Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Come Join in the Fun - Be a Teacher!

As our community just failed a school levy, I was puzzled as to how in the heck this happened. I contemplated the why's and the how's: Why would people not support education? How could they do this to children? Why do they feel this resentment towards teachers? How can we (the school system) recover from this?

As I was getting my morning iced tea from a local breakfast restaurant (Before you judge and say something asinine like "How can you afford that everyday but you can't afford whatever else it is that you need", I get them free), the lady behind the counter gave me a tongue lashing about how she was GLAD the school levy had failed. Her reasoning? "Those teachers make enough money. I make $16,000 a year and I support 5 people in my household - a fresh out of college kid can make $37,900 AND they get summers off!"

I was stunned. I was beyond shocked. First off, this lady knows I am a teacher and not once did I ever say "We teachers do not make enough money." The Westerville City School levy was not for teacher raises. It wasn't for teacher's retirement. It wasn't for teacher anything - it was for kids to play sports, for elementary students to keep art, music and physical education. It was to offset our glorious governor's state budget cuts. John Kasich claims he balanced the state budget without raising taxes when in reality, all he did was pass the buck to the city and local governments to fund their education systems. Yeah, I am not a fan of Governor Ka-sucks.

I was fuming at this point. Here was this lady, who I see every morning and get my chocolate chip muffie every now and then from, and she was telling ME that I had it easy! And that she was glad the school levy failed! I thought to myself, "Do you have a college education? Do you have a college loan that was used to obtain a Master's degree that you are currently paying off? No, you probably don't."

What I would have liked to say to that individual was, "Lady, you make bagels for a living. I make a difference."

I realized that the reason why our levy failed was because of the amount of uneducated individuals living in this community. And I don't just mean the people who do not have a college degree - you do not have to go to college to be intelligent. I mean the amount of misinformation that was portrayed throughout this levy campaign. And how the uneducated individuals believed it. Also, look at the population. The majority of the people living in this community are older, do not have kids or their children are grown, and do not feel the need to pay for a school system they do not benefit from. Here's the sad news folks: those kids that you didn't support, those are the people who will be filling your prescriptions at the pharmacy, who will be taking care of you when you are sick and who will protect you when you call 9-1-1. Way to go - those kids should feel abandoned and pissed. It was like the entire community said, "You're just not good enough. The $200 more a year on average that I would be paying for my property tax is just not a good investment. Who cares that the value of my home will now drop? I want my steak dinners!"

Now, after the smoke that was spouting from every pore in my body has settled after the breakfast restaurant run in, I want to say to her, "We are always looking for motivated people who love children to come join us." Please, come jump through the hoops, please pay the money it takes to go to college and get a degree, please pay the money to take the certification tests, please come buy things for your classroom out of your own pocket, please come and give kids lunch money all of the time because their own parents don't, please come and buy kids socks and shoes when their parents can't, please come deal with the clinically insane parents that have nothing better to do but plot out ways to try to have you fired, please come try to break up a fight without touching the kids because you might get sued, please come try to teach what feels like 100 standards to kids who do not want to learn.

Seriously. Please come join us.

You might understand how rewarding this profession is. And you might understand then why summers off is really a time for teachers to reflect on why they love their jobs.

The Problem(s) with No Child Left Behind

Back in January of 2002, then President George W. Bush signed a 670-page act into law that was supposed to raise the quality of American public education.

Problem #1 – One of the main authors, Margaret Spelling, who later was nominated to become Secretary of Education in 2004, never worked in a school system. Never. She holds a B.A. in political science and had never received formal training in education.

Problem #2 – The Bush Administration underfunded No Child Left Behind (NCLB) yet required states to comply with NCLB or they risked losing all of their federal education dollars. This resulted in states making budget cuts in field experiences, textbooks, and non-tested curriculum (because you know, those non-tested subjects don’t really matter and kids don’t need art/PE/music in elementary school).

Problem #3 – Many educators feel that NCLB encourages teaching to the test, so that students score well on the test and therefore earn rewards by doing so. Teachers feel that there are many valuable lessons involved with a variety of activities that cannot be measured by a standardized test, but those valuable lessons won’t matter and teachers will have less time to teach those lessons with the vast amount of information that “might” show up on the test. Last time I checked, a valid assessment for teachers to use is one that does not trick the student, and the students have a clear and concise set of targets (or objectives) that will be assessed on the test. It isn’t a point and shoot method or a hope and pray method. How are WE as educators supposed to implement this sort of strategy when even our own state standardized tests do not?

