Tomorrow I will be back in the classroom and I'm feeling that familiar mix of excitement and nervousness. How will my lesson go? Will the students listen and will they learn?
I'm also feeling some new feelings that could only happen after the past six months at Harvard. I'm wondering how this time has affected me as an educator. Will I be rusty? Will it be 'just like riding a bike'? Perhaps the question with the highest stakes is: Will I be better?
A demo lesson is perhaps not the fairest way to answer this question, but the question looms large nonetheless. Embedded within it are the questions what have I learned here and has this time been worth it? Instinctively and emphatically I can say yes to these latter queries, but if this learning is not reflected in my work tomorrow then the value of it all must be reassessed.
Let me get to the point. I have spent six months learning - a great deal - about some of the prevailing theories in education and leadership. I have identified and examined deficit thinking in my own pedagogy. I have learned the power of leadership is rooted in a clear vision that empowers an entire community. I have learned about the instructional core and the need for coherence between the strategies of policymakers and school leaders and the work of teachers. And yet, when it is time to apply these lessons to my work will I be able to? Or will they remain theoretical, lost in the ether of academia.
These are not first day jitters. These are growing pains. I know the transition from student back to teacher may not go perfectly, but this work, like all others, is learned best through practice.
Wednesday, February 29, 2012
Tomorrow I will be back in the classroom and I'm feeling that familiar mix of excitement and nervousness. How will my lesson go? Will the students listen and will they learn?
Friday, February 24, 2012
Intercorrelations Raise Some Interesting Questions
In Understanding Educational Testing we looked at intercorrelations of different subject areas of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. The fact that there's a strong correlation between seemingly unrelated subjects - spelling and math computation for example - raises the question of what tests actually test. Is the correlation resulting from out of classroom factors? Or does it point to overall school/classroom/teacher quality?
There's a Need to Expand Our Definition of Parent Engagement
We had some very interesting readings in Professor Mapp's class this week. Overall they pushed me to think of different ways to define parent engagement. Are parents who cannot attend parent-teacher conferences or help with homework, but instill a hard work ethic in their kids participating in schooling? Somewhat related, another reading prompted me to ask how can schools tap into families' "funds of knowledge" to develop a more meaningful and engaging curriculum for their students.
It's Really Hard to Re-imagine School
In Building a Democratic School we worked on our mission statements and student schedules, and I found myself constrained at times by my actual experiences. I'm imagining a school with more freedom, more choice and more project-based learning than my students experienced, but I'm having trouble thinking about how this will look in practice.
Representing Content Isn't as Simple as I Thought
This week in Universal Design for Learning we looked at the first of UDL's three guiding principles: Provide multiple means of representation. The online "document' raised some really interesting ideas about the limitations of prints and the need to provide students with customizable representations of content. In some ways, this is not a new concept (providing visuals, manipulatives, etc), but technology offers a lot of new and exciting methods to do this. Now the challenge is expanding access to these resources.
Wednesday, February 22, 2012
"...It seems that almost everything matters except students' learning. The intercom goes on incessantly, classes are short or cut shorter to accommodate something else, fragmentation is accepted as the norm, quiet is more honored than talk, the world is shut out of or made only marginal to the curriculum, mechanisms of control are pervasive and occupy considerable time and attention, and expectations."
- "Engaging the Students" -- A Letter to Teachers, Vito Perrone
Saturday, February 18, 2012
Tests Aren't Always Designed for the Right Purpose...
Or used in the way they were designed. Often tests that are meant to diagnose student strengths and needs are being used for accountability. Some claim that their standardized tests can do both - assess students and teachers - but it's a lot more difficult than it sounds.
