Monday, November 29, 2010

I do not want to go to work today...

I would make an excellent couch potato. I could be the queen of all couch potatoes. And as a wanna-be-queen-couch-potato, I was blissfully happy with five days off from school over the Thanksgiving break. Last night, as I spent the last few precious couch moments and bemoaned the fact that I would have to get up early and go back to work, I was browsing the topics in my RSS reader. Stephanie Perkins had a new post.

Stephanie is a YA author and her posts are great to read when you are lounging on the couch. She is witty and fun and she includes a lot of pictures of really cute guys. I really needed her post last night. Stephanie was lamenting the struggles she was having with one of her writing projects. She had spent a "couch day" but was ready to get back at her writing because, as she says in her post, "I do not want to write. But I do want to be a writer."

That was the kick I needed to change my attitude about getting off the couch. I did not want to get out of bed this morning. But I do want to be a teacher. So, here I am back at school. Bring on the learning!

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Power of Integrated Curriculum

Today has been declared a Day of National Blogging for Real Education Reform. There is no way I can be as eloquent as many of the bloggers in the educational community will be today. I still have a hard time wrapping my head around the bigger picture of education reform. Merit pay, firing teachers, getting rid of unions. I admit that some of it frightens me. Ok, maybe a lot of it frightens me. We are talking about some pretty major changes coming at a time when, financially for many schools, things can't seem to get much worse.

In thinking about how I could contribute to this conversation, my mind kept returning to the theory of integrated curriculum. The world inside our middle and high schools is so subject oriented and fragmented that it should be no surprise that we are "losing" students at an enormous rate. We are losing them literally as many choose to drop out, and we are losing them figuratively as they become more and more disenchanted with school and education.

Integrating the curriculum in order to make apparent the connections between all facets of life and the world could go a long way to bring the enchantment back to education. We need to get away from teaching Biology for 45 minutes, then sending our students off to 45 minutes of History, then 45 minutes of math, etc. By centering the curriculum around essential questions and the bigger concepts that transcend subject areas, we bring meaning back to the curriculum. And by letting students ask the essential questions that drive the curriculum, we bring relevance and authenticity back into learning. For students, we bring back the joy of discovering that so many of them lost after elementary school. The National Middle School Association has addressed the value of curriculum integration in this Positon Statement.

The theories of curriculum integration have been around a long time. But it was in 1993 when James Beane wrote his book A Middle School Curriculum: From Rhetoric to Realilty, that the conversations began in earnest for middle level educators. Beane describes curriculum integration in a 1995 article from Phi Delta Kappa this way:

Curriculum integration is not simply an organizational device
requiring cosmetic changes or realignments in lesson plans across
various subject areas. Rather, it is a way of thinking about what
schools are for, about the sources of curriculum, and about the uses
of knowledge. Curriculum integration begins with the idea that the
sources of curriculum ought to be problems, issues, concerns posed
by life itself. (p.616)

But some of the structures put in place during the middle school movement actually keep us from the goal of curriculum integration. When teachers are teamed in order to have common planning time, students are attending their "specials" classes of art, music, and PE. In a truly integrated curriculum, these "specials" are part of the core.

And even teachers in teams still tend to think of themselves in terms of the subject they teach. While teams of teachers may do innovative things like interdisciplinary units to help make more concrete the connections between subjects, these units are often add-ons. Some teachers even feel resentful when they have to take time away from their curriculum to "do interdisciplinary units." These teachers cannot be faulted for their feelings of fear and resentment. Our culture of standardized testing has made them feel that the curriculum, the standards, benchmarks, and grade level content expectations for their subject are of the greatest importance. And the fear of repercussions if students don't achieve to those standards has led many teachers to teach in a very regimented way.

The fact that teachers see themselves as subject area experts is partially a result of teacher training. Therefore, teacher training and certification is another roadblock to integration. When teachers have to be certified, tested and proven highly qualified in a subject area, we severely limit their ability to attempt curriculum integration. As a teacher who is certified to teach language arts, I can easily integrate other subject areas into a class, but I still have to send students off to do their time in those other subject areas. Although I am perfectly capable of leading my students to answering their questions and helping them find the resources they need when I don't have all the answers, the state says that because I haven't passed a teacher certification test in social studies, science, or math, I am not qualified.

