28 February 2008

The Bedside Table

Do you have a stack of reading on your bedside table? I certainly do. At the moment, mine doesn't contain anything that might be described as "reading for pleasure," although I am enjoying all of the work-related tomes that are there. Here's a tour:

  • Tools and Traits: Highly Effective Science Teaching, K-8 by JoAnne Vasquez: Nothing new here for me, but is a very readable book. The chapters give a very brief overview of topics that could be explored in much greater detail. I can definitely see using this with elementary teachers who might need or want more background on instructional practices for science.
  • Teaching Essentials: Expecting the Most and Getting the Best from Every Learner, K-8 by Regie Routman: It's a little short on "how to" but is still an interesting read. She, like George Bush's speechwriter, reminds us of the perils of "the soft bigotry of low expectations." The idea here is that when working with students of poverty, ELL, and other minorities that schools must not assume that these children are incapable. I know that sounds like a "Duh." kind of thing, but I have seen plenty of teachers over the years who operated under just such an assumption. The book is also a reminder of the power of a fresh set of eyes in the classroom. As teachers, we get used to certain routines. We can't help but make judgments based on the previous performance of students. Sometimes, having someone new work with our kids allows us to step out into the observer role and make leaps in our own learning.
  • From Staff Room to Classroom: A Guide for Planning and Coaching Professional Development by Robin Fogarty and Brian Pete: This is a great book. I highly recommend it for anyone who is involved in staff development or instructional coaching. It's a great reference about the many hats of a professional developer---from demonstrating to facilitating to coaching. Get your hands on a copy.
  • Instructional Coaching: A Partnership Approach to Improving Instruction by Jim Knight: This is a strong research-based book that give some very practical tools and strategies for working one-on-one with teachers. I've only read a few chapters, but am impressed with the presentation.
  • Differentiated Coaching: A Framework for Helping Teachers Change by Jane Kise: I'm not too deep into this one, either, but I really like the idea of differentiated staff development. The "one size fits all" approach has got to change. How can we expect teachers to differentiate within their own classrooms if do not model and support that with professional development opportunities?
There is always more to read and learn. I certainly have a stack of ongoing reading for my current grad class, too. At the end of April, when my research project is done, when my last grad class is done, WASL is over, and the final quarter of the school year is underway, I plan to start reading for fun again. Not to worry, I have a whole list for that, too.

26 February 2008

Breaking Free

The Colorado Springs Gazette says that Unions are Yesterday. Given the recent issues with The Union in Denver, the op-ed piece is not a surprise.

Throughout the country, most teachers belong to a chapter of the National Education Association. The Colorado branch is known as the Colorado Education Association, which is broken down by local chapters. Dues exceed $600 a year, which can be tough for teachers supporting families on wages that average $40-some thousand a year. In some school districts, such as D-11 in Colorado Springs, the union assumes membership and takes dues from a teacher’s wages unless the educator jumps through hoops to opt out during a short window of opportunity.

The union has never succeeded at getting teachers the wages they deserve, and it typically works against efforts to reward excellence with above-average pay. The only tangible benefit most teachers see for their membership fee is liability insurance to cover lawsuits.

Because of international trade and wondrous new technology, today’s business world is more hyper-competitive than ever. Barriers to entry are low, meaning new companies can challenge older businesses. The older companies must innovate or die. The workforce must be better prepared than ever to compete in markets that guarantee nothing and reward energy, quick thinking and ingenuity. Teachers are trying to respond by creating ever-improving, competitive schools — charter schools and neighborhood schools alike. But the union — stuck in the old world of institutionalized entitlement — gets in the way.

Take, for example, the experience of teachers at Denver’s Bruce Randolph Middle School. Principal Kristin Waters and her heroic staff lifted the school in recent years from among the worst in Colorado to one of the best, using what the Rocky Mountain News called “out-of-the-box strategies,” such as refusing to promote students with failing grades.
Realizing the union resisted most innovative measures, Waters and her staff sought to free the school from union rules that were holding it back. For example, they wanted the freedom to determine how much time children should spend in school each day. But the union — supposedly dedicated to the interests of education — balked. Union leaders wanted to maintain control over a variety of everyday decisions at the school, including hiring practices, thus impeding progress.

In addition to maintaining educational mediocrity, the NEA and its affiliates have used the hard-earned money of teachers to fund a variety of endeavors unrelated to education. A report by the U.S. Department of Labor showed the NEA funding Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition, People for the American Way, and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, among an array of other noneducation related causes.
While thousands of teachers struggle to make ends meet, more than half the NEA’s 600-plus employees and officers earn salaries of six figures and up — wages paid by teachers who typically earn far less than half that much for more important work.

The actions of the Denver's Teacher Union are not necessarily unusual---but their visibility at a time when schools are working hard for every child may well represent a turning point in union power. In fact, a School-freedom Bill is currently working its way through the Colorado legislature. It "is perhaps the most-watched education legislation of the year, a bill that would let clusters of schools break from district rules and state law to form 'innovation zones.'" It also means that The Union would not be able to impede the function of these schools. This is looking like a healthy step in the right direction.

As an alternative to the NEA, the Colorado Springs article suggests the following:

The American Association of Educators, by contrast, is designed for today’s more competitive, progressive schools. It offers teachers twice the liability coverage of the NEA policies, with fees that are less than a third of the union dues. Teachers can pay as they go, and may opt in or out any time. Money collected in excess of the cost of liability coverage pays for continuing education courses offered through major universities — open to members and nonmembers alike. None of the money goes to fund activism or political lobbyists.

