Monday, December 23, 2013

Crossing a Line?

Anybody who knows me knows the following things about me:

1. I am a heavy social media user.
2. I am an advocate for kids being taught how to use social media safely and appropriately.
3. I am passionate about teaching kids about how to handle cyberbullying.

I read this article this morning about whether or not schools should monitor students' activity on social media, especially in light of cyberbullying and the devastating effects it can have on students, driving some children to suicide.  I have been outspoken about the school's roles and responsibilities when it comes to cyberbullying.  I wrote a blog post once (read it here), and a revised version of that post was published by ISTE in their "Point/Counterpoint" feature (read it here).  However, I think schools actually monitoring students' social media use crosses a line from responsibility into invasion of privacy.

Kids who use social media ned to be taught how to use it properly and appropriately, and ultimately, that job falls on the shoulders of the parents.  Sadly, far too many parents don't bother to teach their kids how to use social media properly, nor do they monitor their own children's behavior online, and that includes however the kid goes online -- via computer or laptop, tablet, or cell phone.  There's a difference between parents monitoring their children's social media activity and a school monitoring that activity.  Parents have a responsibility to ensure the safety of their children, and that includes the online arena.  Schools can supplement what they are taught at home, as my district does with its technology safety and cyberbullying lessons and presentations (and I'm proud to say we were doing it before it was mandated by the state).  I also acknowledge that for some kids, the instruction they receive at school isn't a supplement -- it's all the guidance they get.  Yet that isn't reason enough for a school to creep around its students' social media pages.  It takes the responsibility off the shoulders of the parents and it makes kids continue to see adults as the "enemy", and they will continue to find better ways to hide their online behavior.  Adults -- parents and school personnel -- need to find ways to coexist peacefully on social media rather than have kids feel like they are being spied on.  What the kids perceive as snooping will only continue to encourage improper social media use.

That doesn't mean that schools can wash their hands of cyberbullying.  Schools need to encourage students and parents alike to understand what exactly cyberbullying is and teach them how to preserve evidence and then share it with the proper authorities -- whether that means a school principal, a dean, a school counselor, or even law enforcement if necessary.  Schools can act on it when they are alerted to it by someone who has a concern, but they should not actively seek it out by monitoring students' social media pages - even if it is voluntary, even if it does by a machine.  It takes the responsibility of teaching proper social media use off the shoulders of the parents where it belongs; it can make students feel resentful that "big brother" is always watching them; and it puts a school at increased risk of fault-finding if the algorithm used to monitor activity fails to identify a case of cyberbullying that ends in tragedy.  This a bad idea all around.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Best That Money Can Buy

I just read this article in Education Week highlighting the widening gap between students in families with financial means to enhance their child's education and students in families who are not financially established enough to keep up.  For some reason, it really struck me, the difference in time and money and experience these two groups of kids have.

My daughter didn't necessarily grow up in a rich family -- we are pretty much your typical middle class family.  But here are the things my daughter got to experience between the ages of 4 and 12 beyond her regular school day:

  • A parent who was home with her during school breaks and the summer.
  • Trips to the library with family.
  • Trips to museums with family.
  • Preschool.
  • Summer camp.
  • Vacations to numerous places, including Disney World, Disney Land, King's Island, Washington, D.C., Houston, Galveston, Minnesota, Key West, and Cancun.
  • Week long summer camp at Sea World in San Antonio.
  • Bowling lessons.
  • Soccer.
  • Dance classes.
  • Tumbling and gymnastics classes.
  • Karate lessons.
  • Being on a poms team and a cheerleading squad.
  • Participating in track and field.
And I am sure this list is nowhere near exhaustive.  To me, she seemed to have a pretty typical childhood, with a few extra nice things thrown in.  She had parents whose schedules allowed for her to participate in activities beyond her school day, and parents who were willing to outlay cash for those experiences.  Some of those things were funded by other family members in whole or in part, but all of the activities listed above gave my daughter a huge wealth of experiences to draw from.  Clearly her social and academic skills were helped by all the things she got to do in those few very important years.

