Winging It

I hate how time dictates the school day. I hate how we expect drastically different students to learn the same material, at the same age, at the same time of day, and even at the same pace. Sure some have drank the differentiation Kool-aid, but we haven’t yet differentiated high school as a whole. Same graduation requirements, same times, everything is the same.

From my experience, the majority of teaching takes the form of presentation of material, followed by some guided structure with the teacher, and then some independent time for the students to practice. This is the typical I do, We do, You do approach to education. When I prepared for this approach I would carefully think out my presentations. They wouldn’t be flashy, but I would take a substantial time to think about how I was going to talk about something, what I wanted students to notice, and what examples I want students to use. My goal wasn’t to entertain, but it was my goal to make the information clear. Though there are supporters of the entertainment aspect of education.

Are you not entertained?! When I used to show that to students they would remark that the class looks fun, that he makes the subject matter exciting. However, at the end of his courses, the attendance rates and failure rates were similar to other classes. So if the results were the same, what is the point of all that prep work to make the presentations exciting?

Maybe my presentations weren’t nearly as entertaining, but at least I was being clear on what I want accomplished. I started class telling the students what we’re going to do today. I wrote up clear definitions and gave clear examples with multiple steps shown. But the goal of education should be to create students with the ability to think, which involves a whole host of issues. Part of the problem with using clearly stated goals is that novice learners will only focus on the goals, most likely bypassing interesting and important connections along the way. Yes, I know that that study is talking about reading, but from my experience students do that with just about everything they do.

To put it another way, when I was presenting mathematical information I was covering information that is part of a complex tapestry of mathematics. However, my students only take in minor details, basically ignoring as much of my voice as they could, grasping for the bare minimum structure to be memorized so that they can correctly answer test questions. This picture eloquently summarizes what I think is going on in the journey from my mind to their minds, even though it really is about rubrics.

It is a visual representation of why so many of my students seem to think math is just a disjointed collection of random facts and procedures. When I thoroughly thought out my presentations, I made sure to highlight those red dots of importance, but in my mind those dots are just part of the whole picture. My students just pick up on the red dots though, which I often referred to them Charlie Browning me. My voice was the blue, my examples were the red, they copied the examples and heard this.

My good compliant complacent students were Charlie Brown. The had the appearance of listening, but really were just quietly searching out those red dots, those examples and steps to let them solve the next math question. My favorite are the students like Patty though. At least they weren’t pretending to care, yet an alarming amount of them are on the honor roll. They have internalized the process of hunting out those red dots, be it from examples in books, notes, online, or asking their friends, “How to do this?” They are obsessed with the how’s, but not the why’s?

To help try and combat this I changed my presentations. Instead of carefully planning out every individual step with concise, clear objectives, I started to wing it in class. It didn’t mean I wouldn’t lesson plan, it just means that my plans were a rough outline, a framework, that was then filled by the organic discussion in class. My goal was to make sure the students wouldn’t become fixated on the red dots. When I would be planning my presentations I would pick a topic, think of how it connected to the previous topics, and then try and use student questions and ideas to drive most of the presentation. When I know my students and my content I find this to be an enlightening experience. They start to finally see some of that blue background behind the red dots.

However, it does have a couple large drawbacks. It did give class a more organic feel, but students crave the conditioning that they have been experiencing for years and years. Charlie Browning is most prevalent in my honor roll students because it has allowed them to get success in the past, at least in terms of grades, with the least amount of mental effort. For most of my students, it takes a significant amount of time to overcome that conditioning, and some, unfortunately, never will.

It also gives the appearance that I am unprepared, but for me, it changed the hierarchy of my teaching prep. When I plan, I start with content from a teaching viewpoint, then worry about presentation and pacing, then worry about assessments, then worry about supporting activities, then worry about individual students. My ever changing schedule the past eight years has meant that I feel like I am perpetually stuck in my first hierarchy of teacher needs, focusing on content.

I guess I forever will be a rookie.

I Used to Teach Algebra I

I used to teach Algebra I. Over time I had developed some eccentricities that matched my personality, and made my classroom fairly efficient. My current seniors are the last students that had me for Algebra I, and when they talk about it, often they will mention the movies they got to watch. HOLY LABEL MAKER BATMAN! I don’t want to give the impression that all we did was watch movies though. When most people recollect their math class experience the imagine, something like this.

And that’s what my class was like, for the majority of time. It started with some sort of homework review, introduction of new material, and then I would release the students to work on their assignment with roughly 10 to 20 minutes of class left, very much following the, “I do, we do, you do.” This wasn’t everyday, but it was the vast majority of them.

The last time I taught Algebra I though, it was different. I would simply start class by presenting the students with a question that would be familiar to them. Either something from the previous day or something that they had been taught the previous year. I had them show me their work on whiteboards right there so that I could give them feedback right there, instead of waiting until the next day.

This worked for me because of two reasons.

