February 26, 2006

Big-bodied babies?

Sometimes I have to remind myself that my students are really nothing more that big-bodied babies. This is probably easier to do in grade school, and even middle school. But I left middle school to teach high school because I wanted to teach students who were more ready to think abstractly and to work beyond the requirements of a typical classroom assignment. However, a few times each year I am shocked to discover (again) that my students, even though they are tall like me, talk like me (sometimes), and look like adults, they are not adults.

It's easy for me to remember that my 5-month old is a baby. She's mostly bald, can't walk, and can't feed or change herself yet. She cries when she's hungry or needs a new diaper. It's easy to understand her because babies are simple. When they are happy they giggle, when they are upset they cry, and when they are tired the sleep. Easy. High school kids aren't always that easy. But the reason they don't seem that easy has nothing to do with them, and everything to do with how we see them. (I can't speak for the grade school teachers out there; I welcome your comments and observations in the comments area below.)

I recently had an experience in class with two seniors I enjoy and respect concerning a project they submitted for our weekly 10-minute show aired on the on-campus closed-circuit television system. One of the segments we regularly include is a student profile. The student profile is intended to highlight the life of an outstanding student, especially a student who has a little-known talent or contribution worthy of being shared and celebrated. Unfortunately, this year my students have not completed many student profiles; not for a lack of outstanding students, but more for a favored focus on their own personal creativity. The current class of advanced students is a very creative group. I was recently quoted in the campus newspaper stating this fact for the entire student body and staff to read. (That may have been a mistake). Sometimes I preview the show in my sixth period class the day before it airs. I've come to trust my students so this time I did not preview this episode before showing it publicly. Tragic error.

This particular student profile was irreverent, sarcastic, offensive, and while entertaining, in very poor taste. It included shots at homosexuals, religion, and other teachers on campus. My sixth period students loved it. I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed because I exposed my students to material that while they see it everyday on commercial television, is NOT APPROPRIATE for viewing in a public high school. Plus it was just plain distasteful and I was offended that students that I taught and trusted would submit such a project after I regularly devote time to discussing examples of appropriate and inappropriate work. Apparently I need to devote more time to this topic.

I immediately called the students into my classroom but was unable to meet with them until the following morning. That gave me all night to stew and did I stew. Later my wife would tell me that was the most stressed out concerning school she had ever seen me. I like to think that my advanced students are more mature than the "average" high school student. But they are still high school students, imperfect in everyway, growing into maturity, and learning day-by-day. They are going to make mistakes, disappoint, and drop-the-ball. We all do, even as "mature" adults. I wanted to be gracious, forgiving, and understanding, but I was just too upset. Actually my mood was motivated by more than simply this incident, but these boys were the catalyst, the "straw," and unfortunately, would receive the brunt of my frustration.

By the next morning I was cooled down. The boys met me in my classroom and we talked. We discussed the project, it's merits, and it's problems. Their humor was appreciated, but it came at a cost I still don't think they understand. And how can they? When the messages all over commercial television are negative and generally insulting, it's no wonder that these boys would take those themes and elaborate upon them. Most concerning was their surprise at my reaction to what they had created. They were genuinely shocked that I was offended, or that anyone would have been offended. The boys previewed their project within their circle of friends to rave reviews. I think this is a major problem within our culture. Take a show like the Family Guy: a funny show for adults. But I'd bet that more kids watch Family Guy than parents. And it gets worse. This year Fox sent stacks of Family Guy book covers to our school for the students to use. Every time "Jimmy" opens his history text he reads, "watch the Family Guy Sunday's on Fox." Who's in charge here?

