No more “problem” students

I was recently reading a post by a friend and it immediately got me wondering, “what are the actions and behaviors of students that teachers find annoying? How did I view and react to them before, versus now?” I agree with the premise that there are just things people do that irk others, including the most well-intentioned teachers, and I think it ought to be a given that we treat those kids (and colleagues) with respect, regardless. But it got me wondering…

Before this year, I’d say that the behaviors that annoyed me were things like kids who bullied other kids, kids who were fidgety, or whiny, or smart-asses. Now I’ve got students who sexually harass others, use aggressive/intimidating language toward each other or teachers, and refuse to cooperate. I think, before, I would have just seen these things as annoying behaviors I needed to tolerate, ignore, constantly address, or navigate around.

I now have a different approach, and am struggling against tolerating behaviors that get in the way of their learning or the learning of others’, and I’m struggling against indirect or passive-aggressive approaches of discipline. So, instead of saying things like, “Max, stop talking.” Or, “Max, I’m waiting for you to stop.” Or, “I see Abby sitting the smart way.” (Those last two wouldn’t cut it in high school anyway! Haha).

Teachers always have rules in their rooms, usually that magic number five, and include things like, “respect people and property, raise your hand and wait to speak, stay in your seat when working, do your best work always.” But there is a lot unspoken in that short list of what we really expect and know kids need to do to be “good” students.

So, instead of doing that list of rules, I taught students about their rights and responsibilities as students in a NYC public school, using the blue code of discipline book as an official document. Using this document shows them that my job dictates what I need to do and what I expect from them; it’s not personal. You, Stevie, are not expected to sit quietly and listen during the lesson because I asked nicely or authoritatively, or threatened to move your name to red. It’s not something you owe me because we’ve developed an “understanding”. You are expected to do that because those behaviors are required for learning to happen for all in this room.

After discussing their rights and responsibilities, we discussed how hard it actually is to always live up to them, and how there are behaviors that get in the way. I then asked them to name those behaviors (see chart below). I then had them discuss the kinds of things they could do in place of those behaviors (after they admitted, in part, that those behaviors come from not knowing what to do in class, or it being hard to focus). We then agreed upon a list of responses that I would give, to get them back on track.

This was a big shift for me — I now could no longer ignore those behaviors, or just give “teacher looks” — I needed to make them aware of the behaviors they were exhibiting and make apparent to them what behaviors were expected. So, I had to say things like, “Jim, right now you are throwing papers at other students. The expectation is that you are reading the whole time. You need to do that.” If he refused, or tried and failed, we went to the next reminder, and often make our way to the behavior conference where they reflect on the actions, what was causing them, and how to address them.

This is really challenging because we’ve been trained as teachers to avoid these kinds of kids, so as not to provoke them further, or because we “just don’t know what to do with them anymore”, or because we have the idea that it’s hurtful, maybe, to point out to them what they do that makes learning hard for them, or because we’ve been trained to think that just exerting a certain kind of authority, or having a certain kind of relationship with the kid contains those behaviors is enough. But the problem with this is it hides from the kids the kinds of things they need to learn to fix, and it hides from them what “annoys” teachers and why. Creating a social contract in this way empowers students to identify, self-correct, and help others to correct these behaviors—not just because you create this document, but because of how you then use it and teach them to use it.

So, it’s no longer just this vague list in my head of behaviors that are okay, and behaviors that aren’t, so that kids get labeled or label themselves “good” or “bad”, depending on the response they get from me for whatever they happened to be doing. There is a clear list of what’s expected, and students are challenged to self-correct those behaviors and learn to self-regulate. Now the challenge for my class is getting them to engage in shared regulation, where they are saying things to each other like, “talking during the lesson interrupts the lesson and gets in the way of my learning, so please stop.” We’re not quite there yet, but the maladaptive behaviors kids have learned as ways to avoid learning or avoid feeling stupid, or whatever, are becoming minimized and increasingly isolated. Together, we are creating new social norms and expectations they can hold each other to.

