Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Education Reform: Fixing Weak Teachers since 1996

Education reform was conceived as a way to save the system from all the "weak" teachers out there. Okay, you know what? I've seen some "weak" teachers in my time.

I think most of us would agree, weak teachers have some or all of the following traits:

  • They simply assign and assess instead of teach.
  • They don't think, they aren't creative, and they want everything handed to them so they don't have to work hard.
  • They don't really get to know their students. They don't look beneath the surface of what's happening with their students. 
  • Weak teachers aren't too bright themselves: there's a lack of intellectual curiosity, a lack of interest in the world around them, a lack of questioning. 

With that brief picture of a "weak" teacher in mind, let's look at how education reform has tried to solve the problem:

Since weak teachers seem to simply assign and assess all the time, lets make all teachers constantly assign and assess! Formatives! Summatives! District assessments! State assessments! Assign and assess, all day, every day!

Since weak teachers don't think much about what they're doing, aren't creative, and rely on other people to hand them materials and tell them what to do, let's make sure all teachers are unthinking. Let's prohibit creativity for all teachers. Let's micromanage all teachers!

Since weak teachers don't really get to know their students, lets make sure no teachers get to know their students: turn students into data points and learning into depersonalized data intake and output.

Since weak teachers don't look beneath the surface to see what might be getting in the way of student learning, but instead just slap grades on them, let's make sure no teachers look beneath the surface. Analyze data, but never actually talk to a student!

Since weak teachers aren't intellectually curious, don't really think about big picture issues, explore uncharted territory with their students, or read widely in multiple areas of interest, let's keep all teachers so busy doing busy work that they won't have time for intellectual pursuits.

Since weak teachers never question anything or really think about what goes on in their classroom, let's try to ensure that no teachers ever question anything, but do just as they are told.

Doesn't that make sense as a way to reform education?


I don't think so either.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

SCHOOL WARS! An educational a. allegory b. satire c. parody d. all of the above

As my students will attest, I am a Star Wars fanatic. I have been since I was 10 years old in 1977 and saw the original movie from the front row. 

As I began to think about the politics within the Star Wars universe, the role the Jedi Knights played in the Old Republic, and the role of the Empire in using fear to create a totalitarian galaxy, I realized I needed to use my comic strip, Mr. Fitz, to write a parody of Star Wars that was also a satire of American Education Reform over the past two decades. I have sometimes felt like old Obi-Wan, hiding out in my cave-class, following the old ways of the Force as I did before the dark times, before the Empire of testing. Of course, some other science fiction and pop culture elements started to seep into the series as well, especially the Borg from Star Trek: The Next Generation. 

I needed to set up Mr. Fitz's "dream sequence," but once I did, the series almost wrote itself. I ran the first part this past summer, and the second part wrapped up today. My hope is that we can defeat this evil "Ed-pyre" that has set out to destroy our schools. 

After the end of the summer series, I wanted to wait until December to finish it, to coincide with the release of the newest Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens. Here is the rest of the story...

Our schools have been targeted by the Test Star, which doesn't just test students, but narrows curriculum, standardizes students, standardizes teachers, and in short, assimilates in a system designed to make a lot of money for testing and curriculum companies. It was never about the kids. We have betrayed our teachers and our students. The time has come to implode the Test Star and take education back from the Ed-pyre. 

Monday, December 28, 2015

Tech Wars: What Star Wars Could Teach Us About Our Obsession With Technology

I have Star Wars on the brain, and this afternoon doing some reading, viewing, and thinking about Star Wars gave me a new insight about education.

I recently finished drawing comic strip parodies of Star Wars in my comic strip; I've gone to see Episode 7 twice (opening night and the day after Christmas); and today I had a chance to read the Time Magazine article about Episode 7 ("A New Hope: How J.J. Abrams Brought Back Star Wars Using Puppets, Greebles, and Yak Hair:). I read this article in the oral surgeon's office while our daughter was having her wisdom teeth out, and we even had a nice chat about episode 7 with the surgeon himself while our daughter was "going under."

After we got home, my wife printed out an article for me to read: "Students Call me the 'Technosaur'" wherein Alan Singer questions the current obsession with technology as a panacea that will solve all our educational woes.

