Reconfiguring American education

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While I am reconfiguring American education, I’d like to offer the following idea for consideration. Perhaps we should consider adapting or even getting rid of our chronologically-based school systems. Why does a six-year-old have to be in first grade? Why does a ten-year-old have to be in fifth grade? We base student placement on age. Is that our best choice? Is that our only choice?

In the past, age-based placement made sense. With all of our test scores on paper and many of those papers requiring months to receive after states had given their annual tests, placements based on academic mastery would have added a possibly insurmountable level of complexity to placements. But those placements can be simplified now.

Social factors cannot be trivialized in what I am suggesting. A student who is years older than the other kids in a classroom suffers self-esteem issues based on his or her age. Sometimes that kid can be a disruptive or corrupting influence. I have taught children who have been retained for multiple years in their pasts. We can’t just stick an older student in with a bunch of much younger students. But we can prepare individualized, computerized courses of independent study.

In one scenario, we might have our ten-year-old, fifth graders meet for morning classes together, go to gym, recess and lunch together, but then split off after lunch into cohorts based upon mastery of material. Many computerized courses of study have been created in the recent past. Currently, we tend to put entire classes on one program, looking for robust programs that offer multiple levels of difficulty. We might do better to look at past results and then choose or even create individualized programs that build off each student’s previous learning.

Last year, I received a program called LearnBopTM for my class. At first, the program’s instruction began at the fifth grade level. Later in the year, an update added fourth grade material. But I had many students who were testing at a third grade level or below. They could not use LearnBopTM independently. My strongest students were unquestionably benefitting from LearnBopTM, but other students were in over their heads, wasting that computerized learning opportunity.

Eduhonesty: Too often, we merely pay lip service to differentiation. We based materials and programs on student ages, rather than student abilities. We can do better. I particularly favor using computers to differentiate instruction because students who have fallen behind don’t stand out when they are sitting at a computer station. They end up competing with themselves, rather than other students. Our new technology can be used to create truly individualized instruction. Let’s go for it!


Give yourself a time out

A post for new teachers and anyone interested, taken from a post by a teacher friend on Facebook:

“Correct me if I’m wrong but a student-led conference shouldn”t result in the student crying and a group of adults on the offense visiting all of their past bad behavior. At this point I feel something has gone dreadfully wrong. It should be about empowerment for the child, not shame.”

I read this post and I could see the whole scene in my mind. The student in question must have numerous referrals, a track record of trouble by this point. Multiple interventions will have been attempted by different teachers. Phone calls home will have been made. The Dean knows this kid well.

I am not upset by the idea of this kid crying exactly. Sometimes, when you realize how badly you’ve screwed up, crying comes naturally. What does concern me is the spectacle of a gang of adults bearing down on one child. Even one adult in attack mode can do lifetime damage.

I still remember when my second-grade teacher angrily accused me of stealing a set of flash cards and scattering them outside. I hadn’t stolen the cards and I was stunned speechless by the accusations, which I am sure made me look guilty at first. Eventually the truth came out somehow. The elderly, gray-haired woman who had frightened me so badly even apologized.

But I never quite forgave her. I never forgot. And I never trusted the system or adults the same way again.

Who knew when the next “Terry” would steal the next set of flash cards and blame me? What would happen then? What if the next teacher believed “Terry”? In less than ten minutes, my whole world had become a scarier place forever.

Eduhonesty: Some kid will drive you to the brink someday. Let’s say you’ve been up late preparing data, grading papers, and planning the next day’s instruction. You start work tired and that monster coffee from Dunkin Donuts only makes a slight dent in your level of fatigue. Maybe the coffee just adds a layer of nervousness on top of your exhaustion. You ask for the homework. Only a few papers come in. A student tells you that the website was not working. Some kid then mouths off.

“It was a stupid assignment anyway,” “James” tells you. “I am tired of all this fucking work. Why can’t you leave us alone?”

The class giggles at the curse word. They all look at you expectantly. James has been trying to push your buttons for weeks, largely because he does not understand the new material and he is afraid to be embarrassed. He is not letting you help, though. He keeps skipping tutoring. Suddenly, you are absolutely enraged.

THIS IS THE POINT WHERE YOU CONSIDER CALLING FOR BACK-UP. You might want to step out into the hallway to take a few deep breaths. Force yourself to laugh if you can. The idea that you should leave your students alone is pretty funny if you can just recapture your sense of perspective.

