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Who needs a 504 plan anyway? Part II

THE SECOND STORY

Which would you prefer to do: memorize a long list of prepositions to then write them out for a teacher or use a list of prepositions to describe your room or your favorite place by writing in a way that the reader can draw that space, including everything in it? Your answer to that question may reveal your preferred mode of learning or teaching, but the latter, when taught with appropriate professional techniques, assumes you understand the former. Never, including in the 8th grade, did my daughter need a 504 Plan. prepostions-complete-1But she did need an awakening of her spirit, that verbal, happy, creative little girl that had acquiesced to a compliant vomiting mouth of information in the 7th grade. You see, in the 7th grade, I encountered my daughter memorizing a list of prepositions. I simply asked her, “What IS a preposition and why do you need to know more of them?” She could not answer, dismissed me brusquely, and stated that the test was to write the first half of the list tomorrow and the next half the next day. I walked away sad and silent.

In the 8th grade, however, my daughter was again studying prepositions, and I asked her the same question. She smiled and said, “Dad, if you’re trying to describe something in relation to something else, you’re always going to need a preposition. Look at my description of my room. I can’t describe one thing in my room in relation to another without using a preposition. My bed is next to my closet. My pillows are supposed to be on my bed, but they are either under it or out of sight!” Yes, you guessed it! I walked out of that encounter beaming with tears of joy! She was back! The humor, the voice, the redundancy and verbosity she so naturally gets from me, LOL! It was there, and all because of one teacher: Mrs. McNeer! Only a week later, I thought my daughter had gone to bed early or was sick or perhaps sad and locked up in her room. I knocked on the door to inquire if everything was OK.

She simply said, “I’m writing.”

Not wanting to pry too much, I said, “For English? For Mrs. McNeer?”

She said, “Sort of! She wrote me all these comments on my papers and said I can revise my writing any time I want. I’m not sure I want to turn it in for a grade, but she said she will always give me feedback about what I write. All I have to do is turn it in to her!”

[Silent, guarded weeping, LOL.] “Well,” I said, “She seems like a great teacher!”

Inside, however, I was screaming, “Did I just hear my daughter- the daughter who was so cynical about English that all she did was what it took to get an “A”??? Did I just hear her say the grade doesn’t matter?!?!?!? [More silent weeping]

ponderingLike Mary treasured in her heart all the angel had spoken to her regarding the Baby Jesus, I basked in the joy that a teacher is reaching my daughter and melting her hardened heart!! I would love to bore you with scenario after scenario regarding Mrs. McNeer, but I don’t want to lose readers (numbers, LOL) and I want you to know the effect she had on my son, as well! And, by the way, I probably wouldn’t bore you if I, personally, learned 8th grade English with Mrs. McNeer, but for now, you’ll have to settle for this ordinary writing style. So sorry!

Now, fast forward three years with my son’s 504 Plan! By the 8th grade, my son’s twice exceptionality and his compensation strategies for them had evolved into a mixed bag of attitude and charm with relatively high “academic achievement” in the form of grades. While he had brilliant ideas, he could not write them down without the help of speech-to-text dictation, which he gladly used when he could. When Mrs. McNeer joined “Team Matthew” to discuss the accommodations, I was confident all the teachers were going to rally as much as they were capable to make sure my son could accomplish as much as possible in relation to his potential.

sloppyI remember seeing my son’s first draft of his first writing assignment for Mrs. McNeer. I thought it was a 2nd grader’s hand-written word list. A week later, he was working on the same thing. When I asked him what he was doing, he matter-of-factly said, “Oh, Mrs. McNeer is going to try to have a conversation with me every time we need to revise so I can talk out my ideas before getting them on paper.” Wow! This one teacher is doing in her class, not as a mandated 504 strategy, the very thing I have been doing with EVERY one of his assignments, facilitating Matthew’s getting his ideas in a communicable format according to each of his different teachers’ expectations. For example, I would be his typist or he would dictate into his phone. She literally, in one gesture, streamlined his thinking and our evening home life! In the next weeks, I found my son on the couch writing on paper AND on his computer. I asked him about it and he said he was writing something else he really wanted to include in his portfolio for Mrs. McNeer’s class, that it wasn’t a requirement, but he had a great idea and he wanted Mrs. McNeer to edit it before he puts it into the portfolio!!!! [Yes, weeping and screeches of joy on the inside, a simple smile of gratitude and satisfaction on the outside.] childwritingWould that EVERY student have just ONE “McNeer” encounter along the journey of becoming a lifelong learner, writer and celebrant! My children carry Mrs. McNeer with them like a tattoo they can never hide nor will they ever choose to!

