Category Archives: Teaching

Things related to the practice and experience of teaching and being a teacher. More personal than the “Education” category.

How I am learning to play guitar

As a professional educator who is supposed to create “lifelong learners,” I feel it’s important for me to be one myself. In addition to learning Spanish, I am trying to learn to play guitar. I have really always wanted to play guitar but either I didn’t have the means (ie. a guitar to play) or I didn’t really know what to do.

Today, the Internet has a confusing multitude of sites and places for you to go. It’s possible, I think, to learn today in ways that were impossible only a decade ago. It’s another one of those moments where I think, “How did we live without this stuff?” There is almost too much information out there.

What I’m adding, I guess, is my experience in trying to learn and what I’m learning to do. You won’t find instructional theory here, or chord charts. But, instead, I plan to journal my process.

I started about a month ago. My stepson got a guitar and my daughter got a flute in July. The daughter got some lessons, practiced a lot, and was able to join her middle school band! I was so jealous because she appears to have actual musical talent! I always wanted to have musical talent! Maybe I could do it she could. So, I picked up my stepson’s guitar and started trying to learn based on the stuff I saw on the ‘Net. I found for one. I also bought a Hal Leonard Essentials for Guitar  book that was similar to what my daughter had for flute.

After about a week, I decided to get my own guitar. This is where I made a mistake I hope others could avoid.

I bought a very inexpensive guitar.

I purchased an Epiphone DR-100 which is not a bad guitar. But, it’s not a good guitar either. What I should have done instead was to read just a bit further and realize that getting a decent starter guitar was a better idea. I thought, “Well, what if I don’t really like it? I don’t want to buy an expensive guitar and then not play it.”

Of course, buying an expensive guitar might be the reason I kept playing since I didn’t want the money to go to waste. I didn’t look at it that way.

Most importantly, I think it’s important to have a guitar you really like and that is a quality instrument. For me, that is the Yamaha FG700s. Go look around the Internet and you will see it is universally praised as a great entry-level guitar that is good enough to last you years. And, some people say it sounds good enough to stand amongst the Martins, Taylors, and Guilds that cost much more. I can’t say that for sure, but it makes me happy to think I have a guitar like that to play.

I can say it’s a really nice guitar for $200. Every time I play it I catch myself thinking, “Wow, that’s pretty!” It has a really nice sparkle and resonance in the tone that I very much admire. And, it keeps me wanting to play. I recently found some measurements online and checked. The factory setup is pretty good. The action is a little high but completely acceptable.

Okay, so that’s my first piece of advice. Don’t buy the least expensive guitar. Get a decent instrument. This Yamaha is the equal of any $400 – $600 guitar you can find. That I can can say pretty confidently. It’s important, I think to get a solid top on your guitar, for sound quality. This one has a solid spruce top.

My second piece of advice is to make sure you have light gauge strings. It’s easier on your fingers. My third piece of advice is practice a little bit, at least, every day. I shoot for about 30 minutes per day. Once per week my stepson and I go to a group guitar class through the city. It’s inexpensive but worth it to have an actual teacher watching you and correcting your issues. There’s also that aspect of having accountability to someone. I don’t want to show up and not have practiced the things from last week and have the teacher realize I haven’t been putting in the work.

So, that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been practicing my chords like A, E, D, C, G, G7, A7, D7, E7, and the dreaded B7. Why dreaded? It’s the only chord I’ve been working on that uses all four fingers! I have a lot of trouble getting all the fingers on the strings and not muting nearby strings. But, I have to say that when I first started with that chord, it just was a dull thud. I have definitely noticed that it is getting easier over time. Today, it still has a couple muted strings here and there, but I can usually get it to ring a bit better.

My friend Pat says it’s about developing touch. I also know it’s about muscle memory. Like so many things, to learn it is to repeat it. It takes hundreds, if not thousands, of repetitions, for the brain to internalize it and the muscles to memorize the movement.

I’m gonna go now and practice for a little bit. I plan to update as I go. Until then…


Are You Not Entertained?! The Consequences of Standardized Test Prep

Are you not satisfied with the educational system?!

In the film, Gladiator, the character played by Russell Crowe, Maximus, is a Roman Soldier who is enslaved and made to be a gladiator. He is already a killing machine, a hardened soldier, and, angry at being forced to kill for sport, he proceeds to dispatch his opponents quickly, easily, and shouts at the crowd, “Are you not entertained?!” He knows they are not. This is not what they had in mind.

So, I feel like shouting something similar right now. I just sat through an hour long “workshop” to help me prepare my students for the California High School Exit Exam, otherwise known as the CAHSEE. This test is supposed to see if the kids have learned the minimum amount necessary to earn a high school diploma. If kids don’t pass the test, no matter what grades they earn, they don’t get a diploma. So, there are high stakes for the kids.

