Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Do Teachers Need Breaks?

I'll come back to the issue of what I think summer break should be used for, but breaks throughout the school year still strike me as incredibly necessary. Many professions in this country are incredibly exhausting and while I have not worked in many other industries the jobs I have done that are exhausting do not compare to the position I currently hold.

In the spirit of taking a break, this post is short and sweet. Spring break should be used for two things: the first and less important is to prepare for the week or two after spring break and perhaps create a plan for the last few units of the year; the second is to rest up for what will be the final sprint to the end of the year.

It's going to be fast and messy and it's going to make your head spin. After spring break you'll realize how little time you have left to prepare students for exams and cram in the rest of your curriculum and you'll ratchet it up a notch. Students start going crazy and/or checking out entirely and your exhaustion level will peak around the end of May after which you may achieve some level of numbness that will pull you through the end of June where you'll land in a thick cloud of confusion as to what kind of freight train just smashed you to the ground.

I'll address how to pick up the pieces then. As for right now, I'm in Italy doing my damnedest to catch up on sleep and relax. Hopefully I've already planned the lesson for the day I get back so that I won't have to do it while in jet-legged fog the night we get back stateside (which happens to be the night before school begins again).

First Years: If you've made it this far, you'll make it to the end of the year. Do yourself and your students a favor and use spring break for what it's intended to be- a break.

Today's Wine: Whatever bottle I'm drinking on my quest to "sample" at least one nice local vintage each day during break.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Lectures and Liveliness

While in the school of education, the social studies majors took enough history courses to be just two shy of an independent B.A. in history. Some courses were riveting, captivating, and some were monstrously dull. All of them were lecture-based. As these were the last history courses most of us took before becoming teachers ourselves, they greatly influenced how we approached teaching the subject in the classroom. As the saying goes, "Teachers teach as they were taught." While we came out being rather knowledgeable about history, we also came out wanting to lecture to classes having not even done much of that ourselves and not knowing a great deal about teaching otherwise. In short, I wasn't really sure what giving a lecture was or what it could be.

Last year my debates about kinesthetic and teacher-centered learning were in the trash can after two days along with everything else I'd thought about and planned for leading up to my first year- the compelling lectures, the "lab of democracy"...everything. As I was clawing my way to stable ground I had to abandon the few tools I'd brought with me for something that would deliver any instruction to my students. All of those ideas went briefly to a back burner and then into the back of a storage closet that I wouldn't even look at until weeks after the entire school year was over. I was less concerned with determining how much I was lecturing and more concerned with getting students to do a lick of work.

After student teaching I had plans when approaching my first classroom about turning it into something like a history laboratory. A place where all the space- walls, ceiling, floors- would be utilized to create as much "living history" as possible. I envisioned building walls that slid around the classroom to act as extra bulletin board space or the Berlin Wall, to divide the class into two groups when necessary to promote competition, etc. I wanted several time lines strung across the ceilings holding artifacts from each unit of study and a real graffiti wall where students could use the space to express whatever (appropriate) sociological ideas they had when we delved into the roots of American history. I'd seen pictures of the classrooms of other teachers that came out of my school of education who turned their workspace into a workshop for social studies and I wanted to create something to blow them all out of the water. History was to be anything but a series of lectures where a guy stands at the front of the room and reads from his notes.

After I stood back up at the end of last year and dusted off my rump, I got to thinking about teaching again, but with a far larger dose of reality to go on. Something I didn't see back in the school of education was that well-placed lectures are educational. Perhaps students won't retain enough of it to score high on a quiz of every detail, but to lecture effectively, to tell a story and get students to listen to an adult for more than five minutes at length, is something majestic and difficult- and it can certainly be educational. To be quite honest I can't recall much of the information presented to me in the most inspiring lectures I've attended. The point was less the specific pieces of information given and more the motivation I felt leaving the hall where I listened to someone speak. It was less about learning line-item facts and more about wanting to do something- having the very real desire to act- once I left the lecture hall. That is what a large part of education is supposed to be about- not just learning facts to spout when it's convenient and appropriate but gaining the desire to do something meaningful with your life.

