Monday, December 8, 2008

Merit pay updated

The results are in, and they're unclear:

The lower turnover rate among recipients of merit pay is an interesting point. It's like an element of Positive Behavior Support--positive recognition for achievement is a powerful motivator in behaviorism.

The debate continues....

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Merit pay

Merit pay has been receiving a lot of attention recently, and a lot of it has drifted my way. The idea is to incentivize teacher improvement by paying teachers extra for bigger increases in student achievement. I've always been skeptical of it, as a good soldier of the MEA, and because it's always been suggested by people whose interests I believe run counter to those of public education in general, and public education teachers specifically. But there's so much talk about it, I figured a cool, collected, reasoned consideration of it was just about due.

First, we start with the Union's position (to be accurate, these links are from the MEA PAC, but they're representative of ont only the Union's position, but that of other unions):

The MEA on the 2008 election
The MEA on merit pay

It's not surprising that the MEA would be against it. First, if their objective is to be the rising tide that lifts all ships , or the guardian of all teachers and not just the best and the brightest, then any way of singling some teachers out for added benefits while subjecting other teachers to (probably) disciplinary measures would run counter to their goals. Second, the power of collective bargaining is inevitably undercut when compensation is given on an individual basis. The author of the first article points out a third problem: where it's been tried in the past, merit pay solutions are underfunded. That's not surprising, since failing to increase teacher salaries is one tried-and-true method of decreasing expenditures. As politically difficult as it may be to convince the union to go along with salary cuts, it's logistically easier than, say, replacing all the windows in school with more energy-efficient versions. (Less up-front costs, too.) In addition, if the merit pay is thought of as "extra" or "bonus" (and I have no reason to think that administrations feel this way, except that the payments are often called "extra" or "bonus" pay), then it would be very easy for a cash-strapped superintendent to say, "No MEAP bonuses this year, chaps, very sorry, have a half-holiday instead, except I can't give you that, either." (For the record, my superintendent isn't a London headmaster.)

However, given the vehement opposition that unions normally give merit pay, expressing disbelief that administrations can or would consistently come through with the cash is a surprisingly mild protest. Put another way, on a prioritized list of problems with merit pay, how to pay for the bonuses would be problem #57. I'm a little surprised to see that someone in a union has gotten past the first 56 problems to seriously contemplate that one.

And now, for something completely different:

The Mackinac Center's take on merit pay

"Although it is true that teachers do more than merely teach students how to read, write and do arithmetic, students should be able to demonstrate the academic progress they make during the 180-day school year on standardized tests." This sentence deserves to be surgically dissected, have each of the bits examined closely under a microscope, and thoroughly analyzed. And then whatever's left should be poked with a stick and quietly incinerated. It sums up every issue I have with the Mackinac Center's education policy.

First: "Although it is true that teachers do more than merely teach students how to read, write and do arithmetic..." Thanks for the recognition! I can't tell if it's just in my head, but that's awfully condescending. I guess it beats a poke in the eye, though. But it feels like a poke in the eye. Even granted the general tone of recognition that this phrase tries to adopt, it seems to stick in the writer's craw to have to confess that teachers are anything but computer-programming computers. "...students should be able to demonstrate..." for a given value of "demonstrate," I assume. "...the academic progress they make in the 180-day school year..." Someday, I'll talk about the 180-day school year. In brief: I would like teacher base salaries to increase 25% and have a 225-day (or longer) school year; that would just about cover the testing requirements. I assume that the Mackinac center would like the school year to be longer, and would like teachers to do it for free. "...on standardized tests." If I trusted standardized tests, I might feel this statement held more weight. I do agree that some sort of relationship between instruction and a solidly-designed standardized test should be evident. But I don't think that standardized tests should be the objective, the way the writer suggests.

My principal receives an e-mail called "Before the Bell," which is a news summary from the NAESP. He forwards me these when they contain something he thinks I'll be interested in, or if they have something pertinent to a conversation we've had recently. The following are all articles brought to my attention through that source:

As someone who works for a school that hasn't been able to afford annual raises (as opposed to seniority step raises) in years, a 2.5% raise down from 5% seems like a fair deal. But in real life, annual raises of 4 - 5% doesn't seem like it should be out of bounds. Even so, I don't like the concept that educators' salaries can and should be cut for the good of the students. Inflation affects all; it's not necessarily true that what's good for teachers is good for students, but I think it's fair to say that what's bad for teachers is bad for students.

This link highlights some of the concerns that teachers feel, and that all right-thinking folk should have in mind. I don't know that we have the information-gathering systems at the micro-classroom level to accurately determine who's effective and who's not. And truly, I don't know if we ever will. Classrooms simply seem like too small a sample size.

This article suggests some of the benefits to teachers. It's pre-election, so it has a campaign touch at the end. A pretty positive take on the thing.

My conclusion is this: If we do this right (and we won't), if the money is there (and even if it is there now, it won't be soon), we still wouldn't know enough, COULDN'T know enough to apply this fairly. What bonus, for instance, would a Latin teacher receive when her students scored above the schoolwide average on the English section of the ACT? Even if we kick it up a step and work it to a school level--something that might encourage educators to work together, and take away the "competitive" argument--there's still no way to pay out in a way that recognizes the many elements of improving test scores. I think I'm broadly in favor, on the basis that teachers should be paid more, and if increased accountability is the price, then that can probably be a good thing, too. But the wide value of accountablility by its very nature makes determining who would get paid an almost-arbitrary matter. So long as a school district is willing to take that responsibility, then it might want to try it.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Competing demands

There is social pressure at my school for two mutually exclusive, yet very important, elements in lesson plans: 1.) a classroom experience which places a premium on teacher/student relationships and in-class experience, and 2.) portability of lessons, so students can re-learn standards and make up assessments in places other than the classroom.

