Monday, December 12, 2011

Top 10 Things Teachers want Students to Know

10 things teachers want students to know:

    10. We don’t give grades; you earn them.

  9. We are not your parents or your friends.  We are your mentors.

 8. We’re always willing to help, but we’re not doing your homework for you.

 7. You’re not the worst class this school has ever seen.  There’s just a lot of room for growth and we’re patiently waiting.  :)

  6. I don’t care if your mom, dad, grandma, grandpa or parole officer is texting you. They can call the office if they want to get ahold of you. You will survive.

  5. We make mistakes and so do you, so let’s learn from them.

  4. We have favorites. If you work hard, ask questions and share concerns constructively then of course you’re going to be more likable, because you genuinely care about your education as much as we do.

 3. Question everyone, everything and think for yourself; however, do it kindly and with respect.

 2. Don’t be fooled by No Child Left Behind, because it’s pretty likely that if you’ve bought into it, you’ve been left behind.

       1. Teaching is the best job in the world and thank you for the laughs, tears, frustrations and constant reflection.  We’re better people because of you.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Technology in schools: Facebook should be embraced, not feared

I had to do it. I had to say that filthy word multiple times at conferences so parents and students could have another way of reaching me.  It's been smeared in the news, teachers have lost their jobs because of it and parents try to protect their kids from it while others ignore it entirely.

Facebook.  It has been added to the list of words teachers aren't supposed to speak of in front of students unless, of course, it has to do with the Dean's Office and an investigation  In fact, Missouri nearly went as far as banning teachers from being able to "friend" students, making it a fireable offense.  Thankfully schools are there to protect their employees from themselves...seriously?  No thank you.

Despite its demonization, facebook has become an indispensable tool I use to help kids outside of school. And all that is needed is a little commonsense, defined rules and clear boundaries to safeguard students and teachers.  I made an entirely different account that is designed to only be used to help my students and parents.  I don't post status updates, I don't go onto other people's profiles, I don't friend kids, I don't write on other students' walls; and most importantly, I unsubscribe from every student's newsfeed so I don't know about any part of their lives outside of school.  I don't know and I don't want to know what they are writing about, but they can ask me questions on mine and chat about assignments or ask for homework clarifications.

Like everything in life, it just comes down to explaining the rules and defining boundaries. I've been using facebook for two years as an instructional tool and students say time and time again they appreciate getting one-on-one help after school and it saves me quite a few headaches the next day. The questions are usually pretty easy and chats last a couple minutes, allowing students to keep pushing forward with their work instead of getting overwhelmed and anxious.  I've also found that students who normally don't ask questions at school find solace in typing their questions in the comfort of their own homes.

Some of my colleagues have expressed concerns about allowing so much access beyond the school day, that teaching has become a profession that demands 24 hour surveillance and personal family time is consequently lost.  It's truly a valid concern, but one thing my students know (because I talk to them about it at the beginning of the year) is that when I'm at home, my family comes first. While I'm pretty good at getting back to them quickly, sometimes it just might not happen and they have always understood.    

Fear should never determine how technology should be used in and outside of the classroom.  Rather, teachers as well as students need to be taught the boundaries, safeguards, benefits and the opportunities afforded by social media of all types.  Teachers need to consider their "student-friendly" facebook accounts as extensions of their classrooms, and apply the same professionalism and rules to their wall/chats that they would exercise in their own classrooms.  Social media needs to be embraced by educators and educational institutions, not feared or over-regulated by paranoid overseers. Nearly 21% of facebook users are ages 13-17, according to statistics compiled by Ken Burbary, so why not use a resource students are already immersed in as a way to encourage learning? 

Sunday, October 9, 2011

"An Open Mind is not an Empty Mind"

I was thumbing through one of my books for graduate class when I ran across that quote and I haven’t been able to let it go since. Sure, its importance is obvious when it comes to teaching because we need to teach our students how to use their minds, create their own ideas while being open to dialogue, new perspectives and personal growth.  But what about the other adults who surround us in the very place we teach?

I’ve noticed two camps forming within the teaching ranks…the teachers on the administrative track and then there are the “others.”   Well, I’m certainly an “other” because I have absolutely no right or will or want to be an administrator--at least not in today’s educational environment, because we’ve lost our way. I hope that will change. I hope that someday I will have an opportunity to be in a leadership position that truly would revolve around the students' needs, not the adults.  

Oftentimes it seems building administrators, at least in larger districts, seem to be in place to perform reconnaissance missions. They simply have to carry out the orders given from downtown and those orders seemingly originate out of the need to: 1) meet specific standards to increase or guarantee funding; 2) quiet down and manage unruly parties (teachers, parents and/or community members) by executing damage control; and/or 3) to maintain a specific protocol that has been or possibly could be breached. Their plates are so full that they have very little time to do any more than that.  The system is struggling to survive. 

Ironically enough, the focus seems to shift from concentrating on what kids need educationally to obsessing about what the adults need locally, statewide and nationally, all under the guise that they’re doing what’s right for kids.  It’s all a big sham, but everyone needs to make a living and I get that. 

