Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Lives of Teachers: Autonomy Versus Control

I have a lot going on right now, but I had to write a post for a project I'm working on about teacher autonomy, so I thought I'd post it here. 

Clearly, if we just leave teachers to their own devices, to teach with their doors closed and no supervision, we cannot be assured of high-quality instruction.  At the same time, if we ask teachers to be automatons who parrot pre-packaged lessons, they will not be able to discern or respond to the nuanced needs of their students.  Being a good teacher requires a remarkable amount of professional judgment, which can only be developed and honed through experience and reflection.  Trying things out, seeing how they work, tweaking them, and trying them again is one of the best ways to become a skillful teacher.

I teach at a school that has, in general, erred on the side of requiring less of teachers, of leaving teachers more or less to their own devices.  As someone who loves creating curriculum, this has suited me well, and we have ended up with a great deal of creative and engaging curriculum.  At the same time, it's not effective in all cases, and we have also ended up with a great deal of misguided and dull curriculum.  New teachers are overwhelmed at the prospect of having little guidance; we have not had enough vertical alignment and differentiation (for example, we see teachers in grades 1 through 5 teaching nearly identical mini-lessons in writing! Ah, Lucy Calkins.); and there are times when all teachers, no matter their experience, realize they don't know enough about how to teach a certain concept, and would like some help.

So as a school, we are trying to navigate the space between too much autonomy and too much control. We are asking teachers to documents their lesson plans each week, but in whatever way works for them -- in other words, you plan your week in the way you always have, and you post it online.  As long as plans are there by Sunday, you're good to go.  There is quite a bit of flexibility in terms of how teams carry this out.  And there is definitely more leeway given to experienced teachers.  If you have proven, over the years, that you achieve results with your students, others will rarely question what you are doing in your classroom.  If a teacher is judged to be struggling, more oversight and guidance come into play -- her plans might be more closely monitored, for example, and she might be asked to explain the thinking behind her plans.

This question of autonomy, in the end, comes down to whether teachers are meeting students' needs. There are certainly a number of ways to teach nearly any concept -- the question is, is your instruction effective, and does it meet the emotional, developmental, and cultural needs of your students?  How you figure out whose instruction is effective is, of course, a bigger conversation.  It is clear you can't tell only by looking at test scores.  It's also clear that it's complicated.

I often make comparisons between running a school and my father's job managing employees at a retailer.  I do not agree with people who think schools should be run just like businesses -- but I think there are definite similarities.  The process of supervising and evaluating employees at my dad's work involves goal-setting, 360 evaluations, mentoring, and many conversations.  When someone is not performing well enough, they talk a lot, they let them know specifically what they have to get better at and how it will be measured, they try to help them get better, and they document all of the steps taken. If it works, great.  If not, that person is asked to leave -- including the higher-ups.  The bottom line might seem clearer in business than in education -- making money is the goal -- but that's not all they focus on. They look at adherence to the mission and vision of the organization, communication and people skills, risk-taking, etc.  And they manage to evaluate all of these things, not only by looking at a number (ie. a test score), but using a more complex system.

It seems like there are things that must be non-negotiable in a school.  A teacher must follow and adhere to the mission and values of the school where she teaches.  She must meet the developmental, emotional, and academic needs of her student.  She must be able to work with colleagues and families. And she must be permitted to use her professional judgment to make decisions about all of these things.

PS. Until recently, I might have talked about adhering to curriculum standards. It's no longer really permitted, in education, to question the validity of the standards, and I do think that having standards, or competencies, that we expect of students is in theory a good idea.  But I have a lot of questions about the standards we currently work with.  I am reading a book I think everyone should read: "Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us," by Daniel Koretz. And he says, "The process of setting standards -- deciding just how much students have to do to pass muster -- is technically complex and has a scientific aura, but in fact the standards are quite arbitrary ... Standards-based reporting provides a very coarse and in some cases severely distorted view of achievement."

So I am more ambivalent about the standards than ever, but try to keep those thoughts to myself so as to avoid being run out of town on a rail.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Writing is like talking

I've been trying to infuse my science, social studies, and math instruction with more writing.  At my school, we aren't that great yet at teaching children to write, and the result of our instruction in that domain leaves much to be desired.  (I am fully implicated in this problem along with my colleagues -- for years, I've been saying I don't really know how to teach writing.)

Yesterday I decided that, as the culmination of a week of testing minerals to determine their properties, each student would write a short description of one "mystery mineral."  Other students would have to use their description, and the clues gleaned from the mineral tests, to figure out which mineral they were describing.

Using our new ELMO, I modeled how to take the results of your mineral tests and turn them into sentences which, when put together, would produce a short paragraph about your mineral.  I carefully scaffolded the lesson with 3 different versions of a fun flip-up paper (with a space for the answer inside): one version that only required filling in blanks, another that provided "hints" of what details to include, and a final sheet with only a title.

They wrote things like this:


I stopped the class at least 3 times to remind them that good writers explain things so that others can understand, and I gave examples of ways to turn these single words into sentences.  My mineral is clear.  Its streak color is white.  It is dull and opaque.  I can scratch it with my fingernail, so it is not very hard.

At the end of the lesson, at least 7 students still had fragments on their papers.  Three of these had collapsed in frustration, one in tears.  Definitely not my strongest teaching moment -- but one to learn from.

One student, Willy, kept asking me (in a high-pitched whine, I might add), "Why do I have to write it like that?  Everyone knows what I mean!"

I came back today prepared for a do-over.

First, I read to them from an adult field guide to rocks and minerals that uses some of the same language they have been learning: luster, transparency, opaque, streak, hardness.  I pointed out that the geologists who wrote the book had to write with complete sentences so that other people could understand.

We talked about tests they would take. About being in fifth grade, in high school, in college, and doing science and writing about it.  We talked about what if a stranger came in our room, someone who wasn't learning about geology. "What if Ms. Seaborne walked in here right now and you read this to her: 'White, clear, opaque, fingernail. Fingernail!?'"  I exclaimed dramatically.  "Would she have any idea what you were talking about?"

(Later, I heard two girls talking as one helped the other complete the assignment.  Their heads bent closely over the paper, Maia said earnestly, "But Shanaya, if Ms. Seaborne walked in here to read this right now, she wouldn't understand that!")

Then I told them I had a secret to share.  The thing is, I said conspiratorially, writing is like talking.  If you say what you would say to a friend, and then write it down, you've got it!

I had realized, in my thinking about yesterday's lesson, that trying to figure out what to write on their papers, how to put these ideas into sentences, seemed like a secret code they had no access to.  They thought I knew the answers, and they couldn't figure out how I got them.  They needed to understand that they had the words they needed themselves, and could access them without my help.

I suspect that this is what usually happens to them while they are writing: A teacher asks them something.  They answer with a one-word response, or a fragment of some kind or another.  The teacher knows what they are trying to say (we teachers are always automatically translating in our heads, without even noticing that we are doing it), so she restates their sentence: "Oh, you mean...?"  They nod, and we say, "Write that down!"

The actual sentence comes from US, not them.  So they don't make the connection that the words can and do originate in their own minds.

Some students, of course, make the connection, and start to turn their thoughts into sentences on their own.  Some do it automatically; others do it once you've modeled it a number of times; but for others, it seems like magic, not something they can produce themselves.

I had Willy come up to demonstrate.  He brought his table of results from the mineral tests.  With much drama, channeling a talk-show host, I asked him, "Wiiiiilllllly, what is the observable color of your mystery mineral?"

Predictably, he answered, "White."

"Oh yes," I said.  "It is white.  But if Ms. Seaborne walked in and you looked at her and said 'White,' would she know what you were talking about? She'd say, 'What is white? Your cat? Your pet elephant? Your house?'  How will you say it so Ms. Seaborne would know what you were talking about?"

It took a few tries, but finally he had it.  "My mystery mineral's observable color is white."

As he said it, I wrote it.  "See?!" I exclaimed, practically dancing around in my effort to keep them engaged.  (This is why I'm so tired when I get home from teaching.)  "Willy thought it.  Then he said it.  And then I wrote it.  Writing is like talking!"

As we went on, Willy kept answering my questions with just one word.  "Wiiiiiillllly," I would trill.  "What is the streak color of your mineral?"  "White," he would answer.

But if I made him start with my name, he would use a complete sentence.  "Ms. Swamp," he would begin.  "My mineral's streak color is white."

Each time, I pointed out to the class how Willy thought, then spoke, and then wrote.  Because writing is like talking.

At the end, we had a list of sentences like this.

My mystery mineral is clear. 
My mineral's streak color is white.
My mineral is glassy and translucent.

