Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Failing at Passing

“What’s your failure rate?”

That’s a question principals, department heads, and other interested parties may be asking teachers in upcoming weeks. It’s a question that causes anxiety, tension, and cognitive conflict for many teachers. The expected or “right” answer to that question had better be a really low number or, preferably, zero. It’s the teacher’s responsibility to make sure everyone passes, right? No child is left behind. We don’t let kids fail.

Receiving messages like these--ones teachers may interpret to mean they are not allowed to have any Fs in their gradebooks—causes angst because not letting kids fail isn’t as simple as it seems. When teachers look at their gradebooks and notice that students are failing, they’re faced with a dilemma that seems resolvable through several pathways:

  • Devise some sort of do-over plan (or, in the case of some students who are missing assignments, a “do” plan), which could involve retaking tests and/or amnesty for incomplete or missing work.

  • Add in a few “extra” assignments that struggling students are sure to do well on to counterbalance low grades already in the gradebook. This solution typically involves participation grades or “creative” assignments with low standards for success.  

  • Lower their standards. Make tests and assessments easier. Grade work for completion rather than accuracy. If students can’t reach the bar, lower it.

  • Do some gradebook magic tricks that cause some assignments to simply disappear and some grades to rise on their own. Presto! No more failing students!

Each of the these solutions is problematic, and some are completely unethical. But we all know that when feeling trapped in a no-win situation, sometimes people make poor choices.

The thing that frustrates and frequently infuriates teachers faced with the mandate to eliminate student failures is that it’s hard to give a passing grade to a student who has put forth no effort in class. This student doesn’t deserve to pass. He’s done absolutely nothing all semester. One problem with the no-fail classroom is that some students have learned to work the system. They know that the teacher is going to reach a point of desperation and are hedging their bets that things are going to get easier for them so that they can pass without earning the grade.

Here’s the truth as I see it:  A student who hasn’t mastered the objectives and standards for a course shouldn’t pass the course.

Here’s the caveat that accompanies that truth: Most gradebooks measure things other than objectives and standards. If a student is failing a teacher’s class because of factors unrelated to objectives or standards, that failure is difficult to defend.

In other words, if the student is failing because of a lack of compliance but knows and can demonstrate what he or she is supposed to know, that student deserves to pass. If passing a class hinges on completion of activities and assignments that don’t relate to the state standards, teachers ought to rethink what they are putting in their gradebooks.

I can’t find a Texas state standard that says that students have to demonstrate the ability to complete work on time. There aren’t standards that stipulate that students color maps neatly in social studies class. I’m pretty sure that following a correct heading format isn’t a state objective, nor is having a parent sign a syllabus, letter, or reading/practice log. Anything related to actual classroom behavior should be off-limits in a gradebook. Finding words in a word search? Nope. Baking a cake or cookies should probably only count for a grade in Family and Consumer Science classes as there isn’t a state objective in academic classes that involves food preparation, procurement, or consumption. And there’s no objective that says students must donate tissues, paper towels, or other classroom supplies.

In my days as a student, I received grades or suffered numerical penalties for every one of those things at some point, and I have given grades or deducted points for many of them over the years as a classroom teacher. I’m sure most of us have. But when we know better, we have to do better.

Before I knew better, some students failed my class who probably had mastered the objectives of the course, and other students received inflated grades in my class because of their compliance, their art skills, and their participation, not because of their high-level mastery of the objectives. Looking back, both of those bother me.

Gradebooks have one job: to communicate whether a student has mastered the objectives of a course. Recording grades based on completion or on aspects unrelated to standards misleads parents and students about students’ progress. It also unfairly penalizes students who know the content and skills but can’t be bothered to jump through the extraneous hoops.

A student, then, who doesn’t master the objectives of a course might receive a failing grade. But what about that lingering refrain that says, “We don’t let students fail”? Educators should be relentless in their efforts to teach students so they can master objectives. That doesn’t mean that teachers give up on students, saying, “If they’re not going to try, then that’s their decision.” Students are not adults and don’t get to make that decision. It also doesn’t mean lowering the bar—as long as the bar is at the level expected by the state, not a bar set at an extra-high level because teachers believe they are teaching a grade much higher than the one they actually teach.

