Thursday, September 9, 2010

Pencils & Bathrooms, or Human Dignity vs. Human Right to Learn

When I first started reading teacher blogs, Dan Meyer was on about a two-year extended rant about how edtech bloggers had their priorities all wrong.

I used to read his archives thinking "Big deal, move on! What's with the focusing on people I've never heard of?"

Then I heard of them. And read & subscribed to them. And quickly unsubscribed and rethought about Dan's posts. "Oh."

I stumbled onto one of them lately, and found myself responding to a comment left by Chris Lehmann (who is actually one of those ten out-of-the-classroom bloggers still on my blogroll, unlike long-gone Scott McLeod).

Here's my response:

>Chris: I'm going to push back here... and I'll focus on the 'pencil sharpener' piece...Could you say, "Please wait to use the pencil sharpener until there is no one standing at it?"

No, you couldn't.

Because in a class of 34, 29-33 kids will pay attention to that and be respectful of others.

And 1-5 will not. Because their lives suck in other areas, or they're immature, or they just don't like your shirt that day.

"What?!! Mtch! It'll just take a minute!"

"Oh my GOD, what the f*ck is your problem? Its MY pencil!"

"Oh I forgot." [15 weeks in a row]

And, most of all:

"Please wait to use the pencil sharpener until there is no one standing at it?"
"Please wait to use the pencil sharpener until there is no one standing at it?"
[other students giggle]
[first student turns accidental obliviousness into class act]
"Jose, I'm explaining right now! Please wait a second!"
[more giggles] [flow of lesson long gone]

Alec's comments, and the above "reasonable alternative" are a clear illustration why I have over 300 educator blogs in my Google Reader, but less than 10 of them are out-of-the-classroom "educators".

I have a class website, read blogs & write one, and started an afterschool Scratch programming club, among other tech uses.

So it's a good thing I don't read too many edtech people, because they would drive me back to slates & writing in the dirt."

But what IS the correct balance between respecting my students' human dignity, and their right to learn?

It's something I struggle with every day.

My classic example is my most unpopular classroom rule: If you want to use the bathroom, go to the nurse, or even get a drink of water during class, you have to come for 30 minutes of after-school tutoring. Every single time.

Honestly, I wince every time I tell a kid that. And they wince back - loudly, repeatedly, and often profanely.

But it WORKS.

I learned my lesson my first year. "M" told me she had a medical condition that required frequent trips to the nurse for female hygiene supplies. Eager to be supportive, I smiled and said "Okay, just bring me a note from your parents soon, okay?" "M" smiled back and said "Sure!" The months went by and the note never came, though I kept reminding her. Meanwhile her nurse visits became longer and longer, though as an exhausted first-year teacher I didn't really keep track. Still, sometime in January I became suspicious, because other students had started to ditch as well and it triggered a deja vu feeling. (Important background info: Our school has a split lunch so if you ditch 4th hour, you can blend in with your 4th-lunch friends and avoid security). One cold February morning I stopped in at the nurse and asked if "M" had come in every single time. She pulled up her records and showed me a blank screen for "M". She had never been to the nurse.

The next semester I gave each student 3 free BR visits, and killed myself keeping track of 150 students bladder movements. I lost papers, had arguments about whether the 3 were up, wasted class time writing them down.

The next year I decided to put it on the students! Yes! Make them take responsibility! I handed out 3 passes each. They lost them and whined. They stole them from each other and erased names. They yelled at me to retrieve them and return them and investigate the thefts. They asked if they could go and "bring it tomorrow."

So now every BR visit costs you 30 minutes of your free time. Because I honestly can't conceive of a kid who would rather wet himself than spend 30 minutes in my room (they can come during lunch, and bring their lunch to eat, AND bring a friend!) I cannot conceive of a girl who would rather risk a stain than text from my classroom for 30 minutes, though plenty have been surprised that the words "girl emergency" don't get them a freebie! (And how come those students don't, after arguing with me, go to the BR and deal with it? And why do those who DO have an emergency, argue far less and then go? Hmmmm....)

And my classroom runs smoothly, and I can focus on, you know, teaching.

But if it makes the small-l-libertarians who are going to start their own schools and change the world and restore human dignity (that has been trampled by the complacent, freeloading, public school union lackeys) feel better, I feel guilty every time.

