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Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Relevance of the New Reality: Where Have All the Thinkers Gone?

Earlier today, my friend who keeps me in my news, sent me a link to the following article from The New York Times. (You should really get yourself a friend like this--she reads a ridiculous amount of news in the form of magazines, newspapers large and small, blogs, and the like--and then sends me links to anything that may be relevant or interesting to me: vaccination information, day care scandals, organic foods, wine and book reviews, education nuggets, etc. Basically, if the blogging teacher had been someone other than me, my friend would have sent me the link to the story! She's really very thoughtful and it's a fun way to spark conversation.)

J. Steinberg's 3.16.11 article "SAT's Reality TV Essay Stumps Some" ( discusses how some versions of the most recently administered SAT had an essay question dealing with reality television which, apparently, caused some students a lot of heartache. According to the article, the prompt included the question, "How authentic can these shows be when producers design challenges for the participants and then editors alter filmed scenes?"

The article also points out that this (and all) SAT questions "are preceded by an explanatory statement -- 'These shows depict ordinary people competing in everything from singing and dancing to losing weight, or just living their everyday lives' -- as well as an assertion: 'Most people believe that the reality these shows portray is authentic, but they are being mislead.'" The intention is to supply students an opportunity not only to demonstrate their writing skills, but also to give them what they need to answer the prompt, regardless of their interest or knowledge on that particular subject.

What struck me, in particular, was this statement: "This particular prompt, Ms. Garcia [executive director of the SAT program] said, was intended to be relevant and to engage students."

(However, despite the attempts at relevancy and engagement levels for students, some of them still complained. One student is quoted in the article as saying, "I kinda want to cry right now" and another as remarking, "I don't watch reality tv at all so it was hard for me. I have no interest in reality tv shows..." What they don't seem to realize is that watching reality tv is not necessary in having an opinion about it. And ironically, most people have stronger opinions on matters they know even less about, and that rarely stops them from weighing in!)

More and more, there is a move to make things relevant and engaging to students. Relevance IS important because it does lead to buy-in and engagement, which, in turn, leads to happier students and, in theory, greater achievement because they care about what they're doing. However--and this is something that has bothered me for years--NOT EVERYTHING is going to seem relevant or be engaging to all students. Sometimes in life, things are boring. Sometimes, we're asked to work with ideas we could give two craps about and just wish would go away. We still have to do these things. Sure, we can complain about them being boring or pointless or dumb, but they still have to get done, and done to the best of our abilities. That's life.

But I've noticed in the past 2 years or so that the move in education is so much more toward the dog-and-pony show, and not enough the reality that not everything is going to be fun.

For one thing, students come in to class and expect to be entertained all the time. They want movies, technology, group work. They hate having to read, think, or be creative. Lectures are boring. Background information--which, ironically, may in fact point out the relevance of the lesson to their lives--becomes a perfect time to catch up on calculus homework or some ZZZs.

It isn't that there's anything wrong with movies, technology, or group work. They can be great. That is, if they are being implemented because they are legitimately the most effective way to cover the information. However, let's face it, there's a lot of work that leads up to the effective use of those other things. How can you have a lively discussion about a piece of literature if you've never read it in the first place? How can you dissect a pig if you don't know where to cut and what you're looking at? It's the "boring" background work that sets up the relevancy but that students seem to so resent (and, in turn, ignore and complain about.)

Students aren't the only ones expecting a show--administration wants the dog-and-pony show, too, that often takes place when teachers are observed.

Teachers are routinely observed by their administration to make sure they are doing what needs to get done and keeping up with district standards and implementing best practices and the like. It could be likened to performance reviews in the corporate world.

In theory, when admin drops in to see a lesson, these lessons should be the normal day-to-day type. However, particularly in announcing their date in advance, there's an expectation that something interesting takes place on that day. (And, frankly, if that isn't the true expectation, it's the PERCEPTION, and thus what teachers do out of fear that if they don't, they'll be negatively viewed.) Therefore, even though there are those lessons where teachers have to just have students reading a section or practicing 20 math problems on their own, those are not the lessons administrators want to see. They sometimes say that they're ok with those types of lessons, but since they have to take notes on the visit, they are decidedly not ok with those types of lessons on those days. So teachers have to plan 'fun' lessons even for the administrators for those days. It isn't that the teachers never do these types of lessons, but it's like they have to break out the good china for their guests those days. The expectation is that the good china will be used.

These "expectations" lead to another trend I've been seeing more and more in the past couple of years, which goes back to something not covered deeply in the Times article but which, I suspect, is part of the issue: students expect something specific and classically academic and are very thrown and/or put out when given a choice or asked to think more creatively.

When I was in school, it was a treat when a teacher assigned a project that had choices. For instance, in one English class I had, we were given a 1-page list of options for how to demonstrate our knowledge of the information. We could write a paper, create a brochure, make a movie or skit, write a book or song, give a speech, make a poster, create a board game, draw a comic strip... you get the point.

