On the Shoulders of Giants
This year, I've gotten more hands-on experience with standardized assessment. At my school, we give students practice state ELA Benchmark tests in September and February. The official state ELA exam is in May. Throughout the year I've had to create regular interim assessments that are similar in format and content to specific sections of the state test to monitor the students' progress.
Last week I gave a Reading Interim, in which I pulled only fiction passages and their corresponding multiple choice questions from a previous year's state exam. Because we've been reading and studying fiction all year, I was hoping to see some growth.
I was heartened to see that, in fact, after tons of work all year on reading and responding to fiction literally, inferentially and critically, my students made serious growth in their ability to answer multiple choice questions on random fiction passages correctly! (The class average jumped up about 30 points since September) I would not say that I have been "teaching to the test" much at all this year in terms of how I've approached reading instruction and literature studies. I now have some data that shows that my students' authentic learning in reading has been able to translate to improved performance on a standardized test. PHEW!
Figuring out how to get useful data has taken a lot of time. I've learned to use SchoolNet, a program that allows me to create tests and link every test item to a state standard, electronically grade multiple choice questions, and collect and view the scores in a variety of ways. I can also create short answer or extended response questions; I just assign a point value for the question and bubble in a score for those questions on each student's test.
In addition to learning the program, it turns out that learning to select or write your own test questions that will yield useful data is another skill I've had to work on. For example, in order to get an accurate picture of how well students seems to be doing on one standard, you need several questions that are tied to that standard. Otherwise, you may have a "bad" question--either too easy, too hard or unclear--and draw a false conclusion about students' mastery of a standard based on one invalid question.
My first set of data was not particularly useful because I only had one or two questions on each standard and couldn't conclude much from them. I also miscalculated the timing of the test. I did not give students enough time, so many of them didn't complete the last two questions, which would result in a score of zero on two writing questions. This made it look as though students were failing miserably on the standard to which those questions were linked. This time, I was able to make necessary schedule changes and get help administering the new listening/writing test for a double period so time would not be an issue.
I am curious to see how I will feel about testing by the end of this year. At the moment, I feel pretty good about how I'm balancing authentic learning experiences and true intellectual development in my classroom with the need to prepare students for a standardized test at the end of the year. I hope I can keep that up.
What about my own time? Is learning to write a good Interim assessment a good use of my time? It seems better than giving an assessment I know nothing about. Am I assessing the skills that matter most? To be continued...
[image credit: logic.stanford.edu]
Today, was our first snow day of the year...sigh... and for me it was much needed. I came down with a nasty cold yesterday that took over my nose and head--ugh. I was constantly sneezing and blowing my nose, and I felt like I couldn't even hear properly. I was really in need of a day of rest.
That brought me to that familiar spot: the sick day dilemma. See, as much as my body needed to spend a day resting, my classes were blazing forward in student-driven discussions of novels. My missing a day would break the momentum of the work. I'd have to plan something appropriate for a substitute. I'd be wondering who would be with the kids and what would be happening in my absence. I'd have one less day to get where I want to be in the curriculum by February break. Often, being absent for a day means you come back to an extra hard day of work catching up on whatever you missed. And I'm not Thaaat sick, am I? Do I really want to use up a sick day for this?
But I've had this difficulty since I was little. In my mother's words, I "run myself ragged" doing everything I believe I need to do--often revolving around the needs of people or entities other than myself--and then I often neglect my own basic needs. Don't get me wrong. I'm not the martyr type. I mostly run myself ragged for things I really enjoy. I just find it hard to slow down when I need to.
And then, the heavens opened up and dumped ten inches of snow on an already stressed NYC plow system. Bloomberg closed the schools, thus solving my sick day dilemma.
I do think, more than in many other professions, teachers are hesitant to take time off. We muscle through 'til we arrive at our vacations. Sometimes this is admirable, sometimes it's just ridiculous to think that the world is going to end if we are absent for a day--and sometimes, though incredibly rarely, it snows.
[image credit: hausofjj.wordpress.com]
Last Friday, before the long weekend, I wrote in the homework section on my board, "MLK Day Monday! For Tuesday, read pgs..." Throughout the day several students in each class asked what MLK was. When other students or I told them those were Martin Luther King's initials, most students said, "Oh yeah," but a few added, "Wait, who is that again?"
I thought about this throughout the long weekend and decided to devote some time during Tuesday's class to the words and work of Dr. King. I started with a quote from his "I Have a Dream..." Speech in 1963:
I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."
