The F Word

Patience. Optimism. Perserverance. I’ve written about all of these concepts in some form or another lately, but today I’m writing about a very different word. One that’s frowned upon in many of my professional circles. A forbidden word.

The F word.

Frustration. (I know I scared some of you for a second there). Anyone who has ever been unemployed, and had to job search knows the feelings that come with rejection. These feelings are part of the process, and should ultimately help you to become more driven, passionate and focused in regards to finding that perfect job. But today, after receiving yet another rejection notification, I’m not feeling motivated in the least. Instead, I’m tired. I’m angry. I’m sad. It’s left me feeling short on patience and confidence. In a word, I’m frustrated.


“Chin up, something will come along soon.” “Do what makes you happy.” “You are talented- you have so many options.” I’ve heard all the positive anecdotes from family, friends, and colleagues. I’ve sold many  such promises to myself over the past months in the hopes of reinforcing a positive outcome. And every single time I think I’ve finally found the perfect job – one that meshes with my experience and my passion; one that I know I’m perfectly suited for, you guessed it… I receive another rejection. I can only be left to wonder what other applicants put forth, and what I lack. My rejections are followed up with questions asking what I might have improved upon in order to increase my chances of getting hired next time, yet most companies rarely take the time to explicitly answer these requests.

I’m frustrated because no matter how much experience I have, how well read I am, or how many connections I make, the doors keep closing on every opportunity I seek to pursue. It makes me question my beliefs about myself, about who I am as a professional, my worth, my dreams… This process has left me feeling lost. Each time I pull myself back up, I get knocked back down, and can’t help but question why. I’m certainly not the first person to seek  new opportunities within a chosen field, yet my unsuccessful attempts make me wonder if such a move is in the cards for me. These doubts lead to the frustration of which I write about today. I don’t want to remain stuck, trapped, or without options, yet this is exactly how my circumstances have left me feeling.


I know that many of my friends who will read this piece will kindly reach out with words of encouragement. Rest assured that your advice has not fallen on deaf ears. I know I wouldn’t have survived these past months with your constant support, and I wonder daily how I will ever repay you. For those of you who think I’ve complained far too long about the whole relocating/ seeking a job ordeal, I agree. I’m tired of myself. I get it. It’s … frustrating. However, this post was not written as a means to garner pity, or to apologize. It was written simply for this writer to release some raw emotions. Out of frustration.

Patience

Being an elementary teacher for the past 17 years has helped me to practice the virtue of patience. Every day in the classroom I’m given multiple opportunities to let go, and let things be. Anyone who is surrounded by children day in and day out knows that to some extent, control is something we’ve got to forfeit in order to truly live in the moment and accept students for who they are. Trying to mold every experience/ activity/ lesson the way we would like it to flow only leads to disappointment or frustration for both the teacher and students. 

I pride myself on being able to assess the children in my charge, and proceed with a lesson by taking cues from them. In reflection I know that some of my worst days are those where I tried too hard to manage the outcome, or when the students output didn’t match my desired expectations. In short, when my patience ran short, things went awry. And as you might guess, some of my best teaching has come when I’ve relenquished that control, and allowed learning to unfold naturally. Patience takes practice. I wish I could say it’s something I’ve mastered, but in the end, is it ever something we can fully master all the time?  I think as teachers, it’s our duty to be mindful of being patient. Believe me, students of all ages know the difference between a teacher with an agenda – someone who just checks items off a list, from a teacher who truly cares about the learning taking place – someone who isn’t afraid to veer off that agenda. In short, kids learn rather quickly whether a teacher practices patience. The culture of the classroom is different. It’s a place where students feel respected and safe. No agenda should take precedence over student engagement and curiosity – which equates to meaningful learning. 
Having patience is certainly one of the hardest things I work on every day with my students. I’m proud of my efforts. I’ve made some extremely great connections with students and parents over the years because of this. 

However I write this post today because I seem to have gotten a bit off track. I haven’t been surrounded by students for quite a few months. Recently my life has taken turns I never could have imagined and yes, I’ve been struggling with practicing patience. It seems it’s harder to let go of that agenda, when it’s the checklist of your own life. These past months I’ve wanted more than ever to control events, to manage all the outcomes. I’ve got my checklist, but can’t quite seem to get the results that match my expectations. In short, I’m running out of patience. And just like what happens in the classroom when I’ve tried to control the outcome, I’m left feeling frustrated. So I’ve got to dig deep.  I know I have the skills to be patient. I’ve been honing them for the past 17 years. If I can bestow the students I’ve served over the years with patience, surely I owe it to myself to do the same.

  

The Black Dot Strategy

Today’s post is a follow up to the discussion with friends from the #bfc530 Twitter chat which takes place each weekday morning. The question of the day was related to what we as teachers do when we know a student is trying their hardest, but continues to act out in class. I offer this as one of the many strategies in my educator’s toolbox. I wish I could brag about being the creator, or at least remember who that person is, but sadly I am unable to claim either.