Our jobs are so complex. We are to teach the youth to read, write, and multiply. We're not supposed to instill our values and God forbid we share our personal beliefs while we passively watch our society crumble down all around us. From student dress to use of language, everything is relative to self, and there are no absolutes. If I think it's ok and nobody gets hurt... really? I disagree with those who feel that our jobs stop at the "three R's." It can't. Who else but the teachers will protect our big-bodied babies? (Of course parents are responsible for raising their children, that's not what I mean.) Parents send their kids to public school and expect that their children will be educated in a secure and appropriate environment. Teachers are responsible for establishing and maintaining this safe-haven in our classrooms. It's a daily scrimmage in a struggle that we are losing. Our failures present themselves in small ways like allowing an inappropriate project, or comment to slip by unchecked. It's a slippery slope.

We teachers need to recommit ourselves daily to the protection of our students. When you enter your classroom today and look at your pupils remember that these kids are really just babies who are in desperate need of our best attention.

Please post your comments below.

February 19, 2006

Education Industry?

I went to an open house recently for the Art Institute. During the presentation one of the speakers referred to her experience in the "education industry." That was a new one on me. It got me thinking. Maybe we are approaching this public education thing all-wrong. Maybe education should be run like a business. Many in the past have tried to apply the business model to education and failed. However, more and more we are seeing private educational institutions like the Art Institute pop up, recruit students, and achieve success unequaled by traditional Ed. What's that about?

Perhaps it's their approach to education. They specialize. Standard 4-year universities focus more on a well-rounded general education for students. Great if you want to teach at the university. Not so great if you want to actually go out and use your education for a career aspiration. Not these days. I agree that an education in the "classics" is very valuable and applies to many aspects of life. But being trained in the "classics" is not the same as job training. Of course, education should be about more than job training. The "university" experience is full of a broad spectrum of experiences including meeting different and interesting individuals, fending off radical professors, and don't forget the wild parties. But all that can be included in a more rigorous and fine-tuned course of study off campus. Not to mention the timeline. I don't know about you, but it took me 5 years to get my 4 year undergraduate degree, 2 years to get my teaching credential, and close to 10 years after that before I finished my Masters. Perhaps my experience is unique, but I don't think so. The Art Institute offers a 36 month long bachelor’s degree. Three years, that's it.

Of course I am talking about higher education, not K-12, but what would be wrong with specialization in K-12 education? Oh that's right, we used to call that tracking, and tracking was bad because it pigeonholed kids who were never able to break out of the stereotype (or so I heard.) Now we have charter and magnet schools. I visited a school named CART in Clovis a few years ago. Very cool, high-tech, lots of color and airy buildings. The kids loved it. They were engaged and learning. No knuckleheads or slackers allowed. (Maybe they went to their own school for knuckleheads and slackers.) I don't have data on the success rates of the kids who attended the school, but I bet they numbers were high, and I bet they met their API and AYP in all subgroups.

Times have changed, so why shouldn't education? I was challenged in a previous post to come up with some new ideas to restructure or reform education. Mostly I was having fun, but somebody took me seriously. I really don't know where to begin to fix education, and I'm not so sure it needs fixing. I think instead we need a better and more refined focus. Public education tries to do too much. Not that educating kids is too much, but the way the current system (dis)functions, and with NCLB, we are overwhelmed. Especially here in California with the high number of ELL students.

The demographics of my high school have changed dramatically in the last ten years. We are going through the WASC process right now (blog post coming soon) so this data is being scanned and studied in detail. Teachers who have traditionally sent many middle to upper class kids on to college are now teaching a far more diverse group. We are learning new teaching strategies for reaching “all” students and adapting what we know works for our changing population. The good news is that we are still sending many kids to college.

We tell all students that they must go to college to be successful. But that’s not true for all students. Not that a college education will hurt anyone (not permanently anyway) but there are excellent alternatives that do not inevitably lead to a future in ditch digging (no offense meant to ditch diggers, I’ve dug many ditches myself, ditch diggers have my respect). In California, the standards for admission set by the University of California dictate the course load a “college-bound” student takes in their four high school years. Very soon these will be the graduation requirements for my high school as well. And yet, a very small number of students at my high school actually attend the University of California. Why is the UC wagging the tail of public education in California when the UC is not the most popular next step? It doesn’t make sense to me.

