Sunday, March 27, 2011

Of tomatoes, time, and clear communication

"Where is she? Where is she?" "I sent her to Sam, but she went to tomato. Maybe she's a jumper!"

I heard this exchange as I returned from a stimulating conference on Smith Women in Education. Exhausted, all I could do was laugh at the inanity of the dialogue. To translate: I was leaving a parking lot and the attendant was trying to help the shuttle driver find the next rider. Rather than confusing each other with, "was that 's' or 'f'?" they had learned to identify aisles not by their letters but by the words which began with those letters. Clearly, this is not the code in use when police band radios go off but, it worked for them.

As I drove home, that exchange replayed in my head.  Each occupation and each location has its own internal language. When new people come on board they must learn that language as well as the multitude of overt and covert elements of the culture of that community.

How often do we assure that newcomers, adult or students, understand the various elements of our school cultures? How many words mean entirely different things in our communities? If they are not entirely different, are the subtleties significant enough to put newcomers at a disadvantage?

When I was in graduate school I took a course where the fundamental principle involved our T.I.U., our Theory-In-Use. What that meant was that we needed to break down our vocabulary into discrete terms to be sure that we were operating under the same assumptions. This was essential in situations involving conflicts. At the same time, identifying our T.I.U. could help us avoid conflicts. If a student said someone was "mean" to her, how did she define that?  If we advise a new teacher to give more feedback to students, what should that look like? What are the expectations in the community in terms that are understand by all sides?

Our lives are busier than ever, or are they? Can we slow down enough to be sure that we help those around us to understand what we're saying and what it means? Will a few more moments of patient clarification help reduce stress for all of us? If not, I may send someone to the "eyebrow" and she'll be lost forever due to a lack of clear communication.

Translation: At our school, the "eyebrow" is a semi-circular driveway where people are dropped off and picked up.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Perhaps I'm an be it

Yesterday I was sitting in my Peace Studies class listening as my students shared their action plans for trying to bring a measure of peace to a target group. I had already read their plans and given feedback to them. However, I thought it might help them to hear their classmates' ideas. It might give them food for thought or give them an opportunity to make suggestions to each other.  While some students wanted to examine global problems like human trafficking and child soldiers, several wanted to address problems in their local communities. Two, in particular, struck a chord with me as I continue to worry about the fate of public schools. One student is exploring health and fitness of youth and the other is interested in the loss of programs in the arts in public schools. In both cases, budget constraints mean that the ax is wielded at these programs first.

I realized that while these students have very valid concerns and there is an abundance of research which shows the importance and essential benefits of physical education and the arts in child development, these girls had no sense of the larger ax that is threatening teaching jobs on a broader scale.  The sheer number of classroom teachers is being threatened around the country. Rhode Island teachers are losing their jobs by the bushel.  The Emergency Financial Manager of Detroit public schools played with the idea of allowing class size to go up to 60. SIXTY! I have to wonder if he has been in a classroom to see if that is physically possible much less considering the educational ramifications.

We must examine the needs of our public schools on a broad scale. What kind of future does this nation have if we cut fundamental programs like the arts and physical education and then continue to shove more students into the classes that remain?

In Tuesday's Seattle Times, columnist Danny Westnest responded to Bill Gates's proposal for public schools in his commentary Bill Gates, have I got a deal for you!  He exposed the "research" study that Gates used to show that public school teachers are open to adding more students to their classes. In fact, Gates manipulated the information. Moreover, he pointed out that Gates and his children have benefitted from smaller class sizes, not larger ones. Why? Because Gates and his children attended private school. They could afford small class sizes.

While it may be oversimplified, Westnest made an interesting proposal to show the arrogance of Gates's "solutions", "Bill, here's an experiment. You and I both have an 8-year-old. Let's take your school and double its class sizes, from 16 to 32. We'll use the extra money generated by that — a whopping $400,000 more per year per classroom — to halve the class sizes, from 32 to 16, at my public high school, Garfield."

Call on your local school districts. Call on your state legislators. Demand funding increases for public schools. We should make smaller classes affordable for all students. Think of what we could gain. Imagine if public school students had the chance to attack global problems, to share, to innovate, to received detailed feedback. Budgets are stretched across the nation. Certainly, there are better places to cut than schools. There must be.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Bill Gates's ideas close doors rather than opening them

For the sake of full disclosure, I am an independent school teacher and the product of a rural public school system with relatively small classes. My partner teaches in a large, suburban public school in a working class community. While we both teach, we have completely different careers because of the contrast in the expectations, bureaucracy, and freedom in our two, very different environments.

In his recent Op-Ed in the Washington Post, Bill Gates argued that we need more teacher development to turn around the achievement of public school students. Oh, my. Must we blame the teachers yet again.?Perhaps we should add one more national plan with a catchy title or set of tests (and pre-tests, tests, post-tests) to assess student achievement.  When was the last time that these Foundation heads or bureaucrats actually sat in a classroom for an extended period of time? Have school administrators tried to plan and implement daily or unit lessons of their own?  How many of them ever taught?

Could the problem be the sheer number of students in a classroom? Gates says no. According to him, "perhaps the most expensive assumption embedded in school budgets - and one of the most unchallenged - is the view that reducing class size is the best way to improve student achievement." He goes on to say, "one approach is to get more students in front of top teachers by identifying the top 25 percent of teachers and asking them to take on four or five more students." He suggests that paying these teachers more (not based on degrees but their proven ability) will make up for increasing class size.

Really?  When teachers are given classes of 30+ students and told to teach so that students perform well on standardized tests, how does that create a culture of learning? What is the motivation for students? Are we forcing teachers to be motivated by tests and not lessons? How does this prepare students for the future?

Gates suggests that we should pay the best teachers more and give them more students. Is increased pay the answer for those teachers who take on extra students? A public school teacher with the same amount of experience and same level of education (by degree) earns more in my county than most teachers in independent schools in the area where I live. My classes are smaller and we have more freedom. Both achievement and learning are on a high level in my school. We can give our students personal attention. Does salary drive the motivation and quality of teaching in my school? No. The combination of class size and opportunties to innovate in the classroom make teaching a joy. We can give detailed  feedback on student work rather than a mark on a checklist. When my student load is 60 and my partner has 170, and both of us teacher in the Humanities, does it take a lot of thought to figure out whose students will be able to get more attention in class and with their written work?

There are some incredible public school teachers who, despite the system, are creating true learning communities. It's disheartening to hear what some talented teachers have to do to help students learn rather than prepping them for tests. They should be indentified, applauded, and set out as role models but not isolated as only the top 25%. Give teachers a chance. They should be given smaller classes not more mandates, more tests, and more criticism. Let's praise those who touch the lives of our youth. Let's give them help.