Author Archives: Jan Kragen

About Jan Kragen

I'm a National Board Certified Teacher. I am also on the Executive Board of the Washington Association of Educators of Talented and Gifted (WAETAG). I've been a teacher since 1977, in public and private schools, in third through eighth grades, in California, Colorado, New York, and Washington. In 1983 I started specializing in gifted education. I now work in North Kitsap, teaching a self-contained Highly-Capable 5th grade class. I also teach teachers. I've written science and social studies curriculum units for our district, resource books for teachers, and educational articles. I've presented at national and state science, social studies, and gifted conferences. And I've done in-service training, both within my district and as a consultant through other districts and my ESD. Many of the things I have written and many of the materials I have developed for my own classroom use are available for free off my website, kragen.net.

The Supreme Court Speaks

Not the Washington State Supreme Court. The Supreme Court of the United States of America.

On March 22, 2017—in a unanimous decision—the Supreme Court supported high standards for special education. According to Chief Justice Roberts, the law requires a student’s educational program to be “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances,” depending on the “unique circumstances” of each child.

The case involved an autistic student. The parents sued for his rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which requires “free and appropriate public education” for disabled students. I teach Highly Capable (HC) students. Why am I so excited about this Supreme Court decision?

Remember, the Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA) draws a clear parallel between several groups of students “with specific learning needs, particularly children with disabilities, English learners, students who are gifted and talented, and students with low literacy levels.” By the way, similar to this court case, ESSA says schools “have to provide instruction based on the needs of such students” (page 328, lines 12-17).

In addition, as I’ve mentioned before, in many states, Gifted Education falls under Special Education. In those states, any staff who work with gifted students would automatically apply the wording from this new ruling to their students.

Try this on for size:

The law requires that the Highly Capable students in the state of Washington receive an educational program reasonably calculated to enable each of them to make progress appropriate in light of their circumstances—in this case, their abilities.

Of course, that requirement would apply to all 6-10% of the students identified as HC, not just the 2.314 that are currently funded under the antiquated formula now in use in our state.

The Chief Justice went on to say, “When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing merely more than de minimis (minimal) progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all.” He said, “For children with disabilities, receiving instruction that aims so low would be tantamount to sitting idly awaiting the time when they were old enough to drop out.”

Oh my gosh. I can say the same thing. Let me put it this way:

A Highly Capable student offered an educational program providing opportunities for merely minimal progress—or no real progress—from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all. For children with high abilities, receiving instruction that aims so low would be tantamount to sitting idly awaiting the time when they were old enough to drop out.

Very often HC children come into school already knowing much of the curriculum the district says they should learn that year. Every year I give the sixth grade math placement test to fifth grade students. I’ve found that students who score a 45% or above don’t belong in fifth grade math. They go into sixth. (Those who score over 65%? I give them the seventh grade placement test.)

Even high school or college students can know a majority of the class’s material before the first day of school begins. In an enlightened school, students are given the opportunity to test out of classes. They take the final exam, pass, and they have officially met the requirement for the class. They can take something else instead. Done!

So what happens if they don’t have the option to test out of boring, unnecessary coursework? Gifted students will drop out. Now imagine. If those students were pretested, put into the proper course level, and presented with exciting, challenging, jaw-dropping, brandnew stuff at school every day, how many would be compelled to stay and graduate?

Just like the rest of our students, we want our HC students to excel. We want them to become leaders and contributing members of our communities. They can’t excel without being stretched and pushed.

My students just finished their Classroom Based Assessments for social studies. With my fifth graders I use the “Causes of Conflict CBA” recommended for seventh grade, and I design the project after National History Day (HD).  One of my guys had beat his head on his desk, “I hate writing, I hate writing, I hate writing.” His CBA website is now the sample “Junior” HD Project on my website. (Go to Kragen.net. Look at the links on the right side of the home page. Scroll almost to the bottom.)

Stretch. Push.

He is SO PROUD.

There is tremendous pressure on teachers to move students up to passing scores on tests, to having students demonstrate basic competency. What pressure is there to take students who are already performing at well above grade level and move them even further?

I was in a meeting this last week. There were at least eight adults in the room. We were discussing no more than a dozen kids and brainstorming how to move each of them from “a one to a two” or “a two to a three” in reading or math. We talked for half an hour or more.

Since 1989 I have NEVER been in a similar meeting to talk with a team of adults about how to meet the needs of students who need to go from “a four to a (mythical) five.” Not. Even. Once.

I have had individual teachers ask for advice. Or parents. At middle school even the occasional student.

