When you doubt what you once professed…

This has been a long time coming. It’s been building in me and building in me, and, well, it’s time. You see, there’ve been movements in the Education field over the past couple years to reform just about everything. Most importantly for me, there has been a push to utilize resources such as Twitter and EDCamps and this and that, and I bought into it all for some time. But, I have to admit, I’m just about done. Now please hear me out — it’s just not working — for me.

I’ve always been a reader and have always felt that, even when things go well, they can go better with insight and another set of eyes and research and just about anything that forces me to take a hard look at what I’m doing. I like to think that I’m pretty good at what I do — but I also truly believe that I can get better — and that’s every single day. This is what we demand of our students and it’s exactly what we should demand of ourselves. Yet far too many of the seemingly self-designated “leaders” in this push for reform are simply looking to say “I know best, listen to me…” or “This worked for me, so it’ll work for everyone…” or “Because I have 10,000 followers on Twitter, I must know what I’m talking about…” or (my favorite) “Because I have 10,000 followers on Twitter and I’ve got this (essentially) self-published book — please buy it on Amazon, it’ll only run you $19.95 — I know what I’m talking about…”

Quite simply, the topic has allowed many to get on their bully pulpit on Twitter and essentially let everyone know that if you don’t believe in getting rid of grades or letting a student turn in an assignment 3 weeks late or getting rid of homework or letting a student take a test 8 times in order to get the A that his parent is demanding, then you’re an ineffective teacher. How dare you doubt us? 

I once led a Professional Development session in which I touted the merits of using Twitter for all things Ed. I stood in front of my peers and explained how many benefits there were in taking part in EDChats and networking with professionals across the world (I still stand by this one) and just listening to the wealth of knowledge that’s being disseminated by the leaders. I walked my peers through the basics, gave them a list of the EDChats, and another list that included all of the big “names” to follow.

And it didn’t take long for me to regret this.

I watched as these “leaders” got on their soapboxes and I watched as more and more of these “leaders” pushed those books. I watched as more and more Admins started buying in to what was being sold by these “leaders.” And I realized that we’re traveling down a slippery slope.

And the last thing that I’m trying to say is that I know more than “them,” or that I disagree with all that “they” are professing. I just think we’re being naive to think that this is easy and, more importantly, that we need to take a one size fits all approach to this. I also feel that we’re dumbing things down to the point of facing a true turning point in what we’re doing. We are assisting in making our students lazier and we aren’t doing them any favors by lowering our standards, and, in my opinion, when we tell them they can turn anything in whenever, that there’s no need for homework, blah, blah, blah, then we’re setting them up for failure when they move on to the next level and the level beyond that. We have lowered our standards and expectations to the floor.

And I’m not basing that statement on what some book tells me, I’m basing that statement on what I’m seeing with my own two eyes. I’m seeing Honors level High School students who cringe when you ask them what a gerund is or to create a compound complex sentence or to give me an adverb when I ask for the first adjective that comes to mind about Character X. I’ve listened as students have told me time and time again that “there’s nothing on my topic on the Holocaust” because Google didn’t return something with its first “hit.” I won’t even dive deeper into the inability to properly search for anything other than to say that we’re raising kids who give up if Siri doesn’t respond with an answer immediately — and Siri is pathetic, for the most part.

“But those skills aren’t important in the 21st Century,” you say. And, in my opinion, you’re wrong. They’re every bit as important as learning to collaborate and persevere and to exhibit more grit. And can somebody please give me a break with all of this grit talk? We’d never even have to worry about this if we allowed kids to fail in the first place, because nobody wants to fail and it’s only natural to learn how to right the ship, so to speak.

But what do I know? I’m simply a classroom teacher without X-degree and I certainly haven’t written a book or promoted it endlessly on Twitter.

I believe that there is something to be gained in everything that we do. I believe that Twitter can be a great thing for some people. I believe that some people gain from reading what works for others and then figuring out how to adapt it to what works for them. I believe that some people gain an incredible amount by attending EDCamps and bringing what they pick up back to their own situations.

I’ve just had it with the idea that there’s only one way to do things today and if you aren’t willing to do it this way, then you are unwilling to change or you’re difficult or you just need to get with the times. Perhaps some of us simply know that what you’re selling doesn’t work for us. Perhaps we’ve found something better for us. Perhaps what you’re selling works for you but not others. There’s nothing wrong with this idea.

