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.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Teacher Appreciation Week

It's teacher appreciation week. Some days the idea of a "teacher appreciation" seems like a sad, ironic joke.

It is easy to forget you are appreciated when politicians and millionaires vilify you and your profession.

It is easy to forget you are appreciated when your very best, most creative efforts to reach children are seen as less effective than the scripted program or curriculum map created by a committee or corporation somewhere.

It is easy to forget you are appreciated when the profession you went into to inspire students by igniting their curiosity, by encouraging their love of learning, by helping them discover their talents and their potential to make the world a better place, by passing on not only knowledge and skills but wisdom... when all of that is devalued so that you can become a test-score generator.

It is easy to forget you are appreciated when your students no longer seem interested in anything you have to offer as a teacher, don't seem to value education, and in fact view teachers as the enemy. Especially when some parents seem to view you as the enemy as well.

It is easy to forget that you are appreciated.

But remember, you are appreciated.

There are students and parents who still see teachers as allies instead  of enemies.

There are still students who love learning and do so with enthusiasm.

There are still people who realize that the real magic in teaching lies not in the teachers ability to make students answer multiple choice questions accurately, but in the teacher's ability to raise questions worth asking and get students to ask their own questions.

There are still people who view teaching as a high calling, not temp work that can be done by anyone with five weeks of training.

There are still people who appreciate creative teaching and actually want teachers to be thinkers.

Those people appreciate us. It is to those people I address this message.

If you appreciate teachers and great teaching, tell a teacher you appreciate them.

But appreciating teachers is no longer merely a "feel good" activity. We teachers need more than your appreciation these days. We need you to fight for us, and for great teaching. If nothing is done, all teachers at all levels will be reduced to Quantitative Learning Gains Facilitators. It is already happening. Teachers are leaving the profession in disgust. Others are giving in and going through the motions. Others are still fighting to make teaching more than a numbers game, but we are increasingly under pressure to to step in line and stop thinking.

Your students are becoming numbers, not people. The entire school year is now either test preparation or testing. Love of learning is lost, curiosity is killed. We are not investing in our children, we are robbing them of their childhoods. If you appreciate great teaching and great teachers, speak up on their behalf. To the newspaper. To politicians. To your principal, your superintendent, your school board. To your friends. To anyone who will listen.

Teachers, of course, are called self-serving, self interested and selfish when they try advocate for the children in their classrooms. Corporations that make millions on standardized testing and test prep programs aren't selfish. Teachers are.

So tell a teacher you appreciate them this week. But tell someone else how much you appreciate them, too. While you still have great teachers to appreciate.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The War Against Thinking - Standards

School should be a place for thought. That seems obvious. Thinking should be the main thing going on in schools. As Daniel Willingham points out in his book, Why Don't Students Like School?, students learn about what they think about, so we should be trying to get them to engage in thinking as often as possible.

Let me say this again: school should be a place for thought.

 It should be a community of thinkers. The adults should model thinking for the students. The students should be practicing thinking, and trying out their thoughts on their teachers and on each other.

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.

That's what school should be for: working with ideas. Thinking.

But you wouldn't know that, based on a lot of what is being done in and to schools these days. These days, we seem to spend a lot of time asking adults and children to not think, to help them avoid thinking. We want things to be nailed down, settled, fired in a kiln into their final shape so that we can avoid having to really think about them. Many people give lip service to thinking, but don't really like it when it occurs.

If we think teachers are supposed to be thinking and modeling thinking for their students, look at how little teachers are asked to think...

The system doesn't want teachers to think about what they are going to teach. For the past couple of decades we have been engaged in what has been called the "standards movement," which has recently come to its fullest fruition as the Common Core State Standards. Standards are supposed to create clarity: every student should be able to do or know these things. There are many issues surrounding standards, including the fact that fixed standards created by committee will never be able to keep up with the changing nature of reality, but what I'd like to focus on is how much, or how little, standards ask teachers to think.

