Well, now that my musical is over, I finally have some time that I can use to think and write.

With the climate in America as it is, I’ve been left to contemplate just why it is that educators have become vilified.  I see video from Fox news that say things like “it’s a part-time job!  They’re done at 3:00!” and I’m left biting my lip.  How many teachers are actually done at 3?  I’d say that there are too many who are, but the vast majority of teachers care too much about their job and their students to leave their work at work.

I wish we could have some kind of ambassador program to let those critics live in our shoes.  I’ve been loving the Daily Show segments on the situation in Wisconsin — especially the teacher edition of cribs.  In my personal despair that stems from the release of Pennsylvania  Governor Tom Corbett’s proposed budget, I’ve found myself wanting to reach out and let people know exactly what happens in a school.  So, here I write my open letter to the American taxpayer.

Dear American Taxpayer,

First of all, let me offer an apology.  The American education system is in shambles, and we let it happen.

Yes, a lot of the decisions that led to our downfall were out of our hands, but far too many of us sat on our hands and did nothing, thinking that “this too will pass.”  Meanwhile, our children and our country suffer the detrimental effects of destructive decision making by those with no vested interest in our children.  If we teachers had opened our mouths faster and unified as one front, who knows what would have happened.

With that being said, however, the past is the past, and we cannot change what has already transpired.  It has come time for us to band together and fix what has been broken.  Throwing blame does nothing but further divide us, and it seems that a barrage of blame is being tossed in the direction of the American educator.  Our benefits are being labeled as “extravagant,” our work labeled as “part-time,” our dedication and professionalism questioned by not only those in the community, but also those in power.

When funding is needed the most, it is being cut.  When new and better teachers are needed, the profession has become less appealing.  Who wants to enter a field when you are persecuted for a systemic and outdated schedule that includes summers off.  Yes, we work nine months per year, but this is a product of American tradition, not our decisions.  During those summer months, though, many teachers don’t just enjoy their vacation.  They prepare for the following year, research, work summer jobs, and take graduate classes.

I cannot begin to understand what has brought on this level of aggression towards those who have chosen a thankless occupation.  If the benefits are indeed “extravagant,” isn’t it justified by the typically meager salary and long hours working outside of the scheduled day?

But, taxpayer, it is not you that is attacking the profession that I love; it is a systemic attempt at slaughtering an educational system that simply does not work.  I am all for reform of the education system.  Even a total restructuring may be in order at this point, but we need people on the front lines to at least help with decision making.  So I implore you to stand with us as we attempt to repair, restructure, and revive an education system that has long been neglected.  It is now more than ever that we must unite as one front for our children rather than play the blame game.

Please stand with us, and stop the attack on those who have chosen to teach this nation’s youth.

Thank you,

Knowledgegap21

Educators Need to Let Go…

December 18, 2010

This week, I started something that is completely new for me.  I designed an independent study unit on Call of the Wild.

I was curious what the kids perception would be of a unit structured in this way (Here’s their cotw task list so you can see how I formatted it).  I told the kids that they would basically chose their own grade, and it is impossible to fail.

They were absolutely floored.

Of course, there were a few kids who asked, “what if we just don’t do the work?”

Well, then you just don’t get a grade…

Quite honestly, I am all for the abolition of grading altogether.  I think the focus on alphanumeric ratings is appalling considering the inflation of those figures at this point in the educational timeline.

The culture in my school district, however, would not allow for me to completely rid myself of issuing a grade for students…so I did my best to take it out of my hands.  Basically, however hard you work is going to determine your grade…

I gave a poll on my edmodo account once I had explained the unit’s format.  I simply asked “Do you like the format of this new unit?” and gave the options of:

  • yes
  • no
  • yes, but I don’t think I’ll do well
  • no, I know I won’t do well.

Though it didn’t really shock me, the most popular response was “yes, but I don’t think I’ll do well.”