For new teachers, if you do not have an arrangement with a fellow teacher to take your students or even briefly swap classes, you should set this up when you return from Thanksgiving break. You have a number of options in a scenario like this one. You can send James to the Dean with a referral. You can send James to another teacher. You will have to write James up and call home. You should immediately give James a detention if school policy allows this. Otherwise, curse words will start erupting in your class like popcorn in the microwave.

If you feel you are about to explode, though, getting James out of class may not be enough. You may have to get yourself out of class. Find a colleague to take your class. If necessary, swap classes for a few minutes until you can pull yourself back from the brink. But do whatever it takes to avoid unloading your anger on your students.

The wrong words directed at the wrong kid can leave a lifetime of invisible scars. You may not mean what you say. You may not even say what your students hear. You might angrily lash out and exclaim, “Not doing your homework is dumb!” You are criticizing a behavior, but that subtlety can get lost in translation. That girl who heard you call her dumb? Even after you apologize, she may believe you anyway.

Mrs. Harding felt terrible about falsely accusing me of taking those flash cards. I know that. I knew it then, even at seven years of age. But the world never went back to way it had been before Terry took the flash cards.

Eduhonesty: Teachers can easily forget how powerful they are.

Student Data Tracking Binders

Caption for a pin at Pinterest:

“Principal requiring you and your students to track data? See how this teacher has her students keep track of their data using Student Data Tracking Binders! They are super easy to implement any time of the year and your kids will love them! I love them too!”

The accompanying picture shows cute, little, elementary school kids at their desks, their hands enthusiastically raised.

This may be an idea whose time has come. Let the little nippers keep track of their own data. Learning to manage a binder always helps students. Teachers can easily justify this maneuver, probably more easily than they can justify having students grade their own papers. I am not quite sure how Student Data Tracking Binders work, but the packages are available at Teachers Pay Teachers for $10.00 from Kristine Nannini. Use “Student Data Tracking Binders” as your search term.

Net pay, evaluations and programming

Net pay will frequently decide whether or not some people leave teaching for more lucrative fields. I have seen excellent teachers exit the profession for financial reasons, especially those in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). Quality teachers in these fields are hard to replace. Almost all our students still learn programming in college because we lack the staff to teach this skill in our public schools.

The increasing burdens from nonteaching responsibilities are falling on teachers in all areas. During some weeks last year, I spent more time preparing documentation for the administration and/or delivering standardized testing to students than I did preparing and delivering instruction. For years, my distribution of time has been skewing towards the creation of data and away from actual teaching. My hours kept getting longer, but my pay raises never reflected this fact. In the meantime, my evaluations keep getting longer and less friendly. The last one ran over 20 pages, taken from a cookie-cutter rubric that evaluated myriad tiny details, sometimes whether those details had been observed or not.

Teachers teach because they love teaching. As teaching becomes less and less a part of educational positions, STEM teachers develop a greater incentive to slip away into alternative fields. Young STEM teachers are particularly likely to exit education. Why not take that programming position that pays double and frees evenings for videogaming and fun? If you are lucky, you may even be able to work at home in your pajamas. As education’s reputation as a fun and rewarding, if not particularly lucrative, field becomes tarnished by negative press about teachers and punitive evaluation systems, we will lose teachers to other fields where they can make more money and receive more praise.

Periodically I read articles about how we ought to teach programming in high school. I have friends who are programmers and I don’t know a one of them who would consider working in a public school. Realistically, less money and tougher working conditions, combined with punitive evaluation systems designed to “improve” performance, will ensure that capable programmers avoid education, while simultaneously ensuring that aspiring programmers have no choice except to pick up their skills in college.

Eduhonesty: When will we start trying to attract teachers to the profession? Fortunately for America, teaching is a calling. Many people will enter the field despite worsening working conditions. Fortunately, too, new teachers don’t remember a time when they had autonomy in selecting materials and could then tailor those materials to students. Still, the crazy’s getting crazier out here, and I am frankly baffled by these people who expect programmers to decide en masse to enter the teaching profession. Umm… what would motivate these highly employable professionals to enter public education?

horse to water

P.S. I didn’t create the above meme, but I have found this horse all over Facebook and the internet. He resonates with teachers, that’s for sure. They keep sending him on to me. In one picture, my meme explains why programming will remain a college or university subject, at least in the near future.

Lil Davey’s many ailments

(I wrote this post last year, but I lost track of it in my drafts file. Please share this post with new teachers especially.)