Then I think about kids who are in families where parents are out of jobs, or where parents earn particularly low salaries, or where there might be only one parent at home, or where a student might be a "latch-key kid" who comes home to an empty house, or a child whose parent(s) work nights, or a kid who has to help with household responsibilities like cook, clean, do laundry, or babysit for the family.  How many of the things listed above are going to be readily and easily accessible to these kids?  It requires great effort and sacrifice by parents who are already having to put forth great effort and sacrifice to maintain the basics.

If you are like me (or in an even better situation financially), stop and think about the experiences your own kid has had thus far in life.  Now think how many of them would still be there if you were a single parent working a custodian job from 3 - 11 PM.   I can tell you that almost every one of those things would be off the table for my own child if that were me.

It's no wonder that gap exists and widens so deeply.  I guess to me, that means it's that much more important for schools to do what they can to help bridge that gap.  And I'm not just talking academically, but finding ways to enrich the lives of students.  Just making sure kids can read, write, and do math is not enough.  They need to experience things that give context to their learning, that make then enjoy living, that give them ideas for the future.

I don't know why that gap never made sense to me before, but it does now.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Veterans' Day

I can remember having the day off from school every year on Veterans' Day.  I can remember having it off as a teacher, too.  But for the past few years, my school district has been having school on Veterans' Day, and what a great idea that is!

This is supposed to be a day to honor the selfless service of those brave men and women who keep our country safe and free.  Some people object to having "business as usual" on Veterans' Day, saying that the day should be used to really honor the service of our vets.  I couldn't agree more, which is why I have come to believe with every fiber of my being that having a day off from school is the absolute WORST way to honor our veterans!

A day off from school is just that -- a day off.  The typical kid will sleep in and spend the day parked in front of the television or computer.  On TV, they will see some news promos for Veterans' Day activities being held or short ads thanking vets for their service.  Online, they might see posts on Facebook from friends saying, "Thanks for your service," and maybe the kids will even "Like" some of those posts.

What has been learned about veterans or Veterans' Day?  Not one blessed thing.

If we want our students to understand the sacrifices made by those who serve our country, then keep them in school so they can learn.  I was at one assembly in our district today where the 3rd and 4th grade kids invited veterans from their families to attend some presentations.  In the assembly, the local boy scouts and girl scouts did a color guard ceremony and demonstrated the proper way to fold a flag.  The junior high pep band played the national anthem while the 3rd graders sang it and signed it in ASL.  The PE teacher taught all the kids to do a patriotic cheer.  Some students wrote personal letters of thanks to members of their families who are veterans and read them at the assembly.  They 3rd graders also sang "America the Beautiful" then the 4th graders sang "God Bless the USA" and signed the chorus to the song.  They all were also treated to a presentation by a veteran who also shared some video of an fighter jet getting re-fueled mid-air.

To prepare for this assembly, the kids had to learn about the branches of the military, practice flag ceremonies and flag folding, talk to their family members to learn about their family history in terms of military service, learn and practice iconic patriotic American songs, and lear some sign language, too.  These 3rd and 4th graders have been learning about service to our country and how valuable it is for weeks now; today is just the manifestation of their appreciation for what they have learned.  If these kids had stayed home for a day off, what would they have learned about our nation's veterans?  They would have learned that this is just one more free day for play time.

Thanks to all our veterans, and I also say thanks to all the schools who work hard to teach our students what this day is all about.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

What is a Teacher?

For the past 22 years, I've had conversations with people I meet that sound something like this:

New Person: So, what do you do for a living?
Me: I'm a teacher.
New Person: Oh, really!  Wh\at do you teach?
Me: I teach language arts and computers.
New Person: Oh, wow!  Language arts!  So you teach things like writing and spelling and vocabulary?  Reading, too?  You have kids read novels and things?
Me: Yep, I sure do.
New Person:  So that means you must keep yourself pretty busy, especially with teaching writing.  You must have to grade a lot of essays.
Me: Yes, that takes up a lot of my time!
New Person: There's a lot of stuff to cover in language arts.
Me: Yes, I have to do my lesson plans every week, and often they change because I tend to over plan!
New Person: What grade do you teach?
Me: Junior high, 7th and 8th grade.
New Person: Yikes!  You're brave!  I give you a lot of credit!  That's a hard age to teach!
Me: Nah, I love that age!  The kids are a lot of fun!

