Monday, May 28, 2012

Education is not the civil rights issue of our time. Civil rights is the civil rights issue of our time.

I'll admit it, the refrain that education "is the civil rights issue of our time" got me back when I was still a full-time grad student looking for a more meaningful career. But it has gotten old fast. This blog post gets it right.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

...and love

Testing day was Tuesday, so I can officially NOT teach to the test for the nine days left in the school year before grades are due. Hooray!

Last week and Monday, I spent a little bit of time each day working on teaching test-taking skills. I told my students we were doing this because people in the suburbs pay thousands of dollars for extra test prep classes for their children, against whom my kids compete. One day when I mentioned this, one of my students opined that I should try to get a job in the suburbs. Others chimed in, agreeing. And no, it's not that they want to get rid of me. The thing is, teachers in the wealthier suburbs around my city get paid more than I do. My students were pointing out that it's in my self-interest to get a job out there. And, in doing so, they were displaying their utter commitment to a system that puts them and their educations at the bottom of an unequal, unfair system. It was upsetting.

But I'm here to talk about love. My students use an expression that I may have mentioned here before: "doin' too much" or "overdoing it." This expression means exactly what it sounds like, except that doin' too much can entail anything that resembles trying at all. This week, I was doin' too much and doin' too much again. A couple of students I have adopted as mentees expressed frustration with me because my communications with their parents had caused arguments between them and their parents, and between their parents. This is always a touchy issue--often you call a parent all ready to explain everything that the child needs to work on, only to discover that the parent agrees with you SO MUCH that you begin emphasizing everything the child is doing right. It's a fun dance.

Of course, when I do too much, I do it out of love. For the last two weeks, my heart has been bursting with love for my students. They are so adorable! This past week, they performed short Shakespeare scenes, and I had them vote on award winners. I gave out the awards in a fancy ceremony, and the winners got up to give acceptance speeches. In every speech, even though they were acting goofy, they thanked the people who had voted for them. This is, by the way, the class that gave me hell for the first half of the year. Now they're my favorite class--not that I have a favorite. ;)

I also love my colleagues, because I'm lucky to work at a school where all of the teachers do too much. (Most teachers, by the way, do too much--the "lazy teacher" is an overblown myth propagated by corporate reformers.) My colleagues are all so dedicated to the profession and to doing the best job they possibly can. They all love children and want what they believe is best for the children. And that's what people get so very wrong when they bash teachers unions. First of all, as this blogger argues, you can't love teachers and hate their unions. Teachers, by and large, support and believe in their unions. Secondly, almost all teachers love children, and they know what is good for children. In fact, they know far more about it than most of the people who make decisions about schools. It's funny that Doug Lemov's book is called "Teach Like a Champion." It sounds sappy, but most teachers don't need to try to be like champions; they are champions.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Kids You Love the Most

I recently told a story about a certain type of kid named Joey. This is a story about a type of kid named Mike. Mike is the kid who is always talking when he's not supposed to be talking. He almost never does what he is told to do. When reprimanded, he becomes combative and belligerent. And, OK, if Mike were my peer, I would think he was kind of a jerk.

But Mike is not my peer. He's just a kid. When you ask Mike why he did what he did (if he can be civil at all), he'll sometimes say, "I guess I'm just a bad kid." Just like Joey, Mike has heard himself called this over and over for years. But Mike is not a bad kid. He's just a kid who messed up. Or one who messes up a lot. That's why I prefer the terminology of the consultant Kristyn Klei, who calls kids like Mike the kids you love the most.

I have not always thought this. When I was first teaching, I had a class full of Mikes (really, they were a combination of Mikes and Johnnys--the kid who will blindly follow whatever Mike does). They drove me nuts. I hated them. And I thought it was all their fault. When people of my generation were in high school (and for sure before), teens were thought of as pre-adults: people who, though inferior to teachers, had the emotional and cognitive capabilities of adults. These teens, so the thinking went, could be told that they had to be more responsible and less lazy. They would do what they were supposed to do if threatened with the proper punishments. And, the good news is, the majority of teens will do what they're supposed to do, most of the time. But if you think that they do this out of fear of being punished, you're wrong.

