28 February 2007

108...109...

Dr. Homeslice is keepin' it real with this week's Carnival of Education. Go enjoy it while you can, because it won't be long before the carnies pack things up and invade this blog for next week's extravaganza. You can submit your posts via the Blog Carnival form or just drop me a line at the_science_goddess[at]yahoo[dot]com. Entries are due by 6 p.m. Pacific Time on March 6.

27 February 2007

Decoding the Message

The district I work for is in the midst of some major changes---changes not only for next year, but in succeeding years as we continue to lose at least $2.5M each year due to declining enrollment and other financial support issues. Last week, there was the great principal mambo---lots of dancing around to new buildings as the supe reassigned them to new partners.

Just as not as every teacher is a whizbang in the classroom, neither is every administrator. There were rumors last week that the reorganization was going to be the chance to take care of the downer admins...put them out of everyone's misery. There are two or three principals which are either encountering great struggles at their building due to a toxic environment they've managed to cultivate or just lack all of the skills necessary to be a principal in today's schools. This is not to say that the job is easy---I know that I certainly couldn't do the best at it---but there's too many expectations on kids and teachers these days not to have the best possible leadership.

But the district didn't send any principals out to pasture. Two buildings, however, ended up with principals that they really don't want. They've seen what these principals did at their other buildings...they've talked with their peers who've worked there over the years...they know they're getting the fuzzy end of the lollipop. Is there more to this message, I wonder? If "the district" is unwilling to end a relationship with a poor building leader (and one without a union behind it making it a simple matter to terminate a contract), what does that tell our teachers about their own jobs? Does it mean that no matter how terribly you do your job, no one is going to touch you? Does it give an excuse for teachers not to engage in reform initiatives---initiatives students are held accountable for even if teachers are not---because they know they'll be able to keep their job for as long as they want it? I can't quite decipher this most recent message from the district...but the silent unspoken nature of it is almost deafening.

25 February 2007

Skinny for Blogging N00b5

There is plenty of room in the edusphere for more perspectives and voices. I am always excited to discover a new blog...and sad when others either run their course or mysteriously disappear. Some judge their success by the number of hits they get or their rank on the Truth Laid Bear, but those aren't always the ones which capture the imagination---more than anything, they may have their own particular brand of attention-seeking behaviors. :) If you're a new kid on the block, I have a few bits of wisdom to share. I am certainly still learning some things as I go along, but here are some lessons I've managed to learn in the last two years. Perhaps others out there can add to this.

  • You can get yourself some notice by commenting on posts you like, or at least, blogs that interest you. The blogger will likely click through and give you a look---and so may other commenters. The "bigger" the blog, the more traffic this could send your way. This is especially useful when you are new kid on the block---you are writing your heart out, sharing all the great stuff you've been thinking about, and maybe no one else is seeing it. If you can, continue to comment on what you read or what interests you in the great wide world of blogging. I need to be doing more of this.
  • Use some code from statcounter or sitemeter to monitor what's pulling people to your blog. Once you register, the site will generate the code and tell you where to paste it into your template. If you're nervous about messing up your template, you can always copy and paste it into a document and save it as a backup before you play around with things.
  • When you post something, remember to use Ping-o-matic to let various services know that you've updated your blog. This will help connect people searching for information with your blog.
  • Technorati is a great place to register. You can check in and see who is linking to you and also track your favourite blogs.
  • Join in on the Education Carnival each week. Everyone is welcome to make a submission. The host has final say over what gets posted, but it has been my experience that few are rejected---and the ones which are usually have very little to connect them with the world of education. Let people know what you're talking about.
  • Be patient. There are some blogs which seem to take off like wildfire, but most of us are just slow burners. Until you build up a library of posts, you're not likely to get much traffic from search engines. If your goal in blogging is to just have a place to stash the stuff rolling around in your head like a bunch of loose change, this won't bother you; however, if you're desire is to be the greatest blog ever, you'll either need to be (a) an attention whore or (b) a knock-out writer with a very persuasive and unique voice.
I welcome new-to-blogging educators like the Browneyedgirlie, the Determined Science Geek (a/k/a Ms. W, who is wondering what she's gotten herself into), and the Exhausted Intern---who knows all too well that there are Not Enough Hours... I wish you much success and satisfaction with your new pursuits. Thanks for joining the conversation!

24 February 2007

Longer Days Aren't Just for Spring

There are all too many stories out there of hurtful cuts to recess, PE, and elective programs in the name of finding some additional time in the school day. Schools are under the gun to get kids to standard in reading, math, and science, especially for those students who are already below grade level. Perhaps there is an alternative: extending the school day.

