Wednesday, December 10, 2014

It's All About the Book

I read this article this morning about how students are lagging behind in what they should be reading. Apparently students still favor fiction over non-fiction, and they are not reading as many challenging books as they could be -- many students still choose books below their reading levels. To be honest, I read this and thought it was no surprise whatsoever.

My experience teaching English language arts to gifted students in grades 7 and 8 absolutely reflected this. And I encouraged it. Here's why:

The books.

Since I was teaching gifted students, it was not uncommon for them to have Lexile reading ranges starting in the 900's and 1000's. Finding books with Lexile levels that high is tough to do in a school library! I encouraged my students to use the Lexile website to find books within their Lexile range, especially non-fiction texts. The most common experience doing this included finding books on the suggested list that were quite frankly boring, and not having those books available in the junior high school library.

The dilemma: do I have the kids and their parents search high and low for a book that is in their Lexile range? Do I "force" the kids into reading a book in the range that is going to be a miserable experience for them?

My answer to both questions is no. Making kids work that hard to find a book that ultimately ends up being a snoozer is counterproductive. It's a terrific way to make kids resent reading and ultimately quit doing it for pleasure.

So I allowed kids to choose books they WANTED to read. I encouraged them to find books as close to their Lexile ranges as possible, but even that can be an exercise in frustration. Take these three examples -- I got these Lexile scores directly from the Lexile website:

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury -- 890
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen -- 1020
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie -- 570

If you haven't read these books, let me "rank order" them in terms of difficulty from my personal perspective and from anecdotal information from the students I've taught these books to:

Easiest: Hatchet
Next hardest: Fahrenheit 451
Most difficult: And Then There Were None

I know that Lexile scores are determined by all sorts of fancy statistical measures, but I challenge you to read those three books yourself and tell me that Hatchet is the most challenging of the three. If I asked my gifted 8th graders to read Hatchet, every one of them would plow through that book in a matter of hours. It would be an insult to their intelligence.

Maybe I don't know how Lexile scores really work, and if I don't, then I hope someone will teach me about how to effectively use them. But the bottom line is I can't in good conscience engender a love of reading in my students by forcing them into a genre that is still lacking in engaging reading or making them stay within a particular reading range with drab material.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

