Once Upon a Time, I WAS That Newbie

Every year, at the beginning of the school year, I remember my first year in Albemarle County.  I remember it for a lot of reasons, but as our tenth day of school approaches, I remember back to when I was a newbie and I got a job AFTER school started–so the 2 established classes of 30 got to each lose 10 kids to my new class. The teachers were what I call Crozetians–which means they had been here, they knew the community and families and school volunteers and all that other stuff that good teachers know about the culture of their school. So when I was hired, the principal gave me a few days to set up my room while school was going on and I got to learn my way around a little.

I was excited to begin with the kids.  (There’s a skunk story in there, but I’ll save it for another time.) I was getting 20 4th graders and had done student teaching in 4th grade, so I felt like I knew a bit about what I was doing. Plus, I was young, confident, enthusiastic and idealistic (none of which I’ve lost, except the young part!)

I have a good memory, but as any of you who teach know, when you’ve done it for a while, the years somewhat blur together. I remember which grade I taught someone in, but probably not the exact year. However, I bet I could pretty much name almost every, if not every, kid in that class, it made such an impression on me. You see, the two teachers had total control over which kids they put in my class.  I got ten from each of them. Yep, those of you who are veterans can suspect which ten I got from each classroom.

It took me until about January to have enough experience with the other two classes through sharing math and reading groups to realize my homeroom class make up was quite different from the others. I had no gifted kids–had some bright ones, but NONE of the top kids in the grade level. I knew the resource teacher well, as she worked with quite a few of my kids. I had a disproportionately high group of free and reduced lunch kids. I had no PTO officer parents or regular school volunteers in that class. I had two kids who were stepbrothers–one’s father had married the other’s mother and the families were NOT friendly to each other. (Did these two veterans TALK to each other about the kids they gave me????) I had the kids who everyone in the school knew because of their behavior. (I still have a vivid memory and picture in my mind of one boy in line jumping up to touch the clock on the hall wall and it falling and shattering all over the floor. THAT was fun to go report to the principal as a first year teacher.) I quit sending home book orders–I never even got the minimum order, while the others classes collected hundreds of points each month with their orders. When we went on field trips, I had to scrounge for parents to join us–the other classes always took some of my allocated parent seats, as I couldn’t fill them.

But you know, if you looked at those kids on paper–reading groups, past scores, etc.,–the classes looked relatively even.  It was the cultural knowledge–the things we teachers think about as we get a new class each year to label it in our minds as “easy” or “good” –or not–that made mine different.  It’s the community things–parents who volunteer, families who are known to support their kids at home or not, parents who buy from the book orders, kids who work hard or who have a work ethic or not, talkers/chatterers, socially adept kids (or not), behavioral issues, combos of kids to put together or not, kids who eat heathily –or who are overweight and prone to teasing–and on and on.  The two veterans had to have known what they were doing when they gave me the combo of kids they did.

I had a great year with those kids anyway.  I loved them–they were my first class in this school system and they laughed with me as I learned how to run a classroom, and they cried with me–especially as I read aloud “Where the Red Fern Grows.” (I’ve NEVER read that book aloud again–I’m too quick to tears reading sad things!)  They let me teach them and they taught me. My principal let me individualize my math program and they worked through the book at their own pace, so I had plenty of time to work with kids who needed it.  These kids reacted to my enthusiasm, my forward thinking and my love to become a really cool group of kids. That’s one of my favorite groups ever, and I love hearing about what they are doing now. In fact, I get to have kids of those kids in my current school sometimes–and two years ago, I had the kid of that boy who broke that clock. . . we laughed about that incident because he remembered it too!  He remembered me NOT yelling at him, but just saying something like, “Oh, Johnny.  Please go get the custodian before someone gets cut.” Previously one of his favorite ways to get attention, he said he never tried to jump up again. He just hadn’t thought before of the potential consequences of his actions.

