The Importance of Play

06 February 2010

My assessment group will be meeting again soon. There is a very ambitious plan developed for our time together and I know that this group of educators will be focused and work hard on the tasks at hand. Those who work hard also deserve to play hard---not just at the end of the day when Happy Hour cranks up, but during the work sessions themselves. The brain likes a little novelty...some opportunity to think about different ideas and be creative.

At the first meeting, I kept things fairly simple. I used Paul Rogers' Name That Movie posts to construct a series of slides. I inserted the slides at different break points during the work. Below is one example---the only movie no one in the room was able to guess. (Can you recognize it? If you need a hint, it represents a Hitchcock film.)

Not everyone is a movie buff, however, and there are a variety of ways to engage an audience without having to resort to the cutesy icebreakers that send educators screaming from a session. Pull a few questions from an old Trivial Pursuit deck you have lying around the house. Find a few good riddles. Print a list of brain teaser questions. Pick up or draw your own Droodles. Or, use my favourite: The Name the Baby Contest.
Jim and Jane Roe are the proud parents of a newborn son. What should they name the baby?
If you want to play, leave your best suggestion in the comments. This question is a lot of fun to leave in the staffroom (or to play over email) with teachers. You'll get some very creative answers.

The first key here is to know your audience. Select adult-friendly items (read: items that won't be perceived as insulting to intelligence or dignity) that reflect your group. You also want to look for items that will allow people to choose their level of engagement. Even those who lurk will still have something different to think about, if only for a few minutes. It only takes one to two minutes of change for the brain to be ready to focus again and you will stimulate some creative and critical thinking for the next task. This is very helpful when you have 90 minutes of writing rubric descriptors lying ahead of you.

My next challenge is to find a way to work in the graphics and post-it wall modeled in this TED talk by Tom Wujec:

I really like the idea of including visual elements that people create. Not only does it require them to represent information in different ways, but it allows them to manipulate the various pieces we are trying to put together. We can share ideas in a different way---take them out and play with them. It seems important to be able to provide this opportunity for learners of all ages, including what happens during professional development for educators.

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30 January 2010

I have seen any number of fussy bloggers over the years---the kind who only post negative thoughts and angry sentiments. I have no beef with them. Blogging should be whatever you want it to be. I have hoped to be more reflective and positive. When I hit the patches in my professional life where I am more interested in shaking my fist than being capable of finding solutions, I don't write as much.

For whatever reason, I've been feeling rather impotent (in terms of job function) as of late. This has led me to thinking about who really has power in education and who those people listen to. Even with a stateside balcony seat, I often find that I have very little influence on educational events. My goal is not one of power or influence for its own sake---my interests are in supporting kids. It was too difficult to stay in a district where money meant more than people. I wish I could tell you that people at a higher level serve a higher purpose where schools are concerned. The fact is, a lot of them do. Many of the people I work with have kids first and foremost in their minds as they make decisions. Unfortunately, these people are not in the kinds of leadership positions where that could make a real difference.

I do know that the biggest impact on kids is made at the classroom level. In that sense, teachers have more power than anyone. And yet, in terms of the education system as a whole, teachers often have the least say in what happens in terms of policy and budgets.

I'm not sure how to resolve this---or even if this rambling makes a lot of sense. I don't wish to be negative about it, although it's been a downer sort of thing rolling around in my head. How do we ensure that those who are most passionate about doing what is best for kids are the ones who have the biggest voice in shaping policy?


Once and Future Learning

02 October 2009

There's been a lot of rumbling at the state and federal levels about "continuity of learning," should the H1N1 virus (or other disaster) prevent schools from operating normally. Both the ASCD blog and Education Week have recently focused some screen time to these topics.

From ASCD:
ASCD Executive Director Gene Carter emphasizes that in addition to prevention and monitoring efforts, schools must consider how they plan to support continuous learning, both for individual students who are home for extended periods of time with the flu and for the whole student body if the virus spreads widely and forces school closures.

“Some estimates indicate H1N1 could infect half the U.S. population this fall and winter, which translates into considerable classroom disruption and absenteeism,” Carter writes. “Students in the same class could end up in wildly different places in the curriculum. Meanwhile, entire classes could fall behind if their teachers are out sick for several days.”

He suggests educators form professional learning communities to help them work together to assess knowledge and skills when students return to school and develop plans for instructional next steps.

If the swine flu plays out in these numbers, then there is no doubt about the disruption to the educational process. I wonder if it is more disruptive to try to keep schools open than to shut down during the peak of infection. This does not mean that staff and students would conveniently all be ill and well simultaneously, but considering the every student/class in a different place of learning at any given moment...why not slow things down for everyone instead? How is a sick teacher supposed to plan for students who may or may not be there themselves?

This is where the e-learning ramp up could play a role, as Education Week suggests. Suppose a teacher posts assignments to their website/Moodle site or e-mails students with lessons. Will this work?

To a point. We are going to have to assume that every child has internet access at home (all with the same bandwidth) and time to use it. This is not guaranteed in a one-computer household with many members. We also have to assume a "one size fits all" lesson---at this time, I suspect that few teachers are going to offer accommodations for ELL, SPED, etc. We are also going to have to assume that every teacher is equally savvy about the tools available for these kinds of lessons and how to use them.

All in all, I don't think that we're ready to offer an alternative learning environment in case of a pandemic...and we're not going to be ready by winter.

I do think that e-learning will be a typical part of future classrooms...a blended model of brick-and-mortar and virtual learning. At that point, it will be a simpler extension and expectation to go all virtual all the time for short periods. If we are truly going to be prepared for a widespread flu epidemic this winter, we need to look at some realistic discussions about what continuity of learning looks like in 2009-2010.

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Mighty Oaks

14 August 2009

Late last winter, I spent time with a few high school science teachers, talking about grading practices. I have to say that out of all of the presentations I've done in the last year, this one was the worst. I just didn't connect well with the group.

And then...

In May, a few of them invited me to spend time with them on a Saturday morning. They had been planning ahead for the upcoming year---revisiting curriculum and thinking about grading. I was delighted and impressed by the work they'd been doing.

And then...

One of them invited me to her classroom next week as she gets her record-keeping set up for the nearly here school year. Of course, I said "Yes!"

It seems odd (but delightful) that out of this not-so-hot PD experience I delivered, there are some hearty seedlings. I am learning that mighty oaks grow from all sorts of acorns.

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Ready, Set...

15 April 2009

I don't think Washington is different from any other state when it comes to its current economic situation. We're in trouble---with the state facing a $9B shortfall in the next biennium. Budget cuts are getting ugly, especially for education. Of course, one of the first things to get thrown out is money for professional development. While various organizations scramble for the few dollars which will be left, I wonder if it's time to really scale up on-line forms of PD.

I was remembering two EdTech incarnations from the past year. They have been around for a few years, but this was my first year to "attend." The first was the K12 Online Conference. I was a bit sporadic in my presence there; however, that really didn't matter. Even now, you can go watch any presentation and learn to your heart's content. You can do so by yourself or with a learning circle in your building. Ditto for Educon. I liked being able to hang out on my couch on a Sunday morning, watching a UStreamed panel presentation and participating in the backchannel discussion with people from all over.

I believe that these formats would work just as well for other topics: science, math, art, primary, RtI, etc. Personally, I'd love to see more conferences and wiki "archives" like Educon. With fewer dollars for PD and an ever growing need for focus on student achievement, we have to find different ways to support teachers. What I wonder, however, is how many educators would be willing to participate in this way. It's different---it's may be something you do by yourself (and therefore miss out on conversation) may not be as interactive in terms of getting questions answered. Does that make it too weird to engage with for the average (in terms of tech savvyness) teacher? If so, what sorts of supports do we need to put in place?

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12 March 2009

One of the best teachers I know has a luxury that nearly no teacher has. She teaches because she wants to---and so chooses to work half-time (spouse makes more than enough for the family---so pay, no matter how meager, is no concern) in the classroom and spend as much time as she likes planning instruction and reflecting on assessment. Kids love being in her classes.

But at the end of this year, she may well lose her job because she won't have enough seniority. Even though she has spent several years with the district (more years than many other teachers), the fact that she's only worked them part-time makes her overall contribution appear small. And so, out she may go, while other ineffective teachers stay.