Look at standards as a whole. If I look at the Florida Sunshine State Standards, which I should use until the end of this 2013-14 school year, or at the Common Core State Standards, which have now been renamed the Florida Standards (even though my standards as a middle school Language Arts teacher haven't changed at all), they represent the sum total of what a student should know and be able to do by the end of the school year.

If I cover those standards, I have taught my students what they need to know. Put checks in those boxes and I'm done. I don't have to think; I just need to cover skills. What's wrong with that? you might ask. Isn't it good that we have a consistent educational product we're offering?

From one particular angle, yes: if you are viewing standards as an antidote to the teacher who keeps the kids busy all year with word searches and crossword puzzles and mazes without worrying about what the kids are learning, then yes, standards might give that teacher a better sense of direction. On the other hand, isn't Mr. Wordsearch, unless he is given some guidance, likely to teach the standards with the same shallow level of instruction he devoted to keeping the kids busy. "Here's a worksheet with a Venn Diagram! We've covered comparison/contrast!"

But let's look at standards from a different place-- from that ancient, almost unimaginable era: The Time Before Standards.

My teaching career began in earnest in 1993, the same year the Sunshine State Standards began their development--they weren't put into place until 1996. So I began my career without the guidance of a set of standards. As I have written else where, I was dealing with a very challenging group of students who tended to destroy, among other things, textbooks. So I had to invent the wheel. My mantra as a teacher became, I suppose, the mantra of the standards committees themselves: "What to I want them to be able to DO?"

I had to do some hard thinking. I looked through my literature and writing textbooks. I looked through my college books and notebooks, and at books about reading and writing I'd read on my own. (The internet hadn't really become a force in my life yet.) I looked at my own history as a reader and writer and thought about the experiences that had shaped me. I began to synthesize all of these ideas into an ever-changing, ever evolving list of things I wanted my students to be able to do. Sometimes when they couldn't do one thing well, such as write a short story, I realized I needed to go back and teach something else, like integrating descriptions into the plot, or actually planning out a coherent back-story and plot-line with a conflict. I wasn't teaching a dead list of standards, but an evolving one, based on my deep understanding of my subject and on my own students' needs.

In other words, I was thinking. I was thinking really hard. I was thinking about my subject, and about my students. It was hard work. I don't think it was perfect, but I think that trial by fire of really thinking about what I taught, without being handed a set of standards on a silver platter, made me into not just a better teacher, but a completely different kind of teacher than the one I might have been had I just taught standards.

Even when they era of standards arrived a couple years later, I was always looking beneath the surface of the standards, thinking about what kinds of thinking and writing and doing things my students would need to do to meet that standard. If the standard said, "Students will write in various modes... including writing comparisons," the standard itself didn't tell me the various pitfalls of trying to get students to do it well. I quickly learned that many of my students wrote what I call Ping-Pong Writing: "McDonald's is like this. Wendy's is like this. McDonald's is like this. Wendy's is like this. McDonald's is like this. Wendy's is like this." Back and forth. I realized that if they were going to write comparisons that were actually enjoyable to read, I'd need to teach them about sentence variety. Now there is probably a standard about teaching sentence variety, but it is only by thinking about what I was teaching that I linked sentence variety to comparison writing, a place where it especially matters and therefore a place ideal for having students think about both issues in tandem. If I were covering standards, sentence variety might have been a workbook page I taught during some other part of the year, disconnected from any real writing.

The other issue with standards, as far as thinking goes, is that teachers and administrators often assume the that the standards cover everything that is necessary for students to learn, and that if it's not in the standards, it shouldn't be taught-- the perhaps the better word would be "covered." But standards represent the "best thinking" of a committee somewhere, a limited number of people. They do not represent an absolute ideal of what should be taught. I don't know of any standards that mention screenplay or script writing as a form students should attempt, or better yet master, yet many of my students are deeply interested in writing plays and screenplays and chose that form of writing if I offer it as an option. I also know from personal experience that writing scripts is not a "fluff" skill, but one I have seen used in the "real" world of work by friends, relatives, and acquaintances alike for civic and work purposes such as training videos, fundraiser or stewardship promotion, public awareness of issues, and tributes. Allowing my students to write and produce scripts fosters engagement, but to do it well, they need to be taught how. But script writing is not featured as standard, so unless I think beyond the standards, I won't teach it.

