Author Archives: drgmarcuri

About drgmarcuri

A professional educator, teacher educator and coach.

Ship or boat? That is the question! Or, “Tactics to crush a girl’s spirit”

STORY

From my earliest memories of raising my daughter, it was quite clear she was a writer. In her elementary grades, she made lists, kept a diary and wrote stories. In the middle grades, she continued with fervor and published a poem called “If I had stayed” in an anthology of young writers. In her High School years, she wrote a “novel” and a children’s book about Math! And, yes, even today in college, she writes a blog that combines her love of Brené Brown’s research, her attempt to remain true to her namesake, Hope, and her desire to connect people together… it is entitled wordsofhopeblog.com.  One of the many reasons I take pride in promoting her blog on mine is this: in the 7th grade, her English experience all but crushed her joy and ability to write and learn joyfully; and it has taken a village to bring her confidence level back to “brave.” Here are three vignettes that demonstrate how her fire was all but extinguished.

My daughter’s 7th grade teacher used notes from her Graduate School education to teach the children Greek Mythology. My daughter, the most obsequious student dream any teacher would want to have, was stressing about having to read so much, not knowing how she was going to be graded or tested. I, in my infinite training and wisdom, simply helped in two ways. First, I stayed clear of criticizing her teacher for NOT providing clear objectives or purposes for the reading, admitting that not all teachers have the same high standards of lesson planning as I have for myself and the teachers I supervise. Second, I gave her a strategy to attempt to reconstruct as much of the material as possible in a way that made sense to her so she could vomit the material any way she was asked. I asked her, “What about these mythology stories grabs you the most?” She immediately replied how stupid it was that gods would even interfere with and make mortals’ lives so petty and difficult. So, I simply gave her a RUBRIC that I thought her teacher may be assuming she would need to reconstruct appropriate information about each god/story. AND, I gave her a STRATEGY to understand and synthesize those stories in a meaningful, personal way.

It worked! After reading a mythology story, she was able to quote me the plot, the values within the story, the relationship of the main characters to other gods, goddesses and important mortals. With the new strategy, she would then with specific information comment on the “stupidity” of the gods- that one metacognitive step of personalizing the information in order to remember details (just in case the teacher would spring an “application” question or a long essay or something)! When the time for the test came around, my daughter truly had, in my parental but professional opinion, “mastered the material.” On the test, she confused a few of the gods, but for the most part, her “studying” had paid off… except for one detail.  On a fill-in-the-blank question, my daughter answered, “Charon, the ferryman of the dead takes the dead to the underworld in a BOAT on the river Styx.” The teacher marked it wrong, saying the correct answer is “SHIP.” This brought my daughter’s grade from an “A” to a “B” for the test. Really?  “Boat” versus “ship!” The teacher ever so pleasantly showed my daughter the page from the text from which the question was derived and in which the word “ship” was mentioned. My daughter, again, obsequious to a fault, came home sobbing, showing me old-ship                                         unknownher “B” and angry that another page in the same materials mentioned “boat” for the ferryman. She couldn’t understand why a teacher would ask a question like that and not expect multiple correct answers. My response? I simply told my daughter that the teacher was a literalist who practiced a traditional testing/teaching practice called, “Guess what the teacher’s thinking.” I told my daughter I knew in my heart she knew the material, and that is all that matters, not to worry about silly test questions like that. Yes, I was RAGING inside! But I did not let that show.

 

On another occasion, this same teacher inconvenienced me to come to get my daughter after school because she was being punished with a “self-select.” You see, my daughter, who was the most compliant and studious student in the class, had not completed the back of a homework sheet! Now, here is where we see why my daughter’s enthusiasm was squelched. She got 100% of the questions correct on the front side and had merely overlooked the back of the sheet. Others in the class had neglected to do the work at home, so at the last moment, they quickly wrote bogus answers on a few of the questions on the front and back and turned it in. They got a 100% for completing the assignment, and my daughter got a “self-select.” The teacher actually approached me as if she was rehabilitating my daughter’s poor performance, when, indeed, I was laughing in my heart of hearts! Had she not seen the 70 days of class when my daughter was over prepared? Had unknown-2she not realized that for this little girl, shaming was the last thing she needed to be encouraged to be responsible and learn the information? Had she not calculated and formulated the ACTUAL message she was sending to my daughter, to me and to the rest of her students? It was going to be a long 110 more days with this teacher. I was embarrassed for this teacher, to say the least.