If you keep up with Dy/Dan, you know he's in the same boat. It's the first year in his new school...and it will be his last. With the district making cuts, he's out the door, no matter how good of a teacher he is.

Maybe it's just me, but there is something wrong with all of this. Maybe not wrong from a Union perspective, but wrong from an ethical perspective. Don't kids deserve the very best teachers? The fact is, some of these will be your most experienced and longest-serving staff members---the people who are still excited by the classroom after 30 years. (WaPo recently published a letter calling them on their equating of "older teachers" to "jaded" and ineffective.) But some will be those with 5 years experience. It would seem that there could be some way to retain the best.

According to Education Week...

Seniority-based layoffs are the norm for the profession. According to a database maintained by the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based group that advocates stronger state teacher-quality policies, all but five of the nation’s 25 largest school districts follow seniority-based layoff policies set by contracts or state law. And all but one of those five is located in a right-to-work state without mandatory collective bargaining for teachers.

Typically, layoffs—frequently referred to in contracts as reductions in force, or RIFs—are enforced within teachers’ certification areas. If a district needs to cut high school social studies teachers, for instance, it cuts from the bottom of the high school social studies seniority list until the budget has been balanced. Then, it will redeploy the remaining teachers as necessary the following school year.

Teacher-quality experts have questioned the place of seniority in other personnel decisions, such as the pay and transfer of teachers, but layoff policies have attracted a lesser degree of scrutiny. In fact, some districts that now disallow seniority-based transfers, such as Rochester, N.Y., do not have a similar policy in place for layoffs.

"I think people assumed that revenue for schools could only go up, that the economy would never get so bad again that we’d have to have layoffs," said Timothy Daly, the president of the New Teacher Project, a Washington-based nonprofit that trains new teachers and supports changes to districts' personnel practices. "Nobody changed the rules or even talked about them since the 1980s. I honestly think the [poor economic] situation has caught people by surprise."

Since then, however, firm evidence has emerged to identify high-quality teaching as the single most important school-level factor for improving student achievement. Now, critics argue that seniority-based RIF policies not only fail to take teachers’ effectiveness into account, but they also necessitate the cutting of more teachers than seniority-neutral layoff policies, hurting both teachers and students in the process.

But alternatives to seniority-based layoffs have been tied up in the knotty question about how to evaluate teachers’ performance in a fair, uniform way, researchers and union officials say.

Many teachers and their unions, for instance, oppose using "value added" models that purport to estimate a teacher’s effect on student learning for high-stakes purposes. Alternative methods of evaluating teacher performance—including the peer-assistance and -review model used in Toledo, Ohio, and several other districts—aren’t yet widespread.

"We're mindful of the fact that there are old issues that we have to address sooner rather than later, but at this point, seniority is the only fair way [of determining layoffs] because without an effective way of monitoring principals, we don’t know whether their selection process would be accurate," said A.J. Duffy, the president of United Teachers Los Angeles, a merged affiliate of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers that is bracing for layoffs this school year. "We are willing to discuss revamping the evaluation of teachers, if that is accompanied with a discussion on the evaluation process of administrators."

Principals frequently lack the tools to make appropriate personnel decisions, added Robin Chait, a senior policy analyst at the Washington-based Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank, who co-wrote a recent article on seniority-based layoffs.

"In some ways, [seniority] might be easier for them,” she said. "Their hands are tied."

Joanne Jacobs recently posted on the ability of administrators in Providence, RI, to select teachers based on who is best suited for a position as opposed to strictly using seniority. Other states may change their teacher tenure rules so that the way seniority works changes to allow districts to keep the best teachers they have. I can't imagine that this would have any immediate impact, but perhaps over the next decade things might start to change when the RIF notices are handed out.

You know, I'm grown up. I understand that life isn't fair and so forth. I accept that the system isn't perfect and is a work in progress. But I would like to think that equity within the classroom can be improved. I'd hope we could start making some sense where choices about teacher retention are concerned.

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Talking Teachers

20 February 2009

What do you think about these apples?

Science Daily is reporting "a study of 18,000 biology, chemistry and physics students has uncovered notable gender bias in student ratings of high school science teachers. Researchers at Clemson University, the University of Virginia and Harvard University have found that, on average, female high school science teachers received lower evaluations than their male counterparts even though male and female teachers are equally effective at preparing their students for college...'The importance of these findings is that they make it clear that students have developed a specific sense of gender-appropriate roles in the sciences by the end of high school,' said Geoffrey Potvin, assistant professor of engineering and science education and the department of mathematical sciences at Clemson."

At the high school I taught at, we always had equal numbers of men and women in the science department...and far more girls enrolled in upper level science courses than boys. But what happened in college in terms of pursuing studies in the sciences is unknown. Does the prevalence of white male tv scientists (Mr. Wizard, Bill Nye, Mythbusters...) reinforce a long held social stereotype? Is it important that we change things?

Some teachers in Washington state are upset by a bill introduced this legislative session which would remove the traditional salary schedule for teachers---the one that includes more pay for more education. I haven't read the bill, but the idea is interesting. So is the proposal by Alabama's governor to divide the teaching profession into levels: apprentice teacher, classroom teacher, pro­fessional teacher, master teach­er and learning designer. The idea is to "afford ex­cellent teachers with profes­sional pathways that advance their careers without making them leave the classroom." Quality over longevity (although the two can easily co-exist)? Is this opportunity for teachers to grow in their practice over the years...or a slap in the face to the tenure system?
Speaking of teacher quality, there's this article in Education Week:

A push in national circles for states to align their human-capital management systems strategically with goals for recruiting and retaining effective teachers hasn’t yet trickled down to the states, an analysis of state teacher policies reveals.

Released today by the Washington-based National Council on Teacher Quality, the analysis contends that many states have set compensation policies that may actually work at cross-purposes to building a strong teacher workforce. Additionally, by putting into place vague guidelines around teacher-evaluation and tenure-granting processes, states are complicit in allowing poor teachers to remain in classrooms, it says.

The analysis is the council’s second annual “yearbook” of state policies. Last year’s review focused on a broader set of teacher-quality criteria.

It comes as a number of policy experts argue that districts need to better align compensation, professional development, and other aspects of the teacher-quality continuum to student-achievement goals. The topic was the subject of a national conference last fall.

And earlier this week, the Center for American Progress, a think tank headed by former Clinton White House Chief of Staff, John Podesta, released a position paper urging the federal government to establish incentive programs for states and districts willing to experiment with systems of compensating teachers, supporting them, evaluating their performance, and awarding them tenure.

The NCTQ paper found little evidence of such experimentation. It found, for example, that only 15 states require districts to take student learning into account when evaluating teachers, and only 13 allow districts to dismiss a teacher after two unsatisfactory evaluations.

Because such evaluations are also tied to the system of granting tenure, many districts can grant tenure without consideration of teaching effectiveness, the analysis indicates. Tenure prohibits the dismissal of a teacher without “just cause,” a status that must be documented through a lengthy, typically costly due-process procedure.

Alabama, by the way, scores a "C" in the NCTQ report. Perhaps they're attempts at being proactive at growing teachers is a good thing. Washington, by the way, scores lower in many areas of the report. In fact, it's rather interesting to see that Right-to-Work states score higher in most cases than those with teachers' unions. Hmmm. (As an aside, it has been wonderful this year to discover that wherever I go, I find many many others who are tired of the union sheeple that dominate conversations in this state. We just need to find a legislator willing to take it on.)

FYI...I'm posting from a previously populated queue for now. A great big Thank you! to all of you who sent me link to the recent NYT article about grading. I'm away on some personal business this week, but am looking forward to reading and writing when I return.


Negotiations and Navigations

27 December 2008

Being in the classroom comes with a variety of blessings and curses. On one hand, you are shielded from most of the politics and intrigue that happen at the school, district, and/or state level in education. Ignorance in many of these particular instances can indeed be blissful. You also have the luxury of just shutting the classroom door and doing your very best for the students sitting in front of you. You are the most influential factor and have the most direct power for what happens in the classroom. But, on the other hand, the fact that you are left out of the conversations means that you often have very little say in many of the policies and practices which shape most of the other aspects of classroom life. These include everything from how much prep time you get, to the number of students in a class, to the money spent on supplies. In that sense, it feels like everyone but you has a say in how you do your job.

