them to identify things to let go of, I also know that most people aren't all that excited about change, no matter what form it takes.

In the case of elementary science changes---which I have to sell to principals tomorrow---the organized abandonment is already built in. Some teachers are going to have to learn to use a new curriculum, but there will be fewer kits, a longer time to use them, less management of materials, and teacher materials that will be theirs to keep. We giveth something to their plates, but we taketh away quite a bit, too. I have already heard from several teachers that they like this plan. Principals? Not so much. They're worried about having staff angry about change (a valid concern) and that they didn't have at least a year's notice about the changes (kids can't wait...get over it, admins). But perhaps in the name of organized abandonment, I can help them see some value.

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A Rose By Any Other Name

07 April 2006

I know that many of us in the edusphere have expressed some frustration with all of the "educationese" that's out there. But there is one term that makes me giggle: intervention.

I first saw this term last year when the Scope and Sequence group I was working with was looking for some information on remediation. Apparently, the new way to talk about remediation is to say that you're doing an intervention. My group had a great time with this term. It conjured up a picture where a kid wakes up...and all of his/her science teachers are sitting in the room. Personally, I think that would make for a great intervention.

The program I'm organizing this summer for 10th (soon to be 11th) grade students who barely missed meeting the standard in math, reading, or writing is being referred to as a "WASL Intervention." I can't believe I'm going to be an intervention specialist for a few weeks. So much for remediation, eh?

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Pre-Conference Blogging

19 January 2006

The annual conference held by our state's education agency started Tuesday and continues through today. (I even blogged about this a little bit last year, amazingly enough.) These make for long days, getting up early to make the same ferry as many commuters and then hiking through Seattle (uphill) to get to the convention center. The sessions have been good, but they are always very full. Much of the time in between sessions is spent negotiating some way to grab a seat for an upcoming workshop. I get home in the evenings, which feels very late. I do little more than get comfy and go to bed. And here I am, ready to head out.

I was starting to get annoyed yesterday about all the "educationese," and especially the enthusiasm some people have for it. I think I have heard all that I can manage about professional learning communities (PLCs), powerful teaching and learning, and collaborative assessment. I don't object to any of these, but the way these terms get tossed around is starting to feel like overkill. How on earth will I get other teachers (especially the jaded ones) excited about participating in something like a "PLC" when the term is a bit snarky?

The thing I do like about these conferences is that it does stimulate thinking. PLCs might be a really cool thing to set up, but how? How would we convince principals to restructure the common planning time schedule? How will we train all of the facilitators we would need? What do you do with teachers who are unable or unwilling to buy in to this kind of professional development?

One thing I am seeing and hearing more is that change is slow. Perhaps this seems like a statement from Captian Obvious, but in a society where immediate gratification is the norm, it is refreshing to hear the message that it is important to stick with one model of whatever is being tried...and stick with it over at least 4 years before you expect to see significant results. There are too many fads in education. We need to get off of that merry-go-round.

Today I'm going to a "Science Notebooks" workshop that targets elementary age students, that is, if there are any seats to be had. I have heard a lot of good things about this program and since we'll be overhauling our elementary science program soon, perhaps this is something we should try to roll in.

But first, I have to make it to the ferry.

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What Do Teachers Need?

05 November 2005

I've been thinking a lot this week about what teachers need (in terms of professional support) and why they do or don't get it.

Is the "eduspeak" a big turnoff? Likely. I had a teacher rail at me on Friday morning as we walked down the hall from the office. Here it was, not even 7:30 a.m. and this woman had been stewing in her own juices for hours...all over the term "scaffolding." Now, I admit it's a bit trite, but this is a term I actually kinda like. I like the idea of supporting student learning to a new place---and then removing the supports once the skill is learned. My colleague does not. Her perception of the term means that it is a support for a crumbling entity...not something used to build. This was just the tip of the iceberg for her. She ranted on about the need for scaffolding at all. Hey---we went through the educational system and made an effort to internalize the information and turned out just fine. Why on Earth isn't that good enough now?

I tried to explain that she and I had certain advantages (scaffolds?) in the forms of two educated and involved parents who made enough money to keep us comfortable. We had so little in our personal lives to worry about that it made focusing on what happened in the classroom pretty simple. But there are a lot of kids, then and now, who don't have that. We can't do much of anything about what happens to them outside the school walls, but inside, we have to give it our best shot. This means doing a bit of scaffolding for students who need help in building background knowledge. Not everyone has been to a museum or camping or had a parent read to them when they were young. What can we do in the classroom to bring everyone to a point where the same opportunities for the future are possible?

This explanation only served to make her more irritated. "Not everyone is meant to go to college. We'll still need people in services, etc." I agree. But I don't see the current trends in education as completely devoted to college readiness. It's about making sure everyone---regardless of their background---has the same basic knowledge and skills. What they choose to do beyond that is their own business. I do have some issues with the standards movement, but not with the ideas related to equity.