Colorado teachers have been choosing the
Association of American Educators over the union in such numbers that the organization opened its own Colorado chapter last year, known as PACE — the Professional Association of Colorado Educators (www.coloradoteachers.org). Still, few teachers know about it. That’s because local NEA chapters have worked hard to prevent PACE representatives from distributing literature in schools or setting up tables at teacher orientation functions and benefit fairs. At one school in the Harrison School District of Colorado Springs, CEA representatives physically blocked a hallway to prevent teachers from reaching the PACE table.

The NEA is yesterday’s union, with no place in the cutting edge classroom. To usher in a new era, introduce teachers to the Association of American Educators and its local branch, PACE — a non-coercive association designed around modern educational needs. Young minds are too important for an outdated union to waste.

Let's hope that more teachers are able to break free so that students can get the education they need.

25 February 2008

Fess Up

One of you needs to 'fess up. I've read plenty of posts in the edusphere recently written by bedridden bloggers. And now I've got the whopper of the flu bug everyone else has been warning me about (and someone was so kind to pass along...whoever you are). And not only is it that lovely respiratory stuff, I have a bit of norovirus, too, just to make things interesting. I'm at the stage where it even hurts to take a shower, my nerve endings are so sensitized. So, be careful, dear readers, what you touch around here. I've tried to disinfect the place...but you never know.

While I crawl back into bed and curse my immune system, here are some germ free places to go and amuse yourselves...

  • Have you seen the Visual Thesaurus? It's not free (at least for the time being), but what a great tool for the classroom. A screenshot is below. The dots are color coded by part of speech. You can highlight different parts of the lines in order for it to give further detail to the relationship.
  • In the same vein, but with unlimited access, is Visuwords: The On-line Graphical Dictionary. Another screen grab is below, but I highly recommend going and playing with it yourself. It's very dynamic. The key at the bottom also provides information on the symbols and relationships, but better yet, all of the little bubbles can be manipulated, changing the orientation of the graphic. Way kewl!

  • I'm probably the last person in the blogosphere to link to this, but if you're looking for a giggle, head on over to Stuff White People Like. This site reminds of me of an incident from the summer, when I was chatting with someone who was a bit into her cups. There was a discussion going on about diversity training and issues...and how people make assumptions about one's ethnic background solely based on skin colour. Looking white and being white were different things in her mind. And out of nowhere came "And what's with white people and the f***ing pot roast?" A brief diatribe followed on pot roasts and her experience with them---and I have laughed long and hard many times since then. She was right. I haven't looked through the archives on this site to see if the pot roast has been represented. If not, it needs to be.
  • Finally, no educator should be living by edublogs alone. Take a look at Archaeoporn's take on a Carnival for the "Cabinet of Curiosities." It's done in the style of those "Choose Your Adventure" books of yore...well, my junior high days, at least. I may have to copy this idea the next time I host the Carnival.
If you've got an idea for a good distraction for me, leave it in the comments. I hope to be well enough to attend school tomorrow. These bugs are too good not to share. :)

24 February 2008

Memories Are Made of This

I attended a science fair this week. I had a great time and it brought back plenty of memories from my own trials and tribulations involving science projects. I remember doing one where I investigated whether or not crickets would go to a light or dark environment. I used crickets another year...but I don't remember the experiment. The third year, the investigation was "To Clot or not to Clot." (Cut me some slack...I was in 8th grade.) I looked at factors influencing clotting time for cow blood. And for my swan song with science projects, I did a fruit fly eye pigment lab.

If you like the cartoon from Left-Handed Toons (by right-handed people) shown above, you might also enjoy a visit to a virtual fair put together by Photo Basement. There are 41 projects, all with catchy titles like my 8th grade one (Garlic: The Silent Killer, Juicy Beans...), as well as pictures which forever immortalize the adolescent pain. Memories are indeed made of this.

23 February 2008

When Worlds Collide

In the summer months, there can be some amazing low tides here. You can walk way out into the flats---and see all manner of animals that you might not ordinarily get to see. It's a fabulous opportunity to explore. The kindergarten classes at the elementary school I work at are already planning a trip on one of the low tide days before school ends. The teachers have a great project in mind for them. And as for me? I'm going to loan out the 10th graders from my morning school. They will construct and teach some lessons for the kidney-gardeners. It should be quite interesting to watch my two daytime worlds collide at one event. I can hardly wait!

22 February 2008

Rubber and Road

One of the most precious commodities teachers talk about is time. We want and need time to plan lessons...time to mark student work and provide feedback...time to contact parents and deal with administrative tasks...time to collaborate with peers. The reality is that teaching is usually a private and solitary profession: it's just you and the kids. And while we understand how to do our planning, marking, phone calling, and paperwork on our own---not very many teachers have a protocol in mind for working together.

This district, like several others in the state, has one-day per week where students are released early in order to give teachers some common planning time. There is always a pull between administration and teachers about this time. Teachers would like to self-direct and admin would like some accountability. I'm quite sure I'm in the minority about this, but I don't think admin's request is unwarranted. There are hundreds of thousands of dollars wrapped up in salary and benefits for non-student time. If teachers truly think they need this time for something, it's not too much to ask that it be tied to professional goals.

We support teacher collaboration in terms of time---but not in terms of professional development. In other words, we don't provide training in the structures surrounding collaboration. How do we have productive discussion around student work? Standards-based lesson planning? Interventions for struggling students? Best practices in literacy and/or content instruction? There is an assumption that teachers naturally know what to do when they meet to make these discussions happen. In my years here, however, I've rarely seen rubber meet road during these common planning time sessions. We need to take the time to train and support teachers in the culture we expect them to adopt before we expect them to be able to have meaningful collaborative conversations.

