Friday, December 07, 2012

27 Rejections for One Job Application

I recently applied for a job and got the usual, "Thank you for your interest in applying to the XXXX School District, specifically the position of YYYY.  The District is fortunate to have many qualified applicants; regrettably you have not been selected for an interview at this time." and so forth.  Only, this time I got the email message 27 times.  I guess they REALLY didn't want to consider me for the position.  Nor 20 other applicants, whose complete names and email addresses were also included in the rejection note.  I hope someone is suitably embarrassed about the error and the breech of privacy.  They did apologize and they blamed it on the software the district was using.

Looking on the bright side, this is a new record for the most rejections I have ever gotten in a day - and this was for a single job application.

It looks as though I will never get a regular job in a school district around here.  I am simply too old (63) and too expensive.  I have two master's degrees and 199 hours beyond the second master's degree toward a Ph. D.   And, even though I have a perfect score on a relevant PRAXIS exam, 200 points, and a commendation from ETS for Excellence, I evidently am not good enough for the school districts that are close to me, as most of them do not even call me to interview. 

I guess it is fortunate that I actually find subbing interesting, even though it is exhausting and often extremely difficult.  I enjoy comparing school districts, schools, classrooms, teachers, curriculum, and above all students from different educational venues.  I just wish the pay rate wasn't such an insult - no person living alone could afford to be a substitute teacher - at least around here. 

And, 27 rejections is discouraging, even if I know it was a mistake - because they have been preceded by many other individual ones. 

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Just Coincidence?

I was in a top-rated school today and enjoyed the students.  But, there is one thing that seems a bit odd.  I have been ranting about large class sizes in most schools.  This class was only 22 students.  That is the smallest class I have had for a long time.  It could be just a fluke of numbers and classes, but it seems odd that a top-rated school would have a smaller class and the struggling schools have much larger classes. 

Monday, December 03, 2012

Don't Bother

I am now annoyed by an entirely different thing.  If the only reason you comment on my blog is to advertise or solicit views for YOUR blog, don't bother.  If you truly think your blog is relevant to my comment, explain why, don't just give me a link.  I don't follow random links.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Questions about Differentiation

I know I have talked a lot about differentiation - how it is not adequate for highly gifted students, how most teachers don't seem to be able to do it consistently or adequately.  So now I have additional questions.  Has the gifted field's emphasis on differentiation helped?  Are there more accommodations for gifted children or fewer?  Are the needs of more gifted children getting addressed at an appropriate level or not?

I don't know if there is research about this, but I do know that one state I lived in, Illinois, dropped funding for all gifted programs.  I have also been told that a school district neighboring where I live now has eliminated all gifted teacher positions.  The thing that I feared a dozen or so years ago seems to be coming to pass.  Educators of educators tout differentiation -> new teachers are all expected to subscribe to the differentiation mantra -> now that all teachers can differentiate, they can take care of the needs of all students in their classrooms -> special programs are no longer needed.  Only, there are laws about students with disabilities and there are high stakes tests for students who are struggling with the regular curriculum.  So, it turns out that the special teachers who help students with disabilities or those who need extra support are still there - and in even greater numbers.  There are literacy support teachers, numeracy support teachers, ELL teachers, LD teachers, special education aides.  Do you notice the one group that there is no more?  GT teachers. 

Don't get me wrong - I think differentiation is a great thing for teachers to learn to do.  And, as much as they can in the limited time they have available, all teachers (in my opinion) should be able to differentiate for the students in their classes.  But has the gifted field's emphasis on differentiation helped gifted students get the services they need?  Convince me. 

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Each One Counts

For a long time now, I have been harping about class size and today, I would like to compare two of the classes I have had this week.  They aren't strictly comparable - they were different grade levels and in different districts, but since I am not going to make a statistical appeal today, it doesn't really matter that they are not as comparable as one might wish.  Both classes were in relatively well-to-do neighborhoods, with fairly privileged children.  One class had around 24 students, the other had around 32.

In the first case, as a sub, I had 24 names to learn and 24 new students to interact with.  Learning 24 new names each day is doable, though difficult.  Learning 32 names is probably not doable for most subs.  How would you feel if your child was one of the ones the teacher couldn't learn the name of?  Probably, most people would let it slide.  But during the course of his/her schooling each child will have nearly a full year of subs.  One year of being nameless?

In the first class, I could spend a couple of minutes talking to a boy who wanted to tell me about his project; I could spend another few minutes with the know-it-all girl, who needed to show me how competent she was as a teacher's helper; I could talk individually to each child during the literacy block.  In the second school, I got to talk individually to some of the students, but not most of them. 

You know what kids remember most about their schooling? - how the teachers made them feel.  I could feel so much better about my interactions with the class of 24 students than with the class of 32 students.  24 is still a bit bigger than I would like, but 32 is definitely past the point where it is possible to have a significant number of personal interactions.  With 32, there is a lot more time spent keeping kids on task, correcting behavior, and take care of administrative tasks.  With 24, there is room in the classroom to move around to different areas for different types of activities.  With 32, the room is so packed with desks and chairs that there is frequently very little room to maneuver.  With 24, it is easier to get to each student to answer a question or to point out a problem.  With 32, it is much harder.

Each child counts.  Each interaction counts.  When people say that class size doesn't matter, according to research, they are looking at test scores.  Maybe there, it doesn't matter.  I don't really believe that, but that isn't my point today.  Children are much more than test scores.  They are real people who need personal interactions, even the surly kid who doesn't want to talk to the teacher.  Each one needs to know that the teacher cares.  Even if that teacher is "just a sub".

Wednesday, November 28, 2012


I am very annoyed at a certain school district that is very near me. I took a job a couple of weeks ago, double checked and verified it, and even received a reminder about the job yesterday. I get to the school this morning and the teacher is there. She claims she cancelled the job yesterday, when the training was cancelled, but I received no notice of it. The principal offered to pay me for a half day and told me I could help out here and there with special ed and reading support. Those are two areas of work I don't especially enjoy and I think it is unfair to offer me a half day's pay for a day's work. So I came home. And I have lost a full day's pay. Oh, well, $90 doesn't go very far anyway. It is just all I get.

So, once again, I am reminded of how useless I feel - not even needed as a place holder.  Fortunately, I have had two other days this week with different school districts.  One was a very good day; one was an OK day. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Good Day

Yesterday, I had a good day subbing.  I can't say that for every day, but some days make it worth it.  The class was respectful and, above all, NICE.  It was an enjoyable day.

One of the highlights of my day was a young boy.  As a sub, I have no way of knowing if this student is identified as gifted, but I could see it as if it were written in bold letters across his forehead.  He was working on a project about American legends for his reading work.  [And I might say, as an aside, that this might, in fact, be one of the very rare instances that I could actually see differentiation occurring for a gifted student in the classroom.]  He had a list of American legends that he was making a booklet about.  We talked briefly about the ones that he had listed.  He told me they could be either real people or not real people and he had included several that were rather interesting, including one Native American legend.  I made one additional suggestion, Sacajawea, and that was all the time we had.  But it was good.

I had met his teacher when I first arrived there - she was going home sick - and she seemed very nice and competent.  I am glad this young boy has such a good regular teacher. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Differentiation at NAGC

OK, I will admit it - I only went to one day of NAGC this year.  I am a substitute teacher, which means I don't make very much money ($95 per day * around 160 days per year = about $15,200, which isn't enough to live on in most places in the US).  And there were no single day registrations available, unless you registered as a parent and went to parent day.  So, I registered as a parent and then went over to the regular meeting and attended the regular sessions.  Maybe that isn't what I was supposed to do, but the woman working the registration desk was the one who recommended it, so I took advantage of it. 

I met up with two people I knew for lunch, Sally L. and Carolyn K and we got into a discussion about differentiation.  I explained that I am opposed to it.  Carolyn K was rather shocked at my assertion, but I further explained that the reason I was and am opposed to emphasizing differentiation for gifted students is that most teachers can't do it.  It is a great idea, but it just isn't working.  As a substitute teacher, I go to dozens of classrooms a year.  As a former teacher of the gifted, I am always looking for evidence that teachers differentiate their instruction for gifted students.  I don't see it.  Sometimes, I will see different spelling lists for different students; different book groups; or kids moving to a different room for math.  But within the individual classrooms, there just isn't much differentiation to be seen.

Some people have told me that, as a sub, I might not see the differentiation that is going on in the classroom on a regular basis.  This is true.  Oftentimes, teachers will dumb down the lesson plans, so that subs can handle their classes.  But, if this were the case, I would expect to see pointers to some indications that this is a different day - kids unsure about assignments; kids with questions different from the majority of other kids' questions; kids with different materials or working on different assignments.  I see these things for the kids with disabilities and for the kids who are struggling with regular classroom work.  I do not see them for gifted kids.

