Another Shool Year Over

Another school year is over. Today was my last official day for the school year, which means I only have to go in to work to tidy up a few things in my classroom before I get to enjoy a wonderful summer break. My 8th graders actually graduated on June 4th and it was good to see them go. I mean that to be funny as well as to be serious. Obviously, by the end of the year nerves are often frayed, and some of the kids annoy you to no end. There are, truth be told, always some kids you won't miss. But at the same time every year I see another batch of young people move on to high school. Most are ready, some are not. I always wonder if I have been the best teacher I could be. I wonder if I have inspired any of them to better themselves. I pray that I have not messed any of them up permanently. I think about how I will miss them. I dream of what they may do with their lives.

Teachers get to play a very intense part in the life of a student for a relatively brief period of time. It is difficult not to develop relationships with them that you will miss. In many cases I have spent more time with my students over the past school year than their parents have, and that time is certainly more focused on them. Then, as if a switch is thrown, it is summer, and those kids are gone, like a shock separation. In the case of my 8th graders, they are gone forever. It is a bittersweet victory for me to see these kids for whom I have expended so much personal and emotional energy leave for new and bigger things. I hope they do well and pray for those who won't.

People always say to me, "Man, it must be nice to have a whole summer off. Being a teacher must be awesome." Well, it is nice to have a summer off, and being a teacher is awesome. The summer break, however, is not really what makes teaching cool. Teaching makes teaching cool. I often get the sarcastic "Oh, poor baby has a whole two months off," routine whenever I talk about the stress of the job. The fact is I earn that two months off. I work my ass off twice as hard and many other professionals earning twice as much as me. Of course, let's not forget that if a teacher is really worth their salt, the summers are merely some time away from students to make yourself a better teacher. The summer break, then is nice, but it should not be confused with a vacation. The summer break is a break, a time to be rejuvenated, to rest, to recuperate from a long, hard year. I will enjoy it, but I will not waste it. Along with my nightly beer on the porch, I will spend a lot of time thinking about how to teach the next group of kids, how I will meet their needs, and how I will insire them. I have earned my break, and I will use it happily.

Moving, Heat, Bills, and Teaching

I have been quite busy lately. Much busier, in fact, than I would normally enjoy. I don't enjoy it now. The other day I received notice that my domain name was about to expire and I was reminded that I had also forgotten to take of about a zillion other things.

See, it's the end of the school year. I teach 8th grade. I have almost zero productivitiy with them at this point in the school year to begin with and, because no one has turned on my air conditioning in my classroom as of yet (a politically motivated decision, I am sure), I have even less. Yesterday a kid randomly bounced a kick ball off of a girl's face because he was pissed at her, although I am willing to bet it was because he was sweating in places that he didn't even know he had. My life at work is currently stressful to say the least, but that's not the only place where things are nuts.

In a fit of fiscal depravity, my wife and I chose the end of May to move to a new, albeit incredibily inexpensive house. We could have easliy waited until the end of June when I am finished with work and she is done with school, but oh no! We wanted to save $800 and move a month earlier, and as a result we running around in a quasi-panicked state of hopeless despair. So now not only are we trying to take care of standard moving stuff, but we have completely painted, cleaned, and removed the carpet from this new place. Additionally i have yet to rent a dumpster to throw out all the crap the people who lived there before left behind. And I have to buy a refrigerator. And haven't bottle my homebrewed beer that has been ready to bottle for two months now. Ahh!

I actually feel better. Just sharing the woes of my life with you, random reader, helps. I know I will get through this soon, but man, the trip sucks. In fact, I don't even have time to be typing this crap. I don't even ahve time to talk about bills!

This is to Have Succeeded

A colleague of mine has the following quote in his classroom. I enjoy reading it everyday.

To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children...
To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.

It turns out that the above is an edited version. The complete quote reads:

To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.

It seems this quote may be incorrectly attributed to Emerson, and could very well be a poem written by someone else. You can read more about this at Transendentalists.com.

Whoever the author, and despite the fact that I prefer the edited version, I find the the quote to be a little piece of inspiration in a world saddly losing touch with that sensation, and every little bit helps.

The Roles of Teacher and Counselor

Today, when school was over and after report cards for the quarter went home, a student came to me and asked, "How can I do better?" These are words a teacher loves to hear, hopes to hear, prays to hear, especially from a student who struggles with effort and academic performance. He was concerned with his performance on a recent project. I launched into my usual, "Well [insert name], you need to put forth more effort. Try to focus on what you are doing..." speech. He pulled out is paper that he had hastily thrown together, and I began to point out how it stunk, although I was a bit more gentle about it. I asked why he had handed in such a paper without having me proof read it for him or asking for help if he was confused. Then things came out. It became very clear to me that the reason my student had performed poorly is because he has much larger problems to deal with.

