On the Shoulders of Giants
I've been on a bit of a writing hiatus this month while I charge through the first month of school. It's been a great year so far, and I'll be writing more about why in subsequent posts. I first want to shout out two amazing posts by my TLN colleagues.
ONE. If you haven't checked out Jose Vilson's post, How Jay-Z Can Help Us Remix Education, run to Edweek to check it out. As someone who has followed Jay-Z's music and career since his debut almub, Reasonable Doubt, I too have noticed that, wow, he's the only guy from that era still really in the hiphop game as a current artist. What has he done to remain current, influential, and a leader in his field? Jose analyzes that, and points out that he has become more than "just" a rapper. He's become successful and influential in several other arenas, and at the same time, he hasn't stopped being a rap artist. Jose makes an apt comparison to the concept of the teacherpreneur that the co-authors of Teaching 2030 and I put forth in the book and other places.
TWO. Education Nation came and went this past Sunday and I was busy grading, planning, and catching my breath. I did not even tune in at all, partly because of how busy I was, and partly because of what a disappointment it had been for me last year. I was there in person at Rockefeller Center last year and just left feeling used (blogged about it here and here). This year, it sounds like NBC put on a more balanced program, with space for more thoughtful contributions by teachers and less dramatics. But that's not the end of the story. If you have not read Anthony Cody's post at Living in Dialogue analyzing the circular logic of Melinda Gates' statements about her organization's research, you absolutely must.
Cody points out that, while Melinda Gates asserts that we need multiple measures of effective teaching, she goes on to explain that her research is looking at only those measures (forms of peer observation and student feedback, to name a few) that correlate to higher test scores at the end of the year. In other words, what do teachers whose students get high test scores do, and how other than testing, can we measure this same outcome? The problem is that with this model of "multiple measures" all roads are leading toward a single measure--high scores on a narrow and imperfect test, which may have little to do with success in the world students must navigate as adults. As Cody points out, the notion that standardized tests measure the skills that will matter for students in their adult lives remains unproven. Again, you must read his piece on this and decide for yourself whether we are moving in a good direction.
[image credits: Cody at blogs.edweek.org Vilson at november-group.com]
They say teachers must have eyes on the back of their heads. This is definitely true on some level, and there are some very obvious, but not necessarily intuitive, tricks to get close to this reality--close enough that you might actually hear your students say, "What, do you have eyes on the back of your head or something?!"
You can't really be in charge if you don't see what happens. In our ideal classroom, we could probably turn our backs and business would continue as usual. But, especially in the beginning, and especially with middle schoolers, this is pretty unrealistic. It is key to figure out how to always keep your eyes on the class.
Train yourself to move around the room so that you can see the entire class in your peripheral vision. This sometimes means not taking the most direct route to a student's table, but walking around all the desks to end up next to the student. If you sit down at a table with a group for a few minutes or a work period, it is worth making sure your seat is facing the rest of the class. (Think of yourself as the gangster who insists on a seat in the restaurant where his back is to no one.) I'll even ask a student to switch seats with me so I can have the one where I can see the class.
In your front board/teaching space, try to have your handouts and the basic supplies you might need so you don’t have to walk to your desk or a closet during class to get something. Have students pass things out while you watch. When you circulate around the room, adjust your traffic pattern to maintain the most possible students in your line of vision.
I'm sharing this because it's so obvious and easy to do, you might miss it. I know I did, until somewhere in the middle of the year, I was helping students work in groups with my back to most of the class. Thankfully, my mentor pulled me aside and said, "You should try sitting over there." She pointed to the space across from where I had been. "So you can watch the rest." After that, I was always aware of my positioning. Sometimes, I get comfortable with a class and allow some blind spots. That never lasts long, though.
While kids don’t really know or appear to care that you’re walking the long way or are very particular about which seat ou sit in, they do notice when you don't keep watch. In fact, there are always a few students waiting for those very moments ;) For their sake, and everyone else's, better to always be watching.