We talked about that line from the Declaration of Independent (which they had learned about recently in social studies class), what it meant, when it was written, and whom it excluded. We talked about how long after that line was written that slavery was abolished, about the rise of legal segregation and Jim Crow Laws in the South and the long struggle to end those. Then we watched a few minutes of the speech itself. It was an interesting environment to discuss the vision of desegregation King describes in his speech. My school is very diverse racially, and I think this allowed students to reflect on that positively and in more depth than usual.
Students were struck by how huge the audience was in the March on Washington, how triumphant the tone of the speech was. I felt like they got to see what a real social movement looked like in those days. Then we watched a few minutes of Dr. King's final speech in 1968. We talked about the triumphs of the civil rights movement, but also the constant struggle--the fact that there were regular citizens as well as people in positions of power who supported the civil rights movement and others who opposed the vision of MLK and his supporters, which ultimately resulted in his death. Students wanted to know more about that, so we projected a google search and read together the account of the assassination.
We talked about the response of Americans when Martin Luther King was killed--the devastation and anger--and the role of musicians, such as James Brown, who began giving free public concerts to get people to stop rioting and help sooth their pain. One of my students shared that her grandfather had been a civil rights activist who worked with Dr. King. She even showed us a picture she had on her phone of a photograph of him after being arrested for protesting.
Students were very interested in the discussions and video footage. It visibly sparked something in them. What was meant to be a half-period presentation and discussion easily turned into an entire period. It seemed that everyone had learned something about MLK at some point in elementary school, but now were able to think about the meaning of his life and work on a different level, as seventh graders developing critical thinking and social consciousness.
It also occurred to me that I had not had the opportunity to learn about the civil rights movement in school at all--until college, and at that point it was by choice. In high school, I did learn about it on my own from media--movies, music, books, etc, and from my parents and grandmother who had some first hand experience with it. It was not part of my formal education, because we never "had time for it" chronologically in history classes.
Seeing my students' interest in Tuesday's class made me hopeful about this generation finding their own way toward making positive change in this country/world. We certainly need social leaders with vision and the courage to stand up for their beliefs.
Check out this interview featuring Barnett Berry and myself on the book Teaching 2030 by fellow TLN member, teacher, author, and blogger extraordinaire, Larry Ferlazzo! It is an interesting discussion of the ideas and process that went into the creation of the Teaching 2030 book--out in book stores this week!--written by Berry and twelve teachers from around the country, including myself.
The interview process was interesting, because the questions were good, and it was the first time I was asked to summarize the book and say what it means to me. I've had a lot of ideas kicking around my head for the last few months, and this was chance to put it all together.
The day after this interview was posted, the 2030 team and Barnett had a live webinar with education futurist Steve Hargadon. Unfortunately, I couldn't make it, as it was ELA/humanities exhibition night at my school, but it's possible to access the recording here on Hargadon's blog, and it is well worth the listen. Scintillating conversation going on there!
Also, Barnett Berry just published an oped in Ed Week, "We Can Create the Profession Students Need," which presents many of the ideas of Teaching 2030, but with an emphasis on what we can start doing now. It is also a great read, and there are some good comments happening there.
Happy reading & listening! The future of teaching needs you. Join the conversation!
[image credits: top pic from greylynn2030.co.nz & future photographer by Diyana Kamaruza]
Recently, education consultant Grant Wiggins made the suggestion that we might be better off banning most fiction books from schools, because they don't prepare students for careers and they apparently bore boys. Though I do believe that reading non fiction is important for male and female students alike, I disagree with both assertions about fiction. In this post, I'd like to share my confusion at the notion that fiction bores boys.
Does fiction bore boys? Not the boys in my classes! Boys are some of my most voracious readers. Series like Percy Jackson & the Olympians, Artemis Fowl, Secret Series, Pendragon Series, A Wrinkle In Time Series, and even Diary of a Wimpy Kid, are hugely popular with the seventh grade boys in my classes. So, I just find Wiggin's comment to be an untruth.
Have I met boys who appear to be bored by fiction... who would rather read nonfiction books about bears, wars, skateboarding, etc? Yes. Should they have the opportunity to read the non fiction they are interested in reading? Yes.
Do I believe that these boys are actually bored by fiction because they say most every fiction book they pick up is boring? No.
