April 30, 2006

A leap into administration?

I don’t want to be an administrator. Of course, there was a time I didn’t want to be a teacher either. I once held a Teacher on Assignment position for two years where I only taught three classes and spent the rest of the time advising a student group on campus. When I went to my then principal to resign I explained that part of the reason I was quitting that position was that I didn’t see myself as an administrator, and that I wanted to spend more of my time in the classroom. He accepted my resignation, but shared that he didn’t see me the same way I did, and that, like it or not, administration would be in my future sometime.

The last time I wrote about administration I really stepped in it. Part of the reason I don’t want to make the leap into administration has to do with what I wrote before:

…I also believe that the minute you lose daily contact with students, you lose your effectiveness as an educator. I believe that one must have the best intentions and desire to improve schools if they take on an administrative position, but that motivation often gets set aside by the requirements of security, discipline issues, parent contacts, and now, test scores.

But if I were to become an administrator, what would my “best intentions” be?

First, I would make sure that the life-long success of the students was the primary focus of the campus. Seems obvious, but sometimes I wonder if that is really the goal of education today. By that I mean that the current educational environment measures student achievement in test scores. How well do they perform on the standardized test? While testing is an important measurement for student progress, in my opinion, standardized tests do not reflect a student’s ability to survive in the world we send them into after graduation. I don’t know about you, but once I graduated college, the only tests I took were to become a teacher. If a person doesn’t plan on teaching, or medicine, or law, then what is the value of making them professional test takers? I think we are doing the students a huge disservice by focusing so much attention on test scores. I don’t know what difference I could make from a campus administrative position to this nation-wide current in education, but I would do my best to make sure that my students left my campus with more practical skills than just test taking.

The second thing I would do was to make the teachers the educational leaders of the campus, and not the administration. I believe that administrators are there to support the teachers, and not the other way around. Frustrating when not all teachers are willing to take on leadership roles with their colleagues. But it’s the teachers, and not the administrators, that have the daily, hourly contact with students. Teachers should be given all of the support they require to do the best job possible for the students. Support in the form of funding, time to prepare, and appropriate staff development. I would schedule time to not only visit every classroom at least once a week (if physically possible), but also sit down and talk with my teaching staff about whatever they wanted to talk about. Our conversations could be school related, or not. The important reason to talk to the teachers would be to make connections and build relationships with the staff, just like we should be doing with our students. Teachers, like students, will work harder for individuals they know, and who they feel know and appreciate them. Once I knew my teachers better, I would encourage them to exercise their areas of strength by sharing and collaborating with their fellow teachers within and outside of their subject areas.

Third, I would strive to include more parents in the educational process. After all, its their kids were teaching. Not all parents feel like they have a place at their children’s schools. That feeling needs to be changed to one of invitation and inclusion. Kids do better when they see their parents actively involved and caring about their education. Parents volunteering in the classroom (yes even in middle and high school) and office, parents involved with activities, parents as not only guest speakers, but also guest instructors. The teacher credentialing process makes becoming a certificated teacher very challenging, and excludes some very qualified candidates. However, that does not mean that experienced parents cannot contribute to the education of students in the classroom with credentialed teacher supervision. Of course parents work and have commitments that keep them occupied while they send their kids to public school, but with a little creativity, and maybe through the use of technology, parents can become even more involved. The school belongs to the community; the education of students should be a community effort.

Finally I would require my administrative colleagues to work directly with students for some portion of their day. Not in the role of disciplinarian, but as a teacher. Whether it is teaching a single class during the day, or working with student government, or coaching a sport, or sponsoring a club, this type of connection with kids is vital to staying focused on the most important thing schools do, teach students. In exchange for time not spent administrating, I would encourage teachers to share in part of the administrative burden. Instead of teachers always sending their problem student out to administrators, relying on admin to handle parent contacts, I would leave that up to the teachers to handle on their own. In this way it would require teachers to improve their classroom discipline, relationships with students and parents, and gain a real appreciation for what administrators face everyday.

I’m not an administrator and that’s probably a good thing. It’s likely that after reading this few teachers would want to work for me anyway. A current administrator reading this might remark that I had no idea what I was writing about. There is a whole world of administration I don’t know anything about, for example: working with the district office, maintaining buildings and grounds, the expulsion process, attendance issues, operating a security force, holding cabinet meetings, dealing with legal issues, and of course making sure that every student performs adequately on the standardized tests. Maybe if campus administrators didn’t have to deal with any of these issues they could spend more time on the four areas I listed above. I suspect that if I did join the administrators it wouldn’t be long before my idealism was weighed down by the realities of marinating a public school. And maybe not. Sure my ideas may be wishful thinking, but change and reform does not happen until somebody dreams up a crazy idea and then takes a leap of faith.