For the next hour I sat, fortunately with two other teachers, and listened to this poor kid pour out every frustration and obstacle he has to his academic success. While I can't go into too many details, this kid is dealing with responisbilities and problems at home that no 7th grader should have to deal with. He has no obvious way to deal with these problems or solve them. His only immediate option is to continue to suffer them while getting by as best he can. And yet, before he began talking in depth about his life, I began to give him the old "Well, life is tough" speech. I feel like a dick.

Now, at the risk of being arrogant, I am a good teacher. But I am not very good at trying to get to the root of some kid's problems that have been building his whole life in the span of an hour. I am not trained to do that. But since there is no one else who this kid will talk to, I listened. I offered the best advice I could, and tried to steer him in a direction I thought prudent, all the while thinking, "no wonder this kid rushes through his homework." Hell, I'm lucky he does any homework, given the home environment he describes. How can a kid worry about social studies homework when he is basically helping raise his younger siblings while his single mom is dealing with some farily significant depression and mental health problems on her own?

Of course, I am not describing anything new. America's children, even those with less obvious problems, are often thrown aside by parents who aren't responsible or who are incapable of raising them. More and more, Americans are having kids, but don't raise them. There's a big difference between giving your kids food, a roof, and clothes and raising them. (I'm not even going to delve into those children who don't even have those basic needs being met). Single parent homes, broken marriages and promises, financial problems, parental irresponsibility - these are all common problems now. More so than in the past I think. As the divorce rate continues to rise, so does the number of fucked up kids. What's going to be their future? How will they raise their kids? What are they going to do with no education, because they were too busy just surviving?

I guess all I can do as a teacher is the best I can. I can encourage and inspire and motivate my students as best I can, and hope some things I say stick and help. I can make some phone calls, and advise my students when appropriate, but I am one man. I am one man against a storm of selfishness and cultural indoctrination for a generation of parents who want everything, but don't want responsibility for anything. Our kids, our future are at stake, but hey, fuck it, economic and material success are more important, right? I mean, why raise my kids, when I can have stuff.

I suppose I'll end my rant now. I feel a little better. On Monday I'll just do the best I can and help as many of them as I can. What else can I do?

Graduation Testing and the Destruction of Learning

The other day I was browsing Fark.com and I ran across an article relating the story of a class action lawsuit against the state of Alaska for its new high school graduation exam. The lawsuit is essentially over the fact that many of Alaska's disabled students can't pass the graduation exam, and therefore can't receive a high school diploma. Basically the lawsuit claims it's unfair to expect a retard to take the same test as an average high school student and pass it. Now I know my description here is crass, but it speaks to the fact that this is a very real problem, and as dumb as it sounds, this is true in many states.

Of the people who are outside the realm of education, but think they are experts nonetheless (which is bascially everyone), many believe that graduation exams are a great way to ensure that America's students are learning what they are supposed to learn by the time they graduate high school. Many folks think that a high-stakes graduation test is a good way to keep everyone honest, and to make sure the schools are actually teaching what they are supposed to teach. Testing holds the students and the schools accountable for learning and teaching respectively, and seems a good way to gauge how our country's educational institutions are doing. On the surface, testing is a pretty reasonable solution to the fact that the majority of American students suck and can't even name more than five or six U.S. presidents. When one looks a little deeper, however, there are some real flaws in the system, which is why most teachers hate testing.

Now many proponents of testing say that the only reason teachers dislike testing is because teachers don't like being held accountable for what they are doing in the classroom. Fair enough, and it may even be true in some cases. Lord knows I've met numerous teachers who wouldn't last ten minutes in the business world. But the problems of testing go deeper, and no one seems to really care about finding the solutions.