And more often than not when I stop and ask teachers en-route to “crossing over” why they are choosing the administrative path, their response usually is “the money.”  I can’t say I blame them. They’ve got families to feed, responsibilities, they’re focusing on home, not on the plight of education because it’s bigger than them and because they can’t make a difference. I get it, but I just don’t believe it.  If I could I would do the same, but I haven’t been able to blot-out my original purpose for entering this profession, which is to help kids. Every big movement starts with small steps and wouldn’t it be amazing if we all got in synch?

Just the other week I asked a professional development trainer if she ever felt conflicted about what she’s being told to teach verses what she feels morally.  Her response was that there were many times she couldn’t believe what was coming out of her mouth, because she didn’t agree with it. She went on to explain that it’s simply the nature of teaching and the nature of education right now, that “we have to make due with what we have and wait it out.”  I’ve had the same conversation with multiple members of administration from various schools and the sentiment seems nearly identical.  All have justifiable reasons, but that brings me back to the quote at the top of the page, “An open mind is not an empty mind.” It takes courage, but imagine the benefits we will reap if the system were to change even a little bit at a time.  

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Differentiation: At what cost?

It came home in his backpack.  It wasn’t really a big deal. I mean, jeeze, it was a spelling pre-test, right?  All of those check marks were wide-eyed with sideways grins. And at the very top, next to the percentage, was a note saying he was on the “purple” list. In other words, he was just average.

Yes, I’m biased because he’s my son, but I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  He’s not a genius, but he’s pretty smart and so why is he doing this poorly?  When I asked him about it, he said his teacher went through the words too fast and that he was unable to write quickly enough, so I knew I had to start digging for the truth.

All in the name of differentiation, Connor was put on the “average” list because his pre-test didn’t earn him the “honor” of being on the “challenge” list, and he knew exactly what that meant. Ranking the tests by colors doesn’t hide the implications. At the tender age of 8, he’s already aware he’s being tracked as an “average” kid rather than being pushed beyond.  The teacher had even written a blurb on the test noting her surprise when she saw his score because his reading fluency was solid, and the two didn’t correlate.  

To make a long story short, we exchanged a few emails and she discovered (after another spelling pre-test) that if she had him spell the words verbally he only missed one on that particular pre-test.  So, as I suspected, Connor’s anxiety was the issue behind his poor scores. He couldn’t write the words fast enough while she was saying them. Despite his poor performance on the pre-test, she decided to put him on the “challenge” list, which is the most difficult list. He scored a 94 percent and I was so proud. 

Connor is currently in the third grade and a hard little worker. Sure, he picks on his sister, sometimes cries about giving-up playtime for homework time and doesn’t always listen that well, but when it’s time to buckle down and get the job done, he’s always up for the challenge.  It doesn’t matter what spelling list he gets, he’ll do well on the final assessment. 

Unfortunately though, since that 94 percent, he has taken another spelling pre-test and not surprisingly, he didn’t do well. And here he sits, back on the “average” track despite his gains on the “challenge” list. His teacher ignored his progress and her instinct for the sake of staying true to the numbers.  Needless to say, I’m feeling a bit defeated.  He worked hard, proved himself and was kicked out of the high-ability group nevertheless.

So what happens when we lower the bar from the get-go?  What happens when students start getting separated into groups based solely on pre-tests, based on numbers, not based on what is truly best for the students? We start standardizing mediocrity even at the kindergarten level.  Connor will rise to the challenge as most kids will at his age, but instead of pushing him, challenging him to be his best, the pre-test/post-test system is set up to only make students comfortable so they experience success at their own level.  It sounds so nice and politically correct; however, the irony is this process leaves children behind because it widens the gap that already may exist between different groups of children. 

Pre-tests, from my understanding, give teachers insights into how they should approach their curricula.  It’s not supposed to be another form of tracking.  All students should be on the track for the “challenge” list, and not deprived simply because they panic with words they’ve never been tested over before that moment.  Will everyone be able to get all of them right? Of course not. However, building from those mistakes while keeping an eye on the prize is more important than jumping from platform to platform, gaining no real ground.

It’s never any fun to always know you’re one step behind because, by high school, that “one step” oftentimes becomes years and we wonder why kids are bored.  We allow them to get comfortable with just getting-by all in the name of  “differentiation.”  Differentiation isn’t just about numbers or meeting proficiency; it’s about the kids and about knowing what is best for the whole child.

Friday, September 16, 2011

State Testing Scores: Numbers come between education and our students

Now here’s a familiar scenario for many of you: state scores came in and everybody’s in a tizzy. Reading scores have gone down a few points and math scores (the first year ever given) are way below proficiency levels expected by the state. To combat the problem, we had a building-level day of professional development, some of which focused solely on data analysis, brainstorming and the hopes of a plan that will turn the numbers around. 

You’ll notice the word “students” isn’t mentioned anywhere in the above paragraph. While the children we teach are naturally the center of our world and our curriculum, they have become secondary to the numbers presented by the state and second to the numbers expected by the federal government. In fact, today at the meeting one of my colleagues asked if it would be worth sacrificing the students who “exceed expectations” on the tests so those who are “below the standard” can “meet the standard,” and an administrator responded, “If that’s what it takes, I guess that’s okay with me!” 

