23 November 2010

Students Can Do No Better Than the Work They Are Given

A few weeks ago, I helped a high school kid with some chemistry homework. The student attends one of the top schools in the state---if you just go by test scores. It draws from a upper middle class - downright wealthy population: a place where children want for nothing.

Or perhaps I have been mistaken about that. The quality of work assigned to the student was abysmal.

There was a word search for element names. A. Word. Search. Kids were going to be graded on it. The student also had a "game" where they were given a clue (rather obscure in most cases) and had to figure out the name of the element. If you were 15-years old today, would you think that "Osmium" goes with "Donny and Marie's family"? I told the kid to hit "teh Googles" for those answers. She looked shocked at such a suggestion---as if I'd just told her to cheat. I tried to nicely state that a poor assignment---which will contribute nothing toward her understanding of the elements---is not worth her suffering. In truth, it's not worth her attention, either, but for a student who was already struggling, there was no need to avoid playing the grade game with the easy stuff.

Lest you think I had been called in because the student couldn't do the word search, I can assure you that this was not the case. There had been previous homework assigned for another chemistry concept (specific heat) and the student had not been able to grasp it. We looked at that homework, too. They were problem sets. The teacher had marked some of the ones which were wrong (the scores on the front of the paper made no sense in connection with the red x's elsewhere), but had provided no comments. Most of the problems were okay---about where you'd expect to see them aimed for student knowledge and abilities---but there were a few which were ridiculous. So, the student and I went through things as best we could. We did find some common errors on her part and made a list of "things to remember" so she could self-check along the way.

When our session was over, I was good and steamed at the teacher. I can't believe he's getting away with such crappy assignments in a school where performance is lauded and helicopter parents are de rigeur. But then, the time I spent in a similar school was no different. The vast majority of teachers were quite lazy about the quality of work they required because they could be. What I mean is, when your class is full of privileged children, a teacher doesn't have to work quite as hard. This doesn't mean that they shouldn't---or that all teachers in that situation take advantage---just that those kids have had all sorts of access to other learning experiences (relatives in a variety of professions, trips to the zoo or cultural events, etc.) that they bring with them. Their background knowledge will carry them as far as the standards prescribe. And if you're measured by test scores, it's far enough. The teacher doesn't have much of a gap to address.

But the broader issue for me is that this guy is giving homework a bad name.

There seems to be quite a bit of homework-bashing going on in the Edusphere this fall. There are some good reasons for this---especially if a word search is keeping your family from spending time together. I can think of any number of poor assignments teachers give (and yes, I've assigned them, too). But if we could strip away the stupid stuff, the need the for homework---the need for practice---would still be there. We do not expect drama students or athletes or musicians to perform solely based upon their in-class experience. Should we expect the same for reading, math, or other concepts? We need to change the focus of the conversation from "Ban homework" to "Ban poorly constructed assignments." 

I couldn't do anything for the student with the word search in terms of making that problem go away. I did talk with the mom some, gave her some coaching in terms of what to ask the teacher and how to phrase things. It may or may not make a difference, but I hope it will cause the teacher to think a little bit before he pulls out the next ancient worksheet in the file to hand to students. He has great students, no doubt. They, and all students, deserve great opportunities to show what they know.

21 November 2010

Slow Down, You Crazy Child

Doyle and I flirted with the idea of putting in a proposal for Educon on the "Slow Teaching Movement." I won't attempt to speak for Dr. D., but for me, the idea was generated from a post last spring when I had more or less had it with the Tech Zealot constituency. For those of you who read Doyle's blog, you know that he is focused on experience---his own observations and interactions with the world as well as the ones he wants for students. The Tech Zealot community---many of whom flock to Educon---is not. On one hand, it would seem important to remind them that it is okay for kids to do offline things. We should encourage student explorations that involve every sense, from the way a book feels in your hands when you read it to how planting and tending a garden is not the same as a simulation. Experiencing an exhibit at a museum is far different from seeing/hearing it on a flat screen. We should really think about slowing down what happens in the classroom and give students the time they need to immerse themselves in learning one piece at a time. Maybe it's time to push back a bit on the digital revolution and put tech in its proper place---as a tool, not a goal.

I've come to realize in the last few months that the Tech Zealots have a viewpoint so entrenched that they are unable to hear anything but their own whiny echo. Therefore, there's no point in spending my time and money on Educon. There are plenty Champions-of-the-Things to deal with in my own back yard.

I was thinking about all of this again this morning after reading the NYT piece on Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction. The article illustrates how some students are "caught between two worlds...one that is virtual and one that with real-life demands." The student who is the main subject of the article observes that after getting a computer and Internet access, he "realized there were choices. Homework wasn’t the only option.” Hilarity ensues as technology is portrayed as a necessary evil. Parents are unwilling to encroach too much on how their children use it ("If you’re not on top of technology, you’re not going to be on top of the world."), educators want to tame it for the classroom, and kids are learning to negotiate how much GPA to sacrifice in order to gain time on Facebook.

I have not read the research referenced in the article---I can't comment on its rigor. It seems to be in line with similar research I've seen. The comments are familiar, too...although I wonder if families living in poverty would say the same things. But, I do have a couple of takeaways.

First, parents need to realize that they are the adults in the parent-child relationship. If your child is staying on the computer until the wee hours and updating their Facebook status at 2 a.m., then move the computer to a family area and insist on boundaries regarding its use. Help kids learn how to manage their attention and budget their time, if they are struggling to do so. It is your task to guide their choices. Don't use the presence of a cell phone or iPad to excuse yourself from that.

