Saturday, December 29, 2007

Blogger identity issues

A semester ago I decided to discontinue this blog and leave behind its writings from a difficult year, with the mistakes I made as well as the awful things that happened to my students - but every now and again there are topics that seem to fit better here than at Coffee and Graph Paper, and I think I'll pick up the 7 random things meme from e to start this blog up again.

Instead of seven entirely "random or weird" facts about myself, here are seven ideas or beliefs that I have held at some point but do not hold anymore. Weird they are, "random" - I don't know. I turned 30 this year, and at some age I have thought that
  • women are best suited for staying at home and minding kids, and that seeking a career outside the home is an expression of selfishness
  • Nelson Mandela was a terrorist
  • the theory of evolution is about the accumulation of advantageous traits from one generation to the next, and that this theory is ridiculous and makes no sense*
  • "whites" and "blacks" are probably better off living in separate areas and developing their different cultures without mutual interference
  • homosexuality is a sort of curse probably rightfully earned by those smitten with it
  • the European Union just might have something to do with the rise of the Antichrist
What can I say? That I believe in education? I cringe while writing these lines even as a statement of notions shed fifteen (give or take a few) years ago.

Also, thinking about the amount of effort, and reading, and discussion, and embarrassment it took to transition from these assumptions to my current ones, it seems a little sad that children are born knowing nothing, that every person needs to start from scratch anyway.

At least we aren't born with ingrained misconceptions of the kind listed above. That's something.

The magnitude of the shift of my ideas invites the question what a list of my current notions will look like in the light of another fifteen years. It's one of the thoughts that makes public writing uncomfortable and underlies an urge to delete entries, discontinue blogs, and definitely keep everything anonymous. Yet, public articulation of one's ideas and trying out arguments against others' is precisely what is needed in order not to get too comfortable with possibly poorly justified beliefs.

This seems a rather random (eh) response to a "7 things meme." I'm preoccupied with this just now because we're having a "diversity training" in January, and I'm dreading it. I hope we won't be asked to dig around in our childhood to unearth our identity there. I have to believe that it is possible to do better than that.

That's one reason why I am a teacher.

*At least there was something to the impatience with Lamarckian explanations. There's that.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

An optimistic reading of these career crises

When frustration with the prospects for growth as a teacher are expressed as eloquently and forcefully as they have been at Teaching in the 408 and at Dy/Dan recently, it's hard to read these statements as mere public airings of private distress at a mismatch between job description and character traits. I still have Snow and Fillmore's remarkably upbeat closing to What every teacher should know about language echoing in my head after reading the article for an ed class recently, and perhaps for that reason reading TMAO's and Dan's complaints about incentives and structures missing in public education in a similar way - as a draft list of suggestions for changes. Back to Snow and Fillmore: in conclusion to a lengthy article about why teachers need to know a lot about educational linguistics, and after insisting that there are no less than six courses in this field that should be included in the preparation of every American teacher (yeah, right), the authors remark that
This proposal may strike some readers as utopian. We acknowledge that we have formulated it without thinking about the structures and constraints of traditional teacher education programs. Nonetheless, we are energized by the current political situation surrounding debates about bilingual education and the rather frantic search for better methods of teaching reading... (emphasis added)
If educational linguistics increasingly does become part of regular teacher training, that would presumably be in part because of this article. If measures are taken to encourage teachers to continue to develop and learn and grow throughout their career, that would presumably be in part a result of writings such as those of TMAO and Dan. It may not be possible to distinguish between a meeting of lost campers stuck on a ledge and an encounter between wanderers who are scouting out new trails and better ways for others to follow, except in retrospect - but it's more fun to read the discussion as a case of the latter. At any rate, for however long it lasts, these blogs challenge my sense of possibility and clarify the meaning of high standards on a regular basis, and that is much appreciated.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

A different kind of place

My new school is a world apart from last year's school. Of course, teaching will probably always involve more work than one can actually quite complete, always absorb all available time and attention. And we always have a share of students who arrive well below grade level and need catching up or have problems. Still - this is just so different!

The administrators are not only law-abiding and sane (which would have been quite enough this year), but also reasonable, professional, competent, kind and thoughtful. Decisions made make sense in educational terms. Teachers are treated with respect. Students are spoken about with compassion and hope. When I see my principal, VP or math department head in the halls my first impulse is, weirdly, to run over and hug them (which, of course, I never do). Such strange reactions may seem less odd given how everyone in the building used to react to the voice or presence of my principal of last year: students would scamper off, disappearing around corners, hiding out in bathrooms or classrooms. Teachers would tighten up, set up blank faces and walk away as rapidly as would seem safe for avoiding attention... When I meet my current VP in the halls in the evenings or during weekends she'll tell me to go home and make sure I don't work too hard. Last year's principal would barge into classrooms and reprimand teachers in front of all the students for not having completed impossible tasks. My current school has as a stated goal of the year to improve in the area of helping struggling students to succeed. Last year's principal told the teachers explicitly that the lower-track students were there "to pay the bills" and advised us not to spend too much energy on them. And so forth. I love my new administration.

Student behavior is also incomparably different. I can identify with Ben Chun's amazed reaction to the fact that his students arrived in class equipped with pencils and paper, and that they would without further ado proceed to use these items to produce writing when asked to do so. That really boggles your mind after you've spent so much energy through a whole year on failing to get students to do this. Other strange behaviors include a homework completion rate of above 90%, an ability to stay more or less on task for 85 minutes straight, and the fact that they will actually allow you several sentences worth of time to explain the rationale for a policy they have objections to - and then accept the policy as a result of the explanation. That feeling you have when you brace yourself to lift something heavy, and then end up recoiling and practically losing your balance because it isn't? I've had that so many times this semester.

Not that things are perfect. I still have occasional classes going off track, and the Friday freshman group from 1:30-3:00 is a challenge. But overall classes are going well, and it's not because I have magically become a better teacher over the summer. That is, I am teaching better, but not due to any dramatic improvements in personality or capacity or wisdom over the break. Rather, the students arrive with fewer issues, fewer inner distractions and distress, less reason to be angry. And if they do have a bad day, we have two counselors - both wonderful people - that they can speak with. A student who appears troubled can get a pass from a teacher to visit a counselor, and the kid generally arrives back in class much more collected and calm 15 minutes later. At my previous school kids could have had a shooting in the family over the weekend and there would be no help for them at school. Small wonder their minds were not on their math classes.

