It’s a sad day for education


Today Betsy “watch out for bears”Devos was confirmed by the slimmest of margins as Sec. of Education.  As a teacher, this upsets me greatly.  This isn’t about republicans vs. democrats; this isn’t about her support of Charter and private schools; this is about so much more.

Her absolute lack of competence is staggering.  Forget the fact that she has no experience in education and her lone qualifying attribute seems to be that she has donated lots of money.  I keep getting told I need more leadership experience for an Assistant Principal job, but evidently that same experience isn’t needed to run the nation’s public schools.  Astounding.

Her inability to answer questions during her hearing is something like I’ve never seen before.  If she actually did any preparation for these hearings, she did a terrible job.  What an awful message that entire hearing sends to our nation’s students.

It disheartens me that someone so clearly unqualified could be nominated, nonetheless confirmed, for such a position.  This is a true insult to educators everywhere.

The reality is that she now has a fair amount of power to change public education.  Will she?  Who knows, but the thought is scary.  A much bigger threat in actuality is each state’s secretary of education (which is even scarier as a NH resident–Edelblut is nuts!)  I’m confident that I will see proposals that I don’t like coming from the education department, and I will vocally oppose those, but I can only hope I don’t see massive changes that affect my day to day teaching.

In many ways, teachers see themselves as powerless in the system.  We are but mere cogs in the greater machine.  But we are very important cogs, and we need to use our collective voices.  We lost this fight, but as educators we must continue to speak out against changes we don’t approve of-from the local school level all the way to the national level.

And more importantly, we must continue to do good work in our classrooms.  We must work harder to ensure that our students are critical thinkers.  Our curricula just became more important almost across the board.  We mustn’t just lie down and accept this; we must become even better teachers.  The time is now.

Defending the whole class read

Like most everyone we are in the constant process of rewriting and refining our curriculum.  Just this past week we were reminded that the skills and enduring understandings are the most important aspects of the curriculum and that, in our English classrooms, the texts we read are vehicles to help students obtain the skills.  For example, if the enduring understanding is about understanding the hero’s journey, students don’t necessarily have to read The Odyssey; they can read any texts relating to the hero’s journey.  This allows students more choice and thus more ownership in their own learning.

This is all true, but there is something to be said for assigning an entire class a novel.  I’m all for student choice and giving options, but that doesn’t mean students need options on everything all the time.  My juniors have 3 assigned novels that the whole class reads: The Scarlet Letter, Player Piano or The Grapes of Wrath and The Great Gatsby.  My seniors have 2 assigned novels: 1984 and On the Beach.  Assigning these novels offers a variety of benefits that extend beyond the classroom.

In a lot of ways, I think it is good to have students read something that is not in their wheel house.  When I assign 1984, many students aren’t interested in a futuristic totalitarian society, which is exactly why they need to read it.  If we only expect students to work within their own passion and comfort zones, we are greatly limiting their growth and thinking.  Are there are other dystopian, totalitarian novels?  sure.  Do they present the same opportunities for shared and meaningful discussion?  I’m not so convinced.  When I teach these novels as a class, and see success both in terms of the standards and in terms of student engagement, I’m not so ready to simply throw it all out the window.

The shared experiences and conversations that can ensue from a whole class read are also extremely important.  For one thing, I like that by the time my students are seniors they have all read, for example, The Odyssey.  This allows me as the teacher to make references and comparisons to it when I talk about heroism while teaching Beowulf.  I do this throughout my course too.  We read 1984 to start the semester, and I reference it over and over again as we read Macbeth or The Canterbury Tales, etc.  If they hadn’t all had these shared reading experience, these references would be lost.  More importantly, the shared discussion of a novel as a class is an important learning tool.  I routinely watch my students discuss and question each other about a novel offering insight and interpretations to each other.  While this can happen in lit circles, that unnecessarily limits the number of people involved.