The Common Core Standards skimp on poetry by leaving instruction in the reading and writing of poetry to the discretion of the teacher. Of course, that kind of skimping on a type of writing relegates it to something that will seldom be taught. But for a teacher who is really thinking, poetry offers all kinds of intriguing connections to other areas of literacy-- even advertising and argument (or persuasion-- more on that debate later). My wife presented on the benefits of teaching poetry at an NCTE Ignite session last year. The title of the overall session was "Minding the Gaps"-- the gaps being the things that aren't covered by the Common Core Standards. All of the short presentations in the IGNITE session asked teachers to think-- by going beyond the standards.

The vague Common Core poetry standard requires teachers to think hard of they are going to teach poetry at all. The more specific standards are, the less they encourage teacher (or student) thought. And the more that specific standards are tied to high stakes testing, the teacher is asked to think even less. Teaching to the test is probably the kind of teaching that requires the lest amount of thought, yet it is the kind of teaching that has been increasingly promoted and forced on teachers for the past two decades.

Perhaps that is why Harold Howe II, the former US Commissioner of Education, suggested that if we must have national standards they should be "as vague as possible." Vague standards require teachers to think hard about what they are teaching, about their subject areas, and about their students. Vague standards are harder to test, because tests, by their nature, tend to evaluate very specific skills.

The idea of what should be taught and learned isn't just an issue for teachers to think about. Ask students to talk about what they should be learning and why, and you'll really get them thinking as well. Saying, "Here's what you need to learn. Learn it," will not.

Standards stifle rather than inspire teachers' thinking. To think, teachers must go beneath the surface of the standards, or into the gaps in the standards, or beyond the standards completely.

In the end, the most important ideas I have developed about teaching my subject have come, not from the standards, which tend to be very literal and uninspiring, but from my own thinking, talking to other people, reading, and writing. The biggest, most important things I want to teach my students are not found in any standards I have seen. That words are tools to help you build a better life. That the right words at the right time can change your life. That words help shape your thoughts and your thoughts shape how you see the world, and in fact shape your whole life.

But what about having some kind of consistency in our schools? Without standards, will it be "Anything goes?" Well, there weren't standards when I was in school, and I've survived just fine. But if we are concerned about the lack of standards, what if we met with colleagues, not to engage in group-think, but to discuss and debate an ever evolving set of standards that interacts with our students' needs? What if we actually encouraged teachers to think instead of handing them a to-do list and asking them to cover it unthinkingly?

Standards are the primary way in which we discourage teachers from thinking-- but there are plenty more. I'll get to some more of them next time.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Teacher of the Year, Ten Years On

"Well... This is surreal. But fantastic."

Those were the ad-libbed opening words of my speech ten years ago this week when I became my district's Teacher of the Year.

I recently pulled out VHS tapes of my winning TOTY banquet and speech, and of my fairwell speech, to transfer them to DVD. Both tapes were a kind of time capsule-- both technologically and personally. Aside from how I looked ten years ago-- more like Mr. Fitz, with more hair and fewer lines on my cartoonish face-- what struck me is what I talked about.

I'd like relay some of what I said those two nights back in 2004 and 2005, along with some commentary from the perspective of ten years on.

Here's my speech from 2004, the year I won, (when I was the 2005 teacher of the year; don't ask-- it's complicated):

If someone had told me ten years ago, when I was having a school year like no other, that I'd be up here tonight, I probably would have laughed. I am quite certain that my students tomorrow will insure I will stay humble despite this honor. When I received the Teacher of the Year award for my school, one of my students looked at me and said, "You are too mean to be Teacher of the Year!" 