But that idea doesn’t sell books, that’s for sure.

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15 minutes?

I’m not sure that I can put in to words how much I enjoy the 30 minutes that I get for lunch each day. Besides $5 Pizza Friday, I rarely even eat – it has much more to do with the people I am there with and the fun that we have in the middle of our days. It’s a respite from everything else and it is extremely rare that a week goes by that I haven’t laughed until I’ve cried at least once or twice. But when the phone rings in that room, it’s an immediate downer. When the phone rings and it’s for you, it’s even worse. And when you’re told by your Principal that he needs you to come up to the office and he’s arranging coverage for your class? Well, it took me right back to 1988 and being called up to see Mr. Albaugh…

So that’s how things started for me yesterday – and that’s a long walk up to the office when you have no clue what’s going on! Once I got there, however, I learned that Governor Wolf had eliminated the requirement that students pass the Keystone Exams in Biology, Algebra, and Literature in order to graduate and that Ashlie Hardway from WTAE was here to get student and teacher reaction to this announcement.

And then a different type of nervousness set in – what the heck am I going to say? How in the world am I going to get my feelings on this topic — which are strong, and by no means concise — into an acceptable soundbite? Am I going to make an absolute fool out of myself? Ugh…

WTAE report

I watched as a student I had the fortune of working with last year, Nicole, totally crushed her interview. Surely she had more than a couple of minutes to prepare, I thought. I am so proud of not only the way she handled herself in this situation, but also the way she represented our school and all of our students in this process. She spoke of how much pressure she felt when taking these tests — of how much she worried beforehand and the sleep she lost. Keep in mind that this is one of our best — a “high flier” as our Principal properly called her — and this is the effect that these High Stakes Tests had on her.

I thought about the end of unit project that she created for The Book Thief and how she had transformed a book into a piece that explained in no uncertain terms what she took from her reading of Zusak’s novel. And I thought about the fact that no standardized test would ever let her display this type of learning.

fandelproject

After the spot aired I received a bunch of calls and texts and tweets, and several people were a little confused on what I had to say concerning accountability. Make no mistake about it, I believe in accountability — for both teachers AND students. I just don’t believe in High Stakes Tests being the way that this occurs. There are so many outside factors that come in to play with a test like this — to think that these truly measure a student’s learning is just flat out naive.

Want to see if I’m doing my job? Come in and take a hard look at what I’m doing — and come in over a period of time. I don’t care who you are or what position you hold — you’re always welcome — that door is open. Want to see if my students are doing their job, improving their skills and (hopefully) being challenged in the process? The offer above stands.

Come in to see our students write about Scout coming of age in To Kill a Mockingbird while relating it to their own struggles with the same; come in to see our students try to come to grips with the stark realities presented in Night that Elie Wiesel faced as a prisoner in a concentration camp during World War II; come in and watch a student perform her original take on the events portrayed in Zusak’s magical piece about children coming to terms with the perils of life in Germany during the Holocaust — and if you’d like a glimpse of what you’d see, here you go:

There are plenty of issues with our educational system — nothing is perfect — but this is a step in the right direction, in my opinion. After all,

standardizedtesting

True words?

 

(ps – I can’t speak highly enough concerning how Ashlie Hardway and her photographer handled these interviews. I truly wish that all of my Mass Media and Yearbook students could have seen the entire process — they were on point the whole way through. Beyond that, she and I have had several interactions on Twitter and it was great to finally meet face to face).

I think I’ve said this before…

…but just in case, the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) initiative drives me up an absolute wall. It’s not because I don’t think those subjects are critically important, because I do. It’s simply because there’s one little letter that’s missing: an A. Change that to STEAM and we’re all good. Show people that the Arts are just as important as those other subjects and I wouldn’t be blogging about it.

What, you may wonder, is the big deal? Well, if you don’t work in the field of Education, I can understand that question, partly because I’ve had discussions about the topic with friends who aren’t involved and have a differing perspective. I get it. It doesn’t seem like a big deal to you – it makes sense to you – but as a teacher, let me tell you why it doesn’t make sense to me.