That got me thinking about just how little independence students are granted in schools.  My school forbids facebook, twitter, cell phones, ipods, ipads, and basically any technology carried by students (the debate is currently raging about ereaders…). Students can’t even have laptops…

One response that I got in class after introducing this unit was “why can’t all our classes be like this.”

Just like with the ban of just about all technology in our school, I could only think of one reason:

FEAR

Why must we always be afraid of what is not understood?

Our administration just recently banned internet radio because of their lack of understanding.  They claim it is a bandwidth issue.

It’s not…We’ve been using it for a couple years.  The only reason it was even addressed was because someone brought it up at a building-level technology meeting – all of a sudden there was a bandwidth issue the next day…there were only 8 people in attendance at the meeting, so they didn’t make the issue.

Many teachers are afraid to give up some level of control in their classrooms, just like the administrators are afraid to give up control of their networks.  I am guilty of it myself, and I will admit that I am absolutely terrified as to how a couple of my classes will handle this new-found freedom.  I shared that with the kids, and they asked why I am doing it…

My response: It’s what is best for you.

And wouldn’t it be best for everyone to give more control to the teachers and stop treating us like we’re deviants who are out to cause trouble?

I am learning to let go of my class and let the kids have more control, and it is incredibly difficult.  This is not how school was handled as I grew, but I think it’s truer to the state of the world today.  I only wish that I could use some of the amazing technology that is available.

I understand that this unit is not ideal, but I think it’s a step in the right direction.  I’m giving up control and letting the students guide themselves in some ways.  If they want to know about something, I have computers so that they can look it up.  I’m doing the best I can with the materials I’ve been given…

I just hope it’s enough to make a difference and show them that they have the ability to learn on their own…

to show them that they don’t NEED a teacher to learn.

Aren’t life-long learners the goal, after all?

Attitude

September 25, 2010

It is amazing how much difference your attitude makes.
Last year, I started at a new school. This was not a positive experience for these reasons:

  1. It was not the place I wanted to be, and it really affected my attitude towards work in a negative way.
  2. I had to complete an induction program for the second year in a row, and that made me felt like I was being made to jump through hoops to work in a place where I didn’t really want to be.
  3. I was told, upon employment, that I should not expect parent support
  4. I was told to expect homework to never be completed
  5. I was told that the musical I would be directing would probably not be met with support by students and staff (they don’t come to things after school…or so I was told)
  6. Being told the previous three things by an administrator really drove my opinions of the place as a whole
  7. The faculty room was a complaint department on many days (understandable at times, considering number 3-6)
  8. Negative murmurs in the hallway dominated the landscape.

All of these things combined within my psyche to foster an incredibly negative environment.  By February, I was arriving at school merely 10 minutes before the bell rang for the kids to arrive (unusual, considering that the year before I was in school an hour and a half prior to student arrival).

Over the summer, I decided to just let all of that go and teach.  I decided that a more positive attitude was going to be a top priority.
Why should I let what I was told to expect form my opinion of a school?  I spent a year concentrating on what I was told and reaffirming these ideals rather than forming my own opinion of my new surroundings.

I cannot think of a worse way to spend a year than absorbing the opinions of others like that.  So I approached this year with a new attitude and a new outlook.  Why take the time to confirm stereotypes?  The human mind does that on its own without help; it is better to concentrate on the positives, not let co-workers get you down, and do your best on your own.

So far, this year has been exponentially better.  I’m having a much better time at work, and it shows outside of school as well.  I’m much better prepared and just happier overall.
Just changing my attitude has made all of the difference.

And it got me to thinking…it’s the same with my thoughts on education reform.  Despite the fact that I think there are an incredible amount of necessary changes, it doesn’t help anything  to harp on them and wish.  I am just going to do my best to educate my students and keep within the parameters of what I am required to do…

I am happier, my students are happier (and learning more) and all seems well in my classroom.

Attitude makes all the difference…

Been Away A While

September 19, 2010

I was planning on blogging this weekend, but between the papers I already have and the UbD unit plan I wrote, I ran out of time. I promise that I will be writing within the next week. The beginning of this year is very exciting because I’ve changed so much of it, but it’s also that much busier. Wow.

