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My Week, Part One

Sunday

I did some gardening, digging up a few rows to plant green beans from seed. I started my garden earlier this year, a reaction to last season’s late start, so tomatoes, peppers, and squash are already in the ground, lettuce and onions flourishing in the raised bed. Saturday night, I spotted a spectacularly huge artichoke in my five foot tall perennial that my housemate brother prepared for our enjoyment–from garden to plate in 45 minutes. Really, the only flaw was we had no eggs so I couldn’t whip up a Hollandaise. Still, it was sublime, and had inspired me to keep up the garden labor.

After that, I went to work, getting there at about 2:30. Grades were due the next day, and I was going to be out of the office for the calculus textbook selection committee. My classes only go up to pre-calc, but two of our calculus teachers were preparing their students for the AP test and besides, they hated committee meetings. The non-AP calculus teacher, Wing, was in China, leaving only Hank, the department chair, and me as upper-math options. Hank teaches Stats, and Monday was my birthday, so I thought it’d be nice to sleep in a bit and get out early without guilt. Plus, I like textbook selection committees–a bunch of free textbooks. And one of these days I want to teach non-AP calculus.

I was at school until 11:00 pm. First, I had to finish grading the Algebra 2 tests. Then I had to enter all those tests and the trig class’s tests and review grades. After submitting the final results, I had to prepare for the sub, which was irritating because most subs are a waste of time. I’ve found one sub who is better at math than I am, which is amazing, and one sub who’s an experienced teacher and at least gets kids working, which is a great second best. But neither was available on short notice, so I’d get an incompetent who’d sit on her phone all day, which sucks. But I was getting free textbooks.

Then I had to put flyers around campus, which I’ve never done before. A month earlier, I had seen an email from a district coach about middle school robotics and had emailed him, asking for information about Arduino or robotics activities for high school. As co-director of our school’s chapter for a well-known technology competition, I had discovered how many kids were interested in programming and robotics and was determined to start a club on either or both next year, independent of the competition. The district coach had forwarded my mail to a city government guy who had a grant to encourage community science projects, and was hooked up with a huge project to use technology to collect data about our local environment. (I can’t be specific here.) Next thing I knew, I was given $2000 for a six week project ($600 for me, $600 for another teacher, $800 for expenses!)  that would kickoff with a demo of the technology for interest students. Highly educated people from prestigious universities would be coming from out of town to give the demonstration. I told them that I was completely on board but couldn’t guarantee two things: first, that we could complete any technology project in six weeks towards the end of school and second, my biggest fear, that anyone would show up for the demonstration. I told them that I was pretty sure that I could get two or three kids, but even that was just a hope.

They reassured me: no problem, if no one came, they’d show me and we’d map out next steps. So I’d talked it up in classes, and in the after school club, and now I was putting out flyers, but inside I felt like an 8 year old terrified that no one would show up at Chuck E. Cheese for my birthday party.

I got home at 11:30.

Monday

My birthday. I woke up feeling slightly stiff from the garden labor, which was odd. Mattocking, which is basically a stand-up sit-up, can wreck a back without proper support, but all I’d done was turn over soil with a shovel, which shouldn’t have done any damage.

The calculus committee was much more interesting and relevant than I thought it would be, renewing my determination add calculus to my preps. First step, though, was much more pre-calculus than I’m currently teaching, which for reasons I’ve mentioned will be difficult.  I got six textbooks.

I had a doctor’s appointment with my allergist, who yelled at me for not starting my allergy and asthma regime in February, leaving it to March which allowed the congestion and breathing problems to take hold. I agreed, but pointed out that her regime had me in much better shape than I’d been in years past–save for last year, when I followed it from February on and never had an attack. Seriously, I don’t say this much, but this doctor actually helped me with a real health problem. Usually they misdiagnose me or tell me I’m perfectly healthy despite routine 20 second bouts of deep, unproductive coughing and the wheeze of a lifelong smoker.

For dinner, my mother and stepdad took me out to a Brazilian steakhouse.

Then I went home and found my password for H&R Block.  They bought the prior company I used, although I can’t remember what that was. It’s like with banks: stay with any bank long enough and you’re a Bank of America customer.

When I grade, I do the key and group the tests one day, maybe grade a couple. Then I come back later to do the rest. Similarly, with taxes, I always take one day to get all the forms in order, the login found, get started until I run into a roadblock and quit. Then I come back certain all the small stuff is handled. So Monday evening, I found all the tax forms dumped in my mail crate, logged in, started putting in information. H&R Blocked seemed to think I owed $4,213, which was unnerving. But then I couldn’t find my investment INT-99 forms or my rental property year-end report, so I shot off some emails and went to bed.

Tuesday

Tuesday morning my back seemed fine, much less stiff. The substitute’s note said that all my kids ignored her and had been on their phones all day. One girl left without permission and came back an hour later.  I yelled at the kids, banned phones entirely in every class with some pre-emptive removals just to reinforce the ruling, told everyone they’d have a test or quiz on Wednesday.  The  pre-calc test wasn’t even started, of course, but righteous wrath must out.

Our school has instituted an interesting innovation for advisory. Instead of 30 minutes with one of our regular classes, teachers create lessons on any subject they like, and the students sign up. This is a wrap-around of RTI–basically, what do we do with the kids who aren’t in intervention?–and is thus far pretty successful, two weeks in.

Today I was offering “ESL Word Games” for the first time. I put the kids in teams and play a variant of “Wheel of Fortune”. Surprisingly, some native English speakers were enrolled; apparently, our study halls were overloaded. So I assigned two of them as team advisors and one of them helped me come up with clues.

The session was a huge success. the advisors took their jobs seriously and had a great time giving hints and suggestions. The kid working with me thought up “WATCH READY PLAYER ONE” with the clue “something you do in your free time”. The kids figured out the movie name fairly quickly, but were driven to distraction by “watch”, which stumped even the native speakers. Great lesson, great learning experience, the ESL speakers had a ball, and the native speakers said they wanted to come back.

I stayed at work until 9:00. But there was a bright spot.

Got home and mostly finished my taxes. That $4,213 tax shortfall held all the way through to itemized deductions, which was confusing the hell out of me because all of my passive rental losses were rejected. Then the web application informed me that, since I’d reported $10,551,000, I would need $791,325 in medical bills before I could start to deduct qualified expenses. That’s when I realized that the $4,213 I thought I owed had a comma after it and was in fact four plus million dollars.

Note to H&R Block: If a teacher reports an eight-figure income, suggest they entered a comma instead of a period.

Result: $1056 refund. Yay.

Wednesday

It took me five minutes just to get out of bed. Why did it take my back three days to react to a bit of digging?

Easy day, generally, with three tests. Which was good, because while standing and walking was manageable, and sitting was pretty easy, moving from standing to sitting or vice versa took two or three tries and caused considerable agony.

The next two days would be busy. Thursday was the technology demonstration that had so much potential if kids would just show up. Friday was the second  half our our technology club competition. While the other contests had been held a couple weeks earlier, the Arduino project showdown had been delayed and moved from a Saturday to a Friday, due to the limited number of entries–just seven.  Three of those entries were from our school. That is, we had three groups of two to four students who had been working on Arduino projects since November, all of them learning to code for the first time, developing prototypes, writing project reports.  We’d done well in the other competitions, taking a first and two thirds. We had high hopes for the Arduino kids.   On Friday, Bart, my partner in crime in the technology club, and I were taking these nine students to a town I hadn’t even heard of, 90 minutes away if there’s no traffic, but there’s always traffic.  The organization would pay for us to rent a van. Our principal would pay for us to miss fourth block.  I would drive, because Bart considers time spent behind a steering wheel a usually unnecessary evil.

With all that on deck and a screaming back, I vowed to leave early and actually got out at four, after printing an algebra 2 handout I’d need. On my way out I ran into Will, a senior and a talented writer who wrote great stories for our school paper. I invited him to the kickoff tomorrow, saying whether he was interested in technology or not he could run the blog showcasing our progress, as a significant goal of this six week pilot was showing other schools how to get started. His involvement in this high-profile project would definitely be useful when applying for internships. He promised to think about it.

Went home, finished filing my taxes, and went to bed early.

Thursday

At nine in the morning Bart, my partner in crime, texted me in a panic, telling me that the director of the technology competition had assumed we weren’t attending the Friday competition. Why? Well, no good reason, really. The real crux of the matter was that the students were two weeks overdue on submitting their project reports. Why? Well, because the date wasn’t on the competition sheet, and the director had only sent out one note with the due date, as an afterthought on another email and we’d missed it. But our students were registered, right? Well, no, they weren’t because the student database was constantly out of date and Bart had kept asking for a clean copy and also, frankly, because Bart is terrible at deadlines. And no, I’m not blaming Bart because I’m terrible at deadlines which is why I gave the job to Bart, along with two-thirds of the stipend.

