Monday, August 24, 2015

Pre-school year jitters

The last year or so, I've done very little writing for learning.  I've done quite a bit of writing in other genres, but I haven't had much to say on my teaching or my growth as a teacher or the state of education in general.  There are a few good reasons for this, and a few bad ones.

For a while, I found the state of education policy to be pretty depressing.  People are pulling out of Common Core for all the wrong reasons, nobody knows what the state of Michigan is doing, and I have no hope of the federal Congress doing anything with the status quo in NCLB.  (The fact that they both have produced a bill means that they've already gotten further than I expected, so maybe I'll be surprised.)  I had no insight to offer, only snark and unproductive bitterness, so I stopped writing about it.

My writings about my personal growth have slowed because, now that I'm a member of a team and a pretty high-functioning PLC, my own reflections aren't my only, or even my primary, vehicle for reflection.  So that's not all bad. 

I'm back to where I was some years ago, though, trying to string together competing demands on my limited classroom time and trying to make the best of it.  Writing through this was useful and re-reading the things I wrote was reflective.

So to begin.  I still think that comprehensible input is the mechanism by which people learn languages, and I think that TPRS is basically the most efficient way to give that to students most of the time.  To put it another way, I follow the "comprehensible input" hypothesis as presented (and defended) by Krashen, referenced to extensively elsewhere on the blog.  I also have a curriculum to follow, and I do this as best I can.

The difficulty is that the CI hypothesis runs counter to the way we run schools.  We want to measure progress in a predictable controlled way.  We have benchmarks and final exams and differentiated instruction and rigidly defined curriculum.  But in a CI classroom, language acquisition happens in its own time, and the teacher's job is to provide the conditions for allowing this to happen.

My current struggle: the assessments for TPRS and (for lack of a better word) traditional* classrooms appear to ask completely different questions, almost as if they value different things.  And they do.  My premise is that if I do my job as a CI teacher, they should be able to pass the vocab assessments without difficulty.  Last year this proved not to be the case, but it wasn't my most stellar year.  (This year, more, better, and above all shorter chunks of comprehensible input.  Like, 1-paragraph stories we finish once a week.)

We'll see how that goes. 

*I'm coming to loathe the word "traditional."  It's essentially a straw man for whatever the well-compensated** presenter wants to argue against. In this case I mean anyone who teaches on the premise that the brain creates meaning primarily based on semantic and syntactic relationships--y'know, thematically-related vocabulary lists.

**I know they're not that well-compensated in the world of professional consultants, but you know.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The agenda of school "reformers"

I wrote this in a fit of pique this morning, after reading about Arizona's teacher shortage and the number of classrooms being run by subs.  Not just uncertified but degree-bearing adults who are dedicated to the task, people I call itinerant educators, but subs.  People who took the gig because it's easier to get a job doing that than designing roller coasters (or whatever).  And not just long-term subs, so at least students would get the same lackluster experience every day.  But serial subs, people who come in for a day or a week and the next time you see them it's in Phys Ed instead of in physics. 

Anyway, the following is based on observation and pattern-finding.  It may or it may not reflect reality.  But I find it useful in explaining the actions of school "reformers" and predicting how their big education initiatives will play out.


The agenda of for-profit cheap-labor conservative school “reformers”:

1.) Make teaching an impossible job.
a.) Require excessive bureaucracy.
b.) Mandate high standards and frequent changes, and provide insufficient support.
c.) Reduce salaries and benefits.
2.) Watch as qualified candidates run to more lucrative careers, like delivering pizzas.
3.) Engage in a number of stop-gap measures designed to exacerbate the problem.
a.) Hire unqualified candidates to do the job.  For example, say that teachers with life experience are better than teachers with specialized training in education methodology.
b.) Badly implement reforms based on actual science.
c.) Blame everything on a lack of God in schools.  (Not a requirement, but good for some chuckles.) 
d.) Under-fund the various employment mechanisms.  For example, say that money used to pay teachers’ salaries isn’t “reaching the classroom.” 
5.) Decry the public-education system as a failed experiment. 
6.) Sell your favorite get-rich-quick scheme (charter schools, exclusively-computer-based learning, vouchers) to the state as the only possible solution.  Promise public-school-level results for the same price.  Spend less than 1/7th of the amount on student education.
7.) Profit!

