Wednesday, December 2, 2015

When Should Teachers Get Out of the Way?

In response to schools cutting art programs in Portland, the parents at the elementary school my son attends (Glencoe) created a fantastic program called Art Infusion. About once a month, 4-8 classroom parents teach an art lesson to the students in their kid's class. The lessons are canned (fortunately!), but they're pretty good.

Having more flexibility last year (I was writing teacher resources instead of teaching), I was able to attend most and I was really impressed by the program: it increases community involvement, it adds more art, and there are usually more-than-enough parents- so that even if we don't know what we're doing, it goes fine. I don't know for sure how the teachers feel. I would guess that even though they don't love the feeling of losing the class time that day and having so many outsiders in their room, they see the benefits. (And what teacher can't use an hour or so extra of planning time!)

But there is something I noticed that did make me question aspects of my teaching, and teaching pedagogy in general. My son struggles with many aspects of school. He gets frustrated easily and despises math. But he is a fantastic artist. The work he produces on Art Infusion days is pretty good, but not anywhere close to as good as the drawing and paintings he does on a nightly basis.

At one level, this doesn't matter, and is certainly not to imply that Art Infusion should change. He loves Art Infusion days (and does not love most days at school). Also, the lessons are not just about creating art. We try to connect them to an art concept (using collage, drawing perspective, etc.) and a bigger concept (for example a depiction of the sea was connected to the decline of coral).

But the observation is still an important one. What he creates with absolutely no guidance is much better than the work he does after a lesson. If the goal was solely to make the best art, they should provide him with materials and time and just get out of the way. Are there times while I am teaching that I should keep this in mind?

In my years of teaching middle school, I have mostly learned the opposite lesson- that almost anything can be taught, and that students need much more structure and guidance than I first thought. Everything from providing outlines to class brainstorms to showing explicitly how to do something I would assume is common sense, has definitely led to better papers.

But I think there are areas where I and other teachers could get out of the way more. The most obvious area is in creative writing. In graduate school I remember hearing the idea that writing workshops are a better way to tap into kids' creativity than always prompting them. I have never taught LA, so I'm not sure how this goes in practice, but I have to imagine that there is a lot of truth in it. My son right now is filling up his writing journal with the crazy stories in his head. The more prompts the worse. But I also assume that it's more complicated than just letting kids write whatever they want. Perhaps a structure that provides both? Like a lesson on descriptive words, but then they write whatever they want? (But you have a few prompts saved away for the kids who get stuck?)

It also might be helpful to create more projects that engender this. For years I have done a project about the Maya in which their job is to create a product that includes Maya achievements and shows a possible way they could have fallen. Their presentation style can be however they want (video, letters, story, cartoon panels, etc.). This has led to really amazing, creative projects. This year I added something similar after a unit on the importance of rivers. Again I was clear about the goal (show the many uses of rivers), but open about the product (cartoon panels, diagrams, story, scientific essay, etc.). The result were great, as students went to their strengths. And by not giving them too much structure, most took it farther than I think they would have.

The lesson, in my opinion, is NOT to just let them do whatever they want all the time. But I am going to keep asking myself throughout the year: is this a time that by getting out of the way they will end up doing better work?

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Equity and the Redrawing of School District Lines

Portland is redrawing its school district lines. In many ways I feel bad for the committee; talk about a thankless job! Of course, people are upset, including our family. Our actual neighborhood school (Richmond) does not exist anymore (it was turned into a magnet school), so we were already going a bit out of the way to our reassigned neighborhood school. Now, due to other schools bursting at the seems, we'll be sent to a different school. People in my community are both annoyed to be moved and also irritated that a school just blocks away from our house is not open to us.

The school my kids will be switched to is a lower-income school. But, honestly, that is not the biggest issue for people in the neighborhood. I know many people who have lived in areas where they aren't comfortable sending their kids to the local school. I find this both totally understandable and abhorrent; if these school are not good enough for your kids, why are they okay for someone else's? Which is not to simplify that decision or put myself on a pedestal. I would also be faced with the same quandary. Not to mention that many low income families jump at the first chance they get to go to a better school. Why would someone ever choose not to pick the best for their children? I bring this up just to say that my neighborhood is probably not immune to this type of thinking, but I really don't think that's the case. We just don't want to switch schools. If we had to move to a higher-income school, we'd also be annoyed. We either want to stay where we are or get to walk a few blocks to the school we can only go to if we lottery into it.

