Skills and concepts

As an English teacher, most curricular discussions in some way involve Common Core.  There is actually quite a bit that I like about Common Core. I like that it lays out pretty clear standards; I like that it emphasizes informational reading in all disciplines; I like that it demands students supply evidence for their thinking.  For all the political hay that is raised regarding Common Core, it has some pretty solid points.

But it’s very much a skill based list of standards as we are often reminded.  While I strongly disdain the idea that our purpose as high school educators is merely to give students the skills to be “college and career ready,” the skills are certainly important, but this is also where I approach the Common Core with some caution.  I like skills; I want my students to be able to read closely; I want them to be able to write clear argumentative, narrative, and informational texts; I want them to be able to speak clearly and appropriately.   These are all good things, but that is not all I want, and unfortunately, I worry that education is trending that way.

We have this habit in the American education system to swing the pendulum too thoroughly to one side, and I am all about balance in education.  With the implementation of Common Core, I am constantly hearing and reading about history classes that are becoming close reading classes or science classes that are becoming writing classes.  To me, this is a shame.  We can’t focus so heavily on these skills that we lose out on important concepts.  If we do, we really risk losing our students.

One of the common refrains regarding education is that it is boring and not engaging.  This will only get worse if we focus to heavily on skills over concepts.  My seniors are currently reading and analyzing The General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales.  Thinking back to your high school days, you may remember that Chaucer takes the time to describe each of his pilgrims on the journey, and he uses this as an opportunity for some biting social criticism of Medieval society.  To understand this criticism at all, students must do some pretty solid close reading.  But the close reading is not what engages my students or makes the story at all interesting.  If I focus too heavily on the skill of close reading, students will miss what makes Chaucer so great.  Taking this as an opportunity to discuss his humor and use of social criticism brings meaning to the work and brings the story to life, to use a trite cliche.

Prior to students reading The General Prologue, I give a brief history lesson of Sir Thomas Becket and what happened to him to give them some context as to why these pilgrims are going to Canterbury.  Basically I just tell them the story of how the king’s knights murdered Sir Thomas Becket due to a bit of a misunderstanding.  Often times I hear of history teachers being lambasted for simply being story tellers and not forcing students to learn skills under Common Core.  I did that for the better part of 1 period.  And my students enjoyed it.  They were all focused and listening.  People like stories; stories help people learn.  Let’s not throw all that out in the name of teaching skills.

So much in education is about finding the right balance.  While we have been using common core for a few years now, we are constantly trying new things and re-implementing ideas.  As we work to increase our students skills, I hope we don’t forgo everything that we’ve done before.

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Are we using technology budgets wisely?

I’ve been thinking about technology in the classroom the last few days.  Every year schools spend tons and tons of money on technological initiatives.  Educational technology is a booming business.  Technology is part of our standards in the English department, and there are rallying cries all around to make students technologically savvy and appropriate digital citizens.  So in that sense, it makes sense that we would spend money and focus on technology.  Unfortunately, this seems in-congruent to how we actually use technology in schools.

I don’t have research or data to back this up-just observation and anecdotal evidence, but it seems as though most of the money we spend on technology is really use to benefit the teachers not the students.  Let’s take smart-boards for example.  About 5 years ago, my school built a brand new Freshman Academy and installed a smart-board in every room.  I’m just assuming that cost a fair amount of money.  I’m betting the large majority of interaction with that smart-board is being done by teachers.  I’m sure there are instances in which teachers are having students come to the smart-board and interact in some way, but I bet hard data would show that teachers interact with the white board more than students.

I think this is true of various programs that students use that is supposedly adaptive to their level.  We used one such program here in some classes in which students take a pre-test and then are exempt from various “learning activities” in the unit.  Then they take the post test after completing the proscribed learning activities.  Other tests asked questions and then the questions got progressively harder if the student was getting them right or vice versa.  In other words, the software adapts to each student’s level.  In theory this sounds great, but in actuality, we’re we just using this software to make decisions easier for us as teachers?  Isn’t the software just simply doing some formative assessment for us?  It certainly didn’t supplant us as teachers (thank God), but it also didn’t do anything to make students more technologically savvy or better digital citizens.  These tools simply make things simpler for teachers. (Most of the time; after all technology doesn’t always work).

Now to be clear, I’m not necessarily suggesting this is a bad thing, but is it really worth the great deal of money school districts are spending?  Are smart-boards really worth it if all we are using them for is teachers to have a few extra tricks up their sleeves?  Are 1:1 devices really worth it if all we are doing is having students use Microsoft Word or Google Docs to send in assignments?  We need to stop pretending that we are spending all this money on technology to create digital citizens when we’re not using the technology for that means.  Before we get sold on the next new and exciting technological piece, let’s really ask ourselves how students will be using it.

