Friday, August 30, 2013

Talking About Common Core

Attending my two boys' Back to School Night is always interesting to me, having been on the other side of the desk, so to speak, for the last 18 years. It's a nice change of pace to sit all relaxed in too-small chairs and not have to worry about what I am going to say and how to fit it all in in 30 minutes.

Last night, I found myself nodding in agreement as my six year-old's teacher talked about the need to train her 1st graders to use the bathroom at recess (I could tell her many still won't have that mastered by third grade), the importance of reading and returning homework, and how wonderful Daily Five is.  My nods of agreement soon turned to ones of sympathy, however, when she reached the part of the presentation I knew I dreaded when I presented at my own Back to School Night two weeks ago:  the part where she had to talk about Common Core State Standards.

Teachers have been put in the uncomfortable position of having to talk about something that many of us still know little about.  In my district, we had a couple of inservices last year that totally inundated us with information and left me at least feeling completely overwhelmed.  Other than that, we have been left pretty much on our own to make sense of it all.  My district did create and distribute a PowerPoint to all teachers that we were required to present to parents.  Although the PowerPoint contained little information that was actually useful, because I had spent a good part of my summer on Twitter and familiarized myself somewhat with the standards, I had a bit more to say on the subject than I had expected.  Even so, I felt like I was bluffing my way through.  I was surprised when a parent came back after the second presentation (she had attended the first) and told my teaching partner and me how happy she was that we were up on CCSS.  My surprise turned to dismay when she went on to explain that she works for an agency that goes into schools in need of turning around.  But I don't know anything, not really, was all I could think.  Last night that feeling of discomfort returned as I listened to my son's teacher explain that CCSS was an international movement that would make it so that all the states and countries like Japan would be learning the same things in the same sequence.  I prayed that I was the only one in the room who knew there was much she did not understand about Common Core.  

We teachers are so used to speaking with authority and being the "experts" in our room, that it is difficult to stand in front of parents and talk about something so new that we don't know much more than they do.  In many ways it feels like we're groping around in the dark, trying to find something to grasp on to, something that makes sense and will lead us out of the darkness.  After last night's experience with my son's teacher, I suspect I am not entirely alone in feeling this way.

I don't have a problem with the standards per se.  I would love it if we had time and plenty of support to figure out how to implement the new standards and really work toward improving instruction for all kids.  We need freedom to experiment and try new strategies and incorporate technology without fear.  But as always we have standardized testing breathing down our backs, reminding us we don't have time.  My greatest disappointment regarding CCSS is that the main focus is on testing, not instruction.  My district began talking about testing even before we began to look at the standards. For some reason every time I hear people talk about standardized testing, I think of numbers, not kids.  And that is neither why I went into teaching nor why I stay.  For the creators of the Common Core, for politicians, for the media, and yes, even for administrators, education seems to be solely about the numbers.  For teachers it's always about the kids.  

So, while I understand that my son's teacher isn't an expert in Common Core, I'm not in the least worried.  She has plenty of knowledge about kids and what they truly need to know and an abundance of enthusiasm for teaching.  She showed me last night that she is there for the kids.  My son is going to do just fine.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Giving Up Is Easy

On the surface, running and reading aren’t very similar.  I never would have connected the two if I hadn’t seen two tweets a few months ago.  The two had nothing to do with one another and it was just by coincidence that they appeared in close proximity, thus allowing me to make an eye-opening connection.

The first tweet came from Chris Lehman and was about disengagement being “a cover for ‘Can you help me feel smart?’”  I don’t remember exactly what the second tweet was about or whom it was from, but it had to do with exercising.  My mind instantly put the two together in one giant a-ha moment that I have been contemplating ever since.

The reason these two disparate tweets resonated with me was, in part, because I had just started running.  This is actually quite huge for me as I have never considered myself athletic in the least.  I was a total bookworm growing up and the closest I got to sports was four-square at recess in elementary school.  Whenever I walk into a gym, I nervously look around for people pointing at me and saying, “You.  You don’t belong here.  Get out.”  Okay, maybe it’s not that bad, but I am extremely self-conscious.  I have spent the better part of my life avoiding any situation that will reveal my total lack of skill in this area. 