21 February 2008

My New Happy Place

As a lifelong (well, 17 year) veteran of the secondary school environment, it has been a new experience to be housed within an elementary for part of each school day. I have done plenty of modeling and coaching of lessons at that level, but it was always a get-in-and-get-out proposition. At first, I wasn't very comfortable in those buildings. Being "stuck" in a room with 25 small beings day after day sounded like it belonged somewhere in Dante's vision of Hell. Elementary teachers didn't talk about the same things as secondary teachers and it was difficult to connect. What I've learned over the last five years or so is that (a) most elementary teachers have more instructional expertise than secondary and that (b) their professional conversations tend to be far more interesting. I'm still not sold on the "all the same kids all day, every day" concept, but other than that, elementary schools have got it goin' on.

One result of all of these recent experiences is a discovery that greatly surprises me: First Grade is A Happy Place for me. When I visit a first grade classroom, there is just something that completely lifts my teacher soul. This is not to say that these rooms are full of 6-year old angels. They most definitely are not---but the difference is that the kids aren't acting out with the goal of pushing the teacher's buttons. They are just kids in the process of learning what school is all about. Sometimes, they can't help allowing their imaginations to envision pencils as swords and have a small battle with their neighbour across the desks. Some have undesirable behaviors because situations at home are not the best. There are all manner of reasons, but you never get the sense that the kids are misbehaving because they're jerks. First grade is about celebrating the small accomplishments---like reading a book or finishing a test. It's a place where learning is visibly scattered on the floor, across desks, and over walls. When I need a little pick-me-up in my day, a few minutes in first grade is all I need to get me going again---a secret garden to step inside for a bit.

But don't tell the other secondary teachers or they'll all want one. :)

20 February 2008

Re-educating about Report Cards

More and more teachers, schools, and districts are moving toward grading practices which represent what's best to do in terms of evaluating students. You regs here have certainly been privy to many of my thoughts about this (and if you're new, just click on the grading label to access all posts related to the topic). Even if we change what we are doing in the classroom, there are still plenty of struggles in terms of reporting grades and re-educating the public about this different style of evaluation.

The New York Times recently published an op-ed piece entitled "So Is That Like an A?" which highlights this struggle. As the Hartford schools implemented a new standards-based report card, the effect on parents has been one of confusion. I agree that a seven-page report card is likely too extensive and not user-friendly for any stakeholders. But what the author of the article misses is the bottom line: what does the grade mean? I confess that as a parent, I’ve always focused on the basics. I want my children to be curious, enjoy learning, to read for pleasure, to be polite, to do their homework and to try not to hate school. If my kids got A’s or B’s, I got a pretty good sense that they were mastering the necessary skills. If they did much worse, I knew that it was time to call their teachers. The idea behind the new report cards (in Hartford and elsewhere) is to separate achievement from behaviours so that the grades that are represented mean something specific. An "A" in most teachers classes is a hodgepodge of learning, extra credit, points taken off for missing/late work, participation, etc. I have no doubt that such a mixture of meaning doesn't matter to some parents---the honor roll bumper sticker is more important to what it means to the other neighbourhood parents than what it actually represents about their child.

We don't have a lot of these kinds of report cards at secondary yet. Even at elementary, there is a wide distribution. (In my district, the cards are generated using Excel---and I have to say that I'm rather impressed that you don't need a fancy-dancy gradebook and reporting program to make communication happen.) My hope is that as we re-educate parents at the elementary levels about grading and reporting that they will ask better questions about what happens at secondary. I saw a glimmer of that earlier this week when I saw an elementary teacher who has a child who is a high-school senior. This teacher's familiarity with best practices in grading were giving her heartburn to see how poor grading practices in high school are affecting her child. "Go, get 'em, tiger!" I told her.

The revolution in grading and reporting is slow in taking root---but it is starting to be more visible in schools and media. We just have to keep working on re-educating stakeholders.

19 February 2008

Another Not-So-Bright Idea

Until Sunday, I had never heard of a site called JuicyCampus---which I'm not going to link to. Here's a taste of what happens:

The Cornell University Junior was in his dorm between classes when the text message came in from a friend. Check out JuicyCampus, it said.

The student found his name on the Web site beside a rambling, filthy passage about his sexual exploits, posted by an anonymous student on campus. The young man could only hope the commentary was so ridiculous nobody would believe it.

"I thought, Is this going to affect my job employment? Is this going to make people on campus look at me? Are people going to talk about me behind my back?" said the student, who asked not to be identified. He also wondered about his 11-year-old sister, who is spending more time on the Internet. "What if she Googles me? What will she think about her big brother?" he said.

JuicyCampus' endless threads of anonymous innuendo have been a popular Web destination on the seven college campuses where the site launched last fall, including Duke, UCLA and Loyola Marymount. It recently expanded to 50 more, and many of the postings show they've been viewed hundreds and even thousands of times.

Fortunately, a backlash against the site is beginning to occur. I can't imagine what things will be like if type of virtual bathroom wall ever becomes part of public schools.

18 February 2008

One Small Step for Freedom from Unions

Earlier this month, I mentioned that teachers in Denver, Colorado, were being held back by their union. The teachers at one school wanted some contract waivers---they voted and approved these waivers---and their union leadership refused to honor the request.

In a move that is good for teachers, students, administrators, and parents, the union has changed its stance:

In a sudden about face, the Denver teacher's union has granted two schools a series of waivers that gives the schools powers no traditional Colorado public program has ever had before. Bruce Randolph School, Manual High School, the Denver Public School District and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association announced the agreement on Tuesday afternoon.

