Tag Archives: education reform

Educational Fantasy #3: Two Teachers in Every Classroom

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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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Educational Fantasy #2: Real and Effective Interventions and Alternatives for Students Who Do Not Function Well in School

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Public schools take all comers, don’t they? And that’s as it should be. Those of us who support and desire a healthy public school system believe that this is a fundamental principle that makes a democracy viable, that all our citizens deserve equal access to an educational experience that will grow them into literate, responsible, thinking, productive, engaged individuals who will realize their fullest potential. We know the reality is far from the ideal, and perhaps the most incessant and visceral dilemma teachers face on a day to day basis is that group of students who, for whatever reason, resist our efforts to provide for them this thing we believe is so essential. Our issues are rarely ever with students who are motivated to do their best, and we have huge love for those students of ours who struggle with skills and yet work hard, sometimes harder than any other kid, and despite great obstacles, succeed. No, our issues are with kids who are openly and explicitly defiant and resistant to schooling, who devalue learning, who champion stupidity or childishness, who disrespect benevolent authority, who disrespect their classmates, who cynically reject any understanding about how education could possibly be in their favor, who create disruption for others and deliberately poison classroom communities with their trolling behaviors. These kids make teaching and learning less joyful, more difficult, and sometimes impossible.

We have a moral obligation to educate them, of course. As we understand that their recalcitrance often comes from some deep suffering, we also have a moral obligation to care for them, and, as difficult as it is sometimes, to feel compassion for them. But here’s a Newsflash: teachers are not saints. It’s impossible to educate someone who doesn’t want to be educated, and it’s really difficult to love someone who is fighting you, preventing you from doing your work, sabotaging your intentions, making your sacred space unsafe.

More and more I have come to believe that the traditional classroom, no matter how progressive and inclusive, is not the correct place for these students. The title of this piece suggests that I will have a handful of suggestions to create effective interventions and alternatives for students who do not function well in school. I’ve got nothing. Nada. I only know that in a perfect world, in my educational utopia, these interventions and alternatives would exist. In this educational fantasy, all of my students, every last one of them, at the very least, would understand the importance of education and would be ready and willing to do intellectual, academic work with energy, integrity and respect. Meanwhile, in this fantasy, there is some program that provides students who are not ready or willing with some other thing that, 1. meets their academic needs, 2. teaches them how to be human and humane, 3. gives them an outlet for the release of energy usually expended in disrupting a traditional classroom, and 4. gives them some occupational/vocational skill, a skill that could be used to make things, build stuff, design, create, or fix. And in this program, whenever they decide that they want to join me in the appreciation and understanding of Shakespeare, they are welcome to come back to my classroom.

Honestly, I lack perspective. I’ve taught English at the same high school my entire career. I know there are likely programs in place around the country that work, that have developed strategies for dealing with at-risk kids, but I also know intuitively and anecdotally that these profound and effective strategies are not widely practiced, do not find their way into every nook and cranny of the vast public school system in this country–for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that strategies to help at-risk kids, if they are in place at all, are likely specific and tailored to the districts and communities that implement them; there seems to be no sure-fire way to make certain effective programs are implemented elsewhere, anywhere else, everywhere.

My district has an alternative school. I’m embarrassed to say this, but I don’t know what they do there. I know that some of the kids I’ve described end up there and some of the ones I currently have in my classes talk about wanting to go there. I don’t know why. Students cannot tell me why outside of saying that they think it will be better for them. They can’t say what they mean by that. I doubt very much that our alternative school has the capacity to welcome all students who need its services. And I am even unsure of the process by which students are selected for such an alternative. I have no reason to doubt the effectiveness of this program, but I also have no reason to celebrate. Is this alternative school successful? And by what standard? Despite the fact that I can’t answer these questions, I am thankful for it, am curious about it, and am hoping that maybe they could take on about a half a dozen of my freshmen boys.

And if the alternative school doesn’t work or can’t expand, what might possibly work as an alternative to the alternative school? Educational Fantasy #3: Two Teachers in Every Classroom.

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Educational Fantasy #1: The Gradeless Classroom

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This spring I have the good fortune of having a competent and enthusiastic teacher intern who is taking responsibility for a number of my classes. It has afforded me some time: some time to do especially good work for the students that remain solely my responsibility, some time to write a poem or two or thirty, some time to get my student growth goals done nearly a month before they are officially due, and some time to THINK, reflect, cogitate. This morning, for example, I thought to myself, as I remembered how many blog entries I have written about the things that are not right about public education, why don’t I, instead, write a series of entries describing fantasies I have regarding education in its best pie in the sky kind of light. In other words, why don’t I do a thought experiment: if things were perfect in the land of public education, how would things look, according to me, that is, and some of my friends? I don’t promise that this series will be especially academic or super serious or practical, but I hope at the very least it will be honest.