Before you’re too hard on us, keep in mind that this organization had changed the dates of both competitions, including putting one date right at the end of spring break, which made for brutal logistics and lost us several competitors whose parents belatedly realized that their kids would be out of town that day. Also keep in mind that the director understands we’re teachers, with other actual jobs, and is extremely nice on due dates.

I now had something much bigger to worry about than whether anyone would come to my birthday party.

So I’ll stop there, since this is pretty long.

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Four Obvious Objections to Direct Instruction

Recently, I defended teachers from Robert Pondiscio’s accusatory fingerpointing. Why no, sir, twas not teachers at the heart of the foul deeds preventing DI’s takeover of the public schooling system.

I don’t have any great insights into why DI isn’t more popular. But any reasonable person should, without any research, have several immediate objections to accepting the Direct Instruction miracles at face value. Hear the tales about Project Followthrough and spend ten minutes reading about this fabulous curriculum, and a few minutes thought will give rise to the following obstacles.

The weird objection

I’ll have more to say later, hopefully, about the roots of Direct Instruction. But no research is necessary to see the B. F. Skinner echoes.  Direct Instruction looks much more like conditioning than education.  A curriculum sample (I can’t make it bigger, click to enlarge):

NIDIcurriculum

You’re thinking good heavens, those “signals” are just optional, right? Nope. This video , without prompting, tells the viewer that yes, “signals” are required.

Recently Michael Pershan observed that ” while schools are primarily in the business of teaching kids as much as we can, it’s not anyone’s only priority. There are other things that teachers, administrators, parents and kids value besides instructional efficiency.”

Yes. Many of us value public schools that don’t feel like a cult.

The age objection

From the meta-analysis that’s given rise to all the recent stories:

The strong pattern of results presented in this article, appearing across all subject matters, student populations, settings, and age levels, should, at the least, imply a need for serious examination and reconsideration of these recommendations.

It’s behind a paywall, but I can’t help but be skeptical. I’ve never heard of Direct Instruction implementations at high school.  High school is leagues harder than elementary school and middle school. How would DI work?

Teacher script: “Hamlet Act One Scene One Word One What Word?”
[tap]
Class: “Elsinore!”

Or math:

Teacher script: “Y=mx + b is the slope intercept form. Word m What Word?”
[tap]
Class: “Slope!”
Teacher: “Word b What Word?”
[tap]
Class: “Intercept!”

How many subjects have been broken down to that level? How many books have they scripted for instruction? Or is the high school curriculum like this US History sample, a few questions every paragraph?

I don’t know. I’d guess the researchers don’t know, either.

If DI’s curriculum isn’t entirely defined for high school students in all subjects, then how can the claim be made that DI works for all age levels?  How can we be sure that the gains made in elementary school aren’t subject to the dreaded fadeout? What if DI is simply a good method of teaching basic skills but won’t address the gaps that arise in high school?

Maybe answers–good answers, even–exist, maybe DI works for fifteen to eighteen year olds, maybe Romeo and Juliet can be broken down into tap-worthy chunks. Or maybe those writing paeans about Project Followthrough have no success stories about older kids to tell.

The money objection

There’s a new meta-analysis [that] documents a half-century of “strong positive results” for a curriculum regardless of school, setting, grade, student poverty status, race, and ethnicity, and across subjects and grades.–Robert Pondiscio(emphasis mine)

If it works for all income levels, why aren’t rich kids using it?

I mean, surely, this incredible curriculum is what they use at Grace Church School or Circle of Children to teach these exclusively and mostly white little preschoolers how to read. Distar is the gold standard at  exclusive Manhattan elementary schools. All the teachers are going word one, what word? (tap) and all the little hedge fund progeny obediently repeat the word, or Word.

Except, of course, that’s not the case at all. Check all the websites and you’ll see they brag about their inquiry learning and discovery-based curriculum.

 

Zig Engelmann has written that he focused his attention on the “neediest” children, but that his curriculum helps all students achieve at the highest level. In which case, Zig, go sell your curriculum to the most exclusive private schools. Public schools spend much time arguing that poor children deserve the same education rich children’s parents pay for.

The race objection

I almost left this section out, because it is necessarily more detailed and less flip than the others. At the same time, I don’t see how anyone can hear about DI the miracle and not ask about race, so here goes.

About thirty years ago, Lisa Delpit wrote a stupendous essay, The Silenced Dialogue that just obliterated the progressive approach to education, effectively arguing that underprivileged black children needed to be directly taught and instructed, unlike the children of their well-meaning progressive white teachers.  As I looked up her article to cite  her comments about the “language of power” I realized that Delpit actually discussed this using the context of Direct Instruction (Distar is the primary Engelmann brand):

DelpitonDistar

Note that Delpit, who so accurately skewers progressives for withholding the kind of information that black children need, then rejects the notion of “separating” students by their needs.

She wants it both ways. She wants to acknowledge that some kids need this kind of explicit, structured curriculum while denying the inevitable conclusion that other kids don’t.

DI claims that all kids, regardless of race, see strong improvements.  But take a look at the videos, like this one from Thales Academy, and notice all the students reciting together. They all learn at exactly the same pace?

 

Really?

So I’m going to spoil alert this one. A quick google reveals that Direct Instruction doesn’t allow a student to progress until he or she has mastered the level, and yes, there is ability grouping.

History suggests that the students who move forward quickly will be disproportionately white and Asian, while the students who take much longer to reach mastery will be disproportionately black and Hispanic.

In fact, public schools are strongly discouraged from grouping by ability, and by discouraged I mean sued into oblivion. So how can Direct Instruction achieve its great results without grouping? And if DI helps all races equally, then won’t the existing achievement gap hold constant?

It’s quite possible that DI is an excellent curriculum for at risk kids, particularly those with weak skills or a preference for concrete tasks. It’s not credible that DI instituted in a diverse school won’t either lead to very bored students who don’t need that instruction or the same achievement and ability gaps we see in our current schools.

As I said, these are the relatively straightforward objections that, I think, make a hash out of Robert Pondiscio’s claim that teachers, those foul demons of public instruction, were the source of all DI discontent.  Next up, I’m going to look at some of the actual data behind the claims.

 


Great Moments in Teaching: From Dead Animals to Disney

ESL this year hasn’t been particularly enjoyable, unlike last year, which troubled me ideologically but was a joy to teach. I am primarily challenged by a hard truth: my students simply aren’t interested in learning English. In fairness, they’ve had a tough year, the details of which I won’t share. When I arrived, they weren’t grateful, but rather annoyed that they had a teacher who expected them to speak English rather than watch movies.

Most are eager to learn, having been out of regular school for a year or more. They’re just not  eager to learn English, and they particularly don’t want to speak English. I’ve been having trouble getting any conversation going; my questions are met with either utter silence or a request, in Spanish, that someone give them a one word answer to get me off their backs.

I can focus on any content, anything that sparks their interest while reading or at least hearing English.  I taught them ratios and fractions. We constructed some robots. They enjoy grammar, primarily because they just like completing worksheets instead of talking.  I showed them Zootopia, a clever little movie, and tied it into “prey” and “predators”, which then expanded into “producers”, “consumers”, and “decomposers”, then into “herbivores”, “carnivores” and “omnivores”. This went over pretty well, so I found an ESL science book and reinforced all that with pictures and text.

I’m a teacher tailor-made for covering a wide range of topics, and I’ve improved their compliance and cooperation. But they are still a sullen lot, with no cohesion and they aren’t that crazy about me, which is a hard ego hit for someone who’s quite used to being “favorite teacher”.

So I needed a day like last Friday.

Notably, Reyes was absent. “Behavior problems” and “ESL students” don’t see a lot of overlap; unhappy ESL students act out by passive inaction, in my experience. But Reyes, a junior from Mexico, became a huge behavior problem once the others started showing even minimal compliance and improvement.  He chases girls around the room. He pulls his hood over his head when he’s trying to ignore me. He constantly speaks Spanish, interrupting me and making crude comments  that cause the other Spanish speakers to giggle.  He refuses to speak English, even simply to ask to go to the bathroom. He’s not a bad kid, really, but nonetheless a disruptive force in the room was gone, and that mattered a lot.

We’d left the day before on “food web” and “food chain” and I brought the image of a spider web up again, intent on explaining in some way  that the original meaning of “web” has transformed, to start to get across the notion of metaphor. Then  I googled “web” without spider and bring up one of the results.

You get this sound, in ESL classes–at least you do in mine. It’s a genuine “Aha” of comprehension and connection. It’s a great sound.

“See? We use ‘web’ to describe the connection because it’s many connections to many other connections. It’s not one way up or down. Now look at ‘chain’” and I googled the word and tabbed to images.