From the last post, I reiterate: Great teachers do not need a 504 Plan to reach every student! Matthew is currently learning rhetoric. When he talks about it, I know he is channeling the ideas, content, spirit and philosophy of Mrs. McNeer. Writing really is thinking on paper. For a twice exceptional student (dyslexic and dysgraphic with high academic potential), the physical act of writing on paper may not reflect the actual depth and quality of the “thinking.” A great teacher does not need a 504 Plan to help students reconcile these issues. Based on how Mrs. McNeer treated my daughter and my son, the 504 Plan was a mere inconvenient meeting to interrupt an amazing teacher’s gift to her students, the gift of inspiration, using English as a simple yet effective conduit! Forever, my wife and I are grateful!

THE ISSUES

-Clearly Stated Objectives: Not surprisingly, this story reintroduces the issue that students perform better and move off task less when they are clear about what they are being asked (taught) to do and why. Memorizing prepositions for the purpose of memorizing prepositions, with no opportunity to practice even the UNspoken objective of writing more clearly with them leaves students anxious with the wrong impressions. Yes, it is possible to memorize anything to regurgitate back onto a test. But, how does accomplishing the memorization task relate to the bigger picture? The students need clear, direct and authentic objectives that focus them toward realizing that bigger picture.

-Too Many Assumptions and Inappropriate Assessment: An issue related to the above is the following. Memorization of a list of prepositions does not help writer communicate more effectively using prepositions. Yet, teachers of every level and every content area make that kind of assumption regularly. Filling in the blank with the proper preposition in a set of cloze sentences (sentences with a word omitted and replaced with a blank) does not make a better writer. What makes a better writer by using prepositions is writing with prepositions. I DO mean to be crass and facetious here. It is the most common and most egregious error teachers make in education today. Easily fixed by proper teacher/lesson planning (one of my favorite and most anticipated blog topics), the blunder is hardly ever addressed at the teacher or administrative level because there simply is no time or expertise or context to offer the teachers the opportunity to change. Much of education is reduced to what Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins (awesome educational researchers, authors and consultants) have coined “Teach-test-hope-for-the-best.” Dump material, give a test (many times not even in the same mode as students were taught) and move to the next “unit” with little or no regard for how the students mastered the material nor how they can transfer knowledge and skills to new and more complex contexts. Certainly and sadly, exceptional students, students with learning differences, cannot make the jump from “list of prepositions” to “write a descriptive essay that describes all objects in your room.” Mrs. McNeer professionally helped the students see the need for precise word choice in the form of prepositions when describing something personal. In addition, she let students explore the use of prepositions with an authentic form of feedback (the drawing of the room) and using authentic content assessment standards. Writers can explore and experiment in a safe, literate context. This issue is explained below.

-Risk-taking, opportunity to practice and fail: There is a reason the legendary 6-point lesson plan had a “Guided Practice” section! [The 6-point lesson plan will be a topic for a complete subsequent blog entry! I can’t wait!] Not only is it fair to the students to be able to practice the material to be mastered with little or no risk, but it makes sense pedagogically, metacognitively, bikeboyriskneurologically, and more. Learners need to rehearse what is expected of them to do with feedback regarding their success and with little interfering performance anxiety. In this story, memorizing close to a hundred prepositions with no idea how they will be “tested” is both stressful and counterproductive.

