Buy a little notebook

I like my laptop, my Chromebook, my smaller laptop, my new phone that talks to me, my Kindle and all my sundry pieces of technology. I’m not exactly technowoman, but I’m low on the fear scale for new technology. Hand the damn device to me and I’ll figure out how to make it work.

That said, I recommend the lowly journal or notebook. I pick smaller ones that easily fit in a purse or the bag I sling across my shoulder in class. Notebooks are invaluable. My scrawlings include the random bits of teacherly life: Get Amos a rock worksheet, print fossils for Merry, Juan y+17=22, call home Alex pencil, etc. The advantage of my notebook is that I can whip the thing out in class as I walk through the aisles and record my random thoughts in a few seconds. The many small details in the average classroom proliferate as the day goes by and without my little notebook I might never get the make-up work to Merry or find out why Alex never has supplies.
kipling bag2 Latest pics 2330

The little bag is by Kipling and I love it. Any major department store will have a set of good options.

Maribel after the test

I had a doctor appointment so I passed my class to another teacher. They had a test to take. I thought the hour promised to be an easy one for him.

“What will I do when I am done?” asked “Maribel” quietly.

“I thought you could read,” I said. My colleague has a large library.

Maribel’s expression could only be described as dismayed. I had to run but I kept thinking about that expression as I drove. Maribel is a good student, one of my best. Would she read? If she didn’t, a number of others would opt out of reading as well. I did not want my colleague to suffer so I called from my cell phone to tell him where he could find a packet of work to give the class after the test. I was pretty sure most of them would do the one-page reading in that packet and answer the questions following.

Eduhonesty: It’s really sad when a pedestrian work packet about interest payments has a better chance of success than a freely chosen book or magazine.

Reading gone wrong

We are quite expert at teaching students how to read. The research on this topic may be almost as abundant as the common house fly. What we don’t teach is why to read. Oh, we give toss-offs about how they will need to be able to read for college. Reading teachers tell students about the many wonderful books that can be found in the local library. But the issue of why to read remains underaddressed and underconsidered.

Teachers tend to be readers. Too often, I think we teachers gloss over the intellectual and spiritual benefits of reading, as well as reading’s innate entertainment value, because we believe these aspects of reading are obvious. I suspect these aspects of reading may only be obvious to readers — a portion of the population that regrettably has been shrinking.

Eduhonesty: I confidently predict that our push towards common curricula and common standards will be a hindrance rather than a help if our goal is to cultivate readers. If we wish to create readers, administrators and bureaucrats need to leave teachers alone. Each class is different. If I have 18 boys and 10 girls, my reading choices should be different than if I have 18 girls and 10 boys. Those boys likely have little interest in domestic life on the prairie.

Individual literacy levels are huge, too. If my class is reading at a third to seventh grade level, To Kill a Mockingbird is the wrong book. I should be able to assess my classes before reading materials are chosen for the year. I should have the option of differentiating. Maybe one-third of my class should read To Kill a Mockingbird and another third should read The Phantom Tollbooth. I may have a group that needs Yertle the Turtle or my personal Dr. Seuss favorite, Bartholomew and the Oobleck. Reading needs to be fun, at least some of the time.

But I am the one on the scene. I am the one who can gauge my students’ enthusiasm. I need to be able to meet the needs of individual students so that I can sell the idea of reading. Reading is only entertaining if we read books that entertain us. Books assigned by a bureaucrat in a board office not only may not meet that need — they may discourage reading. If To Kill a Mockingbird becomes of source of confusing misery for a child, we may have provided one more reason NOT to read.

List of the 12 most underrated jobs of 2012

Listed in a article, the 12-most-underrated-jobs-of-2012 include diverse not-yet-favorites such as economist, school principal, and veterinarian. Most of these jobs require college and some up to seven or eight years of college, but a number can be had with a couple of years or less of schooling beyond high school. These include legal assistant, plumber, electrician and automobile mechanic.

Eduhonesty: Let’s pull back a little on the push to put all of America’s students in a university. While a nation of plumbers won’t work, some kids are not cut out for a university but may have everything it takes to become an excellent plumber. I’m pretty sure my plumber makes more money than I do, too!

Too many changes too fast

“A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.”

~ Albert Einstein, born on this day in 1879 – died April 18, 1955

I embrace this statement. Nevertheless, I think Albert’s insight needs a few qualifications or caveats.

Eduhonesty: Science requires reliability and validity. A well-designed experiment will be structured to test one variable, or in rare cases, a few variables, controlling outside influences. Does light help the plant grow? Keeping all other conditions equal, we give one group of plants light and put another group of plants in the dark. We might expand the model to include different kinds of light.

