Feb 27, 2011

The Best Way to Teach: Alternatively

Earlier this week I read Lisa Nielsen's blogpost, The College Myth: Why College Isn't Worth The Cost For Many Careers Today and I was confused. Not because I disagree, but because I really thought this was common knowledge. Of course college isn't worth the cost for many careers! Why does anyone need to blog about that topic?  Soon after my moment of confusion, links to the article flowed through my Twitter stream, with several of the people I follow tweeting about how this "new" idea needs to be shared so that education can be reformed. In my world, the world of alternative education, the notion that there are different goals for each student, that college isn't always a worthwhile goal, isn't a new or innovative idea at all.  Alternative educators realize that there are many worthwhile careers that don't require college but do benefit humanity and provide a decent wage. I thought about how many of my former students lead productive lives despite the fact that they never attended college. And that's when it hit me: I am an alternative educator, and like my students (and many other students), I an outsider who doesn't quite fit into the traditional education system. 

Alternative education, which originated as a protest to the industrial model of education, has a rich history (see the Alternative Education Resource Organization's excellent "Brief History".) Alternative programs, schools and teachers have evolved since the 19th century, but one thing has remained the same: alternative education is still about accepting and nurturing the individuality  of our nation's young people. 

Our educational system is constantly evolving--sometimes re-volving back to earlier models. Current calls for educational reform seem to mirror the past, but one constant remains: the battle between the education reformers and education classicists. It is sometimes difficult to tell the two sides apart (see this Wikipedia article about Education Reform for examples of progressive models supported by conservatives.) It is especially difficult for those who work in alternative education. Why? Because no matter what happens in the traditional education world, we never seem to fit in. That's not because we rebelliously refuse to follow current educational trends, waging wars against mainstream school culture no matter what the philosophy. Rather, it is because we adhere to our alternative school cultural tradition by always putting the student first.  

When you always put the student first, each educational trend becomes a tool for your tool belt, stored away until a student walks through your classroom door in need of it. Over the years I've attended many inservices where the school district pays an expert to come in and teach the staff the best way to teach our students. Each year there is a new "best way" and traditional school teachers complain about redoing their lesson plans (or refusing to redo their lesson plans) so that their teaching is up-to-date (or stuck in a rut.) Alternative educators tuck those "best way" trends into our tool belts and pull them out when needed--because you never know when it might come in handy. In one classroom, you can have a student who learns best by skill and drill/rote memorization and one who learns best by answering open-ended questions/critical thinking. Why should one student struggle to learn in an uncomfortable style when both strategies are available to the teacher?

Putting the student first means that you acknowledge each individual in your classroom and do whatever it takes to help them learn. Even if that means teaching the same thing five different ways in an hour. Even if that means using an "out-of-date" and unaccepted strategy that your colleagues will criticize. Even if that means working a lot of hours without seeing or talking to another teacher-friend for days at a time.  Here's the real kicker: it means talking to your students and getting to know them well enough to decide which strategy might work for their learning style. It means finding out about their lives outside of school and talking to them about their hopes for the future. It means helping them achieve their dreams even if you don't think it's the right dream for them. Nowadays this is called being an innovative or  passion-driven educator. In my experience the name for these kinds of teachers hasn't evolved or changed in at least half a century: they are alternative educators. Alternative educators are not many, but we are here; and we know what our students can accomplish when we don't judge any strategy too time-consuming, too progressive, too conservative. Nor do we judge any student unworthy of the time it takes to develop and use so many strategies effectively.  Alternative educators know that if we fill our tool belt and take the time to learn to use all of the tools, what our students can accomplish is miraculous. We just have to give them the right tools to get the job of learning done.

Feb 21, 2011

Poverty is colorblind, right? Or is it...

Using the demographics tool at the National Center for Children in Poverty's website you can select from a list of factors and compare poverty rates among the 50 states.

In EVERY state, half or more of the African-American population lives in poverty. In all but 2 states, half or more of the Hispanic population lives in poverty. Considerably less than half of white people in every state live in poverty. Poverty is not colorblind---maybe it's time that we stop kidding ourselves. Though we celebrate MLK Day each year and have a president of color, we still have a long way to go before Dr. King's Dream becomes a reality.

