26 November 2011

Is being Cart-er-ific is the best thing that happened to me?

Those of you that check your facebook have undoubtedly noticed one of the most popular memes this month has been to list something you're thankful for every day. I haven't participated, but not because I'm not thankful. I haven't participated because I think that I don't need to share the things I'm thankful for on the Internet. The Internet is a place for complaining and devaluing other peoples' opinions, not for telling the people I know what I'm thankful for.

But I am thankful, and seeing what other people are thankful for has caused me to think about what I'm thankful for. The more I thought about how fortunate I am (a natural side-effect of teaching about Africa), the more I realized that the situation I'm teaching in this year has really been a blessing. To show you how far my attitude has come, I provide you with a link to the post I wrote after my first day at work.

Huh. I didn't seem very happy. I wasn't. The biggest problem for me, I think, was the idea that I wouldn't have my own classroom. No matter where I've taught, I've had my own teaching space. I think that most American teachers would rank a classroom of their own as one of the most important factors in their success as teachers. As individual teachers, our classrooms provide the set-up for everything we do.

We cover the walls with posters, class rules, and images that send a message to students about who we are. Student work? I'm going to reward and display good work. Music posters? Talk to me about things outside of school. Souvenirs from other nations? I'm a traveler, talk to me about it. Stuffed animals? I belong in an elementary school. Maps and flags? I'm a stereotypical geography teacher. You get the idea.

In our own classroom, we establish a space that helps us to set up routines and procedures. I know that in my own room, I have a basket for on-time work and a organizer for graded work. I have tubs to let students get their missed work. I also have many many piles of paper. Everywhere. The bookshelves are covered with text books, history books, and binders of classroom activities. Student work good and ridiculous lines the walls.

However, in many schools, there aren't enough rooms to go around. Especially in middle and high schools, where students change rooms every 90 minutes, teachers often get relegated to the cart, and have to move from room to room. That's me (and thousands of other teachers) this year.

I've had teachers in my room before, but I've never had to be that guy. As the host, I never really liked it. I always ended up leaving, or putting in headphones, because if I didn't, I would end up watching/participating in class. But now I am the invader. As you can tell from reading that post from August, I was nervous about the change of roles. That makes sense, because I was right. Teaching in 5 different rooms for 6 class periods is hard.

(You know what, let me change that) Teaching in 5 different rooms for 6 class periods is HARD.

That's better.

For a person like me (piles of stuff, constantly digging examples out of books, pointing at things on the wall) not having the same room twice is really difficult. I have to plan much more specifically what I'm going to say, and the most important references I have to bring with me. Some days, I carry a backpack (with student work, seating charts, dry-erase markers, regular pens, copy paper, plan book, referral forms, laptop, laptop charger, and portable hard-drive), a re-usable Target bag (with speakers, power cords, and a sub-woofer/amp) and a projector (which my school calls a "light-box"). One room has the desks in pods, a second has lab tables, a third has desk/chair combos, and one changes weekly based on the whims of the full-timer in there. One room has a SMART board. One doesn't even have an over-head. I struggle daily to make sure I have everything I need to run class, because I can't just open a file drawer or cabinet to dig out the think I need.

It's making me the best teacher I've ever been.

Wait. What?

Oh you heard read that right. Being in 5 different rooms has made me a much better teacher than I used to be. 

I know that it doesn't make sense, but give me three minutes of your time to explain why. 

