Monday, January 19, 2009

Dear President Obama,
You are coming into office at one of the most tumultous times in history.

Our country's economy is in shambles. Jobs and homes are being lost daily. Once relatively stable components of our economy are crumbling before our eyes. Watching the evening news is depressing and scary.

We are spending phenomenal amounts of money daily fighting a never-ending war in a far away country, a war most of the country does not understand or support. Lives are being lost, without a tangible reward apparent.

While I realize those things, as well as the others on your plate being handed you tomorrow are important, I ask you to look instead first at what I see as the biggest impending crisis for our country: education.

No Child Left Behind, I have to believe, started with good intentions. However, the small snowball it started with has become an avalanche thundering downhill, leaving in its wake little real improvement, and much confusion and disaster.

We, as a nation, need to make our children our first priority. Test scores are just one small indicator of the "worth" of a child. Accountability has become a word that makes teachers and educators shudder. It doesn't mean accountability for educating the child; it means accountability for them filling in the correct bubbles on that one magical day in space and time. These tests that measure our worth as educators, and the child's worth in society, do not measure every aspect of a quality eduation. They do not measure problem solving skills, technology skills, nor communication skills.

Tests scores are not being used to improve the child's education, but to punish the school. Test scores should be a tool for gauging "what next for this child". Children are not robots, in a one size fits all package. Some learn math quickly but struggle to read. Some are voracious readers but find math a challenge. Others are gifted musicians or athletes, but find academics overwhelming.

Instead of looking at these strengths and capitalizing on them, high stakes tests are forcing teachers and schools to shove each and every student into the same small bubble at the same time. It just doesn't work that way!

Many students have no support at home. Others have no home. Some are caregivers after school for siblings. These children struggle to keep up with the students who go home to a healthy snack and a stay-at-home mom eager to help with homework.

Educators should be held accountable, yes. YES! But measuring that accountability with one test score per year, compared to a different group of students, makes no sense.

Shore up teacher prepartion programs in universities, provide additional monies to schools to work with struggling students, create community outreach programs to educate parents on how to best help their students, and demand adequate and ongoing professional development for learning communites among teachers.

Help US help THEM! Until we make education a true priority in this country, we will never meet our full potential. Please listen to teachers as they reach to you with concerns. Please make our priorities your priorities!

Cossondra George

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Middle School Doesn’t Matter & Other Old School Tales

Teaching 7th graders is tenuous. Even the best student, on her best day, is far from a model student by high school standards. Homework tends to mean scurry around in the hall before school work, lessons learned yesterday are often forgotten, and studying for a test consists of shoving the notes in the textbook. Parents and students both know the grades earned these years won’t show on the ever-feared “permanent” record. These transitional years are viewed as a time to get ready for high school, but without any real consequences for mistakes or failures.

As a result, middle school academics are seen as something to get through instead of crucial to success later in life. With more stringent standards in place, however, this is changing. Algebra 1 seems to be the bottleneck where the failures start in high school. Without this course, not only can students not progress in the math sequence of Geometry, Algebra 2, and whatever other math courses they may need, they are locked out of many science courses as well.

Much time and effort is given to shoring up high school math programs to help struggling students meet with adequate achievement to move on. I think if instead we educated parents and students early on about the importance of math skills, perhaps this bottleneck could be avoided altogether.

Retention has its negative connotations and consequences, socially and emotionally. It is often viewed by parents and students as negative. I do not see giving a struggling child another year to grasp the skills they need in order to be successful at all punitive. I see it as an opportunity to learn and move on with ease.

At other points in our lives, we meet with similar struggles. If we are unsuccessful on our first attempt to learn to drive, we practice, and try again. For our extra efforts, we are rewarded with safer driving skills, and that magical driver’s license. If we cannot shoot the hoops as fast or consistent as others trying out for the team, we are not given an automatic pass onto the varsity team. We are told, try again next year. Practice those skills, get them up to par, and then you can play.

Why then, is it acceptable to send on a 4th grader who still does not know his multiplication facts with automaticity, or a first grader who cannot count to 10? Why is it expected that a 6th grader who still cannot simply a basic fraction like 10/20 to ½, should progress to 7th grade?
Perhaps traditional retention as has been practiced in the past is not the answer. I will be the first to concede that.

Instead, why can’t we develop a non-graded educational program where students work on skills according to where they are, whether it is math or written language? We allow them to move to the next level only when they are ready to move on. This system would allow students to work at their level, mastering those essential skills before we throw them to the wolves at the next grade level, unprepared, intimidated and destined for failure.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The phone rang this afternoon, the school number showing on the caller ID. I answered to hear the voice of my 7th grade language arts colleague asking if I had been listening to the radio. She then tells me one of our girls is missing, one of the ones I would so love to bring home and give a real family to, the one who cuts herself, the one who lives with grandparents who make it clear they are not keen on raising a second family. As the teacher runs down the story quickly for me, telling me of her search of the girl's locker, finding several notes with stray bits of info on them, and how the school counselor is involved, I panic, imagining the worst possible scenarios. The state police are looking for her, but there are no immediate answers.

Is she hitchhiking to mom who lives 1000+ miles away? Is she hiding out in town with some boy seeking comfort where she can find it?? Is she OK? Did a stranger grab her?

Just let her be OK... my heart cries out....

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The joys of middle school.... the saga continues....

Let's see.... where oh where should I begin??