He’s thin to the point of scrawniness, a smiling kid with many friends. He’s not afraid to speak up in class and he likes to be silly. He seems young for his age, but he’s popular. The girls definitely like him. He’s behind in class and falling farther behind, and I don’t know how to solve the problem that’s been unfolding. He keeps coming up with the oddest physical symptoms to explain absences or trips to the nurse. The kids all tell me he’s skipping. I checked with the nurse recently and she did not know anything about the “notes he had to bring to the nurse” and other excuses.

I need to send Davey to the nurse shortly. His last bloodwork showed sugar problems, he said. His mom does not seem to know what is happening. He has doctors but she cannot tell me what — if anything — is wrong with him. I believe Davey tells her that he feels bad and she lets him stay home. He suffered a genuine illness around Christmas, and mom was naturally spooked by his brief hospital stay.

Eduhonesty: Every year, my school has a few of these kids. They miss day after day of school, suffering from amorphous complaints that parents indulge. Frequently, a real event kicked off the absences, often a scary illness or injury. As part of that event, our Daveys discover they like staying home. They like mom fussing over them and fixing them special food while they watch TV all day.

“She has always been sickly,” dad or mom will say to me. These parents don’t understand the academic cost of all those many sick days.

Many of my strongest students have been sick this year. I had a mild case of the flu and a long, aggravating head cold. Almost all my students have come into class hacking and sneezing. Sometimes I send students to the nurse when I suspect fevers. Sometimes she sends feverish kids home, at least when she can find a parent or guardian to take care of them. Mostly, I cringe a little and then place the hand cleaner in a prominent position. Conditions permitting, I open windows.

I support keeping feverish kids home. I encourage parents to let kids spend the first day or two of a cold at home. But Davey is going to crash and burn academically if mom does not stop him from opting out of school. To my teacher-readers: Do you have a Davey or two? I have not found a solution, but I can offer a few suggestions:

♦ If you have a nurse on the premises, talk to the nurse. Let the nurse know your concerns. If Davey is truly sick, the school needs to know what is happening. Schools are monster petri dishes in the best of times. On the other hand, if Davey does not seem to have a diagnosable illness, the nurse can then push him back into class as quickly as possible.

♦ Talk to mom and dad. Show them the effect of missed classes and tests in some concrete form. You might show them the material your Davey missed during his last absence and his subsequent failed quiz. Looking at textbook pages, activity sheets and failed quizzes can make lost schooling real for parents.

♦ Don’t be too sympathetic. I am usually among the first to express sympathy for my sick kids, but sympathy absolutely will not help Davey. Sympathy becomes another perk of being sick, like those pajama days of watching TV while eating Takis.

♦ Talk to Davey’s other teachers. A united front by the adults can help keep Davey on track. Praise Davey for being in class.

♦ Be proactive. You may have to kick the truancy machinery into motion at some point. Especially in academically-disadvantaged and urban schools, your classes may suffer from many absences, but repeated absences quickly become toxic to learning. Unless your school has received proof of a physical problem, when a student misses too many days of classes, sending the local truancy officer out may help. It can’t hurt.

♦ You might try a behavior contract in which the student promises to attend and you offer rewards for meeting attendance goals.

♦ CONSIDER BULLYING as a possible issue. Is Nadia feigning illness so she can get a day off to relax? Or is Nadia afraid to come to school? I can see the faces of two girls in particular as I write this last bullet point — both of whom were staying home out of fear. One suddenly started attending school regularly when a mean girl moved. Bullying can be especially tough to manage — but students must get the help they need. Your classroom and school should always be safe for students.

Eduhonesty: Teacher-readers might want to show this post to friends who wonder where all your time goes. I can’t imagine how many hours of my life I have spent on this one issue. Every year, I have had a few of these students. I did not always solve the problem, but I made phone calls and held parent/guardian conferences. I talked with the nurse. I talked with my students. I talked with administration. I talked with truancy specialists. I created behavior contracts and incentive systems for attendance. Hour by hour by hour…

P.S. When I express concern about planning time loss from meetings and data-gathering requirements, issues such as Davey’s attendance are part of the reason. Managing absenteeism is a necessary duty for teachers, but also an easy duty to push off for another day. When bureaucratic and data requirements suck up too much teacher planning time, our Daveys may end up on the back-burner until their absences become a chronic and intractable problem. Absenteeism can quickly become a habit. That’s why I would like to encourage new teachers to start managing their chronically absent students now. If you have not already waded into this morass, you might take a few minutes today to strategize how you will tackle absenteeism when you return to class. You can win this one. That win may get a kid through high school and beyond. I will always remember that crying mom in her lace dress with her fistful of Mylar balloons and flowers, sobbing as she thanked me for helping her once chronically-absent daughter to cross the stage and pick up her diploma.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Family Feud moment

Wanda picked Paris as “a country known for its breathtaking scenery” during the final minutes of this game show. Her sister Lissette picked Paris, too, and then changed her answer to London.