The first is important for several reasons. One reason is sort of a justification for the continued existence of brick-and-mortar schools: if a student could take what they're doing in your classroom and do it anywhere, then why does s/he need to go to school? The converse seems like it would be a good argument against brick-and-mortar schools: Students shouldn't have to go to public schools; anything they can learn there, they can learn with their iPods and computers at home. Put another way, I don't have to stay here to do worksheets, I can do worksheets at the beach! (I can't cite a source where I've seen this argument. But it doesn't seem like the sort of thing I'd come up with on my own. I suspect the Mackinac Center, but then I blame them for everything*.) To be clear, I'm very pro-brick-and-mortar-school, and I'm very pro-technology-in-education. In addition, I think it's just a sign of respect towards the students that you're going to use their time efficiently.

Another reason for good, high-quality experiences in the classroom is that a much higher-quality educational experience can occur in the classroom. We teachers are supposed to be experts in edcuation, by which I mean we can do better than pass out "match-the-word-to-the-picture-it-describes" worksheets, sit back, and watch the "learning" occur. With the time we have our students in class--with all its flaws, with all the interruptions, with all the classroom management difficulties and personality-conflict issues and apparent student apathy, the experience we can give to students while they're in our presence is better in every way than the one they can get without us--it should be broader, wider, and deeper than the experience they get by bouncing YouTube videos back and forth to each other. I'm not downing on technology, of course. But technology is most effective (educationally speaking) when it's coordinated with other technology and real life (not controlled, coordinated) by an intelligent, aware adult with an eye on long-term learning objectives. And even then, there's a lot that can't be learned on the computer outside of the classroom.

On the other side, a certain amount of portability in lessons is necessary. Students are absent; they have to go to the office; you go to a conference and leave a substitute who almost certainly knows nothing about your subject (regardless of what your subject is); you have to work lessons around Picture Day and the Halloween Costume Parade. Occasionally, they spend time in in-school suspension. During these times, a packet of papers that students can take with them and interact with the lesson in a less real-time way becomes much more attractive, to teacher and student. I get frustrated when I spend a long, productive day full of kinesthetic learning activities that students seem to enjoy, and the next day another student comes up and says, "What did we do yesterday? My mom needed help frosting cupcakes." (Or I was on my death-bed with strep throat. Whatever.) It seems really lame to say, "Remember the vocab sheet I gave you on Tuesday? That's what we did." ¿Meh?

Also, if a student doesn't understand a lesson the first time you teach it, it's not going to do a whole lot of good to simply repeat the way you did it. So you need to have a backup plan. So twice, I've now come up with a reason for having more than one lesson plan--one, full of classroom-intense, socially- and emotionally-rich lesson plans, another that has students teaching themselves your material somehow. *Sigh* The good news is that most textbook companies already have the second lessons covered.

*This is tongue-in-cheek. I'm willing to listen to any idea that supports education that the Mackinac Center for Public Policy comes up with. As soon as they have one, I'm sure someone will let me know.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Day-to-day consistency and lesson planning

I'm never really been sure as how to structure a class so that it looks the same every day, what with the wide variety of events that might happen in a school day. I know that part of that is designing and teaching a procedure to get back on task after interruptions, but the interruptions range in intrusiveness such that one procedure, even two or three or procedures, to get them back on task continues to escape me.

So my lesson plan has been an ad-hoc document, an objective followed by a list of activities designed to achieve the objective. That's probably fine as far as it goes, but it means that Wednesday doesn't look much like Monday. (Also, Wednesday doesn't often look like Wednesday's plan.) This makes it hard to model the same 3 or 4 classroom-management phrases in Spanish every day, which makes it nigh impossible for me to conduct class entirely in Spanish, which is the goal.

So, I've spent some amount of time looking for a way of making plans that would help establish a more consistent daily class structure. And I finally found a document that was handed to me during the New Teacher Academy meetings, and probably during my teacher education courses in college, based on Hunter (1984):

  • Warm-up:
  • Objective:
  • Instructional input:
  • Modeling:
  • Activities/Questions Strategies
  • Guided practice
  • Independent practice
  • Closure
A lot of this looks like it would fit well into a WL class, and into my class in particular. Every day, I have a warm-up activity and a learning objective to engage students in what they already know. Instructional input is what in world language pedagogy would be called "comprehensible input." "Input flood," a term I've only recently come across and thus may be misinterpreting, transfers to modeling. Activities / questions strategies (called by Marzano "checking for understanding" (2007) ) just involves a preliminary check that the students gets what they're supposed to get and how they're supposed to go about getting it. (I say just; it's no simple matter. I often think I've taken great pains to make sure students understand, only to have to anser the same question I've just addressed 4 times.) Guided practice==in-class checks; independent practice==more practice; homework. Closure = a formative assessment and some groundwork for a summative assessment down the road.

Here's where my issue lies: In the Communication column of my standards, each lesson has to take two things into consideration: context and communicative mode. (Ideally, a lesson should also include some Cultural context; get a student to make Connections between this lesson, other classes, and their own lives; help a student make communicative and cultural Comparisons, and then help move their learning into their Communities. But one step at a time.) If a unit has 3 communicative contexts, it means that there are 18 different lessons that happen in an ideal world: a spoken / listening conversation; an written / read conversation; a listening comprehension; a reading comprehension; a spoken presentation; and a written presentation. Even if you tie together a few (or even all) contexts together for the presentational communication mode, there's still a heap of lessons that should occur.

Given all that, is it even theoretically possible to make tomorrow like today? Probably not, but it's worth the try. But up until now, I've had a different understanding of the structure of a unit. This is a day-to-day model, which seems to sacrifice a big-picture understanding for an illusory class-structure uniformity. I've always understood a unit to be a different kind of thing: a presentation, modeling, and practice of vocabulary in a wide context, followed by a closer examination of the vocabulary and grammar necessary for specific communicative tasks. Communicative practice activities, a few activities that tie in all the different contexts, a day of review, then a test.

