28 January 2014

I wish there was a template for the BlazeBlog

Friends, let me be the first to welcome you back to the BlazeBlog. I know how much it means to you to read the random ramblings of a public educator in the back corners of the Internet. I know that you love to Blaze (especially my readers in Colorado and Washington state). I know that was a cheap and easy joke. Work with me, I'm rusty.

It has been far too long. I'm so far out of practice that I'm not even sure I can find something to get myself all worked into a tizzy about. I like my job. I have two AP classes, and enough kids that it will probably add a section next year. I have regular government, a class I haven't taught since my halcyon days in New Chicago. I don't even hate my freshmen (with the notable exception of my 7th block, which, were it not for student privacy laws, I would spend the next 8,000 words ranting very specifically about).

I have, in our time apart, been making notes to myself when I've had thoughts. Lets dig through those and see if we can find something to fill a post.....

Here's the list, see if you can figure out what I was trying to tell myself:

The merit pay indicates that it works in elementary schools, not high schools: why?

...litigious society leads to lack of trust which leads to less creativity, which leads to a worse society

...How can we reimagine school? (Take away level one knowledge)

...TFA is not good - two articles from slate

Let's see what we have here - so at some point I wanted to talk about merit pay. Not tonight. Then I was clearly in a twist about getting sued (hasn't happened yet! 13 years clean!) but that's not where I feel the urge is taking me. Re-imagining school? I'd love to get into that, but I need more time than I have free right now, and there other people with more money than me working on that one anyway. Ah, that old classic "TFA is not good". It isn't, but I'm not going to abuse that horse revisit that topic again.

Ok, so that means I'm not feeling any of my notes from the last 6 months. I guess this just goes to show that taking notes isn't a very good habit. From now on, we won't be doing any of that in class. (yeah, right)

Well, this is frustrating. I sat down to write, totally intended to churn out a BlazeBlog, and here I am without any ideas. How did I used to come up with ideas? (hang on, I'm checking out some old posts from the BlazeBlog.) Well, it seems that I used to just write about things that happened to me at school that made me angry or frustrated. That would be easy, except I just told you (in the second paragraph) that I was happy at school.

Oh, wait. I had an inservice. It had jargon. And a template. Let's go. (or, as the kids say, #leggo).

Seriously. #LEGGO

So, my district is rolling out a technology plan in which every student will have a tablet next year. In a bit of good planning, teachers have the tablets this year. In a further bit of good planning, we have 3 full-day trainings on the tablets. Things aren't perfect, but honestly, they're pretty good (all things considered). The district has been open to critiques and software developers have been flexible in designing our Learning Management System.

That said, we've also fallen into one of my and Dr. Johncock's favorite educational traps. The jargon. Next year, we're going to have "Big Ideas" and "Essential Questions" which are intended to guide our "backwards unit planning" which needs to have "formative and summative assessments" and "authentic learning tasks".

I get it. I understand that people who have put in long hours and big money earning EdDs and pHds and other advanced degrees need to justify their jobs. Central office planners need to continuously come up with new and "exciting" ways to improve education. But enough is enough. Big ideas and Essential Questions? The Big Idea is the guiding principle that you want kids to get, while the Essential Question is the question that you will revisit throughout the unit to help students build an answer. Essential Questions aren't "hooks" (except when they are) and Big Ideas shouldn't be too specific, but they shouldn't be too vague either. Oh and they should be posted. Or not.

In the classroom, I don't have time to be managing and learning all of this jargon. Give me the standards. Let me have some time with my department (called a PLC in our new, more jargon-improved world) and let us work out what we're going to do. I work in a department that is really trying to get in front of these expectations, but the people leading us keep adding new things before we really understood the old things. I just want an administrator to stand up and say, "Listen, you need to know where you're going before you start a unit. Pick out some large concepts. Teach those, and ask kids questions. Give them some group work and some quizzes along the way. Ask them questions. Make them answer, and follow up with why." That's a language I understand. Instead, they'll say something like, "We need you to get together with your PLCs and craft a unit plan for us. You need to develop Big Ideas, and then list the Essential Questions that students will utilize to answer them. Make sure you develop both formative and summative assessments, as well as authentic learning tasks. Students should collaborate and justify their answers. Make sure you're Checking for Understanding using the TAPPL method. We'd like to see your Common Core Unit Planning Templates with that information by Thursday"

The jargon is unnecessary and frustrating. It makes teachers roll their eyes. Those teachers who really do want to do what is best get confused by the constantly shifting terms. The worst part is that most teachers already do these things, but don't know it because they call it "good teaching".

But jargon isn't the worst thing. Oh no friends, not even close. (oh, Bee-Tee-Dubs, click on "jargon". You'll be glad you did.)

