Saturday, January 17, 2009

Various points

*Credit where credit's due. He probably isn't the first or the only current user of the phrase, but the incomparable Glenn Greenwald uses that title when he wants to get out a number of things on his mind. I can only aspire to emulate his dedication to his task, and I will never be able to emulate his knowledge and skill at his job. For the moment, I'll settle for emulating his Web 2.0 mannerisms. Each of the points below is worthy of its own posts, and each of them has a post in the works. But they're itching and urgent. And, honestly, I don't know where to begin with them.

*The limitations of reflection. Sometimes, after really hard days, I look at the disaster I wrought upon my students and hope that I didn't do them any lasting harm. And I think to myself, "I love my job. I love my students. I love my subject matter, and where I work, and my coworkers. I believe unwaveringly in T. Roosevelt's notion that 'Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.' I think about this stuff all the time. It has occurred to me that, many years from now, thinking about teaching might not be a bad job. All the time I plan and I consider and I research and I write. And this is the best I can do?" And I despair. Then I go home and I think about how I could have done it better.

*Systemic thinking, or, the teacher as low-level bureaucrat. I'm not very good at thinking about systems. I don't do well at making arbitrary decisions and then making other people do them. I can weigh pros and cons and make a decision based on the results just fine, but if I have to pick between 5 equally good choices, and then make 140 people a day go with it, I get sort of stuck. This is a tremendous downfall as a teacher. Turning in student work, passing back student work, transitions between classes and useful but less-than-exciting paperwork are all really important systems. However, they're pretty much arbitrary--I decide what I want to happen, and then I ask my students to do it. My memory tends to take a back seat to my knee-jerk decision-making process (which, incidentally, is why I write down my lesson plans and try to follow it like a playbook). So these (and other) systems, which could really make my life and that of my students much easier, if I really designed them well, tend to be ad hoc hand-me-your-papers-no-wait-don't kinds of things. It probably frustrates my students, and it certainly limits my efficacy. So I'll try to stick to one system for the rest of the year, and redesign the whole thing during the summer. I'm getting better at it, and I can prove it, but nothing works as well as it should yet.

*Iterative standards. A lot of standards in World Languages are iterative--you have to perform the same communicative tasks in a number of contexts in order to get credit for the standard. By my way of thinking (and there's a lot of thinking still to be done on this), a student can get credit for these standards in one of two ways--either through summative assessments, administered shortly after instruction / formative assessment / reteaching / etc.; or through an as-yet undesigned, week-long final exam that really tests a student's ability to perform all six major communicative tasks in a variety of contexts (16 after two years of high school Spanish, according to the state's Standards and Benchmarks document). This seems like an impossible contrast to me, and I don't know why. I have a hard time envisioning permitting a student to pick and choose which sections of the final exam they want to take; in contrast, the final exam would have to be really long in order to test all communicative skills in all required contexts (or even a reasonable facsimile of them). I guess I'm just having a hard time picturing the logistics of this. (See "Systems thinking," above.)

*Teacher dispositions, positive behavior support and ACTFL. My quadrennial issue of The Language Educator, a publication by the ACTFL whose core objective normally appears to be to provide universities with MEd programs an outlet for their extra ad revenue, has a couple of genuinely interesting and, dare I say, useful articles. One of them is called "Another piece of the language learning puzzle: Why teacher dispositions are a crucial aspect of student success," by Maura Kate Hallam. It ties high expectations into student achievement, mentions a few ways people are studying it and teaching it, and encourages teachers to be more aware. (It also cites the National Board definition of teacher disposition; sounds like a good basis for student review of classes. Elsewhere in the issue they publish the full list of NB standards for WLOE.) A lot of things about the article are interesting, but one in particular caught my eye: They quote a Latin teacher as saying, "[...] TESA [Teacher Expectations and Student Achievement] addressed the affective side of teaching, which is often easy for young teachers to forget about as they worry about content. Experienced teachers always need reminders about what makes a positive climate." It's true that we can forget about staying positive, and that there's more to teaching than the list of standards. Teacher disposition, like behavior reinforcement, seems to take a back seat to measurable content advancement in the contemporary classroom. But, like behavior reinforcement, if you don't have it, the content is meaningless.

*Never work harder than your students. It's the title of a book by Robyn R. Jackson. It's another "how-to-be-a-better teacher" book from ASCD. I have a copy on loan from my principal. As I work through it, I'll keep the post posted.

*Celebrate good times.
Each of my students has made huge progress this year, and our school community is starting to feel like an actual community. People (not just faculty and staff) are coming together to create positive social events. Just as could be expected from a group of people with a common goal and a common geography, we're all starting to row in the same direction, even if we're not always stroking on the same beat. My high school Spanish classes are getting better and better all the time, not just at Spanish, but at school. They're taking some lessons which (let's be honest) start out a little superficially, and often really turn them into something worthwhile.

Edited to fix typos and subject/verb agreements.

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