Monday, September 6, 2010

SBG: What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger

We've finished five weeks of school now, so I wanted to go over those promises I made to myself in the last post.

1) 1) This year I’m determined to implement something that I only thought about last semester: mandatory tutoring for anyone two concepts or more behind. Even if it lasts a month, it’ll make a huge difference.
YUP! And it's working. I've been offering the carrot of "Raise your grade! Get points back! Be proud of learning more!" WITH the stick of "If you still fail after taking the quiz three times in class, you get a week of tutoring." Getting kids to come to tutoring (talking to them, handing out slips, calling parents, writing referrals when they don't come so they get that I mean business about this...) is exhausting, but the tutoring itself is WORKING. I usually love tutoring because it let me connect with my kids and get to know them individually. This mini-group tutoring is harder, but I'm seeing improvements.

After my kids took Quiz B: Understanding Fractions three times (and only the numbers changed each time), I filed everyone that got a 3, 3.5, 4, or 5 away and made two folders: all my 1s, and all my 2s. I'm working my way through the 1s right now, and I'd say the split bewteen "truly confused on concepts and procedures" versus "too lazy to try" has been... 30-70? Something like that. I try to end every tutoring session with reminding them that if they don't do well on the next quiz they'll get tutoring again, so ask questions BEFORE time is up. It IS frustrating. A lot. But its so much better than letting it slide and then having my head explode in December because they still think 1/3 is equal to 3/1!

2) I require students to do extra practice to learn for no points, so they could take the quiz. This resulted in whining and/or anger for 90% of students who are trained to be rewarded by points like trained seals.

This hasn't happened this year! Halleluijah, thank God and all his cherubim (I love -im plural words), I have had almost NO kids ask "Do I get extra credit for practicing this?" I don't know what happened, but I am willing to burn a sacrifice to whatever deity made this happen. Just let me know, immortal being(s). The few that HAVE said this have been during detention ("What? I have to do math for detention? I thought I just had to sit here [and let my brain rot]" "Sorry, you thought wrong!") have accepted the brief explanation of "No, you're here for detention. Do this and you get to leave."

Sidenote: Writing this down makes me sound like quite the b*tch at times. More on this later.

3) Once a week quizzes in class is not enough. I’m going to try twice a week this year. Also, one HUGE difference: returning quizzes the next day isn’t enough. I plan to give quizzes at the beginning of the class... and grade and return them NOW.

Returning same day hasn't worked, just because my first concept quizzes were so LONG. But I have been returning the next day, and the students are really eager to see their grades and color in their checklists. I've also been sticking to once a week quizzes for the same reason, but its working okay!

Overall, I'm having a good time (when not exhausted) and I'm DEFINITELY seeing enough results to make this worth my while.


(Warning: This is a very rambling post)

When I first got to school two weeks ago I found that I hadn't given my correct new address to the school, and so a bunch of summer mail was waiting for me - including a "Change in your schedule" notice. Seeing this I started to panic as I opened it.

Last summer I got a notice that said that my all-Algebra-1 schedule was changed to include one section of Topics (a.k.a. math for seniors that got passed on but still

don't know any math at all so let's do it all again). I had had a NIGHTMARE experience with similar seniors during student teaching and now thinking of doing this again in my second year of teaching freaked me out. I called my department head on her personal phone almost in tears, and she told me I could switch if another teacher was willing. One was, and I had one section of Algebra Lab (a second algebra support class for low-functioning students). I didn't plan for it all summer, the first nine weeks were pulled out of nowhere as I focused on getting my other four Alg 1 classes under control, and it was my most difficult class.

Fast forward to this year and I'm almost hyperventilating at the thought of juggling multiple preps again. I pulled it out...and it was all Algebra Lab classes.
I felt a mixture of excitement (I can concentrate on basics! Yes!) and fear (math-phobic students usually resent having TWO math classes). At the very least, I had one prep I could focus on so I was happy However, later on I realized the benefit to this plan: NO PTC!

PTC is my personal acronym for what our school calls a PLC. However, though with the best intentions by our PLC leaders, it is NOT a Professional Learning Community.