Please post your comments below.

April 27, 2006

Grades Matter?

I am concerned about teachers who subjectively assess their students without a clear-cut and firm grading structure. Whether a student receives an “A” or and “F,” a “6” or a “1” in the classroom, that grade should be based on concrete evaluations and transparent to all stakeholders.

Grades need to be based on tangible items that kids can identify and understand. If a student doesn’t understand the grading system, or why they are been assessed, then their grade, no matter what it is, loses meaning. I recently spoke to one of my son’s teachers about a quarter grade. One of her evaluation items was initiative. My son’s grade wasn’t higher because he, in her opinion, did not show enough initiative. It’s hard to quantify initiative. My son did the work he was asked to do, but because he did not complete the work with an attitude that satisfied the teacher, he received a lower grade.

I once shared students with another teacher for one semester. At the end we sat down to record semester grades. I brought my grade book, and she brought hers. We began to compare notes. I quickly realized that we did not assess our shared students the same way. I shared the student’s score for my portion of the class, and then my colleague shared her score. With many students my colleague changed the mark the students had earned based on her own impression of how hard the student worked, or what grade she felt they student deserved. I was shocked. Does this type of subjective assessment have a place in a grading system when standardized test scores are given such a high priority in the overall performance of our schools?

The feedback between teacher and student that is communicated through both classroom and testing marks is key to the educational progress of the student, and the educational effectiveness of the teacher. Grades should be as important to teachers as they are to students. However, grading philosophies and standards are as varied as the teachers who record them. While I fully support teacher independence and individuality, I wonder sometimes if the same independent spirit and individual personality should be applied to something as objective as pupil’s grades, especially those that go on the transcripts and could potentially hurt the students in their future academic endeavors.

Try and see it from the students’ perspective. We’ve all been there. I can remember taking a college course where the instructor refused to tell us how much our projects were worth until she completed our finals. What??? I remember thinking. How could I prioritize when I had no idea what was going to make or break my grade. Unfortunately, grades are not equally important to all students. Many students, especially younger kids, fail to understand the value of succeeding in the courses they take. One of our jobs is to teach the importance of good grades and draw connections to success outside the classroom.

Grades do matter so they should matter to teachers. Take a look at your classes. How many kids do you fail each semester? If the numbers are very high, say greater that 50%, then maybe it’s time to take a look at how you are teaching. Sometimes it’s just a rotten class, or a few bad apples, and sometimes it’s the teacher. I have colleagues who regularly fail a large number of their students and yet stubbornly refuse to make changes to their curriculum, teaching style, or classroom personality. Teachers need to be willing to meet kids wherever they are, and then teach them to be successful in whatever subject matter we are teaching. It’s not easy. Sometimes we have to make changes. But that’s our jobs.

I teach project-based courses, so my grading is designed for that type of course. What I do may not work for all teachers and all subjects. I use rubrics for all of my assignments and I grade on a point system. I design the rubrics myself based on whatever content and standards I am teaching. Each area is given a certain number of points that when added together equate to a total score that corresponds to a letter grade. Most, but not all, of the time I follow the standard 90-100% A, 80-89% B, and so on. Some teachers argue that a 90% is really an A-, but I always count anything that breaks the 90% threshold as an “A.”

Most of the time I give the student the rubric I use for grading before I score their projects, so that they can see exactly upon what it is they will be evaluated. To me its fair disclosure. I always hated when teachers “surprised” me by testing on something I didn’t expect, or adding in points of evaluation after I had submitted my work. I also offer students the opportunity to resubmit for points after my initial evaluation if there are areas of weakness they want to improve upon.

The most important thing to me is that my students “get it,” that they learn the material. If that means the students need to revise, edit, and resubmit then that’s all right with me. (I almost never submit any of these essays without pouring over them a number of times and letting them sit for at least a few days, sometimes longer.) Many teachers would argue that this type of revision should be done before the assignments' due dates. I don’t disagree with that, but I do think that kids need to be taught the process.

While I am still struggling with the concept and implementation of frequent common formative assessment, and I will always support a teachers independence in the classroom, and while I am frustrated by the current level of emphasis placed on standardized test scores, and the ensuing death of the high-school elective I see brewing, I do think that some type of objective, formal, consistent grading method across subject matter and grade levels could be a useful and important reform. If rubrics are the method of the day, then lets all use them on not only assignments, but quarter and semester grades as well. If it’s something else, that’s fine too. We teachers are committed to educating our kids and motivating their personal success so we need to get organized and consistent about the way we assess our students and the grades that we record.