The way I see it is those behaviors will always exist because we are just starting to unearth years of “I’m a bad kid and this is what bad kids do” beliefs, but there are no more “problem students” in a fixed sense.

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Cooperative & In Unison

“Why did you choose this text?”, I asked the ninth grader, noticing the I Have A Dream speech in his hands.

“I had always heard about MLK and wanted to read the speech,” he smiled. He gave me a copy and gathered the other two members of his group to the table.

They began to read aloud together and at the second sentence, a student breached, or stopped the group, “Five score? What does that mean?”

“A game?” a student replied.

There were no handy dictionaries, so I gave them my phone to google it. They learned a score was equal to twenty years, so five score meant 100. “Why didn’t he just say that?” a student quipped. “Well, it’s a speech, and that’s an old-fashioned way of speaking, so maybe he is just trying to make it sound special or formal.” Satisfied, the group kept reading.

They breached again at the end of the next phrase, “This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice.

“What’s injustice? I mean I know justice is something that is good. Like the police.”

“Or not, like when the police beat Black people up.”
“Well, if justice is like doing the right thing, maybe injustice means the opposite.”
“Maybe that’s what “in-” means”.

I take a moment to point out what they were doing, following in to where their own attention already was focused– and explained how they were identifying parts of the word they knew, and taking strong guesses at the “in-”, which I told them was called a prefix, a term they’d heard of.

Then the focused turned to “withering”, and the student leader said, “let’s use the strategies we’ve learned so far so we don’t keep looking up words. I notice -ing which means a kind of action. So withering must be some kind of action.”

A second student responded, “we could read around it, break it down into parts, sound it out…”

“None of those really help,” his friend replied. “Let’s re-read the sentence and think about it.”

“It is also talking about injustice, so withering is describing a kind of injustice and the earlier part about being seared in the flames.. That’s really negative. It’s talking about the horrible things slaves went through.”

Although I was itching to explain or have them look up the word, I understood their desire to just try and understand the gist without looking up every unknown word, especially since their motivation was to challenge themselves. I pointed out the strengths in what they were doing but suggested we jot withering down to look up later, before moving on.

They continued to read, noticing how MLK says 100 years ago, connecting to what they had read earlier. They also noticed the metaphor and poetry in his use of phrases like, “flames of withering injustice”, and “manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.”

What was so exciting about this particular UR was that while one student knew more word attack strategies, one student knew more of the history and context. Reading independently or with my constant instruction and interruption, would never have allowed this kind of shared learning and student success. By allowing students to create the focus, they are able to identify problems in their reading, and are challenged to delve into their collective banks of lesrned strategies for such problem-solving. Rather than me playing the role of pre-planner and problem-solver, I am freed up instead to follow in to their noticings. This allows me to teach at an authentic point of challenge and difficulty, and I can use what I learn through their struggles and successes for whole class “grassroots” lessons, rather than pre-planned lessons for which I have to create “connections”.

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One of the literacy strategies I had learned as a new teacher was guided reading, where a teacher gathers a small group of children to read a book that is just above their independent reading level (guided reading goes hand-in-hand with a leveled classroom). The teacher chooses the book because it can teach a skill or strategy the students need practice with, whether it’s differentiating the sh vs ch sounds, or keeping track of multiple characters in a book laden with unmarked dialogue.

As an ESL teacher, I abhorred guided reading (GR) for two main reasons: I hated reinforcing the levels in class and because I didn’t feel it helped my students to really learn whatever skill or strategy I had chosen for them to learn; I never felt it stuck with them.

I think if I had had more freedom over what we learned or read, perhaps I could’ve used GR in a way that I felt could be beneficial but it wasn’t until I read the book on Unison Reading (which I have posted about here), that I realized the whole theoretical foundation GR stands on is problematic.

I started using Cooperative Unison Reading as a tool for teaching reading since joining my new school in September. Some background: Five-six student leaders (which rotate) choose a short text they’d like to read. In my ELA class, there are no restrictions on content but in my Citizenship & Sustainability class, the leaders are encouraged to choose a text relevant to what we are studying, and there are options available in the class.

