Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Emphasize What Was Learned

I have written repeatedly about how much I dislike grades, especially as so-called objective measures of achievement and learning. Beside the possible emotional effects of grading students in competition with one another, it also has a way of degrading actual student learning. If students get a "C" or "D" they automatically devalue and forget all the actual learning they did just because a subjective teacher measured him as sub par against his/her peers. Thus for most, report card day usually ends up being a dreaded experience. Why is that the case?

Regardless of whether a student possess a savant-like or  average IQ, genuine learning usually has taken place. Shouldn't report card day be a celebration of this learning rather than the crushing evaluation that it has become? I hate to see the anxiety and worry on students' faces as those things are being handed out. Instead of building children up, they usually just knock them down. Based on this, I really tried to change this in small ways this year.

On report card day, I showed a fairly long slide show outlining the things we LEARNED during that marking period. The kids went nuts and were in eager anticipation for each slide to be revealed. Most slides were accompanied by a "Ohh ya", "That was hard",  "That was easy",  or simple giggles. It was a total shift from anxiety to genuine accomplishment and celebration. I certainly recommend trying something like this at the end of each grading or marking period. It builds self-esteem and reflection. It reinforces learning rather than empty grading. Unfortunately, most of my slides just had text on them because it was something I thought of the last minute. Next year, I am eager to keep a file with pictures and movie clips and turn this into something bigger. Perhaps a movie or something of that sort. All I know is that showing learning is a whole lot more worthwhile than giving random letters to symbolize learning.

Emphasize What Was Learned

I have written repeatedly about how much I dislike grades, especially as so-called objective measures of achievement and learning. Beside the possible emotional effects of grading students in competition with one another, it also has a way of degrading actual student learning. If students get a "C" or "D" they automatically devalue and forget all the actual learning they did just because a subjective teacher measured him as sub par against his/her peers. Thus for most, report card day usually ends up being a dreaded experience. Why is that the case?

Regardless of whether a student possess a savant-like or  average IQ, genuine learning usually has taken place. Shouldn't report card day be a celebration of this learning rather than the crushing evaluation that it has become? I hate to see the anxiety and worry on students' faces as those things are being handed out. Instead of building children up, they usually just knock them down. Based on this, I really tried to change this in small ways this year.

On report card day, I showed a fairly long slide show outlining the things we LEARNED during that marking period. The kids went nuts and were in eager anticipation for each slide to be revealed. Most slides were accompanied by a "Ohh ya", "That was hard",  "That was easy",  or simple giggles. It was a total shift from anxiety to genuine accomplishment and celebration. I certainly recommend trying something like this at the end of each grading or marking period. It builds self-esteem and reflection. It reinforces learning rather than empty grading. Unfortunately, most of my slides just had text on them because it was something I thought of the last minute. Next year, I am eager to keep a file with pictures and movie clips and turn this into something bigger. Perhaps a movie or something of that sort. All I know is that showing learning is a whole lot more worthwhile than giving random letters to symbolize learning.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Groupwork vs Teamwork

We don't refer to the Dallas Mavericks as the group that won the NBA Championship. We say the Dallas Mavericks are the best team in the league, most would argue the world. What about a group of firefighters that spends a ton of time together, perfecting their relationships. They work on the same wave-length during an emergency because of this closeness.  Certainly language stronger than a "group" of firefighters is needed to describe them. In order to be the best they can be, they need to come together as a team. A group implies a mere collection of parts. The word team marks when that mere collection of parts shifts to relationships focused on trust, collaboration, and care. Teams elevate the work of the whole above the singular. The sum of the whole is more than its parts.

Awhile back I remember my sister (a sophomore in high school) really complaining about group work. I was concerned about her objections because I would like to consider peer assistance and cooperation as cornerstones in the classroom. Then I heard her jump at hanging out with her soccer team at the movies later that evening. At that moment I had an epiphany. My sister hated group work because it is not focused on teamwork. If teachers want high quality and equal work (effort) to be done in collaborative projects, a shift needs to occur. For high level projects we need to start thinking of them as team projects, where students come together not as a mere collection of parts, but rather an interlocking web of dependence and mutual enjoyment.

