31 January 2007

The Green Green Grass of Elsewhere

Who has it easier: elementary or secondary teachers? Elementary teachers have fewer students (some of our 1st grade classes have just 15 kiddos) but have to teach nearly every subject area. Most secondary teachers have at least one prep that repeats during the day (meaning they can reuse lesson plans), but the amount of paperwork is more intense. There's no way that it takes a kindergarten teacher as much time to look at homework as it does for a high school teacher. Instructional expertise may be more greatly valued at primary grades whereas content knowledge has an equal value at secondary. You don't need to know calculus in order to teach a first grader, but only knowing basic math facts if you teach math to high school seniors is likely not a sufficient knowledge base. Are there grade levels which are truly the promised land?

Kindergarten teachers in our district are squealing about their work load. One of their pieces of evidence is the report card difference. Here is a sample for kindergarten and secondary (click to enlarge...names removed to protect the innocent):

As a teacher, which one would take you longer to complete at reporting time? Elementary, of course. But during the course of the grading period, which evaluation takes longer to determine? Could be either, but more likely secondary. Beyond that, think about these as a parent. Which one tells you how your kid is really doing and lets you see progression (or the lack thereof) throughout the year? Only elementary. Meanwhile, an entire 9-week period has to be represented by a single grade at secondary. "Simply put, it would appear that grades are often measures of how well a student lives up to the teacher's expectation of what a good student is rather than measuring the student's academic achievement in the subject matter objectives." (James D. Allen)

The argument as to where the grass is greenest is not new to educators. But using the format of a report card seems like a poor way to make a point. Should we not be focusing on what is most meaningful for students? Isn't the better question why secondary isn't making the effort to report student progress in a way that truly reflects learning?

30 January 2007

Life Among the Newbies

I haven't put on my "beginning teacher mentor" hat in too long of a time. Between winter break, multiple snow days, meetings out the yin-yang, cadre presentations, and other events, there hasn't been much time to peek in on my charges. I have added two more teachers to my case load in the last week as mid-year hiring is happening.

There are so many stories that are shared about new teachers. If you're pregnant, what might that mean for one's job in the fall? What might happen if a student finds a teacher's MySpace page---and then remarks that his hot teacher "friended" him? What do you do if you pick up an additional period of instruction, but aren't being compensated for it? How do you deal with the changing whims of a teacher you replace during the year? And so it goes. If you wander enough of the blogosphere, you'll see these sorts of issues.

There are some things I can't help them with. I have nothing to do with their contracts or (re)hiring, but I will have the HR director come to our next group meeting. I can't keep kids from exploring MySpace, but I can help teachers understand that their private lives aren't completely private once you enter the classroom realm. I can't change the fact that a student is autistic, but I can pay you to go and receive further training and staff development as support.

I don't know quite what will happen with the program next year. The state does supply a bit of a grant, but it only covers stipends---no release time to plan or observe classrooms, no resource materials, no conference registrations. It may be, of course, that we have no beginners next year. We are closing schools and reducing programs. Available staff with continuing contracts will be reallocated and any open positions will be advertised on the market. The noobs will have to compete for their jobs yet again.

I'm sure that I'm fooling myself to think that I'll get out more this spring and spend time with the beginners. It is energizing to be with them, as well as their students. I want them to feel safe and supported. We need their enthusiasm and the new vibe they bring to our schools. Right now, I just have to cross my fingers and hope that there will be places for them.

29 January 2007


Working with elementary science has brought all sorts of new learning experiences to my doorstep. I never thought I'd need to have conversations about the best ways to keep worms alive and well...find the cheapest source for puppy training pads...or how to get teachers to think outside the kit.

Sixth grade has a few activities that list pennies as an item; but teachers don't really need them. They just need something to add weight. It could be anything: dirt, beans, rice, salt, water. There's nothing magical about using the pennies. Right now, teachers are skipping activities with pennies on the list because they don't have this item. We've told them it's okay to substitute items, but there's a lack of lateral thinking.

This isn't the only grade level where this is happening. I think part of the problem is that teaching elementary is already too big of a job: 30 minutes of planning time when a teacher is responsible for teaching all content areas (including set up time for science). They just want to be able to pull out the exact item and move on. I do understand that...but what disturbs me is that those teachers haven't thought about the concept they're teaching. It's all just a series of steps and not a cohesive idea. They only see trees and not a forest. How must their kids' understanding of science then be?

28 January 2007

Kinky Teachers

The search engines are going to love that post title, but if you've come here looking for pictures or information about the sexy sorts of kinky things teachers do, you're going to be disappointed. I'm sure that there is a blog or site out there somewhere for that...it's just not me. Anyway, I do think most teachers have some masochistic tendencies when it comes to their craft.

During the most recent round of cadre meetings, the math specialist and I helped teachers dip their toes in the waters of Differentiation. You know what they found? They'd already been drinking from that well for a long time. They just didn't label as that. In the meantime, they've spent years feeling guilty about differentiation. They knew it was probably a good thing and something they should have as part of their repertoire, but they were too overwhelmed with daily life in the classroom to investigate. Differentiation was "one more thing," and it just seemed like too much. The math gal and I offered the training in response to teachers' requests for the information. (We weren't playing some sort of sadistic role with them.) The final result was that a lot of the teachers felt better about what they were doing and went back to share with other teachers that the hairshirt of differentiation could come off.