And, I believe Renzulli himself did a study that showed that teachers he trained thought they weren't doing enough differentiation, that they thought they were doing more than they were, and that observers of their classes saw less differentiation than they even thought they were doing.

As I have said before, I think differentiation within the classroom isn't working - especially for HG+ kids.  It isn't consistent enough, it isn't at the correct level, it isn't supported enough, and it isn't at the correct pace.

And now, for Carolyn K, I have an additional question.  How many of the sessions that you went to at NAGC were differentiated?  For me, it was none.  It wouldn't have mattered if I were a newbie GT teacher or a seasoned veteran, none of the talks I went to adjusted for the level(s) of the audience.  It is true that the talks specifically scheduled for parent day were differentiated for them.  That is the kind of differentiation I support and believe works.  But differentiating a single class is hard.  Most people can't or don't do it.  They can differentiate the offerings, as NAGC does, by having a wide range of choices available.  But within each choice, people just don't differentiate what they offer.  And these presenters had months to prepare.  Regular classroom teachers don't have the luxury of that kind of time. 

I will say it again.  I think we need to emphasize different offerings, not differentiation within a single teacher's classroom.  Most teachers (and NAGC presenters) can't or don't do it.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Eating Habits of School Children

This post is taken in part from a book review I published on my other blog  I have augmented the book review with additional comments.  The book is titled:

French Kids Eat Everything: How Our Family Moved to France, Cured Picky Eating, Banned Snacking, and Discovered 10 Simple Rules for Raising Happy, Healthy Eaters by Karen Le Billon

Although I do not have young children any more, I enjoyed reading this book. As a substitute teacher, I go to many different schools and I have previously taught regularly in quite a few more and I am not happy with the eating habits I see kids developing.

It started with water. There was a big push to have kids drink more water and since the water from drinking fountains was often not very good, kids started bringing their own water bottles and keeping them on their desks. Some kids didn't especially like plain water, so they would substitute juice for plain water, which soon was switched out for energy drinks. The morning milk and cookies snack, became the morning juice and crackers snack.

Then came the popular opinion that kids should determine when they were hungry and thirsty, so they should be allowed to eat whenever they felt they needed to. In some schools, VERY MANY of them, actually, this has become "kids can eat all day, whenever they want". Some schools try to regulate the types of snacks that kids can eat - candy is a No, but fruit rollups are OK.  Cookies are frowned upon, but almost all chips are OK.  Consequently, when it comes time for lunch, kids aren't especially hungry.  They have filled up on juice and chips, so where is the appeal of the school lunch or the lunch brought from home?

This has led to an INCREDIBLE amount of food being thrown out - from their school lunches or from their packed lunches, usually food that is higher in nutrition than sweet drinks and chips of various sorts. Even at the high school and middle school level, in MANY schools, kids are eating virtually all day. I had one very chubby second grade girl tell me that she "needed" to eat all day, or else she would suffer from faintness. She could have been telling the truth, I have no way of knowing, but it certainly wasn't doing her any good to be eating all day.

So, it was very interesting to me to read about a different culture where this was not accepted. Kids in France, evidently, eat four meals a day - breakfast, mid-day meal, after school snack, and dinner.  These are eaten at fairly strict times and there is virtually NO snacking outside of these times.  If the kids are hungry, that is considered a good thing - they will eat well when the time comes.  Kids eat regular adult foods - no macaroni and cheese for the kids, while the adults eat something exotic.  It is accepted that kids won't like foods the first few times they taste them and it is expected that they will eventually learn to like all of them. 

The only problem with this book for me personally is that I really do not like to cook. It made me wish very much that I did.

I must also admit to skimming a lot of the latter part of the book. Still, if either of my daughters ever decide to have children, I may seriously consider buying this for them.

And should I ever have a say in the matter, I would also seriously advocate for changing the eating habits of children in American schools.  Many, many years ago, I worked for a year and a half in a private school in the eastern part of the United States.  At this school, there were two teachers for every grade level (the regular teacher and an assistant teacher).  The whole school ate lunch at the same time and it was served family style from their own kitchen.  Two teachers headed up tables with approximately 20 students, two from each class.  Any extra teachers ate at the same time at a separate table.  Kids were encouraged to try everything, but no one was forced to eat anything.  I remember how good the food was and how relaxed the meal was.  No rushing through the eating in order to be the first ones to line up for recess.

I have also subbed at a Montessori school in Alaska, where the kids set the tables with tablecloths and and candles and the teacher sat with around 8 of the students at one table (on a rotating basis).  They, too, were encouraged to eat only wholesome foods and, although they were allowed one snack per day, it was usually one that was brought in by one student from an approved range of choices.

The above two examples illustrate that it is entirely possible to set up lunch in schools in the United States differently from how they are currently structured.  I think we need to take a serious look at the structure of eating and drinking in most schools in the US.  Juice and chips all day don't make for good nutrition or healthy children.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Charter School vs. Charter School

In the past month, I have subbed in two different charter schools, both in the same school district.  Both schools have relatively new buildings, with decent equipment and supplies.  Both schools require their K-8 students to wear uniforms - polos, khakis, plain pants or skirts, etc.  Both schools have large class sizes, though at the second one, they were a bit smaller.  I was in the same classroom at each school for 2 days.

The first school I will not go back to; the second school, I will return to any time I get called.  Why?  At the first school, regimentation seems to be the order of the day.  My day was planned down to the last minute:  at 8:45 take attendance; at 8:47 say the pledge; at 8:49, announce to the class, "Get ready to transition to ..."; etc.  As a sub, I felt this to be a recipe for failure - if attendance took longer than expected, I was already behind; if I waited to line them up for something, until they were quiet, they were late to their next class.  The day felt regimented and overplanned.  Except that, the regular teacher forgot to tell me some important things - like where the math book was (on the shelf, under the white board) and how much of the lesson had already been taught (a significant amount), and where the science test was that they were supposed to take (on a different shelf).  It was an uncomfortable two days.  And, this time at least, it wasn't really due to the kids.  They were reasonably respectful and interesting.  Or at least I thought so, until I went to the second school.

The second school was actually enjoyable.  The lessons I taught were substantial and allowed me to actually do some teaching - bring some of myself into the lesson.  I wasn't just a place-holder, delivering a throw-away lesson, while the REAL teacher was gone.  And the kids made me feel like they were actually intrinsically nice, not just regimented into it.  I wish I knew the secret to the atmosphere of the second school.  I have been to other schools that feel as welcoming and worthwhile, but not many. 

What Kind of Liberal

     Quiz: What Kind of Liberal Are You?

My Liberal Identity

You are an Eco-Avenger, also known as an environmentalist or tree hugger. You believe in saving the planet from the clutches of air-fouling, oil-drilling, earth-raping conservative fossil fools.
Take the quiz at Political Humor

Sunday, July 01, 2012

The Complete List of Problems with High Stakes Testing

This comment is in response to this link:

The Complete List of Problems with High Stakes Testing

As the comments to the original article demonstrate, this isn't exactly the complete list of problems with high stakes testing.  From my viewpoint, Marion Brady is hitting some of the major problems with the tests.  I would only add a few things for a bit different emphasis.

"Teachers oppose the tests because they provide minimal to no useful feedback; are keyed to a deeply flawed curriculum adopted in 1893; lead to neglect of physical conditioning, music, art, and other, non-verbal ways of learning..."

There are several points to be made here.  First of all, there ARE standardized tests that provide useful and immediate feedback.  Computerized adaptive testing is getting better and better.  I dabbled with using these kinds of tests more than 10 years ago.  At that time, there was a concern that some students would find the computerized testing environment too intimidating.  I think that worry has greatly diminished, as students repeatedly demonstrate that they are quite adept at handling the computers, thank you very much.  The advantage of CAT is that it gives virtually immediate results and those results can potentially cover a wider range than most of the standardized tests that are used for high stakes testing.  Instead of the 3 or 4 grade levels covered by the high stakes tests, CATs can cover more ability levels.  On the high stakes tests, a 3rd grader would typically see material designed for 1st through perhaps 5th grades.  On a CAT test, a 3rd grader could see material designed for pre-school or Kindergarten all the way up to the top level of the test, probably 12th grade, depending on how successfully s/he answered the questions.  The feedback provided to the teacher can be quite specific, down to exactly which items caused the student problems.  Aggregate statistics are available, too - and immediately.  If a teacher sees that a large number of his/her students are having trouble with capitalization, s/he can add a few extra lessons on the subject in short order.  With high stakes testing, the results are usually not available until this year's class has already moved on.