But we don’t have big group meetings like that, to brainstorm ways to enable our HC children make progress that is appropriate in light of their circumstances—their abilities.

In the next few days I’ll be meeting with parents for conferences. We’ll review fall goals and talk about the move toward middle school and beyond. We’ll celebrate successes and pinpoint an area or two that could still use some growth.

It’s my job, to figure out where my students are and then move them as far forward as I can.

It’s nothing new. It’s what I’ve always believed.

But it’s nice to have the Supremes at my back.

What Actually Works

According to a report on The Huffington Post, the money spent on the federal School Improvement Grants (SIG) didn’t accomplish anything. That’s $7 billion dollars spent on failed efforts. The final report from the Mathematica Policy Associates said the “SIG grants made essentially no difference in the achievement of the students in schools that received them.”

SIG grants offered low-achieving schools just four choices:

  • close the school
  • convert the school to a charter school
  • replace the principal and half the staff
  • or replace the principal, use achievement growth to evaluate teachers, use data to inform instruction, and lengthen the school day or year.

Wow, those sound like popular choices being floated right about now, don’t they? How many legislators at the state and federal level like the idea of converting public schools to charter schools? Or maybe they think replacing staff or using achievement growth to evaluate teachers or using data to inform instruction or lengthening the school day or year—or some combination of the above—is the magic bullet to cure the ills of schools in America.

But none of those solutions worked.

None of them improved student achievement.

Of course, not one of the four choices has a strong research base to support using it. There is no compelling reason, based on actual science or statistical study, to choose any one of them.

So all that money went down the drain.

(It makes my stomach hurt just to think about all that wasted money. What we could have done with $7 billion dollars!)

Now for the good news.

There are, in fact, four whole-school reform models that the Department of Education has approved as being evidenced-based:

The fourth model, by the way, is the only one that is not proprietary. Small Schools of Choice are organized around smaller units of adults and children. Three core principles provide the framework: “academic rigor, personalized relationships, and relevance to the world of work.” As I looked over the SSC plan I noticed items like thematic units, longer instructional blocks, common planning time, adults acting as advisers to 10-15 students, partnerships with the community and parents. Those are all good things that we KNOW work.

Now for the really good news!

The Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University has a brand new website called Evidence for ESSA. Their staff has reviewed every math and reading program for grades K to 12 to determine which meet the strong, moderate, or promising levels of evidence defined in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). As they say, “It’s long been said that education needs its own version of Consumer Reports—authoritative, well researched, and incredibly easy to use and interpret. We hope Evidence for ESSA will be just that.”

  • A program is ranked strong if it has a significant positive effect with at least one randomized study.
  • A program is ranked moderate if it has a significant positive effect with at least one study that is classified as “quasi-experimental”—a matched study, say.
  • A program is ranked promising if it has a significant positive effect but the study was classified as “correlational.”

Notice that even for moderate and promising programs, the effects are still good—the program shows a significant positive effect. The reason those programs get a lower rating isn’t that they have poorer results. It’s because the controls of the studies were not as rigorous.

Ah, reading these standards take me back to my MA class on statistics. (Which I passed by the skin of my teeth.)

As soon as I found out about the CRRE site, I sent the information to my district administrator in charge of curriculum. He says this site will be very useful.

No kidding.

There’s not an endless amount of money to spend on education. We all know that. Let’s spend it where we know it will work.

 

 

 

 

 

Teaching Cursive

With the Senate proposing that all students be required to learn cursive (SB 5238), it makes sense, in the first place, to look at how writing is actually taught.

The students in my class can concoct the most amazing stories—inventive, creative, imaginative. Give them a writing prompt, though, and some of those same students can barely write a page. I don’t think it’s because a writing prompt makes their brains leak out their ears. I think they have problems writing because writing is difficult. And I’m not talking about the difficulties in generating and sustaining a story or idea. I’m talking about the physical task of writing, the moving of the pen or pencil across the page. For too many students it’s laborious, tedious, exhausting work. It defeats them. They are left unable to demonstrate their true capabilities.

Many children don’t have trouble with their handwriting because they are lazy or because they don’t care. They have trouble because they are writing with their fingers.

Gross motor skills are pretty well established in girls and boys by about age five, which is one of the reasons we start school at about age five.

Fine motor skills come later. Children who enjoy cutting with scissors, stretching and pinching modeling clay, stacking small blocks, or stringing beads may develop these skills by age five or six. Others (often boys) may have underdeveloped fine motor skills until age 12!