Under the agreement, both Bruce Randolph and Manual will operate autonomously from DPS, meaning they will have power over who they hire, the budgets and what they teach. The DCTA had previously not given approval to the move for autonomy, but instead granted a series of waivers to circumvent the union's agreement with the district. Tuesday, all parties announced there are a new set of waivers being granted to Bruce Randolph, which applied for autonomy in December, and to Manual, which followed with its request a short time later. These new waivers give them the autonomy they had requested. The DPS board approved Bruce Randolph's request on Dec. 20 and plans to approve Manual's request at the Feb. 21 meeting. The waivers allow the schools to:
  • Decide how to structure the school leadership teams and what responsibilities those leadership teams have;
  • Add extra days to the school year (subject to additional compensation being paid);
  • Make decisions on how to allocate teacher time during the school day and how to utilize time on days in which students do not attend school;
  • Make decisions on teaching loads (e.g. the number of pupils per class);
  • Be free to hire new staff members without being subject to current hiring and staff transfer rules (staffing process);
  • Pay teachers more than the rates currently set for extra duties and extra time.
"We are pleased with the work we are doing with these two schools and the agreements we reached for the remainder of this school year and for next year," said DCTA President Kim Ursetta in a statement. "The faculty at Bruce Randolph is grateful for DCTA's support of our request," said the DCTA representative at Bruce Randolph, Greg Ahrnbrak, in a statement.

"This is a giant step forward towards educational reform and teacher professionalism. We are proud to be union members and DPS teachers."
Bruce Randolph Principal Kristin Waters said, "This is great news to our students, faculty and community. We are now even better equipped to drive improved student learning at Bruce Randolph."

Manual Principal Rob Stein agreed, saying the agreement "will improve the quality of the education we can offer our kids."

DPS Superintendent Michael Bennet also released a statement.
"This is great news for our kids, our teachers and our schools. I congratulate the schools for their reform efforts and their dedication to our students," said Bennet. "The board of education has stressed how important it is for us to give greater flexibility and autonomy, combined with accountability, to our schools, and this agreement is an important step forward towards those goals. We are pleased that the union has approved these efforts with respect to Bruce Randolph and Manual."

In some ways, this feels like a charter school type opportunity. The two schools will operate as public schools in DPS, but also outside the bounds just a bit. This could be a very significant step for other schools and districts, especially those with ultra-restrictive contracts. Have a look at the recent findings of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in terms of how such contracts are hampering the progress in districts around the country---especially those with high minority populations in "closed shop" states. It appears that "right to work" policies are better for kids. What a giant leap it will be for students when more unions take a step back.

WERA Bound

If any of you Washington Edubloggers is headed to the Washington Educational Research Association (WERA) meeting at the end of March, come hang out with me. I'll be handling a presentation on standards-based grading and hope you can join the conversation.

17 February 2008

Big Time

Hood Ornament by Cynical Pink CC-BY-NC-ND

Hey, Athena---back me up on this, homegirl...

There's an entire AP article devoted to the artsy-fartsyness that is Marfa, Texas. Having grown up less than 30 miles from there, I have to tell you that it is not nearly as glamorous as made out to be in the article, even if two of this year's films nominated for Best Picture were filmed there. It is a small west Texas town in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert, which I admit has its picturesque moments.

But it's still Marfa, for crying out loud. Home of the Marfa Lights.

The last time I went to a football game there, the mascot (a shorthorn cow) danced around on the field during halftime. They don't even have Carmen's anymore---which is where you could get the absolute best green chicken enchiladas. Sigh.

Turning It Around

What are the options for influencing positive change in failing schools? If you're Chicago, the options include a complete housecleaning: pink slip the principal and staff, hire new people, as well as "other key elements [such as] added time for teachers to plan and collaborate, longer school days or school years, clustering turnaround schools so they can learn from one another, local authority over budget and curricula, and support for teachers and administrators from outside the school, such as the district or an outside group." These schools are referred to as Turnaround Schools. Their appearance is recent---and results uncertain.

As you might imagine, this kind of drastic change for a school is unpopular with the teachers' union and is also a bit nervewracking for parents. Perhaps this amount of change is just too radical in nature. As for me, the outsider looking in, I like the idea. Why? It takes a long time to reculture a school---years and years. In the meantime, any number of children continue to be poorly served. A new staff with a new vision, training, and expectations is an opportunity to take a building in a new direction in a hurry.

But what about the neighbourhood and families? They're not going to change. High poverty areas will not suddenly become middle-class. Students with significant issues on the home front are still going to have those issues. My personal response to that is that as educators, we have to do our best with the aspects of a child's life over which we do have influence and control. We might not be able to keep mom from bringing a new man home every evening...or dad from spending money on booze and cigarettes as opposed to new shoes for the child; but, for 8 - 10 hours a day, we can provide a safe and caring learning environment for a child. It has to be the best we can make it. The same school staff doing the same things is not going to make an impact.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who will be watching Chicago's experiment progress. How many other cities are in need of significant solutions to school problems? While we may only see high profile (read: urban) examples of this, I do wonder if this type of approach will be considered in smaller towns. Will a teacher who has turned his/her nose up at the standards in favour of sticking with the same old, same old finally realize that unemployment is around the corner? Will unions stop protecting the poorest performing teachers in order for schools to move toward building successful staffs before a district sends them all packing? Or will "That can't happen here" prevail? Chicago's efforts may well determine many of these answers for the rest of us.