You see, in my opinion, NONE of those other subjects exist without a piece of the Arts attached to them – and vice versa as well. I joke with my students about me not using Math on a daily basis, but it’s a joke. Do I need Calculus or Algebra? Well, no. But that doesn’t mean I don’t value them – I just joke about them.*** In addition, I’m working in a pretty specialized field which doesn’t require it. (And that brings me to one of my all time favorite shirts…)

photo

Make no mistake about it, though, we need to make sure our students – both male and female – are exposed to ALL subjects, not just the STEM subjects (and not just the Arts for that matter).

And that brings me to what even brought this up. In our high school we currently have a bunch of posters that were put up concerning the need to learn how to code. I have no issues with the need to push this – heck, if you can’t see that this is a necessary skill for many – especially our young ladies – then you might not be able to foretell anything in our society. But seeing this poster made me a little stabby, so to speak…

kutcher

First, I have a hard time taking Kutcher seriously – even though he gave a great speech at the 2013 Teen Choice Awards Show. I just don’t see him as a master of coding. Perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps he’s at home in his free time learning how to do it, and if that’s the case, then I apologize. But we see celebrities pitching ideas all the time (I’m supposed to believe that Tiger Woods drives a Buick?), so that’s not even the biggest thing that bugs me about this.

Again, we see the Arts being shrifted – and in this case, by someone who’s made his living as a result of them. “…right next to biology, chemistry, or algebra.” – UGH! How about right next to Drama or English or Pottery or Digital Communications or Choir or Band or Creative Writing thrown in there alongside the others? And again, the last thing I want to do is de-stress the importance of biology, chemistry, or algebra, but c’mon!

Okay, rant over, I’ll keep this relatively short, besides, I’m probably just overreacting…

 

*** There’s something else I tell my students about those who are strong in the math and sciences, and that’s that they typically make a whole lot of money…

Mandated testing…

(note: I just saw that I didn’t post this after I created it last year – ugh – gotta love it! – well, here it is – can’t say as my opinions have changed whatsoever!)

The simple fact of the matter is that, unless you’re a classroom teacher, a guidance counselor, an administrator, a custodian in the building or a teacher’s aide, you have no true concept of what state/federal mandated testing does to a high school. NONE. Please don’t even attempt to say that you do.

We are taking the Keystones in Algebra I, Literature and Biology over the next seven days. These have been mandated by the state of Pennsylvania in order to not only demonstrate what a student “knows,” but also how effective a teacher has been. Um, yeah.

Let’s take  a look at this realistically. Did you take your standardized tests seriously when you were in school? If you did, I’m going out on a limb and saying that you truly didn’t need them to demonstrate your knowledge. If you didn’t, I’m going to say you are very much like the vast majority of students everywhere who flat out don’t care about them. I find it to be interesting that the same people who profess the teachings of Dan Pink — you know, the guy who diffuses the carrot and stick method of motivation — do exactly what he says not to do by conducting these tests.

Now, please don’t get me wrong — I believe in accountability for all of those involved — but especially for the students and teachers. However, we are going about this in all the wrong ways, making sure that test taking companies and politicians get rich in the process. (Incidentally, depending on which source you believe, the industry is worth anywhere between $400 million and $1.7 billion a year — and I’m pretty sure that if you’re reading this, you aren’t naive enough to believe that those big bucks aren’t a driving force behind this being done.)

Starting next year, the way that I’m evaluated in Pennsylvania will change. If it had been up to Governor Corbett, I would be evaluated 100% based upon how the students in my school perform on the Keystones. Let that sink in for a minute. My job would depend not upon my performance in the classroom, but rather on how students in my school whom I DON’T EVEN TEACH OR WORK WITH IN ANY WAY perform on a standardized test that they don’t really care about anyway.

Oh, I know what you’re thinking. Maybe if you motivated them to take the test more seriously they would do better. Yeah, good luck with that.

You want to know what the students are truly worried about concerning this test? The fact that we, as proctors, are forced to take their cell phones away from them for the duration of the test. Seriously. I will have to literally ask for each student’s cell phone, have them turn it off then put it in a ziploc bag which then goes in a big rubbermaid container. If you have any clue whatsoever of what a phone means to a 15 year old right now, then you’ll understand the fiasco that ensues. And then we want them to demonstrate their understanding of Algebra, Literature and Biology? Yeah, good luck with that.