Finally, one last vignette to show how the sun set on a seventh grade little girl’s dream of a safe, encouraging environment to learn! The first WORDS out of my daughter’s mouth, be they latent or not at 20 months old, were, “Daddy, would you turn up the Mickey songs? I can’t hear them?” This verbal, happy child was given the gift of exploring the English language and literature in a great school. But, with 7th grade hormones and developmental issues, she could not have been more self-conscious. This same teacher would give quick quizzes in class and have students exchange papers to grade them. Then, as if she had not wasted enough of their time, she would have all the students tell her their grade aloud, as she called each name, one by one, so she could record the grade in her grade book. Of course, my daughter’s name happened to be first on the list alphabetically. After the first few times of doing this, my daughter began to feel embarrassed when she did so well in unknown-3comparison to her friends. The students would jeer, “Of course Hope got a 100!  And yet, she heard an embarrassing public gasp when she did NOT score a 100! She literally considered purposely doing poorly on a consistent basis so people would stop listening and reacting so vehemently. I suggested a different tactic. I told her simply to approach the teacher’s desk when her name was called and point to the score silently. I said that if the teacher insisted she say the grade aloud, my daughter should politely refuse and tell the teacher to call ME! I kiddingly told her that what I wanted her to do was to tell the teacher she would announce the grade if the teacher would announce to the class her weight! It seemed to make the experience a bit lighter for a girl who felt pressured by her teacher and her peers. After a few times of my daughter approaching the desk silently, the rest of the class followed suit, lining up to show the teacher their grade. It seems they, too, were uncomfortable announcing their grade publicly. The teacher, however, did not get the hint that perhaps entering grades in a grade book is best done NOT on the students’ learning time (or her “teaching” time). It did solve the public humiliation of an entire class who joined together to boycott such primitive, shaming techniques (and invasion of privacy?).

THE ISSUES

-Discreet point testing:  There is a place and time for discreet point testing, as long as the assessment fits into the grander scheme of overall objectives such as those involving literacy skills like reading comprehension, literary analysis, higher-order thinking skills, etc. But, “ship” versus “boat!” Please! Students assume to the point of futility that the information about which they are being tested will gel into something meaningful or more sophisticated, more “educated.” It is deflating for students to be told they have minimally mastered information at a literal level and even more devastating when they actually studied (and in many cases self-taught!) the information on an academically higher level and get a “B” because they did not read the teacher’s mind. To say that “boat” is wrong because page 31 says “ship” is like taking that same ship and ripping off the sails. Enough said!

-In-class assessments:  Assessments of any form serve two purposes, both of which have devolved into tools for self-serving teachers. The first purpose of assessment is to provide students with proper feedback about their learning. Having other students “grade” their peers’ work during class time is a way for teachers to “save themselves time.” The amount of thinking and learning that goes into marking a quiz item “right” or “wrong” does not help the grader or the graded. Students do not benefit from the “feedback” of a student-graded assignment. Second, assessments are for teachers to determine if they have, indeed, taught the material effectively to all the students. In-class grading and recording of those grades absolves the teacher of any responsibility to check whether s/he is teaching effectively as well as to help students master the higher-order processing of the information being tested. In addition, it almost guarantees the tests never achieve or encourage the higher-level thinking since creating better lessons and tests is a much messier and time-consuming process and the students themselves are just developing the capacities to think on such levels, ergo the appropriate reason for the teacher’s assessing them in the first place.

-Public shaming:  Come on! Are we in pioneer days in a one-room classroom? Is this Hogwarts with Professor Snape? There are so many research-based, tested ways to discipline with dignity, to teach responsibility without lording a grade over someone’s head and shaming them into a conformity that isn’t even learning. Do students really get motivated to hear publicly that Suzie or Sam Suckup keeps getting A’s in a teacher’s class? Do students learn by peer grading, especially middle grades students? Is it too hard to evaluate every situation individually? For example, what would it have taken for the teacher to say, “Oh, I see you didn’t fill out the back of the worksheet, but you did very well on the front. I’ll give you 6 minutes to do the rest now.” I promise you, it took my daughter TWO minutes to fill out the worksheet in her “detention,” but she had to endure public humiliation with her peers (5 of her friends told me in carpool that she was in trouble and I had to go get her from detention), a threat of parental anger (the teacher continually drove home to my daughter that I would be disappointed), the shaming message that she was “irresponsible,” and much more! She “owed” 45 minutes of “self-select.”

