Thursday, October 2, 2014

I Test Under Duress...

This past spring I did a series about the reality of testing. It's not completely autobiographical, though it is mostly, but everything in it happened at my school during testing at some point recently. And the way Mr. Fitz looks near the end is the way I felt by time I'd finished testing my students. 

I think when people who are no longer around schools during testing time think of testing, they remember taking tests when they were youngsters. There were no high-stakes. No pressure. The test came once a year and was gone. You hardly even noticed it. That was before the test became everything. Before computer based testing. Before testing took up weeks of the school year and changed the schedule for days on end, making actual teaching and learning impossible.

In some ways, this series is to educate people like that, who think that's still how testing is, so why are teachers complaining? We aren't just being whiny. It's really this insane. And stressful.

I hadn't posted the whole series yet here on this blog, but when a certain teacher group asked people to post about the theme "I Test Under Duress..." it seemed like the perfect opportunity. So here is the Mr. Fitz "I Test Under Duress" series. It's all based on the reality...

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Intellectual Bank Account: How to Invest in Students' Minds

The allure of the Pro-Standardized Testing Narrative is that on the surface, it seems to make sense. If you want to improve something, you measure it, work to make it better, and then measure it again to see if you improved. Right?

Well, maybe if you are working with inanimate objects or factory-like processes. But not when you are working with people. If you want a certain result, like smarter students, it's actually helpful to see why the smart students are smart in the first place.

No really smart person was made smart by standardized testing. Someone might marginally improve his or her test taking skills to prepare for a particular test, but test prep isn't what makes someone smarter.

What makes a student, or any person smart? I decided to have Mr. Fitz answer the question in a debate with the education reform movement's ideal teacher, Mrs. Merritt. Their debate takes place in the context of a metaphor: the human mind as a backpack.

If someone tells you they don't understand what teachers and parents and students have against standardized testing, then send them here. Mr. Fitz will straighten them out... maybe. (He doesn't seem to get very far with the utterly clueless Mrs. Merritt...)

Of course, as several readers pointed out, many students who have a great Intellectual Bank Account don't test well. Very true. I couldn't quite address that point in the context of this series, but it is very, very important to note that many highly intelligent students simply don't test well, no matter how much and how well parents, teachers, and others have invested in them. 

And I didn't address one other point: that one of the main goals of education should be to get students... to invest in themselves. 

But here's the take away. Much like the positive psychology movement, which studies how happy people function in order to make all people happier, we should be figuring out how our more intelligent students function in order to make all students smarter. 

Our best students haven't become smart by endless testing, but by investments made in them as people. Our lowest students deserve nothing less than being invested in the same way as our highest.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

What Teachers Hear; What We Should Be Hearing

If you have children, think about them, and what you wish for them. If you don't have children, but are teacher, think about your students. If you don't have children or students, think about your nieces, nephews, grandchildren, younger siblings, or at least hypothetical children.

Think about sending them to a classroom where they received messages like, "You like to be creative, do you? We don't need that here!" "You are not here to think! You are hear to do exactly what I tell you!" "Who you are, what you love, your interests, mean nothing in here. You are simply here to work through assignments and get assessed!"

I would hope that you, as  a person who cares about your children, or even children in general, would not want children to have messages like that forced on young people in classrooms. Many of us would be appalled with teachers who told students things like that. We would probably think they deserved to be fired.

Understand that those are the messages the education reform movement wants teachers to send to children. They might not say it explicitly. Then again, thinking about David Coleman (Dylan Trollman in Mr. Fitz's universe), maybe they would.

But I'd like to move from what messages we send to students to the messages we send to teachers. Because those messages are directly related.

As the school year begins and many of us head back to our schools for pre-planning, we will be asked to sit and listen to a lot of messages.

Some messages are explicit, like, "Pick your students up from lunch at 12:27," or "We must raise our Math scores by 56% or be labeled a failing school." Some messages are implicit.