April 23, 2006

How to deal with your principal?

This post is a response to an email request.

"Principals come and go." That’s what I was told early on in my teaching career. Since then I've survived four principals in 10 years. So, the statement is true. In fact administrators are far more transitory then are teachers. However, at my high school we have not only experienced a high turn over of administrators, but also a 60% turnover in teachers in the last five years. When I was a kid it seemed like teachers and administrators were fixtures of the high school: they never got older, never changed jobs, and never retired. But that of course is untrue, and in the world of education today, it’s understandable how administrators, especially principals, find it difficult to stay put, at least at the high schools.

The pressure attached to administration of public schools is unbelievable. I have no desire to become an administrator because I don’t want that pressure in my life, and I also believe that the minute you lose daily contact with students, you lose your effectiveness as an educator. I believe that one must have the best intentions and desire to improve schools if they take on an administrative position, but that motivation often gets set aside by the requirements of security, discipline issues, parent contacts, and now, test scores. The threat of complete administrative staff dismissal and alternative agencies taking over campuses is real and frightening. I don’t know if it is actually happening anywhere yet, or if improvements were made, but the intimidation alone is enough to scare most willing administrative souls to be very cautious, and focused on whatever means are necessary for them to keep their schools, and more importantly, their jobs.

Teachers are often completely frustrated with their administrators because the teachers don’t feel like the administrators are paying the right kind of attention to the teachers’ classroom or personal needs; or that the principal, or anyone is actually in their corner. Teachers are often blamed for the lack of student achievement. When teachers do get support from administrators, it is often not in a form the teacher is seeking. Example: test score data in our district is collected by district officials through end-of-course exams, and then returned to the teachers to be analyzed and disaggregated in a timely fashion. It’s the “timely fashion” part that makes the teachers crazy, because while the student results are given to the teachers the same day they give the test, results by question results are not always returned within a significant and useful time frame. The data is critically important to teachers who desire to improve their students’ performance. The data is available, but not delivered quick enough to make appropriate changes. The principal and other administrators serve the unfortunate role of go-betweens and receive the brunt of the teachers’ frustration. But there is little administrators at the campus level can do to improve the situation.

I’m not defending administrators, or suggesting that there is nothing they can do to improve their job performance from the perspective of the classroom teacher. However, I believe that in much the same way that the demonization of teachers for poor student performance can be disingenuous, teachers blaming site administrators for what isn’t happening at our public school campuses can be equally inappropriate.

I’d like to see my high school make changes that I feel the administrators could be more effective in making happen. But to be honest, I don’t completely understand the administrators’ jobs. That’s a little like a parent expecting me to turn their child into a computer genius when their son or daughter doesn't understand keyboarding. Administrators, like teachers, have a lot on their plates. Teachers get frustrated and disappointed when their administrators cannot effectively attend to their problems. Understandable, but perhaps not realistic, for teachers to treat administrators that way.

Perhaps we teachers need to do a better job of handling our own issues and being more effective educational leaders when given the opportunities. (Heretic! I can hear some saying aloud.) Seriously. In my entire teaching career I’ve only written a handful of referrals, and only when I absolutely had to due to fighting in class, theft, or some other egregious act. When little Johnny is a pain in my class, I deal with it myself; I don’t send him to the Dean of Discipline every other day. But then, I don’t have many Johnny Pains in my class because my students are actively engaged in learning.

There are some areas that are out of our control completely. I am continually frustrated beyond words by our counseling office. Year after year I go to the counseling staff with clear and precise information about my courses, and year after year I am either ignored or… For example: my Multimedia CP course is a SOPHOMORE level Art course that carries a prerequisite. The prerequisite is an authentic preparation for the work in the multimedia course. I literally pick up exactly where the prereq finishes off. Yet every year I have freshman students or others who did not take the prerequisite course show up on my class roster. Infuriating! Then there was the year that our programming courses were omitted from the course listings. Students cannot sign up for courses that are not available to them. Had my colleagues and I not caught the error, well it didn’t matter, because we caught it after the course lists had gone to print and had been sent home to parents.

