End of Year Dance

Man, I’m ready for this end-of-year dance to be over. The last couple of weeks of school are so hard. That sounded like stating the obvious. I’m under some pressure; partly, I can’t tell if it’s all in my head and of my own making, or something I should be really freaking out about.

I just spent most of the day writing final exams. That was frustrating, because I can already tell that even though the exams were fair and comprehensive — they covered nothing I hadn’t covered — I had little stabs of remorse. Oh, I know they’re going to have trouble with that one. Oh, that one might throw a few of them off. It isn’t my goal to trip kids up on the exam, but I also have to hold them responsible for their learning. The sad fact is, some of them didn’t meet me halfway and learn some of this stuff.

This time of year is inevitably frustrating, too, as I reflect on all the things I did wrong and the ways I failed instead of succeeded. There is a black pall that settles over the end of the school year. I just finished a re-read of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and I feel for all the world like there’s a dementor sitting right next to me.

I wonder sometimes how many years I will need to teach before I feel completely satisfied with the job I’ve done. Does that ever come? And does completely satisfied mean “competent” or “accomplished”? I can’t even decide.

Some things I want to do better/differently next year:

  • Stay on top of portfolios and really use them effectively. The sporadic use they got this year was probably only minimally helpful to students.
  • Really work on lesson plans. I think a weakness I have is figuring out how to integrate all different areas of language arts together. For instance, how can I link teaching pronoun/antecedent agreement to a writing assignment that addresses and assesses their understanding of it?
  • The test experiment didn’t work. I decided to assess students’ understanding of literature through writing assignments (although there were reading quizzes). I did still test my 9th graders over grammar. But the fact that there were no “tests” with that big, scary label (despite the fact that I saw myself as assessing in alternative ways) led some students to take my class less seriously, I think. I don’t know. Maybe they didn’t. But I think they did.
  • I didn’t grade essays quickly enough this year and got bogged down by my workload as a result. It wasn’t until Jay McTighe’s March visit to our school that I discovered the marvelous, comprehensive rubrics used by Greece, NY Public Schools. They made me a much more efficient grader, but by the time March rolled around, I had already developed the reputation for being a snail. Slow assessment doesn’t really help kids improve much.

I’m sure I’ll think of other things to kick myself about. People I work with call that self-reflection, but at some point I have to figure out where the line between reflection and flagellation is.

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Service

Miss HaleyMiss Hazel Haley is retiring after teaching high school English for 69 years.

It is estimated that she has taught approximately 13,500 students over the years, 67 of which she has worked at Lakeland Senior High School in Lakeland, Florida. She has conducted class in the same room for the last 54 years.

I cannot conceive of how Miss Haley must feel at the close of a career like hers. I am in awe, and the only word I can think of is “service.”

I can’t imagine the things she must have seen over the course of her career. Think of this — she has been teaching long enough to have taught as many of four generations of the same family. Can you imagine having a teacher your great-grandmother had? I think that puts her accomplishment in perspective.

In 2001, I was completing my fourth year of teaching. I was burned out. I had a rough year. I had personal problems in my life, but more than that, I just didn’t think I had made the right career choice after all. I really struggled. In the end, I decided to quit teaching and do something else with my life. Something more rewarding. Something people might actually respect me for.

I searched fruitlessly and discovered in the process that not many folks were interested in employees with a teaching background. It is difficult sometimes for teachers to change careers. I can’t find the company now, but one temporary staffing agency actually stated baldly on their website that companies don’t like to hire former teachers. The perception is that there’s not much in the way of marketable skills that we can offer. I really wish I could find the website now, but after a half hour of fruitless surfing with only the vague recollection that the letters “B” and “H” were in the agency’s name, I’m afraid I’ve come up with nothing, so you’ll have to take my word for it. The point is, I interviewed for jobs copyediting (it would have been a paycut) and writing insurance textbooks. I interviewed for a position as a dental assistant. I was this close to walking down to the Mellow Mushroom and taking them up on the job offer I saw in the window. No one else was interested, after all. After four months of joblessness, I found a position teaching pre-K that was tolerable until something else came along. Yes, I was back in school. By the end of the school year, I had made up my mind to go back into the secondary classroom. I accepted the first job I was offered, which turned out to be a mistake, but that’s OK. I moved on, and I am extremely happy in my current teaching position. So happy, I can well imagine staying until my retirement if they let me.

What I figured out when I had decided to turn my back on teaching forever is that I measure out my life in school years. I like kitschy apple knick-knacks. I like working with teenagers in all their unfuriating teen-ness. I like teaching students how to become better communicators, how to become better readers. I like learning.

One of the things I learned when I absented myself from teaching is that all the clichés are true: 2 teach is 2 touch lives 4-ever… A teacher affects eternity; s/he can never tell where his or her influence stops.

