Thursday, September 8, 2011

Out with the old....

September is a school teacher's January. It is a time for reflection and renewal. It's a time to revisit and reevaluate last year's efforts in order to improve and refine for this year. Never has this been more clear to me than over the past few weeks.

Our school has been undergoing major renovation for the past year and a half or so.  We dealt with ceiling tiles falling in, a carbon monoxide scare, heating failures in the dead of winter, a minor fire in the gym, lots and lots of dust, and the frustration of not knowing if and when the water would work in the bathroom.  But we soldiered on.

When I got the notice that my department and I would be relocated to new classrooms on the other side of the building, I was kind of excited to roll up my sleeves and get rid of the junk that I hadn't had time to get rid of before.  If you know me, you know that I'm just a bit OCD (well....more than a bit) and that I like things clean, orderly.....and labeled!  Color coded is even better!  And in a binder earns you EXTRA CREDIT!!

So....I plunged in with both hands and began tossing things with a mad abandon.  I used the same rule of thumb that I use when I clean my closets and cupboards at home:  if I haven't used it, touched it, thought about it or looked at it in a year, it's gotta go.  I unearthed worksheets I'd inherited from the three teachers before me....worksheets that I was afraid to throw out because I was convinced they contained more wisdom than anything I could create.  I've since learned that this is a fallacy and that I have great ideas of my own....but there's nothing wrong with using them as a resource.  I found worn out novels stuffed in the corners of my closets and stacks of magazines to use for art projects.  I boxed up dozens of books from my classroom lending library and several class sets of textbooks and workbooks and dictionaries.  My task the new school year to set up my new classroom with only those things that truly matter and will serve my students and me well.

At the risk of sounding like an 80s sitcom....what have we learned from all this?

1.  Change is a good thing.  It is always a good idea to take a step back and reevaluate things.  Why are we holding on to things that we know have not served us well or have outlived their usefulness? 

2.  If we don't change, we run the risk of becoming stagnant.  Stagnant water is of little use to most living creatures.  The few things that do thrive in it tend to be annoying, blood-sucking, and dangerous.  This is true of PEOPLE who prefer to remain in stagnant waters as well.  It's always a good idea to inject something new, to move beyond your comfort zone, to change things up a bit.

3.  Use the past as a stepping stone and build from it.  Just because things are old doesn't mean that they are not sound.  The only exception to my "if I haven't used it in a year" rule is that I don't toss anything that is valuable and significant.  We should never throw away something that works and something that has value just to make room for the new.  All good wardrobes should contain classics that never really go out of style.  All good teachers should be using classic strategies, resources, activities, etc. that never stop working with students.

4.  Be brutally honest with yourself in your evaluation.  While you're going through the "stuff" in your life, decide whether you are holding onto things for the sense of security they give and whether that sense of security is healthy.  It can be scary to let things go, but you'll feel liberated once they are no longer there.

Plus....I won't see you on an episode of Hoarders anytime soon.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

"Failure is not an option" or "How I found Inspiration in the Darndest Place"

A few months ago, I wrote a post about doing what you dread. In it, I described my dislike for pretty much anything physical and how I overcame that one night by running on a treadmill next to a man in the Navy.

Well...guess what? I'm back there. Not back in that hotel, but back on the fitness attempt. I had been doing so well for about 3 weeks. And then life happened. We got busy with two sports schedules and end of the year craziness at school and I got off track.

So, I started back at it this morning. I did the Day One of the Couch to 5K program I had started back in April. One of the things that I do like about exercise is that it helps me to think clearly. Today was no exception. With that, here were a few of my observations today:

A.) I do not enjoy exercise. I don't. I'm no fan of sweating. I don't like pushing myself to ignore the desire to just turn around when it starts to get hard. I'd personally prefer to lie in a hammock all day with a good book and a glass of peach iced tea. And I had already started and stopped several of these attempts to get healthy again, so what makes this attempt any different? These things were going through my head at about the 15 minute mark of my half hour run/walk. But that's when the teacher in me started to join the defeatist conversation going on in my head. I was falling into some of the same mental patterns my students tend to fall into. I wasn't interested in the struggle and I was seriously NOT feeling the hard work. Sadly, this kind of thinking is NOT gonna cut it. If I want to be healthy and accomplish my goals for myself physically, I'm going to have to move.