From United for a Fair Economy website (UFE)

Feb 15, 2011

Why I LOVE Public Education

It's time for a positive public relations campaign! We need to make sure the public hears what is GREAT about our public schools! I am limited to my own experience as a student, teacher, and a parent and I realize that not everyone has the same experience in public schools; but here's what tops my list of public school JOYS:

  • KIDS!  When I was one, I didn't always fit in, was at-risk in junior high and high school, and didn't always love school. But in retrospect, I am so grateful for my time in public schools. I grew up in suburban Chicago and attended an elementary school with a lot of diversity (100+ languages spoken!) There was always a peer who who helped me and a group of friends that I considered my second family.  As a parent in Iowa,  my children attend a public school with a similar demographic to my old elementary school (yes, in Iowa!)  This huge mix of culture and diversity really prepares them to be global citizens. They learn about the world through their interactions with their peers. As a teacher, I love my students! We become a little family, sharing chores that keep the classroom running, sharing learning and sharing conversations. They are so smart and so funny sometimes that my time with them very rarely feels like work.
  •  COMMUNITY-BUILDING! It starts in the classroom, where students and teacher become a little community. It spreads to a building, and if you're lucky, it moves throughout a district and/or a town. My students partner with the community in several projects each year. They are all labeled "at-risk" of dropping out and the "bad vibes" go both ways: they don't like most adults in the community and most of those adults don't like them. Community projects help everyone be more accepting of each other. As a parent, I want to see more of this at my children's school: we have such a wonderfully diverse population and if we interacted more we could all learn to appreciate and celebrate that fact! Where else can such community building occur but in a public school?!?
  • GLOBAL VILLAGE-BUILDING! We start by building small communities, but why stop there? So many kids in my classroom and in my neighborhood suffer from poverty. They don't get to go on vacation or see the world outside of their towns and they don't even have access to technology to see the world via the Internet. I LOVE the fact that public schools can give students the opportunity to look out a window to the world. A small field trip, a guest speaker, a Skype meeting with someone halfway around the world, or an introduction to a Google app: any of these things we do in our public schools can show kids the world outside. If they can see a glimpse of the world outside of their hometown, then they can dream a better life.
  • HOPE! In my professional life, I have seen some kids who are really beaten down by personal traumas and tribulations. By the time I see them, they have sometimes suffered for fourteen or more years. But despite all of that suffering, most of them still have hope! They still want to learn! They still come to school each day and get that twinkle in their eye when they understand something! They can still laugh! When I see these kids not only survive, but succeed, it is hard not to LOVE my job and LOVE public education--without it, none of the above would be possible.

Feb 14, 2011

A Message to my Fellow White Educators

I am relatively new to Twitter, but in a very short time I’ve become really interested in the discussions about education reform. There are two obvious camps that I can see involved in regular debate: the teacher/union/testing is bad camp vs. the Race to the Top/get rid of bad teachers/testing is the best tool available camp.  I’ve tried to become active in those conversations by sending messages, posting comments on blogs and retweeting, but the conversation never starts because no one writes back to me. I commented on an Edutopia blog and the blogger responded to every other commenter except me. That isn’t much of a conversation! Since then, I have had similar experiences when posting comments on other blogs. First, I had to wonder if my comments were written in invisible ink. Then I started to think there is some sort of technical difficulty. Do I have some sort of electronic plague? Then I began to think about what I have been talking about. Maybe something I say makes people uncomfortable? I thought and thought, and talked to my husband about it (a face-to-face conversation!) He pointed out to me that I regularly bring up issues relating to race and poverty. BINGO, I thought. The education reformers I’ve been trying to engage in conversation are white.

In real life and on Twitter, I find that most white folks don’t want to talk about race and ethnicity issues when they talk about education. I’ve heard white people say time and time again, “If I talk about race, people are going to think I’m a racist.”  But here’s the deal: if you don’t start talking about the fact that most of our “failing” schools are filled with African-American and Hispanic students, then you are not talking about education reform. If you do not acknowledge that race and ethnicity are directly related to poverty in our country, you are not talking about education reform. And if you don’t see the correlation between race/ethnicity and poverty--the single most important issue affecting student success in education--then you are not talking about education reform. If you are afraid to speak about the role race/ethnicity plays in our education system, then your inaction speaks louder than words.

We may have elected a person of color as president, but we still have racial problems in our society. When a black mom is jailed for enrolling kids in a higher achieving school, while at the same time thousands of white families across the country have done the same thing and have not been jailed--we have a problem. We need to open up the dialogue about the role race and ethnicity play in education.

To my white colleagues in education reform I say: Stop worrying about whether people will question your liberal sensibility. Stop worrying that someone will think you’re a racist (if that’s what’s stopping you) By not speaking out you are a bystander who is letting injustice happen and becoming exactly what you are trying not to be. We need to have open conversations about race and ethnicity and the impact they have on education. We need to prepare ourselves and our children for the future--because the time is coming where whites will be the minority. Change is coming, whether you want it or not. Prepare yourself by talking about it now.

