Monday, September 8, 2014

Group Work

Okay, so the whole Common Core is a tool to destroy education, and the over-reliance on standardized testing is pure evil, and the establishment Democrats and Republicans are virtually indistinguishable when it comes to education policy arguments are important. I mean it. I follow several groups that discuss these issues all the time. I have written blog posts about the loss of autonomy I have in my classroom as a result of these factors. It is epidemic. But, tonight I have a different topic.

Grouping students.

No, not grouping them into certain tracks or classes. Not grouping them into cutesy categories. I mean the roll up my sleeves and figure out the new groups I want my students to sit in tomorrow type of grouping.

I know this is mundane and prosaic. But, even after two degrees and twenty-seven years teaching, it is something I still need to do. And it can’t be done for me. I spent two hours of my life tonight working on the new groups for my classes. It was neither a walk in the park nor a lot of fun. But it was necessary.

Classroom management is a multifaceted task. One part of it is figuring out where individual students should sit. In one particular class, I have two pairs of young women who should not be seated near each other unless I enjoy breaking up a fight, one young man who has been pinching and harassing a female student, and one who argues with everyone I sit near him (when I sat him in a group alone, he started talking to himself—loudly enough to be heard several feet away).

On top of that, I try to diversify groups so that each one contains one high performing student, one low performing student, and two in the middle. I also do my best to balance gender and race. On top of that, I have to balance personalities. The hope is that I put together groups that will not only behave, but will be more inclined to academic success.

The seating charts are what I did at home. At school I spent about an hour updating my students’ discipline logs. And writing out a couple of referrals. And calling a couple of parents. This was not because I had free time I wanted to kill. I did it so I don’t have to yell in class--so that there is an atmosphere in the classroom that will facilitate learning.

When we have conversations about teachers and what we do, how well we do our jobs, how much we do or don’t work, things like figuring out a seating chart or calling parents are rarely mentioned. Grading papers and planning lessons are mentioned with much greater frequency. But if I don’t do the background work needed to set the stage for learning, my lesson plans will fall apart and the grades on the papers I stay up to finish will be just plain depressing.

So, tomorrow I will have new groups in my classes. Before they arrive in class, the PowerPoint with their new seating arrangements will be on the SmartBoard (after, perhaps, I take time to print and run off hall passes and parent sign-off sheets). My students will groan and complain. They will not know how much I time I spent putting this all together. They’ll figure it was all just random or that I sat them where I did just to piss them off.

So maybe tomorrow after school, after catching up on discipline files, referrals, and parent phone calls, after copying tests for the day after tomorrow, after grading at least one set of papers for each class, maybe I will have time to work on defeating the Common Core and ending the dominance of the Testing-Industrial Complex.  Or maybe I’ll spend a little time with my family. Or maybe I will fall exhausted into bed.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to prepare the folders that they will use to take work home to their parents. 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

"No Child Left Behind" a poem by Dominique Christina & Denice Frohman

I just saw this and it really hit me hard. I love this poem. I wish I could show it in my seventh grade classroom.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

That Didn't Take Long

I have trouble with my feet. It is documented and I have a doctor’s note on file that I be allowed to sit down periodically. Apparently, although this is known by my assistant principal, that does not mean I should ever be sitting behind my desk. Here are some emails I have received recently. 

Mr. Belliveau,

Please reference the e-mails below that I sent you on March 24 and March 16.  When I visited yesterday, March 26, I observed you sitting behind your computer when I walked in.  I also observed your students working on a latin root word test that consisted of approximately 30 multiple choice questions.  When I read your agenda for class that day, I noticed the only items on the agenda were the root word test and for your students to read for 30 minutes.  As I’ve stated below on two different occasions, it is the expectation of the administration for you to be up, engaged with your students, monitoring your students, and for your students to be engaged with you.    Again, .  I am aware of the doctor’s note you have on file that allows you to have periodic breaks which we have no problem honoring.  In the event you need a break, however, we would like to see you sitting on a stool at a student’s desk helping them.  Also, it is the expectation of the administration for you to have more engaging activities on your class agenda than just a 30 question multiple choice test with 30 minutes of in class reading time.  The reading and the test are both appropriate instructional items, but we want and expect to see more.  If you have any questions, please feel free to let me know.