Another strange thing: There are two music teachers and one arts teacher here. So in the teacher lunch room you can actually hear discussions about arts pedagogy and music instruction. That's new and different and wonderful, too.

My new Math Department is fantastic. The tiny PreAlgebra group is taught by a Religion teacher that I haven't talked much with yet. The two other full-time Math teachers - wow. They both have actual degrees in math, and have taught for more than 7 years apiece. They're naturally excited about math in all forms, love upper division math and can do great things with graphing calculators. They also are very interested in and knowledgable about pedagogy and learning theory. And they're deeply committed to helping struggling students through their courses, putting in at least 5 hours of tutoring per week (I'm sure one of them may do close to 10 hours many weeks). I recently observed these two women run into each other in the staff room after 4 pm on a Thursday and start talking about one student who had failed Geometry last year but was doing so much better this year. Then they got completely absorbed in a discussion about just why students tended to display a particular misconception when doing a certain kind of Calculus problem. I don't teach Calculus and just listened, enjoying the idea that I get to work with people like this.

Anecdotal comparisons between this school and last year's school could continue, and the contrast is interesting in a way. But as the positive shock is wearing off, thinking about math instruction is taking the place of reacting to the constant ringing of the moral alarm system (Beep! Beep! This is wrong! This can't be happening! Beep! That's lying! That's unfair! That will positively hurt the students! But...! Beep! How can anyone possibly be getting away with this?! Beep!) Without this noise, the topics I want to discuss are different. In accordance with this shift in attention and focus, I'm planning to pretty much abandon this blog for Coffee and Graph Paper. To those of you who have been reading until now - and to Dan in particular - thanks for listening :) Your kind interest was encouraging.

Classroom Decorations

A large number of my classroom decorations this year were simply snagged from other blogs. Neil Winton and Paul Williams kindly gave permission to use their photos for classroom posters, and here's what that ended up looking like (through the MacBook camera lens, so the image quality is what it is).

I'm teaching at a Catholic school this year, and Neil's beautiful images fit underneath a crucifix stuck to my back classroom wall that I felt a little awkward about. The series of photos, with the reflections of cathedral windows in the child's eyes in the last slide, did nicely - and I've no idea what else could have gone up there. The white background to the photos also fits well with the brown and black of the surroundings, making the white function more like an actual color rather than as blank space, if that makes any sense. In the morning, sunlight enters from a window just to the right of this wall.

Finding a background for Paul's images was tricky. I thought black would be the only good choice, except for the fact that this classroom has blackboard (yes - real, old-style black blackboard with chalk!) on three walls, so that there is already a lot of black in there. The arts teacher recommended this mint green, however, and that worked. Still think I'll change this wall somehow when I get time, which won't be any time soon, but for now this is what it looks like.

The third wall has a fast and dirty version of Dan Greene's idea. One student studying the poster thought "get rich" should be included as a separate item, without any qualifying additions, so that is chalked in to the right.

The text on green and yellow paper are the objectives for Algebra, with the pink arrow indicating where we are now. The row runs along the whole wall. The purpose was mainly to put some color up there to contrast with the ubiquitous brown and black. I do like the historical feel to the classroom deriving from the dark wood, tan walls, brown floor, and old-style blackboards and windows with irregular glass - but it is a little drab for a high school room.

I guess it would be good to have more actual math on the walls. But one of the humanities teachers who wandered in expressed that this was the most "human" math classroom she'd seen (whatever that means), and I'm happy enough with it for now.

Anyway, great thanks to all these bloggers who contributed ideas for decorating a blank classroom in just a few days!

Update: Would be nice if Blogger's preview looked just a little like the published version!

Friday, August 10, 2007

Four slides

Here's my entry to Dan's challenge of selling yourself in four slides. I'm in it for the participation points.

Thankfully, by now one other blogger has submitted without using full name. So I won't be the first one. The readers who would like to produce sarcastic commentary about such practices can go ahead and do so - over on their own blogs, please.

I made the slides in Keynote - my first attempt at using that tool, and that alone would justify the time spent on it. I found the end result to be a little pretentious, but figure at this point I'll learn more from critical comments than from spending more time on trying to fix it. In any case there's no time left for that - and I'll need to add photo credits a few hours later. Got to run.

Photo Credits ...and a word of appreciation for Creative Commons and for those who make their photos available for use by others.

Copyright question

Would using this picture, the purpose of which would be to invoke the campaign that this poster was a part of, amount to an infringement of copyright?

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

No road that is right entirely

Much of the summer has been overshadowed by the shutting down of my school of last year, after some colleagues and I blew the whistle about all kinds of irregularities there. It had to be done, and almost certainly a great deal of harm to future students will be avoided because of it.

However, there is little or no sense of closure or relief now that it is - for me, at least - over. Many students are also hurt by the disruption to their schooling that this is causing, and some are resentful about it. For a 15 year old, the loss of classmates and friends weighs more heavily than that laws be followed and that standards-based instruction be available to all students.

Also, for quite a number, anger is fueled by fear, by the prospect of having academic deficits exposed now that a protective fabric of lies spun by the school has been torn open. On the one hand, all students are entitled to realistic, honest assessment of where they are, and withholding such information from them amounts to lack of respect, to patronization. On the other hand, providing such information without simultaneously offering tools, means, hope for improvement is cruel. You can not bring years of educational negligence down on children's heads and then expect them to enthusiastically tackle the gaps in their learning. Some will give up and go under, learning even less. Most of these students will not receive the kind of remediation and support they would need in order to reach levels that the school pretended they had already achieved.