What I am seeing from my current vantage point is that we all need to be better negotiators. By "we," I mean anyone who is sticking their fingers into the education pie: legislators, teachers, policy people, budget-makers, etc.

For example, there has been a lot of talk about "opportunity to learn" in several meetings I've recently attended. The idea here is that unless students get to engage in science lessons, they won't learn science (and scores on tests won't improve). So the answer is just to do something to mandate/encourage more time on science, especially in the k-8 levels, right? I'm not so sure. I do think that more practice with scientific skills and content may very well result in better student performance---but just telling teachers to teach more isn't a magic bullet. If we do this, then we also need to make an offer. In other words, what will we take off of their plates? Are we willing to work with schools to identify how to make more pockets of time for science in their schedules? Are we willing to say "teach reading and math less"? Are we willing to provide more prep time---or pay for a longer school day? What support will we provide so that teachers can be successful with the "do more science" thing? Where is the spoonful of sugar that will make the medicine go down?

I don't mean to trivialize things---but I do think that we need to be mindful that when we ask for something, it should come with an offer of benefit as part of the negotiation. Imagine how much differently NCLB would have played out by now if the feds had taken that tact.

If you're not reading Organized Chaos, you should. It's written by one of the best edubloggers out there, in my opinion. She's passionate, committed, and as adverse to capitalization as e.e. cummings. Her school was recently targeted for some changes, all in the name of district budget cuts. I could understand all of the amazing reasons she and others don't want these changes to take place---the reasons are entirely student-centered. The unfortunate thing is that such reasons aren't enough anymore. They should be. What's best for kids should be the very bottom line of every decision made in schools, in my opinion. The reality is that budgets must be balanced---schools aren't allowed to operate like the federal government. I suggested to her that her school will have to negotiate. To just offer the "right" reasons not to cut won't solve the problem for the money people. They have an ugly job to do. Instead, offer them alternatives: "If you don't cut x at our school, we could do without y." Help them achieve their goal---which in its own weird way, will get you to yours, too.

I realize that union leaders might negotiate for benefits and working conditions, but that's not where most teachers need help these days. Teachers need to be able to navigate the other systems which impact the classroom---those factors which often make them feel impotent, overwhelmed, and uncared for. It means that we all need to be respectful and aware of our power to negotiate---to give, as well as expect a return.

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A/K/A Mental Health Day

10 November 2008

Education Week recently reported on how teachers use discretionary time, which is a fancy way of saying mental health days. The cited study noted that "Like professionals in other fields, teachers appear to be dipping into their sick time in order to take care of errands, do the holiday shopping, or extend a weekend." Okay, Readers, put your hands in the air if you've ever used a discretionary absence. (Yes, my hand is raised, too.)
Teacher absence is correlated with a small but significant decrease in student achievement, and it tends to occur disproportionately in low-income schools. It is also costly: Data from the National Center for Education Statistics put expenditures on substitute teachers at about $4 billion annually—costs typically borne by individual schools’ discretionary budgets.

The pattern detailed in the analysis suggests that teachers exercise “some amount of volition or control ... in the placement of those absences,” said Raegen T. Miller, a senior policy analyst with the center and the analysis’ author.

Armed with better information on those patterns, policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels can craft incentive programs to keep teachers in school, it concludes.

The discretionary absences made up 56 percent of all teacher absences. And while percentages of nondiscretionary absences, including long-term illnesses, jury duty, and bereavement, stayed relatively stable over the course of the school year, the percentage of discretionary absences changed seasonally. Absences rose throughout the fall and peaked in December. They fell in January and February, only to rise again by the end of the school year. Discretionary absences were also more likely than other types to fall on Mondays and Fridays.

Although the article goes on to suggest ways that districts address this issue, none of them get to what I think is the heart of things: teachers see these days as time they are entitled to have. As long as teachers work outside of contracted time (evenings, weekends, holidays, summers) to prepare lessons, grade papers, engage in professional development, or anything else which forces them to trade personal time for the rigors of the job, then they will take mental health days. It is a trade. "I have to spend my Saturday giving feedback on these essays...but I can take off next Friday to catch up on the chores." I'm not saying that this is the right thing to do, only that this is how these things are often reasoned.

I do think that teachers who use discretionary leave and then head out on the golf course or generally make the fact that they're playing hooky known around town are making a poor choice. If you're going to be "sick," then at least have the good sense to stay home during working hours. Or, if you have to be out, be sure to be traveling far far away where no parents or administrators will see you.

So, what is the answer then? Kids are in class from Monday to Friday. Teachers need to be present when the kids are (and oh, how we complain about chronically absent students)...and yet, it is ignorant to assume that excellence in the classroom (including grading, planning, and collaborating) can fit within the 7.5 hour contract day. Do districts need to create a new form of leave---one that is for planning time? Perhaps instead of offering 10 sick days per year, teachers could have choices within that. For example, 5 assigned for sick leave and 5 for planning, depending upon your needs. There needs to be some way to recognize the outside work that is to be done and provide an honest avenue for teachers to complete it.

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28 September 2008

I really don't know where the last week has gone. It's a blur of meetings, road warrior activities, and the occasional stab at sleep---some of it interesting, but mostly not. In other words, it doesn't make for very good blog fodder. And while I've never been 100% sure which purpose this blog would serve, I know that I don't want it to simply be a catalog of the days' minutiae. Most of the time I'm not interested in it. I don't think anyone else would be, either. Therefore, I've been AWOL from the blog.

Amongst the hodgepodge of my days, I have been trying to ponder something a bit larger. I'm just grasping at it for now, but perhaps my always astute Readers might have some direction for me.
What is the purpose in teaching science in public schools?
I think that when I was in the classroom, the answer to this question was much clearer to me. But from the level I operate in now, the answer is mushy. It comes from the difference between being someone trying to shape policy vs. my old life where I just had to carry it out; however, I can't help but think that at a state or national agency, there is an even greater need to have a clear vision. The reason I am wrestling with this now more than ever comes down to the issue of accountability. Here are the two driving questions:
Should adults and students in the public schools be held accountable for what students learn in science? If so, what should that accountability look like?
Let's talk about kids for a moment. If we hold students accountable, then what should that look like? Is earning credit for high school courses enough---if so, how many credits? Should we direct what kinds of courses would be eligible or leave it up to school districts? If we increase requirements, what do we do about schools which don't have enough lab space or can't find high qualified teachers? Do we, instead, insist on using standardized tests as a measure for kids? What does this mean if the number of credits required for graduation would be completed after the test? Do we need a second accountability factor? I've been pondering what types of accountability might make sense and how those might be implemented and monitored. I actually like our standardized test for science in this state---but I can't say that I like that it's tied to graduation (or will be in a few years). When I read something like What Does Educational Testing Really Tell Us? over on Eduwonkette's blog, I can't help but nod in agreement...and yet, I'm hard pressed to suggest alternatives.

As for adults, that's a more difficult issue in some ways. At my place of work, we've had a few discussions about the time students (especially in the elementary grades) have to engage with science content. It's no secret that with the increased pressure on schools to raise achievement in math and reading, science and other content areas are being squeezed out. (see previous posts on studies of time spent on elementary science and its push-pull with literacy) But this brings up another question: How much time is "enough" for each content area? I know that the answer really isn't simple---every child's capabilities are different and every school serves a different population. However, can we make some general observations? Education Week seems to think we might be able to draw a few conclusions on the Effects of Extra Time for Learning. Yes, quantity can help, but quality is more important. "More" does not automatically equal "Better."

The heart of this whole problem is that without an accountability measure (e.g. AYP), schools won't teach (very much) science to kids...which gets me back to my original question: What is our purpose? I think that if this was well-defined, it would be easier to determine whether or not accountability should be required and what that looks like. Instead, we're trying to figure out all of these things at once. It seems disrespectful not to give each part of this issue its own bit of attention.

So, if things have been a bit quiet around ye olde blog, just know that I'm trying to find a way to balance the noise and pressure of my day with what I think my job should really be about. What do you think I should be doing?

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Something New Under the Sun

05 July 2008

Good teachers want their students to be more than sponges, absorbing information. They want students to think and use that information: remix things into something new. Great teachers find ways to facilitate that process and make kids bloom with creativity.

But how should we support these behaviours in one another?

