Public recognition

Praise is important.  It is important for students to praise their students, and it’s important for school leaders to praise their teachers.  I’ve discussed this before; a school culture thrives when people feel recognized for a job well done.  What concerns me is public praise and recognition.  Often times making praise public has a detrimental effect on the rest of the group.

Think about it–when we recognize one student for a job well done, we are hoping to make that student feel good and feel as though the work is meaningful so that he or she will continue to work at a high level.  We may think that by publicizing that praise to the rest of the class that we are further rewarding that student, which may be the case.  But the problem is the effect that this has on the rest of the class.  While you are publicly praising student A, student B is sitting there thinking “I did the same thing.  Where is my recognition?”  This is likely not your fault.  Perhaps you have no idea that student B did the same thing and deserves recognition, but that doesn’t matter.  Perception is reality.  You may have had a positive effect on student A, but you had an arguably stronger negative effect on student B without intending to.

The same is true of school leadership.  When administrators publicly praise some teachers for a job well done, others are left wondering where is their praise.  This is a prime example of taking 1 step forward and 2 steps back.  People will quickly perceive a sense of favoritism, whether it is true or not.  That is one quick way to ensure that a culture of collaboration does not happen.

Are there times for public recognition?  yes, but I urge teachers and administrators everywhere to be cautious with it.  The unintended consequences will likely outweigh any positive effects.

5 things we have to stop pretending

Things we have to stop pretending in education:

1. We must stop pretending that grades are an accurate indicator of student learning.  Grades indicate much more about student compliance that student learning.

2. We must stop pretending that teaching technology is optional.  The reality is that students live in a digital world.  We have an obligation in all subject areas to teach appropriate use of technology.  This means not banning cell phones, but rather teaching students how to use the appropriately in an educational setting.  This may mean learning technology from our students, too.

3. We must stop pretending that the purpose of school is merely to train students for the work force or the next level of schooling.  This is certainly a part of schooling, but we do so much more.  Let’s educate them fully.  After all their lives after graduation hopefully include more than just a career.

4. We must stop pretending that our subject can be taught in seclusion.  English is great.  Math is great.  Science is great.  But none of them is completely independent of the others.  We need to help students recognize these connections.  We need to make better attempts to work across curricula.

5.  We need to stop pretending that professional development happens in a 1 day workshop.  The professional development doesn’t happen while the speaker is presenting.  The professional development happens when teachers take the ideas back to their schools and discuss with their colleagues how to implement these ideas in their circumstances.  Professional development happens when teachers actively seek out ways to improve their craft.  I have attended many workshops, but the best ideas that I have received that changed my teaching have come from Twitter.  There’s some food for thought.

Standardized testing

This week my students are busily working on the Smarter Balanced Test–the newest version of the state test for NH.  I’m lucky in that for the most part, my students are great and are taking the test seriously.  I’ve been teaching for 9 years now, and I have proctored some sort of standardized test every one of those years, and I haven’t always had students work so diligently.  NCLB became law while I was completing my undergraduate degree, so I have never known teaching without some form of standardized testing.  I’m going to be real honest; I’m not one of those teachers who absolutely hates standardized testing.  It is certainly inconvenient and there are definitely students who don’t put forth a great deal of effort, but the data can be meaningful. The people who make these tests know psychometrics better than the rest of us.  The questions go through a pretty thorough testing process generally to ensure validity and reliability.

BUT, my problem lies with how we use the data.  (What a great follow up to yesterday’s post).  It is currently April 16th, and testing in my school continues through Memorial Day.  We will not see the results (data) until well after that.  What am I supposed to do with such data at the end of the school year?!  Teachers can use this data if they have it early enough that they can actually make decisions based on it.  Think of how great that would be if we knew what areas our own students performed poorly in, so we could direct our lessons there.  Unfortunately, the data will come much to late for us to make these changes.

Is standardized testing flawed?  No doubt about it.  You can find a lengthy list of flaws and concerns very easily.  Could we do something meaningful with testing results in education.  Absolutely.  But we need to find away to get the data when we actually need it.

Data

Educators all over America have to deal with data these days.  Schools collect data on student achievement and student failure; we have data from standardized test scores.  We collect data on how students feel and how teachers feel.  We hand out surveys like candy in an attempt to collect data.  Heck, schools even collect data on how much data they collect.  It’s not like this is just something school leaders do, by the way.  As teachers we give various formative assessments and collect data.  Sometimes we even chart this data.  In fact, I’m pretty sure nobody will hire a teacher who doesn’t discuss data or claim to be “data driven” in the interview.  Data, data, data.

Now don’t get me wrong, I like data and statistics.  I’m a baseball fan; I can rattle off all sorts of baseball statistics.  I’m often intrigued by the data we collect as a school and on a state and national level.  There is no doubt, that schools have become quite good at collecting data.  My concern is that we aren’t doing anything with this data.  I have spoken with many teachers who speak of giving out a quiz as formative assessment, but they don’t grade the quiz for days or sometimes even weeks.  By the time they’ve graded it, the class has moved on.  How in the world are they going to use that data?  The fact of the matter is–they don’t.

Every year we distribute a survey to the entire student body about school culture.  It’s a basic likert scale where students are given a statement such as “I enjoy coming to school” and they choose strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree.  I’m on the committee that analyzes that data.  We break down the percentages for each question based on gender, grade, level (AP, etc.).  We sit together in the committee and look at all these statistics.  Often they are quite fascinating.  We make various sounds such as “hmmm” and mutterings of surprise.  Then we put the data away until we have new data next year.  We do not actively do anything with that data.  Mind you, it’s not that we don’t want to do anything; often times the problem is that we just don’t know what to do.  I’d love to call some students into the meeting and present them with some of the data and see what they had to say.  Perhaps they have some ideas as to what can be done.

