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 :)