[image credit: facebook.com]
It's now official. Parents are asking me if they can buy their kids Kindles, Nooks, etc, so students can do their reading and their post-it note responses electronically! On the one hand, I love it! I am so happy this day is finally here.
Four years ago I discovered the Kindle. I showed an Amazon promotional video to students and they were stunned. I asked them to write on the questions, "How would school be different if every student had a Kindle?" They wrote thougtfully about the effects this invention could have on student's organization and motivation. Although it was a plausible scenario, it presented as a futuristic dream. It amazed me that year after year I could recycle the assignment and still, it was a pie-in-the-sky vision.
Last year one or two students read books on their ipod touches. I found it easier to review post-its, because you can view all "notes" at once without having to flip through the pages searching for the notes. You can still refer back to the page the student is commenting on to better understand the student's thinking. The students who did this were such voracious readers I didn't worry that they'd be on the internet. I passed by their tables a few times to check and never had an issue.
Now that E-readers are becoming more available and commonplace, I couldn't be happier about it. I do have to figure out what changes I will need to make to accommodate them in the classroom. Clearly, E-readers that have internet and games on them such as Ipads and the new Nooks pose new opportunities for distractions. There may also be organizational changes to the structures around reading I use, which I designed over the years with real-paper books.
Perhaps the changes will make new fertile territory for student writing--no longer a fanciful exercise, I could truly use students' advice on how to make E-readers work in my program!
[image credit: impactlab.net]
Today one of my tasks was to create an assessment calendar for the year. This is a plan for mandatory benchmark and interim assessments to track my students' abilities to perform on distinct sections of the NY State ELA exam throughout the year. There are three major sections of the test, which we track separately through interims and all together in benchmarks: (1) reading & multiple choice, (2) listening and written response, and (3) reading and written response.
I don't really have a problem with giving any one of these assessments. After all, my school has a mandate to raise students' profiency levels, as measured by this test, and we need to do all we can to make sure our students are able to be successful on the it. The standards being assessed are all important--supporting an answer to a question with evidence, identifying literary devices and so forth.
My problem comes when I look at this schedule of assessments as a whole: its effect on my teaching and what it suggests to students about what matters in their learning. Between a September diagnostic benchmark, quarterly interims on each section, and a winter and spring benchmark, at least a day of class almost every month must be devoted to test practice, and hours of time to creating the tests, grading them, and analyzing the data.
Since my time is not unlimited, this means that I do less grading and assessment of other types of tasks and skills. In fact, these standardized-style assessments are the only ones I'm responsible for collecting data on regularly. Of course, I can maintain my usual classroom assessment practices, just with a bit less time and encouragement to focus on them.
So... what's wrong with that? What's to say that standardized assessments aren't sufficient or even superior to teacher-created authentic assessments, being somewhat more objective and performed without any help from the teacher or other students? Aren't we getting a more accurate reading of what students have learned in a standardized assessment? That depends what we are interested in measuring.
Standardized test questions assess students' skills out of context. This is what makes them more objective and simpler to grade. However, in life, the ability to apply skills to a specific context is extremely valuable--more so today, it turns out, than one's ability to perform a task in isolation. Daniel Pink makes this point in his landmark book, A Whole New Mind, which warns that machines and cheaper labor forces overseas are taking over tasks that can be done out of context, through standardized methods. The jobs that remain for Americans demand that we apply our skills through the filters of sound principles, careful judgements and decision-making, empathy, cross-cultural competence, creativity and ever-increasing self-awareness.
It's a complicated world out there, and changing every day. "Mastering" skills in isolation is sort of like learning to sail a boat without going out on the water. I don't have a problem with any one day on my official assessment calendar or any one skill assessed. I usually find it interesting to see how kids do and track their progress. But in privileging standardized-type assessments over authentic ones--which is happening all over the country, wherever the stakes are high for the scores--I suspect we are missing the forest for the trees. And, unfortunately, it's the kids who will lose.
