Friday, July 19, 2013

Actions Speak Louder than Words

I'm taking this teacher development class called Studying Skillful Teaching 1. We are using the text The Skillful Teacher: Building your Teaching Skills by Jon Saphier, et. al. One of the introductory portions of the text says teachers are important, because what we do is important.

Well, this is coming from a former teacher turned education researcher/advocate. So of course he believes that what teachers do is important. However, similar sentiments have come from all around, because who can be against teachers? Who can be against the people who spend several hours a day teaching children and trying to produce a better tomorrow ripple effect? This ripple effect is certainly why I became a teacher.

One of my fellow teachers turned to our table and said, "It's hard to believe that anyone really believes this. One example that comes to mind is class sizes." She is a middle school art teacher with more than thirty students in her class. Her statement caused be to start thinking about all the messages we get as teachers that tell us that what we do is not all that important and that we are not set up for success and that the powers that be do not really care about whether we succeed or not.

Class sizes is one thing. Thirty teenagers. One teacher. Honors biology. Forty-five minutes. If we subtract just five minutes at the beginning and end of class for announcements and reminders, it's really thirty-five minutes. Each student will get to interact with me, one on one, for less than two minutes a day. And I'm supposed to be teaching them how photosynthesis works. For the first time. Within two class periods. What am I, a magician? If they wanted us to be able to do this, they'd cap classes at 25. Back in the 90s I had an elementary class of 28 which I thought was huge. A 20-student cap would be better, but I don't want to ask for too too much.

What other job is a person expected to interact with that many individuals in that span of time? And not just hi and bye, but REALLY interact and make sure they were understanding something?

Income. Everyone always talks about this, so I won't.

The breadth of the curriculum. The curriculum is jam-packed from August to June. It is already tight even if you teach all 200 IQ students who are present everyday. But many students are absent once, or more, a school year. We have random school interruptions (e.g. fire drills, assemblies, lockdown drills, standardized testing, PSAT's, etc.). Asking us to cover so much information for every student, regardless of current capability or pace, is asking us to graduate these students to the next class without having them really have a solid foundation in the previous. And we wonder how students fall further and further behind each year.

Our say. Teachers are practically ignored when it comes to decisions that affect the classroom. We say that we don't like heterogenous classes (, but we have to teach them anyway - and the idea of eliminating the on-level class (which means, eliminating the honors class) has been floating around. At my school, the on-level and honors class is mixed. It's like asking two different bands to play over each other at the same time. It's a headache. And should we not be regarded as the experts? Instead, the Department of Education relies on research done by people, most of the time, who are no longer teaching. When we would ever see the medical community changing the way they work based off of the sayings of an individual who hasn't practiced for years? So he says, this is the way we should start doing heart transplants, despite not having done one in a decade. And Mayo or Hopkins says to their surgeons, start doing this now though the man has very little current knowledge!

The idea that our job is so easy, we can reach perfection. No child left behind told us that it is possible to have EVERY student in the country meet proficiency in reading, math, and science by 2014. And if we could not meet this goal, we were failing the children. This has been said before, but I think it's so brilliant, I'll reiterate: this is like telling police departments across the country that all crime has to be eliminated by 2014. And let's not even say all crime. Let's pick three to represent reading, math, and science - homicides, robberies, and rape. And if police departments could not meet this goal, they were failing the country. Despite what you may think about the PD's of the U.S., no one, and I mean NO ONE, expects crimes to ever stop ... ever. Because humans are imperfect. We make mistakes, we have individual struggles. Some are just disinterested in living within the confines of the law. Whatever the reason is, we're never going to eliminate these three crimes and no one blames policemen.

Then come resources and the limited budget we're asked to work with. You put your eggs in the most important basket. When you shaft us on the resources we're allotted, you are telling us that we are not important.

Teachers and the education system are NOT important. Not until people start saying acting like they/we are.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

I Want My Honors Classes Back

I follow Edutopia on facebook. I think it's an awesome site and I peruse it sometimes when I'm in need of some very specific inspiration. What I mean by that is when I need that "Freedom Writers," We can achieve anything!, and We can significantly change lives within a couple of months! inspiration. After reading articles from successful schools on the site, I always feel like anything is possible in the classroom.

Today, they posted the above image with the lines, "Is "the homogenous honors class" a problem at your school? Read how one school took bold measures to tackle that problem:" 

Full disclosure: I didn't click that link to read how one school took bold measures yet. I don't know if this post has anything to do with what I'm about to talk about. But it reminds me of the topic I'm about to talk about, so there's my inspiration for this.

And by homogenous, I believe Edutopia means Caucasian or Asian students. I'm for encouraging Latino and African-American students to pursue challenging courses that they may not, because they are unaware of the possibilities or because their peer groups are not taking these courses. If they are at the point in their education where they are able to handle honors classes, any student should pursue more challenge. But with this push, I'm not seeing a surge of capable Latino and African-American students pursue honors and AP classes. I'm just seeing a surge of students, of all races, that are not yet capable into these difficult classes. And until Latino and African-American students' test scores start to rise, I wouldn't expect a surge into these classes, either. There needs to be something else done instead of pushing birds out of a nest before they're able to fly. Honors classes won't solve the effects that poverty, which many minority students face, has had on their education and they aren't able to fill the gaps created after several years of struggling in a classroom.

When I was growing up, I took all honors or gifted/talented classes. (I find myself to be of average intelligence and even that is questionable some days...) When in elementary school, I was always in the "advanced" reading and math group and then when I moved to middle school, I was placed on the honors track, according to my test scores. Once you're in a track, you typically ride on that track until high school graduation. However, I did have a friend who really wanted to be in honors English, so she worked outside of class to bridge the gap (English was her second language) and then was promoted by our English teacher.