-Proper feedback: Penalty-free risk-taking and proper boyconfidencefeedback from the teacher interact in a miraculous way to build confidence in the learner. If Sally can’t draw Johnny’s room accurately by reading Johnny’s description with prepositions, then Sally and Johnny can talk it out, using the very prepositions they are studying. The teacher can suggest more descriptive prepositions or even objects of prepositions. The whole time, Sally and Johnny are sharpening their description skills in a meaningful, literate (communicative) context.

-Motivating students without grades: The above issue, I know, is much easier said than done. It takes a great deal of professional training and practice to encourage students by planning respectful lessons that do not depend on grades. There are many approaches to handling students who are accustomed to grades and who refuse to do any practice if it is not graded. motivation_smThe bottom line in this story? Mrs. McNeer assigned meaningful work and practiced the patience of Job. She let the students know she valued their thoughts, that those thoughts would compile a personal portfolio that not only displayed their writing skills, but also their personalities, that is, the part of their personalities they wished to reveal in their writing- their VOICE! Then, with the big picture always in the back of their mind, students took risks, sometimes with abysmal results, but never in a way that discouraged them to try again. For my daughter to get her groove back and for my son to write on his own, proud of his work before, during and after publishing it to his portfolio? Miracles!

Mrs. McNeer? The angel mastermind!

-Learning to write or writing to learn: I want to suggest this issue in this context because minimal lip service is given in Education today to “Content Area Reading/Writing Instruction.” Every discipline has its own writing style, but in every discipline, students learn more of a subject content if they can write about it. The body of research that helps teachers incorporate their discipline’s literacy instruction into the lesson plans is vastly available. Every content area teacher is a writing instructor, but, with pressures such as standardized testing, “English” is now responsible for teaching writing while the rest of the subjects dump information in the form of facts into students’ heads, assuming students will be writing-to-learn-pd-for-staff-1-728able to write coherently about the full breadth and depth of each subject area. Just because I can do a matching test on the dates of a History test doesn’t mean I can write an analysis of the chronological events leading up to the American Civil War. Content and literacy need to interact during every level  of a child’s education, K-16 and beyond. Growth in literacy skills waxes and wanes in life according to how people’s interests grow and change.

THE POSITIVES

  • Yes, you guessed it! Mrs. McNeer rocks! I have told her multiple times, and I have nominated her 3 times for national teacher excellence awards! Every time I’ve had to write an essay to nominate her, and it has never “won!” I’m beginning to get a complex that maybe it’s my writing, LOL. nobelHow does an average writer nominate a great English teacher! I hope this at least legitimizes my expression of gratitude for her service to and compassion for my children!
  • I have not only seen teachers, departments and schools that do what is suggested in this story, but I have worked with traditional fact-dumping teachers who changed their focus. These teachers are set on fire when they realize they can “cover the material” in a way that helps students become “literate,” or at least a bit more literate, in their subject area. I’ve had History and Civics teachers whose students wrote politicians to ask them what their ideas are about Federalism. deltaI’ve had boring Spanish teachers inspiring students to listen to  news broadcasts in Spanish and tweeting what they heard in Spanish. Teachers and administrators can change, but change and this framework of teaching itself are both messy processes. If teachers  are not allowed to take risks, think what it is like for departments, schools and districts!
  • I would be remiss if I did not admit to a documented small percentage of students whose facility with language makes it seem effortless to memorize 100 prepositions and then to use those prepositions when she (and it’s usually a she) writes. I call these students Suzy and Sam Suck-up! The “go-to” students teachers know will answer any question posed in the classroom! All we educators know who these students are. “If only we could have 31 Suzies and Sams in our class, everything would be so much easier,” we silently verbalize to ourselves. To stay true to the “positives,” I’ll just say that my daughter is a Suzy. Mrs. McNeer not only brought my daughter out of the pits of discouragement and apathy from her 7th grade experience, but she taught my daughter the RIGHT stuff in spite of her verbal proclivity. My daughter can memorize vocabulary words like it’s following a waffle recipe. But, when I use big words in conversation with her, words I know she’s memorized for some grade-school teacher or the SAT, she does a double-take, trying to reconcile the difference between the memorization of such words and their use in everyday and academic communication. Mrs. McNeer did not let my daughter get away with a superficial memorization of anything. Whatever Hope learned from Mrs. McNeer was internalized to the point of use in everyday life! Hope still writes a diary, still can self-edit using the 6+1 Traits (a writing curriculum), and still searches for self-expression and deeper learning with everything she writes, including her blog: wordsofhope.com!