This weekend, I listened to other teachers flagellate themselves over Constructivist teaching methods. Again, as their thinking was prodded, more information came out that they really are using elements of constructivism, but the image in their minds of whatever a constructivist classroom looks like doesn't match what's happening in their own rooms...and they can't figure out how to reconcile it. They like the idea of creating a learning environment where kids are supported in constructing their knowledge, but didn't realize that it didn't look like mass hysteria, with kids all over the room exploring individual ideas. Some of their guilt was eased throughout the course of discussion, but some of them still have a long way to go. They probably just need some more time to think things over...or maybe they just like having Guilt along for the ride.

I think the biggest mistake we make as teachers is our refusal to acknowledge that there are different tools for different jobs in the classroom---and that it's okay not to hammer home each point. You occasionally need to use a wrench. What I'm trying to get at here is that sometimes direct instruction is most appropriate for the information your students are learning. There are some facts and skills that need repetition (a/k/a "drill and kill"). Not everything can be constructivist (nor should). Every lesson and assignment isn't able to be differentiated. But neither can you build a good student with just a saw in your hand. Neither is there a single multi-tool which will do all the jobs you need in the classroom. It takes a variety of tools...tools most teachers have and use. They just need some help applying the labels and finding a different kink.

27 January 2007

The Shape of Things to Come

As I continue to move through my grad degree program, I keep trying to nail down what it is that I'd like to have as a focus. There are endless ideas, it seems, but plucking one from the wealth of topics isn't simple.

I have written several posts here this year about standards based grading, and for now, this seems to be an area that I can mine for my doctoral study. In particular, I am interested in what's going to happen to the tykes in my district as they transition from that system at elementary into the "traditional" system at junior high. Will kiddos/families in a standards based system---one without the "reward/punishment" aspect---have better attitudes about school?

Things are still a bit fuzzy at this point and I'm continuing to work through what the research design might include. This program doesn't really allow for longitudinal studies, so I'll have to look at some way to stratify my samples, but there's plenty of time for me to get the details in place. For now, I'm just glad to have something come to the forefront of the pack.

26 January 2007


This letter went out to superintendents in our state:

Dear Washington State Superintendents,

I want to inform you about an important issue that is developing in the Washington State Legislature. A bill is being introduced this legislative session which calls for revising both the essential academic learning requirements (EALRs) and the statewide academic assessment system.

House Bill 1288 states that an Academic Standards Panel, made up of content area experts, will take a fresh look at the state academic standards. By next September, the Panel will make any recommended revisions to the reading, writing, math and science EALRs.

Secondly, a new WASL test will be developed based on the new EALRs. The bill states that the revised WASL must:

  • Measure an individual student’s annual growth in a manner that is reliable and valid;
  • Provide diagnostic results;
  • Be easily administered, quickly and easily scored, and easily shared with parents;
  • Be designed so that sample and actual tests are promptly available including individual student results;
  • Permit comparison to school districts and states outside of Washington;
  • Meet federal NCLB accountability guidelines.

The bill directs the State Superintendent’s Office to submit a student academic growth model (a system of measuring individual students' academic improvement as they advance from grade to grade) proposal to the U.S. Department of Education for NCLB purposes by 2009-10. This model would be based on results from the revised WASL.

Finally, House Bill 1288 removes all current statutory requirements and references to the Certificate of Academic Achievement and Certificate of Individual Achievement as a high school graduation requirement. This includes removing the requirements for students to pass the WASL, retake opportunities and alternative assessments.

Some of us were asked for feedback to our supe about this. My reaction? "S***!" Well, that was my initial reaction, but I don't think that he would find that particularly helpful nor enlightening. Here's what I did send:

We are not the only district to have spent significant amounts of time and money working on the alignment between curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Personally, I am in favor of reducing the number of standards at each grade level. I think what we have is a great "wish list" for each area, but it has not been truly boiled down to what is essential. I am not in favor of scrapping what we have. I understand our need to prepare kids for a competitive world, including an international stage and yet we do not know exactly what jobs will exist in the future. Education is its own worst enemy: we never leave anything in place long enough to really get a feel for how it works. Starting over with standards is not an option---we just need to tweak what we have.

I'm a little ambivalent about the second item. I like the WASL, oddly enough, but I have never felt comfortable with it being used as a graduation requirement. To me, the one benefit of that is the student accountability piece. NCLB conveniently leaves parents' and students' responsibilities out of learning and that's really not okay. I do like the idea of an annual "dipstick" test and something less cumbersome than the way WASL is now (especially for elementary students). I guess the bottom line is whether or not it's okay for a kid to make some progress every year and never reach an "end point" in the standards. How will this be any different than just moving up a grade each year? We've had that model for decades and the dissatisfaction with that has really pushed the standards based movement forward.

Finally, I don't know how I can face teachers with this information. I can imagine the "See! I told you it would all go away!" reaction from secondary teachers. Those who never truly bought in to moving kids toward the standards will feel completely reaffirmed in their beliefs and I can't imagine how that will ever be overcome throughout their careers after this instance. How do we tell all the other teachers who have committed themselves to standards based teaching and learning, "Thanks for playing!" What incentive will they have to buy in to the next wave?

2007 is shaping up to be the quite the year in both our district and state. Good thing I grow out my fingernails as I'm going to need them to hang on to the wild ride ahead.

25 January 2007

Oh, Grow Up

My high school principal had a story about The Nerd. The Nerd was a man who did deep background checks for the government. Every couple of years, someone who had grown up in my little town would apply for a high security job out in the great wide world and The Nerd would come and talk to people about the applicant. One year, he was asking neighbors about the young man who had grown up in the house next door and a woman told him that she didn't remember all that much...except that one time she was watering her yard and the kid ran through her sprinkler and flipped her the bird. The principal told us this story as a morality tale: you never know what people will remember about you, so be careful about what you say or do. One day, The Nerd might be there on our behalf.

