27 May 2012

What Being a Classroom Teacher Taught Me about Being a Leader

In January 2009 I left the classroom and have been working in various leadership positions since then.  Even though I long often for the classroom, I have found if I remember these ten things I did in my classroom, I am more successful as a leader.  I only wish being a leader hadn't meant having to leave the classroom because it shouldn't have to be that way.  Teachers are leaders too!

  1.  Value each individual.  No matter how busy my schedule became or how many students there were, I found it important to treat each unique individual with respect because respect goes a long way in building student/teacher working relationships. 
  2. Provide choice.  Student choice in learning was by far one of my favorite tricks in my teacher goody bag.  When people feel they have a choice about what they need to do, they generally enjoy the task and learn in the process.
  3. Provide frequent feedback.  Frequent, descriptive feedback has been shown to be one of the greatest factors for improving student achievement. 
  4. Use passions positively.  I entered the teaching profession because I am passionate about teaching and learning.  Sometimes these passions cause me to react emotionally to imprudent decisions made in public education. 
  5. Be creative with resources.  I spent my entire teaching career in Title 1 eligible schools, so we always had to be creative when looking for books, supplies, and equipment.  It’s amazing what you can get when you ask for help from the community.
  6. Encourage collaboration and creativity.  These skills are supremely important for living a productive life, so I always liked to provide students opportunities to collaborate with one another and with opportunities to express their understanding of text in creative ways (e.g. through creating a painting, a poem, a song, a movie, a skit, etc.).
  7. Listen more than talk. This goes back a long way for me.  As an undergraduate, I practiced Rogerian Therapy (Person Centered Therapy) for part of my graduation requirements for a B.A. in psychology.  This was all about listening to the client.  I employed similar listening skills in my classroom.
  8. Provide experiences. As a believer in John Dewey’s philosophy of education, I believe students should experience positive interactions and learning opportunities which will prepare them to be confident and capable citizens in society. 
  9. Don’t try to do everything because I can’t and shouldn’t.  This theory applies in the classroom and in the work place.  For a smooth running classroom where learning was happening, I needed the students to work harder than me.  This took a ton of up-front preparation, but my classroom always ran itself when I was a facilitator of learning rather than a deliverer of knowledge.
  10. Set specific and measurable goals, but don’t forget the stuff that can’t be measured. While achieving success and reaching goals often meant I needed  to have numbers or measurable data for my students, I believe we must remember that being human centered doesn't always equate with measuring in numbers.  

20 May 2012

High-Stakes Testing and Video Games

2011-2012 is a big year in our state because it’s the year students are assessed on the Common Core State Standards, standards which are intended to up the ante and prepare students for college and careers.  Our state worked with testing vendor, Pearson, to develop new reading, writing, and mathematics standardized assessments.  Last week’s blog post referenced my youngest son’s feelings of anxiety and desire to “chicken out” of the test.   The testing issue weighed heavily on me all week as conversations regarding the stresses of high-stakes testing continued.

With a large grin and sparking eyes, my eleven year old asked if he could have time to talk with me about the test when I finished talking with his younger brother.  Honestly, I wasn’t sure I could take another conversation that might rip out my heart with sadness if we had to discuss the way the test made him feel defeated. 

But this conversation was different, instead of being distraught over the test; Ethan wanted to use it to his advantage.  “Mom, you know how you are always telling us research says… well, guess what happened on today’s state test—I actually knew vocabulary because of that video game I’ve been playing.”  Since the video game is set in Medieval times, Ethan accessed his prior knowledge while reading the passage and responding to a question about the meaning of the word outskirts.  His argument then—he should be permitted extra time to play video games since it helped him on the test. 

My husband and I make parenting decisions based on facts, discussions, and a little bit of parent intuition.   We know well what research says about spending too much time playing video games and watching television.  However, I am also a parent and an educator who understands new literacies. So while the state test may be traditional and lacking in an effort to assess new literacies, my son found a way to leverage new literacies in response to the traditional state reading assessment. 

13 May 2012

May I Chicken Out of Testing?