I don’t believe that you can “deal” with a principal anymore than you can “deal” with anyone. Nor would it be appropriate or effective to approach an administrator with such an attitude. I believe that most administrators do the best job they can given the requirements of their position. I think that many teachers fail to recognize what exactly the administrative job requirements are. It would be a very eye-opening experience if every teacher spent one day shadowing any administrator, (but who has time for that?) Teachers need to be willing to work with their administrative staff. Of course we should always voice our concerns, but stubborn insubordination is a dead end. Frustrating, disappointing, even angering at times, but unless teachers are willing to take on even more responsibilities then we already do, we cannot expect more from the principal and his or her assistants who are equally overwhelmed by the current state of education in which we all struggle.

Am I saying just get along and get over it? No. Teachers have two choices. Either work with the current administration as best as possible, or wait it out. The burnout rate for administrators is so high these days that it won’t be long before another one comes along to govern the campus. Maybe they’ll do a better job.

Please post your comments below.

April 20, 2006

WASC Process?

I kept this journal during our WASC accreditation week this year. I shared this blog entry with my Principal before publishing as a professional courtesy, and in an effort to self edit. She had some concerns that we discussed in a private meeting. Mostly she was interested in my motivation: was I trying to use this writing as a catalyst to take on a educational leadership position, or just expressing my thoughts and sharing my experience. The latter. I'm not bent on changing education in a single blog post. So if you are approaching your WASC week, take comfort in knowing that you're not the first, and you won't be the last to go through the "process." You will survive.

Day 1, Sunday 3:00 PM First Meeting.
The visiting team arrived today and toured the campus. The team consists of 8 administrators and teachers; some power players and some regular guys. The leadership team (I was co-chair of the Assessment Focus Group) sat down for a 75 minute meet/greet/Q&A session. The good news is that we did a great job on the self-study document so there weren't many questions that we hadn't already covered in some capacity. Everyone volunteered some response, but not me. For a change, I kept quiet. Not because I didn't want to contribute to the discussion, but because I wanted to listen and pay attention to the process. The visit is a 4-day process, I'll have many opportunities to share.

Day 2, Monday 6:45 AM Meeting.
Many follow up questions from Sunday afternoon. This morning the visiting team asked about the AP program; specifically what we are doing for the higher level kids. Redlands High School traditionally excels at helping higher level kids from a mostly middle to upper level income background succeed and go on to college. We offer a full schedule of H, E, and AP courses. But RHS is changing: we are now officially designated Title 1. The current challenge is to continue to send a large number of students on to college, but now from a population with greater than 40% low SES. The atmosphere among the teachers has always been more like one from a university: very professional, committed to teaching, and expert in the individual content areas. The good news is that this group of professionals is excited about the new challenges it's facing.

Day 2, Monday 2:00 PM Observation.
I planned a great lecture/presentation for today in anticipation of being observed. I was demonstrating the use of the digital video camera. I had my PowerPoint presentation going, the camera plugged into the LCD projector, and the kids were taking notes. It was perfect. (Not only that, but I bribed each one of my classes with doughnuts if they behaved well when observed.) Traditionally 6th period is a tough room so of course that's the one that got observed. I think my overall presentation was pretty impressive, and the kids were actually great, but as luck would have it, my observer came to watch during the worst possible part of my lecture. As she took notes, I sat in a chair in front of the live camera, with a bright light on ME, while the kids watched the cool built-in camera special effects on the projector screen. Of course, I was clowning around having a great time so I probably looked like an incompetent who spends his days "playing" with technology and "entertaining" the kids. Oh well.

Day 3, Tuesday 6:45 AM Meeting.
The visiting team leader shared some concerns after a full day of meetings and observations. First the visiting team saw a lack of what they consider "differentiated instruction" in classroom visits. This is tough since the week is topsy-turvy with multiple meetings, teachers pulled out of classrooms at irregular times, and visitors showing up in classrooms unannounced (see the previous paragraph). The second issue concerned formative assessment at more regular intervals. For example, testing for progress at 3 weeks, 6 weeks, and 9 weeks instead of just a the midterm or end of year. This too is problematic since teachers already assess their own students in their own classrooms nearly daily. The fact that this type of assessment is not formal, regular, or coordinated with other teachers of the same subject does not mean that the teachers are not using the assessments correctly, or making appropriate modifications. Hmmm.