Now that I've started my new position with the district, conversations have gone more like this:

New Person: So, what do you do for a living?
Me: I'm a teacher.
New Person: Oh, really!  What do you teach?
Me: I'm the instructional technology resource teacher for my district.
New Person: Oh.  What's that?
Me: Well, I help teachers and students integrate technology into the curriculum for learning and instruction.
New Person: Oh, like computers, iPads?  Things like that?
Me: Yep!
New Person: Oh.  So what grade do you teach?
Me: Well, I work with teachers and students grades kindergarten through 8.
New Person: Oh.  So you don't have your own classroom of students?
Me: No.  I have an office.  But I do get to come in to other teachers' classrooms to work with them and their students.
New Person: Oh.  So you're not like a regular teacher.

And this is where I don't know what to say.  I consider myself a teacher, but am I?  I don't really have any of the "markers" that indicate I'm a teacher --  I don't have a classroom or my own class of students, I don't use textbooks, I don't make lesson plans, I don't grade papers.  So, am I still a teacher?

One of the things was was the most difficult to me when my daughter was getting ready to leave for college was finding a "new identity".  I had spent 18 years being lots of things -- Jim's wife, Becky's mom, a teacher -- and I felt like having my child leave home to go to school was almost like taking away one of my identities.  I wasn't the mom of a kid anymore.  This is how I am starting to feel about myself and my job.  Am I losing my identity?  Am I not a teacher anymore?

Don't get me wrong -- I like my new job.  I get to do some really fun things (and I admit -- some not-so-fun things, like do NOT talk to me about Apple Configurator!!!!) and I get to work with teachers that I haven't had the chance to work with before but I admire very much.  But I don't teach every day.  So what am I?  What makes a teacher a teacher????

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Contorting Danielson

I really wanted to title this "The Bastardization of Charlotte Danielson" but I was afraid that might be too harsh.  But I kind of think it fits.....

A very good friend and colleague of mine sent me this post that came from Huffington Post.   The author discusses concern with who Charlotte Danielson actually is, what her qualifications are, and how her framework is being used and misused all over this country in school districts creating teacher evaluation rubrics based on her work.  It's a pretty interesting read, and it raises some very interesting points.

I am far, far from any type of "Danielson" expert, but I have a smidge of experience with her framework. (Check out the framework here.)   As of right now, I am on a committee in my district that is developing and teacher evaluation rubric that is based heavily on Danielson's framework, as was our previous rubric, which I also helped develop.  When I worked on my master's degree, we studied Danielson's framework and I did an extensive self-evaluation project using the framework.  But I'd like to share my feelings about her work and what it means for teachers.

I truly believe that of all the things I have done to make myself a better teacher, the self-evaluation project I did was the single largest contributor to helping me continuously improve.  I took my self-evaluation seriously and as a result, I am still constantly striving for ways to be the best teacher I possible can.  Regardless of how much classroom experience Danielson has, that framework has value, in my opinion.  It can be a fabulous tool of construction or destruction, depending on how it is used.

Sadly, as is pointed out in the Huff Post blog, Charlotte Danielson's work is being twisted into things it probably was never intended to be.  Instead of teachers using it to find their strengths and weaknesses to improve, administrators are using it to nit-pick teachers and down-evaluate them in an effort to say they are holding teachers to higher standards.  In worst-case scenarios, the evaluations are being used as the steering wheel to boot teachers out of their jobs.  Now, let me make it clear that I ABSOLUTELY WANT BAD TEACHERS OUT OF THE CLASSROOM!  I have been quoted as saying how fed up I am with teachers who are content to sit around on their tenured asses.  In order to make the good teachers -- both young and old -- get treated like the professionals they are, it is imperative that the bad teachers get weeded out.  But I also believe it needs to be done fairly, and while Charlotte Danielson's framework really does have value, I also think it has been bastardized to the point in many districts that it now just being used to eliminate teachers; there's not a lot of interest in using that framework on good teachers because, well, they're good.