This afternoon my daughter is recovering, and wanted to watch movies. First we watched School of Rock (which I will write about in a later post because I think it is, perhaps, the best teacher movie ever). Then, out of curiosity, our daughter asked to watch the much-maligned Episode I of Star Wars, The Phantom Menace.

As we  watched it, that Time article about the making of Episode 7 came back to mind. The Phantom Menace certainly has its problems, but what struck me most about watching it again when how it seems oddly un-grounded in reality. Nearly every special effect, and many of the settings, were accomplished using CGI, and at times it almost feels as though live-action actors are floating through a sea of digital images. And the overemphasis on those non-physical effects led, I think, to an under-emphasis on the human elements of the prequel movies: the characters, dialogue, and acting.

The Time magazine article emphasized how J.J. Abrams tried to go "old school" for Episode 7. They attempted to use as little CGI  as possible, instead focusing on "practical effects": puppets and props and real-life settings rather than digital ones. These effects are a throw back to the original trilogy, especially the first movie. George Lucas wasn't happy with how many of the effects were done, feeling that he hadn't had the resources he needed to make them as sophisticated as he would have liked. Yet the very limitations of his budget and technology were part of what made the original movies feel so "real." With the new movie, Abrams says in the Time article, "...the decision was made early on to build as much as we can and actually film it. And what that would do is obviate the need to try to make people believe it was really happening. Because it simply would be happening." BB-8, the new movie's star droid, was sketched on scrap paper by Abrams himself, and performed mainly as a real puppet, not as a CGI image.

And so this was my insight, for what it's worth. An over-reliance on technology made the prequels less-real, less grounded in reality, while the original trilogy and Episode 7 used a limited amount of technology, which grounded them in reality and also made the human elements stand out. George Lucas thought that CGI would solve all his movie-making problems, but the technology ultimately hurt believeability because they movies were no longer grounded in reality. The same can be said of education. An over-reliance on technology in education leads to school being a place where the human elements are under-emphasized, and students and teachers alike can end up floating in a sea of digital gadgets that are flashy, but somehow lack substance. When we think technology will solve all our problems, we are in danger of no longer being grounded in reality. My district recently released its new strategic plan, and one if its plans is to use technology to "personalize" learning. Truly personalizing learning, it seems to me, can only be done by a person.

Episode 7 seems to provide a solution. It goes "old school" where it matters to making the illusion seem more real. But it also uses technology judiciously, not as the cure-all approach for every effects shot in the movie, but when it will make possible what isn't possible by using practical effects. This approach puts technology in its proper place, grounds the movie in reality, and doesn't overwhelm the human elements.

A case in point is the character of Maz Kanata (played by Lupita Nyong'o) the bar-tender/wise-woman alien of the movie's middle act. She is motion-capture CGI, a character  whose performance by the real-life actress is captured by a computer and transferred onto the template of her CGI character. Maz's character is based on J.J. Abram's English teacher, Rose Gilbert, who taught in the same classroom for 51 years, until her retirement at age 94.

I doubt the character of Maz would have been inspired by a piece of technology instead of a real live teacher. I doubt Rose Gilbert would have found technology was essential to her teaching. She was, I suspect, most decidedly old-school.

Technology has a place in  education, but thinking it is the cure-all solution to all our problems leads to a disconnect from reality. Human teaching and the personal touch are the best ways to achieve... special effects.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Teaching and Writing and What Drives Instruction

Make the standards drive the instruction!

This has been the mantra ever since standards became the focus of "standards-based education reform." The unforeseen (or perhaps intended?) consequence of standards driving the instruction is that textbooks companies have been very careful to show that their textbooks are "aligned" with the standards. In other words, in Language Arts, any given reading, writing, listening, or speaking activity in any given textbook or workbook is labeled with the standard or standards "covered" by that activity.

In other words, "Use our product, you don't have to think; we'll make sure you're covering the standards."

