Reform Should Begin in the Classroom

It’s been a while since my last post, so much so that my wife even commented on it.  Well, I’ll forgo the usual excuses and just say that if anything could push me to update my neglected blog, it’s Tom Whitby’s EdReform REBEL Day:

Now, I’ll admit, I’m not usually a big picture guy and that informs my opinion.  See, I have a hard time accepting the fact that all of these education reformers know what’s best for my students.  They’ve never met my students, worked with them, talked with them, gotten to know them.  They just assume that, since they are in 6th grade, they should know certain things, same as any other 6th grader across the nation.  And what’s more, they should know the same things that kids their age around the world know.

But, there’s a problem, they are not those other kids, they are my kids.  I’m going to do my best to prepare them for the world, passing on all I can about grammar, punctuation, spelling, and writing.  Some of them will find uses for it later in life, others won’t.  I can’t predict how, when, or even if they’ll use what I teach them.  Neither could my teachers, nor their teachers before them.

Part of me wants to see just one of my students stand up when we give the yearly standardized tests and yell out:

I will not make any deals with you. I’ve resigned. I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or Numbered. My life is my own. I resign!

Because that’s what these tests do.  They push the kids to learn specific things.  They file the tests in their PERMANENT FILE (I remember that file’s existence being a particularly scary thought as a kid) and index them according to their skill level.  We brief the kids on the test and debrief them, ever so carefully, as not to have them reveal questions which may or may not be used in the future on another standardized test.  And we number them (put your student number on the test, bubble it in exactly), reducing them to data, not human beings.

Carl Anderson asked us to list books we think education reformers should have to read (  One of my choices was The Tao of Pooh because in my opinion, we need to take a more Taoist view of education.  In the book, the author, Benjamin Hoff, quotes the mystical poet Han-shan:

A scholar named Wang

Laughed at my poems.

The accents are wrong,

He said,

Too many beats;

The meter is poor,

The wording impulsive.

I laugh at his poems,

As he laughs at mine.

They read like

The words of a blind man

Describing the sun.

To me, I think that encapsulates the struggle with education.  We set the parameters for student learning and we try our hardest to mold each student into an exact copy of every other student in their grade.  We ignore what makes them unique and we force ways of doing things upon them that drain creativity out of them.  Left to their own devices, they are capable of so much and I fear that when they reach their potential, they will look back at us and view us as being blind and trying to describe the sun.  I wonder how e.e. cummings reflected upon his grammar teachers?

My students are not the same as your students.  Going even deeper, none of my students are the same and neither are yours.  Why do we treat them as if they were the same?  Why are we forced to let people who don’t know our kids beyond their numbers and test scores (if that) tell us what’s best for them?  Year after year, I talk with students who have wonderful, insightful responses during class discussions who just don’t do well on tests.  Why can’t I find a means to authentically assess them?

Let’s face it, good test grades are not a guarantee of anything.  Some of our best and brightest, like Abraham Lincoln and Albert Einstein did not fit the student mold and learned more on their own than in a classroom.  And I think we all know people who excelled at school and failed at life.  So why do we keep treating it like we’re failures if we don’t raise test scores?

Please, please, let me get to know my students and work with them to develop the type of education that will best suit each one individually.  Please don’t tell me you know what’s best for them, unless you want to take the time to get to know them.  At the end of each day, I’d rather inspire a kid than have them go up a developmental level (though, as my continued employment as a teacher might be dependent on the latter, I’ll take both) for this particular year.  I’d be happy to know that even one thing I’ve taught each student made a positive difference in their lives (a real difference, not at “I did better on a test” difference, but a meaningful difference).  And I hope with the stress of these tests and the pacing guides, and the mandatory lessons, and everything else, we don’t damage these wonderful students.

In case of Armageddon…

I have to admit, I’m a recent convert to the ideas presented in my PLN regarding the use of technology in the classroom.  I bristled for the first few months after joining Twitter and developing my PLN, mainly because my district is the 2nd poorest in the state and my school is slowly entering the 21st century, though with some pretty 20th century technology policies (such as learning that Dropbox was added to the filter over the summer, blocking access).

It seems our new superintendent is thinking along the lines of my PLN and brought in Marc Prensky to address the district on Monday, the first day of work for teachers.  The event was at the new high school in our county and only a few were actually present, instead, for the first time, the kick-off event was streamed.  Of course, my school could not get the live stream, though we did get a DVD later that day.  They put it on through the Channel One TVs we have in our classrooms for us to watch at our leisure.  I watched it on Tuesday while setting up my class and thought a lot of what Mark Prensky had to say about collaboration and meeting the students halfway was right on the money.

Come Thursday, my principal addressed us and said she had to admit to the superintendent that only a handful of her teachers had seen the video and that she had not had the time to sit down and watch it fully.  Needless to say, we were gathered on Friday to watch it  as a faculty.

I could tell by the reaction that while some teachers agreed with it, there were some who did not.  Comments were shared such as “What if the power goes out, how are the students supposed to do math if they have always used computers?”

I started thinking about that excuse.  There’s always the classic example of the person stuck in line at the grocery store when the register acts up and the cashier can’t do simple math to keep the line moving.  That is a shame and, at times, being stuck in a line at the grocery store seems like the worst thing in the world.

But, let’s take that excuse to the extreme.  What if the solar flares they predict, or an errant nuclear weapon, or plague affects us to the point where most of our technology stops working.  There’s no cell phone signals to be found.  Computers won’t start.  Mp3 players are fried.  Calculators become paperweights.  Society is thrown back over a 100 years.

