30 April 2005

Soapbox

At lunch with my colleagues a couple of days ago, I started to get up on my soapbox about something: Kids are not teaching tools.

What triggered this was a discussion about the number of honors sophomore biology sections for next year. For the last 8 years or so, we have run either 2 or 3 (based on what students sign up for). Next year, there are 4.

Why the big deal? It's because honors' classes are typically filled with "nice kids." Yes, a lot of them are bright, too, but we don't have any "gates" on honors' classes. Any kid, regardless of his/her course history or grades, can sign up for an honors class. I end up with students with IEPs, 504 plans, ESL students, and all sorts of variations in between. It's true that you would find fewer of those students in an honors class vs. regular class, but it isn't as if all honors' students are the cream of the crop.

Teachers of regular biology courses tend to feel that their classes would be "nicer" if fewer students were enrolled in an honors class. They believe their ratio of kids who do their homework, pay rapt attention, and who can read a set of lab instructions would increase...and therefore, their teaching day would be better. These teachers never provide a reason why it would be in the best interests of the student to take regular bio vs. honors bio.

I'm sorry, but kids are not teaching tools. Kids should not be placed in your class in order to make your day better. That's not why they're there. It's not that I don't understand a teacher's frustration with a difficult class and/or challenging students. I've had my share of those---and I have to tell you, most of them involved honors' students or classes.

Will we have 4 sections of sophomore honors biology at our school next year? I think we will. For one thing, the incoming class is significantly larger than previous classes. We would have to have more sections of science as is. (Our department currently has 5.8 science teachers and next year, we will need 6.3.) The administration is also not wild about the idea of offering fewer sections than kids have asked to enroll in. How do you decide which kids don't get the class---especially when there are no entry requirements? Who is going to call a parent and say, "You're kid can't take honors because Mr. X wants a nicer classroom environment."?

The other part of this is that I'm trying to disengage myself from my department, as I will only be teaching one class there next year. Honors biology will no longer be part of my world, and so I must leave others to make those decisions. I didn't do the whole soapbox routine at lunch the other day. I'm hopeful that my colleagues will come to their own realizations about the prospective "purpose" of kids in our classrooms...and that whatever that may be, it does not include the concept that kids are teaching tools. They aren't.

29 April 2005

Cadaver Day

A nearby community college hosts an event each year that they term "Surgical Demonstrations." What it's really about is showing cadavers to advanced high school students in order to further their knowledge of anatomy.

This is the third year that I've attended the event. The Anatomy teacher at my school also goes. Kids are invited to drive over after school and see the presentations with us. No one is required to go. Students who do are usually the ones interested in the medical field---some of whom want to know if they can handle being around a cadaver before they get involved with nursing or med school. This isn't the kind of field trip where you get a lot of "looky-loo" kind of kids...although there is the occasional student who came along due to peer pressure.

Anyway, the first year that we did this, the Anatomy teacher and I went earlier than the kids. Neither of us had encountered a cadaver during our schooling. We were curious as to whether or not we would be ones running from the rooms. As it turns out, it's really an okay kind of thing. The cadavers are obviously people...very much human...but their "person-ness" is not present, if that makes any sense. To me, having to attend a "viewing" before a funeral is far creepier. I have a hard time dealing with a recently departed someone who has been made up to look as though they're still who we knew.

The demonstrations always have at least one whole cadaver. They get a new one each spring and keep it for two years. There is a class of students who takes care of prepping the specimens. There is also another cadaver that is not whole. Parts are in different rooms (a chest cavity and head here, a leg there, a lower torso hither, and an arm thither). Each room then focuses on something specific: cardiac anatomy or reproductive organs or blood vessels. And as morbid as that sounds, it's actually okay, too. It is as if their state of detachment also allows you to mentally detach a bit and focus on the information without being distracted by "Oh my God! That man is holding a leg...a human leg with no human attached! And that girl is showing me the inside of the knee!"

We had a very good turnout this year. Between the two groups (Anatomy and AP Bio), there were at least 25 students. They all seemed involved in what they were seeing and learning. I'm sure it was an experience that they will never forget.

Mind you, I had to juxtapose all of this information with finding out that a former student of mine had died. Apparently, he died (car accident) almost a week ago...but in my building's inimitable style, no one bothered to pass along that information to those of us who had had this young man in class just a couple of years ago. I wasn't particularly close to this kid, but I liked him and he always had interesting questions and comments. He's not a name without a face to me.

Time for a glass of wine and a start to the weekend, I think.

28 April 2005

Another Day in Paradise

The WASL is history for another year. :) I must admit that I heard fewer complaints this year...and I even heard a few kids say today that they would miss the test. They kinda liked being in the gym with all their cohorts as if it were some oversized homeroom.

The day went by in a flash today. Not only were we on a shortened schedule (as we are every Thursday), but the classes were in an odd order due to the final day of testing. I covered a colleague's biotech class (again) this morning and then dealt with mine. My APers were very pleased with their lab results. My sophs were also more at ease. I didn't push them today---just let them work at their own pace.

A nice thing that happened today was that I gained another "convert" to my Cult of the Science Goddess. In this particular case, the guy (a teacher at one of our junior highs) had been a real thorn in my side for a long time. For whatever reason, he finally realized that I'm not another bureaucrat out to gum up the works...but rather to help him get what he wants in order to be a better teacher. He seems to at long last believe that I can make a difference. I have two more "hard sells" in another school in the district that I have to work on...but now at least I have one less on my list.

Tomorrow's Friday...and pay day. Not a bad way to be wrapping up April.