In school, I took classes with the same set of kids - honors kids - with the exception of the electives I signed up for every year. In my opinion then, all of these honors kids were high-flying, intelligent kids and I enjoyed taking classes where the class culture was to work very hard. Comments made in class generally felt additive to our education and I really enjoyed all of my classes from middle to high school.

The trend in schools today is to break down the track system. Students are allowed to take whatever classes they wish to, as long as they took (and in most situations, passed with a D) a pre-requisite course. We think that this is sending the message to kids that they are free to pursue anything they want. That's a great message.

But our execution of this message is poor and has produced some serious consequences.

At the highly-rated high school that I teach at, the school culture is to take honors and AP classes. Even if you're not ready or interested in doing the work required to keep up with them. That's all good and fine. You'll start to sink and then you'll make one of two choices: keep sinking or get swimming. And that is where we build self-character. But at what cost? Honors classes are beginning to fill with unmotivated, uninterested students who visibly have an effect on the rest of the class. As any chemist can tell you, reactions occur at the rate of the limiting reagent - you can only have the reaction move forward to the point where the least available reactant is used up. This leaves behind a lot of the other reactant, unused, unreacted. Classes have to move at a certain pace. If everyone is brilliant in that they pick up new information and solve problems quickly, the class will move quickly and keep these students engaged. If everyone is brilliant in that they pick up new information and solve problems slowly, the class will move slowly and keep these students engaged. When you mix combinations and variations of the two, you end up taking the average pace, or worse, taking the slowest pace because you don't want to leave behind any stragglers.

The fast kids get bored. These are generally the traditionally honors kids. They feel shafted. They aren't being as challenged as they would like to be. Some might say that differentiation is the key. But you are one teacher and when we push our kids - any of our kids - they value and require some support.

When I was completing my minor for secondary education, I was told (and I agree) that we learn best when we are out of our comfort zone - but not too far out of it. There's a "sweet spot" where new endeavors are difficult - but not too difficult. When the task is too easy, we get bored and disinterested. When the task is too hard, we get frustrated and disinterested. When the task is just right, we experience little wins and are able to keep working towards that goal. When we present our students with these attainable challenges, we need to be at the ready to support and scaffold.

Teachers are pretty magical folk, but to ask one person to support and scaffold three different groups (if that few!) in the same forty-five minute period is a bit crazy. I so value the times where I can really spend time with a group and have discussions and really push their thinking. I don't want to have my time and attention be divided. I want to send the message that I care and I want to help them get there.

Students are polite though. They know that there's only one of us. They know we don't have the time that we want to have with them. And that's a shame.

What I guess I'm trying to say is that this problem - teacher shortage - just gets multiplied by not just the number of students in a class, but the number of variations of needs. It's unfair to us as teachers and it's unfair for the kids. They deserve to learn at their pace and honestly, as a student and a teacher, I know that that best happens in a homogenous class.

I don't want you to think I don't value students of "different walks" or needs collaborating with one another. Electives help with this. But there does need to be time for students to work with like-minded students to push their limits. And all because there are two fast-working students in a class working together, that does not mean that they are the exact same. Despite their similar approaches to learning, each can still teach the other about different ways of thinking.

We currently have this country-wide school culture where we push all kids into one class, calling it "heterogenous" and "high expectations." We aren't leaving this pit stop any time soon. But if you think that this is truly the best way to help our children - all of our children - learn. I'm sorry to say, I'm pretty sure this is wrong.

What we're doing is like saying, "Anyone can be president!" (True statement.) And then literally letting anyone be president, regardless of how able they are at the present time. Maybe some are ready to lead at a young age. Maybe others aren't ready until much later. But making it law that people can run for the presidency at 35 is a great example of that flaw. We've had numerous candidates who meet that requirement and clearly have no capacity to lead the country. All because we have a bunch of high school freshmen, we can't make a blanket statement to say they're all ready to take honors biology. And if we really valued education, we would get real. YES, all students can achieve GREAT things. But a great thing may take one student a couple of days to achieve and others years. It is backwards thinking to put all of these students in the same class and expect good results. I wrote earlier on how the fast-paced students suffered from this arrangement, but so do the slower learners. If it takes me a year to master, say calculus integrals (this is probably true), but the curriculum guide allots one week to practice and master and then moves onto the next skill which also takes you a year of practice to master, when will I ever feel successful? I'm just going to keep "learning" new things, but never being good at a single thing, while I watch my peers speed on by.

In part, I have to admit, I'm writing this post, because I've seen my brightest students suffer, because I work the class to the middle. And I've seen my slower to catch on students suffer, because we have a lot to cover and I don't have to time to slow down and really work with them. But I'm also writing this as a teacher. Our schools aren't doing well. Shouldn't we try to make this job as easy and fool-proof as possible so we can better ensure success? Make my life easier. There's a ton of information for me to teach my kids for honors biology. With even fast-paced students, I can barely fit all I want to do with them into a school year. How can I realistically spend the time I need to with all different groups? When I taught special ed math I felt the same way. How can my kids be expected to learn the same exact things as their peers in the same amount of time with their inability to multiply, divide, or work with numbers that weren't whole? I truly believe that they would have been able to grasp the 7th or 8th grade math content ONE day, but not at that same pace. It is unreasonable. I don't see how others who aren't teaching can't see this.

Bring back the tracks. Make it easier for motivated, interested students to move up. Make it easier for the struggling students to move down and then up, with improvement. Heterogenous classes are saying that because one set of students is struggling, we should mix them with the high-flyers and hope something rubs off on them. Like grit is contagious. It's not. And if not, we'll have the struggling kids rub off on our high-flyers. And unfortunately, students acting out because of disinterest or difficulty CAN be contagious.