Sunday, August 24, 2014

"Getting Schooled: The Reeducation of an American Teacher" by Garret Keizer [Review]

"I'm afraid the day of the teacher as artist is dead," writes Garret Keizer in Getting Schooled: The Reeducation of an American Teacher, the most important book I read this summer. 

Against the cacophony of edubabble produced by the likes of Campbell Brown and the ladies of "The View," Garret Keizer has personalized the consequences of the educational reform movement in his ground-breaking memoir Getting Schooled: The Reeducation of an American Teacher. 

The book narrates Keizer's journey through a year in a Vermont high school after a fourteen-year absence from teaching. Keizer's account tells a story data alone cannot articulate, from the effects of poverty, technology, and social upheaval to the impact of teaching as a lost art to standardization. 

If I were to articulate an essential question the book poses, it is this: What are we really teaching our children through the implemented reforms and with what consequences? We live in a country that verbalizes the value of education but that often uses education to exploit children. We voice one set of values while displaying another.

His thesis that the education reforms of the past twelve years have had detrimental consequences for public education unfolds through monthly chapters that peel back the veneer that shrouds school in a zone of secrecy little understood by those outside the profession. This is a book that wraps teachers in comforting familiarity but that also educates lay readers through narrative in the realities of school life. 

I contemplated the "death of the teacher" who stands before a class of students this past week as I listened to young teachers in my district tell me that I must assign seniors in my English class the task of writing a 50-line "epic" as the formative assessment in the Anglo-Saxon literature unit I teach. The notion that by its very definition an epic is quite long, much longer than fifty lines, seemed irrelevant to the mandate. Increasingly, teachers are forced to dispense wrong information to students. 

Perhaps this is one reason Keizer's memoir resonates with me. Simply, he captures the internal conflicts, the insecurities, the paradoxes I experience as a teacher nearing the end of my career. "The greatest challenge of teaching is not, as is so often averred, finding a way 'to relate to kids.' It is rather finding a way to relate to yourself in a process that often leaves you feeling like a kid" (3). 

Among the books gems are the following: 

On leadership: "You can build a school from the ground up, but the directing of its destiny will always move from the top down" (21). 

On technology: "The technology allows for greater standardization and oversight; it also provides the rationale for greater standardization and oversight" (33).

On curriculum standardization: "I'm not sure students are best served by a faculty of conformists, by teachers who are less shepherds than sheep" (34). 

On data: "I am increasingly devoting more time to the generation and recording of data and less time to the educational substance of what the data is supposed to measure" (52). Additionally, Keizer contends, and I agree, "things of beauty," such as nature and novels, can't be reduced to data points (196). 

On DuFour: "The authors seem to indict the very teachers who played the biggest role in my own formation. Those teachers were never lazy but they were indeed lone wolves, sleek-furred beauties who preferred howling at the moon of their own lunatic inspirations to sniffing hindquarters among the faculty pack" (60). I'm one of the howlers. Always have been. I keep a sign above my desk that reads: "It's not logical; it's just our policy." 

"The DuFour agenda strikes me as an argument for ignoring every 'brutal fact' save those that can be blamed on poor teaching. Out with the pedagogical lone wolf! In with the political ostrich!" (61). 

On standardized testing: Keizer writes about "the game schools must play," the reductive nature of "constructed response" that privileges the five-paragraph essay, and the need for students to "fill the space" as a way to raise their scores (78-79). 

On Teaching as Paradox: "You must reach out to every student with the belief that no student is beyond your reach and that you must, at the same time, hold to the conviction that having served one student is worth the effort of having tried to serve them all" 85). 

On Rubrics: Ostensibly, a rubric is designed to make grading essays objective, but the rubric is filled with criteria that require subjective evaluation. Keizer says rubrics are "as solid as a Freddie Mac mortgage or a Miss America scoring card" (87). 

On Teachers' Influence on Students: "Be wary" of overstating it" (95).

