25 May 2011

We don't eulogize the living

Outside of some really interesting speech classes, the title of this post is true. We don't eulogize the living. I understand why we don't, but I think it's a shame nonetheless. You see, this is my last week at my current job, and the week when my wife, who's been living in Central California (which is a nice way to say "Fresno"), comes home to help me pack up the recently sold house. 

You may be wondering what those two things have in common, or what they have in common with eulogizing the living. You're right to wonder; on the surface they have nothing in common (with each other or with eulogies). In order to make the connections, let me explain.

My wife spent 5 years as a teacher here in Colorado Springs. She worked at a smallish charter school. I don't think I'm overstating when I call her legendary or titanic there. Her impact was so large, her opinion so valued, that her former principal called her and asked for advice solving a schedule problem in the fall. I have friends at church whose older kids had her, and they're still more than a little bitter that she left the year before their youngest would have been in her class.

I bring this up because the missus went to visit her former school today. She won't say so directly, but the response was overwhelming. Parents stopping her in the hall, telling her they had just been talking about her. The aforementioned principal calling her into the office to sit in on another scheduling meeting. Kids who never had her calling her name. In short, the school poured out its love for her onto her. 

I, on the other hand, did not go back to my former school, because it's not my former school until Sunday. However, I did receive high praise from my co-workers and former students. They presented me with a signed photograph of me leading an assembly. The messages they've scrawled all around it are enough to move a rusty old cynic like me to the verge of tears. They presented the framed picture to me at graduation practice, and (for me at least) it got pretty dusty in our unfinished auditorium. 

So how do these two stories relate to eulogies? (I have now smashed the previous record for use of the word "eulogy" in a crappily written education blog) Because if I wasn't leaving, and if my wife hadn't left, then these laurels would not have been presented to us. Not to brag (which of course is what I'm going to do), but most people would have said really nice things about us, because we're good at our jobs. However, societal norms would have prevented most of them from saying those things to us. It takes a person leaving for them to hear that people appreciated them.

This is obviously the proof of the old truism that "you never know what you've got 'til it's gone". We, as a society, don't praise those who are good at what they do often enough. We spend our time and energy trying to improve, instead of taking a moment to appreciate the things and people that we have in our lives that are already working.

I would encourage you to say a heart-felt thank you to someone in your life who does a nice job at what they do. Let your child's teacher now that you appreciate the work they've put in this year. Tell the janitor that you appreciate the job they do. Tell your pastor/rabbi/priest that you appreciate the way they go about their business. Leave them a note. Send them a card in the mail. Organize a card shower. 

But don't buy them things.

I know this seems counter intuitive. I know that you think that getting them something will show your appreciation. I promise you that they'll appreciate the gift card. They won't throw it away. But I'll promise you this as well: they'll treasure something personal that you took the time to do for them. I know this is true. I see teachers that post thank you cards from my Student Council kids on their walls. No one is printing out a thank you email. I know how I feel today with a gift that was genuine and personal from my co-workers. 

Sure, they could have gotten together and purchased a nice gift card so that the wife and I could go to a fancy dinner. We would have enjoyed it. But it would not have had the same impact as their personal notes did. Here's why: the gift card is corporate. It feels like an easy thing to do. The gifts I got, and the words of praise and genuine smiles my wife received actually feel like individuals appreciating us individually. 

So take some time. Think about that person in your life who makes a difference for you through their actions, and then do something to make them feel appreciated. Show through more than a routine "thanks, here's coffee on me" gesture that they are special to you. Take a moment to impact them on a personal level by showing that you appreciate them.

You'll feel good about it, and so will they. Little by little, we can make the world better. This is a really easy way to start. 
I'll even provide you with an example:

I want to say thank you to Anne Driscoll, Audrey Monke, Alison Moeschberger, Carolyn Graham, and Steve Dimit for encouraging me to write. Without the BlazeBlog, I think I would have been a ship without a rudder this year, and you all helped me build the boat. Thanks.

24 May 2011

Final Exams

So, diligent readers of the BlazeBlog, we've reached That Time of the Year Again. It's finals season. Now, many of you are collegians, and you're hopefully already done with your finals (good belated luck, by the way).