More on theory vs. practice…

I had a chance to see Will Richardson present this past summer while at a retreat sponsored by The Consortium for Public Education. He was engaging and pushed the envelope and forced me to think about many of the things I have been doing in my classroom — all things I desire and expect from a speaker. Richardson didn’t disappoint.

One of the things that really stood out to me, though, was Richardson telling us (I’m paraphrasing) that if we weren’t up on MOOCs, then we were way behind in education. I looked around and thought to myself What the heck is a MOOC??? Man, you’ve worked hard to stay up on things and you don’t even know what a MOOC is? You are out of it!

It took me all of about a minute to google it and find out that I just hadn’t heard of them being called this acronym. Whew, I thought — it’s all good, you’re not a total idiot. I had read about what Stanford and MIT and Harvard were doing and had certainly been intrigued. Making this type of content available to anyone is certainly intriguing, right?

Beyond this, I was also prepping my own online course for the Intermediate Unit in our county and anxious to see how their eAcademy would work. Would I be working with the best and the brightest as I’d been led to believe — or those simply using the opportunity as a way station before dropping out, as I suspected? I feared the latter, but had been promised the former, with some growing pains thrown in for good measure, which is certainly understandable.

Clicking on this image will take you to its source, a great page with an infographic on MOOCs.

Clicking on this image will take you to its source, a great page with an infographic on MOOCs.

But let’s get back to the MOOCs before I go any further about my experience with online education. Richardson was all over them. He explained to us that this is the direction of education and that we needed to get on board the train. We could either get on board or watch it pass us by. I remember thinking that same thing about the use of the internet about 15 years ago and we all know where that has led. So what he was saying made sense to me, even though I am not willing to make the jump to this in isolation completely.

My personal feeling is that these ideas/methods need to supplement the things we’re doing in the classroom — not replace it. Perhaps there are students who have the discipline that it takes to make this type of learning work. Perhaps they don’t. Perhaps there are bigger issues at hand that need to be addressed. @RyanLSchaaf posted this link to twitter — it’s an infographic on To MOOC or not to MOOC and I think it lays things out pretty well. Having said this, I think it’s important to say that I still value the classroom teacher and believe that my interactions with students are vital — fancy that.

Which brings me back to my experience with eAcademy teaching. If you don’t know how this works, and the benefits to a school district, here are the basics. Students have the ability to enroll in a cyberschool — and if this happens, then the tax money that would have gone to the school district instead goes to that cyberschool. In my district, this number is a little over $8,500 per year. The cybers have marketed themselves incredibly well and the fatcats have gotten fatter. I don’t blame the school districts one bit for getting in to this business. Have some students benefitted from this? I’m sure that some have. But this is a pretty special kid.

So it didn’t take long for the schools to wisen up on this and figure out a way to recoup this money. Instead of just watching these students leave for cybers, many have created their own version of the cyberschools, and in the process (in my biased opinion) provided a better learning experience — and kept that money in house, so to speak. But remember that idea of a way station I spoke of earlier — without going in to the gory details of my own experience with the online classes, this is what I saw it to be.

Now let’s get back to theory and practice, which was the original purpose of this post (and was the subject of my last post as well). The more that I’ve thought about Richardson’s comments, the more I’ve respectfully disagreed with them. I don’t believe that MOOCs are the future of education in isolation — not at the collegiate level, but especially not so at the high school level. I just don’t think that the typical student has the drive and determination that this style of learning takes.

And as a teacher, I’m very biased toward that idea that my personal interactions with students matter.

Yet I didn’t have anything other than a gut feeling about MOOCs and Richardson – well, he IS Will Richardson.

I didn’t have anything other than that gut feeling until this, that is. Essentially, the article says that a study was done and we need to put some breaks on the idea that these are the immediate savior some have claimed them to be. Take a few minutes to read that — you’ll see that 4% of a million students actually completed a free course. You read that correctly — 4%. Now that can very easily be spun to a realization that this means 80,000 people got through a free course. Or you could also take a hard look at it and realize that 920,000 did not. More than anything, to me, it tells me that this isn’t the immediate answer.