If we as teachers give tasks or assignments where a loose group of individuals, that have no relationship suffices, maybe we should rethink that activity. This means the task and project design are very important. Additionally, this calls for students to focus on the teams they create (or the teacher creates). This can be done by listening to student input for selecting "teams" or even allowing students to pick the people they will work with. It may mean spending more time on team building exercises or simply stressing that you are a team that works together.

Why stop at small teams of students, shouldn't we see the whole classroom as a team? Having students buy into this team concept may sound cheesy, but is something I am really going to work on for the next school year.  The mere shift of approaching students' peer work as teamwork rather than group work may have a profound significance on the dynamic of collaboration in the classroom.

Groupwork vs Teamwork

We don't refer to the Dallas Mavericks as the group that won the NBA Championship. We say the Dallas Mavericks are the best team in the league, most would argue the world. What about a group of firefighters that spends a ton of time together, perfecting their relationships. They work on the same wave-length during an emergency because of this closeness.  Certainly language stronger than a "group" of firefighters is needed to describe them. In order to be the best they can be, they need to come together as a team. A group implies a mere collection of parts. The word team marks when that mere collection of parts shifts to relationships focused on trust, collaboration, and care. Teams elevate the work of the whole above the singular. The sum of the whole is more than its parts.

Awhile back I remember my sister (a sophomore in high school) really complaining about group work. I was concerned about her objections because I would like to consider peer assistance and cooperation as cornerstones in the classroom. Then I heard her jump at hanging out with her soccer team at the movies later that evening. At that moment I had an epiphany. My sister hated group work because it is not focused on teamwork. If teachers want high quality and equal work (effort) to be done in collaborative projects, a shift needs to occur. For high level projects we need to start thinking of them as team projects, where students come together not as a mere collection of parts, but rather an interlocking web of dependence and mutual enjoyment.

If we as teachers give tasks or assignments where a loose group of individuals, that have no relationship suffices, maybe we should rethink that activity. This means the task and project design are very important. Additionally, this calls for students to focus on the teams they create (or the teacher creates). This can be done by listening to student input for selecting "teams" or even allowing students to pick the people they will work with. It may mean spending more time on team building exercises or simply stressing that you are a team that works together.

Why stop at small teams of students, shouldn't we see the whole classroom as a team? Having students buy into this team concept may sound cheesy, but is something I am really going to work on for the next school year.  The mere shift of approaching students' peer work as teamwork rather than group work may have a profound significance on the dynamic of collaboration in the classroom.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Why Do We Punish Kids? Thoughts on Alabama

Full disclosure here: I am very passionate about immigration. I subscribe to one simple saying, "Ningun ser humano es illegal." This basically translates as "no human is illegal." I have this view for many reasons, but here are two that influence my thoughts more than any. I am Latino and I loathe to see part of my culture being dehumanized. Second, I worked alongside many legal and illegal immigrants as I grew up toiling on fields in the Central Valley. These are good people that take work nobody else will.

Despite this passion, I also concede that all governments have a stake in and the duty to enforce borders. I wish we did this in a humane and compassionate way, but I am not ignorant of the national security issue here. I studied political science in college and understand why this is important. Because of this and also to remain as nuetral as possible, I will not discuss any parts of the Alabama bill except the educational component.

What I do not get is why we punish kids? The new Alabama law has provisions in the bill that encourage administrations to check for the legal status of families. While they cannot limit schooling or funding based on status (it is unconstitutional), lawmakers hope to figure out how much money is spent on educating children of illegal immigrants. My concern is that it will continue to alienate (no pun intended) a very poorly educated group of our population away from the educational system. It will also cause deep-seated resentment and de facto segregation within schools. The brunt of such criticism and unequal treatment is ultimately realized by innocent children. The intimidation of the educational system to the poor will only be expanded and the educational prospects of illegal immigrants will be diminished. I also believe it will have a negative effect on those legal immigrants in school who will now be subject to all sorts of inquiries.

