Friday, May 10, 2019

Negotiating with the Rebellious Soul

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I have not been involved with the bigger picture of education.  It's not that I have given up, a way...I give up.  I have been focused on the perfection of my craft.  It's the best I can do in this insane and idiotic industry.

This week, being Jewish has helped me tremendously as a teacher.  As I've written before, this year has been incredibly difficult for me.  I have been challenged by the students like I've never been challenged before: the entitlement, the disrespect, the lack of effort.

Now that the year is wrapping up, I am doing my usual reflection on the year and what I could have done better.  In Judaism, one of the areas of study this particular week is a concept of "tochecha", which gets translated as "rebuke".  The Torah outlines 4 consecutive rules in this week's section of study:
  1.  You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart
  2.  You shall rebuke your kinsfolk, but incur no guilt 
  3.  You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge because of your kinsfolk
  4.  You shall love your neighbor as yourself
Seemingly, these four consecutive sentences are not related, but when I studied them I was able to apply it to my reflection for the year, and preparation for next year.  Basically, there was A LOT I could have done better.

The first rule does not ban "hate" on its own.  It bans hate "in my heart", meaning that I cannot carry it with me. I am allowed to feel it, but I cannot carry it.  I am allowed to feel negatively about a student or a student's behavior, but I am not allowed to let it enter "into" my heart.

This leads to the second rule, where I have to "rebuke" a negative behavior without creating "sin" or "ill".  This rule forces me to confront a student, but I cannot do it in such a way where I create sin for myself.  I cannot insult, I cannot embarrass, I cannot make false claims, etc.  There is so much commentary out there about this part.  How can someone possibly "rebuke" someone else within these parameters?  There are also many commentaries about accepting "rebuke" within these parameters as well...but that's for another time.

This third rule is what may seem out of place, but it is this very rule that makes me reflect on my teaching this year.  This third rule is the consequence of the first rule.  If you allow hate to stay in your heart, it will impact your behavior.  Hate will always show itself: the best thing to do is follow the second rule and confront or "rebuke" it.  If not, this third rule comes into play.  If you don't control your negative feeling, it will come across as vengeance.  If you simply smile and repress your hate, it will come across as resentment or a grudge.  As I reflect on this year, I allowed my negative feelings to embody as resentment.  I didn't confront well, I didn't "rebuke" properly, and it came across as a grudge.  I was not neighborly.  I violated this rule.

The fourth rule is quite famous, but I never knew it in the context of following the previous three.  Now that I have studied the three previous rules, I can read "love your neighbor as yourself" as a process of "self improvement" more than "self love". The 3 previous rules are designed to repair something that is broken, especially if the 2nd rule is to be followed correctly.  You know the repair process has worked if you follow the 3rd rule and see no vengeance or resentment.  The process of repair with your neighbor is supposed to be the same process you use on yourself.  It is what I'm doing right now: reflection, which moves through rebuke without sin, that should result in improvement.

The Rebellious Soul and Negotiation
Now enters the 2nd piece of learning I encountered this week: the rebellious soul.  There is a lot to the concept of this soul, sometimes called a "soul of chaos" and I can relate to this soul because I feel I encountered quite a few of them this year.  I may be wrong in that determination, but let's say I'm right.  Let's say that my profession and the choices I make in my profession place me in direct contact with many "souls of chaos".  How do I react?  How can I teach a rebellious soul?  How can I have a productive relationship with students set on destruction?

The answer to that question is found through the 3rd piece of learning I encountered this week: negotiation.  The course for negotiation I encountered was within the context of Jewish learning and "tochecha".  You can find the source sheet for that course here.  Working with a rebellious soul inside a classroom can be related to a negotiation situation where rules for engagement must be employed and followed in order to communicate effectively.  If I am to follow the 4 consecutive rules, I must have rules of engagement when working with rebellious souls.  The teacher of the course I encountered, Michael Tsur, gave some insight in the context of hostage situations for rules of engagement.

Solutions to Ponder
When dealing with a rebellious soul, the first step is to make your request: "Would you please ______"?   This is similar to the first step of "rebuke" in tochecha.  Using the confrontation sentence frame:  "I feel ____ when you ____.  Is there a reason you are doing _______?"  These first steps can begin a communication.  In the case of tochecha, the ultimate goal of this question is make sure you are not making assumptions and have a grasp on the entire picture, not just your own perspective.

With this request or question, you are now able to begin a communication.  In the context of negotiation, it is important to not insult the rebellious soul or make the soul defensive.  The goal of negotiation, as Michael Tsur puts it, is to protect your assets.  In education, I would argue that the assets worth protecting are "student learning".  I want students to learn.  I want them to seek learning.  In the communication with the rebellious soul, I want to protect student learning.  So, I do not want to insult the student or make the student defensive.  I want to engage with the student to ensure learning.  This ties back to tochecha in that the result from the 4 consecutive rules should be a change in behavior and attitude.  Somewhere.  It may be your neighbor's behavior and attitude that could change, but it also may be your own behavior and attitude that could change!!!  In order to achieve this end, open channels of communication must remain.

