The New York Times (free registration, or BugMeNot) reports that even when teachers are enthusiastic about new teaching methods and would prefer to implement them, they feel too much pressure to teach to the test — in this case, the Michigan Educational Assessment Program, or MEAP.
Becky Karnes, a 16-year veteran high school English teacher explained,
“MEAP is not what writing is about, but it’s what testing is about. And we know if we teach them the five-paragraph essay formula, they’ll pass that test. There’s a lot of pressure to do well on MEAP. It makes the district seem good, helps real estate values.”
Well, it’s good to have our priorities straight — helping the district look good and increasing real estate values. No criticism meant toward Ms. Karnes, as I’m sure she’s feeling considerable pressure to teach to the test.
The National Council of Teachers of English has warned that standardized state tests mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind law, as well as the College Board’s new SAT writing sample, are actually hurting the teaching of writing in this country. For their part, the makers of these tests emphasize that they don’t mandate a writing formula, and they, too, say it would be a mistake if schools taught only by the formula.
I wish, wish, wish I could say more about the SAT writing sample, but there is a good reason I can’t.
Kristen Covelle encountered the specter of teaching to the test during job interviews for English teaching:
The interview will be going great, and then MEAP will come up. They want to know will I teach to the test, that’s what they’re looking for. They asked how I feel about using “I” in writing. Would there ever be a case when “I” is appropriate in an essay. I knew the answer they want – you’re not supposed to use it. But I couldn’t say that. I said there could be times, you just can’t close the door. They didn’t say anything but it was definitely the low point of the interview.
I feel very fortunate to be outside the burden of tests like these, as a private school teacher. I know what it’s like. I can vividly remember the curriculum director at a low-performing school where I used to teach coming in my classroom and reviewing the five-paragraph formula with my students. It looked a lot like the one in the Times article. Her visit was part of the counselor’s pre-test workup. Karnes is right: “For kids struggling, if you can give them a formula and they fill in the blanks, some will pass the MEAP test who wouldn’t otherwise.” But what is our ultimate goal as teachers? To teach students how to write more effectively or to teach them to pass a test? Karnes added, “It turns into a prison. It stops you from finding a kid’s potential.”
Prison is such an apt choice of words. I distinctly remember feeling constricted by testing demands on the curriculum.
I was fortunate to be able to travel to Boston with my students last February. Working with Etgar 36, our Experiential Education Specialist (yes, we have one, and it’s a beautiful thing — he does a wonderful job), we devised a trip that was both meaningful educationally and religiously as well as a lot of fun.
While I was in Boston with my students, I kept a paper journal. I have decided to reproduce excerpts from that journal here, along with a few pictures.
2/13: The Flight
Flying over New York was amazing. N- and I were looking for landmarks. I recognized the shape of Manhattan from all the maps I’ve studied. I could pick out several building and Central Park. J- found the Statue of Liberty. Conspicuously absent, of course, was the World Trade Center — we could see very clearly where it had been. As we flew over Long Island, I recognized Fitzgerald’s East Egg and West Egg (Manhasset Neck and Great Neck) — they looked just like the maps in the The Great Gatsby. N- told me all about how much fun New York is (I’ve never been). But he said New Orleans (where the 9th graders are going for their trip) is a must. The kids are all talking about food. Clam chowder is number one on their list. I did my civic duty as an educator of Jewish children and reminded them it wasn’t kosher. Beyond that, I can’t stop them.
This is amazing.
Before we took off, E- reminded me I was going to Boston with 21 16-year-old boys. Yikes! As we took off, N- said it was too late to turn back now. I’m already glad I came — just to share this with the students.
We were asked to mention “something that tasted good.” M- said chocolate cheesecake. A- said cannoli. J- said chicken marsala. I loved the chocolate chip cheesecake at Mike’s Pastry. I don’t know where we had that pizza, but it was amazing (as was the company!) — ricotta cheese, peppers, and what else? I forgot. I tried my first real Israeli food — or at least I think it was Israeli — shwarma. I have to thank E- for recommending it. It was excellent. We ate dinner at kosher Rami’s in Jewish Brookline. Very small, but great food.