I would like to preface this piece by stating that one of the most important components of being an educator for me is building relationships. The past 17 years have taught me that creating a sense of community and trust is paramount in order for learning to take place. From the very first days of school it is very important for my students to feel comfortable, and excited about our time together. I often let them know that we are a family, and should begin treating each other as such from the start. We agree upon classroom expectations, and students know that ours is always a classroom where they will be respected, listened to, and loved. 

But every single one of us can attest to the students who push our buttons, and continue to misbehave despite our best efforts to support, engage, and yes, cajole them in the learning process. Last year I had one such student. I will not go into detail about the misbehaviors , nor the energy that I spent trying to reach him. Suffice it to say that I thought about this child well beyond the 180 days that he was in my charge. In fact, I am certain that I will never stop wondering/worrying about his life.

In my quest to find ways to re-direct the acting out, I stumbled upon the “Black Dot” strategy. In a nutshell, take a blank white sheet of paper and a marker to draw a huge square, then place a black dot inside the square. (I used a large 14 x 17 poster sheet). I posted the paper on a bulletin board where everyone could see it. Then I asked the students to tell me what they noticed when they looked at the paper. After some discussion the consensus of the class was that most students’ eyes were drawn to that little black dot. I then directed the students’ attention to the poster and asked them what took up more space, the black dot, or the white surrounding the dot. The obvious answer was that there was definitely more white space. From here I explained that we could relate this to a classroom. That the white space represents the majority of students – the students who stay focused, who want to learn, who are engaged. And you guessed it, the black dot is the student (or students), who misbehave. I asked the students to raise their hand if they had ever been in a class where the teacher focused more on that black dot than the white space. EVERY SINGLE STUDENT RAISED HIS/HER HAND. I made a promise to my class that very day that I would try my hardest to focus on the white space, the majority.

I hope that no one thinks I’m suggesting that this strategy can be used to turn a blind eye on students who misbehave. I am in no way advising teachers to simply allow misconduct. What I am offering is simply one way for a teacher to catch her breath, redirect their attention from the negative to the positive. When I employed it last year, I would simply announce, “I’m deciding to focus on all the white space I see in this classroom right now.” I would point to the poster, smile and continue with the lesson. This little statement made our class happier. My students would smile back and want to prove to me that they were the “white spaces” that I was referring to. It was one small way for any misbehaving student to try to take ownership and get back on track. I would be lying if I said this strategy worked every time, but it did help to reinforce what kinds of behaviors were expected in my classroom. And let’s face it, it makes our job that much easier when we focus on the positives.

Who Am I?

The start of a new school year is rapidly approaching. In fact, some localities have already gone back. As a teacher, this is an exciting time of year. After a summer of recharging, I always feel ready to greet my new students, and eager to engage them in new and exciting ways. With this time of year also comes the bittersweet end to lazy summer days, warm weather and let’s face it, less stress. 

This year is different. For the first time in almost 20 years, I do not have class rosters, schedules, supplies, or meetings to attend. I have no students. I have no classroom. Thus the consequence of relocating in mid August to a different state. Having filed for a new teacher license, and filled out the lengthy application forms, I wonder what happens next. My bio on social media says that I am a teacher. I have credentials, references, recommendations, books, boxes, bins, and experience to prove my worth. Yet in the area where I now reside, school starts in just a mere 5 days. Sadly I will not be among the masses who will wake up early on Monday morning ready to enter the halls of one of these fine schools. 

So as I reflect on all the changes that have occurred for my family and I these past 3-4 months, I am left to ponder who I am, if not a teacher. The saying goes, ‘Once a teacher, always a teacher’, which to some extent is true. However, in the face of unemployment, it can be difficult not to question one’s worth outside of the field of this noble profession. Should I not gain employment as an educator, what does that mean? Am I defined only by my role as a teacher? And if I am not employed, who am I? 

Self-reflection and change are good for the soul. I know this to be true. So I am open to the possibilities that will come my way. After all, in the world of education one should never be resistant to change. So, who am I? I am, and always will be a teacher. Perhaps not in the traditional sense right now, but I remain open to all the possibilities that await me …

Data That Matters

Lately there has been much controversy over the topic of standardized testing. Many school districts, my own included, spend a better part of the year preparing students for these tests. Teachers spend countless hours analyzing the data of student scores as proof of exemplary teaching. For example, if the student scores in Teacher A’s class are higher than that of Teacher B, perhaps Teacher A can offer insights about sound teaching practices in order to help elevate scores in other classrooms. In short, many teachers use this data as a tool to guide instruction. Without a doubt, using data to guide instruction is extremely important and should be part of regular teaching practice throughout the year. However, the data used to guide instruction must be sound and relevant for the students who sit before us. Using standardized test scores to guide instruction may be questionable practice.