The chosen texts get posted in the room and students choose among the five until there are five students in a group. The next day we begin reading. The teacher takes notes on the “breaches”, leading kids to notice and discuss the strengths of their Unison Reading.

A humbling curriculum

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I feel I have always been a very reflective and responsive teacher; if I saw something I was doing wasn’t working properly or supporting the kids enough, the next day would be different. Sometimes that meant a new center, chart to reference, a new approach to behavior management or reorganizing the room. I was self-critical enough to learn from my mistakes but not dwell on them. I believed I was a good teacher because my students grew quickly; I could assess their learning and it was even obvious to them. They often made more than a year’s progress, sometimes going from a first to a fourth grade reading level.

So, why was I worried every time I stepped out of my room to let a cluster or sub teach them? Why was I scared about what would happen to them in middle school?

Even though part of my worry was knowing how little some teachers understand about ELLs, or truly horrible experiences my kids have had with other teachers, it was also because the students themselves were worried. They weren’t entering middle school as confident language learners and problem solvers.

It wasn’t until I became apart of the Learning Cultures curriculum that I realized just what a disservice other forms of teaching are, especially for ELLs and special education students. This curriculum, which puts student independence and student-led problem solving as the pivot around which everything else moves, really humbles you as a teacher. You start to see all the things students don’t realize about their own strengths and weaknesses or how to identify, initiate and solve problems, and you start to really wonder about yourself as a teacher.

In trying to conceive of ways for students to learn things without my constant guiding hand, I have had to really examine my beliefs about learning and teaching, and I’ve had to re-imagine some activities that used to be student centered but very teacher-directed (such as teaching academic language to ELLs). I have constantly asked myself, “what do they need to learn? Why? How can they learn it through real practice and independence, which requires them making mistakes to learn from?”

It has not been easy, and there are teachers who look at a curriculum like this and say, “that’s not teaching. How are the kids learning? Where is the rigor?” Kids as similar questions, like, “why won’t you help me?”. That one question absolutely defines how students have come to see teachers, and it’s the students who say that most frequently who need me to intervene (in that sense) the least so that they can unlearn that self-destructive habit.

Of course the help or instruction I give comes via the joint intentions we create through 1-on-1 conferences where I learn the work the student is doing (since everyone is doing their own work dictated by both Common Core standards and their own interests), their perception of their strengths and weaknesses, and then we problem solve together in a way s/he could replicate without me. (It’s not as neat and easy as that sounds, but it is definitely the first time I ever felt student conferences truly mattered and had a place in the curriculum since it is where I get my lesson ideas — unlike the TCRWP approach I was initially trained in).

This curriculum is humbling but only if you allow it to be. It’s too easy to try it out, half-commitedly, and then declare it isn’t working and kids aren’t learning. Spontaneity will always drag you back to what’s familiar and the “norm”, even if it was honestly not better. Going against the grain by nearly totally upending the ways you have been teaching, before you see the benefit,is definitely a challenge for the daring. It is also for those who want to stop worrying about how their kids will do with the sub or with next year’s teachers. I want to believe, when I wave at kids at the end of June, that they are leaving me more self-aware, and more equipped to self-advocate than before.

Breaking Bad and Making Good

Breaking Bad: Box Cutter (#4.1)” (2011)

Jesse Pinkman: At least we all understand each other now.
Walter White: What do you mean?
Jesse Pinkman: I mean, him and us, we get it.
[Makes cutting motion on his neck]
Jesse Pinkman: We’re all on the same page.
Walter White: And what page is that?
Jesse Pinkman: The one that says if I can’t kill you, you’ll sure as shit wish you were dead.

We all know about teacher burnout—all the ways in which this profession can slowly squeeze the life out of you. I never thought that’d be me, but I had gone from being someone filled with excitement, tenacity and purpose to wishing the teacher in me were dead.