This whole discussion about grading and assessment is a thorny one, and most of us are still struggling to find the answers. As we search for solutions and try to reach a shared understanding, it’s essential that teachers talk with one another and with administrators about practices and expectations. What grades are needed to provide an accurate and reasonable picture of a student’s learning? What do we want our gradebooks to communicate? What are the standards to which we intend to hold our students accountable? How are we measuring progress toward those standards? What is acceptable evidence of mastery? What role does daily work play in the gradebook?  What does an A mean? What does a C mean? How are we encouraging our students to become learners rather than performers and completers? What legacy practices are we holding onto that violate what we claim to believe about assessment?

Assessment that is not meaningful is a waste of effort for students and a waste of time for teachers. And discussion about failure rates is only meaningful when teachers, parents, administrators, and students understand what passing and failing truly mean and when teachers focus on learning goals instead of compliance.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Incredibly Credible

There’s nothing worse than being stuck with someone who seems incompetent: the Uber driver who asks you for directions, the doctor who has to consult Web MD mid-visit, the waitperson who looks at you blankly when you inquire about a specific menu item, the car salesman who reads off the brochure to tell you the features of a new auto, the Starbucks barista or bartender who asks, “What’s in that drink?”

For students, being stuck in a classroom with a teacher who doesn’t seem to know what he or she is doing can be excruciating and potentially hazardous to student achievement. In fact, researcher/professor John Hattie, whose meta-study determined the factors most crucial to student achievement, ranked “Teacher Credibility” as the #2 teacher attribute leading to student success (#1 was “Teacher Estimates of Student Achievement,” whether the teacher can accurately tell how a specific student is doing). Credible teachers inspire students, but, as Hattie said, “If a teacher is not perceived as credible, the students just turn off.”

I’m assuming we are all wanting to be viewed as credible rather than incompetent, but we may be uncertain about what “teacher credibility” entails. Hattie identifies four factors that can help us out.

1. Trust: Students need to know they can trust you. They need to know they are in good hands and that you aren’t going to lead them astray, leave them lost and confused, or ask them to do something they aren’t capable of doing. Hattie says the best way to gain students’ trust is to show trust toward them. It’s hard to trust someone who doesn’t trust you back. Another way to achieve trust with your students is to talk to them. Not talk at them. Not talk for them. To them. Having authentic conversations with your students and getting to know them as individuals, letting them know you see them for who they are, and allowing them to see you for who you are develops bonds of trust that will allow you to take your students farther than they thought they could go.   

2. Competence: Teachers who project the image that they know what they are doing are perceived as more competent than those who bumble confusedly through class. There’s no substitute for coming to class prepared for your day. Students shouldn’t get the idea that you’re making up plans as you go along. A competent teacher knows the subject matter, has prepared and proofread any written documents or visual aids, manages people, time, and materials efficiently, has a clear sense of purpose and direction for the lesson, and can answer questions with confidence. Inevitably, a student will stump the teacher from time to time with a question the teacher can’t answer. Rather than looking at that as a failing, this is a prime opportunity for the teacher to model learning along with the students. When leading class discussions, the competent teacher has prepared questions to ask at the appropriate moment; the teacher who struggles to develop questions on the spot risks looking unprepared, a sure sign of questionable competence.    

3. Dynamism: A dynamic teacher exudes credibility. The teacher has to be “on” from the beginning of class until after the students leave the room. Developing a confident speaking style that avoids fillers, such as “ums” and “likes,” helps the teacher deliver the message without distractions. I suggest videorecording yourself from time to time (horrifying as it is to watch) to evaluate your own dynamism. Are you someone students listen to because you command their attention (Commanding is different from demanding.), or are you losing your students because your delivery is tentative or confusing?