On Failure is not an Option Policies: We enable students to avoid the assigned work. "The idea is an instructional program tailored to meet student needs; the reality, I fear, often devolves to teachers working at cross-purposes and students working the system to their own (dis)advantage" (181). 

Teaching is a profession that fosters insecurity among teachers. We constantly second guess ourselves, and this questioning of our choices feeds those who label public education a failure. Just as we each have stories about inspirational teachers, we also tell stories about that one "bad" teacher. We worry about having been that teacher to some poor student under our tutelage. "Anything you do is bound to be, on some level and for some kid, wrong" (101).

One of the most poignant ideas Keizer floats is the paradox of promoting education to young people and having them think we mean that those without formal education have less value, having them think we're telling them "be more like me." How do we encourage students to get an education for themselves and not devalue those who choose an alternate path? "In a class-bound society, education provides much of the basis for despising--and exploiting--those who lack it" (207).

On Tuesday I'll meet a new class of students as I begin my 34th teaching year. It will take much effort for me to stand strong against forces that harm students and public schools, but part of my job is to teach truth to evil. Part of my job is to show students that it's not enough for me to tell them to resist peer pressure that will do them harm if I'm not prepared to do the same. 

This year, it will be more important than ever for me to show students the importance of literature to their lives and to share how important literature is to me.

Finally, I plan to remind myself that "as far as teaching goes, when all you are is right, what you really are is in trouble" (268). 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Considering What the Union Does for Students and Teachers #IdahoEdAssoc #NEAMedia

And what have our unions done? What do they aim to do? To improve the standard of life, to uproot ignorance and foster education, to instill character, manhood and independent spirti among our people; to bring about a recognition of the interdependence of man upon his fellow man. We aim to establish a normal work-day, to take the children from the factory and workshop and give them the opportunity of the school and the play-ground. In a word, our unions strive to lighten toil, educate their members, make their homes more cheerful, and in every way contribute an earnest effort toward making life the better worth living. --Samuel Gompers

I learned about Samuel Gompers when I was in eighth grade, and the lesson of his struggle to organize and represent the working class has stuck with me. I vowed that if given the chance, I'd join the union, too.

In college (Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri) my education classes extolled the virtues of membership in professional organizations, including the union.

Joining the NEA (National Education Association) when I signed my first teaching contract was a no-brainer. I've remained a union member throughout my career, sans one year. That was a mistake.

Being a member of the NEA, and by extension my state and local association, makes me a better teacher.

Let me say that again:

I am a better teacher because I belong to the union.

This past week I attended the second annual IEA (Idaho Education Association) Conference at the Boise Center in Boise, Idaho.

I walked away from the conference in awe of our state president, Penni Cyr, who is a National Board Certified Teacher and who will begin her fourth year as our state president this school year.

Simply, the IEA conference was every bit as impressive as national conferences I've attended, and attending the IEA conference was completely free. No conference fee. No hotel charge. No transportation fee. We were provided breakfast and lunch each day of the conference, and it was free, too. Additionally, we were offered credit through Northwest Nazarene College. 

And the conference is open to all IEA members! 

IEA used Event Brite for scheduling. Here are two screenshots of my schedule: 

Without question, the most valuable session addressed the Danielson Framework of Evaluation model (adopted by the state) and how teachers can document their practice for use during their evaluations. The focus was on reflective practice and being active listeners during evaluations. 

In this session, we were given a flash drive filled with resources that will assist us in creating a portfolio of our work with students. In turn, this living document will serve as a conversation starter with admins and as a way to address any potential areas for remediation. As a blogger and as a NBCT, I've been a proponent of reflective practice for a long time and believe my association's pro-active position will work to improve teaching in our state. Our presenter offered a shout-out to the New Jersey and Utah teachers' unions for sharing their model with Idaho. 

In one session we were asked if the union is too political. This led to an interesting discussion of the differences between being political and partisan. Simply, teachers need the union for political activism. Our association is our voice. Imagine what chaos would rein if teachers had to advocate for our profession as individuals rather than as members of an organization. More importantly, I began to think about how I can be a better listener to those not traditionally allies of teachers in the state house. 