Some students do thrive in “alternative” settings. But my experience with current alternative education is that it is not an equal alternative to tradition high school. Kids behind on credits temporarily attend an “alternative,” also called continuation, school site where they get credit for seat time, and released daily before 1pm. The teachers I know that teach alternative education love it. The kids who go to the alternative school look forward to their “second” chance. But few of these kids return to graduate with their class at the regular high school.

Education is not and should not be a business. Grades can never be purchased, and degrees and diplomas cannot by granted for anything less than solid academic work. But if the current system is not being effective for “all” students, then what's wrong with inviting a different model. Progress is clearly being made in the neo "professional/trade" school approach to higher education, and charter and magnet schools are working for their target student groups. Of course there will always be a place for traditional 4-year high school and universities, but perhaps we should make more room for truly alternative education. Instead of preparing every kid to attend a university when every kid does not end up attending a university, perhaps we should be preparing every kid to be contributing members of society in ways more appropriate to their skills, talents, abilities, and desires.

February 12, 2006

Restructuring or Reformation?

A cutting from a comment on Where is the students' work ethic? Be Just said...

We teachers are trapped inside our own metaphors so we can't see the forest for the trees. We are the functionaries of a system that is designed to suppress learning while pretending to promote it.
Ask yourself this question, how many students in your school site are passionate about learning? Now, do you really think that what is wrong is the children?

I don't feel trapped in a metaphor. What we teachers do is real, tangible, and important. Not a figure of speech. Of course there are times we all get lost in the experience and have trouble seeing the "big picture." But at the very least, all of the teachers I know, while not equally effective educators, take the education of children very seriously, not metaphorically.

I'm not sure I know what "functionaries" are. I looked it up and found this definition. If we are officials of "a system that is designed to suppress learning while pretending to promote it," that's news to me. I need a more detailed definition of what that means because I don't want to think that every classroom teacher was being accused of simply being a meaningless and ineffectual cog in some cosmic wheel of censorship disguised as purposeful public education. That would be insulting.

I hope that nothing I have written in any of my posts appears to place any blame at all on children in general. That is not my intention, my purpose, or my message. Yes, the children can be a point of frustration, and of course there are a few bad apples. Teachers should be compassionate and caring. If teachers don't approach teaching with the children's best interest as their main focus, they should not teach. Period.

However I think the point of the comment was that change is desperately needed in education. I think that is a point that every educator agrees with. However, what is the best type of change? Does the “failing” education system need a simple business model-like restructuring, throwing out middle management, and gleaning away the chaff? Or do we need to scrap the whole think and start over?

I am definitely out of my area of expertise when it comes to the subject of school reform, so forgive me for stepping out of my comfort zone. I haven’t taught as long as some of my colleagues, or some of you readers, but I have been around long enough to see the metaphorical pendulum swing back and forth a few times. In my school we are headed back to “families” of teachers and students similar to the same concept used in the 70’s. Back then schools “tracked” students towards an educational and career goal. Now we have “Career Pathways.” Today, standards and test scores ignite the educational engine with API, and AYP ranking higher and lower performing schools. One of the biggest gripes heard in the hallowed corridors of my campus is the lack of vision and direction being provided by our administrators. Nobody seems to know which was is up, or how best to raise the students’ performance and achievement. It’s a mess. So what do we do?