Which brings me to a question that comes out of this discussion: what really is the purpose of teacher evaluation?  There is great hand-wringing over evaluations that aren't designed to help teachers improve.  But is that really what they are supposed to do?  Here is what I have always honestly believed about teacher evaluations:

An evaluation is done by my principal to determine how "good" I am, and it is up to me to decide what I do with any information gleaned from the evaluation.  I can file it and be done until the next time, or I can review it and take it upon myself to use the evaluation to improve myself.  I have never expected any principal to help me improve professionally based on an evaluation.

Which begs another question: how can a teacher really be fairly evaluated?  For tenured and non-tenured teachers alike, the idea of a truly fair evaluation is almost laughable.  To me, in order for my evaluation to be truly fair, the following things need to occur:

  • My principal needs to be in my classroom all the time to see everything that happens.
  • Other teachers need to come in to my classroom often to see what happens.
  • Students need to offer constructive feedback about what it's like to be a student in my class.
  • Parents need to offer constructive feedback about their experiences working with me as their child's teacher.
  • I need to seriously reflect on my teaching and the feedback I receive about my work as a teacher and then find ways to improve.
You can stop laughing at how ridiculous this is now.  I know it's literally impossible.  But until these things happen, or at least a good portion happens, evaluations are going to be unfair.  There is simply not enough time or people to do a truly high quality teacher evaluation.  And I didn't even bother to go into principals teachers, students, and/or parents being objective (leaving out any personal bias that might exist against a teacher because that ain't gonna happen, either, as long as we teachers continue working with and interacting with human beings).

Getting a decent, fair, meaningful teacher evaluation is probably a virtual impossibility.  I don't know exactly how to make it happen, but I'm fairly certain it won't happen by twisting something of value like Danielson's framework into a weapon; it won't happen by administrators adopting a "gotcha" attitude with ANY teachers; and it won't happen if teachers don't take their own professional growth seriously.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

You Can't Have it Both Ways

Last December I read with intensity the stories about the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. This week, I am doing the same thing regarding the Oklahoma tornado. Both of these terrifying events involved stories about schools and students who had experiences that will impact them for their entire lives. And stories of students who died. As a teacher, I have keen interest in what the teachers in these horrific situations did. I identify with each and every one of them. I know how they must have felt on some level. The teachers in both situations are lauded as heroes. These are people who refer to the students as "my kids", who shelter their students with their own bodies, who take great risks to protect the kids in their care. They literally put their lives on the line to protect the children from a gunman hellbent on murder or a tornado unleashing unimaginable destruction. When the situation becomes stable, the teachers stay in protective mode, making sure their kids are accounted for, carrying them to safety, hugging them, reassuring them, comforting their parents. (Here are two stories hailing teachers as "heroes" -- Oklahoma tornado and Sandy Hook.) These brave teachers push down their own terror and ignore their own feelings of self-preservation in order to protect their students. They wouldn't handle these situations any other way. They are these kids' teachers, and they feel that this is just part of the job.

But while society and the press and politicians talk out of one side of their mouths about these selfless heroes, they talk out of the other sides of their mouths about how greedy, lazy, and selfish teachers are. Do you know how many times I have heard, "You only work 6 hours a day for 180 days a year. You're way overpaid. Those who can, do; those who can't, teach. My tax dollars pay your salary"? It makes me laugh through my tears to think that these people will rave about the hero teachers but vote for laws or lawmakers who want to do everything in their power to demoralize those heroes -- call their unions evil, strip them of collective bargaining rights, and slash their fat pensions because they're so overpaid anyway. (See an example of this thinking here.)

So here is my challenge: decide. You can't have it both ways, World. You can't say, "Teachers are lazy, greedy, selfish, under-worked, overpaid -- except you hero teachers." It smacks of the conversation between Julia Roberts and Richard Gere when she tells him how she's a robot with a man -- oh, except for him. What are we -- heroes or villains?

Thursday, April 18, 2013


How does one measure the quality or value of a teacher? This is the big question in the field of education right now. Among those who seem to talk the loudest about this topic, the answer would be standardized test scores. After all, we use test scores to compare our students to other students internationally, to other students nationally, to other students locally, and many states are now using student testing data as part of a teacher's summative evaluation with many other states planning to implement this in the future. But is testing data the only way or the best way to measure a teacher's worth?