Student choice is great and can be a powerful motivating tool, but it isn’t everything.  Sometimes as the teacher, I know what is best.  Students don’t need choices for everything.

A cool inquiry based activity

I realize I haven’t posted much recently.  This year it has been harder to keep up with the blog because of the way my schedule is set up.  I used to have a study right smack in the middle of the day when I would do most of my posting.  Now my free period and study are at the beginning and end of the day.  For some reason, this complicates my writing schedule.  I come rushing in in the morning and have to use my first free period to make copies and get ready for the day, and then my end of the day duty gets taken over by various end of the day tasks.

So on that note, I want to take a few minutes on this Friday morning to describe a nice inquiry based activity that I learned this year and have implemented a couple of times.  All credit for this activity goes to my ever great colleague, T. Kerman (who, I think, stole it from someone else, but she is the one who told me all about it.)

The activity is called an inner-outer circle discussion.  Essentially students are in 2 circles.  half the class is in the inner circle (facing into each other) and the other half is on the outer circle (facing into the inner circle).  The outer  circle question asks discussion questions and then the inner circle discusses those questions amongst themselves.

So how does this work exactly?  Beforehand, students have to prepare 5-6 questions on the topic/readings. This would be a huge component of the inquiry based portion.  I found that they require instruction on how to do that.  I give them three levels of questions: level 1 are factual based questions.  If it is a level one question, you can literally put your finger on the answer in the text.  Level 2 are interpretive or inferential questions.  If it is a level two question, you can put your finger on the evidence to support your answer.  Level 3 questions are experiential questions.  If it is a level 3 question, you don’t have to have read the piece to answer it, but it helps.  I instruct my students that their questions must be include both level 2 or 3, but no level 1 questions.

On the day of the discussion, students are seated in either the inner or outer circle.  I have let them choose (first come, first served), but then they switch, so every one is in both the inner and outer circles.  I could certainly see benefits of assigning students to inner or outer circle groups to mix it up though.  Once seated, someone in the outer circle asks one of their questions.  The inner circle then discusses the question using textual evidence.  Again, I found this requires a bit of training to get them to actually search for evidence before answering.  They don’t like the silence while everyone checks their books.  While they are discussing the question, the outer circle cannot talk or add to the discussion at all, but needs to merely take notes on what is said.  Once the inner circle decides they have sufficiently answered the question, they throw it back to the outer circle for another discussion question.  Eventually, the inner and outer circle switch spots–either the following day or perhaps half way through the class.

At the end, I grade students on their participation in the inner circle (speaking clearly, respecting opinions, responding to peers appropriately, providing appropriate evidence, etc.).  I also grade them on the questions they brought to the outer circle (were the appropriate, thoughtful questions?), as well as their listening while in the outer circle (I generally ask them to answer some questions regarding the discussion and /or the questions that were asked).

So what do I like about this activity?  It touches upon so many important skills and ideas. By having students develop the question and police themselves while in the discussion, it is a fully student centered and student driven activity.  The topic I give them is specific enough that it relates to the big ideas and concepts of the course at that moment, but they decide exactly what to ask and how to answer.  I also like that it requires students to find evidence to support their answer-an important close reading and arguing skill.  Finally, I find it to be a great way to increase students speaking and listening skills.  Generally, those students who are quiet in a full class discussion are more talkative when discussing in a smaller group, but it is also an important lesson in having the more dominant students draw responses from the less talkative ones.  And it is a great moment to help those more dominant students learn to not take over the entire conversation.

Obviously, there are management concerns that everyone needs to figure out on their own, and determine what works best for you and your class.  Obviously, everyone needs to figure out their own method to track the conversation and such.  And while this activity works well in an English classroom, I could certainly see it working effectively in all different disciplines where students are tasked with finding evidence to support their answers.  In short, I highly recommend giving this activity a try; I’m quite glad I did.