The second major point I would like to make is that it is not just P.E., art, music, and drama that are suffering.  It is also science and social studies.  As tests get added for science and social studies, perhaps this won't be quite as apparent.  But right now, science, especially, is suffering.  What used to be taught daily is now relegated to once or twice a week.  And, since setting up for, and cleaning up after hands-on experiments takes too much time, a lot of the science that is taught is done in the form of a reading lesson.  The "literacy block" and the "math block" take up huge portions of the day and science and social studies have taken a back seat.

"Teachers oppose the tests because they reduce teacher creativity and the appeal of teaching as a profession..."

Yes, indeed.  There is a lot of pressure on teachers to make sure that they "cover" the curriculum.  The spontaneous discussion, the divergent anecdote, the ability to listen whole-heartedly to what the students are saying - these things are sometimes lost, under pressure to cover everything they are responsible for. 

"...lead to the neglect of the best and worst students as resources are channeled to lift marginal kids above pass-fail 'cut lines'..."

Those who know me know that I am deeply interested in gifted kids.  It seems to me that the needs of gifted kids are being greatly neglected, because of this emphasis on helping the marginal kids succeed.   All kids are in school for the purpose of learning, but gifted kids especially are learning a lot less that they need to learn.  There is a proverb that goes something like: if you feed a mouse a grain of corn, he may feel nourished and full; if you give that same grain of corn to an elephant, he may not even notice that he has been fed.  Is it right to make the gifted child sit in class day after day, year after year, with only a few grains of corn? 

Another thing that I dislike about the high stakes tests is the fact that so much time now is spent teaching to the test.  It isn't bad to learn to write a 5 paragraph essay, but that isn't the only form that essays can take - nor is it always the most effective.  But many students will never learn anything else.

I have actually taught some of the test prep materials in the classroom.  The materials themselves are sometimes worthwhile, but these are things that should be part of the regular curriculum if they are important.  Teaching them as part of test prep only makes the students think that they are only important on the tests and then can be dropped when the tests are done.  Their impressions are usually validated. 

There are many problems with high stakes testing and fairness - both toward students and toward teachers.  Marion Brady covered a lot of the problems, but I wouldn't consider his list "complete". 

Bar Exam for Teachers?

 OK, now the AFT is proposing yet another exam: 

How would this be different from the PRAXIS or related state exams? Colorado has exams called the PLACE exams. There is the Federally Highly Qualified standard. And, there is also already a National Board Certificate. All of that in addition to the regular certification process. None of those exams, standards, or programs has led to fantastic increases in the amount of respect teachers get. Do they think that magically, because it is called a "bar exam" that respect for teachers will increase?

I would suggest that there are other things to do to raise the respect teachers get:  give them time to do an excellent job; keep the number of students that they deal with small enough to manage - small enough so that they can do a decent job of planning, teaching, and assessment; pay them enough, so that, when the stress is high, they aren't tempted to just chuck the whole thing and get a better job. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Gerald Coles: Why Bother Educating the Poor? - Living in Dialogue - Education Week Teacher

Gerald Coles: Why Bother Educating the Poor? - Living in Dialogue - Education Week Teacher

Reforming education has been a national pastime since my mother first started teaching - and my mother is now 97 years old.  But the recent (past 15 years) of reforms have been the meanest spirited at all.  In the guise of improving education, they have made it virtually impossible for teachers to enjoy being in the classroom.  There are ever increasing demands to cover ever more "standards"; there are significantly larger classes and therefore a much increased work load; teachers are required to accommodate an ever increasing list of special education students and practices; there is less provision for kids who are at the extremes of "normal".  It would almost seem as though people are determined to eradicate creativity and caring from the classroom.  Creativity is a waste of time and caring is monumentally difficult,  with so many students to take care of.

People who would have made excellent teachers are driven away from teaching or don't even consider it as a profession, because of low pay, low prestige, uncertainty in working conditions, and heavy work loads.  People who enter the profession with hope soon encounter the reality of the job and drop out of teaching in droves.  I read recently that teaching loses half of the teachers that enter the profession in 5 years. 

The increased testing regime has been discussed extensively in many places, so I am not going to address that.  I am going to discuss what I consider the most insidious of the reforms: differentiation.  On paper and in theory, this looks great.  Teachers are taught simple techniques for making lesson plans adaptable to the various ability levels of all of the students in the classroom.  What proponents of differentiation often fail to consider is the amount of extra time required to plan for a differentiated classroom and the fact that this increases with the increase in ability levels in the classroom.  A simple 5th grade lesson on the rock cycle can be an example.  There is a standard textbook, which is probably written at a 5th grade reading level.  Most of the students will be able to read it, but there will be a few who cannot.  The teacher has to find other ways of teaching the rock cycle for the students who cannot read the text - maybe an audio recording, maybe partner reading, maybe a movie, maybe a simpler book.  Each of these have to be checked to make sure they cover the standards and objectives for the lesson.  Then, there are the kids in the classroom who have special needs.  Each of their needs must be accommodated in the lesson plan.  And finally, there are probably a few gifted kids in the class, maybe even a highly gifted kid, who has studied the rock cycle extensively on his own, has a large rock collection at home, and is interested in comparing the difference in microscopic structure of granite and marble.  The teacher knows nothing about high school or college level geology and would have to struggle to find appropriate materials for this child.

All this might be do-able, if the class size were under 20, or if the teacher could count on teaching the same thing several years in a row and could gradually amass materials to use with outlier kids, or if there were a curriculum specialist would could gather appropriate materials or find a mentor.  But the recent budget cuts have boosted class sizes into the mid 30s, teachers are often reassigned year after year, depending on class numbers, the curriculum itself is redesigned on a regular basis, and the curriculum specialists have been eliminated by budgeting problems.

And, the fact of the matter is, elementary teachers are almost universally responsible for multiple lessons in one day.  When I was teaching full time, I counted 34 different lessons that I was responsible for in one week (grades K through 8, for me).  Planning for these lessons, teaching them, and assessing student progress took much more than the 30 minutes planning time I was allotted each day.  

Simply put, the job of teaching has become too much.  Teachers pay lip service to differentiation, to standards, to new technologies, but in my experience, they can't do it all.  Perhaps I see a biased sample of what most teachers are doing.  I am a substitute teacher, so teachers might, in fact, simplify the lessons they leave for me, so that a sub can handle them.  But, I look carefully for signs of differentiation or individualization or indications that the students think that the lessons I am given to teach are somehow different from what they usually do, and I don't see very much evidence for those things.  It seems to me that most of the teachers end up following the textbooks and "covering" the content they are responsible for.  There simply isn't enough time to do anything else.  Parents then wonder why their students' needs aren't considered.  They decide that the teacher is lacking or doesn't care.  And the stress piles up on the teachers. 

So what do the 1% do?  They send their kids to private schools.  I recently read the blog of a teacher who chose to teach in private schools.  She originally planned to teach in public schools, but couldn't find a job there, so took a job in a private school - and stayed in those schools.  She claimed in the blog that she was grateful for having stayed there, because they allowed her the creativity and autonomy to mold her work into an enjoyable career.

Monica Edinger's Blog

I am one of the co-founders of a private school and I helped establish that school because the public school wasn't serving the needs of my highly gifted child.  It isn't entirely in keeping with my support of public schooling, but, when it is your child, you do what you can to get them the best education you can afford.  And, people who can afford those schools often do - schools which often have smaller classes and more autonomy for the teachers. Meanwhile, the public schools are suffering.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Five Misconceptions About Teaching Math and Science

This comment is based on an article in Slate, brought to my attention by The MathMom: The Five Misconceptions About Teaching Math and Science 

 There are several interesting quotes in this short article. Here is one: "The fact that we score poorly now does not mean that our educational system has deteriorated. In fact, it was always bad." I like that, since it points to a different solution from going back to the "good old days".

Another interesting quote about recruiting good teachers: "The problem, however, is not recruiting people into teaching. The problem is keeping them in teaching. Teachers work very hard. They are not paid enough. They endure great stress daily. These factors drive many out of the profession. A study by the National Education Association found that the five year dropout rate for new teachers is 50 percent."

But then, the article says that the way to retain more new teachers is professional development. If teachers are overworked, underpaid, and overstressed, how is making them sit in on more inservice training or more coursework going to help? I respectfully disagree that this is the most important way to retain new teachers.  I think education needs to deal with the problems of overwork, underpayment, and stress.

Teacher Selection

The school district where I live has added some software that asks prospective teachers about their educational views and preferences. This software is designed to be used to help decide which teacher candidates would be best to select for further advancement in the application process. So now, in addition to an extensive online form to fill out, with educational background, work background, and essays on discipline, curriculum design, etc., there is another, separate multiple choice questionnaire that is designed to let them pick candidates who can best give them the answers they want/expect.

