Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Longer School Year?

Today at lunch in the toxic teachers' lounge, some of my colleagues were complaining about President Obama's desire to lengthen the school year. They were saying that there is no way they would do it, that they will get out of this profession before anyone makes them work a longer year than they already do. Mind, you, these are the same teachers who complain when they lose instructional time due to standardized testing. I don't know a single teacher who would ever say, "Oh, yes, I have plenty of time to teach my kids everything they need to know." Well, my co-workers, you can't have it both ways. You can't bemoan the loss of instructional time and then balk when someone proposes to give you more time to work with the kids.
I personally am in favor of a longer school year, whether that comes in the form of a longer work day, a longer calendar year, or both. However, just adding time isn't enough to make learning effective and meaningful. In order for that extra time to make a difference, the following things must occur:

1.) Teachers must commit to being consummate professionals and do some serious self-examination to determine their own effectiveness in the classroom. Any teacher who is sub-standard should get out of the classroom or dedicate him or herself to becoming a relevant educator. Extra time in the school year will not be meaningful without effective educators in the classroom.

2.) Administrators must be supportive of their teachers. It is going to be an adjustment to move to a longer school year. Principals are going to have to show some tough love for mediocre teachers and push them to become better in order to effectively use that extra student contact time. Relevant professional development will have to be offered. Planning time will have to be offered because teachers are going to have to plan differently. There will be a learning curve involved for teachers to best develop an effective strategy to use that extra time with their kids well.

3.) Students are going to have adjust to more time in school, and we are all going to suffer along the way until they do :-) Seriously, though, a longer school day and/or year will be an adjustment for many students. Teachers need to strive to make learning relevant for their students so they don't think that this is just some form of torture. My experience has been that if what the kids are learning can somehow be used now as opposed to being important for "when they get to high school" or "needed for when you get a job", they are more willing to learn. Notice I said MORE willing -- not willing. Relevancy is so important, especially for adolescents who really live in the here and now.

4.) Parents are going to have to buy into the benefits of a longer school year and be willing to accept the strings that will come attached to the potential for their children to learn more. There is quite a backlash against homework right now. A longer school year probably won't eliminate homework, but it could increase the amount of homework. Kids might step up their game to gain "mental health days" to stay home from school. Parents will have to show some tough love and make sure their kids go to school when they can and resist the urge to coddle them. Yes, kids need time to be kids, but that can happen outside of school AND during the school day. Parents will also see an increase in the taxes they pay because the cold, hard truth is that a longer school year is going to cost school districts money, and that revenue is going to have to come from somewhere. The most common "somewhere" is from the pockets of taxpayers.

This summer I read the book Work Hard. Be Nice by Jay Mathews. That book outlines the vision of Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, the vision that becomes the KIPP program. KIPP shows that a longer school year can work. The school day is longer for students and teachers at KIPP schools. The school week is longer, too -- there ARE some Saturdays that school is in session! The school calendar year is longer, with school taking place for a few weeks during the summer. However, it is not just added time that makes KIPP so powerful. It is the commitment of all involved educational stakeholders that makes the added time worthwhile. Students, teachers, and parents are all committed to a meaningful education. Take one look at the contract that each of these groups must sign. It is that dedication that gives the extra time depth and worth. Without a deep level of committment from everyone, a longer school year will be pointless.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Kids Evaluating Teachers?

There was an editorial in our local paper this week written by an 8th grader criticizing teachers. The gist of her writing was something I believe is quite true: nothing will make a kid hate school more than a teacher who hates school. I don't deny for one moment that a teacher's attitude toward his or her job impacts the kids in the classroom with that teacher. I also don't deny that there are plenty of lousy teachers out there right now doing irreparable damage to students. However, this girl seemed highly critical of any teacher who didn't entertain her. She focused a lot on how the good teachers are the ones who make learning fun for her and the bad teachers are boring people who make their subjects boring. How I wish it were as simple as being an entertainer.... If anyone can help me make grammar entertaining, tell me. However, I think she believes entertaining equals effective, and that is simply not true. Some subjects are never going to be fun, but a good teacher covers the topics effectively and makes the learning meaningful to the students. I don't believe an 8th grader is qualified to say what does and does not make a good teacher. She is qualified, however, to speak about what makes a fun teacher. The tone of the article was quite condescending, and while I believe she has a right to freedom of speech, I fear what happens when people read her musings and accept them as truth. No adult should engage in discourse on what makes an effective educator with a child.

Differentiation vs. Cooperative Learning?

Today I spent 3 hours in a "workshop" about differentiated instruction. I got a lot of really good and immediately usable ideas for my classroom on doing work in groups, but I'm not always sure how some of the things I learned qualify as differentiation. When I use a strategy to create flexible grouping, for instance, doesn't that go against the differentiation idea? Shouldn't I be trying to group kids strategically in order to differentiate effectively? And on top of this confusion, I am finding it difficult to differentiate in a meaningful way since I am teaching a group of gifted kids aka homogeneously grouped. There is not much skill level difference among them, so I guess I'll have to try to differentiate more based on learning profiles, differentiate more process and product as opposed to skills. I get a lot of good data from the MAP test we use at school, so I am hoping that can help me do this right, but it seems daunting at times. Now I am faced with having to create a differentiated lesson to turn in and I have ideas about doing it with the unit on poetry I teach. I'm trying to decide how I want to approach this. Do I want to do something tic-tac-toe related? Menu options? Lit circles? Learning centers? Maybe it would help to see a differentiated lesson that someone else created and also see it in action in the classroom. All I know is that I want to do right by the kids I teach so I need to make sure I've got this down so I can be effective.