Friday, March 9, 2012

The Problem with Teachers?

I came across an article at Edweek called, “Teachers: Must We Be Saints or Sinners?” written by Anthony Cody. The article starts out by commenting on the way Americans define an “effective” teacher. Then, the article describes the “saint” and the “sinner” teacher as Americans seem to view them. I think that he has some valid points (tinged with perhaps a little bitterness), but I have a  beef with the article.

                Cody starts by saying that the view of an effective teacher sounds something like this: she makes herself available to students any time of day, spends lunches and free time with students, stays at school 10 hours a day, brings up test scores, uses her own money from a poor salary to purchase supplies and food for students, and brings students who are performing at low levels up to grade level. These are the saints, the “effective or good” teachers.

The “sinners” or ineffective teachers he describes as those teachers who arrive on time for work and leave at 4 or 5 p.m. They do not spend their evening hours with students but at home with their own families. They take home papers to grade and call parents when they need to, and they do not give students their cell numbers. Instead of spending endless hours tutoring students, they send them to the school’s tutoring programs. He states that these teachers’ students gain about a year’s academic growth per year, but this is not good enough because the students are below their grade level. These teachers spend their money on their own families instead of on school supplies and student needs.

Cody goes on to say that he has done some of the things that saints have done. But he states that if he chooses not to do them, he does not want to lose status as a good teacher. He talks about the expectations for teachers to sacrifice money and family to schools. Cody states that teachers should be planning powerful lessons to teach and attending professional development that will stimulate powerful teaching, but are instead spending hours paid and unpaid tutoring students who are behind. He also says that it is not the schools’ or the teachers’ responsibility to get students and communities out of poverty but that seems to be one of America’s expectations for teachers.

I agree that the public seems to be of the opinion that teachers aren’t doing enough.  It is a real problem because of these reasons: there isn’t enough money to afford tutors in many schools; there isn’t enough money or time in the day to allow teachers the time they need produce effective lessons; there isn’t enough time or emphasis put on professional development.  The problem lies in expectations, certainly, but also in funding and in politics. Without the almighty dollar, and without effective political policies, there is no way to fix the problems. Everyone complains about the problem, but no one has any viable solutions to offer. I’m tired of the media and politicians attacking the teaching profession, but until we come up with some actionable solutions we are just complaining and whining.

What we need is an educational leader in politics who has actually spent time, years, teaching. We need someone who knows the joys and the hardships, and who understands what it means to be an effective teacher directing the education programs for our country. What we need are politicians who are less concerned about money and reelection and more concerned about students and real learning. What we need are administrators who understand what true professional development is and provide it to teachers consistently and effectively. What we need are philanthropists who are interested in investing in our students, teachers, and schools for the sake of learning and not for the bottom line, the money, or the publicity. What we need is to quit looking at education for the laborers it can produce. As a country we need to learn to value education for the sake of education, for the sake of learning.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Some of the First Steps for Teaching Persuasive Writing in the 21st Century English Classroom

Most writers I teach find that the harderst part about persuasive writing is just getting started. Writer's block, uncertainty, or doubt, plague them and convince them that they will fail. So part of what I like to do is to give them loads of examples. I even encourage them to model their writing after the examples- steal the idea and make it their own!

One fantastic free resource for persuasive writing introductions is "The Writing Teachers Strategy Guide" by Steve Peha at Teaching that Makes Sense: The Writing Teacher's Strategy Guide Steve has a whole site full of best practices for teaching writing, but this is one of my favorite resources because it has loads of specific examples for attention getting introductions and powerful endings. I highly recommend all of Steve's stuff. He is fantastic.

 One of the most important parts of the introduction, after the attention getter, is the position statement- which is the thesis statement of the persuasive essay. I teach my students to outline the main points that they want to use to argue their position. Then, use those things like a list in a sentence to create the position statement. For example, if the topic is going green, and the main points are recycling, conserving water, and using fuel efficient vehicles, the statement might look like this: Recycling, conserving water, and using more fuel efficient cars are just a few of the ways that you can help keep our planet healthy.