Here are the messages teachers are getting these days:

"You have creative ideas about how to teach? We don't need those here."

"Follow the curriculum map. Keep to the pacing guide. Use the textbook and ancillary resources."

"Don't think. Don't question. Do as you're told."

"All that matters is your scores. You need to make gains. Pay attention to your data."

"If a student is not succeeding, fill out these online forms with drop-down boxes so we can give you a ready-made, test-based success goal for your student."

"Education is training for careers or college-- and NOTHING else."

"Succeed with all your students, or you will be punished or terminated."

I could go on, but I'd just get depressed.

How do the messages that teachers hear and the messages that students hear relate? Well, when teachers hear nothing but dehumanizing, stifling, negative, pressure-based messages, it is rather challenging to turn around and present students with positive messages. There is severe cognitive dissonance involved.

What messages could, should teachers be hearing? How about...

 "We honor and encourage your creativity-- it is the key to reaching students and getting them excited about learning."

"Think hard about how you structure your classes, about what themes you use, about how you will decide to pace things for your students-- the actual people who sit in your class each day."

"Encourage and model questioning. Start with us-- question the powers that be. Question yourself about how you are doing as a teacher and what you could do to improve. Question what teaching means to you. Encourage your students to question. Be curious."

"Pay attention to your students. Don't be blinded by data, by low or high test score. Pay attention to them as people: to their interests, their fears, their hopes, their dreams, their goals. Pay attention to what bothers them, what causes them to succeed or fail. Get to know them. They are people."

"If a student is having problems, do not get on your laptop to fill out forms. Talk to the student. Talk to the student's parents or guardians. Talk to other teachers. Try to involve the student in identifying the problem and finding a solution."

"You may not get every student to pass standardized tests, but you can encourage every child to improve in your subject. You can encourage your students be curious, to think, to question, to love learning, to read, write, problem solve, investigate, create, and perform for the sheer joy of accomplishing something. Help your students to see education as the key to a better future, but also as an end in and of itself."

"If you are struggling, we will help you."

Imagine how those messages, given to teachers, would filter down to the children in our schools.

I am one of the luckiest teachers I know. I have people over me who send me those messages, who encourage my creativity, who encourage me to be the best teacher I can be, who tell me that what I am doing is exactly what I am supposed to be doing. I am grateful for that fact every day.

But I have also heard the negative messages, and gotten very down.

As the school year starts, listen to the most positive messages you have available to you. If you don't have any positive messages coming your way-- go back and read the ones I listed above.

Someone should be saying those things to all teachers. Someone should be saying those things to you.

But if no one is saying them to you, say them to yourself. Find another teacher you trust and say them to each other.

The message has got to change.

And once the message is right, we need to stay on message.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Mr. Fitz's UN-common UN-standards

If you are going to speak out against things, as I often do, I think it is good to also say what you are for. I don't want to just be against the current version of education reform; I also want to be for certain things to be happening in education. So I decided to follow up my critique of the Common Core Standards and their author, David Coleman, with a different series... my own set of standards that represented what I was for in education, rather than what I was against.

I quickly discovered that it's very difficult to write standards without becoming a "standardisto" yourself, just as Mr. and Mrs. Fitz discover in the strips below. The very idea of standards has become so associated with things you try to cram down kids throats ("Students will use apostrophes correctly!") that I knew my standards needed to be named, and phrased, differently.

Once the name and format were set, I set about coming up with the UN-standards. I discovered that standards-writing becomes addictive, which may explain why there are so many of them, and I decided to limit myself to a newspaper-week's worth of strips, Monday through Saturday.

I've thought of some more I could add since then, but for now I'll let these stand. I'm pretty happy if my students can wrap their brains around these ideas.

I'd be even happier if a few education reformers could as well.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A Common Core Dialogue: Mr. Fitz Meets Dylan Trollman

Ever since I first saw him on YouTube giving a Common Core message to teachers in New York State, I've had a real problem with David Coleman. Coleman announced to the teachers that our message to students should essentially be that nobody gives a $#!+ about your personal story or your opinion (to use the cartoon form of the profanity used in his speech), and that narrative or personal forms of writing are inferior forms that are never used on the job. 

