Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A Report to Consider as We Teachers Self-Assess

As I wrap up my semester, I worry over students who failed and consider what I could have done differently to teach them better. However, I don’t take credit for the students who succeed. The students who succeed always seem as if they came to me ready to fly; teaching them has been my pleasure, but I don’t feel as if my lessons tipped the scales for them. If I know I’m not responsible for students who succeed, why do I think I could have changed the students who did not? Michael Winerip’s recent New York Times article, “In Gaps at School, Weighing Family Life,” discusses the findings of a new study, “The Family: America’s Smallest School.” Completed by the Educational Testing Service, the study “took four variables that are beyond the control of schools: The percentage of children living with one parent; the percentage of eighth graders absent from school at least three times a month; the percentage of children 5 or younger whose parents read to them daily, and the percentage of eighth graders who watch five or more hours of TV a day. Using just those four variables, the researchers were able to predict each state’s results on the federal eighth-grade reading test with impressive accuracy.”

Listen, this report isn’t really news; it simply collects in one place many variables we’ve heard about before. I just really want to make sure sincere teachers hear about this report, not so we teachers can abdicate our responsibility, shrugging our shoulders and holding up our hands in defeat but because this report confirms that teachers and schools may not be the only major factors in students’ success. Even as I write that, I feel a little silly. It looks so egocentric in print. I understand that my students who do well succeed because of parental support, good attendance, a family culture of reading, and a home environment that supports studying and learning; I think I would have described those factors before hearing about this study. The culture of education, however, continually critiques me, the teacher, for students who struggle. The factors impeding some students’ success can be piled up before teachers meet them, especially when teaching high school. I’ve compared myself to a triage nurse; sometimes I’m just trying to stop the bleeding—I don’t also get students reading and writing up to grade level. I assess myself as having failed those students somehow. But really, how can a teacher, in forty-two minutes a day, expect to compensate for the challenges described in this study?

Should I continue to extend myself to students who are behind and believe they will make great strides? Absolutely. The conviction that I’m here to help students grow is at the very core of my desire to teach. However, this study does vindicate the responsibility I feel as some students slip through my fingers. We need a different ruler for these students. Measuring students who start so far behind as failures because we don’t bridge the gap in one year isn’t fair to those students or to us teachers. We need to measure the distance we gain from where students begin to where they end up even if that still leaves those students behind grade level. Otherwise, the demoralization will kill students’ motivation and wear us teachers out.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Friday, December 7, 2007

Dear Younger Teacher Self: Keep the Holidays Grading Free!

Dear Kate circa 1997,

Hello, sweetie. It is I, your older and wiser self in 2007. Recently, I looked at some pictures of you, and I’m stunned at how exhausted you look. I realized I sleep better now due to lessons I learned through you, and I wanted to see if I could give you a head start by writing to you, so you can get more rest all the sooner.

Look, teaching isn’t like college or graduate school—you don’t plan for it to end in a few years! You plan to do this for twenty or thirty years, so please pace yourself better. I’ve learned so much from you, and there’s one thing I want you to know right away: Keep the holidays grading free. Don’t look at me like that…you have almost two weeks before the winter holiday season; I want you to re-work things so your students have the vacation to work on the major stuff instead of you collecting it before the holidays and grading it on vacation. I see you shaking your head. I know you think you’ll never be able to grade it without the vacation time to do it, but I’m here to assure you that you will. A rested and relaxed version of you in January can do amazing things…

Here’s what I know that you don’t know: Every year there will be good reasons for you to spend your vacations grading. The sense that you’ve caught up and all the preparation is finished doesn’t come for teachers. Teaching is a vocation that puts no boundaries on self-sacrifice. However, I now know that without some genuine R and R, you’ll start to resent teaching, and that will depress you. In 1997, it’s your third winter holiday over which you plan to grade; I know you’ll do it next year, too. In fact, you’ll take “landscape journals” students kept on setting across three months to California with you when you spend Christmas with your future husband’s family. (You’ll meet him the summer of ’98.) After that is when the resentment starts to flicker, so you leave the grading pile at school next time and guess what happens? You get it done when you return. Consider the following:

  • If you collect things after vacation instead of before, the students will appreciate the extra time; you’ll be seen as generous not lazy.
  • Teachers draw strength from their personal cheering sections of friends and family. By spending the holidays truly present instead of tucked in a corner furiously scribbling on “the pile,” you’ll be investing in your own support system who will be there for you when you need them.
  • In the future, you’ll be a parent during the holidays, and that means you’re the one who makes the holidays happen around your house. If you don’t learn how to pace the work to leave your holidays free now, you’ll lose out on so much enjoyment as your children grow…
  • Students deserve for the person who grades their work to not feel overly burdened by it. Distance really does make the heart grow fonder!
  • Vacation days in education are unpaid, and once you really start thinking about that, you’ll start to sour yourself, which fosters negative feelings you don’t need.
  • Enjoying your life is one of the most restorative things you can do for your classroom energies. Many, many people envy the teaching calendar. Give yourself permission to enjoy it.

I know you are never certain that what you do is enough, and carting around a big pile of grading gives you a sense of penance, a sense that you are working hard enough to earn the title of teacher. Kate of 1997, your students will wait another week for papers in exchange for your genuine delight at seeing them again after the break.

With much affection,
Kate, 2007

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Friday, November 30, 2007

Should Students Fail for "a Little" Plagiarism?

I don’t have a problem enforcing grades in general. Where I struggle is when students complete the most grade-significant assignment, such as the research essay, and then I find plagiarism, copy/paste plagiarism that their report has found for them. All they needed to do was fix their essay before giving it to me, but many students cry fatigue, or confusion, or time crunch. They don’t dispute the plagiarism; they dispute that plagiarizing in the research essay means they fail the assignment.