I love coming to work in the morning. My students come into my classroom and they are smiling and laughing. They greet me pleasantly. They ask what we are going to be doing today. They tell me about what they did last night. They ask questions about me and my life, especially my pets! We chit chat about books we read or television shows we watch or songs we like. They pay attention during class. They follow directions. They laugh at my jokes. By all outward signs, they seem to enjoy my class. Since they seem to enjoy my class, I make an assumption that I must be doing something right, that what I am doing in my classroom with these kids has some value.

I teach gifted students, yes, but that doesn't mean that they all automatically get straight A's. Some of the kids struggle with challenging material. But I try to give them ample information, use formative assessments to check for understanding, and use more formalized assessments when appropriate to get an idea how well what I have taught them has been mastered. I try to use varied and numerous assessments to get as complete a picture as possible. Overall, my students grades are good. Report card averages tend to be all A's and B's. Good classwork scores, good test scores, and good report card grades seem to be outward signs that my students are learning what they are being taught, so I make an assumption that what I am doing to help the kids learn has some value.

In my school district, we use MAP as our local assessment. All of my students consistently test above grade level on the MAP reading and MAP language usage tests throughout the school year (the test is given three times each year). I make an assumption that since my students are testing above grade level on a consistent basis, my teaching must have some value.

When my students take the MAP test, it is not uncommon to see their scores drop from one testing session to another. It is not always clear to me why their scores drop. Maybe the student rushed through the test. Maybe the questions were too difficult. Maybe the student didn't feel well or had other things on his or her mind. Maybe I didn't cover everything that was on the test. Maybe I didn't teach something well enough for students to address it well on the MAP test. Maybe some students slipped through the cracks when I was teaching something in class and I didn't recognize it. But the bottom line is that since it is not uncommon for MAP test scores to drop from one testing session to the next, I make an assumption that I am not being an effective educator.

When I look at my students' MAP scores from fall to spring in particular, I am hoping to see their scores go up and see their national percentile ranking go up, too. Seeing those increases indicates that there was academic growth over the course of the school year. I have never once had all of my students show growth. I have always had students whose MAP scores went down and whose national percentile rankings went down. It is rarely only one or two students. Sometimes it is as many as a dozen. When that many students have scores that don't show growth, I make an assumption that I didn't teach what I needed to or how I needed to during the school year, so I am not being an effective educator.

Which one is it? Am I effective or not?

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Ready, Aim, Fire

When I was in 6th grade, I met the love of my life. His name was Mr. Eltiste and he was my math teacher. As luck would have it, math was my worst subject, but I endured it because Mr. Eltiste was my teacher. Not only was I weak in math, but I was also weak in the organization department. I lost my math book one day and was therefore unable to do my homework. In class, I told Mr. E (as we all liked to call him) that I had left my book at home and my homework was in my book. Because he loved me (at least, that's what I told myself in my mind), he told me to turn it in tomorrow. He believed my lie. Lucky me. Or not. Because later that day, someone found my math book and turned it in to Mr. E, thus exposing my lie. He tracked me down in the library and threw the book at me and yelled at me to never lie to him again. I was terrified. I had just avoided being hit with a flying book, I was yelled at in the library, and Mr. E probably didn't love me anymore. I went home that night and told my mother that Mr. E had thrown a book at me. When she asked why he would do such a thing, I told her about my little lie. She asked if the book actually hit me; I told her no. Her response: "Too bad."

First, a couple caveats. One, was he right to throw a book at me? Of course not. Two, should he have yelled at me in the library in front of other students? Pretty sure that's also a no. But it was the 1970's and education was different back then. I can also tell you that as a result of that incident, I never lied to Mr. Eltiste again and I worked my rear end off to get him to respect me again (okay, love me again). I was most scared of disappointing him again in the future. Had he not been so upset with me, I probably would have calculated it out in my mind that if I got away with a lie once, I could do it again. Instead, I learned a valuable lesson. I also learned that I wasn't getting any sympathy at home. Apparently, I did wrong first so Mr. E's anger was justified.

