Undoing Unteaching of “Those Kids”

9 04 2009

I’ve been meaning to post a link to this article that really every educator, and every person whose tax dollars go into public education, should read. During my tenure as a teacher in a rural community where 12% of the adult population has a college degree and just over 65% have a high school degree (data taken from census.gov), I have often felt misunderstood by my colleagues and my peers. In this article, Kylene Beers, the president of NCTE, brilliantly (and succinctly) captures the cultural beliefs governing so many “underachieving” schools. The tricky thing about cultural beliefs, those because it is beliefs, is that they are usually taken for granted and thereby invisible. Beers stares down some pretty damning evidence of the kind of deficit thinking that has tainted the public educational system since its inception in the mid-1800s, when Horace Mann and his contemporary cronies established public education as a means of educating the poor. Please, please, please take a moment to read this. It’s short (only 4 pages), and it will rawk your brain!

The Genteel Unteaching of America’s Poor

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Something Missing

6 12 2008

"Schoolhouse on the Hill" by Diana Dignonis

 

Lately, I have felt ambushed. As a public educator, I am unesteemed in the world of the Academie, I am held hostage by standards that do not measure understanding, I am stretched across achievement gaps, I am passionate, I am outraged, I am desperate for social justice in my classroom, in the communities where I work and live. I am longing for a rhetoric about education that is not caustic, accusing, and defensive. I am frustrated, but not hopeless. 

A few months ago, I attended a cocktail party at the University. A Research Fellow, who had helped himself to a few drinks by the time of my arrival, had some suggestions for me as a public educator. “If you could just get these kids to write a sent-ence,” he spat. “You know, a subject, a verb, and a DOT on the end. I mean, a simple sentence. I mean, how hard could it be?” I was the only teacher at this gathering, and this sneering (supposed) intellectual’s remarks did not make me feel any less alien. Unfortunately, this is only one example of my instances where I have been on the receiving end of feedback like this about my professional field all the time. Teachers are criticized by everyone: parents, students, administrators, politicians, mechanics, engineers, researchers, doctors, lawyers, husbands and wives. The quality these critiques share is the smug arrogance of their delivery. I suppose that since nearly everyone has been a student at some time or another, the general public feels as though they have enough knowledge of the field to believe that they are themselves experts. 

And we are teaching their children. John Taylor Gatto, New York’s Teacher of the Year, says that we (schools) “adopt” students, we are “entrusted” to take on a parenting role for other people’s children. Passion does often override reason, especially when it comes to parenting. When parents argue with me about the way that my classroom operates, I try to remember the many occasions when I have (tentatively) argued with my child’s doctor over a diagnosis, informed by my feverish midnight reading of Web M.D. 

Despite my (attempted) understanding, I can’t help but yearn for a time when educators might be treated as professional experts in their field. The mountains of meaningless paperwork alone is insulting, but the even worse are the public’s unsolicited knee-jerk reactions to the educational system and the complex dilemmas, issues, problems it faces. Everyone thinks s/he’s got the answer. Unfortunately, there is no one right answer. There is a wide range of possibilities for improving the complex and diverse set of problems with education. 

So where to begin?

Last week, I stumbled across this reading for the Composition class I’ve been taking this fall. In 1996, Mike Rose wrote “What We Talk about When We Talk about School.” You can find this article in the September 25, 1996 edition of Education Week. After a heated “conversation” about education around the Thanksgiving dinner table that left me reeling, I was relieved to read Rose’s perspectives on the issue(s) facing public education and the rhetoric we use to discuss them. 

For three years in the early  90s, Mike Rose travelled across the country, visiting successful public school classrooms in an attempt to “fashion a response to the national discussion about public schools, a discussion that, [Rose] believed, had gone terribly wrong.” He analyzes the rhetoric of the conversation about public education, which he describes as being “flooded… with alarms and bad news, with crisis talk and prescriptions for remedy.” 

When asked about standardized test scores and school failures, he admits the problems with public education, but he also recognizes “the problem with assessing our schools through a few reductive or inaccurate measures.” Ultimately, he claims that “we need to think in richer ways about what we want from our schools.” Of course, he was received with “vehemence,” a response that he describes as “angry, disbelieving, assured and articulate, and terribly upset.”

What follows is his vision of “what’s missing” in our thinking about schools, schooling, and what we can expect from public education:

It is, of course, legitimate to worry about the relation between education and teh economy, and national and state goals, frameworks, and standards can play a role in improving the quality of schooling. But there is something missing here.