We now know (and knew when I was in high school, but forget that) that teens are not fully developed human beings. They may stop growing on the outside and start to look more and more like adults (especially kids like Mike, who are often male and of color), but they are still children. The cognitive research is now telling us that the human brain is not fully developed until the age of 25. And the part of the brain that is still developing is the prefrontal cortex, the part that helps you organize and make decisions, decisions like, "Would it be a good idea for me to blurt something out right now?" or "If I throw this thing across the room, am I likely to get in trouble?" or "Is getting into a fist fight ever a good idea?" or "Homework or video games?" The list goes on and on. A colleague and friend of mine has even developed this sort of knee-jerk response when we tell stories at lunch about the dumb things our kids have done. After every story, she says "underdeveloped frontal loooobe" in a funny voice.

When I was 22 and a brand new teacher, I found the Mikes and Johnnys of this world supremely frustrating, and I decided that they were my enemies. They were out to make sure that I could not conduct my class. And so I began to expect the worst from them--nothing but bad behavior, and certainly no academic work. And, don't get me wrong, I still lose my temper with the Mikes when they're driving me nuts. But you have to see a teen as a kid. When a kid does something dumb, HE REALLY WASN'T THINKING OF WHAT WAS GOING TO HAPPEN. In fact, he is somewhat incapable* of thinking ahead like that. So telling him that he has to be responsible and threatening him with punishment is just not going to work in a lot of cases. Calling him a bad kid will just make that label stick in his mind, so that he learns to assume that he is the kind of kid who teachers hate. And that's why these are the kids we have to love the most.

*Of course, the majority of children are able to stay out of trouble, and there are those especially mature children who are constantly thinking about their futures. But most teens just don't understand that getting bad grades now, or getting suspended, or even arrested, will mean bad things in the future.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Teaching to the Test is Making me CRAZY

Today I said something to a colleague I instantly regretted. It was about teaching kids in preparation for a national test. But it's testing season, and I am nearing my limit. I overheard a girl walking out of class saying "I went up 6 points!" This Friday we are having a "Prep Rally" in advance of upcoming state tests. It seems as if every conversation with colleagues winds up with someone expressing anxiety about their students' test scores and the way that we are "being measured" on the basis of these scores. Of course, we don't know exactly how we're being measured, or when, or by whom. We have been told what to expect of our students, but we have not been told what's expected of us. This has led to rampant paranoia and rumors of people being dismissed or "reassigned" if their scores don't go up, but I have yet to see this actually happen to an actual person.

As if the shadowy Big Brother atmosphere weren't bad enough, many of my colleagues express a distressing faith in the validity of this method of measurement. They use phrases like "moving kids" and "big win." But the whole point of a "big win" is that it's a way to have kids make a "big gain" on their scores by teaching them something small. In other words, it's a test-taking strategy, it's not a way for students to actually develop as learners. **Update: In fact, at our "Prep Rally," students were told that the "gain" that they must make in order to be competitive for colleges involves getting just one more question right on the test. One question is the difference between making a gain and not making it. One question can also be the difference between a bad and a good night's sleep, a lousy or a decent breakfast, or a healthy day and a headache day. so how is this measuring learning?

Margaret Spellings, the Education Secretary who brought us No Child Left Behind, was fond of saying "There's really nothing pedagogically flawed about teaching to a test, as long as what the test is measuring is what you want the kids to know." How true that is.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Stanford prof on teacher retention and experience

Wow: "In fact, in the decade between 1997 and 2007, the typical number of years of experience for teachers in the United States dropped from 15 years to just one year." Read the rest. It's incisive and short.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Separated at Birth

I was looking the other day at the committees that developed the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts, which my district will adopt beginning next year. The "work team" committee did not include a single college professor of English. The "feedback group" included ONE professor of English, Mark Bauerlein from Emory University. No knock on Emory or Bauerlein, but, just for comparison, the math work team included three professors of mathematics, from UW-Madison, University of Michigan, and Illinois State, and the feedback group included professors of math from Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and UT-Austin.

So what's going on here? To be continued...