What these tests really measure…

In Massachusetts, teachers spend a huge part of the year providing students with formulas for how to take MCAS tests(Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System). Therefore our hope isn’t that students think outside the box, but instead stay completely within the parameters we have set. What these tests really measure are test taking skills, and how well our children can follow a prescribed style of answering multiple choice and open ended questions. When scores come in we lord over the high scores under the pretense that great teaching and learning has taken place.

Why good test scores do not always equate to good teaching…

Standardized tests do not gauge rigor, creative thinking, problem solving, collaboration, evaluating, designing, or independent thinking – the very skills necessary for our students in the 21st century and the world in which they live. This is the danger of placing so much energy during the school year on standardized testing – it creates a culture of students who cannot think outside the box. Sadly, it merely creates students who are very adept at taking tests. This, in my opinion, does not equate to good teaching. The evidence of this is seen in the students who sat in our classrooms some 15 years ago, before the emphasis on tests of this sort. We had students who were creative, and went above and beyond what was asked of them. Today, we feed our students information and ask them to regurgitate it back so they can do well on these high stake tests. We then feel frustrated when they can’t think critically for themselves.

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Enter Genius Hour…

This year, in order to try to rectify this prescribed method of teaching, I decided to try Genius Hour with my students. Genius Hour is based roughly on Google’s 80/20 philosophy whereby students are allotted 20% of their school week to pursue any area of study that interests them. The premise is that student performance will increase when they are given time to follow their passion (hence many educators call this time Passion Hour). After reading countless blogs, books, and watching several videos, I felt ready to give it a try in my own classroom. Having reached out to a number of educators who were well-experienced with GH,( Joy Kirr, Paul Solarz, and Jerry Blumengarten aka cybraryman1) I was more than excited and ready to start. The results however were horrifying. Many of my students couldn’t even tell me what interests they had. What was worse, some opted out and chose to read  instead of even trying and risking. Most had very little deep thinking (merely google answers) about their chosen topic. I was saddened as I remembered the kind of learning taking place among the students in Paul Solarz 5th grade class. My students could not compare. So I sat with pen in hand and watched my students present their projects. My grading rubrics were filled with similar comments like “your guiding question is weak or unanswered”, “GH is not about finding answers on Google”, and “dig deeper”. I questioned whether or not Genius Hour had been a complete waste of time. But the more I reflected, the more I realized how important it was for me NOT to give up. So, instead of grading my students, I started grading myself. Hence my “scores” began to guide my instruction!

Personally, I feel that this is the data that we as teachers need to be analyzing, not the scores on a standardized test. Can our students collaborate, create, think critically/deeply and beyond literal level of understanding? For these are the skills we need to be working on with our students every day. These are the skills our children will need when they enter the global workforce of their future. Sadly my students could not. However it was through no fault of their own. How could they be expected to think outside the box when they have had very few opportunities to do so?

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Personal Philosophy

During the process of writing this piece, I decided to pull out my educator’s portfolio that I had assembled when I first began seeking employment as a teacher. I stumbled upon what I had written then as my personal philosophy of education. Here are the words I penned some 23 years ago: “I seek to encourage the development of skills that enable a person to learn, explore, create, discover, think critically, and generally participate in life as a productive human being. I believe that as a teacher it is my duty to share my love for learning and to help my students become self-motivated, independent, and successful.”  When I wrote this back in 1992, I had some semblance of what those words meant. Today, these words still ring true. They reflect the very core of who I am as an educator. Unfortunately for me, in the wake of high stakes testing, this core belief has been challenged and put on a shelf. The result of which left me feeling unhappy and passionless in a job that I am passionate about. So I am dusting off that shelf because I want to push my students to create, to fail, to persevere, and to love the learning process. These are the skills that will serve them beyond the walls of any classroom. This is the sort of data that I want to analyze and reflect upon to guide my instruction each and every day. This is data that matters.

The Common Core and ELLs

In thinking about the demands that the Common Core places on both teachers and students, it is rather noteworthy that the CCSS provide NO instructional guidance to teachers with English Language Learners(ELLs) to reach these standards. Teachers must rely on districts to hire licensed ESL instructors to support them with the rigors of what lies ahead. Currently most educators in Massachusetts are also relying on the training they are receiving in the Sheltered English Instruction(SEI) course required for teacher recertification.

