Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Importance of Funding The National Writing Project

Scream. Yell. Make a fuss. Write. Write. Write. My advice to draw attention to The National Writing Project and the federal government's plan to eliminate funding for this proven literacy program.  The NWP provides high quality professional development during summer institutes training teachers to return to their home schools to impact their teaching, student learning, and the growth of teachers across the curriculum. 

On a personal note, I participated in a NWP Institute several summers ago.  The collegial opportunity to share my thoughts, ideas, writing, hopes and learning with other teachers, who gave up their summer to participate, was a worthy experience in and of itself.  But to take what I learned into the classroom that following fall and implement new strategies for teaching writing was invaluable.  The outcome?  Measurable growth in my students' writing. What more could I ask for?  And to think that this opportunity for other teachers will no longer be available ...  Scream.  Yell.  Make a fuss.  Write. Write. Write.  We must save The National Writing Project.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

What is Student Leadership Anyway?

Here's what my high school's seniors on the Student Leadership Team had to say today (stream of consciousness):
1. making a difference
2. being creative
3. working for a cause
4. making the school a better place
5. being a role model
6. being proud
They're eating pizza and cookies to celebrate the end of the year, so it's difficult for them to concentrate.  Further, they're thinking about the senior prank going down late tonight.  Student leaders involved in a prank?  Well, what can we do??  : )

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Students Talking About Leadership

Enjoyed this post by a superintendent about a student's thoughts on leadership.  Wondering what our high school's student leadership team thinks about this.  And will they care to comment?  We'll see tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Grading: Arbitrary Punishment?

At our administrative meeting yesterday, our fearless leader began to dig deeper about how the system of grading really works at our high school, and, ultimately, what its purpose is. It got me thinking about the difference between grading and assessing. Recognizing that we can't do yet without a grading system, how could the one we have work better for our students and our teachers?

It's a no-brainer that in today's public schools, assessment has taken on a different meaning than when I was in high school in the late 80's. If we are to be held accountable, then our students must learn the standards, and if our students are to learn what we want them to learn, then we must assess, assess, and assess in various and different ways, formatively and summatively. And then based on the results, we change our instruction, reteach, remediate, support - whatever we have to do to make sure our students learn.

Conversely, research has shown that grading is "ineffective, time-consuming, and hurtful" to both teachers and students (Zemelman et al. 314). Grading, at best, is superficial, based on an arbitrary, pre-determined number scale that has symbolic meaning only. Well, then, what good are grades? Can't we get rid of them? Hold on. Not anytime soon. Our society isn't ready; grading systems are too entrenched in our culture. And there aren't enough educators out there who want to fight the long battle; there are too many other battles to fight.

So if grades are staying, we have to make sure the process from assessment to final indicator, the grade, is as seamless, fair, timely, and consistent within a content area as possible, for both students and teachers. If the real thought and effort goes into designing and constructing the assessments, which is where you want it, then grading should be rote with consistent rules to follow, and there should be little room for subjectivity.

I never lose sight of this: a grade by itself, an A- for example, tells us very little about the student or the teacher. A look at the student's work, however, should tell the story if the assessments are worthwhile. That's another post.

Work Cited:
Zemelman et al. Best Practice: Today's Standards for Teaching and Learning in America's Schools. Heinemann: Portsmouth, New Hampshire. 2005.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Beliefs are Nothing without Action

After Arne Duncan was appointed our new Secretary of Education, I caught an interview with him on All Things Considered (NPR, February 4, 2009). His mother is still running an inner-city tutoring program that she started in Chicago in 1961. He remarked that she is an incredible person who turns kids' lives around. Along the same lines, he stated that if we " ... believe in them, invest in them, [and] have the highest of expectations ..." our children will turn the world on its head. He got me thinking about the characteristics of adults who make a real difference in the lives of our students.

In Osterman and Kottkamp's 2004 edition of Reflective Practice for Educators, they say it very simply: "The actions that [educators] take, individually and collectively, determine whether children succeed" (7). Further, Osterman and Kottkamp emphasize the importance of cognition, maintaining that our beliefs influence our actions. Unfortunately, they don't say much about what those actions entail. Further, other than our beliefs, what are the factors involved that get us moving? I think that making a difference is a result of serious effort. In other words, it's hard work. 'Thought influences action,' but thought alone can't act. So how does action really play a role, and what does it look like? Even more compelling, what are the characteristics of a teacher who makes a difference?

If teachers are outstanding, which means that all of their students are very successful, I have come to my own conclusion that they must, at the least, have the following characteristics, along with the true belief that every child can and will be successful.
  1. Outstanding teachers must consistently work hard.
  2. They must work long hours for the benefit of perhaps only one student.
  3. They must be organized with their time while maintaining a healthy personal life.
  4. They must be very organized with their material things related to school.
  5. They must be truly altruistic, not wanting recognition or payment.
  6. They must have high self confidence to be able to act without the approval of others, mainly other teachers.
  7. They must be physically and mentally healthy, well-grounded and balanced.