4. Immediacy: Some teachers like to barricade themselves behind a desk, hide behind a podium, or set some other boundary between themselves and their students. Teachers who develop credibility, according to Hattie, eliminate as many of those barriers as possible and teach in proximity to the students. Evaluate the arrangement of your classroom to make sure there are plenty of places for teacher mobility, and use all of them routinely. Reducing the distance between you and your students makes you more approachable and accessible, which adds to the perception of credibility.

If you’re like me, you can remember some of the teachers in your past who failed to convince you that they knew what they were doing. You can recall those who made you feel you weren’t really in good hands. You might be able to think of a few that you were pretty sure were winging it every single day of the year. Those teachers are probably memorable for the wrong reasons.

You can probably also think about the times when you knew you were in the classroom of a master teacher. I think of teachers who trusted us to take charge of the learning, who connected with us as people (even if we were decades younger than they were), who seemed passionate about the content and well-prepared for instruction every day, and who thoughtfully designed learning experiences that stretched us as thinkers. Those were the teachers with credibility.

Take a tip from Hattie, and think about your own credibility in the classroom. He outlined some pretty basic traits that are attainable for all of us. Pick one (or all of them) and make those a resolution for your upcoming new semester. You have the power to become one of the teachers students will remember for all the best reasons.   

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Art of Framing a Lesson

I had to cancel my cable television because of the the Food Network. I admit it. I am addicted to TV cooking shows. I could spend an entire day watching Alton, Giada, Ina, Ree, and Guy cook and talk about cooking. Even if they are preparing something I know I will never make in my own kitchen, those culinary celebrities convince me that their efforts are worth a half an hour of my undivided attention.

The same thing happens in classrooms of effective teachers. Top educators frame lessons in a way that motivates students to want to engage, even if the topic being studied isn’t intrinsically interesting to the learners. TV cooks have something to teach us about what we could (and probably should) be doing in our classrooms.

Obtaining student buy-in is an art. It’s part of personalizing a lesson, figuring out what you as an individual teacher bring to the lesson plan. The worst way to frame a lesson is to just launch into the learning. “Take out a sheet of paper and take notes.” “Open up your book and let’s start reading.” You’d never see a Food Network host cook open up the show and start cooking without a preamble. In my time spent with TV cooks,  I’ve observed three effective strategies for framing a lesson that occur regularly on cooking shows to entice disinterested viewers to become learners.

Strategy One:   Establish a Need
“When you’re as busy as I am, you don’t have the time or energy to spend hours in the kitchen after work making dinner. If you’re watching your waistline or your wallet, you probably want to avoid expensive, high-calorie meals in restaurants, too. Today, I’m going to show you three easy recipes you can make at home to prepare a healthy meal for your family without spending hours in the kitchen or breaking your bank account.”

TV chefs, as well as master teachers, give their learners a reason to pay attention when they frame a lesson by establishing a need. They circumvent the “Why do I need to know this?” question by answering it before it’s asked. “You need to know this because it’s on the test,” is one reason which only motivates a handful of students. If that’s the only purpose for learning a teacher can provide, I can’t blame kids for zoning out. Offering a compelling, real-world purpose for the learning that’s about to happen doesn’t guarantee student buy-in, but providing no reason probably does guarantee that many learners will zone out. An English teacher who says, “Today we are going to write a persuasive essay, which you need to be able to do to pass the STAAR,” will have to work a lot harder to engage learners than the one who opens class by saying, “Today you are going to learn some techniques you can use to convince nearly everyone you disagree with that you are right. With what you learn today, you will increase your chances of winning almost any argument by appealing to your opponent’s logic, ethics, and emotions.” That’s a need that will hook any teenager.

Strategy Two:  Describe a Desired Outcome
“The perfect chocolate cookie is a blend of chewy and crispy. Lightly browned on the bottom and golden on top, the cookie should melt in the mouth without falling apart when you pick it up. Today, we are going to learn how to bake a cookie that meets that hard-to-achieve balance. Showcasing a few simple tricks of the trade, this recipe will soon become your go-to favorite for baking irresistible treats that’ll please the pickiest cookie connoisseur.”