Day 3, Tuesday 8:00 AM Focus Group Meeting (the BIG Show).
We were divided into two groups. Being a Co-Focus Group Leader I was separated from my partner, a math teacher. In my group I had a handful of "aces" and other teachers and staff members who made excellent contributions. I was the "lead man" so I got the first question concerning process directly at me. I stumbled through some incoherent response, and was pleasantly bailed out by some of my colleagues. The questioning continued in a non-confrontational atmosphere of respectful curiosity. There were two important points I wanted to make. First, when asked about structured meeting time, I responded that while the staff in general resented formal meetings when little was accomplished, they took advantage of multiple informal opportunities to collaborate. This staff genuinely enjoys each other's company. For example, the Science department barbecues every Friday at lunch. Sure they spend time visiting socially, but they also use that time to improve their teaching by sharing useful experiences. Two teachers walking down any hallway on campus will most likely be discussing something school related, usually positive, and almost always constructive. The second talking point on my list concerned our approach to the changing demographic. The good news is that this staff is not stuck in the "that's the way we've always taught it" mentality. However, there is a "that's the way we've always done it" approach to the traditions on campus, as there should be. These teachers come to school everyday ready to face the challenge of the kids that show up everyday, to fulfill their needs wherever the kids are at. That is how this high school is going to survive and continue to excel.

Day 4, Wednesday 8:30-10:30 AM
The worst part is being pulled out of class during random hours. The same random hours. This is the second day in a row that I will miss 2nd period. The problem with that beyond the chance of my class being observed without me in it, is how my absent throws off my teaching schedule. I try to keep my five similar classes heading in the same direction at the same pace. I can't do that when I miss the same period two days in a row.

For two hours this morning I sat through a word-for-word reading of the rewrite of the chapter 4 self-study. Why a visiting team who spends less than 20 hours on campus is qualified to rewrite our "self" study I do not know. Mostly they used what we wrote with minor adjustments. However there were a few areas I am concerned about.

The first one goes back to what I wrote previously about random observations during irregular days. They wrote that based on their observations in the classroom, "daily instruction appears to be predominately teacher-centered with few research-based instructional strategies..." This seems to imply that our teachers don't use other than teacher-centered instruction, and that is simply untrue. Unfair in my opinion to site such a finding based on very limited classroom observation time under strained circumstances. We provided evidence to the contrary in our original self-study, but that was not referenced in their rewrite. A few paragraphs later they list some of the ways technology is used in instruction, but leave out specific examples that could have been observed if a better schedule had been created for observation time. Perhaps I am being a bit whinny here, but I don't like the idea that our teachers might be misrepresented.

The second and much larger issue relates to the lack of Frequent Common Formative Assessments. Apparently "everybody" is doing it these days. Really? My problem here is that this is already happening by the teachers on this campus in their own unique (and I think unique is important here) way. Teachers are constantly assessing, and reteaching based on data collected from these assessments. The current method allows teachers to assess specifically to their own unique population of students. Apparently the research shows that teachers who create these (shall we call them FCFAs) do show improved results. My question is, where do they start from? From a 700+ API? Part of the reason we do as well as we do here is that teachers are allowed some freedom in their teaching. Freedoms that have already been restrained by standards, standardized testing, and NCLB. It feels like we're heading to a place where the "art" of teaching is being replaced by the "science " of teaching and (to make a leap) computers and software alone will be sufficient to teach kids. All we really need is labs of really fast PC's (Macs are for "artists") and a tech who can turn the power on while Read 180, NOVANET, and the Rosetta Stone take over. Am I nothing more than a future iTeacher or is it I, Teacher? Seriously, if my teaching schedule is going to be so regimented, my quizzes and chapter tests written and given to me by a "testing committee," my finals provided and scored by the district office, then where exactly is my input going to be used? Oh, that's right, to make sure that no child gets left behind. But what about leaving the teacher behind? Thank God I'm an elective teacher; we get ignored because we're Dodo birds (soon to be extinct). Someday I'll be back in the English classroom. When I am I hope that the job requirements includes more than simply unlocking the classroom door.

Day 4, Wednesday 2:30 PM The Final Meeting?
The staff collected for the visiting team's presentation of the WASC report. They shared the same basic information I had heard earlier in the day. We all applauded. We also applauded a woman, a retired teacher of over 40+ years, who did a wonderful job organizing the entire experience for our school; without her, we would have never made it. And so it ends.

One of the comments I heard, and I've been hearing since the current administration took over awhile back, is that ours is a "good" school working to become "great." I resent that. Maybe it's my ego. I think my school is not just good, or great, but unbelievably, off-the-charts, cosmically GREAT! Sure, we have areas we need to improve upon, and the "WASC Process" helped us identify and created an action plan to address those needs. My father used to tell me, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." My school is not "broke." I fear that in an effort to fix what isn't broken we may actually become "good," and then need to strive for "great." Or perhaps we can indeed put the WASC recommendations into action and move from "unbelievably, off-the-charts, cosmically GREAT" to "SUPREME GREATNESS!" Time will tell, or at least the midterm WASC report in three years.
My hostility towards the Frequent Common Formative Assessments is wearing off a little. While I still reject anything that forces teachers into unbreakable look-alike molds, I do see the benefit of sharing comparable data and collectively choosing the best test items. As for post-WASC cleanup, we're now faced with the challenge of figuring out how to bank time. I still feel that our WASC report misses some very important issues on our campus, but the areas it does address will be important to our continued success educating kids.

