February 3, 2014

Writing is Personal and Always Changing

There is a huge difference between writing and grammar.

I'm trying to teach my students to write. Writing is personal. People develop their own style, voice, personal interests, and mistakes. But, because of the personal nature of the medium the mistakes are interpreted and misinterpreted differently between different people.

Grammar is not personal - it is a set of rules and regulations. You always do this here and you never do this here. If this happens then this happens. Grammar is meant to be algorithmic - once you figure out the secret formula you are set.

But, that's not writing. When do I use a contraction? Sometimes you avoid them to sound more academic, but a the same time you use them to avoid the sound of self importance or even arrogance.

Students need to develop voice and personal style. Those things make people want to continue writing. Grammar develops obedience to rules.

If anything, the concepts, or rules, of grammar should be taught so people can learn how to bend and break them in their own styles.

January 31, 2014

All Teachers Should Be New Teachers

I have not written a blog post in a while - working hard in the theater and just not having a ton of inspiration.

But, I have been working with an intern during January and it has me thinking about teaching.

All teachers should be new teachers. Every year I feel like I completely change what I do with my classes - new things to read, new interpretations, new lesson plans. Don't get me wrong, I do a lot of the same too, but I change so much!

I don't change things because I want to torture myself or my students, I change things because I know I'm not doing everything right.

I love how I teach writing now - my students learn to be proactive with their work and they work with me through every piece of it. This is beneficial in multiple ways - the students get grammar and writing feedback from me, almost in real time, they get grammar instruction from me, but within their own writing and in their own work process. This method also benefits me because I don't take their work home anymore.

There are other issues though - because I teach grammar in this "Non-Traditional" way it under prepares my students to learn their grammar in the more "Traditional" way (worksheets, workbooks, etc.).

The real problem - from my perspective - is that more teachers need to second guess themselves, take the risk (both emotionally and performance-wise) to suggest that they are wrong, I know I am all the time.

I want to figure out how to better encourage my students to work more independently and to use that independence to create things that are interesting, creative, useful, and purposeful.

Where do we go from here? I'm not sure, but that's kind of the point. I know that things will change and I'm hoping that I will change. But, I'm dedicated to the change and to the unknown. That's what really matters.

September 18, 2013

Drill and kill won't teach writing skills!

If you've read a decent amount of my blog posts you should hopefully realize a few things about me as a teacher:

1. I don't like drill and kill work
2. I don't like tests - I prefer performance based evaluation
3. If something is not working - I want to find a new way to approach the issue

I can only speak for ,y school, but I am wondering if it is like this in most places. We have an extreme overemphasis on drill and kill, prescriptive grammar instruction. Students in almost every English class are given pages and pages of grammar worksheets as well as test after test on their memorization of the parts of speech and writing conventions.

The problem is that memorization is not internalization - it's not functional knowledge. The students do not become better writers because they can underline the subject of a basic sentence, double underline the predicate, or cross out any
prepositional phrases. They become better writers by writing, then revising, then getting revisions (and explanations for those revisions) from a more skilled and educated writer.

This is really hitting a sore spot for me right now because I have students who will have taken my class in the 6th grade come to me the next year and accuse me of teaching them nothing. Why? Because they have gone to a teacher who believes that learning is the preposition song as opposed to sitting by me - literally - as we pick through their writing to improve it. They are being inundated with worksheets as opposed to doing a research project that is synthesized into a documentary film and then a research paper.

The worst part of it all is that the standardized tests that I HATE back me up on all of this. Our school is the highest performing middle school in our district - I Think our API was a 908 the last 2 years - and the English department has plateaued at 88%. Our biggest area of need? Grammar - across the board - not just my classes.

Obviously something needs to change.

I would love any input on what the world out there thinks about my grammar debate and if you believe that I am right or wrong. Some clarity on the matter is greatly needed.

September 6, 2013

Transitioning from the Lone Nut

I showed my wife one of my favorite TED Talks yesterday. It is Derek Sivers and he is explaining how you start a movement. He uses a video of a shirtless guy dancing like a lone nut in a park. By himself he looks crazy. But, he has his first follower join him; he embraces him like an equal and nurtures him. Then, that follower's friends see him dancing and having a good time and a couple of them join. This becomes the tipping point. By the end of the video they have a huge crowd.

What does it mean? You need a couple things to start a movement.
1. Someone brave enough to do something different that may bring them ridicule.
2. That first follower that let's the rest know that what is happening is not merely lunacy, but either a good idea, or just plain fun.

Right now I feel like the lone nut with grammar. I cannot, in good conscience, prescriptively teach it - especially with the use of out of context worksheets. But, that's what the department is demanding of me and of my students. Why? Because they still see the best demonstration of grammar skills and knowledge is their score on a test.

I have a different idea. My students need to write. Once they have written something significant (at least a paragraph) they need someone, likely myself, to go through it with them to explore their strengths and deficits in their writing. They need to be shown THEIR GRAMMAR MISTAKES and then how to fix them.

It takes a lot of time, but will make them much more effective in writing. It will also teach them to seek out help when necessary - another important skill.

But, as I have mentioned, I am still the lone nut. Where do I go from here?

August 13, 2013

Student Goals (Part 4 of updating my practice this year)

Over the years I have learned a lot about goals. I LOVE watching TED Talks that relate to goal setting.

Shawn Achor basically says that goals serve a deceiving purpose. We set goals for ourselves to define our level of success. The problem with that is when we accomplish something we reset the goal to something seemingly bigger and better. Therefore, that feeling of success gets pushed over the cognitive horizon. We never really get that mental reward of achievement. You get a B, it needs to be an A. If you get an A it needs to be an A+. If you get an A+ there will be another test/paper/project in the future, etc.
You can see his amazing talk here - Shawn Achor: The happy secret to better work #TED : http://on.ted.com/hjVd

Derek Sivers says that you need to keep your goals to yourself. Just by telling some done what you are set out to accomplish you feel a sense of accomplishment. In sharing the goal you receive the gratification of that other person admiring your goal. Because you feel like you have done something already, you are less likely to actually do anything.
You can see his TED Talk here - Derek Sivers: Keep your goals to yourself #TED : http://on.ted.com/jjXZ

Daniel Pink probably has the most widespread TED Talk regarding motivation. From that I learned you cannot build an if, then reward system. I can't just tell my students what to do in order to be rewarded with admiration and grades. It doesn't even work if they set their own goals and I do that. If there are any effective rewards they have to come unexpectedly. Things need to be done because they have an internal desire to do them.
His talk can be found here - Dan Pink: The puzzle of motivation #TED : http://on.ted.com/rMPe

So...how do we get students to create meaningful, but reasonable goals that will encourage them to learn and then demonstrate that learning? Will the goals still be effective if they share them with me?

One of the things that Sivers says to do is to share your goal as a list of what you still need to do to achieve it. Instead of saying that I'm going to write a paper, explain what you need to do still to get that paper done. Does it become then an issue of shifting the goal language paradigm?

The last talk that I wanted to share is Simon Sinek's on how great leaders inspire action. More important than how we do something,or what we are going to do is why. His focus is on for profit companies like Apple Computers and TiVo. But,the ideas easily play into education. The success of Apple Computers has been their desire to change the world. As opposed to selling us computers, they figured out that they needed to sell us on why we need their computers. Students need to not only understand why they are learning a subject or am skill, but they need to have a reason for their own goals. They need their peers and their teachers to understand why they, as individuals, need to achieve their goals.
Simon Sinek's TED Talk can be found here - Simon Sinek: How great leaders inspire action #TED : http://on.ted.com/chiW

There is a lot to think about here. I like to think that I have a lot of insight, but at the same time, I have few answers. I want my students to create realistic, relevant, and effective goals. But, given all of these obstacles, how do we accomplish that together?