The position or thesis statement is then a basic outline of the three main ideas that will be addressed in the persuasive essay. This is a fairly basic way to construct a position statement. With begining persuasive writers, it is sometimes best to keep it as simple as possible. Give them a formula that they can wash and repeat. Also, with the postion statement, I model, model, model. It may seem redundant, but there is often a lot of confustion that comes with writing a position statement. I show them examples, we write some together, and then they try it on their own. Photo Credit

Monday, February 20, 2012

Taking a Page From Finland: Where 21st Century Education Needs To Shift

If we are to see any real change for the better of our educational system and the students that benefit from it, we will need to have a shift in values. American needs to take a lesson from a country that is having success not by pushing high-stakes testing or merit-pay, but by focusing on what is truly best for the learner. BBC did a story about Finland's Educational Success.

The story portrayed a world of education far different from the one we experience in America. The curriculum in Finland emphasized relaxing and being comfortable in the classroom- taking shoes off and calling teachers by their first names. One teacher said she was the students' "school mom". It seemed to be a no stress, or at least low stress environment for all students. This fact is amazing considering that the Finland schools are some of the most successful schools in the world.

One of the stand out points of the Finland educational system is that the students were not compared to each other, and there were no failing students. Learning isn't a competition in Finland- there were no winners or losers. The collaboration and team work shown in the Finland schools is far different from America. In a classroom setting, three teachers were assigned to each class and one was especially designated to help the slower learners. All the students helped to teach each other; they worked to help students who were behind. Here in America the emphasis is on getting ahead and education becomes a competition. It's everyone for himself-"gotta be a winner". If a student needs help he is too embarrassed to ask- no one wants to be the dumb kid- the loser.

The Finnish culture is a big part of their successful education system. The way that they value education and hold it important to them is so different from America. They don't see education as just a stepping stone, or a job, or something to put on a resume. It is a valued part of their lives and their families. They embrace education as something beautiful, personal, and meaningful. There is no drill and kill. They spend the least hours in school of any country, and they perform the best. Another aspect of their success is the trust the people put in the schools and teachers- trust was emphasized. The parents and leaders trusted that the teachers would always do the best for their children. The teachers and parents worked together to educate the students. In America parents often don't take responsibility for the education of their children- they see it as the school's responsibility.

  Photo Credit

Thursday, February 9, 2012

21st Century Learning Skills Call for Overhaul

Inquiry and Project Based Learning are some of the catch phrases being thrown around to describe the shift that is happening in some classrooms around the nation. For me those terms can be boiled down to one thing. Choice- giving students the opportunity to learn what they want, how they want to learn it essentially creates inquiry and Project Based Learning. Which is something that I wish had occurred to me to do years ago, but I'm dealing with it!

One of the people who really influenced my thinking was a professor at grad school who introduced me to Sir Ken Robinson's "Changing Education Paradigms". The wheels had been turning up to that point, and then the rubber hit the road.

Not exactly rocket science, but for an average teacher it's a new way of thinking. Taking the emphasis off of using content to teach skills and turning the focus towards student interests and passions to learn those same skills takes work. Not just a little work, a lot of work.

My English classroom is in the midst of a major overhaul. Mostly it's happening in my brain, but it's spilling over into every aspect of my classroom. My old units are sometimes useless with this new way or thinking, and I need to create whole new units. Slowly, things are changing -one unit at a time, trial and error, success and failure. Together my students and I are learning what makes a successful English classroom.

Educational Needs: What's Really Important

Friday, February 3, 2012

21st Century Technology

The evolution of technology over the past decade has been staggering. Not only has it become much more cost effective, it has become an essential part of the classroom. To teach without technology these days is to do an incredible disservice to our students.

For me, living and teaching in a rural area has had its trials and triumphs in the area of technology. Trying to teach for years in a school with only one computer lab, shared between all grades as well as serving as the IT and business classroom, has been a struggle. It is only within the past few years technology updates to the classrooms have been taking place. Classrooms were receiving Smart-boards before they had access to computers for individual student use. Nice, but a little backwards.