The bigger message for me is about the classroom, because educators can be enablers, too. For much of my career, I had conversations with kids about "doing the difficult thing." Sometimes it was not dropping an advanced class. Sometimes it was completing a project...or trying out for a spot on a sports team. The point was to help a student understand the power of not giving up. Maybe you don't always finish the way you dream it will be---but you live through it and learn something about yourself in the process. I wonder if our fervor to embrace the newer and faster, that we are forgetting the benefits of wallowing in experience. How do we slow things down in the classroom so that students can "soak" in the learning and put technology in a supporting role?

13 November 2010


Recently, I was at a meeting that ended when one of the organizers said, "Well, I got what I needed." I immediately had flashbacks to a couple of really bad dates. All that was missing was the sound of a zipper.

I bit the inside of my lip and looked down at the table, struggling not to laugh at the sheer absurdity and abuse of "leadership" embedded in that statement. I've been thinking about this and other non-examples ever since.

I don't want to be around leaders who don't care about the personal relationships they build with others. I'm not saying that you have to be friends with everyone. You don't have to spend time together outside of the workplace. But if you have no interest in people for who they are---if you never ask about their family, hobbies, travel/holiday plans, or something---if you are all automaton and no humanity---I will have little respect for your office goals. We are not our jobs. If you can't treat the people who work for you better than that, don't be surprised when you don't get the results you're looking for.

A position of leadership can make for a very full calendar. Don't add things to it if you have no intention of following through. Don't tell people you think their work is important and you're excited about participating, only to never show up (and never apologize for the absence). Sure---unexpected events arise. Double-bookings happen. Meetings get moved in time, scope, and space. People get sick. Sometimes your boss will make the decision about priorities. These are realities that should be accommodated. But at least be gracious enough to communicate with others about your plans and choices.

Most of all, don't be the leader who thinks they have all the answers and never listens. If you really do have the answers you want, don't call a pretend meeting because you think others will feel better having "input." We can see through that. A couple of months ago, we invited a "leader" from another division to get some background about our assessment process. And after she'd moved the meeting twice (the first time to a date neither of us were available; and the second one to a time well after the end of my workday), she spent the first 15 minutes yapping at us about what she wanted and needed. So not impressed with that. There was no attempt to seek to understand---and several of the pieces of information we'd prepared went back to the office with us. It was quite obvious that her own selfish interests were all that could ever matter to her.

The problem, of course, is that most of us are stuck having to work with leadership like this at one point or another. Someone who is sterile, selfish, or lacks integrity has likely been that way for a long time. Professional development or a directive from higher up in the food chain is not going to change those qualities. What can you do? Here are my strategies:
  • Do good work. Do it for better reasons than what an incompetent boss provides. Do it in ways that get you noticed outside of your workspace and connect you to others with your values. 
  • Laugh---a lot.
  • Be the sort of example you wish the leadership would set. It won't change them, but it will change the variety of relationships you have and create a space away from the ridonkulousness of whoever thinks they're in charge. 
  • Minimize your contact with poor leadership. This isn't always possible---we can't ignore meeting requests just because someone is a jerk---but go with some way to occupy your hands and mind while the clock ticks away and the "leader" thinks everything is ducky. Do your seat time and make no promises---then get out and play and do something that makes you feel alive and significant. Afterward, go back and do the job you know needs to be done.
I will, unfortunately, be required to repeat my experience meeting with the organizers mentioned at the start of this post. But there is something very freeing in learning how to disconnect myself from their self-important chatter. After all, I don't work for them. I work for the teachers and children in this state. And they don't have time for such nonsense.

11 November 2010

The Flock

I'm deeper than knee-deep in assessment development at the moment---both my creative energy and the one set aside for writing will continue to be focused elsewhere for a few more weeks. If there is one point that was driven home to me more than any other this week, it is that it is even more critical to get things done right in the six months or so we have left on this project. Legislatures are fickle things: Their budget needs from biennium to biennium are never the same.This may be the one and only cycle we have time and money to create assessments.

My work is the youth at the table amongst older and more experienced assessments. It's a bit like going for tea with one's old biddy aunts---the jealous ones who are passive-aggressive in their reminders that one day, you will be just as wrinkled and saggy as they are. These sadder-but-wiser assessments developed nearly half a decade before us are starting to show significant signs of aging. Alas, there is no funding for facelifts and tummy tucks, the Legislature having turned its fickle eyes elsewhere in the intervening years. All of this a healthy reminder for me to build classroom tools that can stay toned and fit---to not just do what feels good now, but keep an eye on the future.

This is not simple. In fact, it's rather heavy. Whatever faces the outside world must be the very best it can be: meaningful learning experiences, deeply aligned to standards, and reflecting best practices in instruction and assessment (including Universal Design, interventions, and enrichment). Instructions must be crystal clear and ready to be interpreted by pre-service teachers and 40-year classroom veterans alike. Supporting materials have to be flexible enough for the range of Internet filters, bandwidth, and ability levels. Professional development materials need to be rich enough to support a single teacher in a remote district or one involved in department or PLC work in an urban area.

Can we do it? Other than having to breathe into a paper bag now and then, I'm starting to think that yes, we can. I have such an amazing group of teachers to work with. Their vision of what they want to do for their peers is breathtaking in its ambition and their commitment unwavering. We will make it happen.

I'm in this odd little space at the moment as I work over the first drafts. Each assessment is different and has its own personality. Some are easy to raise into independence. Others are real stinkers to work with and test my patience. I am sure that, like a good parent, I am supposed to say that I love them all the same...but I've never been much for doing what is expected. I am brooding the most extraordinary little flock of assessments in all the land...and am anxious to introduce them to you in a few months.