Teaching---if done well---is an inherently creative process. A one-size-fits-all lesson plan used year after year is not enough to reach every child who walks through the classroom door. Technology affords us new ways to engage students and elicit high-quality evidence of learning. Educational research clues us in on ways to refine our craft.

I like to think that those educators who blog are taking things a step further. In choosing to share your inside views of the profession, you're setting an example for others about meaningful reflection. But even more importantly, you show that you're willing to take a creative go beyond the four walls of the school and connect with others. You have great things to share and say and I appreciate all that I get to learn from you.

I've recently been wondering about the importance of sharing our learning in more traditional formats. Until this year, I hadn't made a formal presentation at a conference since 1996. That's a long stretch of time where I attended workshops, conferences, and conventions...and gave nothing back. I do a lot of writing here (this is post #1163), but could I have more of an impact on classroom grading practices if I expanded the media I use? Blog posts are "quick writes" for me---not much more than drafts. But should I clean up a few and offer them for publication through ASCD, Education Week, or other journals open for teacher submissions? I think about writing a book---one which focuses on how to increase the intrinsic motivation of students through cues in the classroom environment.

So, I'm challenging myself this summer to send out three articles/commentaries for publication. I fully expect to receive three rejection letters for my attempts, but that is all right. I have all the opportunity I could want for self-publishing right here in this space. In an odd way, my goal is not seeing my name in a magazine, but rather to stretch my personal boundaries a bit and put myself out there for a different kind of feedback. I can show myself that I do have more to share---and that can happen beyond this space (if only in workshops and presentations I give).

What should teachers be doing, if anything, to show that they have developed something new under the sun?


An Open and Shut Case

01 July 2008

I have a friend who was courted to become part of the Dark Side and be paid to work part-time in a supporting role for secondary science. He is a fantastic and passionate teacher who cares greatly about standards and good instruction. You'd be hard pressed to find a better role model for other science teachers. But he is also smart enough to realize that he can do more for kids by being in the classroom. That until district administration is willing to have guts enough to insist that science teachers teach to the standards in a high-quality way, there's no point in him talking to anyone. People will do as they please (which is what happens now) until someone holds them to their obligations.

When I read Teaching on the Titanic over at Elbows, Knees, and Dreams, I was reminded of the situation here. Over the last few years, I've seen plenty of good teachers who opened their doors and minds to greater collaboration and collegiality only to discover that it was not as rewarding professionally as just doing the best they can within their own classrooms. The level that they are willing to give to others was not returned in kind. They thought they were reaching out to support more students by working more closely with peers...only to discover that differing levels of commitment doomed it all. They opened their doors. Now they're closing them. As a teacher, you only have so much energy. You can only "save" so many kids. You make the classroom your lifeboat and hang the rest because it's too frustrating to have uninvolved peers and uncaring administration. If you have to make a choice between kids you can make a difference with and peers that you can't, it's easy to see why they've picked students.



20 May 2008

The MST class at St. John Fisher College is up and at 'em again. Welcome to you the newest recruits to the edusphere. I hope that you'll find yourself at home in the cyberschoolhouse world.

Most of the education-related blogs you'll find are very focused on a given topic. Some are very exclusive about technology in education. Others are policy pundits. There are those which just detail classroom events and others which rail against the system. While I admire their strong blogging voice, I can't say that I model myself along those lines. This blog tends to be fairly eclectic---much like my career at the moment. I work in two different school districts, with two completely different age ranges (10 - 12, k -5), in two different capacities (teacher, instructional coach). I'm also finishing up my EdD in Teacher Leadership. I subscribe to way too many RSS feeds, which means that various articles end up as fodder here. This blog is rather messy as a result of the confluence of these pieces of my working life, but I have to tell ya', I really like it that way.

Please feel free to peruse my archive. Some specific posts which might interest you would be my welcome messages to two previous cohorts from your class (here and here). I look forward to any comments you have to toss my way. Best wishes on your journey!


That's What I Want

09 May 2008

Two disconnected articles recently caught my eye as I paged through my RSS feeds. The first one, Male Call: Recruiting More Men to Teach Elementary School, was of interest not just because I am spending my days in an elementary which has only one male teacher...but also because I wondered if anything had changed since I blogged about this very same topic three years ago. The short answer is "no." The interesting part of the more recent article was found in the comments. Many of the commenters blamed low pay as the reason few men are attracted to the profession. It makes me wonder if that is because of some sort of societal expectation that is different from what I posted about in days of yore. Is the pressure on men to perform financially so great that teaching isn't an appealing career option?

Education Week had a different take on things, not confining the pay issue to a particular gender, although they recognize The Teaching Penalty.

Back in 1960, women teachers were paid 14.7 percent more than other women with similar educations. But that trend reversed, and by 2000, women teachers were being paid 13.2 percent less than their educational peers in other fields. Indeed, over the past 10 years the latter trend has accelerated; the pay gap that was a 4.3 percent shortfall in 1996 became a 15.1 percent chasm for all teachers by 2006—a growth of 10.8 percentage points. Teachers were bypassed by the strong wage growth of the late 1990s and, more recently, continued to lose ground while college-graduate wages stagnated.

The rising pay gap will make it difficult to recruit teachers—and present an even more daunting challenge in retaining them. For teachers starting their careers—those between the ages of 25 and 34—the 12 percent pay penalty today is only 0.5 percentage points larger than that of their peers in 1996. But for women who are experienced teachers—those ages 45 to 54—the pay deficit has grown by 18 percentage points over the same period.

Sure, some say that teaching is such a unique profession that it is impossible to compare it with other occupations. But our study took pains to account for the special circumstances surrounding teachers’ pay and benefits. Because teachers’ annual work schedules are different from those of other professions, we compared wages earned for a week of work, rather than the entire year.

Since teachers may receive relatively generous health insurance and retirement benefits, we took total compensation into account—and found that it narrowed the pay gap by just 3 percentage points in 2006. In other words, the 15 percent weekly pay disadvantage based on wages alone translates to a 12 percent disadvantage when you factor in benefits. That’s not enough to transform the big picture, or the big point: Teaching just doesn’t pay nearly as well as the alternatives.

I haven't seen an article which takes a look at the pay issue this way, but I like the approach. It makes sense to include benefits as a factor. Either way, the results aren't pretty.

Maybe it isn't a matter of gender specific issues in terms of what both attracts teachers to the profession and what makes them stay. It is the concrete rewards in terms of money (and what it can provide) and recognition.

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It's Not a Job, It's an Adventure

15 April 2008

If you have the time (about 17 minutes worth), I recommend listening to a "Tell Me More" broadcast over on NPR entitled Teachers Stumped by Budget, Discipline. It is billed as follows: Budget shortfalls and constant discipline issues are driving an alarming number of teachers out of the classroom. A roundtable of teachers talk about how they cope with these obstacles, and how these challenges will affect the future of the American education system.

At the table are two young male teachers, and a woman with over 30 years of classroom experience. Obviously, they have had very different experiences and viewpoints about the work. The woman believes that one must be "called" to the profession in order to be successful. I really disagree with this, although I hear this particular old saw quite a bit. The problem with it is that we tell our kids all the time that they can find success anywhere they choose as long as they are willing to make the effort...and then we turn around and say that only special people can teach. Do we tell ineffective classroom teachers that they must not have received some magical and ethereal message and that's why they do such poor work---or do we identify areas of improvement and support them? The men involved with the discussion are much more concrete about the issues involved with public education and teacher dissatisfaction: student discipline, poor working conditions, etc. While specifying these issues doesn't make it any easier to solve them, it is a start. Giving them a little national attention certainly can't hurt.


Where Is the Love?

06 April 2008

In February, I posted about the Fine Romance I'm having with an elementary school. Two months in and we're still honeymooning, thank you very much. I still have a lot to learn, but I'm settling in nicely.

One of the teachers remarked about the "love notes" (her term) I leave in their mailboxes. You see, most of the time when I'm in classrooms right now, it isn't because I've been specifically invited. To be sure, the teachers are always gracious and they are used to having a coach around---but I am still imposing myself on their space. Meanwhile, there is always this underlying fear that a coach is the principal's lackey, sent there to spy and report on all of the ways the teacher is miserably failing in the classroom. The simple fact is that I am not anyone's boss and I am certainly not their evaluator. Whatever I see happening in their rooms---for better or worse---is a lot like being in Vegas: it stays there. Anyway, knowing all of this, I have been taking a few minutes after a classroom visit to write a thank you note. One thing I understand is that teachers feel unappreciated. Even if the kids adore you, they wear you down each day. Demands from parents and administration leave less time to be creative with lesson planning. And most of the time, when you are doing the very best you can---no other adults are around to see that...let alone say "Thank you."