To me, again, I believe that they should be used as a supplement rather than as a substitute or only option.

And again, I will say that I believe that this is another prime example of an idea that is terrific in theory but not so much in practice. And boy, this sure seems to be permeating Ed Reform by some of our best and brightest lately.

Grading/Retesting/Turning it in whenever you want…

I’ve been thinking about this idea for quite some time – but that’s not why it’s taken me so long to post. Trying to get my ideas together on reteaching/retesting/no deadlines/grading in general isn’t the easiest thing to do. The simple fact of the matter is that these issues are much more complex in practice than people would want you to think they are theoretically.

I’ve come around a lot on the whole idea of deadlines, turning in work on time, when we turn it in doesn’t matter as long as we show mastery idea and even though I have changed my ideology on this SOMEWHAT, it hasn’t changed completely.

Putting it simply, I have listened to what many, many others have said. I’ve heard the whole “how many chances do you get to take the Driver’s License test?” analogy thrown out ad nauseum and I get it. But I’d also say that if I am going sky diving, I want my parachute packed right the first time; if I’m having a brain tumor removed, I only want my skull cracked open once. So go ahead and tell me that what the students are doing isn’t sky diving or brain surgery, and I get it, but there should still be the DESIRE to get it right the first time. This isn’t what I’ve seen – instead I’ve seen a  lack of desire because a student knows she has an infinite amount of chances to get it perfect.

While I agree with the idea in theory, I just don’t agree with what I see in practice. I think part of this comes down to a decline in the idea of ethics/morality on the part of many, but certainly not all students  (and that could be the subject of about 20 blog posts).

Now I’d like to set some things straight. I have no issues with a student who comes to me and tells me that she just didn’t get it, that she needs more help and wants that help.  I will allow that student to come in for extra help any day of the week and retest as many times as possible if she shows this desire. The problem is that I’m not seeing this desire nearly enough — and I’m working with many of our “best and brightest.” Instead, I see and hear much more of the “well, if I can take the test 30 times, I don’t need to study this time and so I won’t” variety.  And that’s what makes it frustrating for me.

I can’t tell you how many times I hear this exact question from a student right after I introduce an assignment such as an analysis essay tracing the changes seen in Eliezer’s faith during Night: “How many points will this be worth?” What I wouldn’t give to work in a system that doesn’t include questions like that…

I have received hundreds of parental phone calls and emails in my 15+ years of teaching in regards to a child’s grade. Not once have I ever been asked what skills the child is lacking. Not once have I been asked what could be one to help achieve the standards desired. Not once have I been asked what could be done in order for the child to demonstrate mastery of a standard. Instead, I have heard this, over and over: What does Jimmy need to do to get the A he deserves? Yes, I chose the words to that question with care. They represent the typical question being asked by the parent. Deserves is the word used time after time.

What it really comes down to is that we want to implement a perfect world theory into a not-so-perfect world reality.

In the real world, we live within the confines of deadlines, so why shouldn’t we prepare our students for this reality? I often get a kick out of a system that tells me to be lenient on deadlines, yet mandates that I have my grades turned in by a certain time – just a little bit of hypocrisy there, don’t you think???

Gimme an A - just... GIMME AN A!!!

Gimme an A – just… GIMME AN A!!!

Now let’s switch to the idea of grading. I TRULY wish that we could eliminate grading – I really do. As an English teacher, I absolutely believe that my role as a teacher should be more of that of a coach when regarding the grading of student writing. I try VERY hard to provide as much feedback on papers as possible and then I hand back the papers I’ve toiled over and watch… as the students don’t read a word I’ve written other than the score. Unfortunately, I just haven’t seen the process matter to them — the only thing that does is that score on the top of the page.

So how do we make this shift happen with our students? We can agree/disagree on this until we’re blue in the face, but until our students — AND THEIR PARENTS — come around to this way of thinking, we’re just doing what you see below over and over and over…

treadmill

We want the students to care, we want them to meet standards and we want the meeting of this standard to be the goal, not the letter grade or percentage attached to it. So let’s just get rid of that grade or percentage — sounds easy, right? Except it isn’t. In all honesty, I’d equate it to completely eliminating the drinking age in our country — all you know what would break loose. Can you imagine the emails and phone calls we’d get from parents? What do you mean my darling Sally exceeded expectations on writing complex sentences yet didn’t receive an A for doing so? What am I supposed to report to Harvard/Stanford/MIT/Carnegie Mellon/Slippery Rock?