From September to December, I found myself constantly coming up against the same problem I always faced, only much more intensely—to let go of my ESL training and principles, and teach in ways I believed to be unfair—but the familiar rush of indignation and resistance was not there this time. Those months found me just trying to keep up. I was exhausted and intellectually stagnant.

So, I started to feel like maybe, actually, the problem was me; I must be inadequate as a classroom teacher, unable to teach in this way, unable to get all of my students to pass the state tests. Like most teachers I know, I had been living a double life, doing what I thought was right “when the door is closed” and yet allowing the same frustrating expectations to stand for me, my students, and all other teachers (think: “I am not going to teach to the test,” but still worrying how your kids will do and eventually giving into the pressure. Or think: “my students moved 18 levels in reading” but still have to give a fail grade on report cards because the system only has one definition of success which locks out ELLs).

To live that double life, you often have to break some big “rules” you feel are damaging to your students.

My students were ELLs in a curriculum that wasn’t just designed for native speakers, it was designed in ways that undermined their needs and strengths. There was no way I would meet their cognitive and intellectual or academic needs by remaining within the confines of the Teachers College Readers and Writers curriculum. You might think that’d be obvious, but I had friends at other schools who were denied tenure because they were being held accountable for teaching in ways that could not benefit their students. So, it meant breaking rules. It meant doing my best to meet expectations and still meet my students’ needs. But that only took me so far until those outside pressures became just too great. I just couldn’t keep up with the dichotomy anymore.

Then, around December, I started to realize I was not alone in how I was feeling and, in fact, teachers I greatly admire in different schools around the city (and country) were feeling this exact same overwhelming self-doubt and undermining of their efforts and talents. Some call it lack of appreciation, or lack of experience from their administrators, while others call it systemic injustice.

So I started to refocus the question I saw in front of me: if it isn’t just me, is it the whole profession? If my dream of teaching differently was just a dream, then what?

I felt I had three choices: to leave the profession entirely; to accept it and continue wishing I was “dead”; or find a way to change the situation. I started with the latter—which I knew meant major upheavals and transformation of everything I was doing, but how? So, first, I contacted a friend who had inspired me to be a teacher to see if maybe, just maybe, public school education as a whole was not lost.

My friend told me about this and genre practice, and I devoured the book, Unison Reading by Cynthia McCallister. This book helped me to see the true source of my outrage; NOT me and NOT my administration, but the philosophies and approach embedded within curriculums like the Teachers College Readers and Writers Project itself. I could have continued running myself into the ground trying to adapt this to meet the needs of my students or find a curriculum that actually had a better chance of benefitting them.

Then I had the opportunity to meet and see other teachers and principals who were educating students in this new way, and I knew I had found a way to save the teacher in me. My outrage quickly returned (and clearly resonated with others).

Unfortunately, I had to change schools to be able to teach in this new way, but I’m excited. Now, the questions that guide my teaching have shifted from, “how am I going to adapt every part of this curriculum so I can support the needs and strengths of my students?” to, “how will my students’ interests, needs, strengths, and intentions shape the curriculum and build their independence?”. Now I’m thinking, “How can an ELL, beginner or advanced, develop intentions in grappling with big concepts without my constant scaffolding? What needs to be in place so my students can do academic work and learn to confront and identify their own confusions and needs without waiting for someone to tell them how, or always waiting for me to teach them? How will their purpose drive their writing, or their understandings drive their math work, rather than what genre or math concept I have pre-selected?”

The former is driven by a pre-fab curriculum designed by people who don’t know my students, the latter by my students and state standards.

This new approach may not have an answer for everything, but it isn’t a “don’t think, just do” approach, either. To teach this way, you really have to grapple with the underlying philosophies, reading and discussing what this could look like in the classroom, while emphasizing that mistakes will happen, it will be messy and that’s ok because we will learn as we do this. This means that while there may be teachers who don’t totally agree with the approach, or who are apprehensive, also aren’t just “on the same page”, out of fear.

It is overwhelming to plan like this and I am constantly confronting knotty problems that aren’t easy to solve. And, yet, I am happy to say I no longer feel like [makes cutting motion on my neck].

