Friday, April 24, 2009

The state of education research

The No. 1 thing a school can do to improve its student achievement is have what Bob Marzano calls a "guaranteed and viable curriculum." (I think that's from Classroom Instruction That Works, originally, but now it's one of those things that I've heard so often I've lost track of its source. One of the Marzano books, anyway.) The No. 2 thing is have a good teacher. (Or maybe they're reversed.)

But I've been tipped off by my friend Jamie (who in turn was notified by one Skeptical Hypochondriac) to NEW! SHOCKING! RESEARCH! This study concludes conclusively in its conclusion that chewing gum should be on the list of big improvers of student achievement. They've got numbers. That proves it. 3% math improvement, right? Just chew gum. Nothing simpler.

The guy paying the tab had nothing to do with that conclusion, either. I know you're all thinking it. You can just leave, shamefaced. Of course it's legit. This study shows real advances in the field of science. The scientists have been doing science for years. They know their business. They came close to finding atmospherium by chewing gum. They know their science from Adam.

It's also possible, I suppose, that the kinesthetic effect of constant motion really does help improve concentration. But there's one thing I know: don't mess with Mother Nature, mother-in-laws, or people who say their product will instantly improve your child's smartness.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Duncan want charter. Duncan SMASH!

Arne Duncan and Lamar Alexander write in Commercial Appeal. They say that more charter schools are better than fewer.

Why, again, is one charter school better than one public school? What fundamental structural flaw in public (non-charter) is repaired by constructing from scratch a parallel, competing system from the same, already-overstrained budget?

Sunday, April 19, 2009


This week has been full of the small successes that show progress and make the huge fights worth fighting. My Spanish II students are finally realizing how much Spanish they know, and are starting to use it spontaneously. It was a LOOOONG road to get to this point, but they're there now. My challenge for this week is to encourage this process, not by assigning more of the same, but by providing opportunities for them to use what they know. Of course, that's the challenge EVERY week. But this week--let me put it this way. I've never started a fire, except by means of lighters or matches. But I've seen people who have started fires with flint and steel, and there's a moment when they strike the flint, and the superheated flake of stone hits the dry tinder. In that moment, the person lighting the fire has to move very quickly and very carefully to get the spark to ignite the tinder. It takes a lot of strikes to get it right, and usually more than one spark has to hit the tinder before combustion has occurred. But, if everything goes right--the winds are favorable, the tinder is dry enough, the person has the makings of a fire. I think my Spanish II class is at one of those moments right now.

The other super-big one is World Languages Day. One of the underpinnings of my philosophy is that I would like my students to be citizens of the world after leaving my class. I want them to recognize times when it's okay to transcend tribal loyalties, to know that improving the human condition isn't a zero-sum game--that making one person's life better doesn't mean you have to make someone else's life worse--and to have the sense that their life has (or at least can have) a global significance. To that end, I took 9 students and two parents to Michigan State University on Saturday for World Languages Day. In a day full of sessions, my students learned "survival phrases" from all over the world, and explored some of the cultural artifacts from all over the world. (Did you know that Tajikistan is famous for white-water rafting and cotton exports, and is over 93% mountain? I didn't.) They came out with a sense of the interconnectedness of the world, and had a great time doing it.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Traits of great teachers

One of the "Try This" points of Chapter 3 of Jackson's book is (paraphrased): Make a list of the 10 most important attributes of great teachers. Cut that down until you've only got 2, the 2 most important traits of great teachers.

Here's what I came up with, in the order they occurred to me:
  • A passion for the subject matter
  • A passion for teaching
  • Love for your students
  • Communication
  • Organization
  • Planning and following plans
  • Teamwork
  • Intelligence
  • Presence of mind in the classroom
  • Sense of self-improvement
The second list looked like this:
  • Passion for teaching
  • Love for students
  • Communication
  • Teamwork
  • Sense of self-improvement

The final list boiled down to:
  • Passion for teaching
  • Love for students
I did this list yesterday over coffee. These all seem a little generic; important, yes, but important in the way that "optimism" would be important. If I were to do this list this morning, I'm not sure it would look the same.

How about it? What do you think are the most important qualities of a great teacher?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Never work harder than your students, Cha. 3

Expect to get your students there

The bottom line of this chapter is to have high expectations for your students. Jackson moves very quickly to make a couple of things clear, though: giving students a harder test is not raising expectations. Praising students for mediocre performance is not raising expectations. In fact, she maintains, faking higher expectations until making higher expectations is one of the more damaging practices out there. She differentiates between "standards" and "expectations." Standards are what students need to learn. Expectations are a teacher's belief about how far s/he can take her / his students towards the standards.

[Michigan is working on publishing "content expectations," which is the list of things a student has to know. These lists used to be known as "standards." In neither list is there a measure of how far on this list the state believes a student can get. With this chapter, the terminologies become completely muddled, and are now more or less meaningless (for a given value of "meaningless." Whatever that means.)]

In fact, over half of this chapter is spent defining "expectations." Jackson suggests that expectations are what we think we can help students to learn, combined with how much we value the learning objectives. And the big takeaway line is, "Expectations say more about your own sense of efficacy than they do about your students' abilities" (84). It's not about taking responsibility for learning away from students and putting it on teachers, but it IS about teachers knowing their power (Nancy Pelosi is playing on the Daily Show, plugging her book, and it was too tidy a phrase not to use) to improve their students' learning. She (Jackson, not Pelosi) goes on to explore what it means to have lowered expectations, and where it comes from, and she decides that lowered expectations are a defense mechanism: they "reduce the gap between our own understanding about what good teaching should be and our perceptions about our ability to teach effectively given our current teaching situation" (85). That makes sense--it explains why it's such a common phenomenon, and why it's so hard to get over. Fortunately, she does offer some concrete steps to help.

As the basis for these steps, she quotes Jim Collins's book Good to Great (one of my principal's current favorites) quoting Admiral Jim Stockdale: "You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end--which you can never afford to lose--with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be (Collins, 2001, p. 85)" (Jackson, 2009, p. 89). She breaks this into two parts-- "Adopt an unwavering faith in yourself and the importance of your work" (91) and "Confront the brutal facts of your reality" (95).

Part of the "unwavering faith" involves teaching philosophy; why did you become a teacher? What gets you out of bed in the morning? Part of it is more pragmatic: walk the walk in your classroom. We can all sit on our blogs and bang out, "I believe all students can learn, that teamwork is more effective than individual work, that homework needs to be utilized carefully, that extrinsic awards are counterproductive," or whatever was in the most recent professional development article we've read. But it's totally different to say those things than to actually utilize group work, to give meaningful homework assignments, to never give out candy for performance.

Confronting the "brutal facts" involves more self-knowledge: what are you good at? What teaching strategies are you currently using? Then some knowledge of situation: What is the teaching task at hand? What's challenging about teaching this time in this place? (Jackson tells a story about trying to teach Shakespeare to a group of, erm, students she didn't naturally connect with.) Then some judgement: are your current strategies up to the task? If not, what can you do about it?

Jackson ends the chapter with the admonition that you have to attend to both of these parts. Faith in yourself is a necessary condition for improving your teaching, but not a sufficient condition. Knowing your situation without tending to your philosophy is a recipe for burnout. And, ultimately, once again, know that your expectations for your students are really your expectations for yourself.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Spring Break

The eternal dilemma: Time to relax, or time to catch up?

A quick hit: Someone in Reading agrees with me on teacher pay.