I’d like to believe that teachers don’t think either about what giving a newbie teacher a hard class does. I’d like to believe it isn’t deliberate. But every year, when the tenth day approaches and I know schools in our district will be hiring some teachers to take overloads off of some grade levels, I worry about those teachers coming in and what kind of class they’ll get. I hope they’ll get a fair shake, but I worry they won’t. Why do we do this to our own?  Why do we do this to teachers new to our school or our grade, or our community??

We teachers are our own worst enemies sometimes.

Teaching as Learning

I joke with my kids (honestly) about not knowing everything. but sometimes I think they believe I really do.  They see me as smart, and they like learning with me. I am a human being to them because I frequently say. “I don’t know, figure it out.” or “I don’t know, let’s see if we can find out.”

I believe kids want to relate to their teachers as a human being–there’s certainly enough research out there to show that the relationships between teachers and students are key to successful learning. There are so darn many ways we distance ourselves from that, though, as we work in the classroom. First, when we say to a child, who may have been misbehaving, “And what is Ms White’s rule about that?” (when it’s Ms. White doing the talking), how corny is that?  WHO in real life refers to themselves in the third person?

Then there’s the “I like” people.  “I like how Johnny is showing me he’s ready.”  “I like it when Susie raises her hand.”  I like it when. . . blah, blah, blah. . . What do kids learn from those types of “reinforcing statements”?  That school is all about what the teacher likes and if you don’t do it, you’ll get in trouble.  Best to play along and do what Teacher likes.  (If you don’t believe that kind of thinking is pervasive, please go read ONE Junie B Jones book. Her teacher’s name is “Mrs.”) If I could outlaw ONE practice in school, it would be that one–because that simple statement makes it ALL about the teacher, and does NOTHING to help the child understand why the BEHAVIORS matter.  (And I believe half the time they really don’t.)

Suppose, instead of “I like,” the teacher said, “Johnny is showing he’s ready by having his book out and waiting quietly.”  or “Susie’s hand up shows me she has something to say.” or “Wow, when you all sit quietly, it’s so easy to hear the speaker .” or “When you sit quietly and listen when someone is speaking, your behavior shows you are a kind person ”  (or courteous, or care about what they have to say…) Suppose the feedback had everything to do with the kid and ALSO everything to do with how the behavior impacts the rest of the group, constantly reinforcing that one does NOT go to school by him/herself, that we are part of a group and that we need to co-exist in that group to be successful in school. Because, I also believe that no child (initially) comes to school, saying “Today I want to be unsuccessful here.” Part of our job is to ensure success–after mistakes, maybe, because they are part of the learning cycle, but we need to ensure success MORE than failure.

Teaching IS learning–about ourselves, about our students, and yes, about our content as it changes and grows through the diligent work of geographers, and mathematicians, and scientists, and educators, and everyone else all over the world.  And learning IS a hub. . of feelings, thoughts, ideas, caring, sharing, growing, thinking, reflecting, mistaking, trying again, designing, talking, working together, redesigning, hypothesizing, working alone, generalizing, creating, etc., etc., etc.

When a child brings a test to me and I glance over it to make sure they didn’t skip any questions, and I see that they worked a problem correctly in the work space, but circled the wrong answer on the multiple choice part, I am REMISS if I don’t ask them to recheck their answers. The test is not about me playing “GOTCHA” but instead helping them to develop habits that will reduce those kinds of careless mistakes. The test is a place for them to show what they know–and if it is standards -based, it’s not about playing around in the grade fog of catching them in mis-marking something they clearly showed they know.

When Pam Moran, my Superintendent, asked,  “How do we use tech to shift from district hierarchies to leadership nodes and hubs connecting people in the learning web?” I paid no attention to the “how do we use tech to” piece–I read and began to think about the “shift from” part.

When I read @dennisar asking, “How do I co-create with my students?
” and answer his own question by saying, “I ask them to create personal meaning from class activities by using their own choice of digital tools for learning logs.” and saw Melissa Techman’s response:

@mtechman love your question re co-creating – I’m going to start with posting goal or topic and then stepping off-stage to join them in exploring/making/presenting

I realized I often do that with my kids–I often pose a problem that I KNOW is rich–but that I may not know the answer to initially.  What I do know is that I can figure it out, I can (probably) beat them timewise doing it, and I will both hear and figure out some great questions along the way as we struggle together with a challenge I have set forth. So I shift from, as Pam says, a hierarchy of me posing the problem to a learning hub where other leadership hubs emerge as people begin to work together to figure out the problem.