The past two weeks have been filled with rhetoric vilifying teachers. In her pursuit to destroy teachers' due process and to castigate the two teachers' unions as organizations bent on hurting children, Campbell Brown now defines a bad teacher as one who does not use personal funds to purchase the supplies needed to do the job. In "A Strange Definition of a Bad Teacher" Valerie Strauss challenges the premise that teachers should be fired for not buying students' supplies. 

I mention this story in The Washington Post because it illustrates why unions are so important to both teachers and students. The parent sees no problem with a teacher buying supplies for students rather than the school providing them. Even more shocking, he doesn't consider buying the supplies himself. He expects the teacher to do so. 

We hover around 54% membership in our local in my district. If we fall below 51%, we will lose our right to negotiate salaries and learning conditions (aka working conditions). In a school, working conditions are learning conditions. They impact everything from class size and preparation time, to the number of counselors and special services in schools. 

As the start of another school year approaches, I'm thinking about a question often posed among non-union teachers is my right-to-work state:

What has the union done for teachers?

In Idaho both our state association and national union has done a great deal for both teachers and students. The most important thing the NEA has done in Idaho is to defeat the Luna laws via a referendum. When the public learns both sides of an issue, when they learned how harmful these laws would have been to students, they sided with teachers. They sided with the union. 

Without our union, there would be no Children's Fund from which to purchase eyeglasses and other things for needy students. 

The union advocates on behalf of students to end bullying and discrimination 

The union instructs teachers in effective communication with parents. 

The union studies standardized testing to fight for best practices in summative assessments and in the use and interpretation of testing data. 

The union is fighting to create solutions for college students burdened with piles of debt. 

The union supports early childhood education and age-appropriate CCSS instruction and implementation.

The union offers resources for classroom management, classroom decor, lesson planning, etc. 

The union works to create safe learning spaces for students and teachers.

My union is so much more that a one-dimensional organization Campbell Brown, Michelle Rhee, and others paint it as. Even Bill Gates recognizes the vital importance of the NEA through his funding of Better Lesson, the company NEA is partnered with in the Master Teacher Project. 

The NEA is education. 

We're living in hard times. It's time the ignorati get schooled. 

*I decided to change the title of this post a couple of hours after posting it. 10:14 MST

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Campbell Brown's Reality T.V. Philosophy of Tenure

Reality television can teach us much about the Campbell Brown (former CNN anchor) philosophy of education and her attack on teacher tenure in New York.

Campbell Brown's foray into education policy consists of a lawsuit she filed challenging New York's tenure statute on July 28, 2014 

In a photo op for the ages, Brown gathered children and their parents in a tableau that alludes to Jesus gathering the children for the Sermon on the Mount and saying, "suffer the little children to come unto me..." (Mark 10:14). 

Brown's organization, The Partnership for Educational Justice (P.E.J.) filed the lawsuit, which you can read more about at Capital New York. 

How can reality television offer insight into Campbell Brown's attack on teachers' due process (a.k.a. tenure)?

Simply, reality television is organized around people who think they have skills they lack. Consider the premises on which these few reality shows are based: 

  • "American Idol" features "aspiring" singers, many of whom can't carry a tune let alone evolve into the next Beyonce.
  • The reality show original "The Real World" on MTV filled an abode with unskilled individuals just so the audience could gawk at them like sharks in an aquarium. 
  • HGTV is filled with reality television programs that showcase people with marginal skills, but they do have experience and training in most cases. I'm thinking about shows such as "Design Star," "Brother to Brother," and "Flipping the Block." 
  • "So You Think You Can Dance?" may feature dancers with some skill as it culls the pack for the best booty-hopper. Importantly, this program does show the connection between head knowledge and demonstrated talent
I could go on with the list, but you get the point: Some reality television shows that contestants need no skills, no ability, no knowledge to gain fame from their inability to do anything but make noise while other reality television shows demonstrate that success comes from both head knowledge and demonstrated ability. 