Beginning class with the end in mind helps students know where they are headed. Unless teachers have a particular reason for concealing the goal (and I can’t at the moment think of what that would be), providing students with a desired outcome gives them something to aim for and establishes a clear idea of the direction they’re supposed to be headed. This also lets them know which parts of the lesson are the most important. The desired outcome can also take on an anticipatory feel as students curiously await the discovery the teacher claims will take place during class. “We are going to be reading several essays in the next few days because I want you to observe how powerful language can engage a reader. You’re going to witness techniques of some of the greatest writers of the past century, and then you’re going to try your hand at using some of those techniques to craft an essay on a topic important to you and to convey your enthusiasm to your reader with powerful word choice, purposeful use of sound devices, unexpected but effective figurative language, and anecdotes that elevate your writing from ordinary to extraordinary.” Students in this class now understand the purpose behind the reading of the essays and the techniques the teacher hopes they will attempt to write brilliant essays of their own. Unfortunately, many teachers would just hand out essays and start reading. Later, they would be surprised and disgruntled that the students didn’t use any techniques from the essays in their writing.

Strategy Three:  Tell a Personal Story
“My grandpa loved to cook. He also loved to make food for other people. When I was a little boy, I used to stand in the kitchen and watch as my grandpa made sugared peanuts. I’d watch with anticipation as the sugary mixture melted in the electric skillet and then hardened on cookie sheets in the oven. Grandpa warned me and my brother to stay out of the way so we didn’t burn ourselves, so we followed his every move from a distance as the kitchen filled with the aroma of golden, sugary deliciousness. Now that Grandpa is no longer with us, we keep the tradition alive by making our own batches of sugared peanuts and—just like Grandpa did—filling ziplock baggies with them to take to friends and coworkers at the holidays.”   

By appealing to an audience’s love of family, food, and tradition, a TV chef would have viewers glued to the screen during after telling this heartwarming story about his grandfather. A personal story helps people connect to the storyteller and the topic whether on television or at school. A well-placed, purposeful story or anecdote can provide the beginning of a memorable lesson. Framing a lesson by telling a story appeals to the affective needs of students, establishes classroom community, and has the power to make a dry lesson less dull. My students of yesteryear have since told me that they remember my introduction to using online databases for research: a personal tale about the joys of using the paperback Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature to find actual print articles in magazines at the Richardson Public Library (they had a better selection of periodicals than the Plano library) back when I was their age. I once introduced a lesson about a poem with a tongue-in-cheek descriptive story: “Back when I was a kid, there used to be this thing called ‘playing outside.’” My story not only gave my students a chuckle and informed them about a piece of lost Americana, but it also gave them a framework for connecting to one of the characters in the poem in later discussion.

Without a frame, a picture on a wall looks incomplete  So is a lesson without a frame. Making the effort to frame a lesson with a hook to engage learners can transform a mundane class period into something memorable. Turn on the Food Network and see how they do it. And invite me over since I can no longer watch the TV chefs at my home.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Growth for All

I half-jokingly mention to people that I am the sole caretaker of a number of at-risk houseplants. It’s pretty much true, though. Despite my attempts to foster the growth of the specimens under my care, most of the vegetation in my home exhibits at least one undesirable trait. My aloe has stopped growing. The peace lily hasn’t bloomed in years. The two remaining leaves of the once-vibrant snake plant seem healthy but lonely. The philodendron drops yellowed foliage periodically. The zeezee plant (yes, the one that Better Homes and Gardens says is “so easy it’s almost a challenge to kill”) is proving that I’m exceptionally bad at plant life support. And the unidentified plant I grew from a cutting my neighbor gave me is now so tall and gangly that it constantly requires cutting back and propping up.

I’ve read all about plant care, and I have come to a conclusion. I’m overfertilizing some, underfertilizing others. Some are too wet; others, too dry. A few could benefit from repotting. Two need to be moved to a sunnier window. One needs to be left alone. And one will be just fine if I find something for it to climb on.