Of course, such considerations about possible damages resulting from reporting the school were on our minds before we took these steps. It is distressing to be in a situation where no matter what you do - and including the scenario where you do nothing - harm will be done to many, and where the phrase "doing the right thing" does not seem to refer to any option in the real world. One could draw parallels to decisions about going to war under the realization that you'll be killing god-knows-how-many babies before ever achieving whatever "just" goal you're hoping to achieve. But, yeah, this is getting overly melodramatic, I see, I see. No-one was killed in the drama I'm preoccupied with. And with that it's about time - in fact, far overdue - to leave a nightmarish year behind and focus on issues that actually lend themselves to constructive efforts.

Friday, July 6, 2007

“Because it meets an abiding human need” - Last entry on Haberman's book

Yesterday I spent quite some time poking around in a large university library, enjoying the fact that I could find again books I'd read in high school and college at another time, in another place. The rows upon rows of books, many in worn cloth binding, the titles upon titles about matters of which I know nothing, in languages that I do not understand, the characteristic scent of old paper, and leather, and print, the hush of the place – it's electrifying.

While I was a high school junior I discovered that my school's library would allow us to order books from libraries in other cities if we needed them for projects. One book I ordered turned out to be from a university's Biology library. The very idea – that there could be an entire library devoted to just one subject! A Biology library! That implied that there might be entire libraries devoted to other areas too. There might be a Mathematics library. A History library. A Philosophy library! That blew my mind.

Another memory, from freshman year in college, is of picking up a book ordered from a distant library (Popper and Eccles' The Self and its Brain, for the curious), and realizing that my heart rate was increasing and my palms sweating as I checked out the item. There were other books like that, books that commanded full attention and emotional involvement, and that changed my ways of thinking.

I'm wondering about how such a disposition can be taught, or kindled, or inspired, or instilled, or fostered, in my students. The string of metaphors is there because I don't know which description would most accurate. I am also wondering whether this even is an appropriate goal. It seems very old-fashioned.

These past two years I have kept my math- and science related books, and also a number of books on educational politics, civil rights matters, history, some science fiction, in the classroom – and until I got used to it I was bemused by the students' complete lack of curiosity about the bookshelf. A couple of the brightest kids inspected the shelf the first year. During the second year, in a school with much more low-performing students, no-one did - with the exception that my dictionary, which was for communal use, disappeared. My English teacher colleague thought I should consider that loss a positive thing.

We should not, I guess, equate curiosity and a love of learning with bibliophilia, because so much learning can happen without books. Maybe it even must happen without books, just because reliance on weak reading skills would severely limit access for many students. This past year such a large fraction of my students were unable to read comfortably. They could decode text if they had too, but it seemed a deliberate and laborious task, not much like that immediate and unconscious process whereby meaning springs from the page to a fluent reader, where the very presence of text triggers comprehension of the message before the words have even consciously been read.

However, even without conflating indifference to books with indifference to learning – and at the risk of simply demonstrating lack of insight and understanding about my students – I'd assert that they displayed remarkably little intellectual curiosity, and further that it would be better – for them – if they did have more. Again at the risk of merely demonstrating prejudice and patronization, I am wondering how they can be 'taught' (for want of a better word, and certainly not intending to imply that such 'teaching' is anything other than nurturing an existing disposition) to take more interest in more aspects of the world.

Teaching learning by modeling it

Pitting “Learning” versus “Job Training,” Haberman introduces the chapter titled “What Stars Think They're Doing” by holding that
Star teachers conceive that their primary goal is turning kids on to learning – i.e., engaging them in becoming independent learners. This doesn't mean that they don't care about student learning, but that they use learning as an opportunity to create this higher goal of engagement. On the other hand, some teachers see the achievement of specific learning objectives, connected with future employment, as their major purpose. The difference is not that one group values learning more than the other, but that stars see learning as a much broader goal. (p. 15)
As with other chapters of Haberman's book, I find myself alternately musing that his views are beautiful but overly romantic – and compelled by how closely his descriptions of low-income kids and their schooling experiences seems to fit what I saw this part year.

Haberman claims that Star teachers "recognize that children can and will be naturally 'turned on' to learning - not because it is always fun, but because it meets an abiding human need (p. 33)" and that their strategy is to convince the students of this approach by modeling it. In particular, these teachers do not attempt to justify students daily lessons in terms of their utility for future employment:
The elementary teacher who tries to motivate children by telling them, “You will need to know this someday to fill out an application form to get a job” or “You need this to make change at the grocery” is dead in the water as a generator of interest. ... Young children – and even adolescents – are not turned on to learning by the notion of future employment. ... How can a job be used to rationalize learning something about Andrew Jackson, the rivers of California, or the distinction in the usage of that and which in the fourth grade? Exhortation by elementary teachers who seek to make learning relevant to children's future occupational lives will not work because it cannot be done. (p. 32) (emphasis added)
A common sentiment is that the relevance of schooling and hence student motivation can be improved by offering more vocational classes, and Haberman is very skeptical to this approach, almost fiercely so. While I am personally puzzled by the low status frequently accorded to vocational education, and feel that the notion that offering vocational education reflects “low expectations” reveals more about the snobbery of upper classes than it does about the actual level of skill and knowledge required to perform these jobs well, Haberman does offer a strong case that high-poverty children in particular should be exposed to a broad liberal education and to a culture where learning is valued because “it feels good, it is right, it is natural, it can be enjoyable, and it is what we do here (p. 18)."

Children in poverty, Haberman explains, are unlikely to have "out-of-school models who are practicing chemists, language interpreters, writers, or others who can serve as models of knowledgeable people who derive great well-being as lifelong students," people who need no extrinsic reward to be driven to learn more about their field. “Children in poverty rarely, if ever, see such people, even on television.” And what are they missing out on?
... the joys of learning, learning for the sake of learning, the pursuit of a subject in depth because one has become addicted to it, the well-being that is unique to the knowledgeable learner, the sense of accomplishment that comes from hard study and application to a field, and most of all, the endless questions that pursue and tempt the individual who was learned enough to ask. (p. 31)

Only very knowledgeable and intellectually curious persons can become star teachers, first because they impart these dispositions by modeling them: “Star teachers get children to believe in the intrinsic value of learning because they believe in it themselves and are lifelong learners of various subjects, skills, and fields of study (p. 18),” and second because their project of tailoring assignments that students will become engrossed in requires a broad knowledge base: “children's learning can be made relevant to their present lives, but that takes teachers who know sufficient subject matter to connect it with children's daily lives and real problems (p. 32).”

