Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Time for Teacher Work to Work (Part 3)

Today, we continue to explore solutions to the problem that teachers don't have time to do the work needed to be effective. Read Parts 1 and 2 to catch up. Today, we will examine 2 more of at least 7 possible solutions ...

3) Longer work year: This option is one of my favorites. It doesn't necessarily mean more school days for students. (That's a whole other ball of wax, one that's pretty hot right now.) Instead, it means teachers doing professional work on the days students are out of school, either during the summer or during shorter, more spread-out breaks for year-round schools. I think using student vacation days for professional work is a particularly good for with year-round schools, so planning and analysis can be done while the teaching year is still happening. If all the professional work is done in the summer, we can still make good instructional plans and materials, but it's less meaningful to analyze student data and differentiate instruction with our old students gone and our new ones not yet arrived.

Of course, a longer work year means giving up that mythical treasure of the teaching profession, the summer vacation. We teachers like our vacations. Of course we do -- who wouldn't?! But, much as I would miss the long stretches of time for horseback riding by the Mediterranean or working in a progressive bookstore, I would gladly trade them for better year-round quality of life for me and mine, and better learning for my students. Teacher readers -- would you?

4) Alternate student programming: Some (or all?) Fairfax County schools have Early Release days for students every Monday. I suggest alternative student programming as a way for teachers to get the weekly planning and collaboration time offered by Early Release, but with consistent supervision for families and additional learning opportunities for children. Students could stay in schools, perhaps in programs led by Recreation and Parks counselors or part-time employees. Alternate student programming could follow a wide range of calendars. In my opinion, more time is better, as are longer blocks of time. (I and many other professionals tend to be more productive in one 4 hour block of work as opposed to two 2-hour blocks, especially at the end of a school day, half or otherwise.) Two possible configurations for alternate student programming are a half-day every week, as in Fairfax, or one full day every other week. Even one full day per month is far better than nothing.

To increase the pool of high-quality educators available to deliver alternate programming, schools could take their professional time on different days. So one alternate programming counselor might see students from different schools each day of the week, leading to part-time programming for students and part-time professional work for teachers, but full-time employment for counselors. And to accommodate the reduction in students' weekly academic hours, districts might add more school days throughout the year, or find qualified, professional educators to deliver academic and/or special subject instruction during Early Release days. Alternate student programming, like options 2 and 3, carries the advantage of giving shared planning time to all teachers in a school, thereby facilitating collaboration of teachers within and between grade levels.

Check in next time as we explore more solutions ...

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Time for Teacher Work to Work (Part 2)

Today, we continue to explore solutions to the problem that teachers don't have time to do the work needed to be effective. Read Part 1 to catch up. Today, we will examine 2 of at least 7 possible solutions ...

1) Efficient, applied professional development: We need to start by maximizing the time we already have. Sadly, even when time is so short, much of our scheduled professional development time is wasted or minimally effective. In a 2002 study quoted by Heather C. Hill's March 2009 Phi Delta Kappan article, less than a quarter of teachers reported that the professional development they had attended changed their teaching. This finding is echoed by Linda Darling-Hammond and other researchers in their comprehensive report for the National Staff Development Council, Professional Learning in the Learning Profession, which goes on to point out that teacher's dissatisfaction stems at least partially from the "one-shot nature of much PD." (Thanks to Claus von Zastrow for pointing me to NSDC as a great resource.)

As I've written about in past posts, my biggest frustration with even well-planned PD is that it's usually disconnected from our actual teaching, and therefore often doesn't get applied in our classrooms. When we use PD time to learn a manageable amount of new information and then apply it to our own lesson plans, we get a double bang for our buck: planning instruction (which needs to happen anyway) and improving our practice. As that North Central Regional Educational Laboratory report said years ago, "Professional development can no longer be viewed as an event that occurs on a particular day of the school year; rather, it must become part of the daily work life of educators. Teachers, administrators, and other school system employees need time to work in study groups, conduct action research, participate in seminars, coach one another, plan lessons together, and meet for other purposes."