27 April 2005

Still WASL'ing...but now it's our turn

The first part of the Science WASL was given today. Two other teachers and I went up to the gym (where the testing is being done) at the beginning of the day to greet kids and hand out some pencil sharpeners. We probably didn't get to every kid, but we tried to let them know we wished them well and had confidence in their abilities. Considering that this was the 7th day in a row of testing, they needed the affirmations. My poor little sophs were so downtrodden looking by yesterday afternoon. I took them out in the sun and had them do their lab in the fresh air.

Tomorrow is the last day of testing (finally)---apart from any make-up tests that need to be completed. I wish the school had something nice planned for the kids as a reward. Even just an ice cream bar to hand them on their way out of the test.

Next will come the waiting until August, when scores are finally released. I should mention that my department has had an ambitious goal all year. We want to raise science scores by 11% points---for a total passing rate of 50%. (Don't faint---we actually do much better than a lot of schools across the state.) Other departments in the building looked at 4 or 5%. Maybe that's more realistic, but we believe the standards are reasonable. We idenitified kids to target. We've done our best to support student learning throughout the year.

As for me? My next hurdle with students is the AP Exam, now only 8 school days away. Yikes. I'll be glad when it's someone else's turn in the barrel as far as "test season" goes.

26 April 2005

Hurdle #1

Yesterday was the first "test" of the science scope and sequence Recommendations. Some of us from the group met with the principals of the junior high schools in the district. Originally, we were going to present to all of the principals---as there will be some minor changes to all schools---but it is the junior highs who will have the biggest changes to make.

I had a hard time telling how the meeting went. Principals tend to play their cards pretty close to the vest, and with good reason. They have a lot of different interests to consider. They're the ones who will bear the brunt of any criticism from staff, parents, and students.

Any concerns that were raised were things we had anticipated. There are some serious issues concerning appropriate facilities at two schools. These same schools will also have the greatest loss of teachers from elective areas. Some of these problems can be overcome (with money). Others may solve themselves due to teacher retirements or teachers with multiple certifications who can be shifted into new positions. But there will definitely be wailing and gnashing of teeth along the way. I don't like that. I'm not one of these people who thrives on conflict. It would be nice if change gave everyone a real Kumbayah kind of reaction, but that's not how the world works.

The Boss Lady, however, nicely told the principals that these Recommendations would be put in place. And whatever grief it causes their schools we will help address, but the goal will remain the same. She asked them what their needs were, what sort of timeline they would like, and offered support in talking with staff. (On a side note, I'm real excited about the prospect of going to the junior high where my ex works---as an electives area teacher---and talking about possible decreases to their jobs.)

Overall, I think the discussion went well. It's just going to take some time for the process to happen and the picture become more clear. In the meantime, I'm hoping the Boss Lady has room in the budget for some chain mail lingerie for me. I think I may need it.

25 April 2005

Considering a Class LJ

Since my Science Goddess position is being amped up next year, I will only teach one class a day. It will be AP Biology, which I love and have experience with. I do feel some trepidation about doing the course next year. I have to be away from my classroom a lot, and I know my kids suffer for that. AP kids (for the most part) are trying to achieve a particular goal and I have an obligation to help them as much as I can. I worry that it's too unfair to them to have me as their teacher. I'm already looking at how to ease things a bit and make it more "doable" for us all.

I've floated the idea of a class blog. I asked our tech person---and she says that there is no district rule prohibiting such a thing. I have yet to investigate the best site for hosting such a thing. Perhaps one of you readers (including you lurkers!) might have a good suggestion for me.

Why a blog? I like the idea of a bulletin board...a place for us all to be able to check in (no matter where we are)...to give and receive help...to share interesting links or stories we've seen...a way to continue discussions that have begun in class or pose ideas that could use more reflective thinking. Yes, I do have a website for my class---but it is under my control. I want something the kids can have some ownership of. Also, many students have their own personal blogs, so the format would be familiar to them. I think that would increase participation on a community blog.

Do I worry that there will be some griping? Sure. But they could be doing so now, like this kid is at his school, and I wouldn't know. (Nor would I want to know. I've also avoided seeing if I have reviews at this place.) I don't mind if kids have negative things to say---as long as it's done respectfully.

I have a few more months to ponder this and other ways to be both a Science Goddess and kick-butt AP Bio teacher. It's gonna be quite the juggling act.

24 April 2005

They call me "Mr. Family and Consumer Sciences!"

During my first year at my current school, I had a need for some saucepans for a lab. After confirming with the "Home Ec" teacher that I could borrow these, I sent up a kid to get them. My only mistake was that I wrote "Home Ec" on the hall pass.

The kid returned with the saucepans and a lot of literature. The teacher had seen "Home Ec" written on the pass and had a hissy fit. (After working with this woman for 9 years, I've found out that she has lots of hissy fits.) She grabbed all sorts of brochures about her program and then commenced to circle and highlight all the instances upon them where "Family and Consumer Sciences (FCS)" were written. The poor student was charged with coming back and witnessing to me about the error of my ways. FCS! Hallelujah! I see the light!

For those of you who, like me, took Home Ec in high school, let me assure you that FCS isn't really any different. You still learn how to sew and cook and balance the family checkbook. There are a few other courses beyond that, such as "Relationships" and "Advanced Child Psychology." Frankly, I don't think I ever fully recovered from my own Home Ec experience in high school. I was more or less forced to take it, because I went to a tiny high school with precious few elective options available. I remember sewing a hideous skirt. I also remember getting into an argument with the teacher about food. She said that if all the food on a plate was the same colour (e.g. chicken, mashed potatoes, corn) that it wouldn't taste good. I thought that was a bunch of bs. Sure, it might be quite as visually appealing as having some peas on the plate, but that nothing to do with how the food actually tasted. Silly me.