Do I fail these students? So many students don’t even turn in the research essay that it feels like a waste to fail the ones who plagiarize, too. “At least I did it!” they tell me. “I’ll fix it!” Grabbing the nearest pen, they slap on quotation marks and some parentheses as I wonder how they know which resource to place within the two half moons. Does accuracy matter to them? I get the sense that they think my insistence that their work be 100% documented is as esoteric and arbitrary as if I required Roman numerals or Latin inscriptions. It feels like absurd bourgeois academic bologna to them. “I only missed a few sources,” they’ll explain. “I don’t understand why it’s such a big deal. Look!” they say as they show me the freshly inked page, “All better!”

I’ve spent weeks trying to explain it is a big deal. I have mini-lessons, group work, book passages, and online interactive activities to help them understand the nuances of academic integrity and documentation. We discuss how they have joined the world of academia and must attentively use the words and ideas of others. We even have that snazzy software,, which highlights the matches found on the Internet for them. All they need to do is check to ensure that those matches are, indeed, documented. Many students tell me candidly, “Oh, I didn’t check my report. I felt good about my essay. I didn’t know about that one part. How ‘bout I fix it for you?” The idea that I wanted them to find the plagiarism, that I’m trying to teach a man to fish here, falls flat. The cold clutch in my stomach predicts that honest documentation is the new spelling: 100% accuracy is an unrealistic goal that no rubric will require.

We are at odds, these students and I. My department and I think that plagiarizing on the research essay means a failing grade, and my students think plagiarizing means losing points. For the past two days, students have argued with me over this issue. No one argues that he or she didn’t plagiarize. My students argue that their lives are too difficult for the kind of attention I required. I’ve been told terrible stories about divorce battles, cancer treatments, and financial woe. Students have begged. They’ve cried. I’ve cried. I feel a little crazy—maybe plagiarizing isn’t such a big deal when it’s not the whole essay? Am I suppressing these students? Isn’t the fact that they tried enough? Must their work meet a standard of honesty, too? (I haven’t really read them yet, so there’s yet to be a question of quality…)

The process sickens me. I lose my perspective (and my desire to teach). Why do they turn this on me? This expectation has been made clear in the syllabus, the directions, my lessons. Why am I such a draconian person for expecting their work to be properly documented when that’s what I have been teaching them how to do and what 75% of their classmates have done? I’ve been teaching thirteen years, and I cry about this almost every semester. Reading the newspaper or watching the news, I’ll see reports about “lowered standards in our public schools,” and I’ll think, “I can’t be a part of that. Reduction of expectations in the public school is akin to systematic oppression of the poor.” Yet when I’m in the middle of this grading plight, when they beg me and explain their lives are too difficult to write with attention and integrity, to please, please, please not fail them, that they’ve never written such a big assignment before and that failing it would crush their spirits, I’m so unsure that my expectations have merit. The world feels topsy-turvy, and my nerves vibrate in my hands and neck as I worry what the right priority should be…

This semester, I’ve decided those students can write another research essay on another topic with completely new sources. I’m letting it be due after the winter holiday, which means I probably won’t be teaching them when it comes due, that I’ll have to do grade change forms in the midst of starting a new term. If they plagiarize again, even “just a little,” they get the “F.” If they do a good job meeting the requirements, including the shocking standard of academic integrity, then they earn no more than a 70 on the assignment. The tears have been wiped away. My concession is satisfactory. Am I a chump or a compassionate educator?

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Educator

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Collecting Research Essays is Only the Beginning

If they made a TV reality show called So You Think You can be an English Teacher, grading research essays would be the final elimination round. Like leaning on a pole with one foot off the ground, grading the research essay requires stamina, focus, and dedication. This week I collect research essays from five class sections of English I, and I’ve been preparing myself…

Unlike the competitors on many reality shows who must only worry about themselves, English teachers confronting stacks of research essays must ensure that students are also prepared. Truly bad essays in the pile, the ones that don’t follow the most basic of directions, can turn a grader’s spirits more seriously than a rock in the road can sprain an ankle. To prevent such injury to her most precious grading instrument—her ability to care and think reading the essays carefully actually matters—a grader must ensure that her students write the best possible essays, which often requires pre-grading. Like any strategy, pre-grading tries to invest time and energy early on to help things fall into place at the end. By evaluating thesis statements, quality of sources, Works Cited MLA format, and rough drafts, graders can smoke out future problems.

To best prepare for the endurance required with research essay grading, pre-grading should end at least five days before the actual collection due date. Between pre-grading and collection, graders need rest and distraction. Watching movies and carbo-loading so that life does in fact seem worth living can help. The lurking enemy for English teachers in this final round of serious semester grading is not other teachers successfully whipping through their piles, but apathy, losing steam. By banking up on life’s short-term pleasures, teachers can build a reserve of joy and hope for the week of close grading ahead.

The first day after collection, the grader may want to look over the entire stack for Big Problems first. Students who did not use enough sources, or who wrote in the wrong voice, or whose report shows flagrant plagiarism, need to be dealt with in a calm way. Negotiating what happens next with these students takes lots of energy that may not be available after the entire pile has been graded. Here’s where the pre-grading energy really pays off. Teachers who have records of letting students know at different intervals that they needed to make changes can more readily enforce grading policies now. Parents, counselors, and students themselves respond differently when chances to recover have already been ignored by student writers. Knowing that the Big Problems have been dealt with already will buoy the spirit of the grader as she faces the stack, too.

