Friday, November 21, 2014


What I am about to say is semi-heretic in some of the circles I float around in online and on twitter, and to some small degree, even at my amazing school.

I like to lecture...

I'll compound my blasphemy with the comment that

I'm pretty good at it...

This came up to me because while I run full flipped Chemistry I class and for the most part flipped intro to Organic class, I do a lot less in my AP class and sometimes I lecture for a bit in my organic class.

I had a terrible teaching day a few days ago and just went home defeated.  I've been sick for a couple of weeks and all sorts of craziness is going on at school and at home and it has been a rough slog of a year in many ways, but still, this day was one of those that just makes you want to reconsider your profession.  Not from any bad behaviors or anything, just a bad day that it felt like no kids learned anything and I wasted their time and mine.

So in partial personal response to that, when I had those same classes two days later, I shifted away from my usual very student centered model to that more traditional teacher in charge day.  I lectured for 20-30 minutes in my first class, and you know what?

It felt great...

I understand and know all of the arguments on the other side of that, I've made them myself, often vehemently:

  • Just because you "covered" the material doesn't mean your students learned it
  • Students tune out after X number of minutes of lecture and you went way over that
  • Students need to be in charge of their own learning
Again, I've drink that kool-aid on a daily basis, even whipping up batches for other teachers pretty often.

But I think sometimes we forget what can occasionally be the simple effectiveness of direct instruction, live, in front of a class of students.  I'm not saying that every second of class should be eaten up that way, I'm not saying that pre-recorded content is useless (I've wasted a lot of my time if it is!), or that every student learns best that way.

Some students do though...some students want the chance to ask questions immediately and get an immediate response.  No manner of discussion threads or managed messaging or emails or comments on videos or voicethread will do that, and as a flipped classroom teacher, even though I spend most of my class every day answering questions in small groups or for individuals, which I believe is more effective than for a whole group, there is real power in answering a question for the whole group, all at once, in the moment that it was asked and they were most confused.  There is power in capturing that moment at the moment that it happens.

No that doesn't have to happen during a lecture and probably shouldn't most of the time.  But it can, and it is great when it does...

My title of conflicted is a bit overblown because I'm not really conflicted per se.  I know that there is no real pedagogical silver bullet and that being a "pure" flipped classroom teacher or constructivist or 21st century educator or student-centered classroom facilitator or whatever the hot new thing of the day is doesn't really matter.

What matters is having a variety of approaches and methods in your toolbox and using the right tools at the right time judiciously and with discernment for the betterment of the students.

And sometimes, that might be a good old-fashioned, sage on the stage teacher delivering content lecture!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

New Year Resolutions

Summer is essentially over already, my mind, like the eye of Sauron, has shifted focus back to school. Actually it never really left as I spent most of June working on school stuff.  It was a good summer though, couple of short but good trips with the family, a raft of books read for pleasure, learning, and work.

To be honest though, aside from going back to 5 hours of sleep instead of the 8 I get during the summer, I am ecstatic about the new school year. Our MakerSpace is getting started up and I really think that considering the amazing kids at our school, this is going to blow the lid off and take us from a quirky, high
performing school to a truly exemplar school for innovation.

Last year was an amazing year and I fully expect this year to be even better, but as hits me every few years, I overdid it a lot. And with the new stuff I'm doing this year, there is a real chance to overwork myself into uselessness pretty quickly.  To that end, here are my new (school) year resolutions, and hopefully I can stick to them better than the plan to lose 40lbs.