The teachers are wishing that their principal would do something tangible like this. They have a need to be wooed and romanced---in a professional sense, of course. Everyone has settled into a comfortable relationship and they're hungry for that little spark again. They want signs that what they're doing is meaningful and appreciated. It's not always enough to know inside that you're teaching you're heart out and have the quiet acceptance of your peers and boss. We need someone to notice that we've done something new with our be reassured that our partners don't want someone else. Their teacher hearts need nurturing. I'll see what I can do to talk to the admin and nudge him toward more reminders of this nature. He's a good soul. I know that if I call his attention to this and provide him with some ideas, he'll do the right thing by his staff.

As I've been pondering all this, I wondered if there's something more missing. I think that schools have become impersonal places to work. We are so worried about the professional image we give that we don't pay attention to the human elements lying underneath. I'm not sure what to do about that, except to spend time with each conversation asking about home life, special interests, and so on. Do I encourage a once-a-month potluck lunch for people to share a favourite recipe? Can I offer some activities (walking around the track after school, the occasional stitch-and-bitch...) without appearing like a cruise director?

What would honor you as a person within your professional life?

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WASLus scientificus

28 March 2008

The science WASL will take place in about three weeks. After Spring Break, I've set aside a few days to do some targeted review with my kids. We'll look at some released items, along with good and bad student examples, scoring guides, and ideas for checking their work. I also break down the test so they know how many questions there are, how to answer them, and how many points they need to get to pass. Although my students don't need to pass the test to get a diploma, they can use good scores for free tuition at in-state universities and various scholarship opportunities. I want them to do well. I know that most of them can do it if they make the effort to apply themselves. I've been talking to kids about not closing doors. Maybe they're not sure about going to college right now, but who knows what they might want in a couple of years? If they make some good decisions now, they'll have lots more choices later---with or without college.

I was talking to the Bad Neighbour about this. He hasn't done any labs with students this year and doesn't teach any inquiry or application associated with science. The kids just answer questions out of the book (and the school wonders why science WASL scores lag). Anyway, he said that he wasn't going to bother do any prep with students because "they" are going to change the test in a few years.

I pointed out that even if the science WASL changes or goes away in the future, our current kids have to deal with the current version. Besides, at least some of them might qualify for support for college because of their scores.

"None of my students are going to college."

At this point, I was done with the conversation. What do you say to a teacher who has already ruled out any sort of opportunities for the kids sitting in his classroom---both in terms of teaching to the standards and preparing kids for life beyond high school? I'm sure that not all of them will go to college, but I'd bet that at least a few are thinking about it. After all, he apparently managed to earn a degree. The students probably could, too, if he cared enough to give them a chance.

As teachers, we might not like the standards. We might even disagree with the testing and how the results are used. But we owe it to our kids to do the right thing by them and help them learn what we're asked to teach. I really wish that those who are just showing up to pick up a paycheck and surf the internet while kids fill out another worksheet would get out of field and make room for other teachers who care about students.

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Get the Ax

21 March 2008

I'll bet every building has one: a Tree Killer of a Teacher. You know the one I'm talking about...the one who believes his or her teaching is the most awesome ever, because s/he has the stack of handouts to prove it?

The handouts are amazing, mind you. (We have a teacher who typically runs 90 copies of 40+ page packets.) Tree Killer Teachers spend hours upon hours crafting them. They draw upon their vast quantity of content knowledge and distill it.

In short, they don't see learning as the responsibility of the student. The teacher has taken it upon himself to learn everything for the kids. He has thought about and summarized it so that the kids don't have to do any thinking about things.

Am I wrong in thinking that this is somewhat back asswards? Teaching requires a lot of reverse engineering---the ability to reflect on what you know and how you learned it---then develop that same ability within your students. Kids have textbooks. They don't need your reams of packets in addition to that with your interpretation of the material. They need your help to create their own understanding of the curriculum.

I don't know if I feel more sorry for the Tree Killer or the students. While I admire the intellectual curiosity of the Killer, I can't imagine the utter boredom of going through page after page of packets, day in and day out. All the variety of instructional strategies out there, the great diversity of learners and students to reach, and you just use one dull tool. Ditto for the poor students who are stuck in the classroom version of Groundhog Day...and the poor kids who wanted to learn the subject matter, but whose needs weren't being met. Goodness knows that there aren't very many tree-huggers where this variety is concerned.


Coaching in the Classroom

18 March 2008

Instructional coaching is a bit of a murky business. The overall goal, of course, is to improve student achievement by supporting the implementation of best practices. But there is no magic formula or step-by-step guide out there. As a newcomer to building, grade levels, and district, I am trying to be very humble and respectful in my approach. All of the wonderful things which happen there (as well as the not-so-wonderful stuff) is a product of the culture they've created over the years. I may be there to add my own flavour to the mix, but I have to work from the inside. So, I'm spending a lot of time just observing. How do kids work together? What are the building norms? Who plays which role in the "family" of staff? I'm in "seek to understand" mode---not judgment mode.

I've recently been combining two ideas I've picked up elsewhere and using them to test the waters in classrooms. I have some index cards with me when I visit classrooms. I wish I could find the post on Leader Talk which mentioned this, but I've been unsuccessful. Whoever wrote the post designed and printed cards which had specific targets s/he was looking for. It was their way of collecting data for evaluations. I'm not in an evaluative role and for now, the cards I'm using are blank. Anyway, toward the end of my visit, I write a note to the teacher on one of the cards. This is where Part II of things comes in, as I structure my feedback in the same way I do with students. I try to give very specific and positive comments about the instruction first. Then, I pose a question. (I never point out the big but in the classroom.) What would you think about trying...? Have you ever thought about...? I wonder what would happen if...? or something else along those lines. My goal is simply to cause some thinking and reflection---something we teachers rarely have time or energy for. But perhaps a single question isn't too overwhelming.

Is this the right thing? I honestly don't know. I just think it's a simple way to start. Have I seen anyone actually make use of my suggestions via questions on those cards? Yes, I have. I feel like that's a good thing. It means that the questions I pose aren't too big or threatening and that they fit within the culture of the school. Meaningful change doesn't have to be overwhelming. Will it make a difference? That remains to be seen. For now, it's just one way to make coaching happen in the classroom.

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How to Pay, Not Make, Great Teachers

17 February 2008

This week's Time magazine cover article has been of great interest around to others in the edusphere---and I am also intrigued. If you haven't seen it, it's about How to Make Great Teachers. I have to warn you, however, that there is nothing actually in the article about what it takes to make a great teacher. Most of the article is about the idea of merit pay with some information about teacher retention thrown in for good measure. If Time wants to talk about making great teachers, they likely need to cast their eyes toward teacher ed programs at the universities and the kinds of staff development programs which are successful within school districts. Instead the argument is that if you pay teachers more, they'll do a better job in the classroom.

I don't buy this argument. I would agree that money can be a motivator for teachers (and likely all other professions), but I don't think that waving more money in the face of a teacher with a poor skill set is going to make them improve. If they don't have the tools they need to do a high quality job in the classroom, offering more money will not magically make those tools appear. So-so teachers need coaching and instructional leadership to build their abilities.

I've posted about merit pay here a few times over the years. I've always been a bit ambivalent---not entirely convinced that we can properly define and quantify the aspects of a "good teacher" enough to determine who deserves additional pay...and yet it seems unfair that those teachers who show up to collect a paycheck receive the same salary and benefits as the teachers who bust their butts to reach as many kids as possible and support their learning. Like most things in the field of education, this is just not an issue with a simple answer. The real question behind it is "How do we ensure that every student in a public school has the best possible classroom teacher?" Maybe Time magazine needs to take that on.

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Sucks to Be You

05 February 2008

"One of the perks of being a teacher," he said, "is that you get to hand pick your own kids' teachers. You know which ones to avoid."

"And in doing so, you relegate the kids who need the best teachers to the not-so-best teachers' classes," answered The Science Goddess.

"Yeah, but if a kid's parents don't want to advocate for him, then too bad."