A little late, Mr. Duncan

In today’s Edweek, Education Secretary Arne Duncan is quoted as saying,

“Do you need to publish every single teacher’s rating in the paper? I don’t think you do,” he said. “There’s not much of an upside there, and there’s a tremendous downside for teachers. We’re at a time where morale is at a record low. … We need to be sort of strengthening teachers, and elevating and supporting them.”

Your vague “sort of” does not go unnoticed. There’s a reason why you are conveniently late with this and aggravatingly mute on what you mean by “sort of” strengthening, elevating, and supporting teachers. I presume that perhaps after supporting the onslaught for so long it’s hard to change the party line on a dime? Have you been hearing a louder buzz of disapproval and disgust this time? I hope so. I hope the sound is deafening.

You can’t have a policy of undermining teachers as a method for promoting your new education agenda and then realize too late that you can’t pull it off without them. I think there’s this idea that as long as teachers are desperate enough, or their ranks overwhelmed by newbies or alternatively-certified-non-traditional types (like me), they will remain complacent and unable to oppose what is done to their professions.

I am beginning to believe you are wrong.

Baby Benchmarks and Scantron Sheets

two months

Who will know her best? A test, or her teachers and parents?

She loves Elmo and Barney. She will waddle-run into the t.v. room if she hears them.

She bounces on her tippy toes, dancing to the theme song, and smiling at whoever is there with her.

She plays peek-a-boo, knows what her tongue and nose are, and loves to show you, whether you ask in English or Spanish.

She claps her hands, and if you try to take her from my arms after I get home from work, –watch out!– she will slap you.

My daughter is nearly 11 months old and already brimming with so much more personality than I had previously thought possible. I don’t have younger siblings and didn’t grow up around babies, so this is all really knew for me.

I had read all kinds of books while I was pregnant, learning about brain development, language learning, milestones and stages—not because I planned on pushing her to achieve any of those things, but simply out of curiosity and a love of non-fiction books I can read with a purpose.

But none of those books taught me about how silly a 10-month-old could be. They didn’t tell me I’d get glimpses of her personality and what it would be like even at 4 months. It didn’t tell me how eager she’d be to do tummy time or practice walking by cruising, even before she had mastered crawling!

These books and research couldn’t even attempt to predict who my daughter is or, now, who she will be. They can’t tell me her strengths and weaknesses. Her loves. That she would hate the consistency of puréed string beans, love sweet potatoes, or insist always on cuddling as soon as I get home.

So when an “expert” thinks they can prescribe the singular method for teaching her, or try to persuade me to believe that one test will determine her intelligence or predict her potential, you will have to excuse me as I roll my eyes. I think they’ve read too many books and don’t know enough children.

I will feel the same way if she chooses to become a teacher and someone tries to assess her in the same paltry manner.

What about the “bad” teachers?

Recently, a reader made a comment here raising a very common concern that is out there in the public:

That all said, everyone who has been to school or worked in a school knows very well that there are teachers who do little more than draw a check or worse. When my wife taught there was a teacher who yelled at her students so loud that my wife had to close her room’s windows and the neighbors complained of the noise. Then the was the teacher who got his kicks by tripping 2nd graders. I’m sure that you can add your examples.

What of the students they teach? What of the teachers, like you, who put their all into their job and whose efforts and profession are demeaned by these teachers? Can we say that it is too hard to figure it out who is doing a good job and who isn’t so we shouldn’t try thus leaving them in the classroom?

He goes on to point out the benefits of having teacher evaluations being much more cohered now than before and the need this is addressing while acknowledging that current methods leave much to be desired.

It was such a substantive comment and raises the issue in a way that really invites engagement, that I wanted to give it a more thoughtful reply. To me, this gets at a much bigger, more essential question — how will we develop the teaching profession into one that is much more widely reflective and where teachers are given constant, genuine opportunities to evolve, grow, learn, share, and improve? How should weak teachers be defined and their needs addressed, even if that includes being told the profession may not be for them (sometimes even after a MA degree has been earned)?