Let's forget the fact that illegal immigrants pay into the systems via purchases made and employment and focus on why do we punish children? Most children have no say as to where their family locates. Think of military families. If you get the order to go, your family often goes. The children have no say in this. They probably want to stay with old friends in their comfortable environment. I don't think immigrant children have drastically different opinions. So why do we punish immigrant children by giving them second-class educations or intimidating them at school? It was not their choice to come here. Furthermore, many of these children will stay in the United States for their whole lives. Having spent my first two years in a school with illegal immigrants, I can attest to the tremendous academic and social potential they bring (as do all children). Having a good education and school system is the right thing to do for the economy and common good.

Also, what we are taking away from is the general worth of a human being, especially that of a child. Giving children the best education possible should be a priority, regardless of their immigrant status, of any enlightened, democratic country. There is no need to punish children for decisions they had no part in. Why do we feel the need to punish children for faults of which are not their own? I am deeply troubled about this.

Why Do We Punish Kids? Thoughts on Alabama

Full disclosure here: I am very passionate about immigration. I subscribe to one simple saying, "Ningun ser humano es illegal." This basically translates as "no human is illegal." I have this view for many reasons, but here are two that influence my thoughts more than any. I am Latino and I loathe to see part of my culture being dehumanized. Second, I worked alongside many legal and illegal immigrants as I grew up toiling on fields in the Central Valley. These are good people that take work nobody else will.

Despite this passion, I also concede that all governments have a stake in and the duty to enforce borders. I wish we did this in a humane and compassionate way, but I am not ignorant of the national security issue here. I studied political science in college and understand why this is important. Because of this and also to remain as nuetral as possible, I will not discuss any parts of the Alabama bill except the educational component.

What I do not get is why we punish kids? The new Alabama law has provisions in the bill that encourage administrations to check for the legal status of families. While they cannot limit schooling or funding based on status (it is unconstitutional), lawmakers hope to figure out how much money is spent on educating children of illegal immigrants. My concern is that it will continue to alienate (no pun intended) a very poorly educated group of our population away from the educational system. It will also cause deep-seated resentment and de facto segregation within schools. The brunt of such criticism and unequal treatment is ultimately realized by innocent children. The intimidation of the educational system to the poor will only be expanded and the educational prospects of illegal immigrants will be diminished. I also believe it will have a negative effect on those legal immigrants in school who will now be subject to all sorts of inquiries.

Let's forget the fact that illegal immigrants pay into the systems via purchases made and employment and focus on why do we punish children? Most children have no say as to where their family locates. Think of military families. If you get the order to go, your family often goes. The children have no say in this. They probably want to stay with old friends in their comfortable environment. I don't think immigrant children have drastically different opinions. So why do we punish immigrant children by giving them second-class educations or intimidating them at school? It was not their choice to come here. Furthermore, many of these children will stay in the United States for their whole lives. Having spent my first two years in a school with illegal immigrants, I can attest to the tremendous academic and social potential they bring (as do all children). Having a good education and school system is the right thing to do for the economy and common good.

Also, what we are taking away from is the general worth of a human being, especially that of a child. Giving children the best education possible should be a priority, regardless of their immigrant status, of any enlightened, democratic country. There is no need to punish children for decisions they had no part in. Why do we feel the need to punish children for faults of which are not their own? I am deeply troubled about this.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

You're Just One Teacher...

Sit back and reflect on this following phrase:

YOU ARE JUST ONE TEACHER

Over the course of one's academic career, a person will probably have over a couple hundred teachers. Some teachers stay with a child for a couple years, some just a couple weeks. Regardless, you are just one of a couple hundred. You can look at this a couple ways.