She sighed. "It's not really that simple. Just because a parent is disconnected from the school for one reason or another doesn't mean that she doesn't love her child and want the best for him. If you didn't speak English, would you go to school and ask for a certain teacher? If your only means of transportation is the city bus to and from your two minimum wage jobs, is it likely you going to be able to get to the school to be the same advocate as someone with a car? Or would you just have to trust that the school would act responsibly toward your child's needs?"

"Oh, well." He laughed off the idea.

All that was missing from this conversation was the Must suck to be you. tagline. As I think about things, I'm not sure what the "right" answer is. Should a kid from a privileged background be subjected to poor instruction simply because his parents can make up for any missing pieces at home? No more than a kid from an underprivileged background should have a bad teacher because his parents can't advocate for better. There is no win for that particular dilemma. The only way around it is to improve the classroom skills of so-so teachers and outright fire the bad ones. I'm not sure that such a system will happen in the near future, but in the meantime, is it so much to ask that we act with compassion?


Do you have the answer?

01 February 2008

The BBC has a question for you: What makes a good teacher?

Their short answer is "I dunno," but the article does report what some experts in the field are thinking. It's not one's qualifications---the number of degrees you have or years of experience. Instead, the "best" teachers are ones who can build positive relationships with students, are reflective about their classroom work, and promote active engagement of the learner.

I know, I know, you're reading this and thinking "Duh." I am, too---and at the same time, when I ask myself this same question about what makes a good teacher, I'm not sure exactly what the answer is. We have lots of research out there, but is there truly a magic mix of attributes? Can we look at someone's characteristics and know for sure that they will be dynamite in the classroom?

I recently had an admin ask me "Are you a good teacher?" The question caught me off guard. Am I the best thing since Jaime Escalante in the classroom? Nope. Not even. I think I do all right in the classroom. I can't say that every day is successful and that every lesson reaches every kid and strikes all of the targets. I can say that I care about my students---both as human beings and learners. I'm interested in them as people and in helping them grow in their abilities. I can say that I make a conscious effort to plan lessons that provide more than one way to access the information...and try to use a variety of assessments to gauge what students can do. I want to find ways to help every kid and am frustrated when I can't. What did I tell the admin? I said that I did think I was a good teacher. When my students ask me why their other teachers don't teach like I do, I take that to mean I'm doing right by them. And that's all that should matter: Is what I do in the classroom good for kids? Do I have room for improvement? Definitely---and I'm okay with that.

What about you? What do you think makes a good teacher?

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Another Warm Welcome to...

12 January 2008

...the students of St. John Fisher College. It is always a pleasure to meet more math and science teachers who are learning and investigating the potential of technology for the classroom. (For some of my favourite literacy sources, see a message I left for a previous group of students.)

I wish I could say that I have the whole science/literacy meld figured out, but I am still learning, too. I am finding a lot of pleasure in teaching students to read and write about science, even 17 years into my career. This old dog has plenty of new tricks to learn. You may find some of the links below helpful/interesting to your own investigations in science and literacy.

  • My students are learning that "but" and "because" are kinds of characters in expository writing. But-Man has been a great addition for my teen charges.
  • Like many teachers, I've been frustrated at times with students who don't write to the prompt they are provided. With some help from a former literacy coach, I developed some tools to help teach students to construct written responses in science.
  • Between reading and writing is thinking. You can give kids a framework to capture their thoughts when doing an inquiry with these tools for investigative design as well as investigate my own thoughts about teaching thinking skills.
Finally, my passion at the moment is about best practices in grading. (Plenty of thoughts and tools for standards-based grading can be found under my "grading" label.) As I reach the end of the semester and find that there are still many students not at standard, I am currently working on a large-scale remediation plan we will begin later this week. Take a peek at my tools for helping kids get over the bar with biochemistry concepts and the study skills mini-lessons I will be doing.

I wish you all much success with your course and hope you will stop by here from time to time to share your learning with all of us!


More Isn't Always Better

01 January 2008

I was chatting with an elementary principal recently who talked about the lack of time for his teachers to teach science to their young charges. The reason provided was that many of the children were receiving two to three times as much math and/or literacy instruction as their peers in an attempt to bring them up to grade level. I remarked that quantity wasn't always the best substitute for quality. I don't doubt that there are some kids who benefit from some additional time to focus on a topic, but I still think it comes to down to how that time is used. More of the same isn't going to help.

I remembered this story when I was reading an editorial in the Tacoma News-Tribune about offering higher pay to math and science teachers. The main reason offered is that "there are more opportunities to make more money outside of public education for those with math and science skills than for those with other skills. How does public education respond? It must pay those teachers enough to keep them in the classroom, for a few years anyway."

Okay. As a science teacher, the promise of more money is it would be for anyone (and not just teachers). But what I think the author of the editorial hasn't considered is that more pay is not going to lead to better teaching. For example, I know of a teacher in the district who is very happy at his school. He talks about teaching there until retirement...which is 25+ years away. But just because he likes picking up a paycheck there doesn't make him a good teacher, does it? Lesson plans are constructed no more than an hour in advance, and consist of lecture and bookwork. Tests a couple of hours before he gives them (and just uses a test generator to spit out something). No feedback is provided on assignments. There are few labs or cooperative activities ever done. Students in his classes consistently underperform others in the district, while he brags about how uninvolved he is in professional development and so on. Should we pay him more simply because he teaches science? More pay is not going to equal better instruction from this man. And a full generation of kids is going to suffer in the meantime.

I suppose that this post could quickly evolve into one about merit pay...but I'm not interested in going there at the moment. What I do want to think about is separating the concept of "quality" from "quantity." These are not interchangeable terms and in educational matters, we need to stop using them as such.

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Will 2008 Be Different?

21 December 2007

As the calendar year wound down this week, various conversations with teachers made me wonder "Will 2008 be any different?"

  • I know a teacher who is just fantastic in the classroom. It's someone who constantly strives to improve instruction, tracks information on students, seeks out professional growth opportunities...and has hit a wall in terms of collaboration. No one wants to talk about what works for kids---only what's convenient for teachers. In order to continue to have some passion for work, this teacher is going to have to find an environment that supports that. This is not the first time someone has "outgrown" that particular school. How many more times will this happen before anyone in a leadership capacity notices that the culture there doesn't allow the best teachers to be retained?
  • Another related discussion centered around "bad" teachers. If it isn't any secret as to who isn't getting it done in the classroom, why don't we get them out of there? Why do we move them around to different grades or schools...put children who have parents who won't complain about poor teaching into seats...and so on?
  • And last of all, if schools and districts which are in the last step of school improvement sanctions are able to have school-wide structures for common formative assessments, targeted instruction toward the standards, and reporting structures which enable high-quality analysis of student progress without union interference, why can't districts which are only at the start of the school improvement process? When will teacher unions wake up and realize that what happens in a classroom is about kids---and that it in the best interests of their membership to support best practices and accountability?
Sadly enough, I don't think 2008 is going to be the year when we will see any of these questions answered other than "Not this year."

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Newsflash: Teacher Experience Bolsters Student Success

04 December 2007

Ryan, a/k/a "The School Policy Nerd" over at I Thought a Think, recently posted about the Washington School Funding Taskforce. But there's more over at KOMO 4 news in Seattle regarding findings about what influences student success most: teacher experience or teacher degrees?

Combining the results of 15 studies on teacher pay, the researchers found a dramatic improvement in student achievement between one and five years of teacher experience and a more gradual boost in the years following. Student achievement in these studies was mostly tracked through scores on standardized reading or math tests.

A similar analysis of studies concerning teachers getting graduate degrees found the degrees seemed to have little or no impact on student outcomes.

The report makes a preliminary recommendation that any changes in the way teachers are paid should emphasize financial rewards for experience rather than higher pay for teachers with graduate degrees...

The task force has until early 2009 to make its recommendations, in part because that's when a state court plans to hear arguments on an education funding lawsuit brought by school districts and education organizations across the state.

Researchers at the Washington State Institute for Public Policy are still working on their analysis of the effectiveness of other financial incentives for teachers, such as bonuses for completing a national certification program; proposals for extra pay for teaching in high-poverty, low-performing schools; or higher pay for teaching certain subjects like math and science.

The institute also will study the effectiveness of voluntary all-day kindergarten, smaller classes, professional development for all staff, focused instructional support, and extended day and school year options.