Some public schools in Massachusetts are experimenting with an 8-hour school day (as opposed to a more traditional 6.5 hour learning period). The state is subsidizing the increases, with most of the money going to increase teacher compensation by as much as $20K per year. These schools may be adding more time, but they are also adding back more electives and opportunities for kids.

So far, reports from both students and parents are favorable. More time and less pressure is creating the right environment for many k- 8 students to succeed. How do teachers feel about it? The article linked above doesn't contain any quotes or information from them. If these schools are creating more "down time" and links for kids, might they also be providing for more common planning time and opportunities for collaboration among their staff? I worry that in a time where many teachers already work several hours outside of the school day to prepare lessons and provide feedback to students, teaching 8 - 5 would extend teachers' labours even more. I also worry that too many people may be equating more time with better spent time. It's certainly possible to pull that off, but I can also imagine that one wouldn't necessarily lead to the other.

I will be interested to see if this idea catches on. It would require a significant amount of community support and state dollars to make it fly; but as we continue to assign greater value in educating the whole child (not just the parts that can read, do math, and think scientifically), perhaps taxpayers may be interested in pursuing this option.

23 February 2007

Badges? We don't need no stinking badges!

Maybe we do. I'm a bit jealous that there are some science scout badges, such as

The "my degree inadvertantly makes me competent in fixing household appliances" badge.



and the "I work with way too much radioactivity, and yet no discernible superpowers yet" badge,


or my personal favourite: the "inordinate fondness for invertebrates" badge.



I think educators need some options, too. Is there a procrastination badge for papers you've put off marking until the end of the grading period? Perhaps the keen ability to teach class after only a couple of hours of sleep. For secondary social studies teachers, perhaps a "Just push play." badge to recognize showing videos each week. Should there be a badge for working with inhuman admins/secretaries/colleagues? Maybe one for parents or a classroom of ADHD kids? How about a mimeograph machine to commemorate those of us who used to sniff those lovely purple inked sheets?

Here's a blank...knock yourself out. :)



Update: Laura over at "Teaching, Or at Least Trying To" has created some badges for us. Go have a look!

22 February 2007

The Grand Scheme of Things

I've tried to blog several times this afternoon and evening. My trouble in posting was not due to issues with Blogger (for once), but rather my difficulty in getting some clarity around the day. I really do try to write everyday. Blogging is definitely something that takes discipline, in that regard, and yet I want to make sure that posts are meaningful, too. I want the things I think about here to be more broad than just my own little sphere of influence. I hope to make some sense of my place in the Grand Scheme of Things.

I learned today that 7 of our 12 elementaries for next year will have new-to-them principals. I also found out that the person who has given heart and soul to setting up the kit center this year is on a temporary contract...and could be bumped from her job by a secretary (!) in an involuntary transfer. I discovered this afternoon that a man who can't plan his way out of a paper sack is going to be given an admin internship for next year, while a competent teacher will not. It was cemented for me today how much damage people in leadership positions can do when they have no leadership or people skills. And more.

These things are paralyzing my brain, making it hard to post. I don't like to whine here...whining accomplishes nothing and doesn't recognize or respect that everyone has travails to endure. This week, though, has just knocked me on my fanny and I'm having a hard time regaining perspective on the Grand Scheme of Things. I have to figure out what my choices are and move on from there. Tomorrow is supposed to be quiet. I have a few projects I can manage at work and perhaps things will sort themselves out in my mind as the day passes.

21 February 2007

Mardi Gras, Indeed


Mardi Gras Bead Post by Besdayz CC-BY-NC-ND
You know the drill. It's Wednesday, so you just click the link to visit the Carnival of Education. Lent may be starting, but the party is still going on over at History is Elementary. Go earn your beads!

20 February 2007

Poison

Girl, I must warn ya'
I sense something strange in my mind
Yeah yo situation is serious
And it looks like we're running out of time...

If I were you I'd take precaution
Before I start to leave fly girl
You know 'cause in some portions
You'll think she's the best thing in the world...

That girl is poison
Never trust a big butt and smile
That girl is poison poison


I don't know how else to describe my boss at the moment.

She has undermined most of the work that the teachers in Curriculum have tried to do this year. We all have multiple sets of treadmarks on us from being thrown under the bus by her time after time, but today was a completely new twist. Imagine a meeting that has been talked about for weeks...that people spent all holiday weekend planning...only to find out this morning that, oops, she forgot to send out the invitation on Outlook and so none of the principals put it on their calendars. We had foolishly thought that this time, our plans were Boss Lady proof.