What I'm really getting at is this: teaching is one of the most difficult jobs in the world if we want to do it right. Believing that our students can succeed is just the tip of the very beginning. Then comes the real work. Serious action with serious intent. And serious hard work.

Although I'm not really sure about this, I'd bet that Arne Duncan's mother has more than just a belief in and high expectations for her students. I'd bet that she is also an incredibly hard worker, organized in more ways than one, genuinely altruistic, confident, healthy, well-grounded, and balanced.

Ok, my next assignment is to come up with the ultimate list of questions to ask prospective teachers during interviews to find out whether or not they have the characterisitics listed above. If anybody has a start on this list, can you kindly forward it to me?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Creativity: Have Teachers Lost It?

I've heard too often that a state's standards and their accompanying standardized assessments have taken creativity out of the classroom. For the student and the teacher. I would argue differently. Think about it. Standards and state assessments are only a small part of what makes up curriculum. Don't forget that included in any good curricula is what is taught, how it is taught, the materials used, pacing guides, and the formative and summative assessments that are created locally. The state doesn't mandate how we get our students where they need to be in relation to the standards. The standards are simply our guidelines for building our local curriculum. This is where the creativity comes in.

Who is to say that we have to remain at the level of the standards written? Let's be creative and up the ante. For example, take the following Virginia Standards of Learning for 10th grade English.

The student will participate in and report on small-group learning activities.
a) Assume responsibility for specific group tasks.
b) Participate in the preparation of an outline or summary of the group activity.
c) Include all group members in oral presentation.
d) Use grammatically correct language, including vocabulary appropriate to the topic, audience, and purpose.

A teacher who believes that she isn't able to tap into her creativity to enrich this standard will simply have her students work in a group with certain meaningless tasks outlined. Each student will write something, and then each group member will present and use correct grammar. This lesson could take 15 minutes and fail to include anything relevant, thought-provoking, challenging, and/or stimulating - all of the things associated with creativity. Now let's look at these standards differently with the intent to embed creativity in the lesson.

First, the teacher has to use her creativity and intuition to decide when she should incorporate these standards in her timeline to optimize learning. She needs to determine how the group activity can be easily connected to the content knowledge and to other English and cross-curricular standards. She must determine what the essential questions are that need to be answered by students during this lesson and what, ultimately, she wants her students to learn that includes the standards. She has to figure out to make the lesson challenging. In other words, does it get students to think differently about something as compared to how they usually think? Is the lesson relevant? Is there a way to use community resources to bring relevancy into the lesson? Can students find a way to connect it to their own lives? Does it stimulate reflective thought? Are students applying their knowledge and skills in a real-world setting? How will she assess? She should provide students a rich way to show their growth. Who will the audience be? Other classrooms? Younger children? Parents? ... whew! This is really hard work.

It's not easy to say what I really mean. Some teachers today, not all, are taking the easy way out because they can. If they teach the standards at the level that they are presented, they can do it without creativity, which means less work and less commitment. And then they can blame the standards movement for the lack of creativity and lackluster classrooms. A rich curriculum that is creative and challenging takes a tremendous amount of work. Fortunately, we don't have to start from square one; the standards are already supplied for us. The creativity lies in how we get our students there.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

"I make a #@*% difference! What about you?"

I found this in my school mailbox recently ... a piece written anonymously, photocopied, and shared among those of us who care.

He says the problem with teachers is, "What's a kid going to learn from someone who decided his best option in life was to become a teacher?"
He reminds the other dinner guests that it's true what they say about teachers:
Those who can, do: those who can't, teach.

I decide to bite my tongue instead of his and resist the temptation to remind the other dinner guests that it's also true what they say about lawyers.

Because we're eating, after all, and this is polite company.

"I mean, you're a teacher, Taylor," he says.
"Be honest. What do you make?"

And I wish he hadn't done that (asked me to be honest) because, you see, I have a policy about honesty and ass-kicking: if you ask for it, I have to let you have it.

You want to know what I make?

I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could.
I can make a C+ feel like a Congressional medal of honor and an A- feel like a slap in the face.
How dare you waste my time with anything less than your very best.

I make kids sit through 40 minutes of study hall in absolute silence. No, you may not work in groups. No, you may not ask a question. Why won't I let you get a drink of water? Because you're not thirsty, you're bored, that's why.

I make parents tremble in fear when I call home:
I hope I haven't called at a bad time, I just wanted to talk to you about something Billy said today. Billy said, "Leave the kid alone. I still cry sometimes, don't you?"
And it was the noblest act of courage I have ever seen.

I make parents see their children for who they are and what they can be.

You want to know what I make?

I make kids wonder.
I make them question.
I make them criticize.
I make them apologize and mean it.
I make them write, write, write.
And then I make them read.
I make them spell definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful over and over and over again until they will never misspell either one of those words again.
I make them show all their work in math.
And hide it on their final drafts in English.
I make them understand that if you got this (brains) then you follow this (heart) and if someone ever tries to judge you by what you make, you give them this (the finger).

Let me break it down for you, so you know what I say is true:
I make a goddamn difference! What about you?