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.