How to Pay, Not Make, Great Teachers

This week's Time magazine cover article has been of great interest around to others in the edusphere---and I am also intrigued. If you haven't seen it, it's about How to Make Great Teachers. I have to warn you, however, that there is nothing actually in the article about what it takes to make a great teacher. Most of the article is about the idea of merit pay with some information about teacher retention thrown in for good measure. If Time wants to talk about making great teachers, they likely need to cast their eyes toward teacher ed programs at the universities and the kinds of staff development programs which are successful within school districts. Instead the argument is that if you pay teachers more, they'll do a better job in the classroom.

I don't buy this argument. I would agree that money can be a motivator for teachers (and likely all other professions), but I don't think that waving more money in the face of a teacher with a poor skill set is going to make them improve. If they don't have the tools they need to do a high quality job in the classroom, offering more money will not magically make those tools appear. So-so teachers need coaching and instructional leadership to build their abilities.

I've posted about merit pay here a few times over the years. I've always been a bit ambivalent---not entirely convinced that we can properly define and quantify the aspects of a "good teacher" enough to determine who deserves additional pay...and yet it seems unfair that those teachers who show up to collect a paycheck receive the same salary and benefits as the teachers who bust their butts to reach as many kids as possible and support their learning. Like most things in the field of education, this is just not an issue with a simple answer. The real question behind it is "How do we ensure that every student in a public school has the best possible classroom teacher?" Maybe Time magazine needs to take that on.

16 February 2008

Bringing the Outside In: Recap

Wendy left a comment on my Bringing the Outside In post from earlier in the week, and I thought it might be simpler to address her questions here. She said:

This sounds awesome. Is there a way you can share the results of the "counseling" meeting with your readers?

During their investigation of their task/problem, were their situations when students' explorations did not lead them in the proper direction? I'm interested in hearing about other teachers' experiences with PBL and granting students the time to experience an initial "failure" or lack of success in order to rethink and direct their own learning rather than being guided or prompted to the solution by the teacher in order to speed up the process.

Also, how has this PBL changed since you first implemented it in the classroom?

Thanks for sharing this experience!

I've been a big fan of Problem-Based Learning for more than a decade. For those who might not have heard of this type of curriculum development, the idea is that at the beginning of a unit of study, you present the students with a problem. The problem should put them into the role of a stakeholder (so they have power to make decisions), have a "hook" to pique their interest, heavily rely upon an issue from the real world outside of the classroom, and be a bit messy in that there is no single right or wrong answer. If you write a good problem, kids will ask a ton of questions---which then drives the learning from there on out. A problem can last for a class period or for days or weeks. Sometimes, I've included bits of follow-up information along the way---twists and turns to poke and prod the thinking of students.

For the problem I've used with students the last two weeks, it is the same as it was ten years ago. I'm not willing to mess with a good thing. :) I will say that kids do not ask exactly the same set of questions each year. Some years, I've had kids who insisted that they needed more medical history on the prospective parents (and I obliged by creating some). Other years---like this one---few kids got hung up on that notion and for those that did, I just said that "Sometimes in life, we don't have all of the information we want before making a decision. We have to do the best we can with what we have." For other PBL units, I have tweaked them over time. It's amazing how the addition or deletion of even a single word can spark more areas of investigation for students.

The "counseling" appointment on Thursday was delightful. I wish I could fully describe the look on kids' faces when I introduce "Mrs. Bentsen" who has arrived for her counseling appointment. There's a range of emotions from disbelief to "Oh s***, what am I going to say?!" But the fact is, they totally buy in. They want to show off. A few questions to prompt their thinking and start the conversation is usually all that is needed. One kid in my first period class looked at me about halfway through the discussion and said, "You are good. You are SO good." LOL Afterwards, they told me (as have previous students) that it is much easier to write the letter than to actually have to talk to someone. I like having the visitor at the end, though, because I want them to reflect on the consequences (and power) that their words can have.

I always debrief the unit with kids. I ask them how this type of learning was different, what they liked better, and what didn't work so well. Typical comments include the ideas that they like having an audience other than me, that the direct application for learning was of interest, but some frustration about not having every piece they thought they wanted in order to reach a decision. There are always a few kids who prefer assignments with definite right/wrong answers---the grey areas associated with PBL are not comfortable for them.

I shared this unit with a colleague of mine last year. He hadn't tried something like this in the classroom, but trusted me and gave things a go. I got a lot of phone calls along the way---it's hard for a teacher to let go in the way that they need to with these units. It's a delicate balance in terms of how much information you provide vs. what they need to seek out. I certainly never expect kids to learn and understand everything by themselves. I still lecture and demonstrate some things. We have lots of classroom discussion to help increase understanding. The teacher just isn't the font of information, per usual. Anyway, I coached him along last year and he was totally blown away with the results. He's about to be off and running with this same unit this year. It makes me happy to have passed along this nugget to someone else---and another generation of biology kids.

Update: I don't have an electronic version on my coaching plan anymore (several computers and schools later...some things have been lost to the sands of time and ether), but here is a copy of the problem to kick things off. I have the scoring guide at school and will post it here next week.

15 February 2008

Dressing the Part

The science fair is next week. I'm (wo)manning the Oobleck booth and preparing for lots of messy fun. I pulled out my lab coat to start shaking out the wrinkles, but found myself pining for something more fashionable. I have to admit that I'm jonesing for a dress based off of this design:

This is the Mr. Medulla character from the movie "Sky High." I think the costume is amazing (although I don't need the giant bald head). I keep imagining something a bit more dramatic than the white. What about something in black---with a hot pink lining? Maybe shorten up the sleeves just a bit and add some interesting buttons down the front? A lab coat/dress, befitting a Mad Scientist-Goddess?