The adults have a stake in this, too. The pass rate is used by people, district officials, to judge the schools, primarily the administrators. And, the scores are published in newspapers, used by politicians, and part of how schools get funding. People use these scores to decide if the schools are doing a good job. And, more and more, districts are using them to evaluate teachers. The assumption is that if students are passing the test, they must be learning what we want them to learn. The further assumption with this test, and other standardized tests, is that the tests are a valid measure of student learning. In other words, the things that the students learn in school are being tested by the CAHSEE and these are the things we want them to learn.

Educators have been warning that an over reliance on standardized tests will lead to teachers teaching to the test and a narrowing of the curriculum. For years now, the prediction has been that if you put pressure on teachers to raise test scores, that will become the point of the school year, and that teachers will do what they need to do in order to ensure student, and, therefore, teacher success.

The warnings have come true. It has come to pass. The teachers are teaching to the test and the curriculum has been narrowed. Here is the absolute, undeniable truth. I am going to relate to you what happened in this workshop as proof that the canary has died, the warnings have come true, it is no longer a possibility, it is a reality.

The workshop began with us watching a clip of Nick Saban explaining that the reason he works so hard is because he likes to win, to be the best. So, that’s the tone of the presentation. We are supposed to want to win. This is reinforced when the presenter* says he is competitive and always plays to win, and that when he was a classroom teacher, he used the student scores on the standardized tests, like the CAHSEE, to see if he was winning at work.

Does that sound like education to you? Is education a game to win? Do you want teachers worrying about winning? You might think you do. Let’s look at what that means, in practice.

The presenter brought out charts to represent data that showed how students scored on the CAHSEE. We found that about 24% missed passing the test by 5 points or less. We saw that about 80% of the students in the district are passing the test and about the same or slightly more are passing at our school. That sounds pretty good, to me. An 80% pass rate sounds decent. Not great, certainly, but not reason to panic, either.

So, the presenter put up a chart that showed the breakdown of the types of questions that the test has. They were split up by standards. California uses standards as the teaching objectives, the skills that students are supposed to learn. So, for example, he told us that 25% of the test is Reading Comprehension. So, we should focus on activities that teach students Reading Comprehension. Why? Because that standard had the most “bang for the buck”. His reasoning, as a certified math teacher, was that if students were learning reading comprehension, then they were learning Word Analysis and Response to Literature at the same time. Maybe, but maybe not. Word Analysis is more like a vocabulary exercise where you use knowledge of Greek and Latin roots, prefixes and suffixes, and so on, to figure out what words mean. But, Reading Comprehension is more about figuring out plot or tone or something like that. (Most of this is not very high on the cognitive scale, by the way. It is low, to mid-level thinking, mostly identifying things, recognizing them.)

And, honestly, respectfully, he was talking about teaching English about as well as I would talk about teaching math. That is to say, he was pretty much wrong.

So, my problem is, first, that we are making a lot of assumptions. Most of my fellow English teachers were muttering that focusing on Writing Applications, which comprises 20% of the score, is a better idea. What does that mean? That we would focus on teaching kids to write essays. Why? Well, when you’re writing, you’re reading. You are literally reading what you have written. When you write, you usually have to read something, like literature, and you need to comprehend it, to analyze it. Realistically, you are probably addressing five, or more, standards in that kind of activity.

It’s much more of a bang for your buck activity. Read and write about what you read.

That was mentioned. His response was enthusiastic. Yes! Great! Have them write! And, he said, there are things you can do if the kids don’t write well. He said you should make sure they indent paragraphs. You should have them write five paragraphs. You should have them make sure they have topic sentences for all of their paragraphs. This will, he said, help “masquerade their writing” [sic] so it looks as if they know how to write.

He actually said that. It will help mask the fact that they can’t write well.

Are you not entertained?!

Basically, this district official was telling us ways to game the system, the best ways to increase test scores. We did not talk about student learning. We didn’t talk about what was best for kids. See, that’s a given in these areas. This is best for kids. We should use test scores to drive instruction. We should make curricular choices based on what standards will help students pass the test with the highest score. We should win!

Let that sink in. We, as teachers, are choosing the lessons based on what will increase student test scores. We are not asking if this will help kids prepare for college. We are not asking if this is what students need to be ready for life after high school. We are not asking if this will help them get a job and support themselves.

Not only are we teaching based on what standards will be on the test and which ones will raise test scores the easiest, but we are focusing on that. We are narrowing the curriculum so that we can make sure the kids are successful with that. Because, as we were told, success breeds more success. The presenter then recommended that we get the released test questions and spend 3 to 5 days on going over those questions. We should teach them to do better on those questions, help them practice to take the test.

Are you not satisfied with the educational system? Isn’t this what you wanted? It must be. We all heard the warnings. Teachers have been saying this for years. We have been telling anyone who would listen, and most didn’t, that this would happen. How could it not? How could you put so much pressure on teachers to raise scores and not expect them to focus on those things that would do the easiest and most effectively?