However, the BlazeBlog is dedicated to "Random Ramblings on Public Education", and since I still (for the next 3 1/2 days anyway) work in a public high school, we're just starting our finals schedule.

Finals are an interesting concept.

They exist, we are told, to provide an assessment of how well students have learned the subject material they were expected to learn for the year (or semester, as the case may be). To make sure that students take these tests seriously, they often carry disproportionate weight to the number of questions. As an example, in my district, teachers are encouraged to weight a final at between 15 and 20% of the final semester grade.

These tests, I believe, hold value for both students and teachers alike. I don't know that they should be worth 20% of a grade, but I do believe they should be given. However, I'm in favor of giving teachers some flexibility in the way they give their finals. Right now, in many schools, teachers are expected to give an actual test for their exam. Why not allow a project, a presentation, or some other form of letting students demonstrate their mastery of a subject? (well, how about "their competence"? That's probably better, since I'm not a huge fan of mastery learning.)

Further, many schools go to a special schedule for finals. Again, this makes sense. However, many of those schedules have standard or even abbreviated class periods during finals. A test which is worth 1/5 of the total points in a course is given in one class period. Further, schools (the ones I've worked in at least) want those finals graded quickly so that they can determine who passed classes, and who needs to re-take them.

So these two factors lead teachers to design tests which are easy to administer and grade. What's the easiest to administer and grade? Multiple Choice. Never mind that Multiple Choice is a terrible way to determine actual knowledge. Never mind that even the best test developers in the world no longer place much emphasis on pure Multiple Choice. It's easy to make, easy to take, and quick to grade, and that's what matters.

What's that you say? You're pointing out that early on I defended finals as a "valuable tool" to help determine what students had learned and what teachers might need to change? I did. But those were theoretical finals. In the real world, finals are Scantron-tacular. Why? Because it's the easiest way to get to the end of testing and the year.

It's all a part of the culture of compliance. Central offices, colleges, parents and alumni all think that finals are important. So high schools give them. That doesn't mean that those tests are doing any good, does it?

Well, maybe it does. Allow me to propose a defense of final exams:

Finals are, whether we like it or not, the reality in many post-graduate programs of learning. Colleges and universities (and yes, there is a difference, look it up) almost all use final exams. Many of those exams are worth as much as 33% of a semester grade. Most vocational programs require students to take a test at the end of the program. When you apprentice, you are required to demonstrate competence when you finish. Think about it, when you learned to drive, you had to take a written test before you took your driving test. When was the last time a cop gave you a written test while you were pulled over?

By making students take finals in an environment where we model how to prepare for a final, we help them prepare for later in life (which should be our goal overall). But to make that experience really work, we must develop better ways to evaluate students' learning.  We have to break the Scantron Shackles that keep us bound to tests which are ineffective at telling us anything meaningful about what students have actually learned.

I realize that this post has been a bit of a rambler, so let me try to consolidate my thoughts into a convenient, bulleted list:
  • Finals are high stakes.
  • Finals, in many places, are weak Scantron tests because of requirements for timing and scoring in a short amount of time.
  • Finals are valuable to evaluate the effectiveness of classes and classroom instruction, as long as they aren't the finals in the point before this one.
  • Finals, even in their bad form, are good, because the "real-world" often presents the same type of testing.
I would come up with a witty ending, but I just don't have the energy, I'm too busy writing and grading finals

21 May 2011

In which I try to get a new job

So, for those of you who are not perhaps avid followers of the employment travails of a certain BlazeBlog author (me), let me provide you with a quick history lesson.

I've been teaching in public schools for nine years. I had my first job in "The Region" in Indiana. The school was the poorest in the state per capita and more than 80% of students were on free or reduced lunch. My first day on the job, the police recovered a body from our property. In 2005, I left that school (because I was getting married) and moved to Colorado. The principal told me that, "You can stay here and really change the lives of 10 or 15 kids; or you can move somewhere else and have the best stories in the teachers' lounge."

Well, as much as I wanted to stay, my new-wife-to-be was having none of it. She found a job in a school she really liked, and planned to move us to Colorado Springs, post nuptials. These were the heady days of the housing boom, and the Springs was growing. I had two phone interviews, and by the end of May had secured a new teaching gig. Sure, the school had 600 more kids in it than it was designed for, and sure; they were going to run a split schedule to accommodate all of those mouth breathers, but it was a job, and I was happy to have it. 

