Mar 26, 2011

Bob Dylan and the Student-Centered Classroom

I define nothing. Not beauty, not patriotism. I take each thing as it is, without prior rules about what it should be. --Bob Dylan

This quote was originally tweeted by @fear2love and it really struck a chord with me. In particular, I liked how it could apply to education.

Check it out with one minor change:
I define nothing. Not beauty, not patriotism. I take each student as she/he is, without prior rules about what she/he should be.

I think most teachers are already thinking this way or are moving towards thinking this way. But there are others who are still terribly teacher-focused  instead of being student-focused. In simplest terms, those teachers need to realize that without students, they would have no purpose. It is the students who make up the school. Without them, a school is just an empty building.

Mar 13, 2011

Don't Blame it on DIBELS

Earlier today, @DianeRavitch tweeted "Children arrive in kindergarten with gaps between them, based on family income, engagement. Teachers didn't cause that gap."

A short time later, Aaron Thiell (@althiell) tweeted "@DianeRavitch Kindergarten should be a year of bedtime stories savored among new friends, not DIBELS nonsense word fluency & stop watches."

Diane Ravitch's main point may be that teachers are not to blame for poverty and other outside factors that cause children to lag behind in school, and thus they should not be blamed for student's failure to perform on high-stakes tests. But DIBELS are not high-stakes tests. In fact, DIBELS and other curriculum based measurements are some of the only academic tools teachers have to close the the achievement gap.

Like Diane Ravitch tweeted, teachers can't be blamed if students come to their classrooms without the prerequisite skills needed for success in school. We can't be blamed if students come to school hungry, sleep-deprived, or emotionally scarred any more than we can take credit if they enter our classrooms already able to perform at or above proficiency. All kids are different when they enter our classrooms, and that difference is probably the single-most challenging part of classroom teaching. It is impossible for teachers to ensure that all students enter our classrooms with the equal access to basic needs. It is impossible for us "to fix" the many environmental and genetic factors that predict success in school. The only thing we can control is how we teach.

How do we know how to teach when every student comes to us with a different set of abilities? There are two main ways:
  1. We can try to get to know each student by talking to them and closely examining their work. We can build individual relationships with each child that are so strong that we recognize when they are at frustration level, when they are confused, or when they are understanding concepts so well that they are ready to move on.
  2. We can use curriculum-based measurements (like DIBELS) to get quick and easy measurements of a students reading, writing, or math levels and take the guesswork out of figuring out what skills the student has when they enter our classrooms. 
Option number one is really only plausible in a classroom with few students and a lot of time available for one-on-one instruction. Option number two is plausible anywhere. When curriculum-based measurements are used correctly, they eliminate the negative effects of outside factors over which teachers have no control.

Here's a hypothetical example:
J.D. is a third grade student who comes to school hungry and tired. His mom is a single parent who works 2 part-time jobs but still doesn't make enough money to support her four children. They live in a low-income housing complex that is riddled with crime. J.D.'s two oldest siblings have dropped out of school, and unless something changes J.D. and his younger sister will end up doing the same. His classroom teacher has been trying to help J.D. be successful, but she can't seem to get through to him. He is easily frustrated in class and as a result he has a lot of behavior issues. She thinks about what would make J.D. successful: a two-parent household, higher wages for his mother, a nicer place to live, positive role-models in his neighborhood. She feels helpless because she can't do anything about those things. It's not her fault J.D. is failing and there is no way for her to help him. She worries because there is no way to get J.D. to perform at grade-level on high-stakes tests when he comes from such an impoverished background. As a result of circumstances that are beyond her control, she may lose her teaching job.

In this hypothetical situation, the teacher is right: there is no way to help J.D. if we blame all of his problems on things that are happening outside of school and beyond our control. We can refer him to social services and send him to a breakfast program before school, but there is still a chance that his family won't follow through on obtaining any of those services. Does that mean that J.D. is unteachable? That we should give up? That his situation is so bad that he will never be able to learn? ABSOLUTELY NOT. Scores of people have overcome situations of poverty to become successful. Teachers need to stop feeling helpless and use the tools that available to us to teach our students, no matter what skills or deficiencies they enter the classroom with. How can we do that? Using curriculum-based measurement (CBM) is a really good option.

Unlike high-stakes testing, CBM is what it stands for: measurement that is based on the curriculum. Students are assessed on skills they've actually been learning in the classroom, not on skills that a corporate test-maker decided all third graders should know. CBM allows a teacher to quickly find out what skills a student has when they enter her classroom by giving one or two-minute assessments in content areas such as reading or math. When a student's current level is assessed, the teacher can gear instruction for that level. Repeat measurements can be done weekly, monthly, or quarterly to monitor progress and then adjust the level of instruction if necessary. There is no guessing about what level a student is performing at or worrying about why they are at that level--teachers simply use current information to make decisions about instruction. When using CBM properly, teachers only have to worry about things over which they actually have control--how they teach and what level of curriculum they use with each student to do that teaching. I can't adjust a student's home life; I can adjust my instructional decisions.

