Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Clicking my Way through Intermittent Mediocrity

Okay, so I’m not the teacher I like to be every day. Some days I’d evaluate my own teaching as “eh.” Yesterday, my lesson ended 10 minutes early. Now, in my own defense, it’s an hour and forty minute class working on remedial grammar and writing skills in a course I’ve never taught before, but still, ten minutes is too long. To boot, I gave a quiz, and I didn’t notice a kid had his cell phone out until a colleague walked by my room. As we gave our little waves to each other, I saw her eye drawn to said student. I scurried over and took care of it, but my cheeks still burn to have been that teacher. Here’s the honest truth: Despite caring intensely and working hard, sometimes, I am that teacher.

I can’t put my finger on an exact pattern. I’m not that teacher too often because I hate the feeling of knowing my lessons have fallen short, so I step it up after a day like yesterday; however, I can’t say these days are totally rare either. Sustaining quality teaching isn’t easy, and there are days I struggle for the enthusiasm and attentiveness it takes to be more than a moderator of activities.

All this has been on my mind as I read a good piece in The New York Times about the use of clicker technology in the classroom. One of the teachers in the piece talks about the prep work involved in loading clicker technology with the questions needed for review. I use clickers in this oh-so-long-grammar-review-by-the-end-of-the-110 minutes-none-of-us-cares class. (Our school uses a technology called Turning Point.) It’s true that I have to load the questions into a PowerPoint-like format before getting to use it, which can be time consuming. Fifteen grammar questions take me about fifteen minutes to create. (I’m usually copying content off of handouts; I’m not originating the content.) However, now I have the questions made for each semester I teach the class, so that payoff is pretty big if the content stays static, like with grammar.

Why am I discussing clickers along with my own mediocrity? Because I think clicker technology unnecessarily intimidates teachers…My class yesterday? We did about twenty minutes in a clicker session, and it delivered me from total mediocrity to merely intermittent mediocrity. (Hey, some days I’ll take what I can get!) Even though I felt low energy, I could lean on the clicker technology to create momentum for my class. The deadly, “Let’s go over the homework” part of grammar practice becomes more dynamic when students click in their responses. I can see whether or not everyone has at least guessed at each question; whereas, when we check homework without clicker technology, I find it hard to engage more than the student I’m currently calling upon for the answer. Once I know everyone has responded, I push a button and a Who Wants to be a Millionaire-type bar graph shows the range of responses in the class. Students who don’t understand get to see they are not alone. We all get to see progress as more and more students get the answers right as we move through the review. That’s gold in a grammar review session; very rarely do students really feel like progress is being made.

Pretty much all this happens while I push a mouse. By investing fifteen to twenty minutes a day in preparation, I get to use this clicker lesson in every class of that prep I teach forevermore especially when it’s January, and I’m stumbling a little. In my humble opinion, teaching for twenty to thirty years is a marathon requiring patience, enthusiasm, faith, intelligence, integrity, forgiveness, and lots of energy. There will be days along the way when I’m not impressed with myself. Incorporating techniques like clicker technology can help me keep moving on days when I might otherwise stall. What other experiences do people have with clickers? What say the teaching masses?

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

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Yes, They're Watching Our Numbers--Thank Goodness!

Who are they? Our department chairs. Our deans. Our principals. Our students. Our students’ parents. According to The New York Times, New York City plans to pilot a program isolating how much teachers impact students’ standardized test scores. As in, how much does Teacher A influence scores as compared to Teacher B? As in, did I properly prepare and teach my students this year? I don’t know, Kate, let’s look at your scores. Why, look! The scores are published on the Internet! I’m impressed with the factors NYC plans to take into consideration: kids on free lunch, kids classified with special education, class size, student attendance, previous year’s scores. Of course these numbers can be skewed, but if kept in the proper narrative as NYC plans, they should be a pretty interesting number to consider. The school district swears these numbers will be one of several factors used to assess teachers, not the only factor. I say, it’s about time.