Now comes the actual grading. Essay after essay, the grader needs to summon up interest and respond with encouraging words. Grading for days…Sixty-five essays left… “No, I can’t watch a movie. I know it’s Saturday night!” Fifty essays left… “No, I’ll have to call her back.” Thirty essays left… “Three before a cup a coffee…Two more before I get a glass of water…Grade the Works Cited before checking email…” Ten left. Ten! Only ten left! Other assignments wait to be graded, piling up on the corner of my desk. Students ask often (constantly?), “Do you have my essay?” If this point in my semester did occur on a reality show, I would film my one-on-one confessions with the camera during this time, wiping away tears as I sobbed about not knowing if I could finish reading all of them and beating my fists against my thighs as I wondered how I could have made the fact that I wanted it double-spaced more clear. Every twenty-fifth essay or so, I encounter a student who has written a beautiful, thoughtful, well-edited essay, and I suck it in like pure oxygen as I continue. Then, like dental work, the stack finally ends. Each semester it feels like a miracle, but in truth, grading the research essay successfully results from stamina, focus, and dedication. No, we don’t win a million dollars. However, paying active audience to students’ written product, really reading what they write, may just seed tomorrow’s thinkers. That’s a million dollar hope that I bank on each time I dive into the pile.

Good luck with grading, everybody! I’d love to know more winning strategies…

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Friday, November 16, 2007

NYC "'Re-Brand[s]' Academic Achievement"

When I taught in an urban school district outside of a major U.S. city in the mid to late 90’s, I often complained that I had no currency with my students. Being marked late, earning failing grades, losing my approval, falling behind in lessons and feeling lost, risking long-term achievement—all currencies my teachers had used on me—did not make much of an impression on some of my more difficult students because they didn’t “buy-in” to the education system.

Well, New York City plans to take the economic metaphor for this problem one step further. As New York Times writer Jennifer Medina explains in “Reaching Out to Students When They Talk and Text,” the city plans to launch a pilot program in twenty-four schools this January that “’re-brand[s]’ academic achievement.”

Medina writes, “The plan, designed by Roland G. Fryer, a Harvard University economist who is overseeing the school system’s program of paying students who do well on tests, was approved by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg last week. Dr. Fryer said he viewed the project in economic terms, arguing that while the administration’s previous efforts have focused on changing the ‘supply’ at schools, this one is proposing to change the ‘demand’ for education by making students want to seek learning.” The city hasn’t settled on an exact plan yet, but essentially, the idea is to give students in the pilot schools a cell phone and send them advertising and text messages, perhaps even celebrity phone calls, all geared towards school achievement. In addition, students will be awarded prizes such as phone minutes and concert tickets for specific achievement. Teachers will be encouraged to provide extra academic sources through the phones as well.

I had a dream about this program last night. I remembered how my high-achieving college roommate found out our sophomore year that her parents started paying her younger sisters $5 for each A they earned. My friend had brought home almost all A’s sans financial reward. She wrote her parents a bill for her twelve years of schooling, which they paid sheepishly. Her sisters have finished high school and college by now, but arguably, my friend still has a deeper love of learning and reading. I thought about capitalism and how it depresses me. Many of my current students resent having to study literature. “How will this help me be a computer engineer? How will this help me be a nurse?” I find students want job training rather than education. The concept of being wealthy with knowledge does not exist as it once did. Many of my students see learning as something to be gotten through in order to earn their threshold salary. It makes me wonder why people of their generation will teach, for the salary isn’t what motivates most of us.

However, then I thought back to the students I didn’t reach because I couldn’t share the concept of deferred gratification during the ten months that I knew them. My parents taught me my love of education. My household of people who played Scrabble and knew so much more during a game of Trivial Pursuit than I did fostered in me a genuine desire to know more. I find New York City’s idea of extrinsic motivation distasteful, but what if it really does save kids? I witnessed first hand how students who feel disenfranchised and who don’t have a strong family to fall back on can just get swept into the current of drugs and crime. Lots of sixteen year olds have things they want; if students don’t think they’ll one day earn them with a paycheck, resisting shoplifting can seem futile. Clearly, this economic program to increase student “demand” is kissing cousins with bribing students, but if it drags them through the high school degree, might it be worth it? Or are we officially proclaiming that it’s just about the money? Will this motivate students to cheat to get their “reward” since actually learning the content still won’t be on the horizon? Is it worth a try?

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Friday, November 9, 2007

Students Who Sustain Me

Amidst my students who ignore directions, procrastinate, and plagiarize, shine the students for whom I do this whole teaching thing. A good percentage of my students work hard and honestly, but they treat researching and writing like tooth hygiene: annoying but not worth the penalty of skipping it. For a smaller, but significant percentage of my students, researching and writing becomes addictive. They fall in love with the intoxication of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. I try to breathe these students and their enthusiasm in; its nectar needs to sustain me through grading the pile, after all…

One student wrote a rough draft of a thesis statement in favor of one group in an ethical dilemma, but when he turned in the final draft, he had completely switched sides. I don’t really care which side of the argument students choose, but I commented on his switch. “You noticed that, huh? Yeah, I wrote the first one before I’d really read any of the articles. That first argument was my opinion based on just stuff I’d heard other people say. But when I started reading the research, I just couldn’t feel that way anymore, so I switched my argument around.” Seriously, a speech like that from a student makes me weep. That’s all I’m really going for here, for students to learn to find their own information and form their own opinions. That’s why a democracy educates everyone, right? We don’t always get to see that kind of growth during one semester, so when I catch a glimpse, I savor it…

Another student came to me with her revelations. “I thought I knew about this subject,” she exclaimed. “But so much has happened with it in the courts during the last year or two that the whole issue is changing! This issue is so important to me, but I haven’t been paying much attention. I didn’t realize that the way our government works can change things so quickly! I’m going to write my Senator, and I’m talking to my family about making a donation to some non-profits that work on it, too.” Okay, I wrote about this student in my journal. I wrote a sticky note about it and stuck it to my monitor. While I’m weeding out those who copy/paste, other students are truly starting to care about their society and are beginning to understand how research and writing impact their relationship to the big, bureaucratic machine.