Anyway, I'll try this "new" lesson plan format and see if I can make it work for me. It will probably be rough going for a while, but once I get the hang of it, I think it will tie objectives, instruction, practice, and assessment a lot closer together. (That's the point of the format, after all.) Also, I think it will increase my students' capacity for taking Spanish as the primary classroom language in the future.

Update: Two minutes of further reading revealed Marzano's claim that this lesson plan structure "is best suited for kessons that address procedural knowledge" (180). Good for some situations, but not all. I'm still going to try it for a little while; there's a lot of procedural-type stuff in communication: how to say you're going to do something, how to listen for key vocabulary, how to identify the main idea of a passage. I think vocabulary learning may more neatly fit in with "declarative knowledge," which is a different ball of wax.


Hunter, M. (1984.) Knowing, teaching, and supervising. Using what we know about teaching. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Modified by Wilson-O'Leary for teacher conference.

Marzano, R. (2007.) The art and science of teaching: a comprehensive framework for effective instruction. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. 181.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Of the many things I wish I had more time for...

creating graphic representations of vocabulary is pretty close to the top of the list. I ask my students to do it, of course, but then I give it back to them. It would take as long to scan it into my computer as it would be to do it myself. There's also the potential issue of intellectual dishonesty--you know how it is when a thousand pieces of paper come into and (at least in theory) go out of your hands in a week; you forget who gave it to you, you use an image off of it and forget to give credit where credit's due, etc. I don't know what case law on that is and I'd just as soon not find out.

But because I don't have an infinite amount of time to generate graphics, I depend pretty heavily on clip art and royalty-free images. And my two favorite sources of these images are 1100 Pictorial Symbols by the perennial clip art favorite, Dover, and Clip Art Image Gallery: 500 Model Poses, by Barron's (alas! Amazon doesn't seem to have new copies anymore), who seem to print most of the most useful books on any topic (except education methodology, for which the honor goes to ASCD, and World Language methodology, for which I still seek a reliably excellent source). Both of these books have useable images that describe a wide variety of the vocabulary you're likely to use for day-to-day life, and CD's so that you can use them in a variety of formats.

My biggest issue with the 1100 Pictorial Symbols is more of a feature: It has so many images that can be so widely used, it's a little difficult to find an image to fill any one need is a little tricky. My beef with the Model Poses is a little stronger--it has a section called "Pin-up," with pictures of scantily-clad (by conservative standards--think 1-piece bathing suit in heels) in reasonably seductive poses. So I can't just hand the book and accompanying CD to a student for use with his/her PowerPoint presentations.

However, by and large, they're winners. My job would be a lot more difficult without them.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Funny, in a horrifying sort of way

I was going to write a long, thoughtful post on the role of a teacher's human nature on his classroom, which was going to examine bias, team and morality psychology, and other things I have no right pretending I understand. Then, I was going to explore how one integrates higher-order thinking skills into a classroom whose primary learning task is vocabulary acquisition. But it's late, and I haven't done my lesson plans yet. So, those relevant posts are forthcoming, and this just came across my plate:

Now there's nothing funny at all about a student assaulting a teacher. There's nothing funny about a student declaring that a work of fiction is "blasphemy" and using that as a justification for violence.

But you gotta admit--that this could happen in 2008 (!) is a little comical. It's like the old joke: How many surrealists does it take to change a lightbulb? Two. One to hold the giraffe and the other to keep a grown man from setting his literature teacher on fire for being a witch.

Wait. That's not how the joke goes. Maybe there isn't anything funny about it. As the person who sent me the article told me, "Be safe out there."

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Sunday Bonus: On Praise

This article from New York Magazine bears further consideration. I'm willing to bet that further research shows that praising students for being smart is better than not praising them at all. But this researcher suggests that it's not as good as praising them for being hard-working. Interesting, and with potent ramifications.

Hat-tip to Alexander Russo. (Don't seem to be able to add a permalink, so here's entry information: "Research and Writing: Who does it well?" 3 Oct 2008, 12:53. Link: "How not to talk to your kids: The inverse power of praise." Category "Media Watch.")

Saturday, October 4, 2008


As Euler walked through Konigsburg, tracking in his head the number of times he stood on each island and each shore of the river Pregel, trying to make sure he only crossed the bridges once on any given trip, and in the process inventing graph theory, it's fair to wonder if he noticed the flowers blooming, or the play of water on rocks in the river flowing beneath the bridge.

This is the third year I've been working in my current position. After three years, I thought, I should notice significant start-of-year prior knowledge in Spanish from my high school freshmen--after all, I've had them as middle schoolers for two years before this, and most of them have had other Spanish teachers before me. I was a little disappointed this year--I know my middle school curriculum and instructional strategy are not as strong as they should be, but the pre-tests were pretty disappointing. It seemed like I was only teaching the students who were good at or interested in learning languages.

But on Thursday, we had a video watching / listening activity, not always my students' favorite thing. But they did an excellent job of listening actively, trying to understand using context clues and prior knowledge and all the listening strategies I'd taught them up to that point. After we were done, one of the students, a very intelligent student whose favorite class is not Spanish, said to me, "I've never understood before what people meant when they said, 'I can UNDERSTAND a language, but not speak it.' It just didn't make any sense to me. But after this activity, I do. I understood almost everything in the video, but couldn't repeat anything more than a couple of phrases of it."

I don't know if I properly expressed to this how overjoyed I was to hear this. I know that I tried, but there was a lot I didn't tell her. I wanted to tell her about the silent period of language acquisition, comprehensible input, and all sorts of great theory that comes into play when someone learns a second language. I wanted to tell her that she's doing something right, and that maybe that means that I'm doing something right.