Again with the “aha”.

“See the difference? In a chain, every link is directly connected to only two. See this one? In English, we often use the word ‘chain’ to mean one up and one….”

“Down!” they chorused.

“So when we talk about food web, we are talking about many to many.  See the many connections? All these animals exist in a web, with different relationships. Now look at a food chain. See the clear cycle, or circle?”

So far, so good. Then I lost them: “First, we’re going to focus on food chain, which is a basic way of seeing who is eating, and who is being eaten.”

I was quite surprised to hear a big groan from Allie. “I HATE English!!!”

Taio agreed. “Both eating! Why eaten sometimes, sometimes eat?”

Ah. “So when is it eat? When is it being eaten?”

Allie threw up her hands. “They are both the same thing!”

“No, they’re just the same verb root. But…. Huh. Let me think.”

“See? English is stupid!”

“No, no, I get that! And you’re right. English can be insane. But I’m not teaching you verbs right now. I just want to figure out how to make you see the difference. Oh, wait.”

And I quickly googled up “rabbit eating carrot“.

“The rabbit is eating the carrot. The carrot is being eaten by the rabbit.”

Pause, but I could see they were thinking. So I googled up “fox eating rabbit”.

“The fox is eating the rabbit. The rabbit is being eaten by the fox. So if you are eating, you are the one getting food.”

“If you are eaten, you are the food?”

“Exactly!”

Elian stood up and came to the front by the projector. “Who eats fox?”

“Great question. I don’t know? Who would kill and eat foxes?”

“Birds?” Allie again.

“Hey, that’s an idea.” I google “eagles eating foxes“.

“So then someone eats eagles?” Taio asked.

“Maybe. But some predators aren’t eaten. Like humans. We kill other predators, though, because of competition. So we kill foxes because foxes will eat our chickens and rabbits. Or we kill eagles because we like their feathers.” Elian nodded, and leaned against a desk, still up front.

“Let’s try another chain.” I google “mouse eating“.

“Elian, is the mouse eating or being eaten?”

“Eating!”

“Yes! So Taio, what is happening to the blackberry?”

“The blackberry is…eaten?”

“Allie?”

“The blackberry is eaten by the mouse?”

“You got it! So who eats mice?”

“SNAKES!” I had all seven kids playing along as I google snake eating mouse.

“The snake…” I prompted.

“the snake is eating the mouse!” even my non-English speakers, like Chao, was moving his lips, at least.

“THE MOUSE IS EATEN THE SNAKE!” announced Hooriyah, my lone Afghan student.

“No. Eaten BY,” from Elian.

“Yes. The BY is very important. Otherwise, in English, it sounds like you are saying ‘eating’.”

“That’s why I don’t like English. Eaten and eating sound the same!” Allie nodded.

“So remember the ‘by’. That will help.”

“Do snakes eat deer?” Taio asked.

I can’t begin to explain how pumped I was. We’d now kept steady conversation for close to ten minutes, where everyone was chiming in without prompting. So I googled “snake eating” and we paged down looking.

“THERE!” Taoi pointed.

“I have a question,” Allie announced. “What do you call that word that snakes do to….” she paused. Kept pausing and then shrugged. “I don’t know the word.”

“Crushed? Constricted? Squeezed?”

Allie had come up to join Elian, standing by the Promethean, looking at the images for one specific thing. “No. The other way. Before.”

“Poison? Some snakes bite their prey and the poison kills or at least paralyzes–makes the animal not able to move.”

“No, not that. It’s….” and here Allie gave up  in frustration, looking at me, trying to “think” the word at me.

Up to now, I’ve been doing a good job, but it was all ad hoc teaching, taking what comes.  But I don’t think all teachers grasp the essential moments of their job. This was an essential moment and I made it a great one.1

Nothing is more important to me in that minute than identifying Allie’s word. Writing this a week later,  I have a vivid memory of standing next to the projector, looking intently at Allie, oblivious to everything else, trying to grab the word out of her brain. And best of all, I could see that she knew this. She knew I was absolutely intent on figuring out her word, that I wanted this, that I wanted to be useful because hell, she’s stuck in this class learning a language she hates, can’t the teacher give her information she actually wants? For once?

My second great moment arrived, but I’m not sure it’s a pedagogical moment or just that of a very good and quick thinker. Because instead of trying to prompt more information from her, I started thinking about snakes. What are the ur-Snake things? I’d gotten constriction, gotten poison, what other snake categories are there?

Cobra?” Allie stared intently at the google results, but shook her head. “No, it’s…” she paused again, giving up.

“What do you call that?” Elian pointed.

“That’s a hood. Cobras have a really distinctive look. That’s why I thought maybe Allie was thinking of them.”

More ur-Snake. What else? I stare at the cobra images, and suddenly, miraculously, I think of Indian snake charmers.

“HYPNOTIZE!” I practically shouted.

“YES! WITH THE EYES!” Allie was overjoyed. “It makes the animals….something.”

“Obedient. Calm.”

“What’s hypnotize?” Hooriyah.

Third great moment, back to teaching. How to show kids what Allie is thinking of, and the meaning of “hypnotize”? I switch over to youtube.

“This is a famous Disney movie. Has anyone seen it?”

“Yes!” Allie was over the moon with excitement. “This is what I was thinking of!”

So as the scene progressed, I showed the students the broadly caricatured meaning of hypnotize.

When this was over, Allie rested content, sitting back down.

“How do snakes hypnotize?” Taio asked, saving me the trouble of raising the issue.

“I don’t think snakes actually do. I think people just think it is true.”

Allie nodded. “My neighbor has a snake. He says they don’t hypnotize.”

So I googled again, and we found a few highly verbal sites that seemed to deny it, but I didn’t dwell on this much.

Final pretty great moment in teaching: I brought it back to food chains!!

“So. Remember where this all started? Eating and…..”

“Being Eaten!”

“Let’s go through some food chains that you might see in a farm.” I wrote on the board.

corn->mouse->owl

“Owl?” asked Hooriyah, and I googled “owl eating mouse”.

“So now we know three bird predators: owl, hawk, eagle.”

Another food chain: wheat->caterpillar->black bird

“What’s wheat?” Taio again. “I don’t know wheat.”

“Every country has a primary grain. In South America, the big grain is corn. Maize.” Elian nodded. “In China, in most of Asia, it’s rice. In Europe and in America, also the Middle East, wheat is big.”

Allie, who has Brazilian parents but was born in Germany, nodded. “Yes. Bread is made from wheat.”

“And the Germans do amazing bread.”

“Bread!” Suddenly Taio is galvanized. “We have bao bread!”

I know a lot of Chinese food, but this one was new, so I googled.

“Oh, like in pork buns! I didn’t know that.”

“Dumplings. I hate dumplings,” Maria, Salvadoran, my best English speaker, had been missing from most of the class and had just arrived.

“No, this isn’t dumplings.” I corrected her. “Dumplings are like shu mei. It’s food wrapped in a pastry.” Chao sat up and chattered excitedly to Taio, who answered in English.

“Yes, that’s dumpling.”

I grinned at Elian, my only repeating student. “This feels like last year,” and he smiled in recognition. Last year, we’d talked about food in class all the time, going around the room talking about various foods just for fun–what they eat in Afghanistan for breakfast, what they eat in Vietnam for dessert, why Westerners make the best desserts (that was my claim, anyway, although my students roundly disputed this assertion).

We finished up with explanations of caterpillars and cocoons, and discussing the difference between blackbirds and crows–“One is just a black bird, the other is a blackbird.”

The bell rang off for once on an animated conversation.

I started this article a week ago, and was originally going to finish it with the hope that my class had turned the corner. My perpetual lagtime in writing allows me to say that it is better. Last week was a distinct improvement on every day that came before the great moments. More conversation, less lag time, and a much improved sense of camaraderie, even Reyes is speaking with a bit less prompting.

Before last Friday, I’d been telling myself regularly that tough classes are good for me. They keep me humble, keep me looking for answers, for methods, for strategies to help my students want to learn.

Besides, I’d tell myself grimly, tough classes make the triumphs all the sweeter.

I love being right.

*********************************************************************************

1Again, the great moment is mine. I’m standing there going oh, my god, this is a great moment in teaching, in my life. For me! The kids, hey, if they liked it, that’s good.

 

 

 


Should Reporters Allow Teachers Pseudonymous Opinions?

Look, I’m not defending this idiot, who uses her picture, her location, and her occupation to discuss how she “infiltrates” the public school system with her white nationalist views. If she discusses in class her belief that Nigerians have lower IQs than Swedes,  if she teaches her students nudge-nudge-wink-wink that whites are superior, then she should be fired.

But she should be fired for what she does, not what she believes.