As students, we were invigorated by the options and the products were usually great because we felt that relevancy as we worked and had that engagement with our product. (We also appreciated the choice.) Some people still went the "standard" route and wrote papers, of course, because that's how they best expressed themselves, but the option was refreshing.

In my first year of teaching, I had students create a newspaper (with several smaller writing samples dealing with multiple topics) instead of writing a formal essay on one over-arching topic. Some students really struggled with this task because it was outside-the-box for them. Some curricula allow for this type of assignment movement, while others do not, so as I started teaching other levels, the obvious opportunities to offer these other choices seemed to dry up.

As the years went on, though, and particularly after I'd taken a really interesting continuing education course on assessment types and strategies, I made an effort to try to vary assessment types to appeal to different styles of learners and to add that originality and creativity to assessments.

I've noticed, though, that in the past 2 years or so, students (for the most part) do NOT find these options refreshing; rather, they seem stressed out by them. Sure, there are still some students who love having a choice, who think that any option that allows them not to write a formal paper is awesome. (Just as some students in the Times article found the reality tv prompt, "a welcome respite.") But more and more, like the student in the article who wanted to cry, they see the other options as exhausting. Create a song? Create a board game? Too much work.

More and more, they OPT to write the paper. (And, trust me, it is NOT because paper writing is how they best expressed themselves...) The rest is just too tiring.

Even when I had students write in a daily journal and assigned a "free write" (for which they could write about whatever topic they wanted to discuss), they complained about it. "What? I hate free writes. I don't know what to write about. Can't you just give me a topic?!"

[They also HATE anything subjective (unless, of course, they earn an "A" on the task; then it's ok and nobody ever questions it as an unfair or mentions it as a potentially subjective assessment.) If it isn't multiple choice or matching (especially with a word bank), they want no parts of it. How are they supposed to study for it? How can I as teacher deem an answer right or wrong? How can I award partial credit? Why that amount and not more? It's not faaaaaaiiiiirrrrr! If it isn't black and white, it tends to infuriate them.]

The struggles and stress students seem to feel at being asked to think creatively or discuss unexpected or subjective subjects is disheartening. So it's really no great surprise to me that some students are having such difficulty with a more "fun"-seeming SAT prompt.

All of this might lead one to set about to answer a similarly phrased prompt: How authentic can these "relevant" tasks be when school systems attempt to design challenges for the participating students and then students cannot alter their set ways of thinking? Or, dare we say, cannot think at all?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

It Starts at the Top

I am so disgusted right now.

I cannot believe how many teachers have contacted me sharing similar issues and concerns as those I've recently outlined. (This is not what outrages me. I'm glad they're sharing. What is so ridiculous is the commonalities between stories that indicate the deep issues our system faces.)

Teacher after teacher has written in to say things like, "Wow. Your story could have been my own" or "As another teacher who has suffered XYZ, I know where you're coming from..."

Teacher after teacher has written to say that they are now former teachers or have moved to private school or have faced disciplinary action for speaking up.

Teacher after teacher has written to say how they are being undermined and chastised any time they don't "yes" parents, students, and administration to death.

WHY IS OUR EDUCATION SYSTEM SO WARPED? Why are these stories so much the norm and yet the situation is not being fixed but is spiraling more and more out of control???

We live in a country where education is a right. That's fantastic... in theory. However, as with most "rights," there is a point at which we fail to recognize them as something that probably came about as a result of some struggle by someone who came before us, or as something that someone else--at home or abroad--would kill (or die) to enjoy. Rather than appreciating what we have, we take it for granted.

(Case in point: women's voting rights. Women hoped and dreamed and suffered and fought and worked for this right. Yet it's (disgustingly and sadly) not at all uncommon to hear female students today remarking casually, "I can't be bothered with politics. Voting is for boys." Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa????!!!!)

Other countries in the world value education. They value hard work. They realize that education is the key to larger success. The more they learn and know, the more success their countries (and they themselves) will enjoy in future. Education is an investment into the greater good of humankind. Teachers are valued and respected. Administration oversees the cooperation between school and home. Parents push their kids to be great. Students push themselves to bring pride to their families and countries.

Our own great country, though, has lost its way on this point.

Here, funding is cut. Programs are eliminated. Class sizes are increased. Meaningless testing is revered. Teachers are peons and whipping boys for everything that's wrong. Administrators work for parents. Parents pass the buck to schools. Students pass it farther.

Teacher after teacher has remarked to me, "I just want to reach the kids. I want them to understand the material and to appreciate the lesson." My own goal as a teacher is that I want students to leave class knowing more than they did when they entered, to ask questions, to seek the answers, to think and to try.

But there's usually a 'but' that comes after the statement of the teacher goal. Things like:

*But there's too much other work to do (chaperoning duties, conferences, meetings, grading)
*But they won't listen (students, parents, administration)
*But they won't even try
*But there's no support
*But when I point out the issues, I'm scolded or ignored
*But I'm just too tired to fight anymore

I've spent a lot of time talking about some of the problems with student mentalities today, with parental disengagement and heaping on the teacher blame. But let's face it: if the people at the top would demand more of parents and students and would support their trained staff, maybe these other issues wouldn't spiral so out of control.