Obviously, you wouldn’t go to a class full of two-year-olds and try to teach them to skip. Physically, they just aren’t ready. Their muscles are not yet capable of doing the task. In the same way, you can’t go into a first grade classroom and try to teach all the students to write for any length of time (never mind neatly) by using the muscles in their hands and fingers. For many of them, their muscles are not yet ready to do the task.

Whether we use cursive, print, or all caps (the way engineers are trained to write), I’m going to suggest we ought to teach students to write by using their large muscles.

Years ago most American children were taught to write using their arm muscles instead of their fingers, using the Palmer method. My mother, born in 1930, remembers her first lessons: drawing endless circles in the air before eventually writing letters in the air and finally writing letters on paper. The teacher, facing the class and modeling the correct movements in reverse, monitored and corrected each student’s letter formation. Children across the country all learned the same method of writing, they all had handwriting that was similar—and their handwriting was legible.

A decade or more ago I used the same technique with my fifth and sixth graders. I made them use brushes and watercolors at the beginning so they wouldn’t bring their bad habits with them to this new practice. At the end of a month or so their handwriting was remarkably improved.

The Palmer method disappeared, though. By the time my generation started first grade, many schools used workbooks with photos and diagrams showing how to form letters correctly. We went right to copying the letters in our books. Inevitably we wrote by moving our fingers and our wrists.

Learning to write legibly is fine, to be sure, but content is a far more important issue. Physiology affects content, too. If children write with their small muscles, muscles which for many of them are not yet developed, those muscles will tire long before the children can write down all they want to say. Children may start strong on a piece and then simply stop, almost in mid-thought. In a test situation that calls for a mandatory rough draft and final draft, they may turn in a stronger rough draft and a truncated final draft.

I certainly saw evidence of writing fatigue on the WASL and MSP paper and pencil writing tests.

Feeling frustrated, several years ago I worked with some primary teachers at my school and the author of the Draw.Write.Now series to do an experiment. We took one third of the students from each first grade class and taught them how to write in ways that were physically less taxing, including teaching them the Palmer method. Then as their teachers gave them writing prompts and they turned in their work, we counted the number of words each child wrote. The students in the experimental group wrote more, on average, for each prompt.

To me cursive is not nearly as important as teaching physiologically sound writing techniques.

In the second place, some student process their thinking better on a computer than they do on paper. For those students, the sooner they learn to touch type, the better.

In fact, since the SBA and so many other tests are all computer-based, schools are teaching typing skills as early as second grade. Where are schools finding the time to add lessons in typing? Hmm, by deleting lessons in cursive, which used to start in second grade.

Right now I have students writing historical fiction narrative pieces. I’ve told the class the stories will be graded on content only—they don’t need to worry about conventions. (Huge sigh of relief!) The students will read their pieces aloud to the class or, if they prefer, I will read them aloud, and we will comment. We will enjoy each other’s writing.

Some students are writing on paper because that’s the way they work best. Some are on computers because that’s the way they work best. Since they are reading the stories aloud, it doesn’t matter if they do their writing on paper or on computers.

And isn’t that part of what we are supposed to do? To differentiate instruction to meet the needs of the individual students in our classes? One way to differentiate is through process. My students are all happy they can choose the process that suits them best.

To me cursive is not nearly as important as allowing students to find their best means of written communication.

I know there are people who think teaching cursive is important. Frankly, my dear, I’m not one of them.

President’s Day

Today is president’s day, the day we celebrate Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthday.

As it happens, I am currently reading Carl Sandburg’s biography of Abraham Lincoln. And, as it happens, today I read this excerpt from a letter he wrote on October 5, 1863:

“We are in civil war. In such cases there always is a main question; but in this case that question is a perplexing compound—Union and Slavery. It thus becomes a question not of two sides merely, but of at least four sides, even among those who are for the Union, saying nothing of those who are against it. Thus, those who are for the Union with, but not without slavery—those for it without but not with—those for it with or without, but prefer it with—and those for it with or without, but prefer it without. Among these again is a subdivision of those who are for gradual but not for immediate, and those who are for immediate, but not for gradual extinction of slavery.”

First of all, I marveled at his understanding of the complexity of the issue facing him and the nation, at the shades of loyalty to one cause or the other that he could parse out in a few phrases.

In those days people didn’t use bullets or charts. I put the ideas into slightly simpler language and into a diagram that I could use in my classroom.

But Lincoln didn’t stop there. He went on. “It is easy to conceive that all these shades of opinion, and even more, may be sincerely entertained by honest and truthful men.”

As I’ve been reading his biography I’ve been struck by how vilified Lincoln was while he was in office, not just by the South but by the North as well. We hear his name now and immediately think of the Lincoln Memorial. The Gettysburg Address. The national holiday. But while he was alive I think he felt he was fighting his own side almost as much as the Confederacy.

