Monday, September 15, 2014

My Thoughts On Educational Reform

People keep asking me what I think of the Common Core State Standards.  This is a difficult question for me, about which I might have a different answer if I weren't both a high school teacher, and a mother of a little girl who has just started kindergarten.
You see, in my high school, we already have a pretty rigorous curriculum.  We have always (at least in the 7 years I've been there) expected our kids at all levels to work harder than they thought they could.  It has always been our motto that any student who asked, could take an Advanced Placement course. The idea, as I saw it, was that just being exposed to college level teaching and materials, was worth the difficulties and (admittedly) the frustrations that may occur if his/her brain was stretched a bit past its limits.  My department head, therefore, never harped on scores when it came to the A.P. Exams, because he understood that you can't have it both ways.  You can not ask students to work past their ability, and then also expect everyone to average a 4 or a 5 on the exam.  It just doesn't work.  Some of those kids will get 2s and 3s, and that might be awesome for them.  It might mean that they came in unable to understand the complex writing in front of them at all, and by the end of the course could, with time, parse at least one reading out of 4.  For that student, that might be a remarkable achievement and therefore, prove the worthiness of the course for him/her.  This is what we call open enrollment, and for the most part I support it wholeheartedly.  I have always challenged my students and this gels well with my style of teaching.  However, with Common Core, came the national test.  Also with common core came stricter teacher evaluations.  Part of these new evaluations enable the district to evaluate me based on my students' success (or lack thereof) on this national test and/or A.P. Test scores.  So, as we are asking students to challenge themselves, and to push past their limits, we are also grading our teachers.  As you read further, you will understand why this is a monumental mistake.
There are currently two tests that are being piloted: The Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).  I can only speak to SBAC, as that is the test for which we, in Connecticut, are responsible.    SBAC, currently, is almost impossible to pass.  The questions are incredibly difficult, and far transcend the type of thinking our students have been asked to do in the past.  This is true in my school, and will be true for most schools around the country.  The test is also all online.  In theory, this is a great idea: Catch up with the times!  Tests to get into graduate school have been online for years!  What's the problem? The problem is that, even in a suburb with relatively high property taxes, our computers are woefully outdated.  I can only imagine that this is the case in other districts as well.  Our nation is not ready to have every Junior take this test online.  It will fail.  These are serious issues, however the real problem is much larger than either of these issues.
The real problem, as I see it, is the roll out of this new test and this new curriculum.  It seems that when government decides on a solution to "solve the American Education crisis," that solution needs to be put into place RIGHT NOW!  The intelligent way to have rolled this out, would have been to do it incrementally.  Let's start in kindergarten and work our way up.  So that by the time this test and new curriculum reached the high school, those students would have been prepared for it.  However, this was not the chosen path, and millions of upper level elementary school students, middle school students, and high school students will pay the price.  They will pay with a loss of confidence.  The tax for them will be mostly emotional; They will feel, no matter what we tell them, that they are not smart enough, not good enough.  They will feel like failures. And that is the most unfortunate part of this whole thing.
Because government, in its infinite wisdom, wants to make sure their new solution is working, they have decided to test the kids as much as possible.  This is true as early on as kindergarten.  
Up until now, I have been speaking as a teacher, but for a moment, I must speak as a mother.  I want my daughter to continue to be curious about every bug she sees.  I want her to follow the path of an ant until he has found a way out of her sight.  I want her to be as desperate to read always as she is right now, because there is no better way to obtain knowledge about human nature and the ways of the world than through written work.  I want her to question every assumption she hears, until she has an answer that works for her, even if it means questioning the teacher, or an adult or another child.  Questioning everything is the only way to true understanding.  In kindergarten, she will be timed as she identifies letters and numbers.  She will be 4 1/2 and will be forced to prove herself.  
Each year elementary school teachers complain (rightly so) that more and more time is taken away from play, and put into testing and evaluation.  But if we are trying to be more like Finland (always at the top in regards to education) then perhaps we need to think differently about getting rid of play.  According to How Finland Keeps Kids Focused Through Free Play, Tim Walker's recent article in The Atlantic, free play is hugely important to the development of the student mind.  Yet here we are, getting rid of it in favor of testing.  Decade after decade, we make the wrong choices.  Our students, our children, need time to play in order to understand how to be social human beings, and without these skills, all of the math and reading skills will be useless.  One mother recently told me that her second grader was coming home on a regular basis feeling dejected and sad.  He does not want to go to school.  Ever.  It is a constant battle.  This is not what elementary school teachers signed on for, and it should not be what we, as parents, want for our children.  Children should not dread school. They should not enter their elementary schools with fear or dread in their hearts.  Save that for high school. Sadly, we are used to it there.
While I try to instill humor into every lesson, I know that my students are anxious and stressed out.  I see it in their faces every day.  It is especially a problem in my advanced classes, as they internalize so much.  However, in my standard level classes, what I see is even more disheartening.  I see a shut down.  I see dejection, and I see hopelessness.  They hear every day how important school is, and yet they see challenges in front of them that they are not sure they can overcome.  Instead of helping and supporting them, we continue to put more obstacles in their paths.  Now we are doing this even earlier.  We are teaching our babies, our 5 year olds, that they may not be up to par.  They may already be behind.  This is what testing does.  And this can not be the answer.