Although my initial impression of the standards themselves was positive, Coleman himself undermined my support for them in various venues by revealing the philosophies underlying the standards. I found his philosophies appalling, and antithetical to the way I teach and treat my students.  

I had been fishing around for a way to deal with him in the Mr. Fitz comic strip, and decided the best way was the simplest. Simply throw him into the strip as a character-- now named Dylan Trollman-- and let Mr. Fitz have a chat with him at a teaching conference. To contrast Mr. and Mrs. Fitz's attitude, I added Mrs. Merritt to the mix. As the education reformers' ideal teacher, she is a positive standards junky and Trollman groupie. 

Is this a caricature of Coleman? Sure. It's a comic strip. What do you expect? But are the issues real? You bet. 

So without further commentary, here is the conversation that ensues when Mr. Fitz meets Mr. Trollman. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

The War Against Thinking, Part 3 - How to keep students from thinking

I wrote about The War Against Thinking from a teacher's perspective first, because discouraging teachers from thinking is what ultimately leads to discouraging students from thinking. Let me go back to my original, fundamental idea: you learn about what you think about, so school should be a place for thought.

Since school is supposed to be a place for thought, you would think things at school would be designed to get students thinking. And yet, this is often not the case. In my first post about thinking, I defined thinking:

"How would I define thinking? I would define thinking as working with ideas: assimilating them, playing with them, comparing them, creating something new with them, struggling with them, engaging in them, debating them, synthesizing them, exploring them. The list of verbs could go on. And of course ideas can be mathematical, scientific, literary, creative, strategic, historical, defining, emotional, metaphorical... The list of adjectives could go on."

And yet, with our push to measure learning cheaply, we have reduced thinking, generally, to one skill only: answer multiple choice questions. Answering multiple choice questions requires a very particular kind of thought, and not a very useful one at that. Multiple choice questions, handed to you in a format where there is only one right answer, seldom if ever occur in the "real world." Multiple choice questions don't necessarily ask you think about the topic of the test-- Mathematics, Reading, Social Studies, and the rest. Multiple choice questions often ask you think about... multiple choice questions. You can often pass tests simply by knowing the rules of answering multiple choice questions.

In fact, I would make the case that what you are thinking about when you answer multiple choice questions is not the subject matter being tested, but the mindset of the people who wrote the test. You are trying to figure out what the test makers wanted you to answer. This is very much the case in Florida, where the FCAT Science test actually had incorrect answers counted as correct ones, because it was based on what a student at that level of schooling should understand. In other words, if you had progressed further than you were supposed to in Science, the FCAT would hold that level of thinking against you.

You might ask, "Why does this matter? Students are only in those tests a few days out of the year!" It matters because teachers are being told to "use assessment to drive instruction," what used to be called "teaching to the test." Because everything is focused on these tests, teachers are strongly encouraged to prepare students for them. As noted in my last post, teachers now spend a lot of class time, not teaching, but administering state practice tests (like Florida's FAIR test, which takes up days of class time and a lot of computer lab availability to predict how students will do on the state reading test) and district assessments (multiple choice tests again, but often of even more dubious quality than the state tests).

In other words, these tests drive what is happening in our schools. They drive schools to be places where you spend your time not in actual thought, but in a parody of thought where you spend your mental energies, not "working with ideas" but guessing what someone else wants you to think.

Another way in which these tests are a detriment to actual thinking is their focus on "the one right answer." This focus leads, not to engaging in sustained, nuanced thought, but in trying to get to the "one right answer" as quickly as possible, which makes sense, since these tests are for the most part timed. Even when students aren't testing, a spirit of "one right answer" in a classroom or school often leads to students simply looking up answers on their phones instead of actually thinking. At its worst, the "one right answer" syndrome leads to cheating, and to the idea that you are simply in school to jump through hoops for the teacher, not to actually think or learn.

