Saturday, June 27, 2015

Somebody Has To Tell Them

       Nobody likes to hear bad news.  And nobody wants to be the person to give the bad news.

       In our public schools, we (sometimes) have the following problem...a student is not achieving at an acceptable level.  He tries to do well; he does some things well; but overall his achievement is too low for his grade or age level.  Public schools have lots of ways of helping students to raise their level of achievement and (indeed) it is our job and moral responsibility to do so.

       The problem is that someone has to tell the student and his parents that he is achieving below grade level.  That is a hard conversation to have.  No teacher wants to tell their students' parents this news.  No parent wants to hear this news.  But someone has to do it because we don't want to allow students to go through school thinking that they are doing fine (academically) when, in fact, they are below grade level.

       Sometimes we try to give this news through grades on report cards or via standardized testing grades, but the message doesn't always get through.  Sometimes students get a few good grades on minor assignments and parents "hang on" to those grades and seem to ignore the poor grades on the more major assignments.

       And so, sometimes students go through elementary and middle school thinking that they are doing fine and then they get to high school and struggle with their academic course work.  Even worse, sometimes these struggling students even go through high school with no one in authority ever telling them that they are below grade level.  These are the students that go on to college and (only) then are finally told that they do not have the ability that they thought they had--no one ever told them.

       Our job is to help students to learn.  Part of that job is telling students how well they are learning.  We don't help our students by letting them think that all is fine when it isn't.  Someone will tell them at some point, so it might as well be sooner rather than later.  It doesn't have to be an argumentative conversation.  Teachers and schools will help students to do better--that's our job.

       One way to communicate this message is to have a grading policy that rewards high academic achievement and discourages mere compliance with school and classroom rules.  While we certainly want students to behave in school, what we really want is for students to learn in school.  Teachers who have high expectations for their students and are very clear about those expectations tend to have students who reach those expectations.

       It's OK to tell students that they have not achieved the goal yet.  It doesn't mean that they will never get there, but it does tell them that where they are (academically) is not acceptable and they have to do more, try more, and achieve more.

       Somebody has to tell them.  Be brave and be the one who cares the most about your students.  Be clear about your expectations and tell students when they have and haven't met these expectations.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Why Do You Teach?

       The school year ended four days ago and I am thinking about welcoming my teachers to the next school year.  (Wow.  That was a short summer vacation.)

       Every year in our school district the teachers return to school one week before the students return.  On one of the days of that first-week-back, all of the secondary teachers in the district meet in their subject areas for a full day of professional development before the school year begins.  This is a time to learn about new resources, to network with other teachers in other schools, and to energize teachers to get excited about the new school year.

       We know that an effective teaching strategy for student understanding is to ask a lot of questions that encourage students to think about what they are learning.  If students can explain what they are doing and why they are doing it, they must understand it pretty well.  It also reinforces the idea that we want students to understand underlining concepts and not just to get-the-right-answer.

       In that vein, I am going to ask our teachers some questions in an effort to encourage them to think about what they do and why they do it.  These question will challenge the teachers to consider different possibilities.  They will be questions that defy simple answers.

       I'm in the beginning stages of preparing this presentation and I am certainly open to suggestions.  Feel free share (in the comment section below) other questions that you feel would be good questions for teachers in the beginning of the school year.

(1) Why do you teach?
(2) What are your goals this year?
(3) What will you do differently this year?
(4) How will you make a difference?
(5) What do you want to learn this year?
(6) Why is mathematics difficult for some of your students?
(7) How will you help students who don't ask questions?
(8) How will you engage your students in their learning this year?
(9) How do you help your students to value "learning" over "getting-grades"?
(10) Why do you teach?

       We ask (or should be asking) our students difficult questions every day.  As such, we need to ask ourselves difficult questions.  Teaching students who are willing and able and ready to learn is easy.  But trying to reach the unwilling, the struggling, and the distracted student takes time and effort and expertise.

       Why do you teach?

Friday, June 19, 2015

Summertime Learning

      Summertime may offer a break from formal schooling, but learning can take place in all sorts of formal and informal ways throughout the summer.  Many school districts offer summer programs that are part academic and part recreational.  Boy Scout and Girl Scout summer camps offer lots of learning opportunities that involve working with groups of people as well as individual projects.  Of course many libraries offer summer reading programs for children of all ages.

       Family trips during the summer offer children the opportunity to learn about different places and different people and (perhaps) different foods and different climates.  There are also many online programs that help students to sharpen their math skills such as TenMarks and Discovery Education.

       Learning takes place in all sorts of settings and in all times of the year.  Summertime can provide time for families and for children to explore interests and build on abilities.