I understand that they have many more applicants than they can interview, but I am a bit unsettled by all of this testing, testing, and more testing. There are now state-wide tests that you have to take to get endorsements in areas that you want to teach, national tests you can take, and 30 page online forms to fill out in order to even begin to apply for a position. In this era of bigness and many unemployed teachers, I understand it, from the administrative side.

But from my side, I long for smallness. I long for a real person to talk to me and figure out if we could work together. I have a rather non-standard background, which can be a real advantage to students, but which will never be seen if I can't give the "correct" answers to the selection questionnaire.

Maybe it is good that I find substitute teaching interesting. I like the variety and the ability to compare all of the different classrooms, teachers, schools, districts, and students.

But subbing doesn't pay well enough and I need more income to help pay for an elderly mother. Teaching may lose me as a teacher.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Inservice Fail

While reading a post about how to get people to understand the needs of highly gifted students, I remembered an incident that happened to me about 15 years ago.  I was asked to give a presentation to the teachers in our school about the needs of the gifted.  What I wanted to do was to give them the emotional feel of how a gifted student perceives normal classroom lessons.

The plan was to have them do an activity that was extremely below their level and to continue doing it for a much longer time than was normal, so that they would experience the frustration with and the lack of understanding of the purpose of such a tedious exercise.  It was a good plan.

It failed.

Why?  Because I, the presenter, couldn't keep it up for as long as it needed to go on.  The teachers were perfectly content to sort and re-sort the paper shapes I gave them - many times over.  But I couldn't stand to watch them do it for the length of time it required for them to get frustrated and anxious to move on.

It was a good plan, but I just didn't anticipate my own reaction.  I think if I had to do it again, I would do it as a thought experiment, rather than a hands on experiment.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Teachers' Work Schedules

This post comments about the following article and revises some of the material I posted in response to it on Facebook.

The above article, which is from England, has recently been making the rounds on Facebook. My nephew commented and wanted to know if, in my experience, it also applied to teachers in the United States. The article claims an average of 48.3 hours per week for teachers in England. I told him that the teachers I know personally all worked at least that much. My own schedule, in one of my full time jobs was something like this: 7 to 5 at school, M-F. Sat and Sun 4 to 6 hours each. I had to do a lot of the work at school, because I managed the computer lab and all of the computers in the school, in addition to preparing and grading 34 different lessons each week.

I don't know the statistics for K-12 teachers in the US. It would be interesting to find out, though. I know a lot of teachers who put in much more than the 37.5 (or close to that) hours a week that they are nominally contracted to work.

I recently subbed in a class, where the teacher mistakenly entered the work order for a full day, but only needed a half day. So, I ended up in the teacher's lounge for a substantial time, waiting, in case they found something else they needed me to do (sorting the mail was one task I was given). The teachers were discussing the latest round of negotiations with the school board. They were completely fed up with the extra hours, over and above the negotiated work week that they were putting in. They were at the point of resolving, for the next school year, to work only the amount of school hours they were nominally responsible for. They were concerned that it would be hard on the students - to not have extra tutoring time, extra parent conferences, not as much feedback on submitted work, but they reasoned that, in the long run, it was the only way for the public to realize that the services they were getting were so much over and above what they think the teachers are doing.

Imagine for a minute, if it were thought that the only time a lawyer was working was during the time spent in court or the time spent with clients. Or, the only work that a doctor actually could claim was the few minutes spent in direct contact with patients. Teachers are generally in direct contact with students for at least 300 minutes per day. Virtually all of the prep work, the grading, the record keeping, meeting with administration, fellow teachers, and parents takes place outside of the direct contact time. Many professions require a great deal of "behind the scenes" work. Teaching is no exception, but this is rarely considered when talking about teachers' schedules. Teachers are typically allotted 30 to 60 minutes per day to deal with planning, grading, preparing materials, cleaning up, meeting with parents, other teachers, and administrators, record keeping, learning to use new technology, dealing with new curricula, and so on.

Just a brief example. A 6th grade teacher might know that the curriculum specifies studying about Ancient Egypt. There is a textbook, but reading the lesson and answering the questions at the end of the chapter isn't the engaging project that parents and administrators want to see. The teacher can develop her own projects, which takes time; or the teacher can search the Internet for interesting sites to visit or interesting projects to do. Try it. Try searching the Internet for relevant, appropriate, and interesting material, checking out the entire site to make sure it is OK for your students. Make sure that the project covers all of the standards and content you are responsible for. If you can do it successfully in the 30 minutes that is allotted for planning time, congratulations. Now do it for math, science, reading, spelling, writing, and possibly art as well. So, maybe those projects can last a whole week.  You still have to develop the grading rubric, write and print the instructions for the students, and perhaps write a note to parents about the projects. Now make those projects all relevant to kids whose abilities range from second grade reading levels to ninth grade reading levels. Modify each of the lessons so that both your students with learning difficulties and that gifted student have challenging things to work on for each of those lessons. Now try individualizing the curriculum for all 30 students in your class.

You can't do that in 30 minutes a day??? You must not care about your students.


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Giftedness Awareness Blog Tour - The Problem with Big

We all grow up in different eras from our parents and grandparents, that is we did until the Internet was widely used.  When I was growing up, Iowa was my home.  It was the center of my experience, the source of most of my culture.  TV, of course, brought in the outside world, but it wasn't something to interact with.  It was somewhat like a book, in that it could influence you, but the influence was pretty much one way.  You had little effect on the outside world.  

And live culture, for the most part was local.  Most of the arts performances you saw were produced by local performers.  Occasionally a performer from outside came to the state fair, but, for the most part, cultural activities were locally produced, with homegrown talent.  If you performed in a dance recital, it was for a local audience, not the world.  If you sang in a choir, it was for your school or your community group.   
But this has changed a lot now that the Internet is so ubiquitous.  In the course of a few short minutes, I can interact with people from all around the world.  I can Skype with someone in Australia; I can chat with someone in India; I can look at and comment on Facebook pictures posted by a former student, who is visiting southern Chile.  

In general, I think this is great and it feeds my brain good things just about all day.  The Internet is addicting brain food.  

But... (and you knew there was going to be a "But...", didn't you?), there is one thing about the Internet that has recently come to my consciousness that I am still thinking about and trying to fit into my thoughts.  It is BIG.  In the "real" world, as opposed to just my local piece of it, there are lots of people who are really GOOD at lots of things.  

I have recently started performing and writing music.  This is perhaps a strange thing to do, for a 60+ year old person, who has only participated in group performances, such as choruses and who had never written music before, but, for some odd reason, I wanted to do it.  The problem is, in a previous era, you could engage in the arts and you didn't have to be especially good.  You mainly compared yourself to other local performers.  Chances are, those other local performers were also pretty good, but they weren't the world's best.  You might see the world's best on TV, or even once in a while in real life, but mainly the comparisons were with local people.  

So, now, I am wondering how this impacts kids who are growing up now.  How can they dare to write a poem, when there are thousands or even millions of poems available just by Googling "poem"?  How ostentatious it is to write a song, when there are millions of songs on YouTube, available just by clicking?  How does it impact someone who could be a gifted musician, when even when s/he is starting out, s/he has to compare the work s/he does to someone who is an expert already?

I lived in Alaska for a few years and was aware that there is a different mindset in those people who are somewhat isolated from the bigger world.  They participate more.  That is where I dared to participate in Cabaret; where I first dared to write my own song.  

How do we turn off our world-expert consciousness when we are trying something that we aren't yet good at?  How do we encourage the fledgling gifted creators?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Gifted Awareness Blog Tour - Giftedness as an Adult

Hello, and welcome to those of you who are visiting the Gifted Awareness Blog Tour.

The Problems of Getting Stuck

A year ago, I attended the First International Conference on Gifted Adults.  I attended mostly because it was close by and because, well, I am a gifted adult.  I didn't expect to spend most of the conference crying.  And I want to apologize to the presenters for any discomfort I caused them.  You see, rather than follow the stages of adult giftedness that they outlined, I have periodically become stuck in a stage that I feel I should have already mastered.

I have searched my computer and the Internet in vain for a list of the stages of adult giftedness.  But I can recall some of my "stuck" times.  One of them came early.  When I graduated from college, I had just completed teacher certification and was ready to start teaching somewhere.  Only, that was a time of a massive oversupply of teachers.  It was very difficult for a newly minted teacher to find a job, so I took a job as a secretary.  STUCK doing something I really didn't want to do and which kept me from moving forward in my chosen field.  This was a time when I was "supposed" to be establishing myself in my chosen field and working toward competency.  I eventually found a job as an assistant teacher in a private school - not much money, but at least, a foot in the door.  Only then, we moved.