The FCS program at my school has been dwindling over the years. I guess we aren't the only ones. The New York Daily News is reporting that beginning in 2006, 500 Home Ec (their term, not mine) teachers in NY are about to lose their jobs due to lack of interest. The teachers are being encouraged to obtain a different certification---and the district will even reimburse their tuition costs.

I'm guessing from the article that many Home Ec teachers aren't taking the threat of losing their jobs too seriously, as "we have this problem every few years." But I tell you, in a land where NCLB is currently king, I'd be quaking in my boots.

My understanding is that NCLB is not "designed" to make elective options go away. Music, art, drama, shop classes, business ed., and yes, FCS, all have their place in today's high school. I want to see them stick around and be supported. The problem is simply that kids who don't achieve in math, science, and/or English are placed in remedial classes...which serve as their electives. Elective options are going to have to retool their programs to include more rigorous thinking and writing to help support student achievement, or like teachers in NY, they'll see their programs disappear. Gives a whole new spin on "survival of the fittest."

23 April 2005

Didn't I say that botany was sexy?

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This photo is via BBC News (no photo credit provided). It is of the Titan Arum, the largest flower in the world. Look how happy the botanist is.

Urban Legends: Old and New

At the beginning of each school year, I spend some time with my sophs talking about what "science" is and isn't...and how to tell the difference. What is it that makes evidence "good"? Is reading something on the internet make it a fact? Should you take at face value everything adults tell you?

Afterwards, their assignment is to investigate some urban legends, "old wives' tales," and some other miscellaneous ideas they may have heard (Were George Washington's teeth really made out of wood?). I provide a basic list and their goal is not so much to find out if the statement is true or not...but rather to find some sources and evaluate them. Their ability to differentiate between high and low quality research is what I want to see.

When they return to class, we continue to have some interesting discussion. If urban legends are rarely founded on fact, why do we still keep them "alive"? We talk about how the stories they hear at their age are different from when they were younger. When the stories were referred to as "fairy tales." My kids, for the most part, haven't thought about Sleeping Beauty in a long time. How shocking it is for them to revisit the tale as a teenager and realize it is a warning about engaging in pre-marital sex---that they should wait for "true love." They don't know that most of those stories were written to entertain adults. As the kids start to think more critically about the urban legends they hear now, they realize that the stories contain similar warnings about sex, good hygeine, and listening carefully to the wisdom of your elders.

Next year, I may add in this piece. You may have seen the story---about the possible connection between women who grew up with fairy tales and being victims of domestic violence as adults. Current versions of fairy tales have had the "moral of the story" bowdlerized and the "happily ever after" emphasized. Their role in our culture has been transformed. Does it make a difference in the schema we adopt as we grow up?

Mind you, the article from yesterday doesn't say much about the study itself: how many women participated, ages, socio-economic backgrounds, etc. These are the kinds of things I hope my kids would spot in terms of evaluating research. Looks like we'll need more information before drawing any conclusions on this one.

22 April 2005

Random Thoughts from Friday

I taught a colleague's biotechnology class this morning. Due to the wild and wacky WASL schedule, his course (which is ordinarily held after lunch) was at bat first thing this morning. He couldn't be here---as he does the stay-at-home dad thing in the morning and only teaches in the afternoon. Anyway, he left me an interesting lesson plan on the genetics associated with "race" and its relation to the movement of modern humans from Africa to everywhere. The kids and I had a nice discussion. When you really look at DNA, it shows you that race is just a skin color. What an arbitrary thing to put on job applications, standardized tests, and so on. Why don't we just pick hair color or eye color or something?

Later in the day, another colleague mentioned to me that cheating may be rampant on the WASL. He is one of the unfortunate few who was forced into proctoring the tests. (I hate the word "proctor." Ugh.) There are 9 groups of kids...54 kids per group...all clustered at 9 tables. They can't help but see what their neighbour is doing. However, kids do work at different rates through the test booklet. And just because you can see your neighbour's answer doesn't mean the answer is right. I wonder how much cheating is going on, though, and how much more will occur in coming years.

The weather here in western Washington is gorgeous today: sunny, blue skies, temps in the low 70's. It was so pretty, that I was in a hurry to leave school this afternoon...and forgot about a meeting I was supposed to attend. Oops.

I don't have "short-timer's syndrome" just yet. There are 38 more days of school. But with each passing day with my sophs, I can't help but think "that's the last time I'll have to do ---." And then I smile to myself. Not because I don't enjoy what I do, but rather I'm very much looking forward to doing something different.

For now, it's time to put my feet up and enjoy the feeling of freedom I always get on Friday evenings. Cheers!

21 April 2005

Please excuse...

"...my son from May 19 - 25. We need to take a vacation that week because this is the only time his sister can get off."

Yes, I received that particular e-mail from the mother of one of my students this week. (I don’t know whether to giggle or feel sorry for the sister who can only get off once a year. Ahem.) The mother also went on to point out that her son will have completed all of his AP tests by that point...and implied that would mean he wouldn’t miss anything important by being gone. Yeah, lady, there will still be six weeks left in the school year, but we’re just going to sit around and twiddle our thumbs because The Test is over. What else could we possibly have to learn?

I have been fortunate this year to not have to deal with very many family vacations. I really struggle with whether or not these sorts of absences should be excused. I’m not talking about "long weekends." I’m not talking about kids who have experienced a death in the family and need to be out. I’m talking about kids that are gone anywhere from 1 - 5 weeks during the school year, purely for a holiday. (I have encountered many families in my tenure here who think nothing of taking their kids to the Philippines for a month or more during school time.)