Flash forward to 2013. What the heck, you don't have to flash forward that far. You can even flash forward to the late 1990's, I suppose, but definitely flash forward to the past 5 years or so. I am sure had the same incident taken place, it would be newsworthy and the teacher would be fired and in the middle of a lawsuit. I'm not going to debate whether that is right, wrong, or other. Instead, I want to look at the reaction of my mother. Her first inclination was to take the side of the teacher, not her child. At least that's what I could see. If she thought he was a horrible teacher because of that incident, she sure never let on to me that she felt that way. She also didn't let me feel like my wrong doing could be excused somehow by what he did. She subtly let me know that I screwed up and deserved to be punished. My mother held me responsible for my actions. She also knew Mr. Eltiste well enough to know that he was a partner with her in my education. When did that change in education? When did some parents (yes, some, because many are so wonderful and some are....not) decide that teachers were no longer partners with them, wanting what's best for the child, and instead decide that teachers were the enemy? When did it become acceptable and preferable to be out to get a teacher for showing one ounce of human behavior? Yes, human behavior. Mr. Eltiste was mad he had been lied to. he lost his temper. Human beings have been known to do that. When did teachers have to start to candy coat everything they say and do? Why can't I tell a student that he is being rude when he talks back to me? Why can't I tell a student she is being lazy when she drops a wadded up piece of paper on the floor and refuses to throw it in the garbage, and that she's being arrogant when she tells me that's the janitor's job? Why can't I tell a student that it is disgusting to eat a Kleenex? (Yes, these are real stories here, folks.) Teachers DO get in trouble with parents and principals for saying these things to students. Parents think a teacher is lying when he calls home to talk about an issue with the child. Do parents really believe that teachers are pathological liars who have nothing better to do than sit around and make up stories about children? We teachers care about the kids we teach. We teachers want to be an assistant to the parents, and we want the parents to be assistants to us. After all, don't we all want what's best for the child's education? When did open season on teachers start? And why? I wish someone could explain it to me.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

More Common Core

Anymore, I live, eat, breathe, and sleep Common Core. It pervades every moment of my life -- even when I am not at work. I know it's impacting me when I am not at work because I feel the residual stress in the form of headaches and upset stomachs. Why does something like this cause me so much angst? I have no clue. I'd like to think it's because I take my job that seriously, but maybe it's not me, it's them (meaning: the standards).

In theory, I love what the CCSS say and what they aim to do (for the record: I am speaking of the ELA standards because that is my subject area; I cannot speak knowledgeably about any other subject area standards). In practice, the CCSS seem impossible to implement with the integrity they need to be implemented with. They are so ambitious that I am not sure how I can thoroughly cover them to the extent that the learners in my classroom will meet them solidly. What's more scary and frustrating is knowing that there will be a "lag" in seeing true results from implementing the CCSS. That is because we only will have our curriculum fully aligned at the end of this year and start teaching in earnest to those standards next school year (fall 2013). That means that the expectations and requirements for all students will be "stepped up" next year but the only students who will get the full impact of the CCSS will be next year's kindergarteners because they start at the ground floor. That means for me, as a 7th grade ELA teacher, I will be plugging "holes" in learning until those kindergarteners get to me in 8 years. If that isn't daunting, I don't know what is! (As a side note, I believe this could be even more problematic for math teachers, based on what little I understand about the math standards.) To make matters worse, it will be just a couple short years until students are assessed on these standards and my evaluation of effectiveness will be impacted by the scores of those tests. Kids will be expected to score well on a test that they haven't been fully prepared for over the course of their education, and I will be judged based on those scores. It smacks of stress and unfairness. And it's demoralizing.

I believe in providing a challenging curriculum for my learners. I believe in holding students to higher standards and expectations. I believe in pushing myself professionally. But I am not convinced that the CCSS are going to challenge my students or hold them to higher standards and expectations. And it would probably be my fault if that happens because I feel like my ability as a teacher is pushed beyond what I can reasonably do to effectively put those standards into practice. And when I fail to do that, I fail so much more than myself; I fail those kids who come into my classroom every day and look to me to guide them on their educational journey.