A note on positive feedback

We praise daily work that contains little effort and no serious thought. We are taught when studying for teaching degrees to seek something positive to say about any work turned into us, and not to use red pens, since marking up papers with a lot of red ink makes students feel bad. When students copy each other on group projects, we allow this as a “group effort.”
Frankly, some of these papers deserve to be covered in red ink. Some of these group efforts should be shut down. While I believe in positive comments, in fairness I know there are times when “Think!!” is a perfectly reasonable word to scrawl in a margin. Character counts.
Positive feedback for lazy, marginal efforts only nets us more lazy marginal efforts. Giving “A” grades for mediocre efforts ensures more mediocre efforts. Our poorest schools keep cranking out substandard work and we wonder why. At least one reason is all those positive comments placed on papers that ought to have said, “Do this over!” instead.


Let me make this post less theoretical: I have a student I’ll call Ulyses. Ulyses is a quiet boy who does more of his homework than most. He reliably does his classwork. Awhile back, he turned in an assignment which noted sadly that once he had been a good student who got good grades. He’s having a rough year this year in comparison.  He’s getting mostly Cs and some Bs. I took some time to tell him he was doing fine. I have given only a few “A” grades this year, I told him, and I have appreciated his steady efforts.

Here’s the thing: I’m not sure if he started kindergarten in the U.S. and is still in bilingual classes seven years later. Some of my students started kindergarten here and are in year seven — destined at this rate to finish high school in bilingual classes unless some changes are made. But I know Ulyses has been in bilingual classes since early elementary school.

He tells me he got high grades in his bilingual classes in elementary school. My question is the following: If he was doing so well, why has he been unable to pass the English-language exit test for all these years? He isn’t even doing particularly well on the test, not well enough to qualify for part-time help. He is in full-time bilingual classes. If this boy had actually been doing well, I would have expected him to learn English.

But I believe him when he tells me he always got good grades. He’s an honest kid. What I suspect happened here is a version of what I wrote when starting this entry. I bet his teachers just kept putting positive comments on his papers, no matter how many mistakes those papers had on them. They probably wanted to avoid making him feel bad, so they avoided directly correcting many of his mistakes.

They may have intended to be kind. What they did to Ulyses was not kind, however. This is a good kid without any learning disabilities who has fallen years behind grade level despite probably having been a diligent student, especially in his earlier years. An outsider might suspect this is an example of the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

The scariest part of what I’ve written: I’m not sure Ulyse’s problems have resulted from the soft bigotry of low expectations. I think I’m looking at what can happen when current educational philosophy is put into practice by people who don’t understand that if you reward crap, you will keep getting crap.

Dollar Days

Journal 3/9/10:
Let me first observe that my school’s situation seems to be improved this year. There will be summer school. We have found the money. Financial oversight in the district appears improved too. Still, I think this provides a good picture of a poor school district in tough times, especially now that the state of Illinois is often very late making its payments. We supposedly cancelled a number of activities early in the year because checks that were expected had not been issued. I loved that recent article about how local vendors would not sell bullets to the department of corrections unless they were paid up front. 
Names will obviously have to be changed as I describe the following:
The nurse is out of ice packs. The district claims to be out of money. (I know they are. They have been deeply in the red for awhile. Still, they somehow keep spending for at least some items they want. Ice packs must not be on the list.) I suggest to my student “Jennie” that we ought to have a $1 uniform-free day to raise money to get ice packs for the nurse. On these days, students give the school $1.00 and those students don’t have to be in uniform for the day. 
We discuss the uniforms, then graduation. Graduation costs $130 for the grad package of gown, t-shirt, yearbook, keychain and not much else. A number of our students will never cross the stage for just this reason. The Masons have twins. Why not raise money for graduation packages for those who can’t afford them. (It’s hard to determine who can and who can’t, of course.) I’ll observe that the Principal helps out some of the neediest students. Other teachers have helped as well. One year, I got permission to sell lollipops to help raise graduation gown money. 
Then Jennie threw the real pathos bomb at me when she said we ought to have uniform-free days to raise money to pay for teachers so that we could have summer school. That way kids who fail could go to summer school instead of being retained. As it stands now, it looks like there’s no money for summer school. She asked how much teachers were paid for summer school. I said it varied. I thought it might be a couple of thousand per class. (It’s more.) “That much?” She looked crestfallen. That was too much money.
It had been a good idea. The whole idea of trying to fund a school system with money from students who want to wear jeans and t-shirts instead of black pants and red, collared shirts is pretty funny in a gallows-humor type way. We could open a gaming center and charge them to play video games all afternoon. That would help too, no doubt.
Maybe we could start our own lottery.
A few student entries:

Robbie really has no idea how to do his work. He is not defensive. Just resigned. I say you need to do this. He says he does not know how.  He missed – what, half the year last year? Who knows. He stays home to help his mom, despite attempted school and county interventions. I look at him. A brief silence falls. I know he does not know what I am talking about. He has missed so much I don’t know how to fill in the gaps. I launch in to try. He looks so defeated.

Diandra is going to Mexico for two weeks.  That’s two weeks of math she will miss. As I said in class yesterday, math is different than language arts. In language arts, you can have gaps and still go forward. Language arts does not have to be linear. Math does. But Diandra does not have a choice. The family’s going to Mexico. I promise I’ll try to catch her up.
Jaime was at the top of my classes when he left for Honduras. Now… there is so much he seems not to be able to answer in class. Was he in school at all during those three months in Honduras? He’s very bright. I expect him to be able to fill in his gaps. I doubt his brother will be able to fill in the gaps, however. His brother is much farther behind and needs a lot more time to catch up. He’s also GIVEN up, which is the real barrier to fixing this mess.

True Observation

Taken from a Facebook page:

“When only 3 people pass your test, that says something about your teaching.”

I absolutely agree with that kid. I sometimes make tests that are harder than I expected, (actually I regularly do this despite my best efforts) but if I ever write a test that only 3 people pass, it will probably be time to retire. The test should reflect what I taught.

And I had better have taught more than three people in the room.


Broken Water Fountains

The men and women over in the Administration Office need to wrap their heads around the meaning of the broken water fountains.


Message sent to the Principal of our school:

“(Mr. Principal), please make sure that your staff and students are aware that this is not acceptable. We can not afford to be repairing equipment when our budgets are as tight as they are.”

From: (Someone in the Central Office)

I am sure we cannot afford to repair these fountains.

I was here, though, for the brief period a few years ago when they shut down bathroom breaks. That sure failed. I remember vividly that one girl called her mom from the classroom of a colleague and her mom said, “Just go.” The girl went. So did everyone else in the class who wanted to go and my colleague had the choice of writing up a group of kids, with a likelihood that nothing much would happen to them, or just rolling over. She rolled. I walked upstairs at that time listening as a paraprofessional (!) explained to a student that restricting bathroom privileges violated the student’s civil rights and the student should just go if he felt like it. I took my kids in a group a few times, which was allowed, at the cost of a considerable amount of class time. I did not want to do this group activity, but some girls at certain times of the month require a little flexibility. (I’m sure the nurse was flooded with girls at this time, too, since sending girls to the nurse got around the bathroom restriction.) The restrictions did not last long since they began to suck up quantities of administrator time, as teachers were forced to write up kids for going to the bathroom.

So let’s assume we cannot keep our students out of the bathrooms. (Nor should we, obviously.) Then the next choice would be sending them with security to the bathroom. But security is pretty busy. In fact, they don’t always come when you call them. They certainly can’t be running around the school taking 14 year olds to the bathroom. That means students will actually be going by themselves to the bathroom sometimes.

And that means that vandalism will happen. A small percentage of our students create most of our disciplinary referrals, but members of that group can be hell on wheels. One thing that those Administrators who don’t work inside schools may not understand is that kids who know the system may not express their anger directly. They’ve learned not to push the adults in their lives. As a consequence, a few have become masters at the passive-aggressive comeback.

The water fountains really don’t stand a chance. More importantly, if we emphasize how upset we are at what’s happening to the fountains — the fountains will stand LESS of a chance. We will have targeted those fountains.

A Parental Note

One of my neighbors is having trouble with a parent. The parent says my colleague is picking on her kid. She called and chewed out my poor colleague out on the phone, demanding a meeting. But all of this kid’s teachers are having trouble. Mom just doesn’t want to acknowledge that her boy is developing disturbing behaviors now that he is in 7th grade.

