Thursday, June 19, 2014

Contemplating Change and the Student I Couldn't Reach

It’s hard to accept that there are some things in the world that you can not change. Or some things in the world that are not worth trying to change. I used to try to control everything around me, to craft a perfect world that fit exactly what I wanted it to be. Over the course of years though I have come to understand that I can not change everything, and that I should not bother to even try to change everything. Yes, there are things worth fighting for, things worth trying to change, but not everything is a battle to be won. Some moments are about acceptance. 

It is often important to see a person or situation for what it actually is and accept it for what it is, rather than pushing against it to try to change it. One of my friend’s fathers once gave her some sage advice. He told her that when you feel yourself struggling to swim upstream that is the time to consider whether it’s worth continuing in that direction. I think that there is a lot of merit to this idea, especially around the way that I used to approach change. I used to think that moments of resistance were ones to fight through, that the harder the struggle was the more worthwhile the endeavor. But I have learned that oftentimes the result is not worth the effort put into trying to make change.

This afternoon the student who I have been unable to make any progress with this year came into my study hall fifteen minutes late, without a pass, and demanding to go to another classroom. I told him that I would not let him leave the room since he came late and without a pass. He gave me a poorly crafted story to explain where he had been, but I reminded him that I would not let him leave again until I could confirm his flimsy alibi. 

He shouted at me, trying his best to swim upstream against me, protesting that he was “behind” in the class he was in, and that he needed to go there or he would fail. I did my best to remain calm, to be cool water to his struggle against the current. I suggested that since he is in the same situation in my class that he might want to get started on some of the English work that he was missing in the meantime. I suggested that if he needed to he could always and use his lunch time to go to the other class. He turned to me, looked me straight on and told me that it was “pointless” to do any English. Muttering that he was "too far behind to bother".

I recognized that he was challenging me. That he wanted to see what kind of resistance I would put up against him. The old me would have taken on this challenge. The old me would have fired back. The old me would have escalated the situation, even though I know well enough that the end result would have been the same no matter what I did. Nothing would have been accomplished by pushing him, except I would erode my own well being and push us each a little further away from one another and into the corners we have both established for ourselves. 

Instead, the calmer, wiser me, the one who has accepted that I can only change myself and encourage others to change themselves, took hold. Rather than raise my hackles, I instead dug into the calm part of myself. I responded quietly that he “might be right, but that he won’t be able to know without trying”. I then reminded him that he had a choice of how to use his time, but that I still would not be writing him a pass without confirmation of his whereabouts. He stood with his back to me, staring out the window for a while, but eventually he took a chair and a computer. He produced nothing of substance, but he did not fight either- a small victory, but one that I will gladly take in a school year that has gone on too long and is still a week away from ending.

Sometimes, change is about acceptance. It is about seeing a student in the last few days of the year, one who has failed to thrive all year long, and accepting that you can not change them. They are who they are. You are who you are. Your disparate agendas will never mesh, and the best you can do is to do no more harm.      

Writers are Made by Writing

“Teaching the writing process does not make writers. Experiencing the writing process makes writers."

For the past few days, my seventh graders have been working on their final exam for English class. Each day they are given a new key word that hints at a thematic idea. They then engage in 25 minutes of free writing, an expressive exercise to see where their writing leads them. So far they have contemplated the terms "wonder", "risk", "change" and today, "self". Tomorrow, they will revisit this writing, whittle it down and revise it into a celebration piece to show off their best writing. While there will be a product for this assignment, this activity is far more process driven than a typical final exam. 

Writing expressively, in this open ended way is a change and a challenge for my students. Most of them are extremely skilled at writing when they are told what to write, when they are given a question to answer, a transaction to complete. We have trained them to do this early on in school. But once we open things up, once we refuse to involve ourselves in the transaction that is where there is discomfort. All week I have watched my 8th period class struggle with this change. I have watched them flounder around for confirmation that they are doing it (by “it” I mean simply writing) “right”.