I thought about this story after seeing a former student in Home Depot. I had him in class when he was a junior. He was a high energy kind of guy and not on task very often. The thing I most remember about this student was his constant pining for California. His family had recently moved to Washington and he was quite unhappy about that---and loved to tell us all about how he was going back right after graduation. And here it is...nearly 10 years after graduation...and he's still living and working in the same town. When I see this kid---who is now a young man---this memory pops into my head. It's really unfair, isn't it? He probably doesn't even remember going on and on about "Cali" those years ago and there is more to his life now. But in my mind, he is forever frozen at 17. I can't reconcile that with the person he has become, because I don't know him now.

Maybe that is just the way it is in teaching. We have kids for a brief moment in time and then they move on to new teachers and life experiences. They don't get to grow up for us. We don't get to watch them change and be part of their lives as they learn new things. We just have to make the time we have together a positive one and wish them the best as they head down the road.

24 January 2007

Foolish Consistency

Teachers who have been on the job for awhile tend to have a "wait and see" philosophy about things. It has grown out of several experiences where something old has suddenly become new again...not to mention wave after wave of reform. It seems easy to just ride out the tide and see what the next new thing will be, especially if you're not a fan of the current ideals.

Standards-based education has been around for over a decade now, and while it doesn't look like it's going away, the form it takes keeps shape shifting. Now that we have a loose grip on our state standards, it appears that there could be some rearranging of things. HB1288 was introduced, recommending that the state standards be reviewed in light of both national and international standards and any adjustments suggested by September 1, 2007. Meanwhile, the feds are also suggesting a look at some national standards. I can see some pros (does this mean the feds would have to bear all the costs for testing) and cons (we're too big of a country to have a common set of curricula) to this. I really just want legislators to leave things alone for a couple of years. I feel like the wound of education reform is never going to heal because lawmakers keep picking at it. Sheesh.

I'm a little nervous about the state direction. I cringe to think what teachers will say when they find out that all of the hard work they've put in to align their instruction with standards has to be changed yet again...not to mention all of the district monies used to buy aligned materials and so forth. Foolish consistency might be the hobgoblin of little minds, but it might also mean sustained focus in the classroom.

22 January 2007


The word of the moment in the office appears to be "transparency." In this case, the term is meant to imply that there are no cigar-filled back rooms making decisions or that information will be otherwise hidden from the masses. The idea is that we all have equal access and input; but, let's face it: there is no such animal. Someone always has an agenda that they're not quite willing to make public. The whole notion of a power structure is such that one person has much more information than the others. A school district is not "flat."

I've worked in the south. I've been the underling in a good ol' boy network. There are some undesirable features of that system, but on the upside, you always know where you stand and there is a party who is responsible for making decisions. The buck does have a place to stop. What I don't like is being in a situation which claims it's more egalitarian...but isn't. Don't say that you're transparent and then surprise everyone in a meeting with a pre-determined decision.

The original Boss Lady had a great tactic. She, too, was not always transparent, but she had such a knack for asking questions and prompting thinking that led people to an idea (which happened to be the same as theirs). It made people feel like they had ownership in things, even though they were doing what the Boss Lady had originally intended. She coached people through issues.

The transparency trend is already wearing a bit thin. It looks like "capacity" is the up and coming buzz word for the coming year. Maybe I'll try it on for size. :)

20 January 2007

Tyranny of the Urgent

The other day, a colleague and I were having a beer and trying to solve the problems of the education world. I don't know that we really got much sorted out, but he did have one good point for me: don't give up on the high schools. He was referencing science departments in particular, and he was very right. This year, I have given up on their faculty. Part of the reason (though not a good one) is simply that when schools don't even list anyone curriculum as a resource or as part of their professional development on their required school improvement plans, then there isn't much of an "in."

Most of the reason I have put high schools on the back burner this year is simply that I'm a slave to the "tyranny of the urgent," as the supe likes to say. Right now, the elementaries have good reasons for their attention seeking behaviors. They have brand new curriculum, science scores are in the toilet, and the kit center has been a bear to get up and running. This week alone, I taught five different fifth grade classes...and more are scheduled in the coming weeks.

Teachers at all grade levels are overwhelmed with responsibilities. These vary, of course. Third grade teachers don't have to sweat the details of the culminating project for seniors, but teachers with juniors and seniors don't have the WASL on their backs. I understand the temptation to just shut the classroom door and hope that keeps all the noise out. The Urgent does tend to howl at the door.

I don't know that I'm going to make the effort to change course this year. Tyranny will continue to reign supreme as we work through the details of closing schools, redrawing boundaries, and reassigning elementary teachers. Their cries will only get louder...and those quiet ones (the ones you usually have to keep your good eye on in the classroom)---the high schools---are going to slide underneath my radar for awhile longer. I hope not forever. I hope that I can mount some sort of insurgency of my own and get out from underneath the tyranny of the urgent.

19 January 2007

Let Me Hear Your Body Talk

At some point during a meeting, I like to sit back and watch the action. I pretend I'm a fly on the wall...not part of nor directly involved with what's happening...and just people watch for a few minutes. This is sometimes more difficult to do if I'm leading a meeting as it requires more intuitive and ongoing assessment of things; but as a participant, it's a good mental activity. My goal is really to become more self aware. What are unspoken messages I might be sending through my posture or where I focus my eyes?