The first, and most important was consistency. The last time I taught Algebra I it was my fifth consecutive year teaching the class. With the exception of open enroll students, the pipeline was from the same teacher, so I knew what to expect in terms of prerequisite capabilities. The standards were the same, the state testing was the same. Teacher evaluations were the same. Utilization of special education resources were the same. All of the consistency meant that I taught using my schema, allowing me to devote every ounce of my working memory and fluid intelligence to provide feedback for my students. I think it takes me five years of teaching consistency to be a good teacher with a curriculum. It really makes a cycle; master curriculum to teach (this is different that getting answers to tests); find a good sequence of topics; properly pace the topics to align with state testing; analyze assessment choices; and then finally be an effective teacher.

Now I said there were two reasons that allowed me to teach Algebra I the way I wanted and I’ve already talked about the consistency of a schedule. The second reason was because of the degree of autonomy I was allowed. Basically, I was told to go teach math, and that was it. As long as math was taught, the how I taught wasn’t nearly that important. So I decided to make my class fit my personality. I dumped activities that seemed to represent more of an obedience (sorry, “on task”) component. I made a promise to my students that I would not have them do any activities that I felt were there solely for busy work. I stopped feeling guilty about providing my students with downtime. Every now and then I found myself mentally fried by the curriculum, especially that first year teaching Pre-Calculus, so I couldn’t imagine how it would be affecting the students, and I didn’t feel guilt acknowledging that I was stressed too.

That manifested itself in that first Pre-Calculus class in a manner where there were several discussions about learning and mastery in general because my students were stuck with a teacher who only a survivor when it came to his math background. Much of the math class was dedicated to trying to understand why things work because I was trying understand why they worked myself. Since I was so comfortable with Algebra I, I would look at student feedback and decide I was happy with where they were for the day, and occasionally notice that there was 10 to 15 minutes of class left. Remembering that I promised that I wouldn’t spend their time with busy work, I used the time to build relationships and share aspects of my life that I found important, and yes, that might manifest itself as movies. As my relationships with my students improved I noticed that learning became more natural, and more productive.

Then, rather suddenly it all changed. First, my schedule was altered, Algebra I, the class that I was so good with, was taken away going into my sixth year at my current school. This is what my schedule has been since then.

Year 1 – Algebra I, Geometry, Calculus I, 6th Grade math aide, junior high lunch duty, senior class adivisor

Year 2 – Algebra I, Geometry, Calculus I, junior high lunch duty

Year 3 – Algebra I, World History, Calculus I, Economics, Geography

Year 4 – Algebra I, World History, Economics, Geography, Pre-Calculus

Year 5 – Algebra I, Algbera II, Pre-Calculus, Calculus I, Math Intervention, Personal Business and Finance Math, senior class adivisor

Year 6 – Algebra II, Pre-Calculus, Personal Business and Finance Math, Statistics

Year 7 – Algebra II, Pre-Calculus, Statistics, junior high study hall/math intervention

Year 8 – 8th Grade Math, Geometry, combined Pre-Calc/Calc I

I was still excited to teach because I felt comfortable teaching how I wanted to, I still had that autonomy.  So I showed up the first day during year 6 with a stack of whiteboards, enthusiastic about how having the students work in class impacted the outcomes, only to be crushed when I shared that philosophy with the administration and that’s not how you should teach. I was pressed to defend myself (in writing) and referred to the experts at the local educational service center. I was even questioned about going out of order in the textbook.

Then came the day, during the first week of school, when I lost one of my Algebra II classes to a fundraiser meeting that came with no notice. I decided to take the opportunity to spend some significant time with the other Algebra II class not working on math, but building relationships that would make the rest of the year more productive and efficient. Of course, that would be the day that I got a walk through, my first experience with a “gotcha” moment, and was proceeded to be lectured about wasted time. I was told that this wasn’t an official walk through, but just checking to make sure I am using my time wisely.

In my Personal Business and Finance Math, another class that I was new to, I showed a video to the students about rationalization, and it just didn’t sink in. YouTube made the recommendation to show this Berenstain Bears video, so I tried it. It went perfect, the kids embraced the dorkiness of being high school students watching kids cartoons, and they seemed to grasp the concept of rationalization. But one of those educational service center experts walked by and I was later lectured on the inappropriateness of showing a cartoon, and then had to provide a written rationale for my choice.

Then came the day I gave a problem in Pre-Calculus that got me in trouble. We had spent weeks working on trig functions, especially transformations of trig graphs. I gave the students a problem in a worksheet that asked them to do the reverse, given a set of points, find a trig function. I was called down to the office and was lectured about how students aren’t capable to performing this task without being explicitly being shown how to do it first. It just goes on and on.

Novice learners were timed on problems to see how fast they could complete them.

I give out too many A’s.

No one learns anything in your class.

Students told me they didn’t care, they’re going to get a B.

There needs to be more ways to succeed in your classroom.

It is impossible to learn anything in your class.

You let the students do nothing.

More people would be complaining if the grades were lower.

Students will lie to defend you.

I want to tell them to shut it and punch them in the face.

If I were a student I don’t know what I would be learning.

There needs to be more grades in your class.

I’m not going to do it since it’s not graded.

