Wednesday, August 18, 2010
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
Monday, August 16, 2010
I wouldn't want to be a lawyer, doctor, or thespian in any of those professional environments. And you probably wouldn't trust any of them with your lawsuit, health, or admission fee. Why then, do we think it's okay to give teachers 80 minutes or less each day to develop 5 or more hours of rigorous student instruction*?
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has spoken recently of increased quality and length of professional work time for teachers, and many educators have known it's necessary for years. Teachers who carve adequate professional time out of their personal lives often burn out and turn over quickly, which of course causes loss of professional wisdom and high recruitment and training costs for districts. When we don't get the time needed to plan and develop our skills, the effectiveness of our teaching for children suffers. The role of the teacher is growing fast, but our professional systems have changed little. In an older but on-the-money report by the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, Cathy J. Cook and Carole Fine write, "The reality is that teachers likely will require more than 20 percent of their work time for learning and collaboration if they are to be successful in implementing ambitious reform initiatives."
In my own teaching experience, I find myself looking for a road between the no-win options of over-working and under-preparing. I often work too much, which compromises my teaching as well as my ability to stay long-term if I can't find a way to slow down. But other days I choose not to complete plans and preparation I know will benefit my students, because I need the time for my life. Either way, children and teachers suffer. We all know it's a huge problem. (If you know of other articles which document and analyze the issue more fully, please post them as comments.) My purpose in this series of posts is to explore possible solutions to the problem that teachers don't have time to do the work we need to be effective.
From research and brainstorming, I compiled a list of 7 possible solutions. Many of these solutions could co-exist and complement each other. I'm sure there are many more possibilities. I don't think any of the ideas are original, and people who think about these issues full-time have probably written about them in greater depth than I will here. My hope for this post series is to briefly explore a range of solutions from a classroom perspective to remind us of our options and renew a conversation of them.
Ways to give teachers the professional time we need to excel:
- Efficient, applied professional development
- Longer work days
- Longer work years
- Alternate student programming
- Departmentalized teaching
- Smarter scheduling
* A note on figures: I calculated these numbers based on my own teaching schedule -- one with MORE planning time than many. For me, each official school day contains 30 minutes before students arrive, usually used for school meeting or training, 50 minutes during the students' day for planning, often scheduled for grade-level planning or development, and about 5 hours teaching students. Like many teachers, I spend a great deal of time after school and on weekends developing plans, assessing student work, and meeting one-on-one with students. Those hours and the fact that official school days are shorter than a typical professional day make the calculation a little murkier. For me, the widespread anecdotal evidence is more convincing. Find me a good teacher who isn't overworked, and we'll talk.
Sunday, August 15, 2010
In my continuing quest to live as a teacher AND a blogger, I am trying a new posting format. Starting tomorrow, I will publish shorter, serialized posts on a (hopefully) daily basis. So, on the weekends I will write a long, thorough piece on the topic du jour (or de la semaine, I guess.) Then, each day that week, I will publish a section of the writing as a serialized post.
I'm trying this as compromise between the media of blogging and the styles of my writing and life. I'm not great at finding daily writing time while teaching, but I very much want to contribute to the conversation regularly. I also like to write longer posts, which can be time-consuming to read all at once. I hope this format will offer a way for me to keep writing and you to keep reading.
Thank you so much for your thoughtful reading and comments. Let me know how this works for you as we try it together!
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
have a clear understanding of what defines excellence in their work, are provided with constructive and data-based feedback about their performance, and receive support to increase their effectiveness." (Quoted from the IMPACT system's homepage for DCPS personnel.) It's certainly setting high standards and giving high-stakes feedback. But is it providing teachers the support we need to reach the high bar? Let's look at my experience in 2009-2010. I received support on pedagogy through 2 major streams: 1) DCPS-designed trainings, and 2) Job-embedded professional development, designed and delivered by my instructional coach and administrators. (Although I received written and verbal feedback from a visiting Master Educators 2 times during the year, this feedback changed my practice much less than either of the 2 DEVELOPMENT streams above.)