No, the worst thing is the templates. Most districts are moving towards templates for unit and lesson planning, and they are the worst damn thing anybody has ever used. The one they gave to us during our training, to plan a unit, has 18 different fields to fill in. They include some of the following: "Big Ideas/Enduring Understandings, Essential Questions (those two are next to each other), Common Core Priority Standards, Authentic Performance Task, Thinking Process / DOK", and so on and so on. They give you this (actually, they have you access an online copy) and then turn you loose. Which would be great if you got more than 20 minutes uninterrupted (we never did) or had any blooming idea about what they wanted in the boxes.

It wouldn't be great. That's a lie. It would still suck. It is ridiculous and unreasonable to think that you can take a creative, motivated teacher and make them better by forcing them to fill out a template. Filling out forms is not the way any teacher that isn't student teacher works. No working teacher uses the lesson plan template that their education college provided them with. Ok, that's not quite true. I know one teacher that has binders of formal lesson plans. Most of us only have the formals that we write before our formal observations. Those lessons are often great (the lesson itself, not the filled-in form), but I don't think there's a causal relationship to the form. I think it's because your boss is watching, and everybody is better when the boss is watching. BTSA teachers don't find themselves doing better work because of the two binders they fill with forms. In fact, in a very unscientific study, district with more forms to fill out had teachers who wanted to drink more.

Do you know why? Because templates and forms represent the absolute worst kind of bureaucracy. There is this thought that if we can publish our lesson templates online, and show the world how smart our teachers are, then we will really show everybody how "good" at education we are. If we could only have more forms (maybe one from every teacher for every lesson, so when a parent complains we can print it and shake it in their face and say "See, they're doing education! It says so on the form!")If we have those templates and forms then we won't have to have hard discussions, or leave any room for doubt. Our asses will be firmly covered. As an added bonus, even the most Peter-principled Principal can have their staff fill out forms.  Never mind shrinking my classes under 30 (or even 36!) kids. Never mind observing me more often, or getting me coverage so that I can observe others. Never mind changing our rigid curriculum and observation forms to possibly reward risk taking. Those things might be hard, and ugly, and people might call us failures if they didn't work right away. Instead, central offices continue to spew jargon, and require the filling out of forms, and proof that we're actually working.

I guess the last two paragraphs of this blog post sum things up nicely for me.

Still.

03 May 2013

I was a straight (no grade assigned) student

There has been a lot of chatter out there in Internet and television land about how American education is broken. Hell, there's been a lot of chatter on this blog about how American education is broken. (for the record, you could pretty easily just read all of the posts here at the Blaze of Competence if you wanted to hear read about me rant how American education is broken.) There are as many different proposals for fixing it as there are commentators. 

One of the newest fixes for education is the movement to do away with grading. This article from Slate does a nice job of summarizing the history of grades, and the movements to educate kids without grades. You should go read it now. I'll wait.

Back? Good. 

I think that there are interesting points to be made there. Grades do hurt self-esteem. Grades are (often) a poor indicator of how a student actually is performing in a classroom. They are arbitrary, there is very little indicated by a grade, and they often don't even mean the same thing from classroom to classroom. My A is different from the A's kids earn in the rooms on either side of me. 

The proponents of going grade-free argue for a more holistic approach to teaching, and to learning, and to evaluating how students are learning. This sounds very pleasant, very nice, exceptionally wholesome, and I would be all for it. There are just a couple of "real-world" problems that I think prohibit a large-scale transition to a gradeless utopia. I say "utopia" non-sarcastically. I genuinely think that if we could solve all of the problems I'm about to list, we would fix most of what's wrong with education. I just don't think we can solve these problems, and that's why education is broken in the first place. Seriously, if one guy with a blog that about 30 people read can come up with these ideas, they aren't rocket science. I'm basically making the educational argument of "if we could just figure out the cure for cancer, no one would die from cancer anymore."

Problem the first:

Grades are something, for better or for worse, that society, kids, parents, and employers understand. 

Let's be perfectly frank here; when a report card goes home, parents are looking for a quick and dirty evaluation of how their kid is doing in school. Parents understand the A-F system. If we sent home a more nuanced letter, especially at the high school level, many parents would have a very hard time figuring out how their child is performing. They would call and ask (I suspect verbatim), "So, what grade did he get?"

It's not just parents. Certainly kids could easily be taught to understand a new grading system, we teach them A-F already, we could easily teach them a new evaluative tool. However, colleges would struggle. How do you admit a kid who has no GPA? How do you evaluate them versus their peers? It becomes much more difficult, although it does solve the problem of grade inflation (which I very tangentially discussed in this post. To answer your question: yes, I am attempting to link to every single previous BlazeBlog entry in this post.) Grades are used (and continue to be used) because they are a nice shortcut, with relative universality in public schools (A is good, F is not) and because they are easy to transfer.  The same is true of employers. Every teacher will vouch for those students who excel; their success is our job. How will employers compare one graduate against another? More than just grade cards will have to change if we abolish grades. All of society will have to shift how it evaluates success.

Problem the second:

Doing away with grades allows bad and lazy teachers to become worse and lazier. 