August 7, 2013

Writing Feedback and Record Keeping (Part 3 of updating my practice this year)

My approach to teaching writing has changed heavily, much like everything else, through my last 6 years. But, if there is one thing that I have come to fully understand about it, it's that writing has to be taught by having students write. This sounds like an overly obvious statement, but practice would suggest otherwise.

Let's start with one of the most basic tenets of teaching and student teaching: I do, we do, you do. Or, model the skill, practice with students, then they practice alone. Logically, from the outward appearance, this makes sense. That's how we teach writing in the western world as well as math. But, it doesn't work. It teaches the skills in a vacuum with no personal meaning.

If you want to get students to build a skill set, then they need to practice the skill, at first badly. But, then you give them feedback on their performance of their personal work, pushing them toward mastery of their skill, not your skill.

Baseball is a great analogy - though a physical skill, hitting a moving ball with a bat takes practice, nuance, and a lot of practice. Then, getting that ball to fly or roll as you desired takes a newer and higher skill set. Then, hitting one that is flying 50, 60, 70 miles per hour is its own test of skill. But, you have to start somewhere.

WRITING IS THE SAME

Here's the thing though, I am not working one on one with 5-10 batters, I'm trying to work one on one with, last year, 37 students in one class. It takes a lot of time and it takes a lot of record keeping.

Here's the plan -

I use a great online LMS system named Schoology. One of their newer features is the ability to track changes in submissions. I have to strive to look at a student's writing ONLY once they have submitted a new version to Schoology so I can keep track of their progress in writing that assignment.

Then, as their writing is turned in from 1st draft through 10th(?) I can update their grade on the assignment accordingly.

So, here's my questions - Does this approach seem realistic? I'm not sure if I will be able to keep myself on track for all of those updates. Also, does that put the student in a more negative point based situation as opposed to writing and editing to learn how to write and edit better?

August 1, 2013

Grading Major Assignments (Part 2 of updating my practice this year)

I have been a proponent of going gradeless in the classroom. It makes sense to me to learn without the stigma of being judged for your successes and failures. However, I have also come to realize that it's not that simple.

I can write out as many evaluations of my students that I would like and have my students do the same, but the expectations of grades still looms.

I need a fast reference point to see how an individual is doing on an assignment, a project, a unit, or even a skill.
Students need the same thing.
Parents need the same thing.
School administration needs the same thing.
Their future teachers need the same thing.

What I would like to change is how assignments and what assignments are graded.

I believe that students should be graded on their individual merit and effort. They are not being judged head to head like horses about to race. They are learners who should be encouraged to accept mistakes as learning opportunities. As an English teacher I need them to see that they spelled a word wrong or misplaced a comma, not so they can be punished with a grade for it, but so they can correct that mistake and similar ones in the future.

What I want to grade are the major assignments. I have no interest in pouring my time into entering grades for piles of grammar sheets or having students take notes on a skill they are going to need for a project and then delving out points for turning in the notes. Whether or not they took notes well and paid attention will be determined by their project. Then, if they didn't do that, or they don't learn that way, it will give me opportunities to re-teach them.

I am not interested in cutting corners, though my time, like I'm sure most teachers', is precious to me. What I'm trying to do is to emphasize and focus on what really matters. My students will demonstrate their knowledge and skills through the completion of projects and units of study. Those need my time and attention. If their work is not what it needs to be, then their grade - yes grade - will be lowered while I give them feedback and guidance as to how they can improve their work. Once that happens, the grade goes up.

So, how do you feel about grading? My beliefs and practices in this area have pretty much been a rollercoaster ride. From grade every little thing to grade nothing. What do you believe are our responsibilities and how does our grading factor into learning?

Comments, as always, are appreciated.

July 23, 2013

20% Time (Part 1 of updating my practice this year)

My plan is to write a short blog series about the things I want to explore, try, and experiment with in my teaching this school year. The goal is to personally explore the topics and to hopefully gain some feedback from my PLN, both online and face to face.

20% Time

This is a concept that, like so many other things, is turning into another education buzz word. I don't know if the concept is gaining a real foothold, but I would be lying if I said that it didn't intrigue me.

What is it?

80% of time, whether in a business or education setting, is used on the assigned work and expectations of the organization. In education that would be the curriculum, standards, learning goals, and performance/product expectations.

20% of the time is given to the employees (business setting) or students (education setting) in order to explore and work on projects of their choice. They can work individually or in groups of their choosing. They can choose the time frame of project completion, its subject, its method of presentation, etc.

Why do it?

It is an opportunity for students/employees to explore their passions and to work on projects that their superiors with their limited individual vision may never consider. It also gives these people an opportunity to dedicate themselves to something that truly interests and engages them. The payoffs come in multiple ways - innovations that would not otherwise be seen, individuals feeling a greater sense of dedication to their work since their work is demonstrating a greater dedication to them, a level of collaboration that is built out of choice instead of requirement. There may be other benefits, but these are what come to mind.

What worries me?

Students taking advantage of the time and producing little to nothing, or producing something that has no actual value - even to them.

Taking time away from curricular studies, leaving students unable to complete course requirements.

Students wanting to collaborate with others, but being marginalized by their classmates.

Some possible solutions:

Project proposals - not just to myself as the teacher, but to the class as a whole. Groups, or individuals will need to do a formal proposal in front of the class before engaging in the project. It would include a glimpse of what the final product would be, an estimate of how long it should take to complete, its purpose, and the resources needed for its completion (including the human element).

The class would then be used as a think tank to look for issues with completing the project and volunteers could be found to participate, as necessary.


Other than that, I'm not sure how to solve my other worries/issues. I do believe that the experiment with the class is very well worth the risk of time lost on curriculum. Students need to be able to explore their own interests in school and have those interests respected and valued. This seems like a great way to do this.

What are your thoughts?

June 5, 2013

Teaching English through Entrepreneurial Practice

I had one of my flashes of seeming insight this morning and wanted to share it with the world. What if we ran an English class as an entrepreneurial think tank? Here's what I'm thinking...

The students would develop a product or service that they believe the world needs. It could even be a clear improvement on an already existing product or service.

They would then need to create a product/service description - informational writing.
They would need to convey why this product/service would either be necessary or wanted in the market - persuasive writing.
They would need to learn the legal requirements or ramifications of making this product/service available - research.
They would need to find out why it has not been offered in the past - counter arguments.
They would need to show the community/investors/buyers how the product/service fits into peoples' lives - narrative.

It feels as though I could go on and on. Should we be supporting this entrepreneurial spirit? Couldn't these ideals serve in all manners of lives, jobs, and interests?

What do you think?

May 3, 2013

WWAD? (What Would an Administrator Do?)

With the fail of California State Senate Bill 441 I am very much up in the air on my stance on teacher evaluation. I don't think that 441 was the answer - it was too vague in too many ways for my taste. But, it did get me thinking and discussing with friends and colleagues. I am really trying to take a step back and not become overly polarized or overly passionate (it can cloud my judgment).

