Sunday, August 23, 2015

Adieu, Summer

I am done.

I am done preparing 2.5 meals a day.

I am done making the laundry rounds.

I am done shopping leisurely on a Tuesday morning.

Done making a phone call when I feel like it.

Done sleeping past five.

Come tomorrow, I will rise earlier than I remember ever rising, crawl into the shower and wish for a mainline of caffeine. I will greet colleagues and readjust my mind to this noblest of professions, educating the citizens of tomorrow.

Come Wednesday, I will activate all the lessons and the classroom work I've done over the past weeks as I welcome a new crop of students and embark upon all the teaching I'm excited to do this year. I will begin club activities, participate in my teacher association, run department meetings. I will plan my days in fifteen-minute blocks and rush from moment to bursting moment.

Gone are the hazy afternoons with my dogs and gone are late-night movies with my kids. Gone are lazy coffee mornings and gone are trips to the hot springs with my mom.

And I could not be happier to say goodbye to summer, and hello to my calling.

Ready to return!

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Straight Outta Summer

All parents of school-aged children know that late August is the time of retraining bodies to wake up and go to bed early. It's part of the annual back-to-school ritual, which the box stores so cruelly initiate in July.

But what about teachers? Haven't we also let our routines go, waking past nine and sipping coffee till noon? Using the bathroom whenever we feel like it, picking up the phone if the spirit moves us, and nibbling snacks the whole day through?

Let's face it: we are bohemians. Left to our own devices for longer than 10 weeks we might be so far gone we could never again silence children with a single hand gesture or write in a straight line on a whiteboard. We'd lose our superhuman abilities to read a clock with a five-second accuracy or toggle between inputs on our projectors while delivering how-to on a word problem.

Teachers, this is a public service announcement. Start training now! I am here to help you start your regimen so that when school starts shortly, you'll be ready.

First things first: Get your language in line.

You can't go back to school slanging and swearing. Quit cussing and clear up your enunciation. What's a Kindergartner to think if you go in there slingin' your potty mouth and mumbling through your sentences? Clean it up, people. Practice talking to your family members as though they were all your grandmother. And remember to smile at the end of your sentences!

Train up the body!

You cannot munch trail mix and take bites out of your gallon-sized yogurt bucket in the middle of AP Lit. You must break this habit. Set yourself a timer - start small, of course: no food for a half hour. Then increase to an hour. Then increase until you can make it from 7:30 to 12:30 with no bites of food, only a few small swallows of water. Imagine that you're going to be on Naked and Afraid! (This will help prepare you for the inevitable back-to-school anxiety dreams that should begin shortly.)

Speaking of long time frames, remember to include the bathroom in your training. Naturally, this piece of the training dovetails nicely with limiting food and water intake. If you can go six hours without even thinking about a potty break, you are golden.

Being with students, coworkers, bosses...anyone who isn't your family: A caution.

This is a bright spot in going back to school: seeing people who aren't your own family members. Of course we all love our family more than anyone else, but 10 weeks of nothing but family limits our ability to socialize like normal people in the world. However, reinsertion can bring unexpected challenges. Some tips: Remember to say thank you to people for ordinary actions like handing you a pencil. Try not to scowl automatically when a child says she wants some new music. Resist the urge to share your lunch with everyone; you'll need that energy for the next four hours.


Refamiliarize yourself with how they work and what they are for.

So, a recap. 

What we lose: sleeping in, wearing pjs all day long, finishing books, enjoying adult beverages at 4 pm. Get ready.

What we gain: a return to the noblest profession, seeing our inspiring colleagues again, and working with students young and old to prepare them for their own world. GET READY!

In other words, your new training routine is totally worth it. So get out there and get moving, champs!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Off-Season

Elevate! Celebrate! Connect! We wore our new t-shirts with pride the day after we received them, high-fiving each other in sessions and at lunch as we lived the directives emblazoned on the shirts. These t-shirts signified the finale of another fantastic ECET2 convening this July in Seattle.  Teachers planned the event, selected speakers, designed sessions, created displays, and shared with each other ways they have found to become better educators and elevate the profession. The Gates Foundation supported the convening, but it was teachers who showed up to ECET2.

ECET2 stands for Elevating and Celebrating Excellent Teachers and Teaching, and it is not just a convening. It is a movement. This may surprise you: the Gates Foundation has a strong commitment to improving education. Their commitment includes assembling this convening for hundreds of teachers, including travel and lodging, meals, and gifts. They do this because they know education is crucial to our national welfare, and teacher leadership is a key piece of a stellar education system.