Campbell Brown falls into the first camp. She thinks she can teach. She thinks she understands tenure. She thinks she's an expert on what it takes to be an excellent teacher. 

Campbell Brown belongs in the club of pseudo-education reformers I call head cases. Brown may have read some slanted rhetoric about teaching and how anyone who has sat in a desk can do it. She has listened to well-intentioned parents who decry the incompetence of their child's teacher, but she has never demonstrated any ability to step into a classroom and do what she so eagerly tells teachers how to do: teach. 

My recent experience dealing with a well-read family member has positioned me to give this topic much thought. I've been listening to and observing this individual quite closely the past month and have had an epiphany about how someone can know so much as a result of reading incessantly but not be able to transfer that cognitive knowledge into observable skills. 

What one knows about does not always equal what one can successfully do. 

I can give hundreds of examples from my own life. I know about many sports, but I am a complete incompetent when it comes to playing them. I often tell students the story about my bowling tutor in college. He was the Midwest bowling champion, yet despite his coaching and patience, I could never get better. As a consequence, I made a C in bowling, and I'm proud of that C because it's not a D, which I very well may have deserved given my inability to perform. 

I struck out in bowling. But at least I studied and practiced. Unlike Campbell Brown who has never taught and has no real clue about how to teach, the training one needs to teach, and the pressures one experiences from all kinds of forces from outside and within education. 

Arthur Goldstein's Huffington Post article "The Misleading Argument That Blames Teacher Tenure" succinctly articulates much that's wrong with Brown's thinking about education and tenure. Beginning with the pressure to pass kids, Goldstein challenges what he calls "Campbell Brown's Law" as ignoring every factor that influences a child's success. Goldstein imagines teachers accepting Brown's premise that the only good teacher is an untenured one: 

In short, if you're a tenured teacher, you are an impediment to Excellence. The only way you can help children is by getting rid of your tenure, standing up straight and walking to Arne Duncan in Washington DC and saying, "Please sir, I want to be fired for any reason. Or for no reason. I want to take personal responsibility for all the ills of society. Neither you, society, poverty, parents, nor children themselves are responsible. I'm ready to be dismissed at the whim of Bill Gates or the Walmart family and I agree with you that Katrina was the bestest thing to happen to the New Orleans education system."

When a reality show contestant gets shown the exit, the contestant often rationalizes his/her departure: "The judge didn't get my vision." or "Those judges are stupid." Many proclaim, "I'll be back. This is just the beginning. You haven't heard the last of me." 

Sadly, we haven't heard the last of Campbell Brown or her ilk, but teachers who do the challenging, often unappreciated work of educating children, those public school teachers who embrace all God's children as deserving and capable of learning, we know that just like the failed contestants whose names none can recall and who do disappear into the has-been universe of celebrity wannabes, the students we serve will remember us as the ones who did gather the children around in our classrooms for more that a photo op. 

And what of Campbell Brown? She's just another contestant in the sad parade of head cases who fancy themselves experts in teaching. Unfortunately, it's public education that's the biggest loser in the ongoing side show. 

Image credit: wikipedia. Brown at
Greater Talent Network's 2012 New York gala

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Exploring the Myth of Multitasking and Homo Zappiens or the "Where Was I?" Effect

Whether we call them digital natives, the iGeneration, homo zappiens, the net generation, Generation i, or the Google generation, an underlying premise informs our treatment of students born to a world of technology: They learn differently than the generation that preceded them.  

Yet we must ask: Does being born into a world of technology equate with the ability to use multiple technological platforms simultaneously in an effective manner? What evidence exists to affirm or negate the question?

An article in Educational Psychologist challenges conventional wisdom about technology and students' ability to use it in complex cognitive tasks. "Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Education" by Paul A. Kirschner and Jeroen J. G. van Merrienboer (2013). By reviewing numerous studies, Kirschner and Merrienboer challenge the notion that digital natives exist and by virtue of their digital nativeness have the skills needed for using technology well without training and those necessary for multitasking. 