Feb 12, 2011


He swaggers into the room, slithers into a desk in the back. Everything about him screams defiance. He ain't gonna learn nothin'. School is a waste of time. You can't make him do anything and any threat you make to even try will result in nothing--no action whatsoever. His parents never graduated high school; they don't care. The administration is sick of the kid, but they can't do anything because he's under the legal dropout age and they are required to provide him an education. He gets suspended regularly, but never for anything so bad he could be expelled. You look at him in your classroom and your stomach twists itself into knots, wondering what the coming weeks will bring. You wonder how much of a disruption he will cause and how much instructional time the other kids in class will lose because you're dealing with him. You're already planning the weekly TGIF parties so you can de-stress. Weeks go by and it's just as bad as you thought. You try to ignore his swaggering, slithering self but ignoring doesn't make him stop. He interrupts your instruction, makes fun of the assignments and distracts your other students. He doesn't do any work, ever. He's going to fail your class and you're just trying to make sure that your other students don't follow his lead.  You wonder, "Why doesn't he just drop out???"

One of the biggest frustrations for a high school teacher who is passionate about what they do is the kid who they just can't seem to reach. I was an at-risk teen and for 15 years I have been teaching at-risk teens. Despite all of this experience, I am not an expert. Every student is different. What works for one might not work for another. Each time a new student enters my alternative high school program I spend time thinking about how to reach them, and I know that in my district I am not the only educator who spends time thinking about how to reach a particular student who seems unreachable. The problem is not just occurring in my district, though.  Many educators are faced with a growing number of at-risk students in their classrooms. The reasons why at-risk numbers are skyrocketing would be another entirely different discussion! For now, I will just acknowledge that general educators are faced with a very difficult reality. Due to NCLB /AYP requirements and value-added assessment, your job may be at stake if you can't reach your students. Below are some things I've learned through my experience that may or may not help general educators who are trying to reach at-risk students.

Caveat: there are no quick fixes. If a student has been beaten down by the system for 14 or more years, you won't be able to reach that student in an hour, or even a day. But you can reach them. They want to be reached. Throw a rope out and they won't ignore your attempt to save their education. Here are some of the easiest interventions to use:
  1.  Sometimes instruction is not the most important thing. It is your job to figure out when an issue is big enough to interrupt instruction and then to let it interfere.  Depending on how old you are, I bet you can remember powerful examples of when life interfered with instruction: Kennedy's assassination, the Challenger explosion, September 11. For at-risk students, life interferes with school on a daily basis. Those outside influences are more powerful than your lesson plan. You can choose to ignore the outside issues and keep chugging through the lesson, but you will not reach the at-risk student unless you acknowledge their outside struggles. (Notice I did not say you need to glorify their struggles or abandon your lesson completely.)
  2. Treat your students as if they are your peers. Say hello to them--by name--when they walk into the room. When you first meet them, make eye contact and shake their hand. Introduce yourself the way you would if you were attending a meeting or a job interview. Make them feel important and respected. As teachers, we often say that students need to "give respect in order to get respect." With at-risk kids, the teacher needs to model the act of giving respect because many of them have never seen what real respect looks like. 
  3. Give some positive feedback. Even if it's just a compliment about something non-academic: "I like your shirt today." Most at-risk teens only receive negative feedback at school: you're late again; you forgot your homework; you failed the quiz; you need to go to the office; that's a detention; get your feet off the desk; stop talking; you're disrupting your peers who are trying to learn! Then there's the nonverbal negative feedback: you're ignored by the teacher, you get the "evil eye"; your peers fear you, ignore you or make fun of you. Can you imagine how you'd feel if you were surrounded by that kind of negativity every day at work, year after year? That is the school reality for many at-risk teens. Positive feedback--as simple as a smile or a compliment--can make a HUGE difference in the day of an at-risk teen. And if you offer positive feedback each day for a week, at-risk teens might actually start to believe you are telling the truth.
These are some very basic strategies and some would argue that they are universal strategies that should be used with every student, whether or not they are deemed "at-risk". What do you think? How do you reach those hard-to-reach students?