The quality of this support showed in my classroom and my IMPACT scores. In my first two observations, one by an administrator and one by a Master Educator, I was rated on the low end of Minimally Effective. And rightfully so -- I'm a new teacher, and I was struggling. These ratings were given AFTER I had been given much of the DCPS-designed "support." But, after the excellent, job-embedded PD (and a lot of hard work from me and my school leaders,) I scored solidly in the Effective range ... with my last score from a Master Educator just on the cusp of Highly Effective. More importantly than all these numbers, kids in my class were learning much more and having a much better time.
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
I won't enumerate the ways my teaching has improved. There are many people infinitely better than me at teaching, and teaching about teaching, who can do that for a growing teacher. What I want to talk about here is: What MADE me get better? What systems were in place to make me a better teacher, and therefore improve my students' learning?
As I pondered that question this morning to the tune of percolating espresso, three major factors bubbled up: IMPACT's common language, job-embedded professional development, and work-life balance.
- IMPACT's common language: In many ways, IMPACT, D. C. Public Schools' new teacher evaluation system, doesn't tell us anything we don't already know. Its Teaching section list 9 key practices every teacher of any grade and subject should do every day, including delivering content clearly, engaging all students, and gauging students' understanding. (Read the DCPS Teaching and Learning Framework for the specifics, or look at its Strategic Documents page for an overview of the evaluation system.) As many people have noticed, DCPS's IMPACT looks a whole lot like Teach for America's Teaching as Leadership rubric. Having been trained at Teach for America's Institute two summers ago, I was fully aware of these practices, and that background knowledge make it easier for me to hit the ground running with IMPACT this year. But having the language all by myself wasn't enough to make dramatic progress as a teacher. It focused some of my thoughts and conversations with TFA colleagues, but I lacked daily, focused conversations about those key ideas. This year, sharing the language with my colleagues and school leaders (as well as another year under my belt, of course,) gave me the traction needed to effect a big change in my class. All of a sudden, I could ask the veteran teacher next door to share what made her effective at Teach 6, Maximizing Instructional Time, and we both clearly understood the question. Last year, I might have just trudged in her door, thrown up my hands, and lamented that my lessons weren't getting done, withe no clear language to pinpoint the problem. IMPACT gave us shared language to focus those conversations.
- Job-embedded professional development: Without structured assistance around IMPACT's teaching practices, I wouldn't have gotten any better. I received 2 kinds of professional development from school leaders which helped me fix the problems IMPACT helped identify. I'll call these 2 kinds of help Triage PD and Proactive PD. The Triage PD came when a crisis was threatening all other parts of my class. A few months into the year, my classroom management took a sharp turn for the worse. I had made critical mistakes, and everyday best practices would not turn the situation around. With the extreme problems in management, I could not deliver my well-planned lessons or maximize my formerly-effective positive behavior system. At that point, the assistant principal became my management turnaround mentor. We met once a week, reviewed how management had gone, settled on 2-3 key actions to take the next week, and then reviewed the effects of those actions the next week. Ideally, no teacher would ever reach a crisis point and need Triage PD. But as a new teacher, I did, and many others will. Having leaders who are competent in teaching to meet consistently with teachers whose classes need turnaround made a huge difference for me. Once the crisis was averted and management returned to a manageable hum, I could benefit from Proactive PD. Proactive PD is, in a sense, optional: a class could have many effective components without it. But Proactive PD leverages one aspect of teaching to help make a functional class into a great class. This year, my most striking Proactive PD focused on IMPACT's Teach 5, Check for and Respond to Student Understanding. Our school's literacy coach assembled a group of teachers, none of whose classes were in crises, but all of whom could improve our monitoring of students' understanding. We met twice a week during the 30-minute morning meeting block for about 5 weeks. Our work took on a predictable rhythm, intentionally crafted by the coach. Early in the cycle, we absorbed new information on various strategies for checking for understanding, then set goals for ourselves around a few strategies we wanted to master. Midway through the cycle,combed through lessons we planned to teach and inserted checks for understanding. In the end of the cycle, we shared what was working in each of our classrooms, learning from each others' practice. One other strand of work made these cycles effective: Regular lesson observations and debriefs. When the coach was scheduled to observe me, I took extra care to try the checks for understanding we were studying. After the lesson, the coach and I debriefed on how the checks had gone, how it impacted overall lesson effectiveness, and what I wanted to try next time. I could feel and see the difference this Proactive PD made in my teaching. I started using the strategies I had studied in almost every lesson, having thought about them carefully during our meetings and practiced them gradually during the observed lessons. Notably, this PD cycle used the gradual release model I've advocated for in other posts, as well as clearly defined objectives (Improving Teach 5 practice) and measures of success (IMPACT scores before and after the PD) -- two things we know are indispensable for teaching kids but often ignore while teaching adults.