THE NEGATIVES

  • In order for a school or department to do what is being suggested here, there needs to be a complete paradigm shift: in grading, in commitment to literacy, is restructuring content instruction, in parent/teacher communication, and much, much mbuttingheadsore. It is possible, but only in an environment that is not constrained by local, State and Federal mandates that transform great teaching into the very antithesis.
  • Teachers like Mrs. McNeer are rare and frequently misunderstood. Parents are looking for a grade or “grammar” mistakes or something traditional. While from my professional point of view, the students benefit well and long-term from such instruction, parents and students may not be ready for such focused attention on such personal student work. This places undue burdens on the teacher tonotmyjob communicate frequently and carefully to the parents and students all along the way, an arduous process. Administrators may laud the efforts of a teacher like Mrs. McNeer, holding her up as an example of excellence in education, but the trickle down effect merely communicates that English teachers like Mrs. McNeer are now responsible for teaching the entire grade to improve in writing. A great English teacher does not absolve the teachers in other departments from teaching content area literacy!

THE CONCLUSION

My hope is that in this blog, important issues have surfaced whether the “Story” has been an auspicious one or a story not so propitious in nature. While I have not even begun to develop the numerous planned topics, I can already see how every story cast in a “positive” light will begin to reveal the profile of educational “greatness” or “excellence.” Likewise, the overlap of issues in every story, good or bad, indicates that even though there are pockets of “good” or “great,” improvement and change are slow. This is yet another reason to ensure each post has a focusing topic. In these last two blogs, we have learned how 504 Plans done well merely look like “great teaching.” I have consulted with families where schools and teachers have failed the student in implementing the 504 Plan. There is much to learn for everyone. The players involved in a student’s 504 Plan can be her saving grace or her fall from grace. Please let me know what you think.

 

 

Nice Story Number 2!

It’s not a Halloween ghost or a ghoul, but the “nice” story Part II is coming soon! Make sure to catch up on “Who Needs a 504 Plan Anyway? Part I.” Part II is JUST as pleasant, debuting Monday, October 17. We all need a few POSITIVE role models in Education!

Who Needs a *504 Plan Anyway? Part I

*504 Plan described in next section.

In my experience, GREAT teachers do not need a 504 Plan to target appropriate instruction to the different students who land in their classes. In order to honor my daughter’s request for a “positive” story, I’d like to tell two! But, in my education education, I have learned it best to frame multiple stories with a theme or a “hook” that helps the reader or listener internalize or reconstruct important and meaningful ideas. So, the next two blog posts will tell a story of two teachers for whom I am deeply indebted. My stories will never give these teachers the amount of praise they deserve for how they model and inspire everything great in education! And I realize their greatness depends a bit on their relationship with MY children, and not every teacher reaches every student in the same inspiring way. There is, however, a great deal to learn about these teachers in the realm of individualized instruction and 504 accommodations.

And now…  my son has graduated from High School and is currently in his second year at a wonderful university. I can now, with great delight, reveal the subject of this post by NAME, in all caps for the rest of the post:  MR. PHIL BENENATI! In addition, I will mention his high school guidance counselor, who, like MR. BENENATI, has contributed to the academic success of my son in more ways than they will never know. Her name?  NICOLE BEALE!

