This World, That World and Some Other World

06/28/2010
Le Monde Flottant... The Floating World
Image by L’Ubuesque Boîte à Savon via Flickr

I don’t like the term ‘real world.’

It is often used in sentences like ‘Every lesson in school should relate to the real world.’

Formulations like that make me think schools are like the Floating World of ancient Japan or the artificial world of the holodeck on some Star Trek spaceship.

Schools are the real world, just as much as slums or split-level suburban homes are.

As different as slums and split-levels appear to be they have much in common just as the schools in slums and in suburbs have much in common.

An American slum building and a split-level each provide some manner of shelter from the elements, a place to sleep, plumbing, and some separation from what it occurring outside its walls.

The schools in poverty-riddled slum areas also have much in common with the schools in the wealthy suburbs. This comes as a surprise to some people who prefer to focus on the differences between them.

In fact, almost all schools in America have much more in common than whatever differences may exist.

They all have classrooms and teachers.

They all have textbooks.

Sure the textbooks might be newer in one place than they are in another, but when you get right down to it a textbook is a textbook and they’re all pretty terrible.

And when you get right down to it a school is a school and they’re all pretty terrible.

But they’re not terrible because they belong to some world other than the ‘real’ one.

There is just one real world. It just looks different in different places.

Perhaps you are wondering “if the real world looks different in different places why do the schools all look pretty much the same?”

That is what I wonder about.

I recently listened to a graduation speech. I’ve listened to quite a few graduation speeches.

Graduation speeches have a lot in common with schools and textbooks, they’re all pretty much the same and they’re all pretty terrible.

Listen to a graduation speech in the South Bronx and listen to one in South Salem and you’ll hear the same notes of thanks and relief, the same platitudes, and the same exhortations to create a better world, some other world where things are more, grander, greater and finer.

That world doesn’t exist.

That world will not exist.

Nothing will change even when it seems everything is changing.

Nothing will change especially when it looks like everything is changing.

The other world today’s students are supposed to create will look very much like this one just as this one looks very much like the one my generation was supposed to create when we graduated 40 years ago, and very much like the one my father’s generation was supposed to create when he graduated 60+ years ago.

My guess is that 60 years from now the graduation speeches will still sound the same and those graduates are supposed to create that better, grander, world.

And they won’t either.

This is not an accident.

This is, despite all the platitudes about how education changes the world and is a way out of poverty, etc., precisely what our system of education is designed to do: keep things pretty much the same and pretty terrible, at least for the great majority of people.

This is what schools do: they perpetuate the present from generation to generation.

Oh sure, things change. Many schools have gone from blackboards to white boards to interactive white boards, but they’re a lot like textbooks and graduation speeches, pretty much the same and pretty terrible.

They’re terrible because though they give the impression of being very different they each focus the student on the front of the room and remind the student of who holds the power in the classroom.

And schools in the South Bronx and South Salem (and South Carolina and South Dakota…) give the impression of being very different but they all remind the student of who holds the power in society and how they’re supposed to sit still, listen quietly and raise their hand to participate.

This is as true today as it was 100 years ago and 200 years ago.

This is why the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor.

And none of it is an accident.

And it is all pretty terrible.

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Chaos and Injury, What a Year

06/26/2010
Pelham Bay Park (IRT Pelham Line) by David Sha...
Image via Wikipedia

My school year started with injury and chaos and it is ending the same way, only this time I’m not the one who is injured.

On our last full day of the year my school schedules a Field Day at a very large park a short subway ride away.

The ride over was uneventful, just what you want a subway ride to be, especially when you’re shepherding a large group of students.

The injury occurred on the basketball court. Somehow one of our 7th grade boys fell hard and hit his head on the asphalt. A large lump formed immediately. Ice was applied and an ambulance called.

At last report he was resting after having had convulsions.

The chaos comes from every teacher in my academy having to switch classrooms before next year starts. This is not typical even though it will be my fifth move in the four years I’ve worked at this school.