Organizing the curriculum around essential questions and larger concepts is something many teachers have no practice with. Even elementary teachers, who tend to teach with themes, may find that their units are a lot of flash with little substance. Organizing units around dinosaurs, apples, Western Expansion, etc., limits the depth that we can help students achieve in their thinking and learning. Carol Ann Tomlinson addressed this in a November 1998 article in the Middle School Journal; For Integration and Differentiation Choose Concepts over Topics.

For the past 4 years, as an adjunct instructor, I have been teaching a graduate level course on middle level curriculum. The final assessment in the class is to be able to create integrated curriculum. My university mentor has always wanted me to require that the teachers in the class work in teams to create an integrated unit. While I admire her immensely, I have been moving away from that requirement in the last couple of years. As school budgets dwindle, middle schools that operate on the middle school model tend to be first on the chopping block. It takes extra staff to provide common planning time for teachers. Because so many of my grad students no longer work in team-teaching environments, it has become increasingly important to me that they learn how to look differently at their subject area. That they help students ask the important questions, develop curriculum around those questions. That they show their students the integrated nature of learning in order to re-awaken their desire for learning. It is important that they be able to work on their individual subject area to find ways to make the concepts of that subject integrated and show their students how the knowledge gained in their class can help them develop deeper understandings of our world.

Resources recommended and/or mentioned in this post:
Beane, James A. (1993.) A Middle School Curriculum: From Rhetoric to Reality. Columbus, OH: National Middle School Association.

Nesin, G. & Lounsbury, J. (1999.) Curriculum Integration, Twenty Questions--with Answers. Atlanta, GA: Georgia Middle School Association.

Tomlinson, Carol Ann. (1998) For Integration and Differentiation Choose Concepts over Topics. Middle School Journal, 30(2), 3-8.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Purpose of Homework

Recently, a member of my PLN, Russ Goerend, sent out this tweet:
Would you do the homework you're assigning?

It is really quite a profound question. I have found myself thinking about it off and on since he tweeted it. It is a question I have often wanted to ask the teachers with whom I work as well as my daughters' teachers. Not because I question the homework they give (though in all honesty, I often do), but because I want them to question the homework they give.

The homework debate can get very heated and I am not writing to add flames to the fire. I don't see homework as inherently evil, but I have seen some pretty evil assignments. I think Cathy Vatterott, in her book Rethinking Homework, gives teachers many angles to think about in assigning homework.

One consideration she highlights is the purpose of homework. She delineates 4 main purposes. The first is prelearning. I like to think of this as building background knowledge. Homework for this purpose may be as simple as these directions: Tonight for homework, find two people who can tell you something about the Civil War. In class the next day, what the students share can be the beginnings of a group KWL chart. When using homework for this purpose it should not be graded. Hopefully, homework assigned for prelearning would involve tasks that are motivating to students and get them thinking about the specified topic. If that is the goal, there is no reason to give a grade.

The second purpose for homework is checking for understanding. I'd like to think that was the purpose for my daughter's math homework last night. What her teacher would have found out was that she had very little understanding. However, knowing that probably wasn't the purpose and that she would end up getting a grade for an assignment she didn't know how to do, my husband spent 30 minutes figuring out how to do the math so that he could teach her what to do. This was after I spent 15 minutes trying to figure out how to do it. I think my husband should get part of that teacher's salary for doing the job of teaching that concept. (By the way, the concept was: stupid-slope-y-intercept-graph-crap. At least that was the way I texted it to my husband to get him out of the deer blind!) When using homework for this purpose, it should not be graded. A teacher can tell by checking the homework if there was understanding. If there wasn't, it becomes the teacher's job to determine what needs to happen next in their teaching to get to that understanding.

Practice is the third purpose. I think this is what the math teacher intended last night's homework to be. But a student can't practice something they are not close to mastering. It only builds resentment and confusion for the student--and sometimes the parent! When using homework for this purpose, it should not be graded. When a basketball coach instructs her players to practice free-throws at home, the players don't earn points for the ones they make. The points only count in the game. Homework for the purpose of practice is like free-throws.

The fourth purpose for giving homework is for processing. Getting students to think more about the learning that took place can extend their understanding. Processing might take the form of a learning log post reflecting on what was hard and what was easy in that day's lesson. This is information that a teacher could then use to determine where instruction needs to go next. When using homework for this purpose, it should not be graded. The information that a teacher gets from student processing is invaluable to further planning of instruction, but should not translate into a score.