Are there things a kid could learn through their travels—experiences that they could never have within the classroom? Absolutely. Are they valuable? Again, I couldn’t agree more. Are there sometimes reasons why families can only have a holiday during school time? Yes. And since I live in an area heavily populated with Navy families, I know that they sometimes have to take advantage of opportunities when their ship comes in (literally).

But I still feel like it’s a slap in the face when I’m told the kid will be out for a month to vacation elsewhere—and I’m expected to supply the student with assignments (including alternatives for labs...and including spending a great deal of my personal time either pulling together the work or marking it, for those kids that bother to complete it). Shouldn’t we (parents and teachers) be reinforcing with students that school is important? That attendance is important?

For those schools and districts with attendance policies (such as "miss more than 10 days and you lose credit for the course), I doubt they have to confront this issue very much. I must admit I’m a little jealous of that.

20 April 2005

The Hard Stuff

As I've mentioned before, teaching sophomores has been one of my greatest joys as a teacher. There are things about all grades between 6 and 12 that I have liked, but there's just something about 15 and 16 year olds that suits me best.

One of the things I like most about working with sophs is that they're in the process of learning to independently think about some big muddy issues. Younger teens can often still be stuck in "black and white" mode---where a topic only has two sides...only one of which is "right." Biology is the perfect medium for helping sophs test their comfort level of grey areas.

Thankfully, the Terri Schiavo case has passed from media attention, but at its frenzied zenith, my sophs liked the opportunity to talk about it. Washington state has recently put together a "life sciences' fund." Do the kids know what stem cell research is---and why the controversy? Would you buy genetically modified produce (a/k/a "Frankenfoods")? What purpose is there in being able to clone an organism? Should parents be allowed to choose the sex of their child? If the state is making research in biotechnology a priority, what impacts will that have on you?

I love their opinions. I can often tell that our class discussion is the first time someone has asked them what they think about bioethics. They are always honest---even if their answers are occasionally a little on the naive side. But hey, they're 15 and 16. And they seem to be enjoying every moment of it.

19 April 2005

Don't ask the question if you don't want the answer.

A short note today, as my AP kids took the "free response" portion of a practice exam. So, I have about 150 essays staring at me from the depths of my book bag. Plenty of answers to work with for an evening.

My sophs seemed to feel okay about the testing this morning. No specifics, mind you---but they didn't think anything on there was unfair. Their primary negative comment was just that it takes a long time to do. I agree.

In the meantime, as a pseudo-follow-up to yesterday's post, here's an article from today's Seattle Times regarding just how "high stakes" WASL has gotten this year.

And now, time for me to get out the red pen and bleed on some essays.

18 April 2005

Here We Come a'WASL-ing...

Yes, it's time once again for the spring ritual known as "WASL." WASL is an acronym for the "Washington Assessment of Student Learning." Students in grades 3 - 8 and 10 sit for exams in reading, writing, and math. Grades 5, 8, and 10 also complete a science assessment.

Tomorrow is the big day: the start of standardized testing. For 10th grade, it is our first year giving it as a "high stakes test," although this group represents the last class for whom passage of the WASL is not required for graduation. So, what are the stakes? Scores are printed on transcripts---potentially impacting college admissions, scholarships, and hiring for jobs. Other than that, there's just "shame."

For schools, it's a different story. Test security has been ramped up. All high schools across the state will give the same test at the same time over the next school days. Students are forbidden to talk about the exam questions (after the test) amongst themselves or with teachers.

The second part will be more difficult. I already know that kids will come back from their science WASL and want to talk to me about it. "There was this question...and it asked -----. I said the answer was -----. Was I right?" I've already warned students that although I would love to hear about the test (after all, exam questions do get used twice), I just can't participate in that conversation. (It's the same way with AP, although the "free response" prompts are released 48 hours after the exam.) The kids wanted to know if there would be consequences for talking about the test. I said that this year, there aren't. But I also shared that I have known AP kids whose tests have been invalidated because they were talking about the test during a break. It might be good to practice some restraint.

My kids will have the science test on the 7th and 8th days of testing. I have been telling them that the "best test was saved for last." In truth, I'm actually a little nervous about them taking that one last. How much concentration and positive attitude will they have left after 6 previous days of testing? I do have some plans in place to pump them up a bit the mornings of their science test. Nothing extravagant---just some pencils and sharpeners...and notes reminding them that they're smart and will do well. Small carrots/rewards for doing the best they can.

Keep your fingers crossed for us.

17 April 2005

Dreamin'

With most of my work for the weekend completed, I have some "free" time to spend. But more importantly than that, I have some "headspace" to contemplate other pursuits. I am actually pretty darned good at managing my time. Having a brain that isn't completely full? I'm not so good at that.

I have always enjoyed reading. I taught myself to read at the age of 2 and have rarely been without a book since then. Having the luxury of time and brainpower to really enjoy a tome has been at a premium recently. So, I've been haunting amazon.com this morning to see what might need to come home with me. Perhaps Freakonomics by Steven Levitt. Or maybe Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. There's also a new Rebecca Wells novel. I also think I'd like Honeymoon with My Brother, which is not kinky as the title implies. For now, I'm wrapping up Queen of the South.

I also like to do things with my hands, although I really don't have a lot of experience with mechanical tinkering. My dad was an intelligent and insightful man. His father built their family home after WWII...and then added on a second story to the home when he was in his 60's. The man framed, plumbed, wired, and so on. My dad didn't seem to pick up a single clue about any of that stuff, which always struck me as odd.