On top of all those messages I have been receiving, the state has changed the end of year test. We have new standards to deal with. I’ve had to adapt to becoming a full inclusion classroom that doesn’t track students, meaning I have had classrooms with students with IQs in the 80’s have been in classes with gifted students. Now students are being pressured more than ever to get college credits while still in high school. Students and teachers are feeling intense pressure to get the most amount of academic achievement at an ever earlier age.

When we give students messages over and over and over again that they are dumb they start to internalize it and it becomes a self-fulling prophecy. The messages I’ve received the past three years, that my students are lie to me, that all they do is take advantage of me, that all they do is walk all over me, well, I start to internalize that too. So when they come to my class exhausted and stressed, then do not respond to my prodding questions with thought, quit from fatigue during complex tasks, I no longer meet them with sympathy. I just keep going because, well fuck them, I won’t let them take advantage of me anymore. If they are tuning me out it must be because they have already mastered the content. They can fail, their grades aren’t my problem. That’s the teacher I am now.

And here’s the bottom line, in this current environment, I am not the teacher anyone needs. I tried desperately to hold on to a few of my values, but slowly selling out one little piece at a time, bowing to the pressure from administration, students, parents, tests, has made me a bad teacher. I am a bad teacher because I got sucked into the spiral of my own paranoia. Instead of meeting my students fatigue, exhaustion, and confusion with sympathy and grace, I coldly pressed on. As it just became more confusing for them, more of them decided to just quit and I don’t blame them. Why should they stress out over math they won’t need other than to jump through some hoop to get a college degree? They have no incentive to master the topic. As long as they are getting a B or C, they’re good.

As I write this, I keep staring at the information about conic sections on my board that I used in Pre-Calc and thinking over and over to myself, this is not how it should be done. The more I look at it, the more appalled I am. It dumbs down our students and it dumbs down the math. It’s a result of me trying to hold on to three years ago, adapting to my new pressures, but producing an abomination.

That’s not education. If that’s what I am producing it’s time for me to go. I thought I knew what my calling in life was, but if this is all the more I am capable of making, this passion has just turned into a burdensome job, which means I am no good for anybody right now. I’m not teaching. I’m torturing.

I hope that I actually made a difference for a couple students along the way, because right now I shouldn’t be here.

 

 

Feeling Nostalgic Tonight

Two interesting things happened a few days ago. In one class, as I was trying to push some students with “why” type questions, a student pointed out that I seem to have disagreements with the American education system. In the next class, a student mentioned that she wasn’t sure where she was going to college. Well, I felt like a failure right then and there, but why? I am just a math teacher, my responsibility is to teach math, everything else is the responsibility of the student, right?

After the class of 2013 graduated, I decided the answer was no. The class of 2013 was the first group of freshman I had at my current job. I had many of them for three years of classes, and several for four. In a way I kind of grew up in my teaching along with them. Growing up with them meant that I formed countless inside jokes and built a level of comfort so that I could try and push their boundaries. In return, they pushed my boundaries as a teacher as well. This was the group that got to watch me experiment with different formats and styles. It was towards the end of their time with me that I began to regret that I didn’t demand more.

When I say demand more, I am not talking about academics. I have mentioned previously about how grad school affected my concept of knowledge, but it also made me realize that many more students are capable of achieving goals they never believed if put in the right environment. There was a segment of that graduating class that reminded me of myself. It was a group of students whose cognitive ability would allow them to pursue nearly anything they wanted, but they seemed to be going through the motions.

There was no subject or activity that invoked some sort of passion. If something did create a spark of interest, they were overwhelmed with worries about future career prospects. The cost of college frightened several to the point of not even trying.

They reminded me of myself because I was that student that was doing what I supposed to do. I had the good grades and test scores that got me the scholarships, but I didn’t have any real sort of passion. When I went to college I chose a major not based upon some sort of calling or desire, but on future career prospects. I chose my college largely based upon how much it would cost.

When I graduated I found myself wondering, now what? Six years into my career I found myself wondering, is this it? I felt like I had done everything society ever had told me to do, I got good grades, I was respectful, I stayed out of trouble, I participated in voluntary activities, I held down a part time job in school, got married, bought a house, had kids, and at 27 I felt like it was a big let down. Where’s my stability? Why don’t I have the enjoyable career? All that work for just a paycheck. Then I started to worry that I would take it out on my kids, literally and figuratively.

I don’t know what the future holds for the class of 2013, but there is a handful of students that come to mind that I wish I would have pushed more. I think I did an adequate job getting most ready for college math, or at least no worse than any other teacher, but I have this nagging feeling that I should be responsible for more than just an ACT score. My job should be to guide students down a path towards a rewarding livelihood, whether that be changing their current path or encouraging them on the one they are on. If that isn’t my job I should be replaced with an automated math program, like Khan Academy.

The next year I decided to make some changes. In a conversation with a coworker I mentioned that I decided to do what I thought was right. In earlier years I had learned that I cannot impact a student’s cognitive abilities any more than I can impact a student’s height. But I had learned that I can impact a student’s EQ. I had the most efficient, productive, fun, off-task Algebra I class I ever had to that point. I was fortunate to have a small group of dedicated seniors that let me push their limits (I cannot emphasize how much it was pushed), and I don’t solely mean academic. I proof read essays and talked about college with them. I got them to question assignments instead of just complying with the assignment. Seriously, coloring as as a senior? Not everyday was about math, but everyday felt productive.