Reading these passages leaves me wondering how they would apply to an Algebra classroom, as Haberman barely mentions either math or high school. I'll take the risk of getting an earful for suggesting that early high school math may not be interesting enough alone to be a great vehicle for teaching the love of learning - I think working up too much enthusiasm for the math can make the teacher appear a blinkered alien rather than a role model in curiosity. Interestingly, mrc and Dan both write about bringing extraneous interests into the math classroom, whether for journaling prompts or for a regularly scheduled show-and-tell session or in any other contexts that allow for it. And this is done deliberately to model eclectic interest and generalized love of learning, presumably under the assumption that the time lost in not working directly on math is nevertheless wisely invested this way.

Learning for lifers

Graduation at San Quentin was last week, and this event is a high point for students and teachers alike. Seven of the graduates were from the college program and earned AA degrees, the remaining 40 or so mostly earned GEDs or vocational certification. Keynote speaker Joe Loya congratulated the students on their achievement, and told them that in seeking an education,
You've moved closer to the world. And at this moment, the world has moved closer to you.
Why do inmates want, or need, an education? In a comment to my previous entry, Marco Polo asks about the students' incentive for working hard, and there are of course layers and varieties of motivation. An AA degree on your parole application looks good, chances of employment after release are significantly higher, and your freedom of movement within the prison can be increased as a result of your demonstrating positive attitudes and activities.

But there is more to it than that. Quite a number of the students are serving life sentences, and they seem no less diligent about their studies. But then, why would they be? In the words of Jody Lewen, who is director of the program,
Why would a person who might be in prison for a long time or even forever, why would that person need an education? I mean, I can't imagine that that person wouldn't need an education. What I guess it shows you, really, is the way we're programmed culturally to think about education, which is basically job training in the most sterile sense. In an educational sense, often they arrive starving...
(my lame transcription, with somewhat random punctuation, from the multimedia presentation on the front page of the Prison University Project's site.)
What happens when students do, for whatever reason, enroll in these college classes is that they - often for the first time - get exposed to an environment for intellectual inquiry, for expanding vocabulary, drawing distinctions, debating, writing. They thrive in it, often to their own surprise. Instructors whose day jobs include teaching free college students on the UC campus often remark on how much greater interest the San Quentin students display in their courses, how much more intensely they get involved.

But then, why wouldn't they be engaged? We should not ask for explanations for this fact, but rather wonder at the expectation that they would not. Most candidates for incarceration are severely undereducated, and learning meets an abiding human need.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Teaching Math at San Quentin

Any mention of teaching behind bars tends to elicit a degree of interest and even respect that is quite disproportionate to the task performed. In response to questions, here's an account of a typical evening of teaching inmates. Be warned, though, that this will be quite prosaic. Adrenaline-charged teaching happens in urban high schools. Teaching in prison is relatively uneventful.

There are, of course, a lot of security measures. Instructors sign in and show ID cards three times on their way to the classrooms, and on your first trip the clanging gates and metal detectors do make a bit of an impression. Soon all of this recedes into the background, however, and your mind focuses on the "teacher lounge" chatter as you wait in line after line. You discuss the evening's lesson, your plans for the weekend, the weather. The cs geeks wrap themselves in an incomprehensible exchange about some arcane programming issue and you laugh at them or ignore them (all the instructors are volunteers, and most are grad students at nearby colleges, and many are friends from the same research departments). The most exciting thing that ever happens is that some newbie gets caught for having absentmindedly brought in his or her cell phone and has to return to the car with it and go through each gate over again.

Once all security checkpoints are passed the Corrections Officer (CO) who supervises the building unlocks the classrooms. You pick up the box of materials for your class from the locker, take out the sign-in sheet, and start writing the agenda on the board. Students trickle in, and go about doing what they're supposed to do: they sign in, sharpen their pencils, take out their materials, and take notes or do practice problems or take quizzes. You lecture or tutor, as the case might be, and give students feedback on their work. The students ask questions and hand you answer as best you can. After about an hour there is a break, and the "close custody" students leave. You have about an hour after that for more teaching, but out of consideration for the students that must leave early you avoid covering new material.

When class is over you pack your materials back into the boxes, put the boxes into the locker, and troop to the first of three checkpoints to sign out. The discussions among the instructors on the way home are often similarly mundane: Why are fractions so hard for the students? What's a better way of explaining the Ruler Postulate? Is the pacing of the course appropriate? How can we improve communication among instructors who teach on different evenings? And do we want Mexican or Thai food for dinner?

You read all the way to the end? I told you it wouldn't be terribly exciting. You get on with teaching math and afterward you go home and sleep. Actually, I'm lying a bit: the instructor team, predominantly made up of Ph.D. students in Math or Science, is a pretty agreeable bunch to hang out with. I mean, if you're a public school teacher you've got to love a group of remarkably bright people whose strongest interests include Math or Science and equitable access to education. The dinner discussions after class can be really entertaining, and on one occasion we built a fire on the beach and toasted marshmallows under a starry sky before going home. So there's that. As far as level of pedagogical and interpersonal challenges go, however, it does not compare with high school teaching at all. In fact, the students' level of focus, interest in the material and general politeness make this teaching a pleasant and relaxed summer vacation activity.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Circumventing the STAR regime - some useful tips

As we all know, the accountability tests stifle real learning and creativity, and punish minority kids disproportionately. Conscientious educators will, then, no doubt, welcome a list of strategies for defeating these tests. Inspired by some solutions designed by this principal, here are some tips to add to your toolkit.

Altering the responses after the students have submitted their scantron sheets is an obvious way to go. The drawback of this approach is that you can all too easily get busted, because the scoring machines can detect erasures, and a statistical analysis of your number of wrong-to-right alterations can land you in the hall of shame. So, you will want to consider other means.