As I looked at the twitpoll for this week’s edchat,  I realized that, for me, # 1 and 3 were closed questions–a yes or no or simple list, unless we get to the HOW.  In #1, WHAT we teach is dictated. . . can we talk HOW we would emphasize what should be emphasized instead?  I want to figure out the HOW of school reform. . .

  1. With an overloaded curriculum, what should be emphasized and what should be eliminated?
  2. What are the advantages and drawbacks to single gender classrooms?
  3. Should the current system of grading be outlawed an replaced with something more “21st Century?”
  4. How do schools and districts help retain quality educators?
  5. How do educators deal with the question of “Friending” students on social media sites and applications?

And I realized, I want to learn the HOW from other people.  I want to struggle with others to verbalize how schools should change to meet the changing needs of the world and our students.

And then I read  this post by @JerriDKrusse and this ending:

To summarize, I think the reason so many reform efforts have had problems is because they do not address the fundamental issues at hand in education. Most importantly is the role of and decisions made by the teacher. Instead of giving teachers shiny new stuff (whether that be superficial strategies, or technology), we must address teachers’ fundamental views on learning and how to build student knowledge so that it is deep and transferable. (something that can be done with or without the use of modern electronic technologies).  Until we try to modify fundamental teacher beliefs about teaching & learning, our reform efforts will be wasted.

And I realized he has it–a fundamental point–until we begin talking basic VALUES of teaching and learning with one another and get down to the nitty gritty of  why we speak to kids in the third person or say “I like” or “don’t smile til Christmas” or any of those other things we do that negate setting up a true learning hub or web, schools won’t change.  We need to discuss what IS a learning hub–do all teachers WANT them in their classrooms, what are the teaching and learning behaviors we value and where DOES grade fog play in all of it?  How do we assess our students for real learning, and where REALLY are the opportunities for students to engage in critical thinking, interdisciplinary thought and transfer of knowledge? When do students engage and how can we leverage those instances and those behaviors for more sustainable learning?

Losing Our Minds

Everyone should read Deborah Ruf’s book, Losing Our Minds.  Not only does she do an EXCELLENT job of describing giftedness in many different ways, but she also describes different KINDS of giftedness and different ways of meeting those needs in the classroom.  She addresses push in and pull out models, the need for independent studies and when that isn’t necessary. She really makes the delivery of services for meeting the various needs of gifted kids just make sense.

I also love the book, “Young, Gifted and Black,” by Theresa Perry, Asa Hilliard III, and Claude Steele, as they describe the cultural and democratic aspects to be considered when looking at educating blacks in America.  They make the point that REALLY we have only been experimenting democratically with truly educating African Americans for a short period of time. MANY folks, as African Americans were “integrated” into society in the 1900s –and many still today–question the mental capacity, the intellectual competence of black people, looking at historical academic achievement as “proof”. This book argues that “since learning is fundamentally contextual, there are extra social, emotional, cognitive and political competencies required of African Americans precisely because they ARE African Americans.” (See Ira Socal’s recent post, Crossing America: An Education for a better explanation than I am giving here.)

BUT, what brought this topic to mind is a recent article, “No Gifted Minority Left Behind” in the Richmond (VA) Times that @JonBecker and @mwacker (Michael Wacker) posted.  Our county is currently (as many are) examining the discrepancy between membership group populations and enrollment in special programs such as Gifted, Special Education, Advanced Placement/Honors courses, technical programs, etc.)

So, I asked Michael and Jon: Do you believe that just because say, 70% of your student population is white, 70% of your gifted (or SPED) population should be?

Their responses included the following comments and questions:

becker@paulawhite no, but we should be within a much tighter confidence interval than we are now; extreme disproportionality is problematic.