I hope that when they left that something stuck, and I’m not necessarily talking about math rules. I hope that they developed a perseverance they didn’t have before. I hope that they developed an understanding of what it means to know something. I hope that when they left me, they learned not to be content with complacency. I know that sounds kind of hippieish, but I do consider myself an idealist at times. To me though, that’s what school should be about, not power-reduction rules.

So when that student said she didn’t know where she was going to college, my heart sank. I have known this student for four years. I have had a few opportunities to push her in the past, but this should have been the year that I had her, and a couple of other potential filled students, in a small group that would have allowed me to shift the focus of education away from math. It pains me because it is reminiscent of the class of 2013 all over again. They told me their plans, or lack of them, and kept my mouth shut. I’m back at that regret all over again. Things change and the good times can’t last forever, but there has to be some way for me to get at least closer to what I had. When I reminisce about those years I don’t know if I made a difference in those student’s lives, but I know I’m not making a difference now.

Twitter Math Makes Me Feel Dumb

Tonight has been weird. I left school with my mind fluctuating between anger, disappointment, and curiosity. I was curious about reflections and the thought of reflecting a triangle over a parabola came to mind, wondering if it would have some sort of fun house mirror effect. The more I thought about it on my commute home tonight I realized that derivatives would be involved, so clearly this wasn’t going to be something I could try to do in Geometry.

Then when I checked Twitter tonight I saw this.

<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” data-lang=”en”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>Reflecting over a circle <a href=”https://t.co/WaqQ04G5ji”>https://t.co/WaqQ04G5ji</a&gt; <a href=”https://t.co/1zzqMf1nKh”>pic.twitter.com/1zzqMf1nKh</a></p>&mdash; Christopher (@Trianglemancsd) <a href=”https://twitter.com/Trianglemancsd/status/837071141873164290″>March 1, 2017</a></blockquote>
//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Low and behold, nested within the Twitter stream was a question involving reflecting parabolas. I thought it was neat to watch the discussion unfold in front of me, but when I came across the term normal line, I felt stupid. I had no idea what a normal line is. I don’t know if I never was introduced to the term, or I had forgotten, but I do know it’s not that I was rusty. So rather than try to participate, I just kind of shut down because it made me feel dumb.

The problem I have is that I am the math zombie that became the teacher. I finished a math degree and didn’t really know math. I discovered I was a math zombie when I first began teaching Algebra I and I couldn’t answer a typical mixture problem. (If I had a book with me I probably could find the exact problem since it was that scarring.) Any math that I actually know has been more or less self taught with the aid of textbooks, YouTube, perseverance, an enormous debt of gratitude to the History professors at BGSU who challenged my conception of knowledge, and the students who drug me through. Hopefully that doesn’t mean I am dumb, but that does mean that my mathematical knowledge is extremely piecemeal and lacking in formality. Some of the reasoning I try to share with my high school students clearly lacks the rigor of proper mathematics, as has clearly been pointed out on occasion, but I can confidently say it is mine. Sometimes the responses sting though. I was so excited to share my explanation about rationalization with the world, but was dismissed by some because of canonical forms and the definition of radix. I had to look up canonical forms (which made me want to flip that guy the bird) and I’m still not sure what a radix is or how it impacts square roots. Kind of rips the confidence straight out from under me.

But as painful as times like these are, it helps remind me what it must be like for my students. I can empathize with ALMOST every single student in class to some extent, at least in the attitude towards academics, because I have been there. Math wasn’t, and still isn’t, always easy for me, I need moments like tonight to remind me of that. When I leave work angry and disappointed because of student work, it’s night’s like these that I remember what it was like…

to be worried about grades first and foremost.

to not wanting to focus because other assignments are due.

to just not being able to think about math because, well, just not today.

to struggle to try and remember all the steps in this witchcraft.

to look at a quiz and think, “We didn’t go over that!”

to wanting to just get by and get done.

In a perfect world all my students would come to me with amazing prerequisite knowledge and be highly motivated to learn. That’s not the world we live in though. Without empathy for all the situations our students find themselves in, to many of us wind up browbeating kids into obedient behavior, which just breeds a culture of compliance. My hope is that with some understanding and a little patience I can get a student to want to contemplate the reflection of a triangle over a parabola because…, well,…why not?

Let Me Explain Something…

The vast majority of my followers on social media are my students. Not my readers here, but as long as it’s only 140 characters there might be a chance they read it. In preparation for another school day, I was overcome with the usual sense of frustration and dred, imagining another course of IDK’s and IDC’s. So I impulsively sent out this.

It probably was the first time I fell into the trap of sending a subtweet.