2) Longer work days: As a teacher, I don't like this one much, but it's an option and it has some benefits. Typical teachers work about 7.5 official hours per day. If we provided support to work a more typical 8.5 or 9 hour day, we would more efficiently and comfortably do the work we now gerrymander into our mornings, nights, weekends, and lunches. Support for working longer official hours could include higher pay, professional supplies like phones, computers, and printers for every teacher, well-organized work space, and use of extended hours to schedule meetings and planning in more efficient blocks of time. (E.g. Teachers could all have 2 or 3 uninterrupted hours of work time after students have left rather than 50 minutes squeezed between picking up and dropping off students and and often interrupted by student needs.) When I was googling on this, I came across a work schedule for teachers at TEP Charter School in New York City, of which I have little other knowledge. According to this schedule, "To meet ... redefined expectations, TEP teachers work professional hours, typically from 7:45 AM to 5 PM in a work-day filled with a variety of teaching, learning, and leading experiences. ... Each teacher observes his/her partner teacher 1 period per day, is observed by his/her partner teacher 1 period per day, and plans/debriefs with his/her partner during a common planning time each day."

As I said, I don't love the idea of officially extending my work day. At the end of a teaching day, I am TIRED, and rarely at my best for planning and innovating. I'm curious how these work days turn out in reality. If you know of schools with a similar schedule, please write a comment to let us know how it works. This school year, I will be informally experimenting with this option, changing my self-designed schedule from working about 8 hours on Sundays to adding about 2 hours of planning to the end of each school day. Working consistent 10-12 hour days sounds daunting, but I want a 2-day weekend. We'll see how it goes. What is your experience with extended work days for teachers?
Check in next time as we explore more solutions ...

Monday, August 16, 2010

Time for Teacher Work to Work (Part 1)

Lawyers would flip out if asked to spend 80% of their work time in trial. Surgeons would revolt, and probably make serious mistakes, if they had only 20% of their time to research cases, prepare for operations, and follow up with patients outside of the O.R. How good would plays be if actors spent only 8 hours rehearsing for a 20-show run of a 2-hour play?

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:
  1. Efficient, applied professional development

  2. Longer work days

  3. Longer work years

  4. Alternate student programming

  5. Co-teaching

  6. Departmentalized teaching

  7. Smarter scheduling
Each day this week, I will write about some of these alternatives from a classroom perspective. Please contribute your thoughts and resources on each.

* 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

And Now for Something Different

Dear Readers,

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

Is DC's Teacher Support "Highly Effective?"

6% of DC Public School teachers were fired last Friday, many of them for scoring "Ineffective" on DC's new IMPACT teacher evaluations. 17% more were denied scheduled raises and placed in jeopardy of losing their jobs next year if their scores do not improve from "Minimally Effective." (See the Wall Street Journal's story here, but note that 80% of teachers' evaluations come mostly from 5 teaching observations, 3 of them unannounced, rather than student test scores.)

What I want to look at here, from a DCPS teacher perspective, is: How effective was the support provided to us teachers to help us rate as "Effective" on IMPACT? And how effective CAN it be for all of us in the future?

Michelle Rhee says the purpose of IMPACT is "to create a culture in which DCPS school-based personnel
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.)

First, let's take a look at the DCPS training. For 3 consecutive days at the start of the school year, and 4 more days throughout, school coaches around the district were given a standardized training by DCPS to deliver to teachers. The first 3 days were a broad overview of the Teaching and Learning Framework, the rubric within IMPACT which rates 3 parts of educating: Plan, Teach, and Increase Effectiveness. This past year, we were only rated on the Teach section, but all 3 parts were covered on the training. To use teacher talk, I don't think the objective of this training was for us to master the teaching skills in IMPACT. Instead, it seemed to be building some background knowledge for us to do so in the future. Important, but not getting teachers into Effective territory yet. (See what you think for yourself: DCPS posted all 3 days of Powerpoint training online here.) The next training was for all school staff, from librarians to custodians, and gave an overview of the systems and processes being rolled out for IMPACT as a new accountability system. Again, important for employees to know our expectations and rights, but not helping teachers master pedagogical skills need for an Effective rating.