- Work-life balance: I felt like a good teacher in September but not in October, in December but not November. I began to feel confident that I had BECOME a good teacher around January, after winter break. Early in the year, I had scrounged up energy to face classroom crises, but found the energy difficult to sustain. During winter break, I hit my personal reset button, recommitting to spiritual practice, seeing more of my friends and family, and taking time to just be. When I returned to work in January, I had already developed new classroom skills, so my energy could be spent on seasoning my practice rather than mopping up pots that had boiled over. Out of constant crisis mode, I also felt less exhausted, so I found myself able to continue the spiritual practice, keep seeing my friends, and enjoy my life outside of teaching a little. These personal practices provided the energy I needed to teach well CONSISTENTLY. I firmly believe improving my work-life balance helped me turn okay teaching into good teaching, and will sustain my efforts towards becoming the teaching champion all of our children deserve.
Thursday, February 18, 2010
By informed confidence, I mean a series of beliefs. (These beliefs are frequent topics of conversation in education today, and form cornerstone beliefs of programs including KIPP, Teach for America, and now, DC Public Schools.) The series goes like this: 1) Making an impact on the world is important. 2) Academic skills and knowledge help me make an impact on the world. 3) I can develop skills and knowledge through hard work. Building this investment in the long term and confidence in their own potential is critical for students' success, and often doesn't come organically for students in communities which often haven't succeeded in mainstream America.
A student in my own kindergarten class reminded me of this reality yesterday. Aaliyah (pseudonym) presents herself as one of the most confident students in class -- singing, dancing, and volunteering answers with abandon. So I was surprised when yesterday morning she came up to me with a friend and said, "Whitney's so smart. I'm not smart like her." I embarked on a little-kid explanation of plasticity, the simple and increasingly popular belief that people do not possess abilities in fixed measures, but all have the capacity to better those abilities. Adult view of the situation: Yes, Whitney has reached higher success on some traditional measures of achievement, including reading level. But, Whitney came in with a huge store of background knowledge which most of my students don't. I'm pretty sure that if I compare growth this year, Aaliyah has made even greater gains then Whitney -- indicating she is just as able of reaching those same high levels of achievement -- as long as she spends more time working.
If I could contribute one thing to the Work Hard/ Get Smart rhetoric in schools, it would be this: Agency -- not college -- is the end goal. In our desire to give under served students more agency, we often hit them so hard with the college message that little else gets through. Yes, we need to be talking about college from Day 1 so it becomes a living, breathing, absolutely possible entity in our students' minds. But, if we stop the conversation at college, what will they do when they graduate? In the end, college is a means to having more choices -- the choice to earn a comfortable income, or debate policy, or build a skyscraper.
If we believe informed confidence -- or any other "life skills" are important -- we must assess their development in some way. Social and life skills are vulnerable to crowding out of the curriculum because they are so hard to measure. Although I don't have the answer, some organizations have begun to look. Under the new Teaching and Learning Framework, one ninth of a teacher's Teach score depends on "investing students in their learning," including developing the belief that hard work leads to success -- and is possible for every student. If you're curious about how observers go about measuring this, take a look at the Teach 7 section of the rubric. In the rush to move students to the top, how are we valuing the beliefs that will actually help get them there?