What if the rebellious soul says "no" to your request?  In order to prevent defensiveness, it is important to not ask "why not?" or press the motive for the behavior if it's not offered at the onset.  Do not seek their justification for the behavior.  This will create defensiveness.

In order to prevent insult, it is important to stay focused on the behavior and not offer something separate in exchange for compliance.  That is what creates the insult.  So, if we cannot ask why and cannot offer something in exchange, what do we do with the rebellious soul who says "no" to our request?

We begin to ask: "what is it that could be said or done to allow you to ____ ?" When they ponder the response to this question, we can now get into a conversation.  We can begin to address the attitudes and behaviors, even our own, that must change according the 4 consecutive rules without creating "sin" or "guilt".  We can get an accurate picture of the entire situation and not just our own perspective. We can build a relationship.  We can come to a peace or an understanding.  We can address the situation and prevent ourselves from "vengeance" and "resentment".  We can repair the broken situation.

But what if the rebellious soul still says "no"?  What if we have done everything and there is still rebellion?  We have to have peace with the process.  We can remember:
- We cannot control other people.  We can only do our best with the process and hope that we can repair the situation.  The whole leading a horse to water thing...
- We must take care of ourselves.  Working with rebellious souls usually takes up a lot of mental and emotional space for us.  Through the process of the struggle, our only method of survival is to take good care of ourselves.  We have to focus on mental health, physical health, spiritual health.  We have to employ breathing techniques or meditation or medication or walking or running (I'm a runner).  Rebellious souls force us to look inward during our journey together.
- We must seek to improve.  If nothing else, we should reflect on our efforts with rebellious souls and find ways to be better on our end moving forward.  Were there things we could have done better to prevent the negative situations?  Were there obstacles within our control that could have mitigated on behalf of the rebellious souls?

As much as I would like to say "it wasn't me" about my struggles this year, there is much I can take away.  There are methods of communication I can improve, there are mechanisms in my class I can put into place, and there are processes that I can change.  Many of my students this year were giant pains in my rear end, but I hope my experience with them will make me a better teacher and a better husband and a better father.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Too Far Gone?

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I recently had the worst professional day of my career.

I teach high school math, and I discovered that puts me in a bubble of convenient ignorance.  I have encountered lack of academic skill.  I have encountered lack of willingness to try.  I have encountered all the successes and failures that students can exhibit within a high school math class.  I am used to all of it.

This year I have been trying to incorporate more and more reading in what I'm doing for math.  Recently I dove into full on word problems for basic pre-algebra and algebra concepts of straight lines.  It is a concept that is introduced to students between 5th and 7th grade.  As usual, my seniors in high school struggled with it.  As I began to dig into why they were struggling, I found out that it was not the math.  It was the reading comprehension.  Here was an example:

"The Gaming Club adds 5 new members per week.  After week 6, they had 25 members."  I asked "What is the slope?" and "What is the ordered pair?"

If you don’t know the answer to those questions, hang on.  All year, I have been consistently teaching the vocabulary for Slope as "a rate of change" and an Ordered Pair (x, y) as "IF x, THEN y".  Not only have these seniors experienced these concepts since at least 8th grade, I have been consistently enforcing this vocabulary throughout the year.  With the consistent vocabulary, I argue this question is NOT a math question, but more of a reading comprehension question.  The trouble is, only very few students were able to correctly understand the slope of 5 or the ordered pair of (6, 25).

I was dumbfounded. I had no idea the reading comprehension was at that low of a level.  So, I did an online training and I consulted one of our Reading teachers about how to incorporate comprehension skills for a question like this.  I restructured my notes, and I went back to re-teach the class reading comprehension through these math examples.  I began each class stressing something I have stressed before:

Reading Comprehension is more important than Math.  And remember who is saying this.  Your inability to factor a polynomial does not threaten our Democracy.

I poured my soul out to my seniors in high school the importance of understanding basic reading comprehension.  I did everything I could to encourage them to struggle through in order to improve, to stop at any word they did not understand, to deconstruct clauses, to continue trying the word problem examples so they could understand the questions more than the math involved to answer them.  When I still faced resistance to even try, from 17 and 18 year olds who will vote (or worse, who will NOT vote), I was crushed.  My bubble of ignorance provided by my math class collapsed.  Here are 17 and 18 year old young adults, finishing high school, ready to vote, no longer in the safety of a public high school, aware they struggle with reading comprehension... and not even willing to address that deficiency.

Are we too far gone?

No matter how difficult it may be, I try not to blame the students.  They don't know basic math, even though they have seen it for the last 4 years?  It's not their fault.  I'm used to that.  But they don't know basic reading comprehension?  That one hurts me.  That one is hard.  But maybe it's still not their fault.