Problem #4 – Which brings me to my next problem – the standardized tests. Each state has their own set of standards, therefore they have their own standardized test. Comparing how students score in California cannot possibly be compared to how well students score in Mississippi. It literally is like comparing oranges to crawfish. I just do not understand how a school can be judged strictly based on test scores alone. States can compensate for inadequate student performance by setting the bar low and making the tests easier. Many times, the tests are flawed and are used to then identify schools as being successful or as failures. Instead of provide those failing schools with the support the students and staff need, they are “punished” with counterproductive sanctions. From my experience in the south, as schools were labeled as being unsuccessful, good teachers left because they can go work for an “A” or “B” school and be more likely to earn the bonus money the state provided from the FCAT. I know that teachers did not get into the profession to become millionaires, but if a teacher is working as hard as she possibly can, then why not be rewarded for her hard work and go somewhere else where the parents are involved? Because typically, when parents are involved in their child’s educational experience, the students are more successful and the parents support the school system because they themselves are college graduates. If the child has his basic needs met (breakfast in the morning, for example), he will perform better and make your job as a teacher that much easier.

In theory, NCLB should work. Teachers should be held accountable. Standards should be set for teacher qualifications. I do not oppose a merit based pay system (see previous posts), but I have yet to see one that will work across content areas and will include valid measurements of success. If states are hurting economically, I am not sure if a merit based system is also the answer – just ask North Carolina why they don’t adhere to that pay system any longer. From what I understand, it cost the state more money than what they were paying based on seniority and level of education.

Friday, August 19, 2011

What is and what is not formative assessments

About 5 years ago, I sat in a professional development training at Sarasota Middle School and was literally scolded by an administrator in the district on how we were using assessments incorrectly. I had been applying and receiving grants for about a year at that point, and I always filled in the formative and summative assessment portions just fine apparently. But, I don't think I actually understood the VALUE of a formative assessment until later. Much, much later.

So what is a formative assessment? It's many things really, but the main purpose of a formative assessment is for teachers to modify and validate their instruction. It provides us teachers with information during the learning process, before the unit or lesson is over. We as educators are supposed to use formative assessments to improve our instruction; it's not supposed to make our jobs "easier". If anything, formative assessments help us hone in and fine tune what it is we want students to learn or accomplish, but yet this can in essence create more work because we have to 1) grade (or assess) more often and 2) provide feedback.

It seems that a lot of teachers miss the mark with #2. Providing meaningful feedback offers descriptive and vital information in regards to the project, the product, the lesson or the work and relates back to the learning targets or objectives. Meaningful feedback focuses on the learning objectives, lists or identifies student strengths as well as what needs improvement.

When I think about feedback, I think about how a volleyball player will ask me what they need to do to improve their serve reception or what they need to work on in order to be a better blocker - I start with what they do well (focus on the positives), then I discuss what they need to do to improve and then we talk about a plan of action (what she can do to improve). Obviously, if a player who is 5'3" could probably not become a middle hitter (never say never), so you have to be realistic with WHAT they are capable of accomplishing, as well as limiting to the plan of action to one or two skills as a time.

Here are some examples of meaningful and appropriate feedback:
  • I really like the topic you have chosen to experiment on; your hypothesis needs improvement because it's an explanation. Remember, we write our hypothesis in an "If" and "then" statement.
  • Nice description of how viruses and bacteria are similar but try to also include key differences in your response.
Examples of formative assessments include lab reports, observations, quizzes, class discussions, and outlines or rough drafts. A question that tends to be a little tricky is "should formative assessments be graded or scored?" Some people tend to lean to the side that they should never be scored based on the argument that if a formative assessment is graded, it automatically becomes a summative assessment. Others believe that some students are motivated by good grades; they need that good score to try hard because then it's worth it to them. I'd say I agree. Not all students are extrinsically motivated, but some are. And if we are given the charge of teaching and reaching ALL of our students, then periodically grading formatives is something we should do.

Utilizing formative assessments enables teachers to alter and adjust instruction in a timely fashion (before the learning process has ended) and it creates a student centered learning environment, where students take some responsibility of their own learning. Formative assessments is where the teaching and learning process blend.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Making the Cut

I know it's been awhile, but I've been rather busy...had a baby (need I say more?!), moved back to the MidWest, started a new job, started another new job and am now coaching a varsity team. I also prefer to not blog about just about anything - I like to blog about something that is significant.

Which leads to me my newest post.