There was a collective gasp and the silence was deafening.  My mouth was open and I couldn’t help but think, “Did that really just happen?”  Are we really becoming so blind we only see numbers, not students?  Then there was talk about how we need to provide remediation to prepare kids for “the test,” and we need to know if students are at risk as soon as they enter ninth grade so we can get them ready for “the test.”

It’s no longer a matter of preparing them for their future; it’s a matter of getting them proficient on these red-horned, triangle-tailed state albatrosses.  Teaching the “whole” student is becoming a lost art because proficiency, mediocrity, has become a new kind of merit pay for schools—ironically all at the expense of the kids.  

One of the many reasons I asked to be moved from teaching junior English to sophomore English is because it was hard not to feel trapped by all the state testing preparation and its overwhelming impact on curriculum. For example, the state persuasive writing prompts have nothing to do with critical thinking and everything to do with the mechanics of a five-paragraph-essay, an essay that would be laughed at in any collegiate setting.

The reading test, for example, has approximately 3-5 (out of 60) questions based solely on decoding vocabulary based on origin, prefixes and suffixes and even more that simply ask for definitions. The questions that deal with more abstract concepts like tone and theme are incredibly subjective, and the tests fail any test of objectivity because by nature, English is subjective. As a result, the tests act more like speed bumps than bridges in our curriculum because shared inquiry, analysis and the questions/ideas kids get from it aren’t up for discussion and the material is independent from what we teach. However, despite the obvious flaws, every school’s future rides on standardizing students so they can get their funding and “stay off the list.”    

But the problems just begin there. Not only do the tests have very little relevance in terms of content, the amount of time it takes out of our curricular time is mind-boggling. Not only were kids pulled out of class for two days for the NeSA State Reading and Writing tests, we had to spend approximately three days first semester and three days second semester to administer practice writing tests. Then the same applies again for state writing.  What that means is at the minimum, 16 days of classroom curriculum has to be put on hold for testing.  And that’s just where it begins. 

Now add state math testing, which means two more days down at central office. That’s two more days out of everyone’s classes and then, of course, there will be a science and social studies assessment in place sooner than later, which means four more class periods.  So here’s what it looks like:

State Writing Test =                  2 days
                (Practice Tests) =                  6 days
State Reading Test =                 2 days
                (Practice Tests)  =                 6 days
State Math Test      =                 2 days
                        18  days

Then you need to add what is to come:
State Science test  =                        Add 2 days
State Social Studies test =               Add 2 days
                                                              22 days

                  Approximately Twenty-two days, over four weeks of class time, will be taken up or interrupted by state testing once all tests are put into place junior year.  The question is, in the long run, how will this benefit our students?  In a desperate attempt to create quantifiable data, the government has decided to focus on numbers rather than the kids and consequently, kids are becoming the collateral damage. As a student, imagine spending 22 days in one year working on test after test.  

              Let’s not forget trying to work meaningfully through all the curricular expectations while knowing most districts care most about test scores. It’s all incredibly overwhelming, but as teachers we must work through the problems, not around them and demand change. I’m just not sure how and where to begin. All I know is that we need to figure out a way to do it together.  

Saturday, August 13, 2011

"Socratic Seminar is life: Dialogue vs. Debate"

Dialogue: to be open to other people’s ideas
Debate: to convince others your argument is the only argument.

The best thing about starting a new school year is the hope that comes with it.  Last year was difficult, but paradoxically so. It was truly the best year I’ve had as a classroom teacher, but it was one of my most challenging because of the politics and debates surrounding the thing I love the most--teaching kids. I just felt helpless, even hopeless because the conversations impacting teaching the most excluded teachers and students.

Then it hit me. 

Learning doesn’t truly happen unless all parties involved are willing to open themselves to new ideas, ones that even contradict their current perceptions. Okay, I know, that’s not anything new.  Common sense, right?  But think about it.  So many educators, administrators, politicians, (everyone really), have forgotten how to have a dialogue because we’ve gotten sidetracked by our emotions, our passions, and our best intentions. We’ve forgotten the importance of trying to understand where the “others” are coming from and so we only have debate, not dialogue.

No wonder we’re not getting anywhere.  No wonder students feel they have no voice; no wonder teachers are willing to strike during school hours instead of teach; no wonder administrators and politicians would sell their souls for funding rather than take a stand against the tyranny of capitalism.  Everyone’s just talking, but no one’s listening. So emotions heighten, screaming begins and debate is sparked.  But still, no one is listening and an overwhelming sense of hopelessness spreads.

I was first taught Socratic Seminar eight or nine years ago by David Stickrod, one of the most effective principals I’ve ever had.  He understood and valued the importance of shared inquiry, which is dialogue (the foundation of Socratic Seminar), and the power of allowing students to make meaning from the text rather than being bestowed the knowledge by the teacher. More importantly, he taught me that controlling my classroom with leading questions, canned conversations and worksheets would result in little if any long-term retention because that is more or less "pretend teaching."

If students are allowed to create meaning and participate in creating a new living text, they’re going to feel valued and invested not only in their own learning, but in the pursuit of knowledge through dialogue, which is Socratic Seminar’s purpose.  And what’s more exciting, we’ve taught our students how to communicate critical issues effectively with the willingness to change their own perceptions because ego has no place in the conversation. 