One of the VERY few things I dislike about my department is that we NEVER talk about teaching in our formal meetings. Ever. Twice I suggested we discuss teaching ideas, and both times someone said "Yes! Its better for the kids when we all do the same thing! Let's share what we do, and then pick one way and we ALL have to explain it that way! That is what is in the best interests of the CHILD." Um, really? That's the only reason to discuss teaching - to enforce more uniformity? Not to discuss pros and cons, to let teachers learn and experiment with different ways and then report back? Really? Hell, I shut up. I don't want someone deciding my way of explaining integers is forbidden after a ten-second explanation of why I do what I do. The one question I had for the school when interviewing was "Do you script lessons?" I want to learn from others, but the teachers in my blog reader share without demanding uniformity.

Okay, so in our "PLC" metings, once a month, we discuss tests. 1) Is everyone ready to test on the 15, give or take a day? Good! 2) Who is going to write the second quiz? This is a long chapter, we should make another quiz. You'll make it? Good! Okay, we're done. As you can see, we have a Professional Testmaking Community. For someone who's been quietly implementing some form of SBG with Dan Meyer-liconceptill checklists, these meetings are quite painful.

Here's a taste of what I mean. Last year, our department head and our district math head promoted the latest acronym AFL: Assessment for Learning. Sounded good, and was a pretty good idea, though not paradigm shattering enough to warrant a new acronym or the answer-to-our-prayers attitude some had (are they ever?). I attended the class, and learned about how we should build tests that allow us to target certain learning targets (SBG-like), and give students ability to track what they do and don't know (SBG-like again), incorporate alternative assessments (more good ideas) and give students a format in which to correct their tests and learn from their mistakes (scaffolding, good!). The smallest, most insignificant, piddly surface detail of all of this was that assessment questions should always have the learning target typed next to it. At our school, this took the form of a three-column table where the first column had the learning target typed in like "I can multiply matrices by a constant.", the second column had the problem, and the third column was a blank space to show work.

This is great, I thought! A lot of what attracted me to Dan Meyer's Concept Checklists was here as well. I attended most of the classes, and made plans to join another teacher for our final "project" at the best restaurant in the world, a.k.a. Wildflower Bread Company (where I am currently typing this post). We took a Saturday morning to identify key procedures the test should cover, pick through old tests to find questions that isolated these skills, make new questions when needed, add a few longer combine-skills questions, and type it all into the required format. It was harder than the old tests, partly because we only had two multiple choice questions instead of many.

(Sample conversation from the AFL class: District Math Head says "NEVER have more than 2-3 multiple choice or matching, they aren't good at identifying what students know." Teacher says "But the district final is multiple choice." DMH says "That's just so we can grade in 12 hours and send out grades, the sole purpose of a math class isn't to learn how to take the final." Surani thinks "I love you DMH!")

Okay, so back to the assessment my friend and I worked so hard on. The students failed it. They did badly. But there was ALSO lots of diagnostic information since we tried to isolate skills. The main reason to put a question on WASN'T just that it was on last year's tests.

So we rallied together! Realized that teaching for content and not for a test was going to take some real work! Analyzed the results of the tests so we could learn what we needed to go over again! Collected data, learned from it, and grew as a department!

Actually no. My department head took one look at the failing grades, and said "As long as DMH gives us a multiple choice final, we're making all OUR tests multiple choice."

Our test was thrown out. Old test came back. No one mentions the life-changing AFL acronym anymore, except to remind people "Don't forget! Write the test in the AFL format!" which means "Make a three-column table and copy-paste a long, obscure performance target from the state standards into each cell in the first column."

Meanwhile, my head exploded and I went home to vent on my long-suffering fiance.

AAaaaaaaanyway. See why I call it a PTC instead of a PLC? They're good teachers, good people, and many of them are good friends. Its NOT the teachers, its the structure we've grown to get used to.

So this year, in our school, instead of giving everyone an Algebra Lab that no one could really focus on, they are now given to two people. I teach 5, and another teacher has 3. He's an easygoing guy who never shows up to meetings, so I have appointed myself the unofficial Algebra Lab PLC Leader. I make sure to meet with myself AT LEAST twice a week to talk about teaching and learning. And I'm easy on myself too - I never start the meeting until I've shown up!

I still attend the Algebra PTC, and I rewrite quizzes and assignment sheets when asked to, but I no longer have to give their quizzes and tests in my classes. I can use my own assessments that I've thought about obsessively, rewritten as needed, focused to my personal list of standards/skills, and incorporate as much conceptual understanding as I dare.

Goodby PTC, and good luck!

~ Surani