Teachers are constantly wanting more say and control in how we educate students and then assess them. That makes sense - we are the experts. We spend the most time educating, planning, and even learning how to educate in new ways. But, there is a flip side - I am NOT an expert in evaluating teachers. I could evaluate a student's performance in reading, writing, and acting (English and theatre teacher), but that is what I do.

What Would an Administrator Do? They are the trained and experienced experts in evaluating teachers - for better or worse. On the outset we need to approach this with the mindset that administrators are looking to congratulate good work and then to help promote growth in teachers. Growth could be for the sake of growth - we all have a lot to learn and things are constantly changing. Growth could also develop out of a need - the teacher is ineffective - they may be unaware of the situation, they may be tired, their methods may be outdated, or they may just be disconnected from their students. Nonetheless, administrators - principals, vice principals, deans, directors, head masters/mistresses (some schools have those) know their teachers and should and I believe typically are there to help them.

So, I ask, with as much humility as possible - What Would an Administrator Do if they could choose the criteria and time table for evaluations and what effectual weight would they put on them?

Comments would be AMAZING.

April 26, 2013

I don't even know what I'm saying

I have loved teaching 6th grade since day 2? I say day 2 because day 1 I was terrified. I couldn't even remember what it was like to be a 6th grader. But, by day 2 I realized that they were fun, non-judgemental, and genuinely interested in learning - for the most part (there are always exceptions). However, I have begun to take that for granted. I have started to let my remarks stream out of my mouth - good naturedly - but, those thoughts and remarks have hurt some of my students.

After teaching 6th graders for almost 6 years now I still do not fully understand that their good nature and their capacity for positive vs. negative interpretation is still forming right along with their self images and I become a big part of that.

It is not that I want to walk on egg shells all the time, but I do need to understand that words can hurt, especially from people who are out only in positions of authority, but the people you really want to love and respect. It is not only my responsibility to make learning fun and interesting, but to make it feel safe and students feel respected.

I am no saint and I am not perfect. I am still learning, just like the rest of the teachers out there. This is just another lesson of humility to get under my belt, maybe one of the most important.

March 13, 2013

Learning based on Mutual Respect

Right now my life is all but consumed by directing our school's musical. Don't get me wrong, I love producing musicals. They are by far the most fun and interesting part of theatre. But it has me thinking about respect - how I feel and express it as well as how my students feel and express it.

The musical we are working on was cast through open auditions and is rehearsed after school on my time and on the students' free time. They are not being paid to do this and neither am I. But, they are just as dedicated to the project as I am, even if it doesn't seem that way sometimes. Our engagement is based on the somewhat distant goal of being part of something amazing.

The real truth of it though is that the whole thing is a house of cards balanced on an important level of mutual respect. I always need to treat the students in the show in a way that makes it obvious that I respect them. I call them on their big and sometimes thoughtless mistakes, but I also am quick to praise them for their hard and very often difficult work. On the other hand, they do the same for me and I expect people to point out when I've done something wrong, especially when it is something potentially damaging to the show.

This idea of mutual respect has me thinking about my practices in the classroom. Am I always taking the time to understand my students' struggles evenly with their successes? I know it's easy as a teacher to be focused on the negative, or what needs correcting - as opposed to highlighting what they are doing well. It is important to do both. Doing both is a way that students can know I respect them.

Once students and teachers reach an authentic feeling of mutual respect, then you have created a truly healthy and productive learning environment.

February 28, 2013

Student privacy - will it exist in the future?

There are a lot of things happening in education that are making me not just ponder, but really worry about this question.

As I work with students in our online learning environment, which we use as an enhancement to our face to face classes - I am constantly trying to remind them of their online personas. Students absolutely need to understand that what happens and is said online is as and sometimes more important than what happens in real life. It only becomes more important because of its wide reach and permanence.

However, are we handing too much of their information and data over to the "Education Industry"?

Our district is moving to PowerSchool for attendance - owned by Pearson Education. Should Pearson have that kind of data access? Then, our district is pushing support for us to use My Big Campus - another Pearson product - for out LMS system.

Is it just my paranoia, or are there real ethical issues with their direction?
Should I be worried how the textbook and standardized test publisher is going to use this data, whether we know it or not?

I would love some comments on the topic.

February 6, 2013

A thought about Common Core and why I'm not worried

Common Core is the new all powerful being in the education world. One in which many feel unprepared for, but I don't feel that way. While I remain cynical as ever (not my fault, it's how I was raised) I am also not worried.

From what I can tell and the ridiculous amounts of reading that I've done on the subject, there are two things that the Common Core State Standards have educators worried.

1. The push from a focus on factual knowledge to a focus on skills and creative and critical thinking.
2. The levels of creative and critical thinking that are going to be demanded, even at lower grades.

The first one is a no brainer for me and has been said by many teachers in the blogosphere and Twitter world. If you are an excellent teacher and pushing your students to do their best, you are already teaching and encouraging creative and critical thinking. These skills should already be built into your teaching every day in the class.

There has already been a decently sized movement of teachers who are moving away from differentiation to customization. Instead of the teacher doling out information in realistically sized chunks for each individual student, they have allowed and then guided those individuals to do so for themselves. Students should have the power to work at their own level, at their own pace, and in their own fashion. There will always be common things that students must do together, but being able to hack the system and make those commonalities work to the individuals' strengths has never been more apparent.

The other issue - creative and critical thinking that goes above and beyond reasonable expectations - is almost a non-issue. If we are going to treat the standards as they have been described, then we need to treat them as goals as opposed to expectations. Every single conversation that I have had about the CCSS focuses on how they are going demand more and more from students. But, that is the goal, to want and then expect more. We never want to find ourselves in a place where students have met some sort of "proficiency" and find themselves at the end of the road. I don't know necessarily about the rest of the world, but when my students are "done" we are always looking for extension, new directions, new approaches.

The Common Core State Standards may be described as a standard for learning, but their language, in many cases, lends them toward being standards for teaching. We need to have high expectations of students in that we need them to realize that they can do more (quality, not quantity, though both sometimes apply) and that if they really want to "get ahead" in life, that it's what will be expected. How else will they prepare themselves for their world of the future that technically does not yet exist?

Not all theatre students are created equally

They don't all have the same drive. They don't all have the same buy in when they walk through the door. They didn't all sign up for the course for the same reasons. But, I've been treating them that way for a long time (or as long as I've been the theatre teacher at my school).

It's funny that this has become a problem. In my English classes I've always been the one who has heralded the idea that we need to let students customize their learning. We need to let them take the lead and show us what they can do and then figure out how to do what they can't...yet.

Theatre classes have been different. I've expected everyone walking through the door to turn it into a career. But, I've been blinded by the idea that not everyone who signs up for theatre really wants theatre. Sometimes, they just had nowhere else to go. Just another reality paradigm shift that I've had to make in my journey to being a better teacher.

The current issue is that we are working on two projects right now. One is a 3 dimensional set design model, built to quarter inch scale. The other is the production of the school's musical. We are doing the School Version of Grease - I am also a middle school teacher - it's an interesting balance. At first I believed that every student in the class should be engaged in both projects. Everyone needs a crew job, everyone needs to be putting together an amazing set design model. But, it just isn't working out that way.

I'm glad that I realized this early enough and now I'm having the majority of the class focus on their set models. It's something where they do the work and they can see it come together right in front of them, for their benefit alone. Other students will be working on that as well as doing production jobs for Grease. Instead of being frustrated with the disinterest of quite a few students, I'm going to allow them to opt out of something that they really have no reason to care about - especially if they are not theatre people.

