One of the Real Dangers of Teaching to the Test: Plus Spitwads

Recent posts about the number of teachers leaving the field early miss an important point: These teachers are leaving for good reason. Many, many teachers have wearied of irrational attempts to teach to tests that are inappropriate for their students. They are tired. For whatever reason, they are also able to break their own rice bowls. They can walk away from teaching. They can enter another field or they can retire. Some take a reduced retirement and use that to supplement income from part-time employment.

The obvious loss from this brain drain can be seen in the classroom. First-year teachers try valiantly to fill in the gaps, only partially succeeding. The research shows that a couple of years are required to learn to effectively manage a classroom. Some people never learn to manage a classroom. Classroom management is learned on the job and many earnest, hard-working men and women don’t survive this trial by fire.

For anyone who doubts my assertion, try to imagine keeping twenty-some 13-year-olds in desks for 80 minutes (many schools are now using the longer blocks to teach English and math, in particular) when 5 of those kids have individualized education plans because they are in special education, 4 have Attention Deficit Activity Disorder, 2 of whom are not in special education, 7 speak marginal English although they are not in bilingual programs, and 8 or more aspire to be romantically involved with some kid sitting in the same room. Throw in a possible kid diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder and maybe one kid on the autism spectrum and you have an inner-city classroom that most long-term teachers have had at one time or another. These students may vary academically by as much as six years or more since many districts no longer separate students by academic ability levels. That’s “tracking” and tracking has fallen into disrepute due to our fear of misclassifying students and limiting their prospects. Current educational theory also supports — almost demands — regular group work in which students work with 1 to 4 partners, supposedly learning self-direction, accountability, and how to develop and share new ideas while providing peer affirmation.

It’s probably easier to herd 25 cats than it is to manage a classroom of 25 seventh graders. Twenty-five cats would leave their litter boxes in better shape than the boys’ bathrooms most of the time. They wouldn’t post mean comments on Facebook about each other. They wouldn’t use rubber bands to shoot folded paper or open paperclips. They wouldn’t chew wads of paper into small soggy messes to spit toward a neighbor. They would never hide the teacher’s remote after they were sent to the Dean for nonstop talking. (That was a good one. The culprit eventually found it in a bag a number of other students and I had searched previously. He’d been asking to search the lockers for me. If I’d been crazy enough to consider that plan for more than a nanosecond, what are the odds the remote would have been planted in some other kid’s locker? I’d say 100%. The best part was when the kid in question asked me for a reward for having found the remote.) Cat’s wouldn’t whine about the homework. They might not do the homework, but in an inner-city or severely-academically-challenged school, the kids often aren’t doing the homework either.

Oops. Getting off track here. I should note that the above craziness is not a daily occurrence, but the list is far from a comprehensive. There are so many ways to distract a class. Yesterday’s included putting blue tape over mouths by two students. When I had them reflect, one wrote “I did not safely put tape on my mouth.” The rubber bands are under control because they are an automatic detention now. Spit wads (not a problem in my class) were also put on the immediate referral list. Only one Facebook incident has impacted my classroom to date this year — it’s early — and the immediate bullying seems to have ceased. Tardiness and other distractions are also well in hand.

I love my Dean. I don’t bake as a rule, but at some point I will make that woman cookies. The right dean can make the whole year so much easier and more manageable.

Eduhonesty: New teachers are cheap. They are energetic, enthusiastic and hard-working. They usually are not as capable as their more experienced counterparts at the outset, though. They learn on the job. When too many experienced teachers leave early, a hallway may be filled with well-meaning newbies who lack the experience to mentor each other, in schools where the mentors have left to sell textbooks or plant begonias. The actual behavior of adolescents often stuns these new teachers.

I started at my current school seven years ago. I was one of twelve or thirteen new teachers then. None of them are left except me. That’s a lot of experience and professional development that simply exited the scene. In some cases, these teachers moved into higher-paying, more prosperous districts. Commonly, after a year or two in America’s educational disaster zones, many teachers find easier, more lucrative positions. That leaves our most desperate districts fighting the educational fight with a disproportionate number of first and second year teachers. The students who need the most experienced teachers consequently end up with the least experienced teachers.

Under the current system, I don’t see a fix for this problem. For those who stay in teaching, more money frequently equates with better working conditions. That better paycheck may also come with higher test scores, an ancillary win in these test-crazed times. For those who leave the field, the stress level suddenly plummets, as they no longer have to try to prepare kids for tests that are years beyond their actual learning levels. They no longer risk criticism for failing to do the impossible. They no longer have to figure out who is spitting soggy paper, not as easy a proposition as a reader might think. A teacher has to turn her back sometimes and street code prevents students from snitching.

