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.

A few haiku....

In honor of National Poetry Month (and because my student teacher recently taught haiku with two of our classes), I decided to post some haiku I wrote a few weeks ago. These actually started springing up in my head on the drive home from school. I had to keep repeating them to myself so that I wouldn't forget them. I was on the way to pay my cable bill and ended up sitting in the parking lot at the phone company scribbling these on my phone/cable bill envelope. Hope you enjoy!!

4 Haiku

Those who can, do; and
Those who can't, teach. So said Shaw.
I beg to differ.

May these four haiku
Written on my way from school
Inspire deep thought.

Boy stands in graveyard
Texting on his grey cellphone.
Will someone reply?

He can text all day -
Share his grief and his longing.
Their hearts feel no more.