It is likely that much of what I propose will seem impossible to some. That’s okay. That would not surprise me. We are all creatures of habit and habits in the realm of educational practice and policy, as we have seen, die hard. But what would have become of us if people did not dream the impossible? See? Some of that shit actually got done. So here we go with Educational Fantasy #1.

I’ve written about this before at length, but it’s worth repeating in the super short formGrades suck. Despite the fact that I have graded students my entire career and continue to do so and even sometimes argue with myself and others about the validity of such antics, I still believe in my heart and soul that grades suck. So my first wish for an educational utopia is the gradeless classroom.

Again, don’t take my word for it. Read about it. Look it up. The research will tell you (at least some of it), (at least the research that I prefer), that grades create anxiety, that grades do not accurately measure, and that grades do not motivate.

What should motivate? Learning. Okay, how do you motivate kids to learn for learning’s sake and not for a grade? Well, if you eliminate grades, what’s left? Learning. Or no school. Most of us would prefer the former to the latter for our young people. Young people may have a different opinion.

I have had several experiences in my life as a student in a gradeless classroom, and you have probably had some as well, and maybe your kids have had some, even now. Let me tell you about a few of these.

Elementary School.  That’s right, at least in my experience as a little tike, I do not remember bringing home letter grades. My son, in his first 6 years of public schooling, has never brought home a letter grade. Don’t get me wrong, elementary school kids are measured, but they are not graded. Instead, teachers report progress toward certain standards or expectations for which kids are something like “in progress,” “meeting,” or “exceeding.” Did we learn stuff in grade school? I think we did. Were we, for the most part, motivated and relatively happy with school? I remember that we were. My son, except for a moment now and again where he complains about a “mean” adult or some level of grade school ennui, is, generally speaking, a pretty happy camper. And he’s learning gobs.

As far as I can tell, grades are introduced to young people in Middle School and continue onward forever and ever. Something wicked this way comes, but I don’t want to talk about that now. Pie in the sky, remember?

My second experience in a gradeless classroom was as an undergraduate at Lewis and Clark College. I took Modern English Literature from the late, great Vern Rutsala. The course was offered pass/no pass, an unusual move for a professor to take during that time, I think. I worked hard. I learned a lot. I read and discussed great books. I passed! It made no difference to me whatsoever that I did not receive a grade. It had no bearing on my perceptions of the value of the class or the rigor of the work, and it had no effect on the level of energy I exerted or invested in studying.

Most profoundly, perhaps, I was accepted, I enrolled, and I completed a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Warren Wilson College, the most significant educational experience of my life-time thus far, without ever reporting or receiving a single grade.

And continuing through adulthood and professional life, I have taken countless courses and workshops and attended conferences taught or presented by all sorts of people and institutions, none of which attempted to give me a letter.

In a perfect world, middle school and high school and college students would not be graded in their classes. They would pass or not pass based on evidence of their learning, learning that is individually appropriate and growth oriented. Did the student learn? Did the little cherub grow? Can he move to the next phase or level of difficulty?

And if he didn’t or can’t? Educational Fantasy #2: Real and Effective Interventions and Alternatives for Students Who Do Not Function Well in School.

 

 

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Letter to a Colleague in Her Second Year of Teaching

 

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Dear Friend,

I don’t pretend to be able to advise you, but I can tell you what I have done to ensure that I do not become a casualty of the oftentimes insurmountable and sometimes impossible demands of the profession. In your second year of teaching, if you find yourself in a perpetual state of exhaustion, feeling overwhelmed, always behind, despite the fact you might be working at home every single day of the week and many more hours on the weekend, and if you find yourself on top of all that feeling under-appreciated and sometimes deliberately undermined by the people you are trying to help, perhaps you might try this:

Stop it.

Take care of yourself.

If there are things you love doing, activities or hobbies that feed your soul, make sure you’re doing them. If there are people that you love to be with, make sure you are spending time with them. Is there a book you’d love to read? Read it. Would you like to write a book or a poem? Do that. Listen to music. Dance. Learn how to play an instrument, or give yourself permission to start practicing an instrument you know and have neglected. Write a song. Go to the movies. Plant a garden. Craft something beautiful, whatever that may be. Go on hikes in the woods. Do things you love and do them often.