Recently, I have been in love with the idea of building a teardrop trailer. (The even bigger fantasy is to restore a classic car.) I think it would be fun to build and customize it. I love to cook, so what a challenge it would be to trick out the kitchen. Sometimes I even think about painting it a 1950's flamingo pink, but I bet my Sweetie would balk at traveling with that. :) There's just something nice about this trailer: it's lightweight, has just enough creature comforts, and would be easy to hook up and take off with on weekends. One of the librarians in my building is married to the principal at our "rival" high school. He is also interested in building one of these. I am hoping to apprentice myself out this summer...and then see about striking out on my own to construct one.

I don't want to be bothered with reality in terms of these dreams...at least not for the moment. Do I have the necessary tools? Skills? Space to do the project? Money? etc. I like to think that I can do just about anything I set my mind to. But in order to do that, I need even more headspace. It's satisfying enough to have some room to dream for now.

16 April 2005

Anticipating

Very soon, the Scope and Sequence committee will be presenting our Recommendations to the principals in the district. Even though these are specific to "secondary science," 6th grade is housed at the various elementary schools. So, we really do need to talk with all of the principals.

We don't have any concerns about the Recommendations---that they can't stand on their own merits or will be trashed by the various admins. But we do know that there will be questions about impact on individual buildings. These are the questions we are trying to anticipate.

How many more science teachers will a building need? How many teaching positions in other areas will be cut? Does this take into account the decline in enrollment we currently have at the elementary level (because those kids will be in our secondary schools very soon)? Will we need more science labs/classrooms---how are we supposed to get them? Those other schools in the state with full-year science, do they have a 7 period day so that their elective offerings aren't impacted?

Jeepers.

This weekend, I am trying to think of the various questions we may have thrown at us and then do a little research on the answers. I'm sure I won't be able to cover all the bases. Learning to predict the right sorts of questions each audience may ask is a skill I'm just learning to use. Shepherding these Recommendations through to the school board's approval will certainly give me lots of practice in anticipating.

15 April 2005

Sub(standard)

As you know by now, I have to be out of my classroom a lot due to district and other demands. This means that my kids are often left in...yikes...the hands of a substitute teacher.

I can't knock them all, mind you. I have been fortunate enough over the years to have some fantastic "guest teachers." The bad thing is simply that they get hired for permanent positions. It's great for them, of course. And while I am happy to know that they (deservedly) have their own classroom, I am also selfish enough to wonder, "What am I supposed to do now?!"

In order to be a substitute teacher in Washington, you must have teaching credentials. This was not so in New Mexico, where one only needed a pulse and a few hours of college work. Even with the supposedly higher standards here, it is difficult to find anyone you really feel comfy leaving your kids with.

Some teachers hold the position that a sub should be able to walk in and do the original lesson you were planning on teaching that day. Gimme a break. Subs may be in a kindergarten classroom one day and have an AP Calculus gig the next. If they really knew everything there was to know about all of the subjects and grade levels, they sure as heck wouldn't be subbing. Personally, I try to leave relatively "idiot-proof" sub lessons. I really prefer that they not teach my kids...but rather just babysit.

Today, I had one of two subs I least like. He is a retired teacher. He taught science in my building and retired just before I was hired. The man is deaf as a post, so it's pointless to even have him proctor a test. The kids all know he can't hear them talking about the answers. Meanwhile, although he thinks he knows the content, a lot has changed in biology over the last 9 years. I can't tell you how many times I've come back to find my kids completely confused because he told them the opposite of what I had. (This in spite of me leaving instructions to allow students to work independently.) Got a lesson on evolution? Don't even bother. He's a staunch Creationist. I also hate that while I leave this man detailed notes and all materials in one neat stack, I come back to find papers in all sorts of places. It takes a long time to dig out from the damage he causes. And today? Sheesh. All he had to do was take my AP kids to the computer lab to let them work on a virtual lab. And he couldn't even figure out how to do that right. So, one class didn't get the work done...and one did after I checked in on things.

Why don't I just not have the guy in my room? Because I'm not allowed to say I don't want him. If I do, then there is a huge chain reaction set off. I have to collect evidence. He has to be observed 3 times by the principal. There's a review process. And the thing is, maybe he's a great sub for some people. He's just not working out for me, but that reason isn't good enough.

Anyway, I should be more upbeat, right? It's Friday. I've turned in my quarter grades and have absolutely no marking to do for the weekend. Planning? Piece of cake next week as we're doing state testing. I'll only have half my classes.

I might even get to just be me for a weekend, if I can remember how to do that.

14 April 2005

Transitions

And so it begins...making transitions from a .8 classroom/.2 district contract to a .2 classroom/.8 district contract.

It feels good to "unburden" myself of things. I handed in my resignation as a building mentor for gifted, although I'll certainly complete my duties for the year at hand. I told our athletic director that I would no longer to be able to announce or spot at the football games? (Betcha didn't know that I was poised to be the sole voice of high school football next year.) I turned in all my academic letter information so that a new advisor can be found. There will no doubt be other small things to take from my pack and lay down in the coming weeks. And I haven't even given much thought about how to deal with all of the "stuff" in my room.

I know that all of these will be replaced with new responsibilities...new items to carry. At this point, I don't mind the thought. I like the idea of having something different, even if it's difficult. I like knowing that tomorrow will be the last workday I will have with one particular colleague. Yes, several other frustrating people will be in my future. It's okay.

At the workshop today, we talked some about transitions. Three of the people (out of 8) attending won't be back next year. Still others have only been told that they'll have a job---but not where or doing what. As I leave the relative security of a classroom for a district-centered position, I have to accept that life will contain a few more uncertainties (such as how I actually earn my paycheck). So, it was nice to hear from other people how they're dealing with this---both at a personal level and also in terms of working with colleagues in different buildings. I appreciate knowing that in spite of the precarious nature of working in Curriculum, that people do find ways to adapt, grow, and even thrive.