PART I:  THE FIRST STORY, THE FIRST TEACHER… MR. BENENATI

My son is what the Education field labels “twice exceptional” or “2e.” He struggles with processing speed and attention (due to dyslexia, dysgraphia and ADD) but also is quite academically gifted, easily bored and quick to learn. The first child psychologist to diagnose him, Dr. Dianne Mitchel, will forever have a special place in my heart! The teams of educators from both schools he has attended have been understanding and supportive. His academic advisor for High School, especially, is the strongest advocate for someone who is not even her own child! We are blessed, and my son is a flourishing student… for now! There are no guarantees ever when it comes to learning differences! The nature of his issues allows him to have a 504 Plan. That’s Education ease for a list of accommodations that will help my son have the best chance in the least restrictive environment to learn up to his potential and express that learning in the most effective manner. This plan requires a meeting with all of his teachers to inform them of his issues and to review the accommodations they might need to implement in their instruction while he is their student.

unknownIn his 10th grade year, we signed Matthew up for Photography simply because of his interest. After the first month of classes, my son’s advisor NICOLE BEALE was ready to call a meeting with all the teachers to discuss his 504 Plan. Since my son had been diagnosed at such a young age (7 years old), we have been able to help him internalize compensation strategies and advocacy skills regarding his learning differences. This regular, semester or annual meeting for his 504 Plan helps my son communicate with his teachers about what he needs to demonstrate he is learning their material. The meeting took place after school…. Enter MR. BENENATI, the photography teacher! Everything was going swimmingly. My son’s advisor articulated each and every struggle my son experiences and the possible accommodations that teachers might do to help him learn more effectively. Then, MR. BENENATI spoke up!! The essence of what he said was this:  “I just don’t understand this plan like I think I should. Matthew does fine in my class. I can tell you that he understands everything I tell him to do, and he ends up hardly doing anything I tell him. (Out beams a sheepish grin!) But, his work shows me he completely gets everything I’m trying to teach. Matthew does great work, and it reflects a real mastery of the material in my class. I like his work, too.” In my unknown-3“fatherly” heart of hearts, I was weeping with gratitude! (I held it together, though… I get weepy a lot lately. This happens when  you have a heart attack!) Someone “gets” my son and does not punish him for learning things on his own terms. With my “education professional” lens focused, I realized that what MR. BENENATI said is the essence of a GREAT teacher! Specifically, great teachers know what they want to teach and what skills and objectives they must teach. They have multiple ways to communicate with the students regarding how to achieve such objectives. But, they also know how to let students “claim” the skills and content as their own (experiment and fail), often times ignoring their single, planned form of assessment that might discount or ignore a student’s genuine, authentic understanding of the content, allowing for multiple modes and opportunities to prove students have learned. They have “learned” their students so well that they know if, when, and how well each of their students has mastered the material, providing feedback when necessary and letting go of the reins when necessary or when possible. MR. BENENATI “got” my son! The 504 Plan helped him understand why my son needed to take a picture of the notes on the board. It helped him understand why he couldn’t find the flash drive with the entire set of pictures he was just editing 5 minutes before. But, he didn’t need the 504 to treat a student with common dignity and grace. My son is unique in many ways! Some good, some not so good! For example, MR. BENENATI did not need an official document to ask my son to justify orally his choice of subject or light or whatever. Mr. BENENATI did the job of teaching photography while communicating SO much more to his students and their parents!

THE ISSUES

My daughter is correct. It is therapeutic and hopeful-inspiring to dwell on a positive story. MR. BENENATI‘s reaction to my son’s 504 Plan is the stuff about which heroes are lauded! So, what are some of the issues on which we can elaborate in order to learn from this story… and the one to follow?

 

-504 Plans are a necessary evil:  While the “great” teachers out there may not need reminding of simple things like, “Don’t bark 3 directives in a row while the kids are packing up to move to the next class in the next 5 minutes,” many uninformed teachers do. Some teachers neither understand nor are willing to accommodate a student with differences. It is unfortunate, but it is the law:  a 504 Plan guarantees a student’s teachers will attempt to abide by the plan if/when necessary. I must say my son’s twice exceptionality makes him more unique than a simple gifted student or a student with a clearly low aptitude…

-“Average is average”:  On a related note, twice exceptional students who have learned to unknown-1compensate for their academic struggles can perform at the “average” level, or “C” level with absolutely no accommodations (and probably no effort). The fact that these students are labeled “twice exceptional” means their potential for achievement is quite high. Uninformed, busy and/or lazy teachers typically crank twice-exceptional students through their classes, oblivious to the fact that a “C” for a gifted student is probably due to any number of variables NOT related to ability and academic achievement. Teachers usually blame “average performance” on laziness, “irresponsibility,” athletics, etc. It has taken two amazing teams to help my son reach amazing heights in his academic achievement.  Yes, his handwriting still looks like a 6-year-old’s. But, yes, he can write (speak/dictate) amazing analyses of the content he is studying. Average is NOT average for 2e children. A 504 Plan can encourage higher achievement in students with learning differences.

