Month: April 2014

Pushing Students

As a teacher, I have always fought with myself about how hard to push my students in the classes I teach. In a perfect world (which doesn’t, has never, will never exist) students would come to school and say, “Make me learn! I love growing academically! Oh, please, I want to know more!” Instead, we may have a handful of students who have a natural inclination towards our subject, most who want a good grade pay attention and do their work, and the rest… well… mehhh, they’ve got better things to do with their time. While at different percentages, this applies to all levels of classes, both on-level and AP/IB.

My first few years I didn’t push enough. I wanted to make students want to learn on their own; so I was fun, I was very creative with my lessons to increase engagement, and I erred on the side of being too easy rather than too hard. While I now recognize the flaws of this approach, it wasn’t without many victories.

I did help students love English when they didn’t before. Students did see the study of English as more than grammar worksheets, book reports, and essays. I made them think more deeply about literature than they had ever before. I loved teaching and the students liked learning… for the most part.

After a few years of this method, I noticed that many students were just playing the game. They were acting the part of the engaged student, but weren’t truly engaged. And because I was so nice and fun, they just smiled and went along with it. My students worked hard enough to get the grade they wanted, but were rarely out of their comfort zone and didn’t grow nearly as much as they could have.

Then I made a big mistake. I became the other kind of teacher. I made class about work and I put all the responsibility on them. “You want a good grade,” I would tell them, “then you’re going to have to work for it and ask for help yourselves.” So I gave them work. And if they didn’t take ownership of their education and seek me out for help, they would drown. I told myself I was fine with this set-up and went to sleep at night with the mantra of: “They need you to push them. If they don’t like your class, well, then, tough. They don’t have to like it, they just have to learn.”

You’ll never guess what happened… I hated teaching. The students hated my class. Learning was even more superficial than before. More students cheated. I’ll stop there, but almost everything that was beneficial about my class stopped and I was left with pain and misery. What could I do? I wanted to go back to the way things were before, but I wanted them to learn more. What I was doing currently, however, was far worse. I needed a different plan.

What I do now is the best mixture of both. Class is fun again; I make it engaging, joke around with the students, recognize when they’ve been working their tails off and give them a break, and seek them out when they need support. However, what I expect them to do, how well I expect them to perform, and how analytical I expect them to be is through the roof. I let them know from the beginning just how hard they’re going to have to work, but balance that with how much support they are going to have from me to get them there.

At the beginning of the year, their jaws dropped when I described what they were going to be capable of by May; they didn’t believe me. But when I have them reflect back on the year, they are proud of themselves. I’m proud of them too.


Transformation (part three)

Overall, on our visits, we saw education that was changing in form, but not necessarily in function. I don’t mean that we saw students sitting in rows listening to lectures. Rather, more emphasis is placed on the programs offered to students instead of the way students are led in their education. We saw many different schools within schools, but not much that had to do with specific instructional strategies.

It is easy to see a culinary, automotive, medical, or engineering program. It looks good. It’s specific. You can point to it and say, “Look, we’re doing things differently.” It’s harder to showcase individual student learning and achievement through different forms of instruction in a 45 minute tour. Therefore, districts lean toward what looks flashy, what will give them the most bang for their buck. We want change to be seamless, but it isn’t. There are always gaps, and we think the gaps are a sign of weakness and mistakes so we hide them behind our strengths. However, this is a false reality we create and the effort to maintain the facade of being perfect detracts from actual improvement.

I don’t mean to imply that students don’t learn or grow in these programs, but I wanted to see the nitty gritty of what they do, not just the generalities. I wanted to see how students are pushed to be independent thinkers who want to learn intrinsically. I didn’t want to see what the program has them do, but what they do in the program.

I was looking forward to seeing what transformation looks like in an English, math, science, history… classroom. All we saw was how whole schools were changing their structure and focus. I feel that this is extremely limiting to our students. It tells them that it is what they can do, not their ability to think, that’s their most valuable asset.