Maybe she’s been an item of constant concern at her school. Maybe she’s convinced her students to lie for her, as she merrily runs her pre-pubescent white supremacist club. Maybe she’s teaching them that the South was destroyed by Northern aggressors, that slavery was really a well-meaning effort by paternal whites looking after their helpless African “workers”.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to learn that she’s mild-mannered Mildred at school, that her podcast is all fantasy land. What if she’s a popular teacher, much loved for her accessible lessons and commitment to equitable outcomes? She thinks all the equity talk is feel-good, useless preachery and runs a podcast to vent her distaste at the liberal nostrums she has to preach. Her little podcast gets popular beyond her wildest expectations, and she starts talking up fiction to increase her audience.

Likely? No. But imagine, for a moment, that she is a good teacher who doesn’t proselytize, who has equitable outcomes.

Does this Florida teacher deserve to lose her job? She isn’t denigrating her students, as Natalie Munroe did.  As I understand it, a teacher’s right to free speech is balanced with the school’s right to efficient operations. Her district will certainly be able to claim she is a distraction to the school’s primary business.

Now. Now, she is. Once the Huffpo reporters got her in their targets. Once they tracked her down and  went to her employer and raised questions, her termination due to the disruption is reasonably certain. I wonder if the union will bother to protect her?

And of course, she used her own picture, used her own town, and claimed to be influencing her students, which gives the reporters a reasonable pretext to out her.

But what if she’d offered no specifics? What if she hadn’t used her picture, hadn’t bragged about influencing her kids, about parents complaining?

I don’t like the teacher’s opinions, although some are far less shocking than the HuffPo folk like to think. It seems quite clear she wasn’t calling for Muslims to be eradicated. I am unfussed by her sarcastic dismissal of white privilege. I find retweeting KKK and the “JQ” comments to be beyond the pale (although apparently the latter is a term not unknown to at least one  US Democrat congressman. )

But no matter how repugnant, these and other views, such as accepting as fact the average intelligence levels of Nigerian and Swedish students, are not illegal.  They’re minority fringe political opinions in a country that says it protects free speech.

What if she just had a podcast and Twitter account as an teacher using a pseudonym, without any talk of infiltration, no use of a picture? I don’t see that stopping the HuffPo reporters once they’d gotten the tip. They clearly see this passage as damning:teachervotingtrump

Three in ten teachers voted for Trump.. Are journalists intending to hunt us all down? Or will that just be added fodder, after the teacher has been nailed for supporting immigration restriction or IQ science?

John Fensterwald is considerably more reasonable than any HuffPo reporter, yet he can’t conceive  of the possibility that a teacher is capable of separating his or her personal beliefs from classroom interactions. In that case what stops any reporter for hunting out teachers who express their opinions in political forums using a pseudonym?  If reporters can’t even imagine that a teacher can treat students decently despite his or her political opinions, then they’ll feel wholly justified in outing these teachers. Hell, it’s a sacred duty.

Don’t even dare suggest these reporters might be deliberately creating a chilling effect for free speech. That the reporters are deliberately creating a furor that forces the district to terminate the employment of a teacher purely for wrong opinions, regardless of the teacher’s professional behavior and teaching ability. Don’t suggest that perhaps  journalism should acknowledge bias, let anonymous people alone rather than enforcing their ideological preferences in the guise of reporting a story.

All that remains is to define racist, intolerant, the “wrong opinions”.

I find that….unnerving.

I guess teachers should know better than to express the wrong opinions.

For now, I’m mildly grateful that a foolish young woman provided a test case that suggests reporters will at least try to find some public interest before outing anyone.

Do I take this personally? Why do you ask?


Why Not Direct Instruction?

Robert Pondiscio calls it the Rodney Dangerfield of curriculum as he berates the teaching community for disrespecting and neglecting  Zig Engelmann’s Direct Instruction program. Despite showing clear evidence of positive educational outcomes, Direct Instruction has been at best ignored, at worst actively rooted out for over forty years.

And whose fault is that?

..Direct Instruction, however effective, goes against the grain of generations of teachers trained and flattered into the certain belief that they alone know what’s best for their students.

Emphasis mine own, because oh, my goodness.

Trained and flattered.

Trained and flattered?

Trained?

Flattered?

Teachers?

I’ll leave you all to snorfle.

I do not dispute that many teachers think DI is creepy and horrible.  Here’s a fairly recent implementation [tap] that might [tap] help [tap] explain why [tap] teachers shudder. Word one, what word? Oorah!

But now, a question for serious people who want serious answers that don’t require the pretense that teachers are trained and flattered and capable of shutting down educational developments they dislike: why isn’t Direct Instruction more popular?

I’ve read Zig Engelmann’s book, Teaching Needy Kids in Our Backwards System,  and he doesn’t blame teachers. He thinks teachers are backwards and not terribly bright, but argues that most teachers introduced to his curriculum love it.

No, Engelmann puts the blame elsewhere.

 

For example, Direct Instruction unambiguously won Project Follow through. Originally, the program director had intended to identify winners and losers, to prevent schools from picking weak curriculum. But ultimately, the results were released without any such designation. Such a decision is well beyond any teacher’s paygrade.

According to Engelmann, the Ford Foundation was behind the effort to minimize his product’s clear victory. The foundation awarded a grant to a research project to evaluate the results.

The main purpose of the critique was to prevent the Follow Through evaluation results from influencing education policy. The panel’s report asserted that it was  inappropriate to ask, “Which model works best?” Rather, it should consider such other questions as “What makes the models work?” or “How can one make the models work better?”

Engelmann believes that Ford Foundation wanted to feel less foolish about funding all sorts of failed curriculum. I have no idea whether that’s true. But certainly Project Follow Through did not declare winners and losers, and thus from the beginning DI was not given credit for an unambiguously superior result.

Teachers didn’t turn Ford Foundation against DI.

But Engelmann and Becker were expecting decisionmakers to appreciate their success even if Project Follow Through didn’t designate them the victor. Becker wrote up their results for Harvard Educational Review, expecting tremendous response and got a few responses bitching about the study’s design.

I mean, cmon. Teachers don’t read research. That wasn’t us.

Engelmann and Becker fought for recognition all the way up the federal government food chain,  including politicians, and got no results. Shocking, I know.

Zig reserves his harshest criticism for district superintendents, describing a number of times when his program was just ripped out of schools despite sterling results. Parents, teachers, principals complained. One principal was fired for refusing to discontinue the program.

Throughout his memoir, Engelmann seems extremely perplexed, as well as angered, by his program’s failure, and to his credit is still determined to pound down the doors and win acceptance. His partner, Wesley Becker, was less copacetic. After years of rejection by his university and policymakers, Becker left education entirely and drank himself to death in less than a decade.   A few disapproving elementary school teachers aren’t going to induce that degree of existential despair.

Teachers didn’t kneecap Direct Instruction curriculum because it imposed an “intolerable burden” upon them, as Pondiscio dramatically proclaims. No. Decisionmakers killed DI programs. Time and again, management at the federal, state, and local level refuse to implement or worse, destroyed existing successful programs.

Blaming teachers and educators for what are manifestly management decisions is not only contradicted by all the available evidence, but failing to engage with a genuine mystery.

Why have so many districts refused to use Direct Instruction? Why has it been the target of so much enmity by power players in the educational field?

Those are questions that deserve investigation.

 

I did some more digging and have some data to talk about. I also want to discuss Engelmann’s book, since he often contradicts the claims made about his program.

But I’ll leave that for another day, because every so often I like to prove I can get under 1000 words.

 


Teachers and Smart Kids

Note: This was originally the opening of a larger essay I abandoned. I published the draft in The Things I Don’t Write and someone mentioned it was a nice anecdote, which it was. So I’m just republishing the anecdote with some other thoughts.

Last summer’s Gifted, with just a few scenes set in a public school, really got the teacher right. Other things were off–I don’t think the principal would have acted as she did, and the first grade class was just a little too quiet for real life. And sure, Mary’s teacher Bonnie was the romantic lead, so she wouldn’t be obnoxious or clueless.

But on her second day, after Mary finishes a math quiz in 30 seconds and shouts “DONE!” in a genuinely obnoxious tone, Bonnie comes over quietly and says “I thought you’d finish that quickly, so I made you a second test” and hands her a college-level test. Mary jumps on it like a starved wolf, working through it with focus and intensity. (A very nice touch, that.) When she’s finished, she says “Done!” and puts her head down on the desk. And smiles at the teacher. She’d been tested.

If I’m to go by blog comments, public schools are teeming with jealous teachers who seek out brilliant kids to insult and mistreat. I’ve lost count of the folks whining about how much their teachers hated them for being smarter. The same meme runs through movies and books–public teachers treating exceptionally bright children with resentment, suspicion, or simply utter hamhandedness.