B.) I cannot believe the lie my brain was trying to tell me that I was just a failure at this fitness stuff. A failure is when you sit down and give up and allow it to beat you. I'm back at it. That's not failure. Similarly, it's a failure when my students give up. Until then, there is hope that they will get back at it! Failure is NOT an option!

C.) Inspiration can come from the most interesting of places. As I headed back towards my car on the last half of my run/walk, I started paying attention to some of the songs popping up on my iPod. I came into a particular tough stretch (a straight section of the trail with full sun...and it was time to do the RUNNING portion) and, just then, the song "Owner of a Lonely Heart" came on. (Yes...I love my cheesy 80s songs!!). I started listening intently to the lyrics and became inspired. Consider them for a moment:

Move yourself
You always lived your life
Never thinking of the future
Prove yourself
You are the move you make
Take your chances win or loser

See yourself
You are the steps you take
You and you - and that's the only way
Shake - shake yourself
You're every move you make
So the story goes

See some potential for inspiration there? Um, yeah. And what song should come on next? "I Ran" by Flock of Seagulls....and all I could think about is how important it is to know why and how you're running. For awhile, I had spent time running: running my kid to practice and games, running around getting things taken care of at work, running to get caught up with housework....and running away from doing something for myself. It's time to start running towards what makes me a healthy, well-rounded person and away from what makes me schizophrenic and unable to devote 100% of myself to anything. Now THAT'S a lesson we could ALL use! We need to prioritize the things in our lives so that what SHOULD be the most important actually IS the most important.

My iPod spit out another song as I started my cool down. "How soon is now?" by The Smiths.

How soon is now?

Now is sooner than you think. I guess it's time to start again.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Education: The Great Equalizer

I had lunch with an "old" friend twice in the past few months (okay...she's not old, but our friendship stretches way back to elementary IT is old). Though I had kind of wondered how our conversation would shake out (after all, we literally had not seen each other in over 18 years), I was pleasantly surprised to see that my friend had not really changed inside and we ended up talking for 2 1/2 hours at each of our lunch dates!

So, why mention this little get-together in a blog about education? Well, let me tell you a little bit about where the two of us came from.

I have always described myself as a mountain girl. For those of you familiar with Southwestern Pennsylvania, I have lived my entire life in the complicated embrace of the Laurel Mountains. I say complicated because, while I can think of no more beautiful place in the world in which to live, the problems that exist here can sometimes seem insurmountable. Poverty is rampant, for one thing. That leaves a lot of us open to things like drug and alcohol use, dependence on government programs, lack of self-motivation, an aversion to change, as well as all forms of abuse (spousal, child, elder, physical, emotional, sexual, psychological, etc.) I could tell you stories about some of my childhood playmates that would curl your hair. When I share these stories with people who live even just 10 miles away they truly think I'm exaggerating. They don't believe that there could be a place here in Pennsylvania...or ANYWHERE in America....where children live in abandoned school buses or houses with big holes in the roof and no windows. They can't fathom that, when we were allowed to bring a present back to school after Christmas break, at least a good handful of my classmates brought plastic trucks that MY parents would buy me at the checkout line if I had been good in the grocery store but that THEIR parents bought them as a treat once a year for Christmas.

But, as I said before, I cannot imagine a more perfect place to live, either. Being a "mountain girl" means that I have grown up knowing that family is the most important thing you can ever have, that roots don't just go back to grandparents but rather extend back at least seven generations. Almost every conversation with someone from the mountains includes a genealogy session where you both trace someone's family history back to the 1800s in order to place one another. Another thing we've learned here is perseverance, the ability to never give up and to keep going even when times look tough.

So....again....what does this have to do with education? Well, as my friend and I talked, we kept coming back to some of the names of former classmates. We spent time talking about where they are now and what they've done in life. And I couldn't help but think about how proud I was of so many of them. My friend and I grew up as poor little mountain girls. Our families had next to least materially. What we were both given was a desire to improve and educate ourselves.