There is a perception that the "one right answer" approach will make school better. One Right Answer is a hard-headed, no-nonsense, anti-fuzzy approach. In the end, it is often the cheap, easy route that kills thinking rather than promoting it.

Here's an example of an assignment without a single right answer that actually gets students to think, and think very, very hard. As part of a Holocaust unit, my eighth graders, both regular and Gifted, read the memoir The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal. The author was a concentration camp prisoner when he was called to the deathbed of a dying Nazi soldier. The soldier spent 3 or 4 hours confessing his crimes to Wiesenthal, and asking him, as a Jew, to forgive his crimes. The author ends his narrative by asking the reader what he or she would have done. The second half of the book is a collection of 53 writers, theologians, political leaders, and philosophers answering that question. We read some of those essays, and then I ask students to write their own essays answering Wiesenthal's question. I ask them to use their notes about the essays and the original memoir to provide reasons and details for their decision.

Here's the sad thing. Many of the students, despite my repeatedly saying that how they answer is up to them and that what I want is for them support their answer with good reasons, will assume that there is a a "right" answer, that I will fail them for either forgiving or not forgiving the Nazi, depending on the right answer. But the beauty of the assignment, of the author's heartbreaking and thought-provoking question, is that anyone can write a beautiful and well-thought out essay on either side of the question. The point is, I want students to think. But students have been so trained by their experiences of school that they want to subvert actual thought in favor guessing what the teacher wants.

Often we make it so that students don't even need to do the thought work involved in guessing what the teacher wants. We tell them exactly what we want, so they don't have to think about it. We tell them, "You will be writing an essay. Here is how you will write it. Here is what will go in each paragraph. You will be graded on how well you follow my instructions." When I tell my students at the beginning of the year that I will not be forcing them to write five-paragraph essays, many of them just about stand up and cheer. Many of them are profoundly disoriented. But once I teach them that content dictates form, show them models of a variety of ways to organize essays, and practice brainstorming essays with a variety of structures and paragraphs, they feel liberated and never look back. And they think every time they write, rather than just filling in the blanks.

When I teach outside my school system in summer programs or in writing camps my wife and I have created on our own, we often see student writing samples that are terrible because students did exactly what  the teacher told them, without really thinking about what makes for a really good essay.

Staying in the realm of writing, we also ask kids to not think when we hand them ready-made rubrics that tell them exactly what will be required in a piece of writing. Again, student thought isn't promoted, it's limited. It is limited to "how can I make my piece of writing include all the elements I need to make the teacher happy?" This is thinking of a sort, but it is not the sort of thinking most real writers use. I discussed this topic with my students, asking them how they know if they are on the right track with a piece of writing. Many of them said things like "Ask the teacher," or "Ask someone else," or "See what your grade is." But one of them said, "You have a kind of inner vision
for what you want the writing to be." Having an "inner vision" of what you want to the writing to be is what real writers do (I had it in my head before starting this post), and it requires thought.

I don't have time here to go into and indepth discussion of rubrics. Look to Maja Wilson's book, Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment for that. My point is that a rubric is often used, not to promote real thinking, but to make it so students don't have to think as much about what they will write. (It also makes grading easier for teachers, so they don't have to think as much either.)

Much of the anti-thought activity in schools is passive, but with the advent of the Common Core State [sic] Standards, some kinds of thought are being actively discouraged. Early in the Common Core rollout, I attended a workshop with an exemplar lesson for teaching reading using the Common Core approach. It was one of the most frustrating afternoons of my teaching career. We were supposed to read and make sense of The Gettysburg Address without using any background knowledge about the speech. The futility and absurdity of this approach has been written about elsewhere, so I won't belabor the point here. But telling students that they are not allowed to think about something they are reading a certain way, or to use background knowledge they have in their heads, seems counterproductive to thinking. Background knowledge matters. Accessing it is a natural kind of thinking when you read something. Asking students to not use background knowledge is telling them not to think.