Still with me? Good. For the first month of teaching, the hardest part was the constant presence of the teacher who "owns" the room. They just sit there and plan while I teach, but I've been in their shoes, and I know that they're watching and listening. This was impossible for me. I felt like I could never have a "down" day. (Yes, I realize that this job is important/the future/appreciated but if you tell me that you never have 90 minutes at work where you aren't a super-star, I'm going to go ahead and call you a liar). Always having someone watch me made me want to really knock it out of the park every single day. I planned more than I had in years. I made sure that I was dead-on the standards, and that every activity was set up to match the best practices

That isn't easy. For the teachers who read this, think about having an observation every day. That's what teaching in a room with a veteran teacher is like. I was new, and they were sizing me up, whether they would admit it or not. I felt like I had something to prove. I made sure that my lessons were dynamic and good every day.  Since the room wasn't mine, I became a better classroom manager. There was no way I would allow a class I was responsible for to damage a room that wasn't mine. Desks end up exactly where they started, and you had better believe that the floor is cleaner than it was in J-208 at the end of the day.

But it's more than the impact on my daily teaching. If it was just that, I would have said that teaching on a cart has changed me but not that it has made me better than I've ever been. It's also that I get to talk to other teachers daily after they watch me teach. They see things that I don't. I also get to watch them interact with their students before and after class as I'm setting up. (this could be an entire post. I could tell you which teachers were great and which ones probably struggle within a week of the beginning of school, just by how they interact with students outside of a class setting). I get to see what they have on their walls, how they plan, and how they arrange desks. 

I don't know if people who don't teach can ever understand how out of the ordinary this is for teachers. In high schools teachers all live in their own little worlds. We don't spend very much time talking to each other or observing what we do differently from each other. The culture of schools has been that I won't criticize another teacher, because they have their way of doing things and I'm not an expert. By invading their rooms, and being willing to talk about a lesson, I think (at least personally) that is being broken down. I am taking everything I see and using it to be a better teacher. 

It's not that this is a pain free experience. It isn't. It sucks. That said, I think every teacher could benefit from having at least one class in someone else's room. You won't like it, but if you're like me, and you don't want to be embarrassed, it'll make you a better teacher.

14 November 2011

A new set of words I hate

I know that I've talked about the most dangerous words in education before.

I'm pretty sure I've yapped about misspelled words.

I even managed some poetry every once in a while. 

However, I don't know that I've ever written about words that make me angry. In fact, I just spent three or four minutes skimming the BlazeBlog, and I can't find any place where I talked about pet peeves. I haven't really ranted very much about my co-workers, since a lot of them read this blog. (Hi Vista! Go Wolves! etc! etc!) But now, I have to explain the question that I get asked by some of my co-workers that just makes my blood boil.

They ask (and I quote), "what chapter are you on?"


I don't know what chapter I'm on. If you were to ask me what topic I'm covering, I would be able to answer. Indeed, you could ask me what themes I'm working on. I could answer that, and would probably talk your ear off for 30 minutes about it. But what chapter I'm on? Nope, can't tell you that.

Why not, you logically ask. You think that I should be following the book. After all, the book was written by experts, the teacher should just be a presenter of that information, in the order that the book presents it.

That's just the problem, as I see it. The book was written by a committee. Hell, in my U.S. History book, there are 5 pages of authors and contributors. If you've ever written anything in a committee, you know that it tries to do everything, and really does nothing very well. For an example we can all relate to, the U.S. tax code was written by several committees. As for the book authors,  I'm sure they're all very smart and earnest people. You know who else is smart? Me. Better than that, I even know what interests my kids right now. I can adjust what we cover, and how I cover it based on that.

I feel that when a teacher gets too married to the book (especially in the social studies, where I teach), they sacrifice that ability to adjust. Also, they really stop "teaching". I understand in math and the sciences, where teachers are teaching more skill-based courses, that the book is full of examples, and that those go in an order that increases difficulty as they go, and that those examples are hard to construct on your own. However, when you're teaching ideas, and concepts, and facts (as we do in history, especially) tying yourself to the book is, in my opinion, lazy.