This, alone, transformed my daughter from a language-loving reader/writer to an excuse-driven rebel who hated every other minute in English class.  In order to begin undoing the damage, I stopped her tears at thinking I was disappointed in her for the detention, secretly whispered in her ear I thought it was hilarious, and told her to finish the rest of her homework in detention so we could go get a smoothie when I come back to pick her up!

THE POSITIVES

Call it my style, my personality or call it personal offense, but I find it hard to mention positives in these sorts of stories. My daughter has encouraged me to “tell a few positive stories in this blog so that I can be more upbeat in my writing. (This will come later in this series.) But, for now, here’s my best shot at positives. Please reply if you can think of others. I’m trying, but I can’t escape the teary-eyed image of my daughter completely paralyzed by fear that she had disappointed me.

1) While I have no mercy for this teacher given her small class sizes and small number of classes, I DO understand that “writing intensive” classes sometimes can place undue demand on teachers. This may encourage them to resort to desperate measures such as in-class quiz/assessments and public announcement of private grades.

2) I really do believe that literacy objectives (and higher-order thinking objectives) such as analysis, interpretation, compare/contrast, essay writing, etc. cannot be taught and practiced without content. Therefore, there is a need for discreet point assessment of content before one is asked to do anything with the information.

3) The concept of “self-select” seems to be a “kinder, gentler” form of detention that is more holistic. In concept, it appears to be a tool where a teacher can intervene meaningfully in a student’s path, helping the student in a personal way.

Yes, I’m biting my tongue to stop me from adding a “but……”

THE NEGATIVES

  • I wish I had seen more “writing intensive” ANYTHING in this class! My daughter was hungry for that! The supervision of such a teacher seems to be nebulous. How does a teacher practice such NON-best practices and not have it come to the attention of the admin? Simple professional development, mentoring or coaching would help this teacher blossom into an effective, inspiring member of an amazingly synergistic team.
  • Differentiated instruction includes differentiated assessment. Academic freedom means the teacher may determine how s/he teaches and if the students have learned. But, as in every discipline, discreet point mastery does not mean students are communicative, literate or even deep thinkers/processors of that information. It is an issue of proper instructional planning. My daughter could have told the teacher the stories being assessed with an attitude of confidence and humor, including all the information the teacher was assessing and more. But, instead, my daughter got a “B” because she did not remember what was on page 31! Is this fair? No! Is it common? Oh, yes! Too many assumptions accompany classroom instruction dominated by discreet point testing, all of which hold unfair standards to the students that are being assessed in this manner.
  • Who monitors the efficacy of “programs” such as “self-select?” Yes, there was an opportunity to encourage my daughter in a positive direction. The detention afforded the time and opportunity to do so. But, time for shaming is not on the agenda! This teacher did not know my daughter’s heart! Dare I blame her? That is a difficult question. Good teachers teach! GREAT teachers inspire and free the hearts of the ones they touch! This teacher had 70 days to learn my daughter’s heart but had failed to do so. She had 110 days to make up for the fact that SHE missed the boat (pun intended). But she did not change! When I work with teachers, one of the most important traits or skills I attempt to instill in them is the ability to be self-reflective. Can they see when they have messed up? Can they ask for help then they can’t fix it? Will they take a messy risk even though the culture in which they are working does not encourage failure or risk-taking? This teacher, in her attempt to be “safe” and “expedient,” completely squelched the enthusiasm of a beautiful, young writer-to-be.

CONCLUSION

As I ponder how personal these stories are, I cannot help but wonder what it’s like to experience this type of affront without the knowledge and expertise from the Education world that I have. Would typical parents have reacted with such suppressed rage while attempting to supplement the instruction just enough to keep the subject matter interesting for their child? Would they be in a denying bliss? I barely had the restraint, but I certainly had the expertise to help my daughter internalize the content without becoming completely jaded by the instructional process. Typical parents may show more restraint than I, but they would not be able to equip their child with strategies to “stay in the game” after such oppression. Other parents might operate in an ignorant fog believing that the teacher is actually doing their child “good.” How many students have given up hope that instruction will soon be relevant to them? I grieve when I ask these questions knowing there are resources of research and professional expertise available to teachers, administrators and parents. Do I have a higher standard than other parents for “excellence” in education? Yes! Observe, however, that, even though I did not challenge this “excellence,” it went unnoticed and unaddressed by an admin promoting such “excellence.” Shouldn’t input from parents and students be part of the process of delivering “excellence” in education?