If we did away with grades, I suspect that we would move to a much more nuanced system of evaluation. The problem is that those teachers who are lazy or unskilled would no longer have the specter of a gradebook hovering over them to make sure they are at least doing some form of work. Right now, if I'm not keeping my gradebook up to date with grades that parents can check out, then I hear about it from parents and administrators. This wasn't the case 15 years ago, but with the advent of online gradebooks, the reality is that people can keep track of what I'm doing from a grading standpoint quickly and easily. Without letter grades, that would be harder to track that most basic effort of teaching.

Sadly, by taking away that accountability, we would open the doors for more teachers to do less work. If grades were less formulaic, and more subjective, bad teachers would simply give grades based on "feelings" instead of actual observations. Taking away grades would also be confusing for many teachers. We were raised and taught in a system that was all about grades. If we took away letter grades, and moved to a system that was more whole student driven, many less open-minded teachers would have kittens, so to speak.

Also, many bad teachers (and many good teachers, for that matter) are completion driven. Finish this worksheet, outline these pages, answer those questions. If that's how you measure learning, it's pretty hard to do without letter grades, because students don't really demonstrate growth or change on a worksheet; they demonstrate how well they could look up answers. 

Problem the third:

Classes are too large to effectively measure students in any manner other than keeping track of points. 

Let's be perfectly frank; classes in American schools keep getting bigger because budgets for American schools keep getting smaller. (which, shockingly, I've written about before. (the class sizes, not the budgets. Well, I have written about the budgets, here)). As class size gets larger, teachers, because of the constraints of time and psychology, (not to mention thermodynamics) are forced into moving to systems that grade based less on the whole student and their growth, and more on the ability of the student to complete tasks. Hopefully, the tasks have been designed to force the student into academic growth and critical thought, but in reality most of them are graded for doing the assignment. In my AP Government class, I have 13 kids. I can tell you where each one of them struggles, and I could easily write a paragraph of strengths, weaknesses, and growth on a report card for each of them. In one of my World Geography classes, I have 39 kids. I could do that same report card for about 20 of them, but there's half of that class who I could tell you their grade, but I would struggle to explain how they've grown, or what they are good or bad at. There are simply too many of them. 

American schools need to shrink class sizes for a myriad of reasons, even if they aren't going to get rid of letter grades. Things like feedback, evaluation of skills, and even basic classroom management all degrade as class sizes increase. This is especially true at the Middle and High School levels, where teachers are teaching multiple sections and thus increasing each section by just one kid increases total work load by 7-8 kids. 

Problem the fourth:

Money.

Instituting a system of nuanced grading (and I have no real idea how to do this, by the way) would be prohibitively expensive. You would need massive campaigns to train teachers, educate parents and develop new reporting systems. You would need smaller classes. You would have to pay for programs to evaluate how well you were evaluating. And all of those precious state tests? They'd have to be scrapped and re-designed. Actually, a re-design of tests would mean millions for Pearson and ETS. Maybe they can start to lobby for a move away from grades, since they are the only people in education with enough money to lobby effectively. 

So, what's the solution?

At some point on this blog, back near the beginning, I said that I didn't want to complain without offering solutions. (actually untrue. I said that I would just complain, and that it would be cathartic) Anyway, I think that to find the solution, we need to ask ourselves what problem we're trying to solve. If we think that grades are the problem, we need to ask why grades are the problem. Here's why I think grades are the problem: it isn't that grades are the problem, it's what we grade that is the problem. 

Think about it. What do we grade? We grade academics only. Is that all we want to know about students? I would hope not. We want to know about how they operate socially. Employers want to know if they show up on time. Colleges want to know if they have the skills to succeed at that level. 

This is the crux of the problem with education. We have simply stopped evaluating anything that is difficult or subjective. We no longer give citizenship grades, we long ago stopped evaluating handwriting. Even in this new Internet driven era, we haven't begun to evaluate things like "digital literacy" or creativity and teamwork, which are things that employers tell us they desperately want for students. These things are difficult to evaluate in any non-subjective way. How do you award points for "creativity"? What does the rubric for teamwork look like?

Education, as a culture, must find ways to evaluate those things. I'm not sure how (quite yet) of how we do that, but it's going to require flexibility from the data police, (who want everything to be evaluated in concrete objective ways) flexibility from parents who want to know "why" their kid got the grade she got, and flexibility from teachers, especially the old school crew who love to give book work and worksheets. 

I don't think it's time to scrap grades, I think it's time to grade the things that matter.

11 April 2013

Insert clever title about handwriting here.

The Internet is a magic place. It allows us (really me, since this is a pretty one-sided conversation) to share thoughts and insights with millions upon millions of people.(really about 35 on an average post, but I like to dream) It allows us to judge the relative intelligence (and glaring lack thereof) of our former classmates through what they share, and the glaring grammatical errors they make. (Seriously. You're 30. You didn't "seen" anybody do anything. Also, if you use the wrong their/there/they're again, I'm driving to your house to pummel you with a claw hammer. Not you, dear reader, the other reader.) 