One of the biggest issues with the high school graduation test model is that most of these state mandated tests are for all high school students. Every student must take them and every student must pass them to get a high school diploma. In many states, if a student fails to pass the test in their allotted number of attempts, they get only a certificate of attendence instead of a diploma. A certificate of attendence is about as useful as a wet sack of rotten cabbage. So basically, unless a kid can pass all parts of the test in their number of allowed attempts, they get nothing except a piece of paper that says they went to high school (and, oh by the way, was too stupid to pass a simple test). Without engaging in a debate over the sociology of all this, it does seem reasonable to expect an average or above student to be able to pass a test on material aimed at the tenth grade level to graduate from high school - except that many kids who are below average in terms of intelligence and learning ability are expected to pass the same exact test. Even with the few accomodations that many states allow, most students with learning problems can't pass all sections of the tests. Essentially we are saying to those kids, at least some of whom are smart, creative kids with some learning problems, "Sorry Bud, but you suck. Go pump gas some where." (My beloved Ohio does offer some reasonable accomodations for kids who can't pass, but the problem is that most of the kids who can't pass the tests often won't meet the requirements for graduating without the tests either).

Another issue that relates directly to test scores is school funding. In many states, the schools with the poorest test grades do not get additional funding for certain programs and personnel. That's right - if your school is full of kids who need extra help, and the teachers there can't get themto pass the graduation test, then your school loses money. Guess where the money goes. Yep, to the schools with the best test scores. Sound right to you? The idea, of course, is to provide incentives to the schools who are doing what they should be doing: educating kids. The problem with that reasoning is that the schools who have a higher proportion of kids who can't pass the test get less money for the programs and staffing needed to help the kids who are having trouble. This is especially unfair in states such as Ohio, where schools are funded with property taxes and where the districts with highest passing rates are already wealthy.

A third problem is the reality of test preparation. Many schools across the country have implemented classes specifically aimed at helping students pass their proficiency tests. That means that instead of teaching real content and, more importantly, concepts and skills, schools are forced to cram the kids full of facts that they can spit out in order get through the trial of a giant test. Even in all the other schools which haven't begun offering such courses, the curriculum has been altered to fit the design of the tests and focus on that material, instead of other material equally as important, if not more so. If you live in a state with graduation testing, your kid is basically being taught what the state, not the local school board, has decided is important and, moreover, that material may not even be truly learned by your child as it is being packed into short term memory to get them through the test.

The idea of mass high school proficiency testing may seem like a good fix for America's failing schools, but the reality is that it is not helping the kids who need help, nor is it helping all the other children to reach higher levels of learning. It is a weak, generic band-aid to a problem that is more cultural than educational. In most cases, it really is doing more harm than good. The appeal of it is obvious. One can look at a print-out of scores and percentages and say "Look here! Results! Hard data!" The problem is that learning is not the sort of thing that can be determined with a print-out or a percentage. It must be assessed over the long term, by professionals, and on a case by case basis. I would say that the above average or gifted student who has only done what he needs to do to pass the proficiency exam and graduate high school has not learned as much as he could or should have. I would also say the the kid who has a reading problem, or a difficulty processing information, who goes from failing every subject to earning "C's" but still can't pass the tests because he's not given enough time, has come far, and real learning has taken place. It's just too bad the only recognition the second student will get is a pat on the back for making it to school for all four years and a job at the local convenience store.

Standards Based Education

Today I had a meeting with my fellow middle school teachers to discuss our transition to a standards based report card. We will be part of the last group of teachers in our district to switch to a standards based system of assessment and teaching.

Many schools in our district have met with fierce opposition to our new standards based report cards, chiefly from parents. Why? Well, for one thing our report cards will no longer have A's or B's but rather simply a check, if the child is meeting the standard, an "N" if they are not, and a rare "+" if they exceed the standards. Parental opposition to this new system is understandable. Parents want to know what the hell they are looking at when they review their child's report card. Everyone is familiar with the old A,B,C,D,F system, and a standards based system is foreign to them.

What is a standards based system? Well, despite the fears of our parents that we are dumbing down our grading or moving away from a traditional system of performance assessment, standards based education is spreading nationwide, largely as a result of the No Child Left Behind Act. Standards Based Education is a response to the large number of students nationwide who seem to be getting high school diplomas and yet can't actually demonstrate that they have learned anything. Traditional grades have the potential to be very subjective from one school or one teacher to the next. Standards based education is an effort to normalize what a student should know and be able to do at a specific grade level, by state.

Our school district was among the first in Ohio to switch to a standards based report card, and the uproar has been significant. What most parents don't realize is that in the next ten years, most schools nation wide with K-8 classes, and even many high schools, will switch to this system. In fact, it has been a much bigger challenge selling this concept to parents than it has been to teachers or students. Of course, a teacher who is doing their job right really won't be affected all that much, since they are hopefully already checking to make sure their students can meet grade level benchmarks. The real bitch of it for teachers is changing the way we assess, or grade, students, and that is really more of a practical challenge than an intellectual one. For the most part, teachers who are keeping up with appropriate professional development are ready for the change and can handle it. The real problem comes from the old fossils that have been teaching for 25 generations and can't handle change.