After thanking numerous people, I continued:

I'd also like to thank my students-- even the ones who drive me crazy. Without them, I wouldn't be here. 

My first year of teaching, I came perilously close to quitting. I contemplated it frequently, because despite my best efforts, it didn't seem like I was getting anywhere with my students. And then someone said the right words at the right time to me: "If you're doing your best, then tell yourself you're doing a good job."

Those words enabled me to continue, and I sometimes say those very words to my students: "Tell yourself you're doing a good job."

Each year I have my students write essays based on Marlo Thomas's book The Right Words at the Right Time... It's a book of essays by all different kids of people: Whoopi Goldberg, Rudi Giuliani,Sally Ride, Jay Leno, Mia Hamm... just dozens and dozens of people who wrote essays about a time someone gave them the right words at the right time. It might have been a person who gave the words, or a song, or even a children's book. Jay Leno wrote about "Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel." We read some of these essays in class as models, and I asked my students to write their own essays about the right words at the right time. 

Some of my students took to it right away, and surprised me be how honestly they wrote about hurts they'd experienced that someone was able to heal them from. Others, I am sad to say, couldn't think of anything to write. I asked those students, "No one has ever complimented you or given you a piece of advice? No children's books or song lyrics have ever helped you get through a tough time?" And some of them said "No," and that No speaks volumes to me. 

How do you go through life without someone complimenting you, boosting you up, giving you good advice? For some students, teachers represent the only compliments, the only good advice, they ever get. Even for our students who already have a lot of "right words" coming their way, teachers can add a few choice ones. At its best, teaching is the art of giving students the right words at the right time, and tonight has been the right words at the right time for me.

By next following year when I said goodbye to the experience, words found or spoken at the right time became even more important:

We had Chinese dinner two nights ago and I had a fortune cookie. I'm not superstitious, in fact I'm not even that fond of fortune cookies, but this one was a little uncanny: it said, "You will be honored by your peers."

After again thanking numerous people, I talked about some of my experiences being Teacher of the Year.

I got to attend the "Read with Stars Gala" for the Volusia Literacy Council--in between hurricanes-- at the hotel across the street, and for the first time got to meet other cartoonists, including Bruce Beattie from the News-Journal, Dana Summers, who draws The Middletons, and Chris Browne, who draws Hagar the Horrible and looks just like Hagar the Horrible. I'd never met real cartoonists before and they probably thought I was a real nerd. "Hi! I draw cartoons too!"

I got to attend and speak at a Florida Future Educators Association event. I spoke to a group of middle and high school students who want to be teachers. I asked them, "How many of you want to teach high school?" About half of them raised their hands. "How many of you want to teach elementary school?" Again, about half of them raised their hands. "How many of you want to teach middle school?"

And they looked at me said, "Are you crazy?"

And I said, "Yes."

But my favorite experiences were speaking at young authors' conferences at elementary schools around the district, where I could see the potential for greatness even among the youngest of authors. One girl at an Palm Terrace Elementary was a budding O. Henry. She had already nailed the twist ending to the point that I almost fell out of my chair when I read her story. She wrote about dressing up real nice to go to a restaurant, I think for her birthday, and she wrote about the restaurant they went to, about the atmosphere there, and the wonderful service, and how she and her family ate lobster, shrimp, and rolls. She created an idyllic scene that made my mouth water. I wanted to go to this restaurant. And then I turned to the last page of her little book, and she had ended her story with, "And then I threw up." 

That was it. The end. 

But it was vividly illustrated. 

I discovered that going into a school and entertaining children for a half hour was way easier than actually teaching them. It's easy to get them to like you when you aren't having to grade them and discipline them and motivate them day to day. But of course, most of the time, those things are the real work of teaching, and you all know it. 

I had the privilege of reading all of your Teacher of the Year packets-- all 800 pages of them. It was longer than reading Anna Karenina. I've been reading Anna Karenina. Since July. I'm still in the 500's. Your packets I read in just two weeks. And don't tell Tolstoy, but your  packets were actually more fun to read. Most of you don't have long Russian names, and no one threw themselves under a train at the end. 

