Monday, July 25, 2016

Ruining Writing: The Florida Standards Assessment and Writing To Text

As an English teacher in Volusia County Schools, I read with some interest today’s Daytona Beach News-Journal article by Dustin Wyatt, “What’s so wrong with writing?”  about high rates of students avoiding the FSA Writing.
School board member Linda Cuthbert nailed it when she said students don’t want to take this test because they have no interest in the topics. I was once giving a makeup district writing assessment, and when I showed the student the three essays she’d have to read, and the writing prompt she’d use to write about them, she said, “Why would I want to do that?”

Many people might say, “Tough luck! You just need to do it anyway!” This compliance-based, education-as-force-feeding approach may work for some subjects, I suppose (though I doubt it), but it will never work for writing. That is one of the reasons students are avoiding the FSA.
To understand how we got into this situation with writing instruction and testing, we need to go back a bit… to the creation of the Common Core Standards (and make no mistake, our Florida Standards are still Common Core, no matter what they renamed them to fool people).
One of the major “instructional shifts” the Common Core touts is more “writing to text,” which means students will do more writing about what they read, synthesizing ideas, and building arguments from things they have read.
Common Core architect (now College Board president) David Coleman seems to have had an agenda in mind when this “shift” was initiated. He once told a group of New York State teachers that students need to write less about their own interests and lives and more about assigned readings, because in real life “nobody gives a [crap] about your personal opinion or your story.”
Like all great lies, the “writing to text” instructional shift, and the philosophy behind it, has a kernel of truth to it. But the approach to writing, and the philosophy behind it, are really parodies of more nuanced, more complicated truths.
The parody of the truth Coleman is promoting is this: Students have only been writing personal narratives. This has left them unable to write more sophisticated types of writing, like analysis of things you have read.
Also implied in Coleman's statement, and his "shift," is the idea that a focus on personal narratives also makes children narcissistic, interested only themselves. The truth is more complicated.
Most of us who teach English/Language Arts do not limit our students to an endless string of personal narratives, but vary their writing with a number of genres and purposes. The best writing instructors get their students to write about what they care about. This is because writing about what you care about makes writing more engaging, yes.
But there’s more to it than that. Writing about what you care about is not necessarily self-centered: it means you are interested in something outside yourself. Writing about what you care about is also, quite simply, what real writers do. Real writers in any genre, fiction or nonfiction, write about the things that interest them. Of course, David Coleman would say that not all students are going to be professional writers. No, but they are almost all going to be professionals who write, and one can hope our students will find jobs that match their personal interests and skills, so they will care about what they are writing on the job. In fact, one of the not-so-fringe benefits of good writing instruction is that it can help students discover, explore, and reflect on their own interests and figure out what field they might want to go into some day. It can help them write their own “future stories.”

Writing to text has been touted as more rigorous, more academically challenging, by its proponents. This, again, is a parody of the truth. If by rigorous you mean mind-numbingly dull, then yes, writing to text on the FSA is rigorous. If by rigorous you mean “involving a high level of thought and engagement,” then, no, the FSA is not rigorous.
Over the past decade I have made a case, in my books for teachers, and in my comic strip, against formulaic writing, including the five paragraph essay. Formulaic writing is a crutch many teachers fall back on because they think their students are not capable of anything else. The FSA promotes formulaic writing. Because students are encouraged argue for their side and then to address counterarguments, it’s easy to tell them to write an introduction, two paragraphs of argument, one paragraph of counter-argument, and a conclusion. They have limited time in which to write their test essay, and the five paragraph formula fulfills the requirements quickly and efficiently. And within paragraphs we end up using formulaic writing structures as well. Introduction sentence, introduce, cite, and explain your text evidence. “_____ is one reason we should _____. In the essay _______, the author, _____ says _______. This supports my claim because _____.” Repeat. Use transition words into the next paragraph. The type of writing FSA writing promotes is a step back in rigor, and it is teaching students not how to write, but how to be compliant to a lot of bad writing advice.

Of course, the real reason behind the supposed rigor of writing tests like the FSA is the fact that writing to text makes it easier to use computer scorers rather than human scorers to evaluate the tests. If everyone can take a topic and write about it using different details, as students could on the FCAT writing, then it becomes difficult for a robo-grader to score them. But if everyone is writing about the same three essays, using all the same details, the computer program has a much easier time figuring out whether students wrote well, at least according to the rubric.
Keep in mind that if your student takes the writing test on a computer, he/she is scored by one human scorer and by a computer, and the scores are verified against each other. In the end, writing to text has become a big instructional shift and is taking over our schools’ writing programs, simply because it makes the testing cheaper. Your student now hates writing so the state can save money.