My wife has become involved with this issue, and in hearing other communities' complaints it is easy to realize our situation is a good one regardless of what happens. (Which I predict will be us grandfathered in to stay at our current school, but having to go to a different middle school.) And some of the most heart-felt complaints really have nothing to do with how lines our drawn, but just on what tough schools they are having to send their kids to. As much as my current hope is that we'll get to go to the school 4 blocks from my house, there is part of me that wishes PPS would try something much more controversial; the reimagining of how a public school should be constituted.

Above is a link to a fantastic "This American Life" that looked into the school equity issue. In it the narrator makes a compelling argument that we know how to solve this issue: busing. The narrator herself was bused into a richer school as a child and, although admitting that it was tough at times, said it gave her opportunities she never would have had. She references various studies that show that poor students can thrive in richer schools, without the richer students learning less. The problem, she says, is when you have a school that is majority poor. To bring in a racial angle, she cites statistics on how poor blacks are much more likely to attend majority-poor schools than poor whites are.

Speaking from a teacher's perspective, these results support what I have seen. First of all, although poor students are often great students, they are more likely to struggle than their higher income peers. I did my own research on it at my school and found that about 50% of the low income students (defined by qualifying for free or reduced lunch) were doing totally fine. But the other half really struggled and made up almost all of my school's failing students (despite being only around a third of the population). Also, since my school is around 30% low income, I have seen that although these are often the tougher students, the school itself can still be a strong school and lift up most. I'm not sure we could do that if it was 50% low income or, as many schools are, 100%. How it works as a teacher is you get a baseline of your kids working, and then you put out the fires your tough kids might potentially start. This is probably the case no matter the income (at least at middle school!), but for me it is usually about 3-5 kids I have to check in with on a consistent basis. That is a manageable amount. But what if it was over 1/2 the class? I've experienced classes that have tipped to the "dark side." This was totally due to my weak early-career classroom management skills and had nothing to do with my students' income. Regardless, once most students weren't working, even the majority of good kids stopped working.

If we accept this is true, what do we do? It's easier to say we should move low-income kids somewhere else, but busing high-income kids to tougher schools is obviously tricky. Besides the fact that it can lead to those families choosing private schools or moving to another town, there is another reason why they wouldn't want to; like my family, they don't want to switch communities. This a more-than-understandable objection. Forgetting about equity for a moment, neighborhood should matter. This is mostly why my community is irritated; we don't want to switch communities. Is this as bad as going to a dangerous school? Of course not. But in trying to improve public education, we should make sure we are not working to disrupt community.

So here is a proposal. What if every school has to have at least 30 percent of their students at an income level that qualifies for free or reduced lunch? If a school was below this level, lottery slots would open up that lower income families could apply to. This would not solve the entire issue, but would enable many more low income families to get good educations without making people that were happy in their neighborhood have to leave. I honestly can't see an issue with this other than it not being radical enough. Does anyone have other ideas communities should consider?

Friday, November 13, 2015

Three Things I'm Trying This Year that I'm Happy About

None of these are exactly pedagogy busting. But I'm happy with how all of them are going.

Partner Discussions
I have tried various discussion protocols over the years, but I've been having a lot of success with a fairly simple one this year. Instead of having students independently write their answers to questions at times, I have them answer them verbally to each other. I usually put about six questions up on the board, place an "L" or "R" next to each (for left and right, as in who should answer it), and let them go. As we all know, middle schoolers love to socialize, and this allows them to do so in an on-topic kind of way. I particularly like using them when the class needs a little more energy or a break from too much quiet work.