Next we were asked to mention “something that caught your eye.” J- said a $3500 Panasonic massage chair. I said a section of the graveyard (Granary Burial Ground) where an entire family was buried — all had died young. S- said baked goods. What didn’t catch my eye? I was all eyes today. I wanted to soak in every sight. Or is it site? I looked at everything.
Last, we were asked to mention “something that struck your ear.” M- said all the yelling, people in cars. L- said people noises, yelling, homeless begging. R- said the silence of the Holocaust Memorial. M- said the music of Blue Man Group.
I had an incredible day. I am so glad I came. I feel closer to the kids. I really enjoyed the feeling of, well, I guess communion seems a funny word to use when speaking of Jewish kids, but it fits for me. I enjoyed joking, talking, taking pictures of everything they did. I had so much fun.
The kids staged a memorable snowball fight at Bunker Hill. I think it will go down as the Second Battle of Bunker Hill. We followed J- to Cheesecake Heaven at Mike’s Pastry. I enjoyed Little Italy. All the Boston accents, the smell of Italian food.
I walked everywhere today. I saw Paul Revere’s grave. And Ben Franklin’s parents’ graves, too. I took pictures of the kids in an ancient cemetery established in 1660, I believe (Granary Burial Ground).
Granary Burial Ground
The Holocaust Memorial was incredible. To see the Shoah through the eyes of 31 Jewish kids… I took pictures of them standing in silence, reading, thinking. It cuts me to the core that if we lived in another time or place, they might have been numbered among the dead.
I looked down into the vents and saw stars — number all the stars. How does that Bible verse go? (Take your pick — Psalm 147:4 is nice — “He counts the number of the stars; He calls them all by name.”)
In the sidewalk, in Hebrew and English, the single word “Remember” was inscribed.
My caption for the day was “Companionship.” Today I saw the Freedom Trail, Boston’s North End, Blue Man Group, and Brookline. Tomorrow I’m learning about Power to the People.
When I told the group I had had an excellent day and was really glad I came, there were some “awwws” and a couple of kids said “We love you Mrs. Huff.”
“A child is not a vessel to be filled, but a lamp to be lit.” ~ Hebrew Proverb.
As I write this I am sitting on Walden Pond, frozen over and covered with snow.
Standing on Walden Pond
About 150 years ago, Henry David Thoreau may have been standing in this spot, looking at the bare trees dressed in a layer of snow. Maybe he even made snow angels, like my students did.
From where I sit, I hear the traffic of a nearby busy road. The moment of solitude and silence interrupted by progress, I guess.
Still, this place is here. My kids are here, walking on the frozen water, and it seems to me no less a miracle than when Jesus is said to have done so 2000 years ago.
Snowman on Walden
I hear birds still here after many flew south — perhaps to our home in Georgia. I hear snow crunching under the feet of my students.
Being here makes it so clear to me. Even though I hear and see the nearby road, it seems a place cut off — another world, frozen in time and unchanged though everything around it — the road, the buildings, the entire country, is changed.
At this moment I feel like Emerson’s transparent eyeball. I finally, really understand what it is to know all, see all, and feel like I’m part or particle of God.
We left Walden and headed to Gann Academy, our sister school in Boston. The purpose was not to meet with fellow Jewish high school students, but to talk about gay marriage with Kim Crawford Harvie, the senior minister at Arlington Street Church, a Unitarian Universalist congregation. She showed us a clip of her performing the first legal gay marriage in Boston (click to view a photo album of the wedding). It was really inspiring. The students asked very thoughtful questions. My students are so much more open-minded than students I have taught in the past. I really get the impression they were being sincere with Kim when they said they didn’t understand why people were so opposed to gay marriage. It occurred to me that so much of the hatred directed at homosexuals — limitations on their freedoms, verbal abuse, so-called protection of marriage amendments — mirrors the civil rights struggles of other groups — women working for suffrage and African-Americans. On the one hand, that gives me hope that we can one day overcome the roadblocks to equal rights for gays, but at the same time, it makes me sad that others don’t see it. Instead, they point to the Bible — the Bible also advocated slavery, and we don’t think that is right. I mean, the Bible has been used in defense of slavery and of denying the rights of blacks. Kim and the kids discussed the passage in Leviticus that most, well, I have to say it’s mostly conservative Christians who mention it: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it [is] abomination (18:22).”
