29 January 2012

Raise your hand if you became a teacher to teach students to practice for tests.

This week I had an opportunity to work with teachers.  When I asked them to raise their hands if they became teachers to teach students to practice for tests, no hands were raised.  Nevertheless, these educators were full of questions and anxiety about the new testing system in our state.

In last week’s blog post, I suggested a three pronged approach to surviving test preparation.  Though there were no public comments on this blog, I received a multitude of private comments from readers around the country (and one from another country), and I also spoke with a number of readers in person.  As it turns out—it’s rather controversial to discuss test preparation and how much we prefer not to do it but feel there are no alternatives.

As parents, we are concerned of the consequences for our children if we speak up and request different teaching approaches beyond test prep.  As teachers and administrators, we are fearful of the consequences of not meeting adequate yearly progress (AYP).  As community members we bemoan the state of education and the lack of life skills students have as they enter college and the workplace.

What exactly can we do to make sure our kids have what they need to be successful in life?

 Support our kids by:
·         listening to our kids tell us what they are reading, learning, and exploring
·         talking with our kids about what we are reading
·         encouraging schools to continue arts, music, language, physical education, leadership and technology programs as part of the school day
·         providing opportunities to learn outside of the classroom by visiting parks, museums, libraries, music venues, and historical sites
·         volunteering in schools
·         supporting teachers who have tough jobs with large class sizes
·         judging the quality of schools on factors beyond test scores (i.e. effective teaching practices & enrichment programs)
·         voting for political leaders who believe in education beyond preparing for tests

Teachers and education leaders
 Teach our students and keep our jobs by:
·         reading, understanding, and implementing required standards and best practices in instruction
·         keeping test practice activities at a minimum
·         providing kids opportunities to learn for the sake of learning
·         offering programs which support creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration
·         judging the quality of schools on factors beyond test scores (i.e. effective teaching practices & enrichment programs)
·         voting for political leaders who believe in education beyond preparing for tests

Community members
 Support the future leaders of our communities by:
·         listening to needs within schools
·         contributing time and resources to schools and after school programs
·         partnering with local schools to provide opportunities to kids through internships, mentoring programs, and job shadowing
·         judging the quality of schools on factors beyond test scores (i.e. effective teaching practices & enrichment programs)
·         voting for political leaders who believe in education beyond preparing for tests

Let’s continue the conversation and collaboration.  It’s what we, as adults, do in real life and what our kids need to be able to do, too.

22 January 2012

Read up! Speak up! Team up!

Tips for surviving public education’s focus on test preparation

Friends and colleagues frequently tell me “it’s so good to know there’s a voice like yours in public education.”  But really, where does that get me?  Not that I’m trying to get somewhere, but I do tend to take my job personally, as noted in my post on January 2nd.  I need to remember why I entered the education profession in the first place (hint, it wasn’t to practice for tests.) I want to make a difference, and I want vision with action.

The heavy emphasis on high-stakes standardized assessments in public education weighs heavily on me.  Though I don’t have to administer tests in my current job, I do work with teachers who feel the pressure of tests, and I am also the mom of two boys who bring home practice tests on a regular basis.  Don’t get me wrong, I understand there is a time and a place for some standardized tests, but ongoing and frequent test preparation is detrimental to the lives of students who deserve opportunities to learn for the sake of learning.

Here are a few of my actions for enduring all the test prep.

Read up! 

Staying current with education news inspires me to continue in the profession.  While there’s much in the news that can be discouraging, I intentionally seek balance in my reading list.  I am a member of several professional organizations which send weekly or daily updates with links to educational news around the nation.  I follow education agencies and colleagues who tweet links to interesting and engaging articles to ponder.  Reading research provides me the foundation of information I need when I have an opportunity to use my voice.  I also read novels, poems, and non-fiction because I believe the humanities are essential to life.

As a parent, I read articles written about parents by parents who also find themselves frustrated at the focus on test preparation in public schools.  This article by parents in New York was telling and served as a good reminder that the test prep madness is nationwide.  The thought could have been overwhelming had I not remembered to focus on what I can do (which is not everything).  I can, however, continue to seek peace, and I can speak up.