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Monday, February 15, 2010
Friday, February 12, 2010
- Explicit, incessant discussion of why content is important. In kindergarten, I give lots of concrete examples of what kids CAN do if they getter better at a certain skill. "If you get better at reading, you CAN read that Harry Potter book in the library." "If you learn how to write numbers, you CAN write your phone number down for your friend to call." As I've found through trial and error, doing this well involves bringing the kids on it. Before kids start independent work, I'll sometimes ask them to explain why it is important. Additionally, I start to build concepts of longer-term benefits (and put in my own plug for social justice) by asking kids what they might like to do and make better in the world, then connecting their learning to their ability to do this. For example, our kids love our playground, and want there to be playgrounds everywhere -- so I explain how to build a playground, you first need to measure spaces and write down your plans.
- Logical consequences, both positive and negative. Logical consequences are matched in CONTENT (as well as intensity and time) to a student's actions. So, if a student works hard on solving a math problem using plastic cubes, she might earn the choice of using plastic cubes AND wooden tiles for the next math problem. And if another student goofs off during his math work time, he might make up the work after school. Part of the reasoning behind this (as I was trained) is that the connection of the consequence to the original behavior reinforces or discourages the behavior more effectively than an unrelated consequence. For example, if students earn extra library time for working hard on reading, when they're in the library with books in hand, on some level they're thinking, "Wow, I like reading." If they are rewarded with a pizza party, they are more likely thinking, "Wow, I really like pizza" -- with no emotional or cognitive connection to why they got the reward.
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
- Streamlined technology - Our story starts with a Palm Pilot. When my school began using DIBELS/TRC, each teacher received a Palm Pilot and training on how to use it. When we gave our students the first interim assessment, we recorded each student's answers directly in the Palm as the students spoke. It took a long time to get through all the students on-on-one, but there was a nice payoff: macro- and micro-level details on our students' performance, all neatly organized on the mclasshome.com website. Designed by Wireless Generation, I could (and did) click to see a class-level bar graph of where my students scored on various skills. I could also go through each child's answers to get a finer level of detail on any one student.
- Relevant training - Once we had all this data, we teachers were trained on how to USE it. DCPS and our school leaders arranged (and paid!) for a former teacher/ current DIBELS tech guru from Wireless Generation to come to our school and train us more. (Note: Each of these trainings took TIME. School leaders arranged coverage for our classes so we could be trained for two full afternoons.) It was a big investment of time, but it was worth it. The Wireless Generation trainer hit us right at our Zone of Proximal Development, asking us what we had done and what we knew, figuring out we had mastered the mechanics of giving the assessment, and moving on to how to use the data to plan instruction. She walked us through a process for analyzing the data by prioritized skills, grouping our students into small groups for instruction, and accessing supplementary curriculum resources to meet the needs identified by the assessments. She also left us with concrete tools (planning templates and web site recommendations) for replicating those processes with our students throughout the year.
- Planning meetings aligned with training - So after all that good training and test-giving, we had our student data, we had our teacher knowledge -- but that doesn't mean we had the time to use it. By this point in the year, we teachers had done a second round of interim assessments on our students. So, once we had our mid-year student data, our literacy coach worked with us during our planning time. In these meetings, each teacher grouped his or her students as the Wireless Generation training had taught us, using the same tools we had been trained with. After that meeting, I met with my students in different groups, focusing the small group lessons on different skills, since I had more recent data about what they knew and what else they needed. (Note to school leaders: Please use these kinds of planning meetings selectively: planning/prep time in which teacher set our own agenda is also very, very important for successful delivery of instruction.)
- Easy-to-use curriculum and remediation resources - Full disclosure, this is where I think my school and I have the longest way to go. But we have made important strides which I think are worth sharing. When kids aren't getting a key skill, chances are teachers have already taught that skill as their primary curriculum prescribes, but the kids need something more. My school shared two important resources -- http://freereading.net/ and the "What's Next?" section of the mclasshome.com web site -- which provide already-written lessons on skills aligned to the DIBELS data. Although these resources are not perfect, they provided my colleagues and I an accessible starting point for changing our instruction.
