Better scores and dumber for it

Over the past few months I have read a few books by educational and social activist, Jonathan Kozol. My wife and I also went to listen to him speak at UMKC about a month ago. Recently I have been reading several blog posts by Larry Cuban. He writes a lot about school reform and looks at change from multiple angles. Combine these two sources with my limited experience of teaching for 2 1/2 years, 1 1/2 years in the inner city, and that is how I have developed this post.

After reading and listening to Kozol I found myself disagreeing with him on one major point. He often contrasts suburban and urban schools. He paints grim pictures of the urban schools. Describing them as military-like institutions that punish creativity and extinguish the joy of learning. I am not denying that picture at all, unfortunately it is far too common. But he often paints a picture of suburban schools as places where learning is joyful and creativity abounds. If we take his description at face value, than these suburban districts would never allow the strict regiment often found in the urban schools. This may be true if we contrast high-end private schools or upper class public schools to the urban schools. But, in my limited experience - combined with what I read from people like Larry Cuban - many suburban schools have also traded engaging learning that extends students or a diluted, low-level, rote-drill-and-kill, test practice.

Kozol paints a picture of administration and parents in suburban districts never settling for boring curriculum and boring lessons. My experience says that they'll not only settle for it, they'll choose it so long as test scores go higher. Who cares about the long-term effect? They scored well on that 3rd grade test!

In the inner city, where I have worked for a year and half, it just gets worse. I'm told that a student who is "meets standard" on the state test is "on level". That means a student who gets a D is on level! But if we ignore the truth and tell ourselves that meets standard is on level, then we can convince ourselves that 50% of our population is on grade level. That's what the newspapers and state legislature will say anyway. First of all, 50% on level is unacceptable. But when you realize that "on level" doesn't really mean "on level" it only gets worse.

But of course, it's easier to play with statistics to make them say what you want than it is to actually change something.

In the suburbs, where I only taught for a year, there are multiple people paid full-time salaries with our tax dollars just to trick the statistics every year. They are called instructional coaches or reading specialists or whatever, but their known job is to take those "bubble kids", the ones that are close to moving up a level on that state test, and drilling them with test-like questions so that they'll get one or two more questions right come March.

No one actually believes they'll remember the information that was drilled into them. Most people don't care. They got "meets standard"!! Success.

We sacrifice what we know as good instruction and instead resort to drilling test-style questions with obnoxious vocabulary (not test-like vocabulary that will serve them in any other testing situation apart from the state test).

For my two and half years, I have tried to avoid resorting to this mode of instruction. Sometimes I have to. The students need to see test-like questions so that they don't miss questions they should get right. But I work hard to create an environment where the test is not the focus. One of my major objectives is to have a classroom that works hard at everything we do, test or art or writing.

My students and I have several discussions about the importance of the test, but we spend minimal time covering test-prep. In some ways, we don't have time. The majority of my class comes to me one, two, or three grade levels below the 5th grade level they should be at. I have to meet them where they are and work to expedite their learning. But I would like to believe that even if my entire class were on level we would work just as hard to go beyond, maybe two or three grade levels above.

I'll stop.

But my point is the title of the post - we have found many ways to get our test scores up, but I think we're dumber because of it. There has to be a better way to assess student growth and teacher effectiveness. I for one think something similar to the NWEA MAP test would be the best. It would be a test that takes about 45 min to an hour every time and it taken three times a year. This would eliminate bad or good test days and would help educators identify holes better. Also, students would be matched up against national averages. That's my soap-box.

Merry Christmas!


Being a dad and being a teacher

5 days into the newest, longest, and most interesting chapter of my life (being a dad), I can already see some parallels between being a teacher and being a parent of a newborn.

1. I'm not as smart as I think I am.
2. It doesn't really matter what worked for someone else, what works for this kid is what works for this kid.
3. Methods may vary, but it's the objective that matters.
4. Kids are resilient as well as fragile.
5. What worked well two days ago may not work two days from now.
6. Patience, patience, patience.
7. Love should be the cornerstone.

I could probably go on, but these are the first seven that scroll through my head. Oh yeah, one more:

8. It's one of the best vocations in the world.



My donorschoose.org listing is being responded to. That is encouraging.


First, find the starting line

Teaching is hard sometimes. I love the challenge most of the time, but sometimes when I am confronting that challenge, I feel like I am trying to climb a waterfall.

Yesterday we were working in math on multistep word problems in addition and subtraction.

The directions read something like this; In problems 7 - 10 you will use information from the Gopher Stadium that has a capacity of 47,866 people.

In my world, I know to frontload the vocabulary such as "information" and definitely "capacity" and maybe even "problems." But then I will set the students free to attack the word problems using their strategies, checking in periodically for support and guidance...

15 minutes later I make it to one of my students' desk. He is diligently working but clearly confused. "What's up?" Said I.

