Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Twitter in my school?

So I've been thinking lately...how can I become a better teacher while helping my colleagues to become better, progressive educators. (By the way, getting better in my mind is reflecting on and discussing your teaching techniques in order to understand different ideas and approaches in the classroom.) I have heard about staff discussions on Twitter using hash tags, for instance #SHSchat for Springfield High School staff. I'm wondering how to approach the issue with my principal. Should there be prompts for the first few chats? Should we have them weekly? Monthly? After staff meetings? What if it becomes a complaint session? If you have experience with this, please give me some direction. Can Twitter help our staff?

Friday, October 7, 2011

What to do

In a time of cuts and a slow economy, today’s students are almost completely devoid of contextual experiences for learning. I would posit that one of the top experiences students have in school, at least at my school, is testing. Students take more tests now than they ever have, while politicians, who claim that our education system is broken, think that the solution is more testing. There are very few situations in my classroom where I can relate content to testing. We all know that learning cannot happen in a vacuum, context must be provided in order for students to absorb, understand, and synthesize the information we provide every day. If the only context is a test, learning does not occur.

Field trips and money for experiments and other experiential activities has been cut in order for more funds to be devoted to testing and test prep. Field trips are not for fun or for teachers and students to have a day out of the classroom (though they do both). They are to provide a context for learning where students and teachers share a common experience and then are able to talk about that experience in the context of the content being taught.

Instead of these rich, positive experiences, we devote our time, money, and energy to standardized testing. I can’t help but think that there is some sort of lobby money involved in these decisions. The larger testing companies (Pearson, ETS, et al) now make LOADS of money on test creation, grading, and distribution. This money is then used to “persuade” politicians and people in positions of power to push for even more testing and test prep at a high financial cost to taxpayers, and intellectual cost to our country.

What can we, the “Joe Schmoes” of America do about it? How do we explain to the American public that a finite score on a standardized test is not the best way to measure the success or failure of their neighborhood score? After all, it IS the best way to measure learning, right?

We have to educate and inform the voting and nonvoting public alike about what is happening. It is our job to make the “Joe Schmoes” understand that standardized test scores were not what made their schools “Excellent” or “Failing” when they were in school, and it still is not. What truly matters is the human capital in the building. We are not leeches of tax dollars, free-loaders, or union puppets. We, in a big way, are some of the most important people in the country. We aren’t asking for more money, less work, or easier jobs. All we want is the freedom and autonomy and respect to do what it is we know best: TEACH CHILDREN.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

What are we fighting for?

With all the talk these days about collective bargaining and union rights, I figured I would weigh in with my thoughts. In my state, Ohio, we are in the middle of a battle over Senate Bill 5 which would take away teachers' rights to collectively bargain over things like sick leave, personal leave, class size, caseloads, and other things that directly effect student learning environments. It also would base teacher raises and job retention on their students' test scores, among some other brilliant ideas. This bill not only effects teachers, but all public sector workers.

Arguments for the bill
These come mostly from conservative, wealthy, private sector workers who claim that their tax dollars are paying for union wage increases. (I'm in a union, and, last I checked, I still pay taxes.) They also claim that a merit-based pay system is what all private sector workers are paid on and that we, as union workers, should grow up and join the real world.

Proponents of this bill also claim that the elimination of collective bargaining will somehow allow "bad teachers" to be fired and replaced with "good ones." This smacks of company speak to me. I would define "bad teacher" as someone who is unfair, insensitive, uneducated, narrow-minded, and aloof toward students and other faculty. Some of these descriptors are difficult to measure and even harder to fire someone for. The proponents of SB5 define "bad teacher" as someone who's students' test scores do not match a goal that has been set by politicians who think they know very much about education because they simply went to school.

I would then define "good teachers" as the people who exhibit the opposite of the aforementioned  adjectives, in addition, I would say that good teachers have an innate capability to read the faces of 30 or so children to know who gets it, who doesn't, and who got beat up by their parents the night before and should probably be left alone to sleep on that desk because he will probably relive the same nightmare tonight. (By the way, those children will probably not be performing well on the state standardized test, and will then have a negative effect on that teacher's pay next year. This really has nothing to do with good or bad teachers, but I digress.) SB5ers define "good teacher" as someone who has successfully landed in a classroom where students care enough to choose the right answer from a group of 4 on a multiple choice test.