I sometimes share my observations with people after the meeting. Not that long ago, I noticed that two of my colleagues (who happened to be sitting side by side) would sit back and cross their arms over their chests each time a particular group member spoke up. Did that person catch on, too---was she conscious of what the unconscious signals were saying to her? I told my two colleagues because I knew that they would laugh at themselves and wouldn't be offended...and also because I know that they don't mean to be ugly, even if they are frustrated with another team member.

Boss Lady 2.0 has a body language all her own, but I am constantly surprised that one of the specialists in our midst is so clueless about picking up on it. Each time this specialist speaks, Boss Lady checks her cell phone, rifles through papers, or gets up. It is very clear to me (and others) that Boss Lady doesn't particularly like or respect this person---but there is no one in the office who sings higher praises of the Boss Lady than this specialist. It is likely a kindness that she is so oblivious. The eye rolls, the shifting in the seat, the side conversations, and other signals Boss Lady 2.0 sends out to us tell such a story. It is part of what is so hard about working for her, but also explains why she so readily throws us under the bus if it will help her look good. She has made up her mind about things and is just waiting around for others to catch on...and heaven help you should you not agree/like the track she's on.

Body language isn't something that anyone can be cognizant of all of the time. I know that there are things I communicate without wanting to, but I am working on being more self-aware. These exercises at meetings help me reflect on my own posture, gestures, and connection with people. I want what I say to be congruent with the unspoken messages of my body talk.

18 January 2007

Dreaming on the Job

In Washington, the Office of the Superintendent for Public Instruction (OSPI) oversees certification, assessment, and other public school related programs. From what I hear, working there is the ultimate grind. It is not unusual for the state supe to call you at 11:30 at night with a project to do. You are expected to be available 24/7. This doesn't keep most of us in Curriculum from watching the job postings.

This one has captured the interest of a lot of folks: Director of Education Reinvention (Secondary). What the heck is that? The person in this role will...
  • Provide collaborative, visionary leadership for programs that provide assistance to schools. The director supervises school improvement initiatives as well as providing oversight to programs related to high school education reform, e.g. Student Learning Plans, graduation requirements, and advanced placement issues.
  • Provide direct leadership responsibility for evaluating program staff, developing program budgets, preparing, overseeing, and issuing requests for proposals and grants to schools and districts. The director will work closely and collaboratively and report directly to the Assistant Superintendent of District and School Improvement and Accountability.
  • Develop expertise in high school reform research and initiates and works collaboratively with multiple stakeholders to develop high school models for "The High Schools We Need."
(There's another job for someone to do project management.) The most attractive aspect of these jobs is that last bullet---the idea of creating new high school models is really intriguing and exciting. Here is a chance to reinvent (hence the job title), the high school concept. It gets your juices flowing. Another attractive aspect is that it would mean working with the former Boss Lady: an environment we know we can thrive in. Will anyone in my office apply for these jobs? I doubt it. It's not the right time for these particular opportunities, but it is fun to dream about them.

17 January 2007

Intelligence in the Classroom

The opinion page from the Wall Street Journal has a headline that, at first, made me chuckle: Half of All Children Are Below Average. Hey, there's some real news. Half are below average? Gosh, I bet half of them are below the median, too. But reading further gave me pause to think a bit more about the unfortunately titled article.

Some say that the public schools are so awful that there is huge room for improvement in academic performance just by improving education. There are two problems with that position. The first is that the numbers used to indict the public schools are missing a crucial component. For example, in the 2005 round of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 36% of all fourth-graders were below the NAEP's "basic achievement" score in reading. It sounds like a terrible record. But we know from the mathematics of the normal distribution that 36% of fourth-graders also have IQs lower than 95.

What IQ is necessary to give a child a reasonable chance to meet the NAEP's basic achievement score? Remarkably, it appears that no one has tried to answer that question. We only know for sure that if the bar for basic achievement is meaningfully defined, some substantial proportion of students will be unable to meet it no matter how well they are taught. As it happens, the NAEP's definition of basic achievement is said to be on the tough side. That substantial proportion of fourth-graders who cannot reasonably be expected to meet it could well be close to 36%.

The second problem with the argument that education can be vastly improved is the false assumption that educators already know how to educate everyone and that they just need to try harder--the assumption that prompted No Child Left Behind. We have never known how to educate everyone. The widely held image of a golden age of American education when teachers brooked no nonsense and all the children learned their three Rs is a myth. If we confine the discussion to children in the lower half of the intelligence distribution (education of the gifted is another story), the overall trend of the 20th century was one of slow, hard-won improvement. A detailed review of this evidence, never challenged with data, was also part of "The Bell Curve."

This is not to say that American public schools cannot be improved. Many of them, especially in large cities, are dreadful. But even the best schools under the best conditions cannot repeal the limits on achievement set by limits on intelligence...

To say that even a perfect education system is not going to make much difference in the performance of children in the lower half of the distribution understandably grates. But the easy retorts do not work. It's no use coming up with the example of a child who was getting Ds in school, met an inspiring teacher, and went on to become an astrophysicist. That is an underachievement story, not the story of someone at the 49th percentile of intelligence. It's no use to cite the differences in test scores between public schools and private ones--for students in the bottom half of the distribution, the differences are real but modest. It's no use to say that IQ scores can be wrong. I am not talking about scores on specific tests, but about a student's underlying intellectual ability, g, whether or not it has been measured with a test. And it's no use to say that there's no such thing as g...

