Tag Archives: class size

Educational Fantasy #3: Two Teachers in Every Classroom

class-size

In 1984 and 1992, respectively, Ted Sizer, in his seminal works Horace’s Compromise and Horace’s School, argued that there was such a thing in a teacher’s class load as an optimal number of students for educational gains and teacher effectiveness. That number was 75. That’s right. 75 students per teacher. In those days, early in my career, English teachers in my district were contractually limited to 125. I must say that 125 was almost good enough. I felt I knew my students relatively well and that I had the time, the energy, and the pedagogical freedom to serve each of them well. Fast forward into the 21st century after a series of defeating budget crises and renegotiated contracts. In this year, my most humane year in a decade, perhaps, I have approximately 150 students in my charge. Last year, that number was closer to 200. This year, I know that many of my colleagues are close to (or at) this incomprehensible, impossible number. 200.

I don’t know, honestly, how I made it through the last school year. Oh, that’s right. I almost didn’t. And as I reflect on the relative ease of this year comparatively, I can think of only three significant factors: 1). I have two preparations this year; last year I had three. 2). I have 150 students and not 200. 3). I have an enthusiastic and effective student intern. When a teacher has a intern (formerly known as a student-teacher), and that intern is competent, one of the gifts of providing an opportunity for an up and coming new teacher is that when spring rolls around, and there has been sufficient support and coaching throughout the year, it’s time for the mentor teacher to get out of the way.

As a result, while my intern is teaching, I am writing this.

In most every case in American public schools, teachers fly solo in the classroom. Special education teachers may have instructional assistants. Grade school teachers may have volunteers from the community, but for the most part, middle school and high school teachers are independent contractors. True team-teaching, a buzzword of the last decade or two, is a rare bird. While they may collaborate with colleagues now more often than they did a decade ago, this essential fact has not changed: when the bell rings and class begins, teachers will find themselves alone in a room with 30 to 35 teenagers. The only reason I am not right this minute in the classroom with my intern (besides the fact that I am writing this) is that I think it’s important that he is comfortable with this reality and that he for a while is solely responsible for the climate, the logistics of daily classroom planning and implementation, and assessment. So, even as I am NOT doing it while I could conceivably do it, I am about to make this recommendation in the 3rd installment of my educational fantasy, perfect world, pie in the sky, utopian wish list:

Every high school academic classroom should be planned, taught, facilitated, and assessed by two cooperating teachers.

First of all, I think teachers have been independent contractors for far too long. Closing one’s door and doing your own thing are no longer (have never been) viable strategies. Collaboration and cooperation, sharing with another human being the trials and tribulations, the celebrations and victories, the strategies and complexities of an academic classroom should be the norm. The benefits of collaboration are vast–not the least of which, I believe, given that the two individuals in the room work well together and are both qualified and caring, would be a huge, radical, profound increase in student achievement and success. You want to eliminate or drastically reduce drop-outs? Add more teachers. You want to ensure students get the kind of attention they need to realize their fullest academic potential? Add more teachers. You want students to have more substantive feedback and individualized attention? Add more teachers. You want a stronger and more humanizing social structure that may not be present at home? Add more teachers. On this last bit, let’s face it, as the schools are shouldered with more and more social responsibility, if that’s going to be the reality, let’s face that head on: add more teachers.

But how will it be paid for? You know what? That’s not my problem or area of expertise. As soon as our communities, our civil servants, and our politicians (probably in that order) understand that investment in education is a non-negotiable, there will be money to pay for it. We could likely sacrifice a few bombs and planes and tanks here and there and fund the thing three times over. Not properly funding education has always struck me as a catastrophic failure of imagination–and morally reprehensible. I understand it’s a job that is beyond our current class of clowns, so perhaps the first order of business is to vote out these goofballs so that we can get down to business.

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#180: Another “Workable” Solution

class-size

It turns out that the brave colleague
who volunteered to teach five preparations
in order to relieve another colleague of a student
load of 217 did not, after all, have to take on
five preparations. Instead, two of her small
classes were swapped straight across
with two of the other teacher’s giant classes.
These moves in the schedule
gave both teachers a new preparation
on the last teacher work day before
students arrived on campus and
decreased the student load of the teacher
burdened with 217 all the way down to
something like 197! –but only if this teacher
agreed to take on a third preparation up from
the two he started with. And when students
started shifting, as they are wont to do
at the beginning of a school year,
students continued to be added to his
197, bringing his student load back above
the 200 student mark again.