Alfie Kohn teaches that students are rational beings.  If they find out they can get by without doing work, they may not do work.  That's not being lazy, that's rational.  Why would they do a thing they don't want to do if they either see no value in it or know they will suffer minimum to zero consequences?  If they have learned that whatever consequence they do receive is better than the discomfort of doing a thing, why not choose the consequence? That's a rational decision.  When that rational decision-making snowballs over the years, it ends with high school seniors who are content with not understanding basic reading comprehension.  It's still not their fault. They are a product of the institution of "School".

This has me thinking about Learning Lessons.  Which lessons do students truly Learn?  Where do they Learn them?  When is that Learning a very deep learning that is rooted and ingrained?

Which lessons do students truly Learn?
Just like the rest of us, the most powerful lessons we see are the lessons that are demonstrated by action.  When a parent has to say "do as I say, not as I do", we know that parent has lost.  The child has learned a behavior based on a parent's model.  The learned behavior is deemed acceptable by the child regardless of scolding, grounding, or other consequences.  What the child sees from the parent is what the child knows to be acceptable, regardless of what the parent says.  The lesson taught by action and experience is learned more than the lesson taught by words.  The child knows it deeply, understands it thoroughly, and creates a world view based on the acceptance of that behavior.

This type of learning not only happens from a parent, it happens from a community or society or culture.  What children see as acceptable behavior in a community know it deeply to be acceptable for themselves. Where a behavior learned from a community contradicts a behavior learned by a parent, conflict ensues that places immense pressure on the parent to teach what is acceptable or tolerated. An individual is tasked with teaching a lesson that contradicts a lesson taught by a community. Any parent can share how incredibly difficult this teaching is.  Usually the parent refers to the following scenario: "well, if they all jumped off of a bridge, would you?" Regardless of whether or not the child actually finds the behavior acceptable, we can appreciate how powerful the community lesson is. Imagine further if the child did not encounter any parental intervention for a behavior learned by a community!

We expand this environment of acceptability outward: from parent, to community, to society, etc. We can see how powerful the lessons learned from larger environments can be, regardless of what individuals within those environments try to impart.  In the case of schools and education, the lessons that students truly Learn are the lessons taught by the institution of "School", not necessarily the lessons taught by the individuals within the school.

Where do students Learn these lessons?
Students learn "School" lessons very early on.  From the first days in a classroom, lessons not even spoken are being taught.  These lessons include, but are not limited to: you must obey the adult, the adult has the power to score you and rank you, you are competing with other children around you, compliance is more important than questioning, results are more important than processes, etc.  These are the lessons learned within a Classroom without being spoken.

Outside of the classroom, students can Learn lessons: being late will not be tolerated, misbehavior in public for any reason will not be tolerated, any disruptive behavior will not be tolerated, individual circumstances probably do not matter, your excuses do not matter, test scores are to be celebrated, results and awards are to be celebrated, you only matter if you can produce scores or awards, etc.  Students quite easily learn lessons that are not spoken.

When is that Learning a very deep learning that is rooted and ingrained?
Well, we are now getting to the "kids these days" question.  What sense of accountability or responsibility do "kids these days" have?  What sense of entitlement do they possess?  These questions and questions like them are answered by the Lessons Learned in School.  By the way, School is forced to teach these lessons, but that's a topic for another time.

These questions are answered by the Lessons learned from school discipline and consequences.  These are the Lessons that shows Alfie Kohn's accuracy in defining student decision-making as "rational" and not "lazy".  I will begin with School discipline lessons.

Students who make poor choices in school will Learn fairly early on that the consequences of their behavioral choices were either disproportionately harsh (zero tolerance policies) or disproportionately irrelevant (suspensions for skipping class).  Students figure out that their individual situation or circumstance has little to no bearing on the type of consequences for their decision-making.  They are not asked why they engaged in their behaviors, or worse, if they were asked, their answers or feedback were irrelevant.  This will Teach students that discipline, or consequences for behavioral choices, are laughable.

When it comes to "kids these days" and what is perceived as their sense of entitlement or lack of respect can be traced to what they Learn in school.  For reasons that are beyond the scope of this writing, schools are bound by district policies implemented to meet statewide statutes or directives.  These create massive pressures for classroom teachers to take on nearly every ounce of accountability when it comes to student academic performance and behavior.  If a student has trouble with an academic concept, it's the teacher's responsibility.  If a student has trouble with behaviors, it's the teacher's responsibility.  The question of whether or not this is right is irrelevant.  What IS relevant is the Lesson being Taught.  Students are not stupid.  Again, they are rational.  And they see this level of accountability and responsibility that rests on their teachers. 

What they Learn is that responsibility is not only on them.  In many cases, the responsibility is not on them at all.  Students are fully aware that the teacher faces blame for almost anything they do.  It is a School Lesson that is learned.  If a student doesn't complete assignments on time, the teacher is forced to accept it late.  If a student has put forth zero effort to understand material, the teacher is blamed for not differentiating to meet that student or not creating a more engaging lesson.  Students can talk back at teachers, curse at teachers, yell at teachers, disrupt classes, keep their heads down, and all sorts of other irresponsible or disrespectful behaviors, and they can do it because they have Learned from School that the teacher is responsible for their behaviors.  Students have Learned this lesson so well that there are instructional videos on YouTube for students to learn how to get their teachers fired with false accusations.  Students have Learned that they can easily blame other people for the things they do or do not do.  "Kids these days" have simply learned the lessons taught to them by School, not by any individuals in school, but by the institution of School.