I am disgusted by the ideas and attitudes about education that are fomenting in our society. So much of what passes as debate and conversation on education nowadays centers on accountability, standardized testing, teachers unions, public vs. private schooling, nauseum. While I have opinions on each and every one of those things, I'm not interested in printing them. It's been done. A million times over. It's time, instead, to talk about the power of education. That's all. Education.

It is the great equalizer. It allows us to understand the world around us, to form an opinion about that world, and to express it coherently and intelligently. It helps to put us in our place when we realize that we are not the center of all creation but neither are we an unimportant speck amongst millions of unimportant specks. It shows us that "there are more things in heaven and earth...than are dreamt of in [our] philosophy" (thanks to my dearest "Hamlet"!!), allows us to study the inner workings of plants and animals one moment and the beautiful descriptions of life written by people thousands of years ago in another. It expands our minds and shrinks our world.

Wouldn't it be great if more people would be interested in education FIRST....and convincing others of the "rightness" of their philosophies on it SECOND?

Monday, April 11, 2011

Do what you dread.....

I don't know how many of you are familiar with Kylene Beers and her work with reading strategies and reading comprehension research, but I think she's amazing. I had the opportunity to hear her speak at the National Council of Teachers of English conference in Pittsburgh in 2005 and was NOT disappointed. She was an amazing presenter and a wealth of information. I've read many of her books and have been inspired by her passion for teaching and her clear writing style.

One of the things that Kylene talks about the most is how to help struggling readers. During her NCTE presentation, she asked us all to demonstrate what a struggling student looks like and, immediately, 150 English teachers slumped over in our seats, stuck our feet out in the aisle, yawned, closed our eyes, etc. She then asked us to think of something we are not good at and then imagine doing that 180 days a year for 45-90 minutes a day. THAT'S how our struggling students feel and yet they come to school almost every single day. The fact that they even show up is a testament to their resiliency.

So, why am I talking about this in my blog? Well, if you're a personal friend of mine, you know that I tend to be less than confident when it comes to any kind of physical activity. I was never a big fan of gym class because I was not very coordinated. I wasn't too bad at running or aerobics when we did those things, but I was terrible at softball, football, basketball, etc.

I am also not someone who enjoys struggling with anything. If I am learning something new, I want to pick up on it quickly and master it with little effort. Want proof? Ask my husband about the one and only time I played a round of golf. When I still didn't have the hang of it by the 5th hole, I was leaking angry tears as I chased the ball to the other side of the green after missing a putt once again. I wore sunglasses for the remaining holes because I was livid.

So....what I've been challenging myself to do lately is definitely moving me out of my comfort zone. I started a "Couch to 5K" program last week. Basically, I spend 30 minutes 3 days a week walking and running. Each week, I will increase the amount of time that I run until I'm running the equivalent to a 5K by the end of week 9. Normally, I do my workouts while my daughter is at soccer or softball practice. If she's at soccer, I do my laps around the high school stadium. Her soccer team pretty much ignores me because they're focused on their own workouts. If she's at softball practice, I do my running/walking on a bike trail connected to the park. it's mostly in the woods and when I run, I don't worry about anyone seeing me do it.

Again....what does this have to with doing what you dread? Well, I'm typing this blog tonight from a hotel near the state capital. I've been asked to come here to work on our modified state reading test. I came out the night before so that I would be able to get here in time for an 8:00 am start. I looked online before I left home and saw that my hotel had a fitness room so I packed my workout gear. Not long after getting here, though, I checked out the fitness room and saw that several members of the Navy were here for a conference, too.....and there were 4 very fit, very trim members of the Navy in the fitness room. I was intimidated to say the least. I came back to my room and seriously debated skipping out....just for tonight. But, with some encouragement from my Facebook friends, I suited up and headed down to the fitness room to do what I knew I needed to do.