So that leaves us with 3 days actually geared to support teachers in specific teachings skills on the rubric. For those 3 days to qualify as Effective support, they would have to be pretty freakin' amazing. But they were just okay. Sure, the objectives were clear (one big advantage of a district-wide rubric,) and teacher investment was relatively high among my colleagues -- we were given some choice in which aspects of teaching we wanted to work on, the trainers valiantly attempted to back up the rubric with research, and, let's be honest, we didn't have much of a choice about getting better on this scale anyway. But many other elements were off. Because most classroom examples didn't fit with the age ranges and styles in our own classes, teachers' investment and engagement suffered. I'm pretty sure my kinesthetic learning style wasn't targeted ... hey, it's hard for adults to focus, too! Most importantly, the pacing of the trainings and school-based follow-ups (or lack thereof) left little time for application to our own practice -- the meat of any Highly Effective lesson teachers give students. (I wrote more about this issue here, just after our last DCPS training.) My overall rating, in IMPACT terms: Minimally Effective. And my "teacher achievement" reflected it: my practice changed little, if at all.
Fear not, there's hope! The 2nd stream of support I received, job-embedded professional development, took a different format, delivered more targeted content, and led to much better results. In fact, I wrote a post pinpointing it as one of 3 factors which led to dramatic growth in my teaching skills -- BEFORE the IMPACT firings were announced and this debate really began raging. Read the post, especially the part about "Proactive PD" to get a sense of what strong support for teachers CAN look like. Clearly defined, relevant objectives ... engaging, hands-on format ... observations to see whether we were getting it ... plenty of time for teachers to practice using new ideas ... This job-embedded PD gets a Highly Effective score from me.

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.

Getting this kind of excellent, job-embedded PD to every DC teacher will not be easy. Not every school has a great coach, much less one ready and willing to deliver the kind of intensive, precise coaching my school-level colleagues and I received. But it's important. We must swiftly build our coaching force and systems to deliver intensive, job-embedded PD which includes multiple cycles of lesson planning, delivery, and debriefing with coach and teacher. It's fair for teachers: This summer, hundreds of teachers lost their jobs or financial security without adequate support to reach a new standard. Had I not been in a school with a great coach and administrators, I would have stayed at the Minimally Effective rung, or very possibly declined and been out of a job right now. But I was given the support to improve -- and ANY teacher whose job is on the line deserves that. But far more importantly, we need to get these systems of job-embedded PD in place because it's right for our kids. These evaluation systems are there to evaluate teachers' impact on children's learning. Every day a teacher struggles is a day her students are fulling further behind. Please, do what you can to push school leaders in DC and your own city to examine models of PD that ARE producing strong results, and bring them to scale as fast as humanly possible -- for teachers, but mostly for kids.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Learning to Teach Like a Champion

I made it! To summer, to gains in student achievement, to the end of my first year as a GOOD teacher. On June 22, I finished my third year of teaching, my second year in a consistent lead-teaching placement, and - in my opinion - my first year of teaching successfully. While I've got a loooong way to travel before I'm the teaching champion I want to be (nod to Doug Lemov for the phrase and his pragmatic codification of probably-necessary-but-possibly-not-sufficient conditions for becoming an excellent teacher), it was a successful year by most measures, of both the touchy-feely and cold-hard-data variety. I saw BIG jumps in my teacher effectiveness data (from DC's new IMPACT teacher evaluation system,) respectable growth in students' achievement data, and a much happier, much harder-working group of students.