Shopping at the Mall Can Be a Lot Tougher Than the Corner Store
Class has a big impact on a family's economic, human, social and cultural capital which are instrumental in school selection and therefore school selection. It is not enough to give parents choice, when not all families have the same resources to inform their choices. Thomas Stewart and Patrick Wolf liken the skills needed in the setting of school choice to shopping at a mall instead of a convenience store. There are a lot more options, but it takes a lot of information to best take advantage of them: "Our central argument is a play on the biblical adage that from those to whom much is given, much is expected. In the field of parental school choice, to those from whom much is expected, much needs to be given."
There's a Delicate Balance Between Choice and Structure
In Building a Democratic School we were asked to design a sample student schedule. This was a good way to think about our priorities for teachers and students, and how to establish a schedule that supports those priorities. A lot of us talked about the desire to give students as much freedom and choice in their learning as possible. But a conversation with students from Boston Arts Academy also brought up students' need for a certain level of structure that in fact enables freedom at the same time.
It's Time to Think About Disability in Terms of Variability
Advances in neuroscience are changing our understanding of the way different students learn. This has exciting implications for students we previously thought were out of reach for conventional classrooms, like students with autism. We still have a long ways to go toward understanding these differences and how to capitalize them for learning, but for now it's a step towards shifting our ideas of these students from disabled to differently abled.
Wednesday, February 15, 2012
Tuesday, February 14, 2012
The theme of this week in UDL is "From Disability to Variability". It's a powerful shift of perception that's so necessary in our society and within our classrooms. Our syllabus asked us to watch this video by a girl with autism who summarizes this view well when she says, "We have special talents." Of course it requires a different outlook and approach to teaching if we want to really optimize the variable talents in our classrooms.
Friday, February 10, 2012
Making Meaningful Inferences About Test Data is Hard
This quote from the August 16, 2003 edition of the Palm Springs Desert Sun which Dr. Koretz presented to class on Monday illustrates what is common (and wrong) in the way test scores are interpreted:
Coachella Valley Unified School District posted the highest overall percentage gain in the state, with a 33 percent jump in English language arts scores over the past year and a 62 percent increase since 2001.It's a lot tougher to make valid inferences from test scores than we realize, and it usually involves looking deeper at data by examining scale scores and standard deviations in order to make valid comparisons.
"Ghosts" Need to be Interrogated
Having talked about the presence of "ghosts" at parent-teacher conferences and other meetings, I want to add the importance of interrogating those ghosts as teachers. That is, we need to examine the own experiences and memories we bring to our interactions with students and their parents as well those brought my parents. Ideally this gets us to a place of better understanding and thus, better communication.
There Are a Lot of Ways to Think About a Democratic Classroom
The video I watched of a Central Park East Elementary classroom was an interesting jumping off point for me as I read about different approaches to pedagogy in the classroom. Freire's work in rural Brazil exploring literacy and the meaning of culture was especially fascinating and made me think about applications to a classroom in the Bronx (or Brooklyn, Chicago, Baton Rouge...). All of the readings also challenged me to think about the extent I could or could not create a democratic classroom within a more traditional public school setting. This led to an interesting discussion with members of a panel on Thursday about the workshop model that could be a post unto itself...
Human Beings Weren't Born to Read
It's a rather obvious statement when you think about how recently print came along in in relation to human existence. That said, it's a profound idea when you think about our expectations for every child to be able to read at a certain level by a certain age. Furthermore, it's an idea that says a lot about the powerful plasticity of our brains in general to adapt and reorganize to develop completely new skills. Put simply: "We are, it would seem from the start, genetically poised for breakthroughs."
- Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Maryanne Wolf, 2007
Thursday, February 9, 2012
Last night in my class on community and family engagement we discussed the "ghosts" that attend parent-teacher conferences. The idea, which comes from Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot's The Essential Conversation, describes the way that parents and teachers bring their own prior experiences and traumas into their interactions.