Nonetheless, I was exhausted when I finished, and not just because it was a lot of reading. I starting thinking about everything you all do as teachers, all the mentoring, teaching, coaching, workshops, school and community involvement activities. I got tired just thinking about it. All the caring and expertise and knowledge you are pouring into the children of our communities has got to be making a huge difference for Volusia County. I was truly, deeply impressed. 

As a group you impressed me by doing the things that all teachers do, but what impressed me even more were all the individual things you did that were totally different from each other. No two of you were alike. We have a teacher who is also a certified bus driver. A teacher who has book recommendations placed onto the outsides of grocery bags for people to read when they take home their milk and eggs. And a teacher who, like Maria Von Trapp in a class room, pulls out her guitar in class to sing math chants. 

The list is endless.  You all have similar demands put on you, but you all meet them in unique and individual ways. An award like this would be meaningless if you were all the alike, all identical, all-- dare I say it?--standardized?

As I teach my 8th grade students to write this year, and, yes, to get them ready for the FCAT Writing on Tuesday, I warn them that when they write, their essays will all sound the same unless they find a way to make them stand out. When they wrote essays about a best friend, I got a lot of this: "My friend is fun. My friend is funny. We do fun stuff together. She makes me laugh. She is fun." But other essays said things like, "My friend and I go to the Target sock department and try on funny socks-- socks with rainbows, hearts, and smiley faces." And, "My friend made me laugh so hard chocolate thick shake came out my nose." 

It is the unusual and specific and sometimes even the quirky and strange that make you stand out, whether you are a student or a teacher. Some people want to take the human element out of teaching with scripted programs that move in lock step and tell the teacher exactly what to say. 

I'm hoping they fail. 

Go back to your school and be unique and quirky and different-- just like your students. That's how you got to be teacher of the year in the first place. 

This year has certainly not been standardized. It has been unique and quirky and different as a year. Seeing your face six feet high on the side of a bus is not something you get used to easily. 

The day after I won last year, one of my colleagues, Danny Tompkins, stopped by and asked me if I was happy about it. And I said, "Danny, I would have to be an idiot not to be happy." 

And so at the risk of sounding like Bobby McFarren: Be happy. You deserve it. 

When I gave those two speeches, I had no idea how much my theme of the first speech, The Right Words at the Right Time, would eventually become the actual substance of my second speech. My appeal to teachers to be quirky and different, and my mention of scripted programs couldn't have been more timely. In the ten years since I finished my year as teacher of the year, I feel like the pressure on teachers to be standardized has never been greater.

The need for us to be unique has stayed just as important as it ever was.

My Teacher of the Year packet was full of specific activities I did for and with my classes: planning a theme for the year, planning out how to unroll reading and writing skills within that theme, finding the best texts for my students to read (and sometimes writing them myself when what I found didn't fit the bill), finding or creating engaging writing activities that got even reluctant writers writing, inventing a story called Genre Jumpers to teach proofreading and grammar skills...

Most of those activities are things that the powers that be don't want you doing now. They don't want you to plan your year with creativity, leaving holes for multiple teachable moments and student input; now they want you to follow a curriculum map with fidelity. They don't want you to find materials or create materials. They want you to stick to the program or textbook or workbook and to use them with "fidelity" as "common formative and summative assessments." They don't want you to engage your students; they want you to make sure that your students are doing the same thing as all the other students in your school or district.

But I know some of us, many of us are, are still unique anyway. Not for awards, but for the students.

I hope the Standardistos and scripted programs fail.

I hope the creative teachers win. Because when they win, their students do, too.

Thank you, and goodnight. 

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Groundhog Day for Teachers

I watch the 1993 movie Groundhog Day every year on...Groundhog Day. I know I am not alone in this ritual.