That’s never been my experience as either a student or, most recently, as a parent of an extremely large, effortlessly bright, ferociously intense son. The middle attribute wasn’t noticed much in public schools, but I have very clear memories of the one teacher who did.

The memory is the only distinct recollection I have of any parent teacher conference, in an elementary school my son only attended for three months back in second grade. His teacher, a petite brunette, seemed friendly enough, but soon exceeded my wildest expectations.

“His reading level is astounding. I’ve never had a student read as well with as much understanding.  He’s testing in the 99th percentile, at nearly high school level. But…there’s something wrong with his writing ability that concerns me.”

I nodded. “Yeah, dysgraphia runs in my family and I’m nearly certain he has it.”

She instantly wrote down the word. “Dysgraphia–like dyslexia? I’ve never heard of that.”

“Yeah, from what I’ve read, there’s no real fix for it.  I’m only aware of it because my brother and father have it. There are different forms. My son’s is restricted to writing. He just isn’t reaching fluency with letter formation, so writing each word takes forever.”

She smacked the table “I KNEW it. I KNEW there had to be something particular wrong. I never thought to check with special ed, because it’s pretty normal for boys to have terrible handwriting and be less expressive. But I’d never seen it in conjunction with this level of intellectual ability.” She rummaged through some papers and came out with my son’s, a paragraph of four short sentences with no capitalization, barely keeping within the lines. One laboriously written sentence went something like this.

and then……a weird thing happened!

“Look at that. Ellipses! He’s using extremely advanced grammar structures. He spelled ‘weird’ right! but writing these four sentences took him half an hour. I have other students producing a page or more in the same amount of time but with nowhere near the complexity. No sense of building to a story like he has. And terrible spelling.”

I still remember her pleasure–not in his disability, but in her having spotted both his intellect and his struggle. And without prompting, she’d created her own accomodation. “As you may know, a major learning objective in second grade is cursive writing, but there’s no way he can manage that. So I’ve been creating simple little rules for him to check on. Is everything capitalized? Does he have sentence endings–periods, exclamation points? Simple things he can do to feel a sense of achievement, to keep him from getting discouraged. I hope you can keep him aware of his tremendous intellect until he figures out writing.”

And indeed, I did. With the exception of those three months, when I was working out of town, I paid for a tiny, private school for idiosyncratic kids (not exclusive at all) for three years. But by fourth grade–long before I became a teacher–I decided to try public schools, because of the memory of that second grade teacher he’d had so briefly.

I’m not one of those public school “boosters”. I oppose charters and vouchers, yes, but that’s because those parents are demanding private school choice at public school prices. I do think, though, that parents need to be active advocates for their kids, particularly if they don’t quite fit the mold. That said, my son did far better than I did in public school, in part because he had me looking out for him. By 4th grade, he understood the gap between what he could easily write and what his thoughts were, and once he grasped that, his writing improved dramatically. He grew up a friendly giant, managing his intensity far better than I did (or do!), graduated an AP Honors student with 99th percentile ACT and subject test scores and a respectable 3.9 weighted GPA. He was accepted into top 50 schools, but chose a nearby top 70 school he’d always dreamed of going to. He was less successful in college, although he took a lot of demanding courses. It took him close to seven years to graduate, but while I angsted over this at the time, he was completely self-supporting for the final three of those years, living on his own and paying all his own bills. A month short of 30, he’s now making a nice living in sales, supporting a wife, two kids, and a mortgage. I can only assume that seventeen Baby Boomers are stuck with their thirty-something kids in their old bedrooms to make up for my good fortune while still keeping those millennial generation stats looking dreary.

Is he a nuclear physicist? No, but then he didn’t want to be. Prestigious jobs these days require connections, lots of money, or burning desire–he, like me, was 0 for 3. But he’s done well, and he uses his intellect in part (as I did), to make good money at a job he enjoys, but isn’t inspired by. He tells me he wants to wait until his forties to find his passion in life–just like I did, working in tech until I stumbled onto teaching, my real love.

My life course was different. I had a generally mediocre high school experience because I never really learned how to learn. English was my saving grace, where I benefited from outstanding teachers and developed my analytical skills. I grew up working class; my son grew up on the outer edges of upper-middle. Both of us have gifts that run verbal, which means we couldn’t do impressive tricks like solve integrals at the age of six. So I was a smart-ass, while he was a large, looming, usually sullen presence in many honors classrooms.

But never once did I get the sense that a teacher resented my intelligence.  Quite the contrary, many teachers who I thought hadn’t noticed me at all pulled me aside, telling me to get it together and use my considerable intellect for something other than reading science fiction or watching old movies. It took me decades to act on their advice,  but that’s because my working-class parents were unsure of the best way to help.  My son, on the other hand, rarely had teachers who realized he was exceptional–one of my son’s favorite high school graduation memories is the number of teachers who did a double take at his AP Honors gold cord. But he had me, and one of my proudest achievements is….not his success, which is his, but the easier time he had getting there, in part because I was there to guide him.

Bu my son’s second grade teacher, Bonnie in Gifted, and all those teachers who admonished me to get it together are much more typical of teacher reaction to kids whose intellect is way ahead of the class than sneers, contempt, and hostility. So next time someone tells you a tale of woe about how his teachers were jealous of his tremendous intellect and treated him with petty malice, allow for the possibility that maybe he’s just obnoxious. Sure, there are mean, petty teachers. Just not all that many.

One of the reasons this piece sat for months in drafts is because I originally wanted to move on to discuss what to do, if anything, with “gifted” kids. But it’s complicated. So I’ll leave that for another day.

But until then, please check out this very old piece, written before the new GRE finally eliminated that embarrassing gap. This is still a problem. Kids with exceptional verbal gifts have no clear career outlet, nor are there easy, largely fake, academic solutions like acceleration. Before we can really address gifted education, we have to address the fact that we don’t know how to educate or hire them.


The Things I Don’t Write

For someone who struggles to write four essays a month, I do a lot of outside work for my blog. Much of it goes nowhere-I can’t package my thoughts, I can’t find the data I want, I get overwhelmed, or I realize that it’s all going back to the one big idea I have about education which is OH MY GOD YOU PEOPLE ARE DELUSIONAl.

For example, in the last two weeks, I’ve:

  • read three books on various educational topics
  • determined how many immigrants, legal and otherwise, live in each state
  • collected and analyzed the third and fifth grade test scores from Illinois for the years 2001-2006
  • Tried to figure out how to run a regression analysis that I could make sense of. Robert Verbruggen even helped, but I threw up my hands and said alas.

In previous years, I’ve spent weeks trying to figure out the precise development of our modern math curriculum, which I almost have nailed, but not quite. I’ve looked up the demographics of 50 cities on Money’s Best Places to Live list. I’ve spent hundreds of days almost writing things, and then abandoned the effort.

Sometimes I’ve gotten an idea at 11:30 pm and written all night because I know that if I stop, I’ll never get back to it. Other times I’ll write all day and then sudden stop, depressed, knowing it’s going nowhere.

So right now I have 98 drafts in my WordPress account. A lot of them are nearly blank, with a few sentences and a link. Some are considerably more.   And since I spent so much time this week researching, I had a thought–why not just talk about the work I don’t finish?

I couldn’t bring myself to publish the draft posts. That feels like too much of a commitment. These pieces aren’t ready. Instead, I created PDFs of snipped pages. That’s weird, I know. Stop looking at me like that!

Memory: January, 2014

I’d just written Memory Palace for Thee, but not for Me, another piece I did a great deal of research for. When I finished it, I really had something more to say, so I promised a part 2.

But part 2 never gelled. I wanted to start by making people think about different things that memory means, and I still like the four anecdotes. But I instantly knew they were too long, too distracting. I left them in and kept plugging away, because sometimes I get focus and put things together in ways I hadn’t originally intended. Then, a second problem–the issues with memory are so directly related to curriculum, to skills vs. knowledge. So I felt I had to discuss those issues, and man, by that time it was just a mess. Each individual part is interesting, but it’s about four pieces.

Today, I’m much better at seeing that, at chunking off pieces and limiting my scope. But back then, I just gave up. So here it is: Memorize What, Exactly?

It’s a big mess, but I do like the four anecdotes, particularly the Game of Thrones one. I was disappointed in my failure to finish this, and for years, I ignored the published essay. But a year ago I revisited it and am really pleased. Certainly the research wasn’t a waste. I talk to my students about episodic versus semantic memory, echoic vs. iconic and they always enjoy it.

May, 2014: Common Core Curriculum?

Paul Bruno was one of my favorite bloggers, one of the only teachers I knew of who cared about policy. (Alas, he cared about policy so much he left teaching and is now working on a PhD, last I checked.) He wrote a piece on Common Core that triggered a longstanding beef I have with the curriculum folks–namely, their peculiar belief that standardized curriculum have any sort of meaning in  a world outside France, which apparently teaches exactly the same thing every day in every school. I can’t even imagine.