Collecting data and doing little or nothing with it is only one problem.  A second problem comes when we are asked to view the data in ways that aren’t entirely meaningful.  Last year all teachers had to look at their failure rates in comparison to the average failure for each particular class in order to determine if anything needed to be done.  In other words, I had to compare the failure rate of my senior class with the average for that level.  This seems like it could lead to productive discussion and be an impetus for change.  Unfortunately, when you actually think about what is being compared, things start falling apart.  Is the average failure rate what we should be aiming for?  If the average failure rate for my senior class is 6% and I have a failure rate of 9% does that mean I’m doing something wrong?  Are we ok with a 6% failure rate on average?  Why is that the basis for comparison?  If I think 9% is too high, I should work to fix that, but is the comparison to the average necessary?  Not really.

I guess what I’m really driving at is that data is important.  We should make decisions based on data, but we must be careful that we actually do something meaningful with the data we collect.  We cannot call ourselves data driven decision makers if we don’t actually use the data appropriately.

So is this rigorous?

I have a confession.  Many people in education aren’t going to like this, but here it goes.  I don’t like  “rigor.”  I’m not ready to say the word needs to be kicked out of all educational circles, but I immediately get annoyed when someone mentions rigor.  Why?  Because we can’t seem to figure out what it actually means.

Rigor is the word du jour in education these days.  In blogs, on Twitter, in meetings, all over the place, somebody is discussing rigor.  Are the standards rigorous?  Is common core rigorous?  We need to make sure our rubrics have rigor.  Make sure the rigor is increasing from 9th grade through 12th grade.  The clarion call is clear: MORE RIGOR!!

So what does rigor actually mean?  Educate people are saying it all the time.  Educational leaders love it.  So what is it?  My perception is that most people use it as synonymous with difficulty or being “harder.”  I would argue that that should not be the goal.  Is writing a 15 page paper harder than writing a 5 page paper?  Probably.  Does that mean it is a better task?  Not necessarily.  Is having high school students read Shakespeare a difficult task?  Yes.  Is it rigorous?  Maybe.

I’d say that rigor isn’t about making things harder or longer for students.  It isn’t about giving more homework.  It is about creating engaging and challenging tasks that are appropriate for those particular students.

One particular instance comes to mind in which I was questioned on the rigor of my teaching.  I teach low level seniors.  Many of them read at or below an 8th grade reading level, and many of them have IEP’s.  They also present a number of discipline challenges in my class and out of it.  In our British literature studies we study the Arthurian Legend.  I decided to show them The Sword in the Stone–the Disney cartoon.  Is this rigorous?  Well no, but neither is watching any other movie.  Watching a movie isn’t challenging in any way.  What they did after watching the film was rigorous because it both engaged them and challenged them.  After watching the movie, they had to connect the movie’s idea of the Arthurian Legend to the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Le Morte D’Arthur.  Trying to connect these three pieces to form a coherent whole and then making an argument as to which piece best exemplifies the Arthurian Legend challenged those students greatly.  It also engaged them.

As a caveat, please notice that I speak only of a task as a rigorous task.  Can we really define standards (Common Core or otherwise) as rigorous?  I’d say not really.  Two teachers can take the same standards and ask students to do completely different tasks with them–one very rigorous and one not at all.  The standard itself isn’t rigorous.  The same thing can be said for a rubric. Is one rubric more rigorous than another?  Not really.  The task that the rubric is intended to help assess must be rigorous.  A learning assessment can be rigorous as can an assessment, assuming we’re defining rigorous as challenging and engaging.

Of course all that I speak of  is only true if we can come to a shared definition of rigor.  Perhaps educators would be well served by trying to hash this out before proceeding.

Effective discipline

As an administrative intern, I shadow administrators quite often.  This means I watch a lot of disciplinary interactions between an adult and a student some of which can be quite weighty.  People close to me often ask why I would want to pursue a career that focuses so heavily on disciplining kids.  When a kid gets sent to the office for discipline, there is an awful lot going on there.  What exactly is the student hoping for?  What is the administrator hoping for?  What is the teacher hoping for?  What is the appropriate reaction of all those involved?

Let’s start by thinking about how necessary disciplinary procedures are.  For students to learn and thrive there must be discipline right?  All the research proves this.  Boundaries are necessary and punishment should act as a consequence for transgressing those boundaries, right?  Is it really that simple?  I wonder how often teachers send a kid to the office hoping he will be punished as if the punishment is some sort of revenge.  I’ve heard many teachers say things such as Ï hope he gets a detention” or something to that effect.

But I honestly believe most teachers don’t view discipline as merely enacting some sort of medieval revenge on students.  The ultimate goal of discipline is to change a behavior.  The punishment should say to the student: “Your actions were not appropriate; here is the consequence for such actions.” So how is a student supposed to get that message?

If changing behavior is the goal, then I’d aruge that discipline is more about creating a relationship with the student than meteing out punishment.  The disciplinarian must ensure that he is building a trusting relationship with that student and make it clear that the punishment is necessary.  Just about every school has a set of infractions and a list of penalties associated with it.  This list must remain flexible for disciplinarians to do their job effectively to allow the relationship to form.

Obviously discipline is far more complicated than this, but at its core, discipline must be about creating relationships with students in order to effectively change behavior.