We can try to restructure the educational system by following the lessons learned in business. Education is a top-heavy institution with out-of-the-classroom administrators, detached district personnel, and rarely-sighted board members making decisions for classroom teachers that ultimately effect kids. I’m not even going to touch the issues at the state and federal level. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to education that works. The more top-down pressure that’s applied to the classroom the less success will be produced in students. Teachers know what’s best for kids, why doesn’t the “brass” get that? For example, I am desperately in need of new computers for my classroom. I uses Macs. Macs are the standard machine used in industry for the curriculum I teach. The district wants the Win/Tel machine to be the standard on every campus. We are at an impasse that is holding back the students who are in fact passionate about learning and need the appropriate tools. If the decision was up to me, the machines would be in place today. But it’s not. That is a problem. I know the kids, the curriculum, and the requirements of success, but my voice is not counted, not heard, not heeded, not important. When these problems happen in a business driven by profit, the hindrances of success are removed so the business can survive. But not in public education. Yesterday I attended an open house for a new art/tech school in my area. One of the presenters referred to the “education industry.” As offensive as that may sound, the results are undeniable. This school has a proven 9 out of 10 job placement rate. 89.4% to be exact. Most traditional 4-year university cannot boast those numbers. What is the education industry doing right and traditional public and university education doing wrong?

Our other alternative is to start over. Tear down the temple only to build it up again. Maybe that’s what public education needs. The kids are the kids, the teachers are the teachers, the administrators and so on, so what can we change? How about the institution itself? If the traditional model of public education is so broken (and I don’t believe it’s that bad) then perhaps we need to start fresh. Instead of the 5-days/6-hours work week, how about 4-days/7.5 hours? Or maybe no days; online education seems to be popular and effective, why not take public education to the Internet? Imagine, 24/7 education. The students could graduate on their own schedule whether it took them 8 years or 16 years for their high school diploma. Students could work from home and we could turn all of the school sites into skateboard parks (wait, that’s happened already). Teachers could work from home in their pajamas. Social interaction a thing of the past; we can always chat online. Ok, maybe that’s going a little too far. I don’t have any reform vs. restructuring answers so I’m just spinning my wheels and that’s a waste of time. I’ll stop now. Beside, I need to spend some time working my way out of my metaphorical trap.

Please post comments below.

February 08, 2006

Don't take it personally?

What are appropriate Teacher/Student relationships? I'm not referring to the obviously inappropriate Mary K. type. Believe it or not, I was told before the first day of my first contract job, "don't touch the kids." Literally, no physical contact at all. I could appreciate the intention, but the statement insulted me. Teachers are trying to "touch the lives" of students, and yet, we are denied any type of physical contact? A high-five, or a pat on the back can be a tremendous boost to the self-esteem of a struggling student. But the world we teach in restricts us to our personal bubble space, never to invade or be invaded. So sad.

Yet we endure and press on working diligently to positively change the students we teach. How effective are we? How do we measure our effectiveness? I teach elective course that live and die on the number of students enrolled. Fail too many, and there are not enough students to maintain a complete schedule the following year. I end up teaching English 9. However, there are standards to meet, and content to deliver, so I do my best to hold on to as many students as possible. Sometimes that means fighting to hold on to kids that should be let go to pursue other interests.

Something changed in me this year. Was I less tolerant, or more practical? Somehow I lost my patience with students who just refused to follow through on their work. You know the ones: they show up occasionally, do some of the work with a lack-luster attitude, and then want accommodations when their scores don't merit a passing grade. Perhaps it's a sign that I too need a break from teaching, or perhaps a career change. We all feel the discouragement of students who fail to succeed, those who we cannot or do not help or change in ways immediately tangible. Perhaps at some point they may turn around because of some influence we had on them along the way. Or perhaps our jobs are only just that, jobs.

An experience that is unique (I think) to high school elective and extra-curricular programs is the dynamic of working with the student who thinks the program revolves around them. It's a nightmare if you've ever dealt with this personality type. It happened last year to a colleague of mine with one of the clubs she advises. This year it happened to me. The president of the club dovetailed into my advanced class quit at the semester. He quit for what I can only assume was a disappointment with the curriculum, or a personality conflict with me. He seems to be one of those kids who is clearly talented and able, but unwilling to take on a leadership position, an instead becomes a negative force among students. Not good for the other students, not good for the program, and not good for teacher. But it was unfortunate because I genuinely liked and enjoyed the kid. I've known his family for years and even taught his older sibling in another subject. When he dropped the class I think he genuinely believed that there were other disgruntled students who would follow him. None did.