It's All in the Spin

Saw this on Twitter this morning. A parent was arrested for disorderly conduct at a school board meeting where he was protesting a book his daughter was reading. Let me get this out of the way first -- I think having this man arrested was ridiculous. There is certainly a news story in his arrest because of how utterly ludicrous it was to arrest him. That being said, I wish that someone (and I know damn well it won't be Fox News despite how "fair and balanced" they are) would pick up the sub-story, which is censorship.
The novel being questioned, Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult, is one of my favorite books. It is the first book I read by her and it knocked the wind right out of me. As a teacher of junior high aged students and as someone who is active in the anti-bullying work in my district (for me, specifically I work on cyberbullying education), I was riveted by the topic of the book and the issues it raised. It is a great companion book to another novel I loved the moment I read it, Give a Boy a Gun by Todd Strasser.
Nineteen Minutes is a book written for adults; it is a mainstream novel. Give a Boy a Gun is considered a young adult novel, written more for teens. I'm not sure there is an agenda in Nineteen Minutes beyond realizing that there are always many facets to any story; there is a clear gun control agenda in Give a Boy a Gun. I taught Give a Boy a Gun to my 7th graders for many years; I did get parental permission because I was working with 12 and 13 year old students. All parents except one allowed their children to read the book. When I taught my own daughter in 7th grade, she read Give a Boy a Gun. Until I started teaching the novel House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer, Strasser's novel was the students' favorite and it generated some of the best discussions about bullying I've ever had with students. I suggested to many of my students who got a lot out of reading Give a Boy a Gun that they read Nineteen Minutes, but I also cautioned them that it is a grown-up book and that they shouldn't read it of their parents preferred they didn't read adult books yet. Because remember, I was dealing with 12 and 13 year olds.
High school kids are a different breed. Many controversial books with adult content get read in high schools because the novels have value and worth in their theme or purpose. Just check out this list of the most challenged books of the 21st century. High school is where social consciousness in students -- who happen to be on the brink of adulthood -- really starts to flourish, and reading novels that raise awareness of issues helps this social consciousness develop. Nineteen Minutes is definitely a book that can help students become more aware of themselves and their behavior and their treatment of others as well as find ways to help others who need some care, concern, or assistance.
I'm betting neither Megyn Kelly, Trace Gallagher, nor the parent at the board meeting bothered to read the entire book. Instead, they chose to focus on page 313 and take that one page and that one snippet from the scene that is on page 313 and castigate the entire book. In fact, Gallagher encourages people to read just that one page and make their own judgment on the value of the content of the book. Why should I be surprised that people are so willing to lift something small from a larger work and take it out of context to twist it to fit their own personal agenda? People love doing this.
If the student wants to opt out of the book or the parents want their student to opt out of the book, I'm betting the teacher would be fine with that and come up with an alternate assignment. That's what I did for the one student who wasn't allowed to read Give a Boy a Gun (my favorite thing about that incident was how the parent told me what a dreadful, harmful mother I was for allowing my own daughter to read such filth). I have no issues with opting out; however, I would have had an issue if that parent wanted to remove the book from the curriculum. This makes me think of what Captain Beatty said to Guy Montag in Fahrenheit 451:
"Colored people don't like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don't feel good about Uncle Tom's Cabin. Burn it. Someone's written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag. Take your fight outside. Better yet, into the incinerator. Funerals are unhappy and pagan? Eliminate them, too. Five minutes after a person is dead he's on his way to the Big Flue, the Incinerators serviced by helicopters all over the country. Ten minutes after death a man's a speck of black dust. Let's not quibble over individuals with memoriams. Forget them. Burn them all, burn everything. FIre is bright and fire is clean."
Let's get rid of anything that offends anyone. Once we do that, there won't be anything left to read.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

AI: Artificial Intelligence or Appallingly Idiotic

Here it is, another article that talks about using computers to machine-score student writing.

I spent more than 20 years teaching English language arts to junior high students, so I know exactly how cumbersome writing assignments can be.  I have graded more than my fair share of essays, research papers, short stories, poems, and written exam responses.  It always takes a long time to evaluate student writing -- IF the evaluation is done thoroughly and well.  Feedback on writing should be designed to inform the students where their strengths and weaknesses are and what can be done in the future to improve their writing skills.  That kind of feedback requires more than just a cursory reading, a grade at the top of the paper, or checks or circles on a rubric.  (And on a side note, the sad thing is that far too many students read the feedback then ignore it.  They pitch their papers or put them in a folder or portfolio, never to be looked at again.  So all that meaningful feedback is wasted.)

Writing needs to be evaluated for many things -- format, spelling, punctuation, grammar, usage, structure, clarity of thought, depth of understanding and analysis, quality of information, bias (or lack thereof), level of detail used, and style, and I'm sure I'm leaving things out.  Some of those elements -- grammar, spelling, maybe even structure, can be evaluated by a computer.  But how can any of those other elements actually be evaluated by a machine?

Machine scoring of writing can scan for things like key words or phrases to attempt to assess a level of detail or analysis, but it truly can't be determined without context, and a computer can't evaluate context.

Machine scoring of writing can scan for number of sentences in a paragraph, number of words in a sentence, and advanced sentence structures, but it can't necessarily determine of all those words and sentences strung together actually make sense.

Machine scoring of writing certainly can't find things like bias or evaluate style, and those things can have a deep impact on quality of writing and information being conveyed in that writing.

