Ruth Wallin has been an educator for 20 years, teaching at the elementary and middle school levels in many different public school settings. She started her career in Southern California in Long Beach, CA in a district with 86 schools and then moved to a small four school district in the San Francisco Bay Area. She taught for many years in job-share positions that let her teach part-time while raising her three kids. Currently, she teaches in the North Clackamas School District. Ruth has a BA from Stanford University, and will soon have a Master’s from Lewis and Clark College.
I know I have been in the teaching profession for a while because the pendulum is swinging back to where I started: the ‘90s. Just like a greatest hit, overplayed, buried and then resurrected, project-based learning (PBL) is seeing its resurrection. Project-based learning has been around for a while with a bulk of research done on its powers of motivation and higher level thinking done in the ‘80s. With the testing craze and research-based programs of the recent past, PBL was mostly shelved.
Unfortunately for today’s young people, PBL is what American kids needed all along. Recent technological innovations have made rote knowledge and the specific skill tasks demanded by our recent curricula almost obsolete. Now we can ask our phone what the capital of Delaware is or how many ounces are in a pound. What we can’t get from our phones are skills dished up in PBL.
PBL involves working with others to solve a relevant problem. There are skills to learn along the way, but the objective is a polished and presented product. Rolled into the project is the ability to work with others, discern what information is valid, and the critical thinking needed to solve a complex problem. (more…)
Education reform is well-meaning but does not always further teachers’ ability to teach. I would like to put forth a shopping list of teacher needs. Our primary need is to add back our lost funding, because our students are slipping through the cracks as programs are cut, and class sizes burst at the seams. Oregon teachers need to work in schools where the focus is not on cutting resources.
Secondarily, we need:
- Restore lost teaching days, and give us a longer school year. It’ll be interesting to see the results of Chicago’s experiment with a longer school year, but I bet more hours in school will mean greater learning gains.
- Limit the amount of time that we have to do administrative work like data entry. In Japan, teachers teach longer hours and have assistants who grade and do production work. We used to have instructional assistants that would handle some of this, but cuts to personnel and increased demands at the top for accountability through data collection has cut into our time to plan quality instruction. (more…)
Despite lots of change in the world of standards and teacher expectations, there are many classroom teachers who in the past could fit new standards into the same projects and lessons they have assigned year after year. These teachers seemed impervious to change. However, change is here for all teachers, and it is not coming from policy makers; it’s coming from technology.
It used to be that technology was something available to a few students and lurked on the fringes of things happening in the classroom. That’s the case no longer. For example, my district has adopted Google Apps. Every student district wide has an account and stores his or her work in the cloud. Students can share their work and collaborate with anyone in the district. This bit of technology has revolutionized what’s happening in my classroom. Collaborative project work is easy and writing and reading are more social. My students keep book logs with reviews that they share electronically with their peers. No more book reports that are handwritten, graded and recycled. Doing work that has a purpose motivates kids. (more…)
I have yet to meet my student teacher but I know already that she will be enthusiastic, ready to learn and most likely ignorant about the realities of the teaching profession. I know that sounds a bit pessimistic, but the reality is classes about teaching are not the same as teaching. I also fear that my help won’t provide all that she needs to hit the ground running as a polished professional in her first year teaching. In order to become someone my district classifies a “distinguished teacher,” it takes experience on the job. The worry is that we are not training teachers well enough to even survive their first few years, let alone become experts.
My student teacher will be doing something different than usual and I’m excited to see if it will be more intensive and a bit more extensive than what is usually required. In past years, the teacher candidate observes a classroom a couple of times a week for 3 weeks and completes small tasks leading up to developing and delivering a unit of study (work sample) that involves pre-assessment, 10 lessons and post-assessment. Often this work sample is a content-based topic such as animal life cycles or the moon. Once the work sample is done, the candidate rushes back to the college campus to complete classes. (more…)
Summer is here. That’s when millions of teachers hit the beach! Well, not really. Actually, many of us hit the keyboard or sign up to take classes about technology. I took an iPad class with 31 other teachers last week. As my husband said, “What is so hard about using an iPad that you need to take a class?” We don’t take the class because the tool is hard; we take it because the technology is so easy that we need to learn how to best use the tool in the classroom. It’s too easy to put an iPad in the hands of a kid and let them dink around in the unfocused tech world.
We teachers are scrambling to use time wisely since we have fewer instructional days and more to cover. New technologies are likely to change our teaching emphasis from passively taking in information to actively producing evidence of newfound knowledge. iPads are like covering broccoli with cheese sauce; they are a sneaky way to lure kids into doing what is best for them. The focus of technology in the classroom should be to raise education to a higher intellectual endeavor: that of using knowledge to experiment and create. Creative citizens who can focus on problems and devise ways to solve them are key to our economic health. Using iPads is an itty-bitty step to achieving a broader goal. (more…)
The pinch in the state budget has made the teaching profession the subject of much criticism. I often hear about how my benefits, pay, and retirement are devastating state services. Recently, someone in business asked me if I was a Tier 1 PERS employee. She said she could ask me that because I “worked for her.” She also mentioned that I needed to realize that my summer vacation and my 8-3 job are courtesy of all the hard workers in the private sector. Ouch! I thought, if someone is willing to say that to my face, many others are probably thinking it.