[image credit: nasa.gov]
Cornel West published an interesting Op Ed in the NY Times called, "Dr. King Weeps From His Grave," provoked by the memorial to Martin Luther King which was originally scheduled to be dedicated today on the National Mall (now postponed due to Hurricane Irene). West argues that, although the election of Barack Obama is a significant culminating event in the struggle that King embodied, our country is so far from the dream King really fought for that he would surely weep if he could see us now.
Well worth the read, West outlines the four ills that King feared would send our country "to hell": racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. He posits that for the last 30 years, our country has become increasingly entangled in these ills. West suggests that we have taken King's dream far too lightly, celebrating only that which we find convenient. He concludes,
"King’s response to our crisis can be put in one word: revolution. A revolution in our priorities, a re-evaluation of our values, a reinvigoration of our public life and a fundamental transformation of our way of thinking and living that promotes a transfer of power from oligarchs and plutocrats to everyday people and ordinary citizens."
When I read these sentences, I can't help thinking about our public education system. Decisions are made and change is enacted in a top down manner. Our hierarchical system holds policy makers, text book and testing companies, and wealthy philanthropists at the highest level. Down the ladder we have school leaders, then teachers...and finally students are on the lowest rung, where they have the least voice and control over their education.
I'd like to see this flipped on its head. The most important and valuable transactions of our education system happen for students in the classroom, under the leadership of teachers, and in partnership with parents. The individuals directly involved in these transactions should be envisioned at the top of the chart--representing the big idea of education. Supporting these moments daily are school leaders. Further removed from the big idea are district, state and national policy makers and other interested characters who play limited supporting roles in the education of children.
My point is not to dismiss non-teachers who care about education. But I am saying that the people we currently hold at the ground level--students, teachers, and by association, parents--are the ones who matter most. And our democracy depends on their ability to engage, think for themselves and thrive. Actually listening to these individuals and allowing them some decision-making power, however, is probably nothing short of revolutionary.
Even flattenning or flipping power dynamics at the classroom level is simpler to talk about than do. Giving students decision-making power in their learning is something I'm very interested in and have been working on a long time, but it goes against the grain of much that we traditionally hold dear in education.
Consider these daily actions of the teacher:
- setting objectives
- setting the agenda
- creating materials
- deciding on assessment criteria
- deciding on the assessment format
- deciding how much time tasks should take
- deciding who can speak and when
- deciding what is fair & weilding rewards and consequences
These actions are generally considered sound teaching practices (although I'm against most rewards and punishments). However, if we want to change the power dynamics in classrooms and the experiences students have in their schooling, we have to consider transfering some of our power (which is mostly decision-making power) to students. Some teachers do this, but I think the majority of teachers feel a mix of skepticism and fear about it.
Education policy makers and other players that are removed from the classroom probably feel the same skepticism and fear when they think of granting teachers real decision-making power. It's time to examine these fears and consider the results of the hierarchical structures in education and throughout our country. We have a democracy where the public is so disengaged that at least 50% of citizens don't even bother to exercise their one obvious tool of power: their vote. Close to the same number drop out of high school.
Much is going wrong in our great country, and King called it decades ago. Cornel West says we will need to put our lives on the line to turn the ship around. Is there anything else that could lead to the dramatic change we need? And could anyone agree on anything long enough to actually see a "battle" through?
I learned something about myself this past week, back at school full time, preparing for the year (no students yet). After a wonderful summer with plenty of relaxation, sleeping late, time outdoors and cooking, I was back in a fixed work schedule. I had to wake up early, but I did not go to sleep earlier.
By the end of the week, I was in an entirely different place, personally, than I had been 5 days before. I enjoyed the work quite a lot and pushed through the days on little sleep, but when I went home, I felt irritable. I noticed myself getting upset over uncontrollable or unimportant things like the traffic or which fork my partner put next to my plate at the dinner table. I knew that as my mind rushed to focus on meaningless negative points, I was missing more important or interesting things. What happened to the glorious summer energy I'd been relishing?