One story that struck me was about an African-American father who grew up in Detroit, Michigan, but whose son now attends an affluent private school in Seattle. Paul, the father, shares his experience of the humiliation and anger he felt in the sixth-grade when his teacher told his parents he was at a fourth-grade level in math, even though this was not true. He eventually has a chance to show off his skills, and when his teacher reacts with surprise, saying, "Paul has never, ever done these problems before in this classroom," his father replied, "Well, you never challenged him." As he recounts this story, Paul realizes the way it has affected his relationship with his son's teacher, who he feels also doesn't push him hard enough in math.
This story was powerful in its own right, but it reminded me of an experience in my second year of teaching. I was rarely challenged during parent-teacher conferences, but in one case, my student's aunt was very upset about the reading responses I was asking her niece to complete. She didn't feel like the one paragraph summaries her niece was doing were at a high enough level. She showed me the reading response worksheet her own daughter did as evidence.
While I felt defensive in general, and also believed that one paragraph summaries were more authentic and rigorous than answering questions on a worksheet, I realize I was missing a major part of the interaction. How much of this aunt's frustration came from a place of her own experiences in school? Who were her teachers and did they push her enough? In what ways was I letting her niece slip by with subpar work, and repeating the injustice done to her upon the next generation?
In this context, the frustration and passion she communicated were more than understandable, they were restrained. Parent-teacher interactions are challenging for so many reasons. All human relationships come with challenges of communication and perspective. When you recognize the "ghosts" of teachers and parents, you start to see there's a whole new level of complexity right below the surface.
Wednesday, February 8, 2012
Not long ago I was reading a blog post by a New York City teacher. He intended to show the many challenges students in high-poverty schools face by writing a post from the perspective of one of these students. Unfortunately, the result was a caricature. The imaginary student's home life was an amalgamation of some of the worst stereotypes about children living in the Bronx.
Before coming to Harvard I hadn't learned the language to describe this type of thinking, why it bothers me or the ways in which I perpetuated it my own classroom. However, if there is only one lesson I take away from my short time here, it will be identifying and responding to deficit-based thinking.
The idea that children, schools and communities affected by poverty are little more than a collection of ills and deficiencies is pervasive in education today. The teacher blogger from the Bronx sees his students this way, and sadly he's not alone.
I think about my own time in the classroom. In particular, I think of a student I nicknamed The Scowler. Last year The Scowler was one of my most challenging students, but how much of this was because of my deficit-based approach? He didn't have reading comprehension skills. He didn't have basic numeracy skills. He didn't have a strong work ethic. He didn't have strong self-esteem. In my mind, The Scowler was a combination of weaknesses.
But in reality, this boy was much more than that. He was an incredibly sweet, kind and sensitive kid who cared about other students' feelings. He grew a lot socially from an extremely introverted boy who refused to answer yes or no questions to someone willing to share his ideas, even in math his most terrifying subject. He loved our field trips to museums and he loved food. How might I have reached The Scowler more effectively if I had taken a strength-based approach to teaching, and focused on this latter list of his characteristics rather than the former?
I don't think all educators use deficit-thinking in their classrooms, but I think it's a easy trap to fall into when you're working in an neighborhood affected by poverty. Whether it's the way we view the students, or very often their parents, many educators can't see past what they see missing to see what's there. The result is a perspective that undermines the dignity of students and their families. At the same time this view amplifies feelings of isolation and anxiety, because it makes the work of teaching that much more insurmountable.
In my original view of The Scowler, I felt frustrated and overwhelmed. Had I looked at his strengths I would have seen him as an invaluable partner. Imagine the multiplying effect of seeing every student and family in this way?
There are a lot of ways deficit-based thinking affects our overall educational ecosystem. But that isn't to say teachers and schools cannot control our own view of our students, their families and their communities. Rather than being blinded by inadequacies that weaken our classrooms, we can see the power they have to make our work stronger.