A lot of what will define your approach to this depends on your philosophy of education and learning. If you see being a “learned” person as knowing a static set of specific skills, then you might prefer a “give them a test a year and if they don’t pass, get rid of them” approach. However, if you see education— and elementary schools in particular— as the place that shapes how a person learns to learn, and develops as an individual with their own moral identity, are exposed to different ideas and taught to analyze them critically before passing judgment (ironically), and you see it teaching a specific skill set that can’t ever be static—unless we still want children learning to write with a quill and not learning how to type—then you probably see how a standardized test, developed by a for-profit vendor who doesn’t know the child or what their educational needs or goals were for the year (which is always in addition to whatever is defined as needed for the grade), is an absurd way to assess a student or their teacher.

So, how do we do it then? How do we define, determine, and even weed out bad teachers? While there are those who spend their days researching, writing, and speaking on this question, I do feel that teachers who specialize in subgroups like ELLs and Special Education have a particularly important role to play in this conversation, which is why I’d like to address it, and welcome more teachers to do the same. Empirical evidence is relevant here.

Assessment That Doesn’t Just Determine but Encourages Growth

Well, I think the process and needs are much more complicated than, for example, relying even a little bit on statewide standardized tests. You can’t analyze and assess a teacher in a vacuum. No teacher is an island. A teacher’s skills and success are not simply defined by her own actions. It’s rare that I hear an elementary teacher say she/he creates her own curriculum. At least in NYC, I almost never hear it. In fact, the only time I have ever heard it was this week from a teacher at a small, progressive private school. Teachers are typically not deciding what math program they use, if the approach is textbook or project-based, or what pacing to use (ie., how quickly to transition between the units of study), etc. These are things decided on at much higher levels than even principals, usually. I don’t necessarily find this problematic, per se, but it is an element that shouldn’t be ignored when determining a teacher’s strengths: would she teach differently if she were planning the curriculum?

There are many other factors that feed into creating a teacher; what college program did she have? What pre-service experience was he given? Was he assigned to a great veteran teacher or a mediocre one? Is he teaching the grade that best suits his personality? The list is really immense, but I want to address one that is most directly related to using one annual test to assess a teacher: his students.

What Do You Teach?

I have heard principals say that when they interview a job candidate, they hope the reply will be “students”, not simply, “science”. This means they want to know if you’re going to be attuned to the unique strengths and needs of your students and if your teaching is going to reflect that, or do you plan out how you will teach based solely on standards. This is where teaching becomes much more nuanced and challenging, because a teacher might think to herself, “Most of my students are still not grasping addition but the grade standards require they know multiplication by now, and they will need to divide double-digit dividends by single-digit divisors for next month, and if I go deeper into addition, taking time from those two areas, then they may not be ready for the state test in June.” She may want to teach to those children’s needs, but ultimately if she wants to be in line with the curriculum and state standards, etc., she will need to move on. So, like it or not, she is not just responsible for meeting the needs of the children in front of her. (Yes, she can teach some of this through small group instruction, but that would be redundant if all the children needed the extra instruction time.)

And then what about students who are English language learners, or require special education services, or who fit in both those subgroups? What about students who come to you in fourth or ninth grade and haven’t been to school since first grade in their country? These are just the largest, most common variables. There are many more that include home life, personality, success in previous grades, cultural values, illness and related absenteeism, etc. (and multiply this by 30+ per classroom).

We aren’t just teaching a static skill set to a waiting, sponge-like crowd.

Why must ESL and Special Ed teachers be at the heart of this discussion?

Since we teach subgroups which might be a minority in some places, we are often a second thought when it comes to curriculum planning for a grade or when those in power are determining how to assess teachers. But it is exactly because our experiences are often the exception to the rule that we should be part of defining it.

