Hi Kids, it’s me

Today marks the day my online teacher life has crashed into my real teacher life  That’s right, I’ve gone public. My students have been all over this blog today, looking at photos and probably not reading any of the text.   All of a sudden I have a jump in my stats — 200+ views! Woot woot, I’m feeling like the popular kid.

Twice a year, for a week, my school switches to “intensives”.  Kids and teachers alike take breaks from regularly scheduled programing to reorganize and regroup into intensives, where they spend all week learning about one thing.  These intensives are usually elective type courses that teachers find personally interesting.  For example, this year, there is a “Woman Warriors” intensive, where young ladies learn all about self esteem,  healthy relationships, self defense and feminine strength.  There is also the “Physixxxx Olympics” intensive where kids are learning by doing all the cool part of physics and engineering – egg drop contest, catapult assembly and rock climbing.  This year is my first year running an intensive and guess what I’ve chosen to teach?  BLOGGING, of course!

The first lesson of the day?  Your online presence and how the Interwebs is public and permanent.  I don’t think I have ever heard so many moans and groans, ever.  Some kids really know how to suck the happiness out of a room with their complaining.  This was, until they finally got in front of their computers with a task:  A Google scavenger hunt on their teachers.  They found this blog.  They found where I went to middle school, my middle name, my father’s name and an old Sea Scouts photo in Scouting magazine.   They also found themselves online, though not as much – I have a 17 year head start on them.

My kids today after googling my name:

I will be posting links to their blogs as they get them going.   On the radar for this coming week: an inspiration trip to Central Park, a tour of tumblr’s HQ and a couple expert speakers.

Progress

Today was progress report day.  I gave each and every student a print out showing learning targets and their progress towards meeting them (aka did you do your assignments).  It was a huge hubbub and I’m now officially the most unpopular teacher at school.  The kids were in a tizzy and I even had 2 students storm outside for a break in the hall to collect themselves.  It’s appalling to me how many students come to school every day and still manage to complete absolutely zero assignments – no classwork, no lab, no quizzes, and most definitely no homework.  For some reason or another (I’m still mulling it over), this quarter has been an especially bad one.  In one class out of 30 students, only 7 have a passing grade or higher.  That means even if I “discount” students who never show up, I’m maintaining a 30% passing rate.  I have an abysmal HW return rate – they just don’t do it.  I also expect students to not only do their work, but to do it well and according to the guidelines of the assignment.  I don’t give credit for “effort”, meaning if I ask about osmosis and they scratch something out about Osmosis Jones, I don’t take it.

So this begs to question, “What am I doing wrong!?”  By the end of my third section of Living Environment class, I’d fallen into a pit of self-doubt.  After all, if so many kids are failing, it MUST be me and NOT them.  I’m doing something wrong, I need to change something.  Is that true?  Or have I been brainwashed by all the anti-teacher rhetoric floating around out there?  These grades (or lack of grades, rather) has weighed heavily on me all day, so I went searching for answers.  I gave my classes time to air grievances and make comments, I conferenced with my co-teacher and I even sought advice from my administrator (“let me think about that one…”).  This is what I learned today:

Student #1: “You grade too hard miss!  I struggle in all my classes, but yours way more than others!”

Student #2: “You’re too strict!  I worked so hard on this and you still only gave be a 2.1 (we use standards based grading where 1=not meeting the learning target, 2=approaching the target, 3=meets the target and 4= excels at the learning target)!

Student #3: “You give too much work!”

Student #4: (to another student, right in front of me) “I can’t even listen to her talk right now, I’m too pissed.  Ugh, she needs to just shut up!”

Student #5 “WHAT? This is mad f-ed up!  I do all my work!”

-I should have other teachers grade my lab reports and compare scores.  Maybe I am too strict with grading.  I use a rubric, which the kids have a copy of.  Maybe I need to ease up on sticking to it.

-I need to ease up on assigning homework, and/or I should not count all of them, just some.

-The kids thought I was laughing at them sinisterly when in fact I was trying to force a smile while they were all voicing their discontent.  My uncomfortable smile apparently = evil I’m-out-to-get-you laugh.  Crap.

-I just need to ease up in general.

In my defense, this is how I help support my kids academically with their work:

-I scaffold the shit out of every assignment I give by outlining reports for them, giving them graphic organizers, vocabulary instruction, etc.  I practically hold their hands through every assignment.  My co-teacher even created a “fill in the blank” lab report for my SPED (special-ed) and ELL (English language learners)!

-I give written feedback on every assignment I hand back.

-I’m available at any hour of the day for tutoring or help in person, over email or even by phone.  The kids have all my info, for real.

-I allow practically unlimited time for turning in assignments.  I accept any and all late work up until the day before grades are due.

-I allow for revisions: If a kid is not happy with his/her grade, they can revise their work (based on my feedback) and re-submit it.

-I assign work that is within their reach with realistic timelines (I think), such as “write a paragraph on whether or not the BRCA gene should be patented, using my given topic sentence”.

So, what do you guys think?  What do I need to change?  How can I up my passing rates without compromising my ethics and just pushing kids through?  My grade team had a discussion around broken grading practices and how to fix them last monday.  I need to continue the discussion.  Please help.

In the meantime, here’s what I wore today, pencil in hair, sinister smile and all.