A better approach is to administer a test that enables students to succeed. Give the PreCalculus students the Algebra II test, while kids enrolled in Algebra II take the Algebra I test, and students whose transcripts will report Algebra I tackle the 7th grade standards of the General Math exam. If you delay mailing home the STAR report cards long enough everyone will forget about them. You can repeat this procedure for years without anyone noticing, and the kids will always be a year ahead of the test they're taking.

Of course, applying some thought to the selection of test takers can be very helpful. This is rendered simpler if you track your lowest performing and most disruptive students into the same class early in the year. Come STAR testing time you can temporarily dissolve this class, so that their performance will never be measured. If you feel you need a different reason to expel these students for the occasion, it should be quite easy to provoke an altercation that would merit disciplinary measures, because these are some angry kids.

A different procedure for improving your test taker pool is to utilize your Independent Studies program for diverting students who will not be good test takers. This program serves many students who have dropped out of their various high schools, for example due to pregnancy, family obligations or other issues. Everybody loves a program that assists such challenged kids in earning a high school diploma in spite of the odds. In addition, this program can absorb some kids from your regular day classes who have poor attendance and low scores, so that you can continue collecting ADA funds for them while removing them from the classrooms. A beautiful side-effect is that you can exempt all these students from STAR testing by classifying them all as seniors. A win-win situation all around, in other words.

These measures are all fairly safe, in that you can apply them for years without eliciting much questioning. What will land you in trouble are measures that are relatively inconsequential in terms of affecting student scores. Thus, handing out photocopies of earlier testing booklets will very likely provoke the wrath of the testing authorities, and this is true even though prepping from these booklets will be unlikely to make much difference for your students' scores. Since any standards driving your students' instruction throughout the year are likely different from the ones on which they will be tested, a couple of weeks of test prep by irate teachers is unlikely to earn you many points. Since this will additionally get you in trouble with the nitpickers at the CDE, taking this track is a mistake.

Hopefully both the recommendations and the warnings and caveats listed here will be helpful in shaping your strategy for STAR testing. By judicious application of these suggestions you can ensure that the scores bring your school glory while providing limited comparative data about the quality of your students' credits. This will aid you in getting underserved minority kids into college and out of the ghetto, and since we all share a commitment to this greater good, the value of this list of strategies should speak for itself.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Summer Plans

Per Dan's orders, here's my list:

  1. Catch up with friends and family. Act tourist together with mom-in-law when she comes visiting next month.

  2. Read Teaching English Language Learners, ENVoY, Getting Things Done and Kite Runner. Write a little about them here.

  3. Set up a website for my courses for next year

  4. Plan out those courses.

  5. Go for a day hike about once weekly.

  6. Figure out what exactly those BTSA requirements involve.

  7. Teach math at San Quentin one evening per week.

  8. Revive skills at novelty cake decoration that have completely atrophied the past few years.

Hm, looks like it would be a good idea to get started.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Good teacher, bad teacher

While a good or bad plumber is just good at plumbing or bad at plumbing, an evaluation of a teacher as good or bad carries overtones of moral judgment. In part rightly so, in that the quality of our work impacts children who have little choice about the matter, and in that this impact can be of lasting benefit or harm. It then becomes an ethical responsibility to teach well enough or else leave. Teachers often weigh their various job options partly in ethical terms, noting that while they do have the option of leaving dysfunctional schools, the students do not, and that for the children stuck in there the alternative to a teacher disgusted by administrative failure may well be a teacher who does not care at all.

Research on moral outlooks as predictors of teacher quality and longevity appear to provide contradictory conclusions. In the article Teacher Burnout in Black and White, Martin Haberman refers to one study that indicates that
the notion that altruism can be the motivation of teachers serving diverse children in poverty should be problematic
while later referring to another, older, study which concludes that
special education teachers who stay express an altruistic purpose and deep personal obligation to serve their students. Those who leave have an unselfish regard as well but lack the depth of conviction found in teachers who stay.

In the same article, young idealists, who burn out in droves within few years, are contrasted with "strong insensitives," teachers who stay because they do not care enough to be discouraged and who take no responsibility for student failure. Haberman refers to studies that suggest that actually
teachers who leave have less of a negative impact on schools and students than those who burn out but remain in teaching.
Staying beyond some critical level of exasperation does no-one any good.

Who can stay in dysfunctional schools and do right by the children for an extended period of time? If these are, as Haberman suggests elsewhere, typically non-judgmental and apolitical, able to focus on their classrooms while chaos reigns outside, then they are probably not the same people as those who are inclined to shake up and reform a school, to start a new school, or to take action to drive out administrators who do harm. A certain set of personality traits may be needed for protecting learners and learning in a poorly run district for an extended period of time, and since large, high-poverty school districts have crushingly great inertia such teachers are sorely needed. A different and incompatible set of inclinations altogether would seem to be needed for reorganizing and reinventing schools to serve students better.

This complicates the simplistic idea that somehow a good teacher is a good person who does what is good for the kids, and it replaces elements of the moral judgment inherent in the expression "good teacher" with a question about a good fit between teacher and situation. If matters of teacher quality overlap with the domain of morality, being a "good" teacher in the moral sense is in part a matter of chance and circumstance. I suspect that much public debate about teacher quality would be more constructive and engender less defensiveness if teacher effectiveness were cast in more relational terms and less in terms of personal ethics.

Sunday, June 10, 2007


Having done the job search rather haphazardly and half-heartedly for too long, I am suddenly in the position of having to make up my mind fast. I have to choose between accepting an offer from a parochial school that acted remarkably quickly, or else declining it in order to wait, probably for weeks, while the public school district processes my application. This year as last year, I applied to a very few non-public schools as a backup plan. Last year the only private school I applied to contacted me, scheduled an interview and offered a position all within a few days. I declined in order to work in a public school. This year a parochial school has completed the whole process in two days, and now I have to make up my mind in a hurry.

Ideologically I am committed to the public school system and to the schools that have the most difficulty with attracting qualified teachers. I have also gained a year of hard-won experience with the peculiar challenges of such schools, and it would seem a waste not to seek an opportunity to apply this learning. I am not terribly well cut out for such jobs, however. A colleague charitably described my performance as running hard with short legs. I am knowledgeable and hard-working and care a lot about the students, and they notice all of this. I am also absent-minded and distractible, and my voice does not carry well. A lack of confidence and an inclination to feel guilty without much reason makes things worse. Predictably, classroom management is an issue.