I learned about Kirschner's and van Merrienboer's research via a Slate article my friend Caitlin posted on Facebook: "Bill Gates is an Autodidact. You're Probably Not." As often happens, an anecdotal example leads to generalized claims about learning. The digital native one goes something like this: "Bill Gates dropped out of college, and he did just fine." Gates, of course, is the proverbial exception to the rule, and occasionally we encounter such students--although not typically of Gates's caliber--in our classrooms. 

Yet rather than considering the exceptional student as one for whom we need to make exceptions, too often the one leads to all-encompassing claims about the many. These propositions grow as individuals seek to innovate and claim a niche in the ed tech (or other) landscape. 

Ideally, our lives as teachers and the lives of students would be so much easier if the promises of technology in the classroom lived up to their lofty goals. If only. 

In 1998 Salomon and Almog coined the term butterfly defect to describe the generation of tech users who flutter from one site to the next, from one hyperlink to another, and from one platform to the latest without developing the deep thinking necessary to master either content or the digital platform. 

What we may actually be seeing is a generation where learners at the computer behave as butterflies fluttering across the information on the screen, touching or not touching pieces of information (i.e., hyperlinks), quickly fluttering to a next piece of information, unconscious to its value and without a

via Google search "free to use or share" wiki image
Simply, the ability to use technology well is not a question of chronology. It requires training. To think students understand technology's myriad application to learning without proper training is akin to thinking one is born with the ability to drive merely from having been driven home in a car from the hospital as an infant. We do not learn via osmosis. Our skills depend on our training and our practice in using the technological resources available to us. 

This is also true of teachers. New teachers entering the profession are limited in their ability to use technology and empowered by it depending on both their training and their practice. This is a point my colleague Caitlin Chiller in the Master Teacher Project and I discussed last November in Boston as we gathered for the NCTE annual convention. Despite being a teacher with 33 years experience compared to Caitlin's seven years, I was able to show Caitlin some tech tools she had not yet learned. 

A salient side note here is that although the concept of the digital native explicitly and/or implicitly assumes that the current generation of children is digitally literate, many curricula (e.g., Iowa Department of Education) see information and technology literacy as 21st-century skills that are core curriculum goals at the end of the educational process and that need to be acquired.

An unfortunate outcome of the false premise of the digital native is another egregious belief: Students have the ability to multitask. That is, they can text, snap-chat, post to Instagram, and complete complex cognitive tasks such as reading and comprehending their reading simultaneously. 

Rather than multi-tasking, the simultaneous and/or concurrent performance of two or more tasks requiring cognition or information processing students engaged with multiple and competing tasks vying for their attention are actually switching from one to another without fully concentrating on any one cognitive complex performance task. Simply, it's impossible for two things to occupy the same space at one time. 

Task shifting diverts a students attention away from one project to another. This results in shallow thinking and redundancy as students must often backtrack before moving forward with the reading or writing that necessitates uninterrupted attention. 

It has been broadly shown that rapid switching behavior, when compared to carrying out tasks serially, leads to poorer learning results in students and poorer performance of tasks.

I call this phenomenon the "Where Was I" effect. We've all experienced it, that moment when a call or child or other interruption distracts u from a task in which we are immersed. Returning to the task, we wander, "Where was I," and we find ourselves retracing our steps or rereading a passage just to find our place so that we can move on toward completing our goal. 

Juggling tasks leads to mistakes and prolongs completion of important projects. It's a myth, an urban legend, a vampire lie with which students delude themselves to think that homework can be completed and skills learned just as well when we text while researching a topic for English. 

Kirschner and van Merrienboer extend their analysis to include doctors and pilots and note that multitasking and diversions lead to increased mistakes in both professions. They also review the research suggesting that texting and driving is just as dangerous as driving under the influence. 

Simply, the digital natives, iGeneration, homo zappiens, Generation I, and multitaskers among us don't exist in the idealistic incarnation envisioned among supporters of educational technology that chant, "Let my people text." 

These are the 21st Century equivalent of Big Foot and unicorns. As teachers, our job necessitates we teach students to recognize the tech fairy tales and learn accordingly.