All of this sharing is possible for many reasons, but one of those reasons is that the sharing is text based. Some of the best tests (yes, there are good tests) feature large sections of student generated text to evaluate what the students know, because writing is "thinking on paper". This stands in stark contrast to multiple choice tests, which seem to be "random vomit on paper". To fix the problems with most standardized tests, most states (48 at last count) are moving to a new set of standards forced on us by the testing companies developed with the goal of requiring more student writing. These are called the Common Core and you can read all about them here. These standards  will be evaluated with a new set of tests. I could go on a massive rant about Pearson and ETS and the giant scam that is testing, but I've already done that.  Instead I want to look at student writing.

You're (see what I did there? Correct "you're" followed by the correct "there". Take note grammar ignoramuses) probably bracing for a screed about 6 trait writing (it deserves one) or Step-Up (even more deserving) since those are systems that develop formulaic writing and I tend to hate them. Well, shift your position, because I'm going to rant about a different kind writing: handwriting.

Now, I could certainly fill your evening (or morning, or afternoon) with tales of tragic handwriting that has caused me to attempt to gouge my own eyes out, but that's not my purpose, dear friends. Instead I want to talk about what happens to kids with good handwriting. I think that they get put in the wrong classes for their ability. 

Let's work through my thesis. At a young age in school, children learn penmanship. This used to be an actual subject, but with the advent of high stakes testing, many elementary schools have moved away from it because it isn't tested, and there is no reward for teaching things that aren't on the state tests, even if those are useful skills. Anyway, as young people develop good handwriting, you would think that teachers would actually read it more carefully. However, I've found that the inverse is often true. Because it is easy to read, teachers will skim, assuming that since the writing is good in technique, it is probably also good in content. Even if the logical assumption that better handwriting leads to more attention is true, some damage is done. As students progress through the grades, those students receive more praise and feedback, and so become better writers and gain confidence. However, they don't gain any actual academic ability (for what it's worth, I believe that some people have more academic ability than others. If you think everybody is equally intelligent, but in "different ways" we disagree. Since I run the blog, my opinion wins)

When they reach high school, which is really the first place that differentiated classes are really differentiated, these students are often either selected for or self-select into the most rigorous academic track. That's where I've seen the problem. (at this point, I should note that this isn't a hard and fast rule. There are some really smart kids with great handwriting. However, you rarely see a kid in over their head with just terrible handwriting. I regularly see kids in over their heads with great penmanship.)

You see, they don't actually belong there. They might be slightly above average (because of the extra attention / confidence), but they probably aren't AP material. But there they are. I'll never forget one kid I had in an AP Euro class. This girl spent lots of time reading and taking meticulous notes. Her handwriting was spectacular, but her grade was awful. I had to have a meeting with mom. We finally deduced that she had terrible reading comprehension. She would work really hard, and could write letters really well, but she didn't understand what she was writing.

How had she gotten to that point? I suspect that because her penmanship was so good, and because she could answer first level questions like a boss, she had always been told that she was smart, and that led her to choose an AP class. However, when it came to someone who was actually reading what she wrote (and not just skimming the first 2-3 lines and the last 2-3, which she wrote pretty well) she got pummeled. 

I don't know what the answer to this theoretical problem is. Perhaps it's moving to typed assessments (which the Common Core will be) or moving all assignments to digital formats. That might help. I think shrinking class size would certainly alleviate some of this problem, since the skimming occurs because actual reading takes time, and when you have 220 kids, you don't have the time to really read. If it's neat, you scan. Sloppy stuff you actually read because you're trying to figure out what they're saying. 

Anyway, I don't have much else, but this has been kicking around my brain for three years, and some people have been harassing me for a BlazeBlog, so this is what you get. 

Maybe I'll get around to addressing this snarky editorial and this snarky response sometime soon. By "soon" I probably mean August. Just so you know.

But when I do get around to it, you'll be able to read it. Mostly because it will be typed. My handwriting? Not very good.

26 February 2013

Revolution, viva la!

I made a snide remark the other day on facebook about how nervous it makes administrators when I greet them with a clenched fist and the word "revolution". The remark was largely in jest, (even though I do routinely greet my bosses this way) but it got me to thinking; what would really revolutionize teaching and school in this country?

So, as I was walking out of a classroom where the book work for the day was dutifully transcribed onto the board, I was thinking about how we could really really revolutionize teaching in America. I was pondering how we could adapt to the Information Age, how we could move everything online, the power of data to personalize instruction and what all of that would mean for schools, especially for the roles schools fill that are non-academic.

I'll admit, my brain was hurting. I couldn't think of any changes that didn't have huge obstacles. The path seemed blocked, dear readers. And then, as though in a vision, my co-contributor, Dr. Dick Johncock, came to me in a vision. In his dulcet tones he spoke to me. He uttered one short, simple sentence: "It's the books, stupid".