I do feel for some of these parents. They’ve been doing their best sometimes and until adolescence that best seemed to be working out. Call it hormones, call it what you choose, though, a number of kids decide to step off the education bus in middle school. A few do this earlier, a number do it in high school, but for most the turning point is middle school. Research documents the fact that middle school performance is an excellent indicator of college performance, research that most likely does not matter here. At this rate, this kid will never see the inside of a college.

The right parents can get some of these kids back on the education bus when they start trying to get off, although the best efforts of the most dedicated parents don’t always work. Good parents take away the game system until the grades go up and, sometimes, the grades go up. They help the school. Suspensions don’t turn into multiday vacations with Battlefield, Black Ops and Cheetos. Afternoon tutoring becomes part of the student’s schedule.

I looked at the newspaper article about the Elgin mom (see preceding entry) and my response was immediate: I felt profoundly sorry for her daughter. That girl will probably be suspended repeatedly, she’ll fall hopelessly behind, and she’ll leave school early, quite possibly to have a baby. A mom who encourages fighting sets her daughter up for all those suspensions. Most kids cannot make up the missing work because they’ve missed too much class time and too many explanations of new material. My colleague next door sends the math home to suspended kids, I’m sure, but that does little good when the kid is never there to hear how exponents work.

Doubt the Daughter’s on the Honor Roll

“Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely
to be normal.” ~ Albert Camus
And some don’t bother to expend any energy! I won’t comment much on the following flight from Normal to Abnormal and finally just plain Stupid. If we wonder why some schools see thousands of disciplinary referrals over the course of a year, this article provides a clue.
(Elgin Police Dept. / April 27, 2012)
Staff report
4:54 a.m. CDT, April 27, 2012

An Elgin mother was charged Thursday with contributing to the delinquency of a minor and aggravated battery after she drove her 16-year-old daughter to a local park so her daughter could fight another girl and even videotaped the incident, police said.

(Name withheld), 46, appeared in Kane County court on Thursday after being charged in connection with the April 2 incident, according to police.
According to a police report, (Name withheld) was in a car with her daughter and two of the girl’s friends along with (Name withheld)’s 14-year-old son when her daughter received a call from another friend who informed the daughter that a 15-year-old girl with whom she had been having problems wanted to meet at a park to talk things out.
The girl told her mother that she wanted to go to the park but instead of talking, the girl told her mother she wanted to fight the girl, police said. The mother then drove the girl to Shallow Hill Park, 340 Cassidy Lane, where she dropped the girl off along with her friends, police said.
After dropping the girl off, (Name withheld) allegedly drove around the park and she drove up to her daughter and her friends who were now speaking with the 15-year-old girl and her friends. The 15-year-old told the daughter that she wanted to talk about their problems and began walking away, police said.
As the girls were beginning to walk, (Name withheld) told her daughter to, “Kick her a–,” according to the report. (Name withheld) then yelled from her car window toward the other girl that her daughter was, “going to kick her a–,” police said.
After the Joost’s taunting, her daughter tried to get the other girl to fight but the girl tried to “defuse” the situation. (Name withheld) at this point took cell phone video of the interaction.
(Name withheld) then called one of her daughter’s friends on her cell phone and told her, “Enough’s enough, either kick her a– or let’s go home.”
Seconds later (Name withheld)’s daughter attacked the other girl. The attack was recorded by one of the victim’s friends and police pursued charges after finding the videotape.

Student’s Solution to Security

Asked for 5 discipline policies to put in place in a school district, a relatively strong student wrote this:

I will put cameras.
I will put a metal detector.
I will put a lot of security officers.
I will put police around the school.
I will put a big fence around the school.

His hypthothetical school may or may not be safe. It’s sure not very cheery. My middle school students enter through metal detectors. For years, schools in major urban areas such as Chicago have been putting those metal arches in middle schools and high schools, a fact that has caused brief flurries of discussion, discussion that fades away quickly. In post 9-11 times, we accept changes that would have seemed unthinkable a mere quarter-century ago. Security also waves a wand over my students and their backpacks as they enter.