Speak up!

 Sometimes my job offers me opportunity to speak up for the values, beliefs and best practices important in public education.  Other times, I speak up by posting links to interesting articles on my facebook, by tweeting, or by continuing my musings in this blog.  As a parent, I speak up when I attend local PTA meetings and events in our community.  Former colleagues, current colleagues, former students, friends and family comment on my posts and contact me with questions.  This is when I feel like speaking up makes a difference, even if it doesn’t change an entire system.  I can encourage and offer advice to those who ask.  Together, we can team up to make a difference in education.

Team up!

In November while at the NCTE annual convention in Chicago, I had the pleasure of seeing a long-time friend who lives in North Dakota but was in Chicago for the Chicago Toy and Game Fair.  This friend is a mom of two brilliant children who were not receiving the education they needed in their local public school system.  She chooses now to homeschool her children, but her interactions with public education have not stopped.  She regularly blogs about issues in education and even takes her children to educator conferences to showcase their talents as young writers, musicians and entrepreneurs.  In our short but full conversation over coffee, we discussed our families and the pursuits our husbands are taking in higher education. However, the bulk of our time was spent discussing education reform.   We decided then we would team up to begin taking more action to impact reform.  This collaborative spirit will help us all persevere. This final tip—teaming up, is essential not only to surviving but also to making a difference to impact the lives of students. 

Will you join me in reading, speaking, and teaming up to make a difference in public education?

“This labor to make our words matter is what any good quilter teaches.”
                                                             ~Kathryn Stripling Byer

16 January 2012

Argument and Persuasion

“Mom, let me tell you three reasons why I should be allowed to have a TV in my bedroom.”  I guess my son thought the three reasons technique would work for every argument he constructed.  Not quite.

The topic of persuasion and argument has been on my mind for several months.  With the implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in 46 states of the United States, teachers across the country have been discussing ways of teaching students to argue and ways to cite specific evidence from text. 

Is there a formula or quick fix to teaching students to write arguments?  I’d like to argue there’s not.  To illustrate my point, let’s look at two pieces of writing written by my son for school assignments.

Piece #1 A persuasive letter to mom and dad.

In this particular piece of writing, the child did not have a clearly stated argument. He did, however, state that he wanted a dog. He clearly knew his audience as evident in the way he directed comments such as “mom it is spring now and we will go on more walks. Mom you say you need more exercise. Well here is your answer.” The child stated three reasons he wanted a dog and supported the reasons with emotional appeals to tug at the heart strings of mom and dad. His audience was authentic and his reason for writing was real to life, even as a school assignment. One key factor here is that he was offered a choice for his writing topic. His persuasive techniques worked; we adopted our first family dog last weekend.

The CCSS ask students to write arguments (opinions in grades K-5). The standards also call for students to write for short and extended time frames and for a range of audiences and purposes. Take a look at a segment of writing this same child wrote a few weeks ago. This time he wrote for a timed writing prompt at school; the prompt asked students to write to county leaders and present their opinion or argument about dogs being kept on leashes.

Piece #2 Letter to county leaders

Notice, specifically, the second paragraph of this formulaic piece of writing. The writing lacks idea development as the child's three reasons fall short of supporting his opinion about dogs being kept on leashes. The line most troubling to me was “the last thing is that the dog could kill a baby.” Where did he get this idea? Was it from hearing a report on the news?

Even as someone who has taught writing for well over a decade, I must admit that I struggle to help my child become a better writer. He doesn’t want lessons from mom, and he thinks my suggestions might contradict his teacher’s instruction. Accordingly, I will continue my quest to teach my two boys the power of effective argument by modeling effective argument myself and by requiring that they provide textual evidence to support the argument of having TVs in their rooms. (Secretly, I’m doubting they will find evidence to support this argument, and I’m okay with that.)


PS. I heard this NPR report on my way home from work a couple of weeks ago--check it out.

08 January 2012

3 Meaningful Homework Practices

3 nights ago I noticed 3 friends from 3 different states posted status updates on facebook within 30 minutes of one another.   All three updates were about children completing meaningless homework activities (e.g. grammar worksheets, skill and drill test prep, word searches).