When students don't like our assignments or our teaching style should we take it personally? Don't we have their best interest in mind? Of course. Some teachers give their students survey's to gather data about their courses. A good idea early in the teaching career, but after a few years experience, you know exactly what works and what doesn't work, or whether or not you are being effective in the classroom. Student opinion is important, sure. They should enjoy the courses we teach, and they should have fun while learning. But there is a reason that curriculum is standards driven and why teachers, not students determine delivery technique and grading rubrics. We are the adults; they are the children.

This week I was openly challenged by a student on the validity of an assignment. Of course we should have a clear justification when asked, "why are we learning this?" but this student took it a step further and questioned the assignment's legitimacy. I actually had to explain that the students would have to trust me because I was a professional, I had experiences they did not, and I understood the importance of the assignment when they could not yet. I felt like screaming, "Shut up, sit down, and do what I tell you to." (The old, "children should be seen and not heard," approach is sounding better and better as I grow older.)

One of my weakness as a teacher is that I am not emotional enough with my students. I don't get angry often, and I rarely raise the level of my voice unless I am lecturing to a large group and need to be heard. Sometimes kids need to know that you are serious and that you care and sometimes that can only be communicated through appropriate displays of emotion. But don't go too far. And if a student rejects your efforts, if they drop your class, or quit your program, don't take it personally. It's not about you. It's their problem, not yours. Adults are naturally more mature than students, but we are still people, and sometimes, our students hurt our feelings. Especially during those weaker moments brought on by fatigue and stress. A rude comment, or a thoughtless action taken by a disturbed student directed towards a tired teacher can send him or her reeling. And sometimes it's hard to recover.

But recover we must, and recover we will. The appropriate role of the teacher is to guide and instruct, not to befriend or to seek the approval of the students. On those days when you feel like giving up, throwing in the towel, or finding another occupation, just remember that those little darlings are adults in training and regardless of what they do or say that makes you crazy, don't take it personally.

Please post your comments below.

February 02, 2006

Where is the students' work ethic?

This is from a response to one of my posts on another website:

Could it be that students hate school because they are expected to do things they may not like? Well tough, life is full of doing things you may not like. Don't like school in the morning? Well what makes you so different from generations of others students who had to get up early to get to school? Are you going to fill out a job application with the statement "will only work afternoon shift?" My toughest class (full of boys on probation for various deeds) doesn't like my class because I won't let them cuss! Am I then supposed to start wringing my hands and wonder how I can accommodate them so that school doesn't suck? Everybody talks about raising standards, and about how students will rise to the level of our expectations, but when it comes to behaviors, nobody wants to just tell them "show up on time, stay awake, keep quiet, and learn something."


Finals week is always a tense time of frustration, late nights, and rattled nerves. Teachers are busy grading first semester projects while students cram for finals and pray for high scores. In my multimedia courses the students finish each semester with a major project due before the final. I returned the scored project on the day of the final after the students evaluate ALL of their peer's projects to compare their own work. It's a long two hours. I also give the students their semester grade report upon completion of their final. I ask them to check it over and double check my computation. Teachers make mistakes, and I'm no exception. There are usually one or two students who find a numeric typo and I am able to make adjustments before I start to bubble.

The students I am most concerned with during this time are the D-/F kids. If they are at 58% I work like crazy to try and help them get over the 60% hump. If they stay at 58% then they receive no credit for the semester. I know that other teachers might say "too bad," and that's ok with me. But I always want to make sure that the reason the pupil is at 58% and not 61% is not because of my error. Unfortunately, these D-/F kids often do not assert themselves in the checks and balance process. Sadly, too many of them simply accept the 58%, the fact that they will fail and receive no credit, and move on without making any effort to at least check the numbers. It makes me crazy. I literally have to go to some of these folks and ask them if there is any complete but yet un-submitted work in their possession that they might want to turn in late-late. Some do, some don't. Even today I had a kid with 56% going into the final not show up for class. With the final he would have 60.1%. He eventually arrived late (Yes, I gave him the final anyway).