In my experience, good teachers have been using their students’ standardized test scores as a way to evaluate their own performance for years and years and years and years. If my students score below the department, district, state, or whatever average, (after considering my population’s factors like the ones listed above) I look at what I’m doing. I try new things. I consult peers and read more resources. The teachers I know who love teaching all do the same. We use these numbers as a tool to look at our teaching. My administration already knows these numbers and uses them to form opinions about me and my teaching. Informally, these numbers have already shaped my teaching career.

Formally, however, I’ve been evaluated by more mercurial measures, like how many kids wear a hat into my room. (I can get the hats off once they are in my room, but somehow, I always end up with a high percentage of students who don them in the hallway.) I always make sure to strap my share of extra-curricular service to my back, which curries favor on any yearly evaluation, but as my family responsibilities increase, I worry that not being able to sponsor clubs will impact how I’m assessed as a teacher. My experiences being observed have varied; I’ve never had a problem being observed by my subject department chair, but not all of my administrative observations have gone as I would have liked. One vice-principal would come for three or maybe even seven minutes. Sadly, I had a vice-principal tell me to write my own observation and leave it for him to sign. More egregious was the administrative observation that I had to sign my name to without fixing his sentence fragments or spelling errors.

Have I had positive observation experiences with administrators? Yes. I had a principal come watch for the entire period, script the lesson, and then spend half an hour discussing pedagogy and philosophy with me. In fact, I wept in his office over the fact that every time I managed to get mainstreamed kids up to grade level, he gave me more kids on an IEP. I felt like he heaped so many variables on me that I would never see my overall class average improve. He handed me a tissue and nodded kindly. He then told me, “Kate, you are right. However, I can’t afford to worry about your numbers if I know that your class is the optimal place I have to offer a student in my school.” I wept some more, but this time with pride, and I left his office with a better sense of the big picture with which he had to deal. So, yes, I’ve had an incredible administrative observation and evaluation, from one of the great administrators of my experience. Sometimes, though, these evaluations vary too much depending upon who does the observation. My point is that our students’ standardized test scores may be a much less subjective measure of us teachers than some of the measures used currently.

I think it will protect teachers who work well with kids but don’t stand in the fickle sunshine of administrative favor. Quite frankly, if this additional factor can get rid of the people in my school who only teach for half a class period, don’t return or evaluate written work, and gossip about students’ sexual exploits, I’m all for it. Why do we fear this so much? Aren’t we often evaluated now by popularity and cooperation more than effective teaching? If our students continually perform poorly, aren’t we obligated to look at that?

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

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

I'm Teaching a New Prep...(gulp)

I’m teaching a new prep for the first time in several years, and I’ve forgotten how it feels. Yes, I know where I have to get students in the end, but I don’t know exactly what we’ll do each class period to get there. Hopefully, no student will ask me what we’re doing the week of March 1st because she’s going on vacation and wants the work ahead of time; I’m basically two lessons ahead of my students at this point.

Luckily, I’ve developed enough new preps to know that I need to take it one day at a time. After teaching each lesson, I learn how long it takes students to do particular tasks and what prior knowledge they truly have mastered. Without experience on those two factors, it is difficult to write lesson after lesson without getting the pacing wrong. While I understand this intellectually, I get nervous without a fat binder of semester long plans in my bag. It shocks me, actually, how tempting I find it to want to roll out a list of lesson plans without regard to what will work well. I know that developing lessons more slowly in response to what I’m finding works with students will yield higher quality stuff, but boy, do I love knowing exactly where a course is going! I frustrate myself when I force a class to go through a lesson I can tell isn’t working; by writing lessons week-to-week, I lower the likelihood of those stressful lessons. I know that. Really. Just yesterday, I found that my lesson over-estimated students’ retention of subject verb agreement. The review I’d thought would take ten minutes stretched to half an hour, pushing several activities I’d planned off until another day. If I’d written the next ten lessons, all ten would need to be written again...

Experiencing this uncertainty heightens my empathy for newer teachers, who may be teaching two or three preps for the first time simultaneously. Also, I think scratching out new lessons for the first time in too long sharpens some of my teaching skills, too; my adrenaline pumps when I realize what I have planned isn’t working how I thought it would. I’ve forgotten that my confidence in my lesson plans enables me to better weather the spontaneous (and sometimes chaotic) nature of my classroom. That confidence in lesson plans develops because I’ve taught the lessons before! For now, I need to take a deep breath and live with the fact that the first time through a new curriculum means taking it day by day and ignore the edgy feeling. Okay. Yes. I’ve decided. Teaching a new prep isn’t difficult—it’s good for me. Okay, I’ve got to go. I’ve got to check my lessons…

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

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Is Differentiation of Instruction Part of the Job?