You should have noticed that Vatterott does not believe in grading homework. For any reason. So don't even try the "teaching responsibility" argument. Here is what she says about the flaw in the concept of homework teaching responsibility:
The flaw in this concept lies in the implementation--when students don't complete
homework on time, late policies punish them for not learning responsibility! So if
don't complete homework on time, doesn't that mean that the teacher has failed
to teach them responsibility? If that is true, the logical act would be to reteach
them without penalty. Instead, the use of late policies judges students for not
learning responsibility and then fails them as a result. (p.89)

The next time you give homework, think about your purpose. Consider what you will do with the information you get from it. And ask yourself, Would you do the homework you're assigning?

Vatterott, C. (2009). Rethinking Homework. Best practices that support diverse needs. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Starbucks and Writing

When the latest issue of Time magazine appears in my mailbox, I immediately turn to the last page and read the last column. I find that quite often, Joel Stein's or Nancy Gibbs' essays are ones that often resonate with me and would also be accessible by 7th or 8th grade students. And sometimes even with 5th and 6th graders. When Joel wrote recently about his personal experience with bed bugs in a hotel, I could pair his essay with the Time For Kids article about bed bugs to give literacy students a reading experience that was first at their reading level and that then moves them to text that is more complex. In this way, I can push their comprehension to higher levels.

What a neat surprise I had today, when I got the November 15 issue of Time and in turning to the last page, I found this advertisement for Starbucks coffee on the back:

The first thing I thought was, "I need to get me some of this coffee!" And then realizing the article's effect on me, I thought, "Self, how could this be used with students?" And oh-so-many ideas began to hit me. Aside from the obvious that it can be analyzed critically, like any advertisement, for the appeal that the author is using to entice customers, this one sentence is a great piece of writing.

A writing teacher could use it in a mini-lesson on using juicy words in writing. It could be used for a mini-lesson on personification. It would also be fun for students to think of a product and see if they could write one sentence about it that would make someone want to buy it. It could even be made multi-disciplinary by having students design their own ads for their product, thinking about graphics, size and placement of design elements and font style and size.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Autonomy-or the lack thereof....and then some humor

I seem to have had several things to complain about recently. Complaint is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as you try to also offer suggestions to help remedy the problems about which you complain. Yesterday, I had to opportunity to speak to the principal of my daughter's middle school. He said some things about the 8th grade situation that give me hope for the way it is being handled.

I also emailed my younger daughter's teacher and linked him to information that explain my stance on the reward/punishment system. The link led him to my blog and my last post, which I think insulted him. That would never have been my intention, as there are MANY teachers in the district who are wonderful, caring, challenging teachers. He is among them. One thing he said, though, in his email was that the PRIDE program was the decision of the administrators. That bothers me. I have always felt that the great teachers in this school system are not afforded enough autonomy, and that was what I meant when I said in the last post that I chose not to look for a job here because my values didn't match the schools. Even when I attended high school here myself, I felt the teachers were not treated like competent, intelligent professionals. I need to work in a place that I feel a part of because my expertise is understood and appreciated. His statement explained a lot too. If the teachers are not given more than a token voice in what happens in a district, how can they be expected to understand how to help students have a voice? At this point I am just going to keep my mouth closed for a while. I have made my feelings known, but I think I need to learn when I've said enough.

In honor of staying on the positive side, here's a fun middle school story I have to share. The other day, I was coming out of the copy room in the office. Right outside the copy room door there is a phone on the wall of the main office. As I walked out, I saw one of our POHI students (not sure if that label is still the one in use.) Asa (not his real name) is short and squat, with Coke-bottle glasses and a smile that warms your heart. He was looking at the phone like it was a new invention, holding the receiver off to the side in his left hand. I asked him if he needed help and showed him how to choose an outside line to make his call. I watched him painstakingly dial the 11 digits, but still hold the receiver off to the side as he rechecked the number in the display. I assured him he had dialed fine and that he needed to put the phone to his ear, but he continued to stare at the display. I took the receiver from him and heard a voice saying, "Hello?"

"Hi, this is the school. Asa needs something, here he is," I said into the phone and then handed it back to Asa, telling him to go ahead and tell his mom what he needed.