Previously, I have talked about the amount of interaction and the relationships that can form between teachers and students in a small school. With all the schedule changes this year, I am fortunate enough to have one class where I have been around all the students for at least one previous class, while most of the students have had me twice, and a couple three times. (Figured out who I am talking about yet?) So, I entered this year with high hopes in anticipation of working with all these students that I have had before. I wouldn’t have that typical feeling out period where students and teachers kind get to know each other. We could just jump in and start to math. But then I saw the schedule. Not only was this class nearly twice as big as it ever had been, I had two different classes lumped together. I thought it would be okay though, I had built up a relationship with these kids.

Reality was a let down though. I am modifying my curriculum on the fly, which is never good. Because the class is twice as large the negative behavior has reached a critical mass where it can drag down all but the most motivated. I have students in class who wouldn’t be there except for the relatively new fourth year math requirement. The pressure for college credits has increased drastically even in the last three years. I fear that the majority of students in my class are there because they believe they are SUPPOSED to be there, not because they WANT to be there.

That’s just the student influences though, I haven’t even begun to talk about my own actions. I need to make sure that I had weekly grades. I need to vary my grades, of which I don’t. I need to make sure I am providing enough opportunities. There is too much down time. I need to vary my presentation. I give out too many A’s and B’s. Students don’t know how to improve grades. I don’t provide enough resources. Instruction needs to be bell to bell. Everyday is an academic day. If students say they are learning in my room, they are just lying to protect me because I am likable. Students can’t be expected to do math without examples. Students shouldn’t take more than 2 minutes to solve a math problem. I haven’t asked students what their preferred learning style is. I should contemplate if a high school is really the place for me, because sometimes people just need a career change. Essentially, nothing is ever learned in my classroom, my students just look at social media, and if anyone ever did want to learn something, they would have to find another teacher. This has been my environment for the past three years.

All that has influenced me in ways I really don’t like. I don’t have patience like I used to. I don’t have empathy like I used to. For example, today I covered a topic that should have been largely review from the previous class. I had a quiz planned for tomorrow because it was a review topic, so if everything went smoothly I would assess tomorrow. If the students struggled, I would keep teaching, they would keep learning and I would assess at a later date. But one student I think slept through class, another studied lines for the upcoming musical, a couple did a few questions then studied physics formulas, three were consistently on their phone, and I had to almost constantly talk over four. The 10 or so who did problems consistently seemed to know what was going on until we got to linear and angular speed and then the questions and confusion just got weird. (Figured out who I am talking about yet?)

Should I assess tomorrow? I think yes, because those students who had time to ignore me and focus on physics, or whatever else they were doing, must understand what is going perfectly. If they didn’t understand what was going on why else would they possibly choose to ignore me.

I hate that I think like that. It’s like school is making me hate students who I normally like. It’s kind of like Ghostbusters II. Watch from about 3:40 to the end.

It’s like school is the river of slime, especially true with a description like, “pure, concentrated evil.” This class that I am talking about, I really like them, I really do, but when I have to meet them in the river of slime that I call school, now I hate them. That whole vindictive process ultimately delegitimizes both the teacher and the students.

Several years ago I wouldn’t have handled it like that. First we would have been in one large group, 13 or 14 tops. The structure can alter the class dynamic drastically. I would have found time for us, and I mean all of us, to discuss the upcoming musical. I would have found time to talk about physics, whether that be studying the formulas for the class, talking about the formulas, or the purpose of memorizing the formulas. I would have talked about the stresses of work and how to deal with fatigue. I would have worked in a discussion of multitasking and the impossibility of multitasking and learning. With whatever time was left we would have discussed the math topic for the day. Those discussions about physics, the musical, or multitasking, would have all probably centered around the idea of how we learn and why we learn. So even if math didn’t dominate the day, I would still have felt like it was a productive day.

All those pressures about grades, bell to bell, every day an instructional day, I didn’t have those several years ago. I could teach in a manner that would align with my perceptions of the purpose of school. In my lower levels that meant I could dangle free time and movies as incentive for work. I didn’t fear being called down to the office to explain my lack of resources, which freed me to harass/encourage students, rather than just ignore them like I do now. In my upper levels we spent time talking about zones of proximal development and theories of how we learn, purpose of college, school in Brazil, or even the TARDIS. When we did math it was done collectively, which was fine because grades were more or less a fabrication and students were more or less on the honor system whether they learned. It wasn’t just math, but it was also while I was teaching a class that became dubbed epicnomics, where the exam was a report on UHF. I was able to run a project based Geography, full of down time, but full of great presentations. Ever contemplate the geography of nothing?

That leeway in class allowed me to branch out and pressure students to move beyond their comfort zones. It started with simply trying to get a student to think about a homework assignment (why are you coloring as a senior?), morphed into proofreading papers to try and instill a mindset that a good grade isn’t enough (“I got a 95, but don’t feel like I know what I’m doing.”), and culminating when I got tired of excuses from one of the smartest students I have ever met, set my computer and credit card in from of them and told them to register for the ACT.  Those are some of my best memories from several years ago, even though they have nothing to do with math. Math was still taught and learned, but it was incidental to why that slimy school should exist.

It was a different climate though. I felt as though I had some autonomy to define success. OTES didn’t exist. I had different classes. I had different administration. I had different students. I’m different too.

