Sunday, May 29, 2016

People Say We Need Great Teachers...

Lots of people give lip service to having "a great teacher in every classroom." They seldom talk about what this really means.

I'd like to make some suggestions about the qualities that make for great teaching. These suggestions are based on teachers I've seen as both a student and a teacher, and based on my own best teaching (seen through the lens of my own experience of what works and on lots of feedback from students and former students over the years). This kind of defining great teaching has been done many times, and some people (Marzano and Danielson, for instance) make a fortune off of their teacher evaluation systems.

I'd like to use an unusual lens to look at great teaching, and I'd like to show how great teaching has been undermined by education reform at every juncture. I have written earlier in this space about the similarities between teaching and writing. In this post, I'd like to highlight the similarities between teaching and another form of writing I'm familiar with: cartooning.

For 16 years, I have drawn my comic strip, Mr. Fitz, for the Daytona Beach News-Journal. I think I have been asked to change the strip precisely once (for trying to have a student say "ass" by replacing it in comic-swear as "@$$." Subtle, huh?). I have pretty much been given complete freedom to make my own choices about my comic strip for 16 years. I use the word choices deliberately.

In his graphic novel (reference book?) about the creation of comics, Making Comics, Scott McCloud breaks the creation of comics down into a series of choices:
  • Choice of moment - What event/events will you focus on in your story?
  • Choice of frame - How will you frame those events? Up-close? Wide-angle? Medium shot?
  • Choice of image - What will appear in each frame? What characters, settings, special effects?
  • Choice of words - What words will appear in each frame in terms of dialogue, narration, and sound effects? 
  • Choice of flow - How will the story flow between frames? How much time will pass? How long does each frame last? How will you pace the events?
Teaching, whether it's great, mediocre, or ineffective, is really a series of choices. Great teaching is really just a series of great choices. Here is my list of the choices teachers make, at least in my subject, English/Language Arts, sort of seen through the lens of cartooning. I've changed to order to reflect the order in which I think about teaching:
  • Choice of framing/context/essential questions
  • Choice of words/texts/books
  • Choice of images/activities/exercises/learning tasks
  • Choice of moments
  • Choice of flow
Let me explain how each of these applies to teaching.
  • Choice of framing/context/essential questions - The context in which we teach the skills of reading and writing, listening and speaking, matter a great deal. I try to choose themes that A. Address ideas of universal, even urgent human concern, B. Address the issues  students are experiencing in their school lives, and C. Link literacy and life. For instance, I have done a unit on The Power of Attention because Attention is a universal concern (your life consists of what you pay attention to), is a school issue every day (how do students manage their attention so they can learn?), and is an issue in every form of literacy (you must pay attention to many things when you read; you must pay attention to life to be a good writer). If a unit, and a school year, is framed the right way, students will not only be engaged in a short term gimmicky kind of way; they will learn the "skills" better, engage better, and retain both what they learned, and leave class with valuable ideas about life to take with them into the future. 
  • Choice of words/texts/books  - The choice of stories, essays, poems, and novels to read matter too, and will deepen the questions raised by the choice of framing. Texts need to be chosen because they will engage students in multiple ways: emotionally, intellectually, and thematically. I sometimes picture texts coming to my classroom door and knocking, asking to be let in to my class.  If a text gives reasons like, "I will boost tests scores," or "I'm required because I'm on the curriculum map," or "I will teach a standard," that's not enough for me to let it in. I will let a text into my class if it offers to do the following things. "I am ambiguous, and will make your students think." "I will inspire your students to ask, not just answer, good questions." "I will ask your students to view me through multiple lenses." "I operate on multiple levels and will ask your students to think on all of them." "I will challenge your students' ideas about life and expose them to ideas that will make their lives better." Texts that offer my students those kinds of opportunities are welcome in my class. Texts that will result in everyone going through the motions so I can check off that I "covered a standard" are not.
  • Choice of images/activities/exercises/learning tasks - In a comic strip or comic book the action is depicted in pictures. In class the "action" is what we ask students to do. There is a tendency to reduce teaching to doling out textbook pages and assignments. Read the text, answer the questions at the end. Write an essay/story/whatever according to the instructions and rubric in the book. Great teachers come up with learning experiences that are memorable, make it clear that students are learning what real readers and writers do, instead of how to fill out assignments from the textbook. Writing assignments are focused not on teaching formulas that make writing easy to teach, easy to do, and easy to grade; they are focused on getting students to write about topics they care about, think hard about their writing, emulate real writers, and transcend whatever writing test is in vogue at the moment. Reading assignments ask students to respond like human beings interacting with an author and text rather than students answering textbook questions. Students are told to notice things, to ask good questions, and to view the text through a variety of lenses. The focus in all great writing and reading assignments is not student assessment, but student learning.
  • Choice of moments - Great teachers are aware of "the teachable moment," and when to allow a class to take a detour. They are also aware of when a lesson, activity, or assignment isn't working, and when to move on to something else. This may be one of the most important choices a teacher makes.
  • Choice of flow - Every unit of time that you can break teaching into has a flow. A class period has a flow: how it begins, how it progresses, how it ends. So does week, a unit, a quarter, a school year. A year needs to flow on multiple levels: writing skills, reading skills, themes/concepts/ideas; thinking skills. My 8th grade year, for instance, has Power as its main theme. It begins with the power of personal voice and has students read personal essays by a variety of authors, from Robert Fulghum, to Dave Barry, to Jane Smiley. We observe how authors organize ideas, use details, make sentences flow. This works as both reading and writing instruction. Students keep journals about topics they care about, write exercises to practice specific writing skills. Then they write a personal essay about something they love or hate; their main instruction is to have fun writing! We then move into a unit on the power of attention, followed by the power of definition, the power of education, and the power of the media. Each unit offers more opportunities to think, read, and write, and each unit builds conceptually on the others. By the time we reach the Holocaust in the second half of the year, all of those concepts come into play as we read The Diary of Anne Frank and The Sunflower. And then all of those concepts, including concepts from the Holocaust unit, lead into a final unit about censorship and the power of words and stories that includes reading Fahrenheit 451 and writing original fiction. By the time we have finished, students have written many essays, stories, and poems; they have also been given insights about life that they can carry forward with them into their lives.
The examples I have given from my class are specific to me. But the choices I've listed are universal to teachers - unless they aren't allowed to make any. There are many different, creative choices that teachers can make. I suspect that these kinds of teacher choices could be applied to any subject area. But great teaching is always based on the choices teachers make, and the choices they offer their students. With that in mind, here is what the education reform movement has done to teacher choices. 
  • Choice of framing/context/essential questions - Themes and essential questions are provided by the textbook, and then placed on the curriculum map. If you have better, different themes that will work for your students, forget it. This set of choices has been eliminated.
  • Choice of words/texts/books - The textbook makes the text choices for you, and the curriculum mapping committee for your district or school makes more specific choices for required texts. Everything is aligned to the standards, but especially to the standards that will be covered on the test. You are supposed to teach these texts because they are in the book, they are on the map, and they will teach a standard or set of standards. This set of choices has been eliminated.
  • Choice of images/activities/exercises/learning tasks - The curriculum map enforces which tasks and activities teachers will be offering to students, and therefore limits their way of thinking about them. If your department or Professional Learning Community isn't doing it, you shouldn't be either. This set of choices has been eliminated.
  • Choice of moments - The teachable moment, the opportunity that arises from this group of students, or this student, on this day, and could possibly change their whole view of learning, of the subject, of life, is now frowned upon. Pacing guides try to ensure that everyone is on the same page on the same day at the same time. In some schools, administrators want to see virtually identical things going on in each class. This set of spontaneous choices has been eliminated.
  • Choice of flow - Curriculum maps and pacing guides determine the flow of your year, as does the testing schedule. Everything is supposedly designed to raise test scores. If you want to move units or assignments around, or replace units with topics that will be more interesting, meaningful, and relevant to your students, you are considered a "rogue" teacher. You must do what everyone else is doing so we all get the same results. This set of choices has been eliminated.
So if you want to be a great teacher, you are forced to go up against the very system that is supposedly designed to assist you in being a great teacher. 