Additionally, I think you're just demonstrating that you don't think you got a very good education and/or you don't think you're very smart. If you defer to the book, aren't you in fact telling your kids that the book is smarter than you? Aren't you breeding a belief among the students that you aren't the expert? I think that you are, and I think that kids deserve to have teachers that they can honestly believe are the smartest person in the room. The smartest person in the room doesn't read out of the book. No child is inspired to learn more by a teacher that just walks in, opens the book, and has kids work out of the book. Teachers spend a lot of time learning their content, why should they give that up to a person who writes books? At the maximum, the book author is your peer, not your better. (as an aside, if you think that the book author is that much smarter than you, I don't want you teaching. You're part of the problem. Go greet people at Wal-Mart)

Being married to the book also breeds this idea that we should teach to just what's in the book. The book is full of good information, but there is so much more out there that we can use in the classroom. My geography class would be flat if I stuck to the book, but I can bring in information about blood diamonds or the civil war in Libya. These are topics that are in the news, that parents can talk about their kids with over dinner. In short, they make connections, and connections cement facts and ideas in the brain. That's right, connections=learning and learning=good.

I can already hear the objections. The biggest one is the Test. The Test material is covered by the book. We must teach to the almighty Test. That's fair, but when I look at my test scores, my kids scored best on the topics we covered without using the book at all. Why? Because those were activities that they connected to.

This problem gets even more exacerbating when teachers are writing their own tests.  Too often while building common assessments (teacher-talk for a test that all kids take, so that we can get "data"), people simply look at the book test bank and pick out questions. When you ask them why they pick those questions, they answer with a fairly blank stare and tell you that it's what's in the book.


No teacher would accept that as a defense on an essay question (imagine the AP reader who gets the DBQ that says, "Nixon's effect on American society was largely to create the modern distrust of politicians, ironically cementing a nation willing to elect far more radical Republicans that himself. The facts supporting this are clear, David Kennedy wrote them all in The American Pageant.). If I wouldn't take it from a kid,  why should I accept it as the reason to put a question on a test?

Teachers and test writers need to pick questions to assess whether or not students learned. I'm not talking about if they can recognize the most familiar answer or spit back trivia facts, like how many nations are in Europe, either. I want a test question that makes students think and judge between the possible answers. Now, in the modern era of reliance on multiple choice questions, that means that the questions are A) harder to write and 2) often might have multiple answers which are technically correct.

For those teachers who rigidly adhere to the book and the test bank, this is a crisis. Students will pick the basic answer, and then, when it is wrong the teacher will have to explain that it wasn't the best answer. This is hard, because it requires personal attention and thinking from both the student and the teacher. There might not be time to get all of the grading done in class. Some of it might have to come home. I hate to quote former co-workers, but the teacher might have to "do the job right".

Listen, I'm not saying that textbooks are bad. In fact, in my interviews this summer I always said the same thing when asked about the use of a text book. I said it was a nice tool. But that's all I think it should be. It should be alongside the Internet, a book of simulations, films, and writing assignments.

But when you get married to the book, when you refuse to write your own questions, or write first-level questions, and then fight for their inclusion on a test not because of the quality or importance of what they cover, but because they are from the book, I begin to lose respect for you.

So, in the future, person not reading this blog because you don't know that guy with the meshed up desk has a blog, don't ask me what chapter I'm in.

p.s. also don't defend the map points you want on the test by saying "But those are the points that are already on the map!" YOU ARE THE TEACHER. YOU DETERMINE WHAT IS IMPORTANT! (well, you and the standards, but definitely not the guy who made the map in the workbook!

also, if you didn't click that "smartest guy in the room" link, and you're affiliated with D49, I think you'll get a chuckle out of it, but I could be wrong.

13 November 2011

Is the era of great teaching over?

editor's note: the author graduated from high school in 1998 and from college in 2002. Use that to provide some reference points about what he's talking about here.

I wanted to be a teacher from the time I was 10 or 11 years old. I loved making fun of people (some things never change, I suppose). This got me in some trouble as I remember. Let's keep in mind that I was in the 6th grade, so "trouble" meant I probably had to miss a recess. However, my teachers, Mr. Lantz and Mr. Lindgren made fun of us with impunity. I drew the logical conclusion that I would become a teacher so that I could make fun of people. This isn't a heart-warming story of changing lives, I admit, but it is the truth.