Thank you,
Phenix City Intermediate School
Assistant Principal

Sent: Monday, March 24, 2014 2:32 PM
To: Belliveau,Art
Subject: Visit

Mr. Belliveau,

When I visited your room twice today I observed you sitting at your desk behind your computer both times I entered.  Please remember the administration expects you to be up, monitoring your room, your students engaged with you, and you engaged with your students anytime we enter.  We also expect this engagement level to occur from bell to bell each class each day.  I am aware of the doctor’s note you have on file that allows you to have periodic breaks which we have no problem honoring.  In the event you need a break, however, we would like to see you sitting on a stool at a student’s desk helping them.

Thank you,
Phenix City Intermediate School
Assistant Principal

From March 16:

Mr. Belliveau,

During my visit today I noticed your class schedule was for students to review their Greek/Latin route words, test on these words, and then read for thirty minutes.  I appreciate your commitment to increasing the vocabulary and reading levels of our students.  In the future, however, I would like to see a few more meaningful and engaging activities for your students other than just quiz and read.  The schedule today seemed to be extremely slow where pacing is concerned.

Thank you,
Phenix City Intermediate School
Assistant Principal

I need to say that in many, many regards my assistant principal is a really good guy. This year is the first time in a long time I have heard consistent positive messages about my teaching from an administrator. I think that a lot of this comes from the new interim superintendent, who has described his leadership style as “MBWA: Management By Walking Around.” From him comes the expectation that teachers will be on their feet teaching all day every day.

The administrators at school level have all been directed to adopt this management style and be in the classrooms as much as possible. These four visits over two weeks is him following that directive. I sent him a reply and, because I honestly respect this man, I worked extra hard to remove snark and sarcasm. I did, however, want to make sure my side of the story was getting on the record as well. 

I also think it is puzzling that after this particular administrator has singled me out for praise on my ability to get my students to read, that he feels that SSR time is not a productive use of class time.

Mr.       ,

I have received your email about your visit to my third period class on 3/26/14. I do have some points I would like to make to clarify what you wrote to me. 

It was not a thirty question test, as you stated, but a fifty question, major grade test. I feel that giving the students adequate time to review beforehand and take the test are important. As some students take longer to test than others, some have taken the entire period in the past, I left the after activities as something they could work on by themselves. It was not, as you stated, 30 minutes of SSR. Although SSR is a research-based method of increasing a student’s comprehension and fluency, and therefore something I think is very valuable to schedule classtime for, I had another after activity for them to do that day since in your last email you told me that was inappropriate use of classtime. They had reading material on dinosaur extinction theories to read in preparation for research we began the next day. By having time to read that in class the day before, we had more time to do research. This was written in the “After” section of my BDA. 

In the class you visited I had nine students. This is my inclusion class and the rest were testing with Mrs. Gibson in her room. I had the students spread out throughout the class to keep them from being able to look at one another’s papers. Previous to your entering my room I had made several loops to see that there was nothing they could use to cheat on or near them. After having established that I sat down behind my desk for the first time since I got to school that day. My feet were in extreme pain and I needed to relieve them. As this was a small class, working independently on a test, I felt that I could take a few minutes to sit down.  Further, as this was a test, I did not feel it appropriate to sit by a student and help them. 

After you left, we graded the tests as a class. Then, as we had the time and this is a group of struggling readers, I read the extinction theories handout to them as they followed along reading at their desks. This enabled me to answer any questions they had about the material. 

I am interested to see where this goes from here...

Monday, March 3, 2014

Whose Gradebook Is It?

One recent morning as I entered the school, I passed by a teammate's door and saw her using a paper gradebook. Now that was a blast from my past! When I started teaching in '87, of course that's what I used. I remember hours with a calculator averaging grades. As math was never my strong suit, it was a gigantic pain in my behind. On the plus side, I was allowed to set up my gradebook the way I wanted to. I had some strong opinions on the matter.