Feeling that perhaps I would be more employable with more background, I returned to college for a master's degree in education.  And I did, in fact, find a job teaching.  And then, we moved again - this time for just one year.  I eventually found a job, but it was only part time and I had to quit when we moved back.  This happened not only once, but a couple of times, following my husband's career moves.  STUCK and thwarted in establishing competency. 

Meanwhile, I went back to school again, this time for a master's degree in computer science - I had doubts about teaching and thought maybe I would be better as a computer person.  I got a job as a computer support person.

And then came my second major "STUCK" time.  I wanted children, but had trouble getting pregnant.  This was "supposed" to be the time for generative production, but it wasn't happening.

Seven years later, I eventually did have a baby, with a second one two years after that, but for those seven years, I felt STUCK and unable to progress as a person.

There have been other major STUCK times in my life: again, due to moving, losing and quitting jobs, changing fields of work entirely, and not being able to get a job in my chosen field, most recently due to age and massive cutbacks in education.  So I haven't exactly followed the standard trajectory of gifted adult development.  And, being STUCK is a critical stage of adult giftedness, in my experience.  It isn't like Dabrowski's positive disintegration and then moving to a higher level of development; it is almost the exact opposite.  I was ready to take on new challenges, but there seemed to be massive barriers in my way, barriers not of my own making, but rather external barriers.

Perhaps all of this is boringly normal, but it is one thing I think the conference didn't really address.  Is the experience of gifted adults significantly different from average adults when they are prevented from progressing through life's developmental stages, due to various factors?  Does Imposter Syndrome and self-doubt take over more than it should?  What are the mental health issues that need to be addressed with gifted adults who cannot, for whatever reason, go forward with life? 

And, there is one other issue that needs its own paragraph - multi-potentiality.  I have been fairly good at just about all of the things I have tried.  In some cases, I feel my STUCK times have been exacerbated by my ability to switch to a different field entirely.  Rather than continuing to develop as a teacher, I switched to computer science.  Rather than sticking with computer science, I studied biochemistry.  Rather than sticking to biochemistry, I returned to education.  Someone at the conference mentioned that he was told early on to be "a jack of all trades and a master of ONE" - an obvious change to the standard aphorism.  I wish I had been told that, but I doubt if my younger self would have listened.  Is it good advice?  I don't know.  I don't regret my diverse career paths.  I regret my lack of sufficient competence in any of them.  I wish I had had more guidance through the STUCK times.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Teachers Can't Do It All

I recently reacted to this poster on Facebook, in the group International Gifted Education.  I wrote:  "This is a great sentiment, but where are real teachers supposed to find the time to do this?"  The only person who commented on that original question was Roya Klingner, who jokingly said that good teachers will find the time by working 20 hours a day.  I appreciate the humor in this reply, but I stand by my response:  "Seriously, though, I think we gifted advocates need to stop proposing solutions that put an even greater burden on regular classroom teachers. Most of them are overstressed already."

I  have just about had it with people piling ever more responsibilities and requirements on classroom teachers.  From new standards, new tests, and new technologies to increasing class sizes, dealing with kids with special needs, and increased extra-curricular duties (bus duty, recess duty, detention supervision, after school tutoring), teachers' plates are already full.  When in the world do they have time to individualize curriculum?  People, teachers are human.  They need to eat sometimes, go to the bathroom, sit down for a few minutes.  They have families, they need to get their own exercise, they may even do things for themselves like play an instrument, garden, solve calculus equations for fun (OK, maybe that is a stretch).  

I am passionate about gifted kids, but I am also a substitute teacher.  I go to many different classrooms in many different schools and school districts.  Some schools structure their classes differently so as to ease the teachers' jobs, but all of the teachers I have subbed for have had full and extremely busy days.   

Yes, teachers should learn to differentiate curriculum, to give kids choices in methods of demonstrating what they have learned, to pose projects that can be tackled in different ways.  Good teachers do this and poorer teachers try.  But accommodating individual learners is HARD and takes TIME, especially if the learners are gifted.  Teachers can help the kids who are struggling.  Breaking down the skills and concepts they are teaching into smaller chunks is something teachers usually are good at.  They even, usually, have a large number of other teachers and aides who help them with this.  But helping gifted learners requires a lot more of a teacher.  It requires going beyond what they are familiar with, sometimes learning new material themselves, finding other people who can help, judging what is available, so that, if something must be purchased, the money (usually in extremely short supply, occasionally the teacher's own) can be spent well.  

We might as well admit this:  teachers can't do this.  They can't individualize curriculum for kids who may be placed in their classes, but who are 3 or 4 grade levels above their nominal grades.  Yes, as I have written before, there are phenomenal teachers who can manage this - I am in awe of them - but we have to stop expecting the average teacher to be able to accomplish this.  Teachers have been exploited far too long.  "If you really cared about the kids you teach, you would..."  Fill in the blank (see a list of teacher duties that keeps getting ever longer).  

What can we who care deeply about gifted children do?  Personally, as I told Roya, I advocate structural changes - grouping gifted kids in dedicated classrooms, schools, courses. Yes, the projects even there need to be flexible, but that is different from developing curriculum for each learner.  Cluster grouping is also a possibility, if the schools are too small for dedicated classes or classrooms. 

Dedicated classrooms and special schools work mostly just like a regular school. There will always be a range of abilities in the classroom. Teachers can handle a range of abilities, up to a point - 1 or 2 grade levels above or below the nominal grade level. After that, it is much more difficult, unless the class size is VERY small.

Some schools follow continuous progress models.  Children are grouped for instruction, based on their current level of achievement in that instructional area.  One school I worked at had a math block and a reading block.  All of the math classes met at the same time and kids were placed where they were ready to learn.  Similarly with reading.  Another school did that for grammar and writing.  The drawback of these models is that the teacher loses track of the individual child.  In those schools, I sometimes felt that I missed my "own" kids. 

One other model that I have seen that seems to have potential was a Montessori school.  From an early age, the students were trained to work relatively independently on a set of tasks.  The level and complexity of these tasks varied, depending on the child.  I have subbed in Montessori classrooms that follow this model, but they were not dedicated gifted schools.  Though this model seems to have potential and the teachers in these classes were good, I still did not see curriculum or expectations that were beyond two years above the nominal grade level of the class.  This model has potential for use in a gifted school, in my opinion, but even in this setting, the teachers cannot be expected to accommodate a range of more than 4 or 5 grade levels.

There seems to be great future potential in various models of computerized instruction.  From flipped classrooms to online learning, to adaptive programming, to digital production, there are now more options in this direction than ever before.  There are still problems with these models, though.  Doing chemistry on the computer is NOT the same as doing chemistry in the lab.  Skyping with a group of students from around the world is not the same as trying to convince the people in your class that your idea is valid.  Even if computerized instruction were perfect and readily available everywhere, you still need relevant experiences, discussion and interaction.

So I am pleading with gifted advocates everywhere:  work for structural solutions, but don't put down regular classroom teachers if they can't individualize the curriculum for gifted students.  They DO care about kids, but they just can't do it all. 

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

The Uses of Placement Tests, Part 2

There was also a 4th type of student - one who had stellar grades and modest, but borderline acceptable scores on the algebra readiness test.  He was the model student: reasonably intelligent, very hard working, respectful, personable.  We accepted him into the algebra class as well, even though his algebra readiness score was somewhat less than I was comfortable with.  The other teacher defended his inclusion, saying that he was one of her best students and would be extremely disappointed if he weren't selected for the algebra class.

He did OK.  It was clearly a struggle for him, but he was, indeed a hard worker, he had support at home, and he was willing to ask for help when he needed it.  In his case, I think the class was OK for him.  It was a bit above what was a comfortable learning curve for him, but he had learned some of the study skills and personal skills that I wish gifted kids would learn: persistence, asking for help when needed, organization.

And this makes me wonder, if gifted kids were closer to their zone of proximal development for a reasonable portion of their school day, would they learn better learning skills.  With my own two children, it seemed to work.  But that is a pretty small sample.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

The Use of Placement Tests

I think I have written about this before, but I can't find the post and I want to think about it again, so here goes a reconstruction of the idea.

Years ago, I was teaching algebra to 8th graders who were recommended by their previous math teacher for inclusion in the algebra class.  In general, the criteria she used for recommending students for the class were two-fold: they had to have good mathematical understanding (evidence: tests) and they had to have good work habits ("A"s in math, which, with her grading system meant that they turned in virtually all of their homework). 

Since I was the one who actually did the teaching of the algebra class, I thought it might be interesting to add to these criteria an algebra readiness test.  So we gave the algebra readiness test to quite a few more students than she anticipated were actually qualified to take algebra.  Interestingly, we now had a new problem.  There were the kids who had good grades and who scored high on the readiness test.  Clearly, they were ready for algebra.  There were kids who had good grades, but who scored fairly low on the readiness test.  Not quite as clear, but still relatively convincingly, they were not quite ready for algebra.  But the ones that really led to a disagreement between the two of us were the ones in a third group:  the ones who scored high on the readiness test, but who did not have especially good grades.  These students were often described as the unmotivated ones, the ones who were lazy, the ones who just weren't interested in math.  She felt these students should not be included, because they hadn't earned the right to be in the algebra class.