Which brings me to my final point on this post that is already too long (thank you if you’ve made it this far!) How do we report these things out to the next (collegiate) level? We often get caught up in all of these things that need to be changed in our system of educating our students – but rarely do I hear of change being suggested amongst our colleges and universities. I don’t hear about retesting at the college level or a lack of deadlines. Thankfully, I constantly hear from former students and every single time I ask them if they experience any of the following at the collegiate level (their answer after the scenario):

  • Cooperative (group) work  — very, very rarely
  • Ability to turn work in late — very, very rarely
  • Retesting — never

Former students typically laugh when I ask them these questions and many feel they’ve been hurt at the next level by not being held to a high enough standard at the high school level.  We make things too easy for them and we spoonfeed them entirely too much. Perhaps if these theories are so sound, then they should be adopted by those in our systems of higher education as well?

Having said all of this, I can tell you that I’ve listened to many people who are, I’m sure, much smarter than I am espouse these principles. So there must be something correct to them, right?

I don’t have all the answers, by any means, but I’d love to hear your input on these ideas.

Bully…

So if you read yesterday’s post, you would have noticed that bullying has been on my mind lately. I’d like to thank Shane Koyczan for that — sincerely. After seeing his work and also after seeing some friends who posted about watching the film Bully with their kids (Thanks, Di and Ryan), I decided that I needed to check out the documentary for myself.

bully

I must admit that the movie disgusted me on so many levels. First and foremost, I was disgusted by the way that some students treated others. As a high school teacher, I haven’t seen much of this — not in this form. I’ve thought long and hard about my teaching career and I don’t believe I’ve witnessed this, let alone let it slide. The documentary centers around several different kids of different ages who all were bullied in some form. Two of the “strands” focused on families dealing with the aftermath of a child who committed suicide as a result of the bullying he endured. In addition, the documentary creates a villain in one Middle School’s Assistant Principal, Mrs. Kim Lockwood.

There’s not a doubt in my mind that much of what I saw could have been taken out of context in the editing process, so there’s a part of me that wants to hold back. But I’m telling you that there’s not a doubt in my mind that this woman should not still have her job after seeing the way she acted toward both students and parents. I was flat out appalled. I highly encourage you to check the documentary out and see if perhaps I’m overreacting in this case.

I also wasn’t exactly sure where the boundary line was for the filmmakers. This has to be tough, I’m sure, but at what point do you, as an adult, put the damn camera down and take a stand against some little 15 year old punk who’s continually stabbing another with a pencil while riding the bus??? After the second time? The third? The fifteenth??? I’m just really not sure that the filmmakers were completely responsible, either (although, in fairness, they did finally take their “tape” to the parents and to the school as well as evidence of what was going on). In what infuriated me to no end, Lockwood, after seeing this footage, told the victim’s parents that she had been on that specific bus before and that the kids on it were “good as gold.” Ugh…

The film is powerful enough that it needs to be seen and it needs to be discussed — in schools, but also at home. It needs to be watched as a family and discussions need to stem from it. Bullying, whether physical, emotional or through social media — which is the way I truly think it’s occurring at the high school level — has to be stopped. And I’m not sure where to begin.

As an elementary student I went to many different schools. I know what it feels like to be the new kid, to be different, to not be from there. I also know what it feels like to be picked on. Later on, at the high school level, I was no angel — I was an ass at times and wanted to impress my friends. I picked on many good people. I thought I was being funny, but many times I was cruel. I’m truly, truly sorry.

I’m fortunate to be able to embrace teachable moments in my classes. In Mass Media and Communications I we are currently working on how to properly conduct an interview, create a lead from said interview and then transition in to the actual article. We are between issues with the more advanced students. We’ve watched the documentary together over the past two days and will be conducting a “press conference” with a student who did her Senior Project on bullying. They’ve developed questions for her based upon their viewing of the film and the topic of her Project. They’ll be able to create articles based upon her research.

More importantly, I’m hoping that just one is able to figure out a way to put a stop to this.