It occurred to me (in my never-ending quest for educational metaphors) that my plant E.R. is a lot like a classroom. Like my houseplants, every student has needs that must be met in order for each one to grow. Some could use a little boost of fertilizer or root stimulant (I might call that motivation). Others require supports and scaffolds. A few would benefit from some pruning or redirection. Many should receive more care from me, but some are stifled by excessive attention and need to be left to their own devices.

In every case, plants and students grow more successfully when you get to know each one individually and meet each one’s needs. Plants allegedly like to be talked to; so do students, especially when the talk shows that you see them as people, not just as part of a collective whole.

Plants and students all deserve to experience at least a year’s worth of growth in a year. Tending to one segment of the population and extending that same treatment to all will ensure that only one segment grows.

A grave danger exists in schools when educators create a single deficit narrative and apply it to all their students. “My students can’t or won’t  ______.”  Fill in the blank with whatever you want: read, write, solve problems, do homework, think critically, pass the state test, study, pay attention, etc. What sometimes happens is that we craft a deficit narrative, apply it to all our students (even though in reality it only relates to a portion), and then prescribe a treatment for all according to that narrative. In effect, we put leg braces on every student even though only a few need to wear them.

When a houseplant appears healthy but has stopped growing, chances are it is root bound. The roots have reached the capacity of the pot and have nowhere to expand. The only way to get the plant to grow is to transplant it into a larger pot.

At times, the one-size-fits-all approach to classroom instruction leaves the most able learners root bound. By teaching to the lowest common denominator, we limit the growth of students who could thrive if given the room to expand the scope of their learning.

I’m going to work on getting better acquainted with my plants. I need to stop trying to diagnose them as one big, problematic group and instead get to know each one and give it what it needs. I’m also going to encourage teachers, administrators, and others who work with students to do the same. It would be nice if one solution fixed every problem, but the world is more complex than that, whether we are talking of plants or pupils. Let’s give all a chance to grow.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

An Analogy is Like__________

#9:  An Analogy is Like ___________

For many, the word analogy conjures up memories of high school SAT torture. Back in the day, we were subjected to horrific multiple-choice challenges like this one:

perspicacity:  obtuse::  truculence : _________
A. tranquility
B. pacific
C. phlegmatic
D. rancorous

Thankfully, analogies are gone from the SAT, but the practice of teaching our students to think about similarities and differences is still well worth our time as educators. Identifying similarities and differences is one of Robert Marzano’s nine high-yield instructional strategies outlined in his influential book Classroom Instruction That Works. Analogous thinking is important. I’m not saying that we should resurrect the analogies of olden days, which, let’s face it, were really measures of showy vocabulary and test-taking savvy. Instead, I invite you to think about more authentic, engaging ways to help your students discern differences and spot similarities.

The easiest and most foundational (but still important) way is to ask students to consider similarities and differences within your curriculum:

  • What are the similarities between persuasive and expository essays?
  • How is Scout similar to her father, Atticus?
  • What parallels can you find between the Texas legislature and the national legislature? What are the distinctions between them?
  • How can you tell a plant cell from an animal cell? What features do they have in common? What’s different?
  • What are the similarities and differences between proportional and nonproportional linear relationships?

This kind of thinking helps learners see patterns and make connections. Additionally, students can clarify their understandings and fit their learning into a larger schema. Once they get in the habit of seeking clarification by finding similarities and differences, they will begin to look for patterns in new learning, trying to see how it intersects with their established understanding.

My alma mater, Southwestern University, is taking this to the next level by asking students and faculty to foster the exploration of connections among courses and disciplines. Their Paideia principle, which is a foundation for the university’s instructional philosophy, explicitly endorses connecting and finding similarities throughout a student’s post-secondary experience. Their website explains the Paideia concept:

Paideia centers on making connections between different ways of knowing and understanding complex issues, between academic coursework and campus life experiences, and between one’s own life and the world around them. Paideia encourages students to explore the complexity of life’s challenges through integrating multiple viewpoints and perspectives, and by engaging in intensive, varied experiences.