I am willing to "go rogue." I have tenure. I have managed to find administrators who support me in my choices as a teacher. And I remember when teaching was a profession and you were encouraged to make professional choices. I don't buy the bill of goods they are trying to sell me.

Here is what I see happening now, though. Teachers who are coming into the profession often don't know there is any other way to teach. They aren't aware that there are even choices involved. And if they decided to make choices that weren't allowed, they could be fired at any time. 

As I pointed out at the start of this post, teaching, whether it's great, mediocre, or ineffective, is really a series of choices. Great teaching is really just a series of great choices. But all the choices are being made for teachers. Because the system doesn't want great teachers. It wants compliant, obedient teachers. I can't help but wonder - is the system setting us up to fail? I suspect you know the answer. 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Importance of Intelligent Disobedience

The room is full of students. And they are all silent. Absolutely silent. Waiting for the instructions they are about to receive. They don't do anything until they are told to. They follow every instruction as it is given.

Of course, the instructions are given by a teacher… me. I am reading a script. I read it verbatim, as instructed. Because my job and teaching certificate depend on it. The entire room is being controlled by a outside authorities, the state of Florida Department of Education and a testing company, authorities that are not physically in the room, but which controls everything that is going on there as surely as if they were the puppet masters and we the marionettes.

How indoctrinated are we all into the cult of silent testing? I have had a student throw up – loudly – during a writing test, and everyone just kept working. During this year’s testing a student’s dog got hit by a car outside the media center where I was testing; much drama and blue police car lights. The kids kept right on testing.

For all the talk that floats around that kids are disobedient, in certain circumstances, they are incredibly obedient. They have been conditioned from early in their schooling to be obedient during standardized testing. Ironically, they are less obedient in class, where (at least in my view) what is going on has actual value.

Of course, I feel that what I’m doing in class has actual value mainly because, in many ways, I am being disobedient to what the System of school tells me I should be doing. I have been disobedient to edicts to follow scripted curriculum, to follow curriculum maps with “fidelity,” to not question “the test” in front of students, to use rubrics and data to track students’ progress, to make my teaching all about the test.

I have always been a good, compliant kid, even as an adult. I was rewarded for my style of teaching as district Teacher of the Year, and this helped reinforce my “good kid” psyche. Do good things, get rewarded. Within three years after winning, though, I discovered that the very things I was awarded for were no longer valued by the teaching profession. So I had a choice to make that caused me levels of stress that nearly drove me out of the profession: obey, and give up everything that makes teaching worth doing, thus shortchanging yourself and your students, or disobey and teach according to your conscience.

I chose the latter, but it wasn’t easy, even with the support of a great principal. Over the course of the past 12 years, I have grown a lot. I am much more comfortable being disobedient.

I might have saved myself a lot of stress and depression, however, if I could have traveled to the future and gotten myself a copy of the book I recently read from the library, the 2015 book Intelligent Disobedience by Ira Chaleff.

Although many lament the lack of obedience in our society, and feel that if everyone just “followed the rules” it would solve everything, Chaleff warns of the dangers of that approach. He is not against obedience, by any means. He asserts that in the majority of organizations, most of the time, obedience and following instructions is the only way an organization can function. So obedience, Chaleff says, is the best choice when the system is “fair and functioning,” the authority figure has legitimate authority and is competent, and when the order itself is “reasonably constructive.”

But he makes a very strong case that, appearances to the contrary, we are conditioning our citizens to be obedient to a fault. He gives examples of companies where those in power ordered criminal acts and the employees followed. He recounts the harrowing story of a phone call to a McDonald’s by a man posing as a police officer that resulted in a restaurant employee being confined and abused for hours by her supervisor and others—because they were just doing what they were told. The victim said she had always been to told that when someone in authority says to do something, you do it, without question.

He also reviews the famous (though perhaps not famous enough) 1960’s Milgram experiments in obedience to authority, wherein subjects were told by the “scientist” figure to give a person behind a window in another room electrical shocks, up to a fatal shock. The person in the other room was only an actor pretending to be shocked, of course, but the subject giving the shocks didn’t know this. Two thirds of subjects kept administering shocks up to a potentially lethal level because the “authority figure” kept telling them to do so. They were just “following orders.”

Add to this the history of “I was just following orders” excuses given by the perpetrators of atrocities, and the incidents of adult child molesters using their authority as a adults to keep their victims in fearful, silent compliance, and the need for “intelligent disobedience” becomes even more pronounced. Note the title of the book is not Disobedience for Its Own Sake; it is Intelligent Disobedience. The phrase comes from the training of guide dogs, who must be trained to be intelligently disobedient lest they follow orders from their master that get them both killed.

