Friday, December 17, 2010

Today is the last day before our 2 week Christmas break and school is abuzz with excitement. Candy canes, movies, parties, snowflakes, games, laughter... all fill the halls. Kids are handing out gifts to friends and teachers, talking about their plans for the next 2 weeks. Some are excited just to be away from school; others are headed to some tropical location away from the snow. They share their hopes for their expected Christmas gifts, cell phones and iPods, snowboards and new clothes.

But lingering on the side lines, I see the other students, those for whom this 2 week vacation means something different. At their house, there is no Christmas tree, no shiny wrapped gifts, no suitcases packed for vacation. For them, 2 weeks without breakfast and lunch at school means an empty stomach and hunger pangs. There might be a basket delivered with some donated food items, and maybe even some wrapped gifts chosen by people who don't know them, things they appreciate, but not really what they would have wanted or chosen for themselves.

We blame the parents for poor choices. We blame them for wasting their money on booze and smokes. We blame them for having too many kids and milking the welfare system we all work so hard to support.

All that may be true.... but still, these are just kids.... just like any other kids... and Christmas for them is sad, just another day in a life filled with little hope or promise.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Life sorts us into piles naturally:
  • short people, tall people
  • artistic types, can't draw a stick figure
  • jocks, clutzies
  • rich, poor
  • musical, can't carry a note in a bucket
  • dark skinned, fair skinned
  • look good in a bikini, look more like a beached whale
  • leaders, followers
  • mechanically inclined, can't open the hood of the car
  • math savvy, can't make change from a 5 dollar bill at McDonald's

School tends to sort people as well, socially, academically, and athletically; the difference is, with the new Michigan Merit Curriculum, and similar educational 'plans' across the country, schools are now forced to squeeze all students into the same pile.

On the one hand, students all deserve the same opportunities. As adolescents, most students are not prepared to chart their own course for their futures, making sound decisions about their own course of study. Many would choose the path of least resistance, regardless of the future implications. Parents and educators need to be the guiding force for them, helping them carve a path with as many options as possible.

On the other hand, expecting every single student to graduate from high school with a diploma which prepares them for college is unrealistic and unnecessary. There need to options for all students, regardless of their academic abilities, options which prepare them for life beyond high school, with the basic skills they will need to be contributing members of society.

I don't care what we call these 'options' - Plan A and Plan B? Is that any worse than the current options of diploma and Certificate of Attendance? Plan A can be the college prep path, the more challenging classes, much like the current plan for all students. It will delve deeply into topics, including advanced sciences, math classes, literature, history. It will encourage students to think independently, write and respond to a variety of ideas and topics. These future college students will explore advanced math through algebra 2 and beyond. They will analyze historical events and their relevance.

Plan B will be less rigorous for certain, but still, preparing students for life beyond the high school experience. These students would learn to read and write, balance a checkbook, as well as life skills, like parenting, how to get and keep a job, and even perhaps vocational skills. They could learn a trade such as welding, woodworking, computer skills, or auto mechanics. But when they left school with that Plan B diploma, employers would be assured that students had met certain criteria and were indeed literate and competent in those skills.

Now, with the current plan, many students are forced to drop out of school, unable to meet the stringent requirements. They struggle to make it through Algebra 1, much less 3 more years of even more advanced math classes. They either give up completely, opt for a degree from an alternative program, or work for their GED. Whichever option they choose, it still takes them out of the public school, high school diploma pool.

Some argue against sorting students at such an early age, but as a long time middle school teacher, I can promise you that some students have already been 'sorted'. Their peers have sorted them in the classroom, on the basketball court, and at their social events, in and out of school.

If those against sorting are concerned we are limiting the future options of students with this plan, I ask them this: "Aren't we limiting their options even further by refusing to offer them appropriate options for their abilities?" Every time we hit that square peg a little harder and a little harder, trying to shove it through that round hole we are calling the curriculum, we beat that student down a little bit more and a little bit more, reminding them they will never measure up to our predetermined criteria that has been set for them.

If we are concerned some students with potential might choose the lesser challenging option, then let parents have some control over the decision. Let students choose to take the path of least resistance. It won't keep them from being able to go to college someday, it just might make that task a bit more challenging. In esscence, making their early on 'easy' choice come back to haunt them, so to speak.