Anyway, I wrote one of many different attempts to state how insane it is to care about what textbook we use, at least at the high school level. We all customize. And at some point I went oh, lord, why bother? I have no evidence other than that of my own eyes. So I put it aside.

Common Core and Curriculum

July, 2014: Taking on Andrew Ferguson

The Weekly Standard has three of my favorite writers: Matt Labash, Andrew Ferguson, and Christopher Caldwell. (My tweet on this point neglected to mention Caldwell, but only because I thought he’d left the magazine.)

In 2014, Ferguson wrote this stunningly awesome piece on the Common Core lunacy, shredding what anyone familiar with the landscape would call the reform side of education policy. But then, in two paragraphs, he slimed the progressive side of thing–teachers, ed schools, unions, the like–without the slightest acknowledgement that he was now attacking the opponents of those who inflicted Common Core among us. Imagine reading an article ripping the NRA apart as “gun nuts” and then casually spending two paragraphs mocking the people who want to ban assault weapons–and calling them “gun nuts”, too. That’s what Ferguson did.

I spent a week trying to explain why this was crazy. But then I remembered that Republicans are just utterly ignorant of the educational field of play. Despite his brilliance, Ferguson wouldn’t even care about the distinction that rendered his article almost meaningless. Why spend time and energy criticizing one of my favorite writers who would just shrug me off as a stupid teacher?

Oh, No, Not Andy Ferguson!

May 2015: Why Isn’t the GOP Looking for Popular Education Policies?

The GOP and/or conservative inability to update their priors on education policy has plagued me for a few years now, so a year after I abandoned the Ferguson essay I tried again.

There’s a riot in Ferguson, in Baltimore, and Jonah Goldberg, Charles Krauthammer, and Kevin Williamson all basically blamed white female teachers for problems that, best I could see, involved white male cops and their black male victims. All of this would be solved by choice, they assured us.  Good lord, guys, the 90s are calling. They want their ed policy back. Mainstream conservative punditry and GOP politicians haven’t updated their rhetoric in 20 years. The actual reformers have. They’re in mourning about the utter trouncing they’ve taken both in the political and public arena.

But I get worn out by this, too. So one more essay bites the dust. Here’s the skeleton: Education Policy: Restricting the Range

In retrospect, I wonder if conservative blindness about education policy is linked to the general blindness they all had about Trump. That is, they had GOP voters locked up without any alternatives, so no need to cater. They never really understood how unpopular their ideas were with the GOP voters because no one was providing an alternative. Trump figured this out on immigration, trade, and political correctness. I await the day he grasps reality on education.

September 2016: Fixing Schools

This came about after my August road trip, when I was driving all over the Northwest listening to NPR or conservative radio, whatever reception allowed, and left or right, everyone was talking about our failing schools and what to do about them. So I wrote up my own plan: How to Fix a Failing High School

This one’s actually pretty good. I should get back to it.

October 2016: Popular Cities and their Demographics

I spent at least a week looking up demographics for that Money’s Best Places to Live 2016 piece because I was incredibly annoyed at the stated elimination criteria: we eliminated the 100 places with the lowest predicted job growth, the 200 communities with the most crime, and any place without a strong sense of ethnic diversity (more than 90% of one race). (emphasis mine). My mind can’t even conceive of 88% white being granted standing as a place with a “strong sense of ethnic diversity”.

It followed, naturally, that the selected cities would have very little mention of race, which made me curious. I knew, of course, that none of the cities would be majority black or Hispanic. But how many of the chosen were heavily Asian? Or even more interesting, to me, how many were tilting in that direction?

“What our town needs is more black people” said no Asian. Ever. Recent Asian immigrants have next to no use for African Americans, and value Hispanics only for their cheap labor. Hispanics and blacks don’t seem fond of each other; I think New York is the only city that’s managed to grow a Hispanic population while still maintaining the same levels of African Americans, and that may be due to African immigrants.

Few non-majority white diversity levels maintain for the long haul. Three exceptions I’ve noted–remember, all of this is anecdotal.

First,  70-30 Hispanic white high schools persist, perhaps because a good chunk of the Hispanics are multi-generation American and self-identify as white. But a school that’s 50% Asian or black  and the other half majority white will in a few years be 80% Asian or black.  Whites don’t hang around for blacks or Asians, in my experience.

Next, whites do tolerate genuine racial diversity well, probably because there are fewer cultural distortions that arise with both Asians and African Americans.  I can think of a number of 30-30-30-10 schools that hold on to those numbers for a decade or more.

Finally, Asians and Hispanics seem to co-exist without toppling over in one direction or the other.

The idea was that white folks are everyone’s second favorite race–if Asians, blacks, and Hispanics can’t have a majority school of their own race, then they want the majority to be white. At least, that’s what their behavior would suggest.

But then, I realized I could turn it upside down. Whites may be first choice of second favorite, but Hispanics do pretty well at not causing extinction-level flights by any race. So maybe they’re not second favorite, but including Hispanics might be key to maintaining diversity.

I can’t find any data on this, which is why I dropped the piece: Everybody’s Second Favorite.

April, 2017: Thoughts on Gifted

I thought Gifted was a sweet little movie that gave public schools more than their due.  I ended up using a piece of this in a later essay, but my son’s second grade teacher deserves her due:  Gifted and Public Education

*************************************************************************************

So there’s a sampling. I left several pieces off because by golly, maybe I’ll write about them some day.

I’ve been writing now for six years, and I couldn’t be more pleased with the attention this blog has gotten, and the body of work it represents. But given I have a day job, I waste too much time and energy on pieces that don’t go anywhere. Perhaps I’m letting the perfect be the enemy of the good enough, but that’s not an attribute I display in any other area of my life. This just seems to be how I make decisions about the best way to spend my time.


Back to Not Teaching English

I taught ELL all last year, which isn’t really teaching English, which we don’t really know how to do, as it is drenching the students with as much language exposure as you can and hoping they’ll pick it up with their peers.

From January through June I had 18 kids, six of whom had better language skills than than the bottom 10-15% of my US history class of mostly Americans, two others who had no desire to learn English, and three or four who I couldn’t give much attention because their English was too weak and the middle six, the kids who genuinely benefited from my class, were too quick on the uptake by this point.

I was also just genuinely bothered by the reality of ELL. With so many American kids at risk, not getting specialized attention, why are we giving the equivalent of one full-time English teacher to non-citizens who’d just arrived? For free? I’ve always been able to shrug off the policy implications of my job, though.   Ideological concerns disappear once the bell rings.  By far the most nagging concern was my feeling I wasn’t helping the kids.

Like the legal requirement for ELL language support, which trumps all other concerns.  A month into last year, I’d realized that Charlotte wasn’t so much ELL as special ed. Her English was as good as it was going to get. She couldn’t read, couldn’t process complex thoughts, and couldn’t write. Her spoken language was pretty fluent. The other two teachers agreed, so we asked that she be put into the special day class–a request that had been made the previous year (2015-16) and had gone nowhere. We pushed for months, and finally towards the end of the year, Charlotte was given two blocks of special ed. She will get a certificate this June , and rumor has it she will be marrying a 32 year old. I would be unsurprised if a payment to her father was involved. After all, the man has two wives over here to support.

Then there’s the placement itself, which is absurdly slow and demanding. I spent the last three months going through all the procedures to place out Anj, Tran, Juan, and Mary and put them in regular classes, and Marshall and Kit down to one class of ELL instead of three.The students actively cooperated, eager to get out of ELL hell–can you imagine being stuck in three long English classes a day, with very little control over your choices in the last class? They went to their counselors, were denied choices, came back to me, I’d call and clarify and the counselors would reluctantly agree.   I rarely take on this sort of activist role, but I’d been assured that teacher recommendation would trump procedural requirements, so I kept plugging away.

It was all for nothing. All the students were forced into two English classes a day the following year, only because funding for the third class dried up for ELL 2s. Nothing I’d done.

See, this is why I don’t do activism, not being a fan of aggravation and disappointment.  I apologized to the six kids, but they thanked me. “I’m happy we tried,” said Ang, and the others nodded.

The work did eventually pay off, although it took a year. All but one of my students from last year have been promoted at least one grade. Marshall and Kit are down to one class.  Ang and Juan are in regular English and Bob, one of the other two teachers from last year, is now agitating to get those two in his AP English course, which may give you a sense of how idiotic it was for them to be in ELL to begin with. Most of these advancements would not have happened without my efforts and recommendations.

ELL wasn’t terrible, mind you. I loved the kids. I enjoyed spending 90 minutes a day on language.  I loved picking random discussion topics (food was a regular, also movies. Not beer, alas.)