I don’t understand the math.
I don’t have a head for this thing they call
the master schedule. I’m glad to see a teacher’s
load reduced, but I wonder how much better
the number 200 plus is from the number 217.
It’s 17 plus or minus better, sure, but is it any more possible
to teach 200 plus or minus kids to write than it is 217?
And I’m curious about how my other
colleague will do with a large class of kids
who are already extremely disadvantaged
like most of the particular kids taking this
particular course for which she swapped out
her freshmen.

And I think about my own situation,
considerably more humane, but it’s like
splitting hairs in the end. I faced today
a group of 36 students on the first day of
a college credit course called Writing 121.
I faced another group of 36 10th graders
and gave them watercolors. My total number
of students clocks in at about 174 kids.
4 of my 6 classes award college credit.
For all of my classes I must and am sincerely
willing to heed the clarion call of equity and
rigor for all, high expectations and all that.
But there is a disconnect as
wide as the Pacific and as deep as the
Atlantic, an embarrassing little hiccup
in the system between what we purpose to do,
what we are charged to do, and what is actually
possible in a world where a single teacher
is asked to effectively teach (and know well)
anywhere from 174 to 217 teenagers at one time.

 

 

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#179: A “Workable” Solution

Today the English Department
got together to figure out how
to relieve a colleague of a student load of

217.

That’s all I really have to say.
The fact alone is enough.
One of our colleagues
was assigned 217 students.

The obvious solution,
hiring another teacher,
is apparently out of the question.

A school is given so many
positions of full time employment
and it is what it is and for the most part
cannot be changed.

It might be of interest to reveal
how we “solved” the problem:
One heroic individual volunteered
to teach five preparations.

This was a “workable” solution.

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School House Rock ‘n’ Sock

rock-em-sock-em

Almost two months ago now, in the throes and excitement and the optimism of a new school year, I found myself writing with my students and posting the results as blog entries here on the Michael Jarmer blog page. I was a happy camper then. Those were truly salad days in September. Fast forward to November 11, two days ago, I make the following post on the social media network I fondly call Face Plant:

On this Veteran’s Day holiday I put in 6 hours toward grading papers and I’m nowhere close to being done. The only relief today was the time I spent uncontrollably laughing at a student’s use of the word “ballstastically” in her otherwise lovely paper about the joys of reading. Ballstastic, indeed.

This to point out, yes, the wonderful discovery of a new inappropriate word, but also to illustrate how impossible it has become to do my job in the time allotted me to do it in the context of the work week. I haven’t posted this on Face Plant, but let’s just pretend, shall we:

On this Thursday, November 13, I called in sick in order to grade papers.  It turned out to be a snow day.  No school.  No snow, either, but that’s no matter; somewhere in our district, up in the hills, perhaps, it was dangerous to drive a school bus or a car, and they closed down the district.  At any rate, I spent another 6 hours grading papers today and I’m nowhere close to being done.  This is not ballstastic.  Not at all.  I have decided that something has to be good to be ballstastic.  Not good.  Or, as Orwell put it in 1984, doubleplusungood.

The good news is that I only have about 90 papers yet to read, papers that I’ve been sitting on for weeks.  Listen, I tried to stagger the work.  One set of the reading journals I call “logs” came in, and then another, and then another, and then three more other sets of logs, all staggered, by the way.  But by the time I got to the bottom of the log jam, the papers started to roll in.  One set, then another set, and then four more sets, all staggered, but all coming in before I am able to vanquish the logs.  Meanwhile, during my preparation period in the context of the work day, there’s this thing called planning to be done: what am I going to do with kids for 87 minutes in six total sections of three different classes?  So, when and where will all of this grading get done, Mr. Smarty-pants?  Why, at home, of course, on my own time.

But here’s a thing you should probably know about me, and maybe you do if you’ve been hanging around the blog for any length of time.  I am one of those teachers who has become, out of necessity and survival, unwilling to work a 60 hour work week. I am often unwilling to work a 50 hour work week.  This means I have made certain compromises over the years as my class sizes and other responsibilities kept growing. I never stopped assigning work because the work, I’ve always believed, is good work. But I stopped giving detailed responses. I stopped reading student writing closely.  I dipped in and out.  I checked for a few choice things to give them feedback on, such as, this thesis is unclear, or wow, I don’t see any text evidence, or boy, you need to work on your spelling, or, hey, you can’t do that with a comma.  And sometimes I did what I am only slightly ashamed to call “fake grading.” In essence, I’d say to a student, “you’ve done this thing.  It appears that you have followed the instructions.  Doing the work, in and of itself, was a good, instructive experience for you. 100%.”  I became aggressively protective of my time at home as a husband, a dad, a writer, and a musician.  Teaching is not my life.  It is a significant part of my life that I don’t think I would trade for any other career, but it is not the only thing I live for.