So, how can I not blame my Seniors in high school for not having basic reading comprehension?  They have developed a deeply rooted and ingrained Lesson from early in school.  They learned that reading comprehension has little impact on what matters the most (unfortunately): their grades and scores.  They learned that learning for the sake of gaining knowledge was not as important as scores and data.   If they struggled early on in reading comprehension, they found out that they were still doing the same things as the students who did not struggle.  When they struggled and an "intervention" occurred, they found out that they could "show" they knew better by clicking the right answers on intervention software and the teacher may not even find out how hard it was for them.  They learned that gaining knowledge was not the point, data was the point.  Fast forward to when there were grades.  Students Learned that when they struggled with reading comprehension, several things may have occurred that allowed them to not worry that they struggled:  they knew knowledge was not a concern, the teacher bent over backward to help them no matter what, the grade in class was based on effort and not performance (I'm not debating the merits of grading here), a school policy may not have allowed failure, a school structure may not have been set up for true intervention, etc.  All these different possibilities created the perfect Lesson Plan for students that Taught them: I don't need to worry about what I don't know, because knowledge is not important and I keep moving forward.  They Learned that it is perfectly okay to not know something.  The consequences of a failure are much easier to handle than working to prevent that same failure in the future.  It's not lazy, it's rational.

Our Institutional Lesson Plan teaches that learning, actual learning, is not important. Scores and grades are important.  Our Institutional Lesson Plan teaches that your ability to learn is irrelevant.  Your ability to earn a score is relevant.  Our Institutional Lesson Plan teaches that personal reflection and accountability has no impact on your progress.  Our Institutional Lesson Plan teaches that facing the consequence for not learning something is much easier than attempting to learn it.  Schools and teachers can take all the responsibility for you.

Are we too far gone?  Perhaps.  But I'll keep trying not to blame the students.  They are just being rational.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

A Year of Silence, Explained

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My last blog post was over a year ago.  There is a reason: Nothing has changed.

Policymakers are still pushing for bad education policy, teachers are still yielding their authority to data, and students still cannot win.  All my previous posts are still (unfortunately) relevant today.

Have I given up?  Absolutely not.  I have been fighting in my own classroom.  I have been doing my best to mitigate the effects of bad policy, I have been asserting my authority to assess students, and I have been explaining the big picture to my students so they can scramble for a win if they choose.  This has not been an easy year because it is difficult to undo 10 years of institutionalization within a system that dehumanizes and devalues every person within it. 

In Atlas Shrugged, the main character was offered advice whenever faced by difficult decisions: check your premises.  This year, I have checked my premises.  When working with students, I operate under the premise that school sucks.

From the very first day of kindergarten, school gets it wrong.  On day one, students learn quickly that their value is not determined by their own exploration or understanding.  They learn quickly that their value is determined by an adult.  They do not own their own experience, it is determined by a score, a mark, a grade, a sticker, some external validation that is judged by someone other than themselves. 
Knowledge itself is absolute and concrete, but the evaluation of knowledge is not.  Knowledge can be gained through an infinite amount of methods and experiences.  From day one, those methods and experiences are narrowed down to a small finite set and paired with a strict timeline that determines winners and losers, judged by adults.  Students lose the intrinsic motivation to inquire, explore, and question that they were born with.  From day one, they are programed to perform then wait for validation.  They are programed to ask “is this correct?”  They are programed to silence their natural inquisitiveness. 

No matter how creative a kindergarten teacher gets, no matter how much care and effort is put into their work, the teacher still must assess the students with a score.  And the students know it.   They know they are scored, ranked, compared, and judged.  They know because the teachers (not all, but most) talk about how important the scores are, their parents and guardians talk about how important the scores are, every element of the media stresses the importance of scores and grades.  No matter how a senate hearing is viewed when there is a disagreement between “growth” and “proficiency”, it’s still a judgement based on scores that dehumanizes students and teachers.  This message is driven home at each grade level and with increasing emphasis as the years go on.  At the very beginning, school emphasizes external rewards at the cost of each student’s self-worth and intrinsic desire to understand the world.

Sooner or later, students value their scores over what they actually understand.  The students who score well will think they have knowledge.  By the time they get to high school, students who score well will spend most of their time asking “Does this count? Is this right? What’s my grade?”.  They will do work for the sake of doing work because they know that work counts for a score.  They won’t understand the bigger picture of curriculum because they are too focused on individual assignments.  They figured out early on that understanding isn’t necessary and they can simply forget anything they learned because what they know is not as important as what they score.  These students can score well in any classroom, but they may or may not understand what they have done.  And it doesn’t matter to them, their parents, or their school because they can provide the necessary scores that look good. Once they are confronted by anything that is difficult or complicated, they will stress out or freeze up or break down.  They will not know how to handle difficulty.

