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.