  1. Concentrate on my classroom and school (mostly)- The last couple of years were the first where I really branched out a lot and got involved in a lot of things and issues philosophically with regards to education.  I actually love thinking about the philosophies of old school vs new, SBG versus traditional, and really diving into the issues of education nationwide.  I love it and will probably continue to read up and and think about it.  But last year in particular I think it had me lose a lot of focus on the things going on in my classroom.  I love teaching because of the kids and don't really want to leave the classroom, and won't unless money makes me have to.  But I need to put a tighter focus on my practice and the needs of each of my kids above all.  Ultimately, these education debates will still be fought 20 years from now and my kids need me this year.
  2. Stop being dogmatic- Over the past few years I've spent a lot of time transforming my teaching, making it more student centered, switching to SBG, focusing on the whole student aspect of things.  In short becoming a new agey sort of teacher which is pretty funny to those that know me personally.  but this past year, as I noted in some earlier blog posts, my strict adherence to the ideas of SBG, flipped, TLAP or whatever thing I was pursuing at that time really made me feel like I was in a teaching strait-jacket.  I'm going to let the philosophical ideas guide me but to restrict me.  No one is checking up on my pedagogical purity and it doesn't serve any real purpose.
  3. Ignore Twitter sometimes- This one is weird, because I can safely say that I would be a vastly different teacher without my interactions on twitter the past few years.  I've learned more about changing my teaching practice there than at anything else.  No PD has mattered as much, no rah-rah conference has motivated me as much.  But the fact of the matter is that sometimes on twitter I just get mad for a variety of reasons, ranging from people straw manning and overreacting to things, the witch hunts against people that don't believe the things, and especially, oh most especially, the pithy, airy, motivational quotes that mean absolutely nothing real.  I know I could eliminate a lot of these things from my feed, but at the same time, I want to be challenged in my assumptions, I don't just want an echo chamber of like minded people.  I already know not to feed the trolls, but I have to learn to avoid the things that detract from my emotional reserves a bit too much.
  4. Set aside time for my family- I am actually a great one for setting aside personal time for myself.  Having burned out before, I know that my own sanity revolves around remembering to pleasure read, to play a couple of video games most days, to hang out with my friends.  But since carpool with my
    whole family for hours every day, sometimes I go read a book to get away from the fighting that is inevitable when you have 3 boys separated by 4 years total.  But one thing the summer really solidified for me is that it isn't just about quality time, it's about quantity as well.  I've always been a big believer that I have to watch how much I work at home because it takes away from my boys, but I haven't held as true to that belief these past couple of years. Not this year!
  5. Don't change too much- I have a tendency to discover something new over the summer and want to upset the whole apple cart of what I do.  Instead, I've decided that this year, I'm going to focus on a major change in just one of my preps and some minor "tweaks" (I hate that word...why did I use it...) to my other classes. Not that I can't think of a hundred ways to make those classes better as well, but I'm going to triage and try to master one thing instead of dabbling in 20. 
Of all of those things, I suspect that the last one will be the hardest, but I am really going to try, I've laser focused on that one class the past few weeks, knowing that the others were fairly successful last year and there is only so much of me and my time.

All of that said, I cannot wait to get the kids back in my room(s)...every year here at STEM has been amazing so far and I have even higher expectations this year!

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Cycles and Renewal

In my last post I talked a lot about what a rough but worth it year it has been.  That is definitely true, but so very worth it to see that first graduating class, to see our AP and upper level science classes literally explode when I was worried for a bit if the S in STEM stood for something other than science.  Getting end of the year notes (and tweets) from students, those that I'll have next year and those that I'm just going to hope have amazing lives as they move on out of my orbit.  Helping those last few students get over the line to an A, or even to passing, even if I have to hunt them down and drag them across the finish line.  It is all worth it.

And of course as we wrap up one year that seemed long at the time, but now seems like it just flew past, attention starts to turn to next year.  I think this is one of the most amazing things about teaching, not the summers off per se, but the fact that it is one of the things I've done that was in these discrete packages (quanta, one might say).  When I worked in the medical field or in industry, each day might be slightly different, but on the whole, it was the same process, over and over and there was no real time when you were "done" other than packing up for the night, or handing it over to the next shift.

Teaching though affords us this unique chance to step back and say, this is officially over for this time. I think that allows for so much reflection (which is coming in post form soon), but it also allows so much for a looking forward to the next school year.  Since I'll have all of the mundane paperwork stuff done this morning, inventories and such boredom, I can spend half of my day maybe standing at a whiteboard plotting out the next school year.  I spent 45 minutes or so with a new tweep in Michigan, Dan Meyers (@meyerschemistry) discussing how he teaches organic chemistry and what we would do differently in our Chem I classes.  As a science dept, we are going to get together and do some vertical planning as a department and discuss our new unofficial motto of "pedal down" to illustrate that we really want to challenge our amazing students next year.