I have long thought that teaching is like writing, and writing is like teaching. I've met other teachers who agree with me. They both involve having an intention, paying attention to both big ideas and details, getting your audience's attention, and watching the pacing of your delivery, among other things. The idea that teaching and writing are very much alike became even more vivid for me this week, and gave me new epiphanies about both.

On Monday, I was in a Language Arts PLC (that's teacher-speak for a department meeting) where a presenter from our district, a teacher on assignment I have known for many years, was giving us insights about the scoring of the Florida Standards Assessment (FSA) writing test. This test is part of the Common Core State Standards' "instructional shifts." The "shift" in this case is to move students away from writing about their lives to asking students to "write to text." Essentially, students read a few texts, usually non-fiction, and then write to a prompt using evidence from the texts. "You have now read three passages about the history of fence posts. Now write an argument stating whether fence posts have mostly changed or mostly stayed the same over the past 100 years using evidence from the texts." This was not the real prompt, and I'm being a bit hyperbolic, but you get the idea.

As we considered papers at different levels of proficiency, here is the statement the presenter made that sparked my epiphany: Average papers were driven by the texts themselves; the student's own ideas drove the high scoring papers. 

In other words, an average writer would simply make a claim based on the prompt ("Fence posts have mostly stayed the same for the past 100 years."), and then plug in quotes from the texts. For example, they might write one paragraph for each text they read, and within each paragraph quoting one or two pieces of information from that essay.

A high-scoring writer read the texts, but brought some insight to the writing situation and had their own strong argument to make. They had their own opinion (despite David Coleman's opinion that opinions don't matter), and that strong sense of agency and purpose, even in the face of a set of texts and a prompt that didn't necessarily interest them, is what drove the essay. That strong sense of purpose and agency allowed the students to take the almighty "text evidence" and bend it to their own purposes, synthesizing it and creating something readable out of a mundane writing task.

So in the best student writing, the texts they read didn't drive the writing. The student and the student's ideas drove the writing. That's where good writing comes from: having a strong sense of purpose. If all we do is prompt students to death rather than giving them the chance to develop their own topics, that sense of purpose will never be there, and their writing, in addition to being mediocre, will also be nothing but a chore for them.

When students let the texts they read drive the writing, their writing turns falls flat. When students themselves drive the writing, even when writing "to text," the writing "scores higher."

I kept thinking about that idea, which is when I had my epiphany.

Writing is like teaching. Teaching is like writing.

When we tell teachers to let the standards and/or the textbook drive their teaching, we are limiting them to be average, or worse than average, just the way students who let the "texts" drive their writing are average, or worse.

Excellent writing is driven by the agency, intention, and vision of the writer, not by following formulas and writing primarily, or only, about other people's ideas.

Excellent teaching is driven by the agency, intention, and vision of the teacher, not by following scripts or curriculum maps and teaching primarily, or only, from material you have been handed.

If we want our students to be excellent writers, we must encourage their agency, their autonomy, their sense of purpose as writers. When we take those things away, we don't just damage their love of writing and their engagement; we damage the writing itself. We settle for mediocrity.

If we want to have excellent teachers, we must encourage their agency, their autonomy, their sense of purpose as teachers. When we take those things away from teachers, and I think we have been systematic about doing so for many years now, we don't just damage their love of teaching and their engagement with their jobs; we damage the teaching itself. We settle for mediocrity.

I have had a strong sense of purpose and agency from the very beginning of my career 25 years ago, and despite everything, my sense of purpose has only grown over the years. Perhaps this is why I continue to feel so out of step the longer I teach. So many of the things I am asked to do, and so many of the ways I am asked to think, run counter to my true sense of purpose.

What drives my teaching? Many things: a desire to promote love of reading and writing; a mission to show students the power of words over our thoughts, our lives, each other, and the world around us; a calling to help students see the world differently and perhaps to lead better, richer lives than they might have without my class. One of my main missions is to invest in them as human beings. So many students seem to have no interests or passions, nothing they are curious about; many tell me they barely remember their own lives. I try to get them to see that writing and reading aren't just terrible chores demanded of us by college and careers. Writing and reading don't just enhance our lives; they don't just change our lives. Writing and reading can very nearly give us our lives. Writing and reading help us hold onto memories, help us to reflect on the past and imagine the future, help us make decisions in the now, help us know who we are, and help us discover meaning in our lives that might not have been there without this essay or novel we read, that journal entry or poem we wrote.