I have more to think about, but for now I'm rather speechless. All I can think about is the poison that will be sitting down the hall from me in the morning.

Update: It turns out that she didn't "forget" to put the meeting on her calendar. Her daughter is visiting, and after not being at work in the morning, she brought the girl with her to parade her through the offices. Not cool.

19 February 2007

Tag, You're It!

Mrs. Bluebird was kind enough to point to me as a thinking blogger. She perhaps has more (misguided?) faith in my brain than I do. :)

Yesterday, I was doing some research for an upcoming paper and stumbled across this quote:
In order to know what you know or think, you need to engage not only in debate with others, but also in reflective practice in terms of how you derived your views and how your views are being received by others. Writing is a key way in which to explore what you truly know or indeed the gaps within your knowings. ---P. Green, 2005, Spaces of Influence

Blogging fills this need for many people. It is a space to reflect, to debate, and to think. Yes, it also is the area where some of us rant and shake our tiny fists...even a prison where we put the ideas we just can't carry around in our heads anymore. For many of the people I work with, blogs are a novelty and not to be taken seriously. The same goes for people in my degree program. It could be that some of them are not willing to be so public with their thinking about life as a teacher or student; but my hunch is that most of them don't feel like they have the time to think or that doing so wouldn't be worthwhile. At the same time most of them are dying for some attention and for someone to listen and engage, they shut off one outlet that could get them where they'd like to go.

The rules of this meme are that I should write about five blogs that make me think. Many of the blogs I read have already been tagged.
  • Jenny D. has amazing questions...deep questions. Her posts often cause me to ponder things for a few days and is one of the few spots where I feel absolutely driven to comment. The conversation is just too interesting not to jump in. I just wish there was a bottle of wine involved
  • Melinama over at Pratie Place makes me think about cultivating my own sense of intellectual curiosity. She is the embodiment of lifelong learning. Painting, music, telenovelas, and more are all stimuli in her world...and lucky us, she shares.
  • Perhaps not a traditional blog, indexed is a place I go to find new representations of ideas and connections among them. The inspiration here has been of great help at meetings recently. People in my office have had some fun with it. One of my favourite comments has been "I feel a Venn coming on!" during the middle of a discussion. We think we need t-shirts with "Veni, Vidi, Venni" on them. (I came, I saw, I Venned.)
  • I enjoy the writing over at Get Lost, Mr. Chips and Öğretmen. Although it might appear that there isn't much in common, they both have to navigate foreign classrooms each day...although one of them has to do it in Turkish. They make me think about my own world---what I do and don't like...make me value what I have...and long for something different.
It is difficult to pick five blogs. I enjoy everything I have on my sidebar---and some others that I'm not ready to list there yet. The Peeping Tom in me appreciates that people provide these windows into their personal and professional lives. It's good food for thought.

18 February 2007

The Spring of My Discontent

I've felt like a mole the last few weekends. I have papers that I'm writing for my grad class, along with discussion posts, and all of the reading and research means that I'm spending a lot of time inside with my computer. This is, perhaps, not the most unpleasant way to pass the winter months, but I can see the promise of spring outside my window...and I want to go out and play.

The structure of my weekends has changed significantly since I started this blog two years ago. Then, I was a teacher 80% of the time. My weekends were full of grading papers, planning lessons, and other classroom tasks: things that are typical for most classroom teachers. Now, I'm still a teacher, but my "classroom" is so different. My time now is spent thinking and looking at learning from district level perspective, along with the learning I'm engaged in for my degree program.

I do wonder if those of us in Curriculum are some variation of freak. We've been exposed to thinking about issues on a much grander scale than a classroom teacher has time or headspace (or in some cases, care) for. It's like some kind of radiation poisoning where we're mutating into something that still looks like a teacher, but isn't. (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, anyone?) We see things other teachers don't get to see...and although we all will step back into the classroom at some point, we will never again be the same. Our understanding of the classroom has been fundamentally and irrevocably changed. This is not to imply that this makes us better teachers---I just think integration would be difficult. I don't regret stepping out of the classroom to take on a different role and let my career grow in a different direction. I see how valuable it is for teachers to have the time to be able to think and explore ideas...and I understand even better why teachers resist "outsiders" coming in to share expertise.

What will the next two years bring? I wish I knew. I'll have finished my EdD by then...science education will be even more in the public eye (according to a friend in the state office for education)...and I may well be itching to try my hand at something new. Right now, I think it's time to put away my computer for the day and get out in the great wide world for a bit. The 65-year old camellia outside my front door has at least 1000 blooms on it, reminding me that the future is full of promise. I just need to let it unfold.