Southwestern is thinking ahead as it considers the possibilities of a truly interconnected curriculum. In the first years of implementation of Paideia, Southwestern has already seen changes in the approaches to learning of its faculty and its students. With the expectation that connections will be made in every class and in every discipline, faculty members are stepping outside their offices and having interdepartmental conversations, and students are understanding that an education isn’t a series of isolated, unrelated experiences.   

Many elementary schools have mastered the cross-curricular connection idea as teachers who teach the same students a variety of subjects help their students see similarities throughout their academic day. Students may consider the importance of systems in solving mathematical problems, in running a smooth city, and in the functioning of the human body. Though the systems have many differences, commonalities exist. Strengthening these connections promotes powerful, long-lasting learning.

Secondary educators have to work harder to make these connections because learning seems to become more compartmentalized and departmentalized as students get older. Creating an awareness of what’s being studied throughout the building is a start. A great way to end a lesson might be to throw the similarity-finding back onto the students: “Who can tell us how what we learned today is similar from something you’ve learned in another class?” The students’ responses might surprise you, and, if you practice this routinely, students may develop the habit of noticing more similarities and connections to share.

Perhaps my favorite analogous thinking strategy is synectics, the making of forced, unexpected connections. Students expect to compare mitosis and meiosis in a biology class, but it’s a different—and perhaps more intriguing challenge—to consider the question, “How is mitosis like making cookies?” or “How is meiosis like a middle school social?”  

I sometimes like to allow students to brainstorm a list of topics—actions, famous people, things you find in a school, modes of transportation, etc.— and then choose one connection to elaborate on:

  • The protagonist in the story is like a bowl of cereal because...
  • Conducting a chemistry lab experiment is like planning a vacation because...   
  • Linear equations are like GPS systems because…
  • The U.S. Constitution is like Clark High School because…

Students enjoy the novelty and playfulness of making these forced connections, and finding similarities between seemingly disparate things stretches students to consider the traits and qualities of both subjects in order to find what they have in common.

Making connections doesn’t have to be a lengthy activity. If you find yourself with a handful of minutes remaining at the end of a class period, throwing a question out to the class asking them to identify some similarities and differences leaves the students thinking more deeply about the topic and reinforces the day’s learning. It’s also a way to check for understandings and misconceptions so you’ll know what kind of reteaching or clarification is needed the following day.

One reminder: it’s easy for us to make connections because we presumably already know the content we are teaching. The students need to be the ones doing the heavy lifting here. Help them learn to wrestle with ambiguity, to persevere in the midst of a challenge, and to seek their own understandings. That’s how learning happens.

By the way, in case it’s been bothering you since the beginning of this article, the answer is B.

Halfway There: A Midsemester Reflection

It’s a long road to the end of the school year, but the good news is that you’ve reached the halfway point of the first semester. I think this is a good time to take a brief pitstop to stop and reflect on how the journey of the school year is progressing for you and for your students. I know you’re busy and don’t have all the time in the world to sightsee at the moment, so I’m going to limit the reflection to four topics that just so happen to spell out the nifty acronym ROAD.

Relationships: How’s everyone doing midway through the first semester journey? Are you continuing to discover things about your students each day, or are you so absorbed in your curriculum that you’ve forgotten there are young people in your classroom? Are you and your fellow teachers acting like grown-ups and getting along, or do we need to stop this car and have a little discussion with the passengers? Are you remembering that the human element is the most important factor in every learning experience? Do some of your students walk into your room every day with two strikes, and you’re just waiting for that one last strike that’ll send them out? What can you do to rebuild relationships that have slipped into dysfunctional patterns (because it’s a long time until June, and you don’t want the remainder of the journey to be an ordeal)? What can you do to infuse some joy and laughter into your work life and into the lives of your students?