It makes me think that seasons for teachers (and maybe for students) are sort of inverted.  Spring for us is harvest time, as we tally up the year's growth, as students go off to  During the summer we till the soil of our minds, thinking of new strategies, new lessons.  We restore nutrients to that soil by reading, by traveling to new places, by sleeping finally!  And then in the fall, things are reborn, it is planting time.  We start to sow seeds for the year's growth, we cultivate to coax maximum growth.

I love this time of year, for the knowledge of the fruitfulness of the year and for the planning of the harvests yet to come next year!

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Worth It

Anyone who has followed my Twitter or the very occasional post here on the blog knows that it has been a rough year for me.  There are a myriad of reasons for that, I had to pick up the department chair spot at my school, there are 4 new to the building folks in my dept, I spent all of last summer and some of the fall being a common core coach.

And...due to a teacher leaving about a week before school started, I took on a 7th class of 34 kids.  That I think was the real difficulty for me, even though I am still glad I did it, I didn't want those kids to have a month or two of subs before a teacher got there.  I've drowned this year in grading, even with only grading SBG style.  My self paced efforts fell short, I have barely made any new content, we probably did about half of the fun activities as last year. In short, it was that year that just about every veteran teacher has every 5 or so, the doom year.

The thing is, I teach at the most amazing school, filled with amazing people, from my fellow teachers, to administrators and the students, most especially the students.  We are an insanely quirky school.  We are in our third year, and we put a lot more focus on our Robotics team than any of the few sports we have.  I guarantee that we have more kids that play Minecraft 2 or more hours a day than have any clue about the upcoming NFL draft.  Nerd is not a slur, but a badge most of our kids (and staff for that matter) wear with pride.

In short, we go to a school that I wish I had been at as a kid.  That was really proved to me last week when I got one of those phone calls as I pulled into the parking lot and got the text that meant I had to leave to pick up my son asap.  We had been doing an inquiry lab in my AP Chem class and I figured they had most of their data and could do their discussion and complete the lab.  Well, they had the discussion and then I got an email while I was at home trying to prep a last couple of review videos before the AP test.  The email said essentially, hey Mr Arnold, we discussed it, but we really feel like we need to run a couple of more tests, we've narrowed it down to those two things, can we run the tests?

Any good science teacher knows that you can't let even the best class actually do any lab without being there for safety reasons.  So I texted the teacher in the next room, asked him to switch out with my sub for 10 minutes to let them do the tests.  He did and they did, and it was just amazing.

Here's what it comes down to, I've had most of the kids in that class for 2 straight years, and we have a good relationship, which is of course the mantra of a lot of progressive educators.  It really makes a difference, I feel like these kids would run through a wall for me, and I would definitely take a bullet for them.  Some folks might see that and say, well you only have great kids and you're talking about your AP class.  Fair enough, but I teach at a public high school that works through a lottery, we don't select the kids at all, we take em all and love em, educate em.  But we are making a place where it is not only to ok to excel, but preferred and I'd argue, expected.

And I love this school...If someone offered me a job for 10k more tomorrow, I wouldn't take it.  And last night, the hard work was really rewarded.  I've been teaching for 14 years now, and have always thought of myself as a slightly above average teacher with a slight gift for building rapport. I think this is built around the fact that I love being in the classroom, that I am willing to treat students for the young adults that they are, smart, with ideas that matter and yet accept the fact that they are indeed, still teenagers and it is ok for them to mess up. My students probably won't ever get the district highest scores, but I've sent a lot off to be engineers, doctors and english teachers...