Take this scenario: You teach at a school where about 40% of the population are ELLs, about a third of whom are receiving special education services and 10% are SIFE (students with at least two years of interrupted formal education). Your school has to determine the grade-wide priorities, goals, curriculum and purchase materials that meet the needs of the majority. Your class is specialized in comparison because you teach a transitional bilingual 6th grade where about 5 of your students only went to school up to third grade before coming to you. You think two of your newcomers may have learning disabilities but they cannot be assessed because they are too new. If you are not included in the curriculum planning, have no co-teacher in your grade, and there is only a literacy or math coach at your school (if you are lucky), then it is solely on you to seek out supports that other teachers have readily available to them. So, I should also mention there is scant research addressing things such as teaching beginner ELLs how to read in their new language when they can’t read in their first, and there are no courses that I know of that you could take to learn how to address the needs of SIFE students.

So, should your experience be measured and valued in identical ways to the others? Are your needs being sufficiently met and should that be entirely on your shoulders? Your students who have been in the country for exactly one year (and not necessarily one whole school year, mind you) will be taking the ELA test. Should those scores be used to assess you at all? What would you need and what would you want others to use to assess your students’ progress and your own?

Find me an algorithm that can account for all that and I will shush. This is why these teachers should be a central part of the discussion. The percentage of ELLs in our classrooms are only increasing (and please don’t misinterpret that as a complaint, it isn’t).

So, what then?

In my opinion, given the complexity of teaching, assessing teaching ought to be informed and holistic. In NYC, the Danielson Framework being piloted is definitely a comprehensive resource because of the many elements it involves and its emphasis on improving teachers, but even Ms. Danielson herself has commented that how her Framework is applied is important as well (I am inferring here a little).

So, this is an area of concern for me: not just what we use to assess teachers, but the manner in which we do it, and what epistemology informs the approach. If we are after a true understanding of the problem, we need evidence and while there appears to be a lot of conflicting research on the best ways to address teacher evaluation, what’s missing, in my opinion, is teachers themselves engaging in research; not simply as subjects but researchers themselves. How can we expect to teach higher-order thinking and problem solving if we aren’t encouraged and allowed to do it ourselves for the improvement of our profession?

The underlying bias we need to upend is this misconception out there I mentioned earlier that elementary schools teach (or should) teach static skills, but this is no longer true. With an increased emphasis on academic rigor and higher-order thinking skills, elementary school is no longer your grandma’s grammar school. It’s not even mine. (This fact reinforces for me the importance of tenure, but that is for another post).

This kind of teaching requires increased intellectual capacity and rigor within the teaching staff itself. Much of this already exists untapped. In my experience, there are many teachers who would even volunteer to share their expert knowledge in different areas, and mentor new and veteran teachers to improve the practice and culture of teaching.

I recently watched this TED video examining a weakness in math education: simple problems that require applying a memorized formula to answer them. His analysis is itself a metaphor for all teaching but also for this conversation on teaching.

So my suggestion? Involve teachers. Place the values of rigor and the responsibilities of evaluation onto teachers themselves (not alone but in conjunction with others). Stop pretending this is a simple problem.

This is academia, is it not?

The Value YOU Add

I have been so moved by all of you who shared my post and even took the time to comment here. You showed me I’m not alone. That you stand with me and I with you. I feel it! So, let’s stand and say it together, to each other. In a way only teachers can! And I will tell you what you have told me — what you do is amazing!

It’s time. For teachers to make our voices heard.

It’s time. For us to tell our stories. Our students’ stories.

It’s time to show the world what we’re worth. Let’s face it, it’s overdue.

Blog it. Take videos. Pictures. Post on Facebook. Twitter. Tumbler. Your local paper. You are immensely creative and daring daily — you create lessons, design charts, decorate and redecorate whole classrooms overnight, take 5-year-olds and 14-year-olds on field trips, and SO much more. So, I don’t need to tell you what to do or how to do it. You already can dream up more than any reformer can pretend to. And now there is a rare chance to do it together. In a fun way to boot.

All it takes is one sentence. One video or photo of you, or your colleagues. One colorful chart with your painstakingly-constructed handwriting. One quickly-jotted comment on a napkin you photograph and share. One re-post or share of someone else’s statement on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc. to get our voices echoing together to say: I will tell you the value I add. I will tell you why this Data-craze doesn’t even begin to touch on the worth of what I do. I will not let you use the complexities of my classroom against me, undermining and erasing the true value I add.