These students count as so much more than their total number or percentage. They will be leaders throughout their lives. I write about them to praise them, but also, to force them to occupy my mind a little longer. I obsess over those who quit or cheat or fail to engage; somehow, it is much harder to remember those who learn to fly. These students fill my spirit, and I believe their excitement will inspire many of their fellow students as well.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Limiting Research Topics: Controlling or Supportive?

In my teacher preparation classes back in the early ‘90s, experts advocated allowing students to self-sponsor their topics for their writing, and I agreed whole-heartedly. My identity at twenty still aligned more closely with the student than the instructor, and I resented all the topics teachers had foisted upon me across the years. Fifteen years later, I realize I have switched camps.

I still believe in all the reasons to let students self-sponsor topics for their writing, but I tell myself I don’t have time to let that process unfurl and flourish. I have benchmarks to meet by specific deadlines, and allowing students to pursue a topic that may not work out seems like a luxury of time I can’t afford. Besides, rather than teaching twenty-five or thirty students at a time in a writing workshop atmosphere, I teach over a hundred at a time, and keeping them all at roughly the same stage of process through an essay helps me navigate that volume. Through years of experience, I’ve learned which topics are more difficult to research or which topics’ arguments in professional journals might be too dense to comprehend in the time I’m giving my students. Currently, I’m grading my students’ research essay thesis statements. For their research essay, students pick off a list of about fifty topics. If students have another idea that isn’t on the list, they need to get my approval, and much of the time, they get it.

The times students don’t get my approval on a self-sponsored research essay topic, their topics probably fall in one of two categories: too difficult or too likely to be faith based. I had a student who struggled with syntax want to write about the American economy going off the gold standard, how that changed the twentieth century economy, and what dangers it poses for the dollar in the future. Oh my! In my opinion as a writing teacher, that topic requires a writer who has already conquered sentence clarity. For the student in question, I said no. The student isn’t happy with me, but I paternalistically think I’ve improved that student’s chance of writing a passing research essay.

Besides topics I think are too difficult, I ask students to avoid arguments I fear will be faith based. I don’t allow students to write about general abortion laws; they can write about selective abortion as the result of amniocentesis, but that’s about it. I don’t allow discussions about sex education or prayer in public schools either. Why? Well, in my hard-won experience, students have a tendency to write faith based arguments for those topics, which are so difficult to grade. I’m trying to help students develop the ability to write a sustained, supported, logical argument, and faith exists beyond those criteria, which I know as a person of faith. When a student writes, “God teaches us that this is wrong,” it pains me to write, “In the United States, laws need to represent those people who don’t believe in God, too—why else is this wrong? What secular reasons can you provide?” over and over and over again. Faith based writing is important, but because it doesn’t rely upon causal reasoning, it’s difficult to evaluate. I tend to skip over it which seems like shortchanging the students. I’ve determined that students can learn more in research writing by not being able to use faith based arguments in the first place.

As I write my reasons, I feel confident that they best serve my students. However, I mourn for the writing teacher I imagined I would be in contrast to who I actually am. In my college pedagogy, students’ self sponsored topics related mostly to personal writing. In my classes, I do almost no personal writing with my students in accordance to the curriculum and learning objectives set by my school system. We focus on persuasive, third person essays. While we do some journaling and response writing, that’s not the writing I respond to the most or reinforce as most important. My curriculum focuses on teaching how to write an argument, and so to does my determination to work on what I think students will need the most in their lives as college students, as voters, as individuals researching information for their wellness or business pursuits. It’s just that I’ve looked up and realized I am now the teacher who foists the topics, and that makes me a little sad…

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Educator

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Educational Triage: Academic Integrity or Logic?

I have taught the research essay for over a decade; my skills at teaching the components of the essay, the elements of documentation, and the aspects of academic integrity have grown with each set of students. However, the distance between my skill set and my students’ misunderstandings about plagiarism seems to grow each year despite my gains. This week, I collected short essays in which I asked students to quote one professional reading at least three times. Before submitting their work, I asked students to use; I release the report to them so they can use the tool as a safety net and make changes before submitting the final draft to me in class. A record number of students committed paraphrased plagiarism; they put parenthetical notation, acknowledging the source of ideas, without using any quotation marks to signify that they copied the writer’s language word-for-word. highlighted these “matches,” and the students chose to make no changes before submitting their work to me.

More and more, students tell me they had no idea quotation marks could be used for something other than dialogue. Yup, it’s true. I’ve tried to address this misunderstanding in written directions and class lessons; sadly, this misunderstanding about quotation marks seems to co-exist in students who also struggle with reading and attendance. Sometimes I feel ludicrous. I’m pursuing the curriculum appropriate for students’ age level, but my content doesn’t meet the comprehension level of a growing proportion of students. I don’t have a quantifiable assessment, but when students don’t understand the various uses for quotation marks, I suspect a lower reading level. How much can someone read and still be unaware that quotation marks are needed for someone else’s text when it’s copied word-for-word? Especially if that student has read specific directions for the very assignment? Today’s technological students are surrounded by dialogue—texting, instant messaging, cinema and t.v.; expository reading seems easy to dodge. Rather than fail all offenders, I offer students an opportunity to correct their work for the lowest possible passing grade…it’s a teachable moment, right?