April 17, 2006

In the blood?

Is teaching in the blood? I don’t think so. I believe teachers are made, not born, and the bloodline is inconsequential. Neither my parents nor my grandparents were teachers. However, I recently learned that my great-great-grandfather taught elementary school for over 50 years. Significant? Probably not. But there are those teachers out there that just seem to be born to teach. They’re naturals. Great instruction and creative engaging assignments just seem to flow through them with ease. Their students always behave well and never fail their courses. These teachers are gifted individuals answering a “higher calling” when they walk into their classrooms and turn on the lights. Actually these people were not born this way. Instead these “master teachers” have worked very hard to achieve this level of proficiency in their craft. So there is hope for the rest of us: the imperfect teachers who, much like in our childhood scholastic careers, have to work, scrape, and sweat for every small success in the classroom. Thankfully, there are a few characteristics of master teachers that can be learned, applied, and refined by all teachers.

The attitude we bring to our classrooms is a huge part of our success. Nothing turns a kid (or anyone else) off faster than being forced to work with an individual who has a sour attitude. Our attitudes are one of the few things that we can control, especially when our classrooms are tumbling out of control. I don’t always look on the bright side of life. I try, but most of the time I fail. My faith plays a huge role in my life and I’m thankful that I have it to rely on. One of my closest colleagues is atheist; I honestly don’t know how he makes it through his day, or what keeps him going when the going gets tough. Our students store was recently broken into by two brothers, the older being responsible for watching the younger. After they broke the window, the younger boy (6) was “placed” through the broken window by his older brother (10) so that the two could then get access to the candy inside. Who was watching out for these kids? No one at the time of the robbery (other than the surveillance cameras). Teachers watch out for kids, but we can only do so much. It takes a village to raise a child and the teacher is second in command after the parents.

You don’t have to be a parent to be an effective teacher, but being a parent has certainly made me a more patient teacher. I have a son who is bipolar. Nothing, and I mean nothing, that I have ever been confronted with at school with my students has ever even approached the challenges I face daily with my son. I use the patience that I have learned parenting my own children with the pupils I teach in my classroom. Almost nothing fazes me anymore. Almost nothing. However, I find it increasingly difficult to tolerate students who don’t seem to listen, ignore the directions, and then ask me questions about the classroom assignments that I have just explained. Patience is a key factor to success in the classroom and a major byproduct of parenting.

It’s hard work to make time to create and prepare appropriate lessons that engage students. I teach a six-period day. In other words, I don’t have a conference or prep period. I have to spend time before and after school preparing lessons and grading work. I spend a significant period of time each summer revising my lab manual. For my subject matter, multimedia, I have found that collecting and writing original assignments and assessments is more effective then trying to stick to someone else’s out-dated textbook. It’s more work then most people are willing to do. Call me crazy, but it works best for me. But not all teachers want to work hard. I would suggest that anyone looking to become a teacher because of the shorter work schedule and summers off find another profession. Many schools in California have already gone year-round anyway. Even my campus is going “modified traditional,” (whatever that means), in 2007-2008.

So if teachers are made, what are they made of? Our biology includes attitude, patience, a willingness to work hard, and a philanthropic spirit. Philanthropy is part of teaching? It has to be. No one teaches to improve him or herself, although that is another nice byproduct. I believe that we are all born basically selfish if for no other reason then to guarantee our own survival. Most teachers have grown beyond the self-centered view and come to not only understand that this is not a successful way to maintain or grow our world, but also that if we are all going to survive at all, we all need to be educated. Not just the elites, or the rich, but everyone needs an education to succeed. Almost like those individuals who take a vow of poverty, teachers give up a huge part of their own personal self-interest in order to serve our world. No one is born ready and willing to do that. It’s a decision each teacher comes to individually, privately, and sometimes almost as an epiphany of sorts.

It’s important for us to understand that we are part of something much, much bigger than ourselves. The education of our world’s children is a huge responsibility and a major contribution to our culture and society. The public education of our children is a greater good in which teachers are the leading players. Administrators support teachers and parents entrust their children to teachers but it is the regular, everyday classroom teacher who makes the educational difference in the child’s life. What we do matters. So how we do it is critically important. Are the teachers going to save the world? To the extent that the world can be saved, I believe they play a starring role. Not because they were made that way, but because they have made that choice.