When our test fodder is students, not plants, it’s simply irresponsible to make large numbers of changes at the same time. Changing the schedule, the materials, the interventions, the required classroom activities and the administration at the same time hardly ever creates progress — and when it does, it’s extremely difficult to pinpoint what caused that progress.

Thanks to No Child Left Behind, an element of frantic activity has taken hold in lower-scoring districts. Many districts have shown little improvement. I believe part of the problem has been the act of instituting sweeping changes that cannot subsequently be analyzed because we have too many interacting variables in our equation. Any systematic approach to teasing out what works becomes impossible because we did too many things at once.

Another factor that I’m certain plays into this picture: Not only do we do too many things at once, we frequently do them badly. The first year of any new system is likely to have bugs, sometimes lots of bugs. Staff will implement changes differently too. My intervention is not John’s intervention is not Maria’s intervention even if we went to the same training. Maybe I am spending 10 minutes daily on the new math system, John is spending thirty and Maria is spending the whole class period. Joey may have tossed the binder with the new system into his wastebasket. In cases like this, you can only end up with gobbledygook for data. That does not keep administrations from publishing that data, at least internally, and making decisions based on their nonsense numbers.

A missive from the Division of English Language Learning, Illinois State Board of Education

My topic is a “new ‘proficiency’ definition for identifying English Learners, notification pursuant to 23 Illinois Administrative Code 228.25(b)(2)” — whatever the heck that is.

The Illinois State Board of Education has modified its version of language proficiency for Illinois students, increasing the proficiency score required to exit bilingual programs. We are up to 5.0 out of 6.0 now, when just four years ago we were at 4.0 The numbers won’t mean much to readers so let me put it this way: It’s much, much harder to exit bilingual programs now than it was. The 4.0 number meant you could coherently produce a paragraph in English that had a number of obvious flaws and still exit. The 5.0 is closer to a demand that you produce a grade-level, almost flawless, English-language paragraph. I strongly suspect that many students who are not bilingual students could not hit 5.0 in my school. We are a poor district scoring at the low end of the state testing pool. I’d love to give the ACCESS language test for exiting bilingual programs to the whole school to test my belief. I’d bet a few hundred dollars that a fair number of “regular” students born in English-speaking families would not pass. In fact, I might risk a month of the mortgage on this one.

Eduhonesty: The question is whether more time in bilingual programs will benefit students. My suspicion is that many students will suffer rather than benefit. There’s a complex issue here. Students who cannot function in regular classes definitely benefit by being placed in bilingual programs. At this point, in Illinois they can go all the way through high school in bilingual programs, which allows them to graduate even if their English remains substandard.

But students who don’t hit the 5.0 target and who could function in regular classes often end up DEPRIVED of English-language learning opportunities. The problem is the Type 29 certification and the lack of bilingual instructors. Due to a shortage of Spanish-speaking bilingual instructors in particular, Illinois has invented a five-year, temporary certification that is essentially a language test. Can you speak and write Spanish? Do you have a college degree? (It’s OK if that degree is from Mexico, Honduras or another country.) Then you can receive the Type 29 certification. It’s how I got started in bilingual education, although I’ve finished the required classes for regular certification now.

Many Type 29 instructors are weak in English, sometimes appallingly so. They end up teaching in Spanish because it’s their native language and the only language in which they are comfortable. A former principal and I had a few good laughs awhile back as he discussed how his fourth grade bilingual teacher used to bring a student to meetings with her to translate for her. In a Spanish-speaking community, a student may live in a Spanish-speaking household, watch TV in Spanish, talk to friends in Spanish, go to Spanish-language restaurants and never use a word of English except in class. That class may be 45 minutes in length, taught by someone who doesn’t quite know English fundamentals.

For the student who can function in a regular English-language classroom, bilingual programs can be a huge loser, a way to slow language-acquisition rather than speed it up. Better quality bilingual teachers might solve that problem, but the truth is that Illinois has a critical shortage of bilingual teachers in some areas and that shortage is not going away — especially since the state keeps increasing the need for bilingual teachers by raising the test score needed to exit bilingual programs, thereby raising the number of students requiring bilingual education.

District bilingual administrators tend to roll over and support new state demands. For one thing, having more students in the bilingual department increases the importance of their positions. For another, these administrators often believe that bilingual programs will benefit students. They are not in the classroom and may be much more acquainted with the theory of bilingual education than the actual practice.

I threw this post into classroom tips because I’d like to reach a few teachers. If you think Juan or Juanita does not need to be in bilingual classes, call home. Parents can still remove their children from bilingual programs even if that child did not reach the technical exit score. The district may resist withdrawal attempts but teachers know what administrators and bureaucrats don’t: They know their students. A student who can manage in a regular classroom should be in a regular classroom. A student who flounders and fails to manage can reenter bilingual programs if necessary, but many students rise to the challenge of a full English-language curriculum. These students will have a vastly better shot at college or the university in the long-run.