 

 

 

“Enriched instruction” = “I’m going to grade her harder”

THE STORY

In my entire professional career, I have only dropped the “F” bomb on a teacher once. I am not speaking of “F” for “failure,” but the other unmentionable, unprofessional and terribly offensive “F” bomb. My daughter’s teacher (subject matter omitted to protect the innocent) produced award-winning students in the subject matter National Test every year. She was masterful at helping her students achieve “high levels” that allowed them to take even higher levels of the same subject very early on in their high school careers. My daughter was fortunate enough to have her in 7th grade, where, because she performed so well, she was placed in the “A” track for her 8th grade year. When she began her 8th grade year with the same teacher, there were a few “B” track students “inconveniently” placed in the same class, so the teacher took all her students back to the same 7th grade material, the same text, the same tests, the same notes from the beginning to the end! This, she said, was so “everyone was on the same page.” The “B” track students did not make the class pace very fast, and, therefore, the 8th grade class ended not far past the entire 7th grade year. Lo and behold, in my daughter’s 9th grade year, the same teacher was given “A,” “B” and “C” track students in the same “level 2” class. The teacher used the same approach as in my daughter’s 8th grade class, even to the point that my 6th grade son had the exact same homework in the same subject with the same textbook from a different teacher for the entire first month of school. Angry and bitter about how her class was formed, the teacher let her students know that the administration was careless about putting students of so many different levels (or tracks) in the same class. My daughter and one other student were quite bored and asked the teacher for supplemental instruction. They were now in their THIRD year of the exact same textbook, the exact same tests and the exact same methodology with the exact same teacher. I received a very friendly and enthusiastic phone call from my daughter’s teacher, who told me what a joy it is to teach someone such as my daughter. The teacher laid out her plan to “enrich” the girls’ instruction, which included potentially inspiring activity applying the subject matter in quite enjoyable ways. Then, the teacher caught me completely off guard. While my daughter was enjoying the success of her grade of “A” in the class, tired of the teacher’s complaints that they are repeating level 1 material for the third time and that the school is doing the students and teacher a disservice by placing all three tracks in the same class, my daughter was also aware she was not learning anything new. The teacher simply told me that, because this was “enriched instruction,” she was going to grade my daughter much harder. It was going to be more difficult for her to get an “A.” I, in my most regretted utterance to a teacher ever, said, “There’s no f-ing way my daughter is going to be penalized for asking for engaging work! If she can do the work you ask her to do, she should not be punished for wanting to see it applied in real life, and she should not be graded on a different scale than the others who for the most part had had the same material as well.” I then told the teacher that if she was going to stress my daughter out by lording a less attainable grade of “A” over her head simply because my daughter wants to learn something new and meaningful, I know for a fact my daughter would rather just “get the grade.” I regret losing my cool and have apologized as profusely and sincerely as I can to her teacher, but this story brings up so many concerns about mass education. Let’s examine them.

THE ISSUES

You are right if you have concluded that this one is personal! This is my baby girl, who, now at 20 years old, writes a blog of her own (www.wordsofhopeblog.com). The deep-rooted issues rampant within this story frighten me! There is not a single issue that overrides or supersedes the others. All the issues are widespread, but very few of them have really been solved at a systemic level in many schools at all.

-Tracking: In principle, tracking can be an efficient way to streamline the delivery of a set of content to a homogeneous population. But, just as confusion exists over who constitutes the A-team in an organization, many times there are many issues with creating and implementing a system by creating A-, B- and C-Tracks of students in mass education.

1) Which students are placed in which track under which criteria?

2) Under whose authority are students placed into each track?

3) What exactly are the criteria for placing students into a certain track, and who designs them?

4) Are the criteria commensurate with the school’s overall mission?

5) Is the mission appropriate in the context of professional standards?