After realizing how I had disengaged from exercise for decades to cover up my own feelings of inadequacy, I immediately thought of students who are forced to confront their own perceived inadequacies, in public, on a daily basis.  Is it any surprise students who struggle sometimes seem disengaged?  It’s a natural human reaction.  We avoid what we are not good at to spare ourselves possible humiliation.  What if I were asked to run in front of a large group of people every day?  (Actually, I did have that happen before.  It was called high school P.E., and it was beyond awful.)  As an adult I would have the option to refuse to do it.  But what about our kids?  What options do they have?  Tuning out or acting out is often their only defense.

The question becomes, then, what can we do to help them.  I’ve been thinking a lot lately how my perception of myself might have been different if, instead of holding a timer in hand and telling me I had to run a mile in under ten minutes, my teachers had helped me build stamina by gradually increasing the demands.  In other words, if they had met me where I was and had gently guided me forward, I might have developed a more positive attitude toward running and confidence that I could do it, which would have allowed me to experience success.  Unfortunately that didn’t happen and I gave up, never having met the goal. Giving up was so much easier.

This past weekend I was working on lesson plans and again experienced the frustration of being faced with performing a task I didn’t feel up to par to complete.  I am putting conscious effort into improving my instruction, trying out new strategies, and also attempting to address Common Core Standards.  I was extremely stressed out and more than once thought how much easier it would be to just pull out last year’s lesson plans and teach everything the same way.  Each time I run, I am faced with a similar dilemma.  It would be so much easier to avoid putting myself through the torture of an activity that I know I am not very good at.  Fortunately, I have kept track of my times and distances and I am able to see improvement.  Though it is slow going, that improvement keeps me motivated. 

In light of my own experiences, I believe more strongly than ever that the key to helping our disengaged learners is building confidence first and then gradually increasing the demands, saying, “Okay, maybe you can’t do that yet, but that’s all right because you can do this.”  We need to provide them with the stepping stones that will lead them to where they need to go, give them the means to track their progress, and celebrate their successes along the way.  We need to remember, too, to move them forward one manageable step at a time and not try to take giant leaps forward because someone says our students need to be at a certain point by the end of the year.  We all develop at different rates, and it is unfortunate that education has determined that everybody should acquire the same set of skills at the same proficiency by the same deadline.  You can standardize tests all you want, but you can’t standardize people.  Why would we even want to?

In a way, I am thankful that I started running, that it is a struggle for me, and that I need to stay focused on how far I’ve come in order to not give up.  It has helped me to see more clearly what some of my own students must experience every day at school.  As an adult I have learned that giving up may be easier, but it isn’t very rewarding.  Perhaps more than any other, that’s one lesson I hope my students learn.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Finding the Writer Inside

Writing has never been my favorite subject to teach.  I have always felt overwhelmed by the myriad of topics to cover:  outlining, ideas, details, grammar, conventions….  The list goes on and on.  Where does one start?  In what order should they be taught?  Then there was the issue of having to read what my students wrote.  More often than not I was disappointed in what they produced and I would be frustrated that I had not guided them toward brilliant (I would have settled for clear) writing.  How could I get them to improve?  Grading was another problem.  During my student teaching I was assigned a fourth grade teacher as my “master” teacher.  Her approach to grading writing?  Count the errors.  A student who wrote pages full of wonderful ideas could end up with a lower grade than someone who wrote only one short, rather empty paragraph.  Even in my teaching infancy I knew that didn’t make any sense.  After a few years I was introduced to the Six Traits, which finally offered me some guidance for giving more focused, constructive feedback.  Still, there was the matter of converting those assessments into grades.  It seemed when it came to writing, I always had more questions than I had answers.  Not surprisingly, writing became that subject that was put on the back burner and often got bumped for “more pressing” concerns. 

