They Need Us to Prepare Them

This last section is a little different from the others, for a couple of reasons.  The first is that the previous sections are nothing particularly new, but maybe have the need to be REnewed.  This last section, though, is at the heart of what this book is intended for: thinking about our preparation for the unknown and mostly unpredictable movement into the 21st century.  The second reason is that our students can tell you that they expect their teachers to perform the other sections as part of their jobs.  Most students, however, have no idea what’s in store for them in the next ten years, so it will be our place to make sure they are prepared.  This part, unfortunately, is not going to be simple, everyday teaching.  Fortunately, as I’ve said before, we will not be doing it alone.

We’ve heard it over and over again: our current curricula and methods are mirrored closely to those that were created to educate a 19th century agrarian society; and we have only seen major changes to fit a 20th century industrial society.  It’s true!  Nothing much has changed since then, but we can’t say that things flat lined over that time period.  There were some times when truly revolutionary practices and designs were put into play and things looked totally different in classrooms.  Those revolutionary educators—and those before them—tend to suggest that the climate of standardized testing and the accountability measures that come with it are suffocating the creativity of students and the innovation of teachers.  There are still many teachers who are moving their classes in new directions using their creativity, innovation, and the collaboration with people they work with to create truly effective practices.  The problem is that we all aren’t doing this and, seriously, we all need to be doing this.

It’s very difficult to predict what the world will look like 20, 30, or 100 years from now.  We can look backwards at the changes that have happened over the past 20 years and realize that the next 20 will be very different.  That means using a 19th century model of teaching would be the most harmful thing that we can collectively do at this point.  The old model attempted to move kids from one prescribed level to the next with the necessary skills that were deemed appropriate.  We’re still doing this; we call the program of the decade the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSS).

The architects of the CCSS tout the standards as being revolutionary in preparing students for the workforce of the future.  I think parts of the CCSS are very good, using the literacy standards across content areas as an example.  Using the math standards as another example, I think we’re seeing more of what didn’t work previously—one-size-fits-all knowledge and skills standards, building on top of each other, with very little idea of how they are useful in the future lives of our students.  Even worse, they have opened the floodgates for a slew of new testing methods and scenarios.  In a climate where student testing has become problematically often and intense, this is the last thing we need to be striving for.

Look at the math standards for K-8: The ultimate goal of reaching calculus in high school is still present, with an emphasis on Algebra I in 8th grade.  All of this was pretty important during the middle of the 20th century, since we had to have lots of scientists with solid math and science backgrounds to build rockets, probes, and weapons during the Cold War, using little more than slide rules and program-on-the-fly computers.

It’s still important to have scientists, but now, in the 21st century, it’s much more important to have a literate society—and more importantly, a mathematically and scientifically literate society.  Therein lays the difference between then and now: The current model (based on the 20th century) seeks to prepare walking libraries of scientific knowledge, facts, vocabulary, and formulas so they can solve problems on the spot using their brains; the next model we use needs to prepare students to find and understand many types of information, analyze statistical data, work collaboratively to achieve a desired result, and communicate that result across a global audience.

In the 20th century, we had the luxury of guessing what our students would (or could) be when they grew up.  Now, we have no idea.  That’s because a growing number of jobs that our kids may hold don’t yet exist.  Tell that little snippet to a room of 8th or 9th graders.  You will hear an audible gasp and lots of looks of confusion.  What they’re thinking is, “then how will I know what to do to get ready?”  Tell that snippet to a group of veteran teachers, and I hope you hear the same thing.  Unfortunately, there is no real consensus, with one side saying, “More skills, more homework, more practice!” and the other side saying, “More technology, more inquiry, more critical thinking!”  There is, of course, a majority in the middle ground saying, “Both, but how?”

Right now, there is a movement happening from state to state to reduce the weight of standardized tests on school performance and student achievement measures.  Over a dozen states have opted-out from the NCLB requirements as of this writing, and several more have applied to be opted out.  But, when you read about the victory of opting out, you also see something else: just because those states are free of NCLB, doesn’t mean they’re all now moving in a totally new direction.  In fact, the Department of Education is allowing these waivers with the understanding that the states will be able to show the exact same data using different measures.  We are breaking free of NCLB in order to be trapped again by Race to the Top (RttT).  Different name; same beast.

Our students need us, the teachers and principals, to prepare them for their futures (and the future of their country as a continued player in the global economy).  The politics at the national and state levels are not going to do it.  The boards of education are not going to do it.  The president and his education secretary are not going to do it.  The for-profit test development companies are certainly not going to do it.  This is our job.  We need to speak and advocate for these kids and prepare them for their real futures.  And we must do it together.

They Need Us to Remember Why We’re Here

The following post is actually the introduction to the first chapter of my project, so it is a little shorter.  But, I feel that it belongs in this series and lends weight to the other posts.  The final post in the series, “They Need Us to Prepare Them,” will come along soon.