Sometimes you just have to accept that your students don't love the work like you do and some never will.

January 14, 2013

Dilemma of dedication in Theatre

I am in a constant struggle with students. This is an odd thing to say, but they want to do everything and it doesn't work.

As a theatre teacher I have learned this lesson over and over again - when you try to do more than one thing at once, each thing you are doing suffers for it. The more things you pile on, the more each individual thing suffers.

My students want to play soccer, do Boy or Girl Scouts, star in the school Musical, be involved in a singing group, AND maybe get their homework done. We, as people, can't do it all. I really don't like using that word, I like to overcome it regularly, but this is one instance where it fits.

Every once in a while I will have a student who wants to do an after school show. But, once they see the rehearsal schedule (three days a week for four months) they think k twice. Nothing makes me happier. They have made the conscious decision to balance their lives and to help our show by not committing to something for which they have no time.

How do we make this issue of over commitment clear to students. Also, how, do we as teachers try to balance what we ask of them with the rest of their world's demands?

December 10, 2012

Opinions Matter

The Common Core Standards are an opportunity to remake education in the 21st century. But, that opportunity seems to have been missed. It could be blamed on its writers making back room decisions. It could be blamed on the lack of real teacher input. But, when it really comes down to it, it's all about interpretation.

David Coleman, the new president of the College Board, has been identified as the architect of the Common Core. He has been quoted directly as saying that the world doesn't care about your opinions.

Opinions matter.

If they didn't matter then companies wouldn't spend so much on advertising. If they didn't matter, then I wouldn't vote. If they didn't matter, then people would be unable, or uninterested in making decisions.

Analyzing facts is absolutely important. We use facts to better inform and support our opinions. But, opinions will always be at the beginning of the process, starting us on the journey from belief to knowledge.

I am a theatre and English teacher. Everything that I teach my students is based on opinions that are then supported with an analysis of information, much of which should not be described as facts. As soon as we analyze and interpret anything, whether it be statistical data or anecdotal evidence, our interpretation of that information is formed based on our opinions and our ability to argue those opinions.

Common Core is going to be a roller coaster. It will raise us up and let us fall. It will be an opportunity, in many ways, to gain salvation from our overloaded and poorly designed state standards. But, no matter what, it should never come at the sacrifice of our opinions, or our constitutionally guaranteed freedom to express them.

But, that's just my opinion.

December 5, 2012

To do your best, do it again

Over and over I come back to the same conclusion in my teaching - students are trained to complete an assignment, then drop and run.

If I described it metaphorically, they would be running a race. It could be a sprint, like a timed test, or it could be a marathon, like a long term project. Either way, once they hit the finish, it's over. Whether they came in first or dead last, they can't take the race back, they can't change how they finished. Maybe the next race will be better, or worse, but this one is set in stone.

School should not work this way. Students should be traversing a long journey that has an end which is almost never in sight. We almost never know where our studies and our learning will take us. Sometimes we end up on the wrong path, we make a wrong turn, we trip and fall down, but that doesn't stop us. We always keep going, keep trying.

That's the ideal version. That is the education setting where wrong answers and mistakes are clues and guides that lead us toward the places that we are supposed to be moving, even if we don't know what that is yet.

So, if you want to do your best, then you need to be willing to do your worst and then try and try again.

December 4, 2012

Teach grammar, expect perfection?

A hot button issue in the English department at my school is the teaching of grammar.

Let me be clear - the issue is on the expectation of prescriptively and directly teaching grammar to students via lecture and worksheets.

To be up front about this - I do not agree with it on any level. There are many reasons why, which would make for another blog post all in itself, a lengthy one at that. But, to sum it up, hopefully, it's because not all students need all grammar and learning it through direct instruction makes no clear connection or transfer to their work.

But, I think there is another huge issue with this. It seems from my perspective, based on the conversations that the department has had surrounding ideas like accountability and expectations, that we are expecting our students to stop making mistakes.

It comes down to the idea that if I've taught my students something, then they are accountable for that knowledge or skill and they are expected to demonstrate or perform it perfectly from now on.

This may or may not be their true and actual expectation, but it has to say something if that's what is coming across to me, at least.

I don't know about the rest of the world, but I make mistakes all of the time. I even make mistakes when I'm doing something that is ridiculously simple and something that I have done over and over already. But, I'm also human.

At the same time though, if I make a mistake, or if any of my students make a mistake, the accountability that they should feel and the expectation that they should have should be that they should look over their work, find their mistakes, and correct them. We need to learn from mistakes and fix mistakes, not be punished for them.

Bottom line - it is my belief that grammar should be taught as needed, when a clear pattern has arisen in a class or in an individual student's writing that necessitates the lesson. It should also be learned on a case by case basis through the student editing and revising their own writing. It should ALSO be learned through the student reading the works of other writers and absorbing through those experiences all that writing has to offer.

If you want students to write and write well then they need to do two things - read and WRITE.

Why don't we do better? Because we don't...

http://morguefile.com/creative/jdurham

There are many things that bother me in education. The one thing that bothers me the most is when my students have lost the will to do better.

This particular post is coming directly from some experiences that I've had in drama classes lately. Most of the time my blogs are about English class and the general landscape of education. However, this one is directly tied to my drama class.

Currently we are doing a unit on scene studies. Students get into groups, they choose a script, they block it (plan their stage movements), they rehearse it, they work on characterization, they perform it. But, that cannot be the end. They need feedback, they need to know what went well in the scene and what did not. Then, when they get more input and information, they need to do it again. It's a chance to wind time back and, with the use of 20/20 hindsight, do it better.

They don't want to.

My students seem to be so burnt out on projects, assignments, homework, tests, and grades, that they no longer have the energy to put into something that has no high stakes. The purpose of a scene study is to learn to be a better and more effective actor. You can't do that if you only perform your scene in front of an audience one time.

Can this be expanded out into other subjects? The one time you take a math test and move on? The one time you submit your essay to your English teacher, get your grade/marks on it and move on? There are so many opportunities for us to circle back and learn from our mistakes, but we ignore them all too frequently.

I do not grade student work in my classes. I do that to take the pressure off of my students to kill themselves over performing whatever task they are assigned or undertaking perfectly the first time.

But, how do I energize them and get them interested in self improvement and multiple attempts? How do I make them realize that things get better when we make them better and that ideals and being idealistic really do matter?

November 1, 2012

Freedom to learn AND Freedom to work

It is my strong belief that students need as much freedom as they can possibly be given to explore their learning. But, I'm realizing that this freedom doesn't always look the way you would imagine it.

Most times when you think of freedom you see in your mind conversations, exploring new knowledge online, or through books, or through trial and error. You want students to try as many things as possible and fail as many times as necessary to achieve a goal. It's a spectacular thing.

However, this week I realized through observing my best teacher friend/co-worker/complaint sounding board, Jean, that sometimes freedom means having the right situation for productivity to happen.

If you think about a writer and their process it is both social AND anti-social. They need time to brainstorm topics, characters, settings, conflicts, etc. They need time to talk to other readers and writers and to see what new thoughts may develop from those conversations. But, they also need an appropriate time and environment to write.

You can't sit down and write when people are talking to you. If the rough ideas are already there, then you just need a quiet, non-distracting place to write.

