Teaching is a lonely profession. At some point in their career, everyone bemoans the fact that teaching, planning, grading, attending meetings, and tending to bureaucratic necessities leaves little time to reflect on one’s practice, much less to talk to another knowledgeable adult about it. It’s one of the paradoxes of education: to get better at something, you need time to reflect on what you can do to improve, but with so much pressure to show improvement, there’s no time to get real feedback on how to get there.
With that in mind, I was thrilled to see how many English teachers showed up in Orlando last weekend for the annual conference put on by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). Over three days, teachers attended sessions on everything from using Facebook as an instructional tool to helping middle school students talk more deeply about literature, from improving grammar to being mindful of the social justice obligations of English instruction, and everything in between. Teachers had a chance to hear from other successful teachers what was working in their classrooms and also had the opportunity to mingle with principals, instructional coaches, and professionals whose experiences were drastically different from their own. It was an amazing opportunity to learn from each other’s experience and successes—not to mention a chance to be constantly inspired by the good work that’s going on across the nation.
Of course, the teachers who were there had predominantly been supported by their districts. Most needed to take at least one day away from their classrooms to attend; many balanced their time attending sessions and talking to other teachers by day with time spent in their hotel rooms at night, grading the student work that never quite comes to an end. Regardless, for one weekend, the focus was only on being reflective about one’s practice, about doing things better. To me, it seemed double or triple the worth of any district-sanctioned professional development.
So does it seem reasonable to assume that conferences like the annual NCTE conference, events that bring professionals from all walks of the nation together to reflect on their work, are the way education is going to improve? Sort of a grassroots movement that comes from those who are actually implementing change in their classrooms? To me it seems to embody the way change should happen: brought about by those who are most directly involved and knowledgeable about it. Is it possible that this is the way to make sure the important voices in educational change are heard?
Sue Levin is the Executive Director of Stand for Children Oregon.
Last spring, I visited an amazing school in SE Portland – Centennial Learning Center (CLC).
How I got there was ironic. CLC was one of the state’s worst-performing schools, as measured by state test scores. Most of the kids are there because they flunked out or got kicked out of the district’s traditional high school, so the low scores seemed unsurprising.
But CLC’s principal, Jamie Juenemann, asked us to see for ourselves that this is not a failing school. And so, though I was skeptical, we visited. We met with CLC staff and students, where the kids prepare all the meals with vegetables grown in their garden – in between taking core literacy and math classes, and recovering lost credits.
CLC takes kids who’ve hit the end of the road in school and re-orients them toward college. The fact that more than 50% of their students graduate is a small miracle. With so much good happening at CLC, why then was this school on the state’s list? Because based on test scores and 4-year graduation rates alone, this school looks bad.
In fact, 17 of those 18 ‘worst-performing’ schools are high schools – which suggests that calling out low-performing schools is not useful if all we’re doing is blaming the end of the pipeline for what comes out of it.
Instead of asking which schools are failing, we need to ask what are our most effective schools doing right, and how do we promote those practices everywhere?
CLC teaches us a number of lessons.
1. All students can learn when talented and committed educators believe in them. Inside CLC and every successful school is a core of committed professionals who are motivated by a passion for teaching, because they are good at it. In a thriving school, these educators get support, training and tools from principals and district staff who share their mission and values.
Good teachers have no problem taking responsibility for their students’ success. They simply want the rest of us–administrators, parents, community leaders, and elected officials– to be accountable as well. (more…)
Today, November 22nd, has been declared the Day of National Blogging for Real Education Reform. Educators and advocates across the country are sharing their visions for education and their perspectives on the challenges we face.
See the full list of blog posts here: http://coopcatalyst.wordpress.com/2010/10/29/ideas/
Follow the Twitter conversation at #blog4reform.
Spend some time today reading one or two entries or, even better, leave a comment! Share your perspective and have a meaningful conversation about the future of our schools and children.
Let us know what you read. Did you have a favorite post? Did you happen upon a good conversation?
A lot has been said recently about doing away with the tenure system which is said to unfairly protect sub-par teachers. So what then are the benefits of the tenure system? There must be some reason for its existence. I believe that tenure often protects innovation and the passion for teaching that keeps dedicated teachers in the profession. Lack of tenure can make teachers feel obligated to kowtow to every new “researched-based” idea that is being pushed by a district.
Here’s an example. When I was first hired to teach in the early ‘90s my district asked principals to go around to remove all the phonics based reading instruction material from the classrooms. Phonics was out and whole language was in. I was told by the tenured teachers to give up my materials since I was only a temporary employee and could be easily fired. The tenured teachers were going to hide their materials and teach phonics when no one was looking. Of course, today research tells us that phonics and phonemic awareness are keys to learning to read. Apparently, in the 90’s research told us otherwise.