I shudder to think of times when I asked students to read a novel at home without providing a purpose for reading.  “Tonight read chapters 4-5 of Moby Dick and be prepared for a quiz.”   While I usually provided context and asked students to access prior knowledge during class, my homework practices left much to be desired early in my teaching career.  I sometimes asked students to complete a study guide with their reading; I tried to ask both comprehension and higher level thinking questions.  I even worked with students on practicing the characteristics of a good reader according to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature.  I placed emphasis on the teaching and learning that happened within the classroom more than on what students did for homework.

Notice that word.  Did. I was focused on the activities students completed for homework.  If my students did all the reading at home, we could get through a novel at a faster pace.  We could have discussions and engage in literature circles when they came to class.  If they did a research project, we could accomplish more text analysis of informational reading in class.  If they read everything I assigned, we could get through more of the curriculum.  Homework, I thought, was essential to maintaining my reputation as a teacher who had high expectations for all students.

Fast forward a few years.  My sons started elementary school, and I began to question the homework being sent home.  Being a reflective person, I realized I couldn’t question what my own children were being asked to do for homework if I didn’t question my own practices as a teacher.   My homework practices needed revamping.  Here are 3 meaningful homework practices I implemented during the last three years I was in the classroom.
1.  Let students read books that interest them.  (Moby Dick, really?  What was I thinking?  Justbecause I loved it, didn't mean my students enjoyed it)

2.  Differentiate homework according to student needs and interests.  (Why not a literacy letter or reading journal focused on the specific literacy skills and strategies practiced in class and aligned with individual student goals instead of a study guide? Why not reading Wired articles for a student like my son who loves computers and technology or an article about Abraham Lincoln for a child like my younger son who loves history?) I administered student interest surveys, read narratives and journal entries to learn more about what each student might enjoy, and I tried to offer choice so students didn't all have to do the same thing.

3.  Provide feedback on homework rather than a grade.  (How better to improve student learning?)

I’ll end tonight’s post with a line from a poem by one of my oldest son’s favorite poets, Jack Prelutsky.
Homework!  Oh,  homework!

02 January 2012

Starting a New Year and a New Semester

Today was the first day of a new semester for the students in our local public school district.  My two boys (5th and 3rd grades) ambled out the door this morning, weary from a short winter break filled with family, fun, and festivities.   As a teacher, there was always work do be done during holiday breaks, and still, in my current position, there was work to be done amid the flurry of fun and festivities.  I felt a twinge of sadness for not being in a classroom with a room full of students today because I love (and I mean it) love teaching and learning; one of my passions in education is learning and inspiring others to learn.  That's why I spent over a decade in the classroom working with students grades 5-12 teaching students English language arts, arts and humanities, and even a semester of earth science. 

 My current position in education is with a state department, so I have the opportunity to work with teachers, meet new people, and be a small part of some decisions made about public education in our state.  It's not all glorious, that's for sure.  In fact, I often have to be reminded by friends (including one who called me earlier today) about the importance of work beyond the classroom. 

A goal I set for myself this year was to start a blog on the art of teaching; this blog will encapsulate my musings, readings, and conversations about teaching and learning.  I felt inspired to start blogging on the first day of a new semester for a number of reasons:

1)  I decided to stop waiting for everything to be "perfect" before starting a blog on teaching and learning.  (After all-since I consider myself a lifelong learner, shouldn't this initial blog be more about my process of learning to muse?)

2)  I needed a place to reflect on what I missed about the first day of a new semester. (students excited, talkative, and full of energy from their break)

3)  I reflected on a recent twitter post by Kylene Beers who said “Teaching is not a cause; it is a calling. If you're entering the profession for 3 yrs of being a good volunteer, don't”.  (I like to think I care first about the calling to teach.)

4)  I needed to think about why what I do now matters.  (I've often been accused of taking my job too personally--probably true--but doing things right in public education matters to me on a professional and personal basis.)

So, if you return to my blog regularly, you will learn more about why lifelong learning and teaching are important to me personally and professionally, and you will hopefully feel inspired to make a difference in public education.

Happy New Year!