Here’s the cost: I spend so much time teaching students not to plagiarize—in all its various forms—that I spend less time on excellent logic and argument in writing. I spend so much time teaching students what not to do, that I accomplish very little on helping them express authentic discussions of their own. Sometimes I think I need to work exclusively on critical reading before moving on to critical writing. Am I putting the cart before the horse, asking them to care about intellectual property before they’ve had any of their own? I think I cared about academic integrity because I felt I had a dog in the fight; I had ideas and expressions of ideas to which I planned to put my name. My students and I spend so much time clearing up what it means to be honest, that we don’t spend a significant portion of time ensuring that students write about ideas of any consequence.

A colleague of mine attributes the growing number of students who don’t understand that the syntax, the words used to express an idea, can be “owned” to the open-source nature of Internet information. Upon Googling “plagiarism,” for example, a student might find five sites that define and explain the concept with the same exact language, and one site makes no reference or gives no credit to another. The words, in effect, seem to be the public domain—common knowledge has been extended to word-for-word expression.

I know as teachers we can spend a weekend talking about “kids today” and the problems with the Internet and plagiarism; I really, really like the Internet, and I like teaching with it. I just want students to understand about quotation marks, to value written expression as worth crediting to someone else. More and more, with each passing year, I feel old, beating my intellectual property drum before a people who find satisfaction in the facsimile without concern for its origin. What line is worth fighting for on the front of research in our brave new world? Should I surrender some of the paraphrased plagiarism energy and work harder on the logic? With fifteen weeks in a semester, I’ve got to prioritize, and when I’m in the trenches like this week, I lose my certainty as to which is more important.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Educator

Thursday, October 18, 2007

What's my Job Again?

When I first started teaching, it astounded me how quickly teaching my classes didn’t seem like enough in the school culture. “Good” teachers, I learned, did lots more than teach effectively. What would I sponsor? Would I like to coach? How about committee work? Ironically, these additional pursuits sometimes take much more of my focus than actually teaching my students. This week, I’m coordinating a conference and distributing a department-wide exam, and I’m embarrassed to say, when my students asked me questions after class, I felt like they were distracting me from my “real work,” keeping me from what I’m at school to do. Nutty, right?

Ultimately, all the additional projects I take on are rooted in the goal of “helping students” or “improving education.” It pains me that those very pursuits I give my extra hours to also drain me of some patience and interest in my actual, flesh-and-blood students. “I’ve answered that already,” I’ll think to myself as a question forms on a student’s lips. “Does this story have a point?” I’ll wonder when my committee work obligations pile up or the club I sponsor is having a candy sale. I feel like a parent writing an essay on the joys of raising a child as said child cries for attention in another room…

I’m not sure why the “extra” jobs in education fill me with a greater sense of urgency than teaching does. In part, I think it’s because those jobs offer a higher profile and greater variety than teaching. If I work really hard on the literary magazine, the principal is more likely to hear about it and compliment me than if my lessons are excellent and my patience un-ending day after day. Working with discouraged learners, I’ve determined that consistency is the way to go. Consistency in my lessons and management style creates a successful, stable climate, but like with a good, nutritious diet, doing the right thing can get old. I think I get sucked in by the variety of skills and ideas I get to use with an “extra” project like organizing a professional development day. It mixes things up a little…

These concrete tasks also give me a greater sense of accomplishment because I can actually see that I did it, and I did it well; they can be quantified. The department exam gets distributed successfully: clear directions, numbered tests, reasonable deadlines. The professional development day goes well: enough parking, yummy lunch, meaningful presentations. The markers of a successful semester aren’t as easy for me to identify even after years of teaching. Some students understand while others don’t. Some students grow while others struggle. For how much can I take the credit or the blame? The favored metaphor is that teachers “plant the learning seeds,” which while lovely, also means we might not have the student anymore when the time comes to assess the harvest.

My students weather my extraneous education deadlines; they understand that teachers have stresses that ebb and flow, too, and they expect me to reciprocate to the rhythms of their own lives. I just like to remind myself that teaching them well is the point of what I do despite the fact that I can’t measure it. While I might be wooed by the singular jobs that come my way, teaching students well and patiently is my chosen work. I hope I get through this week without thinking too often, “Gosh, as soon as I teach my classes, I’ll be ready to start working!”

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Friday, October 12, 2007

How Should We Court Parents?

I’d love to tell you that I first read about Damian Frye during my careful daily reading of the New York Times or through my conscientious attention to my NCTE newsletter. However, I first met his story on the parenting site when I read Madeline Holler’s “Hey, Teacher, Leave those Kids’ (Parents) Alone.” According to Tina Kelley in “Spreading Homework Out so even Parents have Some,” Frye teaches ninth grade in Essex County, NJ and asks parents to do things like “read and comment on a Franz Kafka story, Section 1 of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and a speech given by Robert Kennedy in 1968.” Good stuff, eh? Here’s the kicker: “If the parents do not comply, Mr. Frye tells them, their child’s grade may suffer — a threat on which he has made good only once in the three years he has been making such assignments.”