So last night I was voted our school's teacher of the year by our students.  And our school being what it is, we don't just have them vote, they have to provide evidence, the have to write in why they think a teacher should be teacher of the year.  And man...I almost fact, when I had to go up to get the award, I had to get off the stage pretty quick so I didn't cry.  It meant a lot more than I can ever express.  I know that a lot of folks think that what students say about teachers doesn't matter because they just hate the hard teachers or whatever, but I've always thought that HS students are great BS detectors. They know who cares and who doesn't, who cares about their test scores for the evaluation and who wants to actually prepare them for college and or the real world.  The things they said made the whole year worth it....the dozens of kids who came up to me today and congratulated me, said they had voted for me, said I was the best. (also, I got serenaded by our Dean in the lunchroom, delightfully awkward like most social interactions at our school.)

I'm not saying that it is all true.  I don't think that I'm the best teacher at our school by any stretch, we have a ton of amazing teachers, because a great school with amazing administrators attracts good teachers and students.  But I'm so pleased to be here, and so ecstatic to even be in the running. I'm overjoyed that I've made enough of an impact on some of our kids to be "that teacher".  If anything, it just motivates me to want to do more for these students next year.

And it occurs that it is so true that educators don't work for the money (though it would be nice to have more!) but for this feeling, not that "you are the best", but just, hey, you made a big difference in my life, I'm going to tell my friends to take your class too. It is so amazingly true, and I don't know that ever felt that as strongly as I did last night.

PS...I love my school, the students, parents, teachers, and administrators at it. It is the best!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Crisis of Faith

So herein is the post where I admit that my fancy philosophies and attempt to do things as student centered have not been terribly successful.  I suspect that most of my twitter friends who have much the same philosophies as me will just tell me it is a rough year and to "tweak" what I've been doing.  Those who hate one of the many new things I've tried this year, flipped, SBG, self-paced, etc. will probably say it is my own doing that I should have stuck to the tried and true molds.  I'm open to criticism, but would much rather have some positive ideas.

A quick outline of how I've been running the bulk of my classes this year.  I run a full flipped classroom, meaning that I deliver little direct instruction in class, rather I pre-record my "lectures" for the students to watch.  Sometimes that happens at the beginning of the cycle, sometimes in the middle, depending on the inquiry (or Explore) phase.

I use what I think of as a modified Standards-Based Grading model, where I still give 100 point grades (as this is what parents and students most readily understand), but I don't count practice problems, etc for a grade, I just grade something like 50 standards based assessments and the occasional bigger cumulative test.
For most of this year, I've also been allowing self paced in my classroom.  What this means is that students have an outline of things they need to get done, some optional, some not, and target dates.  There are also some other deadlines that are a little stronger, but those are typically weeks past the target dates to accommodate for students who need a bit more time. It also allowed students to work ahead if they chose to, or to take an extra day or two as needed to get the material.

I also have a pretty generous retake policy (I think) as I allow students to take any of the SBG assessments over twice, for a total of three attempts.  It is not the same assessment each time, I have multiple versions of each of these.

My goal behind all of this is manifold, but to shorten this I'll bullet point my reasons for making these big changes (gradually over the past 3 years):

  • As a parent of 3 young boys, I believe that as much as possible, home time should be home time.  While the videos are supposed to be watched at home, this 20 or so minutes two, maybe three times a week doesn't seem too excessive to me.
  • Chemistry is hard, and if students have to struggle at home, they often don't get past the first problem.
  • I am much more concerned that they learn the material at all than they get it right the first time.  If a student bombs a test the first time and there is no chance for redemption why learn that material other than for the final?
  • I want students to learn to manage their time and learn at a pace that is comfortable to them.  From the very beginning of my first forays into "flipping" or "21st Century Ed" or whatever buzzword we're calling it this week, I wanted it to be about the students taking charge of their own learning, being as student centered as possible, while still under the umbrella of my state and county standards.
I suspect that all of this sounds like the party line to both those in the party and out.  And I'll be honest, I really believe it.  I want my students to be able to acquire knowledge and to be able to apply it.  I didn't switch over from being a largely lecture based teacher to a constructivist (still not sure I'm that) or 21st century teacher or whatever.  I was a very successful lecture based teacher for years, with a lot of students that tell me I inspired them to go on to careers in engineering, science, and medicine.  I suspect I could have remained that way and still influence a lot of students in a positive way.  A fear has nagged me all along that folks who want to try out "new" (not sure that they are all new) methods of teaching have a tendency to run down teachers who still teach the old way.  That's ludicrous as I had a lot of amazing teachers and there was no SBG, videos, workshop model or any of that.  