When I say I need a break from school, I’m not talking about a vacation. I still want to learn something.  I just want to leave the river of slime behind.

Homecoming Game

Tonight is the homecoming game at our school and it has me thinking about the purpose of school in general. I have spent the past three year under cognitive dissonance between our stated purpose and what I actually see taking place in schools. I want to share that confusion with you.

I know most of the readers will know the school well, but if you aren’t one let me take a moment to clarify. I teach at a small (~500 students k-12) public school in a rural setting in Ohio. Not private, magnet, charter, or large, leaving us with limited opportunities for tracking students. Some students do take college courses and some also take courses at nearby vocational tech centers.

I am going to layout what I believe to be the five primary arguments for schools to exist, starting with the most idealistic to the most cynical. I do not believe that a school does one and not the others, but rather they all exist at different levels within the school environment. However, I do feel that one or two reasons for the purpose of school do usually dominate the atmosphere, with the rest being ancillary.

Here are the five purposes for the existence of schools.

  1. Academic mastery and creating critical thinkers and life-long learners.
  2. Preparation for the workplace that will occur after high school or college.
  3. Community centers where relationships are created and social adjustment occurs.
  4. Warehousing or babysitting services for modern, industrial society.
  5. Compliance factories where we teach children to obey authority.

Let’s explore each one a little more in-depth.

1.Schools exist for the purpose of mastering academic material and to create critical thinkers.

I would say that this is one of the professed purposes of school, but as long as educators are pressured to keep graduation rates high, the quality of academic mastery will be low. I cannot offer an authentically rigorous course and ensure accessibility for all my students. Those two things are inversely related

2. Schools exist for the purpose of preparing students for the workplace or college.

As far as I know I haven’t found a study that shows that soft skills like punctuality or teamwork, can be explicitly taught. I don’t feel the need to go into depth the number of high school graduates that end up in remedial classes in college. Also, I have never tried to collect data, but I feel like I have had quite a few students in the past  who don’t have stellar academic records or even discipline records, yet are model employees at jobs outside of school.

3. Schools exist to be community centers where relationships are nurtured and adolescents adjust to society.

Tonight is homecoming. The gym will most likely be packed with people who normally wouldn’t come to the game. We canceled a class to enjoy the comrade of our peers in preparation of the game tonight. There will be a well attended musical this spring. People often talk about friendships and experiences learned in school more than any particular academics. We host camps and provide meeting spaces for groups and organizations. This is a very important need for a community. Is a school the most efficient way to provide leisure activities and meeting spaces to the community? Probably not.

4. Schools exist to warehouse adolescents and babysit children.

In our modern, industrial society most households require both parents to work. We can’t leave a bunch of children to their own unsupervised devices. Schools allow employers to obtain the employees they need and they allow parents access to a socialized babysitting service.

5. Schools exist to create large numbers of obedient and compliant workers.

Do you think it is coincidence that a full-day of work is considered eight hours and school lasts seven? Schools are a way to tell potential employers who shows promise of being a good employee. Is the potential employee easily trainable (good grades)? Is the potential employee reliable (good discipline record)?

 

I function around the #3, my community concept of school. It doesn’t mean that I ignore academics or workplace prep, but I function best when I can plan and prepare class in line with the idea that a school is a community center. My relationships that I forge with my students then take priority over everything else. That’s why I am here for the game tonight, because I really like several of the players and wish I still had them in class. It’s the same reason I go to some of the girl’s basketball games, or volleyball games, or musicals, or track meets, or take in artwork displayed in the library, or ask about part-time jobs, or like proof reading papers, or ask about plans after high school. All of those desire are based upon relationships of students. That relationship then dictates my actions as a teacher. (Sorry, soccer players, I played football in high school and soccer is just weird.)

I felt like I was able to teach like that for a couple of year because I was allowed the autonomy to do so. (It could also be interpreted as a lack of oversight, depending on your perspective.)

 

But right now I feel pressure to live up to the academic role, #1, and the workplace role, #2, of school. I need to make sure that I offer enough assessments and varied assessments. I need to make sure that I don’t waste educational opportunities and teach bell to bell. I need to provide more varied presentations of material to differentiate for my students. I need to provide more resources to my students. I need to make sure I do my Ohio Means Jobs lesson plan. When we get down to the nitty-gritty details of function as a school I fear that we are about the obedience and compliance role of school, #5.

There was a student who was greeted on her first day of school ever at my school with a warning that her hair was the wrong color, and yet I am told to make decisions in the best interest of the students. We tell students what they can and cannot wear. We tell them exactly how a project must be completed and when it must be completed. We tell them exactly where to sit in a classroom. We even tell them how many times their bladder can be emptied during the semester. And then we tell them that we do this to get them ready for college or to make them more responsible adults. I don’t buy it.

We say we’re about academics, learning, and post-secondary preparation, but act like all we care about is compliance. I want to be about relationships and community. I have students in class who I am dying to push to their limits of their capabilities. I have students that I want to develop that relationship where I can push them to their limits. I feel torn between job security and living within that purpose. To my seniors who had me as freshman, this is why I have been so much grouchier and irritable the past two years than you probably remember.