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

Teaching Confidence

Jay Mathews posted a list of 8 "essential life skills" schools should help children develop. They include organization, teamwork, friendship, and thinking critically. I don't disagree with any, and feel attached to at least 5 more. But to avoid crowding the discussion, I'll whittle my must-add "essentials" down to just one: informed confidence.

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

Blogging Beyond Snowpocalypse

This blog was born in a blizzard. Faced with multiple feet of snow and multiple days off work, I explored the blogs that had been sitting in my peripheral vision, started commenting, and, reveling in inspiration and free time, started the page you see here.

Yesterday was my first day back with kids since DC's big snow. Waking up in the morning with ideas of writing lesson plans, prepping materials, connecting with colleagues, AND blogging all before 8:42 am showed me that this transition will not be easy. But -- I love reading and writing about issues affecting teaching almost as much as I love teaching itself. A routine which includes both will be tough, but important, to work out. Thanks for bearing with me over the coming weeks as I find a balance that works!
Update, 7/21/10: The "coming weeks" turned into months! Finding a routine proved difficult as I returned to teaching as well as completed a Master's Degree in Curriculum and Instruction in the spring of 2010. Summer is providing an opportunity to try again, and I hope the completion of my degree will help me find regular space for blogging space within my teaching life come September.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Light Bulb about the Light Bulb

Catherine Gewertz at Curriculum Matters recently shared a fascinating finding from Harvard Business review: a sense of making progress in their work motivated adult knowledge workers more than incentives, public recognition, or interpersonal support. As Catherine points out, this finding has important implications for both teachers and students.

Last week, I wrote a post about alternatives to incentives in the classroom. In my own work, I've found "explicit, incessant discussion of why content is important" and "logical consequences, both positive and negative" to motivate students in powerful ways, especially when practiced school-wide.

Gewertz' post points toward an important third tool for building up successful, intrinsically motivated students: helping students see their own progress. I'll call this "the light bulb about the light bulb." Although students make progress all the time, they often need help to SEE and understand that progress themselves. Helping students see the light bulb about their own light bulbs has led to some pretty powerful moments in my own teaching. For example, when Dewan (pseudonym) buckled down and applied new skills to a piece of his writing, a subject he usually finds frustrating, he excitedly raised his hand to show me the product. To drive home his own growth, I pulled out a much less accomplished story he wrote the week before, and asked him to name some of the differences. His expression shifted, from in-the-moment elation to thoughtful pride. By naming how his own work had improved, I think Dewan began to generalize his feeling from "Look, I made this cool thing!" to "I'm getting better at writing." Facilitating concrete comparisons of a student's current achievement to their past difficulties gives kids motivation that no teacher-constructed consequence, positive or negative, can match. These light-bulb-about-the-light-bulb moments also provide great reference points for continued motivation. For example, when a student starts to give up on a challenging task, her teacher, peers, and eventually even she herself can remind her of a specific time in the past when she persevered and achieved.

We teachers and schools often go to so much trouble to construct elaborate incentive and investment systems. But in the end, there seems to be no substitute for the real-world feeling of getting better at a skill you deeply value.

Friday, February 12, 2010

PD Genie

D. C. public school teachers braved the unshoveled sidewalks and snow-piled roads today to attend our 9th of 10 job-embedded Professional Development sessions.

Positives: Engaging activities, ok to good content, well-organized presenters, and lots of smart, thoughtful, driven colleagues. So, if I had a magic PD genie to grant me 3 wishes, what would they be?