My father told me and my sisters, “Anyone can teach the kids who get it. The real challenge is teaching the kids who don’t get it at first.” We’ve all taken the challenge. One of the ways I’ve met the varying needs of students in my mainstreamed classroom is by differentiating my lessons. So an article in last week’s Washington Post disturbed me…In “Waiting Too Late to Test: Parents Protest as Area Schools Delay Learning Disabilities Screening in Hopes of Avoiding Costly Special Education,” Michael Alison Chandler writes that schools in the D.C. metro area favor “response to intervention” (RTI) techniques instead of learning disabilities testing. RTI techniques can include moving a student to the front of the room or grouping students who need to work on a particular skill together for review. These are the kinds of things I do when I differentiate a lesson to meet various students’ needs—what’s the problem?

I kept reading, and Chandler continues: "Many educators say learning disabilities have been over-diagnosed and are seeking ways to address learning difficulties in mainstream classrooms, rather than addressing them through special education for as much as twice the cost. Loudoun officials estimate their cost per pupil in special education is $22,000 a year, compared with $12,000 for most students…For many school systems, RTI-influenced strategies have led to a significant drop in the number of special education students. In Charles County, special education enrollment has fallen to 8 percent from 12 percent in 1999. In Frederick County over the same period, the rate dropped to 11 percent from 17 percent. Loudoun's rate fell to 10 percent from 12 percent in 2001. The national average is about 14 percent."

Chandler also explains that: "The national movement reflects the emphasis on quality teaching and on raising student achievement in the federal No Child Left Behind law, said William W. Knudsen, deputy assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services. Too many students, he said, are funneled to special education because they have not been taught appropriately or have not been well prepared for school…Many school systems, including Loudoun, have sought to revamp general education programs in response to concerns about high numbers of minority students who flow into special education. African Americans make up about 8 percent of Loudoun students, but they constituted about 12 percent of the county's special education population last year."

Okay, well now I’m riveted because the high numbers of minority students in special education have concerned me for years. If we in education are classifying students who don’t actually have disabilities, that frightens me. However, Chandler goes on to report that some parents feel these RTI steps don’t serve students; the article suggests that RTI strategies keep students from services they need so schools can save money. The accusation stung. I’m not a special educator, but I’m the mainstreamed teacher who often works with classified kids, differentiating my instruction with RTI strategies to service students. In fact, I think of that as my actual job, yet Chandler portrays me as sort of stuck with a kid who needs to be self-contained. I’ve never met a special educator who tried not to serve kids, either, and the characterization of special educators trying to pinch pennies upsets me. I needed clarification on how schools actually use RTI, so I called my former college roommate, a speech-language pathologist and special educator in Montgomery County Public Schools, another D.C. metro-area school district.

My friend explained that the discrepancy model for diagnosing learning disabilities looks for a discrepancy between IQ and achievement scores on tests; however, other factors could contribute to that discrepancy, especially in the first years of education. Did the student miss a lot of school last year? Does the family read a lot? Did the student have Teacher A instead of Teacher B? Did the class learn phonics too early in the year for this student’s readiness? The way I understand her explanation, the student might be behind rather than disabled. The federal law requires that students be in the “least restrictive environment.” It alarms special educators that they have diagnosed disproportionate amounts of minority and poor children. So the RTI techniques gather more data before the steps of labeling and self-containment are pursued. Yes, RTI means classroom teachers need to differentiate instruction and keep data on these kids. If these strategies are employed faithfully and students show “resistance to intervention,” then they will continue the process of classification. It’s an intermediate step to verify diagnosis, not a refusal to serve. My friend pointed out that maybe Loudon County should spend $15,000 to $18,000 on “normal” students, lowering class size and providing classroom aides, perhaps catching students up who fall behind without formal RTI techniques; $22,000 versus $12,000 is one heck of a difference! Gathering more data can prevent students from being classified with deficits they might not have. If a student isn’t really learning disabled, should we really classify him or her?