Your time is brief and your impact may be limited, your message or passion may be lost amongst the other teachers, your time period is all too short

I chose not to look at it this way. Why? Well, for one, I remember the few great teachers I had. And looking back they had a disproportional influence over me. Their influence amounted to more than the .05 percent that one in 200 dictates. Sure, it may be a short time, but a teacher may show ways of thinking or inherent skills that can be used for a lifetime. In short, for the well being of my positive attitude, I need to believe that individual actors (me) can make a difference.

But then we must look at the flip side of this. Can bad teachers have a disproportional impact? No, this is not a post about the high levels of bad teachers. I think that the quality of teaching is, on whole, really good. I don't buy into the conventional wisdom that it is teachers leading us down the path to educational ruin, but that is for a different post. Tangent aside, do students carry with them the negative experiences of education? Sure they have to.

This became clear to me awhile back as I was dealing with a student who was having a "discipline" issue. After much shouting out and other attention getting behavior, I pulled him aside and wanted to really talk to him. I asked him what was wrong and he said he was bored and just couldn't pay attention. I apologized for designing a task/lesson that was not engaging to him and genuinely asked him what he would like to do to change the lesson. His response was mystifying. "Why should I tell you? It's not going to happen anyways. How many times have teachers asked me for my opinion and it has never happened? Nothing is going to change. It never does. This is a waste of my time."

I really wanted to know. I really wanted to address this student's needs. I really wanted to change things to make it engaging and relevant. But I am just one teacher who has to contend with a string of broken promise (or perceived broken promises). Can I compete with all these conflicting messages and histories? Once again, I say yes (mainly because I have to for my sanity). I say yes because it is my job to do this. I say yes because I have seen it happen and have tasted success before.

But it is really something to chew on.

You're Just One Teacher...

Sit back and reflect on this following phrase:

YOU ARE JUST ONE TEACHER

Over the course of one's academic career, a person will probably have over a couple hundred teachers. Some teachers stay with a child for a couple years, some just a couple weeks. Regardless, you are just one of a couple hundred. You can look at this a couple ways.

Your time is brief and your impact may be limited, your message or passion may be lost amongst the other teachers, your time period is all too short

I chose not to look at it this way. Why? Well, for one, I remember the few great teachers I had. And looking back they had a disproportional influence over me. Their influence amounted to more than the .05 percent that one in 200 dictates. Sure, it may be a short time, but a teacher may show ways of thinking or inherent skills that can be used for a lifetime. In short, for the well being of my positive attitude, I need to believe that individual actors (me) can make a difference.

But then we must look at the flip side of this. Can bad teachers have a disproportional impact? No, this is not a post about the high levels of bad teachers. I think that the quality of teaching is, on whole, really good. I don't buy into the conventional wisdom that it is teachers leading us down the path to educational ruin, but that is for a different post. Tangent aside, do students carry with them the negative experiences of education? Sure they have to.

This became clear to me awhile back as I was dealing with a student who was having a "discipline" issue. After much shouting out and other attention getting behavior, I pulled him aside and wanted to really talk to him. I asked him what was wrong and he said he was bored and just couldn't pay attention. I apologized for designing a task/lesson that was not engaging to him and genuinely asked him what he would like to do to change the lesson. His response was mystifying. "Why should I tell you? It's not going to happen anyways. How many times have teachers asked me for my opinion and it has never happened? Nothing is going to change. It never does. This is a waste of my time."

I really wanted to know. I really wanted to address this student's needs. I really wanted to change things to make it engaging and relevant. But I am just one teacher who has to contend with a string of broken promise (or perceived broken promises). Can I compete with all these conflicting messages and histories? Once again, I say yes (mainly because I have to for my sanity). I say yes because it is my job to do this. I say yes because I have seen it happen and have tasted success before.