Please post your comments below.

April 13, 2006

Does blogging matter?

Maybe. Does connecting with other teachers matter? Absolutely, and that’s one reason why blogging is important. There are many teacher blogs in the blogosphere right now: Ms. Frizzle, Cool Cat Teacher blog, The Education Wonks, Hip Teacher, Right on the Left Coast, Computer Science Teacher, and Tom’s 2 cents to name a few. Check out my blogroll for many others. And there is room for many, many more. Blogging not only connects us, it gives us an opportunity to vent a little, or a lot. If you are a regular reader of this blog then you know that sometimes I just rant, and it feels great. Teachers are human beings but we are expected to be superhuman and that’s just crazy. I believe that what we do makes us super-heroes, but not superhuman. So taking some time weekly, or even daily to let it all out is good for the soul and will make you a better teacher.

I’ve been writing regularly now for a few months. I am nutty about checking my traffic and comments. Sometimes I get discouraged that more people don’t read my entries (maybe that’s a good thing) but then I usually receive a very complimentary comment, or find out that some good has come from the time I have spent sharing, or someone has received encouragement to continue on. I don’t know if you can tell this, but most of my motivation for writing is to keep me teaching in the classroom. Like you, I think of quitting all the time. Not that I don’t love teaching, or working with kids, but the temptation is always there to hang it up and pursue a profession that pays a little more, offers a little more prestige, or isn’t quite so draining of my energy. By writing I reassure myself that what I am doing is worthwhile, and that my time spent not only make a difference, but also actually changes and improves other people’s lives.

We teachers are like that. I believe that most of us are driven by a desire to improve the world we live in one student at a time. Sure, some of us teach for the great vacation time, or so-called early dismissals, but I don’t think that anyone can survive in teaching without believing that somehow all the personal sacrifice is not vanity. Maybe it is sometimes, but somebody has to take on the responsibility of educating the young, why not me? I’ve thought about a career in heavy machine operation. Seriously. I own an old Ford tractor and I absolutely love tooling around the property on it. I was surprised to find out that holding a master’s degree and operating heavy machinery is not that uncommon. Apparently other former teachers have found relief behind the wheel of a skip-loader or behind the controls of a bulldozer. Who knew? But at the end of a hard day of ditch digging or road leveling I don’t think I’d drive home with the same sense of satisfaction and the comfort of knowing that I did more in that day then simply perform an assigned task.

Back to blogging. You should start your own blog. Hugh Hewitt wrote a great book called Blog last year that is worth a read. When I first got the crazy notion to start writing a blog I sent him an email with the first few entries asking if he thought my idea to write would find an audience. He did, and it has. According to my stat counter, teachers from all over the world are reading and sharing these articles, or short essays, or blog entries, (I don’t know what to call them really). They’re long, I know, but at about 1000 words each they’re at a length that is comfortable for me to communicate what I’m thinking about. You’re blog entries need not be so verbose. Starting a blog is super easy. I use blogger.com, but there are many others, and most services and sites are free. I’m always suspecting of those who want to charge, but if you feel more comfortable with a fee site, go for it. If you do start blogging shoot me an email and I’ll list you on my blog roll.

You should blog and share your teaching experience with other teachers including what you know works for you in and your kids in your classroom. You might think that “everybody does that,” or, “it’s so obvious,” but that’s only true for you. Most of us can’t go into our colleagues’ classrooms and observing them teaching. We don’t have time to take notes, share successes, collaborate, or just plain chat during our regular workday. I teach six periods (by choice) so I don’t even get a conference period to work with my cohorts. Some schools are doing a great job with banking time and block schedules giving teachers more time to join forces. But mostly we are still a consortium of individuals who spend our days grinding away in our own little worlds with limited adult contact. Teachers need to get out more, or at least out on the Internet more. That’s where blogging becomes a very effective tool for replacing the collaborative time we lose while we’re actually working.

Blogging won’t solve the world’s educational problems, but it will make those of us who take the time to take advantage of the technology better teachers, and that’s better for the world or education. If you don’t feel like you’re ready to start your own blog, then at least become an active commenter on the blogs you read now. Some of my best ideas for writing have come from either the comments left on this blog, or emails that I have received from regular readers. Although it sometimes feels like we are alone in our endeavor to teach the young, like we will never have a decent adult conversation at work again, and that our non-teacher spouses will never understand why we are so exhausted every night, take heart. We have blogs and blogging to join us as a global community of educators to share resources, to voice our concerns, or to just share amusing experiences. Like that time I…

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April 10, 2006

Context and Perspective?