But Groundhog Day is more than a movie for many of us. It is a touchstone of sorts, albeit a very funny one. And as a teacher, Groundhog Day may be one of several things (books, people, events, students, movies, and songs, among others) that allowed me to get through my first year of teaching. Well, my second first year of teaching. I had one year at a high school before being laid off the week before my wife and I got married. After two years of substituting and holding down about eight part time jobs, I finally landed a second job at a very rural school in August of 1993, a few months after Groundhog Day came out. It was like starting my career all over again, and the reboot wasn't pretty. 

I had a group of ninth grade students who informed me that they had gotten a teacher to quit or get fired every year since Kindergarten-- and they had decided that I was next. They almost succeeded in getting me to quit. Anyone who thinks that every child in America is waiting for Superman, is ready and eager to learn if only a committed teacher would come along, should be forced to relive that year. I asked their previous teacher, "How did you handle them last year?" 

"I went home and cried every night."

"Oh," I said. "I've been doing that, but it hasn't really helped." 

This group of students had an arsenal of anti-teacher weapons that included stink bombs, hogs urine (used in hunting, but also sprinkled liberally around my classroom on more than one occasion), and, one day, a severed chicken head left on my floor. I was spit on; my grade book was stolen and thrown in a boys' room toilet; my license plate was taken off my car and thrown into a ditch. I fell into a fairly serious bout of depression. I would wake up feeling sick to my stomach. On more than one occasion I arrived at school, opened my car door, and threw up in the parking lot. And then went into the building to attempt to teach for the day. 

Don't get me wrong-- there were some good students there, too. They were part of what kept me going. One of those students is now the parent of one of the students at my current school, and has turned out to be a delightful grown-up person. But boy, it was tough. How could I keep going, day after day after day after day after day?

And then I saw Groundhog Day on VHS. I had missed it in theaters.

Groundhog Day is not a "teacher movie." Not remotely. But I immediately identified with Phil Connors, who for some inexplicable reason, is forced to relive the same humdrum day on the job over and over again. Some people have estimated he relives it three thousand times, while others estimate he relives it for thousands of years, until he finally gets that one day right. Isn't every day for a teacher somewhat the same as Groundhog Day? Same students all year, same class periods, same procedures? And like Phil, you begin to realize that you can't really change other people-- you can only change you

I suppose it's a cliche by now, but I don't care: I had just stumbled on the then-new Seven Habits of Highly Effective People at the time, and I realized that Groundhog Day was in part about being "Proactive." I realized that I had to stop reacting, and start acting. 

I could use the sameness of the days to my advantage, to experiment, to try to get to know these very strange students in my charge, to try new things, to attempt to keep my sense of humor. I suppose that like Phil, I discovered you can't trick people into responding to you. You end up getting rebuffed repeatedly, as Phil finds out in his initial attempts to woo Rita, his producer. 

What Phil discovers is that you can't change other people: only change yourself, but one of the best ways to change yourself is to start helping other people. 

One of my favorite scenes in the movie takes place on Phil's last Groundhog Day, when he finally gets the day right. He is coming down the sidewalk checking his watch. He begins running. He arrives under a tree just in time to catch a boy falling from one of its limbs. The kid runs off as soon as Phil places him safely on the ground, and Phil yells after him, "You have never thanked me!" 

We only see this event once, but Phil has obviously saved this boy numerous times on numerous identical Groundhog Days. Isn't that kind of what teaching is like? Not a lot of gratitude, and we have to keep catching them when they make the same stupid mistakes over and over again. 

But eventually they learn, and we finally get to move onto February third, and a new set of lessons. 

Groundhog Day helped me keep my sense of perspective and my sense of humor, and, I suppose, my teaching career. I'd like to say it was like a teacher movie where I triumphantly won over the hearts and minds of all those students. It wasn't like that. But I survived to teach another day, and another, and another, and another. Twenty-one years later, I'm still at it. Some classes still frustrate me, but I no longer throw up in the parking lot or come home and cry.

And all these years later, no matter what school I teach at, what grade levels, students, or materials I teach, on some level I am teaching that same day over and over again, and hoping I get better at it. 