"I can't figure this problem out!" Said he.

"Ok, what's holding you up?" Said I.

"Well, I can't figure out how to do 7 minus 10." He said with frustration. "I can't figure out where to regroup from!"

It came from the part that said, 'in problems 7 - 10...' I know it sounds like a script straight from a cheesy teacher joke book, but it wasn't. It's straight from my attempt to teach these kids how to do math and to love math.

Poor kid had done a lot of scratch work, too.


Phone a Friend, cont'd

One more very important part.

Just like in Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, they have to ask their friend the question, their friend answers them, and the original student has to then relay the answer to me. Instead of my typical, impatient way of saying, 'do you want me to check with somebody else??', at which point they smile and think, 'perfect, now I'm off the hook and I'll check out'.

That's all.

Phone a Friend

So I started trying something today and I really like it. That's why I'm passing it on to you. When I call on a student and they say, "I don't know", they have the option of phoning a friend. It's not a new concept, but I added a slight yet significant twist. When they 'phone a friend', they have to re-ask the question in their own words. Meaning, they have to articulate exactly what it is that they don't know.

It proved to be extremely difficult for some of my students. Possibly because their answer of "I don't know" was just a cover for not having paid attention. But it was even difficult for a couple of students whom I know were paying attention, they just couldn't pinpoint what exactly they didn't understand.

It's quick and it's simple, but I like it and I think it will help me know my students better and it will help teach them to independently monitor what exactly is confusing them. Oh yeah, they also find it fun to use the whisper phones to call each other with.


high expectations

This past week I was submitting a poorly written essay for a possible $2,500 prize, money that would be spent on classroom supplies. As I was writing the essay I started to learn something. I am not the only one who has expectations for my kids.

Any educator knows that high expectations are crucial for success. As soon as a student learns that you are willing to settle for less than their best effort, they'll quickly meet that standard.

While I was writing about my students and the general condition of my school and the neighborhood my school resides in, I realized that those conditions - often less than ideal - demonstrate expectations for the students as well. The trash on the streets and the graffiti-covered walls that the students pass each day tells them what their community expects of them. The overall lack of equipment - whether PE/recess or curriculum or technology - demonstrates the expectations of their state and of their nation.

These are factors, not excuses.

This year I have started to accumulate more technology, much more than anyone else in the building. I have a lcd projector, four student computers, and now a 4-year old, brand new interwrite pad. It's wonderful. I have seen engagement increase. I have a new sense of motivation in creating lessons.

I have heard from many people in my district that elementary students can't utilize or be responsible with technology. It's silly. But now that I am seeing my students learning with this technology I am learning that these new things do more than just increase engagement. They tell the students that they are expected to be responsible. These new technologies tell the students that someone or something big (i.e. the school, the district, or more) believes they can and will be responsible.

Resources, facilities, equipment, and even communities hold expectations for my students. Unfortunately, most of the time we have to work to show these 10-year old kids that they can beat the expectations placed on them. So often we just stop there. What else could I do, anyway?

What is my action as a result of this conviction? A continued passionate pursuit for resources and upgraded facilities? Yes. A continued, daily effort to convince the students that I am trustworthy and that they can overcome the circumstances of their little worlds? Yes.

What more could I do? That is the question that I pray everyday...


Oh the semantics of it all

Which are more powerful, words or actions?

I think they're different. If you're a business owner who is evaluating your employees, actions are greater than words. If you're a writer, the words hold more importance than your actions. If you're a husband learning to love your wife, they're different. They're equally important.

As I read this article by Larry Ferlazzo I had to recognize the possibility that words can be equally important because they are different. One of my pet peeves in education is the constantly evolving language. There used to be English as a Second Language. It became English for Speakers of Other Languages and English Language Learners and, slightly more obscure, Culturally and Linguistically Diverse learners. Sure, there's a reason for every change. But the practices of those teaching English don't necessarily change with the new terminology. Actions and words are often different.

I love to write and I am learning to love words. They carry power. Nevertheless, I prefer action to semantics. The article by Ferlazzo articulates well the problem I've often had with the test-obsessed education culture. It also helps me to continue my informal dissertation on what makes a good teacher and educator.

Simplifying the issue, I think a good teacher loves being with kids and is willing to do what it takes to make sure they learn. Curriculum, pedagogy, personality, age, and general styles matter less than the desire to be with kids and help them learn.

Bringing it back to the article, a good teacher cares more about the student than the student's test score. Here, though, we find a point where actions trump words. A teacher can attack the focus on testing all they want. That teacher can claim a focus on the students and a disdain for the test, but if their students are not improving on the tests, their care for the students' education is suspect. That is the deliniation that Ferlazzo provides which I appreciate so much. Tests matter but don't let that drive distract you from the student. Let that test inform your instruction. Oh the semantics of it all. The good teacher reads the change in wording, notes the change, and continues doing what they have been doing.


