Thursday, July 1, 2010

No longer a classroom teacher Part 2: Not joining another school

Like I said in the previous post, my displeasure with the change of administration didn't ruin my appetite for teaching. And as I said, I had one possibly two jobs lined up.

The part of the story I haven't yet told is of my girlfriend, Ashley. She graduated from a very good liberal arts college with a degree in political science, and certified to teach. She couldn't get a job.

Budget cuts? No. Lack of training? No. Lack of competence as a teacher? No. In fact she was told by a principal that he would love to hire her if he could...

The real issue: She was certified. She couldn't get a job in Philly or Baltimore because she wasn't a part of an alternative certification track. She decided to get trained as an educator in college over 4 years, including student teaching, and spending countless hours in observations in schools. If only she decided to go to teacher training summer camp (like I did), she could have gotten a job.

So instead of me continuing for a year or so at another school, while she tried to find other work, we are going to travel. This fall we are going to travel across the US visiting schools and seeing the country. We plan on reporting here (and on a website-to-be-created) what we find. Our focus on the trip will be progressive education, the connection between progressive politics and progressive education, and environmentally sustainable schools. We will be looking at how schools are a part of their communities, what their communities value, and what communities can do to better have their schools represent what they value. The hope is to make this information useful for schools and communities across the country, as well as teach us a lot.

We both want to teach (I'll probably move to undergrad teaching after some more grad school), and we'll be back when there is a school that we want to be a part of, that wants to offer either of us a job.

No longer a classroom teacher Part 1: Leaving my current School

So, I've stopped being a classroom teacher. Not totally by my choice. Here is the story:

Synopsis: Liked the school, liked the principal. Principal is changing, don't like the new principal.

I've been teaching for two years, at a nice little school in Baltimore. There were definitely issues, but it was a place where my voice counted and improvements always seemed possible, if only people had enough time to implement them.

The principal was above average (n=~9 of principals I've been a student under, teacher under, or my parents have taught under). He left many decisions (including sizable budgets) up to individual teachers, department or grade-level teams, or the staff as a whole. He would probably be considered a strict disciplinarian, but I rarely heard him described as unfair -- if you did the right thing, you didn't get in trouble. Despite the school making 'significant gains' 3 of the 4 last years (true of only a handful of Baltimore Public Schools, and only a couple Baltimore schools without entrance requirements), and being the only 'non-criterion' school in Baltimore City to receive a state honor for excellence in education, he got significant pressure from the district. Because of this pressure, the principal decided to leave the school.

It is for this reason I decided to leave the school. The replacement principal has been working at the school as a part of her training for New Leaders for New Schools. I got the opportunity to know her very well while she was training, as I was the head of the Science Department. I didn't like what I heard (or rather, what I didn't hear). There was no vision for what education should be, could be. There was a tone of desperateness to get 'these kids' educated so they could have a better life. (It often sounded like we needed to do it in spite of the students, instead of with them, or assisting them). Some words and phrases, that were previously not used in the school, started popping up: comply, celebrate testing, ongoingly. The most surprising thing was that within a few days of the announcement to the staff (the students didn't know, and the leaving principal gave the new principal some room to make (and fix) mistakes before her first year) the students started disliking their experience a lot. I heard many students talk about transferring.

So this change at my school made me want to leave. I found two schools that I would REALLY like to work in, one in Philly, one in Baltimore. I got an offer from the school in Baltimore, and was pretty confident I had a good chance of getting an offer from the school in Philly if I hadn't pulled out of the process. So why am I not teaching? That will have to wait a few hours.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Science education

For those of you that don't know, I'm a 2nd year TFA corp member. I have my issues with the organization like anyone else who likes the idea of public education, but its an organization I'm glad I joined. I'm using my position in the organization to influence other teachers and their pedagogy. I recently got an email asking about what science education should be, and how to better train corp members to teach science. I included the following as an incomplete list of the premises I think we need to agree upon before deciding how to teach. What additions to this? What subtractions? What changes? Thanks for your feedback.

Premise 1: The scientific method is THE 21st century skill (along with the engineering process), each student needs to be able to discover for themselves. To prepare our students for the world they need to learn how to think (no content will prepare them), not just know.

Premise 2: Science content is by nature fleeting and most content is unnecessary to teach (for example, Al Gore speaks of a student in his elementary school class that was ridiculed for thinking Africa and South America fit together because that wasn't the accepted theory at the time. I only wish I knew what lies I was telling my students because its what we think now).

Premise 3: The only skills that matter are 1) being able to learn new information through experimentation and 2) be able to learn new information through research (reading, watching, talking, etc.). If we can teach our students how to discover information and how to learn on their own we would have done our jobs. Now of course to research and experiment takes a whole lot of other skills, we just need to ensure that we are teaching those smaller skills so that they can learn the larger skills.

Premise 4: My goal is to create citizens and not workers. I'm not satisfied with students that are docile, attentive, competent and quiet, if they aren't also interested. I'm as interested in if my students vote, are active in their community, volunteer, explore, protest, communicate, and try to discovery as I am in their ability to read the periodic table.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Educon 2.2

The conference has inspired me to start posting again. Expect more this weekend.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Conversation with roomies

One of my roommates is teaching middle school science for the first time. He was a second grade teacher last year, and is an intervention teacher this year. Because of late-term retirements, he is teaching as a sub in a 6th grade classroom.