Realize, that in order to do these things, you will have to work less or not at all at home. You will feel guilty about it and that guilt will haunt you for awhile. Eventually though, doing that thing you love, being with those people you love, reading or writing for yourself, listening, dancing, playing, or allowing yourself to do or experience whatever brings you joy, these things will make you feel happy. And I’d argue that a happy teacher that protects herself and her time away from the job is infinitely more effective than an embittered and exhausted teacher who is always grading papers at home to provide substantive feedback that students often won’t follow. Your job then is about trying to make each moment you spend in the schoolhouse, with and without students, your very best work.

These kinds of things sustained me for 26 years, or, more accurately, after I figured it out in the first five or six years of my career, they have sustained me until now. Will they sustain me for another four years? Lately I have had some doubts about this. I have fought against cynicism and struggled against the idea that my last years in the profession have to be hard. I’m trying to think about ways to achieve some extra tenacity and to enhance those things and discover new things that will sustain me. I try to be reflective about and remember what drew me to teaching in the very first place, and I am savoring the joyful moments I have with my charges and with my colleagues whenever they occur–and they do still occur–on a daily basis. I am confident I will be successful one way or another and I will make it 4 more years. And in large part, I will be able to sustain myself because I am protecting my time away so that I might drum, sing, dance, write, read, and be with my friends and family. You, my friend, however, have a longer road to travel–28 more years; and that’s kind of scary if you are feeling in your second year the way I have felt in my 25th and 26th.

You might find you have to leave, either to do something else completely or to find a place where you might be able to affect some significant change. What’s clear to me is how much you care absolutely about the work of a teacher. It’s also clear to me that it would be a shame to lose you. Our young people need you and your colleagues need you. No one would blame you, though, for making the decision to bail that so many young people in the profession are making. Everybody understands that the odds are stacked against you, that teaching in this day and in this climate is a Sisyphean labor. But maybe, as counter-intuitive as it might be, if you take care of yourself first, you might find that you have the energy and the drive to work inside the profession toward a day when public school teachers are not asked to do the impossible, are not expected to be super human, are compensated fairly for the work that they do. You may see that day, and it would have been worth the wait.

Until then, I encourage you to hang on–but understand completely if you cannot.

Sincerely,

 

 

Michael Jarmer

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#113: The Child House

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The Child House

is so called because
the children in this
building outnumber
the adults about
thirty-seven to one.
Inside over a thousand
big children are
busy (or not) at some
purpose which often
remains mysterious
to them, but never-
theless is perceived
by many to be of some
importance. Many
of the kids love the
Child House, cherish
it, not only as a place
that effectively prepares
them for something,
but as a place where
they are nurtured and
cared for.  Other kids,
in the exact same
Child House, hate
their time there, and
hate the structure
itself and everything
within.  They do
nothing, get nothing,
achieve nothing, are
always at odds with
everything about the
Child House.  Arguably,
these are the children
who need it most and
who will fare the worst
in the world without it.
The adults worry.
Even though people
outside the Child House
think they know what’s
best for it and its children,
and do their best to impose
their will upon it in the form
of measurements of all
kinds funded by people
who know nothing and
have never set foot inside
the Child House, the Child House
works or it doesn’t work
resting on only a few key
factors: do the adults know
what they are doing, and
do the children know
what they are doing
and why they are
doing it? Then the
Child House is working–
beyond any kind of
corporate funded reform.
Only those inside
the Child House can
know what its children
need and no law
or measure or fix
prescribed from without
will ever change that.
The Child House
remains operational
and more effective
than anyone outside
its walls might ever know.
And its message
to all its detractors
and those intent
on tearing down its
walls:  Look inside.
Look inside the Child House.  

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Why I Am Totally Bugged By This Video

http://www.upworthy.com/student-freaks-out-in-front-of-his-class-and-says-what-were-all-thinking-about-our-education-system-3

The video making the rounds Thursday on facebook was of a young man who stands up in the middle of his classroom and goes on a little tirade against his teacher, accusing her, essentially, of malpractice, of making no effort to teach, of handing the kids packet after packet, worksheet after worksheet.  He implores her to actually teach, to give up the busy-work in favor of something that will really reach her students, something that will “touch their frickin’ hearts”–I think those are his words.  Meanwhile, his teacher is heard (and seen very briefly sitting behind her desk) repeatedly asking him to leave the room and telling him that he is wasting her time.  When he has had his say, finally, he does leave. There seems to be very little reaction, in support or no, from his classmates.  One girl sitting by the door where he makes his final exit appears not to even acknowledge what is happening. The video ends before any reaction from the class as a whole can be recorded.  Some words are spoken right before the video ends that are difficult to make out.