Instead of lashing out or complaining bitterly about all the groups opposing him, Lincoln makes this extraordinary statement. A wide range of opinions can be sincere. The people who have them can be honest and truthful even while they disagree.

That’s the best civics lesson I can bring back to school tomorrow.

Sometimes issues are complex.

People will disagree.

The ways they disagree may be complex too.

Even when people disagree with you, assume the best motives. Assume sincerity. Assume integrity. Carry on a conversation from there.

Thank you, Mr. Lincoln.

Funding Gifted Education

I am one of three teachers in my school who teach in a self-contained Highly Capable (HC) classroom. We have a common math period, and when math class starts it’s a moment or two of scramble. Some of my students go to Mrs. Taylor’s. Some of Mrs. Taylor’s and Mrs. Fairchild’s come to me. Some of mine go to computers in the hall to work independently.

The three of us share one hour of paraeducator time that we use during math wherever we deem we most need the help. This year our paraeducator is working with the younger students.

A couple weeks ago I met with our program director and mentioned that next year our paraeducator would have at least six students in seventh grade math. No worries—she has worked with a small group of advanced students in seventh grade math before, and she actually prefers that assignment.

My administrator told me not to count on having any paraeducator time next year.

Now I’ve taught in the HC program in our district since 1989. We’ve always had help for math. After all, we have three teachers working with students on levels from grade three to grade seven or eight. Having one extra adult makes the groups manageable.

But next year there might not be enough money to make that possible. For the first time ever.

Trust me, I’m concerned about state funding for Highly Capable programs.

Eight years ago only 49% of the districts in the state of Washington had any programs at all for their gifted students, their Highly Capable programs. In those districts that actually had programs, most provided services just for students in grades three to five. Why those grades? Most districts didn’t do the testing to identify students until the end of second grade, so schools didn’t start services until third grade. And most districts (or the secondary schools in the districts) felt they offered enough variety at the secondary level that they didn’t need HC services past fifth grade.

During the 2008-2009 school year the legislature passed the Basic Education Act, and everything changed for HC education in Washington. HB 2261 stated that “for highly capable students, access to accelerated learning and enhanced instruction is access to a basic education”—and it said “the program for highly capable students … shall be categorical funding” (HB 2261, page 63, lines 21-23, and page 64, lines 2-4).

The legislature decreed that having an appropriate HC education was Basic Education for HC students! And the funding for HC students was to be treated the same way as the funding for ELL and LAP students. Hallelujah! All roads were now smooth!

Of course, we all know what an unfunded mandate is. Welcome to the world of gifted education.

Running the programs for half the districts in the state, and just a handful of grade levels at that, cost $43,471,005 in 2008-2009. The state allocation that year—before Highly Capable was required—was   $8,367,000. That means the state paid 19.2% of the cost of HC education that year.

By last year, 2015-16, the state allocated $10,001,000. The funds for HC have gone up about 19.5% since 2000-2009. But, remember, the number of grades served has more than quadrupled. And the number of districts receiving funds has doubled. The state increase in HC funds is laughably low.

Districts have started solving the lack of state funding by identifying fewer HC students. What’s wrong with identifying fewer students? The insidious problem is, the students who are less likely to get identified are students from low income groups, minorities, ELL students, dual-identified or twice-exceptional students (gifted and another identification—think HC with a 504 or IEP). Narrowing the focus, limiting the pool, becomes an equity issue, an issue addressed last week at the Equity Summit on Gifted Equity at the Robinson Center at the University of Washington. And we are back to making HC education look like an elitist program.

Sigh.

Every proposal, from the governor, the House, and the Senate, offers some improvement in HC allocation. The question is, do any of the proposals actually fully fund the costs of HC in the st
ate?

Trust me, my students desperately need the help they get. Not just in math. They deserve materials appropriate for their level in every subject, just like any other special needs group. They require teachers who are trained to meet not only their academic but their unique social and emotional needs. And their number one need must be met on a regular basis—quality time with their intellectual peers.

The state requires districts to treat HC students like they matter. Now the state has to provide the money for their education.

Right to Strike

The education funding bill from the Washington Senate, SB 5607, includes a section prohibiting teacher strikes.

When I heard about this provision, my first question was, “What does the right to strike have to do with an education budget?”