It’s easy to scoff at these platitudes, but we just don’t know, do we? I can remember the names of most of the teachers I had, starting with kindergarten onward. In their ways, they each had an impact.

Mrs. Karr taught me that I wasn’t stupid — I thought I was. She taught me that I could read well.

Mrs. Jones taught me there was a time to be serious and on-task.

Mrs. Elliott taught me that I had a talent for writing and was an excellent speller.

Miss Shearer made such pretty cursive D’s that I copied them and still write them the same way — with the large sloping top loop — to this day. She also taught me to be careful with a compass.

Mrs. Esquibel taught me to keep my promises.

Mr. Velando taught me to celebrate my talents.

Mr. Schmeisser taught me to love books I had to read for school.

Mrs. Keener was my role model and mentor. I wanted to be the kind of teacher she was.

Being a teacher is special. I imagine Miss Haley will miss it. I know she will reflect upon her years as a teacher and know that she affected the lives of her students in profound and positive ways. One day, I hope that I can look back upon a lifetime of service in education and feel some pride in my accomplishment. I won’t delude myself into thinking I will accomplish anything like Miss Haley has, but that isn’t the most important thing. The most important thing is that I served. To me, that’s what teaching is all about.  In the end, I can’t think of anything more rewarding or more worthy of respect.

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Teacher Threatened

I just found out via the Education Wonks that a former colleague, Phil Carroll, was recently threatened by a student at Peachtree Ridge High School in Gwinnett County.  The two of us taught together at Snellville Middle in Gwinnett.  His room adjoined mine.  He was very knowlegeable about languages, very soft-spoken, very intelligent.  Here is the AP story.

From what I know of Phil, I am 100% positive that there is no way he has any sort of “vendetta” against this student, and I think it is preposterous for the mother to claim such a thing.  I find it inexcusable and very sad.  It’s one thing to protect our kids, but it is quite another to make baseless accusations and blame the teacher for what is clearly her daughter’s problem.  I am only glad that the student was suspended and that Phil was supported.  When we worked together, as a general rule, we were not supported by our administration.

Funny, I’ll bet that if this mother’s daughter were the subject of such a threat, then Mama would be the first in line to demand appropriate punishment, and I doubt a “suspension” would suffice.  I hope for Phil’s sake that they remove this girl from his class.

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Grade Inflation: A Student and Teacher Dialogue

Recently, I wrote a post in which I included the following lament about grade inflation:

I would say that my grading is tough, but fair. I feel as if I am in line with my school and department in that area. However, students expect to make A’s and B’s. In fact, students in Honors classes expect to make only A’s. It is frustrating for me to communicate to them that a B is a very good grade. In most grading scales, it means “above average.” The A grade means “excellent.” I don’t know about you, but not everything I do is “excellent.” This conveys a level of mastery that is impossible to achieve on every assignment in every class.

I received a comment from Anthony Ferraro, a 10th grade student (not my own) and we began a dialogue that I found very interesting. I think Anthony has some valid points about the complexities of grade inflation, and I invited him to contribute to this blog in the hopes of stimulating further dialogue. His contribution begins below in blue text, followed by my own. Afterward, we hope to hear from you in the comments.

First off, let me begin with a small disclaimer. As a student, I believe that the vast majority of teachers are trying their very hardest to benefit us in any way they can. They are our guides; our captains, and our friends. And while the majority of this post may seem as though I am berating and criticizing the top of the heap, the wonderfully idealistic teachers chock full of noble purpose and desire to help, I am only trying to point out an unintended consequence of their actions so that we may confront the problem as a community (clichéd, I know, I apologize).

When confronted with the dilemma of grade inflation, people – parents, students, and teachers – all seem to agree on the best strategy to go about combating it. To put it bluntly, albeit a bit simplistically, all parties involved want everyone else, simultaneously, to drastically alter their expectations. Teachers wish parents and students would stop expecting higher grades, not only when the student really isn’t up to par and therefore deserves a C in the already inflated grade curve, but also to make the students and parents instantaneously equate a C with par again.

As a student, the growing problem, however, is not the rising grade inflation. The problem is the lack of a universal acceptance of a standard, any standard. A teacher who deviates from the presently inflated grading scale — a scale which, as faulty as it may seem, currently exists as the standard grading scale — can affect a student’s life to a far greater extent than the teachers may think possible. A “C” is a killer on a transcript, especially given that an A, in today’s society, does not mean “excellent.” How can college admissions possibly discern between a C from a teacher who adheres strictly to the grading scale’s purported definitions and a C from a teacher who, intentionally or simply lazily (for it doesn’t matter at all), adhered to the modern grading scale. The first C states that the student produced work of average quality, but the second C states, particularly in public schools, that the student simply showed up for class. The effect on the interpretation of a student’s grade produced when the by-the-book C appears on a transcript can severely, if unintentionally, affect the student’s ability to apply to various colleges, because universities are working blindfolded. Their hands are tied, for it is neither feasible nor logical to somehow investigate and scrutinize each and every student’s application more than they have already. College admissions officers must make the most of the information they receive, and are therefore not weighing, interpreting, and deliberating the validity of any given student’s resume – they’re comparing it with another student’s. Particularly in disciplines for which standardized testing is not applicable, and assuming all other variables are accounted for, admissions will always take the student who, on paper, is the most qualified.

