Long ago, I promised myself that if I completed 25 years of teaching, I would try to write a book about my experiences. Next year will be year 25. So I started this last year to begin to figure out what I wanted to write about. I welcome your comments, resources, links to your own teaching blog, book recommendations, etc.
Parent conferences last night. Whatever I think about the format, I was thrilled with attendance. I think I saw around 30 parents. Many of the conversations were productive; at least I thought so. I was leaving somewhat high on this buzz (at my previous school, if we saw 5 parents, that was a win) when I saw a student sitting with the Principal and crying. She had a minor argument when she and her mother and conferenced with me, but for some reason, I knew. Mom had left her behind. On purpose. The minor argument that had started in front of me must have escalated. I was absolutely chilled.
I spoke with my mother about it, and she helped me calm down. She reminded me about what we do in times of anger and how some people get no help, no role models, and no education when they become mothers. I had a feeling her comments were somewhat autobiographical.
There’s a difference, though, between then and now, between black and white. I am not sure where the student slept last night, but I suspect that it was arranged by the city and not her mother. The Principal reminded me to keep my mouth shut this morning. I knew to do that. And the student isn’t even here.
I just returned from an otherwise positive professional development experience that was absolutely marred and scarred by the final presenter of the night. I am part of a fellowship at the local art museum and we had three great days in the summer and this was the first of four follow-up afternoon sessions. Each of us is assigned one hour to present the work we plan to do with our students or the work we have done.
The first presenter was extremely well-prepared. She teaches 4th grade, and it was really interesting to hear her talk about how she’d take her students through an art exploration process to help them write a final product – in this case, a fictional diary entry. I had plenty of questions, but the culture of nice that dominates such proceedings consumed me, and besides, there were other people who had (largely positive) comments as well.
The second presenter teaches AP Art History and speaks really fast, so I am not sure I understood everything. But I got that she wanted to push the boundaries of what is generally considered test-worthy art and create a model for other teachers to use to help them step outside of their comfort zone of art knowledge. As with the first presenter, I’d love to see what happens with the students.
Then came the 3rd presenter. She is a Literacy Coach and recruited 12 teachers for a professional day at the museum next week. By making this choice, those teachers do not have to administer a standardized test. Anyway, she outlined the day for us. I appreciated how much time she put in for planning. But her opening survey puzzled several of us. Why was there a 1-5 scale? And then the plan to have them take the survey again on the same sheet to see how much they’d changed because of her professional development session? When several of us suggested that this was not a reliable way to get useful data, she said both that she needed to “grab data” really fast, and that it wasn’t a quantitative study, but a qualitative one. (Why then, I didn’t ask, do you need data?) Then I asked about what she was setting up a way to gauge her own success? She’d already explained that she was going to help the 12 develop an object-based inquiry path (or some such collection of jargon), so I wondered whether she was going to see whether they then kept up the practice after the required follow-up lesson plan. No, she said, she wasn’t going to extend the study so long. Because it had come up with the first two presenters, several of us wondered about before and after writing samples. This, too, was rejected. She just wanted to see if teachers’ perception of the need to address visual literacy had changed and then write a journal article about it. Our facilitator reminded us that she was the only one of our cohort more focused on teachers than students. It was at this point that I wanted to shout. . .
IT’S THE STUDENTS, STUPID!
We, as teachers, do not matter, at least not exclusively. If what we cannot show that what we do helps students, then it doesn’t mean a thing. It’s not about teachers. It’s certainly not limited to anything as fuzzy as teachers’ perceptions (though, of course, they matter). It’s about helping the students be able to know, think about, and do. That’s all.
The rest is all
bullshit garbage. The presenting teacher should know that. Her advisor should know that. Even the art museum facilitator should know that. We’re in this to help kids – end of discussion. We don’t need your stinkin’ journal article.
After watching our daughter endure close to two years of this glitchy program, I went to talk with her Principal about it (and other things). Conferences with her teachers had indicated to me that they were less than enthused about the program and that they were being required to choose an arbitrary number of lessons to assign each week. I asked him about the research that went into selecting the program.
Principal: It is supposed to improve test scores.
Me: Oh. Where can I find that information?
Principal: Compass Learning.
Me: I mean, has anyone outside the company that sells the program said anything positive about it? Is there any independent research? Did you contact any other schools that use it?
Principal: It’s meant a great deal to my son. I’ve seen his confidence in math improve.
So when I went to the Open House for our son, I was pleased to hear what sounded like a more deliberate approach to using the program. I was pleased until he called me to the computer one day and asked for help with a unit called ‘Poetics.’ After enduring an endless and inane lesson on the volta (not the most urgent topic for anyone, much less a 5th grader), we came to this writing prompt –
Write two paragraphs in which you analyze and compare how the forms and structures of “Sonnet 19” and “Ozymandias” help to express themes and ideas. Use the information in Part 1 to help you organize your ideas. Refer back to the text evidence you found in the sonnets to help you support the ideas in your analysis.
I was floored. I’ve taught “Ozymandias” . . . to 11th graders. And Shakespearean sonnets can be fun, even for 5th graders, but not like this. Definitely not like this.
I wrote his English teacher an impassioned plea to reconsider assigning this unit. I received a rather bureaucratic response. She claimed that the program offered different levels of reading challenges for students (this one apparently had a 9.8 lexile) and that if I wished, I could tell our son (very much a rule follower) not to do Compass Learning and that it would not have an impact on his grade.
First, she missed what I thought was my wildly overstated point that this approach was very much going to contribute to the reputation schools have for killing the joy of poetry. Second, if it’s (supposedly) so essential to the curriculum, how can he just opt out of doing it? If I mentioned this option to him, he would refuse it, not wanting to be singled out. So now I am left with the option of bringing my concerns to a higher level or enduring another two years of this?
I know it’s a buzz word or jargon or whatever, but I am finding that even after I have left a school dedicated to mastery learning for an IB school, the concept still resonates with me. I am much more deliberate about assignments I offer. This also means I give fewer assignments. I am much more thoughtful about what the assignment is for and how I can set the students up to succeed, and how the assignment can then lead to the next one. The concept has really made me reduce things to their essentials: What should students know, be able to do, and to think about?
It’s working for me. My assignments are clearer. I am giving much less busy work. The number of “Why are we doing this?” questions has gone way down.