I have watched them struggle to be affirmed. I have watched them struggle for approval and an indication that they are approaching the assignment correctly. I have had to put on my best ignoring face, pretending that I am so absorbed in my own writing that I can not see a struggling student, so that I am not tempted to come to the rescue of a student who believes themselves to be impossibly stuck. I have had to refuse to read writing, sending frustraed students away from my desk. I have had to answer a student asking me if their writing was “good” by quickly glancing at the computer screen and telling him that it was “perfect because there are words on a page”. I know that not dropping everything to affirm a student and stroke their writing ego is the right thing to do, but sometimes I feel like I am not being compassionate in these moments. Even though I am uncomfortable, I know that in many cases I am doing what needs to be done to push kids towards independence.

The reason I will not read Martin’s writing in the middle of writing time, or answer Meredith’s question about the direction she is going in, or address Jason’s waving hand is simply because even though they don’t trust it, they do not need me. I know that they have everything that they need to be successful with this task inside of them, they just don’t realize it. They haven’t learned to trust their own voices yet. For some of them this is about inexperience- they simply have not spent enough time struggling through the act of writing to learn that the only way to write well is to write a lot and see what happens.

For others they have done all of the practice, they have put in the time, but they are stuck in the point of needing control. They need to hold tight to their words. These are the students who  over think the process, searching for writing that will earn them a good grade. These students will make successful high schoolers, and even more successful college students, but will they ever really learn to discover a new idea? Will they learn to break the rules? Will they learn to tap into their own brains in a way that can break something new out?

Even though many of them indicate a desire for affirmation from me, I know that adding my own voice does not instil the trust in oneself that a true “writer” needs to write well. It does little to help them access their own thoughts, it only serves to help them try to unlock the puzzle of what they think I want to hear. I worry about students like this, those who are more concerned with pleasing a teacher’s voice than with listening to their own.

This is why students like Korina are able to fill two to three pages in 25 minutes, or why Rafe always has some wandering prose that both amuses and mystifies. They have learned to trust their own voices. They know themselves as writers, and they trust that something will come out. Sure, sometimes that something is off the wall, or far away from what others would come up with, but that is the point. Even as they wander around in their thinking and writing they are doing it right, in that they are losing control and letting the writing happen to them rather than forcing the writing in a direction it does not want to go.                 

This self trust is the hardest thing to teach in that it is not a thing that can be taught. The best I can do is create the conditions that force students to figure out how to develop this on their own. I guess it’s a step in the right direction that in the absence of teachers affirming them, they seek out affirmation from one another. I almost like that I keep seeing kids pass computers back and forth, that they are checking in with one another and sharing their writing with one another, though there is still a distrust there, and underlying belief that “even if I think my writing is good, I can’t trust that it is good until someone else tells me it is, until someone else confirms what I am too insecure and self-conscious to confirm myself.” It’s the same writers who wanted me to read their writing instead of just trusting themselves and going for it.

If I can only share one more thing with my students in these last days before we leave for summer it is this: there is no room for fear and self-consciousness in writing, those insecurities will lead you nowhere productive. They will lead you only to stilted, inauthentic writing. Instead, to be a real writer, one must simply write and trust themselves in their writing.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The First Slice

I decided that this year would be the year that I introduced the Slice of Life challenge into my writing workshop. We had been bouncing back and forth for years, trying to find the perfect balance between assigned topic writing and personal free choice writing, and this challenge seemed like the best way to do it.

We brought everyone in to class, completed the homework collection and upcoming assignment minutia, and started to introduce the idea of writing about the tiny moments of our lives. We examined an example, pulling apart the details of what made the writing work. We took time to visualize a moment, and then we set to the task of writing. I held my breath for a second before my pen hit the paper. What would happen? I wondered internally. Could this group handle finding their own topics, or would they start resisting, playing, or worse yet, just not doing. But my worry was for nothing because for the very first time all year everyone in the room was silent as words got into notebooks and stories started to develop.

We wrote for 10 minutes, and in those ten minutes amazing things happened. We wrote and wrote, and as soon as our timer went off, people needed to share. Alex needed to tell his stories of eating cherry tomatoes plucked fresh off the vine when he should have been weeding in science class. Gil regaled us with the story of Michael's first ever home run. Ravi entertained us with his covert mission to procure a comb, and Pamela and Kosette's friendship was sealed by a returned glue stick.

