Tag Archives: school reform

#180: Another “Workable” Solution

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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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#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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Of School Reform and The Common Core

So here we are in the midst of another school reform movement.  Here’s a funny thing.  I’ve worked as a high school English teacher for about twenty-four years now, and while I consider myself progressive, forward thinking, willing to try new things, and while I feel confident that, in actual practice, I do progressive, forward thinking, new things in my classroom with my students, I feel, paradoxically, that in the 24 years I’ve been teaching almost nothing of real consequence has changed in Education—despite the fact that at every step of the way there was some reform movement on the front burner.

Oh, let me count the reforms (fair warning: this will be tedious):  Over my twenty-four year career, we have been introduced to and/or implemented block schedule, site-based management, project-based education, schools within schools, houses, I.T.I.P., sheltered instruction operation protocol, professional learning communities, authentic assessment, Oregon state standards, Oregon state standards revisited, the CIM, the CAM, senior seminar, the capstone experience, career to work, language objectives, learning targets, multiple intelligences, international baccalaureate, and now, drum roll, please, The Common Core, adopted by something like 45 of the 50 states in the union.

Out of all of these hobby-horse reforms (some more hobby-horse than others and none of them meaningless on theoretical merits), only one or two of them have seriously impacted my practice and most all of them have come and gone and come and gone and come again.

Schools tend to be both perpetually in reform mode and perpetually frozen in time.  Save for some clear philosophical distinctions between what I do as a teacher and what the teachers who taught me did as teachers, the experience of teaching or taking a high school English class is essentially the same as it ever was, only more difficult.  Not that those philosophical differences between myself and my predecessors are small potatoes—I think of them as significant—significant, but not new.  I know that there were secondary teachers during the late seventies and early eighties who would agree philosophically with almost every thing I do now—and probably did some of those things themselves. But in the end, it’s not so much about what teachers DO as it is about what they believe, which influences what they do.  Can all students learn?  Can all students improve?  Should students have some autonomy, as often as is possible, to steer their own learning? Should students be encouraged to discover their own knowledge rather than regurgitate their teacher’s? Is schooling life-affirming and soul-enhancing? Is schooling a respectful, validating, joyful experience? Does the schooling experience grow positive and productive citizenry? If you can answer all of these questions in the affirmative, it seems to me you’ve got your answer to school reform.

All of this hullabaloo to measure and evaluate seems at total cross purposes with the above important questions.  We’re always trying to evaluate, grade, assess, measure, weigh, compare, compete and publish those results, and once we figure out how to do these things, then the job seems to be about how often we can do them. The more often the better. And all of this momentum toward measurement comes from OUTSIDE the school.  I have never known a teacher to beg for a standardized test.  I have never known a teacher who professed any amount of faith or trust in the value of a standardized test. What I do know is how much time with students actually exploring meaningful work is lost to administering tests I have no role in creating, the content of which I have no foreknowledge, and that have absolutely zero connection to my curriculum.  If I didn’t know better, I’d say that the guv’ment, and the district bosses who are beholden to the guv’ment, don’t trust teachers to teach up the kids in our community.  They don’t trust principals to hire effective people.  Actually, I do know better, and what seems to be true I think is actually true:  We’re not trusted at the school level.  And testing is the most expedient way for the powers that be to check up on our progress, even if the meaning or value of that check-up is nebulous.  Nobody once considered just stopping by, looking into a room or two, talking to kids and parents, asking some teachers to explain what they’re doing.  That would be too hard.

Instead, let’s get a bunch of college professors and politicians together to hammer out The Common Core—this new group of nationally selected standards by which ALL students in participating states will be measured.  In fairness, The Common Core website says the standards were created by “teachers, parents, school administrators and experts from across the country together with state leaders.” Beyond this, the authorship of these standards and exactly how they were decided upon is a relative mystery.

What’s “new” about these standards?  Well, in English education, not a whole lot.  They’re standards for skills rather than for content knowledge, skills around reading, writing, speaking and listening.  None of these skills are skills that any thinking professional would dismiss as unimportant or trivial. But there are a ton of them, more than any one thinking professional could keep inside his or her thinker, and more than any one busy professional could ever accomplish in a school year.  And they’re rigorous as all get-out—as if the authors of these lovely little standards had NO idea about what the populations of our classrooms look like in terms of diversity in readiness and skill level.  They make the same mistake that every other standards movement in the history of standards movements makes: expect the same thing from all students in the same way over the same amount of time–as if they were all, dare I say it, the same.  Here’s more work.  Here’s more difficult work.  And the added resources to help you with that, or the relief from massive student loads?  I’m sorry, Dave.  I’m afraid I can’t do that.

On the whole, if anything has changed in Education over twenty-four years, it’s that teachers have come into the profession, not less, but more highly skilled, knowledgeable, prepared, and professional than ever before—at least that seems true to me here in Oregon, or here in my district in a suburb of Portland.  It is a wonder that the most qualified teaching force in the history of the public school system is not qualified to make determinations about the effectiveness of and the best path toward improving our schools, our programs, the learning of our students, and ultimately, whether or not those students have the skills necessary to be worthy of a high school diploma.

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