Since scores are extremely important to all elements of educational policy, schools and teachers make critical decisions based on them.  Test score data is all the school cares about.  From the teacher’s standpoint, passing the class is what they care about.  The teacher feels pressure from a variety of sources (self included) to make sure students have a minimum score required to pass the class.  Many times, this pressure is applied regardless of what the student knows or has shown.  In some cases, a student can show no work or demonstrate no understanding and still pass on to the next class or grade because of these pressures.  Appropriate interventions for helping students understand things are not as important as passing scores.  By the time they get to high school, the students who do not score well in school early on will have one of two views:  they will either think they are incapable (stupid) or they will know that they don’t need to apply effort since they will be passed on (lazy).   When confronted with anything challenging or complex, they will either feel they have no need to attempt it or they do not have the ability to perform well. 

In most cases, students have predictable reactions to difficult tasks.  They either don’t attempt them, panic, or give up.  They equate difficult tasks with impossible tasks.  These reactions are a direct result of what was initiated on day one in kindergarten and amplified throughout school years. These reactions are logical since students sacrifice their intrinsic love of learning for extrinsic rewards bestowed upon them by beneficent adults.  The problem is that when students behave in the logical way the school trains them to behave (stupid and lazy), we then turn around and beat them up for it.  We label them, we reprimand them, we punish them, we place all the responsibility on them.  There are some students who can continue striving for success in this environment, but for many students, they just can’t win.  We beat them up for behaving in a logical and rational manner. 

My premise this year is that school sucks.  If that's the case, why do I still teach?  Because why not!? This is the way I continue to fight.  I do my best to have students unlearn what we have institutionally taught them.  I do my best to have them ignore scores and focus on learning.  I do my best to have them prioritize their understanding over their grades.  I do my best to convince them that “it’s hard” does not mean “I can’t”.  I do my best to show them that I truly believe they are capable of learning anything they wish to learn.  It’s been challenging for me because I see how difficult it is for students to view school this way.  I see how tightly students cling to the narrative that school exists to judge them, that they are recipients to whatever school bestows upon them, that they are not in control of their own learning. Since my last blog post, I have also seen how the direction of education policy is only making it worse.  And that should explain my silence.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Why Teachers Should Support the Opt Out Movement

When a student “opts out” of a standardized test, the student actually participates in it.  He’s not breaking the law, he’s following the statute that mandates participation in the statewide assessment program.  She’s not skipping it, she’s simply refusing to offer data.  It’s an act of civil disobedience that makes a statement saying education policy is broken.  What we are doing to students, teachers, and schools is wrong.  I am more than a test score.

The Opt Out movement is causing a bit of a ruckus, and I love it.  I believe all teachers should love it.  I have made previous claims of a teacher’s authority to assess student knowledge (here, here, here, and here), and I believe it is our professional duty to refine and redefine how we do it.  Current education policies strip away our authority to assess student knowledge and we have yielded that authority without issue.  We need to have an issue.  A serious issue.  The Opt Out movement helps.

When a student “opts out” of standardized assessment, the student is giving the teacher the assessment authority.  The student is saying “you don’t need this test to see what I know”, “my teacher knows what I know”, “my class performance will tell you what I know”, and “you should trust my teacher, because I do.”

Those who disagree with the movement say the most insulting things about us, and we need to begin to see it this way.  A member of our district’s school board was quoted in a local newspiece saying "As a parent you want to know your child is learning while they are in school."  We hear the same question over and over:  “How will we know how our child is doing?”  “How will we know how our child compares?”  As teachers, we should feel highly insulted by these questions.  This is a slap to our face and we don’t even know it.  This is our job!  This is our profession!  This is our livelihood.  We are the ones who can tell you how your child is doing.  We are the ones who can tell you how your child “compares” (not sure why that is important anyway, see the above video clip).  We are the ones who can tell you what your child knows, what your child struggles with, what your child needs, and where your child excels.  Our job is to know these things about students.  If my colleagues need standardized tests and data to tell them these things, they are not good at their job.  If one of my colleagues is relying mostly on data spreadsheets and numbers to tell him about his students, he is not suited to be in the classroom and he should find a new job.  He’s making me look bad.  I take pride in my work, and so should my colleagues.

I understand why a teacher would not support the Opt Out movement.  Some of my colleagues simply do what they are told.  Some of my colleagues are non-confrontational.  Some of my colleagues are used to the way things are.  Some of my colleagues are concerned about employment contracts and pay.  We have a test-based accountability system.  We have VAM scores that impact our evaluation.  We spend almost every “Professional Development” workshop on high stakes testing administration and management.  Most of our faculty meetings concern tests, test data, or testing schedules.  Our professional environment is centered on test scores.  Some of us even judge ourselves based on our student test scores (I used to...USED TO).  I understand why a teacher would have difficulty detaching herself from this environment to focus on our professional authority.  I understand why a teacher would view his students the way the school views them: by a score.  I do not fault my colleagues (as long as they are professionals). 