That says nothing about the quality of the lives that should be open to everyone across the range of ability. I am among the most emphatic of those who think that the importance of IQ in living a good life is vastly overrated. My point is just this: It is true that many social and economic problems are disproportionately found among people with little education, but the culprit for their educational deficit is often low intelligence. Refusing to come to grips with that reality has produced policies that have been ineffectual at best and damaging at worst.

Certainly gives some pause for thought, doesn't it? The author includes some interesting examples in the article, and this is only the first of three installments on the topic this week. "Intelligence" is not something easily defined or measured. Is it possible that there are hard-working students from advantaged homes out there who aren't bright enough to earn an A? Having intrinsic motivation and a loving family with money doesn't ensure that a kid will be any smarter than a box of rocks, but I am hard pressed to think of a single student I've had in that situation. I can, however, think of previous students who had no advantages, were highly motivated, and quite successful in school. Does what happens in a classroom have anything to do with intelligence on the part of the students? And yet there are so many variations of "brightness" among the kids in our classes. Is our system set up to punish the dimmer ones with our grading scale or is that as it should be? Do we need different standards, depending on the intelligence of the child?

I need to ponder these things some more. I'm looking forward to reading the second and third installments and gathering information. Your thoughts?

16 January 2007

The Endless Winter

The district is closed for the sixth time this year, thus extending our MLK holiday a bit. It does feel like winter for once as we have had so much snow and ice. Mind you, I spent most of the last few days in the midwest, also snowbound, but with three octogenarians: my grandmother and two of her sisters. The younger one (who's 83) had broadband, so at least contact with the outside world could be maintained. The three of them are currently staying with the youngster at the moment---one due to her home burning recently and another due to an injury that requires some vigilance. I went to help with some things that they needed done, but due to weather, we never left the house and none of those particular items were accomplished.

All was not lost, however. This appeared to be the time that they were ready to tell all sorts of stories---things unuttered and unexplored for years. I sat in the kitchen, drinking coffee as they each stopped for a moment to empty their heads. The eldest spent much of her adulthood in New York, carving quite the career in the diamond business. At 73, she decided it was time to settle down and got married for the first time. Now widowed and living back home in the midwest at age 87, she is craving a bit of intellectual stimulation and conversation. We talked a lot about the culture of poverty, generational change, and writing. She shared her poetry and a musical she'd written. This is a woman who should really have a blog. :) My grandmother has always been a bit of a drama queen. She doesn't really want to have conversation; she just wants to tell her stories---embellishments and all. This visit seemed to primarily focus on her experiences as a young wife during the start of WWII. The youngest sister shared some similar things, but she has always been more focused on others than herself and had the least to say. I loved to watch them all interact. Sibling rivalry does not appear to dampen with age. My favourite thing was to see each one pull out her lipstick and mirror after each meal and reapply a bit of colour to the lips: a ritual of ladylike proportions.

It is the winter of their lives, something they're all well aware of. My grandmother's sisters have no children of their own. My grandmother's only child has been dead several years now. I am the one who is here to listen to the tales and bear this information into the future. Since today's weather here has provided for an additional day of repose, I hope to capture a few of the stories in a digital format for reference later. Spring will eventually be here---a time for new adventures for all of us.

14 January 2007

Go Index Yourself

What would you put on a catalog card for your blog? Go here and make one of your own.

13 January 2007

And There Was Much Rejoicing

It's been a wacky winter in western Washington. Actually, our problems started a month before the official beginning of winter, when we accumulated not only snow, but three days of school to make up. Add on another right before Winter Break due to windstorm...then another this week due to snow and ice. That's five days and our calendar only allows for two.

In several other states, a school year is defined not by actual days, but instructional minutes. Most places do convert this to a typical 180 day school year, but by adding even 5 minutes per day, a district can add nearly a week of instructional time over the course of the year. The upside to this is that if you have to close due to weather, you can still meet the state requirements without actually putting another day on the school calendar. Not so in Washington. They're serious about the 180 day thing, no matter how many minutes you say a day equals.

We can't tack all 5 of our make-up days (and who knows...there may be more yet to come) at the end of the year. Why not? Graduation. Seniors can be out no more than 5 days before everyone else. If we add more than the two already built in, then graduation dates have to be moved...and who is going to do that now that invitations are printed and the space is booked?

All may not be lost, however. As it turns out, we may not have to make up any snow days. "Any school district that canceled classes on the day or days after Gov. Christine Gregoire declared a state of emergency may not have to make up those days." Woot! This won't account for all of our days, mind you, but it may take care of a few. We already get out so late here (end of June), that I'm not looking forward to a school calendar where the July 4th holiday has to be taken into account, although I did hear from an elementary teacher that perhaps this was the year she could finally put up a bulletin board for that holiday.

What will our district do? Will we ask for a waiver from the state? Will we start working on Saturdays? Lose the remaining three-day weekends that we have? I don't know at this point. But there's some joy in Mudville just knowing that we may get a pass.

12 January 2007

He's a Brick...Wall (with apologies to The Commodores)

One of the good things that's being attempted this year is that Curriculum and principals are spending more time together. It seems so odd to me that each principal helps to set his or her school's improvement plan for the year and that those goals are often separated from district initiatives. It makes more sense to me for schools to chart their course and include staff development as a piece---which is where my homies fit into the picture. There will always be some district-wide goals, of course, but like toddlers engaging in parallel play, we are often on separate paths. January 25 will be our next chance to try to merge.

Mighty White Boy is in charge of pulling together some plans, although all of us will be contributing members. He's all hot and bothered to do something about differentiation. This is because it was strongly identified on our recent survey as a need by teachers for their own learning. The way Curriculum responds to this will need to be in partnership with principals, and we do need to talk about things with them...but the audience is really teachers.