See you later this week…

Doing All That I Can

August 16, 2010

So I’ve realized that this point that I cannot circumvent every problem with the educational system. I’ve realized that many of the problems in the world of education are systemic and not my own. I’ve realized that although I can be an agent of change in my own classroom, I can’t change the entire system by myself
I’ve realized that grades are useless without feedback and that the obsession over grades is what is holding us back as an education nation.

Through these realizations, I’ve also learned just how much I care.

I’ve spent my entire summer on educational topics. Quite honestly, it’s kind of ridiculous that I’m quite as devoted as I am.

Heck, my girlfriend makes fun of my nerdiness constantly.

Ok, so I don’t blame her for that one
see the three gaming systems and mocked up surround sound system in my living room for further details

As a result of the two classes I just finished, I was forced to develop an action plan for the upcoming school year…actually, two of them. One action plan is very generalized and is basically based upon my previous blog entry, Why I was a horrible teacher.

The second is on assessment alone and is partially based upon the work of Thomas Guskey.

I plan on becoming entirely standards-based this year and more independent…I’ve even translated every one of the numerous English standards for Pennsylvania.

I’m excited for a new school year, and I’m doing all I can to give students everything that they need for life after school, but the system is failing them.

It is disheartening, but at least I’m doing all I can…

Cheap Shots

August 15, 2010

I actually already started another update that I will finish and post later, but upon reading this, I was so stirred up and outraged that I felt the need to address this issue immediately.

I have made it no secret that I am not a huge fan of standardized tests, but it really opened my eyes to be in a few graduate classes these past three weeks (hence my prolonged absence from blogging).  In the schools I’ve taught, it’s pretty much been the standard for “the test” to be a dreaded part of every school year.  I never really thought about the fact that maybe there were teachers out there who actually liked the standardized tests.

I suppose that my viewpoint was simply ignorant, as my own views were so strong that I wrote off the possibility of even a remote affinity for the dreaded “test” that seems to have taken over the American educational system.

But I was wrong.

Some like seeing the scores to see a concrete example of their hard work…to see a concrete example of student learning.

My argument:  It’s not student learning that you’re seeing, and it’s not necessarily your work that you’re seeing.

What do standardized tests tell us other than how well a student can concentrate on and manipulate a multiple choice test?

Who is to say that you’re the reason for the extra multiple choice questions that the student answered.

Maybe it’s more valuable for math teachers, but for me (as an English teacher), I see no merit in the scores that are returned to me.  They seem to indicate what I already knew: that some students are good test-takers, some aren’t, and then there are the kids who actually don’t know the material.  But is the material on the test what I want them to really know anyway?

Whatever the answer to those questions may be, I don’t really want to be judged by those scores.

I teach in the humanities, but I don’t feel liberated in what I can teach in that realm.  I have to concentrate on the terminology.

When I have a class of 32, and a class of 7 within the confines of a school day, joined by 4 more classes in the high 20′s, I think that judging me by a compilation of my students’ test scores is not necessarily a good indicator of how I’m doing as a teacher.

Some of my students live with grandparents because their mothers left them to move to another state all the way across the continent.

How is it fair to judge that student against anyone else at all?  They are unique and deserve that treatment…that’s what I give.  If I don’t get to focus as much on the test with that student, so be it.  My goal is to teach students, not a subject.

I recently read a quote in 21st Century Skills: “I had to unlearn the idea that teaching was about my content; I had to learn it was about their thinking and their skills.”

Education should have little to do with me and everything to do with the kids.  It is absolutely disheartening that this ideal is not the pervading viewpoint in many of America’s schools.

The people that are reading this post are, in all likelihood, the teachers who don’t need to read this at all; however, there is a group out there that refuses to meet the needs of students.  That group will probably always exist (scary), but I hope it lessens over time.