One very valid critism has been how to motivate talented and higher ability students. In essence an 8th grader could figure out just how much he has to do to earn that check mark on his report card, indicating that he is consistently meeting the standard (like understanding and explaining cause and effect relationships, for example), and not do much else. What is left to motivate him to exceed the standard? To earn a "+", a student must consistently exceed the standard, or go above and beyond what he would normally need to do. This proves rather difficult for most students, so why bother when there is no obvious benefit? Traditional grading systems invite students to work hard and push themselves to earn an A. Get that 4.0, or higher if they take AP classes. Where it would be a challenge to consistently earn A's, it would be relatively easy for a high ability student to get a "check." Where a standards based system proves really useful for primary grade students, as the student develops intellectually, a more traditional system may be called for, if for no other reason than to help motivate them.

Of course, a great deal of the public outcry our district has experienced is no doubt a result of the change itself. Changing the system of grades that we knew, our parents knew, and so on, is big deal. People often fear change, even if the system being changed has flaws. As the change to a standards beased system ages a bit, many of the students and parents who have young children now will grow accustomed to it, and perhaps understand it better. Students now in kindergarten or first grade will never know a grade card without a check or an "N", and so as they move up the grade levels, perhaps the fear and discomfort this change has caused will subside.

As for me, I am reserving judgement until I have had more experience assessing my students according to a standards based system using a standards based report card. While making sure my students are meeting the standards and benchmarks is nothing new to me, the philosphical shift in the way I assess that learning will take some adjustment. We shall see. At the end of the day, if students graduating from high school can show they have had a meaningful education, I am willing to try almost any reasonable idea.

Interesting Choice

Ever since I became a teacher, it has been my ultimate career goal to teach at my high school, my alma mater. Even before I was a teacher, while I was still in high school, I used to sit in class and day dream about how cool it would be to teach there. I would imagine how I would do things, how I would lecture, what the teachers' lounge must be like, and even what summers off might be like. I have always had a nagging feeling in the back of my mind that I would be a teacher one day. Teaching is not just my career, it is my vocation, my calling.

Currently I am teaching 7th and 8th grade social studies at a school not too far from my old high school. It's great. My students are awesome, my co-workers are (mostly) competent, and many have as much passion for their work as I do, if not more. Daily - well, almost daily - I am rewarded for my hard work with a smile, or even better, a look of new found understanding, from a young, bright eyed student. I love my job. I just didn't realize how much.

A couple of weeks ago I discovered that there was an opening at my old alma mater for a social studies teacher. 'This is it!' I thought, "My chance!" And yet I hesitated. Through the grape vine I even heard my name was being tossed around as a candidate for the position, even before I had approached anyone about it. And still I paused. The thought of leaving my current position, even for my dream job, gave me pause. This was surprising to me.

As it turns out, after much deliberation, and a couple of sleepless nights, I am not going to apply for the job. I am going to stay where I am for a bit. This is for a few reasons. First, I just don't feel ready to move on yet. I am very happy and comfortable where I am, and my gut hasn't steered me wrong yet. Additionally, I am recently married, we are looking to buy a house, and there's just too much else going on right now.

Second, I want to hone my teaching skills and technique before I move to the high school level. This is not to say I wouldn't do well there now. I would. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I am a damn good teacher. But I want to be the best I can be before I move on.

Finally, despite the fact that teaching at my old high school is still a major goal of mine (that has not changed), I like the younger kids. There are so many cool things that are a part of my day that you just don't get to do at the high school level. This is not to say that high school teachers don't get to do cool stuff with their students, just that those cool things are often (I imagine) different. I love the fact that at one minute I'll be having a really great class discussion about an important issue of the day and the students' critical thinking skills will be in over drive, they'll be thinking deep thoughts, probing new ideas, and learning like young adults, and the next minute they'll be playing like children on the playground or in gym class, having fun and enjoying all of the carefree pleasures that being young can provide. I like the fact that you can still surprise them, scare them, motivate them, and make them laugh at silliness. I know all this is possible with high school students, especially freshmen and sophomores, but there's something about that leap to high school that takes a little bit of the kid out of them that I still get to see.

So anyway, even though my goals have not changed, and one day I will teach at my alma mater, I am going to stay put for a while. I am going to enjoy all those parts of my day that make my job so cool. And when I am ready to move on, much like my students, I will. I'm just going to wait until I'm ready.


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