But it is really something to chew on.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Can We Move Away From Short-Term Thinking?

The other day I was listening to a fascinating show on job creation. As we know, job creation is a buzz word for all politicians, whether on the left or right. Most politicians promise lots of jobs and they promise to make this happen very quickly. Where do those jobs come from and how can we really count them? The more you think about it, jobs can be created by giving massive tax cuts or stealing jobs from other geographic places. Once those tax cuts run out, those jobs are usually lost. Also, when another state or area gives a company a better package they flee for a new area. Thus the job "creation" is really skewed and long term planning is ditched all together. In the end, the only sure fire way to create lasting, innovative jobs is to give money to education. The problem with this is two-fold. First, we are cutting funding to education and still promising new jobs. Second, politicians and the population at large jettison long-term goals for short.

This really got me thinking about education. The short-term results are what become sacred in education. Think about the things we measure and hold as infallible in school-- grades, test scores, honors, etc. These are given and taken away yearly, if not monthly. For goodness sake, our very notion of a successful school comes from running tests through a scantron to rank and judge. Those yearly test scores determine so much of the educational landscape.

Nobody measures the students that write emails to teachers five years later saying, "I was prepared or ready for "blank" because of what you taught me." Or the letter that reads "you noticed "blank" when nobody else did. I would not be the person I am today if it wasn't for that." Nope, there is no short-term way to measure those. The essence of much teaching dictates that we may not see the results and impact we have. Yet there is not a score for that. And while parents ultimately want their kids to become happy, successful adults (a very long-term goal), the short-term returns are what everybody highlights.

I believe this is very much a societal problem. Is it exacerbated by the instantaneous nature of technology? I don't know, but I don't think it is the rule. Often little strides are made in order to eventually bang out a dent. Think about those of us who tweet or blog. I am not expecting the schooling system or social norms to shift over night, but I hope that maybe I can put my voice out there and slowly create progress. Is there any way to help others see that long-term thinking is necessary and often merits a greater importance than short-term fixes? I would love to hear your thoughts and opinions.

Can We Move Away From Short-Term Thinking?

The other day I was listening to a fascinating show on job creation. As we know, job creation is a buzz word for all politicians, whether on the left or right. Most politicians promise lots of jobs and they promise to make this happen very quickly. Where do those jobs come from and how can we really count them? The more you think about it, jobs can be created by giving massive tax cuts or stealing jobs from other geographic places. Once those tax cuts run out, those jobs are usually lost. Also, when another state or area gives a company a better package they flee for a new area. Thus the job "creation" is really skewed and long term planning is ditched all together. In the end, the only sure fire way to create lasting, innovative jobs is to give money to education. The problem with this is two-fold. First, we are cutting funding to education and still promising new jobs. Second, politicians and the population at large jettison long-term goals for short.

This really got me thinking about education. The short-term results are what become sacred in education. Think about the things we measure and hold as infallible in school-- grades, test scores, honors, etc. These are given and taken away yearly, if not monthly. For goodness sake, our very notion of a successful school comes from running tests through a scantron to rank and judge. Those yearly test scores determine so much of the educational landscape.

Nobody measures the students that write emails to teachers five years later saying, "I was prepared or ready for "blank" because of what you taught me." Or the letter that reads "you noticed "blank" when nobody else did. I would not be the person I am today if it wasn't for that." Nope, there is no short-term way to measure those. The essence of much teaching dictates that we may not see the results and impact we have. Yet there is not a score for that. And while parents ultimately want their kids to become happy, successful adults (a very long-term goal), the short-term returns are what everybody highlights.