Vocabulary Activities
I have always done some vocab activities, but as I've tried to integrate more primary sources into my curriculum, I have found them increasingly necessary. There are so many types and I think I will go into more detail of successful ones in a future post, but most of the activities really do help preemptively prepare kids for some tough readings. I don't think I've ever done one and thought, "They really didn't need that." Instead, I'm usually thinking, "I can't believe they didn't know that word!" Besides helping them with the reading, I like that these activities tend to be fun and interactive. It makes for a nice balance to a class that will end with them trying to interpret a difficult ancient text.

No More Class Pencil Sharpeners!
Perhaps it's just me, but I have been involved in a 15-year war with my students over the pencil sharpener. When I first started teaching, I felt like at least once per day a student would find it a great idea to grind their pencil while I was talking. Eventually, I got them to stop this, but then they would just stand by the sharpener waiting for me to stop talking. Which after a few seconds led to me just telling them to do so while the class waited. To make matters worse, they are so hard on electric sharpeners that it seems to take forever. So this year, after a student seemingly sharpened their pencil for 20 minutes, I just tossed it into the trashcan. Since then, when they ask me about it, I tell them to bring their own handheld sharpener in the future and offer them a pen. And it seems to be working. Free at last!

Friday, April 17, 2015

Making Middle School Even More Dramatic or Using Plays To Teach History

One of the more frustrating things about teaching middle school is their energy. I know we're not supposed to say that, but it can be hard. I would like to be able to talk and not feel like I have to battle for their eye contact. I would like for someone walking by my window not to derail my class for five minutes. And I would like for a simple instruction not to result in the class erupting into conversation.

But it's a silly subject to gripe too much about because it is what we signed up for. A middle school teacher grumbling about dealing with raging hormones is akin to a doctor complaining about sick people. And, despite how difficult they can be, I genuinely believe that their behavior (or misbehavior) does result in better teaching. I would like to think I'd still try to create multiple activities per class that allowed for movement and interaction no matter how my students behaved. But the truth of the matter is that if my students were willing to just sit and listen, I would spend more time talking while they sat.

One teaching approach I've had lots of success with is having them act out what we're learning. I feel like it is a fantastic fit for this age group, capturing their energy and applying it to good use. But that does not mean it has always gone smoothly. I still remember the first time I tried this. I gave groups different subject matters to make into plays. For the entire week there was laughter and engagement. As the week progressed they pleaded for more practice time, which I gave, pleased they were so intent on making quality productions. Then they performed their plays. Each was about twenty seconds long and made little to no sense. I was horrified that I had wasted a week of class time. The following are some ideas I've done since that have worked.

Play + Concept Map
This has worked well for me. I give groups a reading that they will turn into a play. On the first day students read quietly and turn it into a concept map. Over the next few days they get together with their group, plan out their play, decide on whose concept map they will present, and practice. I like this because everyone has had a quiet day to learn the material. Also, by their presentation being a play and a concept map, the audience has two different ways to learn the material.

Competing Plays
A slight twist on the above idea is organizing the activity so that every subject will have two groups acting it out. A major advantage with this format is that it is much more likely that the audience will get to see a good play for each subject. When I do this I  like to turn it into a competition and have the class vote on which group did the better job.

Jigsaw Play
I only did this once, but I really liked it. I gave each group a reading about a different time in Lincoln's life. They performed it in chronological order and we had now acted out Lincoln's life. For continuity, I had the same hat passed from play to play and worn by the student acting as Lincoln.

Write Your Own Play
One time after some mediocre performances,  I decided to write my own play for them to perform. I did this over a few nights and the first draft really wasn't that good: the play included grammatical errors; I had used some vocabulary that was too hard; there were important historical facts I'd forgotten to add...  But it didn't matter. They loved it. We acted it out twice and they begged me to write more.
          Wait, you don't have time? Well, you have come to the right place! (Warning- shameless plug coming) I have a three-book series titled "Acting History." Each book contains six plays, and each play has a vocabulary activity, short-answer questions, and an option for a longer essay. The books cover the Colonial Era to Reconstruction, the Gilded Age to WWII, and the Cold War to today.

Other Considerations
Beware of Props
Students love to make props for the plays. So much so, that if you are not careful, they will spend all their time making the props. They are quite wasteful about them too, using tons of construction paper for an item that they'll be throwing away immediately after their performance. I often ban props or tell students they can only make them after their play is ready.

