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Posted by on in Assessment

thermostate

Here's another analogy to help understand why test-centered accountability doesn't work well.

All the heat in my house is run by a single thermostat. My house has three stories and a basement. The thermostat is on the first floor. The furnace runs into two out of four rooms on the second floor. There are no furnace runs to the third floor (a converted attic space).

The thermostat is supposed to turn the furnace off and on based on the temperature in the house. But it only measures the temperature in one room. In a second-floor bedroom, the temperature may be uncomfortably cold, but the thermostat doesn't measure that. In the attic room, a space heater4 may have the room super-warm, but the thermometer doesn't know that. The thermostat is by the front door-- if that door opens and cold air comes pouring in, the thermostat thinks the whole house is cold.

In short, the thermostat is an inaccurate measure of the temperature in my home because it only measures the temp in one place.

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Posted by on in School Culture

You may have heard this in a discussion of education policy in general, or if you're a teacher, you may have heard it in internal discussions of curriculum and instruction.

It shouldn't make any difference.

It shouldn't make any difference which teacher you have. It shouldn't make any difference who teaches that course. It shouldn't make any difference if we have to replace you with a new hire next year, or next week, or tomorrow.

It's a variation on the dream of the teacher-proof classroom, a hope for standardization so rigorous that individual teachers can be switched like cogs in a machine or bricks in a wall. And it's wrong. Really wrong.

It is a call to bland mediocrity. Anything that sticks out about a particular teacher, anything that they do better than their peers, anything that is a special strength they bring to the table-- those things must all be lopped out and ground down, because they would be a difference. Do you (like my colleague) teach a unit centered around reading Paradise Lost and putting John Milton on trial in front of a jury of local attorneys and educators? Well, not any teacher who stepped into your job could pull that off, so that unit should not be part of your class.

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Posted by on in Teaching Strategies

It's January, and I am still confronting the junk left in the wake of the dreaded Five Paragraph Essay.

Mind you, I have danced with the Five Paragraph Essay on more than few occasions. Early in my career there were few teachers I my building teaching composition at all, and it seemed like a good place to start. And the Fiver is still an improvement for those students whose preferred format is the Uniblob-- a mass of untethered words and sentences that spreads out across the page with no regard for order or sense.

To my students, I compare the FPE to training wheels-- they may be useful when you're starting out, but leave them on too long and they become a hindrance rather than a help.

The problem with the Fiver is that it leads a student to approach writing exactly backward. Instead of asking "What do I have to say and what's the best way to say it," the student says, "Okay, I have these five paragraph-shaped blanks to fill up-- what can I fill them up with." And that backwardness infects the entire process. As I slogged through my students' last paper (about symbolism and theme in The Awakening), I can see plainly that they did not ask "Have I made my point and buttressed it with solid support and evidence." Instead they have asked, "Does that paragraph look full enough yet? It does. Okay, then on to the next one."

Structure in writing needs to flow from the function. Start talking about an idea, a part of an idea, a step in setting up the discussion of an idea, and then when you're completed that task, start a new paragraph. It's simple.

But for all my decades of teaching, I have had to keep answering versions of the question "How long does this have to be?" (which is itself a version of the question "What's the least I can get away with doing on this assignment?"). The only answer is "Long enough to get the job done."

You don't measure a nutritional value of a meal by measuring how many minutes you spent eating it.You don't turn to your romantic partner and ask, "How many minutes do I have to talk to you in order for this thing to work?" And you don't determine the quality of a piece of writing based on how many pages you filled up with words.

You cannot put structure ahead of function-- unless, of course, the only thing you feel comfortable evaluating is structure. In which case you are not teaching writing at all-- you're teaching Making Marks on Paper. And you are contributing to the students' sense that school is some sort of Kafkaesque exercise in following odd instructions that are unrelated to life on planet Earth. Oh-- and you're also preparing students to do well on the Big Standardized Test, which also does not know how to evaluate good writing. So I guess there's that.

So, die, five paragraph essay. Die painfully or quietly, with a bang or with a whimper, but just die. And let's fill the space left behind with the goal of saying something clearly, effectively, and vigorously, according to the structure that best suits what we have to say.

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Posted by on in General

My first long-term sub job was finishing the year for a teacher who had passed away in her sleep. Her school-age daughter went to wake her, and she was just... gone. This was at my old high school, the school where I now work. I knew the woman, her co-workers, many of the families of the students. It was April, and my job was to coax grieving eighth graders into a classroom that would, for them, be haunted.

I have only encountered the death of a still-working teacher a handful of times in my career. Some hit closer to home than others. My friend Susie and I went back to Fourth Grade together. A gifted performer, she went to college to train professionally and spent a few years criss-crossing the country with professional touring companies of major shows. Eventually she decided that was not the life she wanted; she came back home and took a job as a high school chorale director. She enjoyed it; she was good at it. Then she discovered the cancer.


She worked as long as she was able. One door of her choir room opened directly to the side yard of her school; while she was doing chemo, she would step outside between classes, throw up, and then go back to work.

It's hard on students. Of course, it's enormously hard on students when other students die; when you're a teenager, you don't think about the limits of human mortality very often. But the death of a teacher packs a different punch, perhaps because they mostly don't think of us as humans, exactly. They think of us, expect us to be, immovable pieces of the landscape, as intractable as the ground they stand on. When a student dies, they feel a shudder in their own hearts; when a teacher dies, they feel the earth shift under their feet.

So that's where we are today in my building. A colleague I have taught with for over twenty years is gone. He had battled cancer for a few years now, and in fact had left the job a few weeks ago when his doctors told him he was almost out of time. The students didn't know that; they figured he was just getting healthy again, and would be back in his room, at his desk, again.