The change was dramatic and, yet, not wholly unfamiliar. Then it dawned on me. This is me on 6 hours of sleep every night. I have met this version of myself on many a school-day as the year presses on and I go through stretches of longer and longer hours. This is not the person I want to be, nor is it the person my loved ones want to be around--nor is it the person my students should be learning from.
Never was this lesson so swiftly and clearly handed to me. The takeaway, of course, is that it is essential to get enough sleep to be at your best. Going a step further, though, I think it has special ramifications for teaching, and they're not just about sleep. The person you are matters in the classroom. In teaching, I'm constantly negotiating relationships with 100 adolescents. And as their teacher, every little thing I do sends a message to them that influences their development.
I'm human and allowed to err--actually a valuable part of being a role model for kids is making mistakes, admitting it, and modeling how to recover and learn from them. But I do not want my students to be learning from a version of me that is far from my best, which is what happens when I teach without taking care of myself. My decision-making ability and discernment is not as good when I'm running on low fuel, and, especially since I run a responsive classroom, my pedagogy is inevitable weaker when I am weaker.
The solution sounds easy--go to sleep earlier. Not such a problem now, before the year really starts, but it sure get difficult as the work piles on. Other things have to change to allow me to consistently go to sleep earlier. I will have to work more efficiently during some times, and rearrange my priorities at other times. I'm still working on how to make this happen (more coming soon organizing my time), but this year, one of my professional goals will be to take better care of myself personally. I can call this a professional goal because part of being a teacher is being a person in relation to my students. I'm at a place in my teaching where I have some pretty sound methods, structures, and curriculum. What I want to develop more fully is who I am, how I feel, and what I project as I implement my plans on a day to day basis.
[image credit: clipartof.com]
It sounds like the complaint of a jaded adult: Kids these days are narrow-minded and just not as creative as they used to be...Experts say creativity is innate, so it can't really be lost. But it needs to be nurtured.
I remember when I was entering my first teaching position, seven years ago, a colleague mentioned that "kids today lack creativity." I totally disagreed and thought she was selling the students short. I did, in fact, find the students to be quite creative--I also made it a priority to build a classroom that fosters creativity and critical thinking and paid the state test little to no mind until the week before.
This article reports that scores on several tests of creativity have been decreasing, while SAT scores have been increasing. The writers conclude that the focus on testing throughout kids' schooling, which teaches kids that there is only one right answer, is suppressing creativity and divergent thinking in Americans.
Some may be put off by Superintendant John Kuhn of Texas calling out politicians directly, and flipping the notion of "failure" on its head. But he is right, and his conviction is inspiring. (See the VIDEO of his speech BELOW.) His points reveal in a timely way an inconvenient truth in education and politics right now. NCLB, Race to the Top, and other policies that use high stakes tests to assign value to students, teachers and administrators do one thing really well: they create an even stronger disincentive for teaching in high needs schools than do the difficult working conditions that have always existed in underresourced schools--the imminent threat of being labelled unacceptable or ineffective by one narrow standradized test given on one day in a year, the results of which correspond more closely nation-wide to socio-economic status than any other factor. They create the same disincentive to learn for such students.
These are tests that ELL's in NY State, who have been in the country for only one year, must take and pass, or be labelled failures, along with their teachers and schools. If your job was on the line, would you choose to work with ELL's? (See the end of this recent post for my own story on this.) If you were an ELL, how would you feel about studying for and taking that test? Would you want to work with students who come to middle school unable to read--if you knew that even if they improved by 3 "grade levels" (which are arbitrary designations as it is), their progress would likely not even show up on a seventh grade test, because they moved from a "kindergarten" to a "2nd grade" reading level, and this progress would be labelled unacceptable? If you were that child, would you want to come to school to prepare for that test?