In only 10 minutes we got into the slices of lives, and the writing was good. I was amazed at how much magic could happen in such a short time. Pleased with how much potential we have to grow as a community of writers, and sure that next week's slices could only get better.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Settling In

Our start of school calendar was organized very differently this year. Most years, our first week of school comes right after Labor Day. Teachers arrive on Tuesday, 6th graders are oriented on Wednesday, and then on Thursday everyone attends school for two days. This first week always had a rhythm to it. Thursday and Friday became about rules and syllabi, and students spent inordinate amounts of time in their homeroom reading student handbooks, attending assemblies, and getting more information about more rules and syllabi. Kids were squirrely since sitting for six hours hadn't been part of their routine for months. By the end of that first week everyone was exhausted and ready for the weekend. Those two days are a big part of the reason why I dislike the first days of school. Those days feel artificial. They feel like a waste of time. My students and I end up too busy waiting for school to really begin when we begin this way.

This year, due to Jewish holy days, things were organized differently. 6th graders attended a full week last week. 7th and 8th graders came for four days starting Tuesday. Homeroom time was spread out over four days, and classes were almost as long as they will be on a normal day. This forced us to rethink things and really reflect on how we wanted this year to start for our students. Instead of the usual introductory slide show, we spent time talking as a group, introducing ourselves, mingling, and sharing reading choices. Instead of telling students the rules, we had them work in groups to create presentations explaining the importance of rules. We were up, we were active, and students were running the show by day two. Instead of wasting time treading water, we jumped right in to the deep end, and our kids all swam! We used that first week to set a tone that our classroom community is one where we work together. One where we solve our own problems instead of relying on the teachers to solve them. And one where you will be held to a high standard. 

We still have a long way to go this year, but I can already feel how this different start is going to make all the difference. By the end of last week I already knew the names of about 85% of my students. I know who the natural leaders in each class are. I know who is willing to take big risks, and who my shy students are. I know who will need more support in managing their time and who will need more support in the social interactions that make up so much of the classroom experience. In short, I already know my students in a way that I never would have on our old schedule. And the best part of the whole week was that by Friday I was energized instead of drained. I couldn't wait to jump back in this week and continue to build on those first experiences.       

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

First Impressions

Yesterday I had a chance to meet all four of my new classes of seventh grade. Even though I had been working in school for nearly a week, the new year did not become real until that first group of students walked through the door.

By the end of the day I was completely exhausted, the strain of being "on" for so long after a summer of being "off" coupled with a barrage of new and challenging names had my brain completely overloaded. And my feet were hurting something fierce by about noon! But, we all survived, and had a lot of fun.

Each class definitely had its own culture, and each group seems very different. I know that finding the style and flow with each class is going to be one of the best challenges of this year. This group left some strong first impressions, and there are some things that I want to remember to think about this year as we move forward.

Period 4 has a gentle, go with the flow kind of feel. Students were willing to participate, a few were eager, but none showed that first day energy that warned me that there was a personality that might need to be molded a bit to fit the community. This group will be great to help test out new lessons and to set a pace for the rest of the day.

Period 7 is a class that I am really excited to teach. The majority of the class are not native English speakers and there is a very varied level of English proficiency. This class already has a culture going, many of the students have already bonded through the shared experience of being in a new school where we speak a new language. This class will force me to slow down and focus on skills. They will need more intentional vocabulary and writing mechanics instruction- two areas that I normally gloss over relying on student's prior knowledge. All four sections will benefit from this intentionality.

Period 8 is a wild bunch! Yesterday we saw five or six kids trying to outshine one another. They have energy, but they are also supportive. It's hard to chide a student for calling out when they're shouting supportive comments to their peers, right?  These students will challenge us to always keep class interesting, to keep them engaged and motivated in fun, active tasks. We'll have to be creative to keep up with them. If we can do that, I think we'll be able to direct all of that energy towards a really fun and productive community.