-A knowledgeable and professional advisor:  The key to helping my son make his transition from his 9th grade school to his new 10th grade school was his advisor…. HANDS DOWN! During the 504 meeting, my son’s advisor, NICOLE BEALE, truly educated the teachers present (not all of his teachers were!) about the kinds of struggles my son experiences because of his twice exceptionality. I was so grateful (not just with MR. BENENATII’s comment) to see the light bulbs go off in his teachers’ heads. In the meeting, a different teacher even suggested another accommodation we had not listed, one that has proven to be helpful in all of his classes since!

-Individualized instruction:  Whether it is extra time on tests, minimal copying or whatever, these simple accommodations are only the beginning of how teachers can individualize instruction and maximize learning for any and all students.

-Teaching with clear objectives:  When teachers have clear, professional objectives as the center of their lessons and the students are aware of those objectives, teaching any material with any accommodation is much easier.

-Experimentation, practice and failure:  For so many reasons that are sure to be addressed in this blog in later entries, many teachers and perhaps even many discipline areas do not allow students to experiment and fail without serious consequences- to their grade, to their personal motivation, to their attitudes, etc. MR. BENENATI, I believe, allows students to take multiple shots or attempt to take shots of many different subjects one time for the mere practice and experimentation of the skills he is teaching. In teaching his students to edit, he is also giving them feedback about if and how well they have actually learned the photography skill. Brilliant! A safe and encouraging way to help students learn without penalizing them for trying and taking risk! As a professional teacher educator, I see that very rarely in today’s classrooms.

-Authenticity:  The student work in MR. BENENATI’s class is displayed authentically in galleries in the school and sold to the public to benefit the school. Please go to MR. BENENATI‘s website, https://rjr.smugmug.com/ to see it for yourself! What greater reward (or learning experience) for budding photographers to have peers reviewing the work done in photography! MR. BENENATI also hounded my son to submit a photograph in the Scholastic competition, having to remind him over and over to turn it in in the right form and in the unknown-2appropriate time. I am so grateful that, because of that hounding, my son won a Silver Key for that photograph, something that has continued to make him smile with confidence that he really did learn something! Enough said!

THE POSITIVES

I’m in such a good mood! A positive story and a mention of the positives about MR. BENENATI! Remember, as a focus, I want to communicate some of the positives as they relate to 504 Plans. But, this is MY blog about MY Education Education, so I can do what I want, LOL.

  • MR. BENENATI rocks! I’ve told him that, I will continue to tell him that, and I will continue to get weepy when I talk to him or about him or experience my son being so critical of my own photography, LOL. My point? WHEN YOUR CHILD’S TEACHER IS GOOD, TELL HIM! WHEN HE IS GREAT, TELL HIM! TELL HIM SPECIFICALLY WHY! TELL HIS SUPERVISORS! In my experience, professional and personal, it rarely has a productive or expedient outcome to tell a teacher or administrator she is falling short with your child, no matter how palatable you might make it. It sometimes takes more orchestrating for something to change positively. Teachers are human; they need encouragement, too. Know that your encouragement makes a difference. I have told both MR. BENENATI, NICOLE BEALE and the teacher in my next blog post how amazingly great they are! They both consistently downplay their greatness. I am weeping writing these words, knowing that they (and including my son’s advisor) entered my children’s lives and lifted them to greater heights, yet they still don’t want the credit! HEROES!  THAT’S ALL I CAN SAY!
  • I hope this post helps some of you readers to see the benefits of early diagnosis and formulation of a 504 Plan. My son’s psychologist, Dr. Dianne Mitchell (yes, this a plug, but she sadly is retired!), was the first “villager” we invited into our lives to help support him. With her care and compassion, when our son was 7 years old, we were able to help him with tried and true compensation strategies that continue to benefit him now. As with anyone with exceptionalities, his performance is inconsistent, but the teams that have formed around his 504 Plan have been his cheerleader, guidance counselor, thinking partner, and more. The key? Start early and be consistent!
  • Administrators especially, please take note of the positive outcomes that occur when students are allowed to experiment, practice and take risks without the fear of “failure” in the form of a low grade, punishment, more work, busy work, etc. This, in my view, is a positive example, applicable to any and all subjects and disciplines, not just in the context of accommodations for a 504 Plan in Photography class. The research bears this to be true, but other forces (to be addressed much in other blog posts) make the positive practice almost invisible or impossible to achieve.