Nobody is saying leadership is easy. I'm sure that administrators are being pulled in all directions--they need to answer to voters, school boards, the public, the government, etc--but if there was an expectation from the onset that the learning and functioning of the system was the number one priority, I think everything would run a lot more smoothly for all.

To begin with, people who know nothing about education have way too much say in education.

These people, usually elected officials, read snippets of "the latest" in educational research theories and fancy themselves qualified to make idiotic, counterproductive proposals that will affect the rest of the world. (Come to think of it, this is not necessarily unique to education; government itself can be largely uninformed about much of what they decide. But I digress...) Many times, these theories are financially motivated, and do not consider other important factors or possible solutions.

Bureaucrats come up with their supposed money-saving ideas and push them through the system. They strive for uniformity and high performance, but aren't willing to back that up with anything that means anything. Instead, they try to impose merit pay, curb worker rights, force mass firings, and other ridiculous nonsense in efforts to push the blame off of their own poor choices and onto someone else's shoulders, and act like they're doing the system a big favor. They pass all of those stresses onto the guy below them. Here's what you have to do, school districts. Now do it (even if it makes no sense).

Then the district big shots have further theories on how to make ill-informed decisions a reality and how to please their public (wouldn't want to have to raise taxes or anything), and they pass those along to the building administration.

The building administration mucks things up the rest of the way. Most (if not all?) building administrators started as teachers. At a glance, one would think this would be a good thing for teachers. But somewhere along the way (within 2 years, typically) administrators forget what it was like to be on the front lines. They start "drinking the Kool-Aid" and things go to hell.

Suddenly, their main intent is to avoid pissing anyone off, (by "anyone," of course, I mean the school board, superintendents, parents, and students; nobody else really matters) and to keep the customers happy. (Parents and students learn quickly that this is how things run. And then they exploit it.)

Teachers are told the policies du jour of the school. Sometimes, those policies are even explained. Sometimes, there's an illusion that teachers even have input into them. But that's really just an illusion. Because when teachers try to have input, that usually means that there is bound to be some contention over things and suggestions of how to improve the proposed policy or concerns over issues that may arise, and then the time for teacher input promptly ends. Enough talk; let's move to action! Administration really doesn't tend to like to hear anything that isn't "positive."

So teachers try to make sense of these mandates and carry them out. But, from several accounts I've heard from other teachers, when they encounter confusion or seek administrative clarification, they are told to use--wait for it--their "professional judgment." (There's a laugh!) So they use said judgment, only to encounter some complaint, and then they are promptly called in by the administration for discussions of how they misinterpreted something or should have handled it differently. The administration's half-baked ideas are purposely vague because they don't know how to tell the teachers how to implement them (since, perhaps, they weren't so well-considered as they first seemed and that extra input WOULD have been useful), so what happens is that they leave things undetermined and go back and try to correct problems after the fact.

What a shitty way to run things.

Do we go to restaurants and tell servers: "Hey, take a look at me and guess what I'm in the mood to eat. Use your professional judgment since you know the menu. But if you guess wrong or bring me something I'm allergic to, you're not getting a tip!"? What? That's ridiculous? Exactly.

Teachers, though, are routinely left the unwilling participants of a guessing game that usually ends badly for them. So many teachers say, "Look, just tell me what you want me to do and I'll get it done. But don't make me guess what you want, or tell me one thing one day and then change your mind the next day. And if you say you trust my professional judgment, TRUST IT!"

What does this all amount to? Well, frankly, administrators are an unnecessary step in the education process, like some needless middle-management. They're so concerned about answering to their bosses that they forget what it was like to be in the trenches. Instead of listening to the troops and backing them up, they bark orders from behind closed doors and end up appeasing the other side. They're only creating more turmoil in being removed from the day-to-day of the process.

Education is supposed to be about teaching and learning and bettering society and affording our citizens the opportunity to be and contribute something to society.

If the people at the top would keep that in mind and get their heads out of their asses; if they would take a good, hard look at the glaring deficiencies of the system as it exists; if they would tell parents, "Get it in gear, people, and do your jobs at home and sit down with your kids at the end of the day and help them with their work and listen to the suggestions coming from school"; if they would tell students, "Hey, you're lucky to have this opportunity to learn and we expect you to try and to think and to respect and appreciate the system so you can give back to it later"; if they would put a little more stock into the professional opinions and suggestions of their educators; if they would stop trying to make everything about a bottom line and privatization and big business, THEN we would be on our way to making a change that matters. THEN good teachers wouldn't have to quake in fear at telling the truth, speaking up about reforms that would help, or leave the profession altogether, but could actually reach their goals of making a difference in their students' lives and molding young minds.

But it starts at the top. And, sickeningly, until the mentality shifts up there, nothing is going to change for the better.