Me-> 2 years ago our Gifted Advisory Committee did a study on that discrepancy, Jon, and my school was the ONLY one near to that tight confidence interval. However, it isn’t anymore, as I moved schools, and the GTs who came after didn’t continue ID of minorities. (I’ve now been gone from that one 5 years and the kids I identified are mostly gone.)

wacker@jonbecker @paulawhite agreed, its not that clean, but it is an issue, has anyone addressed cultural bias in the tests themselves?

becker@mwacker @paulawhite yes, and most LEAs have moved away from a single test for ID purposes, but that hasn’t made much of a difference.

Me->BECAUSE most people still look at the test score (no matter what test) as most important–behaviors and class work is incidental, and the one snapshot test “MUST” be more valid.

wacker@paulawhite @jonbecker do you use a triangulation data collection method for determining giftedness? Is it just one test or a B.O.E.?

So I responded:

Part of the discrepancy in identification IS cultural in that (and this goes back to my K blog) some cultures ENCOURAGE movement and calling out. Have either of you ever been to a southern black Baptist church? Calling out, responding aloud in group, NOT raising hands and moving is all part of their ritual–so ESPECIALLY kids with those experiences have to be indoctrinated to the hidden curriculum of school (sit down, be quiet and listen)–and teachers see those active, calling-out kids as “misbehaving” so therefore, they CAN’T be really smart. GTs often aren’t aware of cultural differences in behaviors, and most teachers DEFINITELY aren’t!

In fact, I go looking for those calling out/active kids cause it’s a GREAT sign of engagement.

I have a 5th grader right now (NOT minority)whose behavior has interfered with ANY teacher seeing his absolute BRILLIANCE…cause he refuses to “play school.” He wants to learn and he wants his questions answered–and he wants to know WHY he has to do stupid busy work, so he constantly challenges the teachers, which gets him sent to a safe spot. I’m trying to get them to give him a laptop AT the safe spot and see what he does with it. He recently embedded a WHOLE middle school math book on his wiki so others could read it and learn “as much as I did.”

I have another, a 2nd grade minority girl who did the most sophisticated sort of dominoes last year in a class lesson–when I pointed it out to the teacher, her response was “she must have copied.” This year’s teacher is noticing her novel responses.

Then, Samantha Melvin joined in:

melvinauthentic differentiated learning can only take place with authentic differentiated TEACHING –so glad you are sharing this!!

Me->Teachers have to understand that it is not about assembly line work or making everyone part of a melting pot, but separate and distinct individuals with specific strengths and passions. It’s not about conforming but honoring and providing opps for differences and personal strengths to be used and grow.

YES!  about process, not product! Amelvinre we giving them the skills they need to demonstrate their knowledge in a variety of ways? (serving the individual learner)

Great question! Here’s where (IMHO) tech plays a SERIOUS part and meets a HUGE need!

So, when you read the article, what do you think?  ARE we leaving no gifted minorities behind, or are we losing our minds?

Passionate Educators Are Everywhere

This morning  I read a tweet by @e_shep who quoted “Inventing Creativity” http://bit.ly/b2kYT The true pain of being passionate is encountering people who are not.

I think that’s a true statement because so many of us who are passionate are often perceived as dogmatic, or intense, or our passionate contribution to a conversation is misconstrued as “it has to be my way.” One reason I tweet is because I find like-minded individuals on twitter who are also passionate about teaching, learning, technology, students, quality interactions and real, honest, direct and sharing/caring relationships. So many times I have seen people who do not know each other face to face express incredibly kind sentiments to one another, and I have marveled at the ability of strangers to connect so deeply across this microblogging platform.

Today I tweeted out a question: “In thinking of passionate educators, are people on Twitter more passionate educators than you typically encounter day to day?”  I didn’t mean it as an either/or question, but as more of a continuum, or to help me think about the passion behind the educators on twitter.  In 140 characters, I certainly didn’t say all I was thinking, and the responses I got broadened my thinking even more.