Not right away, but after thinking about it for a while, I began to wonder:  why do we give smart kids a pass on taking classes or learning material that they are clearly ready for?  For kids on the lower end of the ability spectrum, or kids with specific learning disabilities, do we let them opt out of addressing their weaknesses?  No.  We may give them extra support to help them handle their challenges, but we don't let them say, No, I am not interested in reading, so I am not going to do this hard reading, I am just going to read this lower level stuff that I know I can do just fine.

Why DO we let the smart kids opt out of challenging material? 

And then, to carry that a bit further, what if we re-framed gifted education in terms of not just letting kids advance to higher level material, but instead use a slightly different argument:  all students need to learn to work hard and to develop good study skills.  Therefore, we need to place all students in curricula that are in their zone of proximal development (ZPG).  Naturally, this will be an approximation.  Teachers with 25 or more students in their classes can't be expected to individualize the entire class for each student, but it should be at least a goal.  Kids who are reading 2 or 3 grade levels above their class level should be required to work just as hard at new reading goals as kids who are reading 2 or 3 grade levels below their class level.  Why shouldn't they?  Why do we let them coast?  Why couldn't we re-frame the curriculum offerings to REQUIRE the kids who have mastered the regular curriculum to address curriculum that they haven't yet mastered?

As an experiment, we agreed to accept one student into the algebra class, who scored quite high on the readiness test, but whose grades would not have allowed him to take the class.  He was the lazy one; the unmotivated one.  And, interestingly, he continued this same pattern in algebra.  He passed the tests, but often just barely; he could have done much better if he had actually done more of the work.  I am not sure what we learned from the experiment.  I think it would have to be repeated a number of times, before we could decide either way - and clearly, it also depends on the students involved.  Even with material better suited to his readiness, he didn't learn good work habits.  Was it too late?  Should we have tried this when he was younger?  Or are lazy students always lazy? 

I still think we should require the smart kids to work harder.  Perhaps this is because I never had to work hard in school myself, until I was well into college - and by then it caused a number of related imposter syndrome problems.  (An entirely different post).

One more thing about the boy who was required to take algebra, even though he refused to work hard.  I had a software program for my algebra students called Green Globs and Graphing Equations (from Sunburst, I think).  The idea is that the computer sprays some random green globs over an x-y grid and you are supposed to try to hit them with lines.  The more globs you hit at one time, the higher (exponentially) your score.  This gentleman got really interested in the program and didn't want to stop at just straight lines.  He asked for equations of different types of lines, so that he might try hitting more globs with one equation.  I gave him circles, parabolas, ellipses.  He wanted still more.  I gave him trig functions, exponentials, anything I could think of.  I showed him how to add parameters to the sine functions, so that he could make them more dense (that really racks up the points).  He may not have been motivated to do homework, but he certainly did find something that interested him.

I wonder what he does now.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A Year's Growth Is Not Enough

At a recent professional development meeting of gifted coordinators, one of the attendees said something to the effect that, although each of us have different methods and strategies operating in our schools, we all had the same goal: a year's growth for each of our students.

I respectfully disagree. If we are setting our sights for gifted students on a year's growth, we are aiming too low. As I have written before, if average students can learn 10 things in a given amount of time, our gifted students should be able to learn 13 or more things in that amount of time. This is, of course, a gross oversimplification, but I believe that, as a goal, it should hold up pretty well.

In fact, I would assert that, if we are doing things right in our classrooms, the gap between the highly able students and the less able students should get larger and larger each year. It is fine to talk about getting rid of the gaps among various ethnic groups, the gaps among different socioeconomic classes, and gaps between genders, but it is different altogether when we talk about the gaps between students of different abilities. The only way to close that gap is to hold down the top, while boosting the bottom.

As educators interested in gifted students, we should aim for more than a year's growth every year and an increase of the gap between the achievement levels of average students and gifted students.

Of course, this brings us to the problem of assessment. In general, I would say we know very little about gifted students' levels of ability or the change in that ability from year to year. Most of the tests just don't go high enough for proper baselines. I see great potential in the use of computerized adaptive testing, but I must admit, I haven't had much direct experience with it.

Friday, April 20, 2012

High School Today

I frequently sub for math classes at the high school level.  I am decent at math, though it has been a very long time since I had calculus, so that is a bit of a struggle.  Thursday, I was teaching two calculus classes and two pre-calc classes (block scheduled) and today, Friday, I was in a different school district, teaching three algebra II classes and two intermediate algebra classes (and one study hall) (non-block scheduled).

Two things are relatively noteworthy:  what's with the eating all day?  Kids come into class with candy, breakfast, snacks, lunch, and drinks, no matter what time of day the class meets.  Evidently the regular teachers permit this, but it completely astounds me.  The kids have 30 minutes for lunch, but evidently they don't like to eat lunch at lunch time.

The other thing that I notice is that, with the exception of the calculus classes, most of the students are confused and not interested in even trying to find out why they don't understand their math.  If I explain something on the board, even in response to a question, I have the feeling that I might as well be talking to the walls.  No one is paying the least bit of attention - even the person who asked the question.  I KNOW I am not that bad at explaining things.  Over the years I have gotten enough direct feedback to know that I am actually reasonably good at it.  But only if I am talking to students who are actually paying attention.  It is impossible when they are shielding their faces so much that you can't tell whether they get it or not.  I usually assume they are not getting it, but I leave feeling very confused myself:  what is going on in their heads?  Given that 80% of them are hooked up constantly to their electronics [why do teachers permit iPods all day? iPods that morph into iPhones and cell phones and electronics of any sort], my guess is that they aren't really there.

Which Is Worth More? and/or Multi-Potentiality

On Thursday, I was subbing at a high school not too far from where I live and after the class was done with the lesson, I got to talking with the students. The subject of after school jobs came up and how much money the students had to spend on various things. One girl said that she made a bit over $11.00 an hour at her job, which was a fairly easy one, according to her. Most of the time she just got to sit and play games on her phone, while occasionally helping customers.

Of course, then I got to thinking: How much do I get paid an hour? The subbing jobs vary in length, even the ones that are supposedly for a "full day". I get paid either for a full day or a half day. Full days, depending on the school district pay $90.00, $94.50, or $95.00. The job that day was for 7.5 hours, with 30 minutes for lunch. So, 7.0 hours @ $94.50 per day. So I get $13.50 per hour. After 4 years of undergraduate education, two master's degrees, and virtually all of a Ph.D., except the final signature, I am making barely more than a high school kid. And, by no stretch of the imagination would I characterize subbing as "easy".

Why don't I get a "real" job? Part of it has to do with multi-potentiality. I am good at a lot of things. I am especially good at learning stuff, so I kept wanting to go back to schools to learn more. And, as I did, I also tried out jobs that followed from the things I studied in schools. But each time, the thing that fascinated me was the learning process itself. So each time, in some way, I returned to teaching. I have taught everything from pre-school through grad school, from beginning swimming through computer modelling of proteins. But now, I am virtually unemployable. I am too old, I have too many degrees, my experiences are all different from what would be expected of someone who is looking for the positions I seek, and I don't exactly have a dedicated career path.

I enjoy subbing, actually. It is terribly hard some days, boring some days, but I like the variety and the challenge. But most of all, I enjoy analyzing all of the parameters of the job. How does this school compare to that school? What difference does socio-economics make? What about the linguistic background of the students? Why are the teachers friendly at one school and completely stand-offish at another school? Which curricula do I like? Which seem to work better for the students?

Years ago, my own children complained that I "had to analyze everything". I guess, yes, they are right. And subbing gives me a chance to analyze a lot of things. I just wish I made more money than a clerk in a pet store.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Great Raccoon Saga

A couple of days ago, my neighbor, whose house is connected to ours came over and told me that he thought there were squirrels in our attic. He pointed to a small hole in the siding and to a pile of insulation that he had swept up on his porch. He said that they had some bait for squirrels that made them kind of crazy and would make them leave; then he would board up the hole for me.

When I got home that evening, the hole was boarded up, but that night, I still heard scratching, as if the squirrels were still inside. I then started worrying that the squirrel(s) were trapped in the attic and would die of starvation. But then, a couple of mornings later, I noticed that the cats were really skittish.  I went downstairs and found that all of the metal covers on the heater vents had been pulled up (4 different heater vents), my office area was ransacked, and the kitchen was messed up. The cat food was all gone.