Imagine, shaping a society of young leaders whose mission is to understand the other side’s perspective first so that their own understanding is enhanced.  If everyone was trained in seminar, there would be very little if any gridlock in congress like we’ve seen recently; there would be dialogue without spite and a sense of community in all decisions being made because people’s primary focus would be on learning, not defending; on dialogue, not debate.

Now imagine…

What if I was to apply the principles behind Socratic Seminar to my life?  Let me explain, but bear with me because it’s going to feel like tangent at first.  Just the other night my husband came home after working his typical eleven-hour day. All day I had been stewing about the fact he left the ironing board out, tossed my nicely folded clean laundry all over the place and, to top it all off, he didn’t get the recycling out.  Well, needless to say, I launched and went off about how careless, even thoughtless he was and we just started yelling…about laundry.  Duh.  Rather than taking the time to first ask myself, “What would happen that would cause Jim to make such an enormous mess?” I instead reverted to emotion and prepared for battle because I was going to prove he was the one at fault.  It wasn’t even about laundry anymore, it was about being right; it was a debate and so dialogue was impossible and all that resulted were hurt feelings. 

And so why does this even matter?  Why is this relevant to education, to our classrooms, to our world?

We have to get a grip on our own emotions and egos so we can listen, because listening is the cornerstone of dialogue. Let’s go back to the idea that there may be an overwhelming feeling of helplessness or lack of control in some aspect of our lives (professional or personal).  That helplessness comes from a lack of control and not feeling valued on a personal, intellectual and/or professional level.  It’s the same feeling we’ve all had one time or another in a department meeting, district meeting, while reading the newspaper or even in the middle of a fight with a spouse. It’s the same feeling our students have in our classrooms when we’re teaching our students what to think rather than letting them come to their own meaning through dialogue.  Helplessness then turns into fear, and fear metamorphoses into anger and debate is all that remains. Debate feeds and crushes egos. It doesn’t promote change.

Just a few days ago I was given a second opportunity to be trained in Seminar by my current district and the experience was amazing; however, by the second day the principal had allowed all faculty to excuse themselves from the training except for the English and Communicative Arts departments. The word was he had received complaints it wasn’t relevant to other content areas such as Science, Social Studies, Math, World Languages, etc.

Understandably, they wanted time in their classrooms (so did I), time to get ready for the first day, but it worries me to consider what was lost because of system issues.  Seminar isn’t just for English teachers.  Seminar teaches people how to communicate civilly, with open minds and through reflection. 

As explained above, it applies to life, every content area and every classroom because dialogue is the foundation of any productive relationship, business, and society.  So, I’ll leave you with a quote Socratic Seminar Guru Oscar Graybill said during our training that stuck with me. Its simplicity calmed me when I started worrying about everything I wasn’t getting done,

“If you don’t have time to reflect then you don’t have time to learn.” 

And if you don’t have time to learn, then how can you teach? 

I’d love your thoughts, insights and comments!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Parents need to take back their right to parent

If I had one wish it would be to slow down time.  It’s approaching the middle of summer, I have a graduate class beginning next week, another one after that and I’m finding myself wishing the world would just take a breather.  I’m loving getting to know my own kids again (even though they fight about the dumbest things) without the distraction of a mound of papers waiting to be graded on my dinning room table.  I’m loving chatting with friends on the deck without the clutter of school politics clouding our conversations and I’m loving the laughter.

Like so many other teachers, summer gives me (as well as my children) a chance to breathe, clear my mind, work on curriculum and gather the strength to create a momentum that has to last 10 months straight, because teaching isn’t just about throwing content into a crowd, hoping some of the kids will catch it.  You’ve always got to be “on” and ready for the emotional and intellectual roller coaster that every school year brings.

Teaching comes from the heart and so every single day during the school year I take 120 plus students home with me, along with their grading, student/parent correspondence, lesson plan writing and rewriting; let’s not forget the constant political and social battles we’ve been forced to contend with and the overwhelmingly negative press that has come to define education.  I’ve never been able to master “just turning it off” when I come home; so once May comes, it’s my turn to be a mom and a full-time one at that, which brings me to a point of serious internal conflict: extending the school year. 

Extending the school year makes sense. Our children will become more competitive globally because the gap will be lessened between educational periods; thus, our nation will thrive and everything—including the economy—will turn around…right? This is where I’m stuck, because I’m not so sure extending the time our kids are in school is the answer. 

When did it become the government’s job to provide babysitters, to act as our children’s parents and to potentially take away so many precious hours from families who hardly see each other as it is? Again, I’m stuck, but I think a solution may exist in reclaiming our families and our time. I understand that most families have dual incomes and some are struggling to even make it, but as a nation, have we sold out our families in pursuit of what has become the materialistic nature of the American Dream?  Even writing about this fills me with conflict, but my instincts are telling me it may be time, at least for me, to re-prioritize.  

As parents we should be actively teaching our kids by picking up where their teachers left off at the end of the school year.  As it stands the government is sending the message that parents can’t be trusted with their own children’s education and consequently, America’s children must spend more and more time in the classroom.  There are so many levels to this conversation that I’m simply skimming over and even over-simplifying (because there's too much content for one blog), I know; however, before we know it the government will be raising our children, not us, and that terrifies me.