Contrast this experience with the low opinion of teachers in rhetoric voiced daily on the national stage, where we are cast as greedy, lazy, and incompetent. When teachers are demoralized and defunded, they cannot be great. And with this rhetoric regularly punching the teaching profession in the face, sane people do not want to become teachers.

Imagine my dismay, then, when I learned of community members calling teachers in our school "seasonal employees." As such, we do not deserve pay increases or any other concessions negotiated between the school board and the teachers' union. In fact, because we are non-professionals we should not be unionized; we should have to fend for ourselves. We ask for too much already, asserts this stance.

This characterization of our faculty makes me reconsider my own commitments which I fulfilled this summer, also known as a teacher's off-season: to tutor a student for free, to spend many hours in my classroom preparing for the upcoming school year, to ignore my family while I read books to improve my teaching, to finish another endorsement on my own dime and my own time so the school can offer another class this fall. I do not normally spend time defending teachers' summer commitments, but a defense seems germane to this argument. After all, if I'm totally off-duty from June to August, can't someone else plan my classes, respond to emails, organize parent nights, schedule club meetings, pay attention to struggling students, or set up my classroom so it's all ready on August 24 when my on-season begins? I did that and more this summer.

The Gates Foundation knows that a solid education is one of the only routes out of poverty, out of the ignorance that allows tyranny. Education enables people to help others in meaningful ways. Progressive education fosters our democracy. Living out this belief, the Foundation supports teachers through initiatives such as ECET2. Why is it that a well-heeled, internationally active foundation understands the crucial role of teacher excellence in this equation, but some of our own politicians and community members cannot?

Friday, August 7, 2015

The Spaces Between

Recently I read that August is the Sunday of summer. This struck me as apt. Sunday is a day to gather and prepare, to collect ourselves for the coming time of work. So many teachers I know have spent not just this Sunday of summer but the whole time of rest – all the summer – regrouping, thinking, planning, collaborating, attending conferences, working on their classrooms. We like to explain to non-believers, those who would remind teachers that we get three months off, that we spend much of that time preparing for our coming year. It is a self-righteous, self-satisfying thing to say, and not incorrect – but not totally genuine, either.

Under the blazing sun of today as I hung clothes on the line, I stood in the spaces between the slack, damp t-shirts and enjoyed cool shade. I wondered, how much of this quiet rest time, away from the burning push of all-that-must-be-done, could we teachers really allow ourselves? My guess is, much more than most of us do.

My friend Monica helped me think about the overwhelming tasks of a teacher, especially one who has many other obligations heaped onto her plate, as separate boxes. Got a presentation to plan? That’s one box. Considering a new unit for the classroom? A different box. A paper to write for a class you’re taking? That’s a separate box. Sometimes we have multiple boxes open at once; other times we say, “I can’t open that box yet.” It’s a way of coping with the work.

What if, during summer, teachers simply proclaimed this: I will allow only three boxes this summer. Or two boxes. Or none. The remainder of our time would balloon quietly into a break of the kind that other professionals enjoy, where they don’t think about their work, where they spend meaningful time with their spouses and pets, where they lose track of the days.

What if we make summer the space between, the vacation so many people think teachers have. It is the space between up at five, bed at eleven. It is the space between school buses and copy machines. It is the space between frenzy.  A space with no reminder alarms, a space with no pinching tiredness. A space with no boxes.

And August, the Sunday of summer, is simply the last third of this space between: a stretch of late mornings, laundry on the line, early afternoon drinks, and sunsets with nothing to do tomorrow.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

I wish teachers were like that.

Yesterday I picked up my kids from camp where they'd spent the past five days living in the wilderness with about 25 other kids and five camp leaders. At the closing ceremony, kids presented their projects from the week.

The camp counselors threw a positive spin onto the end of each presentation. They said things like, "And Jason was so good at overcoming this challenge that the other kids were inspired by his perseverance," or "I loved Maddie's innovation when she encountered that obstacle. It showed that she was thinking creatively while trying to solve the problem." 

My daughter, sitting next to me, leaned over and said pointedly, "I wish teachers were like that."

I looked at her. Last year we received more than one negative, even snarky, comment from her teachers, either in an email directly to me or printed on a report card in passive-aggressive style. Here are some examples:

My question to a teacher: "How can I help her learn math better?" 
Response: "From what I see, she does not put in a very good effort.  She loves to read her book instead of pay attention...We work as individuals and as a team. Not a great effort either way."