Period 9 is challenging. It's the end of the day, and it is our most heavily needy population. Luckily, we have three teachers to support our students. In this class I can already see a great diversity of skill. It's amazing how a skill as minor as reading procedural directions on the first day can throw up red flags around a student's skills. I think this class may have a few non-readers, but they seem to be a class of workers. They will "do" as long as we make sure that every one of them knows how. This class will probably need a less exploratory approach than we're used to, and structured differentiation will be our friend.    

I can already see how developing lessons and curriculum to meet all four groups where they are is going to take a lot of work, but it will be beneficial. Each group has strengths and some challenges, but I believe that the approaches we will take to meet those challenges will benefit everyone. I think it's going to be a great year!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

What's Your Mission?

This morning in day 14 of our 15 day Summer Institute we started exploring our own ways to reform education. We examined the issue from a variety of perspectives. We looked at the rhetoric of the national agenda, from the fiery mission of angry teachers, and through the academic lens of teacher researchers. We asked a lot of questions and came up with some actual answers. 

Through the care of my colleague I was actually asked what I would do if I could change the entire system of education. The question was provocative, and led me to realize that I am thankful to not have to answer the question. I came up with more wondering than answering, and I realized that I only know how to change what I can control. Focusing on large scale reform feel futile because of what I know about what I don't know.

I don't know what would work best for every student, every teacher, and every school in the country, but I do know that a one size fits all approach will not work. I know that great teachers are highly trained, highly educated professionals, who devote their entire professional lives to becoming the most effective teachers and mentors they can be. I know that great teachers care deeply about doing good work, that we are not lazy, and that we go above and beyond the perceived duties of our jobs. I also know that test scores do not show the entire picture of a school, a student, or a teacher. I know that too much is being put on the plates of schools, that we are being expected to solve problems well beyond our reach, and that each new reform further ties our hands. I know that the stress created through reform last year was damaging to schools, teachers, and most importantly to children.

So, if I were in charge I would loosen the reigns. I would stop protecting those teachers who are just in it for the summers off and the early end of the work day, and support those great teachers who do great work. I would really examine the data comparing our students to students in the rest of the world. I would consider the populations we compare our students to, the methods others go to to get their results, and the effect of poverty, compulsory education with college and career readiness standards for all, and a pervasive practice of social promotion on our own test scores. I would act with the knowledge that teacher accountability, and high standards is only one small piece of the education reform puzzle. And I would openly and freely admit that as long as we continue to ignore the devastating consequences of poverty we will never be able to "fix" education. 

There are so many parts of this that are beyond my control as a classroom teacher, but I also know that I gave up part of the power of what I can control through this year's ed reform initiatives. This past year I was pulled out of my classroom for reform related meetings, trainings, and work sessions for 9 school days. In my classroom I spent the equivalent of 8 class periods focusing entirely on test preparation that was out of the context of authentic learning. I administered 690 minutes worth of high stakes testing in my classroom alone. That means that 22 hours of my 120 instructional hours was spent on educational reform. That is 18% of my student's class time being devoted to these tasks. 
That is unacceptable!

So, for this year I am on a mission. Here is my teacher mission statement:

I am a highly skilled, thoughtful and passionate professional who has been given the opportunity to change the lives of my students, but I only have 180 days to do that in. Every moment of those 7,200 is critical. I vow to make every one of those minutes count. I refuse to have that time wasted by anything that is not in the best interest of the students that I have the honor to teach. They deserve my attention, and my presence; for that there is no acceptable substitute!      

So, what is your mission?

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Psst...Can You Keep a Secret?

In the last three weeks, I have been forced to sign two highly intimidating confidentiality agreements. These agreements have been a pre-requisite to my responsibilities at my job. Although I have not wanted to, I have had to pledge that I would not share any of the content I was presented in my tasks, or even speak about the tasks I had been asked to complete. I essentially agreed that once the task was complete I would metaphorically erase all knowledge of the experience to protect the integrity of the task. In fact, by even just publicly mentioning that I have signed these agreements I have probably already broken them, and could be held legally liable for my actions. You’re probably thinking that I have some high level government job, or that I work in a health care field where I am entrusted with protecting the confidentiality of my patients, but that is not the case.