I poked my head around the corner and saw that the only two occupants of the fitness room were two older gentlemen: one on a treadmill and one on an elliptical. Now, THIS I could handle!! No Navy men or women in sight!! I turned on my iPod, stepped onto a treadmill, and started my workout. 10 minutes in, I was sweating profusely and getting cramps in my calves. And, lo and behold, who should step on the treadmill next to me? A Navy man. I wanted to die. Instead, I kept right on with my workout and, as I did, I noticed that he was doing a very similar workout to mine. Even more than THAT....I was actually keeping pace with HIM!!

As I continue to challenge myself with this new venture in life, it reminds me that I am asking my students to do something similar every single day....I am asking them to do what they feel the least confident doing. It's not fair, then, for me to chicken out and make excuses instead of doing what I dread the most. This is a valuable lesson and one which THIS teacher really needed to learn.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Teaching: Perception vs. Reality.

I have a very good friend whose husband often tells me that I should just show movies to my students every day to make my life...and theirs....easier. He's only joking (I hope!!), but anytime I hear comments like that, it makes me realize how little people who are not in education know about what it takes to teach and to teach well. So, the focus of this post is Teaching: Perception vs. Reality.

Perception: Teaching occurs only when the teacher and his/her students are face-to-face in the classroom setting. There is, of course, some grading of papers that must be done, but this is easily accomplished when the teacher gets some prep time (a free period in high school or junior high school, while the students are in art or music in elementary school, etc.). All a teacher needs to do in order to prep for the act of teaching is to read the teacher's manual for the particular textbook being used, print off the reproducible worksheet, and stand at the chalkboard with a pointer.

Reality: Every teacher has his/her own method of preparing to teach a class. I will try to explain my own method here. First, I sit down and take a look at my school's designed curriculum for the course. I check it against my state's standards for my subject area as well. Then, I spend a few days reading through the material that I am to present to my students. Since I'm an English teacher, this is usually some form of nonfiction, poetry, drama, short story, or novel. While I'm reading the material, I'm often taking notes about the literary elements and techniques used by the author that my students must be able to identify and understand. I'm thinking of the best way to teach these things so that they are not merely memorized or labelled like some chart in a laboratory experiment, but rather are learned so that they can be applied in new situations. I'm mentally analzying the material. I'm looking for the larger concepts students must learn and then thinking of the best way to cull and distill these ideas down so that they are easily explained and learned one chunk at a time. This is usually when I sit down and make up the test the students will take at the end of the unit. I start with the end in mind because it helps me to make sure that everything I teach leads to that final assessment.

Once I have a good handle on WHAT I need to teach, the work starts on HOW I need to teach it. What will I introduce first? In what order should I teach each skill so that they build on one another and don't frustrate my students by asking too much or too little of them each step of the way? What form will my teaching take for each skill? I can't teach each thing the same way because that will lead to boredom. I can't teach each class totally differently from the ones before it because my class will become too unpredictable. I have to find the right balance of structure and novelty. Will my students understand irony better if I use a video? A song? A lecture? A written example? Maybe cartoon pictures will be a good introduction? Slowly, I build each day's lesson plans keeping in mind all of these things. Eventually, I string a few days together to form a week's worth of plans and then a week's worth of plans gets placed next to another week's worth of plans until I have a whole unit mapped out. It's much like stringing pearls. You have to learn which pearls go on the string first so that the others will look good next to it. If you are not careful about your pearl selection, you will end up with a strand of pearls that looks lumpy and confused instead of polished and planned. Lesson planning is no different.

Now that I know WHAT I'm teaching and HOW I'm teaching it, I have to figure out to WHOM I will be teaching. On the first day of class, I have my students fill out some information on an index card including three things they want me to know about them. I ask them to do a writing sample where they describe what they feel their biggest strengths and weaknesses are when it comes to English class and what goals they want to set for themselves this semester. When they leave, I sit down and read over all of this. As the weeks go by, I get to know each student through conversations held out loud in the classroom and in writing on their classwork. I use this information to inform what is being taught in the classroom. I am constantly looking to see how I can adapt the curriculum to them and how I can adapt them to the curriculum. A few weeks into the semester, I begin to get information on students with Individualized Education Plans and Gifted Individualized Education Plans. I learn things such as any specific mental, social, physical, or academic disabilities and abilities my students might have. I get to see some standardized test scores from earlier in these students' academic careers. I read over information from their parents and former teachers about how these students may or may not have reached earlier goals. All of this feeds into my classroom as well. Will I need to modify or adapt my teaching and assessment so that the education these children receive is more fair for them? How will I do that so it still assesses what the student needs to know and do? How can I make sure that the student does not feel left out or "different" because of this?