Chaleff gives examples of intelligent disobedience saving the day and transforming systems, including the Florida teacher who refused to give the FAIR test to her young elementary school students and ended up having the test removed as a requirement in those grade levels. He also critiques the realm of “classroom management” as being focused completely on absolute obedience and compliance to the teacher’s authority, of never, ever questioning what you are told to do. This can indeed go too far. I have often tried to point out to adults, and, more successfully, to students, that we are holding students to the very lowest level of Kohlberg’s Levels of Moral Development: I don’t want to get in trouble.

Chaleff makes the case that intelligent disobedience must be taught in schools. Not being part of the school system himself, though, I don’t think he realizes two things. One, that questioning things should be at the very heart of the educational mission, and two, that teachers can’t give away what they don’t have, and they are being told being told to not question orders, to do what they are told, to not speak up. You can’t get students to question and learn intelligent disobedience if you, yourself, are not allowed to question.

For around ten years, our district Language Arts “used” the College Board’s SpringBoard program, a workbook that we were encouraged to use unquestioningly, day by day, page by page. I was intelligently disobedient about it, and have many reasons to believe that I was more successful than many of the teachers who followed it “with fidelity.”

Late into the “SpringBoard years,” as Common Core was being introduced, I sat at a Department Contacts meeting full of the lead Language Arts teachers at various schools, and when some of the teachers saw what the standards were demanding of students, some of these teacher leaders actually said, “How can we teach these standards if they are not in SpringBoard?” My goal here is not to debate the standards, but to note that obedience to the system was producing teacher leaders incapable of thinking about and making decisions about curriculum on their own.

Lots of people talk about the need to teach “critical thinking skills” (whatever they are), but we have set up a system where absolute obedience for teachers reinforces absolute obedience for students. Critical thinking involves questioning, and questioning can involve intelligent disobedience.

Chaleff laments the fact that intelligent disobedience is not being taught in schools and needs to be. As I finished the book and was talking to my wife – also an English teacher – about it, I had an epiphany. We English teachers are teaching intelligent disobedience – by teaching fiction. It makes me wonder if one of the main functions of fiction is, in fact, to teach intelligent disobedience. Think about how many novels are about characters standing up to authority. I am currently teaching The Giver to one class and Fahrenheit 451 to another (though Guy Montag isn’t always intelligent about the how of his disobedience, his why is right on the money).  I just went to see Captain America: Civil War yesterday. Intelligent disobedience again. Story after story, from Antigone to Star Wars to Harry Potter, is about the tension between authority and freedom, about characters being intelligently disobedient.

When I pointed this out to my wife, she said, “And what does Common Core want us to de-emphasize? Fiction.”

As I write this, I have just taken her thought a step further. When fiction is taught we are taught to “close-read” with students for literal meanings and “non-trivial” inferences. The standards do not encourage teachers or their students to connect fiction to their lives. That might encourage us all to emulate the intelligently disobedient characters we find there.

Every so often you read a book that seems to know you, to explain you to yourself, that helps you make sense of things in a new way. Intelligent Disobedience is one of those books for me. I highly recommend it.

After I return it to the library I’m going to need to buy my own copy. 

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Teacher Appreciation Reconsidered

I'm a little late on this post for Teacher Appreciation Week this year, but I've been thinking about this topic all week, and finally have a moment to write it down. 

I did get some delightful Teacher Appreciation gifts and messages of thanks this week from some of my students, past and present, and that's a good thing from my perspective. But I began to think about the fact that the word appreciate actually has several different meanings. 

The first definition listed at is this: to be grateful or thankful for.

The third definition is this: to be fully conscious of; be aware of; detect.

I think we have a lot of the first kind of teacher appreciation going on, the gratitude kind, much of it sincere, much of it lip service. 

Because without the second kind of appreciation, you don't really even know what you're thanking me for. I truly believe that many of the people who give lip service to "Teacher Appreciation Week" - politicians, many school board members, some administrators, some parents, and much of the general public - may say they appreciate what teachers do in the first sense without being at all "conscious" or "aware of" what teachers actually do. And of course, the Teacher Haters, those comment-section gremlins who hate all teachers with the heat of a thousand suns, certainly have neither form of appreciation.

I guess I feel that the third definition of appreciate -  being fully conscious and aware of something – matters, because it has to do with not only the public perception of teachers, but the way teachers are defined. 

I think some people don’t feel much need to appreciate teachers in any sense because here is what they think teachers do:

·       Dole out textbook chapters
·       Administer quizzes and tests from the textbook
·       Grade things, often with an automatic grader (Scantron)
·       Met out punishments and bad grades
·       Complain

I will grant you, of course, that there are  probably millions of teachers out there who treat teaching as a job, not a career and a calling, and who do nothing more than the things I just listed. But if you find that list appalling, here is what you are not… appreciating. The system is being rigged to favor teachers who do just those things and nothing more. The system, as I have written elsewhere, favors obedient, compliant, unthinking teachers over teachers who actually think for themselves, innovate, and show creativity in the classroom.. 

Fortunately for me, I have met people at almost every level who do truly appreciate, in both senses of the word, what I do. I’ve had a school board member sit in on my lessons for “Harrison Bergeron” and the Holocaust memoir The Sunflower and participate. I have administrators who have visited my class just to see a really engaging, thought provoking activity going on. I have had other teachers tell me how they’ve used ideas from my Scholastic books in their classes to great effect. I’ve had wonderful comments from parents who told me what my class was doing for their children.

All of these people truly appreciate what I do, and their gratitude is greatly enhanced because of their awareness of what I am actually doing in class. I have, of course, met people from all the above groups who didn’t appreciate what I do on either level. The one group I don’t think has ever, ever shown the slightest bit of appreciation in the “awareness” sense is politicians. They think our only job is to be “Quantitative Learning Gains Facilitators.” Interestingly, those of us that actually do get the almighty scores they claim to want never hear a word of praise about it.

The best appreciation of all, though, comes from students. Of course many students never appreciate any class; many don’t appreciate mine in particular, at least not while they're in it. But some do, and their appreciation-gratitude is the best because they also have appreciation-awareness.