At this point in my second year I'm not sure what I want to do with the idea of the lecture, but I still feel it definitely has its place in the classroom. Granted, I don't think it should be the most common mode of instructional delivery, nor even used on a very frequent basis. When students are listening at length to what you have to say where I teach (and perhaps most places), you get the feeling that the time cannot be wasted and that you damn well better utilize it to drive home a larger point about social studies and life in general.

Today's Wine: A generic red from an Asian fusion place up the street. I've been a bit dry this past week- perhaps in anticipation of a trip to Italy that begins the minute school is out this Friday.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Democracy = Conference Proposals?

Looking for a good time? Looking to improve your research and writing skills and perhaps do some traveling in the meantime? Are you interested in determining what will be taught in history classes around the country? Hi. I'm Nick James and I'm here today to tell you about my work with the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). I've been a card-carrying member for the past handful of years. In that time I've traveled to foreign lands (Kansas), made new friends, and had barrels of laughs.

I got my membership renewal bill in the mail today. The reason I joined this organization was not because I thought it would bring me any more knowledge than my time in the school of education, it was because my revered adviser wanted to bring me along to a conference a number of years ago and I had to be a member to go. Since that time I've attended the annual conference every year, seeing Washington D.C., San Diego, Houston, and Atlanta along the way. My approach each year has varied from "must learn and attend as many lectures as possible" to "let's present and then walk around on a real aircraft carrier and then drink a bottle of wine on the beach." At any rate, it's been a good time getting around some major cities in this country that I might not have seen otherwise. I've also been on the ticket of a proposal every year that was accepted to be presented at the conference, which of course was a major draw to go.

Last year I signed up to review the conference proposals that people submit to the organization. What this means is that I rate about thirteen proposals and send the feedback to the conference committee for final approval. I can write "definitely reject" or "definitely accept" and have considerable sway in terms of what gets in or what doesn't. It, of course, makes me feel very powerful and excited to be determining what the leading social studies organization showcases at its national conference, though I'm not incredibly sure of the exact impact I have on the field or system.

At any rate, reviewing proposals strikes me as being very active in my field. In an education system where support for social studies is waning in the shadow of falling literacy levels, the job of figuring out what should be taught in history classes may be more important than ever. As NCSS (as well as other subject-specific national organizations) does have some sway in helping states determine their content standards, taking up the torch as a member, while at times uninterested, seemingly pointless, and mundane, is something that more people should do.

Much like the democracy we live in, if you do not show up to vote you have very little say in what happens to you. Many people complain that voting has no effect anyway, but that's in large part due to the fact that so many people think it doesn't matter. I'm of the opinion that you should vote first and then work to change the system if you're displeased with it. If you do not make your voice heard in the forum that's been designed to do so and then simply complain all the time about social/educational ills, your voice oftentimes loses all its power.

My Advice: Join your content area's national organization. Stay current on what's going on in the field. Don't just complain about what's happening around you in the wide world of education, actively work to make a difference in it. Doing what you think is best in your own classroom is fine and well, but it stops at the door if you don't take your ideas into a larger context. And I don't mean the staff lounge.

Today's Wine: 2005 Cardeal Dao Colheita Seleccionada. This was a discount wine bin grab. At first I was incredibly skeptical. I thought it lacked any body and was just a dry, tart, bland red. It ended up being pretty decent. I'm not sure how it happened. Perhaps I should look into that characteristic in wines.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Ed Knowledge Off the Front Line

It sometimes escapes me that people who are off the front lines know so much about education. Thinking that others don't know anything about what we do is entirely ridiculous. My problem is that I bury myself so far in the idea of fighting the good fight I forget that everyone back home has some knowledge of education and many know a lot about what good education is and what it looks like, even if they've got a different perspective. Running around thinking everyone outside the field can "hardly understand" is pretty arrogant and negative. Having conversations with people completely outside of the field can bring you back down to earth and off the lone-ranger high horse and help to remind you that plenty of people know about education.