We need all kinds of people in this world. We need lawyers and doctors, welders and mechanics, teachers and sales clerks, butchers and construction workers, truck drivers and secretaries, computer programmers and fast food cooks. Everyone contributes to our collective society. Everyone has a place. Shouldn't schools acknowledge the differences of students, and work to adequately prepare them for their roles, instead of trying to force them all into the college bound path?

Thursday, December 09, 2010

After several years of having no detention, during school or after school, recently our district appropriated the money to reinstitute this option for teachers. We can assign lunch detention ourselves, but after-school detention is available Tuesdays and Thursdays only, at the discretion of the principal.

When detention was an option, it was one I rarely used. I hate the idea of sending a student somewhere else, to someone else, for punishment for something they did in my room. To me, that process takes me out of the punishment part of the offense, and gives the power to someone else. If one of my kids is ‘bad’ enough to serve detention, I want it done in my presence, where I can ensure the misery matches the crime.

That isn’t to say I’ve never sent a student to the office, or assigned detention, but those occasions are rare, and in severe circumstances where all other options have been completely exhausted.

When the job posting for teachers to man the after school detention room was posted, the pay was good and I thought, hmmm… I really want to build my granddaughter an awesome wooden swing set next summer. Here’s a way to easily bank some extra bucks fairly easily.

I split the assignment with another teacher – he does Tuesday afternoons, I take Thursday’s. Today was my first Thursday with ‘customers’. I was supposed to have 4 customers, but one was suspended until next week, another skipped detention, and there I was with two young men, both of whom I had ‘experienced’ in 7th grade a couple of years ago. Needless to say, I was not surprised to see their names on my list. One was there for extensive tardies, the other, for skipping a class.

Once we got the pleasantries out of the way, the boys settled in. I had to keep reminding them to sit up, no sleeping allowed in detention. Finally, they seemed to settle in and I started working on a project on my laptop. My teacher sensor noticed the one young man intently interested in his desk behind his folded coat. I kept working, watching, averting my eyes when he looked up, trying to make sure my suspicions were accurate. Standing, I walked to him, as he tried to nonchalantly hide his cell phone under the jacket. I snagged it, with him sighing, and halfheartedly trying to argue, but knowing there was no use.

“Head up!”

“Hood off!”

The reminders were few, but enough to keep me focused on them more than the work in
front of me.

Finally, the clock ticked louder and louder as four o’clock came closer and closer.

The bell sounded and they left, the one begging his phone back as he left. Both said, “See you next week!” laughing, knowing this would become a regular date between us.

So, now, I am left questioning the purpose and worth of the detention room. These are frequent flyers, even with the program new, just a few weeks in. They were disruptions in middle school, are still disruptions now, and have no apparent plan to change on the horizon.

I wonder if the money paid to the two of us manning the detention room would be better served paying us to mentor these young men, maybe grabbing a burger and fries, and talking about their lives, in and out of school.

Detentions don’t work. They don’t change behaviors. Sending a student to some magical room may make the teacher feel better, at least temporarily, but it doesn’t FIX the problem. Until we find ways to effectively touch these troubled students, find ways to encourage them to change those behaviors and channel their frustrations in more positive ways, we are just throwing money out the window.