Teachers should not be expected to raise our children and the government should not be allowed to assume the role as parent.  The only way we’re going to fix our “educational crisis” is by starting at home, carving out more family time and by making learning fun and a part of our children’s everyday lives.  

I’d love to hear your ideas, concerns and start a discussion.  

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The parent is not always right

Yesterday a colleague told me he's been researching administrative techniques that revolve around the idea that parents are customers, that they're always right and that we (teachers and administrators) need to do everything we can to make them feel good and happy about all in the world. Okay, so maybe the last part might have included a bit of hyperbole, but seriously, this approach is, in one word: destructive.

I understand how important it is to do everything we can do to help set a student up for success, but my experience has been that this philosophy translates into an excuse to not address the true issues that parents bring to the table.  I am also a parent of a second grader and a soon-to-be kindergartner and let me tell you, I've been told "no" by the administration at  his school many times.

My son had a terrible kindergarten year, so bad in fact that I went in demanding he be moved out of that teacher's class because she had told my son that he made her not want to come to work everyday. Highly unprofessional, yes, but the principal explained she'd personally address the situation and keep an eye on things, that moving kids was the last resort because there are so many life lessons to be learned and running away from them hurts all involved that early in the game.

I was still upset, but I understood where she was coming from, and as an educator I appreciated the fact that she was supporting her teacher, and the parent while actively seeking out a solution.  What she was doing made sense and while my son had to be moved because the teacher's negative behaviors continued (and they were bad), we left knowing we did all we could. More importantly, though, a paper trail following that teacher was started because of her refusal to learn from her mistakes, (which ties into my last post).  Was I upset that we had such an emotional mess to clean up with my son? Oh my gosh, you have no idea!  But, did we all learn and grow from the situation? For sure.

The principal and I didn't always see eye to eye, but I truly respected and continue to respect her administrative style. Because of her, my son had an incredible first grade teacher and continues to excel in second grade. So that brings me back to looking at the parents as "clients" and the primary goal of "making them happy." None of what I just explained would have been as successful if I (the parent in this case) would have been allowed to call the shots, which is precisely why we have to deal with the issues the parents bring in (i.e. excessive absences, apathy, poverty, whatever) and be active with finding solutions that may be difficult, but necessary. Regardless of how hard the conversation might have to be, it has to be done.

Taking the easy way out by just "making them happy" will perpetuate an environment in which parents continue to have very little accountability because it's easier to just go with the flow, while teachers continue to bear the brunt of society's woes.  Parents are not the experts when it comes to education, we are. And because of that, we can help them in so many ways.  Keeping that information to ourselves just further cripples everyone involved and creates more helicopter parents who scream instead of communicate.

Do teachers make mistakes? Hell yeah!  Do parents have a hard time taking off their parenting hat and seeing the truth for what it really is, and do they make mistakes? You bettchya.  Do administrators need to value their teachers as much as the parents and do they make mistakes? Holy cow, do I even need to answer that?  So what does it all mean? If we are truly going to start turning this terrible educational environment around and rethink the educational system as it stands then we have to work as a team, listen to each other's voices and stop looking at schools as corporations, because our commodity is way too fragile and our purpose is not a capitalistic one.

As a parent and a teacher I have been forced to walk on both sides of the path and I only wish everyone could have the fortune (or misfortune) of living out both sides of this conundrum.  It's no longer a matter of No Child Left Behind as we know it; it's becoming a matter of No Common sense Left Behind.  Life is not about taking the easy path because it's often too narrow and too short-sighted, leading nowhere; it's about finding a path big enough for everyone to walk down that leads to change.

Tell me what you think!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Tenure's dirty little secret

It may be my eleventh year of teaching, but this is probably the first year I've really given tenure a second thought. Sure I've worried about RIFing in the past, but I've always been somewhat safeguarded by the fact I was the only journalism teacher.  However, I have since left my "department of one" and entered into the English department. With the threat of massive budget cuts, the buzz about the potential for pink slips is beginning, which brings me back to my initial topic: tenure.

In one of our discussions, one of the teachers brought up the "last in, first out" policy, which was something I was aware of but never really considered.   (In Time's article Beyond Unions: Five New Rules for Teachers, Andrew J. Rotherham explains it briefly.)  And when we started weighing teachers who could potentially lose their jobs because of budget cuts against those who would be guaranteed to keep theirs, disgruntlement and even a little panic ensued. 

A motivated, hard-working, student-centered teacher could be lost to another that admittedly has "given-up" on students because it's "just not worth the fight" all because the latter has more experience in the district.  It has nothing to do with evaluations, nothing to do with the rigor or relevance of their classroom instruction and everything to do with who has been breathing the longest in that district.  If it sounds crazy, it is and that's precisely why we need a voice of reason (I'm not sure who that is yet) and to use some common sense.  

While I'm not currently an active member of my school's union, I am a union advocate.  In fact, I was on the negotiations team at my previous school, but the playground has become so muddied by manipulation (just as it has been in everything political locally, nationally and even globally) that the union is forced to stand up for "good" and "bad" teachers because those teachers, regardless of their skill level or moral inclinations,  are paying dues and are thus promised legal protection. But when it comes down to it unions are essential in protecting teachers from what can be the tyranny of upper-management, which is eloquently explained by the blog, Don't Get Me Started: Why Have Tenure? 