Notice how this response does not answer my question, and blames the student for her math performance?

Or how about the teacher who wrote this on her June report card: "She needs to be re-taught how to follow directions."

Attaching a note like this to a final report card is disrespectful to the student and affords no time to address problems. Responding to a parent’s direct request for information about academic skill by blaming the student’s attitude is borderline professional malpractice.

This negative, even destructive approach to some of the schooling my children have experienced reminds me, as we start the August ramp-up back to school, that we should re-calibrate our approach to feedback and the ways in which we support students.

Did my daughter also have extremely positive interactions with several of her teachers? Absolutely! And those interactions helped her develop a love for learning and excelling. She wanted to have those smiling moments in their classrooms, times when she knew she had done well. How can we accomplish this? Strive to be more like those constructive, supportive camp counselors.
  • Reinforce the positive students do, whether it’s behavior or academic skills.
  • Find ways to support them in making good decisions.
  • Seek avenues to individualize your guidance.
  • Use productive words in your feedback.
  • When problems arise, address them punctually with students and parents, if needed.

I have gained much from observing the two styles of feedback on my own child. I’ve learned that as a teacher, I need to provide guidance and correction but with respect for the student as a human being. I need to define clear goals for improvement and show students how they’ve moved toward those goals, not simply find fault. Students are exactly the way we are: they shrink under negativity but thrive on support.

This August, I challenge all teachers to remember why we became teachers: not to tear down or insult students but to build them up and support them in their success. Let’s readjust our attitudes and adopt a positive mindset. Channel your inner camp counselor! 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Catching Our Breath

This summer I had the opportunity to spend over a week traveling in Peru with a group of teachers from across the country as part of the NEA Foundation's Global Learning Fellowship. We had some breath-taking experiences, including visiting a rural school outside of Cusco.

In this village school at Pumamarca, we learned about the hardships the residents and the local NGO (called Peru's Challenge) experienced while creating and constructing the school. Yet it is a beautiful campus with sustainability built in. We spent time in the classrooms with children and teachers, and afterward had the opportunity to speak to the teachers about the challenges they face, some of which were surprising, while others sounded familiar.

In my discussion room, the teachers talked through a translator about how they had to work hard to integrate the Quechua-speaking students with the Spanish-only-speaking students. There is a gap between them created, as I understood it, by cultural and linguistic differences. The teachers wanted to know, how can we help these students accept each other?

This tough question made me think about my own school and town. On the southern end of the Flathead Reservation, Arlee is a multicultural district. We have Native American students and teachers, and non-Indians, and Arlee's indigenous people are from many different tribes. Some speak a little of their traditional languages but others don't; some have historical conflicts with each other, and others have longtime alliances. Yet, according to many of the students, these differences do not divide them.

As an educator I surmise that one of the reasons our school is one of the most seamlessly integrated on our reservation is our decades-long commitment to cultural understanding. Arlee has long been a flagship school in our state for incorporating meaningful Indian studies as well as language instruction into all classes. All students participate in our school powwow and events across the reservation.

When I reflected on this, I realized that one of the teachers in our discussion group had demonstrated this same kind of commitment in the class I had observed that morning. The students had sung the national anthem in both Spanish and Quechua. She displayed poetry on her walls in both Spanish and Quechua. And this teacher asked students to greet the visitors in both languages. She was already building the foundation for the kind of success she wanted to see!

Engaging together in learning or any activity that asks us to cross boundaries is the best way to bring different people together successfully. As a testament, at the end of our visit, Quechua- and Spanish-speaking students, American visitors, and Peruvian teachers played a rousing round of football. At 12,000 feet, some of us were catching our breath more than others.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

This Must Go!

There is a popular meme depicting the vast differences between some areas of our society from 80 or 100 years ago to today: think hospitals, cities, transportation, communication. Now place those unbelievable transformations in stark contrast to today's classrooms.

Aside from the apparently immobility of the classroom setup, we are stuck in so many detrimental and regressive models in our education system. To wit: the assembly line of K-12, where students move helplessly along, collecting parts (credits) until they reach the end when they are "complete"; the grading system which does nothing but overlay meaningless letters on top of learning in order to indicate student worth to parents, counselors, outsiders and the students themselves; the intransigence of some school systems to flex with student needs; the commercialization of districts and the hijacking of teacher prerogative by massive corporate entities.

Our education system, based as it has been on efficiency and factory style movement through grades and curricula, is ill-equipped to shepherd future leaders, businessmen and women, teachers, and laborers into the twenty-first century. To move the American education system forward, I advocate an entire paradigm shift from the factory model to a collaborative, skills-based model.