I have to confess, I have days when I look forward to peacefully planting my begonias.

Meetings and conferences

Total of meetings and conferences for today: Slightly over two hours.
Available planning time: Slightly under 15 minutes.
Some days I end up with more planning time, but this day cannot be considered unusual.

Nevertheless, I will be held responsible if I don’t have spiffy, fun lessons and a well-put together room with all my objectives and standards on the board. I have so much grading to do. I have so many parent calls to make. I have so much extracurricular activity to put together for students. Sigh.

Eduhonesty: My day provides an operational definition of drowning. All I can say is, I won’t be drowning next year. Atlas has decided to shrug.

But for now, I have parent calls to make.

Summing up a large part of the ADHD problem

Where can children get safe, regular physical activity? Recess and gym class spring to mind immediately. Despite this fact, states and school districts across the country have been cutting back on gym, recess and even afterschool sports. Time and money that might have gone to soccer, running track or playing with friends gets allocated instead to longer blocks of English and math, especially in districts where administrative jobs hinge on state test-score increases.

I am locked in battle out here. I have many fidgety, flighty students. They squirm. They seek endless bathroom breaks, anything to get out of their desks. Some take ADHD medications. I am sympathetic. I am also being watched. Eight administrators were in my room today watching. (At this rate, I may have to write a future post about teachers and generalized anxiety disorder. If admin keeps trooping in at this rate, I’ll end up medicating myself to get through the year. The kids and I will both be on drugs.)

I keep my students in their seats most of the time, the better to be ready for the next watcher. Yet studies show that regular exercise decreases anxiety and helps students focus, enabling them to concentrate more effectively and learn more easily. Children are not machines. Children are not adults. Children need to move. In terms of academics, the trend of sacrificing PE and recess to academics seems to me to be a move in the wrong direction, especially since we are starving many kids because we are worried about their weight (see earlier posts).

Sometimes less can be more. More minutes at recess might result in greater learning even if learning minutes overall were reduced. I marvel at those adults who do not see how desperately kids need physical movement. Sitting for an hour may provide rest for the average adult, but that same amount of time in a chair stresses the average child. Some kids find that long sit to be a form of torture. Ask a kid their favorite subject, and many will answer recess. When we take away recess, we suck the fun out of the day. At worst, we sometimes end up medicating kids to keep them in their seats when an hour of real exercise might accomplish that same aim. I’m sticking jumping jack breaks into my 80-some minute classes, which helps.

Eduhonesty: I am glad I attended school in an earlier time.

More ADHD notes?

Is it ADHD? Or merely lack of interest? I am teaching furiously, showing math using my document camera, and I ask the class a question. Two hands go up. Two attentive faces look straight at me. Ah, I must have caught the wave!

Student One: Ms. Q, can you beat box?

Beatboxing is the art of producing drum beats and other musical sounds by using one’s mouth, lips, tongue, and voice.

I reply that I really cannot beat box. I move on to Student Two, attempting to get back on track.

Student Two: Ms. Q, what is the name of the oldest tree in the world. You know, that tree. They told us about it.

I have no clue who they are and I don’t know the name of the tree either. I tell Two that I cannot name his tree. Maybe it is a sequoia? He will need to look that up later.

Eduhonesty: Dauntlessly, I return to the math at hand. I have a sense, though, that I may not be connecting. I keep flailing away at my material, asking questions, getting some right answers. Step by step…

Did my student ever look up the answer to his question? I did. Methuselah, a bristlecone pine tree from California’s White Mountains, is thought to be almost 5,000 years old—and the oldest non-clonal tree in the world. Wikipedia has a list of oldest trees. There appears to be one tree older than Methuselah that does not have a name. I will probably share that information with the class tomorrow.

They will never hear my pathetic attempts at beat boxing, though!

Don’t know if it’s in the air or water…

The percentage of kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has been surging upward in the recent past. Fidgety kids squirm their way through class, jiggling, jostling, poking seatmates, unable to focus on their teacher or much of anything else for long. These students are easily distracted and, more importantly, act as a constant source of distraction.

“Look, Ms. Q! There’s a skunk across the road!”

According to the CDC, a new study puts the percentage of kids being diagnosed with ADHD at 11%. That’s more than one in ten. Statistics vary but the numbers are high and they are trending upward.

Eduhonesty: Videogames? Poor nutrition? Food additives? Too much television and electronic stimulation? Too much overall stimulation? Whatever the cause, ADHD impacts American schools on many levels. We need to get a handle on this phenomenon. My ADHD kids mean well and they want to succeed (almost all of them anyway) but success may remain out of their reach. They can’t listen long enough to learn once the material becomes more rigorous. They also spend too much time out of the classroom being disciplined for anyone’s good.