#1: More time for application. We know that after kids learn a new skill, they need lots of guided practice time to try it with the teacher, make mistakes, get feedback, try again, and then plenty of independent practice time to internalize it, preferably in an authentic context. Adults learn different things than kids, but we go through a very similar process. Why then, has almost every PD I have ever attended (charter school, public school, teacher training organization) left little to no time for teacher independent practice? In my ideal PD, if teachers are learning/reviewing ways to check for student understanding during lessons (for example,) we would hear a pretty brief summary of classroom strategies, practice on a few examples together, and then use a good chunk of time to actually plan new checks for understanding into lessons we will teach next week. This last step is almost always missing. Doing the authentic planning in the context of PD rather than on our own ensures that 1) we get feedback from colleagues on a new structure, 2) we intellectually transfer the new information to our own practice, 3) we logistically transfer the new information to our own practice.

We often DON'T try out the new skills from PD because teachers have so little time to do the vast amounts of planning, grading, material creating, and communicating required to teach kids effectively. Most teachers I know don't have enough time to do the things we already know how to do -- let alone get good at new skills. If skills are important enough to teach/review in PD (which they usually are,) they are important enough to implement. More time could be left at the end of PD sessions to apply the principle to our own practice -- or our schools could get better at using existing planning meetings to apply focus skills from PD. My school and others have taken exciting steps towards this second choice (see an example in this post,) but until all our systems are firmly in place, I think implementation time within PD sessions is our best bet.

My other 2 PD wishes? I'll get back to you. :-)

Teach Kids As We Want to Be Treated

As teachers, we possess incredible power to shape the actions of future generations. Why, then, are so many of us careless with one of the most important lessons we can teach -- why people do what we do? As Claus von Zastrow discussed recently, incentives are "all the rage" for motivating both teachers and students. In particular, incentives and punishment are integral parts of many "high-achieving" school models touted by the media and political leaders. I am no expert on KIPP, but at first blush, KIPP's "paycheck" system strikes me as about incentive-y as you get. There are 2 fronts to approach this on. First, the moral ground. Yes, adults are often motivated by incentives and punishments -- but do we want to be? Do our best actions come from them? As adults, we should educate children to live the best lives possible, not just maintain the status quo. Second, with possibly more universal appeal, is the pragmatic ground. Even when incentives give us shorter-term results like better test scores, in the long run they can cripple students, as von Zastrow points out, and Alfie Kohn argues beautifully in his book, Punished by Rewards.

Before I start sounding like a teacher-saint, let me fully disclose that I relied heavily on incentives to manage my class last year. And even that was preferable to my first year, when I had barely heard the term "classroom management," let alone developed any kind of system for it. Now, in my third year, I'm not above using them as a scaffold for kids behaving in ways that seriously interfere with learning. But, I am happy to say I have made progress, thanks to great teacher-mentors, training in social curriculum (more below,) and a good kick in the ethical pants from reading Punished by Rewards last summer.
So, without further ado, let's delve deeper into HOW we get kids to value "learning for its own sake" -- or at least for the sake of more worthwhile and/or realistic things than stickers, money, food, grades, etc. Here are two tools I've found relatively successful:
  1. 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.

  2. 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.
While teachers and their training programs bear much of the responsibility for developing and implementing classroom management through tools other than incentives and punishments, schools and policy-makers need to be in there, too. One big investment of time and influence school and other leaders can make is commitment to a social curriculum. Some which emphasize alternatives to incentives and punishment are Responsive Classroom, Love and Logic, and Nonviolent Communication. My school's commitment to Responsive Classroom has made a big impact on learning. Teachers and other instructional staff receive significant training in the approach, and it appears that administrators also look for some level of philosophical alignment when they hire new staff. Becoming more consistent with Responsive Classroom across the school has made a giant difference in culture, both inside and outside classrooms. Teachers have a lot of power over the messages we send within own classrooms -- but a message of intrinsic motivation is even more powerful if the teacher down the hall isn't handing out candy for answers, and the lunchlady isn't screaming at kids in line.
This post is adapted from a comment posted on Public School Insights.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