There's an ad in the staff room for seamstress services by an area resident. Perhaps I should see if I can get something made to better dress the part for future fairs?

14 February 2008

Everything Old is New Again

45/366 by Nuwundalice CC-BY-NC-ND

Until today, it had been nigh on 30 years since I had been in an elementary school on Valentine's Day. When I got to school, I mentioned this fact to the school secretary. I was feeling nostalgic. She was already feeling a headache coming on by 10:30. "You see these?" she said, pointing to a bag of Hershey's kisses. "There's at least a bag of these for every kid in the school...and the contents are being exchanged all day." I understood. Even high school kids don't miss the opportunity to get sugared up.

Some things about Valentine's Day in an elementary haven't changed in the last three decades. Kids still exchange cards. There are still paper bags to decorate to hold the cards. And, of course, there is still drama over who got the most cards. Some changes I noted were that the cards are of poorer quality---through no fault of the kids. No envelopes are included with the package of cards and the artwork lacks a lot of character. (To properly stroll down memory lane, go visit 15 Minute Lunch's post on cards from his elementary years. Samples are included and hilarity ensues.)

Even with all of the changes, I feel refreshed by the experience today. Yes, I know that I didn't actually have to be in the classroom at 3 p.m. with the children who had had all day to wind up. But there is something about their enthusiasm which does my heart good. I hope you have had a good holiday, too.

13 February 2008

Bringing the Outside In

Tomorrow will be one of my favourite lesson plans of the year. You see, my sophomores have been working on a Problem Based Learning unit for genetics. I placed them in the role of a genetic counselor, gave them a bit of background about a couple, and asked the students to please advise the prospective parents about their choices and options for having a healthy baby. This particular unit is more student driven than many others. They choose the questions to investigate. They drive my lectures and our classroom work.

What they don't know is that tomorrow, I have someone coming in for a counseling appointment with the students.

I work this out ahead of time---finding a parent volunteer or someone else to fulfill the role of the person the students are writing to. I give the person a bit of background on the case. I've always had women (all of whom are also mothers) come visit with the kids, although I don't see why I couldn't have "the husband" show up. The adult volunteer receives some background from me before her arrival and as someone who is already a parent, she always has other questions for students---things kids don't always think about.

The look on kids' faces is priceless. As much as they buy into this particular problem they are solving, they are not 100% sure it is "real" until our surprise visitor walks in the door. Kids always say afterwards that it is a lot harder to talk to someone in person than it is to write the letter to him/her. Sometimes the discussions are great...and sometimes, it is like pulling teeth. I'm not sure which I will get tomorrow, but we'll give it a try and see.

The most important thing is to just bring the outside in. It is simple enough to teach a set of lessons about genetics, but good for kids to work on applying knowledge within the context. Not every piece of learning lends itself to this, but it is fun when you can make it work. I'm really looking forward to watching my students show what they know tomorrow morning...and hoping they don't get tongue-tied.

11 February 2008

This Way to the Googles

If you haven't seen the article and infographic on The Life Cycle of a Blog Post in Wired magazine, I'd encourage to click on over there and play with the graphic shown above. (You will be able to zoom in on various parts...unlike here.) The big blue fountain pen tip on the left is the blogger...and the white forms with paper heads on the right are the readers. In between, the internet is doing a lot of behind the scenes work to connect the two. Go have a look at the secret life of the www.

10 February 2008

The Ah That Refreshes

A colleague who went to the most recent OSPI convention said she attended a session that described something called the "Ah Moment." No, that's not a typo---we're not talking a Eureka! style "A-ha!" kind of thing. We're talking Calgon-take-me-away-ahhhhh. The idea here is that a person can face anything unpleasant, as long as s/he can see that light at the end of the tunnel: the time when you get to relax and just say "Whew. I made it." The problem is, of course, that too many kids and teachers (and admins) aren't getting that opportunity.

I can't solve that problem tonight. I can only find some solace in my own "Ah.." time, which is Sunday evening. The laundry is done. The dishes are done and the kitchen is clean. My grad school assignments are completed for the week. My grading is caught up. My lesson plans are ready. There are fresh sheets on the bed to slip into in a moment. My school bag is packed for tomorrow and my work clothes are laid out. There is order to the world, if only for a few hours. I just feel like sighing a contented "Ahhhhh."

Let's be careful out there this week.

What Isn't Good for Ganders nor Geese

When we think about all of the possible outcomes for balancing any gender-based inequities, we rarely talk about the unpleasant possibilities. Do we want auto accident rates for teen girls to reach the same levels as teen boys? How about drug, tobacco, and alcohol use? Shall we advocate for young women to use just as heavily as young men? An article in the Washington Post suggests that this is what is happening.

Teenage girls now equal or outpace teenage boys in alcohol consumption, drug use and smoking, national surveys show. The number of girls entering the juvenile justice system has risen steadily over the past few years. A 2006 study that examined accident rates among young drivers noted that although boys get into more car accidents, girls are slowly beginning to close the gap.

In the article, young women talked about feeling "empowered" because they can choose from myriad colleges and careers and about how that "freedom" extends to partying at clubs, drinking and smoking. Experts worry that those feelings, coupled with a teen's natural sense of invincibility, can be a potent and dangerous combination. One teen in particular remarked "In the past, people have had this angelic picture, but girls are just as bad as boys are. We do what we want to do, when we want to do it. I live for now," she said, a grin spreading across her face. "It's great to be a girl."

The article goes on to offer some possible explanations. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that girls have taken to heart a message that there aren't reasons why they can't do what boys do---both good and bad. Maybe the change in role models is having a great impact. Or, drugs and alcohol could be coping mechanisms for living with increased stress.