Sigh. I suppose I should be reassured that they both got zero points. But I have taught children who thought they lived in the country of Waukegan, deep inside the mysterious continent of Illinois. We need to begin to teach geography again, and not just state capitols.

When Wanda and Lissette are ready to go to Paris, Dublin, or Vienna, I’d like our citizens to seem a wee bit more ready for Prime Time.

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Recipe for success?

b1“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

~ Philip K. Dick (1928 – 1982), “How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t
Fall Apart Two Days Later”, 1978

The following is taken from a PowerPoint by a school identified for ultimate sanctions under No Child Left Behind. The school has been taken over by the state. I used to work there. Will the below plan work? improvement plan

Eduhonesty: I must express a few concerns.

Certainly, all schools should focus on measuring learning results. All district departments should work together to make changes needed to improve student learning. Goals should be based on what students need to know for success, and those goals should not be stagnant.

That said, I just lived through this plan. I had a compliant administrator who did what he was told. In my view, what he did often lacked common sense, but no one up the ladder appeared to be available to listen to my observations.  I believe my problem came down to point five: “Willing to make more dramatic changes to help children learn — even if teachers, parents or others disagree.”

But what if those teachers, parents or others have valid concerns? What if they are even right sometimes? I swear, every time I brought up a concern last year, I was brushed off. Abruptly. Immediately. At worst, I was criticized for not being with the program and for lacking faith in my students.

The program had me handing obligatory tests and quizzes to my students at least once a week — often tests and quizzes that I had minimal or NO hand in writing and often tests or quizzes that my students could not do. I knew they were struggling. I had to grade those messes. Expecting students who are operating at a test-documented, first- to fifth-grade level in mathematics to succeed at those quizzes would have been showing more faith than any rationale person ought to possess. Did that compliant administrator ever look at those tests? If so, what was he thinking? Was he thinking at all?

Don’t get me wrong. I believe in faith. I am currently wearing a silver cross I purchased in Scotland, and I am not wearing it to ward off vampires. But faith should not override reason in the classroom.

I will cynically admit that I have my own version of faith in that compliant administrator; I trust him to spout the testing party-line without ever taking a real look at the students in his care. He will do what people tell him to do. And I’m not sure that he is ignoring inconvenient facts. I am afraid the situation may be scarier than that. I think he may have no idea that you can’t consistently give students material that’s sometimes four or even more years above their operating academic level and expect them to succeed — not without much more remediation than a few hours of essentially optional tutoring each week.

Well, hugs to my colleagues in the trenches. To any of you who can identify with what I just wrote, I extend my profound sympathies. I’m not sure I have any real advice other than to nod, agree, and teach like your hair’s on fire. Trying to explain never got me anywhere, probably because my advocacy for less dramatic changes did not fit with the program. Readers, I hope you are doing better.

Access may not be the problem

I just read an article that complains that disadvantaged children (undefined in the article) do not receive access to math classes of the same rigor as their more advantaged counterparts. I am certain this is true. Lower-income students often encounter weaker content.

My concern is contained in various previous posts. Sometimes this weaker content comes as a direct response to students’ operational academic levels. Sometimes this content may also be the appropriate choice for students who have fallen behind.

This last year, my lower-income, language-challenged, bilingual students were forced to take on more rigorous math. All students in my school, whether bilingual, special ed or “regular” took exactly the same quizzes and tests. The more mathematically apt gained a fair amount of knowledge, even as they took frequent hits to their self-esteem. But my lowest kids spent the year getting clobbered. I’ll acknowledge that if my students had seen that rigorous content in earlier grades, we would not have been in the mess we were in. When thirteen-year-old students can’t add fractions or convert a decimal to a percentage without days of remedial work, something has gone badly wrong in elementary school.

But you can’t just dramatically up the rigor of the material to fix the problem. When you do, you see answers like the following:

I managed to give a point of partial credit on the last answer at least.