A story of change

I started teaching 10 years ago, and boy has the educational landscape shifted in those 10 years.  Shortly after starting, I attended a workshop that discussed, in part, the idea of retakes.  Now, everybody in education has an opinion on whether or not teachers should allow students to retake their assessments, but at that time, it was quite the new and innovative idea.  Prior to that workshop, I did not allow retakes at all, but that workshop changed my mindset entirely.  The workshop convinced me that not only is reassessment appropriate, but it is a great teaching practice, so I decided to embrace that idea and implemented retakes in my class.

As with any change as a teacher, I had to ask myself how will I implement this idea in my class.  Though it may sound great in theory, how can I translate it into practice.  I wrote up what I thought was a pretty clear procedure.  I purchased a large calendar that I hung on the bulletin board and instructed students to sign up and indicate what they wished to retake on that calendar.  For the sake of keeping myself organized, I limited all retakes to after school hours only.  This system would allow me to have the appropriate assessment ready when the student showed up.  The student would reassess, and I grade it and record the new grade, and all would be good.

Unfortunately, like all well laid plans, there were some unforeseen problems.  Nowadays, students, parents and teachers are generally on board with the idea of retakes.  This was not the case when I started this.  I had to spend a great deal of time emailing and on the phone explaining the procedure and my rationale–way more time than I anticipated.  I also had to continually justify to students, parents, special education case coordinators, and others why I only allowed retakes after school.  In summary, the number of emails and voice mails I had to return was astronomical.

I also, in my naivety as a new teacher, assumed students would prepare for their retakes (oh, to be young again).  After all, what in the world would make you think you would do better on a retake if you are just as unprepared as before???  Seriously, who thinks: “Boy, I really bombed this vocab quiz that I didn’t study for.  Let’s take it again, but still not study!”   I wasted so much time that year grading terrible retakes.  What a waste of my time.

No doubt, this change was a frustrating time in many ways, but I persevered and altered my policies because I still honestly believe that allow retakes is the best thing to do.  Now that retakes are far more common practice, I don’t have students sign up on a calendar; instead I approach them individually when I think they should consider retaking it or conference with them when they ask me.  Now I make students prove to me in some way that they have better prepared for the quiz.  We make a plan together and they have to prove that they followed through on their part.  If they don’t do that, they are sent away without completing the retake.

The point is that I overcame the frustration because I truly believed it was worth it.  Right now, many teachers are dealing with similar frustrations.  Schools are mandating retake policies and bring in recognized scholars and writers like Rick Wormeli, and teachers everywhere are getting frustrated saying they don’t know how to implement these changes in their classrooms.  Students are taking advantage of the system; it is creating way more work; students aren’t learning self discipline, etc. etc.  These are all valid concerns, but if you, as a teacher, truly believe that the change is what is best for students, then you must find ways past these frustrations.  Implement a change, and then change that implementation when things aren’t going as planned.  Talk to other teachers who have implemented similar changes; read books and articles.  Honestly, if you really believe that the change is best for student learning, then you work to figure out a way to make it happen in your class.  If you don’t believe the change is best for students, then fine, but if you honestly believe the change is best for students, but you don’t want to try to make it happen in your class, that’s not cool.

To lecture or not to lecture…

(a short post today–just some passing thoughts that hit me in the shower this morning)

Lecturing is not generally a very student centered method; I agree with that.  But I don’t like the idea of a whole scale debasement of any particular method.  I particularly don’t like the statement that lectures are always boring and ineffective.  Perhaps it’s the public speaking teacher in me, but I just don’t believe that all lectures are not engaging and boring.

I think we all instinctively know this though.  The proof is evident at http://www.ted.com.  Ted talks are extremely well attended events where presenters basically just lecture.  In fact, many of these lectures are so engaging that people (including teachers and students) routinely give up their free time to watch these lectures.  In fact, many of these lectures have been watched literally millions of times.  If listening to someone speak is so incredibly boring and disengaging, then why are millions of people voluntarily tuning into these speakers?

It’s not that lecturing in of itself is bad.  The problem is that it is not always the best method and that so often we as teachers are delivering bad lectures.  Grant Wiggins wrote extensively on the topic including a great deal of thorough research here.  This is far more in-depth than I wish to take it right now.  I just simply want to point out that maybe we shouldn’t demonize one particular method entirely.