Transformation (part two)

School #2

At the second school we visited, unlike the first school where we wandered around the school on our own, we were lead around by the principal to various classrooms. This made me feel a bit uncomfortable. The tour had a feeling of showiness; it felt like we were seeing just what she wanted us to see and nothing else. There were a few other things that worried me as well.

1) One of the things the principal was most proud of were the bulletin boards outside of the classrooms. They had examples of student work with lesson design information. I kept asking myself, “what student benefit this could have?” One of the other teachers in my group commented that he liked the idea of showcasing student work. I asked him about the effects on students for having their rubrics (including scores) displayed in public for the whole school to see. I asked him about the pressure put on students who’s work was displayed and what the learning focus might be of students looking at old, finished units? After our conversation, the bulletin boards didn’t have the same luster to him.

2) As we were moving through the hallways, the principal paused for a moment at an open classroom and said, “Look, we also use technology” as she pointed at students using laptops. There was no explanation of how they were using technology, or how it was transformational, or how it aided their learning, or what struggles they had with it…just, ‘look, technology.’ When asked about various specifics about their implementation of various transformational strategies, the principal would look either to the AP (who would give the same searching look back to her) or the teacher who would scramble to come up with an answer. There seemed to be no top down direction. The administrators knew the lingo to use, but failed to understand the why or how.

3) One of the things that worried me the most was the way that we would burst into classrooms. It didn’t seem to matter to the principal that the teachers were busy working with students. She would just ask them to stop everything to talk to us. In one instance, we walked into a Spanish classroom and the teacher was asked to describe not what he was doing with his Spanish class, but instead, what his business class was doing. I wanted to apologize to the teacher and students for taking them away from their learning, but it looked to me, unfortunately, like they were used to it.

4) At the end of the day, during our debrief, the principal stayed in the room reminding us of all the wonderful things we had seen. What was this? Was she showing us innovative, transformative ideas for education? Or was she trying to show us how awesome her school was?

I wanted to hear not only the school’s triumphs, but also their struggles. If I was to implement some of the strategies they showcased, it would be beneficial to learn from their mistakes. Transformation should be messy. We need to have an open conversation with one another if we are to improve education; if we’re too concerned about how we look to others, we can’t put our effort in the right place and truly transform education.


What does transformation look like in education?
That’s what I was looking for when I toured two local high schools today. I will present my thoughts about these schools and how they’ve transformed learning in a multi-part series over the next few days.

School #1

A career prep school where students traveled from their main campuses to be trained for service in various industries.

I was very impressed by the learning environment created by this school for its career tech students. The schools had great learning areas for their medical training classes. The classroom was joined to its own computer lab, which was joined to a practical lab. Everything at this school was thought of from a student’s perspective; everything flowed. Student work areas were practical, useful, and aesthetically pleasing. Each content area was interconnected and had a very professional feel to it. If students are expected to act professionally and prepare for a profession right after high school, then their training needs to be set up in the same way. It was.

I feel strongly that not all students should or need to go to college. There is a big push for students to attend college because it is seen as the only way to make a “good” living, but this sends the wrong message to students. You can be an educated person and not spend four years at a university. I don’t mean to say “we need workers in addition to academics,” but instead, we need to value everyone, not just for what they can add to the workforce, but who they are as human beings. This school was a great example of how to meet the needs of the students and provide them with an education that works for them.

But then I found out that only about 20-25% of students who are enrolled in these courses actually work in the industry they receive training in. Only 25%? One of the automotive teachers said he was happy with that figure because everyone should know how to work on cars. As he said it, “It would be good for a lawyer to know how to fix his car.”

I couldn’t agree with him more. I worked at UPS in the automotive area while I was going to school, and I am very grateful for everything I learned while there. I can work on my own brakes, change belts, change my oil, change my spark plugs, and have a much better working knowledge of how cars work than I did prior to working there. But these students are spending two and a half hours of their educational day learning the intricacies of automobile technology. There’s knowing how to maintain a car, and then there’s knowing how to rebuild an engine. In New York, where I grew up, all students (male and female) had to take Home Economics and some kind of technology (wood shop, automobile repair, metal working…). That rounded out my education and I still use what I learned in those classes today. However, I didn’t put in the same amount of time that these student do. I don’t see this as wasted time, but time that could be allocated more effectively.