As I sat in those good classrooms in Los Angeles and Chicago, Missoula and Tucson, Wheelwright, Ky., and Indianola, Miss., a richer vocabulary of schooling began to shape itself. To be sure, there was concern about the economy and attempts to prepare students for it. But I also heard talk of safety and respect. A commitment to create sage public space and a respectful regard for the backgrounds and capabilities of the people in it. I saw the effect of high expectations: teachers taking students seriously as intellectual and social beings. I saw what happens when teachers distribute responsibility through a classroom, create opportunities for students to venture opinion, follow a hunch, make something new. I saw the power of bringing students together around common problems and projects – the intellectual and social energy that resulted, creating vital public space. And I saw what happens to young people, 1st graders through 12th, when they come to feel that those who represent an institution have their best interests at heart.

Safety, respect, expectation, opportunity, vitality, the intersection of heart and mind, the creation of civic space – this should be our public vocabulary of schooling – for that fact, of a number of our public institutions. By virtue of our citizenship in an democratic state, we are more than economic and corporate beings. 

If we are a nation divided, we are also a nation yearning for new ways to frame old issues, for a fresh language of civic life. The last year [spent “documenting excellence” in American classrooms for his book Possible Lives] has deepened my belief in the strength of this yearning. To generate this language for public education, we need to move a bit from the boardroom and the athletic field and closer to the good classroom – that miniature civic space – to find a more compelling language of school reform and of public education in a democracy.

I can’t imagine that many people would disagree with Rose’s depiction of public education in a democracy. I can’t imagine a parent who wouldn’t want her child in a classroom like the ones Rose documented. What is perhaps the most frustrating piece to this puzzling puzzle is that we all, everyone–rich, poor, White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, American– we all want this for our children. And we want it so badly, and so desperately, that we have to cling to oversimplified solutions in order to believe the possibility of “the good classroom.” Unfortunately, the solution is not singular and it is not simple. 

Frustrated with public education in America? Your name is Legion. For God’s sake, please have a bit of compassion on those of us who are sweating it out on the front lines. Just like our students, we need patience, understanding, open-mindedness, and support. 

If you’re interested in reading more of Mike Rose’s stuff, check out his blog

Antique School House Room Box & Antique Bisque Dolls, circa 1900





testing, testing: 1, 2, 3

18 03 2008

It’s that time of year–– again. The time when teaching becomes a bore, the students become hostile, and my life has lost any semblance of fruitful creativity. I spend the day trying to get my students to care about a test that is meaningless to them. These tests that the state designs and employs to hold everyone “accountable” are arbitrary enough as it is. Expecting a bunch of 8th graders to be responsible about taking a test that carries no consequences or incentives for their performance is ridiculous to say the very least. To use those test scores (which couldn’t possibly be accurate measures of the child’s knowledge if he/she isn’t even trying) to justify my ability as a teacher is just disgusting. I don’t believe that the answer is to raise the stakes; rather, we should be using alternative modes of assessing that are not forced-choice tests to determine whether or not a student is learning. A student’s ability to “pick the best answer” is limited by the answers that they are choosing from. How can you ask a student to choose a tone of a poem from four answer choices? To be honest, there are questions on the practice tests that I’ve been giving my students that I have to really stretch to find evidence for, and I have a graduate degree!!

A sample sentence from one of the passages: “Snow is fluffy when it falls, but when it accumulates without melting, it becomes granular and eventually compacts into solid ice.”This is a test for eighth graders. Accumulates? Becomes granular? Eventually compacts? I think this test designer thought that perhaps if the sentence started with something really dumbed down like “snow is fluffy,” ending the sentence with scientific terminology would be somehow justifiable. It’s not that these words are too hard for the kids. It’s that these kinds of technical terms are embedded in every sentence of a two-column page-long writing sample about something random… like glaciers.

Some context: It took me the entire first semester to get my students to read something, anything. I allowed them to pick out their own books and told them to get rid of the book if they didn’t find it interesting any longer. These kids are smart, but they are not prepared for the kind of testing that the state imposes on them. Their academic background is spotty when it comes to reading. Our culture is becoming markedly less textual: we simply don’t read anymore. Most of us get out news online (I get mine from the radio). We expect our kids to enjoy reading, but how many teachers are reading with their kids? How many classrooms are stocked with fun books? Kids become better readers by reading more. Period. It doesn’t matter what they read––they just need to read.Here’s what I know about the kids who perform well on these kinds of tests:

  1. They come from homes that have books in them.
  2. They will do an assignment “because the teacher said so.”
  3. They usually do their best work even when you don’t ask them to, no matter how meaningless it is to them.

I was not one of these students. When we took the writing assessment, I just wrote something down. When I took my AP exams, I half-assed them because I knew I was going to retake the class in college for an easy A. Now, the ACT? I took that one 3 times and studied for it. I didn’t sleep through that one. I was wide awake and rested for it. Same with the GRE. Why? Because I cared about the results because I knew that they would have a dramatic effect on my own personal interests (which happened to be going to college).