My original reaction was "Duh." in terms of more experience in the classroom leads to be better success for kids. Would it not be true for nearly any job that the more time you spend learning it, the better you get at it? But then I also thought about the "dead wood" teachers that litter classrooms---the ones who have quit learning and growing as professionals. Is there a point where the effect experience has maxes out...perhaps even declines? As for degrees, I also agree that more letters after one's name does not make someone a better teacher.

As it stands now, the state salary schedule for teachers is based on both: experience and education. What's the answer, I wonder. Do we continue to pay beginning teachers paltry salaries because they're not effective yet? Do we continue to have a maximum pay rate, regardless of the number of years a teacher has been in the classroom? As it stands now, someone with 30 years experience makes the same as someone with 16 years experience.

I'm glad Ryan is willing to tape and watch these hearings. I might not be as interested in the small pieces of process that he is, but the outcomes are definitely worth watching.


Blaming the Dog

16 November 2007

A friend of mine has a saying about the school I work at: "They think their shit don't stink...but their farts give them away." True enough, unfortunately---but it's only outsiders who seem to smell anything. Most people at the school think the odor must be coming from elsewhere---they like to blame the dog.

As we ranged through a long list of standards for school performance, evaluating whether or not these were things we do or need improvement, it was amazing to listen to the excuses. For example, they recognized that they don't collaborate "to discuss and share student work and the results of student assessments for the purposes of revising the curriculum and improving instructional strategies." Why don't they do it? Because the district doesn't give them any time.

Um...this is the same school who brags about how they don't use the 90 minutes of time set aside every week for collaborative planning. How can you complain about not having any time and then feel proud that you never meet? They also mentioned that they don't have anyone with data team training. Gosh, I've had that and know how to do it. When would you like to start? Um...we weren't really serious about wanting to do that.

For every item that was identified as needing improvement, there was an excuse for why it couldn't improve. Not once was there any suggestion of personal responsibility---or ideas about how to put a plan into action to solve the problem. I never heard anyone take a student-centered stance and inquire what we should do to help kids. By the end of the meeting, a large cloud of noxious gas was hanging above their heads, but very few teachers seemed to notice anything. I guess you just get used to the smell after awhile.


Spatial Reasoning

10 November 2007

I was recently reminded of the following story via The Big Fresh newsletter:

A child was asked to clean up her room before her mother arrived home from a trip. The girl threw dozens of little items in her toy box---Legos, trinkets, Matchbox cars. She then placed larger items on top---dolls, boxed puzzles, games---only to find that the lid of the toy box wouldn't shut. Her father came in to help, and explained, "You need to take everything out. Always put the largest items in first. The small items will fit around the large items."

If we make the story a metaphor for both space and time in our classrooms, how many of us teachers have our classrooms so full of the small things that the larger ones are pushed out?

I've been thinking about this on two different scales. The first is more of a macroscopic interest take on life, as I try to juggle dissertation, grad school classes, teaching, taking care of the house, and maintaining some semblance of a personal life. I wish I could discretely lump each of those into a category of either "big thing" or "small thing," but I just can't. So much is context dependent. Their relative sizes change with my priorities for the day or week. Do I have anything due for my grad school class? If not, that's a small item for the week. Are my lessons plans done for my classes? Oops, not quite...I guess that makes them something big at the moment.

On a very different scale, I've been working on the big and small of grading. The biggest thing to fit into the box is student learning. I think maybe it always has been The Big Idea, but I didn't treat it as such. Like the girl putting away her toys, I didn't always choose the largest item to put in first. Instead, I got distracted by other things that I thought were big: late work, no retakes on tests, using zeros to punish lazy kids. The reality is that those all represent "small stuff," and I'm just not sweating the small stuff anymore. It isn't to say that academic behaviors aren't important, just that they don't receive the lion's share of my attention. I see a lot of my colleagues frothing at the mouth over late work...and I just think "Why?" Why would I want to expend all that energy fussing over late work? Aren't the kids better served if I use that same time and attention to help them improve their learning? If a student has been sick for several days and grades are due---I can assign them an "incomplete" on the report card instead of inserting zeros as placeholders. Kids can show me their learning when they're healthy and ready to focus.

Some of my colleagues marvel that I'm farther ahead in the book than they are. I shake my head. If the big things in the curriculum are the standards, then those get placed in my classroom first. I understand how tempting it is to want to squeeze in all of the small things of biology first---there are so many great ideas to explore. I just can't do that anymore. First things first: Get the kids ready to meet the standards.

I look around my school and think about what other teachers are choosing as their priorities for time and energy. (One of these days, I'm going to remember to take my camera to school and take pictures of the posters and sayings about grades teachers are putting up. It hurts to read them.) While I can't agree with many of the choices I see being made, I can also recognize that I have had different needs over the course of my career. There's been some ebb and flow in terms of the size of the objects we need to manage within our walls. Our spatial reasoning changes---and hopefully improves---with experience, because I can't believe that the enormity of our task has changed.


Paradigm Plasticity

02 November 2007

I've been thinking a lot about how things are going in the classroom this year, especially in terms of my grading policy. I feel like it much better reflects my values as an educator. As nice as that may be, it's made me also think a bit more deeply about just what it is I really believe as a classroom teacher. If this manner of student evaluation "fits" the paradigm, can I articulate the rest of it? What other things might I be able to do to make my work in the classroom more congruent with these beliefs?

I read somewhere (and on the you know it has to be true) that teachers firm up their classroom patterns by about 6 months into their career. At that point, we've had a chance to test out our philosophies in the cold real world of the classroom. The pieces that survive are the ones we carry with us the longest. Should this be true, I think it a bit sad. I see so many beginning teachers with great idealism about what they're doing. I remember my own sense of wanting to make a difference in the world. The crushing rite of passage that is the first year of teaching made me focus more on the day-to-day management of things. I lost sight of The Big Picture and that hunger to make real change happen. I would think that this sense of disillusionment is what drives any number of teachers out of the profession before five years have past.

The thing is, I'm a very different teacher now than I was 6 months into my career---as one might hope. I'm wondering if paradigms are more plastic than the 6 month mark. Does that sense of idealism lie in wait for us to return and rediscover it? As we accumulate experience, do we become the teachers we originally wanted and intended to be? While I think that this may well be the true for me, I can also think of any number of teachers do not grow and change. By now, they show up to get their paychecks and seem to have lost complete sight of what moved them to the profession at the beginning. There is no motivation to return to that more idealistic philosophy.

This lack of both self-reflection and examination of any cognitive dissonance frustrates me and some other teachers I know. It's disheartening to hear them talk about looking for other work because of the overbearing inertia they encounter at their buildings. No matter how outstanding you are in the classroom with kids, it isn't enough for them. They need an environment of nurturing peers and professionals. You can't bloom where you're planted when the soil is sterile.

I hope that I continue to be malleable enough in my learning and thoughts about education throughout my career. It seems to be a continual search to find and refine those practices which suit the Platonic ideal of the classroom. It may be folly to think that we will ever find our Utopian ideal of a teaching life, but I also don't think it does our students any good service when we become casualties of a concrete philosophy.

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Being the Grown-Up

26 October 2007

I think the teachers I am around have either been around teens so long that they have adopted their habits...or they're just not terribly bright. I'm not sure which prospect is more frightening.

A couple of weeks ago, I asked the other biology teachers if they wanted to work together on some intervention strategies for the sophs. After all, this is the only school in the district where scores in science have declined every year. Perhaps there should be an attempt to do something different in the hopes of getting different results? One teacher told me that she only uses the standards when convenient...another blew me off...and the third told me that he only bothers with WASL prep a month before the test. The third one bothers me in the sense that this is someone who thinks we should teach to the test, which is completely devoid from his curriculum. It's my understanding that, by law, we are required to teach what the state and district identify for us to teach. This is not a new mindset with this school, but at some point, don't you think the teachers would look around and realize that maybe what they're doing isn't working? Does blaming everyone else ever get old and give way to more adult-like reflection?