Judging educators by the test scores that they supposedly elicit is unjust.  I am a fan of merit systems, just not if they are connected to standardized tests.
And that is my problem with the LA Times.  Merit is not based on a test score.

My prowess as a teacher has nothing to do with my score on a praxis exam.  I scored quite well, but I have had some terrible days in education thus far.

In the paper’s defense, they did celebrate the accomplishments of some of the teachers of more successful students, but they should have stopped there…

I am all for the elimination of those who don’t teach well (after a time for correction), but throwing names to the wolves of public opinion is not a good route.

Those wolves, or many of them, already dislike the “cushy” jobs of teachers and our summer vacations.

Do we really need to fuel the fire any further?

I’ve been attending the Reform Symposium today, and I must say that I wish I would have seen more administrators in attendance.  I was, however, very impressed by George Couros (@gcouros).  He really puts the kids first in every regard.  That session inspired this letter which, admittedly, voices a bit of the frustration of experience — not really good.

Here’s my leadership day response:

Dear Administrator,

I would like to take a second to thank you for all of the hard work that you put into making your school as successful as it is; however, considering the fact that there is always room to improve, I am writing to make a few suggestions on new ideas and good reads that apply to your school.

I’ll start with a few suggestions.  First, be a leader, not a boss.  Yes, there is a difference.  A leader does not just dominate the landscape by making every decision without the input of others.  A leader is one who collaborates and takes the time to gather input before making a decision.  Gandhi once said “Be the change you want to see in the world.”  Is the goal for teachers to rule over their classroom with an iron fist, or for real learning to take place in a comfortable (but controlled) environment?

Second, always put the kids first.  Don’t look upon community-building exercises as frivolous fluff, or a time-wasting exercise.  If test scores are the issue in this case, kids perform better if they have a sense of belonging.  Especially in districts where home lives may leave something to be desired, a community is what a school should represent – not a gathering of individuals for the sake of sitting together all day.

Third, never stop learning.  Almost every school district has something about creating/ raising/ fostering “life-long learners” in its mission statement.  If those who work in the school are not life-long learners, how is it expected that the students will miraculously transform into insatiable seekers of knowledge?  In fact, I find it necessary to recommend a few books in this case.  They are listed below:

1) The Art of Science and Teaching by Robert Marzano – A great book that addresses classroom issues, but also addresses the school-wide issues of discipline and culture.  A must-read.

2) Activating the Desire to Learn by Bob Sullo – Concentrates primarily on the weighty issues of building intrinsic motivation through internal control psychology.  Chapter 9 is the story of an incredibly successful building principal and chapter 8 tells the story of a successful guidance counselor.  Both stories give great ideas for any administrator, but the entire book is a great read.

3) The Global Achievement Gap by Tony Wagner – Speaks of the shortcomings of the American education system and what needs to change to make it more effective.  Not exactly uplifting, but it has some great suggestions for making school more relevant and up-to-date.

4) 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times by Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel – Tells of the skills that students will need for life in this century (very different from the last century).  Eye-opening statistics and anecdotes are incredibly prevalent in this book, but real suggestions are as well.  The most important thing, in my opinion, from this book is the convincing way that the necessary changes are described in this book.

I encourage you, as a leader, to take the time to read these books, to take the time to start a google reader and subscribe to a few blogs, to start a twitter account and connect with other administrators, and to lead by example.  People respect those who do as they say instead of just saying it.

Thank you for your time,
me (knowledgegap21)

In response to: This letter to the editor

Dear Editor:

In reference to another letter to the editor, “Drivers in U.S. should understand English (7/25/10),” I may only say that I am appalled by the lack of respect shown to those who are non-English speakers. To assume that those in our country who do not speak English are ignorant enough not to be able to follow road signs is a leap to judgment and a grossly misinformed opinion. Road signs are designed with unique shapes and colors to allow for those who cannot read to still be able to understand the rules of the road as they are posted. I will concede that the language barrier makes these signs slightly more difficult to interpret, but to assume that the only ones who cannot read them are those who do not speak the language is incorrect. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 30 million adults (those over 16) were functionally illiterate as of May of last year, and 7 million of those were considered non-literate altogether. Such statistics cannot be blamed only on the likes of people for whom English would be a second language. So I encourage the readership of this newspaper to think about the facts before exposing other to ignorance and discrimination based on unfounded claims.