I entered Purdue University in the fall of 1998, with a major of Social Studies Education. By June of 2002, college was over, and the fine people at the Indiana Department of Education had issued me a teaching license. In August, I began teaching at River Forest High School, in Gary Indiana. I've been teaching ever since.

You may wonder why I've provided you with this little biological snippet. I mean, you normally come here for rants and observations, and now I spend a rare post talking about me and my life in teaching. First an obituary, and now this? What has happened to the Beloved BlazeBlog? Well, besides anger and teaching, I like to think that the BlazeBlog's other consistent theme is long-winded off-topic introductions; this is just one of those. Even while I was in high school I was watching what my teachers were doing, and college was a more formal extension of that. Clearly I'm still doing it (only because of loyal readers like you!). Those years of observation have led me to this conclusion: I think that I've been teaching in the greatest era for teachers ever. 

Think about it. We have studies that help us to find the best practices. We have time to collaborate. We have the Internet. 

I don't know how teachers before all of these changes managed to teach anything at all. I suppose that they taught more generally, and probably focused more on teaching themes, and the classics (which are things we've largely abandoned). But that's a post for another day. For today, I want to talk about all of the advantages that teachers today have. The biggest of those advantages is what you're using right now: the Internet.

The Internet changed education as we know it. It became a real tool for educators, as nearly as I can tell, in the late 1990s. Certainly by the time I graduated from high school in 1998 the Internet was being used as a powerful research tool by good teachers to let students explore subjects which they might not have otherwise delved into. I know that my teachers gave us access and projects which forced us to utilize the growing amount of information at our fingertips. In most cases it went well. For my unfortunate senior economics teacher, it also led to a semester of suffering for him. I don't need to tell you the whole story, but it involves a website for the Longshoreman's Union and our misguided belief that longshoremen must surely talk like pirates. 

By the time I was being trained as a professional, web sites were springing up to share lessons, to collaborate, to figure out what worked best. Since this was before No Child Left Behind really started to enforce a culture of testing, the web (as hip kids called it then) allowed teachers to really find things that were creative and use them. I know that in my first several years, my classes were consistently using the Internet to research projects, to present their findings and conclusions, and to compete against kids from around the nation in a stock market simulation. It was a powerful tool.

But now, thanks to a culture of testing and accountability, I find that many teachers are doing less and less of that. You see, when you allow students to discover the facts for themselves, it takes a lot longer. Unfortunately, due to the volume of information which must be covered in most classes, the feeling is that you must drive-drive-drive. I know that I feel that way. I find myself doing less projects and less discovery learning because it simply feels like (though they learn things in a way that means they will actually remember) it takes too long to cover that material. 

So, many of my peers (and now that I teach in many rooms, I see more teachers than I ever have before) do things like reading and outlining chapter sections in class, and pure lectures. I'm guilty too. It is simply the easy way out. 

So, is the era of good teaching over? Has accountability and the tests that go with it killed the best teaching techniques in favor of the old method of drill-and-kill, lectures and outlining?

I don't think so. I think that it's harder than it was a decade ago (of course, I'm older, and everything becomes more difficult as you age, as far as I can tell), but that teachers can still inspire students, and allow them to direct their own learning. I think that we just need to trust students. We need to understand that they will, in most cases, do what we ask of them, and learn. But for those of us that have been around for a while, it means that we need to develop lessons and projects with more specific goals and objectives so that students can focus on what the state will assess them on. It's less freedom than before, but more freedom than being chained to a textbook that was published in 2001 (I'm using one of those right now).

Perhaps I remember only the good, of my education and of my work. I hope that is true. I believe that good teachers can make a difference, even in a world of high stakes, and that we can still be good teachers. I just worry that the sheer numbers of those willing to settle for second best will begin to overwhelm us. Solidarity!