6) How are the tracks (and the grades received from students in each track) reported to subsequent institutions of learning?

7) What is the purpose of the tracking, and is the school overall aware of and in agreement with that purpose?

8) Does the tracking serve the purpose of accomplishing the proper objectives in the curriculum?

9) Is the “curriculum” around which the tracks are created professionally and developmentally appropriate for the students?

Tracking makes sense for very specific purposes, but, in its current state, teachers really don’t have the time or capacity to individualize instruction when tracking does not help. Instead, they teach a set of curriculum using a particular (and familiar) method, usually the same way they were taught. Even if their preferred approach is not supported by the Education research base, teachers are still committed to it believing it is easier to teach similar kids the same content in one simple manner. My daughter’s teacher was responsible for placing each student in her or his “track,” but the administration was responsible for creating classes out of the whole group of students. Given the nature of the subject matter, the manner in which the teacher assimilated the students was completely unsupervised, or, in my opinion, neglected. As a result, an entire class except for three C-track students repeated the level one content material at least once and then rushed through the level two as much as possible. The entire class did not move very far along the mastery spectrum of the intended level TWO to be taught.

-Remediation: When forces beyond the teacher’s control place students of different tracks into one class, how should instruction look different? Should teachers “punish” students who have already mastered material others in the class haven’t by forcing boring, repetitive review? Is there a better way? Research says “yes.” However, supervisors (with unrealistic demands of test scores, etc.) and overworked teachers do not have the time or permission to fail at learning these strategies. Therefore, teachers insist on homogeneity… of student demographics, of instructional approach, of student behavior expectations, of parental involvement, of teacher support and validation for a teaching job “well done” and of much more. I must say my standards are high given my credentials, but all schools boast “excellence,” yet most are offended when that “excellence” is challenged in any way.

-Supplemental Instruction or “Enrichment”: The issue here involves more than just exceptionalities (described a bit more in the next related issue). When parents (or consultants such as myself) hear their student’s teacher will be supplementing or enriching instruction, the immediate thoughts turn to “real-world” application. This inherently means that “regular” instruction is UNrelated to student life experience. But, on that exciting occasion when a teacher does invite students to participate in enrichment activities, the assumption is that students already have learned “what they’re supposed to” and now they are applying it in other environments. This raises many issues, too!

1) Does everyone get to participate in supplemental instruction or only those who actually master the material?

2) Is the teacher assuming all the students can perform the enrichment exercises even though some have not had the opportunity to practice doing so? Another way to ask this questions is, “What is being assessed: the accomplishing of the “regular” curriculum or the application of the regular curriculum in the supplemental setting?”

3) Related to the above question is the following: Is the teacher making an assumption that if students master the “basic” information, they will automatically be able to perform the supplemental tasks? And a corollary, “Is the mastery of the ‘regular curriculum’ the appropriate objectives for the discipline area being taught?”

4) Will students be punished if they perform poorly on the supplemental tasks even though they have successfully mastered the “basics?”

Again, supervisors and teachers do not spend their time resolving these conflicts of interest in the name of academic freedom, busy-ness, or for any number of other reasons. A great deal of research exists to help academic institutions resolve these issues to the point of creating a relevant, vibrant instructional experience for the teachers and learners.

-“Individualized instruction”:

I would like to save this issue for a full-blog entry, but it cannot go unnoticed in this story! Call it “learning differences,” or “differentiated instruction” or whatever the buzzword du jour, there exist research-tested methods to manage students who need a special set of instructional strategies to help them achieve the most and best they can. In a mass-delivery system of education (independent, charter or public), teachers fall into the full spectrum of supervisory support. This story demonstrates the worst possible scenario: leaving a teacher with “success” and the department in which she teaches to their own devices. In this case, two students simply did not want to repeat Level I material for the third time. The teacher neither received nor asked for proper support or input regarding her choice to “go back and get everyone YET AGAIN on the same page.” As a parent, it felt almost as if this choice was punishment for the administration’s placing A-, B-, and C- Tracked students in the same class. Instead of the students’ best interest in a “least restrictive environment,” she chose boredom and drudgery, complaining publicly to the students about the foolish choices of the administration. My question is, “Who is being punished here?” We all know the answer to that!