When I was a student there were many classes I breezed through. I could pass those courses with little to no effort. Then there was math. I could pass math, even do well at times, but it never came easily to me. I worked my butt off every day and still made middlin' grades on the tests most of the time.  

It irked me that the kids who were naturals in math could not work as hard on a daily basis, but make an A in the course because they could pass the tests. Just as, I am sure, it irked them that I never had to really work up a sweat in English or social studies.  

So, as a teacher, I made the decision that no one was going to be saved or sunk by test grades. This was especially true after I started using workshop methods exclusively and stopped giving tests altogether. Everything in my gradebook, including daily participation was counted equally. At the end of a quarter I would add up the number of points a student had earned, divide it by the number of points possible, and that would be the grade. 

Even as we moved into the wonderful world of electronic gradebooks, as early for me as when I had my first Apple IIe, I was let alone to grade as I saw fit. The biggest hassle was that I was required to keep a paper gradebook as my “official” document. But the computer averaged the grades for me and I was better able to keep my students informed as to their progress, so I went with it.

Even then I was allowed to use my professional judgment. Wait, maybe I should explain that for some of the younger teachers who may be reading this. Once teachers were trusted a bit more than they are now to make decisions. Weird decisions. Things like: what to teach; what methods to use; what order to teach it in; how to count the grades.

For example: after my second year of teaching I was a mess. I felt like I had nothing really to offer my students. We had a textbook called English In Action. I secretly thought the title should have been two words instead of three. I got really lucky then. Dr. Richard Graves of Auburn University was, among other things, the site director for Sun Belt Writing Project, an affiliate of the National Writing Project. I was accepted to be a fellow that summer. 

I read the career altering work of Nanci Atwell, Linda Reif, and Tom Romano. I went back to the school to start my third year, my tenure year, as a ball of fire. I took the brand new textbooks issued to the students and locked them in a closet. We did writing workshop and reading workshop all day, every day. I never thought to stop and ask permission to do any of this. 

Before long, my principal let me know he wanted to meet with me. He wanted to know what I was doing in my classroom. I went in loaded for bear. I had all kinds of facts and figures ready to show him this was a research based method of teaching with proven effectiveness. He told me to calm down. He just wanted to know what I was doing so he could reassure parents who called him. And I was allowed to grade it the way that made sense to me. 

Imagine that happening today. I can't. 

When I returned to middle school in 2010 after a few years teaching writing at the high school level, I continued my grading practices. Up to a point. The principal told me that each student had to read five AR (Accelerated Reader) books on his/her level and pass the AR test on them. Ten percent of their grade was based on this. That ten percent was the average of how many books they passed AR tests on (each book being worth 20%) and the average of their AR tests.  I wasn't happy with this-it made the book talk forms I had prepared and run off pretty much useless to me. But, I had asked to return to the seventh grade, so I dealt with it.

We were in teams that year. The math teacher on the team was a veteran with more years in than I had. He could have retired at any time, but loved the kids and loved the work, so stayed on. He told me about Saxon math. This is a pretty much scripted way of teaching math. The teachers had to follow certain exact procedures and were told what percentage each of two different categories, tests and homework, were to be counted.  I felt for him. My own tribulations with a dictated curriculum were still a short way off. 

About two weeks before the end of the third quarter, the principal came around to each team meeting and told the teachers that we were to keep three categories in our gradebooks: tests, homework, and classwork, and how much each category counted. This was even worse. I could still get around it, though, and really make it about the points. Even though he tried to spin it as a positive change, we knew that this had been imposed on him from above.

At the end of the year my principal was promoted to a central office job. We lost a full time assistant principal. Changes in curriculum were instituted from the central office. Teachers were told that their grades should be 50% tests and 50% classwork/homework. 

After school started the next year, I was called into the new principal's office. This was soon to become a pattern for me. When I came in the principal and assistant principal had my gradebook pulled up on the computer screen. They proceeded to grill me on why the scores for the first multiple choice test I was required to give my students had overall lower averages that the other English teachers had. 