Quality teachers with experience know what works for their students and want a myriad of materials to get the job done. They also know that trends in teaching come and go. What if tenure was eliminated, forcing teachers to teach in ways that they knew were not appropriate to their students? Of course we can question whether educational research with all its issues with outside variables can ever dictate teaching methods. The main point is that there are lots of ways to get our children to grow intellectually.
Some of the most effective teachers I know have balked at the current trend to follow a reading series with fidelity. (Fidelity means plodding methodically through the reading book so all students in the district are exposed to the same core curriculum.) These teachers favor a more right-brained creative way of teaching, or they teach with holistic units, or possibly with real novels. These teachers all have tenure. (more…)
Although I had other clients when I first started with Chalkboard Project in 2005, I knew that my time commitments would need to shift to effectively advocate for the education issues that I truly feel passionately about. But what would that mean for the Fridays that I dedicated to volunteering at my children’s elementary school? Would I need to be there less regularly? Could I do that to the teachers who seemed to have so few parent volunteers and were desperate for assistance? Sue Hildick talked to me about “talking the talk and walking the walk” and encouraged me to find a way to continue with my school involvement. With few exceptions, and some shifting of days, I still dedicate one day a week to the elementary school.
Five years later, my daughter has moved on to middle school and I thought I might again need to revisit my schedule to figure out how to get there and volunteer as well. Would the difference in school hours allow me to work a few hours at each on Fridays? Should I alternate between the two schools from week to week? With the change in legislative workings lead to the previously slow Fridays in Salem being ramped up? Would I go insane trying to do all this?
But wait! Wrong! I found out the middle school did not need me! Maybe some lunchtime oversight assistance or fundraising activities were available, but certainly no classroom work was desired. No homework checking. No reading assistance. No cutting and pasting for bulletin boards.
I am new to this middle school thing, and am feeling shut out. So how am I supposed to know what is going on there? Who are the good kids? Has my daughter fallen into the wrong crowd? Does she wear the clothes she left the house in? Does she take cold lunch and also buy hot lunch? Am I too controlling and should just trust I raised her the right way???
When Chalkboard first began its public engagement, we found that the number one concern among Oregonians when it came to education was not financing, length of day or year, or curriculum – it was lack of parental involvement! So now I wonder what that means….parental involvement in their kids’ lives and in their formation as a person, or parental involvement at the school? Is what Oregonians were really saying was “pay attention to your kids, love them and lead them” more than “go to the school.” I ask each of you, did I miss the meaning behind Oregonians’ disgruntlement and, if so, is there a way schools help resolve this parental involvement problem?
Oregon, as part of a consortium of states, is helping to develop a new assessment system that would align with the Common Core standards. Called the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium, the group received federal funds to develop the new system and provide a model for any state to adopt. The key components the Consortium is working on are:
- the required summative exams;
- optional formative, or benchmark, exams; and
- a variety of tools, processes and practices that teachers may use in planning and implementing informal, ongoing assessment. This will assist teachers in understanding what students are and are not learning on a daily basis so they can adjust instruction accordingly.
The next steps the consortium plans to take include:
- Winter 2010:
- Post user-friendly crosswalk document for CCSS (Common Core) mathematical standards. Assist teachers in comparing new CCSS to current Oregon standards, allowing determination of grade-level movement of content
- Create “packets” with handouts and powerpoints that can be used with district staff in math standards awareness campaign
- Spring-Summer 2010:
- Create statewide implementation team to draft comprehensive implementation blueprint
- Re-examine state policies to ensure alignment with Diploma requirements
For more information about the SMARTER Balanced Consortium, go to: http://www.k12.wa.us/smarter/default.aspx
Do you have questions or comments about the plans for the new assessment system?
Names have been changed to protect the innocent, the delinquent, and the negligent.
My friend, who is a first-year teacher in an Oregon public school, is beginning to get an inkling of the demanding and sometimes absurd dynamics of the classroom. He offers the following insights, and asks you to laugh instead of cry.
1. Assigned seating in rows is the norm for a very good reason. The pedagogy course book suggested arranging students’ desks in groups, to foster the exchange of ideas, and encourage collaborative learning. So why did all the veteran teachers gather and snigger the morning my friend set up this arrangement? It took only five minutes of the first class that day for him to get owned. For a rookie teacher, there’s nothing more dangerous than allowing chatty middle-school girls and surly underachievers to man up in learning-proof pods.
2. Translated, “teacher prep time” means weekends and evenings. My friend’s school can afford to allocate teachers one paid hour a week for team meetings, teacher collaboration and lesson planning. For a new instructor with no lesson plans in pocket, this has meant cancelling the gym membership, staying up late and neglecting all home maintenance except personal hygiene.