Epilogue: When this doesn’t work, say that you underestimated the costs of special education.  Pocket two years’ profits, close up shop and push the students back into the public school system you’ve worked to dismantle.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The bilingual "advantage"

The bilingual advantage is a theory (I guess, actually a hypothesis) that states that the brains of bilingual children develop differently.  Specifically, it suggests that multilingual children are better at task-switching (going from one kind of thinking activity to another) and executive function (the ability to manage higher-order thinking skills). 

A researcher analyzed the working drafts of 13 years of conference presentations and finds that this advantage might be over-stated. I read about it in the New Yorker.

I have always been of the opinion that the advantage of speaking another language is your ability to speak another language.  I'm not embarassed to say that I've talked about bilingual advantage (the neurological theory) to sell Spanish classes and other programs to decision-makers.  It seems I'll have to take this new research under consideration.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A brief note

On the subject of solving someone else's problems 
in order to 
Avoid working on my own

A friend posted this article stub on another social media site.  The central thesis is that putting recess before lunch time increases students' consumption of fruits and vegetables by 50%, and it does it by increasing the number of students who eat them by 45%.  This is important because it means the kid who normally eats a banana isn't all of a sudden eating 3 of them. 

This led me to wonder why every school doesn't do it, so I asked my friend.  She said that in her school, students spend so long in line that they don't really have time to eat AND play.  One of her friends said that in another school, recess IS before lunch, but the total time is 30 minutes.  This makes it sublimely difficult to eat enough food.

I started thinking about lines then, and how one might speed up the movement of lines full of kindergarteners.  A quick Google search--"how to speed up lines"--mostly led to solutions dealing with writing concise computer code.  Changing the word "lines" to "queues" meant the results were all about networking.

It was about this time I realized that I was doing this as a deliberate strategy to avoid thinking about my own classroom management difficulties.  So, in order to stop procrastinating, I wrote a blog post.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Various items

0.) I have not reflected, in public, at all about my job change or my shift to a younger grade.  I'm still surviving some parts of it, so I haven't really wanted to bare my soul too much.

1.) My principal sent us a PDF from the state talking about Michigan's new state exam.  Among other things, it's going to take pretty much all of the school year after Tax Day.  More importantly, though, they decided to use the bulk of their test questions from Smarter Balanced.  This is noteworthy because:
a.) The state Legislature adopted the Smarter Balanced assessment, until
b.) a bunch of anti-school activists (who don't care what the standards are, they don't like them) made it look like a federal power grab, which caused
c.) every Republican-run state legislature in the country take a "second look" at the standards.  In Michigan that meant
d.) delaying implementation of Smarter Balanced by a year,
i.)leaving schools and teachers who have been gearing up for this change for three years in the lurch,
ii.) with no information about how schools were going to be evaluated during the 2014-15 school year, 
iii.) while the State Board of Education solicited bids from competitors,
iv.) which we're all pretty certain is going to result in Michigan implementing the Smarter Balanced test.
So, in order to avoid implementing the Smarter Balanced test, the state has made an ad-hoc test which is almost entirely made up of the Smarter Balanced test.  Bravos, muchachos.  Muy bien hecho.

2.) On a lighter note, the moreTPRS listserv pointed me in the direction of "A Child's Guide to Language," a documentary about how kids learn languages.  It can be found in chapters on Youtube here.  This could be something I show to parents on Parent Teacher night.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

1 month reflection


"Implementing TPRS in the Elementary School"


Three weeks into the school year, I switched districts and levels.  For the past 4 years, I've taught 7-12 Spanish.  (I also taught a couple years of English, and this year, we started offering Spanish to 6th graders.)  Before that, I taught K-12 Spanish, and it's fair to say that for at least the first two years, my elementary school methodology was an utter disaster.  I got the hang of it after a while, I think, so that if the little ones weren't learning as much as they could have, they at least weren't wasting their time.