The answer, of course, is nothing. Look at the League of Education Voters’ comparison chart of four funding proposals side-by-side: the current state education funding levels, Governor Inslee’s Education Funding Proposal, the Majority Coalition Caucus Education Funding Proposal (SB 5607), and the House Democrat Education Funding Proposal (HB 1843). There is no mention of right to strike in any of the other proposals. That’s because having the right to strike has nothing to do with funding.

So I double checked. Was this Senate bill actually a funding bill? Of course it was. Up at the top of the bill, it says it was “referred to the Committee on Ways and Means.” It’s a bona fide budget bill.

Some senators decided that—on the way to rewriting how to fund education—they would also add this change in how teachers can protect themselves.

Take a minute to read the text of this section.

PART XI 2 PROHIBITING TEACHER STRIKES

NEW SECTION. Sec. 1101. The legislature finds that, like other state and local public employees, educational employees do not have a legally protected right to strike. No such right existed at common law, and none has been granted by statute. The legislature further finds, as have numerous trial court decisions and the Washington state attorney general in AGO 2006 No. 3, that any argument that a right to strike is implied by the absence of a provision in chapter 10 41.59 RCW is wrong. The legislature intends to provide greater clarity to parents and school districts by prohibiting strikes, work stoppages, or work slowdowns or other refusal to perform official duties.

NEW SECTION. Sec. 1102. A new section is added to chapter 41.59 RCW to read as follows:

Nothing contained in this chapter permits or grants any educational employee

  • the right to strike,
  • participate in work stoppages or work slowdowns,
  • or to otherwise refuse to perform his or her official duties.

(Highlighting and bullets are mine).

I don’t know about you, but when I read this section, my heart just stopped.

Right now I am in the middle of teaching about colonial America to my class of fifth graders. We talk about indentured servants who came to America. They paid for their passage by working for their masters for seven years. Essentially, for those seven years, they were the equivalent of slaves. They had no rights. If they were lucky, they had a good master. If they were unlucky, they didn’t. But they had no recourse. They were stuck for those seven years.

No right to strike? No work to contract? (That would definitely count as a work slowdown!) No saying no to evening work or early morning or after school meetings? (A principal could call those “official duties.”)

No effective way to make our voices heard?

I read that Senate bill passage and immediately felt like an indentured servant. Like I had traveled back in time to the 1600s.

No, thank you!

I find it interesting that the senators who wrote this bill said their intention in including this section was to “provide greater clarity to parents and school districts.” They act as if teachers’ strikes cause the greatest problems for parents and districts.

True, parents have it hard when teachers go on strike. Their children aren’t in school. They have to arrange childcare. I’ve been amazed, though, at the level of support many parents give striking teachers—perhaps because they know best what the teachers are doing in the classrooms with and for their children.

If the teachers are striking against their districts, I am sure their districts are deeply unhappy. But I guarantee the teachers are deeply unhappy too. Teachers don’t go on strike lightly. Whenever I read about districts out on strike, I think about how much time those teachers must have spent working through every other option to come to an agreement. I think about how they have struggled through other procedures, without success, to arrive at the difficult and taxing step of striking.

I don’t buy the legislature’s sly claim, though. My district has participated in two “strike” events in the 28 years I’ve lived in Washington. Neither time was our action aimed at our district.

Both times we protested against the legislature.

By the way, both times we walked out for a one-day strike, we had the support, not just of the parents in our district, but of our administration as well. After all, our district administrators were just as upset with the legislature as the teachers were!

I think the senators added this section to their budget to protect themselves! They are threatened by the media coverage when masses of teachers show up on the Capitol steps.

I say we need to keep showing up until we get the issues resolved. Because that’s our JOB. We are, after all, educators. We have an obligation to educate, not just the students in our classroom, but the adults who impact them. The school board. The public.

The legislature.

Because I went back to read the beginning of the Senate bill, I discovered this opening line: “GOAL. The goal of this act is to improve the educational outcomes for all students.”

That’s a great goal! We promise to stand right there next to you, senators, holding your feet to the fire, making sure you live up to that commitment.

Having a Voice

I didn’t want to get up at 6 am on Saturday.

I didn’t want to catch a 7:05 ferry.

I didn’t want to get turned around in the dark and rain and end up going north on I-5. Then spend 20 minutes wandering around downtown Seattle trying to find my way to south I-5.

Sputter, sputter, sputter.

But, oh, NBCT teachers, if you ever receive an email invitation to an NBCT Policy Summit and wonder if you should consider going, I am here to tell you—it was definitely worth it.

After we all went through check-in and ate breakfast and had a chance to mingle, the morning panel greeted us. There were five people on the panel but three in particular stuck out to me, probably because they represented the three organizations that sponsored the summit:

The general message? Speak up. Stand up. Be heard. Make an impact.