He asked me today about how to teach science, specifically physical and chemical weathering. I gave him my best idea in 30 seconds: Use concept attainment to have students come up with ideas with how different objects are effected by rubbing. He said "We don't really teach science like that, we give students things to read and they answer questions about it." I told him "That's not science, that's teaching natural history." He responded "I'm just doing what I'm told."

The problem is we are both right. He isn't teaching science, and that's what his administration is telling him is right. Adding to the dichotomy, another roommate comments on how the '5 E' lesson plan is at odds with testing. Exactly.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The problem with standardized tests

Just posting something with this title would put me under pressure from the "reform minded" educators as someone who is against accountability, someone who thinks its okay if teachers don't do their job and our students don't learn. Thats not who I am. I do believe in assessing students' learning, and using it as a way to assess teaching. But I mean this in the most general sense.

Assessing students learning - good for students, teachers, districts, states, nations, to know how they are doing. Knowing how you are doing IS important as a student, it IS important to know how students in your class are doing, it IS important to know how students in your district is doing.

The problem is assessing accurately. I would argue that standardized tests aren't accurate (or precise for that matter). The problems with standardized tests are they are culturally biased, simplistic, and that you can do well on a standardized test without knowing content because of skills independent of the content.

First, the cultural bias leads to inaccurate results in a specific direction. Although there has been some attempt recently (at least reported attempt) of making tests reflect the full spectrum of american culture, there are still problems. Last fall, I was a human reader for the High School Assessment (HSA), a graduation requirement in MD. I read a story about someone canoeing through some river. One of the words in the story was aft, it didn't have any context clues about what aft might mean.

There was a question that the student I was reading to got wrong because she didn't know what aft meant. I consider aft to be a trivial word, not something that needs to be tested to earn a high school diploma. Not to say that students shouldn't know the word aft, but that there are literally a million words like 'aft' and that you can only learn these words through experiences and not by memorizing them from word walls or a handout list.

Second, tests are simplistic. They can't assess higher levels of Bloom's Taxonomy, only your ability to identify other people's analysis or criticism or evaluation. In a multiple choice test, I can't ask you to compare two works of fiction, only to identify which comparison the test maker came up with is the most accurate. The test maker can't assess someone's ability to do perform science, but only assess their knowledge of natural history or knowledge of science lab procedures. Only assessing a students ability to identify (never recall, and rarely create) the correct answer is simplistic, and the least we should expect of our students not the most.

Lastly, there are specific test taking skills that span content and are minimally useful to people in their every day lives. There can be two students that know the same amount of science content, that would be able to perform a task in a science lab as competently as each other, and who would be able to draw conclusions from their results as accurately as each other, but if one excels at taking tests (for whatever reason) they will not be equally likely to graduate. This for me is one of the worst problems. Its like building a huge mound in front of your house to keep the flood waters out, only to watch your home get flooded from your neighbor's yard. There is no reason to focus solely on content if the student would be better served by learning test taking strategies (that will be of little worth for the rest of their life). There is no reason to try and teach students words like 'aft' and have them have all of the rich experiences that is life, and that makes life exciting, and that teaches vocabulary, if you could just teach them smart process of elimination on multiple choice tests.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

On Spring Break

Yesterday was the last day of class before spring break. We had a half day, with students getting out at noon. After school we had 'PD' in the library, where we celebrated a baby shower for one of our teachers (third for a teacher's wife this year). Then our Lead Content Teachers (LCTs) were in charge of our professional development, and were secretly instructed to tell us we could leave. The principle couldn't tell us to leave, but the LCTs could have off campus or independent PD... Even though I could leave at about 12:30, I stayed till almost 4 (after having a relatively long lunch). I was not ready to leave, not ready or excited about starting my vacation. I'm having a hard time writing my exact feelings at the time as they seem at first glance to be contradictory.

I felt warn down by the grueling 5 day a week schedule of March. I felt as if I have pushed through enough 5 day weeks that I could do it forever, and disappointed that I have don't get this time to teach my students. I feel like I had a stoic resolve that isn't all together healthy. The kind where I have given up on hopelessness and complaining, and just get the work done, and then sit/sleep/bike in a vegetative state. All of my energy was reserved for school work and teaching. It was a simple, it was barren, but it would get me through indefinitely.

Friday night I was tired, and grumpy, but felt like I could easily turn around and teach again on monday. I don't see this time as a vacation, but rather a break from teaching. I have a very long to-do list, and many hours of planning, grading, and school work to do. I don't feel relaxed like I did before winter break, I feel run down, I hope this break is rejuvenating enough that it is worth the break in concentration that will cost me when I get back.

I am slowly regaining my humanness, contacting friends, doing things I enjoy, interacting with others, laughing. Spring break, as feared, has shaken me loose of the simple industrious life style. I hope I can get back there when I get back from break. It means I would put my life on hold again, but I AM a first year teacher, thats what everyone said I was going to have to do.

The only fear is that come June some aspects of my life will be unsalvageable from the wreckage and I can't rebuild them during the summer to maintain a more balanced life next year.