I figured a burglar wouldn't bother with heater vents, but I couldn't figure out how (or why) a squirrel would pry up heater vents. So I looked around and spotted a bushy tail behind one of the chairs in the living room. I thought it might be Hobbes, my Maine Coon, until I noticed that Hobbes was right next to me. Hobbes is really big, but this raccoon was even bigger.

After panicking a bit, I tried calling Animal Control, and they said they would come right out, until they found out that the raccoon was INSIDE the house - they evidently don't deal with animals inside the house. So I called a company called Critter Control, but they wanted $199 just to come to the house.

That seemed like too much to me, so I took the car out of the garage, and coaxed Calvin (my other cat) downstairs and put both cats in the garage. I left one door open and put a trail of cat food leading to the door. Then I went to school (my one day a week job).

When I got home, my neighbor was outside, so I told him that he had been wrong - it wasn't squirrels, it was a big raccoon. He came in and we tried to find the raccoon. It was hiding under the bed in the south bedroom. He stuck a broom under the bed and managed to scare the raccoon out, and it ran downstairs. It avoided all of the open doors, however, and instead headed for the kitchen. When we tried to herd it toward a door, it slipped by us and ran back upstairs. This time, after we found it (in the middle bedroom), we closed all of the other doors and herded it downstairs, but again it avoided all of the open doors and hid in the bathroom.

I blockaded the way upstairs, but again, it squeezed by and ran upstairs. This time, though, there was no place to hide, so when we chased it downstairs again, it hid behind the chair again. Finally, with nowhere else to go, it went out the open door, climbed over the fence, and left.

The only problem is that I don't know if it was male or female. If it was a female, there could be babies in the attic. So we went to look to see if we could get up in the attic. But my neighbor had to leave, so I still haven't gotten up in the attic to check. But, next to the attic access is an air conditioning air return vent, with several bent metal slats. I am guessing that that is how the raccoon got out of the attic.

And now, the thing that amazes me is that I managed to sleep through all of this destruction the night before.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Unclear on the Concept

I was subbing in a 6th grade recently and the warm-up question for the math lesson (directly from the teacher's manual) was something like this: A certain state has chosen to use the following format for their license plates: a single letter, followed by 5 digits. How many different license plates could they make that start with the letter A? The students were supposed to write their answers on their individual white boards and then show them to me to verify their answers.

The first answer I got was 28. I was completely baffled. Then came the other answers 15, 59, 25, etc., etc. NONE of the answers was even above 100, let alone near the correct answer. When I told the class (of 29 students) that their answers were all way too low, they started guessing above 100. But their guesses were completely (to me) random.

I decided to give them a hint: if they could use only 1 number after the A, you would have license plates A0, A1, A2, A3, ..., A9 - for 10 license plates. With two digits, you would have A00, A01, A02, ... A99 - giving you 100 license plates. They still didn't get it.

Pedagogically, I was so baffled by their lack of understanding, that I missed a golden opportunity to ask them what their reasoning was. I wish I had asked. "My bad", as they say. But now I am left wondering how they could possibly have thought that 28, 15, 59, or 25 could be anywhere near reasonable. This was a charter school, where the kids had to be delivered to the building in cars by their parents every day and picked up at the close of the day. How could they possibly think that 28 license plates starting with A, 28 starting with B, etc., would be enough? There are nearly that many cars at that one school in one day.

I was left thinking that the thinking habits of those kids were pretty bad.

Then came the lesson. It was on the number of degrees in specific turns. Though this wasn't in the teacher's manual, I had them stand up and demonstrate turning clockwise and counterclockwise. That isn't nearly as intuitive was it was in the days of all analog clocks. Our digital kids nowadays don't seem to have quite as much familiarity with the rotation of the hands on clocks. So I had them practice. First we established that a full turn, either CW or CCW was 360 degrees. Then that a quarter turn was 90 degrees and a half turn 180.

As I expected, a lot of the students mixed up CW and CCW, until we had practiced quite a bit. What surprised me a little was that several students refused to participate at all. This is a fairly strict and structured charter school and the non-compliance was unexpected. I didn't make a big deal of it, however, since it was an unplanned part of the lesson. I was more interested in the fact that this was actually a fairly difficult exercise for 6th graders.

That was just about the whole lesson - that and a few word problems. I was not terribly impressed with the curriculum, but this is a curriculum that I am not terribly fond of, anyway, so I am not going to name it. I was more interested in the seeming lack of comprehension of the students. They could do the rote problems, but the applications seemed to baffle them.

I would love to blame it on the curriculum, but I am not so sure that that is the problem. I have seen similar things with other curricula. What seems to me to be more evident is that kids are not particularly interested in making sense of things. They are willing to learn the arithmetic procedures - essentially just memorizing "how to do the problems", but they have very little (no?) interest in understanding why things work as they do. How have we gotten such disinterested kids? Was it always this way?

I remember hundreds of years ago, when I was a child, that I wasn't particularly interested in math. I could do the problems reasonably well, but the mathematics behind the arithmetic wasn't compelling to me. I don't remember if it was taught. I just remember that I was good at math, but, to me, that meant that I was good at arithmetic.

Then came my own 6th grade. The math teacher taught us about number bases - the reason behind carrying and borrowing when you get to the number of the base. It was, for me, a whole new ball game. Math became much more interesting. But that kind of enlightenment was sporadic. I remember asking several times in calculus classes how calculus was used, but I usually got either completely useless answers (It is used in everything!) or vague answers (In physics it is used to derive the laws of motion).

So now, I am wondering: it is counterproductive to try to explain mathematical reasoning to young children? Perhaps they just need to learn to do arithmetic very well. Then, in middle school or high school, with a bit more mature brains, they should take a class called number theory - and learn the reasoning behind the algorithms.

It is scary, though, to think that kids have so little practical understanding of math that they can't see the unreasonableness of the answer 28 for the number of license plates starting with A and having 5 numbers following the A.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Why Can't They Keep Their Mouths Shut???

Another general complaint.

I sub in 3 school districts, in grades 3 through 12. I prefer 4th through 6th grades, but I will sub for middle school and high school math and technology. Lately I have wondered over and over again why it is that kids feel they have to talk all of the time. You get the class quiet, so you can take attendance or give them instructions for the activity that their teacher planned and before the first three names are called or the first sentence you utter is completed, at least 3 students are already talking again. You can do this over and over again and it doesn't improve - get them quiet, start talking yourself, discover that at least 3 kids are talking again. Even when the kids are actively engaged in a lesson (or maybe especially then), they seem to be constantly talking. Not all of the kids do this, of course, but there are many who do.

Some rude classes do this purposely - trying to annoy the sub, flaunting the power of numbers. Some excitable kids do it almost as though they are unaware of the effect it has on others. Some very social kids do it, because they are much more interested in the other students than they are in learning any subject matter. Even when there are really interesting lessons planned, with lots of student interaction and chance to talk once they get started, it is hard to get the lesson started, because there are too many students who are talking.

So the question is, WHY? Is there something going on with kids now that makes silence, even for a short time, uncomfortable? Is there some need to fill any amount of quiet as if it were a vacuum? Is the source of the problem their own brains - constantly needing stimulation, constantly in motion? What has become of reflection? Has it changed into thinking out loud?

I realize that lectures are out of fashion now in classes below college level, but I don't think anyone COULD lecture classes nowadays. They just can't keep quiet long enough to actually HEAR the lecture.

Even movies, which once used to be a sure fire way to keep kids engaged and quiet, don't work that way any more. Kids will talk throughout an entire movie if allowed (and will whisper if talking out loud is frowned upon).

And, interestingly, even if kids are actively working on INDIVIDUAL projects on the computer, even if they are at entirely DIFFERENT stages of the projects, and even if the projects are completely unrelated, they still will talk almost continuously to their neighbors.

Does anyone have a good explanation for this???

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Even I Get Tired of My Complaints

I was subbing the other day in a technology class and, since the regular teacher hadn't sent in lesson plans, his friend, the librarian, was explaining what the kids were supposed to do. That much is fine, but why did I detect a note of "this is probably too hard for you to understand or do much about" in his explanation? True, I am older and probably don't look all that technology literate, but why is that an assumption? I actually have a master's degree in computer science. True, it is a bit outdated, but I have learned things in the meantime. And the teachers who stopped by to pick up printouts also seemed to have that look on their faces, that "Gee, I am surprised YOU are in this job" look.