Kim mentioned that there are a lot of things in Leviticus we no longer hold ourselves to, and it is interesting that this is chosen from among all those other things. She also mentioned the context in which this was occurring was related to abuse of boys in pagan religious ceremonies, and the early Jews were trying to stamp out worship of these false idols. Actually, interestingly enough, I was listening to the Judaics department having a discussion with our Pardes interns a few weeks ago, and there is a case for interpreting the Bible in such a way that the Judeo-Christian God as only one of many gods — however, He is a god that demanded monogamy — “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” From what I was able to understand, there is a long rabbinic tradition connected to debating the meaning of this particular commandment.
I mentioned a passage by Paul in the New Testament that many point to as well (1 Corinthians 6:9-10) that refers to to the “effeminate.” I admit I find that translation unclear. Some versions of the Bible use homosexual, but that isn’t the same as effeminate, so why was it translated that way? Whatever the case, Kim was right about one thing: Jesus never had one word to say about homosexuality. He spoke about adultery, for example, but never homosexuality. In all, I have to say it was very interesting to hear her speak.
These people perceive power as revolution and overthrowing current “regimes.” I felt they were a bit frightening and perhaps constructed their own truth to fit their beliefs. Also, I don’t get how not voting is revolutionary, and I’m glad the kids nailed them on that. If I heard the word “proletariat” one more time, I think I was going to scream. On the other hand, I think it was valuable for the kids to see and hear people with different ideas. How on earth anyone could idolize Mao or Lenin is beyond me.
I really didn’t get him. I don’t know how a classroom would work under his guidance. I can’t connect either concept (power or truth) with what he said.
I felt the power of God in the form of nature. I’m sure was of it was the symbolism of the place. But I did get Emerson’s transparent eyeball. I always felt God in nature, but I never felt as absorbed by nature as I did there.
I am decidedly not a communist. All kidding aside, to me, power and truth were in my communion with the kids. I was myself and there was truth in that, but also power. I feel stronger bonds with them, and bonds are power. Harvard’s motto is “Veritas,” or Truth. I take that to mean they pass on a legacy of truth. What is my legacy, and what kind of power or truth will it have?
2/15: Flight Home
We were much farther from New York this time, but I could still pick it out off in the distance. That’s amazing. I need to travel more. It’s hard with small children. I come from a family not real bent on traveling. When we went somewhere, it was to visit someone — not just for the sake of going there. I like going places, seeing them first hand. Touching history.
The Kennedy Library
It’s funny. I had my camera out ready to take pictures of the ground, but E- was right. The glare from the window renders the sites on the ground impossible to see. Yet I saw it with my eyes. My eyes can go, it would seem, where a camera cannot. I went to Boston. I saw it with my own eyes. Not pictures from a book or film. I was there. I touched a headstone carved for a two-year-old child who died in the 1600’s. I watched my students wage a second Battle of Bunker Hill with snowballs. I sat in a pew in one of the oldest churches in America. I sat in complete and perfect silence on the frozen surface of Walden Pond. I became Emerson’s transparent eyeball and took in the city of Boston.
The Boston Globe reports that only 20% of teachers in public schools are male; in elementary schools, the number is a mere 9%. Think fast — did you have any male teachers in your elementary school? We had one. Mr. Veach. My sister was in his class in 5th grade. The numbers seemed to gradually increase until college, when the teachers were predominantly male.
Some people believe that teaching is “woman’s work.” It’s too nurturing, too maternal. However, men who teach young children have another issue with which to contend: accusations of child molestation.
According to Bryan Nelson, founder of the Minneapolis-based MenTeach:
[S]ome men who might want to teach fear false molestation accusations, and … society looks at men with suspicion. That view of men has been worsened, he said, by recent attention to priest abuse scandals and even the trial faced by Michael Jackson. “Society has a narrow view of men,” Nelson said. “We think men are dangerous.”