17 February 2007

In the Trenches

My hat's off to Mr. Lawrence and all of the other substitute (a/k/a "guest") teachers who keep the educational world spinning while the regular lot of us must be away from our charges. Yesterday was originally scheduled as a non-student day in my district, but due to all of the ugly weather this winter, we needed to have a regular day in order to make up some time. There was some angst over this plan, as the day used to be part of a four-day weekend and many people had already made plans for the holiday. Human Resources knew that subs would be at a premium---even though personal leave was not approved: teachers would call in sick.

In preparation, Curriculum released its pool of 10 dedicated subs. The 6 coaches were also made available to fill in classroom, as were all of us specialists (9 certs) and any other people at central office with a certificate. Out of the 25 of us, 2 were sick themselves, and 21 others were called upon to serve for part or all of a day. Me? I ended up covering a couple periods of PE. I have to say that this was one of the most boring jobs I've ever done. Meanwhile, I was amazed at the poor quality of the sub plans. Where was the info about what to do with the autistic kiddos? Where's the first aid stuff? What lunch period does the teacher have? And so on. Somehow, "roll out a few basketballs and have a student take attendance" doesn't quite cover everything one needs to know about a class.

I have to say that the best thing about the day was being with teens. They're such a kick. It was fun to chat with them and watch them play. It's a great buzz to get. The worst thing about the day? Teachers who called in lazy (not sick). At the Not-So-Pretty high school, 14 teachers were out for the day---and at least one of them had the nerve to call the sub and indicate that she just didn't feel like coming in today. Several PE teachers were out---they had a late inservice on Friday and just didn't want to come back for Friday. As a result district programs came to a halt yesterday while everyone else scrambled to cover them...not that they'll lose any sleep over it.

I'm looking forward to getting back to a more normal sort of day on Tuesday. Next week promises to have several challenges in the trenches I usually navigate.

16 February 2007

And Now For Something Completely Different

I don't get my science geek on very much anymore. I know that sounds odd since I am a science specialist, but my role is more about pedagogy and teaching tools than actual science "stuff." So, I'm overdue to share a good science story. The one which follows is one that my 9th grade science teacher told me. Although I hate to admit that it is nearly 25 years later, it is still a tale that I shared with students of my own each year...and a colleague earlier this evening. It deserves to be passed along because it's just so goshdarned good.

I used the story in order to help students understand catalysts: enzymes that speed up chemical reactions without being used up in the process. In my own poor way, I would illustrate the story while I told it...much to the delight of my students. (I am a terrible artist and the stick cows required for this tale were really at the edge of my abilities.)

Farmer Bob has three sons: Bob, Jr.; Billy Bob; and Bubba. Bob also has a herd of 23 cows. Alas, poor Bob discovers that he has only a short time to live and asks his attorney to draw up his Will. In the will, Bob, Jr. is to receive 1/2 of the herd; Billy Bob would get 1/3; and Bubba, being the youngest and least responsible, would be provided an 1/8. Sure enough, Bob kicks the bucket and the boys begin to squabble. How will they ever divide the herd? No one wants a fraction of a cow. At this point, a neighbor intercedes. She is tired of the family fights and provides the boys with another cow. The herd now stands at 24. Bob, Jr. takes his half (12 cows), Billy Bob his third (8 cows), and Bubba his eighth of the herd (3 cows). 12 + 8 + 3 = 23. A-ha! The boys have now divided up the original herd according to the proportions...and the neighbor can have her cow back.

The neighbor cow is the "cattle-ist": the item which speeds up the reaction (dividing the herd) without being used up. There is a very simple reason why the math works, but it usually takes kids a few minutes to catch on. In the meantime, it gives them a great visual of how reactions can work in the body (and elsewhere).

Whew. I'm glad I let my science nerd out to run around for a little while. :) It's good to be a little different.

15 February 2007

Stuck in the Middle with You

I felt stuck in the middle recently. In the same day, I received a plea for help from a less experienced teacher...and a request from the one who encouraged me to be a science teacher and helped me get my start. Am I really at a stage in my career where I'm in the educators' version of The Sandwich Generation?

The newer teacher's letter is a bit more heart-breaking.

I am really struggling with getting my students to produce anything at all in their class. I have a few students who work. But it is very few. I have some students who fly through assignments, get them done in the 10 minutes it should take and then are loud and disruptive because they are finished. I have other students who do not even begin to do anything. A grade is not a motivation for them, they have seen their grades, they have heard me talk about them, etc.

I have assigned seats a few different times this semester, tried collecting work at the end of every period instead of having them turn it in to a folder, giving them weekly quizzes over the material that we cover in class. I can't even get them all to face me and be quiet at the same time, let alone the 5 minutes it takes to explain an assignment.