The fourth day of school (fall 2016), my first with them, I wrote the words to the Pledge of Allegiance on the whiteboard. Our school recites the pledge daily; you’ll see kids stand at attention facing the direction of the school flag, whether they can see it or not.  (I’ve been really annoyed at the Pledge fuss this year because kids never groused about standing until now.)

ellpledge

I didn’t have that many white boards, so you can see where I’d use the board for other quick notes over the year. But the pledge words stayed up the whole year; we ceremoniously erased them on the last day.

As I mentioned in the essay above, I started to feel a nagging sense of dissatisfaction with the curriculum (or lack thereof). The texts I’d purchased for sustained silent reading while teaching freshman humanities came in handy, in addition to some of the discontinued texts I found laying about the room. What wasn’t useful at all was the assigned texts, which were far too difficult.

I’d also make up activities like this one, called “Welcome to English”

ELLactivity

This is the completed activity. I’d just write these up with blanks on the spur of the moment, helping them discover and categorize the  absurd range of spellings and pronunciations. Here’s a students’ response to a different day’s sentences:

ELLStudentWork

You’d think there’d be a curriculum with sentences like these already designed with different sound groups. Alas.

One utterly delightful day, I gave them the lyrics to “Song Sung Blue” to read and discuss. We went through the notion of “blue” being a sense of sad, of down.  We constructed an understanding of what they thought was a poem, how the act of singing when you’re sad will make you feel better. We talked about weeping versus crying, why the willow weeps (with pictures), what “subject to” meant, and after an hour, by god, most of the kids truly thought they understood the poem. Then they learned it was a song, and their delight is one of my great memories of that year. On our last day, as we cleaned up the classroom, we played and sang it out again. I saw Marshall the other day. “Song Sung Blue! He’s sick!”

Delightful though it was, the aforementioned concerns had me in no hurry to return to ELL. But spring 2018 seemed a near lock for an empty 90 minutes.  As I mentioned in Twitter, I’ve taught three years of four classes, no prep. Three times, I’ve had a prep period scheduled and then an administrator appears in my classroom a couple days before school or the new semester begins, and asks me if I mind taking an extra class, and the 33% salary boost that comes with the additional load.

The new semester  was drawing nearer and no rescue on the horizon. I’d originally been scheduled for a history class, when a senior teacher announced last fall she’d be retiring mid-year, rather than at the end of the year. That meant hiring a new history teacher meaning (sob) no extra blocks. So I was resigned to taking a pay cut, and consoling myself with plans to investigate robotics. Bart and I want to start a program, maybe.

Sure enough, though, in walks an AVP the Friday before the semester ends. Prep period to disappear in a big bundle of cash. Well. It’s teaching, so “big bundle” is relative.

I’ve got six kids: two from Guatemala, one from El Salvador, one from Mexico, one from China, and one Brazilian who grew up in Germany. They were shocked to learn I spoke no Spanish, but otherwise they approve of me considerably over the predecessor.  Elian is my only repeater and,  as I suspected, without other more fluent English speakers to translate into Spanish, he’s improving rapidly. Gia, who went to a local middle school last year, is the strongest.

This year I’m teaching the conversation section, which is nice. I don’t have to pretend to teach reading, but can still focus heavily on reading, writing, and discussion. I’ve started them off on this book, which has nothing to do with ELL but has all sorts of neat reading activities. Today, we went through the recipe for smoothies and pizza.

So back to not really teaching English. Keep your fingers crossed the group doesn’t grow on me, and I have a chance to develop them all at the same pace.

Pre-calc, trigonometry, and algebra 2 fill out my schedule.

 


“Good Teaching” and the Failure of Education Reform

 

 Student achievement is soundly measured; teacher effectiveness is not. The system is spending time and effort rating teachers using criteria that do not have a basis in research showing how teaching practices improve student learning.”–Mark Dynarski, Brookings Institute

Goodbye Mr. Chips. Up the Down Staircase. My Posse Don’t Do Homework. To Sir With Love. Dead Poet’s Society. Mr. Holland’s Opus. The 4th season of The Wire.

The “great teacher” movie has become a bit of a cliche. But decades of film and movies work on our emotions for good reason. That reason is not “Wow, this teacher’s practice is soundly based in practice that research shows improves student learning!”

“You cannot ignore facts. That is why any state that makes it unlawful to link student progress to teacher evaluations will have to change its ways.”–President Barack Obama, announcing Race to the Top

 

Reform movies usually fail. Won’t Back Down, a piece of blatant choice advocacy, bombed at the box office. Waiting for Superman was a big hit in elite circles but for a film designed as propaganda, it notably failed to move people to action, or even win considerable praise from the unconverted.

In general, performance-obsessed folks are the villains in mainstream movies and TV.

In Pump Up The Volume, the villain was a principal who found reason to expel teens whose lack of motivation and personal problems would affect her school’s test scores. This was before charters, when such practices became encouraged.

In Searching for Bobby Fischer (the movie, as opposed to the book), the parents reject the competition-obsessed teacher who wanted the boy to spend all his waking hours on chess, giving equal time to a homeless street guy who advocates a more open, aggressive, impulsive approach to chess. The parents preferred a son with a happy, rounded life to a neurotic who wouldn’t know a normal life. (Their son is, today, a happy well-rounded brilliant man who never became Bobby Fischer. In every sense of that meaning.)

In the famous season 4 of The Wire, AVP Donnelly tries hard to “juke the stats” by gaming the test, “spoonfeeding” the “Leave No Child Behind stuff”. Prez rejects this approach: “I came here to teach, right?”

I can think of only one movie in which a teacher was judged by his test scores and declared a hero:  Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver.

But most people throwing about Escalante’s name and achievements don’t really understand that  it took  fourteen years of sustained effort, handpicked teachers, legally impossible demands of his students, and a supportive principal to get 73 kids to pass the AB Calculus exam, with another 12 passing the BC, with around 140-200 in his program, out of a student population of 3500 . Once Escalante lost his supportive principal, he  was voted out as department chair because he was an arrogant jerk to other teachers, and handled defeat by  leaving the school.

Escalante’s story, channeled through Jay Mathews, thrilled policy wonks and politicians, and the public was impressed by the desire and determination of underprivileged kids to do what it takes to get an opportunity they otherwise wouldn’t have. But those same wonks and politicians wouldn’t have tolerated Escalante’s tracking, and 2% would have been an unacceptably low participation rate. He rejected a lot of kids. Mine is a contrarian view, but I’ve never though Escalante cared about kids who couldn’t or wouldn’t do the work he demanded.

“Teachers should be evaluated based on their ability to fulfill their core responsibility as professionals-—delivering instruction that helps students learn and succeed.”–The Widget Effect ((publication of the National Council for Teacher Quality)

In the book We Need To Talk About Kevin, the teacher Dana Rocco makes two brief appearances. The first is in a parent-teacher conference with Kevin’s mother:

danarocco

We don’t know how Dana Rocco’s students’ performed on tests, or even how she taught. But purely on the strength of this passage, we know she is passionate about her subject and her students, who she works to reach in ways straightforward and otherwise. And in the second passage, we learn that she kept trying to reach Kevin right up to the moment he split her head open with a bolt from crossbow while she was trying to carry another of his victims away from danger.

In Oklahoma, a hurricane blew down a school, and they pulled a car off a teacher who had three kids underneath her. Teachers were pulling rubble away from classrooms before the rescue workers even got there. Were they delivering on their core responsibility as professionals?

The Sandy Hook teachers died taking bullets for their students.

Were they fulfilling their core responsibilities as professionals? Would NCTQ celebrate the teachers who abandoned their students to the deranged young gunman, who left their students to be buried in rubble? Could they argue that their efforts were better spent raising test scores for another ten years than giving their lives to save twenty students?

“Most notably, [the Every Student Succeeds Act} does not require states to set up teacher-evaluation systems based in significant part on students’ test scores—a key requirement of the U.S. Department of Education’s state-waiver system in connection with ESSA’s predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act.–Stephen Sawchuk, “ESSA Loosens Reins on Teacher Evaluations”

ESSA is widely acknowledged to have ended the era of education reform, started in the 90s, hitting its peak in the Bush Obama years. Eulogies abound, many including prescriptions for the future by the same people who pushed the past policies that failed so completely, so spectacularly. In future years, the Bush-Obama choice/accountability reforms will ever more be accompanied by the words “roundly repudiated”. The world we live in going forward is as much a rejection of Michael Petrilli, John King, and Michelle Rhee as the “Nation At Risk” era was to the wasteful excesses of the 70s. The only real question left is why they still have billionaires paying their salaries.

They failed for many reasons. But chief among their failures was their conviction that public education is measured by student outcomes. This conviction is easily communicated, and allowed reformers to move politicians and policy in directions completely at odds with the public will. Reformers never captured the  hearts and minds of the public.  They failed to understand that student academic outcomes aren’t what the public thinks of when they think of good teaching.