Another specialist and I tried to talk with MWB about this point. Shouldn't time on the 25th be provided for principals to look at building responses to surveys? Don't we need their input on our delivery model...before we talk about what we're going to do? We won't know until February how many staff members we'll have---and it will be even later in the school year before we know where teachers are moving and how many classrooms we'll have to serve. It doesn't seem like this is really the right moment to get concrete about differentiation. We were also concerned that doing this would result in a training that was more "sit and get," which also feels like the wrong road to be travelling.

The man was a complete brick wall. We were unable to sway him, but we at least got him to consider delaying intense discussion about differentiation until the following meeting in April. It was so odd to have this conversation and walk out feeling like you had been in a room where no actual dialogue had taken place. I kept wanting to ask, "Can you hear me now?"

I've been told that MWB is using the position this year as a springboard to getting an administrative position somewhere. I already feel sorry for teachers that will have to beat their heads against this particular brick wall.

11 January 2007

The School Who Cried, "Wolf!"

Every school culture is unique. It's an amalgam of leadership style in the main office, teachers new and not-so-new to the building, and an ever changing student clientele. Schools take on certain personalities. The district becomes a family that has siblings with a variety of attention-seeking behaviors.

The elementary math specialist and I just finished another round of grade level meetings. As expected, some teachers are unhappy with the new science kits. But the interesting thing is that the biggest complaints came from the same two schools. In fact, these are the same schools that whine about nearly everything that happens in and around the district. They have no ability to pick their battles, the result of which is another iteration of rage against the machine.

I told another staff member in Curriculum that if a teacher from a school that doesn't continually complain had said the same things about the science kits, I would have snapped to attention. Sadly enough, because it's the same teachers complaining about science and math curriculum, writing program and coaches, leadership issues, the new report card, and more---I tuned them out. I let them vent, but I didn't take any notes. This seems to be true for others who are their targets...which then leads to even more frustration on the teachers' part because no one is responding. I'm happy to support what I can, but at some point, it becomes their responsibility to stop crying "Wolf!" at every single thing. (Or, perhaps, we should show them the Whining Rubric and see if we can't at least move them toward the standard.) These schools are also the ones who refuse to participate on district committees or initiatives---so anything new appears even more as something done "to" them, rather than "with" them. They choose to be victims.

We need a bit of change on both sides. These schools are going to have to come to the table with more than "It's so unfair!" and from the district end, we need to look for new ways to get them engaged and involved---to give them a different sort of voice in how things work. In the meantime, these schools and teachers are going to be lost lambs---and continue to be thrown to the wolves.

10 January 2007

It Might Not Be Rio, But It's Still Carnival

This week's Carnival of Education returns to the state of Washington! A fellow "evergreen" blogger has a fine collection of posts for you to peruse this week. So, click on over to I Thought A Think and enjoy the 101st edition of the carnival. Go, Rain!

09 January 2007

Growing Up Global

Currently, the total population of 10- to 24-year-olds is estimated at 1.5 billion, of which 86 percent live in developing countries. The growth is most rapid in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia. Call it a new wave of global baby boomers who are, in some instances, the first true generation of "teenagers" their countries have known.

Lloyd calls adolescence - or what Americans call the teenage years - a "relatively new life cycle phase" for many developing countries. Previously, young people tended to move directly from childhood to adulthood. Adult status was much more tied to physical changes, such as puberty, she says.

Spurred by improved health care, the onset of puberty is also declining for young people in many developing countries - from about 15 to 12 years of age. That trend, along with economic and technological gains, has affected cultural practices tied to puberty and delayed employment, marriage and childbearing while increasing time spent in school.

Lloyd and international development agencies suggest the possibility of a critical, and potentially dangerous, global generation gap as emerging adolescent populations age and their political and economic expectations rise.

The World Bank's 2006 World Development Report, following up on "Growing Up Global," found:

- Nearly half of all unemployment in the world is among young people.

- 500,000 young people under the age of 18 are recruited by military and paramilitary groups. Some 300,000 have been involved in armed conflict in more than 30 countries.

- 13 million adolescents give birth each year.

- Young people account for nearly half of all new HIV infections.

There is much more to read in the full article from the Bend, Oregon, Weekly News. I hadn't really thought about "teenagerhood" in these terms before---that as nations continue to develop, that having teenagers will be one of the growing pains. So to speak.

What will our world be like in the next 10 - 20 years...having this explosion of youth?

08 January 2007

Round Two: TKO

Tomorrow is our last grade level meeting of our elementary math/science cadre. I think this round went much more smoothly than the first one, but there have been a few bumps here and there. My biggest area of learning this time was simply being able to study the various group dynamics.

Kindergarten is very chatty and vivacious. They have a singular passion for the little ones in their charge and it shows in their personal lives, too. First grade is all business. They prefer just to get down to work---and earn an early out from the meeting. :) Second grade wants products, not process. This group of teachers gets wound up when they talk about issues and potential problems, but are all smiles if you can do a "make and take" with them, during the day. Third grade is reluctant to talk. There are a few strong personalities there---and others are intimidated. Fifth grade is a lot like kindergarten, but with a stronger sense of humor. They give as much energy as they get. Sixth grade is hungry. These teachers are interested in anything they can do to get their kids ready for junior high. They want to be seen as legitimate contributors in the continuum.

And fourth grade? I'll see them tomorrow...so I don't have a particular bead just yet. I do know that many of them don't like the new kits. I expect some harsh comments at the start of the day, but I'm hoping that they'll move on and get into the day.

