Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Teaching: a love/hate letter

Don't think I am making light of a serious subject.
I have seen abusive relationships for real,
Fortunately, always from the outside,
But sometimes first hand.
So I am

You are my profession,
And I've had a long, long relationship with you.
But Teaching, I have to say,
This has become an abusive relationship.

I was so in love with you, Teaching,
At the start.
You seemed to share my deepest values.
The individual voice.
Knowing facts, but also telling the Truth.
Inspiring love of learning,
Love of reading,
Love of writing,
Knowing the power of words.
We wanted the same things.
We worked together.
You appreciated my creativity and you encouraged me to grow
As a person and as a professional.
Sure, there were some growing pains.
The kids we had in our care were a bit difficult to deal with at times,
But you helped me to find ways to deal with them,
And our time with them, and with each other,
Got better and better.

To this day, Teaching,
I remain enamored of you still.
When did it begin to go all wrong?

Perhaps it was when you insisted on judging me
For things that were beyond my control, turning one little feature
Of our relationship
Into the only thing that mattered,
Blowing it all out of proportion.
You felt you had to test me.

And then there was the issue of trust.
Once upon a time we had a relationship
Where we had certain expectations of each other,
Commitments that I took seriously and worked hard to meet.
But then you started to not trust me.
You started telling me what to do.
And then when to do it.
And then how to do it.
You told me to stop thinking for myself.
You got... controlling.
You demanded compliance.

And yet,
When I would think about leaving you, Teaching,
You would act like things were better.
You would appear to relent.

And I would decide to stay.
Maybe things would get better now.

You told me you had a new set of standards we would live by,
And they would renew and transform our relationship.
They looked good the way you presented them at first.
They promised more freedom.
Things would be different this time.

But then, after I'd recommitted, things only got worse.

Now you tried to control,
Not just the how and the what and the when,
But the why, too.
You tried to control my thoughts.

You asked me to betray my most deeply held beliefs,
The very reasons I had gotten into our relationship in the first place.

You asked me to betray myself.
Worst of all,
You asked me
To betray the children in our care,
To betray their trust.
To tell them their stories don't matter.
That education is nothing but facts.
That they are cogs in a machine,
Not people.

And that's when I was ready to leave once and for all,
To get out of this abusive relationship.

But there was no way to take the kids with me.

Maybe it was then that I realized that you were no longer yourself,

You had been kidnapped,
Replaced by someone or something that looked like Teaching,
But was really someone else.
You are now an impostor.
You are not Teaching anymore.
You are Standardization.
You are Reform.
You are Compliance.
You are Test Prep.
You are Hoop-jumping.
You are Text Complexity and Zombie New Criticism and Writing to Text.
You are Rigor as torture
And Death to
Creativity, Curiosity, and
You are... everything that is not really Teaching.

But I am not leaving.
I am calling you out for the impostor you are.
I am searching for the real Teaching.
You are still there, somewhere.
And I will find you again.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Mr. Fitz for Halloween: The Stepford Teachers

Two strands of the education reform agenda have never made sense to me, because they completely contradict each other:

Strand One: We want excellent teachers. We should get rid of bad teachers, and hire and retain excellent teachers. Teachers are the most important determining factor in a child's educational success. Great teachers can change life trajectories, increase future achievement levels, get students to attend and graduate from college, and raise the lifetime earnings of their students by hundreds of thousands of dollars. Let's hear it for great teachers! They work miracles, raise test scores and create a well educated public who will, obviously, vote just like we do!

Strand Two: The days of closing your class room door and doing your own thing are OVER. You must now follow a curriculum map, which is built around a textbook or workbook program. You do not need to think. You must do as you are told. You must follow in lockstep and get with the program. The creators of these educational products are much smarter and more adept at creating coherent instruction than you are. Be a generic teacher, just like everybody else. (The subtext of this strand is easy to pick out: If you and your colleagues are forced to follow a curriculum map built around our curricular resource, we can be sure our curricular resource is used! Also, standardizing teachers makes it easier to take learning online, where it becomes a commodity!)

Whenever I tell people the predicament teachers are in, caught between calls for excellence and policies that promote bland standardized obedience, they get it. They realize the absurdity of asking for both.

When my wife suggested a Halloween plot-line for the strip based on The Stepford Wives, I checked out the original movie online and quickly realized its potential...  the Stepford wives are all about products and using them. Exactly what they want teachers to be now-- product dispensers.

And so, without further ado, Mr. Fitz presents "The Stepford Teachers," which of course begins with a talk with education reformer Mr. Blustbag.

Of course, Mr. Fitz gets to wake up from this nightmare. But teachers everywhere will not, unless we somehow wake people up to what is being done to the teaching profession.

Because once teachers have been turned into robots, the next step is turn students into automatons as well. The process has already begun.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

I Test Under Duress...

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 22, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

What Teachers Hear; What We Should Be Hearing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the messages teachers are getting these days:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The message has got to change.

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

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Mr. Fitz's UN-common UN-standards

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

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

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

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

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