I was taken aback, mostly because I wasn't carrying any books. (Also because Dr. Dick usually doesn't appear to me at work. He's more of a 3-5 adult beverages kind of apparition.) Then it dawned on me. Dr. Dick was trying to help me in my moment of perplextion. He was providing the answer. I was taken aback again, because his answer for an educational problem wasn't in acronym form. And we all know (I hope), how much Dr. Dick loves a good acronym. He was telling me that books were what was holding back the revolution.

He's right, I think. If we ditched books, education in this country could take a quantum leap forward. I'm not just talking about getting rid of text books and replacing them with iPads or Kindles either. The problem isn't that books are heavy, or get damaged, or whatever. The problem with books is that they create a mindset in the teacher that the book is the boss. 

(A quick aside. When I say "books" I really mean textbooks. Supplemental readings are great, and I would never step out and say "Open a school without To Kill a Mockingbird". I mean, that would downright Nazi-esque. Seriously. They burned books.)

Textbooks are a trap. They let teachers get complacent. Teachers think that since the book is there, they can just assign some reading, maybe a couple of questions, a guided reading worksheet or two and viola! kids will have learned. 

(Math teachers are, I'm sure rending their garments, and I will admit that teaching in that discipline is far different that in the soft subjects. However, I'm confident that creative teachers would find a way to make it work.) 

If we got rid of textbooks, while at the same time opened the wide swath of information on the Internet to students, I think we could actually revolutionize education. But teaching attitudes would have to change. We would have to trust students. We would need to give them the freedom to explore, and to make mistakes. We would have to accept that many questions have multiple correct answers, instead of boxing them into standardized, multiple choice tests. 

This isn't just hypothetical for me. I once taught Econ for an entire year without a text book. Sure, it was hard. I built projects and had to create units from scratch. That is hard. However, the class never sat and mindlessly copied out of a text book, which for far too many students is what class looks like in America. We have to change the culture in teaching that says that the book is the boss. Teachers have to (especially at the high school level) be subject experts, and confident in their material. Why should a student in the spring of their senior year of high school be answering fill in the blank worksheets? In 4 months they'll either be in college (where I hope they aren't doing worksheets) or the workforce (where I hope/know they won't be doing worksheets). We as teachers need to recognize that simply having kids read from 445-451 and answer questions 1,2,3a and 5 isn't doing anybody any good.  

School boards and administrators need to trust teachers. We need the Internet unfiltered. I need to be able to stream confirmation hearings in Government, to show video of asteroids exploding over Russia in Geography. I need to be able to send them to sites where they will find information that is far more real, more interesting, and more useful that what an editor thought would make a good geography book in 1999. 

In turn, teachers need to trust students to find the right information, to present it, to take charge of their own learning. It certainly won't be easy, and I don't pretend that getting rid of text books will be a silver bullet. Students will still attempt to see things they shouldn't. (Like this is new. Raise your hand if you looked for pictures of African natives in a National Geographic in your school library.) But the benefit is that they will be operating in the world as it is, a world with far fewer limits on what they can see and do.

I love revolution so much that I once designed a shirt with that image on it. Imagine how nervous it made principals to see that wandering around the school on kids. Now imagine a world in which it doesn't make the principal nervous, because they are a part of the revolution. I could get behind that.

(editor's note: The shirt had this image in the middle front of the shirt. Was it called the "facepunch shirt"? Yes, yes it was)

30 January 2013

Education. Fixed. No wait. Now it's fixed. Now. Seriously this time.

Teachers are frustrated. Reformers are disgruntled. Parents are at their wits end. No one can find the elusive magic bullet that will solve all of our education problems. In our quest for that solution, society seems to be grasping at a number of different solutions. While I take issue with many of the proposed solutions, I think that the process of proposing, seriously, many dichotomous solutions is part of that problem.

Often in education, teachers will tell you that the left hand doesn't even know that the right hand exists, let alone what the right hand is doing. I could provide literally dozens of examples of this from my experience. 

Some of them are hilarious (a school firing it's literacy coaches before the meeting in which it declares its intention to participate in a "year of literacy"), some of them are sad (schools blocking websites that let kids learn by playing educational games simply because they are "games") and some of them make you shake your head (schools blocking programs they paid to buy).

I would attempt to blame the schools themselves, but that isn't fair. You see, they are simply reflecting the larger educational climate in America. That climate is, to put it kindly, scattered and divided. 

Most people in education agree that No Child Left Behind was a terrible law. Naturally, most states and the feds are still designing tests that are in line with the basic philosophy of NCLB. The vast majority of teachers will tell you that a larger class is harder to teach and that kids in larger classes tend to learn less. Nevertheless, class sizes continue to rise. 

Today, we revisit a topic near and dear to the BlazeBlog - teacher training. This topic is generally ignored by educational commentators, but recently there were two stories which both illustrated the basic differences in philosophy between educators and outsiders and were diametrically opposed to each other, which nicely illustrates how divided the nation is on questions of education.

In the last two days (editor's note: this was up to date in December of 2012, but we take a laizze faire kind of approach to deadlines here at the BlazeBlog, so the stories are more like "in the last two months" now), two different stories have come across my desk. They are both about what you have to do to become a teacher in this country. You almost certainly saw the first story.