I showed them how to cross out "my mineral" and replace it with "it" after the first sentence.   I wrote "mystery mineral = it," throwing in a little math for good measure.

In the afternoon, I walked them through it step by step.  Each student had a partner, and I made them ask each other (with much drama, of course) the question.  Then their partner had to answer, addressing them by name.  We did two sentences together, then I asked those who thought they could continue alone to do so.  Four students were still stuck, so I pulled them to a side table to work with me.

I ended up with 20 mineral descriptions that sounded halfway decent.  The hardest part was when they wrote about the hardness of the minerals.  To test hardness, we tried to scratch each mineral with our fingernails, a penny, and then a nail.  This gave them an idea about how hard the mineral was.  But most wrote sentences like this: "Its hardness is nail."  Which doesn't make a lot of sense, but they were following the pattern.  So next week, we'll tackle that sentence.  What happened when you tested the hardness?  How can you explain that in writing?

The trick to teaching young children is figuring out all the steps we take to do something, and then breaking those steps down even more, into their smallest parts.  Which, for grown-ups who do these things (like counting, reading, and writing) automatically, is very hard to do.  But it's also what makes it fun.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Teach less, but teach smarter

I've been doing a little math today.

I've been calculating how much time I work, and of that time, how much I spend teaching.

I have some unique data on this because, since September, I've been keeping track of all my work time.  Since I'm half self-employed, I need to track my time for some projects.  Since I was tracking my time for some projects, I figured I might as well track my time for all my projects, including my classroom teaching.  I like collecting data.

Because I'm teaching half time, I have extra energy for teaching.  On a daily basis, I have been more prepared for my students this year than ever before.  On my teaching days, I'm working longer hours than I used to when I taught full time because I know I only have to sustain that pace for 2 or 3 days per week.

So I'm operating under the hypothesis that my ratio of non-teaching to teaching hours is an accurate model for what an elementary school teacher ideally needs to do in order to be well-prepared to teach.  I don't think my hours are an exaggeration -- I think they represent what good teachers would do if they had the time and energy.  I tend to be a quick worker, and I've been teaching for a decade; if anything, less-experienced teachers might need more time to be well-prepared than I do.

(This exercise is based on the assumption that teachers are not just following a scripted curriculum but are tailoring published curriculum guides to meet the needs of their students; looking at their students' work and re-teaching as necessary; and designing entirely new lessons or units as necessary.  It also includes some "big picture" work in terms of creating overviews of units for the year and grading, but it doesn't include the instructional coaching I've been doing for my school.)

To calculate my hours with children, I figured out the full-time load at my school, which is 25.5 teaching hours per week -- those are contact hours with children.

In 9 weeks of school (discounting partial weeks), I have worked an average of 33.5 hours per week. Double that for a full-time teacher, and that's 67 hours.

On average, 1 hour of teaching requires 2.7 hours of my time. 

Maybe I do a little more than half-time work, because I have to spend time communicating with my job-share partner, catching up on missed meetings, etc.  So let's be conservative, and say that a well-prepared, full-time teacher works between 2 and 2.5 hours for every 1 hour of teaching.  This includes planning, looking at and responding to work, communicating with families and colleagues, writing report cards, holding family conferences, and meeting with supervisors, coaches, and colleagues.

If every hour spent teaching requires 2.5 hours of a teacher's time (1 hour to teach and 1.5 hours to prepare and follow-up), then a full-time elementary teacher at my school teaches for 25.5 hours a week and needs 38 hours of prep time, which is equal to almost 64 hours of work per week.

Let's say I'm working too hard, and better teachers work less than I do.  So we decide to round down and estimate that to teach 25.5 hours in a week requires an additional 25-30 hours of prep time.  That's still 50-55 hours of work a week.

In my contract, I have to be at school for 35 hours per week.  25.5 of those hours are teaching.  Less than 10 hours are for prep time -- and 45 minutes per day are meant to be a lunch break, which means I have only 5 hours of designated prep time.

Obviously, this set-up doesn't make sense.  We can't teach well for 25 hours with only 5 hours of preparation.  So teachers work extra hours: a lot of extra hours.

Clearly, this is not a sustainable model in the long run.  The days I teach, I am working between 10 and 12 hours per day; on weekends I work a few more hours.  This gives me little time, on work days, to exercise, cook, spend time with friends or family, do errands, or relax. It follows, then, that to be a skillful, full-time teacher, is not a realistic career option for many people as the job is now designed.  And, let's face it, we need many people to be able to do this job and, preferably, to be able to do it for quite a few years, since beginning teachers are not great teachers.

Let me outline an alternative.  Today I was looking at a typical teacher's workload in a charter school opening next fall in Boston.  Teachers will be required to be at school 45 hours per week, far more than is required at my school now or at other Boston public schools.  But they will only teach an average of 16 hours per week.  Even if you add in additional responsibilities, such as lunch duty, tutoring, or committee meetings, that's still significantly more than 1.5 hours of non-teaching time (ie. preparation and follow-up time) for each hour of teaching.

It turns out many other countries do things this way as well.  According to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the United States has more hours of teaching time than any other OECD country.  (This while many people are demanding that we increase the school day!)

According to the OECD, in the United States, primary school teachers spend an average of 1097 hours teaching per year.  Secondary teachers spend slightly less (about 1060 hours per year).  In Finland, a country of late much-lauded for its educational achievements, primary teachers teach an average of only 677 hours, while secondary teachers teach about 570 hours.  Japanese teachers teach between 500 and 709 hours per year.  (These countries' school years are also longer than the US school year, so this means even fewer hours of teaching per week.)

With all this extra time spent teaching in the US, what results do we have to show for it?

And for those who want students to spend more time in class: Finnish students spend the third lowest number of hours in school in a year, as compared to other OECD countries.  (Data for the US are missing in this category, since the numbers vary from state to state.)

Similarly, according to a 2010 Mathematica study (see pages 12-13 of the Executive Summary), while many charter schools in the US require longer school years and longer school days, the data do not indicate a correlation between time spent in school and increased achievement in math and reading.

Clearly, the number of hours spent in school is not the variable that determines student achievement.

Many teachers and their unions are against longer days at school.  A longer day that means more time teaching, and no significant increase in prep time, would indeed be disastrous.  But if longer days mean there is an acknowledgment of how much time it takes to be a good teacher, and results in less teaching time and more time for lesson preparation, professional development, and collaboration, then I'm not opposed to a longer day.  In fact, it seems more honest; no one can say that teachers don't work long hours if their hours are visible to everyone, instead of the uncountable hours we work now.

(Just to muddy the waters a bit, it does not appear that other countries require more non-teaching time than the US.  US teachers have an average number of non-teaching hours at school.)

Obviously, the answer is not more time spent teaching and learning, for students or for teachers.  It's not that we need to teach more, it's that we need to teach smarter.  And teaching smarter means investing more time in training teachers and in allowing them to collaborate, plan, collect data, and hone their skills.  The answer is not for teachers to fill even more poorly-planned minutes in front of a class; the answer is that teachers should teach less, but teach better.

Thanks to my trusty research assistant, who knows off the top of his head where to find the resources I need, and can put his hands on them quickly.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

To Play or Not to Play?

Here are some pictures of my students on our first neighborhood walk the other day.

This is what I love about teaching.  Besides good conversations, exciting discoveries, and having fun together, my favorite moments are when we are outside, exploring and discovering, or inside, creating and building. 

Don't get me wrong.  I also love teaching math and reading.  I love watching skills and ideas build and crest and expand.  I love seeing those little, measurable things that kids get better at: subtracting, or reading two-syllable words, or spelling.  That stuff is fun too.

But exploring and creating and discovering and communicating and collaborating -- that is where it's at.

Here's the thing, though.  At my school, we do a lot of traditional teaching.  And we also teach about social justice, and the community, and the environment, and we get kids outside, doing hands-on science and social studies.

But, our kids don't do well on the standardized tests.  They don't do the worst ever, but they don't do well, not by a long shot.  And this despite the fact that we, the teachers, are pretty much killing ourselves trying to find the best ways to teach them.

Here's where it gets tricky.  Our theory is that hands-on, interdisciplinary lessons will make kids want to learn.  It will engage them, and then when we embed writing and reading and math into those units of study, they will be more meaningful, and students will learn and achieve more.

But it doesn't really seem like it's happening.  At least not yet. Now, maybe too many teachers are too new at our school to be good enough at it.  And maybe the problem is that the tests are not measuring what we wish they would measure or what we think is most important.  But the fact remains that the tests must be taken, and the tests must be passed, and more schools are being closed every year in Boston, and the schools being closed are the ones not doing well on the tests. 