One might argue that lately, it seems like female middle school teachers are looking kind of dangerous in that regard. My daughter had a male kindergarten teacher for a couple of months. He had an accident and was unable to continue teaching that year, but I will admit I thought it was kind of odd — I asked myself why a man would want to teach kindergarten. I have to come clean with gender biases of my own. I don’t think men are any better or worse than women at teaching. But I will admit that I did scratch my head over a man teaching kindergarten. And why should that be? Sarah has had male music and P.E. teachers since then, but not a full-time classroom instructor; however, I can say unequivocally that her male music teacher is one of the best teachers of elementary school children I’ve come across. In addition, he is also very caring with Sarah, and I can tell he has made a significant impression upon her.
One of the most caring teachers I ever had was Mr. Velando, my homeroom, math and reading teacher in 6th grade. He bought me an autograph book when I placed first on our team/second in 6th grade/4th in the school in the spelling bee. He, along with Mrs. Van, my Language Arts and Social Studies teacher, took me to my favorite restaurant, Crystal’s Pizza (sadly defunct) with another student to celebrate our awards as Students of the Month (I was, I think, January, and the other student was December). He was a truly great teacher.
I found this story interesting, too, because I will be the only female teacher in the English Department next year; however, the Science Department will be totally female. I don’t think I’ve ever been in the position of being the only female in my department. I’m not worried about it, but I am wondering how it will be different.
According to a July 4 AP article, “states spend nearly a quarter of a billion dollars a year on remedial writing instruction for their employees, according to a new report that says the indirect costs of sloppy writing probably hurt taxpayers even more.”
Writing is an essential skill for just about any job in today’s market. “‘You have to be able to write, convert an idea and turn it into words,’ said Bob Kerrey, the former U.S. senator and governor from Nebraska, who is chairman of the [National Commission on Writing].”
Two-thirds of companies surveyed in the commission’s 2004 report said writing was an important responsibility for workers.
100 percent of the 49 state governments who responded to the survey said writing was an important responsibility for workers.
More than 75 percent of those state governments said they take writing skills into account when hiring.
70 percent of state managers said large majorities of their professional employees had adequate skills.
Only one-third said clerical and support staff had adequate skills.
The report estimates the states spend $221 million annually on remedial writing training.
In public office, “I read things that were absolutely incomprehensible,” Kerrey said. He shudders to think how Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, published 229 years ago Monday, would have read in standard, government-worker bureaucrat-speak. “It would be 10 times as long, one-tenth as comprehensive, and would have lacked all inspiration,” Kerrey said.
Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee added, “there are some really bright people who can’t communicate and as a result their ideas probably aren’t given the attention they deserve.”
The College Board believes the addition of the writing component on the SAT will help. “Critics, however, say the essay is formulaic, coachable, and a poor way to test the kind of writing skills students need in college.”
Frankly, the critics are right. For one thing, students only have 25 minutes to complete all steps of the essay, which discourages students from editing and proofreading. They don’t have time. The topics are, well, lame.
One idea… reduce English class sizes so teachers have time to give writing instruction its due. Writing takes a long time to grade properly, and teachers with three or four preps, five classes of 30 or so students each, and all their other teaching duties and responsibilities don’t have time to give writing evaluation justice.
I want to extend my sympathy to the victims of the London bombings and their families. I first learned of the event in the Blackboard Jungle, then turned on the television. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to teach during a crisis like this. When 9/11 happened, I wasn’t teaching at the time. I admire Lectrice for keeping the students calm and putting them first.
On Tuesday, The Palm Beach Post reported that “more and more e-savvy educators [are] using blogs.”
One concern addressed by the article is that of student privacy concerns. This is a very real concern, and it is something I need to figure out when my classes begin in August and my classroom blog is going full steam. One teacher mentioned in the article used ID numbers for students rather than names. She also uses comment moderation to ensure that inappropriate comments from visitors (or for that matter, students) do not appear on her site. Many publishing platforms offer some kind of comment moderation. Comment moderation is used on this site, for example, mainly because comment spam is such a problem.
The Palm Beach County school district’s official policy on teacher blogging, related via technology programs specialist Kim Cavanaugh: “We’re certainly not encouraging it, and we’re certainly not discouraging it. There are so many security and privacy issues.” Cavanaugh added, “We’re certainly exploring some safe ways for us to do that. In a perfect world, every teacher would be able to sink their teeth into it.”
