Sunday, October 5, 2014

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

For the past few weeks, our curriculum coordinator (a dear friend and all around wonderful, thoughtful person*) has been coming at me with data. She knows perfectly well that I find numbers repellant, so she tries to soften me up with lollipops and promises. She claims that by digging into the data about NECAPs and NWEAs we will be able to increase our test scores! She tells me this fully believing that I give a rat's ass about test scores. She also tells me that by looking at the data I will be able to give targeted instruction to my students to help them become better readers and writers -- now that's more like it.

Here's the thing, though - she wants me to focus on "bubble kids" or those students who were just a few points shy of scoring in the proficient range on the NWEAs. And, if you're looking at numbers, that makes a lot of sense, right? If I can focus my limited attention on kids who are nearly proficient, I can take our school from being in the AYP doghouse into the promised land, and we'll all be able to attend conferences with teachers from York and Kennebunk without bowing our heads in shame. Except, wait a minute, we aren't talking about numbers, not really. WE'RE TALKING ABOUT CHILDREN! Human beings with hopes and dreams and moms and dads and futures. Shouldn't my focus be on helping those kids who are furthest behind, the ones at greatest risk for dropping out and going to work in the coal mines?** Statistics may tell me that I will have the greatest impact school-wide if I focus on "bubble kids" but when I look into the big brown eyes of Natalia, who has a voice like an angel and the reading level of a third grader, I don't care that she scored a one instead of a two. All I see is a kid who needs my help.

Data has its place. Making big decisions about scheduling and curriculum design should always be based on data rather than our own (mis)conceptions about what's important and what's not. And, if the data can show me specifics about where my students have gaps in their learning, bring it on! But let's not forget that behind those numbers are real live people who deserve everything a public education can offer them.

* For real - she is one of the best people I know. We just don't happen to agree on this one issue, as you can probably tell.
**There are no actual coal mines in Saco, Maine.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Being Odd is Good

For the past few days I have been attending the Northeast TURN Conference, and boy does my brain hurt! TURN stands for Teacher Union Reform Network, so this conference brings together educational leaders, union big wigs, admins, smarty pants from Harvard, and humble 8th grade ELA teachers, all for the sake of strengthening education. TURN was created many years ago from the notion that educators should be at the forefront of education reform, and that unions shouldn't just be about protecting the 20 minute lunch; unions should be advocates for social justice.
I've attended five of these conferences in Cambridge and I've gone twice to the national TURN conference in Chicago (where I developed my deep and abiding love for the Chicago Cubs). Sometimes the work of TURN feels too big for little old me. What do I have to say to people from Washington, with their posh suits and their knack for talking for ten minutes without actually saying anything? This time, though, I decided to talk, even if my ideas came across as small or silly. I'm glad I did, because I made some great connections and engaged in some wonderful conversations.
Here are some of the highlights of the conference, which was focused on education in general with a side order of teacher evaluation:

  • Here's a metaphor for you in response to the suggestion that the answer to failing schools is to train teachers better: Imagine a dangerous intersection. There are 30 accidents a day at this intersection, so street reformers come along and say, "Let's have everybody take classes in driving, since the greatest indicator of success in road safety is safe drivers." OR here's an idea- you could put in a stop sign! Systemic change is necessary, bandaids and placing blame won't cut it. 
  • Another metaphor:  If we ran hospitals the way we run schools, doctors would say, "Regardless of your ailment, we are going to give you identical treatments in the hopes that it will make the majority of you well." 
  • The idea that we will start kids off in Kindergarten, bringing them together from disparate backgrounds and at widely varying levels of cognitive ability, and then keep them together for 12 years regardless - that's not helping anyone. 
  • Teacher evaluation should be used not to find and fire but to support and inspire. 
  • Education reform must address three issues if it is to be meaningful:
    • Customized education that meets every kid where he is in early childhood and continues through graduation. We acknowledge prior experience, different ways of learning; the meritocracy no longer applies (mass customized learning).
    • Deal with poverty front and center - the things that stop kids from attending school and being able to thrive physically and emotionally. This must be the work of our unions, too, and non-cognitive features need to be addressed. 
    • Create a level playing field for out of school opportunities.
As always happens when I attend a conference where Big Ideas are presented, I have trouble sleeping because my mind races with what I want to do about all I've learned. That's not a problem, though - I kind of like that about myself. When I was talking to Andy from Massachusetts Education Partnership District Capacity Project
 I told him about the challenges of working in a school that desperately needs change but is filled with fear about that change, how difficult it is to stand up and call for systemic reform when it's so much easier to keep my head down and just teach. He patted me on the back, smiled, and said, "You're odd. Being odd is good." So that's my mantra now - being odd is good.