This weekend my younger brother took time out of his busy schedule to visit me, flying over from the parallel American universe we lovingly refer to as Kansas. We hit the town, got soaked in the monsoon that blew through and had a pretty great time overall. Shortly before he left we went to a German restaurant near my apartment for a beer. Once there we got to talking about our family, business, his approaching wedding, politics, the wide world of education and a number of other things would-be adults generally discuss.

Now, my brother is an educated guy, but he's not in the field of education. He's finishing his degree in business this spring (while playing on a nationally-renowned collegiate table-tennis team) and will probably land a solid job in the next few months to start his career out in Oz. While I didn't expect him to be void of opinions on the major issues facing the field of education, I was blown away by his views that were not only well-based, but not sweeping generalizations like many of the things I even say about the field. It was very apparent that he'd learned a good amount about the issues, had strong (but not extreme) opinions backed up by facts and was willing to stop elaborating on them when he could no longer do so. On top of that, he listened very carefully when I expanded on his opinions, giving him more facts and my own opinions about the field.

In the school of education I was sometimes indignant when people offered their opinions on what was happening in my field. How could they possibly know? They'd never been there! Never mind that I hadn't either. I'd been through years of boot camp. Clearly I had something to say and others should have been listening. Never mind that they'd gone through the system themselves; never mind that they might know people in the field; never mind that they simply could have done a lot of reading about education, which is headline news more and more these days. I was a very nearly a teacher and therefore an expert on everything related to the classroom!

Riiiight. While people outside the field may not know what it's like to control a classroom, they understand many of the issues surrounding the system- much like those who've chosen to educate themselves about U.S. foreign policy know to a certain extent why our armed forces do what they do in the Middle East. To take it a step further, the public should be informed about issues going on in the wide world of education (and the Middle East) and should have a strong desire to get to the roots of the problems with the system. To discourage discussion of those issues and act like a know-it-all is hardly going to drum up support for sweeping changes in the system and may even turn people off to the future teachers going through the traditional route to the classroom, which is how most teachers are still prepared before marching off to the front line.

Today's Wine: The beer in a glass boot I shared with the table tennis champ.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Reading is Ridiculous

Sometimes I get so irritated about the fact that my students do not read well. My job is supposedly to teach them about citizenship, government regulation, economic systems, personal rights, etc. My job should NOT be to teach fourteen year-olds to read. It is though. It will be for the foreseeable future. My job is to teach students to read because they don't do it very well and without that ability they will not be successful. Accepting that is incredibly important; learning to deal with it is the next step and planning curriculum and instruction can be accomplished after that.

To be clear, many of my students read at or above grade level. In fact, a full third of them do. The rest of the students, however, do not. Because the average level is much lower than an eighth grade level, I give them material that is written on the average reading level of the grade so that No Child Is Left Behind. At one time I thought that if a student tried hard enough they'd magically advance numerous reading levels under my tutelage. Alas, for that to happen is astronomically unlikely. For it to happen in a first-year teacher's classroom is damn-near impossible.

I sat down with my lil' Wayne wannabe earlier this year to discuss why it is important to learn to read. He is still convinced that his best option is to drop out and start working on his first album. What I told him was lil' Wayne knew how to read and write fairly well before he dropped out and that he (the wanna be) needed to raise his reading level to at least an eighth grade level from a fourth grade level before he has a shot in the record business. When I told him the average reading level for the grade is three years behind, he became incensed. He started blaming everyone in the world for such a catastrophe of reading levels (except of course, himself). The tantrum was expected and my only response was that it wasn't one person's fault, nor a single group's (teachers', parents', students', administrators', etc.). The last thing I was going to do was start naming names.