Back to my current crisis of faith.  I sort of want to go back to the old way, because the new way is driving me nuts.  A lot of my kids love it and rave about it to visitors to our school, which are frequent.  I talk to prospective parents, community leaders and educators about my methods fairly often.  But I look at my gradebook and see a lot of my friends who don't believe in grades, I have a lot of students who don't know the material either, who don't produce amazing projects, who just want to work while I'm standing over them and then go back to watching videos on their ipads (not chem videos!).  I spend hours upon hours grading retakes, mostly for the students wanting to go from a C to a B or a B to an A, rarely from the students failing.

Here's the kicker, it is largely my fault.  I teach at a pretty high flying school.  I love this place with everything that screams teacher in me, I love the kids, the staff, the gosh-darn buildings.  We have some amazing rockstar teachers that really get a lot out of a lot of the kids.  Almost none of them do retakes, I know maybe 2 or 3 that do SBG. One flips in a manner somewhat similar to me.  

So if you are a 14 year old kid, and you have a 10 point assignment due for French class the next day and an assessment for Chemistry that you could take the next day if you weren't ready, which would you do.  Never mind that as an adult you know that the assessment in Chem is worth 100 points and the 10 point assignment might be meaningless busywork.  Never mind that you want to be an engineer when you go to college.  What matters is that the French teacher doesn't take late work and the Chem teacher just wants to check your work personally to see if you did it right.  And if you did, then you can take the assessment, but you don't want to take it anyway, so you put it off.

I'm totally a victim of my own policies taken to their logical extension, do what you have to for now, put off what you can put off.  

Yes, I put in deadlines, but if you've put off 4 assessments and try to cram them in, what bomb them all, because you don't know squat.  No big deal, because you can do retakes....only you forgot to do the retakes, or never studied to prepare for them, so you do worse the 2nd time.  You'd like to do it the 3rd time, but you have an English project due, so it falls by the wayside.

To forestall some of the obvious, yes, I have good relationships with my kids.  I make every effort to speak to every student every day about their progress, to nudge them, admonish them, to pull them into my sort of office and let them know this can't work.  They assure me they will do better, then don't.

Don't get me wrong, this isn't my first rodeo...this year marks I believe the 13th year I've taught Chemistry I, and the 3rd year I've been in full flip mode.  I know that even the best teacher doesn't reach every kid in every class every day, despite all contrary intentions.  As a friend of mine says, sometimes it is hard to get between a student and their F, even when you love them and work hard for them.

I'm really just so frustrated and I don't want to wait til next year to change things up.  I love the kids I have now, and don't want them to miss out on a single thing because I was beholden to a philosophy, as right as I might think it is.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

TVAAS at least being considered

This post in in response to the news today here  about the state BOE in Tennessee at least at the moment, apparently removing the requirement for a teacher to have a 3 on TVAAS for 2 out of 3 years for professional licensure.

I'll say in short that this is good news, for teachers, for teacher morale, and by extension, for students of good teachers throughout the state.

I know that the immediate response would be that we need ways to remove ineffective teachers from the classroom.  I've taught for 14 years now and have definitely seen/worked with a few teachers I wouldn't want my children to be taught by.  Emphasis on a few.  In that, I agree that bad teachers should be removed, but what I would disagree with is that you need a bogus number whose statistical validity for the use that Tennessee applies, i.e. hiring and firing of teachers, to it has been disputed by the very person that came up with the measure.  My solution for the problem of bad teachers is to not hide behind a bureaucratic numerical rationale, but rather to have administrators at the building level make the call with due process involved.