But the specific message that reverberated back and forth from one panel member to the next was that teachers need to find their passion and focus on that passion.

Policy Summit Mural by Taryl Hansen

Policy Summit Mural by Taryl Hansen

I immediately took that message to heart. As soon as we were dismissed to mid morning snack time, I introduced myself to Gil Mendoza. I gave told him I’m on the Executive Board for WAETAG (Washington Association of Educators of Talented and Gifted). He replied enthusiastically about what a great organization it is and how lucky we are to have it in our state. I gave him my card and said, “If you ever need someone with a background in gifted to serve on a committee please keep me in mind.” He grinned—he’d just talked about how OSPI looks for teachers willing to serve on committees. Now he had a volunteer! He handed me his card and asked me to contact him again by email.

I’ve been teaching gifted in this state since 1989, and I’ve been on the board of WAETAG since 2008. But being in the room at the Policy Summit gave me a different level of access than I’d ever experienced before.

Breakout sessions met before and after lunch. Participants met in groups of about eight to discuss one of two issues:

  • A—Second Tier Licensure (Professional Certificate) or
  • B—National Board Incentive Structure

At our table in one of the B groups we started with the fact that we love having a bonus and, for those who get it, love having the extra bonus for challenging schools. What we don’t like is that fact that any bonus is a line item. It’s too easy to delete from the budget. For a long time those were our biggest discussion points.

Then I spoke up. I’d come to the Policy Summit with a slightly different point to make. As I told my table, I’ve been teaching for 38 years, and I’m not ready to stop. I hit 16 years’ experience a long, long time ago. I earned my MA in 1982 and I hit my 90 units beyond an MA when I was in my 50s and a long way from retirement.

The ONLY way for me to get any additional money was to become National Board Certified. So I got my NBCT in 2012. I plan to keep teaching until my certificate expires in 2022.

Having a salary schedule plateau early means veteran teachers can’t keep up with the rising cost of living, especially health costs.

So I suggested it would be beneficial to have some kind of step system that allows for longevity. For example, what if we got a bonus for the initial NBCT and an additional bonus at each renewal?

That led to a long examination of my idea. People brought up snags I hadn’t foreseen. They improved the original suggestion by adding a requirement that teachers who get the extra bonus demonstrate leadership—which spawned another tangle of questions. Who defines leadership? How many hours a year? How would the extra work be documented? How would OSPI track the paperwork? We even tossed around ideas for how much of a bonus although finally most of the questions were labelled TBD.

Nevertheless, at the end of the day, we not only kept my idea on our list of five “high leverage” ideas to submit to the group at large.  In a surprise move, the members of my group voted my suggestion as the number one on the list because it

  • encouraged teachers to pursue NBCT sooner rather than later
  • encouraged teachers to take on leadership roles after completing their NBCT
  • encouraged professional growth, not just professional development

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Then came the mid afternoon snack. (Nasue warned me that her goal was to have each of us gain five pounds before the day was over!)

Our last keynote address came from Peggy Brookins, president of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. She spoke eloquently about those who surreptitiously do things for teachers but without teachers—for example, people who write education laws without bringing teachers to the table. Once again, she encouraged us to make our voices heard.

I came to the Policy Summit wanting to be heard. I hoped my peers would listen and understand and maybe empathize with the salary concerns of older teachers.

I left feeling empowered.

So think about coming yourself next time. And meanwhile, think about your passion and the difference you can make.

 

The Way We Work

At this particular moment in American history I am fiercely proud to be a teacher.

Why?

Because every single day in my classroom we actively practice cooperative and interpersonal skills as part of our regular routine.

This year we started with listing attributes of Teamwork and displaying them in the front of the room. Every day groups self-assessed their own efforts toward the effective use of teamwork skills; they gained points for good teamwork.

Now we are working on using Active Listening skills with group members. I picked this skill because after the last unit I had students fill out a reflection sheet to let me know where they thought they did well and where they needed to do better. Listening better was the clear winner in the “needs to improve” category!

Over the course of the year I will pick other skills to emphasize including, for example:

  • empathy
  • respect
  • compromise
  • focused attention
  • encouragement
  • cooperation
  • collaboration
  • having a positive attitude
  • being willing to “share the air”

Earlier this week my students built remote operated vehicles (ROVs) to use later at a field trip to the Keyport Undersea Museum. At one point I realized a student was in the hall by himself, sitting crumpled on a chair. I went out to talk to him and discovered he was crying. I couldn’t get him to tell me why. Suddenly one of his teammates appeared and enfolded him, comforting him. Another arrived almost immediately and started to explain, “Wait, don’t feel bad! We liked your design. It was just too big to go through the diamond [an obstacle the museum sets up as part of the problem]. But we still used your design. We just shrunk it up!”