Whatever the reasons, we need to find ways to support both young men and women toward making healthy choices for their future.

Just Around the Corner

My birthmother e-mailed me yesterday to tell me to "quit bragging" about the fact that I have daffodils poking up and my camellia is about ready to burst (again). She lives in the Canadian Rockies, and with the snow they've gotten this year, she thinks there will still be some on the ground in May. Fer cryin' out loud.

I wonder if I should send along the link for this article in the Washington Post about building a clock out of flowers? Would that be too "cheeky," as bmom often remarks about me? (There's another good article on flower clocks here, if the WaPo won't let you read.) Being mid-February and all, I am just itching to get out in the yard again. I'm tired of being cooped up all winter.

Image Credit Unknown

There's something appealing about having a reference in the natural world for the time of day. I like the idea of being able to let the artificial world subside for awhile during the summer holiday...gaze out my kitchen window and see which flower is just around the corner.

09 February 2008

The Proverbial Feather

It was only a few minutes before my first period class. I was heading down the hallway toward one of the computer labs to get ready to do some research with my students when I saw one of my former students walking toward me. He's in one of the afternoon classes that I turned over to another teacher---and I know he was a bit worried about the transition.

"I came up here just to see you," he said.

"Oh? What can I do for you?"

"I wondered if I could see my final so that I could see what I missed...so I know what I still need to learn."

"How about we do that tomorrow morning? I don't have the tests with me and I need to go down and meet my first period."

He seemed satisfied with that. As for me? You could have knocked me over with the proverbial feather. There just aren't a lot of students---especially ones who struggle as much as this young man does---who continue to strive for learning like this. There's no one telling this kid he needs to go back and pick up the pieces of information that he didn't get the first (or second) time around. But for whatever reason, he's motivated to do so. I find this motivating, too. How do we create classroom environments which nurture this in our students?

08 February 2008

A Fine Romance

I had decided to take some time off this spring to focus on my doctoral study. I need some headspace in order to manage my research, as well as the opportunity to read and write about it. So, I took a part-time leave of absence...and then, as Fate would have it, the perfect job opportunity came along. It fits my schedule and allows me to keep a lot of the mental space and energy I need for my dissertation.

It's been a long time since I've fallen in love with a school, but that is exactly what I have spent the week doing. My heart skips a beat when I finish my morning duties and can race to see my new partner. My face hurts from smiling by the end of the day. It is truly a joy to be able to work there. For confidentiality reasons, I can't say much about what I'm seeing in the classrooms, but I can tell you that I have a wonderful opportunity to make a real difference with a population of needy students and a building full of dedicated teachers...all led by a principal who truly believes that what happens in a classroom should be about kids. What's not to love?

07 February 2008

Patience Is a Virtue

Ah, Dear Readers, I'm swamped this week. Final exams were given and grades are due. I had a brand spankin' new class crank up this week. Oh, and I started a new job in the afternoons...in addition to working on my doctoral study. I should be back to regular posting tomorrow. Thanks for your patience. :)

05 February 2008

Sucks to Be You

"One of the perks of being a teacher," he said, "is that you get to hand pick your own kids' teachers. You know which ones to avoid."

"And in doing so, you relegate the kids who need the best teachers to the not-so-best teachers' classes," answered The Science Goddess.

"Yeah, but if a kid's parents don't want to advocate for him, then too bad."

She sighed. "It's not really that simple. Just because a parent is disconnected from the school for one reason or another doesn't mean that she doesn't love her child and want the best for him. If you didn't speak English, would you go to school and ask for a certain teacher? If your only means of transportation is the city bus to and from your two minimum wage jobs, is it likely you going to be able to get to the school to be the same advocate as someone with a car? Or would you just have to trust that the school would act responsibly toward your child's needs?"

"Oh, well." He laughed off the idea.

All that was missing from this conversation was the Must suck to be you. tagline. As I think about things, I'm not sure what the "right" answer is. Should a kid from a privileged background be subjected to poor instruction simply because his parents can make up for any missing pieces at home? No more than a kid from an underprivileged background should have a bad teacher because his parents can't advocate for better. There is no win for that particular dilemma. The only way around it is to improve the classroom skills of so-so teachers and outright fire the bad ones. I'm not sure that such a system will happen in the near future, but in the meantime, is it so much to ask that we act with compassion?

04 February 2008

When will The Union get something right?

This month's union newsletter was full of various tidbits that show that the leadership just doesn't get it.

There's a whole page devoted to stirring up the proletariat over We're testing so much---when do we have time to teach? The rant starts off with some undocumented generalizations about how the "era of having 180 days of instruction appears to be long gone," but quickly changes things to money. You know what? The state does spend an awful lot of money on the WASL---I definitely agree with that. But what is interesting is how The Union throws its own members under the bus in the process, describing how many of its teachers have been paid for WASL related training and work. Another point of interest is how they compare the costs associated with "a typical norm-referenced test, such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills." Um...let's start with the fact that the WASL is not norm-referenced, and end with the acknowledgment that Iowa is now moving to the same kind of state-wide standards found here. Finally, a paragraph is devoted to the State Board of Education's report that the "WASL isn't even a particularly good test." Apparently, The Union doesn't mind all of the money spent by the board for an independent contractor to evaluate things...just independent contractors to develop them.

Meanwhile, The Union is crying about academic freedom again---a big survey is headed in the direction of teachers. (We're not too busy to fill out surveys for The Union apparently, just do our jobs in the classroom.) This seems to come up over and over and there's no reason for it. The case law out there does not apply to public schools. The state code tells us what to teach. There is some choice in how the instruction is delivered, but the "what" isn't up for discussion. Maybe The Union could spend the money stolen from my paycheck on doing something to make a real difference?