I haven't told very many people about my upcoming change in position. I don't plan on telling any more co-workers (not even the one tomorrow) and certainly no kids. We'll see how quietly---even gracefully---I can make the transition.

13 April 2005

Forgot to Mention...

If educational issues are your thing, then please stop by the Education Carnival this week. My favourite exhibit is this one, via Pharyngula.

Number Crunching

Seems like every few days, more surveys and data are released about how well the public education system in America is preparing students for the future. Here is another:

"As many as 40 percent of the nation's high school graduates say they are inadequately prepared to deal with the demands of employment and postsecondary education, according to a recently released national survey of nearly 1,500 recent high school graduates, 400 employers and 300 college instructors. The survey is the basis for the report "Rising to the Challenge: Are High School Graduates Prepared for College and Work?" The survey was commissioned by Achieve, Inc. in Washington, D.C., and conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates and Public Opinion Strategies of Washington, D.C.

Among the findings:
  • More than 80% of high school graduates say they would work harder and take tougher courses if they could do high school over again.
  • Eight in 10 recent graduates say that they would have worked harder if their high school had demanded more of them.
  • A majority of graduates who took Algebra 2 in high school say they feel more prepared for the math they need in college or on the job.
  • Employers estimate that 39% of recent high school graduates are unprepared for the expectations they face in entry-level jobs. Employers also estimate that an even larger proportion (45%) of recent workforce entrants is not adequately prepared to advance beyond entry-level jobs.

To view the entire report or a PowerPoint Summary, go to www.achieve.org."

These sorts of things could be depressing. Or, you could go have a look at this post over at Pratie Place regarding how America has nearly always bemoaned the poor state its youngsters are in.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) turns 40 years old this week. We've known for a long time that "Johnny can't read." Recent renewals of this Act (a/k/a "No Child Left Behind") have been aimed at ensuring that Johnny---regardless of what gender, colour of skin, or socioeconomic status s/he may be---has an opportunity to acquire the basics and be challenged.

Want more to think about?

The New York Times published a story today about the "Northwest Evaluation Association study involving a 'broad but not nationally representative' sample of pupils in 23 states, student math and reading scores have improved somewhat under NCLB, but within grades, over the course of the school year, students made less academic progress than they did before the law was implemented. Researchers found minority students' growth lagged behind that of whites, a troubling trend which, they said, could widen the achievement gap."

Huh?

Makes me wonder that no matter what we do in public ed, we can't really get every Johnny reading (even when Johnny has center stage). What's the answer then? We've tried for decades to have an "educated" populace. Will there ever be a time when we achieve this?

I can't imagine that we'll quit trying. After all, we're not allowed to or the feds will give us even less support than they do now. But perhaps we need to be realistic. We can't just point fingers at the schools, tell them the source of ill, and that they'd better shape up. We'll have to take on some other larger societal issues, like poverty and universal healthcare. How is a kid who doesn't come from a home where there's money to buy food or provide medical aid supposed to concentrate on reading, writing, math, and science?

Schools will continue to plug along, just as we always have. In a moral sense, it is unacceptable to determine that 100% of kids will acquire basic skills (and then some). Which kids would you choose to leave uneducated? Who decides? And yet, the reality is simply that some kids will not get what they need, in spite of our efforts. Schools don't need more numbers...we need more solutions.

12 April 2005

Whew.

The scope and sequence team didn't end up getting to present today. Many principals were away recruiting for job openings...but only 1 had told the Boss Lady that they would be away today. So, the group wordsmithed our recommendations, added a significant amount of data and research, dealt with a few other "clean-up" details, and called it a day around 11:30. I can't even begin to describe how positive everyone is about the work.

The Boss Lady did stop by toward the end in order to debrief the group about their work. I enjoyed hearing their enthusiasm as they talked about the plan we've created and their support for it. Considering the variety of strong personalities (few of whom knew each other when we started), it is amazing to me to have sailed through this process.

Since principals were unavailable today, we'll find an after school time within the next month to talk to them. They'll need some time to think about the impact the recommendations will have on their buildings and give us some feedback. I'm hoping that we can get these to the school board in the early fall. In order to get new course proposals in the catalog, things have to be ready by December. I will have many people helping me shepherd these items through the hoops. I feel very grateful for that.

It is doubtful that we will meet much resistance along our path. I truly don't think that principals, the superintendent, or school board will not support us. Resistance will come at a few buildings from other teachers. Why? Because if science increases its needs for student time, someone else's program---and job---will decrease. I'm sure that if I was the one on the fuzzy end of the lollipop in this scenario that I'd make some noise. Sometimes parents can also be less than enthused. More requirements means fewer elective opportunities. What happens when you've spent several grand for a cello and now there's no room in the kid's schedule for orchestra? That being said, we are only asking that 2 out of 4 junior highs increase their science classes by a semester at both the 8th and 9th grade levels. If the other 2 schools have figured out a way to offer full-year science for those grades, then there must be a generally satisfying answer.

Change never happens on a dime, does it?

My position as (almost) full-time science goddess was confirmed today. The Boss Lady has funding for .8 of it. She believes that she can come up with the last 20% somehow...but one of my building admins is pushing to have me teach 1 period: AP Biology. I really wouldn't mind this. I like the curriculum and love the kids. It does make things slightly more complicated (vs. teaching no classes) in terms of subs and other demands. I told the Boss Lady that I'm very excited about this opportunity---and I am. Doing this work for the district is quite challenging and I appreciate being asked to stretch myself in new directions.