This year, everything about my teaching is better than it was the last time I taught elementary school.
1.) Learning goals.  I understand what learning goals are.  I used to think I did, but I didn't.  I understand the difference between learning goals and learning activities.  Most importantly, I understand their use and their limitations in second-language classrooms.
2.) Classroom management.  I am a much better classroom manager than I was, I think.  We spend much more time learning Spanish now than we used to, and it's much less about control and much more about creating community.  I also know just how deficient I still am in this area, which makes me shudder to think of how bad I used to be.
3.) Curriculum.   I know much much better what students should learn in order to be successful at a language, and I understand much much better how well they're supposed to know it.  This began when I stopped using textbooks as a curriculum map, and continued when I learned about using word frequency counts as curriculum guide.
4.) Instruction.  The quality of instruction is much higher.  It's both more engaging and more effective.  Not only are learners engaged and contributing, the instruction is hitting them, as it were, where they live, by doing the things that need doing to learn a language. .  Students can learn about language the way I used to do it, as is evidenced by the fact that some of them managed to do so.  But it turns out that it was far from the best way.
5.) Assessment.  While I'm back to a curriculum that focuses on assessing a fairly arbitrary vocabulary set, it's a much higher-quality assessment of the arbitrary vocabulary set.  At least as importantly, I know how to get the information I actually need from those assessments.
6.) Intervention.  Language intervention was always sort of a tricky subject for me.  I'm not a reading specialist, and frankly, anything I've learned about language acquisition I learned through some mechanism other than my teacher training (at least, until about 3 years ago.)  But now I understand a little bit better how students (especially young students) learn language, and by extension I understand a little bit better why they might not be learning.  This suggests some of the ways I can identify and support students who are having trouble.  It also suggests ways of shaping instruction so as to avoid those troubles to begin with.

Current status:

The basis of my instruction is to use Spanish in a comprehensible way that students find interesting.  Everything else is at best extra or at worse a waste of time.  Dr. Krashen goes so far as to say that "interesting" isn't enough; it needs to be compelling, so compelling the students forget they're listening to another language.  After you have their interest, repeat high-frequency vocabulary until your students are fluent with it.  Fluency means that, when you ask a student actor a question, s/he answers correctly without hesitation.  (This definition comes from Blaine Ray, one of the creators and main propagators of the TPRS method I use.)

Of course, elementary school students are a different breed.  I teach up to 4th grade, and last month I taught 6th grade.  I'm here to tell you there's a lot of learning that goes on in those 2 years.  However, so far, it's played pretty well to the 2nd graders and up.  They're interested in the stories, they want to see what happens next.  I'm using enough of their own cultural references that they're getting it.

 But kindergarteners? Fuggedaboudit.  What are kindergarteners even interested in? 

In my head, my stories are varied enough in form and content to hold attention.  However, kindergarteners' attention spans are really short.  Maximum attention spans, common wisdom goes, equals students's age + 1.  That means most kindergarteners, at the beginning of the school year, can pay attention maybe 6 or 7 minutes.  In a 30-minute class, that means changing activities 5 times. 

I'm really going back to fundamentals here.  I can provide comprehensible input that young learners find compelling, and change activities 5 times in 30 minutes.  In fact, it isn't hard; it just takes--surprise--preparation, a focus on what works.  I'm not hurting anybody, nobody's going to be dumber after I teach them Spanish, so I can slow down, do this right, and make sure I'm doing what kids need me to do. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

A veteran teacher shadows a student

OK, so the co-author of Understanding by Design, Grant Wiggins, has a blog.  (And there goes any free time I once had.)  My friend Jamie points me in the direction of this post.  (By the way, Jamie, you may or may not have known that the owner of that blog is a big juju guy in the education reform [in the right way] world.) 

A veteran shadows 2 students for 2 days--a sobering lesson learned

This is a valuable reflection from the perspective of an administrator.   The key take-aways are breathtaking in their directness, and she has a number of immediately applicable suggestions to improve the daily experience of students.  (It's fairly gratifying to me that a number of her takeaways are things I already try to do.) 

One of the most interesting points here is where she asks her student if the student would be missed.  The student laughed at that prospect.  While I like to think that I make my students feel welcome, I don't know if I'd make them feel like they'd be missed.