I suppose things could be worse. I could be teaching in Denver, Colorado. "The refusal of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association to support the contract waivers sought by Bruce Randolph School has resulted in one of the worst public relations disasters ever suffered by a Colorado labor union. In rejecting the very reasonable reform requests sought by the great majority of the school's teachers, supported by parents and approved by the Denver Public Schools board, the DCTA has gotten a very public black eye that no amount of union doubletalk or sophistry can conceal. The message is clear: Union power trumps both the wishes of teachers and the needs of children."

You can read more here about the problems faced by Denver's teachers who are stuck in a union that is more interested in its own petty agendas than truly supporting the needs of the classroom. It doesn't appear that The Union is going to get anything right in the foreseeable future. What a shame for professional educators and children in our schools.

03 February 2008

How to Grade Finals

In case any of you readers are new or soon-to-be teachers, I thought I'd post this handy guide to grading final exams.

  1. Retrieve exams from car. Notice that elves have not magically been working on them.
  2. Curse elves.
  3. Set finals on desk, table, or other workspace. Notice that the surrounding area needs cleaning. Do that first.
  4. Fix a snack and put a movie in the DVD player to watch while you work on marking papers.
  5. Read one paper. Resist urge to commit Hari Kari over poor work.
  6. Take a break.
  7. Call a friend. Perhaps s/he would like to help you read? Listen to sound of hysterical laughter.
  8. Curse friend.
  9. Try looking at another paper or two. That's a big stack, isn't it? Wonder aloud why you aren't one of those scan-tron teachers.
  10. Curse self.
  11. Start the laundry. Work on paying the bills.
  12. Read a few more papers.
  13. Take a nap. You've earned it after working so hard.
  14. Decide to get serious. Grading this is akin to band-aid removal: the faster you make it happen, the sooner the pain will subside.
  15. Speaking of painkiller, get a glass of nice red wine as attitude adjustment.
  16. Mark several more papers.
  17. Refill wine glass.
  18. Repeat steps 16 and 17 as often as necessary to finish grading final exams. This part of the list will move quickly.
  19. The next morning, curse hangover.
There, that's not so bad, is it?

02 February 2008

Relax, It's Normal

An editorial in yesterday's New York Times highlighted the ongoing issue about appropriate school start times for high schools. If you've been a teen, parented a teen, or taught a teen, you may have noticed that early morning is not the best time for them. There are some physiological reasons for this (melatonin production is different, leading to different sleep patterns) and schools which have tried making accommodations for this (i.e. a later start time) are claiming positive results.

I talked about this idea with my students last month. At the time, most of them felt sheepish about admitting to regularly staying up until 12 or 1 a.m. I am sure that they have been scolded by their parents many times---especially when they complained about having to get up and go to school a few hours later. While I doubt that these arguments at home will end anytime in the near future, I did try to make it clear that it's normal for teens to have trouble sleeping during the same hours that would be considered normal for adults. We talked about this period as being one of a lot of final adjustments to their brains. In a few years, activity will settle down.

Kids weren't necessarily sure that the later start time was a good idea---even if it meant sleeping later in the mornings. Many have jobs, activities, or other commitments that would be difficult to adjust. The school could change its times, but that didn't mean the rest of their world would, too. They did agree, however, that it would be nice to have their younger brothers and sisters out of the house at an earlier time of the morning. :)

Teen years can be fraught with enough uncertainties about being "normal" without throwing sleep into the mix. I've worked with 15-year olds for nearly 20 years now---and while each new batch arriving in September is experiencing their first (and only) time being that age, I've seen it a lot. I have developed a pretty good understanding about what falls within the typical range of expression and behavior. I know that I'm not the only one with this knowledge, but the kids tell me that I'm the only teacher who talks to them about it. (I guess my young charges aren't the only ones who lie outside the mean from time to time.) I wonder how many concerns of students might be alleviated if we'd just take more time to chat with them about what to expect when you're expecting to be 16 years old.

01 February 2008

Do you have the answer?

The BBC has a question for you: What makes a good teacher?

Their short answer is "I dunno," but the article does report what some experts in the field are thinking. It's not one's qualifications---the number of degrees you have or years of experience. Instead, the "best" teachers are ones who can build positive relationships with students, are reflective about their classroom work, and promote active engagement of the learner.

I know, I know, you're reading this and thinking "Duh." I am, too---and at the same time, when I ask myself this same question about what makes a good teacher, I'm not sure exactly what the answer is. We have lots of research out there, but is there truly a magic mix of attributes? Can we look at someone's characteristics and know for sure that they will be dynamite in the classroom?

I recently had an admin ask me "Are you a good teacher?" The question caught me off guard. Am I the best thing since Jaime Escalante in the classroom? Nope. Not even. I think I do all right in the classroom. I can't say that every day is successful and that every lesson reaches every kid and strikes all of the targets. I can say that I care about my students---both as human beings and learners. I'm interested in them as people and in helping them grow in their abilities. I can say that I make a conscious effort to plan lessons that provide more than one way to access the information...and try to use a variety of assessments to gauge what students can do. I want to find ways to help every kid and am frustrated when I can't. What did I tell the admin? I said that I did think I was a good teacher. When my students ask me why their other teachers don't teach like I do, I take that to mean I'm doing right by them. And that's all that should matter: Is what I do in the classroom good for kids? Do I have room for improvement? Definitely---and I'm okay with that.

What about you? What do you think makes a good teacher?