A recent note from a former student graduating college: “I know I would not be where I am today without you…Thank you for being so influential. Thank you for your creativity…”
I had a recent Facebook conversation with a former student who is thinking of going into teaching. I tried to be honest about the profession without discouraging him. Some of his comments:

“Thank you so much! I've talked to several other teachers this year as I've explored my options, and none of them have said that they dislike their job... Not to denounce your opinion. While this may sound... Cheesy(?), you were and always have been my favorite teacher, so I value your words a bit more than others... The work we did in your class always seemed to have, well, a purpose… The funny thing about a lot of your teaching methods is that I didn't even realize the point of a lot of them until several years later when I decided to pick up reading again.  ...I finally started to understand some of the ideas that were being (for lack of a better phrase) thrown around in your class... Reading, to me, is one of the best things anyone can do for themselves to better understand themselves and the world around them, and I suppose I never would have really understood that without being a part of your class. I found that reading on my own and seeking understanding through literature would only come through introspection inspired by the words of people much more cultured and experienced than me, and I can only really attribute this understanding to your class.”
That is teacher appreciation, both gratitude and awareness.

You don’t get it very often, but when you do… you appreciate it. 

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Teacher Conformity vs. Teacher Collaboration

I have been frustrated lately by the idea that Department Meetings (or PLC’s as they are called now - more on that in another post) are about “collaboration” when they are, in fact, about conformity. As is so often the case, we don’t think much about the words we use. There are some forms of collaboration where consistency can be very important. In animation, for instance, characters must look the same from scene to scene no matter what animator is working on that scene. 

But there are other kinds of collaboration where it is the sharing of ideas, and a shared vision, that matters, not consistency of action in the form of nearly blind conformity. Teaching is one of those fields. 

I am all for collaboration... if it doesn't lead to mindless conformity. I have collaborated with other teachers on inner-disciplinary units, and on inquiry units within the Language Arts Department, but in every case, teachers later put a unique spin on what the team collaborated on. Because teachers are individuals dealing with students who are individuals. We are human teachers teaching human students. We are not robots in robot factory making other robots.

And no matter how great collaboration can be, there can be no collaboration unless individuals think for themselves individually before coming to the table and while they are at the table collaborating. And there should still be room for the insight, creativity, and autonomy of the individual teacher to do what will work for his or her students. To say collaboration is always better than individual vision is to dismiss nearly every novelist who has ever written.

Of course, the other problem with demand collaboration as conformity is that it flies in the face of the "individualized instruction" we are asked to do:

With all of that in mind, I’d like to offer this model I’ve been working on to show the difference. I’m still working on it, so feel free to make suggestions....
Teacher           Teacher
Conformity vs. Collaboration
Is about...
Is about...
Forcing ideas on a whole group, whether they fit each person’s needs or not, for the sake of a “consistent” gradebook.
Sharing ideas, creating lessons, projects, and resources together that can be used in different ways by each teacher
Consistency of activities
Consistency of outcomes
One size fits all instruction and assessment
Individualized instruction and assessment using everyone’s best ideas and thinking
Enforcement of identical lessons and assessments without regard for the needs of individual classes and students.
Pooling ideas and developing them together, but using them with autonomy in your own classroom.
Following instructions
Individual and community creativity
Going through the motions, covering material, calibrating assignments, and checking off boxes
Thinking hard about where your students are and where you would like them to be and coming up with creative ways to take them there
Limiting ideas
Generating ideas
Limiting human potential and distrusting individual creativity
Nurturing human potential and creativity

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

American Intelligence: Controlled by Corporations

My wife and I read to each to other out of books sometimes, and tonight was no exception. While I was doing some lettering for my comic strip, she read to me from Nazar Nasifi's Republic of Imagination. As someone who grew up in Iran, the author knows the reality of oppression and the value of freedom. Hearing her words this evening, coupled with my own increasing frustration with my own profession, made me realize something that I had not put in precisely these words before:

Education Reform is nothing less than the hijacking of the American mind and intellect by companies in order to turn a profit.

You may think I'm overstating the case, but I don't think I am.

If you think I'm overstating the case, then you probably think that a teacher's job is to teach from a textbook and use textbook-supplied tests to see of students learned. You are not alone. But if you have ever had a great teacher, you know that teaching, and learning, can be so much more than assigning and assessing textbook skills.

In order to make my case, I need to show you how my thinking about teaching has developed over the years, and then show you the type of thinking that is completely taking over our schools now.

I began my teaching career with a very simple premise. I loved reading and writing, and I wanted my students to love them too. If you love reading and writing, you will work hard to do them well, just the way that if you love music or drawing or baseball or dance you will work hard because you love them. So my prime directive has always been to promote enthusiasm and love.

Over the years, my love of reading, writing, and teaching led me to understand the powers and potentials of literacy. I have never thought of teaching as dispensing a list of canned standards and checking them off as I taught them. I think of literacy as a big web of interconnected concepts, ideas, tools, and ways of thinking. My job as a teacher is to help my students explore that web, and to get good at using its tools.

I realized that I could take whatever issue was at hand in my class and use it as a way to engage my students. If discipline was a problem, we'd talk about power and how it is used in schools. We would read about and debate the purpose of school, and we'd discuss the need for all of us to work together to create a good class. If attention is a problem, we'd begin to read and write and talk about the power of attention, and how our lives essentially consist of what we pay attention to. When my students weren't being successful in school, I made my entire 7th grade year about the idea of success in all its glorious ambiguity and paradox. I call this "meta-teaching": making my teaching about what is going on in the class, and how it applies to life.

I also realized that if I was going to use thematic inquiry units, these units not only needed to be big, universal themes, they needed to somehow relate literacy to life, to show the power of words, of reading and writing to shape our lives: words help us make decisions, plan the future, see the world from new perspectives, and define our relationships with those around us. We are a nation founded on the power of words. With this idea of literacy and life in mind, I created units about things like happiness, success, and, at my wife's suggestion, power. The journey changed with each group as the students, and the material itself, inspired new ideas in me and in my students.