I am envious of those teachers who simply lock up at the end of the year and walk away leaving the room only requiring minimum effort to get the room ready for September’s students.

Not only have I had to move rooms every year I’ve taught, I’ve had to learn a new curriculum or two.

Next year I’ll be teaching 8th grade social studies again, but I’ll also be teaching the 7th grade for the first time. I’ll be teaching general and special education classes. My principal wants me to develop a technology-based literacy-heavy approach to the curriculum.

I’m happy about all that.

The 7th grade class will be this year’s 6th graders who I enjoy so much. The 8th grade class, this year’s 7th graders, is generally considered a class to avoid if you can.

I can’t, and I’m agonizing over how to approach them.

I’m being advised to be very strict, to set clear procedures with high standards of behavior and enforce them rigorously. This includes making them line-up silently before entering the class and behaving with maximum comportment once inside.

I am not a very strict person. I’m very relaxed in an energetic, intense way. I am far more inclined to tell students what I expect and help them try to grow to reach those expectations.

I’ve got to admit that this approach has not worked well for me and, as the saying goes, doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome leads to insanity. I’m afraid it will also result in diminished learning opportunities for those students who already have large educational deficits.

So strict it will be. I have all summer to practice my teacher stare, to learn how to project my voice better while learning that new curriculum and figuring out how to use technology to teach my students.

I’m also taking additional training in social studies content, on how to use my interactive white board to teach social studies and on grant writing.

So that’s how I’m spending my summer “off.”

Oh, I do get to take a trip. My wife and I are going to spend a week in Santa Fe.

For that week I’m going to try to forget about students, forget about curriculum, forget about planning and forget about gathering materials and resources,

Why doesn’t anyone believe me when I say that?

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Student Progress: Sometimes Its Not the Teacher

06/18/2010

Teacher accountability is all the rage.

March 6
Image by lorenabuena via Flickr

I don’t think there is anyone who would argue that teachers should not be accountable for what they do or fail to do, not even me.

The only argument is how to measure what teachers do.

Oh yeah, we also have to define what it is that teachers do.

Part of the problem is that part of what teachers do is not done in the classroom, part of what teachers do affects student development but has nothing to do with academics, and teachers are not the only ones in a school who help kids develop.

For one child in my school the teachers tried and tried, but it was the school secretary who made the difference.

And what a difference it is.

K came to our school three years ago as a hostile, extremely withdrawn and occasionally violent sixth grade girl.

Every day she wore this large black trench coat that she would pull up so that she could be totally hidden by it.

She was mute.

She ignored any teacher who tried to speak to her, no matter how gently.

She ignored any teacher who tried to speak to her, no matter how insistently.

She ignored students who tried to speak to her. If they got too close she would lash out with the sharpened pencil always ready in her hand. More than once a student would get stabbed. K just missed piercing one girl’s eye.

K did not like school.

K especially did not like the school lunchroom, a near toxic blend of cacophonous sounds near manic energy.

K was not at all manic.

K seemed to be an empty shell of a girl.

Our school secretary is a dour, efficient woman who does not tolerate teachers or other fools well.

But she has a heart a mile wide and twice as deep when it comes to kids.

Ann invited K to spend the lunch period in the office with her.  K accepted wordlessly by showing up.

Ann would continue to work while K sat there.

Eventually K began to draw.

#2 Pencils, A Lot of Them

Image by alex.ragone via Flickr

And draw.

And draw.

The first positive thing we learned about K is that she is a talented artist who, with only a #2 pencil, created pictures filled with texture and emotion.

Eventually we heard from K’s father who lives overseas. He told us some of what K had been through and we began to understand why she behaved as she did.

It was not a pretty picture, especially when K eventually drew it sitting at a desk in the office eating lunch with Ann.

K ate lunch with Ann every day.

In 7th grade K travelled with the rest of her class to their different subject teachers. K still wore her trench coat but she didn’t hide in it as much.

And she stopped stabbing people.

Every time I saw K I’d say hello and smile at her.