A favorite reflection on misbehavior from the last week: My student wrote that his infraction had been poking his seatmate. His proposed solution to the problem?

“I could maybe try not poking people.”

It was funny, but it also cost his whole class at least one minute of learning time total, and more time for the poor kid who got a finger jabbed into his side. One minute times twenty students is twenty minutes, and this is one tiny event with one boy in a class where the number of kids with similar attention span problems totals more than the fingers on one of my hands. (If that sounds statistically improbable, I will note that I am working with a struggling subsection of lower students. The percentage of students with ADHD will be higher in struggling populations and special education classrooms overall.)

On the list of new infractions

No referral to the Dean was written. I just watched as a student came up to copy down the material on the smartboard (good), decided to use my stool as a bongo drum (not so good) and then started singing Ave Maria in a painfully beautiful mezzo-soprano voice. He won’t have that voice much longer, but for the moment, he is amazing. I just let it go and listened.

Eduhonesty: This attitude undoubtedly causes me some moments of difficulties as a teacher. Disruptions should not be tolerated. Exceptions to the rules create trouble. Drumming would have resulted in mild repercussions. Once he started singing, though, he was home free. I just wish the periodic table made more students sing like that.

From the AP wire for September 17th

Apparently, an SUV full of teenagers crashed in Idaho after a 16-year-old passenger used a lighter to set the driver’s armpit hair on fire, according to the Ada County Sheriff’s Office. Fortunately, while all five kids in the Ford Bronco were hurt in the crash and required medical treatment, all are expected to survive the 5:30 AM crash.

That boy with the lighter? He’s probably a student in somebody’s classroom. Most likely, he has five or six teachers who see him daily. Let’s hope he doesn’t light firecrackers in bottles too often while he sits in school. I recall a student from my first year teaching who tried that twice. I’ll observe that Idaho boy was probably drunk and/or high when he had his brilliant armpit hair inspiration, but I’ll also observe that this young man may hit school with bloodshot eyes and a blank demeanor on a regular basis.

Eduhonesty: The problem with boys like armpit-guy is that too often nowadays we send them to the Dean for their various creative infractions, and the Dean then talks to them, listening as they explain how their sad home situation led to their latest unfortunate lack of control. They are returned to the classroom after they promise to never light a firecracker again. The promise and they promise. They make an art of sincere-sounding promises.

Skipping my rant, I’ll go straight to the point: We need more alternative schools. We need more alternative in-school suspension options. These boys mostly don’t belong in a classroom, despite our noble desire to save them from themselves. Rather than saving armpit-guy from himself, we ought to save his fellow students from his off-the-chain behavior.

I admit I am basing this post on precious little real data, but I reserve the right to be gravely suspicious of a front seat passenger capable of doing anything that damn dumb.

I did not write the test

I am not writing any tests. I am supposed to teach what other people decide should be taught and then give the tests other people write. If not for data requirements and the many, many meetings, I might even have some free time. So I won’t take the blame for the problem that asked if the particles in a liquid are close together or far apart.

Student answer: Far apart/close together. I am giving credit, too. Look at the ocean. Some of the particles in that liquid are very far apart. Others are right on top of each other. Kudos to my student, although I had some doubts about the part where he described one physical property of a pop can as “the top is open, inside bugs.”

Eduhonesty: Maybe he needs to cover his cans.

Watching us all

“Hinsdale D86 investigating teachers who ‘liked’ Facebook post” the headline reads.

Eduhonesty: This post is for aspiring teachers, especially those with names like “Juwan Roquemore.” The “Maria Gomez’s” are harder to find, lost in the sea of Marias. Watch what you post. Watch what you like. School districts will dig into your past. As with other employers, this digging has become increasingly easy as social media proliferates.

Things you don’t learn in education classes

No push pins. No tooth picks. No sharp,pointy objects.

A first-year teacher was helping us plan an art project today. She suggested putting push pins into the project before we all leapt in to explain the foolhardiness of the plan. If I build my atom out of marshmallows, I will use spaghetti for connectors. I may still hear a yelp or two, but I won’t have to send people to the nurse.

Eduhonesty: Some first-year teachers will try those toothpicks or push pins before they learn. Why does the research suggest first- and second-year teachers underperform more experienced colleagues? In part, teachers have to learn to think like kids or adolescents. That’s not as easy a process as one might guess.

I had to write up a student today who threw her pencil across the room and then dived out of her chair across the room, sliding on her belly to pick up the pencil. It so would never, ever occur to me to slide across a dirty, schoolroom floor on my stomach. She wanted attention. She got some. I had to write up the behavior, even though it was kind of funny. You let one funny go, though, and the next thing you know you have a bunch of pencils that have suddenly become home plate.