There have been great comments from teachers about the professional development we've offered. We've managed to "wow" them with all kinds of information and they leave each day smiling and enthused about what they can take back to colleagues and kids. Some of them see themselves for the teacher leaders that they are. Others are more unsure. Maybe continued work as a group will give them the boost they need to take on a stronger role in their schools.

My guess is that we won't have the cadre next year...something that makes me sad to think about. We've really gotten such a great start to things this year and I hate to think that math and science are going to be swept under the carpet again. For now, I'm going to bask in things. Round Two of our meetings have been successful.

07 January 2007

Organizers Gone Graphic

If you haven't checked out a blog called Indexed, you might want to click over and have a look. The author (Jessica Hagy) has a delightful way of using graphic organizers to think about the world. For example:

Stalkers Only Hear the Straight Lines

and Warm Shame

I think I know how I'll be entertaining myself at my next meeting. :)

06 January 2007

The Clockwork Classroom

I do a lot of the work for my grad classes on the weekends, including making my way through the required reading. One of the pieces I've been looking at today (along with one of the talking head video programs sent along for this unit) has gotten me thinking about some parallels between science and teacher education.

Duck by Spiff_27 CC-BY-NC
When Isaac Newton and others started work on describing some common observations about how theclockwork universe developed. It was an idea that things moved along in a predictable pattern---and if we knew all the rules, we could not only understand something about the present, but could also know the future. Life was not excluded from this framework. One of my favourite outcomes of this sort of thinking was the development of automata, like Vaucanson's Duck. Lots of people thought that you could literally build a living thing. Again, the idea was that if you could just identify the necessary parts to something, you could replicate it and get the same results. Life and the world didn't have to be mystical. There is some truth to that, even if it isn't in the form that the Age of Enlightenment used to frame the idea. Not too much farther along, people realized that just because it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it doesn't mean that you have a duck. There is something else going on. (I also love it decades later when electricity is thought to be the spark of life---and you get stories like Frankenstein.)
world worked, a theory of a

Frankenstein (1931) by twm1340 CC-BY-SA
Have we been treating teaching the same way? Have our teacher prep programs tried to look at the classroom...and then build teachers (like ducks) from those observations? In our drive to make good teaching easier---or at least more easily described and defined---have we forgotten the "spark" that makes the classroom come alive? Are we in the lab, mixing up teachers, but perhaps don't have the formula right? Is there such an animal as a clockwork classroom?

I don't think that there is a teacher out there who will tell you that the predictable classroom exists. Teachers do influence a lot of factors within their four walls---everything from the physical layout to the behavioral routines. We can give teachers all of the tools---talk to them about classroom management, grading, instructional models, curriculum materials, and more---and instructions to build the duck---but it will never be a living breathing classroom.

Mandelbrot Fractal by Patrick Hoesly CC-BY
If the ed schools are only slightly farther along than Newton, perhaps there are lessons to be learned chaos theory? Is it possible that there are patterns within what appears to be random within the classroom?
from the few hundred years of scientific thinking that have occurred in the meantime. Maybe the ed schools don't need to go through all of the same growing pains. Should we look at classrooms within the context of

When you get down to it, all of this is really about what it means to be a good teacher. I don't think that this is as simple to point out as identifying a duck. In my own mind, I look at good teachers as those who not only have their content and pedagogy at hand, but also the "spark" of being knowledgeable about themselves. We are not automata. Teaching is an intensely personal experience and practice. I don't know if or how we make that part of teacher training---how we acknowledge and nurture the spark. I do think it's important that we look closely at what we do in our teacher ed programs and continue to move away from the idea of the clockwork classroom.

05 January 2007

Butterflies Are A Little Too Free

The following was written by one of our teachers to describe her experience with the Butterfly kit. I guess I'm not the only one for whom they wouldn't behave. Remember my Dinopillars?

The Defliant Ones

The prisoners bang against the walls of their cell. First one, then another; soon the cacophony is impossible to ignore. The lights go down but the inmates pay no heed: seeming to feed on one another’s frenzy the noise is now deafening. Then, two escape, arm in arm a’ la The Defiant Ones, the Sidney Poitier movie in which a black and white prisoner chained together at the legs are forced to look after one another’s welfare despite misunderstanding and mutual prejudice, in that their fates are inextricably entwined. The lights blaze overhead and the alarm sounds: “Derek!,” wails the siren, “The butterflies have escaped again!”

I should have known this batch of butterflies would be nothing but trouble. From the time the innocent-looking miniature caterpillars arrived they made my life difficult. First, each minuscule larva had to have his or her (its?) individual abode prepared. (What, they were too good to bunk together like the previous batches had?) Yes, for these caterpillars I had to prepare 23 cups of food, “tamped down lightly” and then ever so gently, with a paintbrush, lest I maul their wormlike bodies or harm their little psyches, place them into their deluxe caterpillar suites. The extra caterpillars (Now, why did they give us 10 or 12 extras?) I housed, flophouse style, in an old fish bowl with a not too secure lid.

For a week or so, the caterpillars made no new demands. I had to admit, the children were ever so excited to have their own little baby caterpillar to examine with a magnifying glass. It was fascinating to learn about and see their propeds (temporary legs) and their strangely punkish hairiness. For awhile, much as newborns everywhere, they ate, grew, presumably slept, and defecated. Then, the children started to name them. “Okay, Bob, back to the nursery. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Then, the tragedy one or two days later: “Bob isn’t moving anymore. What’s wrong with Bob?” Finally, Thanksgiving weekend came. As some of the children gave thanks that their caterpillar had not met Bob’s fate, others had a lesson in nature’s harshness.