Let’s go back in time a little bit, to when we were all brand new teachers.  (If you are a brand new teacher, or a pre-service teacher, this applies to you as well.)  When we started, when we graduated and walked into this journey fresh and ready to use our skills, there was one thing on our minds: making a difference.  Those three words may have meant many different things for many different teachers, but the sentiment was the same: we wanted to make a difference in the lives of our students.  That passion will never die because it’s what we all believe in.  But how many times does a teacher now get sidetracked from that mission to make time for meeting deadlines, keeping up with district mandates, learning new standards, and making sure that her students are geared up, practiced, and in solid form for the upcoming high-stakes state assessments?  How does this prepare our students for their futures and, more importantly, how is this making a difference in our students’ lives?

Our students need us to be leaders and advocates for their futures.  This sounds automatic and relatively easy, but anyone who’s spent any amount of time in the job knows that there are challenges today that never existed before.  These challenges seriously impact the way our students learn and the way that the future will be laid in front of them.  They need us to do what we do best.  These challenges have also changed the way we need to teach in order to help them make the most of their potential.  This is going to take commitment and courage and dedication and hard work.  Most importantly, we have to do this together and we have to do it now.

The main driving force in education these days—other than politics—is data.  In order for any movement or program to gain attention, we have to be able to show that what we’re doing is working.  When we know something is working, it’s one thing to brag about it, but the power comes from being able to show it.  If we are to be the force behind true middle school reform, we have to be ready to show that what we’re doing is helping our students achieve, perform, and master.  That doesn’t always have to involve cold, hard, numerical data either.  In fact, several teachers will attest to the idea that the qualitative data is better than the quantitative.

Paradoxically, it’s been shown by brave educators all over the country (both qualitatively and quantitatively) that “opting-out” of the types of instruction that are prescribed by their districts to pass standardized tests eventually leads to successful performance on those tests.  In other words, putting the end-of-year tests out of mind and out of the playbook for the year will end up resulting in acceptable performances on those tests anyway, and has the added benefit of leading to real learning, engagement, and achievement in our students.

So, maybe we can start by simply forgetting that high-stakes assessments even exist.  Period.

Then, we can start making that difference that we all signed up for.

They Need Us to Inspire Them

I heard it again from a very passionate pre-service middle school teacher the other day: “I love history!  I can’t wait to share my passion with my students!”  This is a great attitude for a new teacher to have when being prepared to enter this challenging profession and it’s nice to see teachers model their passion and their own love of learning.  I had the same feelings about math and science.  My eyes were opened to the wonder and I couldn’t wait to open my students’ eyes!

I heard this exact line in early 2005 from one of my classmates in college.  She was a history buff who loved reading period literature and, even back then, was blogging about the things she’d learned or loved (did we call it blogging back then?).  Her mock lessons were fascinating and eye-opening and her facial expressions while presenting them were almost enough to keep an audience on its toes.  Two years after we graduated, I saw her at a district professional development session and almost didn’t recognize her.  The smile was gone, the passion was waning, and the surety of sharing her expertise was wilted to nothing.  It became apparent that her dream had not coalesced and the last I heard she had returned to college to pursue higher education in order to teach at the college level.

The problem was that the passion that she felt and the excitement that her colleagues showed weren’t applicable, and certainly less transferable, to middle school students.  It’s not her fault, but it happens very often.  “Why don’t they care?” is a pretty common question/complaint from teachers, both young and old, new and veteran.  The answer is pretty simple: despite the giddiness that adults feel when approached with such knowledge and discovery, we have not given these kids a reason to care.  I know that seems harsh and almost insulting to our craft and our love of our subjects, but it’s the simple, honest truth.  Our students are not automatically tuned in to the pleasure of learning or the passion of innovation.  It’s part of our job to lead them to it.

My coworker designed beautifully crafted lectures that were loaded with showmanship and excitement.  Strike one.  She also created assessments that were perfectly aligned to standards and let them use the notes from those lectures to answer the mostly-short-answer questions.  Strike two.  Finally, she crafted a final project where students were asked to pick the most interesting time period that they had studied, write a report about what might be considered pop culture at the time, and design a period costume.  Strike out!

Here’s why I’m being so strike-happy with my poor colleague: every one of those things are either fun for adults or fun for adults to watch and brag about.  However, her students complained about all of it, all the time.

Another, more modern example comes from a colleague whose students loved his teaching style.  He was passionate about science, loved to interact with middle school kids, gave them to freedom to find things out through inquiry and investigation, and used performance assessments to gauge competency and proficiency.  It was everyone’s favorite class.  Then came the arrival of the SMART Board.

It was exciting to get such an awe-inspiring and hyped piece of new century technology installed in their classroom, even the students were sharing stories about what they’d seen in other rooms and what the possibilities might be.  The energy was palpable.  Two weeks later, that energy was gone.  I have spent some time on this story here, where I discuss the promises and punishments of technology in the classroom.  The ending isn’t a happy one, however, and ends with the teacher frustrated that his students lost interest in his class so easily.

The first post of this series, “They Need Us to Understand Them,” is the prerequisite to the ability to inspire.  Rarely does a new teacher walk into a classroom, just start teaching, and hold the attention and inspire the hard work and dedication from a class of preadolescents for an entire school year.  Personally, I’ve never met one of those mythical educators.  If you are one of them, please contact me.  Otherwise, I hope that the remaining chapters of the book I’m working on and the ideas within lead to some meaningful reflection and collaboration among colleagues and students to learn how to inspire and motivate our kids.