Do you have any ideas for me? I am going crazy!

I am putting together some ideas and resources for her and heading out to see her after school today. However, there is definitely a wealth of experience out there in the edusphere---and I know that many of you reading this have been in a similar situation. If you have some words of wisdom to share, please send me a note or leave a comment to pass along to the teacher. It's a long time until school's out on June 22nd.

My mentor is in an entirely different time and situation.

Your mom sent me your e-mail so I could ask you for the information on the example of an enzyme using the camel story. I can remember everything except the fractions. Of course it doesn't work if you cannot remember the punch line!!

I am still retired, but working with the M-------- school district to help them raise their TAKS scores. They were low last year and were mandated by TEA to get some help. MJ M----- is working with the math teachers. I don't know if we will make much difference or not. They certainly have a unique set of problems. 60 students K-12 for one--few teachers teaching as many as 7 preparations--a few bad apples for teachers, but among about 15 teachers, it doesn't take many bad ones to spoil the whole bunch--stir up trouble, etc. It's a mess. Those tests are hard, in my opinion, and it takes more than a few months to teach the students all that material. In other words I think in a few years we might make a difference, but don't think the state will wait that long to consolidate them with our schools. The little town would die without their school so I hope we can help.

The example she's referring to is one of my favourites to teach...something to share in the next post, perhaps. Anyway, two very different situations from three of us in very different parts of our careers/lives. I suppose this is a wake-up call: my sandwich is ready.

14 February 2007

Pimpin' the Carnival

Why not ride this tricked out school bus over to the Education Wonks for this week's edition of the Carnival of Education? There's a fabulous round-up of posts for this special Valentine's Day edition. Get your freak on!

13 February 2007

Can You Hear Me Now?

I spent the day with a group of 7th grade teachers. We had to work through a lot of process in terms of where they need to go with their Curriculum, but the most interesting part of the day was when they started thinking about how to identify highly capable kids to cluster in some classes next year. We do have identified gifted kids, but nothing in that process really tells us if they are highly capable in science.

I showed the group some raw data on their current batch of kids---just scores related to reading, math, and science with no names or demographic data. They used it to play with their criteria, then we added in demographic factors. My fear was that we'd end up only identifying white girls. We did end up with a lotta whities when our criteria were more narrow. We adjusted one more time and then they thought they were ready to see the names of the kids they'd identified. For three of the four teachers, the list reflected the students they had in mind. The other teacher looked at the list with a bit of horror: all of the students identified from her list were D or F students in her class.

Hmmm.

I had started prying the lid off of the standards-based grading can of worms earlier in the day. We'd already talked about how grades do or don't reflect what we value as teachers. We talked about "teacher pleaser" kids---kids who know how to play the game and earn a grade, whether or not they learn anything. But the teacher was confronted with an ugly reality this afternoon. Here were a whole batch of kids who, on paper, should have been just as successful as they were in other classrooms...but weren't.

At first, the teacher blamed the kids. I agree that some responsibility for the educational process is on the backs of the kids...but if a teacher has no other reason than that for poor student performance, that dog doesn't hunt. This teacher thought for a minute and said aloud that perhaps whatever she's doing isn't reaching those kids...and was very quiet thereafter.

It will be interesting to watch this teacher this spring. She is a mass of contradictions. I'll be watching if she can hear what the data are telling her...and more importantly, responding to it.

11 February 2007

Where the Magic Happens

Where and how do you blog? On the couch in your pjs? Surreptitiously at work? With your morning coffee at the kitchen table? All of the above?

With a laptop and wireless network at home, I tend to work in various places. I like my kitchen table---it's faces the window and has a view of the bay. I can watch the tide move while I blog. I also enjoy using my desk (pictured above) as a haven. It's a place to spread out and think. But I also blog from the sofa---or even from the great outdoors when the weather is nice.

Where does your magic happen?

10 February 2007

Old Dogs and New Tricks

I worked with a teacher this week who was having a bad day when I got to her classroom. Her thin lips, paling from being tightly pressed together, and tense body language told me quite a story when I arrived. Her fussing at her desk let me know that not having things tidy was bothersome; I suspect she's a bit of a perfectionist. She is in her 50's and has been a teacher throughout her adult life. I watched her work with her young charges before I began my lesson. This was a woman who was likely happiest in her career when kids had their desks in rows and quietly filled out worksheet after worksheet. But to her credit, she is really trying to adapt and integrate new things. This is not something I see other "old dogs" of the classroom attempting.

