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 …

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Cargo

So the boxes are packed, the moving truck sits in my driveway, and the memories of this home are tucked deep inside my heart. Leaving the space where I watched my daughters grow up is difficult. This is the home where they explored our woods in search of fairies and adventures. Here is where they learned to ride bikes, had sleepovers, developed lasting friendships, and watched their new puppy come to life. In this yard we buried the beloved remains of our first dog. We had picnics in this yard, watched fireworks every 4th of July, and had family gatherings in this home. So leaving is hard. But when we move to a new location it isn’t the physical space we will miss, because it’s easy to create a home somewhere new. What we really want to hang on to is time. Moving away means that time has passed, kids grow up, parents age – life moves on. And this is what hurts the most with any move we make in life. Moving represents some form of closure.

So as I lay in this sunny bedroom listening to the birds outside my window, I’m trying to pack up all the memories that time has given me these past 9 years. The moving truck will store and transport all of our material belongings, but I don’t need boxes or bags for what I will carry away from this place. My most precious cargo, my memories, will travel with me wherever I go. Yes, with the closure on this part of my life there is sadness, however I find comfort in knowing that I’m not leaving anything behind. My “cargo” will forever stay tucked deep within my heart.

Courage

The time has come for my family and I to relocate. Moving is something that both my husband and I are familiar with, having relocated 6 times in our marriage thus far. What sets this move apart from the previous times is distance. While we have crossed state lines before, all of our past address changes have been within a 30 mile radius. Presently not the case. Today we find ourselves moving across several state boundaries. 381.6 miles to be exact. In today’s global world, that distance shouldn’t mean much. Friends and family can tap in quicker than ever before. I know this to be true, yet right now my heart is heavy. I’m questioning all the reasons that weeks ago made so much sense. I know that feelings of unease accompany all of life’s major changes. Add the stress of selling a home, and searching for a new job into the mix, and it’s easy to understand why my emotions are getting the best of me.

Selfishly I would like nothing more than to vent these feeling to my family, which on occasion I do. But over the past few days while house hunting in our new state, I’ve watched my daughters carefully for signs that they need comforting. Signs that they are feeling stress, anger, or heartache with this reality thrust upon them. For they too have much at stake. Being 15 year olds, they will be entering their sophomore year of high school. They are moving away from the friends and family they love most. The terms of our housing and their schooling has not been determined, yet school begins in just a few weeks’ time. They will be going to a fairly large public high school, yet they leave behind an extremely small, sheltered Christian school. Yes, they have much at stake. Yesterday as we looked at each possible new home, I watched them. I looked for signs of stress, anger, and sadness. I saw none of the feelings that my heart seemed to be exploding with. Instead what I saw was courage and grace and happiness. Their willingness to embrace this change makes me want to try harder to be more like them. While I’m not foolish enough to think that the stressors in a teenager’s life can compare to that of an adult, it helps bring me some level of comfort to know that I am raising daughters who are open to change, and sometimes far stronger than I have ever been. Having spent much of the past night lying awake, fretting over our future, this realization at dawn’s early light will hopefully sustain me, and lead me to a braver path.

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.

How To Be An Intentional Listener

As teachers we are constantly seeking to be heard. Heard by students, colleagues, administrators, and parents. After all, ours is a professional where the role of the listener often determines our success as facilitators of the knowledge we hope to impart. And if our goal is to engage and be heard, then should it not also be our duty to understand what it truly means to be a good listener?

Listening Defined

Listening can simply be defined as the act of hearing or paying attention.  But the art of listening goes beyond this simple definition. For listening truly is an art. And in order to get good at this art, most of us need practice before we get it right. More importantly however, we need to practice being intentional listeners.

Stephen R. Covey (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) suggested that “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply”. Simply put, most people have their own agendas, and therefore are not intentionally listening. Instead they often “listen” with the sole purpose of answering back. If you have ever been on the receiving end of one of these conversations, you have felt devalued. Not heard. Most of us can harken back to a time during our schooling where we faced a teacher who put his/her own agenda at the forefront of every interaction. Chances are that experience was less than satisfying.These kinds of conversations often result in very destructive relationships if left unchecked. When someone’s words are left unheard, self-doubt permeates that relationship every time there is an exchange.

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On the flip side of this, when someone feels truly listened to, a healthy, safe environment is created. When we are heard, we feel valued and respected. For at the heart of every interaction is the desire to be fully heard. As educators, we must strive to create these safe environments by being intentional listeners. To offer anything less cheats the children in our care.

Two Critical Facets That Ensure Intentional Listening:

  • Set aside your own agenda
  • Always keep in mind that the person standing in front of you is more important than the issue you are discussing

Always try to hold on tight to the notion that you musn’t allow your own agenda to get in the way of what another is trying to communicate. This is easier said than done, especially for those type A personalities who need control and enjoy being the voice of reason. It will take lots of practice for these kinds of personalities to fully embrace the art of intentional listening, because they often seem to think that their agenda is the only agenda. Or the only agenda that matters. Set aside your own agenda. Be present and hear what another person has to say without letting your needs interfere. Practice this often.

Finally, always keep in mind that it is the relationships in your life that matter most, not the issues that you might grapple over. Never let an issue lead you so far astray that you forget about the friend, parent, colleague, or student standing before you. Building relationships is crucial. And one of the best ways to develop relationships is to be a good listener. Imagine the potential in our classrooms, boardrooms, and our lives if we practiced the art of listening – intently.