Don't Give Too Much Time
Having students create plays can be a time suck. I usually err on the side of giving them less time than they need.

Where To Practice
It is often hard to give them a chance to practice. It gets a little crazy when there are six or more  plays being practiced in one room. I have had some luck spreading kids throughout the school hallways. This comes with many caveats of course. Many students can't handle the freedom, you have to be careful not to disturb other classes, etc. But it has gone better than I expected. Perhaps it's because they enjoy acting so much, but I feel they have outperformed my expectations with this freedom. The best situation is if you can borrow the room of a (nice) coworker who has prep that period.

Graphic Organizer
I usually have the audience filling out a graphic organizer as the plays are being performed. (And no, they don't have to fill out the section on their play(which they will ask)). These are usually pretty simple, like "What are three key facts." Students often like to enjoy the plays, and fill it out during the concept map or between performances.

I hope there's an idea you like or are inspired by. Please share if you have any of your own success stories! Failure stories are welcome too!

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Annoying Depictions of Teaching by Movies/Television

Here are a few depictions of teaching that I find annoying!

Just make it relevant
I feel like this comes up a lot. As if teachers have never thought of this. But not only do teachers try to do this as much as possible, it is quite difficult to pull off on an everyday basis and with some subjects, maybe impossible. The depiction of this that first comes to my mind is from "The Wire." I loved this series, but I couldn't help but laugh at how Prez wins over his class. In the show, Prez has left the police force to try inner-city teaching. He notices that many of the students play a dice game outside of school and decides to use it as way to teach probability.

This doesn't seem so ridiculous at first glance. But having taught probability, I know that it is not so simple. Most games that people play are actually ridiculously complicated mathematically. The curriculum I used did have a game we did; they moved left on a game board left for even results and right for odd results. When you had them multiply the rolls, this resulted in more moves to the left than they expected. This was a good activity and they did like rolling dice, but they would have never played this outside of school. BECAUSE IT ACTUALLY WASN'T THAT FUN. It also lasted two days versus the months it appears Prez had for his kids to roll dice.

It's too easy and boring
This was not a big part of the movie at all, but near the end of "Sideways" Paul Giamatti's character returns to his middle school English teaching job. In one scene they show him just sitting at his desk while his students quietly work; it's meant to be an example of how underused his intellect is. This scene should have made me angry, due to its patronizing attitude towards my profession. Instead, I found myself rapt with jealousy, thinking, "I wish my students would just sit quietly and work." The writer of this screenplay has clearly not been around hormonal teenagers in a while. Yes, I encouragement movement and come up with a variety of activities each class because it's good teaching. But it's also because THEY HAVE ATTENTION SPANS OF 1 MINUTE. I also try to have group and interactive aspects to my lessons since I think they learn better that way. But I also do it because THEY CANNOT KEEP THEIR MOUTHS QUIET.

You must break the mold
There are also lots of movies where a teacher strolls into a school and through toughness, wackiness, passion, having high expectations, or connecting they are able to reach their students ("Dangerous Minds," "Stand and Deliver," Mr. Holland's Opus," etc). These movies are not insulting per se; they definitely show that teaching can be a complex and difficult job. In other ways though they are more dangerous. They give off the impression that the only way to be successful is to be different from everyone else. And that it's more about effort than the actual skill of teaching (which can be learned). I think new teachers often come in with a "Lone Wolf" attitude and kind of look down on veteran teachers for being in the system. Actually, new teachers would do much better if they paid more attention to what the veteran teachers are doing (which really shouldn't be a surprising thing to say).

At least I would have. When I started teaching I thought I could succeed if I tried hard, cared about my students, did things in a unique way, and understood where they were coming from. Soon (well after two totally disastrous years of chaotic misery for everyone involved), I realized it was actually more important to be clear, create structure, and not get pulled into the emotional ups and downs inherent to this job. I realize that doesn't make good fodder for movies, but it's true. I, of course, also want to connect to my students and do unique lessons. And that actually became easier to do once I had a controlled classroom and knew how to construct a lesson that was actually good (versus sounding good).