What ceases to amaze me again and again about the coverage swirling around education, especially unions and educational reform, is the assumption that tenure is this relentless force that can't be tamed when, if fact, it all comes down to the tedious task of creating a paper trail and the lack of follow through from the administrators to do just that.  

The role of any typical high school administrator far exceeds simply overseeing his teachers and school-wide events, and so administrators are often spread too thinly, rendering them ineffective as leaders for the teachers and adversely, the students.  Out of desperation some may simply ask teachers to "sign-off" on their observations knowing an actual observation was never completed while others may drop in for ten minutes, only to write up a "fill-in-the-blank" observation when they get back to the office. As a result, no paper trail is created and another uninspired or maybe even incompetent teacher slips through the cracks.  So, what do we do?  

Administrators need to actually observe their teachers on a regular basis, provide feedback and expect change. If the teacher is offered remediation and change still doesn't take place?  Well, then fire them. Yes, it's that easy. The union will provide legal services because they HAVE to.  They're representing one of its paying members and such services are expected; however, if the union can't prove the teacher has met the district's requirements because the administration has done its legwork honestly and with integrity, the teacher's contract should be and will be terminated.   Teachers are not the enemy, the system is and it needs to be fixed.  

Teachers need to be valued enough by the system to actually be given thoughtful observations that provide an open forum for improvement, not punishment.  Doesn't it seem ridiculous that in education, educators aren't provided the very feedback they're expected to constantly provide to students to insure classroom success? What's good for the goose is good for gander, which is precisely what Time's article,  "Better Teachers: More Questions than Answers" addresses when discussing the importance of observations (even though it seems like common sense to me),  

 "They found that not only did performance (as measured by math achievement of students) increase during the evaluation year, but the gains were sustained in subsequent years. That's a big deal—it means teachers were not just responding to being evaluated but using the feedback to improve their work."

In actuality, tenure's dirty little secret is that it has nothing to do with tenure or even unions.  It has everything to do with a broken system and a broken community of learners, educators and community members. It's time to stop passing the buck and just start making change and rethinking inane policies like the "last in, first out" approach that de-professionalize teaching. Unions are necessary because they create a forum in which conversations like these need to take place, where all parties can have a voice. The promising, the good and the great need to get even better while the bad need to be documented and kicked out of the system. It's as simple as picking up a pencil and paper.  

Let me know what you think!  

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Final Reflection for Social Learning Grad Class

How has social networking made a difference 
in your classroom?
Being able to read and being given the time to read a variety of blogs has probably been most beneficial to my classroom instruction. It's opened up an entirely new perspective when it comes to controversial topics, raw commentary and better yet, I stumbled on communities of like-minded people.  Consequently, I've been able to take the information and use it as a springboard for discussion and I continue to draw from different blogs and videos with hopes of adding even more dimensions to my curriculum.

For example, we were shown a video by Will Richardson that mentioned a Mississippi school that is piloting a program in which teachers are being coached from the back of the room or in an entirely different location while wearing ear buds. Besides making me even more distressed about the state of education than I already was, the video and article made me ponder our basic freedoms, our rights and the responsibility of maintaining those rights -- not to mention the willingness of teachers, community members, administrators to become life-size bobble heads and actually agree to participate in such madness. So, I put it out there for my students to discuss while making connections to the assigned reading. The conversations were amazing and the epiphanies had by many of my students gave me hope.

What plans do you have to continue developing your online personal learning network (PLN)? How do you see an online education community changing education?

I plan on rewriting most of my English 10 units this summer to create a more solution-based approach to learning. I want to create summative assessments that revolve around case studies that stem from social and political issues highlighted in our assigned readings. For example, After reading The Grapes of Wrath, I would love to actually have my students research current jobless rates, distribution of wealth, etc. and research why it's happening while paralleling it to the social/economic status and times that were illustrated in the book. 

While my ideas are still in their infancy, I would also love for them to focus on one key parallel and research a solution for the problem their discovery uncovered. But one requirement would have to be for them to actually go to the bank, or business or whatever and test their theories. Wouldn't it be wonderful for them to be able to feel the power of being an active problem-solver? Again, this is just a thought bubble right now and it needs a lot of work. 

An online community is imperative so my students and I can get a global perspective. Once they see their world compared to others', I'm pretty sure they're going to change their perceptions. For example, wouldn't it be interesting to have a European interpretation of the American Dream? Skype could and will make it happen. That is of course if our internet works at school. It's always a crap shoot, but a little perspective goes a long way. We've just got to keep the conversation going.

Monday, April 11, 2011

How social media can make history: A blur of green, pink, white and brown

"I sometimes think drivers don't know what grass is, or flowers, because they never see them slowly," she said. "If you showed a driver a green blur. Oh yes! He'd say, that's grass! A pink blur! That's a rose garden! White blurs are houses. 
Brown blurs are cows" (8).  
--Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451

It has been an interesting juxtaposition, attending my graduate "Social Learning" class while teaching Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 and dealing with the contradiction the two create.  On one end, we celebrate the technological advances offered by social media and the internet, the speed and ease of being able to connect with thousands, even millions of people globally, resulting in the proverbial "flattening" of the world.  We welcome opportunities to share our thoughts, like I've done in this very blog, while hopefully stirring hearts and minds into making change when it comes to anything from a local food drive to fundraising for Japanese earthquake and tsunami survivors. So many opportunities for change, for learning and for reflection.