I think all I managed, though, was, "YES! ¡Excelente!" And, really, in the face of the level of metacognition this student demonstrated, in the face of that much learning, in the face of so much happening exactly right, this was a sadly inadequate response. But I hope she knows that it was a huge step forward for her, and a great breath of fresh air for me as her teacher.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

What drives what we teach?

"Why, Señor Cosby, the curriculum, of course," cry a thousand aggrieved administrators and education specialists. The curriculum is a document (or probably several documents) which outlines the learning objectives of a particular course, and it does this in various levels of specificity. Importantly, it leaves specific implementation unaddressed, so teachers can implement a lesson plan that best addresses their students' needs and fits their own teaching style. It addresses the goals of the class, what the students expect to be able to do at the end of the class.

Where it all falls down is the "specific implementation" portion of that. Most teachers and classes have a textbook of some kind. We're smart enough and we've been trained well enough that we now know that textbook /= curriculum. Even so, I (and I'd guess a lot of other teachers) still turn to my textbook first when I have no idea what I should do the next day. I have my curriculum document, a list of the 65 learning goals per her class, which I tweak, realign, and try to implement more fully during the summer. I create unit plans, with learning goals and assessments and teaching strategies. I make weekly lesson plans during the week. And through all this process, I use the textbook as a place where I can steal materials from and then rip them apart and re-assemble them in a way that actually works. But when the chips are down, and my three-tiered planning system fails to take something into account (and yes, like all teachers, I make my plans knowing that they won't work), and everything falls apart (I plan on this happening most weeks about halfway through Wednesday of any given week), I grab my textbook and pick bookwork activities out. There are any number of problems with this.

Grammar-based fill-in-the-blank activities have been shown to be not a very good way of teaching Spanish at all. Vocabulary-based drills--a sentence in Spanish with a key word missing--are better than grammar-based drills, because they provide input and modeling as well as making a student utilize newly acquired vocabulary. The vocab sentences are like Spanish crosswords, only they look like what we think homework should look like. However, it takes no analytical ability at all to see that, in my particular textbook, two pages of grammar instruction and mechanical practice exist for every one page of vocabulary practice. And that's not even counting the supplemental materials, where the ratio is closer to 3:1. In deference to the "communicative methodology" craze sweeping the nation, my textbook has taken all the practice activities that used to be plug-and-chug writing activities and turned them into speaking activities. Same basic formulation, different communication skills. Still not so good. So the first failing of my textbook is that it dedicates too much space to pedagogically flawed activities.

The way the students interact with the textbook also leaves a great deal to be desired. It's as if the textbook is the embodiment of school work. We now have a lot of format options for activities of all kinds--we can make activities on Moodle, or turn them into whiteboard activities or overhead transparency activities or board games, all with relative ease--and while the students still know that they're doing work, it seems to feel less onerous. But pull out the textbook, especially first thing, and the students know that they're in for a day of what my high school Spanish teacher referred to as gruntwork. [Interesting mini-study idea: Take a textbook project. Give it to the students in 3 or 4 different formats, including straight out of the text. Compare completion ratios and success rates. Control for instructional strategy and classroom management issues.]

But because I'm a big-idea type of guy, I have a more fundamental reason for distrusting my textbook, and that's that textbook companies are sort of the devil. In his article "The Muddle Machine," Ansari (2004) takes down the textbook industries in a number of areas, including the way pedagogical philosophy is artificially tacked on as a marketing ploy, the manner in which materials are recycled from other textbooks, and the way textbooks are designed to sell lots and lots of copies and Texas and California, which leads to an almost-uselessly homogenized blend of content. The way that textbook companies operate guarantees that any particular textbook is not going to be as useful as it should or could be, because there's no overhead in a book serving any particular interest. I understand that textbook companies have to make money (and there's a LOT of money in this publishing model). I get it. But I also have to be aware that the textbook companies are motivated by something other than my students' learning.

But for all of this philosophical and practical objection to my textbook, it's still my go-to source for gotta-have-it-now classroom content. My units for my high school Spanish I and II classes are more or less tightly tied to the units outlined in my text. I use the vocabulary lists from the text as my core vocabulary lists, and add or subtract vocabulary as necessary. I present grammar content in the order it comes up in the book, plus or minus a couple of days. (I think it's crazy, f'rinstance, to teach a student to describe where they're going before teaching them how to say where they are.) If the curriculum is the bedrock of the instruction, then my text is the foundation of the house. If the curriculum is the map to the finish line, the textbook is the schematic for the car that will take us there. And as much as I struggle against this professionally repugnant and pedagogically flawed state of affairs, turning to the text comes so naturally.

I wonder what would happen if, for a week, for a unit, for a year, I refuse to use the textbook at all....

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Procedures and structure in the World Languages classroom

Everything I've read ever suggests that the single most important element of classroom management is to establish and teach procedures consistently and well. (Wong & Wong 2005, Marzano 2007, Flannery 2008, and an e-mail I just got from the State Education Association illustrate the point, but I'm pretty sure that that's far from exhaustive.) It's an aspect of teaching that I've had to get a lot better at in my classroom, since I'm not inclined by nature to be procedures-driven.

At the same time, communicative language theory suggests that you start speaking the target language immediately and more or less constantly (Lee & Van Patten 1995, to name one). The act of a student understanding a language they're learning is referred to in the literature as "comprhensible input," and its importance in the language classroom cannot be exaggerated. The mor of it, the better. This is an aspect of my job that DOES come naturally. I love speaking Spanish, and to be perfectly frank, I like the sound of my own voice.