All that being said, I don't think teachers are the only ones consistently misrepresented. (It is fiction after all.) I mentioned this subject to a principal, who laughed, and challenged me to find one movie where a principal actually wanted students to learn. And I have to think that police must be tired of violent interrogation scenes being the norm. Even parenting depictions could use some work in the realism department. My wife and I, when we were parents of newborns, couldn't believe how almost every baby on a show just sat there and slept. Maybe that has something to do with people denigrating moms who stay home? In the end, they are just movies, but I do worry that if an incorrect depiction is repeated enough, it starts to become what people expect when they do those jobs for real.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Proficiency Grading: Why I Like it and How I Modified it To Make it Work for Me

Ahh, educational buzz words. I've been on my break from teaching for a year and I'm already wondering if this one, proficiency learning, has moved on to greener pastures. But whether it does or not, I feel that by embracing it, with some modifications, my students learned more and my grades better captured their learning.

How it's different
What is it? Proficiency grading can mean different things to different teachers. The basic premise is that you assess students on how proficient they are at specific tasks.

But isn't that what teachers always have done? Sort of. Where proficiency grading is different is that their grade should only be for the job they did on that task. That means any practice sheets, journals, homework, etc. that prepared them for the main task (test, paper, project, etc.) does not affect their grade. Also, you should not grade them down for late work.

YOU AREN'T GRADING THEM DOWN FOR LATE WORK! Yes, I'll get to how my team dealt with that below.

Other then the ridiculously naive late-work policy, it doesn't sound that different to me. For me it was. Before proficiency grading, I graded everything on points. 10 point for this worksheet. 30 points for this paper. But with proficiency grading, those dinky worksheets were not part of the grade. Also, since I was grading them on specific learning goals, with proficiency grading I broke down all major assignments into specific skills (conventions, higher-order thinking, reading, etc.) and could let them know beforehand what I was looking for (with a rubric).

What I liked about it
1. Teaching Towards Learning Targets
 Some clear differences emerged after I switched. First of all, it helped me streamline my teaching around learning targets. Instead of what interesting assignment should I do today. I shifted to how will today prepare them for my learning goals. This made my teaching more organized and allowed me do a better job of getting them to do higher-quality projects/papers.

2. Better Distribution of Grades
This would of course depends on everyone's individual grading style, but my teammates and I both experienced this.  Our grades before the change tended to be high B's and A's, and then a lot of F's. Due to our grading so many little things, some students could bump up their grades just by diligently turning in their work. But disorganized/flaky students often failed. Although I agree that being a disciplined worker is important, I feel it was given too much weight under our previous system. Under proficiency grading for our team, we ended up having less A's and less F's.

3. Grades Better Represented Their Learning
Another change was whose grades shifted. In middle school, there are a lot of students who participate in class, are smart, and learning a lot, but have issues with organization. These students ended up getting much higher grades for me after the grading change. There are also students who don't pay much attention and aren't very engaged in class, but get every single assignment in on time. Their grades dropped. I thought this was a good thing and that their grades were now more accurately reflecting their learning. Also, if students wanted to get better grades, their focus needed to be on learning and not just getting work in. I feel that kids saw they would really have to learn at a high level if they wanted to get an A.

1. Just Collect it!
Our school did this for two years and, despite some of the advantages I listed above, teachers were really frustrated with proficiency grading due to the late-work policy. Since students could turn in work late, they did. Their homework habits got worse and I felt like half of my job was just nagging students to get work in.

And then we figured it out. Please, if you are going to do proficiency grading, read the next paragraph. SAVE YOURSELF FROM THE SUFFERING WE WENT THROUGH. Teaching so rarely has such straightforward success moments.

What we did is said, there will be no late work. On the day something was due, we collected it. If they weren't finished, we collected what they had and graded that. We made occasional exceptions based on the kid. You left it at home? Fine, turn it in tomorrow with a note. But next time I won't make this exception. A student who was passively rejecting doing anything? We might make him finish it in the hall. It's at home? How about we just open up that binder and check.