On Thursday, the science teachers at the other two high schools got together for some collaborative discussion. My school? Not invited to the roundtable. Mind you, this school was the one who had their principal send a note excusing them from every district science meeting last year. I'm not surprised the other high schools have given up on working with the staff. I was surprised at how indignant they were not to have been included. Hey, your poop don't stink, right? What could you possibly learn from others? I think that depriving this school of the right to say that "We don't need anybody." was what really ticked them off. Instead, the precious time to collaborate was spent grading papers, playing fantasy football, washing dishes, or schmoozing---whatever individual pursuits looked most interesting.

It is the end of a long week---which means I'm definitely ready to fuss. My store of optimism has just about hit the "E" mark on the tank.

Instead, I need to accept the good things that did happen. I did a nice little intervention with kids on Wednesday---and it paid off on their tests today. Time will tell if the help sticks in the long term, but the progress is truly jawdropping so far. It's hard for me to understand why other teachers don't want to be the grown-ups in the classroom when the students are waiting for us to mentor them.


Teachers and Kids Say the Darndest Things

17 October 2007

I asked the other teachers in the department who teach biology if they wanted to team up for some "intervention" (Can't we just use remediation?) work with kids. I know that a school in the area has worked things out such that once kids have been identified as able or unable to meet a particular standard, teachers who have the same prep during the same class period team up. One teacher takes all of the students from the two classes who are at standard and does some enrichment...the other teacher takes the remaining kids and does some things to try to get the kiddos up to standard. Seems like a beautiful plan to me.

My collegial inquiry has been met with the sound of chirping crickets. Sigh.

I did have one teacher mention that she just "fits in the standards" where she can and is not really sure about which kids need help. (Perhaps it is not surprising that she is also the one completely mystified by the disparity between the course grades kids earn in her class and their science WASL scores.)

Okay. I get the message. If I want my kids to be able to be successful, there's not going to be any help. It's a good thing for me, then, that my kids are starting to step up to the plate. For example, I had a young man check with me yesterday about the conclusion he had just written for his lab. He said, "I really want to do better with these." Dude. So, of course, I talked to him about what was working well and what needed beefing up. You should have seen the little cheer and dance he did today when he showed me the new and improved version---and I told him it was darned good. Motivated to learn? Almost too good to be true...and definitely the highlight of my week.

Want to read more about what teachers and students? Head on over to this week's Carnival of Education. The Education Wonks have put together a marvelous array of posts.

Watch this space for a special Halloween edition of the Carnival of Education. Be ready to get your spook on!

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Ranting and Raving

04 October 2007

This is the 900th post to Ye Olde Blog. A milestone like this probably deserves some profound reflection, but if you've been hanging around here for any length of time, you know that there is very rarely much in the way of deep thinking to be had. This is a place to put my stuff. The modern version of a cabinet of curiosities. I really try not to be negative here very often. Being an educator means that there are plenty of things to gripe about; but for you, readers, it's not much fun to read about---and it's not respectful of the fact that you have your own problems to deal with. "We know that teaching is damned hard work. What else have you got?"

Sometimes, however, I just can't help myself. And this is one of those times.

I'm working in a school which prides itself on its Newsweek Top 500 high schools in America ranking, but whose science WASL scores have gone down every year. In fact, it's the only school in the district who has lost ground each year. It is also the school which consistently has resisted any attempts at professional development. In fact, they brag about how few meetings that they have. Okay---so I'm not interested in having meetings just for the sake of themselves...but when you have achievement issues, shouldn't you be talking about them? Your AP kids might carry weight with Newsweek, but that is only one-third of your student population. What are your plans for the other 1000 kiddos?

There was actually a meeting today---ostensibly to refine the school improvement goals for the year. The science department, as usual, turned out some really poor work. The consistent lack of student achievement is everyone else's fault. "But our AP kids do so well." At this point, I couldn't resist saying "Maybe that's because the curriculum and instruction for those classes is aligned with the assessment."

This comment went over their heads. One teacher thinks the biology textbook is the curriculum ("I can't possibly cover the standards, because the book is too big.") and all sophomores dumb. Another thinks quality instruction involves notes and a worksheet every day. And the other biology teacher thinks the reason that there's such a disparity between what she does in class and the standards as the fault of the state. None of these teachers has any sense of personal responsibility to the students in their classrooms. What happens there is about the teacher, not the kids. And it's that, more than anything, that angers me.

As much as I would like to rant and rave in front of them, I'm not sure it would do any good. We need common expectations---and high ones---for every student (and for ourselves). We need to work at aligning our curriculum, instruction, and assessment. We need to look at and talk about student work. We need to think about interventions for kids who need support. All of that, however, would require meetings. And for a place which loves to brag about how they don't meet, and instead are determined to show others how little intellectual curiosity they actually have, there is little hope of powerful change happening.

I realized in that meeting that it really didn't matter what the department goals were. All I can do is be the best I can for my kids. Each day, I tell them the targets they're aiming for. I give them feedback on their progress toward those targets as often as possible and provide additional support for kids who need it. I tell each and every one of them that I believe that they can achieve the goals that are set for them. And then I teach and coach and cheer them. Shouldn't that be why we're in the classroom?

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Teacher Leadership

23 September 2007

There are some admins in my district who I think are doing an excellent job. What I like about these professionals is that they have a need to know what is happening inside of classrooms and how best to support the good stuff. They haven't forgotten that sense of wonder and intellectual curiosity that can be nurtured within a classroom---forsaking it for the comforts to be found behind their office doors. These teachers saw a role as administrators as a position to be in to help more children than those in their classrooms.

I know that admins make for easy targets. The fact is, the role has far outgrown what one person should be expected to take on. It is not simply "administrative" any longer: it includes a hefty dose of instructional leadership. Many of the admins who have been in the position since before the shift occurred are either not prepared to play this role in the school...or have no interest in it. Meanwhile, as more teachers see the increasing demands of the admin's job, fewer may see it as an appealing career choice---even if they do wish to increase their influence in supporting students.

Although the concept of teacher leadership is not new, perhaps it is one whose time has come. If it is unrealistic to expect a single administrator to fulfill all of the needs for a school, then why not use the collective staff resources? This month's edition of Educational Leadership is devoted to teacher leaders. It's a great collection of articles about the struggles and rewards of tapping human resources within the school in order to effect change.

Teacher leadership is, of course, also the area of my EdD. It's something I've officially been thinking about and working with for nearly two years. The most common question I am asked is "What are you going to do with your degree?" I don't have a pat answer in mind. The fact is, there appear to be new opportunities all of the time...and I'm trying to be open to them. Should I work at a college or university to better prepare teachers for the rigors of the classroom? Should I work within the context of one of the educational research labs to fine tune what we know (or think we know) about best practices? Work as an instructional/curriculum specialist for a district or school? Do I hit the road as a consultant? Or teach in a public school classroom and work with teachers in my school? What other opportunities might be available to me in a year or five years? For me, the bottom line is the same as it is for many admins, I'll be looking for where I will be able to do the most good for kids.

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Familiarity Breeds Isolation

22 September 2007

A teacher asked me an interesting question this week. He wondered if the willingness to collaborate with peers decreases with years of experience in the classroom. Those first few years, you need all the help you can get. You reach out to others, grab onto any piece of quality curriculum you can steal as if it were a life raft, and do what you can to keep growing in your profession. At some point, however, you have the basics under your belt and have a certain amount of comfort in doing what you do. It grows into an attitude of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Shutting your classroom door to the outside world becomes the norm.

It's an interesting point to ponder. In my experience, I would say that secondary teachers are more prone to becoming independent contractors than their elementary peers. I admit that it's easy enough to do. There's quite the wolfpack baying at the doors of the classroom: concerns from admin, parent issues, community needs, legislative mandates, and more. Why not give in to the temptation to just close one's door and stick with what you know?

I see a couple of problems with this. First of all, the teachers I know who strike this particular attitude also have a good number of unsuccessful students. It doesn't mean that what happens in their classrooms is bad teaching, but it also isn't reaching every kid who needs to learn. I would think that they'd want to expand their repertoire a bit to support children. The second impact is far more problematic in my mind: there are always some teachers who crave a collaborative environment and are being stifled or driven from the profession due to the frustrating lack of community.

I think that those teachers who do maintain that sense of intellectual curiosity for the classroom over the span of their careers are also those who look for opportunities outside of the classroom at one point or another. Some move to administration. Others find different types of leadership opportunities. I believe that their goals are to find ways to make positive change happen and to build the kinds of places where familiarity breeds neither contempt, nor isolation, but real learning for teachers and students.

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