I do, however, implore them to take a step back.  I want my colleagues to ask themselves if this is currently the profession they dreamed of, or if the trajectory of the profession is in line with their aspirations of being a teacher.  Are we doing right by students?  Are the education policies we are forced to implement the best for our students’ futures?  I ask my colleagues if they are pleased with high stakes testing and test-based accountability.  I ask my colleagues if they would like to see a change.  I ask my colleagues if they have courage.  I ask my colleagues if they are willing to do what is right for the future.  I ask my colleagues if they are willing to fight for a worthy cause: to return education to a process of learning and discovery. 

I tell my colleagues:  we have an opportunity to change the policies.  We have an opportunity to restore authority to our profession.  We must support and encourage students and families to participate in the Opt Out movement.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Advice To New (and old) Teachers

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Recently, I was visited by a former student who is graduating from UCF with a degree in Elementary Education.  I’m extremely proud of her and I’m excited for her future.  I wanted to give her some advice for the career, and I’m not one of those “Don’t Do It” people.  I sincerely believe we need more people to choose teaching as their primary career.  But they need to know something before making that decision, and this is what I told my student:

You. Don’t. Matter.

As long as you understand that you do not matter to your employer, you have a chance at making it.  Upward mobility, effective mentorship, relevant training to perfect your craft, and investment in your long-term service as a teacher simply do not exist.  You are entering an industry that does not care about you, an industry that continues to de-value you, an industry that blames you for what is labeled as its failure. 

The interview process may not feel this way.  You may be questioned by smiling faces with great personalities that seem to show a dedication to students, but understand that the administrators making your hiring decision will not be at your school very long.  The principal that hired me over the summer was at a different school to start the year.  The administrative team that hired me was completely turned over by my 3rd year: the principal, four assistant principals, and three administrative deans.   In my 9 years at the same school I have never seen the same team for three years.  Every freshman that started at my school has graduated with a completely different administration.  This will be true for every freshman.  The decision-makers at the school that hires you, as nice as they may be and excited as they are to have you, simply will not be there long. 

Once you are hired, you will notice you are required or expected to perform many tasks that generate reports.  You will go through training that is called “Professional Development” but it will have nothing to do with developing your profession.  You will learn software, data entry, report generating, and effective ways to reduce yourself and your students to the most convenient data points possible.  You will be trained to produce data.  You will be trained to turn yourself into data.  This is all the school needs of you.

The district that hires you only needs a warm body in the classroom with the students.  As long as the district can show that you have credentials, have attended certain training, and completed certain certificates, that’s all that matters.  The school can then show the parents that the students are in “good hands”. If you leave, you can be conveniently replaced by worksheets until another warm body completes the checkbox process.  You are a replaceable part.  This is how you are viewed because you don’t matter.  We have a teacher shortage, we have a recruitment and retention problem, but there’s no alarm, there is no panic. 

To the school, district, and state you are a very significant financial liability.  You take up much needed budget space that can be better used (in their eyes) for technology, facilities, or other resources.  To them, you are a facilitator.  You are not the instructional resource your training led you to believe.  You don’t need deep content knowledge, your curriculum could be written for you.  You don’t need to map your delivery timeline, that is provided for you (even though you have to re-write it yourself in a template and call it “Lesson Plans”).  You don’t need to know how to assess students, there are tests written to give you that information.  You. Don’t.  Matter.

To the United States, you are the reason hungry and tired students don’t perform well on tests.  You are the reason the U.S. consistently ranks in the mid to high 20’s on international education rankings.  You are the biggest problem in education.    To the country, you are whiny and needy and lazy.   You should never complain about being a teacher because you get “summers off”. 

So then, why teach?  I know I don’t matter to my school, my district, my state, or my country.  I understand that completely.  I teach because I want to matter to my students.  If I can matter to my students, I will be able to live a fulfilling life.  I want to matter to the students that hate school.  I want to matter to the students that don’t think they can do anything.  I want to matter to the students who are hungry to make an impact on the world, or those who are just hungry.  I want to matter to the students who aren’t “good at math”.  I want to show them a glimpse of their infinite possibilities and perhaps inspire a few to continue their search for their own potential after I meet them.

It would be great to feel like I matter to my employer, but it’s no comparison to knowing that I matter to my students.  So my advice for new teachers (and old): understand how you are viewed, embrace the fact you don’t matter, and try every day to matter to students.  You may stick around a bit longer.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Teachers: own the assessment of your students

Image result for a better grade

"Be the change you wish to see in the world." - Ghandi

I have been silent lately because I am working on perfecting my craft this year.  It is my first time teaching Geometry and I am excited to apply all I have learned to a new academic concept while continuing to implement new practices to enhance the student experience.