This is the state of the educational system today. This is what No Child Left Behind has given us. Why? Because the pass rate of Sophomores on the CAHSEE counts for 100% of the Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) score that is a huge part of NCLB and determines things like if a school is considered failing or not. Of course you, as a principal, are going to focus on this. You’re not stupid. Your job is riding on this! They publish these scores in the papers. And, increasingly, districts are trying to use these scores to see if teachers are good or not.

So, am I going to do it? Why wouldn’t I? I want people to think I’m a good teacher! This is my job! This is how I pay my bills! It’s how I support my family! Yes, I am going to want my kids to pass this test and get high scores. And, you must want me to, as well, because you will base my evaluation on this, you will publish my name in the paper with these scores, as they do in some places, like Los Angeles and New York.

I guess you are satisfied and entertained because I’m still a gladiator and the games don’t look to be changing any time soon. The tests are not going away.

*I want to be clear that this is in no way critical of the presenter today. I am sure he was doing the best he could with the assignment he was given. In my opinion, we are all complicit in this problem. We, the teachers that go along with it, the administrators who push the agenda, the citizens who believe it.

My Latissimus Dorsi Hurts

I’m lying in bed right now in a mild amount of pain. You know how, in the hospital, they ask you to rate your pain on a scale of 1 to 10, ten being the worse ever? My pain at this moment is about a 2 or 3. It’s a dull ache in my back, right side. But, if I move the wrong way, that becomes a 9, easy. Yesterday, as I was about to leave for work in the morning, I did not realize that my lawn sprinklers, having been blown by the wind, had coated my driveway with a thin, imperceptable sheet of ice because of the unusually cold temperatures that morning. So, when I saw my trash can had blown down, I did what I normally do, I went out to pick it up, in a hurry, of course, because I don’t want to be late to work, and I found myself on my back suddenly and harshly.

I felt fine at first. I got back up and actually rode my bike to work in the morning, after picking up the trash can and walking more carefully. Once at work, I felt a little discomfort in my back. Then, over the course of the day, the pain worsened. By 6th period, I had to teach from a chair. I asked my wife to pick me up instead of riding home in the screaming wind. Even in calm conditions, I think riding might have been a bad idea.

My wife took me to urgent care. The doctor their diagnosed me with a strain of my latissimus dorsi muscle which is ending up to be very painful. He prescribed rest, no lifting things, and NSAID along with some heat and ice. I called in sick because sleeping was hard but moving this morning was even more difficult. In fact, this morning, around 4 a.m., I thought I could try sleeping on my side. It seemed like a good idea. But, instead, it caused the most painful and excruciating muscle spasm I have had. Luckily, my wife had a muscle relaxer and she helped me get the heating pad under me while every slight movement send waves of nine-level pain through me.

I can’t classify it as ten-level pain because I just don’t know if I’ve had that yet. I think that is having-a-baby pain or gall-bladder-attack pain. But, this was still pretty bad.

I don’t know but I have a feeling I may be out of commission for a few days. I can walk, carefully, but I don’t know which movements will inspire a spasm. At this point, I have no idea if I can put on or take of a shirt. Lifting the toilet seat is scary and hurts a little. Even lying down, the muscle aches. It’s a bummer. I have a lot to do at school with my students, I have a Site Rep Council meeting tomorrow, I have bike rides I want to be taking, there’s work to do in my garage, and so on. I really hate being injured.

Besides that… oh, I finished my work bench. It came out pretty good. The first picture is the workspace in general. The second is a better picture of just the bench. I’m happy with it.

There’s little things wrong with it, but mostly, it is great. Maybe the wood isn’t the highest quality or something but some stuff didn’t line up the way I thought it would. However, it’s a good bench and looks nice while providing a great place to work on stuff. I really like the drawers even though that added a level of difficulty and I even had to make a new drawer because one of them didn’t fit. The finish came out nice, too.

In the first picture, you can see a cabinet/shelf thing I made, too. It holds all kinds of cans and bottles of stuff like wood, cleaners, WD-40, oil, grease, and so on. The door folds down to make a little shelf. It’s pretty nice and I hung in on the peg board using a French cleat. Also, I hung tools on the peg board. The peg board used to be behind several of those ClosetMaid wire shelves. I moved those to another wall and put the peg board to work holding up my tools. Much better. I really like having the tools on the wall. To me, it both looks cool but it means I am more organized and find the tools I want so much easier.

So, that was a successful project.

In this shot, you can see that I have attached boards to the wall for a French cleat organizing wall. I can make little cleats that hold hooks or other things to attach tools or whatever, to the wall. And, you can move the stuff around if you don’t like its placement. It’s an evolving project. And, on the right of the picture, at the top, you can see where I attached some rails to hold plastic totes for more storage.

I got all of these projects from the Family Handyman magazine website.