A judgment of my ability to educate students in high-poverty areas can be tempered by the fact that the school I worked in this year is particularly dysfunctional. Many classes have had attendance rates below 50-60%, and so the composition of these classes has changed from day to day. A complete lack of access to student records has complicated planning and appropriate student placement. There has been no school-wide discipline system. The principal would reprimand teachers in front of the students for mistakes they had not made. The school will probably either be closed or under new management when August comes around, due to legal irregularities. While schools in high-poverty areas are frequently plagued with worse administrations and less structure than other schools, I have reason to believe that this one is worse than is usual even for this area. Creating a safe, productive learning environment inside the classrooms would be correspondingly harder.

Even so, a number of teachers at my school certainly were much more successful than I at establishing normalcy, routine and involvement in their classes. In contemplating the alternative to accepting the job offer I have, I am deterred not only be the prospect of waiting for weeks without knowing anything, but also by the possibility of undertaking too difficult a job. I am certainly willing to work hard and to face up to my weaknesses, but there is nothing noble about going to battle without appropriate arms. I have some hours left to make up my mind.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Haberman's teachers speak well of their administration

Among those of Haberman's insights that simultanously surprised me and rang compellingly true, that felt like an articulation of what I have always known as well as triggering a sudden, cold realization of mistakes made this year, was his description of how star teachers relate to their administration. The teachers with whom he is concerned live and work in dysfunctional schools, typically under inept, corrupt, indifferent or authoritarian administrations. The teachers themselves are of a kind that are strongly inclined to initiate projects of a sort that cause inconvenience to the bureaucracy, as they tend to organize field trips and interdisciplinary units that involve extra noise, trash and student movement. In consequence, Haberman's stars are constantly in negotiations with their superiors in order to protect learners and learning from rigid rules and uninformed directives. However, while constantly scheming and working to carve out space for their projects, these teachers will defend their administration in speaking with students and parents, and will carefully avoid suggesting that their superiors are to blame for any restrictions on activities that the students are learning from.

As for other unusual behaviors of Haberman's stars, this tactfulness, this willingness to act as "the grease between the children and any school rule or policy that would grind them down" (p.93), has its origin in great sensitivity to particular aspects of life in poverty. Star teachers intuitively know of their students that
These children and their families are constantly abused or mistreated by bureaucracies such as the welfare department, health providers, housing authorities, insurance companies, the criminal justice system, utilities, etc. Children in poverty do not need to learn to believe that their school is just another selfish bureaucracy that claims to be helping them but is really run for its own convenience. (p. 40)
In the interest of instilling in their children some trust in society's institutions, these teachers are willing to take the heat for a decision they are fighting against, as when their principal orders that a popular and effective project be discontinued. The stars "do not want the principal to lose stature in the eyes of children" (p. 40), and besides, they "want the children to see them as decision makers and not merely people who must follow orders." Hence, they will present the decision to discontinue a worthwhile project during class hours as their own, while finding some way of continuing the work after regular hours or in some other way.

'Quitters and failures,' in contrast, when asked whether they would inform their students of the real reason why they are discontinuing a project that students enjoy, typically respond that they "always tell the truth." While this may sound principled and morally impeccable, this approach gives away a lack of attunement, a lack of understanding, with regard to the realities of poor children:
For children in poverty, succeeding in school is a matter of life and death. ... They must make it in school or spend their lives in hopelessness and desperation. ... Teachers should not lead poverty students to believe that schools are just like all the other bureaucracies ... Stars are sensitive to this, and will protect the school principal and stick up for school rules and policies even when it is exceedingly hard to do so. ... They know that they must get students to believe in schools even if there are particular things about school that sometimes don't work." p. 40

I work in a school whose administration is incompetent and corrupt, and the students sense that something is wrong. Does this affect their attitude to what happens in the classroom? Of course. In that awfully clear light of hindsight I think I see that it would have benefitted the students greatly if the whole staff had agreed from the start to protect the students from knowledge of irregularites, waiting until external forces strong enough to fix the problems could be summoned. Instead, we let a word slip here and there (and, to be fair, some of the shady practices are so glaringly obvious that students have discovered them on their own), and so it should not surprise us that students do not take their schooling very seriously at this point. I am not sure that we could have protected the students from disappointment and cynicism if we had tried, but the unfortunate thing is that we did not try very hard either.

How can teachers who care deeply about students' quality of education bear to work under administrations who hamper and undermine their work? Would not these teachers be particularly likely to be outraged, to resist and protest? Some probably do, but I suspect that a selection effect guarantees that there are not many of them in high-poverty schools. Teachers who are prone to too much righteous anger at systems and structures that hurt their students will burn out and leave, because large, dysfunctional bureaucracies are stronger than young, idealistic individuals. This, I suspect, explains why the stars that Haberman studied
tend to be non-judgmental. As they interact with children and adults in schools, their first thought is not to decide the goodness or badness of things but to understand events and communication. ... They are not easily shocked ... They do not see themselves as saviors who have come to save their schools. They do not really expect their schools to change much. p. 93
This ability to simply "get on with their work and their lives" (p. 93) in cases where it is not clear that they can help distinguishes Haberman's stars.. This invites some reflection on my own reasons for becoming a teacher. For many of us, a concern with social justice, an outrage at the enormous inequities in access to education, are among the strongest motivators that brought us here. Would not such people be particularly disinclined to picking their battles with care, to disregarding gross neglect or worse in their administration? I am not sure, but if that is the case, and if I am reading the lesson from Haberman's studies correctly, we are doomed to early burnout unless our motivation shifts and we become swayed more strongly by those factors that keep Haberman's stars in teaching. Those include deriving great joy from interacting with children and youth, and in a love of learning and learning encounters - overly sweet as that may sound. That will be the topic of the last Reading Diary entry on Haberman's rich little book

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Effort grading, Mastery Grading, and other dichotomies of dubious value

This entry grew out of a comment on Dan's comment on the previous entry; it just got too long. It's basically a continuation of the previous text.