Regarding supplemental instruction or individualized instruction or differentiated instruction, I know many “stories” that fall both on the positive side and negative side. This story was personal, but it illustrates three important issues. First, teachers’ commitments to one “successful” approach may help every students accomplish a particular set of objectives, but are those objectives the ones the students ought to be achieving? Second, when students accomplish even those self-selected objectives, what happens when students DO or DON’T accomplish them (BEFORE and WITHIN respectively) the amount of time the teachers have allotted? Third, where does the role of supervision fit in to the big picture goals and objectives of the department, the professional field, and the school? Difficult issues such as these are deeply rooted and take serious growing pains to resolve, pains rarely allowed to heal and guide educational excellence.

-Whose problem is it?

This is such a sticky wicket! When a teacher gets ANY results, colleagues, administrators and parents alike praise the teacher and/or leave the teacher alone, hoping the achievements will result in the same with next year’s students. This breeds a culture where the teacher, the department and the administration dance with negotiated distance regarding the efficacy of the instruction being delivered. Then, when two grade-mongering, very capable students stir the pot and ask for something “better” from the “successful” teacher, the dominos begin to fall. Is it admin’s fault for placing the students together? Were the A, B and C-tracks clearly defined and processed in the class make-up? Were the tracks clearly understood by the admin and parents? Is the admin aware and accepting of the teacher’s choice to bring all students back to Level ONE material for the second or third time? Does the admin have the courage or capacity to help the teacher do the better choice of supplementing student instruction? Do parents such as I exacerbate the problem insisting that, if my student is given a more difficult path to achieving an “A” when she has already mastered the material TWICE already with the same teacher, this should be reflected on her transcript? (I would also like to address grades and grading as a complete blog-topic story.) What is the role of humility in attempting to provide the best instruction to as many students as possible?

THE POSITIVES

Just like a teacher who would attend a “What works for me” seminar, I cannot deny that the decision to entertain supplemental instruction for my daughter and her classmate was well intended. At least the teacher recognized how bored her top two students were. And, given the narrow thinking of a grading system in general, I concede the teacher had truly thought how she might integrate such instruction into a “regular” curriculum. My daughter scored first in the state on a national test for students studying the subject matter at Level 2. This encouraged her a bit, having studied the same material for three years in a row. As alluded to in the Story, my daughter went to 10th grade able to take AP classes in the very subject matter for which she had merely achieved “level 2,” and through her senior year in high school, she achieved an “A” in two AP classes and two college-level classes in the same subject matter! (Yes, this is an indictment for standardized tests, misplaced professional objectives, etc., subjects we will certainly NOT avoid in this blog!) Forgive me if I cannot say anything else positive, it truly was personal, LOL. I’m over it now, and the experience has helped my daughter be an advocate for herself regarding what she needs to learn while she considers big-picture curriculum and instructional choices that confront her.

THE NEGATIVES

I took my daughter on a trip with me where she would be able to show off her “first-in-the-state” expertise of the subject matter. When we arrived at our destination, she was not able to apply the most basic of principles assumed by the “A” in her class and the “First Place” ribbon on the National Exam to have been mastered at such a level. How do you tell a 9th grader she may have studied the exact same material for three years and now can’t apply it in a simple, realistic situation? To me, the most “negative” component of this story is the destruction of the wind for the proverbial sails. We, as teachers, complain students aren’t motivated, and we blame everyone but ourselves about why. Students know they study “stuff” so they can navigate life better in the future. But, rarely are they allowed the messy process of experimenting with real-life content and circumstances to refine their skills. Basic research-based principles tell us how we can plan instruction to motivate (make relevant) our students, but we ignore it for many reasons. The result? Students who resort to grade-mongering, bad attitudes, apathy, and/or much more! I was a bit disappointed but not surprised in the administrators’ saying their “hands were tied” regarding this issue. Again, we see schools that sing their own praises of “excellence” but become tied down when someone on the outside challenges that “excellence.”

THE CONCLUSION

Did I need to repent from dropping the “F” bomb? Yes! Do I LOVE the teacher referenced in this story? YES! She is a hardworking, dedicated and effective teacher of some important aspects of the subject matter? Did I take the whole thing personally? YES! But this does not excuse a school admin team or a department of teachers from missing an opportunity to grow professionally! I know there are tried and true supervisory approaches as well as methods and strategies to accommodated students who have already mastered a set of content objectives being addressed in a classroom… no matter what the make-up of the class is! Do the supervision and strategies take time and resources? Yes! Do we always defer to the most expedient solution, that of ignoring an award-winning teacher’s choices for teaching a unique population of students in a unique context the same material 3 years in a row? We shouldn’t… but we do!