       What will you learn this summer?

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

How Do You Define "Winning"?

       Expectations play a large part in our perceptions of just about everything.  If you go shopping and expect to pay $75. for good pair of running shoes and find out that they only cost $50. you're happy because it was less than you expected.  If, instead, they cost $125. you're not happy because it was more than you expected.  But what if your expectations were not reasonable?  What if the average cost of good running shoes is $135.?  Compared to this average, it seems like a pretty good deal to get a good pair of running shoes for $125.

       How do you define "winning" when it comes to the education of your child?  What are your expectations?  To what do you compare your child's progress?  Some people look at the comparison of their child's test scores with other students in the class.  In high school, some people look at their child's class rank (which is a comparison of your child with other students in his/her grade).  Other people might look strictly at letter grades.  Are these legitimate measures of comparison?  What if your child always earns the top score in his/her class, but the class is below average when compared to the achieve of all students in the school?  Is your child really "winning" if everyone that he/she is surpassing is below average?

       This competitive nature of ours is misplaced if the goal is to win (or to appear to win) without any concern towards actual learning.  This is why education has standards.  Standards tell us--grade-by-grade--how we are doing compared to where we should be (academically speaking).  When these standards lead to a college-ready status, they tell us that our children are on the path towards being ready for the rigors of college-level work when they are still in middle and high school.

       This comparison is important because too many of our students are graduating from high school being told that they are "winners" because of some lesser standard that they've achieved only to find out that they are not prepared for college.  Less than 50% of students who enter college ever earn a college degree.  If our high school graduation rate was this low, there would be a national outcry from every corner of the country.  But, for some reason, at the college level, this figure is considered acceptable.  Why?

       Our high schools have to be willing to give our students (and their parents) the hard truth about their academic ability.  We should help them as much as we can and we should be compasionate when we give them this news.  But we have to make it clear exactly where they stand when compared to the standards.

       High standards are not an insurmountable barrier.  Most students rise to the challenge when they are pushed to think harder and do more.  If "winning" is important to us, then let's win for real.  Let's push our students to reach their potentials.  They can do it with our help.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Congratulations to All First Year Teachers!

June, 2015

Dear First Year Teacher,

       Congratulations on the completion of your first year of teaching.  You did it!

       After making the decision to be a teacher 
  • and finishing your degree 
  • and navigating the job market 
  • and landing a teaching job
you have reached the point in the school year where you can look back and say, "I did it.  I've completed my first year of teaching."

       You probably learned some things that you didn't expect to learn--and that's a good thing.  (Learning is always a good thing.) For instance, you might have learned that some students didn't retain the learning they had previous years.  This might have caused you to consider different teaching strategies to reach these students and to help them to learn this year's content.  Secondly, you might have learned that you understand your content so much better now that you have taught it--compared to when you just had to learn it as a student yourself.  This might have caused you to consider that your students (too) may learn well be "doing" or by "teaching" (or explaining) what they know with other students.  Lasting, you might have learned that great lessons may take a lot of time to prepare and not-so-great lessons can be prepared quickly--and you have to find a balance between the physical time you have and the your desire to keep your students motivated to do their best.

       Mostly, I hope you've learned that teaching isn't the sort of profession in which people start out knowing it all.  Teaching is the sort of profession in which people get better at it the longer they do it.  I hope you asked your colleagues a lot of questions this year.  That shows that you are interested in growing and improving as a teacher.  (You may have noticed that the teacher across the hall from you--who has been teaching for ten years--also asks a lot of questions because she wants to continue to improve every year.)  Using different resources, using electronic resources, using different teaching's a lot to learn in a signal year.  Every year you will hear about new and cool stuff that you can use in your classroom.  So find the thing that's right for you, and do that extra one or two new things next year.  But don't worry about not doing it all; or not doing what that great teacher down the hall is doing.

       Learning about teaching is a big part of teaching.  There is no "one way" to be a great teacher.  (That's why no one has given you the Book of Directions of Teaching.)  This is what makes teaching hard--that non-educators don't realize.  But it is also what makes teaching a true profession in which professionals such as yourself need to get together to make the best decisions for your students.

       Enjoy your time off this summer.  But also spend some time reflecting on this past year.  What was great that you want to repeat next year?  What didn't work that you want to improve upon next year?  What is the cool digital tool that you heard about and never had time to learn about and that you may want to use next year?  Look for webinars to attend; find people and chats on Twitter that will broaden your horizons; read a book about teaching or teaching strategies that may be specific to your area of teaching.

       The best teachers are always learning and always improving.