- Frequent mini-assessments - Interim assessments often take a lot of time to give and analyze. A strength of DIBELS (and, to a lesser degree, TRC,) are the progress monitoring structures. Progress monitoring is a quick way to collect some of the data from the full interim assessment on some of the students (usually, the students who are most likely to struggle.) Currently, my fellow teachers and I (with a little coaching and pushing from our school and district leaders) take quick, mini-assessments on struggling kids every 1-2 weeks, and can view and analyze the new data on mclasshome.com. Once teachers get good at using data to change instruction and have the time and resources to do it, we want to do it more than once or twice a year. Young children change so rapidly, and we want to meet them as close to where they are NOW as we can -- not where they were two months ago.
So, in the end, what did all this training and planning and assessing look like for students? It looked like skipping lessons in my phonics curriculum that I knew 80% or more of the kids had already mastered. It looked like my assistant teacher and I meeting with the small groups of students who were not making progress 8 times a week rather than 3. It looked like changing the way I was teaching 1:1 correspondence (pointing to words one at a time while reading) because my students were better at it than I thought, they just weren't using it in new situations. And, *I hope* it will look like my students becoming better readers, writers, and thinkers than they would have before these changes in instruction.
YES, BUT — Do some veteran teachers contribute value in addition to student test scores? An effective teacher in her 15th year might contribute significantly more than an effective teacher in his 4th year in terms of mentoring/ developing other teachers, writing curriculum, helping shape school policies, collecting school resources, etc. All of these factors are key in a well-run system, and all contribute to the in-class effectiveness of that 4th year teacher.
As a 3rd year teacher who is relatively effective in terms of student test scores, I know anecdotally that my more experienced colleagues contribute much more than I do to the school as a whole. Veteran colleagues in my school share lesson and unit plans, organize school-wide collections of student learning materials, plan joint field trips, help guide school policy, and advise me on tough teaching decisions. They don't get paid or particularly lauded for any of that; they do it because it's a way to contribute to more students once they've gotten pretty good at teaching their own students. I would love to do that stuff too, but as a newer teacher, I'm just not there yet. Soon. I hope.
To be sure, not all veteran teachers contribute in these ways, but many do, and maybe all should. DC's IMPACT evaluations have some room for this kind of school-level contribution -- maybe that school contribution box should be bigger?
Monday, February 8, 2010
You can tell I like projects. So for once, my teacher heart has been jumping for joy as I read big-name op-eds and non-profit blogs. As many, many bloggers have noticed, people are TALKING about Susan Engel's NYT Op-Ed, "Playing to Learn." Teachers and parents are talking -- often by sharing Engel's op-ed. And policy wonks, researchers, and administrators are talking back -- often by blogging with criticisms of Engel's piece. (Among them are Daniel Willingham, Core Knowledge, Early Ed Watch, and Whitney Tilson.) Both camps make valid points -- but we often seem to be talking past each other.
Any time so many practitioners are so excited about an idea that other "experts" characterize as counterproductive for children, we need to ask ourselves -- Why? Are teachers really so out of touch with what students need to succeed? (If you answer "yes," I urge you to take a few minutes to examine your own experiences with children and your overall faith in adults.) Of course, there are some bad teachers out there, teachers who are out of touch with student achievement. But, I believe, there are many more good teachers who genuinely want children succeed, are willing to work hard to help them, and just need better systems to do it. So -- my answer to the puzzle of why so many practitioners love an idea that often doesn't lead to student achievement: It's the right place to go, we just haven't figured out how to get there yet.
First -- why are projects, play, and process the right place to go?
- Internationally competitive student achievement: As Nancy Flanagan writes in a thoughtful post on this topic, process-based, interest-fueled work teaches students to think critically and perform independently in real-life situations. This level of rigor will position American students to compete successfully with other countries in the 21st century, not just pass our own, lower-level tests.
- Student buy-in: Done right, inquiry and interest-based projects are ways all students can and want to learn. When we cram one definition of knowledge down the throats of students from every background in America, no matter how clever we are with our in-class marketing, some kids don't buy it. Kids who don't buy in tend to drop out or get kicked out.