“What works for me”: Words to live by, words to cringe by

THE STORY

For my very first blog post, I thought I would select a topic that might resonate with many teachers and administrators at many levels and in many different subject disciplines. I am speaking specifically of the collective wisdom I have gained in attending and presenting at professional conferences regularly since 1983. Whether at local, state or national conferences, I must first tell you that World Language educators are the most vibrant people with whom I have ever collaborated! At every teacher conference, the sponsoring professional organization schedules time slots for teachers to gather and share “What works for me!” The itinerary reads, “Learn the strategy today and take it to the classroom tomorrow!” In my 30 years of teaching and consulting with Second Language teachers, I must admit I have both presented strategies and benefitted from others’ strategies, but always with a critical eye. The ideas are numerous; the creativity is inspiring! The “packaged product” is welcomed relief for these tired but still enthusiastic teachers. Some teachers take the “lesson” straight to the classroom, and it fails miserably. Others experience moderate success. Even an untrained eye can speculate as to why “what worked” for one teacher may not work for another, but few teachers and administrators ask the more important questions. Why does the “lesson” work at all? Why does the lesson NOT work? What is the proper “adaptation” from one successful teacher another teacher that will ensure success for her/his students? Is this something I need to be doing in my class at all? Let’s examine some of the issues.

THE ISSUES

In this blog, I do not want to contrive issues within the context of “The Story,” nor do I want to elaborate on every issue contained therein. As stories unfold in this blog overall, there will be great overlap, an encouragement that many problems are solvable and related! So, what are some of the most salient issues I see in this “story?”

Eclecticism. Every, and I mean every, teacher with whom I have ever worked has told me along the way they “take a little from here and a little from there… whatever works ‘best.’” While it is quite a sophisticated skill to integrate and deliver such curriculum and instruction, it is also very dangerous for various reasons. First, most teachers and administrators do not agree with or do not know what “best” really means. The World Languages field is not the only one guilty of migrating to trends and easy instructional approaches in hopes that more students will learn more “stuff” in less time. Most fields cannot even agree on what “stuff” is necessary.

Confusing Success. Strategies and “lessons” work for a reason. The success may or may not overtly reflect the pedagogically sound, research-based effective instruction on which the entire lesson or approach is designed. So, successful teachers may naturally execute a lesson in the most effective way and not know it, but another teacher may “do the same thing” and not ground her/his instruction in a professionally appropriate manner. Even more disconcerting is that teachers and administrators may find a “technique” that “works for them,” but in accomplishing such “objectives,” students are no closer to the ultimate goals and objectives that have been professionally designed, adopted or assumed on a large-scale basis. This splinters the curriculum, making lessons piece meal- a formula for student metacognitive disaster. For example, at a professional conference “what works for me” session, a World Languages teacher finds a terrific pneumonic to help students learn the difference between preterit and imperfect. S/he gives the students a test after the lesson and “everyone succeeds.” S/he then moves on the subjunctive. “Success” in this case does not reflect the overall goals and objectives of World Language instruction: to produce (speak/write) and comprehend (listen/read) the target language. Does an “A” on the preterit/imperfect test indicate students’ ability to narrate a story in the past? This more professionally based objective is not only more difficult to teach and assess, but messier in all aspects.

Integrated Curriculum and Instruction. Finally, there are many issues related to how the approaches, techniques and lessons from these eclectic sharing sessions fit into the rest of the school and its curriculum. Are the teachers going to “What works for me” sessions learning the bigger picture curriculum and instruction items for creating a self-sustaining, synergistic program at the departmental or school level? Does the instructional approach reflect the school’s mission and purpose? Are other disciplines aiding and abetting the superficial nature of instruction by adopting similar piece meal, eclectic instructional methods? How do the methods and the content (and the goals and objectives) relate to each other within the school? These questions cannot be answered if the teaching staff continues to cling to “what works for me” without being given time and resources to explore the “why.” Sadly more often than not, administrators do not have the pedagogical expertise or jurisdiction to help their teachers professionally develop in a way that answers these questions. While the research exists to help schools, departments and teachers streamline an effective instructional program, it remains hidden in data bases and other ivory tower stores.