However, Will Richardson, who keeps a blog at Weblogg-ed: The Read/Write Web in the Classroom believes “it’s less a safety issue than a control issue. It just poses some very new challenges that they don’t really want to deal with because it’s easier not to. They have the easy excuse of saying it’s not safe.”
I think he has a valid point. There are new challenges, and I think teachers need to be cautious and protect their students. I think a lot of teachers will use that as an excuse not to try it. I ran the idea of using a blog with my students by my own administration, and they seemed excited about it, but my headmaster seemed concerned about the extra time involved for me and the possibility that inappropriate content could be posted by students. Once I assured him at least that the latter was not a concern at all, he was all for it.
However, concerning protecting students, I happened to read a few entries of Will Richardson’s blog, and he brings up a valid concern in The Blogger Problem:
I got an e-mail from a teacher who had just done a Weblog training using Blogger, and the issue of the “Next Blog” button in the top right corner came up, as in what if students click through to some inappropriate site? Oy.
I actually hadn’t thought about that, but he is right. Keeping a class blog on Blogger introduces this concern if the teacher does not disable the nav bar on the top of the site, but doing so also disables searching for the blog. Of course, the teacher could probably add a Google search box to counteract the loss. When Richardson tried surfing from a test blog he created at Blogger using the “Next blog” button, he encountered several spam sites designed to increase Google ranking and a blog dedicated to nurse porn. Clearly either disabling the nav bar or using another service would be in order, but Richardson explains the larger issue: “We need to continue to try to convince schools to teach students how to deal with the crud that they are going to land on whether they hit it from a Blogger site or not.”
That is certainly true, but I can only imagine the parent and administrator complaints that would ensue if Johnny surfed from his class blog to a nurse porn site. Oy, indeed.
Reforming teacher education or preparation programs is critical to the future success of education. I have heard inducting new teachers into the profession compared to dropping them into the gladiator arena and stepping back to watch until the carnage is over. Those that survive the first several years will probably make it as educators. One-third of teachers quit within the first three years of teaching, and almost half quit within five years. I almost quit after my fourth year, but I came back. I don’t think I would have if I had not had excellent teacher preparation. There was something inside me that was different as a result of my teacher education program, and it saved me from becoming a statistic.
I wonder if teachers who happen by this site could comment and tell me how they were prepared for teaching and whether they would consider themselves well prepared (I started to write “adequately prepared,” but then I thought to myself that “adequate” isn’t enough).
I feel extremely fortunate to have gone through what I have come to believe was an excellent, innovative teacher education program at the University of Georgia called UGA-NETS, the University of Georgia Network of English Teachers and Students (the website has been under construction for a very long time, which is something that makes me nervous). This teacher education program was pioneered by Dr. Sally Hudson-Ross and Dr. Peg Graham.
UGA-NETS is a year-long teacher education program for BSEd and MEd candidates seeking certification in secondary school English. Teacher candidates (TC’s) in the program are paired with mentor teachers (MT’s) in UGA’s surrounding counties’ public schools. I student taught at Winder-Barrow High School. I did not actually participate in pre-planning, because I was not yet enrolled in the program. Perhaps one of the most serendipitous moments of my life, a TC dropped out of the program, already having decided teaching was not for him, and a vacancy opened up just as I moved to Georgia and applied to continue my interrupted education. Sally called me the day before the quarter was set to start to tell me about this vacancy. I didn’t know what to think — start now? But… was I ready? She said it was now or next September, because I couldn’t enroll in the program mid-year. So I took a deep breath and jumped in the pool.
It was an incredible experience. I kept a fantastic dialogue journal with my MT and Sally about experiences and observations I had in the classroom. I observed long before I began teaching in the classroom, which is something that TC’s don’t really get to do enough. We wrote weekly “think pieces” about issues that concerned us and used those think pieces to generate discussion. We conducted research, participated in collaborative inquiry, and developed true camaraderie. I really felt much more prepared for my teaching experiences, and I look back on my preparation with fondness — and not a trace of resentment.