I went to lunch with three of the Scope and Sequence members. I really enjoyed being out and getting to know them better. We talked some about our work. How do we get "reluctant" teachers on board? What about teachers who won't follow the sequence? Can we get all of this in place for 2006 - 2007? How do we navigate building level politics?

I don't know all of the answers to these questions. Heck, I'm making up this job as I go along. But I do have a very good sense that it is going to work out...somehow. (What's my evidence for that?!)

I came home early...had a lovely nap...and now it is time to get back to work for the evening. Cheers.

11 April 2005

The Grand Finale

District Scope and Sequence planning ends tomorrow. We'll polish up our recommendations and bring out the data. I've heard that the one of the Superintendent's favourite phrases is "What's your evidence for that?" Fair enough. If he throws down the gauntlet, we'll be ready to show why full year science is needed at each grade level and each school.

We've been told that tomorrow's presentation is simply "informal," but even so, I'd like to make as many friends as possible for our cause.

I talked to some of my students today about this work. One kid had asked if biology was going to be required of incoming students---because he hadn't had it and had struggled on the state science test a couple of years ago. So, I gave him (and the others) a rather long-winded explanation of our current scope and sequence process. They seemed to appreciate it.

It was really good to be back at school with the kids again. They are so good at boosting my energy and enthusiasm---even though I felt physically exhausted by the end of the day. Speaking of, other thoughts in my head will just have to wait until tomorrow.

10 April 2005

Brain-based learning...as opposed to?

Not too long before Spring Break, I had a meeting with other curriculum specialists, our Boss Lady, and a few others to talk about what we could do during the meeting days in August (for cryin' out loud). The Superintendent is going to "declare" that next year's district focus will be on "Powerful Teaching and Learning." As specialists, we're supposed to help guide our colleagues as they implement brain-based learning strategies in the classroom.

Hey, I'm not against a district-wide goal...I'm not sure that I mind it has to do with brain-based stuff. Seems reasonable to expect that if there is current info on how the brain learns that we could put that to work in the classroom.

In my recent searches to find "strategies for engaging adult learners" (who in groups of more than 15 tend to act like junior high kids), I stumbled upon Professor Plum's rant:
"Over the next few years I read the websites and syllabi from hundreds of ed schools. I reviewed the literature in whole language, constructivism, 'authentic assessments,' learning styles, and multiple intelligences—and other 'pedagogies' that struck my cynical nature as weird beyond belief. I even tried to figure out what 'brain based learning' was—because, I reasoned, 'What OTHER organ WOULD be involved? Before brain-based learning was there BUTTOCKS based learning? Sure they ARE similar. Two hemispheres. A nearby segment of spine. A division down the middle. An apparatus for speaking your mind. But usually you can tell which is which. Just look for a hat!'”
I've been giggling to myself quite a bit over this...and wondering how much trouble I'd get into for pointing this out to my cohorts. Hey, I've already been told that "humor" is one of the brain-based strategies. Maybe I could get away with it?


You see, I've always been the quietly rebellious type. (Passive aggressive?) I don't always like to colour inside the lines and I'm quite happy to take a risk here or there---possible penalties be damned. Mind you, I don't do things that would get me fired and/or arrested. In cases like the one above, though, I find it just too tempting to tread along the edge.


For Thursday's training (a continuation of this one), I'm supposed to bring along one strategy for engaging adult learners to share with the group. Thanks to Professor Plum, I think I've found it. I'll let you know what happens.

09 April 2005

Seeing Red

Earlier in the school year, I saw a similar story to this one, where teachers were asked to mark papers using a colour other than red. Parents were complaining that the self-esteem of their children was being damaged because of papers marked in red. It's apparently too stressful for a student to see even positive comments written with a red pen.

Why is this even an issue, I wonder. Are there already generations of us who've been traumatized by red marks on our homework...and only now are adults shaking their fists at this convention? Mind you, I always picture these same parents after little Johnny grows into adulthood. I see them storming into the office of Johnny's boss at some big company and decrying some slur against Johnny's self-esteem at yesterday's sales meeting. I imagine them writing notes to Johnny's creditors asking that he be excused from payments and be allowed some time for make-up work (without penalty, of course).

What I hope for is that these parents will "get real" at some point. When a teacher gives a student feedback, it is not full of personal comments. (As much as I might like to make those comments from time to time, I don't.) Comments on papers are in the form of constructive criticism: here's what went well, here's how to improve the things that didn't work. They are not slurs against a kid and/or their self-esteem. It is a judgement of the work, not the student. Shouldn't we be focused on improving that?

08 April 2005

A Little History Lesson

Recently, I posted on my district's scope and sequence recommendations. There were two wonderful comments on the post---both pointing out that our current decision is not so different from when the writers attended school. In fact, it's the same sequence I had (long ago and far away). What's the deal?

The "traditional" high school science curriculum sequence was established in 1897. Ten east coast college deans formed an advisory group in order to help create the American high school. At the time, they recommended that students take science in the following order: biology, chemistry, physics. The "urban legend" that goes along with this is that the classes were simply ordered alphabetically. However, this was not the deans' mode of reasoning. In 1897, biology was still a rather young branch of science. It was still full of "naturalism": looking at plants and animals. Biology was placed first in the sequence because it was the most simple science and it did not require a lot of equipment (or training) to teach.

Since 1897, lots has changed in biology---but the sequence has not. Biology has a much more cellular and molecular focus to it. There is a lot of talk about reversing the sequence and putting physics first. (conceptual physics, not calculus based) The idea is that a student who understands something about forces will have a better concept of atoms, bonding, reactions, etc. when they take chemistry...and a student who is well-grounded in chemistry will have a much richer understanding of biology. This really makes a lot of sense given current scientific knowledge.