Recently acquired net books have started to give classrooms the opportunity to really begin utilizing current technologies in the classroom. For example, we are experiencing, for the first time, the power of Google Docs to revolutionize how an English teacher and her students work. Today, my students and I worked on a document together. We were able to all work on the same document watching each other type and add comments and ideas. Students were oohing and ahhing over the technology that I'm sure other schools have had for years.

This not-so-new-but-new-for-us technology will cut down on paper use- no more papers to physically turn in. Writing to this point had been mostly old school pen and pencil work. It was hard to lay down any expectations for more when often students did not have access to computers at school or home. This year for the first time, we will share our documents and give each other feedback over the Internet. Not a new invention certainly, but a huge technological step for us here in rural USA.

I am hoping fervently that this trend will continue. Over the next couple of years, I hope that my students will be able to get more and more access to relevant technologies. I truly believe that these opportunities will provide an opening to a world of wonder and enjoyment of learning that some of these students haven't experienced since elementary days.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Classics: To Be or Not To Be

In the English classroom teachers have been arguing for years over the value of teaching the classics. Some are staunch supporters and some swing to the opposite extreme. I can say that I have always sat on the fence. I could see the value of teaching the classics and at the same time I could see how disinterested my students were. For years I tried to balance somewhere in the middle. Do a little Shakespeare here and some more modern materials there, and always in the back of my mind questioning if I was doing the right thing.

It wasn't until about my eighth year of teaching (yeah I'm a little slow) when it finally occurred to me that maybe the content didn't matter. That maybe it should be about what the students want to learn. The moment these things started to occur to me my world started turning upside down. My practices in the classroom missing the mark; these newfound values were shaking the way I saw teaching and learning as a whole. I started struggling with my own preferences and fighting the urges to teach my way instead of the way I knew was better for the students.

I wanted to incorporate things that they were interested in learning- to include more options and choices and creativity. At the same time, I fought against how it would change the way my classroom operated. I was playing tug-of-war with myself! I started searching, scouring the Internet for ways to incorporate more opportunities for choice. After banging my head against the Internet wall for weeks, I stumbled upon a teacher who was attempting something that clicked for me. Her name is Carol Zortman. She started differentiating her curriculum by creating required parts of a project and then offering choices for the rest of the project.

I found that this was a place for me to start. I took her material and ran with it changing it and adapting it to work with the materials I had or that I was able to get my hands on. I finally found what I believed was a step in the right direction for me and my students. Carol Zortman

Friday, January 27, 2012

Creativity & Choice

One of the professors in grad school that influenced me most helped me to understand the value of creativity in the classroom. I knew that creativity was important, and in fact I thought that I was on the right track incorporating creative projects and activities into my lessons.

What I found to be true, for my students and my classroom, was that it wasn't enough. Not only not enough creativity, but more importantly not enough choice. I was not allowing them to stretch their wings and find out what worked best for them because I was keeping too much of the control over the classroom learning to myself. I needed to find new ways to help these students not only learn reading and writing skills, but to find methods that allowed them choice and creativity in their realm of interests and passions.

One of the people who truly inspired me and helped to change the way I think about education is Sir Ken Robinson and his views on creativity and education. If you are as interested as I am in finding ways to reach our students and help them shape their futures in the 21st century, you might want to check out Sir Robinson's YouTube presentation: Changing Education Paradigms

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Learning in the 21st Century

The 21st century has brought our schools to an age of uncertainty. The future for our students is encircled by a troubled economy, ever-changing technology, and a new age of communication practices that could cripple as easily as it could champion the dreams of our students.

We as educators need to band together to find best practices and research-based methods in a collaborative effort to reach our students. We need to communicate the enthusiasm we feel for learning to our students. I have seen the effects of a positive attitude in the educational setting, and I have seen the effects of negativity. Both are infectious. A positive attitude is team building. It breaks through boundaries and builds partnerships. It inspires and motivates.

In the 21st century we as educators do not know what the next technological innovation or career opportunity might be. Content is no longer key- it is now the skills students possess that will matter in this new age. It is the ability to think, collaborate, communicate, and create that will prepare our students for the unknown future they face.