That’s how I spent most of my winter break. Since then? I’ve gotten a few bike rides in. Riding a bike in the cold is not a lot fun, unless you have something to warm it up a bit. I do, so that is okay. But, the other morning, I left to join the cycling group I belong to for the regular Saturday ride, and it had to be in the 30’s easy. The air hurt on bare skin wherever it touched. I used a “ninja mask” face cover and that helped quite a bit, actually. I was going to be riding my bike to work starting again this week, but then the back injury happened. So, it’s hard to tell how long I will be off my bike. Back injuries are not to be trifled with.

At work, we are looking at poetry. I used to hate poetry, especially in high school, so I am very sympathetic when students groan at the mention of poetry, or don’t understand this whole meter thing. I don’t get it, sometimes, either. I can usually recognize iambic pentameter when I see it, but I don’t know a trochee from a spondee or a dactyl from an anapest.

The Sophomores will read a little of this and a little of that. I’m a little disappointed that so many of the selections are modern and in free verse. The Juniors will look pretty closely at Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. Those will be fun, I like those. Aside from teaching them to analyze poetry to find the theme, symbols, imagery, figurative language, and so on, I am hoping at least to help them gain an appreciation for the form and enjoy reading some poems.

Last year, I dove right into the poems and ended up finding that the kids didn’t really understand the things we were talking about, like symbols and metaphors. So, I had to teach that stuff in the middle. This time, I have opted to front-load all of that information via PowerPoint presentation. It’s not a lot of fun for the kids. But, I am able to break it up with some Think/Pair/Share activity and that helps.

Of course, I’m not doing much at all if I’m at home with a screwed up back. So, next time, I am going to remember that water freezes when it’s real cold and try not to fall down in the future.

The Benefits of Failing Students

One of the big topics at this conference, CABE 2012, is that we are failing our students. I don’t mean giving them an “F” in my class. The underlying theme is that our students are underprepared for life or college. I am sitting in a workshop listening to a presenter talk about long-term English learners who have been in our educational system for six or more years and they still are not proficient enough in English to be in mainstream classes. He is deficient in academic language and background knowledge sufficient to succeed in college.

And this is our fault.

It is our fault because we have been teaching him. Or not, apparently. He has not learned enough in our classes to succeed, or maybe even graduate. And, at first, this seems logical. Most teachers I know are going ask the same thing this presenter said, “What am I doing wrong? How have I failed this student so badly?”

I ask myself this every week, it seems.

But, this is a false correlation. After all, we don’t have total influence over our students. We are a big influence, no doubt. But, we are not the only influence, and we may not even be the greatest influence. Teachers are the largest in-school influence.

The following link examines whether or not schools are failing.

I don’t think this is a black and white, cut and dry situation. I don’t wish to make excuses for poor teachers. But, we have got to reconsider if demoralizing a majority of teachers is worth it. And, we have to consider who is doing the demoralizing and if they have any stakes in the game beyond making life better for kids.

One thing I see at these conferences is a lot of salesmanship. The majority of presenters are selling something to us. People know that there is a ton of money in school’s. I first saw this as ASB Director. I attended four annual conferences that had boatloads of money spent on them. The staging was high quality with professional sound and lights and beautiful sets. The exhibitors gave away so much swag that I needed several bags to carry them home. We got dinners and dances. Companies do not spend money like this because it makes them feel good. They spend money to make money. So, if they are willing to throw down this much cash it must mean they are profiting even more.

And they are. My school annually spent more than $150K on student activities. There are four high schools in my district and we are not an affluent school district. So, you’re looking at $500K coming out of our district, probably more than that. And, there are hundreds, maybe thousands of high schools in California. So, there are millions of dollars being spent.

This conference is for English Learners, students who don’t speak English natively. There are several hundred thousand dollars spent annually on these programs in our school, probably several million for the district. This is considered “categorical” funds, that is, they cannot be spent except on English Learners. They cannot be used in the district’s General Fund to pay for things like teacher salaries, for example.

My point is that if there is a lot of money to made off of these parts of the education system, then there are probably much more in the general education areas. There are billions of dollars spent on education. And, if you think that corporations are not eyeing that pile of money with avaricious leers then I think maybe you are naive and I would like to talk to you about investing in my own ventures.

If you can convince teachers they are doing a bad job in the classroom already, then you can sell them something to fix that. Teachers are, as a group, soft-hearted, and want to do the right thing. So, convince them that they aren’t helping their kids and that you know how they can and you will make a sale. I already saw that in myself. I know my kids aren’t learning enough academic vocabulary and I totally bought into Kate Kinsella’s vocabulary building system. I am ready to buy her book.

If you can convince Americans that schools are failing then you can sell them a new school, corporate-owned, that will fix those problems. If you can convince people that teachers’ unions are protecting bad teachers who are causing the schools to fail, you can break those unions. And, if you can convince the people that teachers are the biggest problem in schools, then you can break those teachers and pay them a lot less.

You will have to get the people to ignore poverty, bad parenting, poor life choices, influence of media, influence of peers, underfunding of schools, micromanaging curriculum, constantly shifting standards and curriculum, career-oriented administrators, straight-up corrupt administrators, and more.