Our principal has been suggesting to different teachers, especially those with really struggling classes, that we do less science and social studies.  She's scared and freaked out about the tests.  She's scared into thinking we need to spend more time on traditional teaching of the 3 Rs, which is not where her heart is as an educator.

Meanwhile, I've been learning a lot about self-regulation from a program I'm working for called Tools of the Mind.  Tools believes that kids should have pretty solid self-regulation skills by the middle or end of kindergarten.

Self-regulation means that students can inhibit themselves in order to reach a goal or follow a rule.  It means they can remember things on purpose, and learn strategies to help their brains work better.  It means they understand why there are rules and ways of doing things in a community, and they follow those rules.

There is a lot of research about how students develop self-regulation.  A lot of it comes from make believe play.  When little kids play, they learn to follow rules according to the roles they take on.  They learn to remember things and act in certain ways according to their characters.  They learn language and communication skills from interacting with other children.

The problem is that these days, kids don't play much anymore.  We used to play in our neighborhoods, and have older kids who "mentored" younger kids in how to do good, imaginative play.  Now kids don't play much in their neighborhoods, and they don't do a lot of imagining.  They do a lot of looking at screens.

So Tools of the Mind has kids play, a lot.  In pre-kindergarten and kindergarten, they get a lot of practice with playing, from less- to more-structured play opportunities.  This helps them develop the self-regulation skills that are essential to success in school.

One colleague of mine is skeptical that we should be doing so much science and social studies with our first, second, and third graders when they aren't so good yet at reading and writing and math.  At the same time, she says she thinks our kindergarten is too academic.  She thinks they need to play MORE in pre-K and kindergarten, which would give them more of the academic language and skills they would need to do well in school as they got older.

Her son goes to school in the suburbs.  In his kindergarten, he plays most of the day.  He doesn't do letter sounds or sight words.  Instead, he plays in the kitchen an hour and a half a day, his teacher says.  At first glance, our kindergartners would look to be ahead of him.  But you know that by second grade, he and his classmates will be ahead of our urban students.

There are many reasons they'll be ahead.  A lot of it has to do with exposure to language starting years ago, long before they started school.  But I wonder how much of it has to do with the time they spend playing, too. 

In the second grade, (and third, and fourth, and fifth...) we have many students who don't have self-regulation skills.  They can't manage their emotions or their bodies or their minds.  We are thinking hard about how and what to teach them this year.  Should we do more reading and writing, since they aren't very good at those things?  Or should we do role-playing and building, creating a city (since we study neighborhoods) in our classroom, and then writing about it?

Deep inside, I doubt it is best for kids to spend all day huddled over papers on their desks.  I doubt it is good for teachers either, for any of our souls.  And if it is best for kids to do that, then I can't be their teacher.  My best moments as a teacher are my most relaxed, most improvised, most organic moments, when my students and I connect with each other not just intellectually, but also personally.

The test results of last year's third graders are a dark presence in the corner of my mind, though, as I think through these questions. This year's third grade scores promise to be even lower.  I am sure our kids need to be playing and talking more when they are younger.  The question we are struggling with is what should they be doing more of now?  If it weren't for those tests lurking at the end of next year, I would know my choice.  I don't have a lot of say over what gets tested, though.  Unfortunately, I'm not in charge.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Knowledge is Power, People

On this rainy morning, I went to visit the KIPP Charter School in a nearby town.  Charter schools are THE hot topic around here, partly thanks to Waiting for Superman and partly because Massachusetts has dropped the cap on charter schools.  Next year will see many new charters in Boston, and the city school system will be losing a lot of money to them.

The big question is, with fewer restrictions on budget, hiring, work hours, and curriculum (and more money than most schools have access to), will they achieve better results than the city schools?

I know people who think that all charter schools are the work of the devil.  Others think they are the answer to education's troubles.  The answer probably lies somewhere in between, as is the case with most complex issues -- neither black not white, but instead found in shades of gray.

Here is what most stood out for me at KIPP, which bills itself as a "no excuses" school.  As in, being poor is no excuse for poor achievement. 


Tight Systems

They obviously have their systems and operations down.  This is something many public schools struggle with, because of a lack of administrative time and know-how.  Because most charter schools have more administrators than do traditional public schools, and because those administrators divide the workload, they tend to have a lot of systems ironed out.  Traditional public schools could do this if they had the funding to divide administrative tasks into operations, curriculum and instruction, and student affairs, the way charters do.

Because expectations are so clear, there is no wiggle room.  Students transition from one classroom to another silently.  There are few teachers policing transitions -- it just seems to happen that way.  I'm sure it took work on the front end, but now it works like clockwork.  There are consistent routines for how you raise your hand to answer a question, track the speaker with your eyes, get your homework checked, and put your materials out on your desk.

So much teaching time is lost to messy transitions.  That's why good teachers put a lot of time and energy into teaching smooth transitions at the beginning of the year.  When the school runs the systems, instead of the individual teacher, it gives the teacher one less thing to worry about.

All of this is implemented with a tight system of rewards and punishments.  Or, oops, I mean, incentives and consequences.  I have a lot to say about running a classroom with rewards, so that will have to be another post.  Actually, I've written about it before.  This post outlines my basic philosophy, and how complicated it can be in practice to stick to your guns.  Running schools with rewards has a lot of complicated implications, and my wish is that schools would use rewards sparingly.  But enough for now about that.

Still, teachers don't have to come up with their own behavior management systems or expectations at a KIPP school because it is all figured out for them.  On the plus side, this allows teachers to focus on teaching.  On the minus side, if you don't buy into their system hook, line, and sinker, it's not going to work out for you at KIPP.

More Time

I have mixed feelings about having kids in school for ten hours a day.  But it doesn't seem crazy the way KIPP does it.

Students have 2-3 hours of reading per day, and one hour of writing several times a week. They have 1-2 hours of math, one hour of science, and one hour of social studies.  They also have one hour of electives each day, when they can do dance, needlepoint, Taekwondo, or karaoke, to name a few.  They have recess every day, which is pretty unusual for middle school in this day and age. 

Honestly, as a teacher, I am always running out of time to teach things as well as I would like to.  I am not sure when it is developmentally appropriate to have kids in school that long.  And I don't think they should be sitting still, listening to teachers, all day.  But if they are engaged in a variety of activities, including arts and sports, I am not necessarily opposed to it.  Especially when you think about what it means for teachers.

The teachers are there for 10 hours a day, but they only teach 3-4 hours per day.  And, they teach only one subject, to only one grade.  So they teach the same thing 3 or 4 times in a day, and only have one class to prepare for.  They also have at least 3 hours of planning time each day at school.

On the face of it, 10 hours at school sounds kind of awful.  But I almost always spend 10 hours a day at school.  Then I do more work at home in the evening.  If I had more time to plan at school, and were teaching fewer subjects (which isn't really a model that's used in elementary school), maybe I wouldn't have to work so much at home.  And maybe it's more honest to say, you will work 10 hours a day here, rather than pretending teachers only work 6 hours a day.

(With 10 hours, you could have teachers doing all kinds of interesting, collaborative projects too, not just teaching.  It gives you a lot of flexibility both for students and teachers.  That's one key to keeping teachers in the profession longer.)

Relationships and Success

The Executive Director told us that after their first few years, they analyzed the data about students who left their school.  They found that there were three main reasons students leave KIPP: 1) a lack of success in school outside the classroom; 2) a lack of a meaningful relationship with at least one adult in the school; 3) a lack of buy-in from families.

As a result, they increased advisory time and had every teacher offer an elective in the afternoon.  This builds relationships between teachers and students, and allows students to experience success outside the classroom.  Their building stays open until 9 pm three days a week so they can offer English and computer classes to the families of their students, and they reach out to families in other ways.  They have addressed the three major causes of student attrition, and have a stronger school because of it.


Teacher Turnover

Interestingly, although they have worked hard to decrease student attrition, they do not seem to have placed as much emphasis on teacher retention.  On average, their teachers stay for a few years and then move on.  Their teachers are young and on the whole inexperienced.  It is widely acknowledged that teachers in their first or second years of teaching are generally ineffective, especially when compared to more experienced teachers.  So if teachers only stay for 2-4 years, that's a problem for instruction.

The director was vague in terms of why people leave, except for mentioning that people who don't buy into their way of doing things are asked to leave.  He said he would rather have teachers stay longer, and expressed an interest in helping staff maintain a work-life balance.  But we didn't really find out what's pushing the teachers away. 

Quality of Teaching

So here's the most interesting thing I saw.  In about 3 hours of observations, I saw five teachers.  I watched a writing class, two math classes,  a science class, and a social studies class.  All were classes of fifth or sixth graders.

