Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Summer Reading

My local school district no longer has a summer reading list.  While I think it's a shame, it's just as well since they hadn't updated the reading list for at least 20 years AND the teachers never discussed the assignments once school was back in session.

When my daughter was going into 11th grade she had to read The Scarlet Letter.  She hated the book!  As it turns out, so did her teacher.  He assigned the book during the summer because he didn't want to teach it.  This is very unfortunate.  The reason I loved this book was because my teacher loved it.  We cannot underestimate the power of our opinion on our students.

When I was working in Independent Schools, students not only had to read over the summer, they had to enter the class with a full essay -- typed and double-spaced, complete with quotes -- about the book.  Students were expected to enter the class prepared to discuss the book.

Both scenarios seem to be on opposite ends of the spectrum.

Summer reading should be enjoyable, but it should also be meaningful.

I just applied to a job at Bronx High School for Science.  Their summer reading requires students to keep a list of vocabulary words.  Since vocabulary development is valuable in getting students college ready, this seems like a pretty good assignment.  Further, all the students are reading the same book so they'll enter with a discussion starting point.

No doubt students need to do more reading, but if the assignment is not valued or too boring, none will get done.  As teachers, we need to consider what our students can do while thinking about how to get them to willingly do the work.  Assign good, contemporary books that are page turners and not too long.  That way, even reluctant readers may give it a shot.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Young Teachers

It seems to me that schools want to hire young teachers and disregard more experienced teachers.

I would like to know exactly why.

Is it because young teachers are cheaper?  If so, I would work for a first year teacher's salary.

Is it because young teachers don't question authority?  If so, perhaps that's a reason some schools still struggle.  It takes a team of educators to teach a child.  If only one is allowed to apply his ideas, some children will be left behind.

Is it because young teachers relate to students better?  If so, ask your colleagues who their favorite teacher was.  I would be it was an older teacher, not a young one.

One question I never get asked on interviews is, "How well do you connect to students?"  This despite research indicating that students in poorly performing schools want teachers who care.

Any teacher can care (or not).  Young teachers do not have the market on that.  And, one day, young teachers won't be young anymore.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Analytical Thinking

This week students are taking the ELA tests.  It's grueling for them and stressful for the teachers.  As I was proctoring the exams, I began to consider what, exactly, could help these students.

Middle school, before the state tests became an annual event, is full of difficulties.  Students have body changes, their hormones pull them off center, their friendships can undergo change as a result of these changes thereby creating self-doubt and the need to be popular.  None of those things are part of what we test or measure for intelligence.  Adding to the stress of change, middle school is where students are asked to move from rote thinking to critical, analytical reasoning.  Sadly, some students, despite all the changes they are experiencing, are simply not ready to do the analytical thinking.

What's a teacher to do?

One of the lessons I teach helps students -- even those who are not quite developmentally ready to do analytical thinking -- think beyond what is in front of them.

Middle school students enjoy children's books.  When a teacher reads one to them, they sit with rapt attention eager to hear more or to relive a favorite.  I like to bring that feeling into the room.  My favorite book to teach to middle school students is Dr. Seuss' The Lorax.  I read the story to students and ask just two questions:  What is the story about?
                                             What does the story mean?
Even my less confident students can answer both questions.  The lesson for me is that, given the correct lesson brought in at the correct level, all students can do the analytical thinking when presented with material they can easily comprehend.  It has been my experience that when students see what analytical thinking is, they can apply those lessons beyond children's books.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Philosophy of Education

I have been asked a couple of times what my philosophy of education is.  It would be so easy if I subscribed to one pure philosophy, but, like learning styles, there is not one belief to which I could wholeheartedly adhere.

My philosophy is this:

All students have the ability to learn.  Regardless of learning style or ability, students have talents.  While some talents do not necessarily translate to success in school, all students can do something well. If the student knows what talent he possesses, I believe the teacher should try to work with that talent.  For example, if I have a student who is a pianist and I am teaching To Kill a Mockingbird, I could research famous pianists of the times (both when the book was written and when the book took place) and play that music at the beginning of class.  While it doesn't help the student learn the themes of the book or offer lessons on characterization, it does make an effort to help a student become interested.

Teachers need to care.  Students want someone who genuinely cares about them.  Teachers should not be wooden people in the lives of their students.  We are human.  We make mistakes.  We tell stories.  We mean well.  All of that makes up a good teacher.  I like to tell stories.  While my stories are related to the lesson I am teaching, I use them to get students interested.  By telling stories of my life, I am modeling how students can relate their life events to the material at hand.  So, even if I'm teaching sentence diagrams, I can get kids interested by telling how I had trouble with them when I was in 8th grade.  And then tell them how when I was a first year teacher a parent suggested I teach sentence diagrams to her son to help him learn grammar.  I was scared, but I tried it and my student learned grammar.  I also show students I care when I use them as examples in the sentences I write for diagramming.

Students do not need to know a lesson's objective; students need to know how the lesson will apply to their lives.  While my students have never celebrated lessons on grammar, I have been able to show them how the building blocks of language will serve them in any avenue of life.  We need to communicate clearly to excel.  Grammar is but a step on that path.