Progress

Progress2

Progress3

Progress4

shirt: madewell – belt: j.crew – jeans: bdg – socks: juicy couture (gift from my sister years ago) – boots: steve madden – necklace: my popo via mommy

Data

The other day, David Brooks of the New York Times published a short piece, The Philosophy of Data, on the current prevailing mania for “data-ism”.  This op-ed strikes a chord with me, as this “data-ism” is something I have seen in public education for as long as I’ve been teaching (which is just a paltry 4 years).  This data-driven mania is prevalent on both coasts – with San Francisco Unified School District and with the New York Department of Education.  I’m willing to bet that it’s the same with most other large school districts and probably trickling down into the smaller ones too.  When I started teaching, one of the first things I was told (or was implied to me) was that data was the be-all, end-all, and that it was a measure of how good a teacher you are.  I mulled that over my first year and initially agreed – we enjoyed a double digit increase in percentage points of the STAR test that year – but I was always skeptical of the implied causation of the results.  I don’t think I was a very good teacher at all my first year.  In fact, I’d say I was horrible.  David Brooks’s article touches on this skepticism for data driven strategies.  He says that there is no evidence that teaching to students’ learning styles gets results.  Does this mean it’s OK to not break my neck over trying to tailor everything I do to all the different student learning styles?  Blasphemy!

I confess I enter this in a skeptical frame of mind, believing that we tend to get carried away in our desire to reduce everything to the quantifiable.

…many teachers have an intuitive sense that different students have different learning styles: some are verbal and some are visual; some are linear, some are holistic. Teachers imagine they will improve outcomes if they tailor their presentations to each student. But there’s no evidence to support this either.

This philosophy of using data as absolute proof has so many implications for what I do every day in the classroom.  For example, the big thing in SFUSD is using data to inform your instruction (if I had a dime for every time I heard those words…).   In an effort to help us teachers inform our instruction, and to hold us accountable, our school implemented mandatory “accountability and assessment meetings”, where we had to show data from an assessment and talk about how we plan to act on the information we get from the data.    The district licensed the use of a handy program called Data Director, which took our (mostly multiple choice) test questions, aligned them to the state standards, and spat out a statistical analysis of how our students performed after we scanned in the answer sheets.  Sadly, this sort of cool efficient technology is not available to me here at the NYDOE – I have to spend hours entering in answers to an Excel spreadsheet to run my own analysis.  What a time-suck.

I had a love/hate relationship with Data Director.  It made test grading super fast and easy, allowed me  to design assesments with a variety of types of questions and did all the analysis for me.  I could look at performance across a class, across a grade, special population students, every which way.  The data was super informative and clued me into things I probably would have missed otherwise.  I could see what questions students struggled with the most and what answers were most popular, allowing me to clear up misconceptions right away and re-teach only the most important or commonly missed topics.  I was also able to be transparent with this data and show the students their own numbers, their class data, and how they compared to the other Biology sections.  This transparency was a huge boon to my instruction.  For kids who thrive on competition, they could reflect on where they stand when compared to others.  For kids who are self motivated and benefit from quiet reflection, they could see  which topics they needed to study more or get tutoring on.  Students who just didn’t give a shit could see that many of their peers did in fact give a shit (thus motivating them to actually give a shit – in theory).

While I love seeing data, it continuously serves as a slap in the face.  It crushes my confidence, it depresses me, it pisses me off and makes me disappointed in my students.  It also tells me that I’m a crappy teacher who shouldn’t even breath the same air as my administrators, because we’re all made to feel (or just I feel on my own) that they could have gotten better results.  I get anxiety when I analyze my data.  The take home message that is continuously driven into our psyches is that if our students aren’t performing, it’s because we’re doing something wrong.  Plain and simple, if your students are not acing your tests, it’s because you’re a bad teacher.   This alone is enough to drive anyone into a stress and anxiety induced breakdown.  And what does the data also show, that for some reason is not talked about as often?  That many teachers do not last past 5 years.  Who would, when the measure of your success is wholly dependent on the performance of your students, regardless of all the other variables that come into play when educating kids?

These variables that are most of the time completely out of teacher control include but are not at all limited to: the amount of time students spend studying, whether or not homework was completed (I have an abysmal HW return rate BTW), and how motivated students are by test taking (and grades).   These variables are just the tip of the iceberg, not even grazing the surface of the plethora of emotional/social/economic issues our students face.  This lack of control renders tests (especially these standardized tests like the STAR test in CA and the Regents exams in NY) completely unreliable and invalid.  For more on this issue, check out this blog post, called “Don’t Buy the Snake Oil“, written by Lisa Myers, the same teacher who also inspired this post.

Our educational system is data driven – I know that and I accept it, even if i don’t like it.  Kids in every state have to take standardized tests, whose data then gets used to label schools as good or bad, teachers as effective or ineffective.  Thus, I find that I am forced to play by those rules.  This means preparing my students for those tests and using data.  If my data tells me that my class average on a practice Regents exam is 50%, I freak out for a couple days, then I get rational and relax.  After all, kids only have to score a 45% on the test to be considered “passing”.

I’m all for data in terms of it’s informational purposes.  I’m completely against using data as a metric for the worth of a teacher.  I can and will use data to see where I need to go back and teach differently.  But if that data is going to used to compare me against another teacher who does not have students who show up sporadically, with a 2 year old waiting at home, and then sleep through entire lessons then I call bull shit.  And don’t you dare tell me that kid is sleeping because my lessons aren’t exciting or engaging enough.   I put on a song and dance for every lesson.

Data is not everything, something teachers have always known.  For once someone else is also talking about it.

 

2/25/13: David Brooks wrote a follow up to the discussion on data, titled What Data Can’t Do.