Obama and Education

I'll wait before I form an opinion, but this article is interesting. It seems that most Obama-supporting educators are staunchly set against his recent education ideas. Interesting.



The days of basking in the mild summer sun as it graciously floods overgrown disc golf courses are over.

School's here!


why I love teaching.

This guy's article about retiring from teaching makes me cringe and think and dream. It's not a long article, but sharing his passion for teaching and reaching students allows me to empathize immediately with the emotion of the writing. My muscles tighten when I think about the different forks in the road his story took. What if his journey took him to the left of the fork instead of the right? But then I resonate deeply with the driving motivation of love. Knowing what Christ has done, what other response can we have?


don't do it don't do it don't do it

I just read an blog post talking about not "being a used car salesman" on day one in the classroom. Don't tell the kids it will be easy or hard, don't tell them it will be fun. I do that all the time! But I agree...I shouldn't. As the countdown to day one continues I will be telling myself - don't do it, don't do it, don't do it! The blogger's point was that the kids should get to decide for themselves whether it's fun or not. I agree. I will tell them we will work hard and that everyone will learn. I will try not to tell them it will be fun.

Don't tell them what it will be, just make it that. I promise I'll try.


let the conversations begin...

One thing about teaching that irks me more than anything else is the lofty lingo. Often times it's more about what you say you do than it is about what you do. I noticed this when I stepped into my classroom for the first time this summer. My mind was overwhelmed with the task at hand. Coming into my room are several students who are significantly behind grade level. I immediately started diagnosing the parts of my instruction that needed some serious reworking. I then began the process of prioritizing the list. But when I talk about my shortcomings with my colleagues I rarely find meaningful encouragement. Instead I get advice. Not that I don't want advice, it's that I'm seeking meaningful advice. The advice I hear includes all of the modern buzz words that must be said - guiding reading, thinking strategies, data driven, studies show, student engagement - as though those words hold some power when spoken. Then the teacher gives me an example of what they do and the conversation ends.

But really the conversation never began. If all of these teachers were being more successful than me, then my kids would come to me on grade level. Their test scores would be much better than mine. My classroom would look more like the black sheep instead of just another zebra. Those things don't happen though. If it makes us all feel better, let's use the buzz words. But I think people prefer those words because it automatically shows that they know what they're talking about. Whether they do or not.

I want the conversation to allow for me to talk about the things that aren't going well without people assuming everything in my room isn't going well. I want the conversation to result in change, be it small steps or large, instead of confusing language. I want the conversation to take place between teachers who want the best for everyone instead of between teachers who just want to be the best one.

Last year toward the end of the year my grade level team began to reach a point where we had real conversations. They were very meaningful and resulted in change. I hope that carries into the 2009-2010 school year. If it does then change will be seen. Let the conversations begin...


summer reflections

Two years done. I'm not satisfied. My first year was defined by several well-planned but disconnected lessons. It went ok. By years end I still had students who didn't like school and I had a couple of students who didn't grow much. My second year I changed cities, changed schools, changed demographics, and wanted to change my instruction. After the shock of moving from a well equipped school - my classroom had an interactive whiteboard, an elmo, a laptop, student laptops, a projector, three student computers, and new textbooks - to the inner city. My new classroom had three new student computers, a teacher computer, and little else. My new district did a good job of providing the essentials such as math manipulatives and books for reading. There just isn't money for the luxury of my first district.

I'm not satisfied. Not with my students' achievement. Not with my instruction and reflection. I feel overwhelmed and underqualified. I also feel excited with the challenge in front of me. I hope I never lose that excitement.

During this year I will try to be transparent with my blog entries. Just in case someday someone reads it. I don't want to be transparent for my audience, but for my sake. Improvement will not happen if I am minimizing my flaws. My problem with most professional development is that it either takes place on a cloud or it is so boring and repetitive that every set of eyes in the room is glazed and every mind is elsewhere. The productive meetings I've been in take place in small groups of like-minded educators who willingly challenge each other. It's constructive.

I will try to be transparent because I will otherwise speak in cliches. I will annoy myself. I will be transparent because I want to do my best, I don't need to impress. Because I want to get better at teaching, not better at making you think I'm teaching. Because I want to get better at being a teacher, not better at being someone I'm not.


Intentions and Fears

I am going to start blogging because I get so much from reading blogs. Not any one blog, but the weekly scanning of hundreds of blogs has proven to be one of the most beneficial forms of professional development.

I am going to continue blogging because I love to write and I love the transparency of a blog post. God is at work in me and maybe some of the lessons I am learning will be beneficial to others.

I fear becoming indulgent. I fear that I will begin editing what I write so as to please an audience. I fear fruitless and meaningless wasting of time. I fear being misunderstood.

But hey, I can always delete the blog, right?