He goes on to explain “that all the students’ parents had computer access and that only two had told him that they were not fluent in English; one posts on the blog anyway, one sends her responses to him privately, by e-mail. Another parent phones responses in to him. Tony Lopez, a corporate lawyer who posted a lengthy reaction to the Kennedy speech…said he was actually glad to do the weekly homework.” At this point, I’ve read Holler’s annoyed blog, Frye’s enthusiastic testimony, and a hundred or so of the comments posted to the New York Times article, and I’m still not sure what I think…

NCTE’s own Carol Jago praised elements of Frye’s assignments but also “cautioned against penalizing students for something that their parents cannot or refuse to do.” As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I purposely teach discouraged learners, so I’ve taught a higher proportion of kids whose parents might not be a resource. Computer and Internet access for parents, in fact computer literacy for parents, could not be assumed where I taught high school. I also taught in districts where instituting a policy that showcased one child’s socioeconomic differences against another’s was frowned upon. One county-mandated unit I taught required students to interview a family member, and even that benign requirement got dicey; some students ended up interviewing a close adult relationship within the school instead because of stories too sad and varied to record here. It upset those students for other kids to know they didn’t have a close relative…I’ve never taught honors, but some people commenting on the New York Times’ thread laughingly predict the competitive nature of parents coming to fisticuffs on Frye’s blog since “the parents probably write the students’ essays anyway.”

Suffice it to say, I cannot emulate Frye’s assignment in my classroom because I don’t think it would work for the kids I teach. However, I’m struck by his innovation; I haven’t spent much time thinking about how to involve my students’ parents in their learning. My relationship with parents has been more like teammates as we work their children’s I.E.P. plans into the mainstream classroom or (thankfully—less frequently) it’s been…um…I’ll confess…defensive on my part. The state I taught in required four years of only one subject—English—so the grades students earned in my class garnered lots of parental attention that sometimes devolved into bullying the teacher. (Gulp. It only happened once, but I’m not sure I’ve experienced many things as stressful as looking up into my doorway and seeing an angry parent in her coat, arms folded, expecting to meet with me unannounced because of a message I’d left about her child’s performance…) So, anyway, the idea of courting parents has not occurred to me. I thought about parent involvement with the kids who worked the literary magazine I sponsored; heck, they gave their resources often to our penniless endeavor, but it is a new idea for me to consider crafting assignments so that parents can have “intellectual conversation with teenagers who are normally less than communicative.” I hadn’t considered that part of my job as I drafted a unit. So now I’m wondering, is it part of my job?

When I really think about it, I like the idea that my assignments would enhance dinner table conversation for my students and their families. I often wrote the goal, “Students will foster an appreciation of literature” on the board after “Students will cooperate in groups” and “Students will punctuate full sentences correctly.” While I’m not comfortable with Frye’s policy of grading students in part by their parents’ performance, I will really think about inviting parents into the process, of using my lessons as a neutral gathering ground for parents and children to meet, because I believe that is part of the power of reading and discussing literature. I believe it has a curative power—why not let my students witness that in their own lives?

The discussions I’ve encountered online debate whether or not Frye should do as he does. I’d love to hear what my fellow English teachers think they could do instead…How can we take what works about his concept and adapt it to our own circumstances?

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

I Need Spirits--Yes, I Do. I Need Spirits--How 'Bout You?

So, umm…I’m wrapped a little tight. I like routine, which is part of what I love about education. I think the comma really, really matters. So things like Homecoming and its preceding Spirit Week can make my eyes twitch. Sometimes Spirit Week made them roll in their sockets. Okay, to be fair, just the left eye…

It took me a few years to understand that Spirit Week is the week when adolescence trumps education, and that’s okay for one week. Theoretically, I’m all for school spirit, pep rallies, big games, parades, and formal dances; it’s just in practice that I get anxious. Early in my teaching career, I thought I could stem the Spirit Week tide, but I soon learned to go along for the ride. One week, right? It’s not like I was SGA sponsor! (God bless SGA sponsors…) Spirit Week winds the student body up like a top, and teachers just need to guide the spin through Friday…

What would Monday of Spirit Week bring? Pajama Day? Hat Day? The variance from normalcy started slowly. I actually liked Pajama Day. Not because I participated, but because teenagers who wear very little clothing on a regular day tended to wear darling, modest flannel p.j. sets, complete with pig tails or sleeping caps and the whole thing smacks of Peter Pan in a way I find charming. Because of my before-mentioned leaning towards tension, I did worry about a fire drill with so many students clad in stuffed animal slippers that didn’t lend themselves to actual locomotion, but I digress…

By Thursday, the pulse of energy amongst the students began to make my own heart palpitate. Thursday was often Mix and Match Day. By then, any students in my classes of disengaged learners who were invested in the school in any way were probably absent due to hallway decoration/float building/dance organization/pep rally preparation or the like. Those of us who remained eyed each other warily. My students dared me to teach a lesson of consequence during Spirit Week. Would I prove such a Spirit Week Scrooge? Mix and Match Day’s disconcerting visual montage exacerbated my anal disposition’s discomfort that the school had wandered from the rigidity I knew and loved. Students neatly braided half their heads but allowed the other half to flow freely. One high heel would be worn while a flip flop slapped alongside it. Jarring color combinations swirled around during hall change. Eventually, I found it easier if I stayed up ludicrously late Thursday night, for total exhaustion would make it easier to ride the surreal wave of Friday…

Ah, Friday of Spirit Week…Students wore the school colors on their…well, on every conceivable surface. Change of class became the center of the day; classes are merely where students must wait for the real action, doled out in four to six minutes of passing time. The bell schedule was modified to allow for the pep rally that would be held at the end of the day. I actually relaxed on Friday. In my sleep-deprived haze, I realized my world of forty-two minute lessons subdivided into six or twelve minute tasks could not exist. No administrators asked about NCLB goals or if my county objectives were on the board. “Thank you for coming in,” they said as they rush by with their walkie-talkies. “Let’s stick together!”