I have written before about the importance of owning the assessment of student mastery.  I am a firm believer in my profession, and I know that one of the most important tasks we have, if not THE most important, is to assess the knowledge of our students.  The challenge is to do so in a way that appreciates the child, fosters inquiry, and supports continued learning. As teachers, we have endless ways to do this: from watching students interact with one another to administering formal assessments.  (Side Note:  the formal assessments I give are both formative and summative.  I call it "summormative" since it's never too late to show learning.)

The pitfall we face is when we sacrifice our professional judgement to the test gods.  One of the most vengeful and spiteful test gods is Multiple Choice.  A not-as-evil-but-still-kinda-bad test god is the Objective Raw Score.  I think all of us as teachers sacrifice to these gods in our careers.  The entire education industry forces us to do it (data, data, data!).  I used to do it, too.  I then took ownership of my professional abilities and I changed.  I want all of my colleagues to think about the way they assess students and see if there is a better way.  We cannot afford to blame "the test".  We can control the narrative of assessment and fight from our classrooms.

I want to show you a sample of my daughter's work from last week. This is about to get pretty mathy, but hang in there, it's only 3rd grade math.  Please look at my daughter's work from a 25 question math test (this is not the time or place to discuss grade-level appropriateness, I'm making another point here):

Her score is an 88% B.  This means she has B level mastery over the math concepts presented in this test because she was able to answer 22 out of the 25 questions correctly, leaving one to believe she has missed 3 concepts.  To me, it is fair to say that if you have missed 3 concepts you do not have "A level mastery" over the material.  A closer look at her work reveals the nasty influence of the test gods in the professional assessment of student knowledge.  I don't fault her teacher.  Again, we all either do it or have done it before.

In the first item that was marked incorrect, there is no evidence of my daughter's thinking.  There is only an incorrect response for the simple operation of 4 X 3.  Instead of 12, she mistakenly thought the product was 16.  Clearly incorrect.

The second item is where the fun begins.  Though this item begs for the student to perform the simple operation of 5 X 4 as the teacher recommends, my daughter's work (her evidence of thinking) shows there is another correct way to arrive at the answer.  In fact, her way of arriving at the answer pleases me more as an algebra teacher.  She is displaying evidence of understanding the distributive property.  You may wonder why she was adding 16 + 8.  That is a fair question until you look at the diagram.  If you see the way the counters are arranged, you should see why a student may want to add the product of the top line of counters to the product of the bottom line of counters.  The bottom line of counters is clearly 8, as a result of 2 X 4.  But then the question becomes: Where did she get 16?  Recall her first incorrect response.  The top line of counters in the diagram would be a result from 3 X 4.  What should have been 12 was once again 16.  So, in a problem that could have been as simple as 5 X 4, my daughter made only the mistake of thinking 3 X 4 was 16 (again) while correctly and beautifully applying the distributive property; a skill that will be much more beneficial to her than a simple math fact.

The third incorrect item is the funny one.  Again, a simple operation of 4 X 3.  Yet 16 was not a multiple choice item.  What did she select as her answer?  Certainly not 12.  She chose 6.  Any one of you who has ever taken a multiple choice test knows exactly what she was thinking.

On a third grade 25-item math test, she had 3 incorrect responses.  Yet a professional educator should be able to see that she made only 1 mistake:  4 X 3.  Since the god of Multiple Choice created this test, the teacher yielded the opportunity to see these mistakes more clearly.  Since the god of Objective Raw Score graded this test, the teacher yielded the authority to determine my daughter actually has pretty darn good mastery of the material (chip off the old block?).  Again, I do not blame the teacher. I am using this example to beg us all to reflect on our practice.

I am not asking the teacher to change the grade.  That's not the point.  The point is much bigger than this test or her teacher.  It's our entire profession and the way we approach assessment.  We must re-think the way we are assessing student knowledge and claim our authority to evaluate students accurately.

So, what do I do for my "summormative" tests in my classes?  The first thing I do is make sure the god of Multiple Choice is not invited to any of my parties.  If he happens to rear his ugly head, I will make sure he has insignificant impact on my ability to assess what my students know.  I need to ensure that I can see what my students are thinking on each item as they work toward their results.  My test items vary in complexity and value from item to item.  Some items are worth only 1 point, some are worth 5 points.  I am able to assess my students' work and thinking the very same way I could tell how my daughter was approaching the 5 X 4 item.  I can then give my students credit where it is deserved while knowing exactly where remediation may be needed as we move forward.

I also avoid the god of Objective Raw Score.  I believe this is where we, as teachers, sacrifice most of our assessment authority.  We don't need objective raw scores to know what good understanding looks like.  We don't need to nit-pick and bean-count points to know if a student has A-level mastery of our concepts.  If it's A work, score it as an A. If it's C work, score it as a C.  If we rely on "22/25 as an 88%, therefore a B", we may not only be missing the errors in our calculations as I have pointed out, we also may be giving students a false sense of their own comprehension.