I smell popcorn. Time to go eat.

How Do I Get an “A” in Your Class?… Or How Failing Made Me a Better Teacher

It’s happened again. I have been accused of not teaching, by a student. It’s not that this particular student blatantly raised a voice during class and shouted, “You never teach us anything,” but it started with a couple of innocent statements.

“I think it would be better if you gave us notes.”

“Can you go over an example of an ‘A’ questions?”

“How do I get an ‘A’ in your class?”

The problem I have with all of these statements, no matter what the circumstances are surrounding them, is that they come from a mindset that I believe has infected education on far too many levels. Students come into my class operating on a training, recall, example laden mentality. The expectation from these students is that I will present the material as it will appear on assessments, and it is their responsibility to memorize the material presented, and the material will be identical. There is a subset of students, parents, administrators, and even the general public, that believe this is what education should be.

How does that happen? How did we get to a place in society where it is thought that education is the same as memorizing tasks?

Schools, both high schools and colleges, are under tremendous pressure to ensure students graduate. Graduation rates affect funding levels for schools. The higher percentage of students that pass the more money a school receives, or is less likely to lose.  If the graduation rate falls at my school, it will be endanger of losing funding. In addition, standards for graduation keep increasing, creating a perfect milieu for grade inflation.

Ahhh….grade inflation. That concept is not new. It has been the bane of education since the existence of grades. As long as there has been no standard definition of an “A” people have blamed others for inflating grades. But the idea of an inflated grade wouldn’t exist without someone finding out that the student who had that inflated “A” really wasn’t that smart. For that, we can blame employers, admissions departments, scholarships, and even teachers.

When people in authority use generic measurements, a GPA or transcript for example, as a gauge of intelligence it invites sympathetic teachers to inflate grades. We are to the point in society that if I were to truly hold a student accountable for mastery of a concept such as parabolic functions, it could represent that student’s ability to obtain a low skill job in the service industry. To me, that represents my incentive to make my class as easy as possible to pass, because I don’t want to be the person who tries to say with a straight face, “I’m sorry, but you can’t have a job bagging groceries because you cannot complete the square to find the vertex of a quadratic function in standard form.” (This is not meant to be an insult to grocery baggers of which I really appreciate the good ones. The statement was  there to try and point out the futility of connecting arbitrary education with work preparedness.) Every employer that has said a job applicant has had to have a high school diploma, without a thought as to what that student was subjected to learning, using a high school diploma as a rudimentary haphazard sorting device, causes an increase of grade inflation. It is because employers like that exist that my class is easy to pass.

But it’s not just low skill service jobs that use GPAs and transcripts as lazy sorting devices. Colleges and scholarships do so as well. Maybe they look beyond just obtaining a high school diploma and focus on certain classes and certain grades, but the concept is the same. When I have a student who is very capable of being a nurse, but they are encouraged to take Pre-Calculus because that is what is required of the college’s nursing program, I am incentivezed to make getting a decent grade relatively easy. I wonder how many doctors, not to mention nurses, could tell me what a conic section is, let alone describe the relationship of the sum and difference between foci that generates the different conic sections. The college won’t really care what she knows in regards to Pre-Calculus, only that the class shows up on her transcript with a certain grade by it.  As long as I have her prepared to take her one math class in college from the professor who is under pressure to make sure she passes, I feel like I have done my job. These students know the game of gatekeeping that is goes on at the different levels of education. It is why I try to make it relatively easy to get a “B” in my class. It might take dedication and work, but it is achievable by nearly all students who have a mediocre grasp of concepts learned in previous classes.

I make sure that “B” is achievable because anything less than a “B” must be justified. No one wants their child be the student that struggles, but I cannot assign a grade below a “B” without being able to document the behavior the student demonstrated that led to the low grade. I have to document how I tried to correct those behaviors. I have document all the interventions I tried for the student. I have never, NEVER, been asked to justify why a student has an “A.” By making a “B” relatively easy, I can defend my low grades with simple work ethic defenses and lack of prerequisite knowledge statements. (Those are legitimate issues, it just makes the administration of my class easier to have most students around a “B”.)

So far I have mentioned the money involved in education through the application of graduation rates  impacting a schools’ funding. I have also discussed the societal pressures to obtain a high school diploma or take certain class only for the label, without any regard to the content of those classes. These lead me, and probably other teachers, to ultimately reduce the rigor of their classes.

However, there is one other influence that shapes education into memorization. In my education classes about assessment in college we covered the concept of test validity. We were taught that for a test to be valid the material on the test must be explicitly taught. If the test material is not explicitly taught then the test is invalid. This was then interpreted as meaning teach what is on the test, though never said in that manner.  In class we provide students with every example they might see, with all the information that might be around, we provide study guides and review sheets, we play review games, and then we give a test. When students do well we congratulate ourselves and think our students are all above average. When they do poorly we point out all the places in the study guides or homework examples where the information was located. Even though we so often trumpet the mantra of, “don’t teach to the test,” we don’t listen to ourselves.