But, apparently it’s not that tough as it’s happening right now.

Off-task behavior

When I first started teaching, I was taught that the goal was to have students on-task for the entire class period. I operated this way for years. Now, it makes me uncomfortable to see kids chatting or otherwise wasting time. I don’t think this is a bad thing. But, lately, my classes have been challenging me in this area.

I will look around class and see students smiling, laughing and “chilling.” There’s a part of me that thinks it’s kinda fascist to feel that way. They can’t enjoy themselves?

So, either this post will be an exposure of the weakness in my methodology or it’s a revealing look at a paradigm change.

So, one of my foundational beliefs in running my class this way is that students should be given as many choices as possible. I am trying to give them the choice of what to learn, how to learn, and when to learn. One reason I don’t take off points for late work, and accept all late work as much is as reasonable is because I believe that some students take longer to learn something than others.

Kids can take advantage of this, obviously.

One thing I have been trying to do to combat this is to give detentions to students missing work and getting poor grades. I have also been using the school Teleparent (automated calling) system to call parents and let them know if students are missing work.

But, I also have had some thoughts on this matter. One is that I have been in lots of meetings with people I work with, in a variety of settings, not just education, and I have been part of and witness to people chatting and goofing off during times when they should have been on-task. These are adults. Also, I have witnessed adults putting off work and then doing it at the last minute.

So, why should I be surprised, or punitive, when teenagers do it?

Well, I should if my goal is to create obedient people who respect authority and weed out the troublemakers. But, if my goal is to teach students to think better and to acquire the skills described in the standards then maybe I can relax a little. Maybe those kids aren’t ready to learn it yet. Maybe they’re just being normal.

Some of my kids are happy getting a “C” in the class. This bothers me. Technically, that means they aren’t proficient. They are showing a basic proficiency, as in they understand the skill in a simple way, but there are some problems and errors. Shouldn’t I push them to achieve true proficiency?

Right now, my answer is, kind of. I am suggesting to them that they try again. But, some of them just don’t want to. English is hard for them and they’re happy. Haven’t I seen some adults decide that the minimum effort was enough for them? Yup.

So, I’m going to try something a little different. For some of these kids, I’m going to see if, having gotten a “C”, there’s something they would prefer to study or read. I mean, after all, they engaged the material the district required. They attempted and showed some proficiency with the standard. Maybe I can get them engaged in something else and then sneak the standard back in there.

To me, though, this points out the weakness of the system as it is designed currently. This assembly line mentality that all 165 of my students should be learning the same thing at the same time. And, that they will spend 56 minutes each day continuously working on it as well also seems ludicrous.

Why couldn’t I, as an educational professional, an experienced teacher, devise a specialized curriculum for students so they could pick different readings or different standards to acquire? Especially in these cases with students who struggle or traditionally quit, it seems like this would be very useful.

I’m going to continue to make my rounds in the class and ask students to get to work when they are goofing off. But, at the same time, I feel like I have to let them choose to not work sometimes. Otherwise, I’m being hypocritical. Am I off-base? I will grant that students notoriously make poor choices. But, my theory currently is that my role in the classroom is to be a guide and tutor. I should offer suggestions, supervise their behavior, and give instruction when requested or needed. But, maybe I should let kids make bad choices, too. Experience is a pretty good teacher, too.

Do you have any thoughts, Dear Reader?

6 Weeks Done- Progressing Toward the Standards

With 6 weeks in the can, I think there are some very good things going on in my class. I feel like I have a new focus on teaching and that it is affecting the kids in a good way. There is hope in my classroom. It feels very different than what I remember.

In the past, I can remember inputing grades for kids who were trying to make up for their mistakes, trying to bring their grades up. But, because of “zeroes” for missing assignments and the “late penalties” taking off points, their grades would slowly push upward. They would be turning in work, maybe for the first time in weeks, proud that they had turned over a new leaf and made a change. Surely this was going to be okay. However, with a grade hovering around 30%, and assignments worth only 50% after I took off points for being late, it just wasn’t enough. That “F” wasn’t going anywhere.

And, my heart would sink as the light went out of their eyes. There was no hope. No point in trying. Why bother doing work if you can never get your grade back up? I would try to console them with words I knew were empty, trying to tell them that they should just keep trying.

But, that is not today. Today, students turn in those essays two weeks late and I grade them based on what the essay represents. I grade them according to their progress toward the standard. I input the grades at full strength, no penalty for lateness. The “F” becomes a “D+” and then, when they turn in the week late paragraph the grade becomes a “C-“. One girl even turned in the essay and, because it was a very well done essay, she went from failing to a “B-” in one fell swoop.

Some would cry “foul” at this, I know. “How can you justify that? They did nothing for weeks and now they’re passing? It’s not fair! That’s not how the real world works! In the real world, they would be fired!”

I realize I have written about this before, so pardon me if you’ve heard this. But, maybe someone is new to the party.