Eventually she would look up at my face as I did that.

One day I got a crooked, shy smile back.

K ate lunch with Ann every day.

The black trench coat was replaced with a very large sweater.

K continued to communicate with drawings. Sometimes we got what she was saying, usually not.

K ate lunch with Ann every day.

K did very little schoolwork. But she started to give other people that shy, crooked smile.

One day K whispered something to me.

She asked to go to the office to see Ann.

It wasn’t lunchtime, but I let her go. She spent the rest of the day there.

K started talking more.

And more.

She continued to draw, and she continued to eat lunch with Ann every day.

This year K is in 8th grade.

The sweater is gone.

K smiles and talks to anyone who will listen or smile back.

K made a few friends.

And there were even days when K did not eat with Ann because she wanted to be with her friends. She went to the lunchroom.

But most of the time you could find K in the office where she would sit opposite Ann drawing or helping out at odd tasks.

Now K holds her head up high and her bright blue eyes sparkle.

K is confident, relaxed and even kids around a bit.

K went to the prom! And had a good time. I know because she told me.

Last night I went to a retirement dinner for four colleagues. Ann is retiring in a week when our school years ends.

Last night was the first time I saw Ann smile and laugh.

Her work is done.

On Monday K will graduate with the rest of our 8th graders, all of whom have grown tremendously since they came into this school three years ago.

But none has grown and developed as much as K.

Today K will have her last lunch with Ann.

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Teacher Gets A Final Report Card: B-

06/16/2010
Students holding report cards.
Image via Wikipedia

It is report card time again.

I give one to each of my students and my students give one to me.

I started this earlier this year and I did very well in the first quarter.

My students tell me that in some ways I improved as the year went on. In other ways I did not.

As in the past, I let each student decide what criteria was important to them and how they would grade me. I do this so I don’t impose my idea of what is important on them.

On my first report card I got very favorable grades. This time the students were more discerning.

“We always learn something in class (Progress: 75%) but you need to be more tough (Discipline 40%) Overall grade: 65,” wrote one boy.

“You as a person: A+. You as a teacher: C-. Surprise tests are never a good idea,” a girl explained.

But another student wrote, “You always prepared us for tests, you always spent extra time with me when I didn’t understand something.”

Two students said I get out of control sometimes, and two others asked how I manage to keep myself under control all the time (deep breathing I learned in yoga class).

Many students offered suggestions for how I could improve:

speak more clearly.

explain more, even when we don’t ask questions.

give more work.

be a tougher disciplinarian.

control the class better.

get a different job.

Other students appreciated that I:

gave choices about assignments.

assigned a lot of projects.

played music and served food from the countries we studied.

am open to criticism.

don’t hold grudges.

Today I also told my 6th grade students that I would be their homeroom and social studies teacher next year.

Only two people shouted out “OH, NO!”

Three girls hugged me. Two boys hugged me.

When report cards are what you seek you see they come in all forms.

One troubled boy tried to throw a chair at me.

Another boy stopped him.

In my mind, that’s a B- average.

Lots of room for improvement, indeed.

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New Mirrors. Less Smoke?

06/10/2010
Tweed Courthouse, New York City - The headquar...
Image via Wikipedia

I’ve never been shy about my contempt for standardized tests and the data derived from them.

If you’re in a hurry, I’ll save you time by saying that my opinion is not at all changed by the new way the New York City Department of Education is going to figure what all the numbers generated by their multitude of tests mean when it comes to measuring school effectiveness.

It seems that the NYCDOE has realized that their metrics for reflecting school effectiveness for the past couple of years were based on smoke, not that they’d ever admit that publicly.

The formulas used to determine whether or not a child or aggregate of children made or didn’t make a year of progress during a school year were, to put it gently, completely worthless at best, and thoroughly misleading.

All the pressure, sweat, hours, anguish and anxiety teachers, principals, parents and, students dedicated to that year of progress were all spent in pursuit of ephemera.