Why? Because these same boys love stories. How do I know? Well, let's look at their taste in movies. Are they more interested in watching documentaries about nature, World War II, or skateboarding than they are in watching the latest action flick? No! Do these boys get bored when I show a dramatic, character-driven film (like "Smoke Signals") that may as well be a novel, in visual form? No. Do they get bored when I tell the class a folk tale, asking instead for non fiction? Absolutely not! They are riveted by stories.
Every boy I've ever taught--every adolescent, in fact--loves stories. There is a developmental need for stories. Research shows that reading fiction is an subjective experience in which the reader has an active role in the co-construction of the story in his or her imagination.
The problem with boys and reading (girls too) is that in school we so often take away that subjective part of the experience--we take away the students' power over the stories they read (there are several ways in which we do this to stories--more another time). We turn reading into something else: a series of skills to be mimicked, learned, regurgitated, measured, evaluated. The teacher takes a very active, exhausting role in this, but the student's imagination is marginalized. Reading becomes a passive activity, and for many boys that is a problem.
The way we interrupt a student's experience of stories, imposing right and wrong answers and mandatory strategies is a problem when it comes to fiction, because fiction is meant to be an alternate universe, lived for a prolonged amount of time through the imagination via the written word.
Nonfiction, however, is read mostly for information. The interruptions, the checking for understanding, the strategies, the right and wrong answers, do not pose a problem in the pursuit of the goal of gathering information. In fact, they help many readers feel more power over the texts they read. Thus, students who are most concerned with power, especially those who've been made to feel powerless throughout their schooling, often times boys, may prefer reading non fiction. But this is because of how we've defined and designed "reading" experiences in school. It has nothing to do with boys' lack of love for stories.
[image credit: creativeeducation.co.uk]
Recently on the Teacher Leaders Network, I landed in a discussion about the many great teachers we know who, for a variety of reasons, stay far away from education policy. In this post, I'm trying to respond to what I see as the top five reasons teachers tend not to get involved.
One: It's not my job to be involved in education policy.
My Response: While it's not in our job description to be involved in education policy, it is in our best interest to voice our perspectives, because policies directly affect the conditions of our work, our ability to do our best for our students, and our willingness to stay in teaching.
Historically, teachers have been the recipients of policies written by outsiders, higher up on the ladder than we are. We experience the results of decisions and usually have plenty to say about how they play out in our schools. How many times have you issued some choice words about the latest education legislation at lunch with a group of colleagues? Why not hone that message and share it with a wider audience? Also, if the policy makers are at the top of the education pyramid, who does that leave at the bottom? Students and parents. And that's just not right. We need to challenge the current hierarchy so that the people who matter most in American public education, students, parents, and teachers, have a bigger voice. Teachers, especially, who are most directly responsible for the' education of students, need to be heard on the issues.
Two: Nobody wants to listen to teachers.
My Response: There is now ample research that says that the single most important factor in a child's education is the quality of his or her teachers. This is causing policy makers, media, and the general public to focus a lot of attention on teachers. Some of that attention has been in the form of negative attacks (wholly unproductive), but there are a lot of policy makers and influential organizations that are very interested in what teachers bring to the policy conversation. Center for Teaching Quality and Teacher Leaders Network have been at the forefront of the movement for getting teachers involved in education policy, and the progress over the last ten to fifteen years has been huge, according to those who've been involved longer than I. Even in the seven years I've been a public school teacher, the idea of teacher leadership has gone from a pretty much unknown concept to an on the ground reality for many teachers and many schools.
The real question is, now that there are so many ears and eyes on us, what do we say? Do we need one coherent, forward-thinking message? If so, how might we arrive at that? If not, what would a variety of teacher-driven policy messages look like?
And once policy makers are listening to teachers, how do we hold them accountable for using the information they get from us well?
Three: I don't have time for education policy.
Ok, this one becomes a little harder for me to argue with. I get it; certainly, I do. At the end of a busy, tiring day, the last thing you need is more work. But I would ask, do you read the newspaper or watch the news? If so, you are getting some information on education policy, but from too limited a source. Round out your education reading a little bit.
Spend ten minutes after you do your regular reading of the paper, reading about education policy from educators who follow it closely and speak from their experiences. Try the blogs at Edweek Teacher (Teacher Magazine), or Public School Insights, or any of my colleagues' Teacher Leader Network blogs connected to this sight (see below on the left), or the new teacher blogs at the Huffington Post Education section.
Join the conversation by leaving ONE comment. Additionally, you can be involved by forwarding an article or blog post to one colleague or interested friend. Finally, you can follow most of these bloggers on twitter and get a multitude of interesting and quick thoughts and links to news. Sometimes, believe it or not, after a long day, some sane words from a thoughtful educator about the big picture of what's going on in our profession and in our schools is exactly what you need!