Combined, meta-teaching and literacy-life teaching formed something that Neil Postman probably would have called subversive teaching. I encourage students to question things, but I also challenge their ideas. I share with my students a quote from Ernest Hemingway, who said in an interview that what every writer needs is a "shock-proof, built-in crap detector." I use my crap detector to develop theirs. We talk about the limitations and problems of standardized testing. We criticize whatever workbook or textbook we are currently asked to use. We talk about how school rules and punishments tend to hold students to the lowest level of moral development ("I don't want to get in trouble."). We talk about the purpose of school, the purpose of reading and writing, the purpose each assignment. We don't do busy work. Everything is on the table for discussion, and nearly every assumption is worth questioning. Including the assumption that nearly every assumption is worth questioning.

When I think about my teaching, I realize that I shoot above the standards, above tests, above grades. I want to invest in my students as people. I want them to be able to ask good questions and have insights. I want them to want to learn more, not for a grade, but because learning is fun, satisfying, edifying, necessary to live a wise life, and important for being a citizen in a democracy. I guess I think of teaching this way as transcendent teaching.

But I am not all "up in the clouds." I care about getting my students to read and write well. I see where they are, I have a vision for where they should be, and I try to create experiences that will take them there. If I need to cut a unit I used to love, add a new unit, add a major writing assignment, book, story, or activity, I will do it. I will do whatever it takes to get my students to learn.

And when teaching happens this way, students remember it-- for a long time. And they get pretty good test scores. Which I don't really care about.

On the other hand, here is what teaching has been reduced to now:
Teach these standards; the students will be tested on them.
Use this textbook. It covers all the standards.
Use this curriculum map. It makes sure you cover the right standards during the correct month, week, or day.
You are part of a department, a PLC (Professional Learning Community). You will meet to make sure every teacher at your school at each grade level teaches essentially the same things on the same "pacing guide."
Your grade book should look like all the other grade books of teachers like you.
Assign. Assess. Repeat.
Use data to decide how to improve instruction, but you cannot do anything that another teacher isn't doing, too.
When your students get tested, you are responsible for their performance, even though you had no choice about how to teach them.

Every curriculum map I have ever seen is based on the "instructional resource." This makes sense to people, I guess, because the textbook is the "thing" that is common to everyone who teaches a subject. Why not base what you do on a textbook? It's easy. They've done all the work for you. You don't need to do all that hard work of thinking. You aren't a Language Arts teacher. You are a SpringBoard teacher. Or an HMH Collections teacher. You are the user of a product.

Actually, when you teach from a textbook, you do think, I suppose. You think how they want you to think. Here is what textbook teaching looks like as a thought process:

Here are the standards in the front of the book. They need to be covered, because students will be tested on them, or at least on some of them. Here are a series of texts and assessments that will insure that I am covering the standards and getting them ready for the tests. They have already thought of the thematic units for me. They have already thought of all the prompts, all the text-dependent questions, all the performance tasks that will enable me to measure how well my students are learning.

Here is the curriculum map. I don't need to play around with the order of the thematic units or come up with my own units or assignhents. A committee has already set the order for me, chosen the texts we will read as a class, and created a pacing guide to ensure that I stay on track. My job is to think as the textbook company and the testing company want me to think. I am not a thinker. They have done all the thinking for me.

The culture we have at schools now positively forbids teachers from straying from the parameters set by the textbook and testing companies. If you have creative ideas of your own, forget it. Your job is to dispense the curriculum that was written for you. And since most younger teachers don't have tenure anymore, and can never get it, they have a dilemma.  Do they leave the profession in disgust? I know a few who have already left, and few who are getting ready to leave. Because they know this kind of thinking, teaching, and learning aren't real. They are prepackaged.

If you think I'm exaggerating, here's something to do:
If you are a teacher, ask yourself: Is there anything your district encourages you to do that is not standardized, that is creative and outside the box of test prep and using a text book? If so, I suspect you are in the lucky minority.
If you aren't a teacher, find one and ask them that question.

Textbook and testing companies want teachers who don't think or create for themselves. Textbook companies make their money from selling their textbooks, and PLC's and curriculum maps and pacing guides ensure that teachers will keep on using their product because they've been told they have to. Textbook companies also benefit from standardized testing when they use their test-prep materials as a selling point. And testing companies, of course, profit when millions of students are forced to take their tests. And then there are the companies like Pearson that sell both textbooks and tests. Companies tell teachers how to teach so that teachers can teach students to pass the tests those same companies produce. The companies control the content, the process, and the evaluation of learning. Why bother with those messy middle-men, the teachers?

The fact that teachers must leave or fight to be thinking, question educators distresses me. But most frightening of all are the teachers who stay and have no problem at all with the new status quo. They think as the textbook and testing corporations want them to think. They never think for themselves. They never question what they are being asked to do. They are models of unthinking, product-based teaching and obedience to authoritarianism. They don't know there is another way to teach. They don't know there is another way to think.

And you can't pass on what you don't have.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Library Lady - An Education Reform Story

Assistant Principal Peter Graves was happy.
For one thing, it was Friday. For another thing, he had just left this month’s Assistant Principals Roundtable meeting, which was always a relief. He felt free. For another thing, the Vice-Assistant Deputy Superintendent of Assessment and Achievement had given all of them a very strong recommendation that he had carried out with pleasure.
The Vice-Assistant Deputy Superintendent, a woman named Dr. Strong, had strongly suggested that the assistant principals at all the districts eighty-five schools should delegate the role of Testing and Assessment Coordinator to their school’s Media Specialists.
Since Assistant Principal Peter Graves had been the Testing and Assessment Coordinator for John C. Absolute Elementary School for over a decade. He was tired of it. And now, with one brief email to his Media Specialist, Mrs. Kirja, thirty minutes ago, he was not only free of the Assistant Principals Roundtable Meeting, he was free of being the school’s Testing and Assessment Coordinator, as well. He had sent Mrs. Kirja all the state-issued PDF’s, the three month-long testing schedule, and the list of school technology being commandeered to be used to administer the tests. He had also asked the office specialist who worked for him to move the boxes and boxes of Test Proctor Manuals full of teachers scripts over to the Media Center. It was all in her hands now.
So Graves was feeling good as he walked onto campus this Friday afternoon. It was a warm night for February, and the campus was almost empty of students: just a few stragglers were waiting at Parent Pick-Up with Coach Binkers. He was feeling good until his phone buzzed.
He snatched it off his belt and looked at the screen. It was a text from the principal, Mr. Griffin. Family emergency. Dad heart attack. Supervise readathon.
That was it. The whole message. He was now feeling not quite so free. He’d only been vaguely aware of how long the readathon was supposed to take.
He stopped by a flyer hanging limply from a nearby brick wall and held the paper up so he could read it.