Election season and education

Those who know me know that I fancy myself a bit of a political junkie.  I check polls obsessively leading up to the election comparing them to previous elections and demographics.  I haven’t updated this blog recently in large part because of the election.  Poll watching took over much of my time leading up to the election, and, quite frankly, deep despair took over after the election.

You see, I’m a democrat through and through and am an ardent Hillary Clinton supporter.  Usually, after an election, I pour over exit polling and demographics and the like.  Of course, like many people I was taken by surprise (to say the least) by the results of this election.  I had shared with my students my predictions (for the first time in 4 elections, I was wrong), and had to face them the next day on only 15 minutes of sleep.  A few days after the election, we got an email from  the administration informing us that there have been parent complaints that teachers are fighting with students about the election results and that while it is acceptable to discuss the election, we should not “share our views or opinions” with our students.

In my classes we talk about politics (directly or indirectly) a fair amount, and I make an attempt to remain generally impartial. My senior course is titled Argument and Persuasion.  In this class, students write argumentative essays on a variety of social and political issues.  I don’t want to make my feelings too well known as I don’t want students thinking they have to agree with me in their arguments.  My junior course is American literature.  In this class, we routinely discuss the changing nature of American culture and the social and political upheaval of our nation.  I attempt to remain somewhat impartial to allow them to make their own informed opinions on American culture and American society.

But the directive from administration got me thinking: should we as educators really be avoiding sharing our views and opinions on political matters?  Obviously, we shouldn’t be forcing our views on our students, nor should we be suggesting that our political views are the only appropriate ones.  In building relationships with our students, we must be honest with them.  Why always hide this part of our identity from them?  Aren’t we doing them (and ourselves) a bit of a disservice by suggesting they can’t handle a genuine political discussion?

While I don’t generally share my overtly political views, I do share my opinions with them about the world in a lot of ways.  For the most part the literature pushes the conversations this way.  I tell them every year that they need to fight for what they believe is right.  I urge them to choose love even when hate is such a tempting option.  I suppose these shouldn’t be seen as political opinions, but in our culture today, they are.

Students shouldn’t study for tests

Last week I gave my juniors a test, and of course, the day before the test I reviewed what would be on it and its format, and in each class someone asked “how should I study for this?”  And it got me thinking, in some ways we are doing our students a disservice by telling them to study for the test.

When we tell students to study , we usually mean a couple of things: review your notes, or drill with flashcards, or practice problems again.  What are we really saying there?  When we tell students to study, aren’t we really telling them to read, and reread a bunch of facts/information?  Practicing problems (I’m thinking math here, but it applies elsewhere) is a bit different.  Shouldn’t tests be more than just reproducing facts and information?  or doing the same problems students have already done?

I don’t like to give a test until I am pretty confident that students know the material and can discuss it or work with it in some deeper way.  If you know it, you shouldn’t have to study it, right?

There is a place for “drill and kill” in schools.  Memorization is important to some extent.  Yes, you need to memorize verb conjugations in foreign languages.  Yes, you need to memorize the list of pronouns in English in order to do any more in-depth grammar.  That requires studying and students should be quizzed on their memorization, but the final summative test should include much more.  Students should be well past the memorization phase.

How do you study for my test?  You don’t.  You already know it.

When did facts become debatable?

Towards the start of my teaching career, I was reading an article with my juniors about the changing nature of education, and in the article the author stated something along the lines of school leadership is pushing for more student centered instruction.  One of my students told me that he didn’t agree with this statement.  When I asked him to clarify he told me that he doesn’t believe school leadership is pushing for more student centered instruction.  I was baffled.  That is a fact-school leaders are pushing for more student centered instruction.  You don’t get to disagree with that fact.

I was reminded  of this incident this morning as I was grading argument analyses that my seniors wrote in which they told me that they disagreed with the facts presented in the essay they were analyzing.  When did it become acceptable to disagree with facts?  What have we done as educators that allows students to think that they are free to simply choose which facts to agree with?