5 Lessons on Using Interim Assessments to TEACH

Over at Inside School Research, smartypants Debra Viadero tells us about a study with potentially big implications for teacher practice and policy. (And I mean smartypants in a kind, "thinking really hard" kind of way, not a teasing, "think you know it all" sort of way -- as I often end up explaining to my kiddoes when I use the term affectionately and they give me a confused look.) So smarytpants Viadero explains how many teachers don't use interim assessments to change instruction. Interim assessments are tests developed by testing companies, states, and districts, rather than teachers themselves, and given during the year before the final, sometimes high-stakes test. In DC, I believe interim assessments might look like DIBELS/Text Reading Comprehension (TRC) for lower grades, and the DC-BAS for upper elementary. So the Consortium on Policy Research on Education (CPRE) studied teachers' use of these tests and found that teachers were getting good information about students from them, but not using that data to change instruction. Importantly, this non-application wasn't for any lack of teacher motivation. (After all, there are some pretty high consequences for some of US if our kids don't score better on those tests by the end of the year!) Instead, Viadero reports, "Often the disconnect came because teachers weren't given the know-how, the time, or the resources to figure out how to address students' knowledge gaps or because the assessments weren't aligned with the curriculum."

As a teacher, I've often used interim assessments less than effectively. But since we know a lot about what doesn't work, I'm going to share a story about a semester in which my colleagues and I DID use interim assessments to change our teaching. As we go, I'll try to pull out some principles that led to our success.

  1. 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 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.)

  4. 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 -- and the "What's Next?" section of the 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.

  5. 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 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.

Should We Pay Old Teachers Less?

At The Quick and the Ed, Chad Aldeman says districts should change the way they pay teachers to reflect "that the vast majority of teaching improvement comes in the first few years on the job." He pulls up some nice charts and graphs showing how teachers' impact on student test scores does up steadily over their first few years of teaching, then levels off for the rest of their careers.

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

Projects, Play, & Process Push Back

Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, a group of students in my class loved to dance. They danced in the line to lunch, they danced while they cleaned up materials, they even occasionally danced during scripted phonics lessons. Guided by older, more experienced ECE teachers and study of the Project Approach and Reggio Emilia, I decided to try to let them dance -- in a way that would push their learning. Our school's phenomenal librarian pulled a whole basket of books on singers and dancers and instruments, and one fine afternoon my students and I end up leafing (or, in literacy terms, taking "picture walks") through these books, interpreting the pictures, and reading captions and quotations. They begin to hear and use new vocabulary words like "costumes," "ballet," and "choreography." And when, spurred by the suggestion of transforming our dramatic play area into a "dance studio" like the ones they are reading about, five-year old Aaliyah (pseudonym) asks urgently if she can write on a nearby paper bag. Deep in concentration, she forms the crayon letters "KOSTMZ" -- thereby labeling the bag as home for the new "costumes" her friends are measuring fabric scraps for. In 30 minutes, Aaliyah has used text as a source of information, independently produced a new vocabulary word, and used letter-sound knowledge to write most sounds in a complex word -- many more than the beginning and sometimes ending sounds she typically records during our less authentic writing lessons.

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.
None of these steps are easy, or cheap. So why bother? For my answer, let's return to Aaliyah and the dance studio. Here's what happened after she labeled the costumes: For a few days, children played in the studio and added a little more writing to the studio's "walls." I made the dance books accessible during their play, and tried to help them choreograph and write down dances. But soon, the project fizzled out. Not for lack of student interest -- they still love to dance, and still do it often. The project failed because of my own knowledge gaps. Because I didn't know how to plan with the right balance of flexibility and rigor, the activities I encouraged were either too teacher-directed or too open-ended to be meaningful. And because I didn't feel confident recording, assessing, and utilizing students' activities in an efficient way, I quickly reverted to the pre-planned activities I KNEW would cover all the standards by the end of the year. I feel sad for the opportunities my students and I continue to miss because of my own lack of proficiency.

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.
It's a hard road, but, in the end, it's the right one for learning, teachers, and Aaliyah.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Why Do I Have a Blog?

10 was too many.

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.