At a professional development I attended this week (which deserves its own post), the presenter clarified the basis of my frustration with the reading situation: teachers expect that in elementary school students learn to read; in middle and high school students read to learn. The fact of the matter is, however, that students come to me and cannot read. I cannot send them back and sending them on is really out of my hands (in spite of the failing grades I hand out). What I can do is try, with the help of my team (the English teacher in particular) to boost scores at least one grade level at a point when low reading levels seem to creep to a halt altogether.

We do a lot of things to combat the low reading levels. Some of them are:
  • collaborating to use the same reading/writing strategies in both classes
  • handing out two different homework assignments (reading assignments) for my classes on a given day and on some giving out three to differentiate for the varied levels
  • silent reading of social studies trade books this year with sets of leveled books
  • explicitly teaching reading strategies with whatever piece we're covering in class
Last year differentiating, planning across the curricula and collaborating with other teachers was at a minimum because I was so consumed by my own classroom and to be perfectly honest I'm still figuring out what's the best way to approach this thing.

Reading is a tough thing to tackle. I do believe strongly that because my students are so far behind it is my job to work with my team to bring their levels up. While it means less time to devote to social studies in the ways I know how to teach social studies, my students need to learn to read and to read well. While according to our state they are, for the most part, not being left behind in K-12 education, they certainly are after they get to college or the world of work. I should not have to teach students to read, but for me to walk away from my job at the end of the year without having tried to give students one of the fundamental skills included in a formal education would be for me to not have tried to educate them.

Today's Wine: A house Sangiovese at an Italian place on the West Side- Campo. To be honest I didn't pay a lot of attention to it, but it went well with the pancetta in my pasta.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Kids in Power?

Last year I was intensely paranoid about giving students power. I wanted to micro-manage and I was terrible at it. On the one hand I wanted the students to do the things I knew they could and should be able to do (behave in class, work in groups, pass a stack of papers from the front of the room to the back, etc.). On the other hand, by this time last year the idea of giving an ounce of leeway- to say nothing of the amount liberally taken from my students on a daily basis- made my stomach turn. I felt that giving any responsibility to a student in class would end in a larger headache than before. Even with the good ones I'd flash back to an instance when they'd made a bad decision and my trust in their ability to come through with anything would vanish.

These fears are pretty normal from what I can tell. Most of my peers coming out of the school of ed had control over most aspects of their lives and were pretty secure with who they were. Six months into the year many of them and I had been jarred off of our foundation, well out of our comfort zone. The prospect of giving up control to the classes that had done this, even of passing out highlighters, was certainly something that got to me. What is important to point out is that at this point in the year it should be very obvious that much of teaching is not at all intuitive to the rookie teacher. Many good teaching practices when presented to me last year at this time were counter-intuitive. When a veteran teachers told me to give power over to the very students that had been making my life hell for months I'm sure I gave them more than just a stink eye.

The fact of the matter is that a bunch of your students, however crazy the lot of them are acting, want you to give them a job that they can perform to help you and make you proud. Doesn't mean giving them A's on mindless work at the end of a period, but letting them participate in the process of teaching them. Giving them roles in the classroom, handing over some of the management and power, is really reinforcing your own authority. Think of it this way: you've probably fought them tooth and nail all year to do what you wish- academic tasks. Getting the class to go along with me for anything was a chore last year. Instances where they're ready to help out is like greasing the wheels for future cooperation with directions.

At this point in the second year I'm trying to delegate as much as possible. My students and I have enough of a rapport that when I ask for volunteers to hand back papers, pass out materials or come up in front of the class to help prove some fantastically relevant historical point, a good handful of students are ready and willing. What is more is that I don't throw up a little in my mouth when I hand over a bucket of scissors or highlighters to my scissor/highlighter monitor of the day.

It's tough to micro-manage if you can't manage a damned thing. The biggest on-the-job-training piece for new teachers is classroom management. It is by far the most difficult thing to learn from a textbook and most schools of education I've heard of. If you want to do larger projects with students that involve a lot of intricate planning, supplies, movement in the classroom, etc., it's nearly impossible to do so without the help of the students.