Still, I resent the compromises I’ve had to make and have sort of bitterly come to the conclusion that the job a teacher absolutely should be doing, the job that I would really love to be doing, is next to impossible in the current climate–with massive class sizes and common core, with data-driven, student-growth teacher goals and site councils, with standardized tests and the consistent and obscenely absurd underfunding of schools–impossible.

So why am I now spending 12 extra hours over two days away from the school house with a promise of another 6 or 8 tomorrow?  That’s a really good question. What’s changed? I’m teaching freshmen for the first time in many years and many of them can’t write.  That’s part of it. I want them all to be capable of entering  IB English as juniors if they want to, and even if they don’t, I want them to have the skills. That’s part of it.  I’m trying proficiency grading with freshmen. This means that if a student’s work doesn’t meet standards, rather than slapping a D on it, end of story, instead the teacher asks the student to do it again. And again. And again. This takes longer. A lot longer. This is also part of the story.

But this might be the chief inspiration toward this madness. I’m partnering  with a couple of professionals who are much more hard core than I am–and I both love them and hate them for this.  Both, earlier in their profession than I am, both, idealistic and compassionate, both, stupendously positive forces for young people, but both suffering tremendously under this same load. It’s stupid and it’s my problem, but I can’t NOT do what they’re doing. I’m going to say the first part of this sentence over again: it’s stupid and it’s my problem. It’s both the blessing and the curse of refusing to teach in isolation like some of my colleagues continue to do.  It’s good work we’re doing and we’re proud of it, but it is absolutely, positively unsustainable.

People of Earth, citizens of Oregon and of these United States of America.  Stop pretending that simply raising the bar will achieve great results. Stop comparing apples to oranges by pretending the United States is remotely like Finland. Stop beating up on educators and walk instead a mile in their shoes.  Please sit down with 200 pieces of writing from 200 different teenagers and in less than 5 or 10 minutes per student try to give each of them meaningful feedback in writing as opposed to circling numbers on a rubric.  And don’t say you’re serious about or that you support education until you have figured out a way to create a work environment for educators that either provides the resources and time on the job to do that job, or that pays teachers for a 60 hour work week. Otherwise School House Rock becomes School House Rock ‘n’ Sock–which is nowhere close to ballstastic, but rather, doubleplusungood.

 

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The Going-Back-To-Work Blues Is A Real Thing

back-to-school

20 blog entries later, and the summer break comes to a close. Teachers report back to their schools in my district on Monday. Time to take stock. Time to look ahead. It’s been a strong summer. I blogged, I wrote fiction, became an ordained minister of the Universal Life Church, agreed to marry a couple of former students, taught my son to ride a bike independently, took a trip to the beach, a couple of weekend camping trips, writers camp in Moraga, California, attended my 30th high school class reunion, watched two seasons of The Walking Dead, one season of Orange Is The New Black, recorded vocals for the new Here Comes Everybody album, helped my wife paint the bathroom, and did some reading. No, I did not finish Moby Flipping Dick. But I did finish a novel by my friend Rob Yardumian, The Sounds of Songs Across the Water, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, and a book by another friend, perhaps the best book on the writing life since the famous one by Annie Dillard, Joan Frank’s Because You Have To: A Writer’s Life, oh, and I drank some good bourbon.

It’s been, I suppose, a relatively busy, productive, satisfying summer.  Partly because of this, perhaps, because I’d love it to continue on forever, I am now coming to terms with a serious case of the going-back-to-work blues. I suspect even if my summer was not nearly so stellar I’d feel it nonetheless. The beginning of the new school year has always been bittersweet.  On the sweet side, the rhythm of the school year gives a structure to life once again, because, as I wrote about earlier regarding the summertime blues, unstructured time can be the surest way into the pit. I’m anxious to see my colleagues again, lucky and blessed as I am to work in a school where I am hard pressed to think of anything negative to say about a single soul who works there.  I mean, to be honest, I could do it, but it would be a stretch, and it would be minor stuff, never anything that makes being there anything but pleasant and happy.  And, with new systems and revised curricula and strategies, each year brings with it a healthy dose of adventure, novelty, and thrill. Finally, I’ll end the list of sweet stuff and begin the list of bitter stuff with the same item: it’s always a wild ride to meet so many brand new human beings who will now become a huge part of my life for the next 9 months.  You never know what you’re going to get.