On the other end, Bradbury leads his reader through a path of intellectual destruction, a place where speed is the necessity and where characters become extensions of technology rather than technology being an extension of the people.  He speaks about a world, much like the one Clay Shirky is talking about in his video "How Social Media can make History." A world in which governments shut down things like Twitter, Facebook and Google to prevent their own citizens from communicating with people because the rate of communication and lack of control frightens the powers that rely so heavily on regulation. As a result, the very medium used to exercise their freedoms is manipulated to bastardize it. 

With the freedoms associated with social media so comes the responsibilities and the consequences Bradbury prophetically warns us about in his novel. The more "progress" made technologically, the more likely communities might become overstimulated (constant barrage of world news, reality television, online gaming, computer-based learning rather than face-to-face instruction), overwhelmed and apathetic because they can't cope with the amount and types of information being delivered from every direction.  I have students who never turn off their phones, who sleep by them and wake up to answer texts and calls throughout the entire night.  So the question isn't whether or not social media can make history. It's more a matter of when does it become our history and how will we manage it so it will remain a useful tool and not become a weapon or an excuse to "Cha-Cha" the answers rather than come up with an original idea?

I embrace technology and I love social media and its potential, but I'm terrified that its very existence will dismantle the critical thinking skills that have evolved through real-time, real-life, face-to-face conversations unless we teach the limited nature of these freedoms and the art of balancing so much information. Otherwise, we will find ourselves living amongst millions of people online without really knowing anyone,  and life will become a blur of green, pink, white and brown. Just remember, stay ahead of the social media monster and remember to tame it rather than be tamed by it.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

It's all Greek to me! But it doesn't have to be -- Ethos, Pathos and Logos

High School sophomores throughout the U.S. know that being in tenth grade means another year of Shakespeare and another chance to crack his code.

More often than not students come to my class expecting to listen to a recording while they follow along (like they did freshman year), grabbing tidbits of information here and there; oftentimes, missing the big picture altogether. Well, first of all, we don't sit. We act.  Second of all, we revolve all our discussions around the appeals to ethos, pathos and logos, the corner stones of persuasive rhetoric. What I always find most enjoyable is watching the light bulbs go off and the simple fact that teaching them how to examine author's purpose (by looking closely at ethos, pathos and logos) allows students to see why Shakespeare is writing Julius Caesar while forcing them to look at themselves and their own use of the different appeals in day-to-day life.

Examining Antony's monologues, Cassius' asides and the plebians' flippancy makes students see Shakespeare as a real person who is trying to desperately affect social change safely, a bit beyond arm's reach of the Crown. Yes, Antony is criticizing the commoners for flip-flopping their allegiance from Pompey, to Caesar, to Brutus and then back to Caesar again; but more importantly, my students are able to figure out Shakespeare is criticizing his audience for doing the very same thing Antony was enraged by in the play, being a lemming. Then, naturally, reflection begins and they apply the lessons to their own worlds.

It's vital to teach ethos, pathos and logos alongside Julius Caesar because it demystifies the past and the present.  Students see metaphor in action and consider, sometimes for the first time, the power of rhetoric not only in Caesar, but in conversations with Moms, Dads and even their best friends.  While it's pretty goofy, I used the video, Persuasive Appeals Ethos Logos Pathos that somewhat oversimplifies ethos, pathos and logos but manages to put them on a level nearly anyone can understand. So have fun and remember that the most important lesson we have to teach to our students is that they have a mind of their own and to find it, they have to be critical thinkers and critical consumers.  

Putting a modern day spin on Julius
When teaching any subject, I think it's important to make modern-day connections, which is precisely why I'm planning on incorporating "Tribal Ties, Long Qaddafi’s Strength, May Be His Undoing"
into my lessons at the end of Julius Caesar. I'll ask students to read the article in pairs and discuss the connections to Caesar. 

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

"Why bother?"

In Dana Patterson's  "Why Bother?" she explores why it's worth it to be in the trenches with the kidsBeing an educator, as explained by Patterson, is all about being a role model, a guidance counselor and sometimes, even a mother.  It's about making decisions that could deeply impact my student's life one way or another, good or bad.

For instance, Do I call the parent of the a child who's  got an "F" in my class because he refuses to pay attention, even though I know that student will be verbally berated as soon as he gets home? Heck, I saw it happen face-to-face at conferences.  Or worse, do I make the phone call if there is any suspicion of physical abuse? I mean, really, the kid said his mom beats him if doesn't do his homework. What if it's true. Of course I talked to counselor and the SRO officer, calls were made, but no proof. But what if it's true...even a little bit?  If I don't call, I'm not communicating with parents, I'm not fulfilling my professional duties. If I do, God knows what the outcome might be and whether or not the student will trust me again.  Maybe that phone call could be the catalyst to something much scarier, even unthinkable.  Maybe I'm just being paranoid.  I don't know.