My first high school pep rally as a teacher scared me. Coming in rested, I remained completely aware that we, 172 adults, had grouped approximately 2200 students into one room, which pulsed like a hive and gave off heat from the bleachers in those strange swirly waves like pavement on a highway in August. Then, the band played music, and speakers encouraged the student-bleacher conglomeration to stand, to compete by grade level, to wave…Young girls in tiny outfits (yes, exactly like American Beauty) roused strong feelings in our hormonal crowd. The potential for disaster made my mouth dry. In front of the doors stood twenty or so of us adults, the rest of us peppered around the gymnasium as assigned by a diagram found in our boxes two days earlier…Our front line consisted of six to eight men, most of whom suffered from at least one of the following: bum knee, lumbago, high blood pressure, asthma, or gout.

With experience, I realized that total disaster rarely rages at a pep rally because the students mostly—wait for it—enjoy it! High school consists of a huge social component, and even students who don’t care for school spirit, sports teams, or competitions, certainly enjoy the anarchy Homecoming imposes on the school structure. Students who didn’t necessarily excel in my class might excel at the many venues Spirit Week and Homecoming provide, and because it happened right during school, I got to see and admire it. Heck, a pep rally can make stars out of the band members! I learned to wait a week to cure illiteracy and eradicate lazy thinking. Besides, the week after Spirit Week would be fantastic. Students took at least three days to replenish their stores of energy, and I got a lot done in that time…What kind of spirit does Spirit Week rouse in you?

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Thursday, September 27, 2007

If a Teacher Lectures and No One Listens...

Trained in the Nancy Atwell-era, I’ve only ever delivered a mini-lecture in my classroom, which usually tops out at about 15 minutes. However, part of my responsibility is to prepare students for professors whose expertise and style may better lend itself to lecture. Despite a few bum experiences, I often found lectures illuminating and captivating as a student. Isn’t the ability to listen attentively a skill worth teaching?

In her Washington Post piece, “Breathing Life into the Lecture Hall,” Valerie Struass explores the current state of the classroom lecture in today’s colleges. Not surprisingly, professors talk about using PowerPoint and/or clicker systems to enliven their lectures and ensure students are engaged. At the end of the article, however, Strauss shares the observations of Julie Reuben, a Harvard education professor: “Professors often spend their adult lives researching a particular topic and feel they have a unique synthesis and understanding of the research. They want to talk about their work. And although the process of putting together the lectures is a creative, intense experience for professors, it doesn't always translate to students who have to sit and listen, Reuben said.”

Who hasn’t sat and listened to someone wax poetic about something he or she found fascinating that ceased to fascinate in the translation? And yet, I can’t help but feel that learning to listen to lectures, especially those put together creatively and intensely by people who “have a unique synthesis and understanding,” is part of what being a mature learner means. As students mature, their own learning preferences can’t always be at the center of the learning experience. By college, students should be able to listen to people whose complete passion for their subject eclipses their ability to monitor audience response. As voters, we often make our determinations through listening to speeches, to debates, to interviews. Learning to listen attentively therefore impacts the democracy, right?

I applaud the inclusion of visual bullet points and intermittent statistical assessment of who understands and who does not via PowerPoint and clicker systems, and I’ve used both. I’ve also prepared mini-lectures and worked on teaching note-taking because I think learning to listen to lectures takes practice. Yes, all teachers and professors should use lecture purposefully rather than habitually. Yes, teaching should not be about the professor’s ego and pleasure. I’m not about to start lecturing for half an hour in my classes, let alone an hour and a half. However, I’d hate to see the lecture go completely. The lecture is the snooty cousin to the speech which is the political root of the voting system. “Free education for all” means preparing individuals with the necessary skills to participate actively in their democracy. I know not everyone will learn best through lecture, and I think teaching methods should be varied, but I urge us as educators not to erase the expectation that people learn to listen.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Teaching with Good Principals

One of my goals as a blogger is to create spin. Yes, spin. I hope to do so in a savvy, positive way rather than an obviously-indulges-herself-in-false-logic kind of way. Negativity and education can seem inextricable when we look around, whether we look in the newspaper, around the cocktail party or in the faculty room. In many schools’ cultures, there lives an “us versus them” attitude between teachers and administrators. “They” get paid more. “They” wanted out of the classroom. “They” don’t have to deal with what teachers deal with anymore. That may be true, but administrators also deal with stuff I don’t think about: Is the boiler at the right temperature? Will the union call for a strike? Did the booster parents stop arguing with the PTA parents? Are all the buses here? Newsweek’s “The Principal Principle” by Barbara Kantrowitz and Jay Mathews actually moved me to tears as I read its profiles of great principals around the country. So often in my classroom, I felt alone and anonymous, swamped by papers and student needs I didn’t know how to address. At times, I felt measured only by my students’ grades and scores. Often, my 150 or so students created more variables than I knew how to manage. Administrators deal with these same issues, at a much higher volume.

Good administrators put themselves between teachers and problems. Good administrators may not have a peer within the building. Good administrators ensure the safety and integrity of the school as a system. Good administrators have to pretend to like many more people than I have to as a teacher! Give me a minute to climb off my soapbox. Okay. Listen, I teach, but in the time I’ve been teaching, some of my teacher friends have climbed over the wall into the front office. I already know they’re good folk. I already trust them. The politics of many work places asks us to take sides, and when I was new, several factions sought to win my loyalty. Heck, several factions will always seek loyalty. Happiness as a teacher, however, stems from empathy not only for students, but for all the people within our system, which includes administrators. I’ve grown happier as a teacher since I’ve let go of thinking that no one who left the classroom can care about the classroom as much as I do. Just like I believe my students possess a variety of talents, I realize educators come in the micro-vision and macro-vision versions. My teacher blessing for all teachers out there: May your body feel rested, your mind feel at peace, and may your building be managed by excellent administration. Without their foundation, we’d get much less done…

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Cell Phones: Keep them Hidden or Limit their Use?