However, I've always had a problem with these two key elements of my job, because they seem to come into direct conflict with each other. I base a lot of early-stage language education on playing off of prior knowledge--my students know that they're students, they know I'm a teacher, and they know they're in school. In the younger grades, that's 4 sessions worth of lesson plans, after you get done adding songs, pictures, TPR activities, and the like. Even for the 1st-year high school students, that and peripherals make for a good chunk of vocabulary acquisition. But procedures require great precision and absolute clarity. In order for a procedure to be effective, a student has to know when, where, how, and WHY. Beginning-of-class procedure doesn't work for coming back from a fire drill. In the same vein, if you're making up procedures as you go along, students are (rightly) going to think you're asking to jump through hoops; besides, the next day, I never remember which procedures I said were in effect. This is the antithesis of a procedure, it's the whim of a dictator.

So, marrying these two practices suggests that from day 1 a language teacher should teach procedures in the target language. But the chance for miscommunication in such occasions is great, and the consequences include misunderstood, misapplied, or ignored procedures. This as good as plunges a classroom into chaos. (At least, it did mine.) Another potential solution is to teach mostly procedures in English with some Spanish content instruction. This feels like a splitting-the-baby solution, one that satisfies neither the need for good procedures nor communicative theory. It's failed to work for a long time, though, so it's what I went with this year. We're two weeks into the school year, and my high school students seem to be pretty okay on the procedures, as well as on the smattering of Spanish we've covered so far. (I'm thinking about my Spanish I students here.) Not an ideal solution, but an okay stop-gap measure so far. One could, I suppose, simply ignore one beginning-of-the-year obligation or the other, but that sounds like the makings of a hard year.

A related subject to this is the level of structure during instructional time. I have boardwork at the beginning of class and I try to have an assessment on the lesson at the end of the class, but what happens in between varies wildly--instruction? practice? speaking activity? listening activity? vocab?. I imagine it's the same with other teachers, that it isn't simply my disorganization biting me in the tail yet again. Ideally, in order to maximize comprehensible input in Spanish, my students should know what to expect every minute of the day before the tardy bell rings. My plans are thorough, but they're not prescient. So balancing structure and comprehensible input again seem to come into conflict. It's an issue that I've noticed, but I haven't thought a lot about it yet.

I don't think that I've read anything that addresses this apparent contradiction. I'd hoped to acquire a copy of the ACTFL's Keys to the Classroom, a book designed for new World Language teachers, to see if the pros had any suggestions. So far, no dice. If anyone in the real world has seen anything like this, or otherwise has suggestions, I'd appreciate hearing them.

Works cited:

Lee, J., and VanPatten, B. (1995.) Making communicative language teaching happen. McGraw-Hill.

Wong, H., and Wong, R. (2005.) The first days of school. Mountain View, CA: Harry K. Wong Publications.

Flanery, M. E. (2008.) "When the ship sails adrift." NEAToday, 27 (1), 30-31.

Update: I just looked at the program for the State World Languages Association conference coming up one month, and there appears to be a session that strives to resolve the very conflicts I mention above. More about on this after the conference (assuming I can go).

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

In support of Positive Behavior Support

Today I introduced Positive Behavior Support to my peers. Here isn't really the place to analyze the presentation itself, but I thought that a lot of notable things happened at the in-service day that bear discussion.

The single most important thing that came out of the meeting of the minds today was the idea that consistency is key. We would like to have a consistent vocabulary for coming to attention and other common tasks throughout the school days (do you, dear reader, have any suggestions for things we need to communicate all the time, and should call by the same name?). Consistent instruction and re-instruction methods for behavior expectations would be nice, too. But what I think we found today was that consistent expectations are the first step. We all want the same things from students, even if we think about what we want in different terms. And in order to teach students how to behave, knowing what we expect from them is requisite to figuring out how to teach them.

A lot of today's conversation rotated around finnicky bits of policy, usually in places where we have to draw a line in the sand, but the location of the line is clearly arbitrary. A lot of people discovered things about the way our school was run, and found that maybe was not all to their liking. I think this is great; nothing encourages participation in an increasingly team-directed model like a little controversy. I often had to answer questions with the response, "That's a conversation that's ongoing." I'm sure it started sounding like, "I don't know, go bother somebody else," but the truth is that all these conversations are ongoing. The fact that they're conversations is the important part. And everybody had their take--the elementary teachers, the secondary teachers, the teaching support staff--and they all made sure their perspective was heard. And when I told them, "This is a conversation we'll have to continue later," they believed that it was a conversation, and that it would continue later.

A lot of complications in regards to the first days' introduction of behavior expectations came to light, as well. I had a lot of help solving the ones that could be solved right there, and a lot of offers of help to solve the rest. That's the makings of a Leadership Team right there. There remains a lot to do, and not a lot of time to do it in, and that doesn't even count how much stuff I haven't done for my Spanish classes yet. But we made HUGE strides today in changing the way our teachers interact with our students, and how our students interact with school. Let's keep it up, guys!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The community of schools

To my colleagues: If you're looking for the post on Positive Behavior Support, please scroll down to the next entry. Or click here.

Texas school district to let teachers carry guns

I've never really understood the idea that carrying guns makes people safer. I TRULY don't understand the idea that teachers carrying guns makes students safer.

It's just possible that a rural district in Texas with fewer than 150 students will be able to have such a policy without disastrous unintended consequences (I'm thinking accidental shootings or unlicensed operators getting their hands on the guns). But I doubt it will help the district improve student safety in any meaningful way, either.

I also imagine a devastating effect on school culture. This is the first school in the United States to permit this, and nobody knows how it will play out. But I imagine that the presence of firearms will change the timbre of the basic social calculus of schools dramatically.