Of course, the standards don’t really address the testing. They merely say that students will engage in research and write about it. That, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. If students were allowed to pick their topics and dig in deep, no subject is unworthy of some research writing. If you dig deep into the history of any subject - how it works, its influences, its connections to other areas of knowledge - you will learn a lot very rapidly, and you will write better about what you learned because you actually care. But that is not what I see happening in schools. Because everything (school grades, teacher evaluations, retention and graduation decisions) is based on test performance, schools are teaching to the test, which means they are giving students three short essays on some random subject and asking them to write about them. Some topics are better than others, but no topic could ever be as engaging as writing about what what interests you. In the end, our obsession with testing results in us not even teaching the standards as well as we might be teaching them.
Because writing instruction is now focused mainly on test scores, we have a situation where our Volusia County middle school curriculum maps, as of last year, have middle school students writing, over the course of three years, 9 practice FSA district tests, 3 narrative essays, 2 short stories, 1 expository essay, and no argumentative essays at all, outside of test prep and a couple of speeches. Is there any doubt what our priorities are?
Here is what good writing instruction looks like. Let students choose topics. Let them play with ideas. Give them opportunities to write from life, from their imaginations, and from things they read. Let them learn how to write well from life and from their imaginations before teaching them to write about what they read. You learn about organization, using details, and creating fluent sentences better when you are not burdened with citing text. Teach students how to write well in general, and then let them apply real writing techniques to writing about what they read. And let them chose what they read.
Great writing, or even good writing, never comes from compliance. Compliance to simple writing tricks like formulas, fill-in-the-blank sentences, and silly rules only creates mediocre, formulaic writing habits that can’t really transferred into real-life writing situations. Worse, students believe that the formulas and silly rules are real and continue to follow them into college, where their professors must be like Yoda and tell them to “unlearn what you have learned.” College readiness indeed.
A great writing program won’t teach to the test, and won’t hold “writing to text” as a superior form of writing. A great writing program will teach students what real writers do instead of teaching formulas. A great writing program will give students freedom write about what they love and about what frustrates them.
Here’s what real writing instruction can do for students. Reading like writers to observe what writers do makes them stronger, more observant readers. Choosing and refining their own topics gives them the ability to have insight in any writing situation, including on a test. Organizing ideas in a non-formulaic way means they know how to really think about how an essay is organized rather than simply filling in blanks. Writing using vivid real life and imaginary details means they will know how to use details well, and will use them well when writing about what they’ve read, instead of just plugging bits of what they read into their essay at random.

Real writing instruction can make them more creative, and more logical (the two actually go hand in hand). It can help them develop and find interests. It can help them consider their own and others’ points of view and reflect on their lives and issues in the world around them. It can help them develop future stories that lead to real futures. It can make them more thoughtful citizens and possibly better people.
You can have it all - but an obsession with testing actually keeps our scores down. Disengaged students don’t write as well - or even, apparently, show up on testing day.
You can’t have great, unengaged writers. Great writing comes only out of engagement. And engaged writers will do well on any test, and probably have fun doing it. When our son took the SAT and got a perfect score, we wondered about his essay. He had always been a really good writer, so we were interested in seeing his "perfect" piece of writing. When the essay arrived via email, we read it. We were expecting his usual great writing, but instead we saw that this “perfect” essay was a piece of drivel. We asked him why he’d written it the way he did. He had looked up what the SAT scorers wanted: many words, and many of those words big words. He had given them that, using words like multifarious, and scored well. He knew how to play the testing game because he had been taught to write for real in the first place. But he never mistook the writing he did for the test to get a score as either real, or quality, writing.
The News-Journal article about students not wanting to write appeared after I had just spent a week writing with students in grades 5 through 12 at Stetson University’s HATS Program. For eight summers now, I have been teaching a week-long fiction writing class where we write a novel in a week. We do research. We brainstorm ideas. We come up with a backstory and plot-synopsis, trying to think logically every step of the way. We divide the outline into chapters, and each student writes two of them. My students spent all of Thursday afternoon and all of Friday simply sitting and writing. They didn’t ask for breaks, and they all wanted to come back next year. Nothing was wrong with writing.
We could be engaging our young writers and making them successful at every type of writing. By instructionally-shifting students into one dull mode of writing and robbing them of the chance to write about what matters to them, we may be ruining a generation of students as writers.
And that’s a bigger problem than not showing up for the test.