The first teacher we watched was good at what he did.  He had a clear learning target that he presented to the students at the beginning of the lesson.  (They all do that; it's part of the KIPP way.  Teachers work on one target per day, so everyone theoretically knows what they are aiming for during the lesson.)  He returned to the target as he taught, giving examples of writing that met the target and writing that didn't meet the target.  When students gave a wrong answer, he didn't tell them they were wrong, but instead asked them to expand on their thinking, and asked what other students thought.

It was downhill from there.  The other classes we saw were taught by what seemed to be inexperienced teachers (which isn't surprising, given their turnover rates).  Students mostly sat at desks, filled in blanks on worksheets, and were called on to give one-word answers.  The instruction was dull.  A couple of teachers responded with, "Really?" when a student gave a wrong answer, thus prompting the student to quickly say, "I mean..." and change his answer.  This gives the teacher no insight into the student's thinking, and gives the student no chance to think more deeply about the question.  Math seemed to be drill of very specific skills (they have one "problem-solving" period per week, the rest is more skill- based).  "Science" involved filling in blanks on a worksheet while the teacher lectured.

Of course, all teachers teach in this way sometimes, in front of the class, explaining things the students must learn.  But this is just one of many, many pedagogical tools at our disposal.  My sense at KIPP was that this is the rule, not the exception.  The few times I saw kids moving around or talking in small groups, it seemed more like a gimmick to get students' attention than true quality instruction.

In each class, some students had incorrect work on their papers, but the teachers didn't notice.  In fact, while students worked, teachers by and large watched the clock, calling out frequent reminders: "Two more minutes!"  I saw few instances of teachers conferring with students.  I wondered how they knew who had met their learning target for the day and who had not.

(I may be wrong; maybe they know quite well who has met the target and who has not, and maybe they address it later during a tutoring time.  They clearly monitor their standardized test scores quite closely.  But if a student is doing something wrong in class, and no one catches the mistake and corrects it, how useful is that class time to the student?  No teacher catches every misunderstanding of every student, but if you don't talk to your students while they work, you are unlikely to catch many errors.) 

The emphasis was very much on management.  Order and discipline.  And hey, in that environment, you could get all kinds of amazing learning done, with so few seconds spent redirecting students.  I am all in favor of classrooms where behavior is not a problem, where systems and expectations are clear.  Once you have those things ironed out, though, you are free to do innovative, thought-provoking academics that teach higher-level thinking skills.  It was disappointing to see that opportunity wasted.

In the end, at every school, it all comes down to teacher retention.  You don't get quality instruction unless you keep and continually coach teachers.  They've got their systems down at KIPP, and some of them are good.  Like most systems, though, in the hands of good teachers, they work well.  In the hands of poor teachers, they work only somewhat, or not at all.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


This is a story about Chad, who I already think might be a common subject of my stories this year.

Yesterday we had our weekly reflection period.  This is a time we have built in, for the first time this year, for kids to reflect on their work.  It is a time to write about what you have learned, what you have gotten better at, and what is still hard for you.

These self-reflection skills are, by the way, pretty sophisticated.  Most students need quite a bit of practice and modeling to understand this kind of thinking.

So I made them a sheet to fill out for us to share with their families at conferences tomorrow. It had 3 sentence starters:
  1. I am proud of...
  2. I am better at...
  3. I still need practice with...
 Then there was a box where they could draw a picture.  The prompt was, Draw a picture of the best part of second grade so far.

As an aside, it was interesting to try to help them pin down what skills they have been learning and getting better at.  They can say something broad, like "Math!"  But when you ask what it is about math that they are getting better at, they can't remember.  "The cubes?" they say.  But the cubes, of course, are just the tools they used to get better at something else.  Remembering what they were getting better at is hard.

Most kids were pretty accurate about what they still need to practice.  Nijon wrote he needs practice with the line (walking quietly in line, he means).  That is very true.  Diego wrote he needs practice reading the words in his books, which is just what he needs.

Chad, though -- Chad's work was different.  His says:

I am proud of being smart in math.
I am better at dancing.
I still need practice with running fast.

For many students, I would encourage them to be reflective about more academic things.  The thing about Chad, though, is that he is so tiny, so quiet, so retiring.  He is easy to overlook.  He looks everywhere, all the time, with big eyes, but doesn't speak.  He is shy.  Most of the time, if it gets even a tiny bit louder in our classroom, Chad sits there, his skinny shoulders hunched up near his ears, making the quiet sign with his fingers and waving it vaguely in the direction of the noise, his brow furrowed and his eyes wide.

So dancing in front of people is probably hard for him.  But we do fun dancing in second grade, and he is getting better at it.  Running fast is probably not one of his strong suits, either, I would bet, especially compared to other, taller second-grade boys.  And you can tell, from his writing, what is really important to him.  His reflection sounds like him.

But his picture was my favorite thing.  Under "What is the best part of second grade so far?" he drew a picture of students sitting at desks.  Next to the desks there is a big rectangle (our rug, where we sit for meetings and lessons, I assume).  And around the rug are names: the names of all the kids in our class.

Once again, Chad was the wise one.  The kids are definitely the best part of second grade so far.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Inside a Teacher's Brain

There is a powerful image early on in Waiting for Superman that I can't get out of my mind.

A cartoon teacher stands in her classroom, cartoon students seated before her.  She walks along the row of desks, stopping behind each child just long enough to open up the top of their brain, pour some knowledge in, and pop it closed again. 

Soon, though, countless edicts and policies begin to arrive at her small school, so many that they require most of her attention.  Holding her pitcher of knowledge in one hand, she picks up a booklet of policies with the other.  With her eyes on the booklet instead of on her student, she opens his head and begins to pour the knowledge -- but, because she isn't looking, she pours it on the floor beside him instead of into his head.

Put aside for a moment this incredibly poor metaphor for good teaching.  The image of the teacher with her eyes elsewhere, missing her student, is spot on.  Any moment when my "eyes" are on something other than my students is a sub-par moment of teaching.  Sometimes those things come from outside the classroom, such as frustrating schedules, unreasonable or tardy administrative requests, or the lack of basic supplies such as paper towels.  Other times they come, as the movie suggests, from proclamations and expectations that are overwhelming, hard to understand, or just plain harmful to our kids.  These external pressures and stresses take valuable teacher energy away from teaching every day.

The majority of the time my eyes aren't on my kids, though, it's because of my own brain.  The number of things a teacher's brain must do simultaneously is staggering.  During my first year of teaching, my brain was so full of, "What question will I ask next?" "What should I do about the kid who's picking his nose over there?" "How do I teach that kid to read?" "Why hasn't Jojo come back from the bathroom yet?" that when a student would raise her hand and ask to get a drink of water, I would stare at her, blinking and stammering. "Um, hmmm.  Well.  Let's see.  Can you get a drink of water? I'm not sure."  While inside my mind, I wondered, Is this a good time to get water?  Should I let her?  Will everyone else want water if I say yes? But it's not okay to deny her water, is it? When is a good time to get water?

I spent yesterday morning watching a first-grade teacher with her class at another school.  From an observer's perspective, it doesn't look too complicated.  She introduces a concept, models it, asks the students to try it, then sends them off to work independently.  She manages behavior with a look, a touch, a reminder.  

Watching her, though, I knew that what to me looks like a serene morning requires vast effort on her part.  While she gives examples from her own life about the kinds of stories they might want to write, she is noticing out of the corner of her eye the student who is playing with her shoelaces.  She glances at the clock and sees that she is five minutes behind her plan, which will give them less time for Writers' Workshop or make them late for Music.  She wonders if the quiet boy in the front is following the lesson while he looks out the window.  She sees a student go to the bathroom for the fourth time this morning, and remembers that she needs to call his family to make a meeting with them.  She thinks about how to get the writing materials distributed in an orderly and efficient manner in the next five minutes.

I recently read a piece by Atul Gawande about what goes on in a surgeon's mind, and the kinds of nuanced judgments a doctor must make every day.  His point was that these kinds of judgments are not things that can be learned in a class or from a book; the ability to know the right thing to do, and to trust your professional intuition, comes only with experience. 

Even on the easiest days, a teacher's mind is in at least fifteen different places at once.  A teacher's ability to know everything that's going on in the room, while also holding in her mind the kid with the shoelaces and the parents she needs to call and the student who isn't sure how to start the problem -- this is what Jacob Kounin calls "withitness." (I learned about "withitness" from a Malcolm Gladwell article in the New Yorker.)