I don't know a lot about firearm safety, other than the many safety concerns raised by firearms. I'm prepared to eat crow if a teacher saves a classroom full of students with the help of her trusty 9, or even if such a move gives the school a long-term boost in public confidence and students' sense of safety. These outcomes are ridiculously unlikely, though, and compared with the potential hazards, I would call this a case of good intentions spawning bad policy.

Edited to include more effective ways of getting to other blog posts.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Positive Behavior Support

This particular post is directed towards my colleagues.

As you know, we've been working on a system for Positive Behavior Support. We're at the stage where I simply cannot do everything that needs to be done, and make it work well. So I'm asking for your help. Below are some of the things that I could REALLY use your help with. Please let me know in the comments if you have any ideas you can share with us, or if you want to get back to us on something.

1.) The whole idea behind School-wide Positive Behavior Support is that we let students know when they're doing well, not just when they're behaving incorrectly. Praise and high-fives and the like are an important part of this. But the research suggests that some sort of tangible reward is an important component. To that end, I'd like help coming up with an awards system. I think it should have the following components: a.) Something to GIVE the students, in the moment we catch them behaving. It seems like a good idea (and common practice) to tie it into the mascot of our school--"Bobcat Bucks" or "Paw Prints" or something. b.) Some way of turning this token reward into a tangible reward. I thought it could be like what Mrs. Conklin does with her MP3 giveaway for attendance, and exactly what Mrs. Everitt does for her Positive Behavior Support--a periodic drawing for a prize of some kind. How often? What kind of prizes (inexpensive ones, obviously)? c.) This drawing or giveaway or whatever it is should come tied to a school-wide recognition--a ceremony or celebration, like 10 seconds of classroom applause or a PA presentation.

Bear in mind that I broke this into pieces because it would be too much to do all at once. If you have any thoughts or suggestions about ANY of these elements, please let us know in the comments.

2.) Would somebody be willing to design or produce signage? I think it should have the following elements: a.) A tie-in with Bobcats, our school mascot. b.) The words GOOD CHOICES: Be safe! Be respectful! Be responsible!

This design (and we had some really good ideas for it in our initial meeting last year) will go on posters to help remind students of what we expect from them in school. It might go on the tokens or tickets mentioned above.

If you can help with any of these things, or have some suggestions, please leave me a message in the comments. At the bottom of this post it says, "1 comments." Click that. It will take you to another screen with a place for typing. Underneath that, it will say, "Choose an Identity." Click the circle next to "Anonymous," and you'll be able to post your comment. Please put your name in the comment, though, so I know who I'm talking to!

Thanks a million for your help and your dedication to our students.

--John Cosby

Edited, or possibly re-posted, to reflect actual time posted, instead of when first draft was saved

Thursday, July 24, 2008

School in society, pt. I:

What teachers aren't

I suspect that this is going to be a leit motif of this blog; I spend a lot of time thinking about this subject. I took a class on Schools in Society in my education class, and occasionally revisit the materials of that class and use it to reanalyze my teaching philosophy. But that class was before NCLB, and though the perspective on schools has changed, the research has advanced, and the field is more important than ever, the argument about the roles of schools in society seems to have stayed in almost exactly the same place.

My thoughts today are on precisely what a teacher's job is. My personal definition of a teacher has changed somewhat from someone who speaks Spanish at students in a way they can understand, to a figure much more involved in a student's interaction with the world. School is the first big bureaucracy that a student has to navigate through, and as she approaches graduation, she has to deal with more and more of it. I still take a dim view of anything that emphasizes the structure of school over the content of classes, but since the structure of school is important, I've come to recognize that I have to be good at it, and I have to be good at making by students be good at it.

With the rapidly evolving ideas about what my job is and what my job should be, I've uncovered a lot of things a teacher is not. It takes approximately 15 minutes into the first class in an Education Professional Development curriculum for most teacher learners to discover that being a teacher is not (supposed to be) knowing everything and dispensing this knowledge, a quarter-cup at a time, into the empty but eager vessels that are the brains of students. (The other metaphor used is "writing on a blank chalkboard." I've read research that calls it the Atlas complex, because the teacher carries the world on his back the way Atlas carries the sky. It bears remembering what happened to Atlas: when the weight of the sky nearly broke him, Athene used Medusa's head to turn him to stone.) The "dispenser of knowledge" model of teaching has been refuted over and over again, but you still see it in societal expectations of teachers. (I'll update with sources if I can find them online.)

But what really has been sticking in my craw is a list apocryphally attributed to Bill Gates, but in fact by libertarian Charles Sykes. The rule on this list that I constantly get stuck on is this:

Rule 4. If you think your teacher is tough, wait 'til you get a boss. He doesn't have tenure, so he tends to be a bit edgier. When you screw up, he's not going to ask you how you feel about it.
It's not the implication that tenure makes teachers lose interest in the quality of their work that sets me on edge. It isn't the suggestion that teachers behave like sitcom parodies of psychologists in the face of student difficulty. These may be true to varying degrees; all I can say is that I haven't seen it, and I'm not familiar with the research that says that these behaviors are problems. (Although my experience in education is limited, it seems to be greater than Sykes's, but I'll concede the research point to him for the time being.)

No, what really irks me about this particular rule is the blatant expectation that teachers be students' "bosses," and that a teacher's primary duty to her students is to prepare them for the brutal, impersonal, emotionally neutral world of flipping burgers (a position Sykes refers to in one of his other rules as "opportunity"). Obviously, one of the tasks of a teacher is to prepare a student for life in the workplace. I'm not sure that the way to do this, though, is by modeling the behavior of a boss to someone who isn't being compensated for their work. This seems like thinking out of the Industrial Age--when public schools were expected to produce people who could do the same thing over and over for 60 hours a week, and things like management and decision-making were taught (if at all) in private education institutions.