Thursday afternoon I was on my way home from working with educators when my sons's 3rd grade teacher called me. You may know the momentary panic a mom feels when seeing the school number appear on the phone. I answered calmly, mentioning that I was in the mountains with a weak cell signal and then waited to hear the voice on the other end of the line. The reply "well that explains some of it" was not immediately reassuring. I was thinking oh no--hope he's okay. What I learned was troubling. My eight year old had a melt down during state testing because he ran out of time to read the long passages and answer the accompanying questions. He had placed a tremendous amount of stress on himself because he wanted to perform well after benignly being told by his teacher that the scores would not affect him;they would only affect his school and his teachers. She regretted telling him that, telling me he had likely taken the statement to heart. He is a sensitive child who cares about others and his community, and he really likes his teacher.

 My position in education has benefits and challenges. One of the challenges is that I provide content consultation to the office of assessment at the state department. This is challenging because of my conflicting feelings of angst about the amount of standardized testing forced on children in public education. Now, I must say here that I do see the benefits of SOME standardized tests, but as a nation we have gone overboard with the amount of time spent testing our children.

As a parent advocate for my child, I am in a difficult situation because my professional life demands I be sensitive to the requirements set forth by our state and school system.  At the same time, it's difficult hearing my child tell me he wants to "chicken out" and skip the test because it's just too stressful. What do I say when he asks me if it's okay for him to chicken out, knowing America's public education system will continue to demand he take these tests throughout his entire schooling and even to gain college entry?

I don't know the answers, but I will continue to seek them and will continue to join forces with other educators and parents trying to make a difference in public education. For the sake of children in our country, we must not chicken out of looking for answers to change our test driven culture!

05 May 2012

Literary vs. Informational Text: it's not either/or

An eruption of face to face and online conversations over the past year have centered on the demand for more informational texts to be taught in classrooms across the United States as part of the Common Core State Standards initiative.   As I’ve blogged about previously, I don’t believe this directive requires us to stop teaching literature.  A carefully balanced approach to instruction provides students with opportunities to read a variety of complex and appropriately challenging texts.  We do not have an either (literature) /or (non-fiction) scenario. 
Yesterday I was with educators from elementary backgrounds who claimed English teachers need to learn from them because they have been “pairing texts forever since that’s the way basal readers are designed.” (Pretty sure the Dick and Jane series wasn’t designed like this, but surely these educators are referencing the more contemporary design of American textbooks today) No doubt, we all have something to learn from one another, regardless of our teaching level. Nevertheless, creating text parings is not a novel idea; it is something teachers at any grade level have been doing or can start doing with ease.  Text pairings have been part of my teaching approach since I entered the teaching profession in 1998; it just makes sense to design lessons drawing on multiple perspectives, genres, or disciplines. 

Following my day with the educators referenced above, I returned home to find my husband, unexpectedly, cleaning out our garage (where my 8 tubs of teaching materials are stored), so I decided to peruse a few of those tubs and to ponder (again) text pairings I used in my classroom. 

Unifying focus:  Freedom from convention
The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams
Greyed Rainbow by Jackson Pollock
Scholastic Art borrowed class set from art teacher to for class to read article about Pollock.
Colors by Ken Nordine

Unifying focus:  Complexity in life and nature
Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh
The Starry Night by Anne Sexton
Starry Night by Tupac Shakur
Van Gogh in Auvers from Smithsonian magazine January 2008

Unifying focus:  Identity
The Way to Rainy Mountain by N. Scott Mommaday
Identity card by Mahmoud Darwish
Poems written by students
Various non-fiction writings by students

The skill of pairing texts rests in selecting texts to meet the needs of learners in an individual classroom, so let the text pairings referenced here serve as inspiration for selecting texts that will suit the needs of your students’ demographics and learning needs. 

As you look for more inspiration, consider following the work of Sarah Brown Wessling.  Last spring I participated in NCTE’s virtual conference Supporting Teachers in a Time of Core Standards.  It was here where I met (virtually) 2010 National Teacher of the Year, Sarah Brown Wessling, who talks about fulcrum texts, context, texts, and texture texts.  What an inspiring way to think about text selection!