Research shows, though, that we can't really multitask.  We don't do as well at things when our brains are handling too many ideas simultaneously.  This is why my best teaching happens when I have the fewest distractions and stressors.  The more students with challenging behaviors I have, the more directions my brain is moving at once.  When I have a more cooperative class, I can concentrate on teaching (which is, after all, why I do this work).  Even with the easiest class, a good teacher has to know how many of her 20 students are on board with her lesson.  This is enough to manage -- too many other distractions take away from your ability to be a skillful teacher.

With time and experience, good teachers learn how to manage everything that is going on in their brains.  It's not something you learn from an education school.  Some days I am better at it than others.  At least now, after ten years of teaching, I know when to let my kids get a drink of water.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

What makes a neighborhood a good place to be?

This week we started thinking about this question, which is the guiding question for our neighborhoods curriculum all year.  It is a really good question, I think, one we haven't used (with that wording) before.  It took me two years of teaching this curriculum to feel like I really knew the "big picture" of what we were trying to teach.  Once I had that understanding, I could step back and think, "Okay, so what is the guiding question?"  I am very happy about it. 

[Later we'll work on this question, too: "What do people do to make their neighborhoods a better, fairer place to live?"  That's when we learn about activism and community involvement.  It's good stuff.]

We started thinking about what makes a neighborhood a good place to be by asking what makes our school a good place to be.  This wasn't my idea -- it came from our Expeditionary Learning coach.  But it was a stroke of genius, really, to start this way.  Our school is familiar, and is smaller than a neighborhood (although not by much, anymore).  Starting with the school meant that we could practice the skills they will need to investigate this question on field trips -- skills like understanding what we were looking for, ignoring distractions, listening carefully, and observing .  

We set off to do our "fieldwork."  Twenty second graders with their clipboard and pencils tiptoed around the building looking for evidence of what makes the school a good place.  They were as intent as a cat stalking its prey.  [It was exactly what it means to have classroom management driven by engaging curriculum -- no one needed redirection because everyone was interested in the work.]  They scrawled ideas earnestly, practicing the art of holding a clipboard with one hand and writing with the other (no easy task for a second grader). 

Every time I do a lesson like this, I learn how to change the wording of my question.  I had started with "What makes our school a good place to be?"  Then the next column said, "What need does this meet?"  That one was hard.  We did some examples before we set off.  The cafeteria makes our school a good place to be because it serves us food.  That meets our need to eat.  A bench makes our school a good place to be because it meets our need to sit and rest.

It was a little abstract.

By the middle of our walk, I knew it should have been, "What makes our school a good place to be?" and then, "How does it make our school a good place to be?"  Every time I think I made a good organizer or handout, I have to edit it.  This is why documenting the curriculum is such a pain -- it never stops changing.

According to the second graders, our school is a very good place to be for many reasons.  It has chairs!  (So we can sit down.)  It has lockers, so we have a place to put our things.  There are signs, which help us know where we are and where to go.  It has teachers, so we can learn.  There are murals, which help us "think about the whole earth" (that's a direct quote) and meet our need for beauty.  It has a playground, so we can play, and a garden, so we can grow food.  They even listed the piano as something that makes it a good place to be.  They were thinking more deeply than I had anticipated, but it was just where I wanted their minds to go.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


One does not go far in the world of education today without tripping over the word accountability. In the past four or so years, the word has gone from barely existing on the edges of my known vocabulary to staring me in the face nearly every day. I come across it on the radio, in the news, at staff meetings and committee meetings, in education books and articles, on Facebook, in blogs, at lectures – anyone who is talking or thinking about education is talking and thinking about accountability.

It is a word that is bandied about so commonly, in fact, that its meaning is rarely explored. If I could figure out how to do so politely, I would make it a practice to stop anyone I hear using that word. “What do you mean by ‘accountability?’ I would ask. If they answered with something nondescript, such as, “It means we make sure teachers do their jobs,” I would try to dig deeper. What does it look like? What do you want to see? How would we be able to tell if we had achieved “accountability?”

I think a lot about this word, and wish I could interrupt everyone from Arne Duncan to my colleagues when they use it, because I am unconvinced of its helpfulness. Its value seems questionable firstly because of its unspecified and imprecise meaning, and secondly because it is generally used with a vague (or at times quite pointed) sense of blaming teachers for… you name it: the achievement gap, poor attendance, low test scores, bullying in schools – I could go on and on.

Disclaimer: I am not opposed to having high expectations for teachers. I think creating, developing, and retaining good teachers is the most important thing we can do for education, and I think we ought to “find bad teachers another line of work” (as John McCain once wisely said). I also think most of our policies, rhetoric, and money are not invested in teacher development, and it is often easier to decry bad teachers than it is to start fixing problems.

The dictionary definition of accountable is “responsible to somebody else or to others, or responsible for something.” This doesn’t sound too bad; teachers, and all of us, are accountable for our work. A list of synonyms, however, includes words like “answerable,” “liable,” “held responsible,” and “blamed.” It is a word that, if placed on a continuum that stretched from negative to positive connotations, would certainly lean toward disapproving.

What is it that people want when they talk about accountability? They don’t usually explain. But the feeling I often get is that they want to punish teachers (or to fire us). They want to catch us not doing a good job, or saying we’ll do one thing and then doing another. They want to prove we are purposefully hiding our deficits. They want to ferret out all those happy-go-lucky teachers who leave school at 2 pm to plan their summer vacations, and make them pay. A sense of culpability and negligence haunts the word.

If I had my way, I would temporarily banish the word so that we could talk about what we really want. Once we came up with an effective, useful definition, I might start to bring accountability back into the conversation, under the guise of a new meaning. But not until then.

What do I think we might, in a better world, mean by accountability? I think we might mean that we want to be able to connect good teaching to good learning: to figure out the best ways to teach all kinds of students, to share those practices, and to see more learning as a result.

If we are talking about responsibility, a nicer way to say it might be that we want teachers to honor their commitments. (This is how I like to word it when proposing norms to a group I am leading: We will honor our commitments to the group by coming on time, prepared for the task ahead.) This seems somewhat like common sense; in all careers, in all lines of work, people are asked to do what they say they will do. And in most arenas, when people are doing something very complicated or very hard, they get help. Experienced practitioners mentor them; supervisors guide them; peers collaborate and puzzle and struggle with them. If what we want when we talk about accountability is for teachers to do good work, then perhaps we need more of these kinds of partnerships.

The ability to improve teaching and learning lies in the hands of teachers. The pundits, politicians, and policy-makers who speak of “accountability" are wise to acknowledge our expertise and capacity. There are many, many barriers that stand between us and higher achievement. And there are countless specific ways for us to begin to break down those barriers, starting with a spirit of collaboration and collegiality. The time for rhetoric and placing blame has passed. Let’s hold each other accountable for moving forward.

Coming next week: Musings on the word “data”

Friday, September 24, 2010


A Teacher’s Guide to Fellowships and Awards: Opportunities for Professional Growth and Renewal
Last year, my teaching team somehow came up with the idea to take forty second graders roller-skating during the second week of the new school year.  I was a reluctant participant in the scheme, for what I think should be obvious reasons.  But there’s a locally owned roller rink about 4 blocks from our school, in one of the neighborhoods we study each year.  In the past nine years, I have read approximately 791 stories about skating at The Rink; our students love to go there.  So I reluctantly agreed that it would be a nice way to build community at the beginning of the year.

On the day our field trip dawned, I awoke with a feeling of dread.  It was the fifth day of school. I didn’t know much yet about my class, but I did know they were a challenging crew.  We had a complicated, somewhat daunting plan for our time at The Rink.  We would start with some whole-group activities, then move into small groups, then pairs.  We had little cards with each student’s name and shoe size, so we could get skates that fit.  The morning would finish with pizza for lunch.

We arrived at a cavernous space that echoed with hip-hop music.  My students couldn’t hear anything I said, and even if they could, they were too distracted by the strobe lights and disco balls to pay attention.  Trying to run group games was hopeless.  Still, we forged ahead, loyal to our plan, until I was hoarse and out of breath.

Then we started onto the rink.  As it turned out, roller-skating is tricky.  Those wheels roll fast, and that rink is hard.  Most students fell the second their skates hit the rink’s wooden floor.  The rest fell before they stepped off the carpet.  The crack of bones hitting wood filled the air, and I tried to block out thoughts of head injuries.

To my surprise, though, I saw good things starting to happen.  I watched students hit the floor again and again, bruising different appendages with each fall, and get back up each time.  These were the same kids who, when asked to write one sentence, would lay their heads on the desk, or would burst into tears when a math problem got too hard.  Yes, there were tears at The Rink.  But when one student cried, others stepped forward to comfort him.  Stronger skaters stopped to offer a hand to friends who fell, or slowed down to keep pace with a novice.  All around me, my kids were exhibiting the behaviors I most want to see in my classroom: perseverance and teamwork.