The repudiation of education reform policies and preferences in favor of emotion-based, subjective expectations is one of the most comforting developments of the past twenty years. Go USA.


Algebra 2, the Gateway Course

I’ve been teaching a ton of algebra 2 the past three years.  I squawk periodically, and the admins give me variety for a semester or so, but then the classes come back. Back in 2016, I taught 5 classes, all of them full, over the two semester block courses, or about 160 kids. Last year, I had just one course of 30 kids. This year, I’ve already taught three and one coming up.  I also get a steady flow of trigonometry classes–not as many, but three or four every year.  I’ve requested more pre-calculus every year;  they’ll give me one every so often, like a bone to a cranky dog.

In my early years here, I taught far more pre-calculus. From spring 2013 to spring 2014, I taught five pre-calc courses. From fall 2015 to now, I’ve had three.

Why? Because Chuck got his way. Chuck came to our school determined to upgrade the math department. He wanted to make it possible to get a committed kid from algebra 1 freshman year to AP or regular calculus senior year. As I pointed out at the time, this goal is incompatible with helping more kids attain advanced math. You can increase standards or increase inclusion, but not both.

Chuck knows this, and so every semester, particularly the midterm when we finish a “year” and do the turnover to new courses, he starts noodging us for the lists. Kids are often scheduled in two consecutive math courses, so Chuck wants to make sure that the kids who get Ds or Fs in the first course are removed and rescheduled into a repeat. Every year he sends out an email to the algebra 2 teachers, nagging them to give him a list of kids who are failing so he can get them rescheduled. Every year, I ignore him, because I find this activity unseemly and cruel.

I take this task on far more personally and by age. Seniors are given a C if they work hard but can’t pass the tests. Juniors get a choice: retake the course if I think they have the ability to learn more, or take our stats course  (which is designed for very weak kids, lots of project courses). All sophomores get this conversation: you don’t quite grok this material, and you should take it again. Ideally, with me, but either way, take it again. I’ll give a passing grade so you’ll get the credits. But you’re going to  fail if you move forward, and retaking trig is a waste of time, while you will learn more if you retake algebra 2.

But this year, Chuck turned into a wily bastard and instead of asking me for the list, got it from the counselors. He then emailed a list to me and  Benny , the other two teachers covering non-honors Algebra 2:

Hi, can you tell me which of these students won’t pass, so I can email the counselors?  Here’s all the algebra 2 non-honors students who either have a D or F right now, or who got an NOF at the last notification:

Benny (teaching one class of 30):
list of 12 students

Chuck (teaching one class of 30):
13 students

Ed (teaching three classes of 35, or 105 students):
15 students

(I don’t know why Chuck put his own students on the list, maybe to remind me that he was living by his own rules)

So a student in Benny or Chuck’s class had a 1 in 3 chance of failing algebra 2 with a D or F. In mine, their odds were 1 in 7. I was teaching three times as many kids but kept back half as many as they did combined.

Benny, Chuck, Steve, and Wing, the upper math teachers, complain constantly about the seniors they get stuck with, kids forced into a math class by the administrators, even though they hate math and don’t need the credits. The students sit in class every day and refuse to work. Their parents either support this choice or shrug in defeat. The kids have an F by the first quarter. They get bored and disruptive.  The kids waste an entire semester (our year) in their classes, sitting there doing nothing.

I find this akin to malpractice, and say so–well, I don’t say “That’s malpractice.” But I point out how odd it is that I never have this problem, despite being assigned many seniors with similar objections. Most end up like Wesley, learning more math than he ever dreamed.

I was reminded of this recently when going through my desk, cleaning out stuff for the new semester, and coming across Estefania’s note. I give an assessment test on the first day,  and discovered Estefania ignoring the test, writing on a slip of paper. I took the paper away from her, told her to give that test her best effort. I  was going to toss the note but then noticed it was a form of some sort, and opened it:

Estefanialet

Estefania came up after class. “I tried on the test, but I didn’t know a lot of it. Can I have my note back?”

I handed it to her. “I don’t think you should turn it in. I think you should take the class.”

“I’ll fail.”

“No. You won’t. I promise.”

“Math teachers always tell me that, like I’ll finally get math and be good at it. But I’m not any good and I’ve already failed twice.”

“You don’t understand. Come to class. Try. I will give you a passing grade. I don’t care if you fail every single test. I guarantee you will get a passing grade. And odds are really good you’ll also learn some math.” I held out my hand for the note. She hesitated, and then handed it back. And stayed. She did pretty well, too, well enough that she smiled whenever I reminded her about that note.

When I found the note in my drawer, I looked up some of her work on the finals.

Exponential functions:

Estefaniaexp2Estefaniaexp1

I forgot to take a picture, but she did quite well on the log questions, understanding that log base 2 of 16 is 4.

Here she is on quadratics, her best subject (she got an A, flat out, on her parabola graphing quiz.):

EstefaniaquadEstefaniaproj

She received a 60 on the first part of the final, putting her in the bottom third (most of my fails were between 42 and 60). I haven’t graded the second part,  although she clearly knew the quadratics. Girl learned some math, y’know?

Chuck and my four colleagues sometimes suspect that I dumb down my course. In fact, thanks to the epic teacher federalism agreement, my course is considerably harder and more cognitively complex than it was three years ago.

A month ago, Chuck trumpeted the results of his project. Six students entered at Algebra 1 or lower in their freshman year, and succeed in taking  AP Calculus their senior year. (One of them was Manuel.) Eight students entered at the same level took regular calculus. So fourteen students were not identified as honors students, took no honors classes, yet had made it to calculus by their senior year.

Of those fourteen students, I’d taught ten of them twice in their progression through algebra two, trigonometry, and pre-calcululus. Two others I taught once. Of the fourteen, only two had never been in my classroom.

The  road to Chuck’s dream runs directly through Ed.

Now you know why I get all those algebra 2 students. Because our administrators want to sign up for Chuck’s dream, but they don’t want a bloodbath. No one says so directly. They don’t have to. My schedule says it all.

In prior years, I was teaching more precalculus for a similar reason, as far too many students who’d made it that far were wasting their last year of high school math. But when Chuck unrolled his initiative, my principal realized that algebra 2 was going to be the new choke point. Well, not so much realized it as heard it straight from Chuck’s mouth, as in “More kids will fail algebra 2 because it’s going to be a much harder course if we’re going to  achieve this goal.” Rather than tell Chuck no–because it is indeed a worthy goal–our principal threads the needle between achievement and equity by adopting Chuck’s goals but assigning me the lion’s share of students in a critical gateway–or gatekeeping–course.

If I want to teach more pre-calculus, I need more colleagues with my methods and priorities teaching upper-level math. I spent three years mentoring Bart to share the teaching load, an objective I made clear to both Bart and the principal. Bart liked that idea. The principal did, too. But Bart wanted to teach physics, too, and we have a new science initiative, and now Bart teaches freshman physics. I am still pissed about that, but hell, we drink beer together so I can’t kill him.

In the meantime, our department chair is retiring. So I need to request input into the hiring decision for his replacement.

Yet I pause just for a moment to celebrate the Estefanias in my world, and remind everyone again that as teachers, we owe our first loyalty to the students, not the subjects.

As Joe said in All That Jazz when Victoria wanted to quit:

Victoria: I’m terrible. I know I’m terrible. I look at the mirror and I’m ashamed. Maybe I should quit. I just can’t seem to do anything right.

Joe Gideon: Listen. I can’t make you a great dancer. I don’t even know if I can make you a good dancer. But, if you keep trying and don’t quit, I know I can make you a better dancer. I’d like very much to do that. Stay?

Or take this question, which I first asked four years ago:EdRomanticism

If you teach at-risk, low-skilled kids and don’t struggle with this question, you aren’t really teaching them.

*******************************************************************************

My standard disclaimer: all my colleagues are good teachers who want the best for the kids. I disagree with their philosophy. They disagree with mine. No criticism intended, other than, you know, they still kill the bulls to worship Mithras while I’m Zoroastrian. (Also, all names are pseudonyms.)

The great Ben Orlin recently mused on this, giving birth to my take. Robert Pondiscio argues that education reform’s “underperformance” lies in their assumption that policy, not practice, is the key to drive “enduring improvement”. I don’t know that reformers will get anywhere until they realize that the facts on the ground say we’re teaching kids at capacity and that “enduring improvement” is likely a chimera. (Note: I edited this paragraph slightly to correct my characterization of Pondiscio’s argument.)

Previously, I’ve described my outrage at college policies that abandon remediation , conferring college-readiness on people who can’t manage middle school math. Anyone want to know how I square that needle with what I’m writing here? It’s an interesting question. I’ll get to it later.