We are embroiled in a highly polarized election year right now that we are so worried about offending someone that we refrain from talking about the election or temper any talk of the election by appealing to both sides.  What good does this do our students to understand the issues that the country is facing?  My senior English class is focused on argument and persuasion, and I ask students weekly to consider controversial issues in the world.  Naturally many of them wrote about the debate between Sec. Clinton and Mr. Trump.  One of them wrote that Mr. Trump won the debate as he presented strong counterarguments with “correct facts.”  What in the world are correct facts?  The implication that Sec. Clinton’s facts are incorrect is astounding.  Facts, by their very definition are correct.  Why are we not teaching our students this?  One can misinterpret facts; one can omit facts, but facts themselves are not incorrect.

Now, I watched the debate, and read a great deal about it both before and afterwards.  I’ve re-watched clips and read the transcript.  Mr. Trump did not present many facts.  Unfortunately, if I say this in class, I will be called out as biased and pushing a political agenda unless I also disparage Sec. Clinton’s performance.

In our effort to remain unbiased and non-offensive as teachers, we have mistakenly adhered to the notion that all sides deserve equal play, even when one side is demonstrably wrong.  And that’s a shame.  We say we want to teach critical thinking, but we are unwilling to deal with the controversy that is necessary to true critical thinking.

introverts are people too

In light of the Common Core state standards there has been a push to increase the speaking and listening skills of our students.  The argument being that being able to present information and engage in meaningful conversations is necessary to being college and career ready.  The push to build QPA’s in schools often includes a push to include some sort of presentation piece.  This I all agree with.  We do our students a disservice when we don’t expect them to participate meaningful in discussion; when we don’t force them to present their findings (if for no other reason than to expand their audience and gain more feedback.)

That being said, we have to be judicious in how we go about implementing these changes.  If we say that it is important that students are able to engage in discussions, then we have to hold them to three distinct criteria:

  1.  speaking loudly enough for everyone to hear
  2. contributing meaningfully
  3. listening to one another by not speaking over each other, texting, having side conversations, etc.

This is where I am finding (based on talking to other teachers) we are tripping up.  In order to do this well, we have to lay these  expectations out clearly beforehand and then sticking to it.  In conversations as colleagues, we often have trouble with these criteria (how many times have you seen number 3 at a faculty meeting?)  This requires diligence and teaching and reteaching on our part; it doesn’t happen on its own.

More importantly, we need to be respectful of our introverted students.  In our zeal to promote speaking, we often gloss over these students and force them to speak.  Sitting on the sides of a discussion and listening is not a flaw.  In fact for many of our students, they are  gaining more from the discussion by listening and not stressing about when they will be speaking.

So how can we force these students to speak while respecting their introversion?  It’s rather simple.  Speaking and listening should be scaffolded just as we scaffold other skills.  I inform my students early on that they will all be expected to speak throughout the course, and then I remind them often of this expectation.  I then prime them for this, by offering them opportunities to share in smaller settings (think/pair/share or group work-groups are usually chosen by me).  On the first day that I truly expect everyone to speak, students must first write out a claim.  This way, if they are called on to speak and have nothing to add (as is often the case with introverted students), they can simply read their claim.  This limits their stress of thinking of what to say.  As the discussion comes to a close, if I realize that some people haven’t spoken yet, I simply call on them to speak.  I do this in a non-threatening and non-accusatory manner.  This teaches them that I will hold them to this expectation, and more importantly, that their opinion/thoughts matter and they can contribute it safely.

After the first discussion in which everyone is required to speak, students reflect on the discussion as a whole and their own participation.  From their reflections, I ask how to improve for next time, and I can increase my expectations from there.  For the record, this first discussion just happened today in one my classes-a full three weeks into the school year.  I built up to this moment throughout the previous weeks.

Expecting students to just get over it (whether you say that or not, that is the implication when students are forced up to speak too quickly) quite simply doesn’t work.  Instead, lay out expectations and build up to the main event.  It’s worth the extra effort.