This year, I knew just what I wanted to get out of The Rink.  My new teaching partner later told me that, on the day of the field trip, she felt the same way I had a year earlier: full of dread.  I have to admit I was relieved that it was her day to teach, not mine, so I was the extra set of hands, not the one running the show.

A few days before The Rink trip, our class wrote our Class Promises.  We agreed that in our class, we would be kind to each other, focus on learning, solve conflicts by talking, and take care of materials.  Two days before the trip, we did an activity about how everyone has things they are very good at and things they are just learning.  We went over our learning targets for The Rink:

§       I can control my body so I, and the people around me, will be safe.
§       I can persevere (keep trying) even when something is hard or scary.
§       I can help and encourage my classmates so they can do something hard.

And then, we practiced.  Each student got a Rink partner, who was assigned by putting stronger skaters with beginners, according to their (not necessarily accurate) self-assessment.  With their partners, we reminded each other of the goals: perseverance and teamwork.  And we did a short pair activity (directing your partner to draw something with his eyes closed) to practice those skills.

By the time they got to The Rink, they knew what they were supposed to practice.  While they skated, I reminded them to check on their partners and to encourage each other, and I pointed out every instance of perseverance I saw. 

The Rink is a perfect metaphor for the rest of the year – and, even better, it is a metaphor second graders can access.  They rated their skating ability before and after the trip, and saw that they had gotten better in just one hour of focused practice.  Almost to a person, they felt genuine frustration at The Rink; some felt despair.  (I saw the look in Diego’s eyes as he stepped on the rink and immediately fell, his feet flopping sideways under his legs every time he stood up.  Diego is a strong student who rarely experiences trouble in school. In the context of school, this was a new feeling for him.)  No one, however, dropped out. 

Last year, we used The Rink all year to remind students that they could persevere when something was hard, and that hard work would lead to progress.  When we began to model self-reflection, and how to verbalize what you had learned with your head (knowledge), hands (skills), and heart (habits of mind), we started out with roller-skating.  As a steppingstone to developing the kind of learners and learning community we want to raise, it couldn’t be more perfect.  I take none of the credit; I’m still terrified of roller-skating, and I still cringe every time I think of those small elbows hitting the floor.  But I’m glad we went.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


Chad is a small, quiet boy.  He is one of only two new students in my class this year.  He arrived armed with a hefty IEP, primarily for social / emotional reasons.  His IEP is so hefty, in fact, that in most schools he would be taught in a substantially separate classroom.

In the first week of school, Chad has said very little, although he often speaks just under his breath.  Despite sometimes being confused or missing part of the instructions, he follows the directions he understands to the letter.  When I look at him, I usually find him following me with his big, serious eyes.  I think he is a little scared of me.

My suspicion is that there are many delightful and intriguing thoughts going on inside Chad's head.  It would serve us all well to be a little quieter around him so we can hear what he has to say.

Yesterday we did an activity designed to get students thinking about what they are very good at and what they still need to get better at.  I made 3 signs: "Beginner," "Getting Better," and "Expert." I explained that we all have things we are experts at, things we are beginners at, and things we are working on getting better at.

For example, I said I am an expert at riding my bike, and also at being a teacher.  But I am just a beginner at playing basketball.

Next, I asked the class to think hard about activities for each category.  They listed a few.  Then I started naming activities.  As I named each one, they had to go stand near the sign that indicated their ability level for that activity.

I started with basketball.  They were pretty evenly divided: some beginners, some getting better, some experts.  (Of course!  Many second grade boys are "experts" at basketball.)

Next was spelling.  They were surprisingly confident in their spelling ability, until my assistant reminded them of the spelling assessment we'd been working on.  She said that if the spelling test was kind of hard for them, they were probably not experts at spelling.

(This is tricky.  On the one hand, it is encouraging that they all feel like spelling experts.  I want them to be confident and excited.  On the other hand, I don't want them to stand by "Expert" just because everyone else is.  And one of the purposes of the activity is for them to be aware of their beginning ability level so they can track their improvement.  If they are already experts at spelling in September, how will they know how much better they got at it by June?  And why would they be motivated to work at it?)

After spelling, I called out "drawing."  Again, pretty even split.  Next was "making friends."  I heard mutters of, "Oh, that's easy!" as the crowd moved toward "expert."  I put myself in between "Getting better" and "Expert" because, as I told them, I am pretty good at making friends but sometimes I am a little shy.

I turned to look at "Beginner," and there stood two students, alone: Chad and Gloria.

I paused, breathless at their self-awareness.  Indeed, neither Chad nor Gloria are experts at making friends.  Gloria's face usually wears a half-scowl.  She doesn't give off very happy or approachable vibes.  And Chad -- well, he rarely speaks.  He is very serious.  He wants very much to make friends, but it is something he doesn't really know how to do.

To be the only two people in a class of 20 who are beginners at making friends -- that is courage, especially at the age of 7.  I know I wouldn't have been brave enough to do that myself in second grade.  Their willingness to be vulnerable, to share so publicly something they wish for and don't yet know how to achieve  -- it still makes me shake my head in wonder.

Last week, all the students wrote their Hopes and Dreams for second grade.  Most wrote things like "I hope to go on field trips," or "I hope to be a fashion designer," or "I want to get better at reading, and do a lot of math."  Chad wrote, "I hope to make new friends."

Friday, September 17, 2010

Why all teachers should job share

Here is my argument for job sharing, and it does not have to do with working half time or having time away from your students, and it certainly doesn't have to do with getting paid less (a lot less).

Job sharing is allowing me to watch another great teacher teach.

Granted, I only got to teach with her the first two days of school.  Even so, those two days gave me a good sense of her as a teacher.  In those two days, I learned a lot.  Since then, we've talked on the phone and emailed quite a bit.  Every time I face a dilemma, I face it with her.  I benefit from her wisdom and experience, and she benefits from mine.

(And we both intend to go to school on our non-teaching days sometimes, just to watch each other.)

Teaching is an isolating profession.  This is a truth you will hear thousands of times.  My job is, compared to most teaching jobs, extremely collaborative.  In my grade-level team, we share responsibility for planning all lessons.  We make copies for each other.  We digitally document what we do so we can remember it for next year, but also so we can share it with each other.  Most of the time there is another adult teaching with me, sometimes more than one.

Despite all this teamwork, and despite having a skilled colleague teaching next door, I haven't gotten to share my classroom with an experienced teacher since I was a student teacher, ten years ago.

Since then, I've shared meeting space with many good teachers, but never a classroom.  I rarely set foot in other rooms to watch my colleagues, and no matter how much I think about my job and wrestle with ideas, I haven't been able to learn so deeply from another teacher in terms of day-to-day systems, ways of speaking, and the just plain fun of teaching.

So let it be known: all teachers should job share or co-teach at least every few years, to grease their intellectual wheels and enrich their practice.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


The evening before the first day of school, I had an important realization.

I was ready to start school.

A year ago, I was most definitely not ready.  Last year, my school was moving and nearly doubling in size.  We weren't even able to get into the building until a few days before school began.  When we got in, our rooms were empty.  The auditorium was strewn with old, broken furniture.  The gymnasium was a forest of stacks of boxes, and trash.  I didn't have shelves for my classroom, and had to scavenge for tables. I spent hours picking out unfinished shelves, getting them painted, and then going back three times to pick them up because they were never ready when they said they would be.  It was draining and infuriating and nerve wracking.

Last year, I spent days unpacking and trying to decide where things should go.  I didn't know my way around our enormous school building, which is about the size of a small city.  When I look back at my To-Do list from the days before school started last year, it is full of things like "Talk to the cafeteria lady about how we will get our lunches."  "Go look at the cafeteria to see where we will sit." "Decide with the K-2 teachers how to do bathrooms."  "Find out where dance class happens."  More than half of my time was taken up with things that this year, I didn't have to do.

Last year, no one at school was ready for the year to begin.  We didn't know how to run a big school: how to do dismissal with 550 kids; how to operate a huge cafeteria with kids of all ages, from 4 to 15; how to manage that many students in the hallways; how to prepare so many new teachers for the hard work ahead. If we, the teachers, wanted something organized or planned or clarified, we had to do it ourselves, because no one else had time.  When would we have our weekly K-2 assemblies?  Where would each class sit during assemblies?  How should we run recess, and where? Which bathrooms would each class use?  We had to figure it all out.

This year, I was ready, and we, as a school, were ready.  We learned a lot of lessons last year, mostly the hard way.  We have systems and schedules now.  We have rules and expectations, for adults and children.  It feels less unsettling, less overwhelming and scary, and less exhausting.  It is less isolating and less sad.