On Friday,  we read an article about school security that led to my 5 discipline policies class opener. We talked about the article. My students told me all the ways they could get a gun into school past the metal detectors. This week I will have to share some of what I learned with the administration: No more letting them get away with, “It’s just my cell phone” when asked why the wand went off over their backpack as they walked into the building.


Talking to Annie

My friend Annie is a thoughtful, intelligent mother of two children, a boy and a girl in their teens. Since I’ve known her, she has always lived in what is called the North Shore, a sprawling set of Illinois suburbs where the test scores are consistently excellent. Specifically, she is currently in Deerfield, where according to Trulia.com, the average home listing price was $503,810 for the week of 2011 ending Aug 17. Previously, she was in Highland Park, where housing prices are running higher for the same week. Parent ratings for local schools are five stars out of five stars for both areas.
In the district where I work, the average housing price for the same period is $72,155. Housing values have been much harder hit by the housing market bust, too: Good schools protect housing values. Housing values fell by over 1/3 last year where I work. Parent school ratings range from 2 ½ to 3 ½ stars.
When discussing the low ACT scores in my workplace, Annie came back immediately and said that the district needed to make the curriculum much harder. My thought was that Annie’s response was a perfect example of why the district where I work is in so much trouble. We are very busy raising the standards, a very middle-class response to our problem, as if the children will magically be teleported upward by the standards themselves.
I explained to Annie about my unreadable books, and about the need for fourth grade level reading material for third and fourth grade level readers. But I can’t have those books. I’m not allowed to order those books since I am teaching seventh and eighth grade students. When I ask for readable books, I risk (and have received) administrative disapproval. But if my students are not at grade level when they enter my classroom, and most are not even close, I end up obliged to hand them unreadable books instead. We then dauntlessly try to wade through the many unfamiliar words.
Here’s the most aggravating part of my problem: My students are not reading those books because they can’t read those books. They are deciphering those books. Many students in lower-scoring schools across America may never actually get enough momentum to read their science book, for example. There are too many unfamiliar words in that book – not just the new concepts such as plate tectonics, but a host of other concepts that describe plate tectonics. With the right teacher, they will succeed in deciphering the material, but they necessarily are going slowly. They also are getting little real practice reading. The book is too many years above their documented reading level.
Raising the standards can only work as a strategy if we address the actual needs of our students. We might be able to catch some of these students up, to close their personal learning gaps, if we taught them the material they had somehow missed. Unfortunately, a more rigorous curriculum often pushes school administrators to force teachers to use material that is years ahead of where their students are at – and those administrators either don’t understand the need to go back or are simply too afraid to go back to the point where these students became lost. Teachers are also afraid to go back, even if they are allowed to go back. As schools go to models where all teachers are supposed to be teaching the same material at the same time, and are then supposed to give the same tests, teachers usually can’t go back because there’s no extra time. They risk their students receiving lower scores on the group assessment – which will count against those teachers, since they are being judged by that assessment. Any extra, missed material that has been taught to their lagging students does not count since it’s not reflected in the assessment. But even if there’s more flexibility, a dense, rigorous curriculum may demand so much time and effort that past deficiencies simply can’t be addressed for lack of time.
This is one reason why that kid who can’t add fractions in sixth grade may get to seventh grade still unable to add fractions. And it’s ridiculous. But as we establish steadily more rigid and rigorous sets of expectations and demands, often in response to government requirements, we necessarily exclude groups of students who don’t fit the mold of what we are supposed to teach. It’s hard to take a stand against higher expectations for lower performing students. Those standards seem like a natural response to the problem of our academically-challenged students.
But higher standards need to be put into place in a rational, intelligent manner with an understanding that differentiated instruction cannot replace readable books. We have an abundance of research showing the importance of reading as a predictor of long-term, academic success. Students who read regularly usually succeed in school and in life. Students who can’t read don’t succeed. It’s really that simple.
When a rigorous curriculum or elevated state standards make reading harder or impossible, we are ensuring that many students will not succeed. We are also making many of them dislike reading itself. Deciphering text is hard work. When best attempts at doing so result in ponderous efforts that yield confusion, mediocre grades or worse, what positive reinforcement for reading has occurred? None, most of the time.
Here’s the thing: If Jasmine is operating at a fourth grade level, the next material she sees should be fifth grade material. Too often, our push for more rigorous curricula now prevents this from happening. Everyone is handed the seventh grade material because that’s what the curriculum dictates. Then, a few weeks later, some teacher writes up poor Jasmine and sends her to the Dean, because instead of reading her textbook — much of which might as well be written in Martian or Ancient Greek as far as she is concerned –Jasmine is texting her boyfriend instead.  
The problem ought to be obvious. The test or curriculum should not be determining the material presented to Jasmine. Jasmine should be determining the material presented to Jasmine. Specifically, if Jasmine is reading at a fourth grade level, she ought to be encountering fifth grade reading material.
When we hand our students unreadable books, we should not be surprised if they are playing videogames on the smartphones they have stashed under their desks. We should not be surprised if they are texting friends to get answers for tests or quizzes, either. Ethics have been sliding down the slippery slope in this country for awhile. Multiple surveys say most high school students cheat and I’d say it’s a natural response to being given an unreadable book followed by a test filled with problem-based learning scenarios and critical-thinking questions that are based on incomprehensible readings in 5 pound books that mostly live in lockers.