This new approach is reflected in everything from pedagogy to text selection to the way the school day is structured to financing of school systems and the hierarchical structures within schools. I wrote about my ideas in detail in another post.

But what can regular teachers do? We can't change school budget processes or reorganize the teachers in our buildings. We can't turn away high-powered sponsors or high-stakes tests. We control one thing only: our classrooms. So let's start there.

I replaced my desks (which were in pods anyway) with round tables and rolling chairs. I even procured a tall table for students who tire of sitting. I created a reading nook with inexpensive bean bag chairs and a rug for comfort. These aren't new ideas, but they do require rethinking instruction.

For one, round tables with lamps are not conducive to a teacher lecturing for long. They are conducive to chatter and collaboration. For another, a teacher has to build in the time for reading or individual work in a comfortable chair. The directive shouldn't be "there are 9 minutes left in class and I'm not sure what to do - so grab a bean bag and read!"

In other words, our pedagogy has to change. As Fisher and Frey note in Literacy 2.0, our culture's paradigm is changing from one of competition to one of collaboration. As Wagner reports in The Global Achievement Gap, business leaders are looking for employees who can think creatively, design collaboratively, and work efficiently. Even the popular film The Internship clearly relays this shift, as two older, unemployed buddies vie against young whippersnappers for a position at Google. (The unexpected ending does not change this focus on creative thinking and collaboration!)

In short, teachers must start thinking about new ways to reach students. We need to build our lessons with a creative spirit and a skills-based focus, without giving up the content we love so much that we wanted to share it with others. We can consider how to let go of an archaic and meaningless grading system. We need to redesign our classrooms and rethink our management strategies.

Take a look around your classrooms when you return to school and ask yourselves this question: what must go?

Saturday, April 4, 2015

April 4 Reflections: Be More, In This Life

Most English teachers I know really appreciate a good story: plot that wraps you up like a tight blanket and doesn't let you go all night. Characters that feel like your best friend or your most hated enemy. Cliffhangers that make you glad it's not your life, really.

As it turns out, I like these stories as much as the next guy, but I don't love teaching about them. I find myself much more inspired by nonfiction.

A favorite lesson revolves around this verse in "Pride" by U2 and the accompanying photo:

Early morning, April four
Shot rings out in the Memphis sky
Free at last, they took your life
They could not take your pride

We investigate the way art, or popular culture, reflects historical and contemporary events, bringing to life the events of that tragic day.

Another favorite activity of mine is to show students the film Malcolm X and discuss personal choices and redemption. I love the way the film chronicles Malcolm's transformations, his initial embodiment of his troubled youth and eventual rejection of his destructive habits and beliefs. Every time I watch the assassination scene I weep along with Angela Bassett. At the end, I get the opportunity to teach a little about Nelson Mandela, as he appears in the final scene of the film.

How about this story of commitment and redemption? My online students in Native American Studies spend the whole semester learning about various tribes and the resilience they've shown in the face of federal policies and individual acts aimed at assimilation and cultural erasure. Then I ask them to watch Dakota 38, a 78-minute film about men and women who make a horseback journey every year to remember the Dakotas hanged at Mankato, Minnesota. This gives an incredible opportunity to reflect on the implications of history, resilience, and the significance of cultural continuity.

So on this April 4, I'd like to celebrate my non-fiction heroes: real people inspiring us to be more, in this life.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Ungraded Success Part 3

Grades are meaningless, yet teachers, students, and parents have been indoctrinated to expect and place undue weight on them as indicators of learning. As a teacher I have always wanted to throw out grades in my classroom but did not know how. Last year I attempted to incorporate grade substitution with extra feedback on journals that funneled into a graded assignment. This wasn't close enough.

Then last fall I had a brainstorm. I will attempt to create as close to a no-grades classroom as I can manage in the spring with my seniors in speech class. My rationale was this: speech class is really a coaching-style class, where students' learning is tied to their progress over time with practice and feedback. Okay, that's not different from much else in school…making it the perfect class to experiment with. Plus, these are second-semester seniors whose grades are no longer tied to class rank or valedictory selection. I decided to go for it and sent a letter home to parents inviting comments or questions, since most of them are also in the indoctrination pool.