Therefore, my classroom is silent today. My students are working on their stories and I'm realizing that they haven't received enough of this structured time.

Freedom to learn is INCREDIBLY important. But, now I'm realizing that so is the freedom to get work done - even if it's not what you thought it was.

October 14, 2012

Humility is essential for teachers and students

One theme that has been coming up more and more in education is humility - being able to stand back and admit your shortcomings, your imperfections, and the things you know you want to work on. As John T. Spencer has mentioned many times, we don't need rock stars, we need jam sessions.

Teachers, for a couple centuries, have been put into the position of being the all knowing and infallible. Do not question me, I know what I'm doing. But, sometimes we don't. Sometimes we're figuring it all out. Letting students in on this big "secret" does not damage our reputations, it leads by a powerful example. We are all imperfect and are, hopefully, constantly on a quest for improvement and new ideas/learning. No one has it all figured out.

However, we also need humble students. We need students who want to admit to their shortcomings and faults. These students would actively seek advice and help when they needed it. These students would not turn in a finished product, but the next draft in a long string that would only end when they were satisfied with their own efforts.

What are the road blocks to this way of thinking?

One would be programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. It becomes impossible to be humble when, according to the government, every student has to be PERFECT by 2014.

Another reason is the common culture of education. We have boiled everything down to one right answer, one path to finding that answer, one letter grade for each subject to represent those things, and then a punishment for deviating. This sounds lie an oversimplification, but it is also realistic. We have created a system that punishes students for struggling and finding their own paths.

I don't know how to do everything and I don't know how to teach every skill to my students in the most effective ways possible. However, I won't sit back and give up on trying to find them.

October 8, 2012

I failed, but it's not the end

Last week I did something that I honestly hate myself a little for doing - I yelled at my students. But, that's not quite it. I placed my students in an unreasonable situation with unreasonable expectations. Then, when they failed to meet them, I got angry.

I am not proud, but I am reflective. After taking the weekend to think about what happened I realized that I was the one out of line. I realized that I genuinely and honestly needed to apologize. I realized that I should not send the emails out that I had threatened to send.

Today I apologized. I made no excuses, but rather admitted to my humanity and to my mistakes. The students seemed receptive. It doesn't take back what happened, but it does show them that I care more about them than just being right.

Teachers can't always say or do the right things. But, we can be humble and vulnerable, a lesson that needs to be taught by example.

October 3, 2012

We are missing the point of college

This is something that has been eating at me for quite a while, so I am going to try to prevent myself from letting it turn into a rant.

Our school district, two years ago, decided that they were going to fully prepare students to go to college by changing our graduation requirements to match the entrance requirements for the University of California system. They are referred to as A-G requirements. Unfortunately, it is a short sighted fix to a problem that may never have existed.

The purpose of college is not only being missed, but misinterpreted. It's understandably easy to do this since its purpose has changed drastically over the years.

When my mother and definitely my grandparents were of college going age, having a degree meant that you would have a job. The purpose of college was to go there so you could leave and have a job waiting for you. It worked really well, at the time, for a number of reasons. The intellectual based economy was much more limited - we were still much more heavily driven by the industrial economy. Also, there was a much smaller population of college and university students, which made the degree a much higher worth.

It's not what it used to be. Our economy has been quickly transforming from an industrial based to an intellectual based economy. Especially with the invention of the internet, people are making money off of their ideas and not necessarily on what they can actually make in a physical sense.

Making things in a factory required training, but not college training. The college training was for the people who needed to know how to run a larger organization that owned a factory, and for the people who needed to manage and reinvest the money that was made by those large corporations. Entrepreneurs and venture capitalists have changed the faces of both of those industries and have managed to carve their own niche into the world.

Where does this all fit in with school? Going to college is no longer a guarantee for a job - in fact, it never was, not for the job you necessarily wanted at least. If people want to be happy, and because of that happiness, be successful, they need to find their place in our new economy.

That economy has many different facets, but here are a few off the top of my head:
  • Entrepreneurs
  • Investors
  • Inventors
  • Teachers
  • Artists
  • Programmers
  • Mechanics
  • Engineers
  • Custodians/Janitorial Staff (More important than anyone ever gives them credit for)
  • Service industry
  • Food industry
  • Retail industry
  • Writer
  • Comic Book Artist
The list could go on and on, but what all of these things have in common is that they need varying levels and types of education. If you want to start your own internet company you nearly need some start-up capital (maybe a loan) and some know how that you can get almost anywhere.

Students need the freedom to explore what they are interested in doing - and what they are interested in doing is not necessarily going to college. We need to respect individuality and expecting the same goal of every student - A-G Requirements - does not do that.

(Photo courtesy of dreamstime.com images)

September 19, 2012

I haven't abolished homework - I never gave any...

When I first became a teacher I felt a real internal struggle - I couldn't figure out what to give my students for homework. The system of assigning homework was so ingrained in me that I thought it was literally a job requirement.

So, I turned to fellow teachers who gave me worksheets, grammar practice, and links to websites to create word searches and crossword puzzles.

WHY WAS I DOING THIS???

Most people would probably view my personality as more of a leadership role, but I know how to follow when I need. As a student teacher and a beginning teacher I felt a real need to follow, to fit in, to be a "Teacher." But, that's not me. It wasn't really me then, it just felt like the person I needed to be at the time, the face I had to put on for my own personal good.

Recently, John T. Spencer wrote a blog post about why he loves teaching and it struck me profoundly. I'm always trying to explain and qualify teaching to my friends and people who don't really understand what I do. But, as John describes, the reason that I love teaching is that I love teaching.

So, how do my students feel about the classes I teach? I always tell people that if they walk away loving what we do, that's about 80% of my job. But, you can't be doing it ALL THE TIME. That's where abolishing homework comes in.

Students need their time away from school work, away from being told what to do, away from having deadlines and sheets to fill in and essays to write. They need time to be students. Especially in the community where I teach - most students have multiple after school commitments that are non-school related every week. How can they balance that, homework, school work, family, and just plain regular fun?

Dump the homework, at least that's what I say. If you can give me some sort of logical reasoning as to why students NEED homework for their growth as learners and as people, I would love to hear it. If not, then I suggest you hop on over to this pledge sheet and put your name down on the list of teachers who are going to let students have their lives back.

September 15, 2012

Do the Changes in My Teaching Make a Difference?

At this point, all I can really offer is anecdotal evidence. I don't have a research grant, or a research team, or even the personal interest to conduct research. I'm a teacher, not a researcher. But, I do have some things to share about the effects of the changes that I've made to my classroom instruction.

Before sharing the evidence, I should share some of the differences.

Writing:

  • Teaching someone how to be a great writer is akin, in my mind, to teaching someone how to be a great singer. You can provide them with the basics, you can provide them with exercises, but eventually, they have to find their own voice, their own genre, their own direction. You can't just feed it to them. The same happens with writing. 
  • In my classes, students are given very loose instructions for their writing. In addition, they create their own goals for their writing, which are then amended, at least once, and then adapted into commitments. It takes a while, but it's important. The students need to individualize themselves.
  • In addition, I never tell them what to write about. The closest that we come to that is if the class votes on an overall, very general, topic for everyone and then groups choose sub topics.
  • Format is a big deal in most English classes and it is in mine as well, but not in the traditional sense. My students are encouraged to seek out new formats for their writing that will engage them. Want to write a comic book? OK. Want to write a story so you can then script it into a film, film it, and then present it to the class? Why not? The goal is to teach students to fluently and coherently tell a story that makes sense to other people. How do those formats fail to accomplish that goal?
There are other things in my class that have changed over time, but the biggest aspect to the picture is the freedom for students to customize their work, their projects, and their learning. This happens when they come up with project ideas, writing ideas, format ideas, seek out help and collaboration from other students, seek out my help when they need it (HUGE SKILL IN ITSELF, FINDING HELP).