Asa took the phone, said "Hello? Hello?" looked up at me and said, "I can't hear anything." So I took the phone again.

Speaking into it, I checked to make sure someone was still there and that the reception was ok. I had the brief thought that perhaps Asa had called a cell phone and had lost the connection, but mom was still saying hello, plain as day. I asked her to hang on just a second, then looked at Asa and said, "Asa, why did you call mom? What do you need?" His answer made me laugh out loud so that I was barely able to relay the message to his mom. He said...........................................

"I need a battery for my hearing aid."!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Making 8th grade a police state is not the answer.

Remember the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld? He held the ultimate power over whether Jerry and friends received soup or not. When the show's characters entered the store, you could see their change in demeanor. They lived in fear of being yelled at and denied soup. It is unfortunate that I find myself making a connection between the Soup Nazi and some of the 8th grade teachers at my daughter's school. She has coined them "The Gum Nazis."

Right now, there are several things rotten in the state of Denmark that is my daughter's middle school. I am so frustrated at how the values of the school seem to be the polar opposite of the values I hold as a parent and as a middle school educator. (As an aside--people used to ask me why I never went for a job in the district in which I live. I think I always knew that I couldn't be happy working there specifically because some of the policies and practices are in direct conflict with my beliefs. I never fully realized that was why until I my own children became school age.)

My daughter is a responsible young woman. I also realize that she is a child. She will make mistakes. She will get in trouble. But for the most part, I find that her reflections on what is happening in her school, while tinted by the lens of adolescence, are usually pretty accurate. Two days ago, the principal, explaining to the entire class just how terrible their behavior is, enacted new rules that make an analogy to a prison state pretty accurate. As data to support his plan was the fact that the 8th grade has the largest number of PRIDE slips--more than the other three grade levels combined. PRIDE slips = discipline referrals. I have a hard time keeping them separate in my mind from PRIDE tickets, which are given randomly for "doing good things." I'll just let you read what Joe Bower has to say about these reward systems; he says it much more eloquently than I could.

So, they have a lot of PRIDE slips as a group. My daughter has had zero. Most of her friends-zero. But some of the teachers are seeing this new list of "rules" as vindication and revenge. ("Rules"? I call them punishments-see what Joe Bower has to say about that as well. He is one smart guy.) It seems that one rule being broken quite often is No Gum Chewing. And a couple of teachers are on the war path to catch the gum chewers. They have decided that chewing gum will earn a PRIDE slip. After 4 PRIDE slips, students "earn" a suspension. I don't know. I would be embarrassed as a teacher or administrator to explain to a parent that their child was suspended from school for gum chewing.

I can understand the frustration of a whole group of students that is overwhelming naughty. We've had that group move through my own school system. They were trying. They were aggravating. But we always tried very hard to remember it was the behavior of a few that made the whole group seem "bad." And we tried to remember that there was some reason behind why each student who was acting out made the choice to do so. It was our job to try to help them understand what those reasons were and to help them learn to make better choices. My daughter's teachers don't seem to understand this. My daughter described one of her teachers as being "cocky" when she enforces the "new rules." And that is just not necessary. In fact, my daughter said, "Geez, we get it. They have all the power. We have to do whatever they say. She doesn't have to like it so much." The sad fact is that when the teachers take this attitude, they are alienating themselves from the "good" students who at one point wanted to make them happy and proud. The "good" kids are so fed up with being in trouble and they aren't taking it out on the "bad" kids causing the trouble, which I think is something adults often hope will happen. Instead, they are losing respect for the authority figures who are abusing their power. Kids shouldn't be given the task of monitoring or trying to change the behavior of another kid, especially through manipulative ways like group punishments.

Any teacher's #1 strategy in having an efficient, learning classroom should be creating caring and respectful relationships with students. My daughter no longer feels like she has a respectful relationship with several of her teachers. Turning 8th grade into a police state is not the answer. This school needs to take a careful look at their beliefs about teaching, learning, and basic nature of people. If their behaviors are supported by their beliefs, I have to seriously ask myself if this is the school in which my child belongs. I would much rather my children learn in a school that spends time reflecting on the best way to teach each child to reach higher levels of critical thinking, life-long learning, and ethical behavior and not on devising punishment and reward systems that do things to kids rather than work with them.