I believe this is very much a societal problem. Is it exacerbated by the instantaneous nature of technology? I don't know, but I don't think it is the rule. Often little strides are made in order to eventually bang out a dent. Think about those of us who tweet or blog. I am not expecting the schooling system or social norms to shift over night, but I hope that maybe I can put my voice out there and slowly create progress. Is there any way to help others see that long-term thinking is necessary and often merits a greater importance than short-term fixes? I would love to hear your thoughts and opinions.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Great Administrators Acknowledge Ideas

I am very lucky. I have been teaching for three years and have been graced with two amazing principals. While there are many reasons why I consider them to be superb, one that really sticks out it is the willingness to acknowledge ideas.  A key component of supporting students and staff is to actually listen to their ideas.  A person's ideas are a major component of their creative and innovative nature. When an administrator jumps in on a stake-holders idea, the levels of faith and support for the person are self-evident.  It really means a lot for somebody to listen to your ideas. By displaying more than lip service to your ideas, it  shows you care about the person behind the idea. Let me illustrate this by two examples. acknowledge

One of our substitute teachers loves to teach letter writing. Whatever lessons you have prepared for that day usually go out the window. I have no problem with this. Most sub lessons are so drab that if a teacher is passionate about something I say go for it. A couple months back she had my students write business letters to people to either voice appreciation or concern. Many students wrote letters to our principal discussing topics such as uniforms guidelines, recess rules, and school funding concerns. After the letters were delivered, the principal came to our class to address the topics mentioned. It was enlightening to have an adult explain procedures and norms to students instead of barking out orders. It was also a clear sign that their ideas mattered. Even if they seemed silly or outlandish, their ideas matter, because they matter.

Additionally, I saw amazing support by my principal as she gave me the go ahead for Innovation Day. The lack of clear structure and formal plans was admittinelgy hard for her. Furthermore, she was the one who would take the brunt of the complaints if the day was a disaster. Despite these apparent risks, she showed me that she was willing to go for it because of the passion I displayed for the project. Sure she took a risk on me, but she also took a risk on my idea. As much confidence as she has in me, the idea may have seemed too much. Nevertheless, she went for it and I thank her.

So administrators: Listen to your people's ideas. Clearly explain why sometimes they don't work and don't be afraid to jump in on the crazy ones. In the end, it is really the listening that shows people that you care.

Great Administrators Acknowledge Ideas

I am very lucky. I have been teaching for three years and have been graced with two amazing principals. While there are many reasons why I consider them to be superb, one that really sticks out it is the willingness to acknowledge ideas.  A key component of supporting students and staff is to actually listen to their ideas.  A person's ideas are a major component of their creative and innovative nature. When an administrator jumps in on a stake-holders idea, the levels of faith and support for the person are self-evident.  It really means a lot for somebody to listen to your ideas. By displaying more than lip service to your ideas, it  shows you care about the person behind the idea. Let me illustrate this by two examples. acknowledge

One of our substitute teachers loves to teach letter writing. Whatever lessons you have prepared for that day usually go out the window. I have no problem with this. Most sub lessons are so drab that if a teacher is passionate about something I say go for it. A couple months back she had my students write business letters to people to either voice appreciation or concern. Many students wrote letters to our principal discussing topics such as uniforms guidelines, recess rules, and school funding concerns. After the letters were delivered, the principal came to our class to address the topics mentioned. It was enlightening to have an adult explain procedures and norms to students instead of barking out orders. It was also a clear sign that their ideas mattered. Even if they seemed silly or outlandish, their ideas matter, because they matter.

Additionally, I saw amazing support by my principal as she gave me the go ahead for Innovation Day. The lack of clear structure and formal plans was admittinelgy hard for her. Furthermore, she was the one who would take the brunt of the complaints if the day was a disaster. Despite these apparent risks, she showed me that she was willing to go for it because of the passion I displayed for the project. Sure she took a risk on me, but she also took a risk on my idea. As much confidence as she has in me, the idea may have seemed too much. Nevertheless, she went for it and I thank her.

So administrators: Listen to your people's ideas. Clearly explain why sometimes they don't work and don't be afraid to jump in on the crazy ones. In the end, it is really the listening that shows people that you care.