Teachers need to do their part.  They need to come to class prepared and provide feedback in a reasonable period of time.  Students should not have to wait a month to get a graded essay back.  Students should know immediately if they are on track or not.  I believe teachers need to look at the accuracy of homework -- even if we do not grade it -- to ascertain if the material is being learned.  If students are having difficulty, the teacher should make him or herself available to the students.

Students need to do their part.  I will work in an environment where students are not required to do homework; however, they must work in the classroom.  Becoming a better reader takes practice.  Becoming a better writer requires practice.  Learning and mastering skills requires work.

Every project we assign should have a piece that requires reflection.  All students should be taught how to reflect on the work they do.  All teachers should have the opportunity to reflect on the work they do.

Good teachers are willing learners.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Three Rs

Back in the day middle school students pretty much studied the three Rs -- reading, writing and arithmetic.

I think maybe we need to get back to that if we are to grow.

As a middle school English teacher, the biggest issue for 7th and 8th grade writers is their ability or inability to do the analytical thinking necessary to do a good piece of writing.  For the most part, this dividing line is a result of maturity in thinking, not a deficit in intelligence.  By extension I think the same reasoning can be applied to all areas of learning in the early grades.

When my fourteen year old son was three, he attended a private school where he learned Spanish and French.  While he did not study the grammatical structures of the languages, he was exposed to the sound of the language.  The kids sang songs and could label things.  Now that he is in 8th grade, my son has a much stronger talent in language than his sister who did not have the exposure he had.  Exposing kids to more difficult features of learning is a good idea.  Expecting them to understand the fine nuances of such learning seems over reaching.

I would like school reform to focus on those things that make kids prepared.  They need a solid understanding of reading and writing and arithmetic before they can be expected to master the more difficult tasks.  When students reach high school with a reading level below 6th grade, we are simply ensuring their failure.  Let's give kids a chance.  Keep learning at their level BEFORE we set them on the high school track.

Let kids read for enjoyment.

Let kids write some silly things -- poetry, letters and stories.

Let kids solidly understand their math facts so math can be fun when they arrive at the more analytical maths.

Give kids a chance.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Abolish homework?

In the December 17, 2012 New Yorker, Louis Menand writes about France's President having the power to abolish homework.

As a parent of a student who hates homework, I find it trying to stay on top of it for my son.  As a teacher who tried to teach literature in a class where no one did homework, I found it trying to get anything done.

Where is the happy middle?

In Finland, "students there are assigned virtually no homework" and yet the country has the most successful educational system.  South Korea, on the other hand, has the second most successful educational system yet it piles on the homework and their students are not happy.  What can we learn from Finland????

With more excuses given for why students cannot do homework, I wonder why we don't investigate the methods of instruction used in Finland so our students can excel.

I am troubled that we seek methods of grading that allow students to pass a course without mastering the material.  For example, grades are given (or not) for signed quizzes and tests.  This is going on in my son's math class and I worry about his future.  While I recognize that my son is not easy to teach, he is a test subject on why our educational system is having difficulty.  He is a kid who doesn't ask questions, doesn't do homework or classwork, yet sits on the edge of passing.  I think we can all agree that he is an at-risk student.  However, since he doesn't meet the at-risk demographic, no real attention is given to his standing.

I would like to see data on why students are not doing well is subjects.  Is it the test?  Is it missing homework?  Is it apathy?  Is it a language barrier?  Then, once this real information is gathered, I would like to see what can be done to help them.  It's true that the state assessments have determined that my son cannot read informational text.  I am concerned as both a parent and educator in why.

So, I come back to the idea of homework.  My husband and I have requested that our son's teachers sign his planner (a pain, I know) so that we can stay on top of him and ensure that he does his work.  It has been our experience that the homework given would help him learn.  In fact, when he does the assigned work, his grades on tests improve.  There -- a solid connection.  However, that is what works for one student.  He is a model for one type of child.  What are we doing for those who do not improve even when they do the work?  That's the data that we need to assess.

Monday, March 11, 2013


I had the pleasure of attending a Saturday Seminar hosted by the Hudson Valley Writing Project.  The topic was called Engaging Student Voices Through Digital Learning.  It was wonderful and made me think of connecting to schools.

My daughter believes that when teachers attend any sort of professional development, they should have to present their findings to the school/department and then show how what was presented is being applied to the classroom.  This is a great idea.  Teachers need validation for the work they do.  Often when teachers are given a chance to sit and chat about what they are doing, they can benefit from the insights of their co-workers.  In this environment, even the most hesitant teacher can be urged to try something new.

So, what will I apply?

Edmodo - I learned about this in Clark County but didn't use it.  The presenter on Saturday showed some great applications.  The bottom line: I will reconsider this when I get back in the classroom.  As a teacher I don't need to be at my classroom computer to upload information.  It's also set up like a facebook page so students can communicate with my supervision (thus inappropriate comments can be nipped in the bud).
Digital Essays - this is something I would like to look into.  It seems that the teacher provides pictures for the students, then the students use those pictures in various ways.  Perhaps the teacher wants to ask students to include some vocabulary with the pictures.  There is much to use here, it's just a matter of setting the lesson up correctly.