To have a truly meaningful response to writing is going to require human eyes.  Period.  Sure, a teacher can use his or her own actual evaluation in conjunction with machine scoring, but how many teachers are truly disciplined enough to do that? Far too many are sadly willing to leave the evaluation up to the computer because they read articles like the one above and start to believe that artificial intelligence can get the job done -- at the very least -- adequately.  Companies prey on teachers by promising great quality feedback and dangling more free time in front of them, all while making money off those teachers and allowing a gross disservice to be done to the students who really need good feedback on their writing.

Machine-scoring of student writing isn't the least bit intelligent.  It's ludicrous, lazy, and irresponsible.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Dress for Success?

So, I just read this article about schools implementing dress codes for teachers.  My overall reaction includes an eye roll and some head shaking.

First, let me address what should be the bleeding obvious.  Of COURSE teachers shouldn't be coming to work in clothes that are revealing cleavage, bare midriffs, or underwear.  Anyone who argues that they should be able to wear those clothes to work is also worthy of an eye roll and a head shake.  As far as clothes that are excessively tight, light exercise or yoga pants, well, that's a trickier topic.  Personally, I think they are unprofessional.  When your pants are so tight that I can answer the questions, "Panties or thong?" without having to ask, it's unprofessional.  Beyond unprofessional, it's gross.  But I understand that this is the style, so I guess I can just let it slide, much like the low-rise jeans fad (which enables me to often answer the question, "Panties, thong, or nothing?" without having to ask) and hope it goes away soon.  But it sure won't stop me from saying things behind someone's back, as women are wont to do at times.

Shoes?  I don't care about shoes.  Wear flip flops.  Wear gym shoes.  Wear stripper heels.  Teachers are on their feet a lot, so I really feel that shoes can be whatever the person feels most comfortable in.

Now let's get to the items that are likely to cause the most controversy.  Let's start with hair color.  Personally, I think it's ridiculous to dictate to a teacher what hair color is appropriate.  How long until hair color guidelines lead to makeup guidelines?  It's just hair.  Get over it.  If the hair doesn't pose a danger to the students of fellow employees, then leave it alone, and I can't see how hair color can pose any credible danger.

Next, jeans.  I wear jeans to work usually once or twice a week.  I tend to pair my jeans with a nice top or some sort of school-related spirit wear.  The jeans I wear don't have holes in them and they aren't skin tight (or low rise!).  They are just jeans that I can't believe would draw attention from anyone.  Yes, jeans can look unprofessional, but they also can look just fine for a teacher at work, too.  Jeans are a staple in the American wardrobe; I see no reason to ban them outright.  Let teachers be adults; they know which jeans are okay for school (the dark blue ones with the buttons on the back pockets) and which ones are not okay for school (the ones that have a 2 1/2" zipper, a hole over the right cheek, shreds down the fronts of the thighs, and make my ass look fabulous!).

How about tattoos?  As a teacher with a dozen tattoos, of course I have an opinion.  On average, only 2 - 6 of may tattoos might show.  The ones that always are visible are the ones I have on my wrists -- my daughter's name in Hebrew and a bracelet of pink and yellow roses to recognize my mother and me.  Clearly tasteless and vulgar.  The other ones that might show include a cross on the back of my neck if my hair is in a pony tail (another one that is horrible inappropriate), a strawberry on one ankle and a bracelet around my other ankle (these show if I am wearing capris or a dress or skirt).  Those are also pretty naughty for school, don't you think?  I also have a flower on my upper left arm that sometimes shows if I am wearing something with a really short sleeve.  Horrors!  The other tats are always covered because I don't dress like a tramp for work.  That means nobody sees the parrot on my upper thigh or my tramp stamp or the opening line from The Prayer of St. Francis on my upper back.  In fact, nobody ever really sees the green heart on my left ring finger because it's covered by my wedding ring, or the number 3 tucked far behind one of my ears.  If I DID decide to get any ink that might be considered inappropriate for school, then it would be inappropriate for the general public, so I'd get it someplace that it would always be covered.  I wonder how many teachers actually have tattoos with swear words, alcohol logos, naked people, or references to dugs or sex AND have them visible to students.  I'm betting that number is astronomically LOW.  So cut the crap on tattoos.  The only reason someone would want to label tattoos inappropriate for school is due to a personal bias.