But what really makes me nutso is the A-/B+ kids who grade monger, hounding me until they get the A when their effort and performance is not "A" worthy. Not the students who during the course or the semester genuinely want to improve themselves with extra credit, or extended assignments. I love those kids. But the ones who wait until grades are completed, and then complain. Or suddenly "discover" a missing assignment they "thought" they turned in. This of course occurs after already reviewing grades in class every 3-4 weeks. I had three students verbally attack me yesterday because their "B's" were not "A's". Why do students think that is acceptable behavior? Could it be TV?

The reason my students don't get better grades is because they don't work hard enough to earn better grades. That's it, end of story. The three "B" students did not have perfect attendance and had not turned in their completed work on time every time. Plus the quality of their work was not up to par. The grade they received was the grade they earned through their level of commitment and work. I think the problem is that many kids don't understand or value work and certainly not the value and the rewards of working hard. Perhaps I don't see more of that because I don't teach AP core courses. But my course name is followed by CP (college prep) and satisfies the Art requirement for the University of California. It's not for slackers. And yet, perhaps because it's an elective the kids don't anticipate having to work hard. Wrong! It was even worse in my advanced multimedia course. Once I handed out grades on Tuesday (and out of 30 kids there were only 6 "A"s) some of the "B"s went crazy as if they were entitled to an "A" just because they showed up semi-regularly and turned in mediocre work occasionally. What gives?

I know that my parents wanted a better life for me, so they tried to give me a better life than the one they had lived as kids. My dad was born in 1937 my mom in 1942 so they grew up during a time of war and then post-war prosperity. Not quite "baby-boomers" both my parents worked and my maternal grandmother lived with us making sure my sister and I got fed regularly and off to school. It was a good life. Better than most I think. Most importantly my parents taught me how to work hard. Not only through example but also through opportunity I learned what it looked and felt like to work for and earn what I received. Now as a parent of four great kids I am trying to instill the same values and work ethic into my own children. But it's not easy. Our lifestyle is not "normal" for Southern California. We live in an area that is beautiful but inconvenient. My kids have chores, a weekly schedule and a fixed bedtime. It doesn't always work, and there are plenty of obstacles to overcome, but my wife and I are committed to raising our children in a way that teaches them the value of work and the importance of stewardship.

I don't mean to be judgmental or critical of parents or parenting in general. It's much, much harder to be a parent than a teacher. But I often wonder as I spend 6 hours a day with other people's children just what exactly the kids are being taught at home. I also wonder what service or disservice we in public education are doing for these kids when we just pass them along. My efforts to get those D-/F kids over the 60% hump may be doing more bad than good. How can anyone learn the value of hard work if they are never really required to work hard? With all of our modern conveniences relieving us of many mundane tasks we lose opportunities that use to require us to work, and as kids, teach us the value of working. Video games may be the biggest culprit (and I love video games). Today you don't even have to go outside and play to go outside and play. Unbelievable. Sometimes it's more fun to play a football game virtually then to actually go out and play football. So long as that is true, and I see more and more kids, especially boys doing exactly that, kids are going to continue to miss out on learning experiences vital to their futures as productive members of our society.

As teachers, our job is to stand in the gap for our students. Parents send us their beloved angels after having prepared them as well as the parents can. We pick up wherever the parents leave off and try our best to carry the children forward. One of the difficulties inherit in our jobs is the broad range of student backgrounds we are required to work with. Seems an impossible task when you try and quantify it. But that's what we do. If our pupils lack an appropriate work ethic when they walk through our doors, then it is our responsibility to teach them how to work. The kids may not like it, they may moan, complain and rebel, but teaching people to work is teachers' work and our contribution to our world.

Please post your comments below.