If all that sounds too warm and fuzzy for some people, I would note that all of those concepts are grounded very firmly in the practical aspects of writing (having a central idea, carefully organizing your key ideas, having great details, writing with fluency and graceful sentences, and yes, proofreading) and reading (knowing what the author is saying, but also being able to react to and act on that message). I am motivated to strive for excellence in these elements, though, by the bigger-picture desires I listed above. I tell my students I want them to sound like real, published authors, not like student writers writing to a formula and jumping through hoops to get a grade.

I want to be a real teacher, not a teacher who teaches to a formula and jumps through hoops to get a satisfactory evaluation.

Writing is like teaching and teaching is like writing.

We can push "writing to text" on students and "teaching from standards and textbooks" on teachers if we want mediocre thinking, writing, and teaching that lets the text, textbook, or standards drive the instruction. But if we want excellence, we must invest in giving students a sense of purpose and agency in their own writing and learning, and teachers a sense of purpose and autonomy in their own teaching.

The systematic destruction of student autonomy in writing and teacher autonomy in the classroom doesn't benefit anyone, except the companies that sell textbooks and standardized curricula to school systems. For those of you who care about test scores, destroying people's autonomy doesn't raise scores. I don't care about test scores. I care about people. And destroying the autonomy of students and teachers, taking away their sense of agency and purpose, is not good for people, or for their writing, teaching, or learning.

Writing is like teaching. Teaching is like writing.

Lesson over.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Florida DOE Announces Don't Question! Don't Think! Initiative

(Tallahassee) As a follow up to the mediocre performance of its "Just Read Florida!" campaign, Education Commissioner Pam Stewart announced last week that the Florida Department of Education is launching its new "Don't Question! Don't Think!" campaign. A logo for the new campaign, with the initials DQDT is in development according to officials, and will feature images of a brain and question mark with a red circle around them and a red slash across them.

In the wake of recent questioning of the state's first round of FSA (Florida Standards Assessment) tests (and their resulting scores) by the state's board of superintendents, and also by parents, teachers, students, newspapers, and other people who care about education, Pam Stewart announced that the new initiative was an effort to "stem the tide of negativity aimed at our wonderful new standardized tests." When asked if the initiative was merely a piece of pro-testing propaganda, Stewart replied that "this is exactly the sort of pointless questioning we're trying to prevent. But since you asked, the answer is no. This is not merely to stop people from asking questions about testing. It is also to keep people from asking questions about Florida's charter schools, Florida's stance that opting out of tests is not an option, and the fact that we seem to want our public schools to fail. Nobody needs to question anything the state DOE does or in any way think about it. People just need to accept whatever we do to public schools and understand that we know what is best for students."

When asked to elaborate further, Stewart responded testily, "People just seem to be asking all kinds of questions about everything we do! They question the amount of time students spend in testing! They question whether their students have to take the tests! They question our schools' technology resources and media centers being completely unavailable to students for months on end due to testing. They question disrupting class schedules for weeks and months to accommodate all our computer-based tests. Some have even questioned our goodwill toward public schools! Of course we want our schools to succeed. That's why we demand measurable results, and attempt to get them by demanding that schools assess students nearly constantly. Of course we do give them time to dispense standardized, data-driven curricular materials. Some people even question that! These people need to realize that education is not about thinking for yourself, not about questioning, but about thinking in measurable, standardized ways that will profit our testing companies... I mean students."

Many parent groups, educators, school board members, and superintendents have been questioning many of Florida's policies surrounding public education. "I want to know why my child has to take a district intermim assessment in Reading for three days one week, and the state FAIR test for a day and a half the next," stated Shelly Rothman, the mother of two middle school aged children. "Couldn't they just be, you know, actually learning how to read instead? Maybe even learning to love it instead of associate it with drudgery and relentless assessment of discreet skills?"