Participate in the Absolute Readathon!
Show you love to READ!
Snacks, breakfast, and lunch provided by local businesses!
Bring a sleeping bag, a toothbrush, and a desire to read!
Mrs. Kirja the Library Lady looks forward to seeing you in the school library!

Graves was now not happy. Not happy at all. For one thing, he no longer felt quite so free. He’d been looking forward to going home, having a beer and burger somewhere with his wife, and then settling in for an evening of ESPN and, probably, more beer. Now he would have to explain to his wife that he wouldn’t be home until tomorrow afternoon. And he hadn’t brought a sleeping bag. Or a toothbrush.
And he certainly didn’t want to read. He didn’t advertise it, but he secretly couldn’t stand reading. He found books boring. But he put on a good show for the students. He pretended to read autobiographies of sports figures. He’d been pretending to read the autobiography of Chut Brickhaus, famous quarterback (written with Kevin VanDerrclerk) for about a year and a half now. He assured the students who asked why it was taking so long that he was doing a “close-reading” of the text. They nodded knowingly and didn’t ask anymore questions. If he had to sit in on this Readathon, he’d have to read. Well, pretend to read.
And that wasn’t the only reason he was now unhappy. Mrs. Kirja was still using the word library. It was not a library. It was a Media Center. And she was not a library lady. She was a Media Specialist. But she insisted on using the old fashioned term. She needed to get with the times.
Mrs. Kirja annoyed him on several counts. She was one of those older ladies who’d been in the system too long. She wasn’t old, really. Graves himself was pushing 50, and she probably wasn’t much older than him. But she seemed older. She was one of those people who had always seemed older, who had probably seemed older than some of her teachers by the time she was in third grade.
She was blond, slim, and pale, with papery skin that didn’t really wrinkle. Her voice was a quavery, mezzo soprano treble. Not quite a low-talker, but not loud either. Her every intonation sounded tentative, a little wimpy. She wore conservative little suits with sensible shoes and tasteful skirts. Her hair was always up in bun.
He tried to think of what she looked like, and he realized that she looked like a… librarian!
But she wasn’t a librarian. Schools didn’t have them any more. She wasn’t Library Lady. She was the Media Specialist. And now she was the school’s Testing and Assessment Coordinator. Maybe that would finally make her realize what her role was.
Well, he’d have plenty of time over the next 24 hours to talk with her and help her see the light. He was going to be stuck at the Readathon. He went to his office and grabbed his copy of Goalposts: the Chut Brickhaus Story and went toward the Media Center.
The Media Center was at the front of the campus, with an outside entrance that opened on a little courtyard, across which was the main office. As Graves tried to exit the front office, the door stopped abruptly, with a metallic thud. Something was in the way. He squeezed through the opening and found the door had been stopped by a large metal cart. A laptop cart. It was one of several carts cluttering up the courtyard. As he stood there trying to figure out what was happening, the door to the Media Center flew outward and one more cart came rumbling over the threshold and rolled out to crash noisily into the others, causing Graves to leap aside to avoid a domino effect cart crashing into him. The door slammed closed again. It almost seemed as the library… Media Center was expelling the computer carts.
He looked at the Media Center. The official school door sign had been defaced. It had been painted over with red tempra paint.
It now read Library.
What was going on?
A series of loud thudding sounds from behind the Media Center doors drew his attention. He moved over to door closest to him, the In door, the door that had just expelled a laptop cart. Through the small, tall, narrow  window in the door, he could see cardboard boxes were heaped up to the height of his waist. Another box thudded down on top of that one. And another. Soon they filled the entire window. He leaned in closer to look. A label on the box read TEST PROCTOR SCRIPTS: DO NOT ISSUE TO TEACHERS UNTIL PROPER CONFIDENTIALITY FORMS ARE SIGNED.
These were the boxes he’d had sent over to her just a few minutes ago! What was she doing with them? He shifted over to the other door, the Out door. It, too, was full of boxes. He tried the door handle. Locked. He took out his master key and tried to use it. It wouldn’t move. He tried twisting and turning it until his fingers hurt, but it wouldn’t turn. He pulled on the key, but now it wouldn’t come out of the door. At his feet he now noticed the tiny, empty tube of HyperGlue.
What was going on? If this was some kind of student prank, he’d see these kids expelled!
He pounded on the door. “Hey! Open up! This is Mr. Graves! What’s going on in there? Let me in!”
There was a long pause, during which he thought he heard giggling, the laughter of children. Then a quavering voice unused to using any kind of volume spoke from behind the door, as if from a distance.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Graves. I’d prefer not to, sir.”
“You’d prefer not to… what?”
“Oh, so many things. But I’d prefer not to do them all.”
“Is that any way to talk to your administrator? ‘I’d prefer not to’?”
“It’s a literary allusion, Mr. Graves, but I suspect you wouldn’t recognize one of those if it came and kissed you on the cheek while wearing a school I.D.”
“Melville?” a small voice from beyond the boxes asked.
“Yes, Melville. That story I had you all read last week during literature discussion group.”
Graves stood, quivering with rage for a moment. What was going on here? “Mrs. Kirja, you need to move those boxes and open that door as soon as possible. This is not going to look good on your summative evaluation!”
“I’m afraid I can’t open the door, Mr. Graves. I can’t even move the boxes - at least not easily.”
“Why not?”
“Because to get to the boxes, I’d have to move all the furniture I have stacked up in front of the boxes, and I’m far too busy right now to move all the furniture again.”
“You’re busy? Doing what?”
Again, the quavering voice. “We’re having a Readathon, Mr. Graves.”
“Yes - a Readathon I’m supposed to be supervising! Let me in!” He could feel his blood pressure rising now. This could not be happening! He thought about calling the principal to ask what he should do, but the last thing he wanted to do at this point was add another crisis to Mr. Griffin’s plate since he was already in the hospital with his father.
After a long pause, Mrs. Kirja’s voice sounded again from the other side of the door, boxes, and furniture.  “I’m thinking, Mr. Graves.”
“What?! What are you thinking about Mrs. Kirja?” he found himself screaming at the door.
“I’ll have to ask you to lower your voice, Mr. Graves. I have 75 children in here who are all immersed in wonderful, magical books. And you are distracting them. As to your question, I’m thinking about which of your requests I might be willing to acquiesce to.” A pause. “I’m thinking none of them.”
“What requests? What are you talking about? Let me in!!”
“That’s the first request. And my answer is no. I won’t let you in. But your other requests are all receiving a ‘no’ as well.”
“What other requests? What the hell are you talking about?”
“Little ears, Mr. Graves! Look, perhaps you should come over the window where we could see each other and both talk without shouting. I really don’t want to interrupt their reading. It’s so important.”
A moment later he saw her behind the large glass wall-sized picture windows to the left of the doors. The wall angled away so the windows looked out over faculty parking and the street beyond the front of the school. As he moved over to join her at the window, he noticed the announcement for the Readathon in large letters on the school sign.
He pushed past the laptop carts and joined faced her at the window. She was just as he remembered her. When had he last seen her? He never went to the Media Center anyway. Trouble makers rarely went there. He looked at her for any signs of what might be wrong, but she looked fine, even, in her own Nordic way, radiant. She stood a couple inches taller than him, slender and lovely, wearing a cartoon T-shirt with the message Reading: The Best Thing You Can Do For Your Brain on it, along with several drawings of students and a family happily reading books.
“You realize,” he said, “that I could just break the window.”
“And endanger 74 small children with jagged shards of broken glass? I don’t think, so Mr. Graves,” Mrs. Kirja said calmly, smirking a little. Who was this woman? He’d never seen this side of their librari… dang it, Media Specialist! He caught his own reflection in the window, looking pale as well, but also paunchy and thinning on top. But there was a red flush on his cheeks. Would there be two heart attacks today?
“Fine, but tell me, what other requests are you saying no to, aside from not letting me in?
“I’m refusing to be Testing and Assessment Coordinator or whatever you’re calling that asinine position. But even aside from that, I’m refusing to let you take over my Library for two and half months so it can become a testing center.”  
Graves thought for a moment, then tried to keep his voice level. Mrs. Kirja, I would point out to you that you are not a librarian. You are a Media Specialist. And it is not your library. It is not even a library. It is a Media Center, and not even your Media Center. It is the property of the school board, and as such, it is there’s to use as they please. You are an employee of the school board, and they - through me - may tell you to do anything they please. And I, on behalf of the school board, am telling you to let me in this Media Center right now. If you do that, we may avoid any further unpleasantness.”
“What do you mean, further? So far, I’m finding this quite pleasant really. What has been unpleasant for the past several years is doing things that I know are bad for children in the name of supposedly helping them. I have had them take computer reading tests to prove they have read books so that they can get rewards like bicycles and gaming consoles. Do you know what message that sends, Mr. Graves? That sends the message that reading is a chore, and we need to bribe you to do it. But I was told to do it, so I did. I’ve always been a good student, Mr. Graves. I’ve done what I was told all my life...”
Graves cut her off. “I’m not here to be your therapist, Kirja. I’m here as your boss. And your boss is telling you to let me in.”
“When I was told that testing was moving onto the computers and that we’d need to use the library to test students, I allowed it to happen. How bad could it be? But last year, testing took over the media center for three months. Three months of running a test-taking bunker. They shuffled in, the teachers read the script, the students sat like zombies and read boring texts on the computer, and clicked on answers, their eyes glazed over…”
While Kirja babbled on, gesturing behind her into the Media Center, Graves grabbed his walkie-talkie from his belt and hit channel 5. “Deputy Bozell,” he whispered, “we have a situation up here at the Media Center. It’s… I guess… a hostage situation.”
“On my way,” came the hissed reply. “Calling for backup.”
“No… you don’t need to call for backup. Go to the main office and let’s talk a minute!”  Graves said hastily.
“Are you even listening to me?” asked Mrs. Kirja.
“Of course, Mrs. Kirja! But I just got a call on my Walkie-Talkie. You know, Principal Griffin can’t be here for the readathon because his father is in the hospital. I need to go take a phone call in the office for an update…”
Mrs. Kirja’s expression changed to one of concern. “Oh, of course! Please do so!”
Graves manuevered through the laptop carts, and managed to squeeze into the front office, where they campus resource officer, Deputy Bozell was waiting.
“What seems to be the trouble?” Bozell asked. He was big, beefy; looked like an overgrown Boy Scout, Graves thought to himself.
Graves explained the situation.
“But you don’t want backup?”
“No. Look, we get in a bunch of squad cars and the next thing you know, there’s a Channel 9 News Helicopter circling overhead to cover the story, and we have 75 parents trying to pick up their kids early. Mr. Griffin doesn’t need that kind of stress in his life right now. And neither to do I.”
“What did you have in mind then?”
Graves told him.