We rightly expect more from our public schools, because fewer people have labor-intensive jobs that require no decision making. So in order to prepare students for the workplace, a teacher has to do much more than impress proper servility for authority. Information gathering and analysis, teamwork, self-reflection--in short, if a student receives a perfect education (yes, I know), and learns the lessons, he should be prepared to be his own boss, work independently, and lead others, as well as follow instructions.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Art and Science of Teaching, Pt. 1

I'm working my way through The Art and Science of Teaching by Marzano, and want to review some of the most useful bits of the first half. The book is highly usable. It's maybe a bit dense to wade through the first time, like everything with a healthy dose of research and statistical analysis, but it's set up such that a reader looking for something can find it very easily, and I haven't even looked at the index yet. As my exposure to books on education practice increases, I'm finding that that's important: if you're going to tell me to do something, tell me what it is you want me to do. Don't hide it in the middle of a bunch of soft squishy feelings about how you love being a teacher. I love being a teacher, too, and if I didn't, reading your book probably wouldn't make me love it. But this book is set up, as the subtitle of the book says, as "a comprehensive framework for effective instruction." Each chapter title is a question about an element of instruction, and is set up to provide a definition of the issue, an example of that element in a classroom, research to explain why the element is important, and specific steps that a teacher can take to implement that element into his classroom.

Chapters 1-5 deal with issues in instruction--respectively, using learning goals, acquiring new knowledge, practicing and deepening understanding of new knowledge, generating and testing hypotheses of new knowledge, and engaging students. The later chapters deal with issues of classroom management and community-building, and more about these when I've read them.

Having read some other of Marzano's work and derivatives of it, I'm a little surprised to see so little talk about building background knowledge and vocabulary. This is disappointing, because of all the in-class strategies I've read, the work with vocabulary was the most immediately applicable th the language classroom. I'll have to sit down and think a little more about language learning and how it's different from learning, for example, science.

Some of the suggestions I intend to implement follow.

Have students identify their own learning goals: Upon introducing a new chapter / unit / some other division of learning, students will write down what they hope to be able to understand (language-wise), recognize, and be able to communicate about by the time they finish. Throughout the unit, students will revisit that goal to see how well they're progressing, and whether the course and I are addressing their objective. Part of the final assessment will be a a self-assessment on their learning objective.

Identify critical-input experiences: The word "input" has a special meaning in language acquisition, but the two meanings run parallel. Of course, ALL classroom time is an input experience, especially in courses conducted entirely in Spanish like I strive to conduct. But some moments are more important than others, require greater coordination of forces, and really are (or should be) the anchors of a unit. I can do a better job of separating these experiences from the textbook, and then bringing the necessary resources to bear on them.

Homework: I don't give anywhere near enough homework. As someone who was never very good at getting it done myself, I've always questioned the wisdom of it. But it's important, and there's a right way of doing it. And when college happened right in my face, and I had no idea how to deal with the work load, I recognized what I'd missed. So, vocab practice, reading comprehension practice, drawing--more of it.

These are obviously not all of the things I should be doing or could be doing better, but it's a place to start. And, as I'm learning, a small number of effective goals you can work towards is better than a lot of goals that you'll work on once and then forget about.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

PBS links

Picking away at the positive behavior project. I've read the manuals and done some research online, and my first big question is, what happens after education and re-education? Part of the project is a positive consequence for appropriate behavior, but I've heard little in the way of steps between educating and supporting students in positive choices, and intervention processes. What should a teacher do if a student chooses to behave contrary to expectations (so as not to say "break a rule")? Obviously, not turning papers into the correct spot is not the same order of magnitude as swinging at another student, so there's some differentiation that needs to occur as well. I'll have to write to my contact to ask about that.

However, I've successfully outlined the agenda for the PD day, which will work as sort of a checklist to work on things in order. The biggest task, of course, will be coming up with ways to teach expectations to each student. I'm trying to make instruction such that we're modeling the behaviors we want to see, not only from the students, but also from the teachers. We'll be using multiple intelligences, maybe some mutual teaching, etc.

Some links that may be helpful to this project:
This site is a collection of information whose primary purpose seems to be to sell the program, and get schools and families involved in positive behavior support. Few of the articles have the sort of implementation suggestions I'm looking for now, but provide good background information.
This is sort of where it all began, and I'll need to spend some more time looking through here. I'm using the blueprint form implementation that this organization created.
Links to examples of statewide (mostly) implementation of Positive Behavior Support programs. These will definitely be helpful when it comes time to map out long-term goals, and maybe some ideas for assessments of behaviors.

Edited to add implementation examples link and labels.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Status report

An overview of the various projects I'm working on at the moment, and a brief analysis of where I stand and what happens next on each:

1.) Don Quijote in the 1st and 2nd-year classroom. As part of the a teachers' workshop I attended this summer, I've started working on a module to help people who have never read Don Quijote introduce this work into their early-Spanish classes. When it's finally polished, with luck in time to test-drive in the fall, it will include TPR vocab acquisition, comparisons of culture, authentic materials, and barf jokes. I'm also trying to get good enough at Google Earth to map out one of the various hypothetical routes that Don Quijote took on his various trips. That's probably the next step, because although it's the least important (being only one of many activities that need designing, and not the best), it lets me play with Google Earth.

2.) Analyzing Data Protocol. This is not so much a unique product, as it is synthesizing all the professional development I've been hit with in the past 2 years and fitting it into a note card that I can laminate and carry around in my pocket. It's also probably something that all successful professionals in all fields ever know already, and that makes me surprised that I'd never been formally presented to it before.

It boils down to this: Decide what you want to know. Find out about it. Based on that, decide you want to happen. Find ways of making it happen, and if none already exist, make them yourself. Do it. After a while, take a look and see if it's working.