The heroes, Kuhn says, are the teachers who continually choose to teach these students, despite the threats and labels (and do not take the low road of cheating). The failures, he argues, are politicians who allow the poverty to continue.
Kuhn is right when he says that we are replacing real educational opportunity with the idea of "accountability." It's not that teachers do not want to be held accountable for the job of teaching. It's that this particular system of top-down acountability serves to systematically label the poorest children and those who teach them failures rather than building them up in response to their actual needs. These policies also take the attention away from the politicians whose job it is to address poverty and equality, placing the onus entirely on teachers, who make an easy target. Furthermore, through increasing teacher turnover in high poverty communities by favoring untrained itinerant teachers over experienced career teachers, these policies contribute to the instability in poor communities. I have seen this with my own eyes so many times here in NYC.
Watch Kuhn's speech at the Save Our School March and see what you think.
[image credit: under30ceo.com]
I'm realizing once again, but in a new light, that it's not enough for teachers to simply strive to be great teachers inside our classrooms. In fact, I doubt it's even possible anymore in many teaching contexts. There is deep and widespread misunderstanding of what our work is about and what it entails. This misunderstanding, confounded by other, separate, factors and interests--such as privatization, a failing economy, a widening gap between wealthy and poor--is leading to policies that do not support great teaching and healthy youth.
My mentor from Bank Street College passed me a recent article called "Targeting Teachers," by Stanford Professor David Labaree, published in Dissent Magazine, which was very helpful to me in breaking down the roots, nature and some of the effects of the misunderstanding of teaching. Labaree first puts in historical context the current drive to find a "simple and statistically sound" measure for effective teaching (value added measures of test scores being the predominant answer to the quest right now). While he says it's perfectly understandable, he does believe it is justifiable. Labaree writes,
"The problem with this approach is that teaching is an extraordinarily complex and demanding form of professional practice whose quality is impossible to capture accurately in a simple metric. The push to develop such a metric threatens to reduce good teaching--and good education--to whatever produces higher scores on a standardized test. As a result, the value-added measure of teacher quality may end up promoting both the wrong kind of teaching and the wrong kind of schooling."
He then explains the core characteristics of teaching are that make it so difficult to measure in a way that is rarely heard anywhere. For that reason, I'm doing a bit of summarizing here, though the entire article is really worth reading.
First, he talks about the fact that students make choices in the classroom--the choice to learn or not to learn. No one can force a child to do anything. The teacher's job includes figuring out what motivates large numbers of individuals with their own interests, experiences, thoughts, feelings, and senses every day.
Then he points out that students are compelled to go to school by various outside pressures, instead of choosing to go. And if they do choose to go, many do not choose to go based on "a burning desire to learn in the formal classroom." Teachers have weak disciplinary tools at their disposal and are hugely outnumbered by students. So, he explains, "Teachers need to develop a teaching persona to manage the relationship with their students." He describes this persona as being "highly personalized and professionally essential" in how it looks and what it needs to accomplish. He correctly notes that we want kids to look forward to seeing us, also to fear getting on our bad side and our "teacher look", and find our enthusiasm for our subject infectious.
Finally, Labaree argues, "Teachers need to carry out their practices under conditions of high uncertainty." There are so many different ways to teach that meet basic professional standards, and there are many different outcomes we care about--short term, long terms, fact-based, idea-based, intellectual, interpersonal, creative, physical, etc. Also uncertain is who is the client for teachers--students, parents, society, or the school board who signs the teacher's contract? He adds,
"As a society, we are not of one mind about what individual and social ends we want schools to produce. If we can't agree on ends, how can we determine if a teacher was effective or not? Effective at what? One goal running through the history of American schooling is to create good citizens. Another is to create productive workers. A third is to provide individuals with social opportunity. These goals lead schools in conflicting directions, and teachers can't accomplish them all with the same methods."