The re-drawn chart comparing the various gradi...
Image via Wikipedia

Nothing makes a person dedicated to a job like finding out that the back-office folk who wouldn’t know what to do in a classroom if they could find their way into one were all piling wool in front of our eyes.

We know this now because the NYCDOE is introducing a new way of measuring progress that is more complex, less comprehensible, most likely not any more reliable, yet – somehow – liberating.

Starting this year the progress of any student will only be measured against the progress of other students who scored the same as they did the previous year.

The annual progress of a student who scored a 1.75 on our four point scale in the ELA test last year will only be measured against the progress of other students across the city who also scored 1.75 on that same grade’s ELA test last year.

If there are ten other students who scored a 1.75 on that test, and this year our boy scores higher than six of the others, he will be in the 60th percentile and will be considered to have done well in relation to his peers.

Scatter-gumbel
Image via Wikipedia

If he scores higher than only one of his peers his teachers need to figure out why they’re not more effective.

This, roughly, is the brief explanation of the new system my principal gave my colleagues and I today.

He said it was the short version. He also said it was all he could give us because the rest is a bunch on statistical jargon explained in a thirty slide PowerPoint that not even he, a very smart man, understood completely.

But he also said that one side effect of the new system for figuring student progress is that it allowed us to stop worrying about annual progress for the school and each of its subgroups.

That liberates us to do more of what most of us became teachers to do, focus on the individual child.

That is an unintended consequence of this new system of mirrors reflecting back what we accomplish.

And this set of mirrors comes with much less smoke disguising what we see.

Is this what progress looks like?

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Better Students? Not My Job!

06/08/2010
Dr Kildare 002
Image by Tinker*Tailor via Flickr

Can You Name Five Famous Teachers? Four? Three?

I bet you’d have no trouble naming five famous lawyers.

Go ahead. Try.

Easy, wasn’t it?

Naming five famous doctors is a breeze, too.

I bet you can even name five famous living economists.

Teachers?

Famous teachers are hard to come by.

Is it because teaching is thought of as women’s work? Perhaps.

Is it because teachers don’t toot their own horns? That, too.

The problem with not tooting our horns is it makes us easy to ignore, easy to disregard.

How many teachers are at the table when education policy is being formulated and debated?

How is it that all the decisions about teaching and learning are being made by people who are not teachers?

I recently asked my teacher groups on Twitter to tell me how they’ve made a difference in the lives of children and their families.

I was looking for examples of the sorts of things that teachers do that don’t show up on those infernal standardized tests.

I got a few of those:

But mostly teachers told me the 140-character-or-fewer stories of how teachers made a difference in their lives.

There are few famous teachers but we all have teachers who affected us deeply, not necessarily academically. They got to us in ways that helped us grow, helped us become better people.

Much of the talk about education these days is about how America is falling behind, how students in Kansas can’t compete with kids from kids from Korea, Kenya or Katmandu.

Teachers are blamed and exhorted to create better students.

Sorry, that’s not my job.

Better students come from homes with parents who around to read to and talk with their children instead of having to work three jobs to feed and clothe them.

Better students come from better communities that are able to support libraries and where the development of children is everyone’s concern and a kid may have only one mother and one father but is blessed with a dozen or more ‘parents.’

If it is not my job or any teacher’s job to create better students, what is it that we do?

In all honesty, as much as I love history, it is not important to me that every student knows how the enmity the American revolutionaries felt towards King George III affects our lives today (do you know?).

What’s important to me is that every student knows how to tell fact from fiction, not confuse opinion with authority.

It is important to me that all my students can wade through the pervasive media environment and know how to form and communicate a reasoned opinion and cast an informed vote.

No, we don’t want to create better students.

We want to create better adults.

Better adults become better parents. Better adults create better, more caring and supportive communities.

All those critics who want America to have better students, you’re setting your sights far too low.

We all know, low expectations cause poor performance.

Need proof?

Just look at our politicians.

We don’t expect much from them.

And when it comes to education policy, not much is exactly what we get.

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