Tootie Frootie projects? Sure, why not... They had 6 days in class to make 2 bar graphs, 2 circle graphs, show how they calculated the degrees of their circle graphs, and answer a short group of questions about the project. A reasonable student, who worked faithfully, was easily done in 4 days. However, out of the kindness of my teacher heart... and in an effort to get everyone to turn in every project.... I gave them over Christmas break to finish up, and even 2 days beyond break, outside of class, to complete this project. YET.... I still have kids who need "one more day", "just need to color it", or "can't I glue it on the poster board".... Yes, I know they NEED to do the assignment in order to have met those standards, I know they should be allowed to complete things at their own pace... I know all the buzzwords and philosophical reasons to give them one more day.... BUT NO!!! At what point is a deadline a deadline, and you have to take things home and work on them if you are not going to make good use of your classtime??? At what point do students have to be held accountable for their effort or lack thereof??

Moving on....
MP drove me nuts today. He needed to take an AR test. fine.. grab a laptop with the AR sticker on it and take the test. no.. not for MP! Once he unplugged that particular laptop, it would not work. Instead of simply plugging it into the power cord ON THE TABLE IN FRONT OF HIM... DUH... he takes the battery out to do lord only knows what. He went over to the tub of batteries waiting for the tech person to recalibrate and tried one of those. Of course, it didn't work either. For crying out loud... it is the middle of the school year, you are a 7th grader, PROBLEM SOLVE!

In prealgebra, MP couldn't find his paper, which he swore he turned into the basket. I have no idea where it is, but I am not holding up the other 20 kids in class to help him look for it. But after class, I did find it.. in the SOCIAL STUDIES basket. No, it is not next to the prealgebra basket so it is easily mistaken, it is on a different shelf, and even metal instead of plastic, and it is brown instead of blue! Again, it is the middle of the school year. Why are these things so complicated??

During social studies, he comes to me for a pencil. I point to the cup on my desk. He grabs one, but it is not sharpened. "What do you want me to do?" he asks quizzically. Trying desperately not to strangle him, I point calmly to the pencil sharpener.....

Sitting now at my desk, at least half the laptops are unplugged. Why? Is it so difficult to not unplug it to begin with, or at the very least, plug it back in when you are done with it???

Maybe I am getting old and impatient.. I don't know... but it seems this year, I have large numbers of students who are unwilling, or unable, to be independent about anything. They need handholding for every simple thing, from what to bring to class (even when it is written on the board by the door) to how to answer a problem on their homework (which if they just read the directions and gave it a minute bit of thought, they could solve on their own) to constantly forgetting to bring paper, pencil, book, to class. Usually by this time in the year, they are getting into the routine of school and maturing. This year... no...
Sitting here, bored, as my students take a social studies test, once again I am intriguied with how much testing has permeating the school day. I wonder if it does result in increased learning, or if we are just wasting time.

Before all the high stakes testing pressure, my classes were less about assessment and more about time on task learning. I like to think we accomplished more without all the class time spent on reviewing before a test, taking tests, looking at how well they did, analyzing what went wrong with instruction, reteaching, retesting....

The flipside is, were they really retaining information long term before? Does regular summative assessment help students retain information better?

I think it does. Never before did I see students studying, really studying, committing those learned skills and information to their long term memory. It was like we learned it, did it in class, and then moved on. Sure, some of them may have grasped enough to retrieve those skills in the future when needed, but often, it was a skate-by proposition at best.

A fair number of students still struggle, for a variety of reasons - lack of prerequisite skills, lack of parental support, lack of personal motivation - and yes, some simply because they do not click with me and my style of teaching. But honestly, it seems to me, more students are learning and retaining more than ever before.

When I first started teaching math 8 years ago, I seldom gave even chapter tests, never gave quizzes. Now, at least once a week, sometimes more often, we have a quiz over a small amount of material. This gives me a chance to stop and address misconceptions before moving too far past. I seldom skip a chapter test, feeling that the review and testing process somehow reinforce those skills one more time into students' long term memory vault.

Is it a perfect system? No, not even close... Is it a process headed in the right direction? I like to think so!

Am I conceding that all the high stakes NCLB testing is relevant and necessary? Heavens NO!! I am just coming to realize that in my own classroom, more assessment embedded into instruction is a good thing, a step in the right direction.

Friday, January 02, 2009

A new year….. the time for resolutions… new beginnings… Maybe instead of resolutions, we should write goals, the difference being, a resolution not met seems a failure, while a goal is simply being still worked towards.

With this in mind, this year, I shall write goals for my teaching rather than resolutions. I will view them as a work in progress so if I do not meet them, I will be encouraged to continue the journey instead of abandoning it in perceived failure.

Goal #1:Provide more opportunities for students to learn independently. Too often, learning is structured with me being the guide, leaving little room for individuality, failure, or straying from the intended course. I would like my students to have more opportunities to become responsible for their own learning, pushing themselves to reach beyond what is required, exploring on their own.
In social studies, I find this teaching approach easy. Projects are fun and rewarding both for students and me. Giving them a basic skeleton of what they should learn allows them to explore on their own, while still meeting the requirements I know they need.
In math, however, I find this approach more difficult. Not only do the grade level content expectations seem restrictive, students often need direct instruction in math content to grasp the topics covered. It seems complicated to provide independent learning experiences for students.
My goal will be to provide students at least one independent learning experience per unit in math. These might be online learning explorations, or some sort of project in class. This will require me to be proactive in seeking /developing this type of math lessons.

Goal #2:Due to a variety of circumstances, I have not been on top of sending positive communications home for students this year. Most years, I try to send out postcards about once a marking period praising student successes in my room. I have yet to send out one postcard this year. Therefore, Goal #2 is to send positive postcards on students, hopefully, at least one to each student twice before the end of the school year.

Goal #3: Strive to be a more effective leader among teachers on my staff. I want to always be a positive role model in dealing with students, parents, and adminstrators. Often we find ourselves caught in a rut of complaining and negativity. I want to constantly remind myself to remain positive and find the good in others and situations. By keeping an upbeat outlook, I can be a source of renewable for those around me.