Because for the past two years or so I have taught 11th graders and only 11th graders, when I go into the classroom on the first days of the new school year, I will be faced with nearly 200 individual students that I have never met before in my life.  So I would say that the thing that creates the going-back-to-work blues for me more than any other thing is this sense, a very real sense, of the monumental task I am about to undertake.  The amount of energy or gumption or confidence (and maybe skill) it takes to acquaint yourself with and direct the intellectual habits of 200 brand new human beings–and sustain that over a nine month period–is daunting, to say the very least.  That kind of power, if harnessed, could perhaps solve the energy crisis. Just wire up a bunch of teachers to the grid, man.  Problem solved.

I’ve got to learn all my students’ names.  I should like to know something about them.  I need to find out what makes them tick.  I need to figure out which ones of this group of 200 are on top of their skills and which ones will need extra help.  I need to assess which ones will be allies and which ones of them will be, not enemies, never enemies, but something like, uh, I don’t know, let me start over.  Which of them will be allies and which of them will provide particular challenges? I need to build a “community of learners,” supportive, respectful, safe, comfortable, and committed to the task at hand.  But then there’s this pesky thing called a curriculum.  I wouldn’t turn up my nose at any teacher who spends a full two weeks (which in our district is five 87 minute periods) doing nothing but community building activities.  But we can’t afford that kind of time!  With furlough days continuing to shorten our school year and absolutely no lightening of the load (in fact the load has become heavier than it has ever been and the stakes higher than ever), we’ve got to hit the ground running.

So, perhaps by October I will know all of their names.  I will never be able to pronounce some of their last names.  When we have our first parent teacher conferences toward the end of Autumn, I will be terrified of not being able to place students in my mind’s eye when the parent tells me their names.  In March, I guarantee you that I will mortify some student by calling him or her by the wrong name. And then next fall, when I see some of these kids for the first time after another lovely summer break, their names will have escaped me.  This is the reality.  I wish it were otherwise–because I believe in the core of my teacher heart that the surest way to help a student academically is to KNOW a student personally and meaningfully, and this is especially true of the students who need extra help.  The kids who are good at being students would be successful in spite of or despite almost anything I do. But the kids who struggle need me–but they don’t know it–and they will hide from me, try to disappear, and some of them will be successful at this–because in that single class of 35 kids amongst a teacher/student ratio of one to nearly 200, it’s easy to do.

So my going-back-to-work blues has to do with a certain amount of anxiety about how difficult the job is and how mentally and emotionally exhausting it can sometimes be, and also with not just a tiny bit of stage-fright.  A reality of the teaching profession, I think, even for veteran teachers, especially for those who care about doing a credible job, is that those first days are kind of scary.  And I think the thing that gets me through that fear every time is the knowledge and deep belief that what I am doing is the best thing I can do.  I am one of the lucky few that has found a profession that is rewarding, invigorating, challenging, and profoundly important.  So, despite the blues, which, as I’ve said, are hardly completely blue, I say to the new school year and to my colleagues and to my 200 brand new charges: bring it on, baby.

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Of English Teacher Math: Teaching 200 Students How To Write

Here are some numbers to consider for the end of the semester.  I asked 140 IB English students to turn in their logs, into which they have composed over the last 4 weeks anywhere between 20 and 30 pages of response to the readings we’ve done out of The Best American Essays of the Century. Let’s just take the lower number for shits and giggles, do a little math, and say that my IB English students turned in at least 2,800 pages of writing for me to peek at.  I also asked that same group of 140 students to write their own 1000 word essay on a topic of their choice inspired by one or more of the mentor texts from the anthology. Let’s say, that at 12 point Times and double spaced, that’s about a 3 page paper. So there’s an additional 420 pages of student work they have gifted me.  And let’s say, for a final exam, students will be writing a draft of what will become an oral presentation in the first weeks of second semester about their growth as writers during our first semester course in Creative Non-fiction.  I imagine that over the course of an 87 minute final exam that these go-getters will be able to carve up another 140,000 words, or another 420 pages of text, which brings my whopping total number of pages of student work that I must now DO SOMETHING WITH up to an impressive, daunting, fever-inducing, gut-wrenching, weep-worthy 3,640 pages!  And guess what?  Those 140 students producing all of that beautiful prose represent only 4 of my 6 classes.  What are the 60 kids in those other two classes doing for a final? Well, of course, they’re writing!  And grades are due in about a week’s time.