Let me throw a few things out there about why TVAAS is bad, from my own mouth, but also from others I've spoken to or been emailed as a result of being on the Teacher Working Group:

  • TVAAS is a black box.  I've heard this from a ton of folks at all levels.  I read through the powerpoint of a presentation given by someone behind TVAAS explaining how it wasn't a black box (in fact, that was a bullet point on a slide).  They gave a formula and explained the variables.  Except one, which had proprietary algorithms, so they couldn't be explained. That folks, is a black box.  Just like chemical companies with their proprietary surfactants, I understand protecting trade secrets, but don't tell that something isn't a black box but then don't let me see how it is calculated.  I'm no statistician, but I think I have enough math to figure it out if shown it all.  I suspect I have more math in my background than a few of the folks deciding if it is right for everyone.
  • If someone gets a 4 or 5 on their observations, but gets a 2 on the TVAAS, why do we assume that that it is the evaluator that needs calibrated, rather than the data.  I'd rather trust my principal to make an informed decision about my teaching as opposed to TVAAS data. (as would almost everyone I've talked to about it).
  • I don't know this for certain, but from all accounts I've heard, TVAAS counts outliers.  Again, I don't know a lot of statistics, but outliers aren't usually the basis for these types of decisions. I have a teacher that had one student of 67 account for 50% of their TVAAS score by blowing off the test.
  • Hand in hand with that is that TVAAS has an unfair effect on teachers, especially as you get to higher levels.  If you teach Biology and the teacher next to you teaches Physics, and you both had the same kid who blew off a test, it hurts you as a Bio teacher because that is a TVAAS course.  On the other hand, it doesn't do much of anything to the Physics teacher as that is not a TVAAS course.  Most courses in High school are not, thus providing a disincentive to teach those classes.
  • That same one student blowing off a test could then bomb another teacher the next year in the SAME CLASS as TVAAS doesn't take that into account.
  • If you teach HS and have 6 classes, but only one is a TVAAS course, that one class is 35% of your evaluation (more if it happens to be where your observations are, but who knows).
Ironically, despite this tirade, I'm ok with getting TVAAS data, I just wish it was explained more.   Tell us what the expected gains are.  In the case of a firing level score (1 or 2 the way it was) have a committee at the school sit down and see what happened.  Was it one student drawing a pot leaf on their assessment (happened to me one year btw)?  Did say, a school lose two weeks to snow the semester that exam was given?  Was the teacher pulled out for a lot of meetings?  Was their plan time constantly eaten up with meaningless PLC time? 

What is to keep teachers from fleeing schools where they fear a student not taking the test seriously and thereby harming their entire career?  What is to stop the inner circle around any principal from making sure they cherry pick the classes for themselves or make sure they only teach non-TVAAS classes?

Again, I understand the thought behind objective data behind decisions in education.  But I question whether the data in this case (TVAAS) is objective.  Trying to reduce education to numbers when it is both an art and a science is futile, like trying to assign numbers to art.  Train good principals (I have an awesome one), and empower them to shape the culture of their schools, trust them to let you know if their are teachers that don't fit that culture.

So I will applaud the state BOE for at least considering things, for having the wherewithal to change their opinions as warranted.  As for the flummox situation, speak to ordinary teachers in a variety of schools, ask them what they think, pros and cons.  Don't surround yourself with people only like yourself or make educational decisions based mainly on a political predisposition.  And recognize that things change as we learn more, that is what education is all about.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Teacher Revolt pt 1: Choice

My district has undergone what many are deeming a teacher revolt in the past few months, bringing to the surface a lot of what I think are long-standing concerns among teachers.  I'd like to preface my comments here by noting that unless noted, my thoughts are my own, not those of my district, nor of the Teacher Working Group of which I'm happy to be a part.  That group is set up to bring teacher concerns directly to the school board and the superintendent without any middle men and I think is a great first step in acknowledging that there are serious concerns.

I'd also like to say that many of the things I write I believe are true of the county as a whole (and in some cases, education in the US as a whole), but many don't actually apply to me directly.  I love the school I'm at, my principals are truly amazing, encouraging and willing to listen.  Not that they have a lot of choice but to listen with me around...I have a big mouth.