This is what my education was. When I entered college back in the fall of 2001, I had every indication that I should be successful. I had tested into the gifted program in elementary, I was accelerated in math in junior high, I had never placed below the 93rd percentile on any standardized test (Iowa Basics, ASVAB, PSAT, ACT), I took AP classes in high school for weighted grades and finished with above a 4.0 GPA. I finished my freshman year of college with nearly a 4.0 GPA, with a little struggle in the spring semester that I simply attributed to college being more difficult.

My sophomore year it all fell apart. I was failing classes. I dropped classes in a desperate attempt to salvage my grades in the remaining classes. I let the funk infect every aspect of my life. It ruined friendships and jobs. To this day I am not comfortable talking about my failure. Sure, I can mention it happened, but mentioning that failing happened is very different that coming to grips with the reality that my self-identity was a complete and utter lie. I visited depths of personal hell that I wouldn’t wish upon anyone. (Here is a link that describes it better than I can.)

I can remember sitting in classes, trying to take a test, and feeling like it was gibberish on the page in front of me. It’s the first time I can ever recall thinking, “He never taught this!”

Slowly, I started to develop the work ethic necessary to pass during the second semester of my sophomore year, but it was still an emotional period of my life. I still remember one of my moments of clarity during my embitterment. I went to pick up a quiz from our Quantitative Analysis professor. I had worked so hard for this quiz, I had put in so much effort trying to understand the examples and making sure the extra homework problems were correct and figuring out ways to evaluate them myself, but I still lacked confidence and was nervous. I got the quiz back and was ecstatic that it was a good grade. As I examined the work, I noticed one of the problems that I got correct was one that he had never covered in class. I let out a very loud, audible, “I got this right and he never even taught us this!” in front of his office door.

That’s the moment I considered a turning point in my college education. (I managed to finish with a 3.43 GPA after a semester on academic probation.) It’s when I realized the amount of work authentic learning requires. But it’s not the quantity of work learning takes, but the quality of the work that leads to success. I learned that I needed to generalize better.

When I was in high school I bore the label of being one of the smart students. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I realize that it wasn’t that my GPA was any higher than my peers, it was that I had to work less than them to achieve it. My education amounted to me watching my teacher do some examples, easily memorizing them, and regurgitating them on a test. I was doing an academic binge and purge. Eventually it caught up to me. I never learned how to effectively learn, all I had ever done was memorized and thought I was a good learner. I even identified myself as a quick learner on job application when I should have been saying, “I am a really good at memorizing repetitive tasks, so I will be the perfect employee for Burger King.” Since I have become a teacher I have started to notice that several of my students share that mindset.

Unfortunately I feel and obligation to ensure that my students don’t feel that false sense of security. I don’t want a student to go through what I did. I can’t live with the thought of students who would leave my class thinking it would be easy, then fail their next math class. And that motivation, probably one of the earliest I ever adopted, has shaped my class in two distinct ways.

The first way my failure impacted my classes is that I have jumped on the teach less bandwagon. Teach less, be less helpful, productive struggle, productive stupidity, there are a plethora of blog posts, editorials, and even a few journal articles about the concept. Basically, it boils down to the idea that if I teach every possible example I have done all the thinking for my students. This is bad because then students never learn to think for themselves. From a progressive standpoint, I would say my students are discovering, and from a traditionalist view I probably have just gotten good scaffolding. But the point is the same, I lead kids, I prompt kids, but I never explain explicitly every step.

The second way that my failure impacted my class is on my assessments. Several of my students who are used to getting an “A” in class are undergoing a period of adjustment. They have trouble because they were me in high school, smart, but relying on the teachers to do all the thinking for them. I have modified my assessments so that questions that will warrant an “A” are never explicitly covered in class. I have covered concepts, but not specific examples. I am trying to use the training aspects of school to train my students to be prepared to answer unfamiliar questions.  I was working with a student after school last year on a quiz that she missed and the story almost perfectly illustrates the thinking that I am trying to avoid.

She was having trouble on the “A” question. “I don’t know what to do!”

I responded by saying, “Tell me what you’re thinking.”

“I’ve read the problem and it doesn’t look like any of the examples we’ve done in class. I tried to match the work to the problem like______(I forgot the one she mentioned, but it was about radians), but it doesn’t make any sense”

For years I had been trying to describe the point of not covering “A” questions in class, and now it made perfect sense. She read the problem on a surface level and scanned her memory for similar problems. She really didn’t comprehend that she needed to dissect the problem and pick out the concepts she knew and then apply those concepts to an unfamiliar question.

As I prompted her through the idea asking, “Do you know what this means?” over and over again, it finally seemed to click. She finally realized that she knew everything that was there.

I can’t prepare my students for every conceivable test question that might appear on an end of course exam, ACT, SAT, or whatever. So I purposely under prepare my students for my tests. When they grasp being under prepared, then they are really prepared for the tests they will have to take when I’m not around. When they embrace the mindset that comes with being under prepared, they will succeed in my class.

That’s how you get an “A” in my classroom.