As one such teacher, it has become increasingly clear that we need to keep our ELLs at the forefront of our mind when thinking about our instruction. Being thrown into a new country, culture, and school can be challenging and scary to say the least. Add to that the demands of language acquisition, and you will set students up for failure if you are not intentional about your teaching practices. In order for all students, not just ELLs, to meet the rigors of the CC, explicit listening and speaking activities must be part of what we do on a daily basis. Oracy is defined as listening comprehension and production of oral language. We all know that there is a direct link between listening/speaking and reading/writing, hence oracy lays the foundation for reading and writing. Therefore we must expose students repeatedly to the four language processes ( reading, writing, listening, speaking) in less formal ways, every day. It must be inherent in the way we instruct and think about curriculum. All aspects of literacy should be what drives much of our time in the classroom, no matter what subject we teach.

For our students, especially the ELLs, the demands of the CC require them to learn vocabulary in ways like never before. Gone are the days of rote recall. Today’s children are faced with increased text complexity. They need to understand wide-ranging terms (sometimes phrases/multiple words), and they need to be secure with both formal/informal speaking and listening skills. Subsequently, vocabulary knowledge has a direct correlation with academic success. Research shows that by the start of 3rd grade, students need to know between 2,000 and 3,000 new words per year for the rest of their academic life! Therefore, in order to improve the overall literacy of all students, scaffolding and modeling the instruction explicitly will be crucial for our students, especially our ELL population.

Time To Change The Rules

As the debate over education in the United States wages on, educators, parents, students and administrators continue to receive mixed messages about best practices for today’s youth and the schools they inhabit. In the wake of NCLB, and the new Common Core Standards, the rules of education are constantly changing. With incentives for schools aptly named “Race to the Top”, it is no wonder that education can sometimes feel like a competition. And in order for educators and schools to stay in the game, they must fight hard.

Walk in to most classrooms in America today and you will find teachers working extremely hard to make connections and engage students. You will see teachers trying to motivate children in ways like never before. Educators are indeed fighting hard. But take a closer look at the students. For it is here where you should see the hardest work being done. Teachers should not be working harder than the children in their charge. Yet, in many classrooms across America, it is in fact the teacher who expends most of the energy.

Rigor

To best understand the reason for this uneven balance, we must take a look at rigor in our classrooms. Rigor is best defined as instruction, schoolwork, learning experiences, and educational expectations that are academically, intellectually, and personally challenging. In order to expose students to rigor, teachers need to impart knowledge and concepts that are complex so that students question and think critically and deeply about the subject matter. In this way students acquire skills that can then be applied in educational and real world contexts. Also, content that is rigorous must be equitable – that is every student, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, or English proficiency should be held to the same academic standards. Rigorous curriculum must not be confused with difficult curriculum. Lessons that are simply “hard” may result in disengagement, and frustration, whereas rigorous learning experiences motivate and give students a sense of accomplishment as they overcome a learning challenge. Rigor exists to help students learn to think, to work hard, and to fail, because it is in this failure that students learn about persistence, consequences and grit. In short, rigor prepares students for real life.

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If the goal of education is to prepare students for real life, why then are most teachers finding it difficult to incorporate rigorous curriculum on a daily basis? Why instead are teachers working harder than students?

Let’s Start With Two…

Reason #1: Educators in the US are required to spend endless hours preparing students for standardized tests year after year. Children across the country are becoming very skilled at test taking, while real learning, rigor, is being compromised. Motivation and engagement are difficult to achieve during test prep instruction. Very little outside the box thinking coincides with standardized test preparation. The result – disengaged students, and exhausted teachers fighting relentlessly to motivate and keep  learners on task.

Reason #2: Teachers today are required to provide their districts with evidence of student academic growth. Unfortunately the evidence is not always used to measure student growth, but rather to gauge teacher competency. Hence, for today’s teachers, much is riding on student outcomes. This means that teachers spend much of their time pre and post testing students throughout the year. And in order to achieve substantial growth, educators often end up teaching to a test just to “prove” that students are making progress. However, the gains students make are not necessarily gains that will prepare them for the future workforce they will soon inhabit. Instead of instilling students with the ability to problem solve, collaborate, and create (rigor), teachers are working extremely hard to ensure that the students in their charge do well on post tests.  So teachers create study guides. Said study guides often have actual test questions and answers. After all, data matters. Numbers “prove” growth do they not? But what is the cost when grades become the priority, not the process of learning? Why should the process(rigor) matter when that cannot be quantified in a grade book? Thus little or no critical thinking is required of students. They have very little ownership of the learning and how it relates to the real world. And should a student perform poorly, teachers are often guilted into giving second chances. After all, student growth is tied to teacher performance.  The result – tired teachers, and bored students.

How can this kind of education be considered a fair playing field? Where other countries like Finland and Korea understand that rigor is a prerequisite for success in life, children in America are being given a very different message. Here students learn that preparing for high stakes testing continues to be a priority. They erroneously believe that being fed information and spitting it back on a quiz or test equates to rigor. This kind of education is definitely not fair to anyone. Yes, teachers today are fighting very hard to stay in the game, however it is high time for the rules to change.  The time to put students on that playing field seems long overdue.