Monday, May 25, 2009

It's all about the students

This blog post is directed at my students, but it's part of a broader conversation that all of us should spend a lot of time on. It's a continuation of some conversations we've had about school rules, why we have specific school rules, and how, when, and why to work to change them. Students, this post turned out a lot longer than I meant. If you want to skip the essay and just leave your thoughts about our school's rules, policies, and expectations, just go straight to the comments. Please remember to be respectful; I don't want to have to delete comments for inappropriate language. (Imagine you're, maybe not in school, but at least in the parking lot outside with our principal standing nearby.)

Our school board sets the school rules; these are the things that are included in your planners that we go over at the beginning of each school year, and that the school-based adults should be reinforcing all year long. This includes the school cell-phone policy (you don't have one on school; if a teacher needs you to have one for a project, give it to that teacher before school starts and pick it up after school ends), the dress code (nothing distracting; no sleeveless shirts for men, no shoulder straps thinner than 3 inches for women, no shorts or skirts that come up higher than the fingers), the tardy policy, the graduation requirements, etc. The school board consists of people who have a stake in the performance of the school. In our case, it's mostly your parents, but it can also include local business officials, education professionals (usually ones who don't work for the school), and others. Their motivation in setting the rules is to keep you safe in school, and to provide you with the best education possible. They usually work with the schools' administration to make the rules.

We also have a set of school behavior expectations--Be Safe, Be Respectful, Be Responsible. (If you poke around in the archives, you'll find out more about how these came to be than you ever wanted to.) The Bobcat Code is another way of repeating the same basic ideals. Every community has rules about appropriate behavior, and these expectations are intended to tell us all what those are for our community. It's not just to tell students how to behave. It's also to tell teachers and staff how to behave, what to celebrate, who our good citizens are, things like that.

Each teacher has their own set of guidelines, too: rules, behavior expectations, and classroom procedures. The purpose of these guidelines is to codify how teachers and students interact. You can tell a lot about a teacher by their classroom guidelines.

All of these different levels of "rules" and "expectations" have one objective: to make school the best learning environment for you possible. In order for that to be true, the following things have to happen:
  1. The rules have to be directed towards improving your learning experience. (That's why we don't have a "Buy American" clause in the policies--it's got nothing to do with your learning.)
  2. You, the student, as well as we, the teachers, have to know what the rules are, what they're for, and what the consequences of following and not following them will be.
  3. The staff has to apply those rules consistently, re-teach them regularly, and be prepared to explain (in an appropriate time and place) what the educational value of a rule is.
Changing rules isn't easy, especially at the "school-board" level. I think the best way to do that is to work through the student senate, or failing that, through the administration. The school-wide behavior expectations are a little more flexible. Talk to me or send me an e-mail for more information about changing those. At the classroom level, the teacher has a fair amount of discretion with her own expectations. She still has to enforce school rules and support school-wide behavior expectations, but "good citizenship" is a little bit different in each class, for each teacher. If you think a teacher has expectations that are detrimental to your learning, talk to her. There are ways of getting REALLY harmful classroom policies rescinded, but we all want you to be in the best learning environment possible. Try talking to us first.

In any case, with any rules change, be prepared to justify how the change will help your education. Once, I asked students what they thought about school policies. One student responded, "There should be a boxing ring where students who aren't getting along can beat each other up." We asked how it would help their education to get into fights. The response: "It wouldn't. But it would be fun." Whether it would be fun or not, it would be at the expense of the safety of the students, it would take away from learning, and it wouldn't work as well as more productive, non-violent means of problem-solving. So that's an example of a bad policy change.

SO....after all that, what do you think about our school policy? What works, what doesn't? What could work better?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Why you go to school / Merit Pay

Students--The blog post I promised you is coming. After our incident on Friday, it's more important than ever to have the conversation we started over a week ago. But in the meantime, this:

Girls poisoned to prevent their education

If I could think of no other reason for you to go to school, I'd always have "Because the Taliban don't want you to."

I blog about this so often, you'd think I don't think about anything else. But I do. Really.

Merit pay doesn't work.

I have read neither the blog nor the study. I can't believe that anybody thinks this is the final word on the issue, though.

Hat tip to Alexander Russo for both of these stories.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Never work harder than your students, Cha. 4

Support your students

Jackson starts off this chapter by defining the "Curse of Knowledge," knowing something and being unable to imagine what it's like not knowing it. She suggests that it's one of the big reasons that teachers have a hard time teaching until the remediation stage. Then, she suggests that by having remediation plans without intervening during instruction is tantamount to planning on our students' failure. This, of course, leads to frustration all around.

The mitigation to this--the principle for this chapter--is to plan interventions in to the lesson. In the planning stages of a class or a unit, a teacher decides what students should know. (This is reflected in "standard and benchmarks" and whatnot.) He then breaks that up into smaller bits, steps and stages of learning goals to put together some kind of continuity plan so that he's not just randomly pulling activities out of his file drawer. Then, he builds in learning supports over the course of the unit, so that when students trip up, they have a system to help them keep their footing.

Jackson identifies the following elements of an effective intervention system:
  1. The Plan is developed before students begin to fail.
  2. The Plan has a red flag mechanism that triggers action--objective, based on learning objectives (not behavior).
  3. A concrete procedure is in place such that when the conditions are met (less than 76%, missed standards, whatever), the procedure kicks right in. It's in the letter home, the syllabus, the class's website, on refrigerator magnets. Everybody understands the procedure, what it's for, when it happens. It's not punishment and it's not busywork.
  4. Students have shared accountability in this Plan. They have a well-defined job and responsibility for their learning.
Jackson suggests a number of interlinking steps to help support students' learning:
  • Anticipate confusion. Having once been learners of our subject ourselves, and having taught our subject every year more, we have a pretty good idea where our students will get tripped up. Prepare your students for those moments and have a variety of teaching strategies in your pocket.
  • Pinpoint confusion and uncover misconceptions. Know where your students are getting tripped up. She points out that this is tricky, because you can get right answers using wrong strategy. This action step (or whatever it is she calls it) addresses the strategies that students are using, and making sure that they're using the correct strategies.
  • Demystify the process. The process of education makes sense to educators. We live it, we dedicate ourselves to improving it, we've invested huge amounts of time to thinking abstractly about it. This is not so for student. Help them to understand why they're doing what they're doing.
  • Gradually remove supports as students improve. Make it clear that some of your "crutch" methods may be necessary now, but they won't be available forever. She makes the point of saying that, rather than changing the learning activities, try keeping the learning activities the same and changing the students' relationship to it. I'm not exactly clear what she means by this, or what this would look like in an WL class, but I get the shape of what she's saying.
  • Support the learning of students who have already mastered the learning goals. The teacher prep looks nearly the same for this step as the previous. Instead of taking the ambiguity out of a learning objective, leave some of the (learning-goal-relevant) ambiguity in. The students who already know a lot need to learn, too.
And in this way, Jackson comes back to content differentiation. These are all things that a teacher prepares for as often as possible. Jackson suggests doing this systemically, making sure that you have this process available all the time.

Our school has an "Interventions" class this year, a class we've been struggling with getting right all year long. We know that we need a mechanism to help students learn content they may have missed the first time, and this year it took the form of a 1-hour-a-day class. We've had trouble organizing the class logistically, re-teaching standards, getting students into and out of Interventions, and keeping occupied those students who don't need to make up standards. This chapter reads like Jackson has been through a number of projects like that. She's taken those experiments and tried to turn them into something.