Two: I might be interested, but I really don't want to read more about education.
So you'd rather get your information, or enter the conversation, some other way. Seek out someone at school whose brain you can pick about education policy--a teacher who is involved in some way, whether he or she just reads closely or takes part through the district, the union, blogging, or some other avenue, such as TLN. Often, teachers involved in policy outside of school tend not to discuss it at school, thinking no one is interested--many folks on TLN have shared that, and I have experienced it at times. Show interest and you never know what might come of it.
Or...ask your principal what he or she thinks of what's going on in education these days. It could be very interesting. You will certainly get a different perspective than your own or that of other teachers, and it will also be different than what the media is spreading. Teachers and principals inhabit the same world, but deal with the policy hierarchy from two different levels. Often, principals are as shut out of policy as teachers are, but have to figure out how to implement mandates at the school level. In general, more open dialogue between teachers and administrators--where possible--can be a good thing.
Also, the next time you're at a dinner and someone asks you what you do, respond by telling them something real about your experience teaching that they might not already know. Be an informed source on education for a few minutes. (Just make sure it doesn't turn into a vent, or they will might never bring up the subject again.) Influencing public opinion is as important as influencing politicians.
You can also resolve to respond to those emails from your master's degree program alumni group, letters from your union, or other calls to actually attend an education-related event, face to face. Once you enter the conversation in whatever way works for you, other opportunities will unfold.
One: It's all the same; I read everything I'll ever need to read on education policy in my master's program.
No you didn't!!! Unless you are currently in ed. school, lots has happened since you read your last book
on American education. And if you're really worried about reading about the same old story, you need to check out TEACHING 2030, the book about the future of our profession, written by me with 12 other actual teachers and Barnett Berry (a long time advocate for teacher voice in policy). It is not the same old story! And you are a part of shaping the way toward a better future for our schools. We'd love to share our ideas with you and hear your responses soon.
Whatever your level of involvement is or will be, the most important thing is to realize how much each of us, as teachers, actually matters in the world of education policy. We do our work in the spaces where education policy makers intend to make change. The more we can know about these policies and make our voices and positions known, the more sensible the changes will become.
sinking cruise. http://www.strangedangers.com
politician with teachers. Office of Governor Patrick]
I've been in a contemplative place this holiday break. One thing that's come up for me is how quickly the year is going by. I remember several times lately when, at the end of the school day, I've experienced this strange feeling of slight disappointment that the day is over! The disappointment is there because I realize I've let the day go by without fully appreciating every moment I spend working with my students.
Every moment is a tremendous opportunity. To fully realize the opportunities that I'm faced with every day, I've got to be fully present. What gets in the way? I love teaching and I love my students. I want to say that my mind is occupied by extraneous things, but this is not exactly the case. My mind doesn't wander while I'm teaching. Surely I'm influenced by Parker Palmer's The Courage to Teach, which I'm reading now, but I think that being fully present is a matter of the mind and the heart.
I'm practicing putting more heart into everything I do this week--whether it's the dishes or making a soup, or talking to a friend. I'm hoping this practice will help me cherish every moment in the classroom with my mind and my heart. I can't think of a better New Year's Resolution for my 2011 teaching life.
[image credit: sunhealer.wordpress.com]
As I embark on a much needed week of relaxation and personal recharging, for some reason I am plagued by the feelings I have about the small but significant percentage of students who profoundly missed the mark on our recently finished project. I am disappointed on some level in both them and myself. This was a writing unit designed to have multiple ways in for everyone, one of the most accessible studies we will do all year. It feels particularly *not okay* for some students to have skipped steps along the way, tuned out important directions, avoided the revision and editing process, and turned out work that is less than what they are capable of doing.
Identifying the Problem:
I know that I've got to put away the stick, stop beating myself up for it. In talking to a friend about it, I realized that part of my frustration is knowing that if I had worked one-on-one with many of these students, the outcome would have been much better. So the problem is that I did not give some students the individual attention they needed in order to make progress.
Cause of the Problem:
What happened? One important fact is that I now work with 105 students instead of 55. And I have only 45 minutes a day with each class. It is not a small difference. So I went about the unit in the same way I always have, and naturally did not reach every student who needed me in individual conferences. I did not realize I'd have to do some things differently in order to serve every student in my new school. In some cases, the individual attention should have also come in the form of a phone call home, advising the family that their student had not been keeping up in class.