They Need Us to Encourage Them

The most heartbreaking experiences I’ve had over the years were when a few students who had achieved so highly and proudly all year were deflated after receiving their lower-than-expected scores on end-of-year standardized tests.  Why do we allow this?  Imagine being the student who has been engaged, productive, motivated, and proud for an entire year, only to be downgraded by a percentile and a scale score.

Encouragement is a powerful instrument in an educator’s toolkit.  It doesn’t always have to be praise and pats on the back; in fact, the most effective encouragement is usually of the “try one more time” variety. This means giving students meaningful feedback from which they can grow and continue to learn.  Percentages on tests and averages in class provide neither meaningful feedback nor encouragement—they deliver little more than a final message.  Either you passed or you failed.

One old approach to providing better feedback is the rubric, which any teacher who uses McTighe and Wiggins’ Understanding by Design (UbD) knows how to use and has used many times.  Starting with the end goal in mind is relatively easy when a rubric for the end goal is created.  This practice is a pragmatic way for teachers to make sure that learning is happening and that the objectives of the unit are met.  Many teachers claim success with this format of instructional design.  But there is one major problem—not with the tool itself, but with the practice.

Too many educators who use UbD as their primary design tool inadvertently trap themselves into using the rubric as the means to assess students in a summative approach (we were trained this way, right?).  In other words, no matter how hard the student worked or how well she showed progress and achievement during the unit, the summative use of the rubric becomes the end measure of her work.  Instead of finalizing the grade for the unit, the rubric should be used as a platform for improvement; it should be the basis for the teacher’s feedback to the student and the basis for the student’s improvement of her work.  A rubric should never be used as a tool to offer a final grade without first providing feedback and an opportunity to revise.

Failure has been compared historically to success as its opposite—when you fail, you have not succeeded, and that’s that.  Apparently, Gene Kranz never actually said, “failure is not an option” when Apollo 13 was in trouble, but the phrase has been adopted as part of an anti-education buzz lately.  The trend among social educator networks is that failure should not only be an option, but even a requirement, since the perseverance to rebound from failure leads to strong achievement.  I believe that this trend has its merits, and students should never throw their hands in the air and say, “Screw it! I failed!”

Let’s make sure that our students are trained to recognize failure as the prompt to try again, to try a little harder, and to revise the work in which they did not show proficiency.  Perhaps we should remove the words “fail,” “failure,” and “failed” from the classroom lexicon altogether.  Try replacing these with terms like, “emerging,” “getting there,” and “needs revision.”  We should tell students that failure is not an option, because we will expect them to keep trying until the failure lends itself to success.

They Need Us to Understand Them

A coworker of mine summed up perfectly the issue of classroom management in middle school: “If you treat them like babies, they will act like babies.”  I believe the logic then dictates that if you treat them like adults, then they will become one of your greatest professional assets.

After performing a Google search for, “what makes a great teacher?” an exhausting list of articles from teachers, specialists, and academics pops up.  Interspersed among them is the occasional article where a student survey was performed and analyzed.  The differences between the two types of article are obvious right away.  Almost every teacher or education specialist will point to “high expectations” as the number one important characteristic of great teachers, and I wholeheartedly agree (depending on what is being expected).  When you hold all students to the same high standards to perform, they know where you want them to be and that you expect them to get there without accepting anything less.  However, the number one aspect of a great teacher according to students is the ability to get to know them and make them feel important as individuals.

This isn’t just the students talking.  There is growing evidence that suggests that when students feel that their teachers know them personally (and aren’t afraid to share a little bit of personal information themselves), those students do perform higher in class and on tests.  Dr. Robert Marzano, of the Marzano Research Laboratory, is one of those researchers and an advocate of building relationships with students.  We don’t have to be their friends, but we do need to be the stable people that they trust and value in their lives, and they need to understand that we feel the same about them.

Get to know your students—individually.  Know what they love, what they fear, what they’re interested in, and what bores them.  Get to know their social circles and their styles of interaction.  Get to know their families and how they spend time at home.  This sounds like a lot of work—and it is, initially—but it’s worth it when you realize the benefits that come from it for the rest of the year.  When students feel that they have a positive relationship with their teacher, they will do almost anything for that teacher, including hard work.

These important relationships have taken a slide in priority with the growing focus on standardized testing achievement.  There are more and more teachers who feel that building relationships with their students is a fringe duty that doesn’t compete with building skills.  Not only do these teachers end up seeing the blowback of this assumption with undesirable behavior and even negative impact on achievement, but most teacher evaluations look for the ability of teachers to create environments that are respectful of student differences and abilities.  Taking the time to foster those relationships will cover all of those bases, and it will make you feel great about the things you’re doing for your kids.

Check outthe Maximizing the Middle Sample and Leave Feedback!  You will be helping a fellow educator and keeping an ego in check…both very valuable!

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