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.

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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.

Help for the Weary

When you walk into a classroom today you expect to see students engaged in the learning process. You hope to see a teacher so excited about his/her content, that the energy flows directly to the learners. Sadly, when you walk into most public classrooms today, what you see will make you weary. Try as she may to create a classroom of engaged learners, the teacher of today often feels so overworked and overburdened, that little energy is left to give to the students. And sadly, this environment leaves both teacher and students feeling disengaged and yes, weary.

Admittedly, the learners of today are far different from the learners of say, just ten years ago. Technology has dramatically changed the education landscape, and the way that teachers need to approach this profession. Some would argue that technology is the root of the problem in today’s classrooms. Some would say that tech/social media is the very reason that teachers must work harder to keep students engaged. But blaming technology for all of the woes associated with education would be erroneous. In fact, technology has helped teachers to engage and connect students in ways that textbooks and old teaching methods do not. Technology has changed the very manner in which an educator disseminates knowledge. No longer should teachers lecture while students sit idly as passive learners. Technology allows the teacher to be more of a coach. A mentor who guides students as they connect, engage, problem solve, and think critically about the world around them. Through the use of technology, students can develop 21st century skills which will serve them well for the global world that they will soon enter. Technology is not the root of the evils that lurk in public schools today.

Why then do most public school teachers feel overworked? Why are teachers working harder than the students who sit in their charge? Why are so many educators working in places where creativity and engagement are not the norm? Why are so many teachers feeling so weary?

Here are the 6 top reasons why:

  1.  Emphasis on standardized testing
  2.  Little or no teacher planning time
  3.  Little or no resources that align with standards/ Common Core
  4.  Lack of leaders/coaches/guidance – teachers are expected to “do it all”
  5.  Interruptions
  6.  Regulated expectations to teach more curriculum (get it all covered) with less mastery of skills

There needs to be a paradigm shift, and soon. A shift toward helping all teachers do what they do best, and that is, to teach. Educators spend more time on the following tasks than they do actually teaching:

  1. prepping students for high stakes tests (which is not teaching)
  2. planning lessons that align with standards
  3. finding resources that align with said standards
  4. teaching themselves new skills because districts have neither funds or resources
  5. fitting in more content over the course of a year despite mastery of skills
  6. taking courses required by policymakers (who never step foot in a classroom)

These are the reasons that many teachers today are feeling so overworked and weary. Teachers are being required to do the work of many, resulting in adequate teaching at best. It’s not for lack of trying. Educators give everything they have for the sake of their students. It really is time that teachers are recognized for the extreme efforts they make to do their job- if only they could just do their job. The tragic consequences for schools across America are at stake should things continue to spiral as they have. Skilled, dedicated, creative teachers will leave this profession. Not because they no longer love teaching, but rather because they are no longer allowed to do what they love.

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Step Out or Step Up

Lately I’ve been on a soul searching quest to follow my passion. This crusade has forced me to answer some challenging questions. And just when I think I have things figured out, something comes along to alter my thinking. For some time now I’ve felt that remaining in my current work situation will only serve to disappoint and keep me from fulfilling myself creatively. Leaving my current school district has been something that I have thought about for quite some time. In fact, leaving the teaching profession altogether has been something I have been struggling with for months.

Yesterday in church, my pastor’s message challenged this thinking. He spoke about leadership and one’s courage to lead in the face of adversity. He asked us to think about what it takes to remain where we are, and to lead from where we are. He asked how close we come to our vision before we run in fear because we are afraid.

It does take courage and strength to lead, to bring about change. It takes risk. Leadership begs the question -am I qualified enough?

This in turn forced me to ask these same questions of myself. If I so desperately want change in my district, why am I not fighting for it?Many of the leaders that I have come to respect through social media have advised me to be that one voice of change. My response has been to laugh and look for an external fix. Perhaps I should be looking inward. Is my desire to leave based on fear? Do I lack bravery? Can I step up even when I am afraid?

Yesterday’s message is weighing heavy on my mind. How many ordinary people are willing to change things right where they are? How many ordinary people are willing to be brave? How many ideas are dying all the time that could change the world, because people are not ready to step up?

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Teaching: Art or Science

I’ve been doing much self-reflection as a teacher these past few months. I think about the profession, how it’s changed, and where it’s headed. This reflection has forced me to come to terms with who I am in the classroom. As someone who has always struggled with self-confidence, I have spent much of my career second guessing myself as an educator, telling myself that I’m not equipped for the profession, that I’m not as good as my colleagues down the hall. Recently, we hired a very ambitious teacher at my grade level. She spent the summer creating hundreds of lessons, she can recite any math standard as it relates to the Common Core and uses formal/informal assessments on a daily basis to gauge where her students are academically. Yes, you read correctly, on a DAILY basis. Hers is a classroom of constant pre-testing, re-teaching, and post-testing. She has it down to a SCIENCE. Well, this would probably cause even the most seasoned teacher some level of discomfort, never mind one who struggles with confidence issues. So when the school year began, we all felt like we needed to step up our game. Which, in this profession is always a good thing. For me, however, it again brought up feelings of inadequacy, that perhaps the time had come for me to leave teaching to those better suited to this “science”.

Miraculously for me, and I would like to think for my students, something shifted for me a few weeks into the school year. I started reading more, I started to blog and most importantly, I started using Twitter more. There I joined several chats to develop my PLN. Little by little I have begun to feel validated, respected and encouraged by the teachers and administrators who I now turn to whenever I need support. Twitter is where I have learned more about myself as an educator, than in any PD I have ever taken. And the things that I have learned about myself are things that I embrace, rather than question.

Here’s what I embrace: 1) I am not someone who wants to teach the same way every year.  I am creative, and when my creativity is squelched, I die a little inside. 2) The students who sit before us today are far different from the students of yesterday.  3) Assessment is important, but it cannot be what drives us in the classroom every day. Instead, we must strive to make learning meaningful, and dare I say it, a little bit fun.  4) Preparing students for high stakes testing day in and day out is not the reason I became an educator.

To say that I no longer have doubts about myself as a teacher would be untrue.  I will forever seek the approval of my peers. However, today that approval seems less and less important to me. It no longer worries me that my colleagues down the hall may have this teaching thing down to a science, because I believe that teaching is an art.