Overwhelmed:  Check your gauges to make sure they aren’t overheating. How overwhelmed are you right now? How about your students? How much of this is your own fault?  What can you do to reduce the pressure on yourself and on the kids? Do you recall that students have five, six, or even seven classes besides yours and that many of them have lives outside of school that involve rehearsals, practices, meetings, and events on evenings and weekends? Do you have a life outside school? Have you figured out some ways to give yourself time to breathe and step away from your job? The engine needs some time to rest and cool off during a long journey.

Attitude:  Think back to August. Remember that optimistic teacher who was excited about learning, wanted to change lives for the better, and looked at every misstep or pitfall as an opportunity for growth? Where did that teacher go? And remember those students who walked into your class with smiles and feelings of hopefulness, ready to be the best they could be? How are they feeling about themselves, about you,  and about your class now? Do they know that it’s too early to give up? What can you do to give them a quick tune up to get them back on the road with smiles on their faces? How much of your students’ attitudes is a result of your own attitude?

Direction:  Are you and your students headed in the right direction? Are you on this journey together with the same goal in mind? Is everyone aware of the destination, what it’s going to take to get there, and what you’re likely to experience along the way? If you or your students have veered off course, what can you do to recalibrate your GPS and redirect your efforts? Do you need to increase the level of guidance for some students and give others a little more leeway to chart their own courses?

I apologize if these questions added to your overwhelmedness. Some of you probably want to reach through the computer screen and punch me in the virtual face for being so inquisitive. I think, though, that taking a moment to reflect is important for us as professionals as well as for our students. Whether you use these questions or not, take a moment to check in with yourself to see how things are going. Perhaps you’ll find some adjustments you can make that will ensure the remainder of the semester is a much smoother ride than the first half. Don’t forget about allowing your students to reflect on how things are going for themselves. I wish you all success on the remainder of the journey.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Everyone's Jobs

“I’m sorry. I can’t help you. That’s not my job.”

That’s what the A/V guy said to me before he left me in the room with a computer that wouldn’t play the audio on a video I was supposed to show. I was working as a presenter at a conference in downtown Chicago, and this was my first experience with labor unions.

What I didn’t know is that audio and visual belong to two different unions. The organizers at the conference had to hire two sets of workers to support its presenters in technology. The so-called A/V guy was in actuality just a V guy. He belonged to the video union. He could help me with anything involving the video aspect of my presentation, but he wasn’t allowed to touch the audio stuff, which was the realm of the A guy, who happened to be elsewhere when I needed his technical support. Meanwhile, the trash collectors’ union was on strike, so stinky bags of garbage piled up on streets in front of shops and in alleyways. No one was allowed to do anyone else’s work. That was the rule. “It’s not my job” was something we heard a lot that week.

I wonder how often we adopt that not-my-job mentality in education. In Texas public schools, we don’t have unions, but it seems like we are quick to disavow any teaching task that doesn’t fall neatly into our subject or specialization area.  
"I'll_Stick_To_My_Job^_Because_I_Can_Make_Good_Right_Here"_-_NARA_-_514601.jpg (2002×3000)

Here are five areas which, as I see it, are the jobs of every adult in a school to teach, no matter what:

1.  It’s everyone’s job to teach reading.  I hope I’m not the first person to tell you that reading needs to happen frequently in every classroom.  If we are preparing students for their futures, which will likely include at least some post-secondary education and a career, we must make them competent, confident readers who are able to comprehend and think about texts. That means not pre-digesting material for them and spitting it into their mouths like a momma bird. That means providing students with rich, high-interest content-area texts and giving them the tools to comprehend them in authentic ways—not study questions, packets, and worksheets. That means having discussions with students about what to do when they struggle with a word’s meaning (hint: the answer isn’t always “look it up in the dictionary,” but that’s an okay option if you’ve exhausted other possibilities), what to do when they realize that their comprehension has broken down, and how to adjust their approach for various reading purposes. You don’t have to have a degree in reading to do this; if you know how to read (which I assume you do if you’ve made it this far into this article), you have the skills to help kids get better at reading. They’re not going to get better at reading unless they read, and if reading only happens in their language arts class, that’s probably not enough practice to lead to growth. Make it part of your job to help your students improve as readers.

