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.