I certainly agree that “as a teacher, I've got to know what you know” - the question is rather how this knowledge should be translated into a grade, and this question should probably be answered differently for different student groups, and that is the point, a point I wish I'd understood better at an earlier time.

During my first year I taught in a fairly functional school, was drilled in mastery grading, and read a lot about the importance of keeping standards high, and of emphasizing learning outcomes (what matters is that the students are actually prepared for life after school, not how they feel about themselves now). Then, when I started teaching in a much more acutely poor area last fall, it was like starting from scratch again. There certainly were some significant cases of students rising to my demands, braced by the challenge maybe, students who - surprised and shocked by the idea that they would have to do stuff and know things in order to pass decided to go ahead and do stuff and know things. That is what most literature I had read suggests students will do if you show that you believe that they can do better. However, there were also so many, many students who did not. Haberman's book, like no other I have read, feels as if it really describes the students I teach, the characters and challenges of my classroom. It is also the first text I have read that describes emphasizing effort over achievement as the good and right thing to do, instead of citing this approach as indicative of low expectations or even racism.

Again, some students do need to be taught to emphasize learning outcomes, and some will put forth more effort and learn more when they receive a lot of data about how they are doing. On the other hand, those students who have attendance rates of, say, 50% or less, who are staying out of school for weeks at a time in order to take care of younger siblings, who are still working through their grief over the loss of one relative when the next is killed, who are already dabbling in drug dealing or prostitution – many of these students are just not going to rise to the challenge of finishing their homework or passing their test. In retrospect, I think that the best thing I could have done for these students would have been to show myself to them as being really happy whenever they arrived, to make them feel that if they'd show up again tomorrow that would just make my day (Haberman's stars convince their students: “I need you here” (p.83)). In order to do that, I would have had to spend more time on running and sleeping, and less time on keeping their miserable homework records updated (records whose only real function is to prove that they do indeed deserve an F). I would have had to spend less energy on freaking out about how nothing they know about grade-level standards, and more on thinking about interesting things they could possibly do and get involved in. I would also have had to worry less about classroom conduct not looking right (especially given the absence of clear school wide standards for behavior) while investing more time in knowing and liking the students the way they are. Reading Haberman has made me see awfully many missed opportunities in the past year. Feeling guilty about it will not enable me to make the students feel more welcome at school, however, so I'm trying not to.

Teaching students in poverty is different from teaching other students, and we learn too little about this in education classes. Marcie advises, “When grading or making expectations remember Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. If the bottom two parts of the triangle are missing from your student's life, they are in survival mode. Children in survival mode learn in a whole different way.” They do. I guess the problem with teaching new teacher candidates about this has to do with the fine balance – or rather, the necessary tension – between, on the one hand, having faith in the students' abilities and communicating this faith with firmness, and, on the other hand, showing understanding, giving slack, and convincing students that you want them to be in your class even though most grade-level work will be inaccessible to them. Perhaps we can discuss this in a responsible way only if we can curb the desire to find one right answer, to resolve the conflict once and for all, because any slogan-style conclusion of the kind "keep expectations high!" or "be gentle, the students have enough to contend with" will miss out something, placing us at risk of battling and kicking out students who will not respond to our great standards, or else of resigning to letting students do and learn too little. There are dangers of under-, over- and just mis-estimating the students on all sides. What "best practices" are depends on the student population and on the culture of the school, and maximizing learning is a complicated optimization problem subject to many different parameters. In a school like mine - no, in fact, in two of my classes and for a percentage of my students - emphasizing effort far more than achievement would most likely have led to more learning, in part just because it would have made me a little less discouraged. But now it's late in the year, and I can't do much more than chalk up a lesson learned, and hope to do better next year.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Reading Diary: Haberman's "star teachers" grade less

The introductory lines of one of Haberman's sections on what star teachers do not do surprised me:
Star teachers spend as little time as possible on tests and grading. Apart from particular school rules that must be followed, they are generally quite disinterested in the topic. Their evaluations are based primarily on students' effort. ... [T]hey have little faith in - and place little credence on - standardized tests of any kind. (p. 12)
These lines had me questioning whether Haberman is strictly reporting what great teachers do, as opposed to revealing his preconceived notions of what great teachers must do. However, Haberman does claim to have identified the star teachers on the basis of a combination of measures including their students' standardized tests scores and their principals' ratings, and he claims to be just describing typical traits of thusly selected teachers. Besides, Haberman's evident attunement to the peculiar challenges of students in poverty makes it impossible to simply dismiss his statement as overly ideological, and I am forced to try to reconcile his observation with what I think I know about certain really effective teachers' work.

A recurring theme in advice on teaching struggling students is that of constant assessment, of incessant feedback, and at first glance this contrasts with Haberman's description of star teacher practices above. However, much of this tension may come from conflating grading with assessment. While I may not be following established definitions here, in my mind 'grade' and 'assessment' ring differently, and 'grade' connotes a more vague and also a more definitive judgement of – what exactly? Some average of test results, work completion and attendance, usually. In contrast, 'assessment' connotes (in my mind) a snapshot of a more specific competency, a snapshot that can be replaced by a more updated version when competency is improved. A system of small, specific assessments where the best score always counts, where there are numerous opportunities for improvements, and where there is a clear emphasis on progress could perhaps serve to elicit and reward the student effort that Haberman's stars are said to be so preoccupied with.

Further appreciation of the good sense of the stars' said tendency to de-emphasize grades comes from understanding why these teachers are so obsessed with encouraging effort:
Children who explain their failures on the basis of ability are prone to think less of themselves and to try less. If it's all a question of ability, one should succeed with little or no effort and, by third or fourth grade, most youngsters in poverty believe this to be the case. Thus, youngsters who make this attribution are left in an at-risk position at a very early stage of their school careers... [Star teachers] emphasize effort in order to keep youngsters involved in the system. (p.13. Emphasis added)
This rings so true about my students. They refer to themselves and each other as either 'smart' or 'dumb', and if they are 'smart' they seem to feel that should not need to do the work (and they should also not need to prove that they already know the material – they resist any tasks that might expose confusion). The notion that excelling can be a result of working hard rather than of just 'getting it' is not one that they bring to school. I am finding my earlier commitment to 'mastery grading' challenged in reading and thinking about this.