I DON'T TELL THEM WHAT TO DO. I guide them toward their goals and toward fulfilling the commitments that they make along the way. Learners who can do that can do pretty much anything.

On to the evidence.

Teachers - My best friend teacher Jean tells me this year that she can see differences in the students that had me for English the previous year.

  • They don't ask nit-picky questions - where does my name go on the paper, how much do you want me to write, what font should it be in, what is the due date...?
    • Those questions CAN have their place, but if teachers really want those things, they should hand out a manual at the beginning of a course for the students to follow
  •  They think about things more deeply without being prompted
    • When analyzing literature they are willing to pipe up and throw something out there without the fear of failing - they are not failure averse, they have begun to learn how to embrace
My other teacher friend, Cheryl, told me last year that she could see differences in the students I shared with her.

  • They would look for opportunities to extend projects
    • Not so much as they want to do more work, but they saw new opportunities and aspects that could be explored in ways that made everything so much more interesting

Parents - Parents like to drop anecdotal comments to teachers all the time. Sometimes constructive, sometimes in praise, sometimes out of confusion. However, I have been given some very good comments.

  • The best comment that any teacher can get from a parent is that their student loves the class
    • It's not a love of it being easy, but a love of it being interesting, or even entertaining. It's a love of getting them to think.
  • One parent, very recently, said this: "As I would tell my wife you brought [our son] closer to learning than the traditional method of "enforcing" learning."
    • As Daniel Pink, and many others in similar fields, would say, you can't force anyone to do anything, you can only set up a best case scenario situation that can encourage them, hopefully intrinsically, to do something. I can't enforce learning, I can only encourage it through allowing the students to learn as opposed to constantly being taught.
These things are all really exciting for me, but I'm always interested in what others think. How do you teach your classes? Better yet, how do you look back at your previous classes and see what you can, or even need, to change?

Comments below would be great!

August 19, 2012

I'm a holistic teacher...

The other day I received a mention by another blogger, and I like to think friend, John T. Spencer. He said in a reply to a comment that I put on one of his blog posts that I was one of the most holistic teachers that he knows. That, to me, is a huge compliment. However, the funny thing about it is that until he mentioned it, I had not realized that I was a holistic teacher.

If you are unfamiliar with the concept, my understanding of it is that you teach your students in a manner that prepares the to be people. They are not "preparing for the (much idolized) real world". Instead, they are real people, in a real world, who are trying to find and understand their place in it and what they have to offer.

The greatest struggle that I see in my students is the struggle to find purpose and meaning in their lives. I was lucky. I figured out that I wanted to be a teacher when I was 17 years old. Not only that, but my chosen profession/career/life had a clear path to "success". Not everyone has that kind of clearly laid out direction. Not everyone knows where they are trying to go.

If there is one thing that I want my students, and all students, if possible, to take away from their educations it's curiosity and the drive to pursue it. Ask questions, fail, succeed, fail again, fall down, pick yourselves back up and do the things you think you should be doing. I want my students to be people - not numbers or data, not a piece of the bell curve, not problems or behavior issues, but people.

That is what being a holistic teacher is all about.

August 6, 2012

The Kickstarter Project has been LAUNCHED!

This post is mainly meant to be an update to let all of the people out there that actually read this blog know that our kickstarter.com project to fund our winter musical is LIVE.

We have 30 days to get $1500 pledged in funding. I have used Kickstarter myself in order to pledge money to a project that a friend of mine was doing and he is moving forward with it. The whole thing is 100% legitimate and a great opportunity.

Thank you in advance for supporting in any way you do - pledging money, sharing our project with others, and just promoting a love for theatre in the world.

Click Here to see our Project Page

August 5, 2012

A New Source for Funding

Most of my posts on this blog have a lot to do with my English classes, but I'm also a drama teacher. This year I am actually teaching more periods of drama than I am of English for the first time. It is an exciting opportunity, but it is also going to provide its own challenges.

With another section of drama, I am going to be producing shows for three classes. In addition, I've decided to open our winter show's auditions to be school wide. We are planning on producing the school version of Grease. The show can and will be amazing, but just paying for the rights and choral book rentals to do four showings will cost us $1200.

Therefore, I'm moving into uncharted territory in fundraising, I'm trying to at least partially fund the show through kickstarter.com

It is a bit out of the ordinary for a school to fundraise this way, but these are out of the ordinary times. The project will launch on Monday - I will update the blog with a link - and we will hopefully meet our goal.

Having to turn to this approach really does say something about the times we are living in. However, not all of those things are bad.

June 25, 2012

Part 2: It's not enough and we don't have it right

I mentioned in the first part of this blog post that there was a reflection that I needed to do on my own teaching. The focus there is in giving feedback to students and working with them one on one.


Five years now I have been teaching English to 6th and 7th grade students. For each of those years I have completely reinvented and refocused my approach to teaching writing. This year has been no exception, but this year has held something of a revelation - one that seems like it should have been obvious all along.


In order for students to improve in their work, their writing, and in anything that they do, they need to reflect on it regularly. But, that's not what I was missing. What I was missing is that their reflection needed direct guidance - they don't know how to authentically reflect on work and they need someone who does to guide them through it.


That seems like a lot to ask, even in retrospect, for me to work with every single student in each of my English classes individually on their writing. Not only that, but they would need me to work through each part of their work multiple times before it was complete - the editing process.


What did it end up looking like?


We worked through analyzing a novel as a class and then students produced thesis statements in groups. Each group brought the thesis statement to me for proofing, upon which I would give them feedback (this doesn't work, that's great, change that, keep this). It was painstaking for them, but I loved every minute, not for the level of torture (I'm not a sadist), but for the level of thought that they were putting into each revision. They were working through a process - a guided process - and it was AMAZING.


The next step was the synthesis of their writing. Each student wrote their paper individually, though they were more than welcome to work with other students and get feedback. They started with their body paragraphs. Once one was written, they brought it to me. We sat together and edited and analyzed it. They would ask questions and I would ask questions. Revisions would then be made and they would bring the paragraph back for another reading when that was finished. It took forever. But, they understood. They saw why the comma couldn't go there. They could get a real life explanation of why their body paragraph didn't support the thesis.


Most importantly, in my mind, is that they learned to ask for guidance. Not the answers, but guidance. Something every student needs needs to learn.


Every paragraph in every student's paper went through this process and it worked brilliantly. But, was the time worth it? How did it affect my time?


Grading was almost non-existant. I had already read each student's paper multiple times, so going through them again was a snap. The writing also turned out better because I had already guided them down better paths before they had over committed to something terrible. I didn't even have to take the essays home.


I'm going to continue on this path of guided revision and reflection with students. The trick is that I'm going to need to figure out how to apply it to other types of writing and other types of skills that are outside of writing. It's going to be tough, but the best things usually are. The benefits clearly outweigh the costs.