He was a former marine who returned from service and got a teaching degree. I can't say that he was the greatest teacher who ever set foot in the building-- we taught in adjoining rooms for years and to this day, most of what I know about National Lampoon''s Christmas Vacation I know from hearing the movie blaring through from the other side of the wall. His teaching methods were very different from mine, and not methods I'd endorse for anyone.

But he cared tremendously about the students. He coached runners for his entire career, investing himself in their efforts. He ran with them until he couldn't any more. He hosted the team at his house for big team meals, even after folks told him, "You know, you really shouldn't do that." You could count on him to show up to chaperone every single school dance. This fall, he defied doctor's orders and with his family keeping watchful eye, traveled to states to support one of his runners. He was a quiet, private person, but the students felt real affection for him. Their teacher-radar told them he was all right.

His obituary is in this morning's paper, and at the beginning of the day we will each read an official announcement from the school. His students will understand that the sub they've been with for a few weeks will now finish the year with them; God bless him for handling that gig. Some students will cry; some will go to the guidance office to take a moment. Many will show up for visitation tomorrow, maybe even the funeral. I will set this to auto-post  later, so that I don't get myself all emotioned up before I work with the students.

Years ago they started telling us that when a student dies, we should just leave their seat empty in the classroom, that students find it disrespectful to "erase" the lost person. I suppose an empty teacher's desk is a similar matter. Hard to say. We haven't been through this many times. Teachers usually retire before they pass, fade from the collective memory of the school they served, move on to some other place in their lives. For those who pass while still in the job, it's different. They will never not be teachers, and their place will always be in the classroom, there, at that empty desk.

This is why education is properly about the big things-- how to be more fully yourself, how to be fully human in the world. Because life is short, and people die, often unfairly and almost always before their work is done. Be kind. Be better. Remember, you only have so many chances before the desk is empty.

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Posted by on in Early Childhood

Well, here's a piece of research you might not have expected.

The sexy headline reductive title is the Batman Effect (published almost a year ago but recently re-circulating), but the idea being tested here was a little broader than "Always Be Batman." From the abstract:

This study investigated the benefits of self-distancing (i.e., taking an outsider's view of one's own situation) on young children's perseverance. Four- and 6-year-old children (N = 180) were asked to complete a repetitive task for 10 min while having the option to take breaks by playing an extremely attractive video game. Six-year-olds persevered longer than 4-year-olds. Nonetheless, across both ages, children who impersonated an exemplar other—in this case a character, such as Batman—spent the most time working, followed by children who took a third-person perspective on the self, or finally, a first-person perspective.

While I generally support the idea of Being Batman, there are some hugely troubling implications of this study (and I'm not even counting that Queen of Grit Angela Duckworth is one of the co-authors). One problem is captured by this review of the study at Big Think:

With the onset of early childhood and attending preschool, increased demands are placed on the self-regulatory skills of kids.  

This underlines the problem we see with more and more or what passes for early childhood education these days -- we're not worried about whether the school is ready to appropriately handle the students, but instead are busy trying to beat three-, four- and five-year-olds into developmentally inappropriate states to get them "ready" for their early years of education. It is precisely and absolutely backwards. I can't say this hard enough-- if early childhood programs are requiring "increased demands" on the self-regulatory skills of kids, it is the programs that are wrong, not the kids. Full stop. 

What this study offers is a solution that is more damning than the "problem" that it addresses. If a four-year-old child has to disassociate, to pretend that she is someone else, in order to cope with the demands of your program, your program needs to stop, today. 

Because you know where else you hear this kind of behavior described? In accounts of victims of intense, repeated trauma. In victims of torture who talk about dealing by just pretending they aren't even there, that someone else is occupying their body while they float away from the horror. 

That should not be a description of How To Cope With Preschool. 

Nor should the primary lesson of early childhood education be, "You can't really cut it as yourself. You'll need to be somebody else to get ahead in life." I cannot even begin to wrap my head around what a destructive message that is for a small child. 

The researchers minimize this effect as just role play. The kids, they say, simply imitated someone they thought had the qualities needed to deal with the task. And hey-- role play is fun. But it's appropriate that Duckworth is in this pack, because we are just talking about other ways to grow grit:

Perseverance can pave the pathway to success. The current research suggests that perseverance can be taught through role play, a skill that is accessible to even very young children.

No.  I mean, I'm not a psychologist, nor do I play one on TV, but I have to believe that the root of grit or perseverance is the certainty that whatever happens, you'll deal with it. When my high school students are anxious or afraid, it's because when they imagine what's coming, they don't imagine themselves being enough to deal with it. I can't imagine ever telling them, "Well, you probably aren't, but maybe you can pretend to be somebody else." Because the "you probably aren't" part drowns out everything else. The most useful message for them is "You can handle this. You will be okay."

With my high schoolers, we're talking about challenging schoolwork, but we're also talking about real-life challenges that the world has put in their way. In Preschool, it's different.

Let's be clear what the study is suggesting as a process for four year old tiny humans:

1) Set standards and goals that the students are not equipped to meet.

2) Tell the students that they arn't able to handle the challenge, so they'd better pretend to be someone else.

I am thinking the solution to all the problems here lies in Step 1. Encourage play? Absolutely. Require it? No. Let's give small children tasks to perform that are developmentally appropriate. Let's set them up for success, and not for failure. Then when they someday discover on their own that you should, in fact, always be Batman, it will be so that they can have some fun with their friends, and not so that they can survive in school.

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