Sunday, September 28, 2014


The author as a 7th grader.
Methinks the self-pity was appropriate. 
I was your text book under-achiever back in middle school. I scored well on achievement tests, particularly for reading and writing, but my grades hovered in the C range. My only As were in chorus. Had there had been courses in teen angst, self pity, and general malaise with suicidal tendencies, I would have garnered a place on the honor roll for sure, but science, math, social studies? Not so much. I was not built, then or now, to sit at a desk and absorb information and then spit it back out again, and I was certainly not built to complete fill-in-the-blank worksheets. If memory serves correctly, my teachers chalked up my issues with homework completion and lack of focus to my being LAZY. If they had looked a bit closer they might have seen that, along with my being a text book under-achiever I was also a text book child of an alcoholic, and homework was the last thing on my to-do list. But to be fair memory may not serve correctly -- after all, it's been nearly 30 years.

Every year I have a certain number of kids who I can point to and say, "Yep - this kid's just like me." I know I'm not supposed to have favorites, but honestly, the bright kids who suck at school are my favorites, because I can relate to them so well. There's also a place in my heart for the kids who are bright in non-academic ways, the kids who can build a computer or know about crop rotation or can tell you anything you want to know about every kind of fish in the Saco River. And since those are my favorite kids - the slackers and let's call them the "hands-on" kids - I have been thinking a lot over the years about the myriad ways I am letting them down.

When I say "I", I don't just mean I. I also mean the structure of Saco Middle School, the way we "do" school. Ever since I watched this video and this video of creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson, I have been questioning, worrying, and trying to figure out how to create change within my little 55 minute block of ELA. It seems bananas to me that after all we've learned about education and the way kids learn we are still sectioning off our day in 55 minute chunks of "sit and git." I've become an avid reader of the website and have tried to incorporate the ideas of Project Based Learning, again within my little 55 minute block. And I've looked for opportunities to share my ideas with colleagues and my principal. I even wrote up this proposal and this idea to try and get my message out there.

And guess what? It worked. My principal and I met last week and she and I are putting together a committee to try and re-think the way teams/scheduling/Alt Ed are done at SMS. I'm super excited about the possibilities...and super nervous that all my teacher friends are going to hate my guts. Change is hard, you know?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Lucy Calkins, huh?

Our District bought me a very thoughtful gift this summer - a boxed writing curriculum written by the one and only Lucy Calkins! Actually it was written by two women named Kate and Katy, but they wrote it with Lucy's blessing. I was asked to pilot their writing program this year, and I agreed because I am a good do bee.

I wanted so badly not to like it. I am a creator of curriculum! Lesson planning is one of the few areas of my life where I get to truly create something new and exciting, and I resented being handed a boxed module and told, "Here zombie teacher -- do this." Today we started off with the first lesson, and I'll admit, it's pretty good. Kate and Katy know their stuff. I especially like how they take kids step by step through the process of discovering the themes in a story. It's also helping me to push myself as a teacher, and I do love a good push.

Here's the trouble though. Because I am piloting this thing, I am supposed to do the program with complete fidelity, and I'm just not a fidelitous kind of gal. I like to tweak. I like to be flexible and open. If we find a spider's egg during show and tell, I want to scrap the curriculum and write poems about the miracle of life while we watch those spiderlings fly away (if you have no idea what I'm referencing, you obviously never had a child ask to read Show and Tell Bunnies every. blessed. day. for six months). If a Great Big Question pops up, I want to be able to ponder and discuss and dissect with my kids, not look at the clock and say, "Sorry, no time for inquisitiveness. Get back to your essay writing."

For now, I am going to give Kate and Katy my best effort, as well as the benefit of the doubt. If something comes up I suppose I will just add a day to my calendar. We may still be writing The Thematic Essay in May, but at least it will still feel like our classroom.

The Middle School Life

If you had told me when I was 13 that I would end up in 8th grade as my career, I would have laughed in your face, then kicked you in the shin. I loathed middle school and could not wait to get the hell out of there. I hated the kids, despised the teachers, and mostly ignored the curriculum, though when forced to do it I hated that too. Anyway, I was headed to London to play Ophelia with the RSC, thank you very much.

Guess what? The RSC was not interested, and I now live in Saco, Maine and go to Saco Middle School every day with a smile on my face. Those teachers I despised? I am one of them. Those kids I hated? They haven't changed much, except their braces are purple and they have iPhones, and I love them now. As for the curriculum, I may still want to ignore it sometimes but I'm generally eager to jump in and make it work.

This blog is a place for me to share my passion for teaching and learning, to reflect on my practice, and to share some of my favorite blogs and resources. I hope you enjoy reading!