Her kids and I rolled marbles down meter sticks and measured distances. The chaos of this---excited children, small moving objects all over the floor, different approaches to taking measurements---was almost more than she could bear. I imagine it's just my temperament and background, but the kind of buzz generated by kids working on something doesn't bother me. "Should I stop them and guide them to the right answer?" she asked. Perhaps I should have excused the poor woman from the lesson, although she was really staying there to watch me teach. I tried to reassure her. The lesson was really about process...not being right or wrong. Let's work on developing their thinking skills---then they can evaluate how well they're doing. It was really hard for her to let go like that.

I understand the dilemma. You want to make sure that kids get the information that they need. You have a responsibility as a teacher to continue their learning and achievement. You want to do your part the best that you can. In the past, this was probably a simpler deal for this teacher: sit the kids down and have them listen while you teach...test them...and the ones who didn't get were just out of luck. But this teacher knows that isn't good enough anymore. The new tricks, however, are a bit daunting. I wish I had some words of wisdom for her...some way to reassure her. I just don't know what I can say that will help. All I can do is be reassuring and cheer her onwards.

09 February 2007

Illustrators-in-Training

When I'm out and about at schools, I get to see a lot of writing and artwork done by kids. This particular piece caught my eye and made me laugh. The character is just so...furry. Down there. I thought perhaps he should be called the Merkin Man. But it appears that the child actually named him the Devil Eagle, even if he does look like a happy sort of fellow. Is that a grocery bag of bones? Or perhaps the toques of two poor chefs being taken back to the lair? Looks like the guy has quite the can opener for the other hand, but it must be a bummer to have to walk around on one's knees.



For some perspective, here's the character along with a couple other representatives:


As you can see, the other pieces of art on the wall had lots of texture, too...just not in the same way. The arrangement is a bit unfortunate, I think. Above Devil Eagle, it looks like the character is going to shoot the one on the left in a place no arrow should pierce. Ouch. That character---perhaps the second cousin of the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz---already looks unhappy about things.

Okay, so maybe they aren't all going to grow up to be the next Picasso; but then, neither am I. In the meantime, I'm glad I my camera along for these forays to area classrooms. I can never tell what I'll see next.

P.S. If you're looking for a more views on children's artwork, click here.

08 February 2007

The Fly on the Wall

I get to be a fly on the wall at a very important meeting this afternoon. There are two significant items up for discussion and recommendation by the elementary principals and it will be good for me to be able to sit in. Previous practice has been that only literacy coaches were invited to these meetings, meaning that science and math never had a voice at the elementary table. At a time where science scores lag behind writing by as much as 40 points in some schools, it has been frustrating for me to see principal support thrown fully behind writing instruction.

Now that the district has significant budget shortfalls, we need to look at how we use the resources we have in a different way. This includes the coaching model. It's a great idea, but its current incarnation is burning out staff and is too narrow in its goals. Today is the chance to get principals to really look at their data, think about the results of the staff development survey last month on which science was identified by elementary teachers as their number one priority, and perhaps suggest some changes.

If that isn't enough of a shift for them to consider, the "new" standards-based progress report will also be on the table. Four elementaries have been piloting and using the revised format for either one or two years. The question is whether or not we should push this out to all elementaries next year (in the face of other changes happening in the district)...or if we should just try to expand the pilot a little. Boss Lady 2.0 seems to think that they will recommend going for it. Doing so will definitely create a bit of panic on our (Curriculum's) end of things this year. I don't know that we have the ability to get the support needed in place by August.

I don't know how much participation with these discussions that I'll be allowed to have today, but at this point, I'm just glad to be allowed in the room...even if I'm the lone voice in the wilderness for science education for our kiddos.

06 February 2007

Heavy Breathing

There's just too much happening this week.

I spent the morning with a sweet 5th grade class...and a good part of the afternoon with 50 (count 'em) fourth graders. I had thought that my model lesson was just for one teacher, but no. When I was working with the fifth grade class, I learned that the other fourth grade teacher wanted her class to participate, too. At the same time as the other class. Oy. It was a challenge for all of us, but we made it work.

The poor math guy in our office has gotten hammered (not as in drunk, but as in verbally beat upon) by parents and teachers over the last few days. On Friday, a parent told him that math should only be taught to kids who get it...and those who don't should just be relegated to picking up garbage or menial labor. Things went downhill from there. What do you say to a parent like that? I heard that a parent from another school wants to sue the district over the new math curriculum. Oh, and a few teachers from our snooty high school dressed him down in a public meeting yesterday over some data he was reporting to them.