Some of my colleagues who were touring with me commented that it was amazing to see students being prepared for their futures, that this school was producing adults ready for the workforce right out of high school. Do we want to produce a workforce? Or do we want to produce thinkers? At the risk of sounding overly optimistic (like Walt Whitman), I want my mechanic to be a philosopher in his own right, I want my plumber to see poetry in his work, and I want my nurse to know the history of Ancient Greece and early medicine. If all we do is prepare students to be workers, then we only value them for what they can accomplish, not for who they are and what they think and believe.

Standardized Testing

Note: I teach high achieving students in a high achieving school district. What I’m about to talk about differs from teachers who struggle to get their kids to pass state standards tests. Their struggles are important and mustn’t be marginalized. This is simply meant to show another perspective.

What a perfect time to discuss the dreaded standardized test. My sophomores just spent five straight hours taking their reading and writing STARR/EOC. But actually, I don’t want to discuss that. So much has been said already about the CCSS that I feel anything I say about it will just be a regurgitation of a regurgitation of a regurgitation. Instead, I’d like to take on the grandaddy of them all; the S. A. T.

While I don’t like the time taken away from honest learning in my class for state tests, what I see as a much bigger problem is the SAT. Since it’s roots can be traced back to 1926* and has a larger impact on students’ future goals, it hinders true student achievement more than the CCSS and any test that comes along.

In theory, I have no problem with standardized testing. You want to give a test to see what level students are working at? OK, that’s fair. In it’s early years, the SAT was a test used to see which university a student would succeed in, be the best fit for, or which students were deserving of scholarship money. I have little issue with this.

But the problem with testing is that it influences student and teacher behavior. The pressure is to do well, not to show what you can do. Now everything in academia is a competition; a game to be won. A student’s goal in school is to do well on the test that will get them where they want to be, not where they belong. They prepare for the test, not for the college. Many students see high school simply as a stepping stone to the next level, not an opportunity to learn and grow.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked by parents at open house what we do in class to prepare them for the SAT. I want to scream, “We read and write and think and question and discuss and learn!” But they want to know about pure test prep. Do we study vocabulary? Do we look at testing strategies? Do we practice SAT writing? Parents spend thousands of dollars putting their kids through torturous prep classes where they memorize long lists of vocabulary words, learn the best way to narrow down the answer choices, and what topic to use on their essay.

I say that if we want our students to have a higher vocabulary, let’s have them read more. If we want them to narrow down answer choices, let’s teach them critical thinking. And if we want them to be more sophisticated in their essays, let’s have them read more, think more critically, and write more. However, all of this takes more time and effort than the quick fixes and splinter skills that prep courses offer. Students and parents want to look good for universities, but care less about the real education they need in order to do well once they get there.

The only job I’ve every been let go from was a SAT prep company. After five days of kill and drill, I began to actually work with students, not just to improve testing skills, but intellectual skills. I wasn’t asked to come back and I couldn’t have been happier. I taught some of those students from the test prep business a few years later. They not only remembered me, but thanked me for running the class differently, making it more engaging, and actually teaching them. That wasn’t what the company wanted though.

So, what’s the end result of all this test prep?

The problem is that we have students who treat the rest of their education as test prep. Instead of getting a new group of students every year who are bright eyed and bushy tailed ready to learn, we get students who ask us if what we’re teaching is going to be on the test. They argue with teachers about taking points off, not because they want to improve and get better, but because they want the best GPA possible. Students use their short term memory (cramming) to prepare for assessments instead of knowing the material because they’re going to need it later. They do work for one class in the class before because they’re focused on the immediate, not the long term. They don’t see the value in learning to make them better people, they only want the highest number for their transcript.

Standardized testing has set a tone and created an atmosphere that is detrimental to true learning, making it difficult for teachers who strive against that culture. Colleges and universities need to value test scores less to support the learning high school teachers try to create.