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].

Approaching Learning Cultures

Soon my break will finish and I will return to school to face the first assault of standardized tests. With my return, I will be adding my second post on teaching academic language to ELLs. In the meantime, I’d like to share with you a curriculum approach called Learning Cultures that I’m excited about. It’s really challenging me to think much more deeply about literacy and what it could really look like, if collaboration and discussion were more embedded within the curriculum, instead of just a strategy or activity plugged in somewhere. It’s inspiring me in so many ways right now, generating so many questions. A colleague I deeply respect is involved, and I encourage you to take the time to look at the page of videos from practitioners of this approach.

The article I’m sharing now relates very sharply to the problems with the current moves toward education reform, from what I feel is a unique, philosophical angle.

This article is by David Olson, whose book, The World On Paper I’m about to read. Here is a bit from the article:

More recently, many have warned of the pitfalls of treating one social agent—the school—as if it were the only cause of learning and social development. Others warned of the danger of setting unachievable goals, and still others warned of the naivety of the school systems for promising to achieve the impossible. My criticism is more generic and more severe. It is that assigning responsibility for learning or failing to learn to forces outside of the learners themselves both disables the learners and leads researchers to completely overlook the primary resource for educational development, namely, the learner him or herself as an agent of and with responsibility for his or her own learning. Consequently, it has allowed reformers to ignore aspects of schooling that could be instrumental in advancing children’s agency, responsibility and accountability.

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.