I am a public school teacher who was recently forced to administer and score the New York State Common Core exams for 2013.       

By now you’ve probably seen the myriad articles criticizing this year’s high-stakes standardized testing. You’ve probably read about the problems associated with the test: the lengthy reading passages about arcane topics, the grammatical errors within the readings and the questions, the convoluted multiple choice questions with more than one reasonable answer, the lack of adequate time for students to complete the tasks they were given. 

Maybe you’ve heard about the anxiety and health concerns brought out by the high-stakes testing. Record numbers of school nurses have reported symptoms of dehydration during state testing, since schools will not let kids have water during their 90 minutes of testing for fear of accidental destruction of a test. There are reports of kids crying, and vomiting during the test. In fact, some states have had to formalize their official policy for what to do when a child vomits on the test. In my school we even had a student who had such a severe panic attack they had to be taken to the hospital by ambulance. 

The criticism is not just anecdotal. Critical articles seem daily fare for the education sections of news outlets. The criticisms started before the tests had even been administered, and have not slowed since (Parents, teachers, and students have all spoken out. These are just a sampling of the responses that have been published in the past three weeks). And the problems are not limited to New York. In Indiana, Oklahoma, and Minnesota criticism of the actual test is being overshadowed by the reports of critical computer problems that made taking the exams impossible.

Any one of these complaints is reason enough to take a close look at our current obsession with standardized testing, but I want focus on the idea of the secrecy involved in the entire testing process. New York has signed on to a 5 year contract with Pearson Education, a contract that has cost the state $32 million dollars. One of the conditions of this contract is the these exams be "secure tests". The testmakers have gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that not a single word of these exams be leaked to the public. The tests are kept under lock and key until 1 hour before administration, teachers and test administers sign confidentiality agreements at every turn, and students as young as 8 years old sit through daily readings of a list of the contraband electronic devices they must surrender during the test. The concern over the security of these tests does not seem to relate to cheating, if it did wouldn't there be some demand that students be seated in rows, or that tests be administered in gymnasiums (like the SAT or other college entrance exams)? As it stands, students are still allowed to test in their classrooms or other "well-lit, well-ventilated areas", and test administers are simply given a charge to monitor for and report potential cheating to their principals. No, we are not trying to secure the student outcomes, we are trying to secure the actual test. We are not protecting student interests, we are protecting Pearson's interests.

Creating a rigorous, reliable, high-stakes exam that combines multiple stand alone and paired reading passages of authentic texts, multiple choice questions, short writing questions, and text based essays is no easy feat. First there's the actual test creation, followed by "field-testing" of exam questions to determine how the plan will fly when put in front of live children, and then the creation of scoring materials that use actual student responses to create a complex series of "anchors" so that live scorers can "align their thinking" and provide reliable scores. Each test presented to students in New York this year contained a number of actual assessment questions as well as built in "field test" questions, so in essence while Pearson was creating a high-stakes testing environment for the assessment of students and their teachers (as per the new APPR requirements that link student scores to teacher outcomes) they were also creating a lab where students were serving as guinea pigs for future tests. Only Pearson knows which questions were "field test" questions and which were actual questions. Based on the quality of what was put in front of students this year, teachers can only hope that about half of the questions will be thrown out as failed field test questions, but we'll never know, and thanks to our confidentiality agreements, we can't even talk about those questions.
Providing specific feedback on any reading sample or question, even for the purpose of helping to create a better exam in the future is in breach of the agreement.

I usually try to keep my cynicism in check, but in this case there is something suspect in this secrecy. To pilot an entirely new plan, or to "cross a bridge while we are still building it" as one key figure in ed reform has said, while simultaneously eschewing feedback on the process, product and long-term implications, feels disingenuous to the goal of free-thought and public education. Instead we have a system where protecting the interests of a corporation is trumping the protection of the interests of an entire generation of children. And that makes me tremendously uncomfortable.

Pearson has a lot riding on the success of these exams, $32 million in New York alone. And the response to this first attempt is lackluster. We can only hope that next year's plan fixes some of the problems that were brought out this year. But if it doesn't, it won't matter, since we still probably won't be able to talk about it.