THE NEGATIVES

At the end of a positive educational story or experience, the negatives are difficult to see. Every negative I can contrive is easily diluted by the positive and professional treatment of my 2e son. Here are few nit-picky items:

  • I am grateful that the homework and assessments in MR. BENENATI’s class were not only “fun” and authentic, but were also a natural extension of what my son already does with a camera in every day life. His issues make our evening life quite painful, as it takes him more than twice as long to do any “short” assignment his teachers may assign. Our only two strategies to keep our son on task in Photography was to ask, “Do you have an assignment in Photography?” every day AND to remind him to bring his regular camera and not just his phone with him during his regular, daily activities. Homework, an issue to be the center of an entire subsequent blog entry, has destroyed our evening and weekend family life significantly.
  • One negative, and a reason I am writing this blog, is that parents, professionals and advisors are not always as sharp and primed as I to jump to the rescue of children with learning differences, especially twice exceptional. I cannot imagine what our life would be like if my son’s first psychologist did not indulge my concerns for my son at such a young age. Nor could I imagine the academic abyss my son would be climbing out of if he had not been given a supportive team at his first school and an even more supportive academic advisor in grades 10-12. Yes, I am weeping again! This happens when you have a heart attack and realize that human compassion is not as prevalent as one might think and that being surprised by such grace OUGHT to be moving, at least to a point of gratitude! My advice? LEARN, yourself, what it takes for your child to succeed! Know what that is and advocate for it on every level possible! Imagine if I had merely said to the psychologist, “OK, let’s wait until he’s 9 or 10 years old.” He would NOT have gotten early intervention in the form of Orton-Gillingham instruction! (A huge shoutout to MS BETH BALDWIN, who remained semi-retired a bit longer so she could take my son through the entire Orton-Gillingham sequence!!) He would not have his 1st, 2nd, and 3rd-grade teachers on board with helping him compensate for his learning differences. He would not have been encouraged to be creative or a leader at a young age, because he would have been safely “average.” All children deserve to reach the highest potential they can in the safest and most dignifying environment. I made sure this was so, but it has taken a great deal of time and effort in our family to do so!

CONCLUSION

This story inspires innately, and I in no way want to stretch it into something pedantic and contrived! But, as can be intuited from volumes of educational research, great teachers organically differentiate instruction, accommodate for student exceptionalities and connect students’ strengths and interests to the overall objectives for the class. A teacher can learn to be great! It is the essence and joy of the work I do, to inspire a teacher that is full of humility, passion and enthusiasm. There are so many research-based teaching strategies that individually or collectively help all students learn better while helping the teacher streamline instruction! The conflict always surfaces when a student begins to “slip” or “fail” or “not reach her potential.” Educators and parents alike must work together to reconcile observations of a struggling child, her/his potential for achievement and what can be done to help that child progress happily, healthily and heartily.

It took a bit longer to feel confident in mentioning these amazing people by name. I could mention other educators such as the one in the next blog who have molded Matthew in positive ways all along his K-12 educational journey. MR. BENENATI‘s professionalism and respect for Matthew, along with the encouraging and timely nudge from NICOLE BEALE to let Matthew study something of personal interest like Photography kept Matthew from losing steam running the race to nowhere (see “Frogs on a Treadmill” in this blog.).

 

 

 

 

 

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!