In today’s ultracompetitive college applicant environment, the acceptance percentages for all elite or even decent colleges are dropping. This fall indicates only a rise in applicants, not necessarily a rise in qualified applicants (meaning the quality of the student body isn’t shooting up at a proportional rate). However, due to grade inflation, “quality” changes. “Quality” grades are getting easier and easier to come by, and this hurts both the people who earned their A’s in, say, Ms. Dana Huff’s English class, where A’s are difficult to earn, and the people in her class who earned C’s. The people who earned A’s in Ms. Huff’s class are not distinguished from those who earned A’s in Mr. Apathy’s class, and the people who earned C’s in Ms. Huff’s class have been most unfairly divided from students in Mr. Apathy’s class. So not only are more and more students applying to more and more colleges, all students are becoming almost impossibly indistinguishable.

I guess my point is that one cannot simply fight grade inflation by stubbornly resisting its effects, because innocent bystanders can get knocked by the wayside, and hurting the people you really wish to help is in nobody’s best interest. I’d also wish to point out that standing by and doing nothing is not the best option either, for the issue must be addressed. We must work together to find a better solution, a solution that is feasible, a solution that can be agreed upon, and a solution where no harm is done. Both teachers and students deserve it.

Anthony Ferraro

I do think Anthony has some valid points. Not all C’s are equal, are they? However, I do think most competitive colleges know this. There are also other factors that determine admission, such as athletic ability, gender, race, geographic location, SAT/ACT scores, college resumes, college essays, and the like.

I think students in my class usually come out all right in the end, but they do earn grades commensurate with their performance on individual writing assignments. Students might, for example, earn C’s on essays, but bring their grade up through careful reading and subsequent good performance on reading quizzes or vocabulary tests and still earn a B or even an A in the end. I did have a student who earned a C on the first draft of his research paper last year. He was extremely upset about the grade at the time, but this year he told me that he appreciated the grade. He told me that he felt nothing he wrote up until he revised that draft was reflective of his full effort, and he said he has been doing good writing this year. I asked his current English teacher about his work, and he agreed that the student is doing good writing for his class.

Our culture has taught students that grades are the goal, when they are really a form of communication. I earned mostly A’s on my writing in high school only to receive a C on my first college paper. Not only that, but my friend had written a comma splice and I didn’t even know what that was. How could I avoid using one on my own paper? I didn’t understand how I could have earned a C. No one had found fault with my writing before. What I didn’t realize is that in comparison with my high school peers, I probably was a good writer. Did that mean I had no room to improve? Of course not. And that is still not true, for there is always room to improve. Whose fault was it? I can’t entirely blame my teachers, but I think that one way in which my education failed me was that I was compared with my peers instead of a standard, such as a rubric, which was designed to show me areas of strength and weakness. My C communicated to me that I had failed, when in my college professor’s eyes, it communicated that I had done adequate work — not good, certainly not excellent, but not poor either. My high school teachers did me no favors by drawing happy faces and A’s on my work. They didn’t help me become a better writer. They sent me the message that there was nothing I could do to improve. I wish I had learned what I needed to work on in high school, when it would have been easier and the consequences for taking risks with my writing less severe.

That is not to say, however, that I disagree with Anthony. I wish that we could dispense with grades altogether and use rubrics for every assignment, but I know that grades aren’t going anywhere. Grade inflation is indeed an issue that is hurting us all. It is going to take all of us to fix it, and it probably won’t happen overnight. To be honest, I’m not even sure what can be done, but I know it begins with the kind of communication and dialogue that Anthony and I have had over the last few weeks.

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Blogs and Wikis in the Classroom

Next November, I will be presenting a session on using blogs and wikis in the classroom at the annual GISA conference. I will fully admit that I’m no expert, though I’m the only teacher at my school currently doing anything with blogs or wikis. It made me think perhaps not too many Georgia teachers know what’s out there or how to use it.

One of the things I want to do for next year is make blogging/using the wiki a requirement in my class. Perhaps students should select one piece of writing from their portfolios that they are required to post? I was also thinking of posing questions for discussion. I think perhaps my current students don’t get much out of the blog/wiki I have because they are not required to use it. There are a handful that enjoy having the tool at their disposal. I think my classroom blog could be much better, though. I will say that posting assignments has been great for me in terms of communicating with students and parents. No excuses!

I have been keeping up with a lot of you who use blogs or wikis with your classes, but I am certainly open to suggestions. I want to have some good ideas to present come November. Please leave comments!

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