The bottom line?  Technology is a great tool to get kids more connected to learning.  However, if schools want teachers to make use of the technology, it would be best to provide support and dialog to enhance the lessons for all.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Do Teachers Still Read?

I had a wonderful conversation with an English teacher for whom I sub.  He and I chatted about what is good reading -- for us, for middle school students, for teachers.  Oddly enough, when the conversation was coming to an end, he said, "It's so good to talk to another teacher who reads."

Good point.

Last year when I was in Clark County, I was friends with only four people at the school where I taught.  Three of them were English teachers.  Imagine my surprise when I asked what anyone had read during break (I cannot remember if it was Christmas or spring), the answer was, "Who has time for reading?"
Really?  I feel confused.  I thought English teachers LOVED books.  I do.  I enjoy reading best sellers, classics and YA books.  I enjoy participating in booktalks.  Am I a dinosaur?

In this age of standardized testing and closing achievement gaps, shouldn't the field be looking for teachers who do read?  Student reading scores cannot improve if they are not reading.  In this age of technology, students seem to disregard reading for more immediate pursuits -- gaming and texting.   If teachers are not reading, how can we get our students to read?

Maybe it's time to make reading a part of the interview process.  Value the dinosaur.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Standardized Testing

I was recently asked how I felt about standardized testing.  It's a loaded question.

As a college graduate amid the fury of the Nation at Risk report, I recognize that testing is important.  We are not doing the job if students graduate from school unable to read and write.  That's the easy part.  What has happened over the years to put us where we are today?

As a young teacher, there was never any discussion about how anyone would measure my performance.  Every year my principal observed my teaching, provided feedback, gave a full evaluation based on the observations made during the year.  We discussed what we saw.  It was a partnership.  I have no doubt that my students were growing as learners.  (I know for a fact that two of those students became writers as a result of the impact I had on them.) Yet I have no proof.

Standardized testing is the proof.

I have nothing against the testing itself.  I believe teachers should be held accountable for their work.  However, I do not like the climate standardized testing has created.  Too many teachers seem to be constrained by fears that a different lesson may not have a positive impact on learning.  I see this as a problem for students.  They do not get the quality lessons some teachers would like to do because the teachers are feeling too pressed.  This is especially noticeable in the most at-risk schools.

Consider the difference between a private school and a public school.  In the private schools where I taught, standardized testing was given to measure how the students were performing.  Students did not feel stress during testing days.  Teachers did not feel stressed either.  When the results came in, the faculty listened to the results en masse and broke up to decide how to address the gaps.  We were still given freedom to teach the material we liked and provide lessons that met the needs of our students.  In the public schools, it was different.  The teachers were told that the students did not measure up and we were told to make change.  Sadly, in the places where I taught, we did not work as a whole department to address how to gain ground.

I still believe that standardized testing is okay.  However, as a profession we need to find a better way to use the information provided by such testing so that growth is celebrated and stagnation is addressed in a professional manner.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Common Core

I read Diane Ravitch's blog this morning about how she is not supporting the Common Core Learning Standards.  While she makes a case for her point, my concern is that the bottom line is she does not believe that the adoption of these standards will improve student achievement on tests.

My alarm bells started sounding.

As a woman who lives in a federally impacted area (this community educates the children of military families), I know the importance of having some common thread of education.  These children move often all over the country.  It's helpful for them to know that the time they spent in one place does not automatically place them ahead or behind their peers in another school.  In New York State, we had weird math -- Math A and Math B -- a blending of algebra, geometry and trigonometry.  As difficult as it was for the natives, the students who came new to the district had no idea what was being taught.  So, I did see the value of a common core standard.

I also am a 1984 college graduate.  Much of the discussion as I was graduating and after dealt with the number of students who were graduating from high school unable to read.  A Nation at Risk had big impact.

So, why the alarm bells?

First, if we are to shape the future of education based solely on test performance, we are selling ourselves and our children short.  I firmly believe that it is the responsibility of the school to teach reading.  We should not pass along those who cannot do.  However, we need to push students further.  I hope that the Common Core Standards will do that.

Second, Ravitch argues that those learners who struggle most (ELL and special ed., for example) do not do well on the test and will be hurt by the standards.  I fear she may be right, but I also think we need to find a way to reach those students and improve our ability to help them learn.  It's my opinion that as long as students are showing improvement, we are doing our jobs.  Some teachers ARE more effective than others, but we need to recognize that sometimes it's the baby steps that are taken that have the biggest impact.  In some respects Ravitch's argument is like tossing chemotherapy because it doesn't work for all patients.

In fact, the only argument that Ravitch makes that I agree with fully is the change in percentage of fiction to informational text that is read.  If students do not have the opportunity to read the ficitonal classics in high school, where will they read them?  English teachers value all types of written works, but fiction is a place to explore.  Removing that makes the English class more like a history class.  I do not appreciate being told what percentage of my curriculum should deal with non-fiction; however, the truth is that students are having difficulty fully comprehending the text.  To meet the needs of those students, we do what we must.