I think perhaps one of the most valuable lessons I learned in my teacher education program was the importance of participating (through conferences, professional development, professional organizations, and reading) in my profession. I am always amazed at the number of teachers who do not participate in their profession. Conferences, to me, are energizing. I love to discuss ideas with my peers. Another critical lesson I learned at UGA-NETS was the value of honest reflection. Constant evaluation of my practices has been critical in my improvement as a teacher. Einstein’s definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
Sally retired in June 2004, and Peg went on sabbatical. To mark the occasion, UGA-NETS had a gathering of participants — MT’s, TC’s, and professors. It was a celebration of the work Peg and Sally have done in English Education. I will never forget one of the participants fighting tears as he expressed fears that the program might not continue, now that Sally and Peg were not going to be able to run it. “And that can’t happen, because it just has to continue,” he said.
I would love to hear from any past or current participants of the program who want to share their thoughts.
Of course, preparation is key, but another critical element is implementing a mentoring program in schools for new teachers. I cannot say I ever had a really solid mentoring experience in school, despite participating at one school where I taught in a mentoring program that looked good on paper, but didn’t really accomplish its goals.
I have been missing out. Since I started this blog a little over a week ago, I have been scouting for other teacher bloggers, and I haven’t been disappointed. I think I’ve added about ten teacher blogs to my blogroll. I have noticed that the majority of the teacher blogs I’ve found are run by Blogger (BlogSpot). I was curious about this. Obviously, Blogger is free and looks very professional. It’s user-friendly, and has an easy-to-learn interface. It’s also very popular for blogging in general — in fact a recent study concluded they were the top hosted blog site. On the other hand, I have not found that many teacher blogs hosted on their own domain and run by either Word Press or Movable Type, like this one. I suppose one reason for that could be that teachers are not paid well, and domains are not free (though you can find deals that make them pretty cheap). I don’t think it is a question of technological proficiency, because Blogger is not any easier or more difficult to use than Word Press or MT. If one wants just blogging space, Blogger is probably the best bet. I just found it curious.
You know what I’d like to see? Jim Burke blogging. That would be a hell of a daily read. Jim, I volunteer to install MT for you! Free!
Only 9 percent of Americans believe high school students are being academically challenged by their course work.
An overwhelming 76 percent of adults surveyed believe the country will be less competitive in 25 years if reforms arenâ€™t made.
While 54 percent of adults and 60 percent of parents feel unified standards should be applied to all students, only 26 percent of teachers and administrators agreed.
Without being given a description of the law, 45 percent of adults and 46 percent of K-12 parents favored No Child Left Behind.
In contrast, 75 percent of teachers surveyed who gave unfavorable opinions, including 50 percent strongly unfavorable.
The results of this poll are not surprising to me. I taught for six years in public schools before making the move to a private school, and the struggles were legion. It worries me that parents do not feel their children are challenged, but often complain about teachers who have high standards. I don’t think most parents really know what it would mean to apply unified standards to all students. All students? Meaning that special education students and ESL students must meet the same objectives as gifted students? Or am I just reading too much into that statement? It seems really sweeping, and it is no wonder so many educators disagree with it. It is disturbing to me that more people do not educate themselves about NCLB. If parents really understood what NCLB was measuring instead of what sort of accountability they are looking for (and deserve), they’d be shocked. In a time when fears about school violence are at a high, my former principal avoided suspending violent students at all costs, because she was afraid it would affect our absentee rating for Adequate Yearly Progress. That’s patently ridiculous — that suspensions should count against AYP. If she’s right about that, then it is no wonder so many schools are failing to make AYP.
Public perception that schools are not doing enough is nothing new. I would hope that the concerned parents surveyed by ETS are doing everything they can to be involved in their child’s education, but somehow, based on the numbers of parents who attended PTA meetings, Open House, and non-sporting school events, or who contacted me with concerns, I doubt they are.
However, I was pleased to see the following, courtesy ETS:
74% of the public strongly favor measures to ensure teachers are experts in the subjects they teach.
80% strongly or somewhat agree we should increase teacher salaries to hire and retain more well-qualified teachers even if it means increased taxes.
64% strongly favor emphasizing real world learning opportunities in high school through work study, community service, and vocational courses.