I have a T-shirt that portrays Han Solo and Chewbacca riding a tiny sled-like Millennium Falcon and drawn in the style of the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. Most people don't get it. Many people understand the Star Wars reference. Few seem to understand the Calvin and Hobbes reference. Fewer still understand how utterly cool this image is. You can't even read many T-shirts without some kind of background knowledge.

The Common Core also asks teachers to discourage students from making personal connections to what they read. Again, making a personal connection to what you read is a kind of thinking (and feeling) that comes naturally to good readers. In discouraging this kind of thought in favor of more "objective" mining of text for facts, were are in fact lowering students' level of thinking to literal understanding. And some concepts you read about simply can't be understood until you relate them to something you know.

We ask students to "think" about the one right answer to multiple choice questions. We ask students to "think" about how to please the teacher, how to meet the demands of the rubric, how to jump through the hoops. We leave them feeling disenfranchised from their own learning.

When I asked my students if they thought of their minds as buckets that they simply let teachers fill with facts, they said Yes. That isn't thinking. If thinking is "working with ideas," then we have a real problem with how we do school. Having ideas dropped in your bucket isn't the same as working with them.

One of the saddest phenomenon I encounter each year as a teacher is "Can I?" Students ask permission to do things with projects, with papers, with what they can write on their papers.

"Can I write about my own experience with a wild animal on my Think-In-Ink about the story?"

"Can I write this essay as a dialogue between to characters?"

"Can I make up my own project that isn't on the list?"

"Can I save saying what I really think for the last paragraph?"

These students are really thinking, yet somehow they feel they need permission to do it. Somehow school has taught them that thinking isn't what it's all about. School shouldn't be a place where you have to ask permission to think. School should be the place that encourages you to think.

By the way, I always answer "Yes!"

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The War Against Thinking, Part 2 - Textbooks, Programs, Curriculum Maps and the Spirit of Ditto Man

My first post about The War on Thinking focused on standards. I'm leaving standards behind now, but not completely. Because standards become the fuel that runs the weapons of mass instruction that keep The War on Thinking going. Those weapons against thinking? Textbooks, instructional programs, and curriculum maps.

The companies that create textbooks and instructional programs have an obvious and vested interest in keeping schools reliant on, well, textbooks and programs. The Common Core itself was promoted in 2011 as a boon to companies who wanted to sell products designed to make implementation of the Common Core easier. Joanne Weiss, the Chief of Staff to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and leader of the Obama administration's Race to the Top program, wrote in the Harvard Business Review that the development of the common standards and the shared assessments would "radically" alter "the market for instructional materials," and that entrepreneurs would "enjoy national markets where the best products can be taken to scale." If you can think for yourself and create your own instructional materials, you are a tough sell, even when things are taken to to scale. Bill Gates has even said, "When they are aligned and the curriculum lines up... for the first time there'll be a large, uniform base of customers looking at using products."

If school is a place for thought, for teachers and for students, you wouldn't know it by looking at textbooks and workbook programs. I just came through the process of textbook adoption for my district, and overwhelmingly, my impression of all five of the products we looked at, including the textbook we eventually adopted, was that the publishers were falling over themselves to make sure the teacher had as little thinking to do as possible. I have even heard of one program being touted by someone saying, "You just do it, page by page, day by day! You don't even need to think about it!"

In his book Making Comics, Scott McCloud breaks making comics into a series of choices. As I read his list, I transferred the concept over to teaching. Teaching is really a series of choices as well. But while in comics the choices are concerned with things like choice of moment, choice of character, choice of frame, or choice of dialogue, in teaching there are other kinds of choices.