I’m okay with this because 1) my classroom is not the “real world,” and 2) it’s not my job to teach responsibility; it’s my job to teach Language Arts.

This is the focus I’m talking about. For the first time, I feel very clear about what I’m doing in the classroom. I have a “primary purpose” or “vision statement” against which I can test my decisions and see if my actions are consistent. The primary purpose is to help students become proficient in the skills that are described by the standards. And, the grades are not rewards. They are measurements that indicate the level of progress that the student has made toward that proficiency. That’s why I can’t take points off for lateness. Unless the standard says that the student will complete their work in a timely manner, I can’t measure their responsibility with an academic grade.

But, here’s the super-cool thing that I didn’t realize would happen. The kids get it. When they are sitting at my desk and we are looking at the standard and their work and I tell them the grade, they don’t protest. They might be disappointed, but I will often say something like, “Your work is okay, but it has some errors. Do you see that?” Affirmative answer from student. “I think you are ‘getting’ the standard but in a basic way. You still seem confused about the skill. Do you agree?” They have all agreed, often with a sheepish smile. Or, in one case, a look of relief. Why relief? I didn’t call her stupid and she knew that I knew she was struggling. I told her, “I see you’re struggling with this and I’m glad.” She looked at me quizzically. “I mean that you are fighting to understand this skill and learn it. I appreciate that.” And she smiled.

But, my favorite look from the students is that intense, thoughtful look they have when walking away, marshaling their intellectual resources to LEARN and do better next time. Why? Because I allow them unlimited attempts at demonstrating better proficiency.

A couple things I have learned. Some kids are fine with basic proficiency (a “C”). I mention this because some teachers worried that if kids could reassess over and over that they would simply just do it until they had an “A” in the class. To which I replied, “You say that like it’s a bad thing.” Um, wouldn’t you love a student to keep trying over and over to learn something until they exhibited advanced mastery? Good lord! I would dig that!!! But, the reality is that some kids are pretty happy to get that “C” and move on.

Another thing I learned, just today actually, is that some students don’t want to reassess because they are afraid of losing a better grade. Generally, I won’t lower a grade. I might if the newly produced evidence showed a marked and significant deterioration in the level of mastery. But, so far, I haven’t had that happen. I’ve seen a variation of a + or – on the grade. But, not a full grade, or more, difference. A girl in my class today told me that she didn’t want to rewrite her essay and make her grade worse. But, when I told her that I wouldn’t lower her grade, her face lit up. “I’ll think about it, then!” Nice. A kid is going to voluntarily rewrite their essay to try to get better at writing. Love it!

What about punishment? Well, I have been making calls home and using Teleparent to let parents know that their student is not doing their work. And, I have been issuing detentions to anyone missing work and getting less than a “C-” in the class. Early this week, that was about 75 to 100 kids. Nearly 20 per period. But, today, I counted 40. Much better. I’m not happy with it and those kids will get more detentions Monday and fresh calls home. But, I am spending my lunches in my class with kids on detention and about an hour and half after school doing the same. Instead of just sitting there for an hour (did I mention that these detentions are an hour?), they are doing their class work. If they start to complain I say, “You don’t want to do your work during class so you can come in and do it on your own time.” They clam right up. No more arguing. Because it’s fair and they know it.

That’s the thing about this year that’s way different. Teenagers love to complain. I think sometimes it keeps their lungs filled with air. But, there is very little complaining going on. I think it’s because they have so many choices and because they know that my actions are consistent with the goal of them learning. They see that I’m being fair and consistent. There are a few who are being straight-up defiant. I am keeping track and I will get to them when I have whittled down the numbers of kids doing poorly a little more.

The other thing I really like is that I know, positively, that my classroom has rigorous work going on. The standards that we are focusing on are high on Bloom’s Taxonomy. We are working on analyzing and evaluating. For example, the current standard says that students will be able to read a work of American Literature and evaluate the influence of culture, politics, philosophy, social, or ethical ideas that affected the plot, characters or setting. So, students are reading and making graphic organizers (T-charts), noting any details they find that indicate something about the way people thought, lived, or behaved during those times. Then, they try to explain what it means about the people or the time period. It’s a tough standard. Some are getting it, but many are not. Not yet and not entirely. But, they are working on it.

A colleague today told me that some of her students are mine as well and they complain to her about my class being hard and getting detentions for not doing their work. But, they aren’t complaining to me. This makes me smile. I want to have a hard class with happy kids in it. When kids like you AND say your class is hard, that’s when you’re doing a good job. I get nervous when kids say they like me or say I’m their favorite or a “cool” teacher. Why? Because sometimes they say that about teachers that let them get away stuff or don’t challenge them. A “cool” teacher lets them chill. Kids may be “chilling” in my class sometimes, I won’t lie. But, they are paying for it, too, or soon will be. I nag and guilt trip them. But, I don’t just let them chill. If they ask to go to the bathroom I decline and say the restroom is for kids who work. That makes me LOL. So, I don’t think those kids like my class because it’s chill or that I’m “cool” for letting the get away with stuff. Kids are not passing this class without doing work. And, they are not failing without a fight from me.