Once I've taken all of these things into consideration, then and ONLY then, am I prepared to actually teach these students. For one 90 minute class session, I have usually spent 3-4 hours of prep time. Much of this I do in the know, when I'm sitting with my feet up eating bon bons.

Friday, April 8, 2011

I'm a professional educator....

To piggyback off of what I was saying about merit pay....

I have to say that I often get frustrated with those who claim to be "teachers" yet have no pride in the craft. There are bad people in every profession and I wish I could do more to control those in my profession who give it a bad name. I cannot influence the hiring and the firing at my district or many of the educational policies that come down from "on high". Instead of simply getting frustrated, here are the things that I have done/am doing to make a difference:

Most states require teachers to have a degree in education and/or in their field of concentration. I originally earned a B.S. in English Ed. In order to maintain my teaching certificate, I had to earn 24 credits beyond my B.S. degree to get a Level II certification. I chose to make those 24 credits count and so I put them towards an M.A. in English Literature. I felt a professional responsibility to know my subject even more thoroughly so that I could teach it even more effectively. It makes me ashamed to say that there are teachers in many schools (locally as well as nationally) who are teaching subjects with which they have only a passing familiarity. In Pennsylvania, you can take a PRAXIS exam for any subject area as long as you have an education degree and if you pass that PRAXIS, you can teach classes in that subject area. This means that you CAN (and increasingly DO) find teachers teaching subjects that they have not studied with any depth. For instance, a teacher could hold a degree in K-12 Special Education but yet pass a History PRAXIS and teach any history class at a junior high or high school level. This person was only required to take the same amount of history classes that ANY college graduate had to take (often only 1 or 2) but yet is teaching your child in a history class. I'm sorry, but I don't feel this is acceptable. In fact, I think it gives the profession a black eye. As professional educators, we should have a deep knowledge of our own subject matter as well as of pedagogy.

As professional educators, we should be seeking opportunities to grow professionally. About four years ago, my department head and I were discussing how we really felt that we needed to do more in order to make the Honors/AP Literature track a more challenging and more effective class sequence. We saw the need to develop stronger teaching skills and to learn more about what students in those classes needed to know and be able to do. Because of this, we found a summer program at a college about 3 hours away and decided to register. We spent an entire week with other English teachers from our state learning how to be more effective at our jobs. It was one of the best programs I've ever attended. I apply the things I learned there not only to my Honors/AP Literature courses, but also to my "regular" English classes. What's good for the "accelerated" kid is good for ALL kids! One single course helped me to be a more effective educator in ALL of my OWN courses.

Standardized testing is a dirty word in most educational circles. Debate it all you want, it's not going anywhere for awhile. We, as teachers, need to do more to have a voice when it comes to the tests our students are required to take. Last summer, I volunteered to help construct the field test items for my state's writing exam. It was very neat to see my students this spring answering questions that I helped to create. I'm going back again this summer to do the same thing. Last summer, while I was catching up on some work in my hotel room after a long day of test construction sessions, I got a text message from a co-worker asking what I was up to. When I told her where I was and what I was doing, she responded with " to be you. Guess where I am? Pool side and getting my tan on!" She really thought that she was in a better place than I was and had no idea what she was missing. It was so awesome to meet teachers who are just as passionate about what they do as I am and to have our say in the tests our students would take. I'm going back to the state capital on Tuesday next week....this time to work on a modified state test that is given to students with Individualized Education Plans. I feel it is the right thing to do, professionally, and that we have no right to complain about these tests if we are not willing to do something about them.