All these feelings are here to guide me to make some kind of change. What I have come up with is this:
- Make a list of the students who were far from meeting my expectations in this project. Share this list with the learning specialist so we can put some additional focus on these students in future projects.
- Create a tutorial section comprised of these students, and propose the change for the week we return from break. (Tutorial is a period each day where we can work with smaller groups of students who need extra help.)
- Go over their work with the students and have them reflect on what happened. Explain to them they now have a second chance--like a retake of an exam, only a redo of the project. The semester ends at the end of January. We have a month to redo all the steps of the project using a new topic of their choosing.
- Speak to their families about what happened and the new tutorial. Keep them updated on their child's progress.
- Celebrate their success at the end of the month.
The image at the top of this entry is the Chinese symbol for crisis. It includes two characters: one for danger, and the other for opportunity. Moving beyond my instinct to beat up on myself for the failure of some of my students, I hope that by embracing the information I now have about them as an opportunity to change something, I can bring them out of the danger zone they are currently in with their education.
[image credit: austincc.edu]
Nerve-wracking though it is, there is nothing like speaking an idea to an audience face-to-face. This photo is of me speaking about teacherpreneurship at the Big Ideas Fest in Half Moon Bay California. Because I was talking about a concept from our book, Teaching 2030 (which will be in stores in just a couple of weeks!!!), I decided to speak as myself in the year 2030, with 27 years of experience. I thought it might keep people from the mental habit we tend to have of rushing to determine why the idea could never work...all the "but's" and "no ways"...
It was by far the most challenging talk I've ever given, because it was about work I haven't actually done yet--work that is still in the idea phase, Nevertheless, I had to speak confidently, as if the development of teacherpreneurism were old news. Like telling a great big lie, actually. No, more like fiction; fiction that illuminates possibility.
I was not sure how this all would work with my audience, but it turns out people liked the format. Many people said they found it extremely convincing and, like me, did not want to return back to the present reality! A few people congratulated me and then said, "Good luck in your new roles..." I had to remind them that my talk was really a fantasy, but one that we need to figure out how to make into a reality.
This past week, I had a brush with reality, when I got to retell my idea in the form of a present-day possibility (rather than elaborated fiction) to Arne Duncan himself on a webinar with some members of the Teacher Leaders Network and some members of the US DOE.
I will say that I found Duncan to be a good listener and thoughtful responder throughout this chat. After I described the concept of teacherpreneurship, he told me, "You are definitely not alone" in wanting opportunities for teachers to take on a variety of leadership roles and be able to pursue their ideas for change and career advancement without leaving the classroom. He mentioned that the USDOE is currently funding proposals that experiment with ideas that have much in common with the one I described.
Some may say talk is cheap, and it is--it's free, in fact. But we have to admit the conversation around teacher career ladders is changing. While some of the change is dangerous, at the same time, I think there is real possibility for teachers to become respected professionals now, where there seemed to be none before. I feel very, VERY, cautiously, optimistic.
Now that I'm back from the whirlwind that was the Big Ideas Fest 2010, I'm still mining their site for cool stuff--and waiting for all the videos of the presentations to be available so I can share them.
I found this recent article by one of my favorite thinkers, Daniel Pink (author of A Whole New Mind and Drive). It is about an idea he's calling "Flip Thinking," where you take a process that is normall done in one direction and find a way to flip it. His example in education is here:
"However, instead of lecturing about polynomials and exponents during class time – and then giving his young charges 30 problems to work on at home – Fisch has flipped the sequence. He’s recorded his lectures on video and uploaded them to YouTube for his 28 students to watch at home. Then, in class, he works with students as they solve problems and experiment with the concepts.
Lectures at night, “homework” during the day. Call it the Fisch Flip."
I'm turning this over, wondering how I might use the idea in my own classroom. I don;t lecture that much--I usually ellicit responses from students right away, but it would be interesting to try something like this--asking them to prepare at home, and have the experience and practice in the classroom.
On way I do flip a process is in a writing program I call Writing Outloud. Instead of teaching essay structure first, then have students create the proper pieces one by one, I have them try out ideas, and work on elaborating on them in different ways. Then they find their big idea, and write more on it. Finally they shape the essay into the proper structure. I find that, although some students never get to that perfect structure, the writing is full of meaning and voice. When you teach structure first, you often get a lot of...b.s... that is structured "correctly".
[image credit: blogiseverything.com]