If a staff member is dressing unprofessionally, the administrator should deal with that individual personally.  Why come down on an entire staff for the actions of one?  I suspect that's because it allows for a blanket statement to be made without having to single anyone out, which can make for an uncomfortable conversation.  So a dress code based on the inappropriate dress of an individual is the coward's way of handling it.  Applause, applause.  Way to step up and be a leader to your staff.

The lip service that is paid to teachers always amuses me in a sad way.  "Teachers are professionals."  Yes, we are.  But really, that's a load of hooey.  Nobody really thinks of us as professionals.  We have to have a four-year degree and to be licensed like other professionals -- doctors, lawyers, accountants -- and we have to engage in professional development like other licensed professionals, but nobody sees teachers in the same light as doctors, lawyers, and CPAs.

And if you want teachers to dress like "professionals", in "professional attire", then please pay me a salary that will allow me to purchase that wardrobe.  Until then, I'm going to continue to wear my khakis and polo shirts.  I might even throw on my fleece jacket with the school's logo embroidered on it when I get chilly!

Imposing a dress code on teachers is the passive-aggressive way of saying, "You're too damn stupid to know how to dress yourself."

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Clear As Mud

Here's a topic that's as clear as mud: transgender students.

I will admit upfront that I am not terribly well educated about transgender issues.  I have been open about being a supporter of gay rights (or as I like to call them, civil rights), and often transgender issues and rights get lumped in with gay rights (as in the phrase LGBT -- lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender).  Honestly, I'm not sure what each one has to do with the other, but experts and people in the know have coined this term, so I defer to their expertise.

I believe, in my very limited understanding, that being transgender is a legitimate thing.  I believe it is possible for someone to be born biologically one gender yet feel as if he or she is actually the other gender.  I think it's probably pretty rare, but I believe it happens.  I don't believe it's a conscious choice by an individual -- it's just the way they are.  Much like I don't believe those who are gay are so by choice.  I can't imagine why anyone would choose to be gay, considering the social backlash that exists in this country (although it is moving in the right direction).  I can't imagine anyone would voluntarily choose to identify him or herself as transgender either because the social backlash against that is even greater than that against those who identify as gay.  I also can't believe that a child of any age would voluntarily choose to say he or she is transgender because that causes a huge brouhaha and opens the child up to bullying and cruelty from both peers and adults and society in general.  If a child identifies as transgender, that's got to say something for "being born that way" -- kids don't understand the controversy surrounding being transgender; they probably don't even really understand what it is (most adults don't even understand what it is) -- they just know that they are one gender physically but feel like they are the other.

I have to believe that such a drastic realization isn't taken lightly by anyone associated with the transgender person -- the individual him or herself, the parents, or any doctors or psychologists.  I'm sure that for a child to truly be identified as transgender, much analysis and discussion and understanding must happen first.  A child of 6, 10, 13, 16, or even an adult for that matter can't just walk into a psychologist's office and say, "I'm transgender," and have the response be, "Okee dokee, you are!"

That being said, something must be done to help those who truly are identified as transgender navigate their way in this world, and this includes school.  The California Transgender-Student Law, known as AB1266, has stirred up huge controversy.  A well-written law that asserts the rights of those who are transgender should be a good thing; note I said a WELL-WRITTEN LAW.  If AB1266 isn't well written, then it's going to do more damage than good.  Kids who are truly identified as transgender don't deserve to be bullied or harassed or discriminated against.  They are children and they are human beings with feelings.  If AB1266 is a bad law, then get it re-written so it is a good law.  If it a good law, then a massive education campaign must be launched.  In this country, ALL children deserve to get an education, and anyone who know anything about education knows about what is called the "hidden curriculum".  These are the things we all learn at school but are not directly taught -- things like punctuality, organization, teamwork, and tolerance.  So if ALL children deserve an education, we have to make sure that even children who identify as transgender get that education, too.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Rotten to the Common Core