In the past two weeks, I had lots of time to get my classroom ready.  Everything found a place.  (Last year, there were a few piles I didn't figure out what to do with before school started, and they were right in the same place on the last day of school.)  It is hard to feel settled if your classroom isn't really ready.  Having those hours to putter around, to do small things like clean out the filing cabinet and make labels for every small container, helps me feel ready, excited, and in control.  A teacher needs to feel in control of her domain, or else watch out.

When I thought back to a year ago, I realized, it's no wonder I didn't like my job last year, or my students.  Those poor kids, they were lost before they even set foot in my classroom. I wasn't ready for them!  I needed more time; I really didn't want them to come.  So when they did come (and, let's be honest, when they turned out not to be an easy bunch), my heart was set against them.  Not only that, but they were following on the footsteps of two years with my best and easiest class.  They didn't have a chance.

The last few weeks, my biggest fear was that this year I would go back to school and not like it again.  Not like my students, not build relationships with their families, and not want to be a teacher.  If last year was an anomaly, that would be okay.  But if it had become the new reality, that would be heart-breaking.  Being a teacher is so much a part of who I am.  How would I adjust to changing that part of my identity?  I'm only a few days in, so there's no answer yet.  But already, this year feels a million times better than last year.  This year, my heart is in it again.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Into the Fray

It is a shock to the system, this transition from summer vacation to school.  So shocking, in fact, that in the evening of that first, seemingly endless day of school, I couldn't speak.  I was too tired to watch a movie, or read a book, or send an email, or talk.  So I ate half a bagel for dinner, and got in bed at 8:30.

It is no wonder that my students can make it until about 1 pm and then start to fall apart.  If I can barely stay standing or keep my eyes open, what can we expect of 7-year-olds?  All of us are trying to adjust.  Adjusting to going to bed early, to being unable to sleep because we are nervous and excited and our minds can't shut down, and to waking up early.  Adjusting to being alert and focused for hours and hours at a time, after the ease of the summer schedule.  Adjusting to noise, chaos, and 23 bodies in one room in a small space at the same time, after the quiet and space of summer.

Summer vacation is delicious.  Waking up on my own time, after getting enough sleep.  Awakening gradually, so that when I am awake, I am really awake, not drowsy.  Moving slowly, which was the part I most enjoyed this summer, and most miss now.  As I make breakfast in the summer, I can put away dishes from last night, water the plants, putter around.  I can eat unhurriedly, reading the newspaper from front to back.  I can tidy up the apartment, making neat piles instead of the leaning towers that usually prevail.  I can read!  As a rule, I get through more books in two weeks of summer than I do in the whole school year.

I am mostly sad for two reasons: 1) The rushing around.  2) I miss the calm, leisurely time with my partner in crime, when we are both awake and alert and happy instead of worn out and brain-weary.  (With both of us on an academic schedule, the abrupt change last week was even more startling.)

But I am also excited.  School is animating, and the fast pace gives me a rush (until I crash and all systems shut down).  I like to be efficient, get things done, and think hard about what and how to teach.  I like children, and being a teacher.  (At least, I still feel this way after 2 days of school.)  And this year, a new experiment begins, as I teach only half-time, and fill the rest of my days with coaching and leading teachers, and my own projects.  So I can still have some slower days, and get reinvigorated for my days with children.  Cheers!  To a new year.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Musings on the End

One of the best things about a job that revolves around an academic year is the regular opportunity for beginnings and endings. Beginnings are an opportunity to make resolutions, set goals, and start over; endings are times to reflect on the successes and failures of the past year, and tally up the regrets.

As this school year drags its wretched self toward extinction, I have many more regrets than successes. I look back at what I wrote at the end of last year, and it is like reminiscing about a long-lost love. Last year I exulted in the classroom community, delighted in my students' accomplishments, and laughed and marveled often at their words.  This year, each day I come home weighted down by the awareness of what my students still can't do. They still can't do much math. They still aren't great writers. (They are good readers, I have to admit. That much we've got going for us.)

Worse, they still don't treat each other nicely. They don't have stamina, or independence. They fall prey to the whims of their emotions, riding the highs and lows like a bottle floating helplessly on a wave, with seemingly no ability to modulate.

If teachers need to feel successful in order to stay in the profession, then this is an example of how it should never be. Deep inside, I know I'm a pretty good teacher. I've got a lot left to learn (who doesn't?), but I have given years of sweat and tears to the travail of mastering this job. Still, I can't work miracles.

The honest truth is that I didn't pay enough attention to spelling because I was handling tantrums. I didn't build their independent problem-solving skills because I was trying to keep the noise level hovering around "loud" instead of "ear-splitting." I wasn't aware enough of everyone's progress in math because I was breaking up habitual shouting matches about who gets to go first and who is fat and ugly and who bumped whom as they walked by. And I didn't teach my most struggling students enough about anything because I devoted my time to the majority, who came in with such low skills in all areas that I focused my energies there.  It was as if, after 8 years of teaching, I was a first-year teacher all over again.

This is a hard way to end the year -- to face up to the fact that, despite working my hardest, there are too many things out of my control.  I have tried all the tricks I could think of, and in the end, they need too much, and don't yet have the self-regulation skills that are so essential to academic (and personal) success.  I came in this year full of energy, fueled by two great years, and as I head toward the finish line, I am running on fumes, with no reserves.

Yesterday, someone told me that, all year, it never looked like I was at the end of my rope.  She could never tell that I was just surviving, counting down the days until the end.  I'm glad, but I'm also aware that the work of making it seem effortless takes a huge toll.  Holding it together all day (and I think I was only successful at this about 70% of the time) is what gives me the tight knot in the center of my upper back. It's what makes me cry on the way home.  It's what has me lying awake at midnight, or slumped against the doorframe on the kitchen floor while I dejectedly reflect on my day.

In two weeks, I'll say good-bye to this class for the last time, and walk out the door with my bag to get on a plane to Yellowstone.  I need this summer vacation like never before, if I am to come back to the job that I love in the fall.  There will be another beginning, in just 2 short months, but for now, I raise my glass to long-awaited endings.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Double-Dip Feelings

Last week contained the highlight of my teaching year, one of the highlights of my career: the culminating presentation of our yearlong study of Boston Neighborhoods. I knew, even weeks ahead of time, that it was going to be fantastic, unprecedented, memorable. The kids' work was stellar, with vibrant, detailed illustrations and clear, reflective writing. People were going to be blown away.

Honestly, the teaching in the 6 weeks leading up to this presentation was pretty damn good, too. We did draft after draft of their writing, adding powerful words, personal connections, opening sentences to draw the reader in, "connectors" to combine short sentences into longer sentences. And we did draft after draft of their illustrations, meeting in small groups where students provided feedback to each other on successive drafts. Every student did between 4 and 10 drafts of their illustration, and the final products were stunning.

Before the presentation, we tried to reflect with the students. Why did we study our city all year, anyway? Why do you need to know about your community? Why did we do so many drafts of our work? Why did it matter that we did a good job on it?

At first, they struggled with these questions. Why did we do so many drafts? "Because my teacher is crazy about the drafts," wrote Mehki. Why does it matter that your work is good? "Because the teachers told us it had to be." Why did we learn about Boston all year? Blank stares.

But we worked on it more. I thought about what were the right questions to ask. I asked "Why?" a lot of times, pushing their thinking deeper. We made lists of their answers. And by the time Wednesday night came, not only did they have good answers, they had practiced the questions with partners, and when the adult audience walked around and asked them to reflect on their work and how it changed them, they could talk about it.

It was definitely a highlight of my teaching career. It is a kind of teaching I have been striving to reach for a number of years. It's not perfect -- not at all -- but I am getting better each year. People were impressed by the curriculum, the caliber of the work, and the weightiness of the themes our students are talking about. It was real stuff, meaningful, and it touched the kids, their families, and the community members who attended.

Here is some of what my class said they "learned about learning:"
  • Take feedback and continue working, even if you feel upset.
  • Treat your work gently.
  • Ask for help when you need it.
  • Be in control of yourself (have discipline).
  • Be proud to show off your work.
  • Try really hard, because something might be hard for you, but it might come out how you want it.
  • You need to do things over and over again in order to get better at it.
  • Try something first before not doing it.
I came home that night flying high. I couldn't sleep. I woke up early the next morning, my mind racing with ideas to follow up such deep reflection, such powerful work. We would write letters! Design thank-you cards! Write reflective journal entries!

At school I hung their work around the classroom, so it would be reminiscent of the community center where the work was displayed the night before. It looked beautiful. I put student-made signs up outside the room, and their reflections in the hallway. I hung sheets of paper, covered in congratulatory notes and feedback from the previous night, on the white board. It was a space made for celebrating and reflecting.