Suddenly, people have to read books, not iPad or Kindle screens.  Math has to be done on paper or by counting fingers.  Music would have to be played live.  What then?  Why should I teach my kids to blog and allow open-cell tests (as Mark Prensky advocated) when the end times are coming?  Didn’t you see the movie 2012?  What then?  Do you really think, on those big arks people are skyping with each other?

The thing is, we could plan for that eventuality.  We could tell the kids to stop using their cell phones/mp3 players/tablets and crack open a book.  But, what if it doesn’t happen?  What if the kid is stuck trying to figure out how much an item costs when its on sale for 40% and all they have at hand is a cellphone?  What if they are home one night, troubled about something, can’t find paper, and only have the computer to compose their thoughts and share them with others?  What if a student just can’t get a note right, and only has an mp3 player to play the original song so they can hear how the original artist did it?

What then?

Which eventuality do you want your kids (both your students, and, if applicable, your sons/daughters) prepared for?

Or is that a false dichotomy?  Couldn’t we use the technology to help students learn the basics just in case either eventuality happens?  Does one preclude the other?

Lastly, as teachers, are we supposed to prepare our students for the world of tomorrow, as based on where we see things headed or for the world of tomorrow based on 2012, Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, etc?

I think we need to stop making excuses and stop planning for the worst case scenarios.  Because, honestly, I have a feeling that if the apocalypse comes, being able to work out a trigonometry problem on paper will be the least of our concerns.  We need to stop making excuses and find ways to use technology to bolster the foundations, because it can do that as much it can serve as a crutch for students.

The Emergency Exit Window

I get it every year.  New to middle school, sixth grade students feel uneasy about being in a building with two floors, as most come from single story elementary schools.  They see my emergency exit window, look down, and quickly realize there’s no large field of soft, spongy grass to land on.  There’s a small patch of grass, but mostly concrete.  They run through the scenario and don’t like the outcome.

Most are confused and a little scared.  Some speak out, “If there’s a fire, I’m not jumping out of that window.  I’ll stay here.”

I’ve tried different approaches.

The comforting/factual/logical response: “This building is designed to withstand fire.  That door there, is a fire proof door, it can last up to four hours of flames, giving the fire department enough time to get the ladder truck here.  In fact, the school has been open for almost 30 years and is so well designed, not one student has had to use the emergency exit.  Not one in 30 years, I think you’re safe.”

The less comforting, more hypothetical, but still factual response: “A fire would have to break out in this room, by the door, and block not only our exit, but the exit next door, whose room we can access through the storage closet between our rooms for us to even have to consider jumping out.”

The heroic: “I’ll go first and be there to catch you.”

I’ve even tried the sarcastic:  “We’ll throw the most annoying students first, landing safely on them, so whatever you do, don’t be the annoying student who gets thrown out first.”

And, yet they only work for a short period of time.  After giving the speech to all of my classes, beginning with the most comforting and working my way down the list as the questions become more persistent, I can usually assuage most fears during the first few weeks of school.  However, it never fails.  After being in school for over sixth months, one student, usually in each class, will look out the same emergency exit window they’ve been gazing out of all year, and a jolt of fear will prompt them to ask about the window again.

To their credit, before I can form a response, I usually have at least one student who will repeat, sometimes verbatim, what I said in August.  To which the wondering student will respond, “I ain’t jumping out of that window, I’d rather face the fire.”  A quick grammar lesson later, I’ll run through the list again, starting with the most comforting and finally reaching the sarcastic as the student continues to question their safety.  Another helpful student will chime in, “I think, at worst, all you’d do is break a leg bone or two.”  *sigh*

So, I put it to you, how do you get sixth graders to realize the emergency escape window is nothing to worry about?  Should I continue with the comforting, factual, and logical answers?  Perhaps I should stick to the sarcastic answer?  Or maybe there’s another option I have not considered.

All I know is, with each question, it gets more and more tempting to do a demonstration where I jump out the window and hobble to freedom.

Everyone loves a good quitting story

“I love a good quitting story. It makes me feel like I have control over my own life. Gives me hope. Maybe I will have one of own someday. [laughs] But I dream… so… ” –Oscar Martinez, The Office

It seems odd to be reflecting on people publicly quitting their jobs just as the school year is beginning, but the news was full of it this week. And, yes, I’ll admit to wanting to get on the loudspeaker and then slide my way to freedom out of the emergency exit window (especially since, having a classroom on the second floor of the building, the students do wonder how they’d get out in case of a fire), but that’s in the springtime.

But with flight attendants behaving badly ( ) and girls revealing their boss’ secrets via whiteboard ( ), even if the latter example is fake ( ), it seems we’re all focused on people leaving their jobs in a mass of publicity. As the quote from the Office shows, the schadenfreude that accompanies seeing people lose it because of their job does get mixed up with the jealousy over the supposed freedom we see them express by telling off those who’ve bothered them for so long, be it customers or bosses.

As I alluded, I can sympathize, but only from March onward. This time of year, I truly believe I have the best job of all.

Now that it’s the fall and the crazy, stressed out me is gone, replaced by the hopeful, but nervous pre-school version of me. On Monday I head back for “Pre-School” week and the following week, I get to meet my new students.

It’s a blessing to be able to start over new each year. Those little, annoying things that bother us day in and day out melt away in the hot summer sun. The summer is a time when I reflect on ways in which I can be a better teacher. There’s the hope that the mistakes I made last year won’t repeat themselves this year.

I do think these stories should serve as warnings though. All too soon, it seems, we get bogged down by the students, administrators, other teachers, etc. And before we know it, grabbing the microphone and eying the emergency escape window don’t seem all that crazy. This year, though, let’s vow to avoid those things, find better ways to release the stress, and make this year the best year of our careers!

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