The more I have been immersed up to my eyeballs in Common Core, the more I have discovered I have many concerns about them.  In theory, I like the idea of rigorous standards that are similar across state lines.  But after seeing how the standards are set up, how many there are, and how they are being used, I'm not so much a fan.  The more I learn about the Common Core, the more rotten the whole deal seems.  And I'll be honest -- I live in constant fear that someone in my district will find out how I feel and I will get in trouble for having a dissenting opinion from the powers that be in my district.  Although I freely admit that I have no idea how I haven't been found out -- it's not like I hide my blog posts from anyone.......

Today, a friend of mine shared this article with me, and parts of it just made me see red.  Here's the link to the article (it's long but worth a read), and what follows are some of my thoughts/reactions to what I read.

In terms of the CCSS getting students "college and career ready", here's a quote from the article:
"The substance of the standards themselves is also, in a sense, top down. To arrive at “college- and career-ready standards,” the Common Core developers began by defining the “skills and abilities” they claim are needed to succeed in a four-year college. The CCSS tests being developed by two federally funded multistate consortia, at a cost of about $350 million, are designed to assess these skills. One of these consortia, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, claims that students who earn a “college ready” designation by scoring a level 4 on these still-under-construction tests will have a 75 percent chance of getting a C or better in their freshman composition course. But there is no actual evidence connecting scores on any of these new experimental tests with future college success."

Look at how much money is being spent to develop the tests alone that align with the CCSS.  That number is astronomical!  That's just test development!  That's not curriculum development or costs associated with scoring the tests!  But what really staggers my mind is that the tests being developed by PARCC are not yet finished but PARCC has already developed a scale for scoring the tests and for determining a student's readiness for college.  All without having FINISHED the test or PILOTING the test.  How is this even possible?

Speaking of being ready for college..... "The idea that by next year Common Core tests will start labeling kids in the 3rd grade as on track or not for college is absurd and offensive."

Absurd and offensive are just the start!  Imagine for just a moment that you have a 3rd grader at home if your kids aren't that age.  Imagine how you are going to feel when you get the report sent home from school that based on the test your child took, it has been determined that your child isn't going to make it into college.  This has been determined 10 YEARS before your child is actually going to go to college!  Are you going to tell your child this at age 8?  "Well, honey, this test you took says you didn't score well enough to go to college."  How motivating will that be for a kid to go to school?  What's the point?  It's 3rd grade and he can't make it into college anyway, so why bother?  School sucks!  Yes, labeling kids in 3rd grade as on track for college certainly is absurd and offense as well as damaging and de-motivating and hurtful.

Think that the whole idea is for the students of this country to benefit from these standards?  Think again, o benevolent one: "Having financed the creation of the standards, the Gates Foundation has entered into a partnership with Pearson to produce a full set of K–12 courses aligned with the Common Core that will be marketed to schools across the country. Nearly every educational product now comes wrapped in the Common Core brand name."

Implementing the CCSS has been one of the most lucrative deals ever to come about for publishing companies.  Pearson is a superpower in the education arena and they are set to supernova right through the atmosphere with the establishment of CCSS.  Anything that can have the label CCSS slapped on it and sold will go like hotcakes because all the Kool-Aid drinking CCSS cheerleaders gobble those products up in bulk.  The economy should start booming from all the money being made from every last little thing developed to coordinate with the CCSS.

Now, not everyone supports the CCSS.  "...opposing the Common Core is 'an array of organizations with multimillion-dollar budgets of their own and much experience in mobilizing crowds and lobbying lawmakers, including the Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity, the Pioneer Institute, FreedomWorks, and the Koch Bros.' These groups are feeding a growing right-wing opposition to the Common Core that combines hostility to all federal education initiatives and anything supported by the Obama administration with more populist sentiments."