THE POSITIVES

I am, by nature, slightly pessimistic and cynical, and my daughter, who writes a blog, herself, has challenged me to remain positive. (Her blog is wordsofhopeblog.com if you are so inclined… yes, this is an advertisement, LOL.) So, let me enumerate some of the positives here.

First, most teachers that attend a “What works for me” session” demonstrate a genuine enthusiasm for helping students learn, attempting to find ways to make it easier for students to learn and easier for the teachers to save everyone, including themselves, time and energy. They are, in short, amazingly resourceful. So, when I hear the words “What works for me,” I celebrate the teacher!

Second, while ivory tower critique of lesson plans serves the very necessary purpose of streamlining education and educators, zealous teachers are the ones doing the teaching “in the trenches,” and they really do know “what works.” In addition, in my experience, any teacher willing to inconvenience her/his already busy life by attending a professional development conference will benefit also from learning and applying sound professional methods, approaches and techniques while at the same time learning how to mold the overall instruction of the whole “department” into a cesspool of best practices! This, in the long run, helps the teacher avoid burnout and inspire others.

THE NEGATIVES

I reiterate my praise for World Language educators as the most enthusiastic, most resourceful group of teachers with whom I have ever worked. In my work and life, however, I have always found it easier to identify the negatives (especially when I have already studied the bigger pictures in depth) and then to create solutions (potential for hope) for those negatives. So, when I hear the words “What works for me,” I cringe! Here are a few negatives regarding this “story” and its related issues.

First, because of human and organizational nature, teachers of ANY discipline neither have the time nor the inclination to explore why something works or not. They are rarely held accountable for reflecting professionally (and accurately!) on their performance, either because the administrator/supervisor is incapable of it or because they, themselves, like all of us, think what they are doing is perfectly acceptable already! This makes it quite difficult for anyone with knowledge or expertise to intervene with professional wisdom. (And, quite frankly, it explains why teachers migrate to “what works for me” seminars.)

Second, until the teacher, department and school coordinate articulated goals and objectives, students will be collateral damage. Students and parents alike will see the curriculum as irrelevant. Large discrepancies will exist in “mastery” of the content. (“Mastery” will definitely be one large can of worms I will be opening at some time in another blog post!!)

Third, whether it is time, logistics, resources or philosophical differences, parents, teachers and administrators are ignorant of the already existing professional reserves that can turn “good” instruction into “great.” As stated above, it is quite messy, especially when change is involved- change in attitude, resource allocation, parental education, externally validated measures, supervisor roles, and much more! The resistance to change is so great! I have, for example, consulted with a school whose resources were completely in place for creating a state of the art instructional program in a certain discipline area. They brought in national experts to evaluate the program and make recommendations of changes. Seven years ago, they had everything in place to make minimal changes to curriculum offerings and minor adaptations in instructional approach and staffing to become one of the most stellar programs in this content area with which I have ever worked. Today, they have changed nothing but adding one staff person who espouses the proper instructional approach. Change is hard, but denying teachers and students the access to the professional knowledge and practice that inspires and empowers is, in my opinion, a travesty, a waste of educational effort.

THE CONCLUSION

One story, MY story of attending professional industry conferences since 1982, has within it the traces of everything education. I still use many of the techniques and “lessons” I presented and learned in those “What works for me” sessions. It wasn’t until I studied Education at the graduate level that I began to realize exactly why I succeeded in some lessons and failed in others. In addition, I learned that succeeding in some lessons was not an end to a means, but vice versa, a means to a much bigger and professionally appropriate end. It wasn’t until I served on national committees to evaluate university Education programs that I began to see how interconnected every issue is in Education, but, specifically in this case, how teachers graduate from their IHE (institute of higher education) lacking professional expertise, relevant and sufficient experience and ability to reflect on bigger picture issues in their own field and in Education as a whole. Their only recourse is to survive, to find “what works for them.” Dare we blame the teachers? Certainly not! Dare we blame the administrators? Certainly not! Dare we blame the parents? Certainly not! Dare we blame “the system?” Certainly not! Dare we accept that change must be systemic in and for all of us, embracing what we know to be effective and appropriate? Certainly yes!