Fast forward 6 years. My wife leaves teaching to take a full time job at a summer camp she's been either attending or working at for 18 of the last 19 summers (she deigned to take one summer off for our wedding, pretty much the last concession she made in our marriage). To take this job, she moves to the "central valley" of California (which is, of course, a nice way to say "Fresno") Meanwhile, I stayed in the Springs to try and sell our house (all done but the closing) and finish working my last year in a new school, as we processed our first class of graduating seniors (more on that at a later date).

During the year before I came to California, I managed to get a professional teaching credential in California, and an English Learner's Authorization. I re-wrote my resume and even created a webpage to sell myself to schools. I apply to scores. Finally, last week (after 15 months of applications), one called back. That's where we pick this story up.

I flew from Colorado to Fres-yes to interview. The interview was with a panel including other teachers, administrators, parents and students. I felt like I was on fire. I was connecting. I Bob-Feliced people. I knew my material. At one point I answered a question so well that the principal said he would put my answer on the back of their T-shirt. In short, I felt like a rock-star. 

To their credit, they decided quickly. I interviewed on Thursday, and got my "thanks but no thanks" call today (Saturday). 

My wife told me that I shouldn't take it personally. I'm trying not to, but that's a tough task. (for the record, she has never in her life interviewed for a position she did not get). You see, the job interview is one of the most personal experiences in a person's life. When a school gives you an interview (and since they asked me to fly out on short notice, I don't think this was a courtesy interview), it means that they looked over everything you had to offer and thought you were a good match. They want to meet you. They think you might be their guy. 

When they don't offer you the job, it's a personal thing. They looked at you and said, in effect, "not good enough." That hurts. It's especially painful to someone as vain as I am. I think I'm pretty good at teaching. I don't have piles of awards, but I don't need them. I have scores of smart kids who have said "thank you". I'm a department chair. I'm (I think) smart and well-spoken (despite what you've read here). I got a standing ovation at a recent awards night for seniors. Not getting a job I felt well-suited to flies in the face of what I think is true. It makes all of the synapses that control the "paranoia" part of my brain start firing. It makes me wonder if I've built myself up to be something that I'm not. 

It is a very personal thing to be told that you aren't good enough. It cuts deep into the way a person sees themselves. It's something that most of us don't have to deal with all that often. It's mostly a feeling that teenagers have. It isn't a feeling that I've had to deal with very often, at least not in the last 6 years, and simply put,  it isn't any fun at all.

I'll be honest, I haven't worked professionally outside of teaching, so I don't know if this is how it feels in other professions, but I suspect that the feelings are similar. So perhaps in this one case, I can take back one of constant refrains (the one about teaching not being like a business) and admit that sometimes teaching is just like other careers.  

No matter what job you're doing, when you don't get a job you want, it sucks.

13 May 2011

Friday U-boat, ed. 13

Well, it's Friday the 13th, and this is the 13th installment of the U-boat feature. Today's is courtesy of the Class of 2011.

On Wednesday, the Class of 2011 pulled off the first senior prank in our school's history. Besides zip-tying every locker in the building shut (funny and well executed, by the way) they also used window paint to mark the lockers with their class and year.

While they were ok at writing "2011" correctly, they struggled a bit with spelling their class.

Well played, senirs, well played

10 May 2011

A reminder that we get it right sometimes

Last night I received an enormous honor.

No, it wasn't an Oscar, or a Tony. No one nominated me for a Grammy or Emmy, either (Someday, I will EGOT, someday.....). I didn't get a pay raise, a crystal apple, or a "teacher of the year" plaque.

Nope, last night, I was invited to dinner. Well, not dinner so much as dessert.

You're probably thinking that getting invited to dessert isn't that big of an honor. I'll go ahead and say that what you're thinking is, in this case at least, wrong. Admittedly, dinner dessert probably isn't that big of a deal. However, in this case it was a special dinner.

You're thinking that this was a dinner for excellence in education blogging. Nope. Perhaps a city-wide night honoring contributions to online non-sense? Still wrong. In fact, it was an honor to get invited to dinner because the dinner wasn't designed to honor me at all.