When he returned to the window, Mrs. Kirja was still there, helping a little boy find just the right pirate book. Graves waiting patiently until she was done, and then for her to notice him.
“Oh! You’re back! How is the principal’s father?”
“What? Oh,  him! Holding steady. Still in danger, but now worse. He just wanted to update me. But you were telling me something about the readathon… Please continue!”
“Just a moment. I need to help Sara.” He watched her walk over to a little girl, maybe 8 years old, who stood bewildered before a bookcase. He couldn’t hear what they were saying, but after a brief discussion, the girl smiled, and took a new book off the self. She flopped down happily in a little purple beanbag chair and delved into her new find. Mrs. Kirja returned to the window. “That’s what I live for, really. I know that sounds crazy, but the look in  child’s eye when they have found the right book… Oh! And seeing them sit and just disappear into another world! That is what I love to see. It changes lives, Mr. Graves. When they read like that all the time. All your data walls and test scores and tracking assessments - it all means nothing if the children don’t learn to read!”
Mr. Graves felt like maybe she was softening. He tried to make his voice conciliatory and gentle. “Mrs. Kirja, I can tell you care a great deal about these issues. If you’d let me in, I could talk to you about it…”
Mrs. Kirja appeared to drop out of a reverie, a step back from a utopian dream of paradise built of books and bookshelves. Her face became rather grim, and she spoke again in that quiet little voice, now quavering with rage.  “Mr. Graves, you claim you want good readers, but you are the enemy of reading. You want to take reading away from them. You want to fill my library with row after row of computers so our students can sit and take tests and and fail at them, and feel like failures, and grow to hate reading. It isn’t just this Federal Assessment and Review Test this Spring. All through the Fall and Winter they’ve been taking district reading and vocabulary tests. And the Library has been closed for weeks on end each time. My Library should be open everyday, all day, for the sole purpose of helping students find the right books, encouraging them to read those books, developing their love of reading, and making them better readers simply because they read a lot.
“But you want to close the Library for almost half the year to engage in activities that damage our students and make them hate reading! And the philosophy behind these tests they take, the philosophy that reading is the act of mining text for evidence, regurgitating objective facts in formulaic little essays, avoiding any personal connection to what they read - it makes me want to regurgitate!”
Mrs. Kirja’s voice had actually risen now to a fever pitch. He’d never heard her talk so much or so loudly before.
“Mrs. Kirja, as I said, I’d really like to come in there and talk this out with you. But you don’t seem to want to let me in. Let me ask you. Exactly what are your plans?”
There was a long pause. Mrs. Kirja turned away from Graves and looked out across the Media Center, where children were curled up in nearly every nook and cranny of the large room, reading, reading, all reading. All immersed in words. Yes, it was fun if you liked that sort of thing, but was it measurable? Graves doubted it. You got better at passing reading tests by practicing for reading tests, not by just reading for the fun of it. It was like sports. You didn’t get better at the game by playing the sport casually on your own time: you needed intensive training to get to the pros.
Kirha turned around to face him again. Were her eyes a little damp? “What are my plans, Mr. Graves? My plans are to finish my readathon.”
“And then?”
“That depends on you.
“How so?” asked Graves.
“My readathon doesn’t end until I have written assurances that my Library will not be used for testing, or even test preparation, ever again. I want it in writing the Library is a place for love of reading, not ruining it for a lifetime; a place to read books, not dull as sawdust articles with multiple choice questions attached that make millions for the testing companies but ruin children’s reading lives forever. That is what I want. We will stay in here until my demands are met.”
Graves couldn’t believe what he was hearing. She had really flipped.
“Mrs. Kirja, it won’t work. What will you eat?”
“We have, I have calculated, four months worth of fruit snacks, granola bars, and peppermints that were to be given out during testing, that will keep us nicely fed.”
“But Mrs. Kirja, that would amount to 75 counts of kidnapping! You’d go to jail!”
“The children are all here willingly!” Mrs. Kirja turned to face the throng of reading kids again. “Children, what if I told you that you didn’t need to take any more tests this year, and that the readathon could go on for weeks and weeks? You could live here! What would you say to that?”
A cheer of voices went up from all around the Media Center.
Mrs. Kirja turned back to Graves. “You see? It’s fine!”
Graves glanced behind her, across the Media Center. The door to video production room opened a crack, and he could see Deputy Bozell giving him the thumbs up.
Graves moved forward to where Mrs. Kirja stood, her nose pressed to the window. “Mrs. Kirja, don’t worry about it. You just stay right there. obviously, you’re right, and we need to change our way of thinking about school.” He sighed.  “Obviously the best way to get better readers is to let them read. Obviously. I wonder how I didn’t see it before.”
Then he glanced behind her, back toward video production. “Mrs. Kirja… is there anyone else in there with you?
“Well, yes, there are seventy-five…”
“No. Another adult. I think there may be someone back in the Video Production studio.”
“But I sealed that door off, just like the others… Oh, dear. Who do you think it could be?”
“I don’t know, but if someone’s broken in, you don’t want to face them alone. Let me in, and I can help you…”
“No, Mr. Graves,” Mrs. Kirja said grimly. “I’ll handle this myself.”
She marched to the back of the Media Center, careful not to disturb any reading students on the way. She opened the door to Video Production, looked around cautiously and stepped inside. There was a flicker of blue light, and a thud. But none of the students seemed to notice.