Firing a teacher is not as simple as firing, for example, an office worker. If someone fires an office worker, they clean out their desk, their co-workers pick up the extra work for a few days until a replacement is hired, and life continues. If a teacher is fired, as many as 150 students are left with a substitute for a few days. When a new teacher is hired, that person must then work to build the relationships and trust of colleagues, students, and parents; a process that takes months, if not years. At any rate, we all know that firing anyone, whether a public or private employee is never as simple as Donald Trump makes it look.

Senate Bill 5 would allow for the teachers who cannot get their students to pass a test to be fired. Unfortunately, the complex working environment that is a classroom is incomparable to many of the environments that the people who want to eliminate collective bargaining rights work in. I see 90 students daily in my classroom. That means that I deal with 90 growing brains and bodies; 90 13-15 year-olds who come from as diverse a background as you can imagine. I have students who have both parents at home, both parents have jobs, and both parents are educated and are actively involved in their child's education. I also have students who have not talked to either parent in years, either because they are both dead, incarcerated, don't care, or a combination of these. These students have witnessed human beings injure and/or kill each other. They have a family of relatives with labels like "half" and "step" before their titles. They come to school every day in spite of these factors, because school is the one place in the world they know they are safe, and where there are adults they can trust and look up to. As their teacher, I am responsible for all of their "success" on a test mandated by politicians who, for the most part, grew up in luxury, had a loving, supportive family, and have no clue how to identify with "the other half." I need them to understand the complex ideas laid out in the Declaration of Independence, and their consequences today, while also needing them to understand that they cannot socialize during class even if it is the only time they have to talk to peers all day. I need them to understand every human's inborn need for structure and rules even though they have grown up in a world of chaos and anarchy. How many of those in the private sector can say that the things they do on a daily basis have a direct effect on the attitude, mood, and well-being of 90 people?

And so you see
The legislation before the Ohio General Assembly is about so much more than collective bargaining and worker's rights. It is about understanding that my working environment is also my students' learning environment. Please understand that I'm not some union baby who is afraid I may lose my job because my union can't protect me after the passage of Ohio Senate Bill 5. I just want to be able to negotiate for the things I feel are necessary in my workplace/my students' learning place; something few people are familiar with today.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Is it the teacher or the test?

     I just listened to an interesting podcast from NPR which discussed the idea that American high schools are not preparing their students well enough for military service. Among some of the information stated is that students do not have the critical thinking and problem solving skills to score high enough on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), specifically the math and science portions. Other problems discussed included the lack of physical fitness in many American teens. These problems, along with criminal records, physical handicaps, and lack of a high school diploma keep an astounding 75%+ of Americans ineligible for military service. My question about all of this information is; is it the high schools that are failing or is it the test that is failing?
    I joined the military 10 years ago, as did two of my friends who graduated from the same high school. We didn't have any problem at all scoring well on the ASVAB. (Potential recruits need only a 31 to be eligible for basic military service, but need to score much higher to be eligible for other opportunities in the military. The ASVAB contains 99 questions.) To my knowledge, the aforementioned problem did not exist to the extent that it does now. Another thing that did not exist then: high-stakes standardized tests.
     Sure, we took standardized tests, ACT, SAT, Ohio 9th grade proficiency test. Never were we told that we could not graduate (with the exception of the 9th grade proficiency test) if we failed. Politicians were not discussing linking our teachers' pay to the scores we got. The stakes were low for us as students, and without that stress, we performed. Teachers did not have to spend their time making sure to cover what was going to be on a huge test at the end of the year that they did not create. Standardized tests fail miserably at measuring things like learning, problem solving, and critical thinking. These are all things that our teachers cared about teaching us. They have real-world applications. As a consequence, we were able to enter the military, go to college, get jobs, and be successful individuals. Kids now only learn how to succeed on multiple-choice, short answer, and extended response tests.
     To make matters worse, because of the increased emphasis on standardized test scores, many schools have been forced to cut the classes that teach exactly those 21st Century skills. Classes such as art, music, and other elective courses have given way to "test prep" courses. What does it say about our emphasis on these tests that we have entire courses devoted to "test prep?" In addition, some schools are cutting gym, which is no doubt a contributing factor to the obesity problem stated in the article. I just can't help but think that we were doing pretty well before standardized tests became so "vital." After ten years of emphasis on these scores, I feel like we have left more children behind than we did before "No Child Left Behind." Are the schools failing these students, or are the tests?