Feb 10, 2011

Value-Added Fears

In recent months there has been a lot of talk about value-added assessment--a method of tracking student growth and using that data to evaluate the effectiveness of a teacher. This sounds like a really great plan, except for the fact that the only data that seems to be used in value-added assessment is data garnered from standardized test scores. I have blogged, tweeted and talked to both parents and educators about why I feel standardized test scores are not a reliable enough measure to gauge student growth. Here are my arguments:
  • Standardized tests are norm-referenced. The norms for these tests are supposed to represent a microcosm of U.S. society. If the school where students are being tested does not match that microcosm, the norms are invalid for the population taking the test. For example, my children are biracial. They attend a school that is 64% culturally/linguistically diverse. If their performance on a test is compared to the normed performance of students in norm-group that is only 4% culturally/linguistically diverse, the results are not valid. The group taking the test does not have the same characteristics that earned the norm-group their scores. 
  • Standardized tests do not necessarily test students on topics they have learned in the classroom. Test-makers are not educators or administrators. They are corporate business-people (who may have been educators at one time, but chose to leave the profession.) Corporations that make tests decide what each 3rd grader in the country should know and then develop the test based on their opinion. A school district or a state may adopt their test to measure growth because they feel it most closely matches their curriculum, but the test is not designed specifically to measure what their students are learning. For example, a district may choose to use the Iowa Test of Basic Skills to measure student growth. The third grade computation section may include problems in long division. Yet, in my child's school, they do not have the opportunity to learn long-division until 4th grade. The test-makers think that long-division is something every third grader should know, but my school district does not agree. As a result, many children will do poorly on Math Computation because they haven't learned the material. Poor scores on a standardized tests do not reflect poor teaching or lack of growth in this situation; they reflect the use of an inaccurate tool to measure.
  • People who use standardized tests assume that standardization is actually occurring. This means that all teachers are reading the directions exactly as written and that all testing environments are similar. There is no way to ensure that standardization is actually occurring. Testing environments vary greatly. To be truly valid, we would need to ensure that each test-taker came with the same amount of sleep the night before, the same amount of food in their bellies, and even the same temperature in the testing environment! What if one room of test-takers is roasting and another is freezing? Wouldn't those factors affect your ability to perform on a test? We cannot control for all of the factors that affect student performance. In science, if you cannot control all of the variables in an experiment, the results are invalid. I argue that since we cannot control all of the factors in mass-testing, those tests are not actually standardized; if they are not standardized, the results are not reliable.
On a personal or gut-level, I have several other problems with using value-added assessment. 
  • I am an alternative educator. My students are deemed "at-risk" of dropping out due to a host of social and familial issues. I am good at my job, but my student's test scores will never reflect that I am good at my job. No matter how I much I stress the importance of the test or how intelligent I know my students are, there is always at least one who fills in the bubble sheet with pretty patterns.  It is not an accurate assessment of what that student knows.
  • Adjustments are not made for students with disabilities. I have students in 11th grade who read at the 4th grade level. They will never be proficient in the terms laid out by NCLB. That doesn't mean that the student isn't achieving or that they will be unsuccessful in life. It means that they will never do well on standardized tests.
  • Bad teachers can have students with good test scores. There are teachers who have been teaching for a long time. We all know them. They get through the material at all costs without taking the time to build relationships with their students. They complain in the teacher's lounge and count the days until their retirement package kicks in. In a value-added situation, if the students in those classrooms achieve well on standardized tests, that teacher will keep teaching. Meanwhile, a teacher who has built relationships with his/her culturally/linguistically diverse, socio-economically disadvantaged, or special education students could lose his/her job because the invalid/unreliable norm-referenced test scores say that his/her students haven't shown enough growth.
I do agree that we need to find a way to evaluate teachers more effectively. But I really don't think that value-added assessment is the way to go if standardized norm-referenced tests are going to be the only measure used.  Let's put into place a system that uses valid criteria. A valid system is one where local standards are tested, students and parents are asked for evaluative input, peer and administrative teams are conducting classroom evaluations. That kind of information is much more valuable in measuring both the growth of students and the effectiveness of teachers than any norm-referenced test.

Feb 4, 2011

Alternative School Student Bloggers

I teach in an alternative high school program in rural Iowa. Most of my students have stories to tell about their lives that could either leave you feeling depressed because of the hardships they've endured, or inspired because they've survived those hardships. They are definitely survivors. And they are definitely characters! One thing I can tell you for sure: Beavis and Butthead aren't just cartoon characters; they are alive and in my classroom this year!

Just recently, I established a blog for my alternative program. My goal was to guide them through an individualized self-study course on how to become a better writer. I hoped to expose them to a 21st century skill and improve their writing skills at the same time by showing them how to blog (Is that metacognition? blogging about blogging?) 

When I started the project, I thought it would be focused on helping my students improve their writing skills; but my Twitter family inspired me to make it into something much bigger. The project now involves facilitating my students on a journey across the Internet, helping them to be better citizens of the world, opening their eyes to what exists outside of our classroom. 

While this type of journey may not be a big deal to many high school students in the U.S., it is a big deal to students in my alternative high school classroom. Almost 100% of them receive free or reduced lunch. Many do not have access to technology at home (including cell phones) and most have never traveled more than 60 miles from their home. Their worlds are very small and sometimes very difficult. To many of them--before our blogging journey--Google was nothing but a search engine.

So far, it is amazing to watch them learn! They each set up an iGoogle home page and then learned to filter information with Google Reader. They are reading about things they didn't know existed and talking about news stories from across the globe. They are  blogging about their discoveries and their lives, and the act of  blogging is improving their writing!  

It is not any easy class to prepare for or to facilitate. Lots of prep work is involved and I do lots of running around to check on kids and answer their questions. But they are learning and sharing. And it is EXCITING to be a part of! It seems like the hard work is paying off--both for them and for me! The journey is not over, but getting there sure is fun!


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