The dinner in question is presented every year by our local "education foundation", which is a non-profit designed to support students and teachers. Every year for the last decade, they've sponsored a "3.75 dinner" for those seniors who have maintained a cumulative 3.75 GPA throughout high school (cleverly named, no?). These kids are academically the best and the brightest we have to offer to the world.

As part of the dinner, each student is asked to bring one special guest who has impacted their lives and educations. The student and their special guest both receive a nice embossed certificate. I was asked to be a special guest. That is the honor I received last night, and I count it among the most prestigious in my career. A student who I have had in class for four years stood in front of her parents and peers, and told them that I made her a better student and a better person.

I watched her peers do the same for their parents and my education colleagues. I've been to this dinner before, but never for kids who've I known as long as this bunch. This dinner was powerful stuff. Kids had wonderful things to say about their honored guests. One honored her younger brother and scores honored their parents. They spoke frankly about people who pushed and encouraged them to go beyond what they thought they could do.

This kind of event is rare for a teacher. We spend so much of our time dealing with the other end of the spectrum. Angry parents, paperwork, failing students; they fill our days (and depending on how vividly we dream, our nights as well). But on an evening like the 3.75 dinner, we get to see the fruit of our labors. These were bright, kind, amazing young people, and they were willing to say that we had a hand in making that.

They were a reminder that we're not so bad at this education thing after all. They were a reminder that teachers who care and work hard exist everywhere. They were a reminder that those hours and hours of grading and planning worked out, and produced wonderful young people. They were a reminder that for every Michelle Rhee screaming for reform, there is a room with 10% of a senior class somewhere, honoring their teachers. And that, my friends, is better that a trophy any day.

09 May 2011

The Culture of Compliance

Yesterday During Spring Break, I was listening to the radio before I took my wife to lunch. Now, because I'm classy (and because I can only hear Katy Perry so many times before I want to punch myself in the head) I was listening to NPR's Talk of the Nation. The topic for the portion of the show I was listening to was an Op-Ed piece written by Eva Moskowitz which ran in the Washington Post on the 27th of March. In that piece, Ms. Moskowitz (a charter school administrator in New York City) raises the interesting idea that class size might not be the answer to as many questions as liberal reformers think it is.

I have thoughts on the correlation between class size and success, but I'm saving those for a rainy day. (Or I wrote it first. Whatever.) Instead, I'm going to focus on a short exchange that came at the end of the hour, right before Talk of the Nation switched topics to the nuclear disaster in Japan.

Here is the short exchange that got my synapses up and firing:

"I have two classes of 24 kindergartners. Those classes aren't bad, but doing the paperwork to track 48 students is bad enough that I'm looking at an early retirement" - Random Wisconsin teacher

"We have become a compliance driven system" -Eva Moskowitz

I know that this seems like a throw-away line at the end of an interview, but it provides deep insight into a problem in schools that I don't think we've done a very good job of addressing over the years.

That problem?

We've essentially added so much paperwork, without really adding additional staff, that teachers now teach, grade and plan as they always have, but they also have to keep track of reams of data on how those students are responding to that data.

Let's use my teaching experience as an example, shall we?

I teach in a school of about 1,000 students. I think that this size is very good for a high school. Obviously, middle and elementary schools should be smaller. My school has a teaching faculty of about 60 full time teachers. We have 5 full time special educators (and I think 5 para-professionals). We have 1 half-time RTI person.

What does all of this mean for paperwork? That's a good question. If a Special Ed student has 8 classes, and there is a meeting coming up for that student, that means that 8 teachers are filling out progress reports on that student and submitting them. The Special Educator is then compiling that information, and looking at accommodations, and planning the meeting. This seems entirely reasonable, doesn't it?

Sure, but let's suppose that 10% of our students are Sped students who have reviews this year. That means that there are minimum 800 pages of progress reports. We have 5 people to handle and compile the data for those 800 pages. That's more than a ream of paper. That's somewhat insane, considering the fact that we have limits on how much paper we can use for things like, you know, teaching class.

It gets worse. Now, as we attempt to make sure that No Child Is Left Behind, even non-sped students have paper trails longer than they are tall. Every phone call home, every late assignment, every adaptation to allow alternative assignments or due dates must be documented. For kids that might be Sped, but aren't yet, there is an RTI form that asks what interventions you've tried with the student. You are expected to go through a 100 page catalog of interventions to find the ones you've used.