So, today, mostly, I feel like I’m doing a good job. I feel like I’m progressing toward the standards, too.

I bet you’re thinking, "Now why don’t he write?"

I’m sorry. Hopefully I can give a bigger, more detailed update soon. However, I’m tired. Between the start of fantasy football season and working, it’s been a busy time. My students decided that turning in work in my class was optional. So, I have had to send calls home via our automated system and issue detentions to half, or more, of the kids.

This shouldn’t surprise me as their transcripts show that more than half of them have failed at least one year of English.

So, after a week of the calls home, my cajoling, and some parent phone conferences, students are turning in work and grades are going up. And, I’m grading for about four hours each night at home (yeah, teachers have such cushy work schedules) and also on the weekend. And, during classes, I grade and give feedback. The good news is that I really feel like some of the kids are actually learning things. And, I am getting a feeling that kids who traditionally fail are thinking they have a chance to pass.

I sit with kids and explain their grades to them. We discuss their progress toward the standard. Interestingly, I have not heard a single kid say, “Why is my grade so low?!” They seem to get that the grade is based on how much they have demonstrated they have learning. And, that’s cool. It’s cool because they feel like it’s fair and the grade tells them what they need to do to improve. I dig that part.

Today after school, I had a kid in detention who had finally turned in his late essay. We went over the standards and the grades for them. And, this student said, “So, I can rewrite this and make it better?” I answered affirmatively. He nodded. “Okay, i’m going to do that. I think I know how to do that.” He was motivated to learn more because the grading system is not punitive. And, that, I think is super cool.

The hard thing teaching class this way is that I spend so much time in one-on-one conversation with kids over their work. I do make an effort to circle the class at least twice per period and ask most, if not all, students how they’re doing. I think I have only done direct instruction about three times in the last five weeks. It’s a pretty big shift and I think it’s working.

Also cool? The kids are struggling, in a good way, to learn to analyze and evaluate their reading. Which is rigor, dude. Some are getting it and others are doing battle, fighting to get it. And, that I seriously love. They bring me summaries and we discuss why that isn’t what the standard is looking for and then I reteach the concept and they go back and try again.

More to come.

A Potpourri Update on My Classroom, Mostly

Halfway into week 3 of student directed learning and standards based grading and all is well. I think. One thing I really like is having my students blogging. I’m not getting all of them blogging every single day, even though that’s what I’m asking for, but I’m getting a lot. And, it’s good to get the feedback. Interestingly, because some of them don’t know what to write, they fall back on summarizing what they learned. This ends up being a pretty good informal formative assessment! It’s a totally unlooked for benefit of getting them to write more.

One good thing is that it seems like many students are really focussing on learning. They are talking and thinking about their essays and how to master the standards. That’s pretty cool. Also, many of the “high achievers,” i.e. those students that typically get good grades and need extension activities are enjoying being able to work as they like without being “held back” by the other students. Conversely, I am able to spend time talking with the students that need more attention.

Today in class we went over the 6 Traits of Writing. Well, most of the class. Some of them read about it on the computers (their screens face the front of the class) and some wrote on their blogs or worked on their drafts. Except for a handful of kids making poor choices and deciding it would be better to chat for the period instead of working. We will be dealing with that. I need to make some calls home, I think.

Fantasy football season has begun. I had my first draft last weekend and another tomorrow. My first team is, um, iffy. I’m not super happy with it. It is a boom or bust team. I have Aaron Rodger and Antonio Gates. Also, I have Ingram (New Orleans Saints) as well as Earl Bennet and Roy Williams and Arrelious Benn. See what I mean? Who? But, all I really need is these guys to put up decent points, say 10 each week, or so. and then Gates and Rodgers to do what they did last year (except for Gates getting hurt, of course), and my team will be pretty good. So, we’ll see.

This teaching thing is hard. I’m tired now. I must rest and read.

Getting Out of the Way of Student Learning

Week Two is done. This week I will be asking them to rough draft, read, proof, rewrite, edit and polish their essays. Most of them have been making enough progress to get to the point of writing. One really great benefit of the way I have been running the class is that I really feel like I have had a chance to interact with every student in every period, at least minimally. Some students don’t want and/or need my attention. So, me saying, “You doing okay?” and them nodding is enough.

As I have made my way around the classroom I have seen many of the students trying to jump into writing the essay without figuring out what they will write. They don’t have a thesis and they haven’t organized their arguments. So, I have been able to direct them back to those steps. Most students have been doing this and it has been effective in helping them get their Ideas in order.