"So put your tiny hand in mine, 
There aint no hill or mountain we can't climb..."

Happy Groundhog Day.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Teacher Bergeron: How to Handicap Great Teachers

I once had a visitor to my classroom--someone I wanted to send a message to about the standardization of teachers. I had my class read the short story "Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

To paraphrase Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, I'm not "subtle" but I am "effective." Effective, that is, at making a point. Not necessarily on a teacher evaluation system.

If you haven't read "Harrison Bergeron," go and read it now. The link is above. Well, if you don't want to, I'll tell you that it's about a future (2081 to be precise) when everyone is made equal to everybody else using sash-weights to equalize strength, noise-transmitters to shatter thoughts and equalize intelligence, and ugly masks to equalize looks. Harrison himself is a 14 year old rebel: a seven foot tall genius, with a face like a Greek god, mighty strength, dancing skills, and the ability to defy gravity. To counteract these traits, he is draped in scrap metal, disfigured by mask-like facial accessories, and fitted with a large-sized set of headphones transmitting loud random noises to scramble his thoughts. All of the "handicapping" in the story is under the jurisdiction of the United States Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers.

Harrison is not a teacher-- so how does his plight relate to that of teachers? 

Well, imagine you are a teacher. For the good of your students, and to make your job more satisfying and meaningful both to you and to your students, you actually want to exercise some of your particular strengths as a teacher. For the good of your students, you want to actually think about what you teach and how your students learn to find the sweet spot where the two things meet. For the good of your students, you want to find ways to make your subject and its attendant skills and knowledge attractive and appealing to your students. 

You might think that we'd want teachers to exercise their particular strengths, use their intellects, and work to make learning seem attractive. It appears that this is not the case. 

If you have particular strengths as a teacher, they want to weigh you down. The Diana Moon Glampers of the education world will strap a textbook or workbook to you and tell you to stay within the four corners of the book. Those textbooks can be heavy. 

If you really want to think for yourself as a teacher, about how to order the activities and assignments in your room, about what those activities and assignments should actually be, the Glampers will strap a headset over your ears. This headset will blast into your head every hour of every day, reminding you to follow the curriculum map, to stick to the pacing guide, to do what everyone else in your Professional Learning Community is doing, to teach in the same order and in the same way as everyone else teaching your grade level and subject. 

If you have ways of making your subject particularly attractive to your students, things like coming up with reading or writing assignments or projects or learning experiences that you know will particularly engage your particular students or get them to think certain ways or see things in a new light-- look out. They will put a mask on you to hide those attractive ideas. These masks go by names like Common Formative Assessments and Common Summative Assessments and Standardized Assessments. Every student in every class must be approached by the same face. 

You go to make a move as a teacher, and find textbooks and maps and pacing guides weighing you down. You can't just think about your students and how to help them. The minute you take a step in that direction, it's like your ankles are shackled to the ankles of everyone else in your PLC-- and you aren't supposed to make a move without them. You stand in front of your class, but you are not really teaching--you are going through the motions of teaching, weighed down, masked, and unable to think straight. 

And supposedly getting some kind of results that you are supposedly responsible for. 

Of course, some of us have done what Harrison did. We've torn off the scrap metal, ripped off the mask, and torn out the headset so that we can use our strengths, share our enjoyment of our subject, and think for ourselves. 

In the end, Harrison got shot down from the ceiling by Diana Moon Glampers, but those of us who really want to teach rather than go through the motions can hope to escape such a fate. The person who visited my classroom got my un-subtle message, and gave me the blessing to do what I do for students-- even though "Harrison Bergeron" isn't on our curriculum map. 

There are brave people out there who are willing to be the anti-Glampers, who are willing to Just Let Us Teach

Of course Harrison tore off his handicaps for his own aggrandizement. Maybe that's why he couldn't win. We need to tear off our handicaps for our students. 

I can't think of a worse example to set for children than to show them that it's okay to let other people weigh you down and make you less than you are. 

We need to show them how to be free.