Once you'd figured out which of the interventions you've used, you then are expected to fill out a form about the kid and submit that. One poor soul who's teaching English half the time spends the other half of her time compiling those records, and having meetings with those kids to figure out why they aren't being successful. Amazingly, none of the options are "I'm a lazy turd eater."

Heaven should forbid someone actually fail a class and you haven't documented 15 calls home. As an added bonus, parents now know about all of this, and when they suspect you haven't documented something, they start to throw around words like "lawsuit" and "sue" and "non-compliance". It takes less paperwork to get a passport in this country than it does to get out of kindergarten. Seriously. Here's the passport application. Six pages and a picture. Here's the KINDERGARTEN report card. Plan on four of those a year, plus any testing paperwork. There is an entire department at the State Department dedicated to passports. Teachers end up teaching and filling out these absurd amounts of paperwork.

But teachers aren't the only people punished by the culture of compliance. It bites counselors too.

I asked a former co-worker who's in counseling what compliance had done to counselors. She gave me the following, and yes I know how long it is, that's why I broke it down bit by bit:

On the process to change a 504 plan (this is a plan for kids with medical issues that require accommodations, though it has become a work-around IEP for many kids)
When teachers, counselors, and administrators have to follow 19 specific steps just to complete a 504 review (and I just counted - took off my socks and everything!), it takes more time to complete the check boxes, send emails, re-check boxes, etc than it does actually having the 504 review. (This assumes that I even have ACCESS to the documents, folders, files that I need to do my job properly without having to wait three months to have my username added to a permissions list, but I digress.)   Which part of this process serves the student and family better?  Yes - teachers need to know about any changes made to a 504 and parents should have a copy of their student's 504 as well.  Of course.  Because that makes sense.  And it's something that I would do even if the next step in our "504 Procedures" list didn't tell me to.  Maybe I'm just being defensive, but if you need to tell me to distribute 504 docs to teachers and make sure a copy goes in a student's folder, it makes me feel kind of insulted. 
This is a random break so that you could digest what she's saying and then move on. Take a breath. Stand up and stretch. Ready? Ok, let's get back to talking about compliance!
Now, multiply this 19-step process across almost every part of education - Special Education, sports eligibility, the AP course application process, going on a field trip, etc.  It's easy to see where the majority of my day could easily become paperwork and marking off items on numerous to-do lists rather than actually educate and teach.   
I'm going to end with probably the most insightful thing in the email she sent me. She tossed it in there as a random though between two paragraphs of rambling. But I think she has hit the nail on the head when she gives the following assessment of how teachers and other educators are now being judged:
Assumption that being compliance driven = care more 
Assumption that being compliance driven = do your job better
I think she's trying to say that not just being compliance driven, but actually having complied must mean that you care about kids and do the job well. So teachers, more and more under pressure to meet score standards and show growth, spend less and less time actually figuring out how to reach kids, and more time filling out paperwork to prove that they are actually figuring out how to reach kids.

But, as long as you're filling out the right forms, you're teaching kids, right?

04 May 2011

It's research paper time!

Friends and loyal readers of the BlazeBlog, it's that most wonderful time of the year. It's the end of second semester. All around the nation, young people are buckling down for that rite of passage, the research paper. I've written before about how one extraordinary teacher and her research assignment shaped me, so it's clear how much value I think there is in research, especially at the high school level.

However, what you and I (depending on your age) think of as research is a very different animal process than what today's students undertake as "research". You and I, being old fogeys, actually had to pore through sources to find research or anecdotes that helped to support our thesises theses ideas. It was a process that, because we were reading many different works, exposed us to many sides of the issue. The process of research was time consuming and arduous. That's what made it good for us.

Today (and I realize how much this seems like me yelling "GET OFF MY LAWN!"), students think that research is synonymous with "Google". I'm sure that you understand most of the problems that come from this assumption, but I'd like to at least touch on them briefly:

1. Problem the first: People let a machine do their thinking for them. Now, the people that have written the search algorithms are exceptionally intelligent. However, the people taking advantage of that intelligence by using Google to do "research" are actually getting dumber. They don't ever work through the process. That's one of the biggest changes I've seen in students in the last decade. Assignments that used to be about process are now about results. Surely the testing culture is partially to blame for this, but some of it is the ease with which Google provides us information.