Meanwhile, after all of the drama my district experienced last year when we decided to leave the consortium for elementary science and start up our own kit center, other districts are following suit. Today, we learned of two more and smiled. They are friendly places and the opportunities to work with them on developing science stuff for teachers will be rich. Our students and teachers stand to gain a lot from this, but I do feel sorry for all the tiny districts who are stuck with the consortium.

Pant, pant. And it's only Tuesday.

05 February 2007

Short Story

A teacher was telling me today about a student who wanted to transfer from her class to another teacher's section. The boy told her not to be offended, but he just wasn't learning much in her class and thought he should try another teacher. Well, she was very offended---her stated reason was that the kid earned an "A" in her class first semester, so he must be lying to her about not learning anything.

As I continue to think about grading practices, this particular scenario interests me. The "A" here represents very different things to the kid and the teacher. The teacher thinks the grade reflects learning and the kid identifies it as hoop-jumping achievement. The kid can do the assignments, but their value to him is very low. (Most kids wouldn't do them in such a case.) My guess is that the teacher would feel differently if the kid was scraping by, gradewise, and said the same thing to her about his learning. I wonder what it would take for this pair to agree on what a grade should mean and what learning looks like.

The other part I think about is how even a couple of years ago, I would have reacted like this teacher. I do believe that learning is the burden of the student---if a kid says he isn't learning, then it isn't necessarily because I haven't taught him. But how many kids have come to me over the years to talk about grades...and we never really communicated about them? What might I do differently next time I'm in the classroom?

My Dog's Better Than Your Dog

My apologies to those of you who now have the jingle from the old Ken-L Ration commercial stuck in your heads for the day, but it was the first thing that came to my mind when I read this article in the Washington Post where teens are engaging in one-upsmanship over who is taking the hardest course of study.

Fierce but subtle rivalries are playing out among the teenage academic elite in the Washington area as high schools expand college-level courses. Like Ivy Leaguers who debate ad nauseam whether Harvard, Yale or Princeton reigns supreme, many high schoolers enjoy engaging in a game of one-upmanship over their brand-name curricula.

Their tit for tats might appear trifling, but students say the debates help them answer fundamental questions about their high-achieving existence: Whose life is most out of control? Which program is more impressive to colleges? Which provides the best education? Who suffers the heaviest workload?

There's much more to read in the whole article. I became more and more incredulous as I read. Please understand that I support the idea of a rigorous education for all students---whatever may be appropriate to their abilities and interests; but, this article points to something out of control, in my opinion. It is a gross consumerism of grades and status without any value placed on learning. What does it say about a kid whose goal is to prove that they have the greatest lack of a personal life? Or the colleges who value these candidates?

04 February 2007

If You've Got It, Flaunt It

A friend in Curriculum is on her journey to the true Dark Side: administration. She's getting ready to do her internship next year and then will seek out a permanent position as a principal. I have a strong sense that she will be a great admin...just as I have seen interns over the years who I knew didn't have a chance. I simply couldn't imagine that anyone in their right mind would hire them. This doesn't mean that they are bad teachers. I didn't think they had the right stuff to lead a school.

This brings up a question: What exactly is the "right stuff"? The "it" you can detect in those who seem so obviously suited to life in the classroom or life in the front office?

Jenny D. has been having some interesting posts and comments about expertise in the classroom. All of it makes me wonder if you bring out those qualities in teachers, once they have entered the classroom. Is the "magic" something you just either have or don't have? Something that can't be taught? On one level, I can easily reject this. I don't see teaching (or any other profession) as a "calling." What would be the point of education then, if every kid is just waiting for their special moment to tell them what to do with their lives? Why do so many people change careers during a lifetime? We can't say that there is some mystery about the paths we make and take. But on the other hand, I have known some teachers who truly have a gift for what they do...and I don't think it was something they were taught. They appear to have some instinct for teaching. They've got "it," and penicillin ain't gonna take it away.

I have been asking myself how I know that my friend will make a great principal. It's more than her high boiling point (she rarely gets flustered) and genuine love of being around kids. She has a lot of patience with bad situations and often knows the right things to say to diffuse tension and build some common ground. She knows the ins and outs of district diplomacy and can navigate the politics. She knows which battles to pick and the strategies to win them. There is a passion and drive within her to do what's best for kids. She understands teachers and good teaching. I don't know if there's anything that I've listed there which couldn't be developed in anyone, so maybe it's all about the balance of those things. I asked her this week if they were people in her cohort of wannabes that she thought weren't going to make it. She thought she could tell that a couple didn't have "it." But for those that do, I hope that they flaunt it...whatever it is.

P.S. Go and welcome Will Work for Chocolate, one of the few admin blogs out there.