3. School lunches have not improved since you were in school.
4. Parents are not always grownups. A fellow teacher was interrupted mid-class by a brusque mom who was delivering a stack of late homework. A quick glance revealed it was not the student who had completed it.
Mom: Here’s Timmy’s late homework.
Teacher: This is not Timmy’s handwriting.
Mom, annoyed, speaking to Timmy: I TOLD you to change the writing.
Mom to teacher: What are you going to do? How are you going to grade him?
Teacher: Well, I can’t grade you because you’re not the student.
Mom: leaves in a huff.
In another incident, the school counselor called home to report to parents that Chad had not turned in school work and was failing multiple classes. This spurred them to action. That afternoon they called those teachers they had numbers for and berated them loudly for their son’s failing grades.
5. Teaching is a lot like parenting in this way: you have to show up, day after day, no matter how blah your mood, what the weather is like outside, or how little sleep you got. You’ll be expected to be prepared and to perform your best for a very demanding audience. Few, if anyone, will thank you. You’ll do it all gladly, for not enough pay, for those moments when you see the light bulbs spark up in young minds.
Waiting for Superman is a powerful reminder that children and parents care about their own education. By choosing to focus on several children and their families, the director Davis Guggenheim translates large data sets about school and child failure into personal stories. The two former elementary teachers, present teacher educators, who attended the film with me, were in tears at its end. (Even this hardened secondary teacher’s eyes were moist!) All three of us are familiar with the statistics, with the arguments of the policy makers, with the demands from our own constituency to send them better prepared teachers; those numbers and demands are never as convincing as seeing the effects of bad policies and unresponsive schools.
And it is just that manipulation of our emotions through the struggles of five students and their search for better schools that worries the film’s critics. They know that tugging on heart strings will get a greater response than, for example, Deborah Meier’s argument in the October 27, 2010 Education Week. She says that, instead of blaming “‘lazy’ teachers and power-hungry unions” (p. 12), Guggenheim might rather illustrate the issues between the wealthy and the poor that allow people like him to escape the public schools. Her exposing an obvious, but still extant, problem is important. It does not, however, resonate as much as hearing the story of Bianca whose mother can no longer afford the small tuition of a Catholic school and hopes the public, free charter school is the answer.
I am a great admirer of Meier and certainly agree that our country’s acceptance of the wealth gap is a disgrace. Her own response to that gap was to start her own successful alternative school in Harlem; she is certainly familiar with the stories in the film. Those stories bring us closer to the problem than any kind of lecture on the problem: poverty, systems’ failures, bad teachers, unions. I often have to counter my student teachers’ comments that a lot of parents just don’t care. These novices reflect the beliefs of some other teachers who, working under demanding circumstances, feel a loss of effectiveness. That loss of self-efficacy often turns into scape-goating – parents are a natural target. This film might work to counteract that response.
Unless….unless we decide to focus on the film’s deficiencies: (more…)
A parent emailed me and four other of her son’s teachers last week. She was concerned about his low grades and requested a meeting with us. In advance of the meeting I asked my colleagues about their experiences with this student, and one commonality stood out — He often is sleepy in class.
At the meeting I asked the parent if she knew how much sleep her son got each night. She did not know. I asked him when he typically goes to bed, and he would say only “late.” I then asked the parent what kind of electronics he has in his bedroom. “Oh, the usual,” she said. “Phone, laptop computer, iPod, television.”
This is an all too typical story in our high schools. Kids will complain that they’re up until all hours doing homework — and for some that is true — but for many the homework is tucked in between texts, facebook postings, downloads and The Daily Show.
It is recommended that teenagers get 8-9 hours of sleep per night, but a 2007 survey published in the Journal of Adolescent Health reveals only 8% of high school students hit that mark. Most sleep 6-7 hours, with 23% regularly getting only 6 hours, and 10% only 5 hours.
The result? A 2006 study by the National Sleep Foundation reports that 1/4 of high school students fall asleep in class. The Foundation adds that “experts” tie lost sleep to poorer grades.
So parents, you want to help boost student achievement? Please make sure your kids are getting proper rest. How will you know if they’re not? The Sleep Foundation says to watch for these signs: (1) Difficulty waking; (2) Inability to concentrate; (3) Drifting in class; (4) Moodiness or depression.
How can you know for certain whether they’re getting enough sleep? Check on them! You are still the parent. If they’re not getting enough sleep, you and your kids may need to make some changes. You may need to limit their activities so they don’t have to be up until 2 am doing homework. And you certainly may need to limit their access to electronics in the privacy of their bedrooms.
Don’t want to be the bad guy? Blame me, the teacher. I’ll take the heat. For their sake.