Within half an hour of my students' arrival, though, things were back to normal. There were no quiet moments of self-reflection, of thanks given to peers (or, God forbid, teachers), of excitement and pride. No, within half an hour, two students had been removed from the room because of defiance and temper tantrums. The other 18 were left wriggling restlessly on the rug, occasionally insulting each other, jumping out of their seats without permission and glaring when asked to sit, and staring fixedly into space instead of paying attention to what anyone else was saying.

It was just how most mornings have been this year with this class: a constant struggle to remain calm (on my part), to maintain order, and to facilitate communication and learning among a group that has a very hard time co-existing in a small space. I began to deflate, coming down gradually, taking deep breaths in an attempt to stay equanimous, perhaps even hold onto some of my feelings of success. Within ten minutes, I gave up.

Earlier this year, my class had a short discussion about mixed feelings, how you can feel more than one thing at a time. Later, my social-worker friend lent me a children's book, Double Dip Feelings, which is about just that. This week was a week of double-dip feelings for me: elation, success, pride, excitement; frustration, exhaustion, hopelessness, apathy.

At the end of a school year, there are many small moments of success to celebrate. The students who made two years of progress in reading in one year. Eighth graders who, during their portfolio presentations, mention learning to read from me in first grade class. Kids who, in tough moments of final presentations and good-byes, are reflective and poised in surprising ways, giving you glimpses and reminders of how far they have come and what your teaching may have meant to them.

"Sometimes we don't know why we're doing this, or if we're accomplishing anything," my principal said at staff meeting on Friday. "And then we have final events like these, and we know exactly why we've been doing it, even though it has taken every last breath in our bodies to do it."

There's the tough part: every last breath in our bodies, every scrap of energy and will-power. Our mental and physical health suffers, our relationships are strained, we regularly disappoint ourselves because we can't do more. It all seems worth it during these moments of success, but how long can one person sustain it? At what price? What is the lifespan of a healthy teaching career?

I'm hoping to extend the life of my classroom career by combining teaching with other pursuits next year. Teaching half time, and exploring bigger ideas during the other half, will hopefully sustain me so I can keep doing the thing that good teachers most need to do: stay in teaching. This week I was sad at the idea of doing less of this work, and then I was relieved. Such high highs and such low lows -- which, really, is probably the definition of teaching.

Friday, April 9, 2010


Sometimes, I think I must seem like a crazy person.

One day, I think my kids are funny, smart, and quirky. The next, I think that if I have to set foot in that building one more time, I might commit harakiri. Or, as I told Howard the other day, "I need you to go out in the hallway for a few minutes, or I might pull my head off." (It made us both giggle, even though I really thought I might pull my head off, and then we managed to make it through the moment.)

Yesterday and today are examples of this bizarre fluctuation. Yesterday was an immeasurably hard day. I felt beat up. I felt maligned. I felt so, so, so tired that I could barely stand. I felt a few twinges of resentment upon hearing, that evening, about teaching awards being bestowed upon Harvard professors. Yeah, I thought sarcastically. It's really hard to be a good teacher at Harvard. Boy, they really have to work hard over there. They get awards for sitting around on their side of the river and reading and thinking about education, while I'm over here on my side of the river in the trenches. (This, while my partner in crime spends all his days, in fact, reading and thinking about education on that side of the river... I really will get the Harvard chip off my shoulder, soon. I promise.)

Today, though, was conference day. No kids. (Which, obviously, makes it an easier day in some ways. No temper tantrums!) As I sat there, conference after conference, I thought about how much I like each kid. Are they quirky? Yes. Needy? Yes. But smart, funny, with personalities of their own? Absolutely.

And, this is the most amazing part. These kids, who often make me feel as if I spend my days herding cats instead of teaching, have learned. They've learned a lot. They are writing: pages. They are reading: chapters. They are subtracting: double digits. Not only that. They are inferring, synthesizing, and looking for evidence. Higher-level thinking, I tell you! Kids who started second grade unable to sound out the word "stick" are writing words like "dismayed," moaning when they have to stop science to go outside to play, and asking me sophisticated questions about the Civil Rights Movement.

A mom came in my room today and, when I started by asking, "What do you want to make sure we talk about today?" answered, "I want to talk about how much my son loves school."

"Really?" I answered dubiously. Is she talking about her other son? I wondered. Who could love coming to this classroom full of competing, overwhelming needs and a mean, cranky teacher?

Out loud, I said, "That is good to hear, because this has been a really challenging year for me, and I can't tell if the class feels good to the kids or not."

This time it was her turn to say, "Really?! He loves it here! He is so excited about what he's learning. He's thinking about conflict resolution, and how to solve problems. He knows more about Boston than I do. He's excited about this comic book he's writing, and the chapter book he's reading-- oh, and he loves insects!"

It was such a relief to hear. Apparently he doesn't go home and complain about his insane teacher. Apparently he doesn't go home and mention that they didn't learn all day because Ms. Swamp was bossing everyone around and no one was working. Apparently he doesn't think his class is dysfunctional. No, he loves it there.

"I know you say you're having a hard year," she said to me. "But it never looks like it when I come in here. You seem so calm. Everyone seems to be working and having fun."

But I go home and my back is all knotted up with tension, I want to tell her.

But I don't. I beam.

So many days, I work so hard, and feel like there's still so much work to do. Kids whine at me, or scowl, and forget to tell me which parts of the day they liked. I forget to tell them when they said something brilliant, or how in the middle of the night I woke up and thought of something they did and it made me smile. We all forget to appreciate each other in the toughness of the moment, in the struggle to co-exist.

Anyway, take that, Harvard. Awards for teaching -- pshaw. Today I got my reward.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

4000 x 4000 x 6000

Last Friday, our seventh grade buddies came to see us. We've seen them about five times so far since we began, and it is delightful every time. The classroom becomes quiet, as both second and seventh graders get nervous to see each other, and they work together shyly, but with kindness.

The second graders had each prepared two questions to ask their buddies to get to know them better. When they arrived, 4 little boys and 3 big boys went into the half-classroom next to ours to meet. When I walked in, Anton was writing furiously on his index card while his buddy watched from the other end of a long table. Anton hadn't finished writing his questions ahead of time, and his buddy's distanced body language prompted me to walk in their direction right away.

"Anton," I said, "you don't have to write your questions down now. TJ is here, in front of you, so you can just ask him your questions. Writing them down was to help you remember them."

"Oh," he said, surprised. "Okay."

He looked down at his card, and I beckoned TJ to come closer.

"What is 4000 times 4000 times 6000?" Anton asked. When you are eight, 4000 times 4000 times 6000 is about the hardest problem you can think of.

"These are supposed to be questions to help you get to know TJ!" I laughed.

"But this is what I want to know," Anton protested.

"Why don't you ask him about his favorite things, or his family," I suggested.

"OK," he answered enthusiastically. Anton is a great conversationalist. He turned to TJ. "Where is your favorite fun place to go?"

TJ looked uncertain. "What do you mean? What kind of place?" he asked warily. This was a seventh grader who was not so sure about hanging out with second graders.

"I mean," Anton explained, waving his hands around as he talked, "Which do you like better, the circus, or the carnival, or the garden?"

"What do you mean by the garden?" I asked.

"You know, that big place where -- I can't remember what they're called, but they play hockey there," he said.

"You mean the TD Banknorth Garden?" TJ asked.

"Yes!" said Anton.

"Hmmm," TJ thought. "I think I like the Garden best."

"Yeah," Anton said. "I went to see Disney On Ice there. It was great. But, if you had to choose between the circus and the carnival, which would you choose?"

They continued their chat. Anton could be a talk show host. He is warm, loving, personable, and charming, and he drew TJ out as if he were the middle schooler and TJ were a shy eight-year-old. After awhile, they turned to a book they were reading together. I walked back next door.

When I returned a few minutes later, all 7 boys were clustered around a small round table in the middle of the room. The seventh graders were involved in a vigorous discussion of -- you guessed it -- 4000 times 4000 times 6000. The second graders were watching, fascinated.

They easily got 16,000,000, but then there were a lot of zeros to keep track of. They decided to put aside the zeros for now, and to concentrate on 16 times 6. They didn't have paper or pencil, so they were debating how to solve it mentally. Some solved 15 times 6, then added 6 more. Some did 10 times 6, then 6 times 6, and added the products. I got out a white board marker and handed it to them so they could figure out the zeros. They thought they knew the answer, but wanted to check it in writing.

I asked them questions as they worked. The second graders started inventing more hard problems. Their heads turned from left to right as they watched the seventh graders.

"Man," Anton said as they finished. "They are SMART!" I had to agree.