Based on my experiences, there is absolutely no replacement for one on one time with a skilled and devoted teacher AND I was able to give my students that in a classroom with 36 students. It IS POSSIBLE.

June 5, 2012

It's not enough and we don't have it right

One of the things that I've been focusing on this year, with myself and my students, is reflection. As I am approaching the end of the year I need to look at how reflection has been used in my classroom - by my students - and in my practice as a teacher.


This year has been a much stronger use of reflection by my students. For each of the grading periods, every six weeks, they have reflected on their performance as a student in their work and given themselves a grade based on their effort and output. It has been rewarding for me to see them work through this process. I know it is very difficult for students to reflect on themselves for multiple reasons. One is that they almost never authentically reflect. Teachers are typically there to do that for them. The other reason is that it is a lot of work. Thinking back to your work and finding the mistakes, even in the quest to improve on them, is hard work for anyone. But they did well with it and I'm proud of my classes for engaging in that work.
But, it's not enough and it's not the right way. Students can't wait an entire 5-6 weeks to reflect on their work. 


They need to reflect regularly.


This does raise other issues though. How much is enough and how much is too much? Students need to reflect often enough to keep the work that they are doing fresh in their memories, otherwise the reflection is not powerful enough. At the same time, the students can't reflect so often that they are resentful of the process, or they are unable to complete their work due to a lack of time.


Another area is interest is getting students to reflect in a productive way - one that promotes greater engagement and creativity. If students struggle with the work, then they not only need to understand why, but create solutions to that problem. Part of solving that may be redesigning the work outside of its original scope. Does a writing project need to be a writing project in its traditional sense?


How can I reframe the goals of the projects and units in order to provide students with the greatest flexibility?


These are answers that I am eager to pursue as I continue teaching. Even while working within the limits of the current educational system these goals are possible.

May 23, 2012

Paying Attention Makes Memories Last

I recently saw this TED Talk: Joshua Foer: Feats of memory anyone can do. Personally I think that the talk was titled badly. It sounds great: Memory Feats!





But, while the talk was about memory feats, it seemed to be about something much more important - how we can all consciously use our memories better.


My students have TERRIBLE memories. I try to tell them things and I can't understand why they don't remember them. But, Joshua Foer makes it really clear and for a reason that I should have realized myself. Students don't remember things because they aren't really paying attention.


Attention span is such a huge discussion point in education. In my credential program we learned that attention span grows about one minute per year and tops out at about 12 minutes. That's why I try to keep my talking to the class as short as possible. But, how do we engage them from the beginning in listening? How do we make it clear that what we are saying matters?


Here's the failing that I see on my side, on the teacher's side: I have been under the failed assumption that students already KNOW that what I'm saying to them is important. But, that doesn't make any sense at all. Even when I stop to think about it for a second I realize that's wrong.


Example: I'm watching television, my wife wants me to help her figure out what we're going to have for dinner. My brain is engaged in the show, but subconsciously I know that I should give her the benefit of the doubt that what she has to say is important. However, it's still really hard to pull myself away from one thing to focus on another.


IS THERE A SOLUTION? Can we train our students somehow, at the beginning of the school year, to recognize the importance of what we have to say? Can we also train ourselves to make sure to only say things that are important? It's a fine line to walk and it's a lot to ask, of both sides.

May 3, 2012

Misunderstanding the "war" on schools

This is, admittedly, a complete re-write of a blog I posted yesterday. I saw an issue and attacked it head on, but I now realize that I framed my views and arguments incorrectly. This is an attempt to  fix that.



Apparently there's a new documentary out that is meant to shed light on some of the darker insides of public education. It is tited, The War on Schools. It is meant to bring to light that students are being over punished for minor offenses, kindergartners being suspended for playing together, etc.
Though I can see the points they are trying to make - any system has its abuses and misuses of power - I think that they are actually missing the point.

The real problem is that students FEEL like they are in prison.

This is not to suggest that schools are like prisons - that could never happen. Too many legal and social supports are in place to prevent such an atrocity.

However, something that I have come to learn over time is that what I teach my students is not nearly as important as how they feel about their education. School may not be like prison, but if students FEEL like prisoners, that is a problem.

In order to keep this brief and let people think on the issue for themselves, I'm going to cut to the chase.

School needs to be more, not completely, but more about freedom and choice. Students need to be able to choose more of what they learn and what they are going to learn. They also need more freedom to choose how to express and demonstrate that learning.

In addition, they need to be treated as they are more responsible. Don't turn things like water and trips to the bathroom into commodities. These should be basic human rights. If students abuse them, make sure they understand the abuse and how it is going to affect them as they move forward. In other words, educate them. Students, especially younger ones, lack the foresight to see how skipping the 5-10 minutes that I speak directly to my classes could affect their performance in class. So, I need to take the time to at least try to make them understand.

When we treat students like people, when we treat them like they matter, and like they are not problems - they will begin to love what they learn. When they feel good about learning, learning becomes real and not compulsory.

What if I teach English like I teach drama?

Talking with my coworker about engagement frustrations, I couldn't help but think about how every one of my drama students gets their lines and blocking down and ready by opening night, every time.

What if I teach English like I teach drama?

Every 6-9 weeks students are working on a unit project. At the end of that time is a "performance date." They will prepareto present their work to an audience of friends, family, and peers, in the theatre, under stage lights. It would almost be like our own TED event, in a way.

If they wrote a story, they would tell us a story. If they wrote a research paper, they would present and discuss their research.
Parents would PAY $3-5 a ticket to come see it, or pay what you can for low income populations.

If students had nothing to present, or it's terrible, we send them out on stage, regardless. Not to shame them necessarily, but for them to know what it's like to not meet your deadlines and requirements.

Parent attendance is NOT tied to their grade, but we'll heavily encourage it to support their students.


They would be engaged and motivated though their learning and by being able to share it with a loving, supportive audience, AND the desire to not disappoint. Students could easily do pair, group, or individual work.

In a low income schools tickets could be pay what you can. I'd do the "shows" at 6:00 still to make parent attendance easier and more likely.

I would love it if you have any feedback or thoughts on this. Maybe not every 6-9 weeks. Maybe once a semester lighten the workload?

Leave a comment!


April 26, 2012

"Mr. Russell, why don't you like testing?"

This was a question posed to me by a 7th grade English student yesterday. The question seems somewhat innocuous, but from my standpoint it is incredibly harmful.

Why is it harmful? The question suggests that the student does not see a problem with testing. But, instead of laying a long diatribe on her, I worked through it with her logically.

Me: What is the point of giving a test?
Student: To see what we know and what we don't know.
Me: Good - what do you think should happen if a student doesn't know something?
Student: They should get the opportunity to learn it.
Me: Awesome! Now, do you get the results for these tests?
Another student: Yes, but not until some time in the summer.
Me: Does that give you the opportunity to revisit the things you didn't know this school year?
Student: No, not really.
Me: Is it likely that your next year teacher will find the results incredibly helpful and then reteach you the specific things that you did not get?
Student: No.
Me: So, what is the point in taking the test?
Student: I don't know...
Me: Could it be an opportunity to point out what you don't know to punish you, the school, your teacher, or maybe all of the above if you don't score high enough?
Student: I never thought of it that way...

Standardized Testing is not about education. It's not about accountability. Standardized Testing was a system put in place so that lawmakers could make it seem like they were being active and doing their jobs. But, as I have been trying to explain to students as we work through a unit on Service Learning, you can't solve one problem while simultaneously creating another. Political accountability is not equitable to educational accountability.