Returning after the long Thanksgiving holiday, we discovered that the caterpillars had really GROWN. Then, much like the adolescents they were, the flophouse caterpillars began running (creeping) away. I’d tuck them all in safely before leaving each afternoon only to return the next day and find 2 or 3 of them attempting to crawl to freedom. Obviously they didn’t think it was fair that their many siblings got their own rooms while they had to share.

Next came the waiting and waiting: Would they ever hang upside down, spin chrysalises and fly away from the nest or would they mooch on their families forever? Day by day one or two would form chrysalises which I would have to painstakingly detach and move to the butterfly penthouse. Of course the caterpillars couldn’t all form at the same rate so each day I would have to move the latest bloomers. Finally, the last caterpillar had formed its chrysalis. Now, to wait for them to burst out in butterfly beauty to the oohs and ahs of the children. Natch, it was 2 days before Christmas vacation and there was no way they could grow up that fast. The pathetic part of it was, I had become strangely attached to the little critters. I couldn’t leave them in an unheated classroom, all alone. What to do??? Get a babysitter! Frantically I began typing a parent letter, emphasizing the beauty of nature in action and minimizing the pain in the a—factor of raising “God’s living flowers: Butterflies.” Alas, before some poor sucker I mean some science-oriented and sensitive parent could respond to my plea, school was unexpectedly closed a day early.

Well, I caught Sidney and he’s back with the rest of the cell block. Maybe I’ll have to punish him by giving him a sponge with no sugar, only water. Meanwhile, the other fugitive flies around my kitchen, taunting me. It’s getting personal, now.

04 January 2007

Tell Me How You Want It

The Curriculum department recently did a survey to get a little input on what staff think they need in terms of professional development, as well as how they would like to receive it. We looked at the results today and there wasn't anything out of the ordinary. What did my heart the most good was that science was the number one area identified by elementary teachers as a need. Perhaps I might actually get more time and resources allotted for that.

Secondary is a bit of a mystery in some ways. They did identify areas of need---but were completely blah about all of the suggested models for delivering in-service. I have a feeling that if we went back to them and said, "We know what you don't want...tell us what you do want." that the reply would be "Leave us alone!" I think this answer would be perfectly acceptable if continuous improvement in the schools is evident...but it isn't. So, according to the survey, they want a lot of information, they just don't want to have to engage with it. I've written before about the inertia of secondary ed. Change away from that continues to be elusive and yet all kids aren't getting what they need. There isn't a culture of lifelong learning in most of the buildings. I don't know how we're going to change that, but I think we need to try.

03 January 2007

100 (is) Grand

Have you checked out this weeks' Carnival of Education yet? It's the 100th edition---a feat worth celebrating. Get on over there and enjoy this week's round-up of all that's fit to blog.

I spent the day with a feisty group of 2nd grade teachers. They weren't mean-spirited, rude, or ugly about anything, but they did have a need to process a lot of what was happening in the district. That really wasn't what the math person and I had scheduled for the day, but group therapy appeared to be the order of the day. As classroom teachers know, sometimes you just have to go with the flow. You have to let go of your own plans now and then in order to foster the herd. I have a feeling that as more an more information about school closures, teacher reassignments, program eliminations, continues to be available, teacher groups are going to need more of this sort of time. Lots of binging and purging of information is going to be the norm this spring. I hope we learn to pace ourselves.

02 January 2007

What's in the Box?

This district will have some significant changes next year, especially at the elementary level. With two schools looking to close, there are about 50 teachers to place at new-to-them schools, and quite possibly in new-to-them grade levels...not to mention all of the other shifting that typically happens between school years. There's a lot to coordinate and in Curriculum, we're trying to be as proactive as possible. My favourite quote from a teacher so far is that "We're getting a lot more support from the district than from the union." Indeed.

One of the things we're working on in Curriculum is a "Grade in a Box." The idea is to provide a concise snapshot of what happens at a given grade level (and when), what resources are available (and should be in the classroom), and so on. It should be a quick glance for teachers---especially those who will have new teaching assignments next year.

The biggest issue we're having so far is a philosophical one about how we structure the overall map of a grade. Some areas (math, reading, writing) already have pacing guides. Do we want to simply expand on that by adding other areas...or is it more useful simply lay out the big ideas? My personal bent is to go with the former---give some specifics, because it's the day-to-day stuff that will worry "new" teachers the most...although I think the big ideas are really what help frame instruction. Next year is going to be all about survival mode for many people. They're not going to be ready to broaden out just yet.

All of this will have to be done with significant teacher input, of course. The support beyond that will also require an investment. Right now, we're looking at offering a day of inservice at the beginning of the summer---as well as in August. For the second one, we would pay an "expert" teacher at each grade level to set up their classroom early so that there was a model for the meeting.

As a grade level teacher, what would you like in a box? What would you have liked to have known at the beginning of your tenure?

01 January 2007

Make Some Magic

This card was on PostSecret yesterday. The host had written "You aren't the magician, you're the magic." underneath the picture. I think he's right, but the card was one that I really paused to look at and think about. How many times have I felt like that in the classroom? How many teachers are in that same boat---either on occasion or day to day?

It's back to work in the morning for me, although I have things that I have to prep today. Five out of the next six days have full day meetings on hand for me...and I am leading four of them. Even if I'm not with kids, I still have to find my mojo. Magic has to happen for teachers, too. Best wishes to all of you magicians out there for 2007.