Also, this dependence on a machine is scary. It reveals how quickly people are willing to give up their own thinking and submit to the almighty machines. It's one thing for the young and the foolish to be led astray by dogmatic rants on cable propaganda billed as "news". It's scarier yet when people will give away the task of thinking to a machine. SkyNet is real, but it's smart enough to call itself "Google". (I for one welcome our computer overlords.)

2. Problem the second: Young people learning to do research have a very hard time determining what is a good source and what is crap. This has always been true, but Google doesn't sort by quality, and that compounds the problem, because students are lazy, and they just skim the first two or three Google results. That's how I end up getting answers that confuse the National Defense Education Act with the North Dakota Education Association. You can see the problem here. Students are so result oriented that they fail to even try to determine if their answer makes sense. Google has North Dakota Education Association as the top answer, that must be correct.

I know that this is hardly ground breaking. In fact, our AP Language and Composition teacher uses this article about it at the beginning of his unit on research. I know that I only have my old man ranting about it to try and point toward any sort of proof that Google is making kids dumber.

But let's be honest, nobody is reading this blog because they think I'm ground-breaking. They read, I think, because it's pretty short, and pretty simple. Oh, and because there are some chuckles along the way.

So what are today's chuckles?

First, there's the way I got that link to the Atlantic article.

Second, there's the proof that the algorithm writers aren't perfect yet. For proof, I offer this picture from my Shameless Facebook Plug of the BlazeBlog's gas price post.

Look at the movie they're plugging in the ads. I wonder what the Blaze Blog thinks of Waiting for Superman.

Oh, wait, I don't wonder that at all......

03 May 2011

$5 Gas Will Save America

Ok, so I have a theory that, on the whole, five dollar a gallon gas will save America as we know it. 

You all think I'm crazy. You point to the fact that this could cause widespread economic collapse. You gnash your teeth, and rend your garments. You think I've lost what little of my mind remained.

So, sit back, calm down, bear with me, and hear me out.

As you inevitably know, I've spent a moderate to large amount of my words on this humble blog ranting about the downfall of American society. I've ranted about online charter schools and regular charter schools. If you don't want to read those posts, from back when I wrote in larger paragraphs, I don't blame you, so I'll summarize them: I think that charter schools hurt America because they segregate schools by level of parental involvement, and that people should go to traditional public schools because those schools serve an important socialization function. At one point I also argue that letting people choose is bad.

However, this isn't the only problem with American society, although it is related (at least tangentially) to the problem I'd like to discuss with you tonight. Tonight, I'd like to talk about how we're all withdrawing into our homes, and how that hurts society.

We're all withdrawing from society. You and I see it every day. You can order almost anything on Amazon. Grocery stores (and even Wal-Mart) are starting to deliver. You can get a high school diploma, a college degree, and a job all from the comfort of your own couch.

It seems like mere convenience, but it's more dangerous than that. If people stop interacting, except via text, then society will slowly but surely fall apart. Empathy is a skill learned by witnessing, first hand, suffering. The more and more we seclude ourselves, the less we learn to actually feel.

(Right now, you're checking the title. You thought this was about $5 gas, and here I am, ranting about anti-social Internet trolls)

You probably think that $5 a gallon gas is at least partially to blame for this. You think that people seek online and delivered diversions because travel outside the home has become so expensive. 

I would argue that when gas gets more expensive, this trend could actually be reversed. How? Shipping. You see, whenever we order something online, we pay for shipping to get it to our door. However, as gas (and much more importantly, diesel) gets more expensive, that cost will be passed on to you the consumer. At some point, that will cancel out the cost savings that online sales sites rely on to make their profit. Then, it will make sense for you to go out and get the goods locally. When those people go out, society will benefit, especially if they're buying more local goods, since actually making things is one of the best ways to build the economy.

It will no doubt be painful. Society may become more localized (which has it's own set of problems), but I think that having people out, interacting with other people, is a benefit worth the pain of restructuring our society to function with energy prices skyrocketing.

So there I am, arguing for gas at $5 a gallon. I just hope it gets there before the Chinese call in our debt.