She and I discussed how we’ve come a long way from the stigma of special education that our peers experienced when we were in school twenty years ago. Chandler characterizes parents as seeking classification for their children; years ago, people resisted the label of special education. It’s terrific that we’ve moved passed the stigma, but there’s no reason to label average kids who have fallen behind simply because we find being average less desirable than being “special needs.” Shouldn't we take steps like RTI before categorizing a kid and moving him or her to new teachers in a new classroom?

My friend and I have known each other for almost twenty years, and we’ve both worked in education for over ten. We’ve discussed various aspects of education innumerable times. When we spoke about this topic of who is and who isn't "special ed" this past weekend, however, she said something I’d never heard her say before: “Sometimes classroom teachers will say to me, ‘I’ve got one of your kids.’ How did the kid become mine and not theirs? Don't all these kids belong to all of us?” Her comment struck me because I’ve said that to various special educators across the years. I don’t really know what I meant by it, but I’m a big enough believer in the power of language to stop saying it now. Does an IEP or a 504 or RTI make a kid not “mine” even when he or she sits in my own classroom? Am I the teacher to the normal? Am I reinforcing the idea parents have that I don't teach students who have learning difficulties?

Essentially, I’m offended by the characterization of teachers in Chandler’s article. I haven’t found that special educators seek placement for students to save money, and I don’t hang around with teachers who resist the concept that they should differentiate instruction to meet a variety of student needs or feel that doing so isn’t part of their job. I think RTI strategies are part of good teaching rather than part of a conspiracy to help schools save money by not meeting students’ needs. However, Chandler’s article prompted me to examine my perspective on students with special needs, and while I’m still confident I differentiate well, I’ve realized I need to broaden my sense of which kids “belong” to me. In the meantime, I agree with my friend…let’s spend more on the “average” kid and just see how much improvement we can get…

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

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Help Me Ruminate on this One...

A little vacation time allows me to plan a decent lesson for the first day back, liberates me to surf the Internet and find some cool resources, and gives me the energy to ruminate on the Bigger Questions facing education. In the Washington Post’s “Grading Disparities Peeve Parents: With No Baseline among Districts, Some Say Students Suffer,” Jay Mathews writes about something I don’t often hear discussed. His article focuses on the different grading standards between two school districts that are only miles from each other. One school district states that an A must be from 94 to 100 while the other says an A begins at 90; additionally, the two districts weight AP and IB courses differently in students’ averages. Mathews reports, “Standards for grading in the two counties, including bonus point calculations, are so out of sync that it appears possible for a Fairfax student to earn a 3.5 grade-point average for the same work that gets a Montgomery student a 4.6 GPA.” Fairfax parents fear this puts their children at a disadvantage for merit-based college scholarships.

When I first thought about it, I decided it wouldn’t make much difference whether an A needed to be a 90 or a 94. I’m an English teacher; I don’t give many objective, multiple-choice, three-points off for that assessments. When I read students’ writing, I decide whether the writing is A work, and then I assign the appropriate number. I use rubrics, and overall, I’d describe my grading as holistic. Then, I thought about the disparity between my grading an essay as an A versus the other members of my department. We norm for the five paragraph essay, sharing a state rubric and finding anchor papers together. The research essay, though, is a different kettle of fish. We have some shared core elements: students must use third person, at least five sources, and MLA format. After those fairly objective criteria, all bets are off. Is the student’s thesis clear? Is the argument logical? Are quotations embedded well? Did the student plagiarize? How much off for formatting errors? Spelling? I’d like to think we’d all fail the same essays, but I’m really uncertain we’d give the same essays A grades. I have a couple friends with whom I discuss grading often and at length. We read papers for each other to provide perspective on tricky issues. However, there are a dozen other people in my department with whom I don’t talk about this issue at all. Partly, we don’t talk about it because I think we already expect to disagree.

What’s going on in your schools? Do you and your colleagues grade together often or at all? Is there a clear model for an A assignment in your department? Do parents, students, and the guidance department know exactly who to take for the easy A?

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