The b20161110_140428oy was still crushed. He had every reason to be. He had toiled long and hard cutting all the PVC pipe pieces for the original design—and for a small kid, it was laborious work. Clearly, he felt like all his effort was for nothing.

By now his entire team was in the hall, all gathered around him, encouraging him. They talked about how great his design was. They talked about how they now needed a cool name for their ROV.

I left them alone, stepped back into the classroom, and watched them all still out in the hall.

They stayed with him for 15 minutes or more. They did not come back and work on their project until he was ready to come back and work with them.

That’s why I do what I do.

Yes, I teach reading and writing and math and science (obviously very cool science) and social studies (and cool social studies too). Art. Public speaking. The things that get grades on the report card.

But first of all, I teach civilization.

The reason public schools exist is so our country has an informed electorate. That’s why we teach history and civics and how to examine multiples sides of issues.

(That’s why one of my exit slips might be “Who—besides you—had the best idea in the discussion today? What was it?” or “Who changed your mind today? Why?”)

At a time when civilization—civil discourse, civility, civilized behavior—seems to be unraveling, when trash talk radio and “reality” television teach that the way to win is to be the loudest, the most obnoxious, the most aggressive and rude, I will stand in the doorway of my classroom and put my hand up and say, “No.” Not in my classroom.

In my classroom we give everyone a chance to speak.

In my classroom we listen to each other.

In my classroom compromise is not a dirty word.

In my classroom we do respect.

In my classroom we work together.

Is My Job At-Risk?

If you look at the trends in education these days, it’s hard to believe that public schools will continue to need professional teachers in the future.

First of all, there’s the movement toward scripted curriculum. Not only is the content provided, but the exact lessons are dictated in excruciating detail: here is the question to ask and the kind of answers you can expect, here is where you should pause and for how long, here is the activity to do and the results you should expect to see.

Of course every scripted curriculum demands that you present it with fidelity. That’s become one of my least favorite words.

All of this is driven, of course by the research-based education movement. Someone did research somewhere to demonstrate the effectiveness of this particular curriculum program but ONLY if it is done the exact same way as it was done in the research test. If you, the lowly teacher in the classroom, do it a slightly different way, then all bets are off. There is no guarantee that your presentation will be “research-based.” And we can’t have that.

So who needs the lowly teacher? All we need is someone who can read. And follow directions. And smile for the camera. Because really all we need in front of the classroom is a talking head, just reading off a prompter.

That’s nonsense.

When I first got my teaching credential, I spent a semester substituting. I sat in smoke-filled teacher lunchrooms and listened to veteran teachers complain about Sesame Street. “That show has kids expecting to be entertained!”

I didn’t say anything. I was brand new, and a substitute. But I thought, “If you were sitting in a room for six hours, wouldn’t you want to be entertained? If there wasn’t something going on that was interesting and exciting and engaging and fun, wouldn’t you—as an adult—raise Cain? Riot? Walk out? Complain to the board? So how can you expect more from kids?”

I decided early on that teaching wasn’t just a skill to learn. It was also a performance art. I needed to pay attention to my audience, to read their reactions and be responsive to them.

That attitude makes following a scripted curriculum remarkably difficult. I ask the first question and get all kinds of answers. If I wait a moment, I get more. With a longer pause, I can usually tease out even more.  The answers I get usually include the ones the curriculum says I can expect, but I may have other interesting ideas to pursue. At this point I haven’t even gotten past step one and I’m already apt to go off into divergent thinking with my group.

Telling me how long to pause? At times I have followed the directions and watched the class’s attention drift. So I cut the pause short. That seems obvious to me, that I would use my judgment. Sometimes I can give a longer pause, sometimes shorter. It won’t be the same from one year to the next. It depends on the students, the day, and even the time of day.

I will give every curriculum activity a try. But I’ve started an activity and had it clearly not be suitable in my classroom with my particular students. I make sure I have alternative activities on hand that I can pull out as needed. I’ve taught gifted classes since 1983, so I am used to having to supply differentiated curriculum for my students.

Now, of course, if I pull out alternate activities, that means I’m going off-script and not teaching the curriculum with fidelity.

True. I’m just doing a better, more appropriate job. After all, meeting the needs of my students is more important than reading every word in the script.