We are teachers because we are passionate about learning. About the future. About change. These tests aren’t “bad” simply because they are transforming our work day or work load. Pffft — we’re used to that. What we know that not enough others seem to know is that their overemphasis, high-stakes and decontextualized, ill-informed data are dangerous because they are reshaping the present quality of life for our students and the whole future of what education is going to look like. But you and I, our colleagues, both current and retired, concerned parents, and even our aware students don’t want to stand by and just let it happen. To our jobs. Our students. Our children. All of which we love.

So, show me. Show each other. Show “them” what we’re worth. You can start by sharing and reposting this.

You can link to what you do below in a comment. I can’t wait :)

(below are two from friends!)

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Dialogue on Data: Open Letter

This is part of a series of letters I am exchanging with a colleague of mine on a variety of education-related issues.

Dear Matt,

cc: all passionate and concerned teachers

Recently I wrote a post, a poem of sorts, about the value-added teacher data reports. I was expressing my frustration with the fact that the positives and challenges of my job as a teacher of ELLs, (most of whom are newcomers or SIFE students) are not simply ignored by this data but blatantly devalued. By the overwhelming response I received from colleagues and strangers alike, including current and retired teachers and principals, I know I’m not alone in how I feel.

As we discussed this and our experiences with teaching test prep units, you said that the issue, as you see it, is that data is bastardized. I would like to dig into this a little more, not just because teachers rarely get the time and opportunity to really discuss and analyze the issues within our profession in depth, but also because this is an area that is heavily covered in the media with, unfortunately, a wealth of misinformation and leading to a misinformed public who has even less time and less tools for critically analyzing the questions to any meaningful extent.

The public needs to understand that teachers aren’t simply lamenting changes to their job, or an increase in responsibilities and work load without a corresponding pay increase. We aren’t simply complaining about “doing more paper work”, or opposing what some see as the “professionalization” of the teaching “trade”.

So, let’s take time to provide a means for analyzing and discussing these issues that publicly encourages the “higher order” thinking it so desperately requires.

I’m going to address some of the most common public questions and concerns in upcoming posts, and I’d like to invite you to do the same. And, you know what? I’d like to open it up and invite other teachers to also contribute a post or suggestion on common misconceptions they feel need addressing.

A Shared Loss

Today I met with the parent of my troubled boy from China who has been giving the middle finger to students and in general not dealing well with some of his frustrations. The interpretation-over-the-phone that the DOE provides suffered from technical difficulties so I had to rely on two boys from a colleague’s class who speak English and Chinese. It was going ok and I could tell the boys were happy to help. Then, at one point, one of them whispered to the other, “I’m losing my language.”

First moment of heartbreak of the day. This is the difficulty of being an ESL teacher; you know your job is to give students the language tools they need to survive in their adopted city but it often means they lose their language.

Now for the second moment of heartbreak. As the rest of the class was working independently on ELA test prep materials (more on that later), I met with the troubled student. When students first come to me, their emotions are either quite powerful, overwhelming them in different ways throughout the day, or they are so numb they don’t know what they feel, even when prompted. This boy was once in the latter group and now his feet are passionately planted in the first. He is frustrated and angry and disappointed.

So, during what was supposed to be a running record, i decided to have a heart-to-heart, using the ever-mediocre Google Translate and the bits of English he has learned already.

I said, “So, you are angry?” He nodded his head.

“You miss China?”
Silent nod, again.

“Do you write letters to your friends?”
“No letters. Video talk. My friend and reading teacher. My brother.”

At this point we went in circles as I tried to find out why his brother was still in China while he and his sister are here, and he eventually explained, “He son of my aunt but we feeling of brother.”

These kids leave so much behind when they come here; family, friends, sometimes a school they loved. And eventually they also lose the one main tie they had to that whole sense of self they were just developing before they left: their language.