       Be a better teacher, and the next year, and the next year.  And (again) congratulations on the completion of your first year of teaching.  You did it!  See you next year!

Monday, June 8, 2015

How Much Help is the Right Amount of Help for High School Students?

       Parents and teachers want school-age children to be responsible--at least, "responsible" given their age.  But what is the right amount of responsibility for a high school student--or for a new college student?  How much "help" do 16 year olds (or 18 year olds, or 20 year olds) need to navigate the rigors of high school courses, college courses, and college life?

       Some high school students seem to breeze through high school with very little guidance from adults while others struggle--same for college.  These students make some teachers say, "See!  They can do it, so anyone of you can do it."  But is this just a "sink or swim" mentality?  Does this viewpoint help students learn responsibility, or does it prevent them from succeeding.

       On the other end of the spectrum, some say that we help student too much in high school and (so) they aren't prepared for the independence of college courses.  (Is it true that college teachers don't help their students?  I hope not.)  High schools help students to remember deadlines and they offer after-school help.  Is that "too much" help?  What is the proper balance of teaching responsibility and helping students to successfully navigate courses and school programs?

       I believe that their is value in allowing students to make mistakes and to learn from those mistakes.  I also believe that we should not be so extreme in our "caring" at the high school level that we (as teachers) do too much for students to the point that they only doing-what-they-are-told and are not learning anything.  But should we allow them to fail a course if they know the content but struggle to meet deadlines?

       Should we really expect 14 year old 9th graders to hear a long, long, long list of directions and rules on the first day of school and then penalize them for not following rule # 56 on the 23rd day of school?  Should we have to remind 11th graders of the term paper deadline everyday for three weeks?  How much help is the right amount of help?

       I think my main concern is for students who capable of learning what they need to learn at a satisfactory level (or higher), but they struggle with skills such as organization, planning ahead, learning school procedures (such as college course sequences), and meeting deadlines.  I know that these skills are important and (certainly) we want these future employees to have these skills.  But is high school and college the right place for penalizing teenagers and young adults who are still developing these skills?  I am particularly concerned about students who drop out of high school or college due to a lack of organization and not due to a lack of academic ability.

       As public schools, we should do everything we can to help our students to succeed.  But how much "help" is too much help, and how much "help" is too little help?

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Comparison to the Standard

            Recently I saw my doctor to check my cholesterol level.  This is something that I don’t worry about enough and (hence) know little about.  As my doctor went through the various numbers for my LDL, HDL, triglycerides, and glucose I became very confused because I didn’t know which numbers were “good” and which were “bad”.  I asked him, “Is 90 high?”  His response was intended to be helpful but instead I found it to be completely useless.  He said, “It’s better then most men your age.”

            Now I realize that we live in America and competition is at the heart of many of our activities, but everything in life is not a competition.  Why should I care if my cholesterol is better than “most men my age”?  I’m not going to win a prize for having better cholesterol than the next guy.  I happen to know that two-thirds of Americans are overweight.  What would it matter if my doctor said that my weight was better than “most men my age”?  I was hoping my doctor would give me a range of numbers that some team of professional cholesterol doctors had determined was reasonable.  I was hoping that my doctor would tell me the standard for cholesterol.

            We do the same thing in our schools.  We want (for instance) all students to be proficient in reading and mathematics.  But the only thing that many educators seem to care about is whether or not we are doing better than school X or district Y.  I think it makes people feel good to be able to say that they are better than some other school down the road.  But the truth is, the only comparison that matters is the comparison to the standard. 

If (for instance) we want all students to read on grade level by third grade, than that is the only comparison that should be made.  For example, let’s say that last year 63% of the 3rd graders in our school read on grade level and this year 69% of our 3rd graders read on grade level.  We are approaching the standard.  That’s it.  We could say we are succeeding in approaching our standard or we could say we have not succeeded because we have not yet reached our standard.  But there is no good reason to compare our results with other schools as a measure of our school’s success.

When we allow a school to compare its students’ proficiency rate with that of another school, we create an illusion of progress and a false sense of pride.  

You can always find some school somewhere that is doing worse than your school.  But that may only mean that your school sucks less than that other school.  Student achievement isn’t a soccer game.  We don’t “win” just because we got a higher “score” than someone else.  If there is any winning at all, it comes when education professionals set high standards and students meet (or approach) those standards.  That is the only comparison that matters. 

As for me, I need to start eating less and exercising more.  If there is a standard for cholesterol, I really, really want to reach it!

Public Schools and Choice

       Is it true that public school kids and their public school parents don't have choices?  I'm sure that I will expose my igno...

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