In that story, the American Federation of Teachers calls for a more stringent national test for prospective teachers to take to determine their fitness for service as teachers.  They refer to it (in order to get more headlines) as a "bar exam" for teachers. This is hardly new. This very blog has called for an even more stringent system of teacher training (I thought about a link here, but I linked to it two paragraphs ago, so I'm not really interested in linking to it again).
If you're too lazy to read that post, the basic gist of it is that I don't think that teacher education is very good, and I want it to become not more like lawyering, but more like doctoring. While a stringent exam is a good idea, most states already have those. They go by names like the PRAXIS, PRAXIS II, and CBEST. The problem with those tests isn't that they aren't very good tests (they aren't), but rather that a multiple choice test is a pretty poor indicator of how a teacher will work in a classroom full of young people. In short, there is no " option C " to choose in front of a room of maniacal 12 year olds. That's why I have advocated, and will advocate again, a system much more like the internships of teaching hospitals, where student teachers will be given semi-autonomy but be under closer supervision than standard first-year teachers. 

 
So, that's hand number 1: make it harder to become a teacher


Hand number 2, naturally, calls for the exact opposite.

The day after that article was published, a story popped up in my facepagespace news feed about my home state of Indiana. Indiana, facing unemployment of recent college grads and a wave of teacher retirements, is looking to make it easier to become a teacher. Don't believe me? Fine, read it for yourself. I'm going to let you read that. Now, let's ask a compare and contrast question (studies show that C&C questions lead to a 22% increase in retention over straight rote memorization): What is different between the two articles?

Obviously Indiana has a problem, and they've proposed an innovative insulting solution. The basic outline makes the outrageous claim that a person who has a bachelor's degree and spends three years (probably getting observed 2 times a year) in a school with decent reviews can become a professionally licensed teacher. That's like telling me I can go practice law as long as I have 6 good evaluations from a lawyer who watches less than 1% of my time in trial. I'll just watch enough Law and Order and I'll be good to go. 

This basic idea is hardly new. Hell, it's the basis of Teach For America, a program I'm hardly in love with. (This is a subject for another day, so here's my argument in brief: TFA basically says that all of the pedagogy and content I spent 4 years learning can be mastered in a summer retreat. It also places teachers in intentionally temporary placements, which leads to higher teacher turn-over. If learning is all about relationships, which I think it is, then this undermines those relationships, especially at the high school level, where kids are savvy enough  to see that the young person they idolized (we hope) is now leaving for a higher paying gig. That sends a message to those students who we most need to reach that they aren't important enough to stick around for. Again, there is a full-length rant on TFA in my brain, I just haven't spewed it onto paper the Interwebs yet)

So you're going to take someone off the (college educated) street and put them in a classroom with minimal training. This proposal must have been made by someone who hasn't actually worked in a classroom. Obviously these people will have the content (actually, based on the writing of some college grads I know, I'm not even sure about that) knowledge to teach middle and high school. The problem with this is that only about 10% of a teacher's job involves content. The vast majority of this job is about managing kids. Convincing them that this material is important. Helping them grow. Fostering their maturation. 

These are not skills that are inherent. Ask anybody who works with kids. They'll tell you that it takes concerted effort to really work with kids. I suspect that these BA to 1st hour teachers will struggle and leave the profession quickly. High teacher turn-over doesn't solve any problems. 

So, to summarize: AFT thinks we need to make it much harder to become a teacher. States like Indiana want to make it much easier. Obviously they're both right. Or wrong. No, right. Wrong. Whatever they are, they send a confusing message. Do teachers need more training or less? 

I suppose we could look at these two stories as being isolated ideas on the fringes. However, both of them are serious proposals from people in education today. It really is the perfect picture of why we're struggling as a system. We can't agree on the most basic things, like how to put the best people in front of a class; let alone the complicated things, like how to teach that class effectively. 

In the end, I suppose it doesn't matter, because at the end of the day, no one is ever happy with the solution, so we shouldn't even attempt to make anybody happy.   

02 January 2013

On school safety

I think it's safe to say that I haven't written here on the Blaze of Competence nearly recently enough. I would make excuses (job, baby, sleep) but if I won't take excuses from students for late work, I won't offer them to you. (feel free to enjoy this at 70% of your normal enjoyment, since I did turn it in late, and that's the penalty for complete late work that I impose)

It isn't that I haven't had anything to say. In fact, looking in the "drafts" folder, I have plenty of started posts, talking about NCLB, Race to the Top (RTTT), principals, testing, and the glory of AP classes. All of them get to about this point (the end of a moderately related and entertaining introduction) , and then they turn into an outline of other things I'd like to talk about. I just can't seem to get focused.