She and I have both been in this field for awhile. The standards movement has run over us, not through us as with the younger crop. These new expectations aren't things that we've had a chance to internalize---they've just been dropped in our laps and we're supposed to magically know how to change what happens in the classroom. Now that I have a greater support role in the district, it's becoming so much more obvious to me what is missing from teachers' toolkits. I'm just not entirely sure how to bridge the gulf. Here's some of the larger needs I see:
  • How do you "teach to a standard" and know if students have met it?
  • How do you change from a teacher who "covers" material to one who can say their students have "learned" the material?
  • How do you release your choke hold on the facts listed in the textbook and teach concepts?
  • How do you select instructional strategies and lessons that help all of the students in a classroom?

You may be wondering if I have the answers to these questions. I don't. I do have some ideas about how to approach them and some resources for doing so. I e-mailed my school admins with a few of these questions and the need for getting at the belief systems of the staff. We can't move forward as a school unless we have some agreement about what should happen in a classroom and why---along with a plan for supporting it.

The role of a public school teacher is difficult enough without having to figure out all of this on one's own. Those of us in support roles have got to find a better way to address the needs of teachers.

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The Evolution of Inservice

28 July 2005

The last couple of days, I've been posting about the upcoming inservice days my district will be having. And since the concept and themes for these days was brought up in April, I have had a major concern about sustainability. Maybe that isn't the right term---but what I'm trying to work out is how we take this one day inservice and give it legs. If our message is so vital, how do we make it part of the classroom every day?

My district has really bought into the idea of coaches for math and literacy (reading/writing). They have primarily been assigned to the elementary schools, but my school had a literacy coach for two years. For classroom teachers, these people are a fabulous resource. They are experts at putting research into practice and are there to help design lessons with teachers, teach model lessons, help with reflective practice, and more. (You can read more about coaches here. ID: bugmenot@123.com; Password: password) I know that coaches will help with our district focus where they can.

The big emphasis these days seems to be on "job embedded staff development." This means that instead of taking a day to go to a workshop, you take a day to work with colleagues. It occurs during the work day (hence, "job embedded") instead of after school or on weekends. Preliminary research seems to show that this is the most effective way to help teachers become better practitioners. Education Week has a nice article on professional development and current thought around it. (ID: bugmenot@123.com; Password: password) Lots of us are searching for answers when it comes to helping teachers be better at helping all students achieve.

The one problem that I've run into (so far) with the job embedded model is that teachers don't like to be out of the classroom. Not that I blame them. It's a pain to prep for a sub and to have to come back and deal with things. The staff development has to be so good that you can tip the scales to make teachers feel that their effort to be there is amply rewarded. I believe that's a fair expectation. And it will be up to me in the future to make sure that I do that.

I know that my district is working to have professional development evolve to include two days per year per teacher for observing in other classrooms. I'm not sure how they'll manage that. We're talking about over 700 teachers...180 class days (not all of which are suitable for observations: first days, state testing, end of semesters)...and subs are always a premium item.

I am glad that inservice is starting to change. I'm not sure what it will look like in another ten years. My guess is that the focus will continue to be on classroom practice, but I hope by then that we will have figured out most of the "hard stuff" related to student achievement. I'm sure that there will be new challenges by then.

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Alphabet Soup

14 May 2005

Oh, how education loves its buzzwords and acronyms. Here in Washington, we have EALRs, GLEs, and the WASL all courtesy of OSPI. My district is into PTL (Powerful Teaching and Learning...not a holdover from Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker) and the STAR protocol (for classroom observations). We have CCL groups (collaborative coaching and learning) at many buildings. The list is, unfortunately, endless. Add to that all of the "new" terms such as capacity, readiness, and transformational leadership and working in education really does start to resemble a hearty swim in a bowl of alphabet soup.

My role as district Science Goddess makes it necessary for me to know all these terms and say them with a smile on my face. When I am working with other teachers, I often feel that I am a translator. We look at documents from the state or district and I work as an interpreter so that we can find some meaning together.

The biology teachers at my school, along with the science department chair, have recently been working on some curriculum alignment. We have spent 3 hours each of the last two Wednesdays to talk about making the standards a meaningful part of our work with students. Of the five of us doing this work, only two will be part of getting the work implemented. Our department chair teaches chemistry, another teacher is going to teach in Beijing for two years, and I will only have 1 class. The two who are going to have to "walk the walk" are still in the early years of their career. One is a third year teacher. The other has a bit more experience, but has only taught biology for four years.

A-ha! Now is the perfect time for transformational leadership.

As I understand it, transformational leadership is when someone with a bit more depth of knowledge and experience supports someone else to step up to a role so that the "mentor" can move on to something else. I've been wondering how this might work at my school. And on Thursday, I got my answer. One of the two biology teachers who is staying on sent the most amazing e-mail regarding our Wednesday meeting. He praised our work from Wednesday, outlined what he thought would be our best next steps, and assigned us some tasks to follow up on. He even set the next meeting date and time. How cool is that?

Okay, so maybe believing this is a cool thing makes me a nerd. But here is someone who is willing to step up and help other teachers (and we will likely have 3 new bio teachers in my building next year) work with the curriculum and promote student achievement. The real message is that out of all the alphabet soup, here is someone who is willing to make it into something palatable for kids.

For kids.