Here’s a sampling:

  • UltimateTeacher@paulawhite I love what I do, and I happen to work with some people who don’t feel the same…twittering allows me to help and be helped

  • cwebbtech@paulawhite re: Passionate teachers – I think the teachers who are on Twitter tend to “share” their passion more frequently-globally. (And I’m appreciative of that sharing!)

  • icklekid@paulawhite hard to say if educational twitters are more passionate but tweeting and sharing ideas makes me more passionate about education!

  • tbrewstertbrewster@paulawhite Educators that use Twitter are passionate about sharing ideas, and modeling 21st Century technology skills for their students.

  • melhutchmelhutch@paulawhite passion can seem more evident when you are excited and learning so twitter people seem more passionate- others can be just as p.

So what I’m sharing is that it’s not that teachers on Twitter are MORE passionate than other educators.  Teachers who are passionate about teaching and learning are everywhere and show those passions in lots of ways.  Those of us who do it on Twitter may simply be more overt or public about it in this particular venue.

P.S. and being limited to 140 characters is probably a good thing for many of us!

Teachers as Taskmasters

You might want to read Tom Woodward’s Bionic Teaching and Michelle Bourgeois’ Milibo’s Musings response before reading my thoughts on both of those. Part of the background conversation also happened at Tom’s Bloom’s and Technology Pyramid, Mike Fisher’s Digigogy blog, and Visual Bloom’s and Bloom’s rubrics as well.

Tom and Michelle have been thinking about a teaching/learning challenge for a while. Initially Tom’s idea was “Pimp My Lesson Plan” and it turned into a challenge based on the “Iron Chef.” Having gotten a comment on the challenge on Tom’s blog, Michelle responded and tweaked the challenge potential a bit. Here’s my two cents to add to their challenge.

We all know it’s not necessarily  JUST about the lesson plan, or the hook, or the activity, but about a combination of all of those things that will allow people to put good ideas out for others to use, and that will engage students in important work. When thinking about engaging students in activities that support “higher level thinking” I think about at least the following 3 facts:

  1. We can quantify rigor and relevance, but we experience issues when trying to quantify relationships. As we examine tasks and attempt to “judge” or “rate” them, we must keep in mind that relationships between student and teacher may make what might look like a less meaningful task important BECAUSE of the relationship.
  2. Being mindful of Phil Schlechty’s Working on The Work is crucial to the development of tasks that are likely to lead to student engagement.
  3. When an observer can see at least three of the 8 qualities of engaging work in a learning activity, then 80% of the time students self-report being engaged.

Thus, a learning activity not only has to be tied to good teaching, to the three R’s (rigor, relevance and relationships), and to worthwhile content, but also engage the students in quality ways.

Michelle described two scenarios where students were clearly engaged and the learning activities were built around the objectives for learning. Teachers were thoughtful about how to engage students so that interest was high, interactions between students were heightened and students received feedback throughout the activity. Teaching was centered around the task, which was clearly tied to the learning objectives. Teaching to the task is a GOOD thing!

Tying together the components of what John Antonetti calls “The Engagement Cube” is what I believe is critical to setting up learning opportunities that do what Tom and Michelle (and Mike Fisher and I and @beckyfisher73 and @mwacker and @barbaram and a bunch of other educators) are thinking about as we engage in these conversations around quality education.

The Engagement Cube

Like the title of this blog, I say teachers must be MASTERS of task-making. I do not mean in the traditional sense of the word, as in making sure the work gets done, but as in MASTERFULLY crafting tasks. These tasks should be ones that engage, teach, allow for diversity of thought, stimulate creative juices flowing, and evoke a proud sense of accomplishment. They may even take on a life of their own, resulting in students taking the task to places the teacher may never have envisioned. Through rich tasks that demand rigor in thought and performance, that elicit cooperation and teamwork, students may also discover a passion for the subject or the discipline as well.

I hope my thoughts add TO the conversation and don’t detract from what Tom and Michelle are trying to encourage. These two educators have challenged other teachers to craft great lessons and share them.  Let’s support that challenge and collaborate to create some incredible tasks!