As a professional educator, I believe we should be concerned with the future of the profession. This is why I regularly host college students who wish to do classroom observations. I don't get paid for this and it can be somewhat of an inconvenience having to give up some classroom space for them, give them copies of everything I'm giving to the students, explain to them what I've done in the classroom and why. I also have had 3 student teachers in the past 3 years. I want these future teachers to see teaching "done right" by someone who is passionate about her subject, about learning, and about teenagers.

I also feel that we need to do more to prove that we deserve respect as a profession. This is the reason why I voluntarily sought and achieved National Board Certification. This is a process that requires teachers to submit examples of their teaching (in the form of student work, videos of classroom teaching, samples of work done out of class to connect with the community, and tests to show proficiency and knowledge in the subject area) to professionals who measure what they see from that teacher against what is considered to be best practice in the profession. It was a difficult process and demanded a lot of me. I spent many hours analyzing my own teaching, identifying my areas of strength and weakness, evaluating student work, designing curriculum, and writing my reflections on all these things. After months of analyzing, writing, rewriting, self-doubt, breakdowns, and nervousness, I submitted my portfolio and completed my online testing. I found out in December of 2010 that I had passed and that I had earned my National Board Certification on my first try. This is NOT typical and I was very proud of this accomplishment. What did I get in return? Nothing. I didn't get a pay raise. I didn't get any "bumps" on the seniority scale. I didn't even get a "congratulations" from my school board or district superintendent. A few colleagues congratulated me(in person or via email). My curriculum director and principals did as well. My department threw me an impromptu celebration lunch. But...other than big fanfare. What I DID get was the knowledge that what I do in my classroom is give my students the best education I can possibly offer them. And, as professional educators, that's what we should ALL be doing.

If you are a teacher, what do YOU do to make sure that you are being taken seriously? If you are a parent or a student, what are you doing to ensure that ALL educators hold themselves to this standard and how are you rewarding those of us who already do?

Merit Pay....

For those who follow the debates on how best to pay teachers, one of the suggestions that continues to crop up is that of merit pay (paying a teacher based on his/her performance). At first glance, this seems like a fantastic idea. Shouldn't we ALL be paid based on how well we do our jobs? The problem arises when we try to quantify what it is that tells us a teacher has done well. Many people feel we should be paid based on our student test scores.

Well, one of my favorite ways of teaching my students is to use analogies. So, here's one for you:

Let's imagine that you are a doctor....a general practitioner, let's say. I am one of your patients. I am morbidly obese. I come to your office for a check up and you feel it is your professional duty to help me with my weight problem. We sit down for an hour and you map out a diet and exercise plan for me. You schedule a follow up appointment with me. You give me information about various organizations where I can learn more, meet people who will support me, see examples of how it's done, etc. After ALL OF THIS, I walk out of your office, drive 1/2 a mile down the road, and order 2 double bacon cheeseburgers, a large fry, and a soft drink SUPER SIZED from my favorite fast food place. I then proceed to sit on the couch all evening with the clicker in my hand and a bag of chips by my side.

Should you be paid based on the amount of weight I lose?

Another doctor in your practice has a patient with a weight problem. This doctor does for THAT patient what you did for me, only THAT patient takes the advice to heart. She begins a sensible eating and exercise program. She has her moments where she slides into old habits, but she gets right back on track a day later. She attends her follow up visit with her doctor and finds she has lost 10% of her weight since the last visit.

Should this doctor be paid 10% MORE than you are because his patient was successful at the weight loss?

And what about the patient you have who has lived a healthy life since high school? The one who ran cross country since she was 15 and still maintains that lifestyle? If this patient doesn't lose weight but maintains the healthy lifestyle she's had for years, should you be paid less or more for that?

Paying teachers based on their students' test scores is not EXACTLY the same as paying doctors based on their patients' success or failure, but it's darn close. And equally absurd.

So, yeah, I'd LOVE to be paid what I'm worth. But until we can put together a system of merit pay that actually recognizes those things that make a teacher effective, this is all smoke and mirrors.