I plan on writing up a few posts on this topic of the unrest that teachers I believe all over are feeling.  I'd like to start though with what I think is the simplest fix of all, choice...

Choice is almost at the point of fitting on edubabble bingo cards at this point (or it may actually be).  Many want parents to have choice of what school to go to, as teachers we are admonished and indeed docked points on evaluations for not offering students choice in their learning.  A lot of that makes total sense as in our society, personal choice reigns supreme, even if the choice is over a meaningless sugary beverage.

The fact of the matter though is that most teachers either don't have choice or feel that they don't.  On the former of those, in many circumstances what teachers do in their class is almost fully dictated by the "programs" that counties purchase.  This may be a reading or math curriculum or an assessment system like Discovery Ed.  Many of these programs are probably great, many are vetted by psychometricians, many have shown statistical gains for schools using them (I'll come back to statistics in another angry post).  Teachers are told that these assessments will be given on certain days regardless of what else may be planned for that day.  The programs range from guidelines to scripted where you are told exactly what to say in what amount of time.  When I was a common core coach this past year, we were encouraged to stick to the script and indeed, to carry around a timer to make sure we were using time effectively.

The real killer is that there are tons of these programs/assessments/etc for teachers, especially in the lower grades.  Their use is mandated by either the school or the district. What that means is that someone outside of the classroom has determined what is right for that teacher's class of 20-30 kids.  That someone is typically many layers of bureaucracy and several years removed from actual teaching.  In addition, they rarely get feedback or input from anyone outside of a core inner circle of like minded educators.  A teacher is not allowed to deviate from the guidelines unless say, their literacy coach comes in and mandates that they spend 30 minutes of reading time with 2 students, 25 with another 4 and whatever is left for the rest of the students. God forbid the kids are at the water fountain for 2 minutes over their time back from recess, the teacher is in hot water then for losing instructional time. (true story btw)

On top of that, all of these mandates are often contradictory. Many departments/schools have very strict pacing guides.  I was told at one point that I better be following it strictly, that someone should be able to walk in my room any day and know from the pacing guide exactly what I'd be teaching.  Was that pacing guide adjusted for ACT testing, Discovery Ed testing, CRA practice or even more mundane things like school pictures, pep rallies, etc?  Of course not...

At most schools teachers have little to no say in what they teach, in grade level at elementary, in subject (other than their certification) in other grades.  Then, once they are in a class, they are told not just what to teach, which in the form of curriculum or standards is acceptable, though there are issues there, but more offensively how to teach.  Ironically, very few of those telling them how to teach were effective classroom teachers at least in my experience.

Here is my proposal...Give every teacher their standards, ask them if they want/need a prepackaged program or assessment modules.  If they say no and their students don't seem to be learning, then ask them to reconsider or at that point explain that something has to change.  In other words, tell me what to teach but not how.  Don't tell me I can't count zeros, don't tell me I have to use videos or PBL or for that matter that I should straight up lecture.  You want me to differentiate for my students? Great, I do...I think that is my best attribute as a teacher.  So do the same for teachers, give us choice, let us be the professionals that we are.

Disclaimer part 2: Again, this is a general statement, not aimed specifically at my own district, though the problems there bring this to mind.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Halfway Point

Side note: I mistyped the title as the Halfway Pint the first time through, that probably says something...

As I sit down to write this post, I realized that I haven't posted anything to my blog since before school actually started when my intent this year was to do so weekly.  I had a couple of draft posts in September, but never went back to them, which is probably all for the best.  But as with many others, I think that this is a good point to decompress and re-evaluate as I head into next semester.

A quick comment about partially explaining why I haven't been blogging, or even tweeting as much as I did last year. I think the more I'm trying to innovate, the more I'm looking to bounce ideas off of folks, the more I feel the desire to tweet, to blog, to get my ideas out there, not only as an outlet for me, but to get some feedback from people I trust (and some that I don't...).  But the year has been rough, I'm teaching 7 blocks instead of the usual 6, I'm trying to develop an Organic/Biochem class from scratch and teaching AP Chem after a year off with some new standards.  All of that plus a house that literally tried to fall down on us this year has led to some days where it was all I could do to stay two days behind, much less to really blog or interact.