The new "Don't Question! Don't Think!" campaign comes with many slogans and bumper-sticker-like aphorisms. Among them are statements such as, "Taking Tests Makes You Smarter!", "Compliance is the Key to Success," "Answer Questions, Don't Ask Them", and "Smart People Don't Think--They Just Score Well." Stewart concluded her press conference about the initiative by saying that "'Don't Question! Don't Think!' tries to put a friendly face on the idea that intelligence involves thinking in terms that can be easily measured by a computer algorithm. Which, of course, is true."

(Written in the spirit of The Onion)

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Thinking Bound and Unbound

My wife recently left the middle school we'd both taught in for 8 years and went to high school. Interestingly, we are still sometimes having parallel experiences.

She recently had her 9th graders write about their rooms at home. It was a way to see how they wrote and to learn something about them. She gave them very little guidelines and no rubric whatsoever. Just the prompt. If she'd been following the "best practices" of PLC protocol, this assignment would have been a department-wide "common assessment" and a rubric would have been required and students would have been shown the rubric and told exactly how to jump through the hoop for the sake of ranking and measuring.

As it turned out, one prompt yielded a lot of different kinds of writing. Some wrote physical descriptions. Some wrote about family resentments, like sharing a room with siblings. Some wrote about having ghosts in their room. They were individual, specific, weird... and real. A rubric could have killed that. Isn't the point of writing to be real?

Today I handed out a short article about different types of students in a typical classroom. We're talking about classroom culture here at the start of year, and about what it means to be a student. I hadn't quite decided what the students would "do" until I handed it out. There was some blank space at the bottom of page 2, so I simply said, "Write a reaction. Write down what you thought about while you read it. That's what real readers do. They react."

One student asked if he should $(@# the article ($(@# is hiding the name of a popular "writing to text" acronym that circulated the school last year). I told him not to. I told him I actually wanted him to think, not go through the motions with something he thought I wanted. He was baffled.

Some students wrote about which type of student they were. Some wrote about how they knew those types of students. Some wrote about the article being full of stereotypes. Some asked a lot of questions. Some related it to movies they'd seen. Letting them look at it through different lenses was more real and led to a more interesting discussion.

If I'd told them to $(@# the article, I would have gotten 21 identical papers.

I have two Creative Writing classes this year (that's a story for another day) and I began the class by asking them to write about what they knew about Creative Writing.

Some had some great answers. Some wrote about using good spelling, capitalization, and punctuation,  transitional words like therefore, and writing things with five paragraphs. Oh, children. What have we done to you? I have come to set you free.

School should not be a place to limit your thinking. Challenge your thinking, yes. Present you with new ways to think, by all means. Teach you about different lenses you can use to view the things you read and the world around you, and help you decide which lenses are useful when, absolutely. But to simply fence thinking in as a matter of course, as a way of life, is a terrible crime against human minds.

We have institutionalized the fences. We need to make space for free-range thinking.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

A Teacher Emergency Kit: Reminders for a New School Year

I have always loved the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis, and my favorite book in the series is one that doesn't get a lot of attention: The Silver Chair. It is a classic quest story. Two children, Jill and Eustace, are called into the mountain country of Aslan, the great lion who rules Narnia from afar. Aslan gives Jill a quest. She and Eustace must travel through Narnia to the giant-filled wastelands of the north to find a missing prince.

Before he sends her on her quest, Aslan tell her, "I give you a warning. Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly. I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia the air will thicken. Take care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs that you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there."  

My summer break as a teacher is like being on Aslan's mountain. The air is clearer and I get a better perspective, clearer thoughts about teaching when I look at it from a distance. Once I get down into the thick air and the overly busy, demanding stress of the school year, the truths that seemed so clear on the summer-break mountaintop become muddled. 