My district didn't choose to keep the three-year sequence in any form for high school. Why not? One reason is simply that students are only required to have 2 credits of science for graduation. Which class should we cut out? What we did instead was to ask that 9th graders take one semester of physics and one semester of chemistry and then have 10th graders take biology. This also ensures that all students have an opportunity to gain experience with the standards and a high-quality curriculum. High schools will still offer all the traditional courses: chemistry, physics, AP courses, etc.

One of the commenters to my original post mentioned that many students taking biology in his school fail. You know, so do ours. Biology is the most frequently failed class in our school. And in looking at test scores, biology has the fewest students able to meet the standards (vs. 10th graders taking other science courses). We have talked about this a lot at my school, but have not determined any hard and fast answers. Is it because their knowledge of basic chemistry isn't developed enough to handle DNA and other organic bases in biology? Is it because more new terms are used in a high school science text than a student is exposed to in a year of a foreign language class? Does it have anything to do with the brain's "readiness" in terms of pre-frontal lobe development---maybe the kids just are not physically able to process the knowledge? Is it bad teaching? Poor study habits? We don't have a ready answer. Why, oh why are we keeping biology as an introductory high school class? Well, we think we can change most of these items and are making efforts to do so.

Junior high/middle school is a whole different animal. I don't know when such an idea was established, and really, most districts seem to be struggling with how to handle the 6 - 8 grade band. Again, the "traditional" sequence has been General Science, Life Science, Earth/Space Science. Many schools are now choosing a more "integrated" model, where students have some exposure to each topic throughout the year. Our district did consider this---but there were a number of reasons why it didn't make sense for us to choose this option.

Since we were in high school, gentle readers, a lot has happened with the school day. One of you wondered if classes were shorter or perhaps the teaching day longer. I'll see if I can find any info on that idea. What I can tell you is that there are all sorts of permutations to the daily schedule: traditional 6 or 7 periods a day, block schedules, modified blocks, and more. A state may choose to set a number of "contact minutes" a student must have or the number of days a class must be in session. Again, there's a lot of discussion here. If a kid can meet standards, do they really need to be in class as long as a kid who doesn't? Does a one-size-fit-all-school-year make sense? Right now, legislatures are saying "yes."

A final note, as there was also a comment about the math sequence: algebra is now a 7th and 8th grade class...and the sequence follows from there. A kid who takes algebra in high school (as you and I did) is considered to be significantly behind his or her peers. It is the lowest math class available for credit. Since math also has a two credit requirement for graduation, we have many kids who finish that requirement in grade 8 and then opt out of math throughout high school. It's beginning to be a real problem, but it, too, is being tackled.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled Spring Break. :)

07 April 2005

Plus ca change, plus ca pareil

After a few days of much needed R and R with my Sweetie, I'm back at home for the final days of Spring Break. I had a wonderful escape to Arizona and find myself sighing a lot over having to come home.

As I try to catch up on things around here, I've run across several education-related stories that are piquing my interest. One in particular was an op-ed piece about the "Art of Grading." A student wrote in to ask an advisor of ethics about her teacher's grading practices. She states "My ninth-grade art teacher doesn't give any grade above 94 percent because, she says, 'There's always room for improvement.' In previous years, I earned a 99 percent and a 100 percent. The 94 I received this term does not reflect the hard work that I put into this course. Because of her 'improvement' theory, I got a lower grade than I deserve. Is her grading philosophy ethical?"

I'm not sure that I necessarily agree with the ethicist's answer, although he dances around a good deal...and in the end, advises the student to talk to her teacher and/or principal. But I do understand where the student is coming from. In high school, my band director consistently wrote a "95" in the grade box every grading period---regardless of one's accomplishments, attendance, or most importantly, skills. I always found this annoying, but I never questioned him about it.

The Arts must indeed pose some unique challenges in terms of assessment. But I think I'll stick with grading in general for my 2 cents today. What I think that we as teachers owe our students are clear targets. We need to communicate what the standard is before kids begin work. And during and following their work, they need honest and accurate feedback about their progress and why or why it doesn't "hit the bullseye." I think that if the art teacher in the article had done so, the student would know where she had room for improvement.

Current theory surrounding "sound grading practices" factors out things like attendance, effort, and/or participation. After all, these are subjective (a lot like grading in music and art). Whether or not a student can demonstrate some knowledge and skill is not subjective and should be the basis for a "grade."

In fact, grades seem to be becoming passe. In today's era of standards-based teaching and learning, all that matters is whether or not a kid can meet the standard. Does it matter if the kid does their work on time? Should a kid get credit for an assignment written in pen when the math teacher specifically required writing in pencil? Who has the "burden of proof" in determining a student's progress: the student (via a portfolio of work) or the teacher (as the expert)?

I know a lot of schools and districts (including mine) are wrestling with these sorts of issues. Ours, for example, is developing an entirely new type of report card for elementary students. It lists all the standards they are required to meet at their grade level and the teacher will use a 1, 2, 3, or 4 to indicate the student's progress toward the standard (a "3" would indicate meeting the standard). I'm wondering how long it will be until we see this sort of thing migrate to secondary education.

I hope that the student mentioned in the OpEd piece finds an answer that satisfies her. I also hope that she understands that there are a lot of us in the realm of education searching for similar answers.

01 April 2005

Goddess on Holiday

Spring Break has arrived. The Goddess is leaving in a few hours to have a short holiday with her Sweetie.

See you Thursday!