02 February 2007

Fight the Good Fight

A comment on the previous post asked for some detail about standards-based grading. I thought about replying in the comments, but perhaps the idea deserves a post of its own.

In a nutshell, standards-based grading is a system where teachers evaluate students in reference to the standards and only report their achievement. What does that mean? It means, for example, that it doesn't matter if a kid couldn't complete a set of addition problems right the first time (or second time or...). What matters is that the kid demonstrates that s/he can do it at some point. All of the misfires...the practice...don't count as part of the grade, and grades are never averaged.

There are some benefits to this sort of system vs. the sort of grading we all grew up with and know well. It takes away the "reward: punishment" aspect of grading systems. As one teacher mentioned to me this morning, her kids don't care about grades anymore. Instead, they're focused on learning. It increases student motivation, especially for typically low to middle level achieving kids. It allows teachers to better communicate with parents about the whole "So, how's my kid doing?" concept. A classic example to consider is below (I don't know why the background is black...but if you click on it, it will be white and easier to read). All of the students have the same average (60%), but very different performances on the task. Which one would you want to pack your parachute?




















 Most people pick "B" as this is the kid who most consistently packs the parachute correctly. "A" has a decent average, but you can't tell that the kid really gets what s/he needs to do. "C" started off strong, but for whatever reason, isn't performing well now.

The difficulties? Most teachers are unwilling to judge students solely based on achievement---so those other factors such as effort, work ethic, participation, and so on need a separate reporting area. The biggest hurdle is figuring out what to do with late work. On one hand, you can't evaluate what a kid doesn't turn in...and on the other, if a kid does the assignment well, but not on time, can you really penalize their achievement? Another aspect to consider is how the grade will be viewed by different users. If we return to the parachute idea, for example, which kid would be a good college candidate---is it still "B"? Colleges are typically looking for those students who catch on right away.

The bottom line is that you can still report letter grades---this is really about rethinking what those symbols stand for. Right now, if a kid gets a "B" in social studies, we don't really know what that means. Did the kid show up and do homework consistently? Did s/he just ace the tests, but was a butt in class and the teacher knocked the grade down? Or perhaps this is a kid who really didn't get the material but tried hard, so the teacher kicked up the grade. How do we know that the grade reflects what a kid knows and can do? In our current system, we don't.

The issue is also broader than how teachers evaluate work. Grades are currency, as a friend of mine likes to point out: they buy things. They buy athletic eligibility. They buy college entrance. They buy lower rates for car insurance. And more. Parents, kids, community members, and students all look at grades differently. Those little letters means various things to each user. We need some communication around that.

Many districts in Washington already use standards-based grading and reporting. Mine is definitely behind the pack, but our elementaries have been dipping their toes into the pool for the last few years. The bone of contention with them is the amount of time needed for reporting in the new grading system. Secondary teachers here are going to first be introduced to the concept of standards-based grading...we'll deal with reporting formats later. Should be a good fight.

01 February 2007

Consensus and Coffee

Four of us in the office were planning to meet this morning and talk about standards-based grading and its possible role for secondary schools. I know it sounds like a serious topic, but our planning was anything but. Here's how the organization went via e-mail this morning:

Specialist A:
In light of
  • the brain trust occupying the conference room
  • I'm hungry and need caffeine
  • it's cold in here
I recommend we hold our meeting at Starbucks. Any objections? Remember, it's all about me, no matter what Boss Lady 2.0 tells you.

Specialist B:
I have been quiet on this issue---but actually, I think it is all about me.

Where is Starbucks, anyway? I normally don't patronize mega corporations if there are alternatives, but I am willing to be flexible in this case.

Specialist A:
All I care about is food and caffeine. We can go to the bakery if the group prefers.

(For future reference in case you have a moment of weakness, Starbucks is by Albertson's.)

Science Goddess:
And here, I thought the hokey pokey was what it was all about.

It's Washington. If we drive around for a few minutes, we're bound to run into a Starbucks; but, I could be happy at the bakery, too.

Specialist A:
I think it would be fun to take a picture of B at Starbucks.

Specialist C:
I'm open to any and all of the above, just haul me out of here when it is time and lead me to the sugar.

Specialist B:
Well, I have my Chaco's on today. As long as you get my feet in the picture.


And so off we went to Starbucks, which was overrun with people who apparently had the same idea this morning for their meetings. We didn't even get a picture of B, chacos or no chacos. We ended up at a smaller coffee place and had a great discussion...perhaps even a good plan in mind for introducing the concept of standards-based grading to secondary staff. It was good to have a bit of levity to start our morning and caffeine to get us through the afternoon.