I want to make this clear-the grilling was not about the final grades for the year. It was not about the final grades for the semester. It was not about the final grades for the quarter. It was not even about progress report grades. It was about the grades on one test-the first one given.

I knew the answer. The other English teachers had all given out study guides which basically went over every question, in order, and went over the answers with their students the day before the test. I didn't. I felt that my students should be able to pass a test on the story (“Rikki-tikki-tavi”) without that kind of a crutch. I knew that, but could not say it. I started to tell them about my problems with the new curriculum and that I was doing my best with it, but that didn't matter. They just wanted my test scores up. Not the standardized test scores at the end of the year, but the scores on each and every test I was required to give.

The situation gradually worsened over the last few years. This year it has reached what I think has to be its zenith. The teachers in my school were again told what our categories would be and how much they would count: Major Grades 60%, Minor Grades 25 %, and Classwork/Homework/Participation 15% (math has separate categories and percentages). We were told that we had to have a minimum of six major grades, nine minor grades, and twelve classwork/homework/participation grades. I don't object to having at least 27 grades a quarter, I usually have more. I didn't like being told how many to give in each category, though.

Then came the new twist of the knife, the insult heaped onto the injury: we actually had these categories and percentages preprogrammed into our gradebooks. We were locked out of changing them. We were also told that we had to use category averages, not anything else, to figure out our grades. Apparently that could not be preprogrammed or it would have been.

At that point, I pretty much felt numb. I had taken so many body blows over my teaching the past few years that this barely registered. The principle of not allowing tests to save a gifted-but-lazy student was a thing of the past. The daily participation grades, once about half my students' average, was no longer the spur to active participation that it had previously been.

There was a time when teachers could simply “close their door and teach.” Even that is disappearing. The assistant principal for the seventh grade goes into all the gradebooks each week. He checks to make sure that there are at least two to three grades for that week and that there are no “blanks.” Those teachers that meet this by 8 o'clock Monday morning (the same time our lesson plans for the week are due to our department heads), get a congratulatory email. Those who don't get an emailed admonition to fix it as soon as possible. 

I think this gradual process of losing the power over my own gradebook is symbolic of what has happened to teachers across the country over the past two and a half decades: the loss of autonomy, the disregard of professional judgment, the assumption that teachers need to be monitored and micromanaged lest we dare fail to follow the dictums we have no say in, the disrespect of our professionalism.

As the monitoring and surveillance of our daily procedures grows and deepens, I fear the micromanagement will only worsen still more. The Orwellian future has slowly crept up, one indignity at a time, until it has become the present we all live in and accept as normal.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

From "Relic" to "Expert"

The day before winter break, I was contacted by one of the media specialists for my school. She asked me if I and my team members would be willing to talk to the teachers on the next inservice day about the strategies we use to get our students to read so much. Apparently the students on my team are far ahead of the other teams in taking AR tests and they want to know how we did it.

When we got back from break, I was contacted by the seventh grade assistant principal. He wanted to give me a heads up. At the monthly  seventh grade English department meeting, he wanted me to talk to the the teachers there and outline my reading strategies. I was stunned.

As I went on at length in my last post, for the past three years I’ve not been a favorite of the administration.  I’m not as conformist as the principal would have me be. I’ve been looked at askance for not jumping on board with our restrictive and reductive curriculum, for trying to include methods I know--from experience and research--are better practices.

I have felt (and often still feel) like a relic from a bygone teaching era.  Now, when we are once more given a little free rein (not much!)--and I can use some methods I had been barred from before,--I am asked to explain how, when the school as a whole has a rate of 19% of the students taking an AR test, my team has a 72% rate.

A little background: until this year, English teachers in my school were required to use the students’ Accelerated Reader tests and goals as a grade, even though that is not what AR was designed for. I am not a big AR fan to begin with, but to blatantly use it in a way the company itself says it was not designed for struck me as especially unsound.

This year, we have stopped using AR for grades. Yes, we still had to make them take STAR tests and assign them goals. Yes, we still had to contact the parents periodically to let them know their child’s progress toward that goal. But, since we were no longer required to count the grades, it seems some teachers felt this meant that we should no longer push independent reading. At the least, many thought they no longer needed to push students at AR books.