I knew I needed student input, if not their initial buy-in (see my Part 1 post). So we discussed the qualities of an effective speaker and then I had students enter their thoughts into a google form which was converted into this spreadsheet. Then I had students color-code the form according to the kind of trait: smoothness, eye contact, and so on. We looked at the color-coding for frequency. You can see, for example, that the yellow trait, posture/movement, was named frequently. We knew that was an important trait to coach and assess in our speech class.

What about teacher guidance and expertise? I collaborated with students to create the rubric. For example, my experience as a speech teacher told me that I needed to assess some things they didn't mention, like practice. I took their input and put it into this form, which I call a "success rubric." I gave students a full week to comment on it, and we spent some class time talking about the language. One student wanted a "goals" section so we added that. 

After each speech, I have a conference with each student individually (while other students are working on another project) when we look at the rubric together and identify areas of strength and areas where students can grow. These conferences give me the opportunity to illuminate challenges students are facing, identify places I've seen progress, and help them set goals for their next speeches. These conferences are well worth the extra time they take.

Finally, you are probably wondering about the grades I am required to submit about every five weeks. If you look at the form, you'll see there are four columns of descriptors with no grades or numbers at the top of each column. Superimpose A, B, C, and D over these and you'll see how it works out. I hate this part of the process, because we still have to come down to a letter.

However, I do think students are starting to think less about those letters, and more about their own learning. I call this ungraded success.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Ungraded Success Part 2

So it turns out we've been indoctrinated by grades. All of us. Yes, indoctrinated. Programmed. Brainwashed.

Let me put it like this: how many reasons can you find to tell me why a no-grades approach isn't practical? It's easy. Let's just count:

1) Grades motivate students.
2) Grades identify struggling students and academically ineligible students.
3) Grades are useful in ranking students for valedictorian, etc.
4) Grades are necessary for colleges deciding whom to accept.
5) Grades help us decide which students to promote and which to hold back.
6) Grades tell us what students have learned.

Why do we believe all this? For one, we've nearly all been raised this way. Some of us - me included, have defined ourselves by grades. Are you an A student? Did you get a four-point in school? Or are you the other kind, hounded by your parents (or not) and feeling like you might not make it through school after all?

I will confess that in my own house I am surrounded by discussions of grades. One child does not earn high marks but seems not to care, and the other child is nearly obsessed with earning high marks and actually identifies with the "smart kids" in order to fit in. I've always told them that I don't care what grades they get as long as they are learning, and as long as these grades are C's or above - because if not, then they're not learning. Wait, what?

Yep, I can't shake the grade philosophy out of my head either, even though I know intellectually - as I wrote yesterday - that grades are a superficial and intrinsically meaningless overlay of what's actually important: learning. As a parent I can't seem to remember this, although as a teacher I am getting it.

In my classroom, I have begun to make some progress. Read about my first steps into a no-grades classroom approach tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Ungraded Success, Part 1

Ask most teachers what they dislike about their jobs, and they will tell you in the top three is grading. Why do we hate it? There are so many reasons: It's time-consuming. The kids don't look at the feedback. Grades are meaningless.

I'd like to explore this last one a bit. Grades are not intrinsically valuable. If they were, why wouldn't we just use grades and GPA to decide whether schools meet AYP? Well duh, they aren't standardized. If they aren't standardized, why do we use them to calculate GPA and all the things GPA indicates: class rank, college admissions, scholarships? At my school we also use it to determine eligibility for sports and extracurricular activities, entry to National Honor Society and the honors diploma program. So let's not pretend grades aren't used to rank, sort, order, and label students.

What relationship do grades have to learning? Imagine that you had a map of your town, and you also had a transparency with icons of cute dogs printed on it. There are many kinds of dogs - well, five, anyway. They are sprinkled over the transparency randomly. Now overlay your map with your transparency. What do you have? An underlying meaningful thing (a community) with an overlay of meaningless cute dogs. That's how grades are, lying on top of the very significant, and important, work of education. People look at a school and all they see are cute dogs, when in reality the most important thing that happens in a school is the education. And this is what it comes down to: education is not grades.

When I talked to my seniors about this recently, some of them fully agreed with me: grades do not motivate them, but they confessed they'd been slaves to grades for most of their years in school. Others agreed but were unaffected by the carrot-and-stick of grades, hence their low GPAs. Some kids disagreed and said that grades do motivate them to work harder. When I suggested a no-grades classroom, some students were instantly worried - the same ones who find grades a motivator. Most of the students, by the way, did not find this a titillating discussion. In other words, they have no idea (and don't really care) what kind of rebel their teacher is.

Tomorrow I'll talk more about the ways we (students, educators, parents) have been indoctrinated by grades.