Time, time, time…

One of my colleagues made the following discouraging observation this afternoon:

“Between ACCESS, ISATs and MAP tests, I feel like we’ve pretty much lost the whole quarter.”

We’ve had three standardized tests in the space of a couple of months. It’s too much. ISATs are going on right now and that’s four days lost directly, not including all the time devoted to getting ready and to assemblies and pep talks. We end up with a couple of hours free in the afternoon, but they are crispy critters by that time, their brains toasted. As usual during a standardized testing period, the school is edgy and the Dean is inundated with disciplinary demands.

When counting the days lost, it’s vital to understand that a morning of testing is effectively a day lost. Students are used up by the end of two sessions of state testing. Behavioral issues abound.

Eduhonesty: Yes, we need testing. Yes, we need measures of performance. But we also need to consider the opportunity cost of our testing. What are we not teaching while we are testing?

I truly don’t understand why we need more than 6 of our 180 days for testing. We should test once in September to find out what they know and once in late April or May to find out what they learned. Testing for language skills of English language learners should last no more than one day at the end of each year. That would be about 4% of the school year. As it is, some districts are testing over 20 days — which is over 10% of the year and frankly ridiculous.

Paper and glue

I have them working on a project. This requires construction paper, pictures to cut out, markers, colored pencils and whole shebang. If the printers in my school could have been used as needed by students, we might have done this as an Excel project instead, but construction paper is available and reliable. Yesterday, I played their music, somewhat loudly, as they worked.

I had students volunteering to help with all sorts of things. I gave them all a piece of candy and received so many thank-yous. They were happy.

Eduhonesty: You can’t always blast the music. Sometimes you have to buckle down to multistep equations. But students also need a chance to operate in their comfort zone. They understand this cutting and pasting thing. They have confidence that they can produce good work, a product worth putting in the window or taking home. We need to make sure that the testing mania does not take away too many opportunities to create that project they can show off to their friends.

A plea for compassion for the slow learners

They are not potential rocket scientists. Most are not college material. Most cannot write a coherent paragraph and they are fourteen years old, raised in schools in the United States. Some may be the victim of poor teachers and poor instruction. But many are just… slow.

We go over and over the multistep equations. I try multiple approaches to get the idea across. The idea dies before my eyes. I am particularly fascinated by the homework papers turned in without a single correct answer. These papers are virtually always written by girls who wish to please me by doing their homework even though they manifestly have no clue what the symbols on the sheet mean.

I should not be inflicting this homework on these girls. We have to teach certain concepts, I am told, in order to get them ready for the state test. But they can’t get ready for the state test. Hell, they can’t add fractions.

These are the lost children. These are the fucked children, victims of an agenda which has no room for slow learners. Get them help, politicians say. We have to get these students ready for college.

Here’s the dirty secret: We can’t get some of them ready for college — not a real college, anyway, a college with standards that graduates students who can read, write and cipher. If after years of intensive interventions a kid still can’t remember how to turn a fraction into a decimal, with or without review, that college fantasy is a bureaucrat’s dream and a student’s nightmare.

What do these slow learners need? They need a time machine. They need to go back to the past where they would have been channeled into classes with other students who were operating at their learning levels. They need those vocational classes that we have been gutting in the name of No Child Left Behind.

One of my Facebook friends is a former student who is learning auto repair at his local community college. He’s a great kid, one of those kids who brightens up any classroom. I’m perfectly happy for him. I have to ask, though, why he has to pay all this money to get a certification that he ought to have been able to mostly complete in high school. Those classes are all gone now, the equipment sitting idle in empty rooms.

I want to ask my readers to do the following: Put yourself in the shoes of those slow learners. You have books you can’t read, tests and homework you can’t do, and the pressure is unrelenting to learn ideas that have eluded you for years. You are getting special help, but that help is still presenting you with material that is 4 or more years above your actual, documented learning-level. How do you feel? How are you benefitting from your interventions? Keep in mind that the other kids always notice special interventions and some of them may be making fun of you, too. Kids can be especially cruel in middle school.

Statistics and damn lies

Facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable.
–Mark Twain

The search “cheating by school districts” returned 12,000,000 results in 0.34 seconds. The first page of articles includes large cities and huge school districts, such as Atlanta, Philadelphia and Columbus, Ohio. A friend of mine a couple of years ago received a group of special education students who had supposedly passed the state exam. Upon further work with these students, she discovered the group could not read.