A few minutes later, Mrs. Kirja was on a stretcher and had been laced up in a straight jacket. A doctor from Hinckley Mental Health Center had arrived to take her away. She was only now becoming coherent again. “But I need to help them find the books they love. I need to read to them readathon readathon goes on for more hours maybe days or weeks or months… lots of granola bars!”
The stretcher was loaded into the ambulance. The ambulance was parked out behind Media, where the students couldn’t see it.

Graves looked into the Media Center and wondered how to handle this little situation. Those poor kids. They’d been corrupted, corrupted and twisted by a demented mind. It was time to bring some order to the situation.
Deputy Bozell had taken care of the jammed doors and the custodians had hauled the boxes and furniture back into the Media Center. Graves rounded up the bus duty teachers and together they hauled the laptop carts back into the Media Center. The children sat, stricken, asking where Mrs. Kirja had gone. The teachers began setting up laptops.
The little girl, the eight year old who needed help finding a book, walked up to Graves. “What happened to Library Lady? Is she okay?”
“She was a little sick, that’s all,” he replied. “She’s going for some help. You know what, though? It’s time for us to continue the readathon. Only this part, we’re doing on the computer.”
“Library Lady never mentioned that. She said it would be all about books.”
Graves suddenly felt overwhelming anger at how badly she had brainwashed these innocent little children. “Honey, she wasn’t the Library Lady. There’s no such thing as a library at a school. Her name was Mrs. Kirja, not Library Lady. This is the Media Center. And it’s time to get on a computer.”
“But I want to finish my book…” The little girl held up the tattered paperback.
The children all fell over themselves racing to get to laptops. The little girl was weeping. Graves felt bad for her. But it was time to restore order. No time for sympathy.
“Now, log on to the address you see posted on the whiteboard. It’s the training site for the Federal Assessment and Review Test! You know the drill!”
The children tapped their usernames and passwords onto the keyboards.
A whisper. “I thought we were going to be reading books…”

Ten minutes later the Media Center was quiet again, and the children were all occupied once more. The media had not been alerted, and no parents would find out about this little problem until tomorrow. He would have come up with a good story to smooth the whole thing over by then.
He looked at the tables of children sitting in neat rows. This was more like it. Order. And children obediently getting ready for the real business of school: tests. Kirja had obviously been insane. It was a good thing he had been here to restore sanity to the situation. He looked with satisfaction at the children, all  tapping away, their faces gray in the glow of the laptops. This was how it should be.
He considered reading The Goalpost, but pushed it aside, pulled out his phone, and got a live feed on ESPN.