Second, there’s the movement toward online education. Two of my fifth grade students are taking high school algebra this year through PEAK online. You can find everything from Khan Academy to MIT Open Courseware on your computer. Washington state offers a variety of digital learning opportunities for our students. (You can go to the teacher resources page on my web site and scroll down to the links section for even more.)

If students can learn everything on their computers, won’t they just stay home in the future and do all their studies online?

Well, first you have to read Isaac Asimov’s short story “The Fun They Had.”

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The check out a research brief  by the American Institutes for Research (AIR). The study compared the effects of an online Algebra I makeup course to a typical classroom course. The researchers found that the students performed better in the standard in-person course. Students who took the course online rated the course as harder and indicated more negative attitudes about math after taking the course.

My two guys are doing fine in their online course. Of course, they adore math, they live and breathe math, and they are already extremely skilled in math. They represent a very small slice of humanity. And they are taking sitting side by side the online class together so they aren’t working at a computer alone. I hear them giggling conspiratorially occasionally.

Why is it that the students in the study did better in a typical classroom than taking an online course?

I can tell you that as a general rule my students need me because I pay attention to them. I respond to them. I adjust my instruction to meet their needs on a moment-by-moment basis.

So take that, scripted curriculum. Take that, online curriculum.

You’re not taking my job away from me any time soon.

 

 

Professional Development—The Long View

I’ve reached the point in my career where people have started to ask me, “And when are you going to retire, Jan?” After all, a lot of my friends and contemporaries have quit teaching. What am I still doing here?

I see the shiny new teachers, just out of the box, full of energy and enthusiasm. I must look so old to them. (“But wait! Inside I am still shiny!”) They are up to date on all the latest instructional strategies and educational jargon. They are ready to take on the world. (“Me too! I still want to take on the world!”)

I remember my initial certification program at San Jose State in the (gulp) 1970s and my earliest professional development classes. My career began in the days of Assertive Discipline and Madeline Hunter. I can’t begin to recount all the different permutations of trainings I have been through since then to improve my teaching skills and classroom management. Just in the last few years it’s included extensive GLAD training and PBIS training.

From my perspective here’s what I can say about all of them. They were all introduced with great fanfare as a sweeping solution for the whole school or district. They all had positive aspects. They were all eventually superseded by the Next Big Thing.

Here’s my take-away. I eagerly adopt the best of each program and incorporate it into my practice. (Notice, I carefully make professional decisions about what works best in my particular classroom culture.)  I am totally willing to work with the school or the district on whatever system they adopt for as long as they want to use it. And then I wait. Because I know the Next Big Thing is bound to come along eventually.

In the meantime, if I find a better Next Big Thing, I promote it to my admin.

Does that make me jaded? I don’t think so. I continue to learn from each new training, I keep adding to my tool kit, and I keep looking for even better new options.

Meanwhile, I synthesize what I’ve learned from multiple trainings over the years. For instance, GLAD wants to have the walls “dripping with language.” But I learned early in my career that having a lot of visual clutter on the walls badly distracts ADD/ADHD kids. It makes it hard for them to focus. So, for example, instead of keeping my Cognitive Content Dictionary on huge swathes of butcher paper on the walls, I write the information on the white board and erase it when I’m done. Meanwhile, I require my students to copy all the day’s dictionary information off the whiteboard into a composition book that they keep in their desks. An added bonus is that they have access to their vocabulary words all year! I’ve modified other GLAD strategies too, so I can use them and still keep my walls pretty clean. People walk into my room and comment on how calm and organized everything looks. I believe my room helps my students be calm and organized too.

All that training, all that synthesizing, all that experience pays off over time.

The research says so.

The Learning Policy Institute recently published a review of research into teacher effectiveness as teachers become more experienced. They said that as teachers gain years of experience, you can expect to see positive gains in student achievement. What was interesting for me to learn was that, while the steepest gain was in the first few years of a teacher’s career, the gains “continue to be significant as teachers reach the second, and often third, decades of their careers.” Not only did students do better on standardized tests with more experienced teachers, but they had other positive outcomes, like fewer absences.

Besides supporting increased student learning in their own classrooms, experienced teachers also help support greater student learning for other teachers in the school. They benefit the school as a whole.

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Of course they do. This last year I met with multiple brand-new and fairly-new teachers to help them with multiple issues from technology questions to classroom management to how to deal with parent issues to how to craft a particular lesson. Most of those meetings weren’t formal. A lot of them started in the hall or workroom. Individuals shared a problem, I offered help, and they accepted, or they approached me and asked for help. At the end of the year, I got thank you notes, but not for any specific problem-solving. For the hugs and smiles and sense of support I offered.

Hm. Maybe I have good reasons to stick around.