The Choices of Teachers:

  • Choice of subject to teach
  • Choice of material (skills or knowledge) to teach
  • Choice of structure for the course (by topic, by theme, by genre, etc.)
  • Choice of themes, if teaching thematically
  • Choice of reading selections within the course
  • Choice of writing assignments
  • Choice of order (In which order will skills, topics, themes be taught?)
  • Choice of structure for each day's lessons
  • Choice of assignments
  • Choice of assessment methods
  • Choice of pacing

There are probably a lot more choices than that, actually, but this is a place to start. When I began teaching, I had no standards, so my choice of material was up to me. I had a textbook, but I also had classes that destroyed textbooks, so I didn't use it much. In any case, I pretty much had a free reign of choices up and down that list. To make all of those choices meant putting a lot of thought into my planning. I had to think about my students, about my own strengths and weaknesses as a teacher, about what might engage my students, about where I wanted them to be by the end of the year and how to get them there.

Now take a look at a typical textbook or program. Once you've chosen your subject, as I chose English/Language Arts years ago, the rest is done for you by the textbook. They supply you with the material, the structure, the themes, the reading selections, the structure of a lesson, and assessment methods. The order is flexible with some programs; in others, you must do things in their order, or you get continuity problems. You generally have some choice of pacing and daily structure for each day's lessons, but just in case you don't want to think about those things either, they supply you with pacing guides and daily lesson plans. In other words, if a teacher doesn't really want to think, he or she doesn't have to think-- at least not much. The textbook companies nearly fall over themselves bragging about this fact. "We've done everything for you!" As if most teachers got into teaching to avoid thinking...

But what if you decide you're going to use the textbook your own way, that you're not going to use it the way they say? That's what I have always done. I did what they say to do in Alanon and Alateen: "Take what you like and leave the rest." There had to be a way to stop teachers like me from thinking instead of following a textbook corporation's prescriptions! One was created: the Curriculum Map.

A textbook would take care of nearly everything for you, and even if you used lots of material from the textbook, you could still make some choices of your own, depending on the book or program. You could still choose your own themes, order topics or themes the way you wanted, or pace things the way you saw fit.

But then came The Curriculum Map. It mandated that textbook or program themes be followed, and set a pace that would ideally be followed by every teacher in the district. The result looked like this:

The Choices of Teachers (with Curriculum Maps in Place):
  • Choice of subject to teach
  • No choice of material (skills or knowledge) to teach
  • No choice of structure for the course (by topic, by theme, by genre, etc.)
  • No choice of themes, if teaching thematically
  • No choice of reading selections within the course
  • No choice of order (which order will skill, topics, themes be taught)
  • Little choice of structure for each day's lessons
  • Little choice of assignments
  • No choice of assessment methods
  • No choice of pacing
Then add in, as many (if not most) districts have, District Assessments designed to see how well students are being prepared for standardized testing. You now have pretty much every choice a teacher might have to think about made into a no-brainer. Where there is no choice, there is no thought. If there is no choice involved in teaching, then there is no thought involved in teaching. We are reduced to the role of Curriculum Dispensers. To quote my own poem, "We pop lessons out like a big Pez dispenser." Our autonomy, creativity, and enthusiasm for thinking, for working with ideas, are all squelched.

The message is: "We. Don't. Want. You. To. Think. Don't think about what you teach, not about what you teach with, not about how you teach, or the speed with which you teach, or the order in which you teach things, and not about how you assess whether learning took place. Leave that to the professional thinkers who have never met your students, lived in your community, and may or may not have even taught a day their lives. Hand out these ready-made materials to your students, grade them according to our rubrics, or slip them into the automatic grade-O-tron, and everything will be good for you. We want to make your life as a teacher easier. We don't want you to trouble yourself with all those difficult choices and the attendant thought that goes with them. Just trust us. We've done all the thinking for you."

The textbook people give me the material, I hand it out to the students, they perform the task, I assess it, and we move on to the next bit of material. The spirit of Ditto Man (from the movie Teachers) is alive and well today.

The only choice they want to leave to teachers is the choice of subject matter. Well, and the choice to be a teacher in the first place. But these days, choosing to be a teacher may be the last choice you ever make. The rest will be made for you.