Monday, February 6, 2012
For Building a Democratic School the syllabus asks us to watch this documentary about Central Park East Elementary, a progressive school founded by Deborah Meier. At the time the documentary was shot, the school served a diverse group of students, including kids from East Harlem. One mother, a teacher at a traditional school, comments, "A lot of people are afraid that oppressed kids need discipline and a traditional classroom, and I think that's bull."
Deborah Meier - We All Know Why We're Here from Gary Stager on Vimeo.
Friday, February 3, 2012
Setting Standards Isn't So Different From Making Sausage
According to Dan Koretz, you probably won't feel very good about how it's done. It's rarely a good sign when a process is defended as arbitrary, but not capricious. We learned about a number of different methods districts and states use to set performance standards, and disturbingly, they all produce very different results.
There's a Lot of Research to Support Community-Family Engagement
It seems very easy schools, organizations and leaders to pay lip service to the importance of community and family engagement. It seems equally easy for others to dismiss these as "touchy-feely" ideas with little practical application, but to do so is to ignore a growing body of research - qualitative and quantitative - that shows that improving parental involvement has real effects on student learning. In fact, those dedicated to improving schools should recognize that doing so requires parental involvement.
Another Way to Think About 'Vision' is a 'Unifying Framework'
"The 'new initiative every year' model doesn't work. Teachers need to be involved in articulating the framework, and a school must be willing to commit to the implementation of the framework over the long haul. Finally, I would argue that schools without a unifying framework still have an unspoken one - a defacto assumption of what this school is about.... To honestly answer the question 'What does your school stand for?' takes a willingness to ask again and again how your practices are improving, what students know and can do, and how day to day realities in the classroom match the ideals you have articulated." - The Hardest Questions Aren't on the Test, Linda Nathan, 2009
There's a Lot Education Can Learn from Neuroscience
In some ways, neuroscience just supports a lot of practices that are already popular. Differentiation is basically another way of thinking about Universal Design for Learning. At the same time, I feel like neuroscience adds another layer to this type of instruction by providing a scientific rationale for providing multiple representations of content, multiple ways for students to express ideas and multiple ways to engage. This quote from Teaching Every Child in the Digital Age, by David Rose and Anne Meyer explaining the way strategic processes are distributed is a good example:
Different layers of an action are added on at the same time and mutually influence one another. For this reason, skill instruction is often more effective when the various components of the process are learned simultaneously rather than one at a time (Gopher, 1996). Thus, a tennis instructor may model the whole serve and encourage the learner to try it out, only analyzing individual steps (ball toss, backswing, step forward, swing, and follow-through) when particular aspects must be corrected. Likewise, each subcomponent of a task like writing an essay makes the most sense to our students if it is taught in the context of the whole task.
Thursday, February 2, 2012
There's something very special about being a student again after being in the classroom, in a school of education, no less. It gives you a lot of time to think about "good teaching" in its many forms. I'm always impressed by the professors who manage to lead student-centered learning when lectures have clearly been the dominant norm. Last night, in a lecture hall with 80-something students, the class was buzzing as we worked over slogans and campaign ideas that would promote the power parent engagement at all ages.
I've also recently noticed the way a couple of professors have brought their own narratives into their teaching. This is a technique I never really thought about consciously until it was advocated and modeled by Sarah Lawrence Lightfoot last semester. Last night I admired the way my professor Karen Mapp brought her own stories into the discussion a number of times. She didn't do it in a way to make the class about her, but as vivid illustrations of the content, in this case the power of family involvement in shaping student success.
Again today, I read a book by another professor, Linda Nathan, and was equally impressed by her candor and ownership of a past mistake. As she talked about a missed opportunity to address homophobia in her school, it was clear she felt passionately about this issue, and felt regret over her failure.
My professors' use of student-centered learning and their own narratives have provided inspiring models for my own teaching. My experiences at HGSE thus far also prompted a simple and exciting revelation in the middle of last night's class: I haven't had this much fun learning since I was in third grade. While I'm sad it will be over so quickly, I am more excited to be a part of this learning community while I can.