But the central office still wants the kids to read and apparently can find no other way to figure out whether or not they are reading than for them to take and pass AR tests. They were irate at the low number of students taking AR tests. And we all know what rolls downhill.

The literacy committee had put together a list of incentives for reaching certain AR point levels earlier in the year. We had an AR kickoff rally (at the start of the second quarter). Then, nothing much. I helped to set up the incentives, but frankly I don’t pay a lot of attention to most of them. I am too busy getting my students to read.

What’s my “secret”? It is simple--really. I prioritize independent reading.

I start class every single day with at least ten minutes of Silent Sustained Reading, our WEIRD time.  I know the benefits of SSR and try to communicate that to my students. Minimum. I have a classroom library with over 1,000 books. I am very liberal with passes to the school library. I assign 30 minutes of reading every night for homework. I talk to them about reading. I keep track of my own reading where they can see it. I celebrate their reading. I assign a required minimum number of books to be read each quarter.  My team members and I decided at the beginning of the year that homeroom time and any free time in classes would be reading time. And we all enforce it.

Most of this is focusing on reading and not on AR. Yet, by shifting the main focus away from AR, I am still able to get my students to read. And as one student told a media specialist when asked why he was taking an AR test if it was not required, “I read the book--I might as well take the test on it.”

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

I Used to Be a Good Teacher

I looked at this blog recently. I haven't written in it in any meaningful way in way more than a year. It has been a tough time for me, as it has for many teachers in the US. I am slowly starting to come out of my funk. I wrote this tonight to try to explain why I have been absent for so long.

I Used to Be a Good Teacher

I used to be a good teacher. 

But that was a while ago.

I have some awards. I have students that I run into in town who usually seem to remember me fondly. One even told me he still had a poem he wrote in my class 25 years before. 

I even wrote in this blog fairly frequently. It was a place to share good things that were going on in my classroom. 

But I think that has changed in the last few years. I still try my best every day to help my students learn, but with the loss of autonomy I have experienced, I feel that I am much less effective than I used to be, though there has been some slight improvement this year. 

I teach to a curriculum map that I have virtually no input into. It is a map that goes, literally, day by day into what I should be teaching. Sometimes to the point of what state and corporate core standards I should be teaching that day. It is a major change from what I did for most of my career before that. 

I am, by nature and training, a constructivist. As such I ran my classrooms as student-centered as I could. I used reading and writing workshops, pretty much exclusively. We did a great amount of reading and a great amount of writing. Every day was a new adventure as I used the work my students did to plan the next day’s lesson. And often that was scrapped when a student would ask me a question and we’d explore that instead.

I was excited a couple of years ago to go to my first curriculum mapping at the middle school I teach at. I had started there the year before after spending five years teaching writing at the high school and 18 years before that as (primarily) a seventh grade teacher in a different district.  I had not been able to attend the curriculum mapping the year before because I was on staff with my local Writing Project site. 

Imagine my disappointment and frustration when I entered to learn that I was not going to contribute to mapping the curriculum as I had thought and as I had been told. Instead the mapping had been done with no input from me, but with the aid of the Alabama Reading Initiative. I was appalled. A day to day schedule. No time in the schedule for beginning of the year icebreakers or getting-to-know-you activities. 

On the second day of school we were to be teaching “Rikki-tikki-tavi.” Why that story? As nearly as I could figure out, because it was the first story in the textbook. I never got a better explanation than that. And the entire year we were scheduled to be in that literature textbook. Absolutely no provisions had been made for teaching a novel or doing an author study.  

I talked about this with the assistant superintendent, and was told that I could “get happy with [the new plan] or get somewhere else.” I was also forbidden to teach Greek and Latin root words systematically, despite the research showing how much good it did for comprehension, because she did not want me “wasting time with something that was not in the state course of study.” 

The year before 86% of our seventh graders made a 3 or 4 on the state standardized reading test. My students had a 90% rate of 3s and 4s. Even though this was the case, it was my methods that had to change. I was not teaching the way they wanted, and even though I had better results, they did not care. I was to do it their way. 