Today's Wine: BV Coastal Cabernet. A lot of restaurants carry this one. I've had it before and it's a pretty solid bottle for the table. It was at or a bit above room temperature where we ordered it tonight, which was not preferable, but it went pretty well with the italian cold cuts and prosciutto and fig pizza we ordered.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Hat Friday

A crazy impression I was left with coming out of the school of education was that I was too dignified and professional to do "silly teacher stuff"- costumes, outlandish classroom decorations, etc. Really what I had was a vague idea that teachers needed to be professionals- in my mind that meant they should wear ties every day and not treat the job like some kind of production. Anything "unconventional" was gimmicky to me and perhaps even disrespectful to my students as surely it would be insulting their intelligence to do any of that. The problem was I lumped pretty much everything outside of lecture-based instruction into this crazy-stuff category including loads of hands-on, tactile learning strategies. By the end of the year last year I started to really see the value in making things more tactile for my students, but I didn't really know how to do that in a history classroom.

This year I started small. Instead of transforming and entire classroom into some kind of alternate social studies dimension, I bought a few props, more real decorations for the room and some more tangible, positive incentives that would support the curriculum rather than promote tooth decay. I mentioned the button-maker before, which is a way of keeping academic achievement in front of my students' faces all year. I also used the flags of all countries my students represent to cover my entire classroom ceiling. The idea behind that one was to give students something to connect to immediately in the room and originally it was going to be used for something to do with our immigration unit last fall, but I lost track of that one.

My other major "gimmick" this year was conceived based on the notion that my students destroyed everything they could get their hands on last year. It was actually kind of impressive how much stuff they broke, vandalized and whisked away. Come September I wanted to bring things into the classroom to make history more concrete, but I still didn't trust students not to destroy or steal whatever I brought. It was also impossible for me to carry something around the entire period or stand over it and watch it, as some students last year took any opportunity where I was tied down to something (oftentimes helping an individual student) to start up the mayhem. My response: hats. I figured that if they could connect to it and I could wear it around the entire class period I would achieve all the goals I just laid out.

For every unit I've had at least one hat to wear representing the time period. These are worn on Fridays and I tell students they too can wear a hat in school against the Chancellor's regulations if, and only if, they explain how it relates to what we're studying. So far I've had a Union Soldier hat, hard hat, welding helmet, WWI soldier helmet, paperboy hat, fedora, bowler, a trucker hat with a women's suffrage cartoon on it, a headlamp to affix to the hard hat, a paperboy hat with pieces of burlap stitched to it, a Yankee hat, and today arrived in the mail my genuine American WWII soldier M-1 helmet.

While buying hats, flags and a button-maker might not strike many as ideal kinesthetic pedagogy, it's a big step up from the lame projects I had my students complete last year that generally included drawing stick figures with colored pencils and writing two sentences on the back of the thing. As I move forward with the idea of "living history" I hope to acquire more artifacts of what makes up America and what has made up America. Creating some kind of concrete connection to the material, especially for our students, is incredibly important in helping them to understand it.

Disclaimer: As an important side note, this stuff does cost money. This could be especially burdensome for first-year teachers. Last year (mostly last fall) I spent enough money on my classroom that TurboTax sent up a flag telling me "great job!" I thought that was somewhat telling. If you're strapped for cash you should realize that these sorts of things certainly aren't quick fixes and that you can't buy your way out of a crappy situation. That said, I think it's also unreasonable to expect teachers to spend hundreds, if not thousands, of their own dollars on their classroom in order to make it a place to which students want to come.

Today's Wine: Luigi Bosca Reserve Malbec 2006. We went to a fairly new restaurant called Setlights. The bartender let us try two Malbecs and we picked this one. It was heavier than the other and described by my girlfriend as "warm and cozy."