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?