Context and perspective are two gifts that we can give our students that they cannot get by themselves. Of course content and standards are important, but without putting the subject matter into a context that students can understand, and sharing our adult perspective on that context, then even the best “stuff” is meaningless to our kids. Who cares that there is a war going on in the Middle East unless we understand why that war is being fought, and why victory is so important? Kids, without the guidance of adults, don’t get it.

Again, I’m merging the roles of teacher and parent, and some people feel that to do so is inappropriate. It is inappropriate if the teacher tries to over ride or replace the parent. It is not inappropriate if the teacher compliments the parents’ efforts to raise their children right, as evidence by the fact that they send their kids to public school in the first place. I’m not talking about pushing one’s political views, or using the classroom lectern as a bully pulpit. Teachers who do (i.e. the Colorado Bush is Hitler guy) do damage to teachers and teaching as a profession, and that’s not cool.

However, there are times in our teaching day when it is appropriate for teachers, acting as mentors, to put the subject matter in terms the kids can understand. We have to. If the pupils are going to “get” what we are teaching, we need to package the content in a format they understand. We additionally need to put it in the context of their life experiences and understanding. Difficult at best especially when we teach such a broad range of kids from an equally diverse background. But without context, nothing makes sense, and how can we expect our kids to understand what we’re paid to teach them when it doesn’t make sense to them? We need to put it in context.

But how do we put anything we teach into an understandable context for everyone we teach? I am honestly unsure. It helps to get to know your students, learn who they are, what they know, and don’t know, how they think, and most importantly, how the learn. Relationships with students make the difference for many student groups. Some groups don’t require a feeling of connection with the classroom teacher; other groups require it if learning is to begin. Some teachers are very uncomfortable with the reality that their success in teaching is affected by their connectedness to their students. Some of us simply want to show up, deliver the goods, and get out. That simply doesn’t work anymore, if it ever did at all.

If we are going to frame our subject matter in a context that our students understand we need to understand our students. That’s not the same as becoming our students, or even begin compassioned for our students, but we need to study our student populations so that we can make adjustments that work for them so that we can teach them. Academic study helps, and there are trail-blazing teachers out there like Ruby Paine who have done a remarkable amount of ground work in the area and offer books and training to help us along. But nothing can replace the simple process of talking to our students. Take some time (impossible I know in the world of API, AYP, and CASHEE) to talk with your kids. Ask them about themselves, their families, their likes, dislikes, fears, joys, days, and even what happens when they go home at night. Not in an intrusive way, but with an approach that communicates you are genuinely interested in who they are as people. Sounds a little like drippy liberal drivel, but it works.

The other gift we should freely offer to the pupils is our perspective. Perspective is one of the major factors in addition to age and education and our unique life experiences that is different from our kids and that separates us for the other 20 to 35 (or more) people in the room everyday. It is our responsibility as the “adults in charge” to give our students the appropriate “adult” view of the content of the subjects we teach as well as the issues and concerns that the kids bring to the classroom. If we are teaching literature and we can identify with the character in the story then we should share our point of view to help the kids experience the story beyond the limitations of the printed page. If my English teacher had more than simply droned out Great Expectations and shared his reaction to the story, how he identified with the characters, and what he learned from their experiences then I might have actually paid attention, and not have regularly fallen asleep in his class.

I assigned students the task of getting rights clearance to a song recording to be used in their music video assignment. It’s not an easy task. Most large corporations could care less about a high school students’ classroom assignment. The students are easily discouraged. But I tell them to keep after it. Keep writing letters, sending emails, and making phone calls until they get what they need. To help encourage them, I shared my experience of once being assigned the task of finding in size 54 cal-trans orange jumpsuit. Not an easy task, but I was persistent, I didn’t quit, didn’t take no for an answer, and was ultimately successful. They will be too. Knowing that someone else has been down the path they currently travel, shared some common experiences, and lived to tell the tale is not only inspirational, but could just make the difference in the ultimate success of failure of the student.

Creating context and sharing perspective is not included in the job description of any teaching assignment that I‘ve seen. However many veterans working in the classroom today would agree that it is a big part of what we do. Teachers are like tour guides for life. We introduce kids to the many important concepts, ideas, facts, and tools that they need to survive and become productive citizens. Students models their lives after us so it’s our responsibility to give them good, positive, examples to live by that include the context and perspective of our lives.

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