I tried to keep to the schedule. After all, I might be a day or two behind here or there, but I was trying to teach their way. A way totally alien to me.  It did not take long, it was November, that I was called to the principal’s office and written up for “blatant insubordination” because I was not on schedule and had, in fact, taught a writing assignment several days longer than was in the schedule. Didn’t I know that we didn’t test writing anymore? I was to concentrate on following the curriculum to the letter or be fired. 

It was my 25th year of teaching, my “retirement” year. I had a mortgage, a load of bills, and a daughter. I could not afford to be fired. So I did what they told me to do. I used the PowerPoints that the other teachers made and taught their way. I even took my turn creating lessons and PowerPoints for the department, keeping to the model of what my department head had been doing.

All four members of the seventh grade English department were on the same hall that year. During the numerous walkthroughs, we were to be teaching the same lesson, the same day. In fact, the observers were told that they should be able to go from one room to another and follow the lesson class by class through the hallway. And to note it if that wasn’t happening. We were praised for doing this. 

This continued into the next year. Again we were observed and judged. The middle of the year we had a new School Improvement Specialist on board (though she was used more as an assistant principal than anything else). Then there was a major review. Students and teachers were interviewed. The English department was called together and then called on the carpet. 

Our lessons were boring. We were too uniform. We showed no individuality or creativity. We were all doing the same lessons the same way and that was a problem. I explained as politely as possible that this had been what we were told to do. The assistant principal had the utter nerve to sit there and say we had never been told to teach the same thing the same way. The floor was cold when my jaw hit it. 

We were "encouraged" to be more individualistic in the way we taught lessons. Teach them our way. But, stay on the daily curriculum map ( we could be a few days off, but not too many--maybe not more than three?) and still give the same tests, the lame tests from the textbook, as our common assessments. I had to wonder if any of them had ever read Joseph Heller. And I was reluctant to deviate very much as I had that letter in my file warning me of what would happen if I did.

And still, before the end of the year I had my second write up for “blatant insubordination.” It wasn’t that I did not have my lesson plans. It wasn’t that I wasn’t teaching my lesson plans. It was that I didn’t have them printed out and put in the folder at the front of the class as ordered. That there was not a working printer on the English department hallway didn’t matter. That the library didn’t help out and print out a copy when I emailed them in a panic didn’t matter. 

I was told by the principal that I had a conversation with the media specialist earlier in the week and was told I could print things out in the library. No conversation ever took place. I told him that. His response was, “Well, I think it did.” Based on that, I was again blatantly insubordinate. 

I made it though that year. Still not sure how. 

This year we've been granted a little more autonomy. We are no longer in departments, but in teams again. Our class period are a little longer and our overall student load a little lighter. I was able to get a few minor, minor changes to the curriculum. Mainly a few days for geting-to-know-you activities at the beginning of the year before jumping into “Rikki-tikki-tavi.” Also, as the state course of study has changed a bit, I can now teach Greek and Latin root words again. 

With the longer classes, I can--and do--incorporate SSR on a daily basis. (More on this in another post.)

I am still not teaching writing to any degree. I find it hard to do that with any kind of good conscience. I am not teaching them to be independent thinkers as much as I would like to. I am teaching them to pass tests. And tests that are usually poorly written and don’t cover what I, in my professional judgement, think is important. 

If my students all do poorly on a test for a story/poem/article we read from the textbook, we don’t go back and reteach and try again. We move on to the next lesson on the curriculum map. If they come in with an interesting question, we don’t explore it. We do the lesson on the map. Follow the plan. The plan I have almost nothing to do with creating.

So, even though I have not been written up for insubordination this year (yet), I am not a good teacher. I am not meeting my own expectations for what I should be doing with my seventh grade students. And, even though I am making some progress here and there, it is not as much as I feel I could be doing. As I should be doing. Not nearly as much as they need and deserve.

What used to be a profession has become a job. 

Hi, I’m Mr. B. Would you like some fries with that lesson?