–just thought I’d share with the blogosphere…I’ll take it down if this letter actually gets published.

For the Kids

July 24, 2010

Well, I haven’t really gotten into the swing of things for blog entries yet.  I need to work out some kind of schedule, but heaven knows that the schedule will have to change once the school year begins…not to mention the grad classes I’m starting as of Monday.

I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading lately on standards-based grading, motivation, and internal control psychology, and it all makes sense.

But we’re getting close to the start of a new year and I’m starting to feel overwhelmed.

I usually don’t feel overwhelmed when it comes to school, but this year I’m trying to re-structure my entire course and my style of teaching…so I’m thinking of all the work that is involved and starting to feel like the water is rising and I haven’t yet learned to swim.  I think these classes that I’m taking will help get me back into school mode (since I’ve been in “Red Dead Redemption” mode lately :-)), but I still have a lot of work to do before school begins.

Put that together with  having my house in disarray due to my girlfriend moving in and I would say there’s a lot to take in at the moment.

I just bought a camera to use in my classroom, and I think I’m going to put together some kind of introductory movie for the year — anybody have any thoughts or ideas for this?

I really think I’m asking a lot of myself this year, and I’m looking forward to the challenge.  So far in my career, I’ve kind of followed the fold and done what I’ve been told (teach to the test), so this is my first time to kind of subvert the system and do what I think is best for the kids.

And it feels right…it feels good…

and I haven’t started yet.

So if you couldn’t tell already, I don’t have much to say at the moment.  Hopefully these classes give me some blogging fodder…

though they’ll decrease the time…

But that’s ok, it’s for the kids.

Earlier this week, I decided that I need to have a meeting with the team of teachers I belong to in order to get set up for this upcoming school year.   This thought occurred to me before I had even thought of the reason’s why…I just knew that I had to meet with them.

So before I actually contacted anyone, I knew I had to reason it out in my head.

Was it because I thought something was wrong with what we were doing?
Partially, but through no fault of our own – it’s a flawed system

Was it because I missed them so?
Oh come on, that’s just cheesy — though they are good people

Was it because I wanted to just have drinks with some colleagues?
Well, that’s not something I’m ever really against…

How about because I have a lot to share?
Ok, now we’re getting somewhere — that’s part of it

Is it because I think we all need to be on the same page from the very beginning in the very tough environment we try to tackle every day?
Ahh, there’s the other part…

And I need some help to understand how to get there…

This summer has been a summer of self-discovery (on a professional level); one of honest reflection, a whole lot of personal research, tons of reading, and building up a PLN that is still on a fledging level — it’s so new that I’m kind of shy.  I need to share what I’ve learned; I need to share everything that’s out there (twitter, the blogosphere, etc.); I need to convey just how much of an injustice our kids are suffering in this system.

My team is great, and I know we all do the best we can, but if we’re all on the same page from the very beginning and eliminate some of the useless rules and fluff from the way we teach, we’ll have a much more successful year — and, in any case, this past year was awful and it can’t really get that much worse.

Our school was very negative towards the end of the year, and the preeminent force was complaining and whining.  I say it’s time to become agents of change and show our students just what it means to be a citizen, to be a life-long learner (everyone uses this term as a goal, but we crush the prospect of this), and to be a good person and friend.  We can be the ones who assist in changing the school’s climate, rather than wallowing in the sorrow that is the system’s failings.

It’s time to stop complaining and start doing…no matter who or what decides that it won’t work.

The whole point of this blog was to be a voice asking for an end to teaching students how to take tests, and teach them things that matter….so I really want to practice what I’m out to preach.  Anybody out there have any ideas for a place to start?
Well, I’ll let you know how it goes anyway…