The article goes on to explain that while teaching is very difficult, it can look easy to the public. Some of his reasons are that it is seen as "an extension of child-rearing" which doesn't require professional training. Also, everyone has been through school, so thinks they know about teaching. The knowledge and skills K-12 teachers teach are skills all competent adults have, so "the impression of ordinariness is hard for teaching to shake...As a group teachers are too visible to be inscutible and too numerous to be elite...They don;t have the distance, obscurity, and selectivity of the high-status professiona...Everyone is an expert on education, except the educator."
I could really quote this entire article. This weekend, the teachers and education advocates who participated in the Save Our Schools March in Washington D.C. responded in an organized way to the policies which grossly misunderstand our students' needs and the nature of our work. The art installations are particularly telling--one that showed 50 boxes, each with a doll inside it, and covered in multiple choice bubble sheets, and another that showed tombstones of creativity, imagination, and critical thinking, and other capacities that are being suppressed by an across-the-board emphasis on a bottom line of increasing students' scores on standardized, high stakes tests.
I'm left wondering, can our work be measured at all? How much of a need is there really to measure teacher effectiveness? If it is a necessity (or even just a curiosity) why are non-educators crafting these measures? The level of understanding the public and/or politicians have of the nature and complexity of teaching must increase. OR it could become irrelevant whether those outside the profession truly understand our work if teachers were actually in charge of our own profession.
Check out this interview by California NPR news station KalNews, Anthony Cody, one the founding organizers of the SOS March taking place in Washington DC tomorrow. Here he breaks down the negative consequences of the education reforms began by No Child Left Behind and continued, actually "intensifed" he argues, by the current U.S. Department of Education. It is a very worthwhile 10 minute listen.
I appreciate his clarity and detail in describing how exactly, over around 10 years' time, conditions in schools have changed, the content and ways children learn have changed, and the conditions of the teaching profession and teacher turnover rates have worsened. He describes the narrowing of the curriculum, which has become a buzzword and is starting to lose its meaning. However, as a high school science teacher he makes it concrete: kids came to him with less and less science knowledge because schools had prioritized ELA and Math.
At the end of the interview, he describes an initiaitive he was a part of years ago and a high needs Oakland public school, where teachers were given time to collaborate, conduct lesson studies together, read books together, and generally learn and support one another as professional teachers. He says during these years, his school retained 100% of its teachers--something that is pretty rare in high need urban schools, and something that is even more important there, where there is so much instability in students' lives and their communities due to poverty and its effects. When the punitive measures of NCLB came, this school was labelled failing for reasons associated with test scores. Schools were encouraged to replace teachers, and the thriving teaching community and its progess came to a halt.
I can offer an almost identical story. In my first school in East Harlem, a high need middle school serving a large population if ELL's and students with special needs, we were developing a teaching community similar to the one Cody describes. Through a partnership with Bank Street College, teachers in our bilingual academy were given time to work on intredisciplinary curriculum, read and discussed relevant child development research together, and began to support one another in our common work with students. (This was in contrast with the usual top-down "professional development" mandates.)
We saw a huge improvement in teacher retention during those years, and in our floor, which was a subset of the larger school, we actually saw a significant spike in student test scores. However, the entire school was still labelled failing. Our principal needed to take measures to improve test scores across the board, due to the pressure from punitive NCLB policies.
One of the measures was to close the bilingual academy. ELL's were too "costly"--not financially, but in terms of how their test scores usually looked and the consequences these posed for the school as a whole. The laws had recently changed and ELL's were expected to pass the state ELA and Math tests after just one year in the country. Because of this change, the school stopped offering its transitional bilingual program and with this change replaced many staff members. Teacher turnover that year was huge, and I was among the leavers. It was sad. I had loved working there with those students and colleagues, and the closing of the academy remains a huge loss.
[image credits: marketplace.publicradio.org, schoolsmatter.info]