We assumed there would be more issues with the "Just Collect It" philosophy, but there really wasn't. Our work turn-in rates went up, homework habits got better, we had little-to-no late work to grade, less nagging after the due date... Seriously, all four of us felt it was the best thing ever and allowed us to reap the other benefits of proficiency grading.

2. Getting Kids To Do Practice Work
Other than the late work issue, another fear of teachers is that kids won't do the homework or practice sheets if it is not affecting their grades. I really worried about this and it went better than I expected. As any self-respecting middle school teacher, should, I harassed them if they weren't on task (as I did before) and if students asked if this was being graded, I'd explain its importance to the final task. I did not see a reduction in work effort in class. 

I should say though that (A) it was 6th graders, (B) my school is above-average S.E.S. (but not crazy above), (C) I didn't assign practice for homework (like I would if I was a math teacher). I think in a tougher school, this might be harder. And I know, having taught them for ten years, that 8th graders might be less willing to do work that wasn't getting graded. My advice is to give it a try, since they might surprise you, but to be a realistic and adjust. It would be easy to keep most of the benefits of proficiency grading while still giving some weight to practice work. (It probably wouldn't have to be much.)
3. Too Easy To Get a C?
Our team did have concerns that although we were excited to see our F's drop, that maybe a C was getting too easy. If we collected everything, eliminating the "0," it wasn't too hard to get their grade up to a C. I think this is its own discussion, but I think if it is concern, a teacher can raise their standards for how you grade them.

Is proficiency grading already passè? Maybe. But in my classroom ,I expect it to play a significant role for a while.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Using Facebook Groups: Good Idea or Sheer Lunacy?

One nice thing about being a teacher and having your own kids start school, is seeing what aspects of their education you want to add to your classroom. This should of course be even more applicable when my kids enter middle school, but even in preschool and first grade I'm getting ideas from my kids' schools. This idea might be a bad one though.

It's based on something from my preschool daughter's class and my first grade son's school. My daughter's teacher sends an e-mail each day about the class. It is only a couple paragraphs, but it is still wonderful. Not only do I get an insight into her class, but it gives me some conversation starters. My daughter loves to talk about school, but she can't remember what to talk about. Now I can get her going with some informed questions.

At my son's school, they have a school Facebook page and a class Facebook page. This was created by the parents and the teachers are not a part of it. Still, it's really convenient for me to have little reminders about activities that are coming up pop-up on my feed or appear as a notification. It definitely keeps me more in the loop.

My Idea
This has all led me to consider creating Facebook groups for my classes next year. My plan is to do a little paragraph about what we did that day, which I then would, more or less, copy and paste to the other class pages. (Although if I'm feeling inspired, I could say something specific about what happened in class.) If I did this, I would get rid of the blog I keep (which describes major assignments, includes a link to the rubric, and due dates) and instead post assignments on it. I could also use it to send out reminders about conferences, field trips, etc.

Why This Might Be a Bad Idea
This all sounds great, but would it end up being a terrible time suck? And worse, a time suck I start and then can't stop? As I'm looking at going back to teaching next year, one of my goals is to try to be less stressed and perpetually behind; why on earth would I take this on? And, if I did occasionally mention a student's name (which that parent would love), would I have to keep track or endanger never mentioning someone else's kid? Also, some parents don't have Facebook accounts. I wouldn't feel bad that they weren't getting updates, but perhaps that's a problem that they then wouldn't have access to a rubric.

Right now I still think I'll try it. I'm pretty good about writing fast paragraphs, so I think it might not be too time consuming. I really wonder how much people right now, other than helicopter parents, even check the blog I spend time putting together. But once subscribed to a Facebook group, people wouldn't have a choice but to find out. For parents who want to be involved, but either don't want to be too involved or life gets in the way of being too involved, it would be a nice passive way to see what's going on every day. Maybe to make up for the time in updating every day, I would stop posting assignments. I have already given their kids the rubric and if they lost it they can always e-mail me.

I should also add, I only have one real prep (I also have an "Academy" class, but I would feel no pressure to post about that). I am not sure I'd consider this with two or three preps. But still, is this sheer lunacy? Has anyone tried anything similar? Is their something I am forgetting?