This summer I stumbled onto two professional development opportunities that changed my perspective.  One of those opportunities I discovered was Teachers Write.   Teachers Write is an online summer writing camp put on by Kate Messner, along with Gae Polisner, Jo Knowles, Jen Vincent, and a variety of guest authors.   As I told the parents at Back to School Night last night, I am excited to share what I learned with my students this year.

When I first began seeing mention of Teachers Write on Twitter, I was curious.  I had been an English major in college and occasionally wrote for myself, but I hadn’t done any real writing in years.  I wasn’t exactly sure what Teachers Write was all about, but on a lark I went ahead and signed up.  I bought into the idea that if I was going to teach writing, I needed to write myself.  My intention was to lurk and maybe write in response to some of the prompts.  When others began sharing online, I was amazed (and more than a little intimidated) by the quality of the writing.  In spite of this, I decided one day to make the leap from lurker to active participant.  With heart pounding and hands shaking, I shared some of my writing.  I understood in that moment that putting your words out there for others to read is a little like standing naked on a street corner.  (Or so I imagine. I haven’t actually stood naked on a corner.  Honest.)  You are opening yourself up, letting others see what’s inside, the real you.  For the first time I realized that some of my students might feel the same way.  I remember vividly being in high school and hating the idea of anyone reading my writing.  The only saving grace was the fact that my teachers didn’t actually read it in front of me.  I would hand my paper in, and then a few days later I’d get it back with some hastily scribbled comment and a grade.  My junior year teacher, however, wanted us to have our parents proofread our essays before handing them in, which absolutely mortified me.  Fortunately, my mother must have understood this particular idiosyncrasy of mine and would dutifully sign my papers without having read a word.  Having experienced such acute anxiety myself, it was strange that I had never considered that my own students might feel the same way.

I believe it was the positive, encouraging atmosphere of Teachers Write that led me to share my writing with the authors and other participants.  The writing wasn’t picked apart and left to die in puddles of red ink.  The comments were directed at what worked about the ideas and the craft.  The power of praise is incredible.  (Did I really not know that before?  Or had I simply forgotten?)  It made me want to write more.  The implication for my teaching is obvious.  I need to focus on what my students are doing right and praise the heck out of them.  Sure, they will need to be taught how to improve their writing, but if they see that their ideas are valued, they just might care enough to want to apply those lessons to what they are crafting.

During the camp, there was an interesting conversation about planning vs. “pantsing,” as in flying by the seat of your pants.  I have always taught writing as a process.  First, we brainstorm.  Next, we plan by using a graphic organizer.  Only then do we actually begin the first draft.  So, what did I do for the first prompt?  I jumped right in and began drafting.  No brainstorming.  No outlining.  Just writing.  And you know what?  It wasn’t totally awful.  I learned that there will be times when I just need to let my student write, let the ideas flow from their heads to their paper.  It may not come out perfectly, but that’s what revision is for, right?  Writing should be freeing and inspiring, not constrained and regimented, if we want our students to enjoy writing.  Process is important to teach, but perhaps first we need to develop the love of writing so our students will see a need for all the little “rules” that exist so we can make our message as clear and powerful as it can be.

I learned a couple more important lessons from my experience with Teachers Write.  First was how joyful the act of writing can be.  I found myself feeling happier and more energized on the mornings I would write.  The simple act of putting thoughts to paper, creating things that had previously not existed was invigorating.  The other lesson I learned was writing requires bravery.  It is our job as teachers to create an atmosphere in which such bravery can exist.  Where ideas and personal voice are valued above mechanics.  Where mechanics are valued as simply the means of making those ideas and voices heard.  As a teacher this means my job will be to help my students find their voices and to show them all the ways they can make them be heard.  While grades will still be necessary, I will focus more on praising my students' achievements and providing feedback that will help them to keep moving forward as writers.

I still have a lot of questions, but for the first time I am eager to explore writing with my students and know that it will be my students themselves that hold many of the answers I seek.