As a coach, making cuts is probably the single hardest task we have to do. There really is no easy way for us to do it. As human beings, we hate feeling like we have broken kids hearts. We hate to see kids cry. But the reality is this: not everyone can make the team.

I have announced who has made the team several different ways. When I was a high school athlete, the varsity coach read off the list of kids who were to report to practice the following day. He didn't read who was cut, but rather, who was on the team. I appreciated that he wasn't cowardly and didn't just post a list up on the gym door after tryouts.

When I coached for a middle school in Florida, I was told I HAD to post a list. I hated it, but the AD was technically my boss. So I complied.

When I coached for a high school in Florida, I had to pull kids aside during drills and inform them that they didn't make the team. One on one. The kids in the drills then would see the student athlete leave in the middle of practice in tears. They would dread you calling them over.

When I started coaching back here in Ohio, I took the route of my former high school coach. I felt I owed kids the respect of reading off the list. I felt like I was able to say things like "All of the coaches are so proud of you for being here, regardless of the risks" and "We wish we could keep everyone" and "If your name is not called, don't give up. This can be looked upon as an opportunity - an opportunity to improve. Michael Jordan was cut from his JV team in high school..."

This is the 6th year I have done it this way, and this was the 1st year a parent complained. The parent was upset because she felt as if we were being cold and harsh and disrespectful. She claimed we didn't know how fragile these 15 and 16 year girls are and they needed to be told in private to avoid seeing their friends, etc. And the kicker - her kids didn't even know why they hadn't made the team. She requested a meeting and even though we validated her feelings and apologized for her kids feeling "worthless" (her words, not ours), there was no adequate solution because we couldn't turn back the clock and have a do-over. I usually ask parents in parent conferences when they are upset and have vented what it is they want me to do. In this situation, I wasn't going to pose that question because I knew her solution of letting her kids play on a team wasn't going to be a possibility. We thanked her for alerting us and told her we would take her complaint into consideration for next year, which was all we could do at that point.

In my head, I wanted to say, "Really? Your kids didn't know why they were cut? It's plain and simple - they weren't good enough." Now, after the initial reaction that I had in my head, I thought about providing meaningful feedback (like the type you are supposed to do with formative assessments), but how would I go about doing that? After reading the list to the kids, I asked to speak with a few of them to clarify what their roles were going to be. Let me remind you, these were kids who made the team - and when I spoke to them, all they wanted to do was leave. They don't want to be around the coaching staff; they want to go home and see their parents or talk to their friends.

I asked a few of the freshmen girls how they would prefer to be told if they made the team or not. They proceeded to tell me how they were told while in middle school for other sports. Answers ranged from being handed an envelope and being told not to open it until they got home to the coach posting the list on a website (love how we use technology to just do the exact same thing with a piece of paper).

Now, my next thought was, "Are we doing these athletes a disservice by being 'cowardly' and tip toeing around their sensitive feelings? Are we raising these kids to be wimps?" I recalled reading an article about just that: A Nation of Wimps in an online article (there is also a book by the same title). Recently, I overhead another coach say that athletes today are "soft". I heard of one team having two JV teams (an A and a B); next year then, they will have 20 seniors. Is having 2 teams allowing all kids to gain valuable playing time experience or are they leading on 20 kids that will be vying for 7 spots next year?

How are we helping them learn and develop by not allowing them to fail? Isn't there value in falling down and then getting up and dusting yourself off?

If parents constantly fight their child's battles, how is that child going to be ready for adulthood?

Are we teaching kids that if you just throw a big enough fit that you will get what you want? Excuse me for being naive, but I thought that was something most kids grew out of by the age of 4 or so.

Aren't kids supposed to learn through experience? For example, when my daughter learned how to walk, we knew she was going to fall and potentially bump her head (which she did, multiple times. And you know what, she's ok!). We knew that when we became parents, she was going to skin her knees and shut her hands in drawers. That's part of the learning process - mistakes are valuable when you learn what NOT to do.

After having a few days to ruminate, the coaching staff and I met and came to the conclusion that we would personally call each girl next year to let her know yes or no, and if no, we would provide her with the areas that she needed to improve on the most. It might be time consuming, but then they wouldn't be around their friends, they won't be embarrassed if they cry, and they can then be comforted by their parents at home right away.

So I pose this question out there to cyberspace - how would YOU like to know if you made a team? Or how would you like a coach to announce who was on the team when your child tries out in high school? How do or did you feel as a parent if your kid didn't make a team?