I have several issues with this video–not with the video itself, but with the way it is being used on the internet in social network forums to say “something about the state of our educational system.”  This video actually says very little about the state of our system.  What does it actually speak about?  Well, for starters, because the video gives us absolutely no context for the rant, it mostly tells us about how this particular kid feels about this particular classroom.  That’s mostly it.  And maybe it tells us how this particular teacher handles such a disruption: not very well, poorly, in fact.  To draw blanket conclusions about schools in our nation based on this one and a half minute worth of angry student rant is blatant misrepresentation and tom-foolery. It’s not a serious criticism of what it (or the person sharing it on the web) purports to be criticizing.

First of all, the video cannot validate the kid’s criticism of his teacher.  It provides no evidence that she is guilty of that which he accuses her. Now, if what this kid says is true, that this is a classroom in which students are handed packet after packet for mostly seat work independent of any real instruction, coaching, or interaction, then his rant and his sense of outrage is totally understandable and his behavior justified and admirable.  But again, this is an indictment then of the teacher in this classroom and of the administration that hired her and then allowed her to keep teaching. It’s an indictment of absolutely nothing else.

The publisher of the video, a website that I find often to be inspiring and thoughtful, http://www.upworthy.com, posts this puzzling commentary from contributer Adam Mordecai after the video clip:  “This was not an indictment of his teacher; to me, this was an indictment of the entire teach-to-the-test standardization that has been forced on our teachers and has broken our country’s education system.” Well, amen to that anti-standardization sentiment–but I don’t know, in my personal experience as a high school English teacher for the last 24 years, a single teacher who has bastardized his or her teaching wisdom to this extent because he or she has been forced to “teach-to-the-test.” Additionally, this short video gives us NO indication that these poor classroom practices have anything whatsoever to do with standardized tests and curriculum.  And the dangerous implication is that the standardized movement has somehow reduced all of our classrooms to this kind of practice.  It’s fundamentally untrue.

The standardized testing movement has not forced teachers to engage in poor classroom practices. It has simply stolen class time away from both teachers and students.  Kids and their teachers are giving up  the benefits of maybe two weeks of instruction or classroom experience in a testing year in their English classes alone.  And when students don’t pass the reading test, for example, they’re asked to take it again, and again, and again, which pulls them out of the classroom for another week of class time for each retest when they could be in a classroom learning about and practicing the skills the reading test is purportedly measuring!

Good teachers, despite the pressures to raise test scores on standardized tests, will continue to do their best work to engage and challenge students.  Bad teachers, as they have and always will do if given the freedom to do so, will provide students with packets and worksheets and seat work.  Don’t allow video clips like this one to make you believe, first of all, that the kid, no matter how articulate he is (not extremely in this case), is always in the right, but secondly, and more importantly, that this is in any way indicative of the whole.

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Of Being Tired of Writing About Teaching

I think, at least for now, I’ve exhausted my brain and my “pen” regarding teaching, issues of public schooling, educational crisis, education reform. I know I will come back to it. It’s inevitable. But for the time being I feel like anything I have to say now will be a repeat of something I have said earlier and I run the risk of sounding like a broken record. To sum up: teaching hard, class-sizes too big, public schools good, underfunding public schools bad, standardized testing bad, intrinsic motivation good, extrinsic motivation not as good, cell phones bad, closing schools bad, fire bad, Frankenstein good.  See, already in my summing up I have started to drift away from the topic.

So what else is on my mind?  What’s worth blogging about? Feel free to chime in or to cast your vote.

I’m going to stop beginning every one of my blog entry titles with the word “of.” Of is so on or about yesterday. I want to write about writing.  I want to write, in particular, about what to do with my first novel, which is, in this very moment, sitting in a box. I want to write about reading.  I’m excited about the new book by David Shields called How Literature Saved My Life and I think I could write a blog entry or two about how that has been true in my life as well.  Maybe there’s a meditation on a key book or two.  Hell, I might even write a review. I want to write about music.  Maybe I’ll write about what I said I wouldn’t write about, my band and its endeavors.  Hell, I might even write a review of the new They Might Be Giants record, or the new David Bowie (which I do not yet possess), or the new Eels (which I do not yet possess)  Maybe I’ll write about records I would like to possess.

I’m afraid, but I would like to write about religion–and, being afraid, that’s probably the sign that I should write about religion.

You get the picture.  It’s time to transition.  It’s time for a change-up.  It’s time for a new conversation.  I don’t know if this is true or not, that topic consistency might be a selling point for a blog site, the thing that makes people keep coming back, but I think I’m going to risk losing a reader here and there in order to sufficiently entertain my own bad self.  I hope you all stay along for the ride.

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