- Teacher retention: This is a more challenging, exciting way for students to study and for teachers to teach. In my third year of teaching, I already feel pretty good at -- and bored with -- the components of direct instruction in my day. What keeps me excited as a professional is the knowledge that there are more difficult, but ultimately more successful, ways to teach my students. The further I dip my toe in the waters of project-based learning, the deeper I want to swim -- and the longer I realize I'll have to stay in the water. What I naively assumed to be a swimming pool has become an ocean. And that keeps me, and many other teachers I know, coming back for more.
Second, and probably stickier -- how do we get there?
The short answer is, I don't know. As I said, I'm just learning to swim these deeper waters. But, there are people who do know. So, with the full knowledge of my novice-ness, here are a few first attempts at answers:
- Study and utilize teachers who are experts in these approaches. As Flanagan and Willingham attest to, they are out there! So let's make them teacher leaders on a national scale and help other teachers learn what they know.
- Share tools for increasing efficiency and rigor in these approaches. Although every interest-connected classroom will look different, there are certain tools and processes that most teachers can use over and over. See, for example, the "Evaluation Checklist for PBL Units" by Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach on this Project-Based Learning Wiki. (Thanks to bjnicols for sharing this on Twitter.)
- Up the rigor of teacher development. No matter how good the tools, teachers need to be good at this -- and it's hard to do right. As Willingham notes, the twin principles of "authenticity" and "student choice" in these kinds of learning make a teacher's job much harder.
- Recognize that *interest* and *content* can drive each other. As Flanagan notes, "well-done inquiry learning is centered on, reinforces and integrates the acquisition of useful knowledge." I stand by the claim that my kindergartners will never REALLY learn about weather when I announce, "Ok kids, it's time to learn about weather" and roll out a mass produced, pre-planned unit -- but will when I watch their interests, and give them the structured space to conduct informed inquiries. When kids are bursting with enthusiasm over last night's foot of snow or today's first flowers poking out of the beds we planted, they are excited about weather, whether they know it or not. And when I tell them they need to state and write clear questions before we go explore the garden (processes which I choose because of their alignment with state standards and more mature cognitive development,) they will do it, and do it well, because they are so interested in those flowers. We need to get better at harnessing student's interests to help them learn carefully prioritized content.
We know using projects, play, and process to achieve rigor is the infinitely rockier path. But the smoother, more predictable road of narrowly defined, direct instruction will not take us where we ultimately want to go. From Nancy Flanagan:
But--as with many things in life, just because these models are tough to do well
doesn't mean we should never encourage discovery, inquiry or project-based
learning. After all, lots of direct instruction (teacher explains/kids
listen/tests measure recall) doesn't stick to student brains, after the
all-important quiz. Genuine content mastery depends on use--the things we're
good at, and understand deeply as adults, comes from "content" we've applied and
practiced, in a variety of ways.
Sunday, February 7, 2010
I had started following about 10 interesting teaching policy and practice blogs and organizations, mostly off and on. I found myself inconsistently flipping back and forth between sites from memory and favorites lists, and it got confusing. Tried stacking them all as homepage tabs, and 10 was too many. A total newbie, I started with Twitter, thinking I could get updates from all sent right to me. Not quite so simple. So, I signed up for Blogger ... and here we go on my Dashboard, all the blogs I want to read, all in one place. Lovely. Ask and ye shall receive.
Yet -- it still feels unfinished. Where are my updates from Zero to Three, from NAEYC, those great groups that don't have blogs? Where is the meaningful integration of teaching PRACTICE with these awesome articles on policy and research? To fill the void, I'm thinking of using this blog and my Twitter (UseSerendipity) as places to round up education blogs, studies, and articles which particularly resonate with me, share my comments, and spark those of others. Most of all, I hope this can be a place where the voices of practitioners are heard clearly amongst those of researchers, administrators, and policy wonks.
I am still finding my way through the ever-growing tangles and fruits of our digital jungle. Maybe there is a place for me in the world of blogs. What do you think? We'll see ... stay tuned.