If I'm going to give a student a test, it better be because I want to find out what they do and do not know in order to guide my teaching and their learning. How many times have we seen on television the "Teacher" give a pop quiz as a punishment? Learning should not be a punishment. It should be an experience and preferably one of joy, excitement, and at the very least, engagement.

In my own classes, where I have control, I don't give tests - not the traditional kind at least. I have my students demonstrate their knowledge and skills through authentic work. It's the only way I can see what they can really do.

April 25, 2012

Can I go to the bathroom? Really?!?

One of my pet peeves in education are things that are treated as commodities that shouldn't be.

Case and point: using the restroom. Students should have an inalienable right to use the restroom. If you think about it, the reason that they want to use the restroom is because we treat it like a commodity.

In my credential program, my supervising teacher handed out stamped bathroom passes. If you kept them and didn't go to the bathroom, you got 15 points of extra credit. This strikes me as problematic in multiple ways.
  1. I had to sit there and stamp the passes. It was ridiculous. Let's not talk about how to teach or what the plan for the semester, or even unit, looked like, let's stamp bathroom passes so they couldn't be FORGED!
  2. Whenever you make something scarce or limited, when it shouldn't be, you turn it into a commodity. This makes it so that students feel like they've won something when they are allowed to use the restroom - especially if they have a limited number of chances and they manage to squirm their way into a free one. It's the bathroom. Sometimes you have to go and you shouldn't have to pay for it.
  3. Using the bathroom should not, in any way, calculate into an academic grade. I don't even give grades at this point, but if I did, going to the bathroom could in no way be a part of it. If you don't get an essay done, or it's mediocre work, don't worry, just DON'T GO TO THE BATHROOM and you you'll be fine. How can that possibly make sense?
There are other things that shouldn't be commodities - pencils, paper, water, passing periods. I could go on, but you get the idea.

If you treat something as it should be treated - a right - then students will respect it more and abuse it much less. Students so often equate going to school like being locked in prison. There's a reason for that. We treat them like prisoners. Treat students like people. Let them use the bathroom. Sure, have them let you know when they are gone so we can all be accountable, but that's different than asking permission from the warden.

April 23, 2012

Testing? The students or me?

It's that season again and I think it would feel more weird to ignore it and not say anything.

My students are "gearing up" for testing. Some have asked me why we haven't covered testing skills in my class. Others have appreciated it. One of my students went far enough to write a blog about how she hopes that she does well and remembers everything, but also doesn't appreciate the presure some of her teachers are putting on her to score well.

Responding to my students who believed that they needed test prep. - we have been prepping, but for much more. We've worked on thinking and learning skills that go so far beyond standardized testing that if you do your best you won't just score well, you will destroy it.

Testing is unfortunately a part of our lives, for now. But, I see a future that can no longer accept the short sighted limitations and faulty goals of testing. I just hope that we get past it before the damage is permanent.

But, I will continue to do my best, which is to enable my students to do their best.

April 17, 2012

This one is for the math teachers out there

The next in the series of videos that inform or inspire my teaching: Dan Meyer introduces some very clearly stated ideas about how math classes need to change.


As opposed to the typical - pointing out everything that's wrong - he also points out well defined solutions. It's an idea of bringing math curriculum into the real world that is accessible by any teacher with the willingness to try.


March 29, 2012

Being happy is my success

The next in the series of videos that inform or inspire my teaching comes from another TED Talk, this time by Shawn Achor. Beginning his research at Harvard University, Shawn describes how we can change our views of happiness and success to make us more productive and happier right now. This is probably my favorite TED Talk so far and it has something incredible that I think needs to be shared with students everywhere.


March 28, 2012

Let Kids Take Charge to Change the World

Kiran Bir Sethi talks about how they gave children in India the opportunity, the support, and the trust they needed to change their world. The children rose to every challenge and made amazing things happen in India.
This was all possible through a combination of service learning, guidance, and a release of responsibility to the students. They took charge and they made real and significant change.


March 22, 2012

Big problems sometimes need small answers

Next in the series of inspiring and informative videos in my teaching comes from Rory Sutherland. Rory is a self described ad man who looks at life through a slightly different lens than most. He sees the need for simple, inexpensive solutions to problems that typically seem to demand huge expensive solutions. Watch his talk to learn more...


March 19, 2012

What motivates us?

This is the second installment of videos that inspire/inform my teaching. In this case I am actually going to be posting three videos from the same speaker.

If you have not heard of him, his name is Daniel Pink.

His ideas on motivation have far reaching applications. There are some teachers who find his foundational ideas of autonomy, mastery, and purpose to be unrealistic in our system of education. I, to some extent, agree. However, I also see that as evidence that the system is not effective. See for yourself and make your own judgment.

All three videos go go over the same ideas. Some go more into depth than others. The animate is a really interesting way to look at it, so I'll lead off with that:


March 15, 2012

New Series - Videos that inspire/inform my teaching

I'm going to start posting videos that I'm curating through a Diigo group that have inspired or informed my teaching in some way. I have personally viewed every single one of these videos. I don't add any without seeing them. But, I find them all incredibly interesting and important to what I do. If you are interested in the Diigo group you can find it here: http://groups.diigo.com/group/transforming-education

Also, if you are interested in becoming a group contributor you can apply for membership.

Thanks, everyone!

Today's video is from Derek Sivers, titled "Weird, or Just Different?"
In this video he points to the two sides to everything (probably at minimum). I think this is a great place to start since education suffers from a lack of seeing those two sides so often.


February 23, 2012

Letter to SDEA President, Bill Freeman

My Take On Our Budget Situation:


I’ve written an open letter to our school district superintendent as well as our board of education, which you can find at http://jrussellteacher.blogspot.com about the effects of my being excessed and my expectation of a pink slip. But, as those fairly unavoidable conclusions move forward, I am beginning to realize and fully believe that my outcry is going in the wrong direction.

The San Diego Education Association is, by its title alone, a union that is designed to support education. We are in an economic crisis in our country that cannot be wished away by hiding behind contracts and previous negotiations. I realize that we, as the teachers in this school district, have done our parts in order to keep this district afloat, but once again, it’s not enough.

It’s time for us to not only do what is right for individual members, but to do what is right for the group as a whole. Maintaining furlough days and extending the wait for our “fairly negotiated raises” is not a move by the school district to gouge its employees. It is a move to keep staffing and classroom sizes at reasonable levels. It is a move that will keep every single one of your card carrying, due paying union members in a job so they can continue to carry those cards and pay those dues.

When it was time for our wages to be cut, how did the union work to mitigate that loss? Did you decrease the amount of money you take out monthly for our dues? Did you work to solve the economic problems of the state that are really to blame for these problems? Or, did you stand back, upon your pedestal, looking down at those you claim to serve, telling us that we’ve done our part and it’s time for someone else to do so.

Stop encouraging others to act and do so yourself. Your union, and at this point I mean your and not my, represents the second largest school district in the state of California, something you pointed out to the board when you encouraged them to take political action. Now it is time to do so yourself. It is time to serve me as well as the students that I serve.

Please do not hide behind rhetoric or the status quo. I would like to believe that I’m here to stay, not because I need a job, but because I love what I do and I’m good at it.

Thank you for your time and your service.

-Jeffrey Russell
Thurgood Marshall Middle School
English and Theatre Teacher