Friday, September 12, 2014

What if we changed everything about how we teach reading and writing in the high school?

What do you like about reading?  For me, it is the constant interaction between myself and the characters.  I love, especially, getting the chance to interact with people I might otherwise never meet in real life. Reading has always been enjoyable, a way to set aside the day to day, moment to moment minutia of my life and to become immersed in someone else's moment.  But it has always bothered me, as a teacher, that perhaps because of the way we teach writing, we destroy any chance for the child who will not become a poet, or a novelist, or an English teacher, to love reading in this very way.

English teachers begin each year talking to parents about instilling a lifelong love of reading in their children.  Most of us give an inner chuckle when when we say these words, as unless you are new to the profession, you know that this very rarely happens.  Most kids suffer through our books.  At best, they enjoy them as they read them, and suffer through the post-mortem.  But if we break it down, the reason most students hate the books we teach, has nothing to do with the book itself.  If given the time and space to read the book on his/her own, the student might actually enjoy the story.  But we don't let that enjoyment blossom.  Let me give you some insight into the current process for grades 8-11 standard English classes.

I give my students a book/play (let's call it The Crucible by Arthur Miller for the sake of this exchange).  I, as the knowledgeable one in the front of the room, give them some background information (stressing the fact that there are witches involved to get them interested) about Puritans and the beginnings of America, and the colonies at the time.  I then tell them that a theme they will be asked to prove is that "Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely."  We talk about this a bit, and then as we read, we look for this theme to be proven accurate.  It must be true because I said it was true.  I am the teacher.  I know these things.  As we read, we discuss the characters and their actions, but I have already set them up to look for theme.  They know that they will write an essay at the end of the play, proving this theme to be true.  As a direct result of this, as they read, they become miners, jotting down page numbers and quotes.  If I want their work to be their own, this clear objective makes it difficult to allow them to work in groups.  This objective also makes it difficult for any original thought to happen at any time.  However, what this objective does do, is let me assess one thing, and one thing only, very well.  This type of writing works brilliantly for testing and assessment purposes. It feeds into our societal need for evaluation very well.  At the end of the unit, I can prove that my students can use textual evidence to prove that a theme exists in a book/play.  (Now is where you applaud my fantastic, if uninspired, teaching!).

What if, instead, I handed them this same play.  I gave them some background information about the time period, maybe had them do some of their own research to inspire their curiosity.  And then, instead of telling them what to look for, I said "As we read this play, find something that intrigues you.  Find a character with whom you feel a connection (it doesn't have to be a positive one!) and delve into that.  Think about how this connection changes throughout the play.  Think about why you feel strongly about a moment in the play or about a character.  What enrages you and why?  Bring your own background to bear on this play.  What is it about your context that inspires you to feel as you do?  At the end of the unit, you will choose what to write your Literary Inquiry about.  You will find a focus as you read, and see how it develops.  Then, you will come up with a thesis statement.  Perhaps it will be about a theme you found interesting, perhaps not.  Perhaps it will be an in-depth analysis of the actions and reactions of a specific character.  But, regardless, it will be up to you.  I will aid you in clarifying your ideas, but the writing will be powered by your mind, not mine.  We will work in groups to bounce ideas off of each other, because our brains work better that way.  We will collaborate and think about why this play resounded, as it did, for so many, for so long.  As you read, look for an idea or a moment or a character and OWN it.  And then you will write about it."