When I sub for teachers who are actually there and who explain the day to me, I also sometimes get that look. And, even sometimes from other teachers who stop by to help. Don't get me wrong, I am VERY HAPPY when the teachers nearby offer to help (or even just introduce themselves and make me feel welcome), but I am often surprised what they offer to help with. The things that I often need are class lists (why, oh why, do elementary teachers usually forget to leave a spare class list and, if they switch classes for a certain subject, a class list for the other class as well), schedules, a map of the school, directions on where to pick up the kids after they go to lunch and recess, where the copier is in case I have to make emergency copies. Instead, what I often get is questions about whether I can handle the curriculum for the day. That isn't, by the way, usually the hardest part of the day.

Which brings me to another question: why do teachers often give busywork (a puzzle worksheet, a movie with note-taking) to a sub? The students recognize that it isn't part of what they would normally be doing. It is actually harder to get them to do work that is "easier". They recognize that it isn't important and that the regular teacher will probably just throw out any papers they do while the sub is there. What regular teachers would consider an "easy day" has frequently actually been harder for me. The only conclusion I can come to is that the regular teachers don't have much confidence in the abilities of subs. Perhaps this is justified. But in many cases it is not. I have talked to a lot of subs over the course of my years subbing and many are retired teachers, others are people new to the area, trying to get a foothold in the school district. They usually take only jobs for which they are qualified.

Perhaps the reason the regular teachers are less confident in subs is that subs DO mess up at times. Part of the problem is dealing with normal classroom routines, which the teachers often don't explain - How are requests to go to the bathroom handled? Are kids allowed to go to the library during independent reading? What do you do when the kids don't have any pencils? How do you switch the overhead projector from the document camera to the laptop?

There are lots of things that the teachers assume the subs will know or that the kids will tell them. But often the kids will tell the subs the wrong things - yes, we are allowed to wear hats in class; yes, we can chew gum; the teacher always lets us do X... And, in a few classes, where bossy kids have been designated as "helpers", I have gotten so annoyed at the "help" that I had to ask the student to stop helping me - you have to push this button to get the overhead to work; no, it must be this button; well, maybe this has to be unplugged and plugged in over here; no, maybe that was OK, but this needs to be turned on (and by that time, the whole set up is hopelessly messed up). There are times when I just want to say, "I CAN read the teacher's directions by myself." But, of course, there are also times when the teacher assumes that all subs can work their particular kinds of equipment. Guess what, subs are never trained on using the equipment - and different kinds of equipment are set up differently, are activated differently, and fail differently.

Yes, the curriculum is usually the least of my worries. But I think that probably, for the regular teachers, it is the MOST of THEIR worries, so they assume that it will be the biggest worry for the sub as well. Regular teachers are used to their equipment, their routines, their school procedures, and they don't have to be aware of them - they just ARE. Delivering the curriculum is their focus.

That, and the behavior of the students. I usually DO get warnings about the problem students.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Another Class Size Rant

The other day I took a subbing job for math in a middle school. I taught 6 classes that day: 4 classes of 7th graders and 2 classes of 8th graders. The lesson for the 7th graders was particularly interesting. It consisted of two rather complicated word problems that the students had to figure out. But even more interesting than the actual assignment was the difference that class size made. 3 of the classes were normal size and one was exceptionally small, approximately 25 to 28 students vs. 9. I have no idea why this was so. The students didn't actually seem much different individually from the students in the other classes - that is, they didn't seem to have any special characteristics that were notable. They weren't exceptionally brilliant; they didn't seem to have any disabilities. Perhaps it was just a fluke of scheduling.

At any rate, I can't complain about the classes (well, maybe the 8th graders, but everyone complains about 8th graders). They all worked well on the assignment. The difference was the tenor of the classes. The small class just seemed to be much more personal. How much more fun it would be to always have classes of 9 to 15 students! Too bad it can't always be so.

Campaign against PDR - Public Displays of Religion

I am not religious. I have a core set of beliefs, mostly having to do with moral and ethical behavior. I also believe in the power of science and logic.

Given that, I must admit, I am increasingly uncomfortable with PDR - public displays of religion. I dislike the "in my face" aspect of it. My feelings about this are very much akin to my feelings about PDA - public displays of affection. I enjoy my own private displays of affection. I am comfortable with other people's private expressions of religious beliefs. But I am increasingly annoyed at people's public expressions of religion. Why do people insist on inflicting their religious experiences on the general public?

Source of Anxiety

It occurs to me that one source of anxiety for me lately is the overwhelming number of things that I am interested in. With the constant availability of the Internet, with the huge availability of the library, though inter-library loans, with the face to face Meet-Ups on a seemingly endless variety of interests, with all the Facebook friends and interest pages, with the magazines and newspapers that I get, with the long list of emails that I need or want to read, I am simply overwhelmed with stuff. If I were like my husband and narrowly focused on only a few areas of interest, even then I would be inundated with information. But I consider myself to be a generalist. It is one of the reasons why I have stuck with teaching. It allows me to be interested in a wide variety of things.

But recently, I have become more and more aware that it also causes me anxiety. I just can't keep up with the constant barrage of things that I want to read and the things I want to do. I actually have more time now than I have had in earlier years of my life - I am not working on a university degree, the kids are grown, I am not working full time. But that also means that I can develop new interests as well - I have started going to Meet-Ups for playing board games and for speaking German. Last summer, I started making jewelry. This past fall I started writing songs. Since I moved here I have been trying to attend regularly the World Affairs Discussion Group at our local branch library, where I am confronted continually with my lack of knowledge about history, economics, and international policy. And I want to remedy that lack of knowledge.

Perhaps this acknowledgement can explain some of the reasons that students know so little about the world these days. There is simply too much to know; too much to be interested in; too much to do. It is much easier to just focus on the easy things - the latest video game; the antics of pop stars; the latest songs. These things are straight-forward and do not require complicated understanding. Let someone else know the complicated stuff; there is too much for me to know - and by the time I learn about it, it will have changed, anyway.

I suppose other people have come to this realization already - so, again, I am confronted with the question of why should I care? Maybe I should just relax and give up even pretending to be a generalist - but which of my interests should I give up?

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Bored, or Not

It occurs to me that when I was in grade school, I don't think I complained about being bored. That isn't to say that I wasn't bored. I remember counting the dots on the ceiling insulation and trying to figure out how many there would be in the whole room. But I didn't COMPLAIN about it. I was the quintessential good girl. I did what I was told, did it well, and didn't question the decisions of the adults in my life. If my mother told me I was interested in dancing, I never even questioned her decision about taking dancing lessons. If my teachers told me I was good at math, I did well at math.

At my age now, I can't understand why I was so passive about things. Why didn't I learn to be more assertive? Is it a character flaw in me or is it learned behavior? In a way, I am annoyed that someone didn't at least try to make me more assertive. Even now, I struggle with accommodation. I want the people in my life to be happy and I try hard to mold my behavior so that they are. I suppose I should think of that as a positive trait, but I often feel that I have lost myself in the process.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Logic of Different Abilities

Here is why NCLB and its variations are utterly illogical. Given: people learn at different rates. Some people learn fast, some people learn slowly. Sure, the rates are uneven, but if you average them out over time, they will spread out over presumably a bell shaped curve. Result: If you are teaching each child to 80 or 90% of his or her ability, the curve SHOULD spread out as a cohort of children gets older.

To be more concrete: Let's suppose that one child can learn 100 concepts in a year and another could learn 110 concepts in a year. At the end of one year the difference between the two will be 10 learned concepts. At the end of two years, the children will have mastered 200 and 220 concepts, respectively, bringing the gap to 20 concepts. Each year the gap SHOULD grow. Even if the lower performing student is working to the MAXIMUM of his/her ability, he/she will fall behind. The only way this can be prevented is by holding down the top student.

In reality, the gap could potentially be much wider. I seem to remember reading that average kids learn concepts after approximately seven repetitions. Slower kids need more repetitions; faster kids can learn something with as few as 1 to 3 exposures to the concept. Thus, some students could learn as much as 10 times as much as some other students.

Look at this the other way around: Parents: are your special needs children falling further and further behind each year? Well, that means that the other teachers are doing their job. Your children aren't failures; some may be succeeding incredibly. Some of them may even outgrow their disabilities; others may not. But, even if their disabilities persist, they still shouldn't be deemed failures - nor should their teachers. Board of Education people: if the gap between your lowest students and your highest students isn't getting BIGGER each year, then you are holding your top students back (or the test can't measure adequately the top students' progress).

Yes, we should try to remedy any disabilities that can be remedied. But you need a different yardstick to measure progress with different disabilities. Some disabilities are permanent or semi-permanent and the best teachers in the world could not bring these students up to grade level proficiency. Some disabilities are not permanent and can be remedied, compensated for, or even simply outgrown.

But we also shouldn't deceive ourselves into thinking that just because the achievement gap is shrinking, we are doing a good job. It means that we are neglecting those students who should be moving faster.

If someone can point out the problems with this diatribe, I would appreciate it. Perhaps I am missing something.