Hello, my name is Michael Jarmer, and I’m a complete idiot for assigning so much written work at the end of the semester.

No.  I can’t let that stand.  I would only be an idiot if I read every single word and every single page and tried to comment on all of it.  That would be ludicrous.  That would be physically, logistically, humanly impossible.  That would drive me certifiably insane and wreck my life.  So I am writing this little blog entry today to articulate finally a philosophy of teaching writing that might help my students or their parents or anyone who’s interested understand why I do what I do. It might also help colleagues in the profession, especially teachers of English, survive the math that has become the central most difficult aspect of working in an underfunded public school system.

I believe in the deepest possible way, at the core of my core, that human beings become better writers by reading and writing.  Beyond anything I could ever tell a student about their writing in the margins with my little red pen, their learning about what great writers do (and what they as emerging writers can do) will ONLY come through close attention to the very best writing they can find, and through repeated, concentrated, sustained, uber-conscious efforts to practice those moves.

You may have some questions.

What do English teachers do, then, and why do we need them? We’re tour guides, essentially.  And we all know how great the tour can be in the hands of a really great guide.  We try to be really good at that.  We model inquisitiveness and curiosity and enthusiasm about the written word. We introduce readings to young people that they would not likely ever find left to their own devices.  And we trust students to find their own way after we’ve led them down the path. There are some English teachers who cart papers home with them every weekend.  I’m not one of them.

What about bad writing or persistent errors that never get corrected?  There may be some of those.  Oh well.  When the writing REALLY matters, however, and when the reading is careful and close, those errors will diminish over time. I don’t know that in my own personal experience as a writer I ever improved as the result of some punishment meted out (in the guise of a depleted grade or a smattering of red marks) for errors I made in my writing.

What about bad writing that ends up earning a passing grade or better? This may also happen from time to time, or even often.  But this is what we have to understand.  Writing is hard.  Writing well is really hard.  Some students, to say nothing about their intelligence, struggle mightily with the written word.  We take them where they are and we push them as far forward as we can with lots of practice, experiences with masters of the craft, and lots of encouragement.

Doesn’t this make it easier for students to cheat? Because I did not read every page of those 2,800 pages in their response journals, it is highly possible that some students copied their entries verbatim directly out of another student’s log.  First of all, what a pain in the ass that would be.  And how embarrassing, too, to say to a friend, in essence, I’m a tool, I can’t do my own work, would you let me “borrow” your log?  And how embarrassing for the friend, to give in to that kind of pressure, to lower herself by giving her hard work away.  For what?  Out of what impulse?  Guilt?  Kindness? Desperation for approval?  All are shams.  The parties who collude in the cheating–they both lose.  They are both cheating themselves out of learning.  They’ve been punished already by the stunting of their brains, whether I’m able to catch them or not.  Plagiarizing an essay is exceedingly more difficult.  I make them write these babies in class.

Would I do things differently if I did not have nearly 200 students on my roster? Hell, yes.  It’s not that I believe that teacher feedback is never useful, only that it’s not the most useful, and in our current climate nearly impossible. The kind of feedback from teachers that is most helpful to a writer is the kind of feedback that’s most like a conversation.  Once upon a time I taught 125 students.  I could sit down with them and talk.  I could write them a note and I often did.  I’ve never been a fan of line-editing student work, but sitting down with a student one on one and addressing a few key issues in their writing was a real boon; or being able to write individual letters to students where I could get beyond technical issues and talk about big ideas–that was phenomenal.

My school had a visit last week from an Oregon State Legislator who represents our district.  It’s the first time that’s ever happened, at least in my sometimes fuzzy memory over 24 years of teaching.  And he wanted to chat with us about our current state of the school.  Teachers in my building shared thoughtful and sometimes carefully prepared descriptions of their professional lives.  He listened respectfully.  Most everything that was said made me sad.  And nothing he could say to us provided much comfort or hope.  I didn’t speak, but others spoke eloquently for me about concerns I share.  But what I’ve explored in this rather long blog entry, I think, is really about this:  I’ve managed to make some sound pedagogical decisions about how to grow stronger writers, but I also know in my heart that I’m not giving them the attention they deserve. I understand, coupled with the idea that students get better at reading and writing primarily by reading and writing, that if I had the time to look at their work more closely and have meaningful conversations with them about that work, things would be much better, perhaps infinitely so.   Class size matters.  Student load matters. It matters, if not immediately and measurably in student performance, most definitely and palpably in the work environment or conditions for the teacher.  I don’t read all or even half of what my students write because it would not be humane to expect me to do so.

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