Of course, this will terrify some kids.  Most of my students would choose passivity any day of the week.  They would much rather that I tell them what I want them to do, so that they can just do it and get on with their lives.  But, on the other hand, think of the freedom that I have just given them.  I have just told them that what they think matters.  I have given them the opportunity to embrace their backgrounds and use them to analyze and understand someone else's background.  I have given them the chance to read for the pleasure of the language and characterization, as long as they remain active in this reading.

This will also terrify some teachers.  The system we use is easy.  Formulaic essays are easy to grade.  The student did or did not do what was asked.  However, in the process, the student has learned little. And after high school, these same students will never be asked to write the five paragraph formulaic essay again.  So for what have we actually prepared them?  College teachers want to see that students can think.  Bosses want to hire young adults who can analyze a situation quickly and come up with a solution...ON THEIR OWN.  We are not preparing students for either eventuality.  And until we give them authority, until we tell them that their thoughts and ideas matter, we are doing them a disservice.  

Now, don't ask me how to develop a nationwide standardized test to see if I'm right.  That's another conversation altogether.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Woman of Extremes

I am a woman of extremes.  I have said it before, and will repeat it here because while I love this about myself, I also find it intensely frustrating.  I am either all in or out completely.  Growing up, I was either in love or icy-cold.  I could end a relationship without a tear if I had decided it was over.  I couldn’t understand why the other person needed time to process, or wanted to talk about it first.  I had decided, and that was enough.  Someone once told me I would leave a trail of discarded corpses behind me.  I didn’t get it then.  I do now.
I am all passion with my children.  They see and hear my every emotion.  I am overjoyed at their triumphs, and dismayed and angered by their weaknesses.  When my daughter acts like the 4 ½ year old she is, when she has accidents though she was one room away from the bathroom, when she throws tantrums because she does not get enough sleep, my first emotion is anger.  I know this is not helpful, and yet, there it is.  This is true with my students as well.  When a student plagiarizes a paper in my class, I feel hurt and betrayed.  I speak frankly to them and share my disappointment as well as my anger.  We had a deal.  You broke it.  I expect that they understand, and feel remorse.  It is a contract.  I cannot understand them not holding up their end of the bargain.  It happens again and again and yet I am mystified and enraged every time.  I air all of my feelings.  Otherwise I will carry them with me.  They will lodge themselves within my organs until I feel bloated and explosive. 
In most cases, I can rationalize my emotional reactions.  Mostly because I love as strongly as I anger.  My pride in my children, my happiness for my friends always outweighs the negative.  My daughter draws a beautiful picture and I hug her tightly and praise praise praise.  My student finally feels safe enough to raise her hand in class and I will cheer (silently so as not to embarrass her), praise the response (whatever it may be), and smile at her until her confidence soars.  But I also excuse my over-reactions to the moment to moment, because I can’t, and have never been able to, hold a grudge.  My anger is a quick blue flame.  Once the air is cleared the flame goes out. 
In my professional life, my extremes can be a nuisance.  I hold high expectations for everyone around me and am disappointed when they fail to achieve them.  But in meetings, I am the person who gets the glares.  Because I can never be merely present anywhere.  I need to be involved.  In meetings, even the ones I don’t care about, I feel an itch to raise my hand, to voice an opinion, to be a part (or if we’re really being honest), to be in charge.  Even as I start to speak, I can sense my co-workers’ rage.  “If she shuts up, we can leave!”  But if I do not talk, it is worse.  If I do not aid in the presentation in some way, I will be forced to detract from it.  I will gossip in the back of the room.  I will let the negativity roll over my table and myself.  I will get angry at the time that is being sucked from my life.  I am a woman of extremes, after all.  It is much better for everyone if I am involved in a positive way.   
I look at my parents and I get it.  My mom is all passion and fire.  My father, all intellect and strength.  My mother walks into a room and owns it.  My father hangs back and surveys it, making Seinfeldian observations to himself and wishing he were home.  He finds the people he knows.  She finds people to know.  They are opposites in so many ways but have supported and strengthened each other for 45 years.  I have taken the best and worst from both and made them my own. 

So, yes.  I am a woman of extremes.  I hope to never be anything less.