Oh, in case I haven’t mentioned it, I teach writing primarily using the 6+1 Traits of Good Writing and the Jane Schaffer Writing Method. Unlike past years where I gave presentations/lectures to the whole class on these methods, this year I have been teaching them to the students that ask or indicate that they do not know how to construct an essay or a paragraph. I have Good Writing Traits posters on both sides of my room. I would prefer to formally teach them but I don’t know that all of my students need to know it, in fact, I think they may not.

What I notice is that the kids who ask are more willing to listen and learn. And, I can target my teaching directly to what they need right then. This, I think, leads to greater comprehension and absorption of the concepts. This is part of my goal.

I notice I still have a number of kids not working in each period. They sit and chat instead of work. At first, I was tempted to see this as a major failing of my strategy. But, ten years of teaching have given me the experience to know that this same thing occurs in a “traditional” classroom setting too. However, I think it’s important for me to note that in that “traditional” classroom, those kids not working would be a greater distraction to the students choosing to learn. They would be drawing a much greater proportion of my attention as I had to go deal with their off-task behavior. Instead, I will stop by their desks/tables and say, “You really should be using your time more wisely. It doesn’t look like you are getting much done. Do you need help?” If they ask for help, I give it. If not, I move on. This way, I can go see if someone else can benefit from my attention.

Some may disagree with my approach. However, I think that it amounts to a better outcome. I taught regular English and/or Drama classes for six years. Something that was similar to both, and part of my ASB experience as well, was that kids that don’t want to learn generally don’t learn. Learning is a choice. You can lead a horse to water and all of that. I, as the teacher, can work to motivate the student to choose to learn, either through disciplinary measures or by trying to make the lesson more relevant to them. I am doing these things. Students that don’t turn in evidence of progress toward the standards or whose progress is poor will be getting notices sent home both in writing and phone calls. I am also speaking with the students not working and trying to help them see how these lessons could benefit them.

But, in the end, it’s up to them to choose to do the work to learn.

A couple of success stories: Erick was on the computer during class looking up animal cruelty (the lessons ask them to write an essay on the subject of animal rights). I noticed this and thought about telling him that this wasn’t a research project and redirecting him to work on writing but I changed my mind and let him surf on the subject. I figured it was his choice and that at least it was on the subject. Later, on his student blog, he posted that he found information about bull fighting and in reading on it, he became very interested and convinced that bull fighting was wrong and unfair to bulls. He said that he now knew how he was going to start his essay!

This is a major win! A student found a personal connection to the subject and this will allow him to bring a much more interesting tone and Voice to his essay. It happened because I left him alone! Many students will rise to the standards we set for them… and above!

Update on Bob: I can tell that his reading level is below grade level. But, I talked with him on Friday and he had chosen to re-read the essay and was answering some comprehension questions, voluntarily, in the packet. He was stuck, though, trying to figure out what the main point of the author was. The question was asking what the author wanted the reader to do as a result of reading the editorial. It’s a tricky question because the author never comes out and direct exhorts the reader to do anything. Instead, the author hints at and suggests that animals deserve rights and protections. Bob and I talked for a minute or two and I was able to help him find this and say it aloud on his own. I told him, “That it! That’s what the author is saying and his thesis! You got it!” This kid, with the shaved head, piercings through both sides of his lower lip, worked hard to suppress the smile over his victory but he couldn’t hide it entirely. This was a supreme moment for him and, I hope, will encourage him to keep trying. He proved to himself that he could learn, something I think he may have forgotten because of all the “F’s” he got in other English classes.

All students can learn. Students learn at different times. Students learn in different ways. All students want to learn.

Another student had been frittering away his time this week. I had passed by many times during class and commented on it to him. On Friday, he finally asked for help. I showed him the exercises to work on in the packet after discussing with him where his confusions where. I told him he should work over the weekend since he wasted time in class during the week. At that moment, he agreed. Whether it turned into action this weekend, I don’t know. But, his face seemed to show that he realized I was right and that he needed to do this. By not confronting him and forcing him to work in a heavy-handed manner, I helped him to see on his own that he needed to work.

An important take-away for me is that when I get out of the way, students learn.

My Students Start Blogging!

I thought this was kinda cool. I got tipped off to Edublogs as a good place for students to start blogging. So, I opened up my own blog over there (and paid for it, so if you use them, pay for it and help support a great service!!!). This last week I’ve been encouraging my students to open up blogs, too. I am linking them to my own page and asking them to blog a little each day. It’s been starting slowly with a hitch here and there but otherwise I’m very encouraged. The students seem to think it’s fun, mostly, and it allows me to have them try to review their learning for the day.

I am asking them NOT to use it as a diary exactly. I want them to reflect and summarize some of the things they’ve learned. It will both serve to refresh their memory on what was covered and also help them exercise their writing muscles. I’m using a cool iPad app, Feedler, to read their feeds and it goes quickly. I flew through about 40 posts in an hour, and even left a few comments for them too.

I like this right now. Some of their posts are quite insightful. I am really hoping they will enjoy doing it and forget that it’s good for them and just do it because they like it.