However, I'm on Christmahanakwanzaka break, so I thought I'd grab some time while the baby naps to hop onto the BlazeBlog and knock out some content. This is hardly unprecedented. Two years ago I squandered my October Break writing a list of 12 things that were wrong with schools. (It's still an entertaining read, if I do say so myself.) This year I'm not going to be nearly as ambitious. Instead, it'll be catch as catch can, but anticipate me posting more often than I have (which is to say, more than once every two months.)

Obviously, the major reporting on schools as we left for break was the Sandy Hook massacre. There were facebook and twitter comments by the millions. There were teachers who were heroes, giving themselves up to the gunman to save the lives of their students. We swore we would, in the cliched words of our generation, "never forget". Memorial stickers were applied to sports uniforms to show support, whatever that meant.

Yet here we are, not even a month later, and we basically have forgotten. My timeline and twitter feed show no mentions of the shooting, and calls for gun control have been surpassed by the need to pose and posture over the fiscal cliff. The timing of the shooting, combined with our increasingly short attention spans have moved it out of the consciousness of the nation. Really, why shouldn't it? School massacres are a terrifyingly common part of our existence.

However, this time, our good friends at the National Rifle Association took the opportunity to say that this wasn't about guns (a position I find somewhat laughable, since guns (yes, yes, yes operated by people) have been at the center of the vast majority of those shootings), but rather this was about school security. The NRA wants to implement something it calls the "school shield" program, where retired military and police would serve as armed guards at schools.

Never mind that proposal (actually, parenthetically, mind it. It won't work. For about eleventy-million reasons, but most of all because even in schools with active law enforcement (see High School, Columbine) on duty in the school, shooters will still have free reign, if only because they intend to kill, and a guard must hesitate before shooting, and therefore will be the first to die. Also, because the last thing we want to do is to make school feel MORE like a prison, which is precisely what having an armed guard or two on campus will do) because it will never happen, but let's talk about how we can make schools safer.

(Just so we're clear on this, I don't pretend to be a school safety expert. However, I've been in classrooms for a decade, in 6 different schools, 2 of which were in Colorado and built post-Columbine, and the current one in which a student was found in possession of a weapon during school hours during finals, and no one was hurt; so I probably have as much experience as an expert, but I don't call myself an expert.)

I think there are two ways you can make schools safer. One of them people will latch onto because it's easy to implement and track, one of them would be much more effective, but people won't latch onto it, because like good teaching techniques the world over, it's hard to measure.

1. Secure Campuses

Schools have been designed to be easy to get into and out of. This is for a very practical reason: the kids all come and go at the same time. Therefore, schools have lots of doors. In fact, in California, schools are mostly sprawling outdoor campuses, where every single classroom has at least one door that opens to the out doors, if not more.  Campuses need to be secured. In my last Colorado school, visitors could only enter through one door after the tardy bell rang. Inside that door they were in a "fish-bowl" of glass, and had to move through a second door to enter the school proper. That's good security (although if you have a really determined shooter it won't matter), but that's the most recent school design you can imagine. Most schools in this country are much older than that. Retrofitting them with one-in systems could require significant redesigns of the very architecture of the school. This could cost literally billions of dollars nation-wide. I'm not saying it wouldn't be worth it, but that money could really do more good paying for more teachers and smaller classes.

2. Build a culture of trust

The day before Christmas Break, a knucklehead at my school brought a gun to school. It was a handgun, and (evidently) 50 rounds for said weapon. He was found not because he brandished the weapon, or because he was searched by an armed guard, but because his peers reported him to a district program which students can use to report dangerous situations. Students are only willing to report things like this, and avert crisis, when they feel that they are important, valued, and that their tips will be acted upon.

Further, many dangerous situations have indicators that the people who should see them miss, and yet we seem to often see interviews where peers of a shooter say that they had concerns. With the pervasiveness of social media, often many people can see these warnings. If we build a culture of trust with students, they will be willing to share their concerns about things they see and hear, and schools and authorities can act to get those who are disturbed the help they so desperately need.

This culture represents a shift. For a long time, schools have dictated to students and students were expected to act as sponges for those dictations. However, as we move into a new world of constant change, students need to become partners in learning. We as teachers need to move away from the model where we were all knowing (although we still need to be the smartest person in the room) and shift to a model where we are partners with students, teaching them not just content, but also evaluate the information they are receiving and to create new ways of looking at that information.

If students are partners in learning, then there is a relationship, not of friendship, per se, but a relationship of learning. That involves trust, and if it is done right, students will confide in teachers, and share threats, and those can be dealt with in a calm and deliberate manner. 

I, for one, would prefer calmness to crisis any day.       

20 August 2012

Wisdom and Rules

I don't know about you, but I enjoy a good lecture once in a while. In fact, I've even lectured on lecturing. (I don't want to give too much away, but there was a powerpoint featuring a photo of Bill Gates with horns, because he is, you know, the devil) I've gone so far as to write posts on this very blog about my love of lecture. However, to be fair, that post was mostly an excuse to link to a clip of Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

In recent years, lecture has become relatively fashionable again, at least outside of the classroom, through the explosion in popularity of the TED talks. I found the one below particularly enlightening. 