At first, I feel a sense of relief that I'm not alone -- there are others out there who are speaking out against CCSS!  But then I look at the list of who's against it and their reasons and my heart sinks.  These people and organizations are just as radical as the ones who are ramming CCSS down the throats of American schools.  They might actually think the CCSS is a bunch of hooey, but we'll never know for sure because it's all mired in political agendas.  There is no benevolence here; it's just more agenda-pushing.

As a teacher, I have a vested interest in making sure my students are as well prepared as possible for the future, whether that future includes college or entering the workforce.  If I turn out a bunch of ill-informed students, they become problematic citizens -- maybe reliant on welfare, possible living in poverty, potentially unemployable because of lack of skills, possibly ending up in the prison system.  So no teacher wants to go easy on kids because we know damn well where "easy" gets us -- being senior citizens cared for by a generation of people who lack skills to take care of themselves much less the rest of us!  Teachers WANT rigor in their students' education!  Teachers WANT kids to be challenged!  Teachers WANT students to be innovators, problem-solvers, creative thinkers, and critical consumers of information!  Teachers WANT kids to know how to read, write, spell, speak, listen, calculate, and compute!  Teachers WANT kids to understand how the world around them works!  Teachers WANT students to understand the past in order to have a bright and promising future!  Teachers WANT students to be healthy and see the beauty in world!  Anyone who says that teachers who don't like the CCSS because they don't like the added accountability heaped upon them is utterly ridiculous.  Teachers are used to being held unfairly accountable for what their students do.  Teachers are constantly judged by society.  Teachers have endured high-pressure accountability for their entire careers.  So that's not the reason for opposition to the CCSS.  It's because these standards have been developed without any understanding of how education really works in order for companies to amass huge profits -- and do it all for the kids, so it looks neat and pretty.  It helps to further demonize anyone who dares speak out against the CCSS -- oh, you don't like the CCSS?  Then clearly you don't care about children or their education.

This is rotten.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

How to Ruin School

I've been a teacher for more than 20 years, and the majority of those years have been spent teaching gifted kids.  I spent a lot of time finding lessons, materials, and activities that challenge those kids, so I don't think I am a stranger to the concept of a rigorous curriculum.  In fact, I think a rigorous curriculum is incredibly important.  The Common Core promises more rigor.  I'm not convinced it does; I'm not convinced it doesn't.  I like the sound of the standards, but there are so, so, so many of them, and some of them are really unrealistic, and it is impossible for one subject area teacher to actually cover them all thoroughly in a school year.  I'd love to wait and see what happens while these standards are implemented; let's see if the rigor really is there.

But what I know I definitely don't like about the CCSS is the way they are used to regulate Every. Damn. Thing. that happens in a classroom or a school.

Case in Point #1: Students write letters to Santa according to CCSS standards.  Come on!  This is a childhood rite of passage!  It's supposed to be fun, a fantasy, a dream!  It's not meant to be an exercise in correct argumentative writing form.  By sucking the fun out of activities like this that are rooted in fun, there is no joy left in learning.  Learning is purely utilitarian.  Can't there ever be a time when something the kids do at school can be just because?????

Case in Point #2: Bathroom breaks can help students do better on the tests that will come about as a result of CCSS.  Now, there has been some kerfluffle over the headline for this story being sensational, but to me, the point is this: nobody wants to lose instructional time because kids need to go to the bathroom.  Having scheduled bathroom times is common in elementary schools, but the suggestion that an entire class of students all finish with their bathroom activities in five minutes being timed with a stop watch is ridiculous!  And the idea that having kids use bathroom passes and writing down departure and arrival times to give extra practice in hitting the CCSS about telling time -- both analog and digital -- is preposterous!  Now we are taking a function of nature -- going to the bathroom -- and tying it somehow to CCSS.  When will someone, anyone with a scoche of influence stand up and publicly announce -- ENOUGH!

If adopting the CCSS means everything that happens in a school turns in to an exercise to learn the standards and prepare for the tests, education is going to be in need of overthrow, not just overhaul.