I am one week in to a new school year with my students, and because I am still thinking clearly, I've had a great week. But as the year progresses, my mind may become muddled, so I'm writing this Emergency Kit to remind myself of what seemed clear over the summer, but is so easy to forget in the midst of the school year: 

First, remember that teaching is about people. Not projects, not data, not scores, not curriculum maps, not textbooks, not tests. People. People you are attempting to influence for the better. Living, breathing human beings. Always remember that the real needs of people trump the needs of the system, the needs of the bureaucrats, the need for data, the need for following rules and being compliant. If the system puts its own needs before the needs of individual students, the system is wrong. If I put my own need to advance my career or keep my job ahead of doing what is right for kids, I am in the wrong. Here is what treating students like people means. It means I don't refer to them as test scores ("He's a level 2."). It means I find out something about who they are as people. It means I know that I have a girl who plays team football and a boy who writes poetry. It means that I want my students to understand the importance of what I'm teaching, enjoy what they're learning, and feel they are growing a bit every day, not to produce data, but to help them become better versions of themselves. It means that I acknowledge every day that being human is a far more mysterious, complex, multifaceted, and fascinating than we want to admit. And that's what I am dealing with. Every. Single. Day.

However, if teaching is about people, I must remember that teachers are people too, including me. I need to take care of myself, or I can't take care of my students. (It's that airplane oxygen-mask thing.) And I must acknowledge and honor my own calling to be a teacher. Yes, I am in teaching for me, too. Because it is my deep joy when I do it well, and because it meets the world's deep need. If I ever feel tempted to think that I should give in and become standardized because that's what the system wants, I should think about my students. If one of them felt the call to be a teacher, would I want them to have to someday stifle their gifts and hide their lights under bushels so the system will be happy with them? 

Remember that education is often about paradox. I said above that education is about people. But it is also about the subjects being taught. Parker Palmer's writing has made me think about the fact that putting students too much at the center of things can hurt the subject, while putting the subject too much at the center can make it disconnected from the students. We tend to think about education being about getting right answers, yet the best thinking comes out of ambiguity. Yet sometimes there is only one right answer. My subject is paradoxical. My students are paradoxical. I am paradoxical. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Remember that teaching and learning are about thinking. So many things work against thinking and questioning: curriculum maps, pacing guides, textbooks, rubrics, standards upon standards that set parameters and limits on thinking, mandates about how students should be allowed to read and what they should be allowed to write and how their success will be measured. I don't want learning to be about my students jumping through hoops--someone else's or my own. I don't want my students to jump through hoops, but to question the need for hoops. I have seen too many students walk up to me in class or raise their hands to ask, "Am I allowed to...?" They think school is about doing what you're told, not thinking for yourself.  

Remember that that teaching is transcendent, not reductionist. In a system that reduces students to test scores who will someday be "human capital," teachers to VAM scores, schools and districts to letter grades, everything that needs to be learned into lists of codified standards, and the act of teaching into a robotic, assign-and-assess algorithm, I need to remember that teaching has higher purposes, larger perspectives to offer. Neil Postman said, "Children enter school as question marks and leave as periods." I should be enlarging their questions, not simply answering them; growing their curiosity, not stifling it; encouraging their interests, enthusiasms, and passions, not training them to subvert them. 

Remember to teach on all cylinders. A good lesson teaching a standard. A great lesson goes beyond one standard. It teaches students something about life, something about learning itself, gets them to question, gets them to think, and helps them see things in a new way, if only for a moment. It's not as hard as it sounds. You just need to think in more than one dimension. 

Remember that they are watching you. You are a model for what an educated person can be. Model wonder. Model enthusiasm. Model questioning, thinking, engagement, interest, fascination, and a willingness to entertain paradoxes. Even model how to be frustrated with something and then take action. Remember that many students don't come from settings where people talk about big ideas. Your class may be the only place where they ever have a real discussion about happiness, about success, about the way people use and abuse power, about themes, which run not just through books but through life. 

If you are having a bad day, remember that it will fade into the past eventually, and that it doesn't mean you are a bad teacher. It means you are still learning. You need to be a model of that, too. Remember that you should try to succeed with every student, but that you won't succeed with all of them. And that's okay, too. But also remember that for every former student you run into in theme parks, grocery stores, restaurants, or anywhere else who tells you how much your class met to them, there are probably ten others out there if you've been teaching any time and with any passion at all.

Remember to re-read this when you are having a bad day. It's easy to forget these things when a student has mouthed-off at you, an absurd edict has come from on high, and you had to break up a fight in the hall. 

Have fun.