For context it is worth noting that Haberman is writing about elementary school teachers, and also that his focus is on teachers in dysfunctional schools. These are not the kinds of schools where failing a student would most likely result in the student cheerfully retaking the course, thus learning the necessary skills not mastered at the first attempt. Whatever sense mastery grading makes, it presupposes some level of reason and order in the total structure of the school, some official prerequisites and expected learning outcomes for each course, maybe. If these are absent, it is not clear that mastery grading does all that much good. If a student has been enrolled in 10th grade Geometry without mastering 5th grade arithmetic, failing this student for not coming close to mastery of grade-level standards is probably not going to encourage a lot of learning. Bringing five years of educational negligence down on the student is probably not going to persuade the child to work really hard to catch up. For all the merits of mastery grading (such as being honest with the students about what statewide expectations look like, emphasizing academic rather than behavioral learning outcomes, keeping standards high), in the context of a dysfunctional school where a teacher has control over only the learning happening in his or her own room, mastery grading appears to have serious problems to it. It seems reasonable that Haberman's star teachers would typically spend a lot of time on gathering materials for interesting assigments and little time on grading:
I have never met a star teacher clutching a grade book, or averaging grades based on test scores, or taking papers home simply to grade them, or meeting with parents just to share grades, or ... grouping children on the basis of grades, or complaining about grades, or happily entering grades on permanent records, or using grades to explain to a child how he or she is progressing. (p.13)
Also for context, it is worth noting that these star teachers, while typically avoiding formal tests and emphasizing effort over results in their own rooms,
...willingly submit to having their children tested to show that they are learning as much or more than children being taught by typical textbook instruction. (p. 38)
In other words, it seems not so much that these teachers do not consider mastery and academic learning outcomes important, but rather that their understanding of their students makes them conclude that focusing everything on effort is more likely to bring about involvement and learning.

Finally, I confess that one thought that shot through my mind when reading the passage about star teachers' grading practices was that “here's one reason why they manage to stay in the system for so long”. Grading is a task that, for me, grinds away motivation like few other things. It's not just the tedium of it, though here is certainly that too, but rather the repeated reminders that the dear students still do not know what I have taught and reviewed and retaught. Maybe a greater emphasis on student effort would shift focus toward what development there is, and toward the possible and attainable, instead of focusing attemtion grimly and relentlessly on the ever distant goal of mastering what children with 10 years of quality instruction behind them can do. Maybe their emphasis on effort is one reason why Haberman's stars don't burn out. Some readers will no doubt interpret this as an apology for lowering expectations and underestimating students, and maybe that would be a fair criticism. To that I can only respond that if you are able to grade for mastery of grade-level standards when kids start the course five or more years behind, without having the students give up and stop working, then I would very much like to hear about how you do that.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Reading Diary: Haberman's Star Teachers, Entry 1

I wish I'd read Haberman's 94 page volume Star Teachers of Children of Poverty much earlier! That might have saved both me and my students some frustration. Anyway, it is an enlightening and galvanizing read.

Haberman has observed and interviewed large numbers of "Star Teachers", teachers who are considered excellent according to standards such as their pupils' standardized test scores, their principals' evaluations, colleagues' ratings, and parents' judgment. He claims that some 8% of teachers in large urban school district are such "stars", and proceeds to describe how they think and work, and how what they think, say and do differs from what "failures and quitters" think, say and do. I find myself alternately nodding in recognition of what works in a high-poverty school, and cringing when reading some of the descriptions of failures' and quitters' approaches to the peculiar difficulties of these classrooms. I share traits of both star teachers and failures/quitters.

Haberman writes off teacher education as directed toward middle class kids with middle class problems. He claims that a teacher preparation that would lead its graduates to classify a majority of their clients as "abnormal" is unhelpful at best. He tears apart the notion that students "should" be at grade level when they enter a class, and that the classrooms "should", as a prerequisite for teaching, contain only more or less decently behaved students. His ideas here echo TMAO's harangues against those that would define the major challenges of the teaching job to be somehow outside the domain of teaching, to be distractions rather than inherent parts of the task (or maybe TMAO is echoing Haberman, as Haberman undeniably has been around longer:). Haberman claims that teaching children of poverty really is a very different story, and that teacher training should take this into account.

Interestingly, and in contrast with much of what I have been taught about classroom management and discipline, Haberman reports that star teachers spend little time on discipline, have few rules, do not follow a predetermined set of escalating consequences, are not concerned about letting students 'get away with' things. He ridicules the notion that 'consequences' can keep children in these schools under control, let alone in a state of learning. A colleague and I have often discussed how 'consequences' can ever be seen as a threat to students who daily negotiate danger, pain and inconvenience that are greater by orders of magnitude than anything the schools can impose. We have never gotten this approach to work, the idea seams laughable when we consider the backgrounds and attitudes of our worst behaved students (almost invariably the ones who have witnessed violent deaths, loss, and repeated, intense frustration) - yet our university mentors always keep repeating that there must be consequences! - and this Haberman guy, who sounds like he's actually been inside this kind of school, just brushes this notion aside. What works is building relationships with the students and finding ways of involving them in learning. If that doesn't work, there's nothing else that will work either. Maybe it is actually just as well that I didn't read this before starting to teach in this place, as I might have written him off as an overly idealistic romantic, but really, I think he is right.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Just getting started

Reflection papers? I'm almost done with them, I think. if all goes well, I should have a preliminary teaching credential when summer comes, and this favorite kind of assignment of ed school professors will be a thing of the past. Can't say I'll miss these papers - but I will miss the class discussions and regular readings on relevant topics. However, joining the blogging teachers would be a way of continuing both readings and discussions. I've learned a lot by reading other teachers' blogs - and would like to be able to initiate discussions myself, as it is hardly polite to divert a discussion on an other blog too far from its original topic in order to get my questions aired. With that, I should be ready to replace required reflection papers by writings on this site, and class discussions with debates in the edublogosphere. I hope we can learn together.