State threatens to dissolve school board

There’s an article in the a metropolitan paper saying the state is planning to eliminate an Illinois district’s School Board. The article cites low test scores. I don’t know that eliminating the Board will change those scores, at least not in the near future.
What will  help scores? The changes that can improve a district’s test scores are more nuts and bolts than anything else. Efforts to create an overarching, vertically-aligned curriculum may improve scores. One of my favorite lines from this last year’s professional development: “You can’t just teach about dinosaurs because you like dinosaurs.”
I believe my district may have done a lot of farm, dino and egg units in elementary schools for just that reason  — because a teacher happened to really like teaching about farms, dinos and eggs. Kids love to watch chicks emerge from eggs. This will not necessarily provide them any benefit when they go on to the next grade, though, especially if this is the third set of eggs they’ve watched hatch. A hatchling is a hatchling is a hatchling.

I hope any replacement board will not make sweeping changes until they really understand what is happening. For example, a vertical curriculum is not a quick fix. No fix is a quick fix when so many students are years behind grade level. The temptation to replace principals and others can be strong once scores have fallen so low. But I am convinced that part of the reason for this district’s low scores is precisely those personnel changes. Historically, when someone did well working in a school here, they were often moved to another school with more problems. Turnover has been far too high and has created its own problems. Improvements require teamwork and teams take time to build.

Blown Away in Social Studies

So we are more than 3/4 through the school year now. I have a student I’ll call Fernando. Fernando came into 7th grade with a big smile and a friendly, helpful attitude. He proceeded to do almost no work whatsoever. Another teacher tested his reading for me. He tested at the 1st grade level. We took the MAP test. He tested at the 2nd grade level.

Aha! He had missed the Special Education Boat! I discussed this with a colleague. We agreed. We were going to start special education paperwork after he had been in System 44 for awhile, our reading program that teaches phonics. The idea was that we could use System 44 as proof of Fernando’s need for help, documentation from a state-approved intervention that the boy needed help. (It is extremely hard to get someone into special education for reasons not worth posting here. Multiple meetings and documentation of multiple interventions are needed.)

Here’s the problem: I think Fernando may be learning to read. I did very little on this, I’m ashamed to say, assuming that a kid who was 6 years behind grade level just had to have some underlying problem preventing him from learning. Also, I’m not an elementary teacher. I don’t actually know how to teach phonics.

But this week we read a difficult passage I took from the internet on school disciplinary policies. The vocabulary in that piece was at least at a 7th grade level — intended for educated adults. I figured I could teach it because interest would be high, so I used it as my current event for social studies. Fernando read twice. Fernando volunteered to read. He looked at me after both paragraphs with this look that triumphantly said, “I did it!”

A few days later, I remain essentially stunned. That thing was packed with four syllable words. I won’t know until I see the homework how well he understood, but I know he is reading so much better than he did a few months ago that I’m not sure about starting that special ed paperwork. He read those paragraphs clearly and comprehensibly. He was so proud of himself, too.

In the meantime, I still don’t understand how a kid can be 5-6 years behind grade level in reading by 7th grade without having some underlying learning disability — but perhaps he doesn’t. Regardless, I feel like I made an assumption and there’s a really good chance I was wrong. I learned something this week.