The point is, as a teacher I'm not just responsible for me.  I'm not just responsible for my students. I'm responsible for an entire group of people I can't control or even necessarily find or communicate with. How does that even make sense? There are so many variables and where does the responsibility rest?  On the teacher's shoulders, of course. You know the buzzwords, "teacher accountability."  But here's the catch, "teacher accountability" doesn't mean parents can excuse themselves from the table of responsibility and it also doesn't mean our profession as educators should become the scapegoat of the world's woes--economic, social, whatever.

Even with the negative environment that is swirling like a rabid tornado around the world of public education, I LOVE what I'm doing and I love the challenges these types of situations present, but I hate the negative opinion, the negative press and the lack of support for quality teachers that is plaguing education.  Yep, I have bad days and the kids at school can drive me crazy, but I do care and I do bother. Why do I bother? Because someone needs to be there for the kids when everyone else is giving up on them.  Because high schoolers are truly the funniest people I know and I laugh, cry, speak sternly and even provide the occasional snort because they impact me just as much as I do them.  They make me happy. More importantly, they make me see myself for all the good and bad that I am, and they force me to reflect, change and reflect again.  The question is, why shouldn't you bother? 

Speaking of funny high school students...look at the funny, harmless prank my advanced junior English kids did to my classroom. They got into my room an hour before school even started, stuck thousands of sticky notes all over my room. That's why I love teaching high schoolers.  That's why I "bother." 

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Response to Five Tips for Smarter Social Networking

While reading the article, "Response to Five Tips for Smarter Social Networking," I was immediately battling some serious internal conflict.  I mean, truly, what does it mean to be a social networking member and a friendly neighbor?  The article explains that people should be willing to be somewhat transparent, meshing their personal lives with their professional ones, an opportunity to "break down the walls."

The problem, however, is that those walls are necessary but to what extent?  I just had a conversation with a colleague and we were discussing the tendency of perception skewing and even misinterpreting any blog's intentions.  As a current English teacher and an ex-journalism teacher of 9 years, my stomach flip-flops when I think about all the news articles that had the best intentions, but ended with the worst results.  That's my fear with blogs, but what's worse is it's about me regardless of how personal or impersonal it is.

At the same time I recognize the important of building trust and letting people in a little bit at a time.  I mean, jeeze, that's what we do with our students. But what's more important is finding that balance and in order to find balance, you've got to take risks.  It's quite a conundrum and I'm just in the beginning phases of figuring out, which explains why I didn't ever blog until Josh (@josh_allen, my instructor, forced me to.  :)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Love them back

It was sixth hour, my tech roaming period, when a student hurried through my door, "Mrs. F., here's a note for you."  I looked down and it explained I needed to cover Room Z-25.  So off I went to what was soon to be an experience of a lifetime.

When I rounded the corner to the room I did what every person would do in that situation. I went for the handle.  After a few clinks and a couple expletives, under my breath of course, I shrugged my shoulders and knocked on the door.  How am I supposed to cover a room I can't get into?  Then....then...a magic hand came from behind and then another one and it was then I realized this wasn't just any classroom, it was completely locked down. 

After the paraprofessional pressed a big red button and then pushed open the door within three seconds (coordination I didn't have apparently), she explained that the doors were engineered to prevent flight risks. Oddly enough, I was excited because this wasn't going to be the typical math class or social studies class where the lesson plans would include a video that was completely unrelated to the subject area.  The lesson was in fact about life.

I took my spot at the teacher's desk because I was afraid to get in the paraprofessionals' way.  There were four kids.  The one sitting to my left, (I'll call him Pablo), was a head trauma victim who had very limited verbal abilities and no writing abilities. He was happily playing Dora, but he was making his own music to go along with it.  Pablo had eaten something for lunch that wasn't agreeing with his stomach and the disagreement was coming out in thin, raspy high pitch chords that could possibly result in some messy clean-up. 

To my right was "Frank" whose job was shredding paper.  With his nose nearly touching the shredder, he carefully put in piece after piece, only pausing to wipe dry erase marker off the board in front of him a single sweep at a time.  His severe chromosomal damage made it difficult for me to discern any real emotion, but he was consumed by the motion of each paper and his connection to those motions. It was almost in rhythm with the raspiness of Pablo's toots. 
"Pablo!" said the para. "What do you say?"
"Sooory," he slurred with a smile

A little further to my right was "Paul," a severely autistic 18-year-old who was also battling OCD and also really loved picture books, especially ones with flowers. When I looked up I noticed he had planted both pointer fingers, one in each nostril.  Then, CLUNK! CLUNK! CLUNK! His head pounding began but its purpose was necessary. His hair was worn away on one side because he would pound his head against the table to soothe himself. Then he would examine his treasures on both pointer fingers and re-insert. 

Directly in front of me was Linda, a strong mind trapped by cerebral palsy. The only way she could show excitement was by choking and spewing saliva, but she understood everything that was taking place around her. But the best was the para who said, "If you hear barking about every 10 minutes, don't worry, it's just me. I have Tourettes." 

What still sticks with me is how much love those paras had for other people's children, and how all their (the kids and teachers) little idiosyncrasies made such a delightful, honest, complex picture. They love them enough to change their pants, hold their boogery hands and coo over them as if these special needs children were their own.  They celebrate every victory, including their own, behind walls no one usually sees; and they do it from their hearts because the pay is an insult.  They love their kids and more importantly, their kids--the ones that other people perceive as broken--love them back.