What’s so wrong with writing?
The way we’re teaching and testing it.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Metaphors for Education

Like most teachers, I have been to many meetings in my time. I've always had, at best, an ambiguous relationship with meetings - even when I was the one leading them. But it seems lately that the education reform agenda has infiltrated our schools at a very deep level. I've sat through more than one meeting where the talk basically amounted to discussions like the ones below:

There is a tendency these days (and not just in education, I think) to view every problem as the failure of people to conform to the system, and every solution as a way of forcing or enticing humans to conform. We don't question the system, or see the system itself as part of the problem, and therefore we often are identifying the wrong problems.

I feel like we are often not thinking big enough, and that failure represents a failure to be models of big thinking for our students. Being practical is good, but only after we have thought through our purposes for education, our philosophies of what we, as educators, and our students, as learners, are actually there for. 

In working with my students on the power of definition for the past few years, I have come to realize that many of our definitions are less literal and more metaphorical. Sometimes we aren't even that conscious of the metaphors we use when we think about the world... or about education. 

In my comic strip, I wanted to create visual representations of the metaphors people use to think about how education works. 

I began with Ms. Merritt, a character I invented to be the state's ideal teacher. I very much feel that her factory model of pouring molten information into students and then measuring how much of it stuck is not that much of an exaggeration. I think a lot of administrators, teachers, students, and, of course, reformers, think of education in terms not much different that the image below. 

Mr. Blustbag, the reformer/education-consultant in the strip, sees education very much in the terms I think most reformers do: as a way to make money. The reformers have done a great job casting themselves as the saviors of schools, here to rescue students and parents from mediocre public schools. How do they rescue schools? By over-testing them. By standardizing them. By closing them. By privatizing them. By making a whole lot of money off of education, and killing public schools in the process.

One of the results of the education reform agenda is an impoverished and reductionist view of what education is. By promoting pacing guides and curriculum maps and virtual school courses, the reformers keep teachers tied to the instructional materials that are on the map, thus insuring continuing profits for textbooks companies and creators of standardized curricula in print and online...

The end results is that teachers see themselves not as creative, inquisitive models of learning, but as "curriculum dispensers," as Mr. Fitz puts it. Teachers are users of products. Learning itself becomes just another part of the consumer culture, and teachers themselves become expendable.

There are more positive metaphors for education, but some of those models come with their own perils. I have run into a number of "Mr. Pardee" types in my time, and though students tend to like them, they don't come away remember what they learned about the subject.

I don't think there is any one, definitive metaphor for what education should be like. I think there are other models, models that give us alternatives to the destructive metaphors being spread by the reformers. When is the last time we talked about education as an exploration at a meeting, as Mrs. Kepler does here?

Mrs. Fitz's metaphor focuses on making learning appealing:

Some would criticize this model as being too dependent on teachers working hard to making learning appealing. They insist that some parts of learning will just be hard work, and that's all there is to it. The kids need to learn grit; sometimes we have to make children take their "no-thank-you" portions. I was a fussy eater as a child, though (and still am) and no-thank-you portions never really made the foods I hated into a habit; in fact, they made me more resistant. Mrs. Fitz's metaphor emphasizes the idea that people will eat what they find appealing, and learn what they find appealing.

Mr. Fitz's metaphor, that education is like a comic strip, is here at the end of the series for a laugh, but if you read my previous blog post about great teachers, you know it is more than that.

My point is that the metaphors we use to think and talk about education matter, whether people think they do or not...

No one metaphor will ever capture the whole truth about education, and the metaphors may change from age level to age level, subject to subject, teacher to teacher. The point isn't to have a standard metaphor everyone has to use, but to have an ongoing discussion about how we view education, what its purposes are, and how the ideas and ideals we hold influence how we teach, and treat, the children in our schools.

If we aren't thinking hard about education, we are being poor role models for our students. Worse yet, we are likely accepting the models handed down to us by the reformers who want to dismantle public education and turn students into data points that make them money.

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.