I think this attitude is a product of the fact that many people think they know what a teacher does all day. After all, everyone went to school, many have kids in school and some even volunteer in schools. Some vocations are veiled in mystery. What is a day in the life of a market analyst like? What does an investment banker do? The mystique often seems to deflect questions about huge pay, bonuses and tax breaks. We all know what teachers do, and because it seems so straightforward, the profession is an easy target for those who think educators are overcompensated. (more…)
It’s times like these that I really miss my media specialist. A lot has changed at my school and the rock that used to ground me and set me on a steady course was the media specialist. I’m not saying that she could settle the budget, solve discipline issues or reduce class sizes, but when I was puzzled about what book to recommend to a reluctant reader, or needed resources for a unit I was about to teach, I had a consultant on hand. Even more importantly, she provided technology experience and savvy that helped me integrate technology into my lessons.
What we used to label librarians are now media specialists; part tech geek, part bookworm, part cheerleader. Students seek them out when they can’t find the right book to read or the right information on the web. Media specialists teach critical research skills to students in the computer lab and in the library—skills like, how to tell if a website is the most effective way to learn about a topic, how to question the authenticity of information, and how to access general resources available to kids as they explore the vast and ever increasing world of information.
When it first came out in 2001, I, like most teachers, saw NCLB as a direct threat to public education. The day after the Obama presidential election, there was a movement afoot among teachers in my building to print out ESEA/ NCLB and have a burying ceremony in the school garden. Our ceremony never came to fruition, and neither did the immediate revision of the act that has all but buried educators.
The problem with NCLB was its reliance on one test to judge the quality of schools. The judgments were harsh and extreme; they ranged from mandatory tutoring, to closing schools. There were no funds provided to mitigate poor programs. If politicians really had student success in mind, there would have been more money to help struggling performers, or, the measure would have targeted individual student progress over time. The punitive nature of NCLB focused on what we in teaching try to stay away from: motivation through threats.
I like to ask my fourth graders what college they are planning to attend. Of course, they think I’m asking them if they are a Duck or a Beaver. I am really serious about this though. Kids and parents need to know that some sort of post high school education is the goal for all Oregon kids.
This economy has taught us all that education is vital. Economists can debate whether current unemployment is cyclical, a downturn that will rebound, or structural, a result of a tipping of economic needs away from low skilled labor to the need for a more educated workforce. Whatever the case, the jobs of the future will require more advanced math skills and the ability to quickly master new skills. We can’t have kids think that ending their education after high school is an option that will lead to future financial security.
Since post secondary education is a necessity, I like to peruse the web in search of what college prep schools are doing. What are charter school expectations? What are elite schools doing for their students? I checked in with the Dalton School (NYC) to see what their fourth graders will be doing. The Dalton School has a $38,000 price tag and 60 staff for approximately 350 students. It may sound unfair but graduates from these schools will be competing with my students to get into top colleges. Their 4th graders have an hour and half of homework a night and an extensive reading list. We should expect our public school kids to have the same. We should also expect families to realize this new reality and do what it takes to support a more vigorous program and to expect their child to attend college.
In looking further I found charter schools in low income areas with graduates in elite colleges. This week the New York Times reported about efforts in Houston public schools to replicate effective charter schools like KIPP and Harlem Children’s Zone where a high percentage of graduates head to college (“Troubled Schools Try Mimicking the Charters” Sept. 6).
I really appreciate these charters for showing us what is possible. It’s too easy to look at impoverished neighborhoods and think that kids there can’t make it at competitive colleges. With concerted effort effective charter schools are cranking out the productive citizens of the future from some of the least productive neighborhoods.
In the article the author cited the 5 common policies of effective charters.
- longer school days and years;
- more rigorous and selective hiring of principals and teachers;
- frequent quizzes whose results determine what needs to be retaught;
- “high-dosage tutoring”;
- and a “no excuses” culture.
The policies that public school teachers like me can control are limited. Without more support staff, high dosage tutoring is out. Without a better funding structure we are severely limited in the amount of instructional time we can give kids. For example, KIPP kids typically get twice as much math instruction as public school kids. Even the Texas schools mimicking the model of KIPP fell short by 300 hours of instructional time (50 6 hr school days).
My colleagues and I are working hard to tailor instruction to meet individual needs through data collection and targeted standards-based instruction. Along with this comes a beefed-up “no excuses” culture.
Teachers will continue to look at research and mimic what works. Meanwhile, we’ll look to the citizens of this state to fill in the other requirements on the list. How will we provide more instructional time? How will we mobilize tutors to target failing students? When will we start showing kids in Oregon that they are important, and give them the tools they need to make college an attainable goal?
I love reform. I’m excited that as a state and nation we are looking at making changes to public education. But sometimes in moving forward, it’s good to look back.
I’ve been moved to look back at my earlier career by the publicity around Jose Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and product of the California middle school where I taught. I’ve been thinking about the Jose days (mid-90s) and the staff and organization of that school. Of course, he is only one student, but there were many new immigrant kids who did quite well there. So what were we doing there that worked?
One thing that we did have was lots of faculty communication across the grade levels. I taught an intense and rigorous program partly because it was jointly developed by all the teachers on the 5th grade team. We met every Wednesday during prep, opened our plan books and shared. As a 5th grade teacher in a 5-8th grade school, I was reminded in staff meetings and in passing about where kids needed to be in order to be successful in later grades. There was a mindset that we were preparing kids for college. It helped that we were a Silicon Valley school sitting in the shadow of Yahoo, Netscape and SGI, where innovation and hard work were cultural norms in the neighborhood.