This isn't rocket science, and on a small scale, we as people do it all the time. But it's a sound process for making decisions of all kind, and I've seen it in a few different contexts. The State School Improvement Framework lays out this protocol for all of its areas of concern. A woman from Minnesota is making an okay, if travel-intensive, living, showing people how to use this process to look at student work in the way it's supposed to be used. The positive-behavior program I'm working on (more about that in a mo) uses the same structure to analyze itself. In short, it's a way of taking self-improvement out of the realm of whim, and for someone as fundamentally whimsical as I am, that's important.

3.) Spanish Department 3-5 year development plan. There's a lot to do in the Spanish Department, and thinking that I'm going to get it done over the summer is foolishness. So I want to write out a plan for where I want the department to be in the next few years. It will, of course, follow the above protocol, but I know most of the information. That doesn't exactly lead to measurable results (important in any scientific or even pseudoscientific undertaking), but it's where I'm going to start.

4.) Positive Behavior system. This is not just the elephant in the middle of my living room, it's the monster drinking my espresso. There's so much work to do, I really have to start doing one thing at a time. The story so far: My school is one of many in the State that has decided that we're not doing all we could to promote behaviors that supplement learning--we could, for example, teach behaviors that supplement learning. As part of this process, our school took a year to decide what we'd most like to see our students to do in class, out of class, everywhere in and out of school and at all times at a school-related event. I had a meeting and a couple e-mail exchanges with a woman from the county school district who knows infinitely more about this than I do, and to whom I'm going to go with questions, just as soon as I'm smart enough to ask them. And now the ball--at least as far as the teacher side of things--is in my court. My principal for discipline is working on "intervention" techniques.

The next tasks I've identified are these: a.) Designing a positive behavior reinforcement system, so we have a school-wide way of telling kids they're doing a good job. I don't really know where to go with this; I'm going to see if I can get the other school teachers in my district to help me. I can do it, but I know a number of other teachers who already have this sort of thing, and if I don't have to reinvent the wheel, why would I? b.) Coming up with a way of teaching students these behaviors over the course of two days, so everybody's crystal clear on what they're being rewarded for (or intervened towards). I hope to design an outline, and farm out bits of this to a bunch of other professionals. However, ultimately it's my PD presentation. So, after all that's done, I'll need to figure out a way to teach that to the teachers and other involved parties. c.) Putting together a leadership team. The truth is that this should have happened much more formally months ago, and it very briefly did. I know who to ask to join--all the people who were at the first meeting in October who worked on the first draft of the behavior matrix--but that group hasn't gotten together as a group since then. It may be a little hairy. Some sort of protocol (see project 2 above) would be good to have in place as well. d.) Well...let's finish the first 3 before we get into long-term projections and assessment methodology, and all the other 67 things that need to get done.

5.) Spanish curriculum redesign and Standards and Benchmarks realignment. This is the first of the Spanish Department improvement projects I'm working on. It's the first, because I've been working on it since the day I started working at this school. The State has recently published some Standards for World Languages that look a lot like the National Standards, and have made them legally binding on the class of 2011, so the high school classes need to be brought up to snuff. In addition, the elementary and middle schools have been running on standards for years. The standards I'm currently working with in K-8, however, aren't tied as tightly to the State's standards as they need to be. I've been trying since day 1 to bring everything up to speed, not to use lesson plans unless they meet higher standards, that sort of thing. The results have been piecemeal and thoroughly unsatisfactory, so this summer I will be working on it. The current game-plan is this: Take a look at last year's Spanish I class (the first high school class to have standards attached), decide what went right and what went wrong, and change the plan for next year accordingly. That shouldn't be too work-intensive, and I should have success. That will help me put the Spanish II class into standards mode, which will be much more work-intensive. And then, starting at kindergarten, design a curriculum that uses the Standards as the baseline, instead of whatever system was used before.

6.) The Art and Science of Teaching. The 2007 book by Bob Marzano is my principal's new go-to book; past experience with similar literature suggests that we'll be hearing a lot about this in the next year. I'd like to have a leg up. Expect commentary as I go through it.

If anybody reads this, probably on accident on your way to somewhere more interesting, I'd appreciate thoughts on any of this.

And now, for the dishes.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

And now, for something completely different...

I staked out the cyberspace for this blog some 7 months ago, and have done almost nothing with it. I thought I would use it as a way to connect to students through the Internet, but that hasn't happened. First, other tools exist for doing this: in Moodle, I can password-protect copyrighted material, and keep myself safe under fair-use law. I can make a MySpace or Facebook account and connect a lot more directly to most of my students. I can Twitter reminders to most of them, and have the reminders show up on their phones--in some cases, during my actual class. (I've always wanted to text to one of my students, "Stp txt in cls.")

Also, since spring break, I've thought a great deal about the way my class is set up, the way it should be set up, etc., and I've done heaps of research about classroom management and school behavior and language education methodology. I'm finding my old notebook system insufficient for keeping it all in order. This, of course, means I can't find anything.

So, as of today, I'm going to completely change the theme. It's no longer related to the classroom, and will be much more geared towards looking at how to make schools, specifically MY school, work better. Since it helps to start off with a statement of goals (a constant theme in the research), I'll list mine here. My goals with this blog are to: 1.) organize my sources and informal thinking process about school into a searchable form, so I can find ideas after I have them; 2.) receive commentary from anyone who's ever participated in a class, particularly in a language class; 3.) make the process of thinking about schools more of a process, instead of something I do in the margins of my notebooks, next to doodles of me in revolucionario outfits.

I'll start off later with a running description of what I'm working on at the moment. My readership right now consists of 0--my wife doesn't read my blog--so at first it will be a sort of electronic spiral notebook. But I hope to encourage others to read, and more important, comment on the posts later, so the tone will grow more interactive in the weeks to come.