2.  It’s everyone’s job to teach writing.  For some reason, writing scares teachers, even English teachers.  Can we all just agree that the ability to write with clarity is an essential academic skill as well as an essential skill for most careers?  If so, we need to get over our collective fear and start implementing writing in our classes on a routine basis. This doesn’t mean we have to start writing research papers in math class. Teachers can easily incorporate writing as a learning tool in any content area. Start with something simple like a quick write or an exit ticket. Give students something engaging to think about to introduce a lesson and have them write about it before discussing it with the class. Ask students to explain a concept or a process in writing. I can hear what you’re thinking now: “I am not a writing expert. I wouldn’t know how to grade writing. I have forgotten all about grammar. What if I teach them the wrong things?” Put those doubts and fears aside. Here’s the only question you need to ask yourself to be a competent writing teacher: “Does it make sense?”  More important than any feedback you can give is the opportunity for students to write in every class multiple times a week. Show them real-world examples of what writing looks like in your subject area and ask them to identify the traits and qualities they notice. Help them come up with rubrics and indicators of excellence.  Most importantly, give them opportunities to write. I can tell you from experience that the more frequently we write, the easier it gets. Make it part of your job to give your students plenty of practice writing.

3.  It’s everyone’s job to teach critical thinking. The world requires us to solve problems every day. Math class shouldn’t be the only place where students solve problems at school. Providing students with coaching on how to analyze situations, break complex tasks into parts, generate and test solutions, and evaluate the outcomes will help build independent critical thinkers. Breaking everything down for students and reducing everything to a set of pre-thought-out steps may help students learn to follow directions, but it won’t do much to assist them when they encounter difficulties that can’t be solved using the previously learned recipe. That’s why we all need to make sure teaching critical thinking is part of our job.

4.  It’s everyone’s job to teach persistence and perseverance.  When life gets rough, it’s important to keep going. Shouting “Don’t give up!” and “Push through it” at kids doesn’t do the trick for most. Teaching students to have grit requires two things. First, you have to provide them with worthwhile challenges, ones that are meaningful to work toward but are not easy. In most instances, what challenges one person doesn’t challenge another, so it’s advisable to plan several tiers of difficulty to provide appropriate rigor for each student. Second, you have to be upfront about normalizing difficulty and openly discussing with students ways of dealing with struggle. Provide exemplars of others coping with challenges. Offer second and third chances. Stop mid-problem and strategize with your students. Make your class a safe space to take risks. Point out your students’ resilient moves as you witness them. Celebrate successes when they come. Like reading, writing, and critical thinking, teaching persistence and perseverance should also be part of your job.  

5.  It’s everyone’s job to teach kids to be decent human beings. They’re not learning it from the media. They may or may not be learning it at home. And, some aren’t learning it from their friends. The list of life lessons in the “decent human being” curriculum is long and multifaceted. Get along with others. Share your toys. Learn to win and lose with grace. Take an interest in others. Take responsibility for the world around you and for the public good. Communicate. Be honest, trustworthy, and upstanding. Listen more than you speak. Do the right thing, even when no one is going to know about it. Be kind, patient, and polite. Treat one another with respect. Don’t let the world tread on you. Speak out when you see injustice. Earn the admiration of others for being a person of integrity. The list could go on for pages. If every educator modeled these traits, reinforced them in norms and class expectations, and took advantage of teachable moments to guide students to grow as humans, not just as learners, we’d be making unimaginable impacts on the future. Indeed, teaching kids to be decent human beings should be everyone’s job, too.

It looks like I’ve dumped a lot on your plate. The good news about these is that none of these is an extra prep; all of them can be easily worked into your existing curriculum. In many cases, I suspect you’ll find that the additions actually enhance what you are already teaching. Reading, writing, and thinking critically about your content will all deepen students’ understanding, and teaching students to be good people who don’t give up easily will pay off in greater success for students who are more delightful to spend time with. If we make these everyone’s jobs, together we can achieve incredible results.