Here's another possibility in the hypothetical situation of J.D. and his teacher:
J.D. still comes from the same situation of poverty. His teacher still wishes that there was something she could do to make his life easier. She brings snacks for her class each day so that they at least have a full belly when school starts.  Within the first month of school she administers a reading probe (like DIBELS) to each of her students to see what their current reading level is. She spends a little over ten-minutes with J.D. to find out his instructional level in Oral Reading Fluency (ORF.) She discovers that despite the fact that J.D. is in third grade, he is barely reading at a first grade level. She adjusts her instruction so that J.D.'s reading group materials fit his level and he receives one-on-one instruction using first grade reading passages. The passages are challenging for J.D., but he's not so frustrated that he has behavioral outbursts. His teacher graphs J.D.'s progress and shares the graph with him. Their goal is to help him be able to read a third grade passage without getting frustrated. She spends 2-5 minutes each week checking on his progress and sharing the results with him. He feels good because he can see that he is becoming a better reader and she feels good because she is making a difference. She still worries because J.D. is not proficient in third-grade reading and won't pass the high-stakes test. But if the district penalizes her for his scores on the high-stakes test, she has proof that she made a difference--the CBM scores show that J.D. has made growth and jumped up almost 2 grade levels in reading for the year.

Not all standardized tests are bad. By the same token, not all CBMs are used properly. But when curriculum-based measures like DIBELS are used properly, they can be a valuable tool both for students and for teachers. CBM can level the playing field for students who come from situations of poverty by giving them a chance to receive individualized instruction that will help close the achievement gap.

Mar 6, 2011

The Problem with Schools Today

Image Credit: Flickr/alyssalaurel

The main problems for students in schools today don't involve teacher tenure systems or collective bargaining rights. The biggest issues don't have anything to do with standardized test scores, uneasy feelings about the adoption of a core curriculum or standards-based assessments. Those problems do exist, but they are not student problems. They are teacher problems and those teacher problems are all we hear about in the news anymore. Whatever happened to the importance of the kids?

Deep in the trenches of a high school classroom, I can tell you that these are the problems students  have:
  • poverty, and a growing number of unemployed or under-employed parents who can't provide them with basic needs or pay for driver's education classes
  • addiction (to alcohol, drugs, and/or video games)
  • personal conflicts with other students based on statements made in cyberspace (via text, Facebook or cellular conversations)
  • lack of opportunities for part-time jobs
  • lack of resources that allow them to even consider post-secondary education/training as a possibility
  • the desire to escape from pressure (familial, school, societal) by participating in illegal and/or unhealthy activities (parties, unprotected sex)
HEY...MEDIA...CAN WE GET SOME ATTENTION TO THESE PROBLEMS IN EDUCATION??? I truly wish that a group as large the group of public employees in Wisconsin would take a stand for our students. Let's picket for an end to poverty and addiction! I will happily give up the annual increase I receive from collective bargaining if someone can tell me how to help my students recover from addiction or find a way to help them feed themselves on a daily basis.

Mar 5, 2011

When the Lights Go Out

Image Credit: Flickr/Joriel "Joz" Jimenez

I came across a blog post from the Daily Kos in my Google Reader feed. It was entitled I Don't Want to be a Teacher Any More by writer thalli1, a veteran teacher who recently came to the realization that ever-dwindling resources coupled with ever-growing prescribed curriculum mandates and job duties just don't make teaching worth it anymore for her. She describes in detail the challenges that teachers face each day and says, "then one Thursday, on the eighth day of my 35th year of teaching, I suddenly thought for the very first time ever, 'I don’t want to be a teacher anymore.'  It’s so weird how it just came over me like that."

This post struck a chord with a lot of people. I've read countless blog posts and articles about teachers who are fed up with the current state of education and those most fed up are the ones most affected by thalli1's post. It also struck a chord with me, but for different reasons.

I work in an alternative high school program where the vast majority of my students  come from situations of poverty. Our program has rarely had the budget to cover more than salaries. We've never had up-to-date (or even enough) technology, never had a custodian who works even half-time, and never had a majority of kids come to school well-fed and well-supported. It has always been part of my job to clean my classroom, unplug clogged toilets, shovel snow, serve lunch and chauffeur my students around. Part of me wants to tell thalli1 to buck up: welcome to the real world! 42% of kids in the U.S. live in poverty and almost half of the teachers in this country have been doing what you're complaining about for their entire teaching careers!  But there's another part of me that is just so saddened to read about thalli1's grief. She is losing something in life that she loves--her passion for teaching. I can't imagine how it would feel to lose my passion.
    I have seen the light go out in the eyes of veteran teachers. I have told myself that I will have the common sense to take myself out of the game before it happens to me. I don't want to be the old quarterback clinging to the thrill of the game even though I can no longer make the plays. But when the time comes, how will I know? How will I know that I am failing my students? Will I be able to resist the lure of the full pension, the 600 sick days, the 35 year pin? I hope that I have the good sense to get out before number of years on the job becomes more important than the lives of the kids in my classroom.


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