I am trying something new this time around, thanks again to Alfie Kohn (he would say I shouldn't even need tests or grades).  I am allowing students to look over their own tests after I have marked up each item.  I again emphasize what the test was asking them to demonstrate.  I then ask them to give themselves a grade based on their own work, writing to me with: "I believe this grade should be a ________ because I clearly __________."  If I disagree one way or another with a student's self assessment, we discuss it.  Otherwise I enter a 95, 85, 75, 65, 55, 50, or 25.  If a student has not demonstrated a C level of mastery, I encourage them to continue learning the material until they can achieve that level and I use all the academic resources available to make that process as simple and convenient as possible.  I will change grades at any point in the year.  I tell students "your grade is as permanent as you allow it to be".

For the next unit in my class, I will ask students to forecast their test grade before taking it.  They already know what they are being asked to demonstrate, and they should not need MY test for them to know where they are.  I want them to truly think about learning, to embrace it, and to enjoy the challenge. So, I am looking forward to this experience with them.

I am still experimenting with methods of accurately assessing knowledge while encouraging students to reflect on their own learning, explore ways to deepen their understanding of concepts, and enjoy the process of gaining knowledge.  I do this because I am a professional.  I own my authority to assess student knowledge, and  I will not yield that authority to anyone.  If all my colleagues demand the same, our education environment could be drastically different.  We can create great change from our classrooms.

"Be the change you wish to see in the world." - Ghandi

Monday, July 20, 2015

So Close...

It certainly has been an interesting few weeks in the education policy world.  After a lengthy debate and many amendments, Congress has gone through with a re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act replacing No Child Left Behind with the Every Child Achieves Act.   In my home area of Central Florida, one school district attempted to convince the Commissioner of Education to abandon the statewide standardized assessment for a less expensive alternative.  

The discussion surrounding these two developments has been entertaining and frustrating at the same time.  The entertainment lies in hearing all the great arguments people have against the high stakes testing environment of education policy.  It's been exciting to hear and read more people become vocal about how children are being sacrificed in the mess of "rigor", "accountability", and "standards" as our nation and states struggle to find education policy that works.   It's exciting to hear advocates speak up for educators and give us more authority and a sense that maybe we are valued.

The frustrating part has been the underlying reason to address what has happened.  The arguments to replace what is here are the same arguments that brought us here.  It's mind-numbingly frustrating.  I'm only going to specifically address what happened locally because I thought it was going to be an amazing example of actual change, but it turned out to be disappointing.

On July 13, the Seminole County superintendent sent a letter to the Florida Commissioner of Education appealing to discontinue the Florida Standards Assessment.  I was extremely excited to hear about this development because I'm normally interested in begging my own district to raise a stink with Tallahassee when other districts attempt it.  But not this time.  I respect the Seminole County School Board and the superintendent, but when I read the actual letter I was deflated when I saw:   

"In supporting the Governor's initiative to produce college and career ready graduates, assessment tools need to be aligned to the  Florida Standards and the skills sought by businesses."
When the Orlando Sentinel posted an opinion piece supporting the "Seminole Solution", I again was ready to get my hopes up.  But then I read this gem: 
"Tests are an essential tool to hold schools, teachers and students accountable for results."
I was simply deflated.  These are the same arguments underlying the passage of the ECAA and have been the same arguments framing the national discourse on education.  We have to challenge this notion.  I previously wrote how I disagree with the entire discussion of education, so seeing this argument come so close to a great movement in my own state was quite disheartening. We have to understand that there is no testing solution.

I hear a lot of push for nationally normed tests, or accepted norm referenced tests.  Before we push for these, we'd better fully understand what norm referenced means.  It means that there will always be children who lose.  In norm referenced tests, there is no need to outswim the shark or outrun the bear; only a need to outswim or outrun your friend.  We cannot argue to replace one set of high stakes tests with another set of high stakes tests.  There is no testing solution.

Until we abandon the notion that children are data points we will continue this frenzy of testing, over-testing, accountability, and opting out. Our children are not numbers. We forget that children are people, and people are complex beings. The entire premise of education policy is built upon ignoring this obvious fact.  But we allow the argument without challenge.  Attacking a statewide standardized assessment to replace it with another test dodges the true issue that is hurting children: assuming they are simple.  Children, teachers, and schools cannot be measured simply or quickly. Our blind acceptance that they can be is what will keep harming our children, so we must argue this every time it comes up (even if it's part of a great fight).

I can only guess at how we know if education policy "is working".  Do we look at median household income?  Teacher retention?  Crime rates?  Childhood poverty rates?  Graduation rates?  Youth unemployment rates? Small business development?  Student loan debt? Number of issued patents?  National debt?  Voter turnout?  If we used these "metrics" it would be clear to see that we Left A Lot of Children Behind in our Race to the Bottom.

If we want Every Child to Achieve, we are going about it all wrong.  There is no testing solution.  Children are complex.  Teaching is complicated.  Schools serve a variety of functions that are sometimes difficult to measure.  If we want a solution, we need to let go of our notion of accountability and begin to embrace the notion of true leadership from teachers, parents, educators, and students.