Several things jumped off the screen to me the first time I watched this lecture. The first was how stereotypically academic Barry Schwartz is. Seriously. The only thing he's missing is patches on the elbows of his jacket, and he may have those. For Pete's sake, he gave the whole lecture looking over his glasses like I look at a kid who won't stop muttering during class.

More importantly though was his insistence, somewhere around the 9:30 mark, that rules and incentives are ruining our wisdom. As he puts it, "rules are destroying our moral wisdom". This is especially true in education, not just for students, but also for teachers. 

Students who are constrained by too many over-specific rules are never given the opportunity to figure out their own moral compass. Instead, they are always governed by adults. Then, when they graduate, we fling them out into the world and expect them to not be miscreants. That's unreasonable. Just as schools are a place (we hope) for them to learn social and work skills (in addition to all of the REALLY IMPORTANT ACADEMIC INFORMATION) they should be a place for kids to figure out right from wrong. Teachers certainly play a huge role in that, but not by coming up with more and more rules. I think the best teachers offer very few specific rules, instead relying on a broad set of respect-based expectations. If you get to specific, kids will spend more effort looking for loopholes than they will becoming better people. There's a really great argument to be made in support of the idea that binge drinking is essentially a response to finally being given some freedom in the world. I'm not going to make it here, but I think I could.

However, I will make this argument. That since teachers are facing more and more rules and regulations for how to run their classrooms, classroom teaching is being ruined. In just my classroom I have the following things which I am required to have on the walls; Williams Act Compliance forms in English and Spanish, district mission and vision, Expected School-Wide Learning Results, the "Grizzly 5" school-wide behavior expectations, a poster about the school district, and emergency procedures. I also have a BTEOTLIWBAT sign and every day have to write a lesson objective on the board in a proscribed manner. At a higher level, I have district pacing guides, district benchmark tests, and a curriculum that I am expected to follow. It's almost as bad as the CPS example in the video! It gets worse when it comes to the Internet. Heaven should forbid that I try to show a video on youtube or a clip from the Daily Show! I get the access denied screen more quickly than a kid gets thrown out of class for spitting on the floor.

So what is the result on teachers? Well, teachers act like kids. We spend more time in inservices complaining about the rules and looking for ways around them than we do talking about learning. Further, the strict schedules and heavy emphasis on testing makes teachers less willing to experiment and try creative teaching techniques. It becomes so hard to bring in interesting and fun activities that many teachers just give up. It is just as Mr. Schwartz points out: mediocre. Sure, no one does anything really reprehensible, but no one does anything really great either. In a nation where we're grinding our teeth about being mediocre, imposing more rules on teachers doesn't seem like the way to get to greatness.

Barry says that he understands why there have to be rules, they are there to prevent disasters. I get that. I'm sure if we could show youtube, some knucklehead would show a video with a swear word in it. When you operate without curriculum guides, some people decide that playing Finding Nemo is a great lesson plan for when they're talking about oceans in Earth Science.

The way to fix that isn't to simply put more rules in place. The way you fix it is by hiring better people. Or, if you're stuck with a staff you can't trust, you get into classrooms more often. No self-respecting teacher is going to do something inappropriate if they believe their boss or a co-worker might walk through the door. People will make bad decisions. Giving them a larger set of rules to follow isn't going to stop that. However, when you give them so many rules that it feels like they don't have choices, then they won't think about the decisions they're making, because they won't feel either empowered to make good decisions or feel trusted to make good decisions (in most cases, it's both of those things). 


But I think that the imposition of rules in education goes beyond worries about misconduct and bad teaching. I think that many of the rule imposers genuinely believe that by forcing teachers to do things a certain way, test scores will go up. There is an entire industry dedicated to testing and test prep. The data crunchers who work in education (but not in classrooms) are constantly telling admin teams that there are certain things that will absolutely improve test scores. My BTEOTLIWBAT sign is one of these magic bullets. Studies show that if students know what they have to do by the end of the hour, they will have better scores. 

That's great, but it ignores a larger fact. If that student has an "effective teacher", their scores will improve as well (and by a larger factor). The problem is that we have a hard time defining "effective". You see, different teachers are effective in different ways. I work in a department with 7 other professionals. I know that none of them would teach their class the way I teach mine, and I wouldn't teach the way they teach. I also know that most of them are really effective, and that they get the most out of the kids they teach. (lest you think I'm just blowing smoke here, one of them had 73% pass rate in AP World and another did better than a 50% pass rate on the APUSH exam. They don't suck). 

But since it's hard to put "effective" in a nice neat box, we impose more and more rules on teachers. Because that's easy, and easy is easier than hard. Unfortunately, our educational leaders won't watch Barry Schwartz, because if they did, they would have to examine their own moral wisdom, and I suspect that they would find it was below our expectations for them. 

And now, because this post was far too serious, I give you one of my favorite youtube videos. Ever.


And a picture of a clown with bagpipes. Admittedly, it's no Velociraptor on a bicycle, but it's close.