The same kids get sent to detention, day after day, year after year. It is pointless. Just one more indicator of the many ineffective educational practices we continue to embrace.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Ten Commandments of Teaching
1. Thou shalt have the end in mind when you begin and have a purpose for each and every activity you engage your students with. Do not simply assign an activity, worksheet, or project because the book suggests it, because you did it last year, or because the other teacher down the hall is also doing it. Know the specific outcome you want from what you are doing. For each lesson or activity you engage students in, you should know what end result you want to achieve with the class time invested in that activity. Plan the assessment as you plan the activity. Know how it fits into the grand scheme of learning in that particular lesson or unit. Think of each thing you do as another step along the learning journey and make each step purposeful and deliberate.
2. Thou shalt realize you are but part of each student's journey, both in school and in life. Realize that students have other classes and other teachers. Realize that students have lives outside of school. Do not make your class a burden with monumental amounts of work to be completed outside of class. Honor their other committments, tests, projects, basketball games, etc..
3. Thou shalt honor your students time as you expect them to honor yours. Realize that students deserve and want to know how they did on assignments. Do not linger over grading tests or projects. You expect your students to meet the deadlines you assign. Also honor the deadlines they would give you for feedback on the work you have given them to complete. Do not waste class time - whether it is looking for something, talking on the phone, or anything else that distracts you from your purpose - teaching the class. You expect students to be on time and on task. You owe the same respect to them and their time.
4. Thou shalt not expect your students to contribute more effort than you are willing the contribute yourself. I have heard the saying, "Never work harder than your students." In theory, in some ways, I agree. However, I also believe it is unfair to expect students to work harder than we are willing to work ourselves at our job. Students need to be in charge of their own learning, and strive to be independent. Teachers still have a role in that process though. We must come to class prepared, not letting our role in the learning process slide. Teachers must uphold their part in the learning process by being prepared, by giving accurate, prompt reflective assessments, and by using class time productively.
5. Thou shalt read and learn in order to continue to learn and teach. Teachers who are life-long learners give students role models to follow. These teachers learn to grow and change as new ideas and research come to the front of educational policy and practice. They are always willing the try something new, reaching beyond the tried and true, constantly seeking improvement in their own practice. Read about teaching, read about your content area, read for pleasure. Learn to grow, learn to change and learn to learn.
6. Thou shalt plan for the inevitably uninevitable happenings. Always have a Plan B (and maybe even a C). Things happen. Technology fails, students forget things they should have brought to class, the site you visited yesterday won't be online today, the copier will break, the lesson will go quicker than you anticipate, the lab will bomb, the maps won't take as long to color as you thought, etc.. etc.. etc.. Plan ahead with something else to go. Always have a fall-back plan, even if it is something as simple as a trivia game based on your subject matter.
7. Thou shalt expect your students to be successful and therefore, treat them accordingly. Students will rise to meet your expectations, so set those expectations high. You can always adjust downward if need be, but set the bar high to begin with. Act as if you anticipate each child earning an A in your class. Never demean the slower learners, the struggling students, or those who simply choose to fail. Always act as if this time will be different and you anticipate that child succeeding.
8. Thou shalt offer compassion and consolation for your struggling students. Setting expectations high is appropriate but always acknowledge students who are struggling. Make adjustments and accomodations to make learning accessible to all students. Let students know you understand your class is difficult for them, and offer concrete examples of how you can help them master the content. Make yourself available to them, with a compassionate smile and pat on the shoulder.
9. Thou shalt maintain some sense of order in thy classroom. Neatness counts. You don't have to be a neat freak but your classroom should have a logical sense of order with specific locations for materials, turning in work, storage, etc.. When things have a home, everyone is more comfortable, and less time is wasted looking for things, asking where thing belong, and trying to get ready to work.
Order in the classroom also means maintaining a sense of classroom management. Each teacher develops his/her own style of teaching and discipine. A well run classroom seamlessly transitions from task to task because expectations are clear, consistent and conveyed.
10. Thou shalt teach only until you enjoy it not. Respect the teaching profession. When you do not wake up each morning excited to come to school, looking forward to learning alongside your students, and believing in the potential of each child you encounter, the time has come for you to explore other options. Respect the teaching profession and those who love it enough to acknowledge this next step in your own journey and move on.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Yesterday, my principal sent out a mass email to the teaching staff. The following is an excerpt:

Update your grades every week. (No excuses or exceptions.)

Notify your respective office when you assign a lunch detention, and
make sure the student is clear about whether or not s/he has lunch detention.

Take roll in the first ten minutes of every class.

If you're going to make an issue out of tardies with a student, be
sure to track them properly and follow the tardy policy that is
posted throughout the school.

Keep your students in class from bell to bell unless it's a bathroom
emergency. If you send a student to the bathroom, give them a pass
and be sure to track how long they're gone. If a student asks over
and over again every day to go to the bathroom, tell him/her no.
Teachers perpetually complain about their being perceived as non-professionals, by school boards, adminstrators, parents, and the general public. We want our personas to exude this holier than thou level of respect among these groups.
Yet, we have to be reminded, told, DIRECTED to do these basic things each day in our classes?? SERIOUSLY???
All those items seem to obvious, so critical to the success of a teacher, I find it astounding to think enough teachers are neglecting those tasks that a mass email is needed.
If we want to be treated professionally, don't you think the first step to accomplishing that goal would be our acting professionally? Do your job, do it well, and everything else will fall into place. If you can't manage to take attendance, keep grades up to date, keep track of tardies and students, then you are in the wrong profession. THOSE are the easy parts of the job!