Enough martyr talk, on to the real stuff, the classroom and the kids.  First off, my IOB (organic/biochem) class has been a great bunch of kids who didn't know what they were getting into.  We've definitely struggled in there, to no small degree because I'm developing stuff as we go.  My AP Chem class is the best I've had in 5 years of teaching AP, I expect some really great things out of them, even as they have probably felt like the material kicked them in the teeth everyday.

The real heart of my concerns is my 4 sections of Honors Chem I.  Chem I is my jam so to speak, I feel like you could drop me in a Chem I class just about anywhere and I could just teach if need be.  This would be my 3rd full year teaching Chem I under the flipped classroom model, so I really thought with some minor tweaks that this would roll easily so I could put a lot more effort into the other newer classes to me.  That of course was at the beginning of the year when I had 3 sections of HChem.  Due to some difficulties with a teacher leaving us the week before kids came back, I decided to pick up another section as I didn't want those 34 kids to have a long term sub and be behind.  I mean, it was the same prep, so no worries right.... (pause for laughter).

Oh, I didn't mention that these classes were full of our experiment to put our advanced freshmen straight into Honors Chemistry 9th grade....Since I haven't really taught freshmen since my first year of teaching 14 years ago, that was going to be a change.  I decided that I'd slow stuff down for a while from my normal pace, which was okay as I wanted to integrate some of the Common Core stuff I'd learned over the past year as well.

Actually, the freshmen for the most part have been fine...I'm still not sure if this is the best plan overall for them, but they can hang and thrive, no real issue.

Once we had things firmly established (so I thought) I implemented the new part of Chem I this year, which was a full on self-paced classroom.  I had everything set up for the students, had suggested timelines and they had the freedom to learn at their own pace in the classroom.  From a lot of students, they found it incredibly freeing and really wanted to jump up and sing its praises to the frequent visitors in the classroom.  Another block of students were fine with it, but they would have been fine if we all went at one pace (as far as their preferences went).

The last block of students though...I would estimate 10% or so of my students just could not handle it.  They would chat while working on 2 problems for a 90 minute block...they would work on an English assignment.  And while I did have a good time photobombing their occasional snapchat forays, I was really pretty ticked. I discussed it with them on a near daily basis, so they would start to work, then fell off.  Another 10% of my students just blew me away with the incredibly slow pace of their work.  They were for the most part working the whole time, but at such a slow pace that they were essentially a unit behind by midterm time (out of two self paced units).

In analyzing the situation as it went on and now with 2 weeks of peaceful distance from it, here are my takeways (yes, some of which I knew beforehand):

  • A certain block of students is unwilling at this point to self-motivate.  What kills me is that it wasn't really my freshmen as you might expect, but my sophomores, most of whom have been at our weird, quirky school for a year already.
  • I had too high an expectation of what students could accomplish each day.
  • Students do a terrible job of picking their own groups/seating partners.
  • A 1:1 environment should be perfect for self pacing, but even after a year and more of having the iPads, a lot of kids can't self-regulate their use.  Granted, the freshmen boys were probably the biggest culprits here, but a lot of the sophomores have serious issues with constructively using their devices and their time.
  • As much as I want to do things a certain way in the class, I'm going to have to flex and change a few things this term to get my students to learn.  
That last one is vital to me.  I have worried a lot this year about not being as innovative or forward thinking as I was the last two years.  As of this break, I decided that while I believe in all of the innovation and my reasons for it, ultimately, I have to bend a little to accommodate the needs of my students.  That was my original reason for the changes and I don't want to be caught in trying to prove a model or way of thinking at the expense of my students.  

I don't think I've actually done that at all over the past 3 years, but as part of my over-analyzing myself as I do, I'm going to make sure it doesn't happen.

More on the concrete changes in the next post...which will hopefully be in a week and not in a semester :)