Bottom line: Testing is stupid. I wish I could articulate it in a more profound way, but when it comes down to it, everyone’s pissed off about the testing because it’s stupid. Today I happen to be pissed off about the testing because I’m working my ass off to get my kids to care about something that I don’t care about. The students’ scores are more mine than theirs. At the end of the year, those scores will come back to me. Being evaluated by something you don’t believe in makes about as much sense as an atheist giving all of his money to a church in hopes that he will be let into a Heaven that doesn’t exist.

Margaret Spellings makes about as much sense as Brenda Dickson.





No Child Left Behind?

31 01 2008

As this legislation goes up for renewal, politicians are heating up on both sides of the fence. What really kills me is the blame that is placed on teachers and schools for the status of our educational system today. There is a desperate desire to improve education, but this act is unfortunately headed by people who have not been in the classroom long enough or with enough wits about them to see that this legislation is RIDICULOUS! I’m thinking that the Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, may have been left behind during her own academic career. The notion of equality as sameness that is perpetuated by NCLB stems from the same branch of thinking that has brought us the educational assembly line that is the public (state-funded) educational system. Everyone, no matter what their social background, their talents, their interests, their beliefs, is expected to perform in the same way under the same circumstances as if that would be any where near an adequate (or accurate) measure of a person’s intelligence.

This report from NPR sheds some light on the discussion surrounding the law and the actual progress that has been made in education since its implementation. We should all be educated about this legislation because we are all directly effected by it. Here’s the link to the piece entitled, ‘No Child’ Law Picked Apart as Renewal Fight Looms. It aired yesterday on Morning Edition.





No Beef, All Filler

11 07 2007

1101070604_400.jpg

As a teacher, I am consistently blown away by the CRAP that we had to do in school for no apparent reason (other than the obvi: “because you have to”). Because of asshole laws like No Child Left Behind and high stakes testing (SAT, ACT, ARMT, blah, blah, blah), we teachers are forced to do a bunch of junk in our classrooms that entail anything but learning. If you’ve ever

a) taken a quiz on the parts of speech

b) been asked to identify the theme of a poem on a multiple choice test

c) had to answer trivial questions about a novel you read for class

d) memorized facts in preparation for a test

e) all of the above

Then you have been the victim of learning-less education. The problem is in the proof and the proof is supposedly in the testing. As educators, we have to be able to determine whether or not a students has learned the material we have taught, so we have to construct ways of collecting evidence that justify the grades we end up having to give our students. Most often, forms of evaluation like the ones I lsted above are much easier to evaluate than authentic assessments, but much less reliable in that they really only show evidence of a student’s ability to recall information and they cheat a broader vision of education.

Last night, I was reading this article in Time magazine that issued a report card on No Child Left Behind. This legislation, described by one superintendent as being like “a Russian novel” in that “it’s long, it’s complicated, and in the end, everyone gets killed,” was essentially designed to “close the achievement gap” between rich and poor, between “lacking” groups such as minorities and special ed students and everybody else. “under achieving” schools have to prove that they are making adequate yearly progress (AYP) towards reaching their goals that will help them “raise the bar” for their students. Funding for public schools is strictly tied to compliance with NCLB, so schools that fail to make AYP risk losing funding.

The first issue I have with this well-intentioned legislation: we are STILL LABELING students! The gap will begin to close when we stop defining our differences and start practicing more inclusive means of teaching. A second very serious issue that I take with NCLB is the idea of “highly qualified” teachers. We teachers have to take ridiculous (and expensive) tests in order to prove that we are highly qualified. In Alabama, the APTTP actually requires that we listen to various messages and record the information we heard. So while students are being groomed for high stakes testing, teachers are also being measured in completely arbitrary–and often insulting–ways.

The law is up for renewal this year. Please read the article and be informed about where our educational system is heading. The anxiety that this law creates in the classroom is cheating our children. Teachers are being evaluated based on how many of their students make the grade on these tests, which causes them to curb their teaching styles to “teach to the test.” Instead of creating authentic opportunities for learning (i.e. getting the hell out of the textbooks), teachers are handing out worksheets and making their kids do practice tests–all activities that yield little to no results in the classroom or on these tests. This kind of learning is meaningless and it does not transfer beyond that isolated activity. Since the law is coming up for review this year, you could make a difference by writing a letter to your Senator or your Representative. Anyone who knows me know that I am not a particularly political person, but this one hits close to home as I teach in a school that did not make AYP last year.

Here’s two more links to check it should you feel so inclined:

Eliminate NCLB

National Education Association

U.S. Department of Education