I make the rules

(More management advice as we move toward the antsy days of winter. Please pass this one to newbies.)

I took my elderly parents to Arbys recently. We sat near two women with three kids, a couple of friends out for a family lunch. One kid complained about mom telling him to keep his sandwich together while he ate. I liked her response.

“Well, I understand your feelings,”she said’ “but I make the rules.”

No hedging, no discussion, no negotiation. You can’t smear your cheese around. You also have to pick up after yourself at the end.

I liked mom’s attitude. She seemed entirely calm, relaxed. The family structure was not a democracy. The kids still seemed to have a fun lunch within the prescribed limits. Lunch was a win for the moms, kids and all the people in the restaurant. Future patrons won’t have to clean random cheese smears out of their clothes.

Those kids should also be easy to teach.

Eduhonesty: Firm, loving parents tend to produce successful students. All kids are different. Some can be more challenging to teach and to parent. But “I make the rules” establishes a helpful framework for parents and teachers. Teachers may wish to talk about rules at the start of the year and current fashion has students helping determine those rules, a good policy when enough critical discussion about the rules leads kids to know why they are doing what they are doing.

But once the rules are in place, you will want to avoid interchanges with students about whether or not those rules are fair, desirable, applicable to the current situation, etc.

“I make the rules.” You can say that. Or “I understand your feelings, but I must enforce our rules. We have a lot to learn today and we can’t bog down here.”

Your classroom, your rules, your rodeo.

If an errant student still wants to smear cheese, you should call home and apply an immediate penalty. Many teachers get tired in November as the days get shorter and colder, and the honeymoon period from the start of the year fades away. That tiredness can lead to apathy where the cheese in concerned. What’s a little cheese? You might think, while busily planning your next activity. But don’t turn your back on the cheese! You have to keep the cheese inside the bun. If not, you will be fighting cheese smears all year.

A catchphrase like “My classroom, my rules, my rodeo,” can help. Your phrase is shorthand for the more inflammatory, “I am in charge here.” An added, “We have a lot to learn!” puts the big issue out on the table. Praise the student who gets back on task. But get that student back on task. Moving a student to a desk near you or to a desk away from other students often helps.

You will be much happier in February if you make your stand now.

BEWARE! winco cheese

Wander, wander, wander

(Break for a teaching tip for newbies. If classroom management has begun to seem tricky, this post may help.)

That Principal who threw out all the teachers’ desks in her Brooklyn school?* She had an attack of the wacky that day. Maybe she had been pushed over the edge, though, as she peered into classrooms and watched seated teachers whose students did not appear to be working. Students will take advantage of teachers who sit at desks for too long.
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Your students need to know you are always available and always alert. (Or trying to be available and alert anyway. If I have ever had a teaching day when I fully hit this target, I’m sure I was too busy watching students to notice.) The learning that takes place in a classroom is related to the distance between you and your students. When you are readily available to students, learning will increase in subtle ways. The shy kid who will not raise a hand or walk to the front of the room may ask questions if you happen to be near her desk. The disruptive kid who wants to tell everyone about mom’s new boyfriend may get back to work if you are standing too near the gory details of her story. I recommend monitoring student progress by circulating throughout the room. Your desk should be a place to take attendance and set up instruction, but once class launches, you should move into the room and stand close to your kids.

During daily work, you can then give immediate feedback and catch misunderstandings before they become entrenched, repeated errors. During presentations, your nearby presence will increase attention. During testing, your wanderings will keep cell phones from sneaking out of pockets and secret lists from being stashed inside desks.

Wanderings also allow for those short chats that build relationships. A short, “Did your brother win his soccer game last night?” or “Does your ankle feel better?” can gain you good will that translates into better classroom behavior in the long-run. The key with these chats will be getting in and getting out. Classroom learning time cannot be sacrificed to lengthy social moments. One technique is to ask your personal question, listen attentively to the answer, maybe add a few comments, and then immediately ask another question related to the classwork.

“Six goals? Awesome. His team seems to be having a great year.” You point at the activity sheet. “Do you know what to do with the three-fourths in this denominator? Exactly. Great. Why did you decide to do that?”

Eduhonesty: By November, new teachers can feel neck deep in alligators. If you are feeling that way, ask colleagues for help. In any case, don’t let discouragement drive you toward your desk, towards separating yourself from the kids in the classroom. The more you connect with your kids, the easier classroom management will become.