The community college I work for permits instructors to set the cell phone policies in their classrooms. Most students possess the maturity to turn off the ringer during class, but some students do leave to take a phone call. Around the student center, students sit in isolated little pockets, talking to their old friends via cell phone. It certainly colors the atmosphere in my classroom, but because of the age of my students, the problems are minimal.

High school teachers don’t teach only the mature students; they teach everybody who gets off the bus, so the cell phone issue isn’t as easy for them. According to Jo Craven McGinty’s New York Times piece, “Student Cellphone Rules Still Vague Despite Law,” city parents (including some City Council members) want a bill that would “allow students to transport cellphones to and from school.”

Currently, cell phones are banned from New York city schools. Where should the cell phones that are legally transported be while at school? “The Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, said the bill would place the onus on education officials to figure out how and where students can store their phones during the school day.” City Council member Mr. Koppell, who supports the ban states, “’We have enough problem with discipline in our classrooms and order in our classrooms that we don’t need to make the teacher or the proctor a policeman to make sure the cellphone is off.’”

I get it. Parents want to ensure that their kids can reach them and vice versa, especially after school. However, adolescence is a time to gain maturity, and handling cell phone usage with consideration and good judgment is something with which many adults wrestle. Do schools really need another “onus,” Ms. Quinn?

Cell phones could be like hats. Students are allowed to wear hats to school, but then are expected to store them in the school-provided locker. If students wear hats in class, teachers are expected to stop them. “Remove your hat, please” comes from adults’ lips as often as “Good morning.”

No, wait! Cell phones could be like vending machine items. Students may only buy sodas and snacks before and after school despite the fact that the machines are usually on throughout the day. Students may buy a soda or snack as long as they don’t drink or eat it in class. Students are not supposed to use the vending machines on a bathroom pass. If students drink sodas or eat snacks in class, teachers are expected to stop them. “Put the soda away, please” can be heard as often as “Hello.”

Maybe cell phones are more like the dress code. Both cell phones and personal appearance can provide a distraction, right? There’s a list of appropriate and inappropriate dress, so as students come in the classroom, teachers monitor strap thickness and underwear coverage. Or MP3 players, that’s it! Cell phones could be regulated by the “can be seen but not used” rules of the ear buds…Ugh. Just writing about all the things teachers regulate before the teaching begins exhausts me.

If students know cell phones aren’t allowed at all, they will keep them hidden. It keeps the issue more clear: “Don’t let me see a cell phone in the school.” It is sad that parents can’t be sure their kids are safe on the way to school and want them to have cell phones, but must schools take on that problem, too? If schools create a whole new procedure around cell phone storage (look at how well we manage hats, vending machine items, and dress codes), we’ll just create more work for teachers, which takes time from learning.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Is Teaching in Need of an Image Makeover?

Slate Magazine’s Ann Hulbert wrote a very interesting piece on teachers’ image last week, “Back to School: Could Teachers Become the New Lawyers?” The title strikes me because I’ve said to fellow educators bemoaning how some students don’t seem to respect us that, “If we want them to give us respect automatically, we should be their lawyers instead of their teachers.” As I type that, I realize how bitter it sounds. I guess I’ve just accepted that since American respect often pairs itself with careers that are well-paid, I would have to earn students’ respect rather than be granted it.

Hulbert writes about the new wave of Hollywood films on teaching that are shifting the teacher archetype: “Strangely, perhaps, the spectacle of obsessive administrators and anxious teachers in the trenches…just might help buttress a field that could use some defeminizing. High-pressured and punishing—of such macho qualities is social cachet often built in the world of work. Nowhere…do you hear anyone touting the familiar (female- and family-friendly) perks of the profession: the long summer months off, the seasonal breaks, the 3 o'clock dismissals, the heartwarming kids…The scene is more reminiscent of, say, the Union army, beset by struggles and squabbles within the ranks, yet striving to make slow headway on divisive home ground.”

The “defeminizing” point makes me wince. I suppose since my father taught challenging students, I didn’t grow up with a “female” or “easy” image of teaching. (Really, for the life of me, all I can think of in keeping with her reference is Little House on the Prairie. Has teaching adolescents housed by the thousands in one building ever been easy? Would I have ever eaten an apple I found placed anonymously on my desk?) I don’t think the description of teaching she provides is new; more likely, the kinds of teaching conditions she feels foster “macho qualities” in teachers have grown more prevalent.

Okay, disagreements aside, Hulbert is right that Americans need to understand more about what it takes to teach well. I’ve tossed about the theory that, like jury duty, all citizens should be required to do some “public school duty” every few years. Even if all they do is collect equipment after gym class, issue tardy slips during passing time, and monitor the cafeteria, I feel Americans would vote for school budgets and teacher salaries with a whole new respect.

A friend of mine discussed recently that even though people claim staying home with your kids is “the most important work of all,” they still won’t think much of it on a resume. To a lesser degree, my experience with how people view teaching is similar. “You’re a teacher! How wonderful!” is what you get told at a party, but the business world is suspicious about whether or not we teachers know how to work a forty hour week. If Hollywood can change that, I say more power to them.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher