Is School Really About Education?

Today, and the next few days, I hope to be able to just talk to my students in one of my classes. I plan on using the timing of losing many students to senior class trip, along with having to do a mandated Ohio Means Jobs lesson. Many of the lessons are rather basic, or those that do require a little upper level math feel rather forced, kind of like they were copied straight out of the textbook. Yet somehow it has more career connections because it came from the state website instead of a textbook. But, like usual I need to digress before I start to ramble into something I really didn’t intend to talk about.

I have been using my blog to write about some of the more transformative experiences throughout my education and I spent a good chunk of last night rereading some of them. This wasn’t my first attempt at making a personal website, it just changed from what I originally thought it would be. Originally I was going to make a site to supplement my class, a resource for mathematical information. However, I am a unitasking teacher, so I really didn’t need a website to explain all the different methods I am using. Providing mathematical information was kind of pointless because there are hundreds of websites out there to do that, all of them better than anything I could produce. Why have I stuck with writing this time?

I used to consider myself an educator who happened to use math as my medium. To steal a line from my pastor, my purpose was to, “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” My goal was to salvage education for those on the brink, the perennial discipline problems, the helpless, and to push the honor roll students to their limits. I felt like I accomplished this goal during a couple of years, and now I find myself constantly chasing that nostalgic moment.

Several years ago I stumbled across a blog that laid out in rather blunt terms the social contract that exists in most schools. (I didn’t bookmark it at the time and cannot find it again, but I want to make it clear that while I agree with the premise that will follow, I did not originate it.) It laid out a vision of school that really resonated with me after I had a nervous breakdown in front of a couple of students. Authentic learning is an inefficient, messy endeavor that is not conducive to a typical educational setting. A classroom inherently relies on efficiency to educate the masses. The problem is that this education resembles training more than education. To be effectively trained, quiet obedience is necessary, but in-depth thinking and analysis is not. A contract develops between teachers and students in this environment, one where the students agree to be obedient and complacent, and the teachers agree to not really make students think, but rather rely on memorization. Students are willing to sacrifice freedom and opinions in exchange for not being challenged.

School becomes a place where an encyclopedia of examples is memorized, and we denote the ability to memorize with grades.

After I had my nervous breakdown in Calculus I, I started teaching differently. Well, teaching in a traditional sense wouldn’t be the correct description. I talked with my students, explained everything in excruciating detail. Since it was more conversational in nature two things happened. One, it was easier to get off task. Two, the questions in class changed. It was less, “How do you…,” and more, “Why did that happen?” Every so often we would actually lose track of time and class would end with nothing resembling any sort of closure, and simply resume the next day. Instead of intro and hooks, we opened the book, picked a problem and started mathing. As a teacher, I absolutely loved it. Every statement or action I did was directly in response to something the students did, and every statement or action they did was in direct response to something I did.

There was only one problem with this set up. How do I grade an open-ended discussion? What if I abandoned my end of the social contract? No more grades.

It worked better than I could have hoped. No more grades, no more contract, no more complacency, actual thought.

The next year I decided to try it for a full year rather than a quarter with my next Calculus I class. Same result, but with an added bonus. I started to realize that there is a huge difference between productivity and learning. It was after one of our off task conversations, it could have been about college athletics, school rules, or whatever else, but it left me with an odd feeling. By any normal definition of a typical classroom it was a wasted day. But it didn’t feel like that. I felt like something was learned because my students engaged in some level of thinking. Don’t get me wrong, I still knew how to set my foot down and decide we needed to do some math, but I stopped feeling guilty if every second of class wasn’t devoted to math.

Unfortunately the following year I did not have a Calculus I class. Additionally I had a Pre-Calculus class, a topic I hadn’t visited since my sophomore and junior year of high school. I was teaching Pre-Calc in a relatively traditional way, cover previous assignment, introduce topic, go through examples, release students to work independently. One day though, I had assigned the following problem from this book. It’s #18 on page 163.

A car leaves Oak Corners at 11:33 AM traveling south at 70 kmh. At the same time, another car is 65 km west of Oak Corners traveling east at 90 kmh.

a) Express the distance between the cars as a function of the time after the first car left Oak Corners.

b) Show that the cars are closest to each other at noon.

A student in class called me over to help her get started and another student joined in on the conversation. I became momentarily lost in the problem, probably a couple minutes elapsed, but when I looked up to talk to these two students I noticed every other single student had come over to observe. Right there it told me something wasn’t working. My students weren’t making the connections between the concepts I was teaching and the exercises that are supposed to enlighten those concepts. I immediately thought of my previous Calc class where I didn’t separate the concepts from the procedures and quickly sent out this poorly worded email.

I am looking for feedback on how I taught Calc I last year. Bascially, did the method of doing work in a small group and working through problems one at a time help or hinder your prepartation for whatever math, or attitude towards math, that you are encountering outside of high school? I ask because I have been burdened with trying to teach precalculus this year and I feel that my classes are creeping ever closer to the model that I used last year and the year before, just on a larger scale. If you guys feel that it actually helped your preparation I think I will try and do the same group work/pacing that we did with Calc. If it didn’t, I will stick with a more traditional model.

I know the sample size is tiny, but I received rather positive feedback. The closest to negative feedback I received was a student telling me he was on par with his classmates in the honors program where the students came from AP and IB classes. So I tried it with the larger group, and it worked surprisingly well. I had buy in from 12 of 14 students on a regular basis.

From these three years of experience I became comfortable admitting my own shortcomings in front of my students and learning with them at times. I accepted that I will never be able to embrace bell to bell productivity and always call it learning. I realized that the best learning is extremely difficult to pigeon hole into letter grades. Sometimes I would take a day off from math, but it never felt wasted because there is so much more to learn than what can be enlightened by mathematical procedures.

The next year I dropped many of the conventions found in the social contract of school. If the actions we were doing in class didn’t help enlighten mathematical knowledge, then I decided that that action was really about obedience. I stopped homework. I showed movies, played games, or just talked with my freshmen in Algebra I after they had mastered a set amount of material, which served the dual purpose of extrinsic motivation and allowed me to start to build personal connections. I completely eliminated the concept of a grade with my upper level electives and made the classes more about claiming authority over knowledge, rather than going over many different derivative rules.

There are things I can’t control in school, but for the first time I felt like I was actually teaching and the majority of my students were actually learning, instead of the usual dance around the burden of obedience. I had a purpose as an educator.

However,…

I no longer feel like I have a purpose as an educator who uses mathematics, but that I am now expected to be a provider of mathematical information, which makes be dependent on obedience. I’ve been told that students are liars (“they will just lie to protect you”). I’ve been told that students are not smart enough to engage with material (“they can’t be expected to push themselves like that”). I’ve been told that students are nothing but disrespectful and rude (“punch them in the face and tell them to shut it”). I could keep going, but I hope the picture is becoming clear. For the past three years, I feel like my work environment has been one that distrusts its most important stakeholders, its students, and places a premium on obedience and complacency.

That’s why I keep writing this time, because I’ve lost the autonomy to have these conversations about obedience with my students. If this was three years ago, I don’t think this blog would exist because it’s contents would exist between me and my students.

A Disciplined School

Lately on my twitter feed there have been some stories about centralized detentions, classroom management, and low-level disruption. This seemingly is coming mostly out of England, but I have seen posts about it in the U.S. Most articles I read from public school teachers have been lamenting the support to fix low-level disruption, while those coming from schools of choice point out the improved environment under strict discipline.

I would say that most teachers believe that the majority of their students are good people and capable of some measure of success. Sometimes I have heard this broken down into a 10-80-10 rule, where 10% of the students are highly motivated, 10% are unreachable, and the other 80% could be swayed either way. Those teachers in schools of choice rarely, if ever, encounter that unreachable 10%, so when they write about strict discipline and teachers being free from the pressures of engaging lessons, it has a tinge of delusion for me. When students go to a private school, boarding school, or charter school, there is an element of choice that a traditional public school doesn’t have.

After I read another post about a school where teachers are free from the pressure of engaging lessons, where learning is the responsibility of students, I sometimes find myself envious. Just imagining working in a school where every student comes prepared to learn, where the slightest disruption is met with removal, makes me giddy at times. I suffer from flights of fancy where I dream about just being able to tell some of my students to simply go away. But I work in a public school, where if a student is removed from class it is my fault. My fault that the material wasn’t interesting. My fault that I haven’t made it accessible to students who still count on fingers. My fault that I didn’t call home enough to discuss the behavior of 17 year olds.

In a public school, we don’t get to choose our students, and the students don’t get to choose if they come to school. Standards are different when choice is involved, and choice seems to be a hot topic in education lately, especially considering who the new Secretary of Education is. I don’t think anyone would have a problem with the idea of giving parents freedom to choose where their children are educated, but when the outcomes are essentially the same what are the parents and students really trying to accomplish?

The harsh reality is that most parents that choose to take their students out of a school, do so to escape the unreachable 10% that cause school to be a living nightmare for some students. If the school is large enough, students usually have the option to be tracked away from their struggling peers. This was my experience in high school. I was able to take accelerated math classes or AP classes, which created a very homogeneous classroom environment for me. Some of my peers who I shared a practice field with, that I got along great with in the hallways, I think would have driven me insane in a classroom.

This past Thursday we cancelled school because of icy roads and I found myself watching Ellen. On the program was a story about a charter school that was achieving amazing results with undeserved children. I don’t doubt the result, but the bravdo comes at the expense of acknowledging the reality that charter schools don’t serve all students.

For example, let me use the numbers from this KIPP study and compare it to the 100 students I have under my watch this year. First, all 100 of my students would have to want to be here, so before they set foot in my classroom, every single one of the 100 has a family that wants them to be here. Using admissions criteria I would be able to eliminate about two thirds of the IEP students that I currently have. Of those 100 students that wanted to be here I would be able to get rid of 15 during the first year and then 15 the next by designing policies that some students can’t follow. Once I’ve done all that I could present a successful school. Get rid of 30 students, who were motivated to show up in the first place, and then I can claim success.

So I started doing a little thought experiment, what would my classes be like if I could remove 30 students? Which students would I want gone? Maybe it was a day that seemed to be plagued with the, “when will we ever need this,” mantras, or maybe it was a day that I just couldn’t get the kids to stay focused and work, on those days it seems relatively easy to think of 30 students that I don’t want anymore. The days that it is such a struggle to teach makes me nostalgic for those classes where it never was. (But that was with different students and different admin, and I don’t know if it will ever come again.)

Over time I’ve learned to embrace the struggle though, not to simply push it out and pretend it doesn’t exist. Those students who struggle the most are the ones that need to be met with the most empathy. My first year teaching was spent at an alternative school with a student body that consisted predominantly of those who had been kicked out of traditional schools. I spent most of my first year blaming the students because as students, they weren’t like me. There were two events that I think had a lasting impact that potentially saved me from becoming yet another teacher burnout casualty. First, I was fortunate to work under a wonderful mentor, and one dinner conversation about what students really need keeps coming to mind. The second was a couple of sermons delivered by my pastor that have stuck around as well. Both had a similar message, empathy, and the sermon also had the message of discomfort.

I didn’t know how to relate to my students and the impetus to find empathy for them made me uncomfortable. I found it hard to find empathy for behavior that I thought was incomprehensible. It would have been so much easier to just write off the students as lazy, unmotivated, poor decision makers who have no view of the future. To start fixing that though, all I had to do was listen. When I listened I started to view my students struggles as ones of circumstance and not of behavior. At first it was having sympathy for the gang members that felt trapped. Then it was for the girl who couldn’t get a job because she didn’t have papers. Then it was the kids just trying to survive class. Next it was for the student who just doodled the entire class period. And it just kept growing and growing. I can’t deny the role that faith has served in this part of my life. Each time I had empathy for a student it made me uncomfortable with my own preconceptions and values, which kept sending me back to the sermon about being comfortable with the uncomfortable. To think that students don’t drive me nuts at times would be a lie, but these habits have become so ingrained that it has manifested itself in my relationship to my students.

This year I lost a student at the semester. She moved into another district. This isn’t the first time this has happened, nor will it probably be the last.  The student that left wasn’t an honor roll student. She wasn’t a highly motivated student. In fact, on any given day she could make my life miserable. During my first year I would have thought good riddance, but now all I can think about is how much I wish I still had that student in class, how I miss seeing some of her artwork, how I miss some of the YouTube videos she would tell me to watch, or, when I could get her to work, how I missed the challenge of trying to make her see that she was more intelligent than she believed.

I feel sympathetic to those that choose charter schools. Sometimes there are just too many competing interests in a class, students whose prerequisite knowledge isn’t there, students who are only motivated by honor roll, students who are preoccupied with a test in another class, students who have an intrinsic love of the subject, and students who just have to be there. Many days it can feel like madness trying to motivate and engage all those groups and I wish we had a system that allowed more leeway. So from the perspective of a student or a parent, choosing a different school allows me to find a homogeneous environment.

But what I saw on Thursday was just wrong. When Ron Clark, KIPP, AUSL, Betsy DeVos, or any other successful charter school seems to have a solution to the problems in public schools, it always rings a little hollow to me. Operating a school of choice is inherently admitting that not all students are worth your time. When administrators, teachers,  and policy makers lament the failures of those of us who accept the least among us, while boasting of success by expelling the neediest, seems like…qualification to be Secretary of Education.

 

Deficit Thinking

I’ve been meaning to write about my experience at Center for Training and Careers (CTC), a contract alternative school that operated with the Minneapolis and Richfield school districts in Minnesota. The name is a bit misleading, as we weren’t a vocationally oriented school, but rather a school that offered a different setting than the traditional public school, but the curriculum was largely the same. We housed students that had been expelled from other schools, members of rival gangs at the regular public school, students that were working full time, and some whose home life just wasn’t conducive to a typical school day. I thought I was going to write about how difficult life was for some of these students, but I realized that struggle is all relative.

Some of the students at CTC had a remarkably positive outlook despite the obstacles that were placed in front of them. The problem with that thought is I would be trivializing any obstacles that my students face. It’s like I would be saying, “You think you got problems, let me tell you about problems,” without accounting for the relativity associated with problem perception. So I decided to scrap that idea.

My mind then wandered then to an idea of purpose, making sure I’m doing what my students need me to do. But I didn’t like the outcome with that draft.

This is my third attempt at writing about CTC. Each time I come back to the idea, I keep thinking about one conversation with my supervisor during my first year, during the first semester. The school year was not going good. Almost none of the students were doing homework, scores were miserable because of a horrid lack of prerequisite skills, and note taking was non-existent. I was looking at my grades, which were bad at best, and griping to my supervisor about all of the problems that I was facing. He interrupted me and asked me to think about why my students were at this school. He talked to me about all the ways that these students aren’t like students we find in normal school. He talked to me about making sure that we keep sight of what these students need.

That’s why I thought this was going to be about purpose, about realizing what my students need. In reality though, much of the purpose of my class is out of my control. The state dictates the content taught, OTES guides my practices and pedagogy, and stigma and traditions influence my behavior. So if that moment wasn’t about defining purpose, what was it really about?

I’ve come to the conclusion that my meeting with my supervisor was more about me than anything that goes on in my classroom. The problem I was experiencing was justifying my status as a teacher. To me my students were lazy, they didn’t care about school, or they weren’t prepared. I thought they didn’t have the support at home that they needed. I thought that their priorities were misplaced, that they were too concerned with social status and not enough with academics.

When my supervisor directed to think about my students he was actually forcing me to abandon my deficit perspective of them. I had to stop thinking about everything that was preventing them for having success in the classroom and focus on the ways I was preventing them from having success. It was difficult to drop it at first, because losing a deficit perspective means I take blame for my students failures. But as I gradually began to accept my part in my students struggles and failures I became a much more content teacher.

**An example of  my understanding of a deficit perspective would be the restriction of bathroom privileges in school. I should limit the number of times students use the bathroom because if I don’t, they will leave class constantly to go to the bathroom when they really don’t need to. The first time I catch a student wandering the halls instead of using the bathroom my deficit thinking is confirmed. In response, I limit bathroom privileges for all students because I don’t trust students.**

I am by no means perfect. I still find myself stumbling and placing the blame on students on occasion. I still catch myself in a conversation where I say, “I did my part, they didn’t pay attention.” But now I feel guilt every time I fall back into that mentality. It has become ingrained in me as part of who I am as a teacher. Lately, it’s been more of a struggle than it has been in the past (thanks OTES), and I have found myself leaning on faith more than I had used to. The temptation is there though, to just go back to the way things were. I don’t want to, and luckily very few of my students know that side of me.

I sometimes wonder if I would be the same teacher, or even the same person, if my first years of experience would have been in a more traditional school.

 

I Almost Quit Teaching…

Classroom management.

That is a popular term on the Google. One of the most common gripes with new teachers is that college never really taught them anything about classroom management. I couldn’t agree more. I also really HATE that term because classroom management is really code for how to make kids behave. (Maybe there are some amazing examples out there but the ones I have experience generally center around behavior modification, whether that be through positive or negative influences.)

When I was in school I was a good pupil. I still am to some extent. Students will tune me out in class, but truthfully, I really don’t care. I understand the plight of many of them, being forced to take a class they don’t want to. I have sat through many a professional development sessions, college classes, and even high school classes and felt the same way. Sometimes I would just go through the motions and sometimes I would completely disengage. For me, disengagement meant daydreaming or doodling, not rebellion. I had been in classrooms where students had acted out, but because I was tracked it didn’t happen often.

My 7th through 12th grade experience was marked mostly by being surrounded by good, complacent students. Though I knew acts of disobedience and rebellion did occur, I rarely witnessed them, let alone participated in them. I can only recall one time where I was openly defiant and that was during football, not in the classroom.

So the first time I took control of a classroom as a student teacher I was lost. My mathematics student teaching was in an Algebra I classroom in a school that tracked students, and I wasn’t with the good, obedient students.

I started presenting material, and a couple of students started talking over me. I made verbal corrections like I had witnessed my teachers do before, but I also began wondering, “Why do they do this to me, but not the other teacher?” Honestly, I still wonder this sometimes. I kept teaching like this for a couple of days. At first students would respond to my corrections, but eventually they stopped all together. I then moved to the next phase that I had witnessed in my schooling, the hallway chat. I took the worst offender into the hallway and discussed the behavior with the student. Finally, I reached the point where I started handing out detentions.

But it still wasn’t enough. There were still disruptions, still students being defiant. At last a couple of students spoke up, wondering aloud why that student was being disciplined, but not another student. Rather than end the discussion I engaged in a dialogue that was ultimately a power struggle between me and the students. Then a day or two later, it happened again. This time though, I lost it and cussed out the class. And when it started to happen again a few days later I took a couple of students out of the class that I was working with, told the cooperating teacher I was leaving and going to work with the students that wanted to learn. When I came back, my cooperating teacher told me that the kids were worried that I had quit on them. I was told to stay away from a parent teacher conference.

I went to the doctor and was diagnosed with strep throat. I don’t think I had it, but I was able to harass him into giving me a prescription and a note so that I wouldn’t have to go back until the next week. I wasn’t sure if teaching was for me, but I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I walked out of a class in the middle of the day. (Coincidentally this is how I obtained my first, semi-permanent job.)

Obviously I didn’t quit and am still teaching after 11 years. How did I manage to last that long?

This past Thursday we had a guest speaker come to talk to our students, of which many spoke highly. He did a brief presentation to the teachers before school during which he made the following claim.

“If you lie to a student and are caught, it is over.”

Yup, that perfectly summed up my student teaching experience. When I tried to discipline my students they challenged me, and deep down, I knew they were right. I claimed that one student was a distraction, but then insisted another one wasn’t. If I acknowledged the correctness of their argument, it would represent that I had lost control of my classroom, and I had been taught that was unacceptable.

My experience forced me to question the idea of authenticity. Across three different states and with numerous veteran teachers, I have heard a variation of the line, “You’ve got to take control, be the one in charge,” or in the case of female teachers, “Sometimes, you’ve just got to be a bitch.”

I am then left with the choice of either authentically acknowledging that I lied to my students and  not caring that they will view me as a liar, including all the spite and contempt that comes with that position, or acknowledging that I am a mean spirited person. I really, really don’t like either of the those propositions.

While my positions on behavior and classroom management have evolved the longer I have been a teacher, I can pinpoint the moment that I think I actually started to realize that I would make it. After my meltdown, I slowly worked my back to being in front of a class. The first time I went in front to lecture, a kid in the front row, covered in crank bugs, looks up and says, “F*** YOU!”

The class was silent, waiting for me to react. They were probably expecting me to explode and kick the kid out of class. But instead of doing what I had seen other teachers do, I decided to do what came naturally to me. I looked the kid in the eye and replied in a dull, monotone voice, “Awesome.” I turned around and kept presenting material. I know many of my coworkers would be appalled that I would let something like that happen, but the students that have had me for years probably wouldn’t be shocked.

Over the course of the next couple of weeks I started to let myself come through in my teaching more. I would joke around with the kids a little more while at the same time asking more questions and demanding more work. I would share stories from school or be sympathetic to their frustrations incomprehensible rules while probing their minds about linear relationships. To act as if I got a glowing review from my cooperating teacher would be disingenuous, but at least I could live with myself.

Now I do the things that come naturally to me. My classes are loud and blanketed with chit-chat because that’s what my personality invites. This doesn’t mean that my classroom is unproductive. I like to get side tracked on conversations with students. This doesn’t mean that they are disrupted. To me it is normal to be referencing Back to the Future, discussing Carol of the Bells parodies, and teaching about angle relationships created by transversals; at the same time. My classroom is pretty barren and depressing, but I do have a buffalo head. cam00102 Why? BECAUSE I HAVE A BUFFALO HEAD! What other reason would I need? I like to joke around with students. I like to throw around insults, that are meant in the most supportive way possible. I like to go to their musicals and athletic events. All those things build their trust. Once I have their trust I can do what I really want to do, which is push them to their limit, to their breaking point.

I still feel the pressure to conform, to have hooks, give out detentions, assign homeworkticket-in, have students sit in rows, keep them busy. I feel the pressure to be like other teachers, to use feedback devices like a ticket system, even though I believe they are pedantic. I feel pressure to hand out detentions or use reward days, even though I believe they are just extrinsic motivations at best or coercion at worst, never addressing any real issues. I feel pressure to give and grade homework assignments even though I believe that graded homework does not actually correlate with comprehension. I feel pressure to make sure my students are on task 100 percent of the time, even though I don’t believe that being on task does not automatically mean something is being learned. I believe that sometimes being off task, whether that means addressing other issues facing students or simply taking a break, is more beneficial to the long-term productivity of the class than making sure 100 percent of the time is used for academic activities.

It all makes me feel like I am weird.

Sometimes I  wonder when it all will end, when that day will come where I am told that I am just too weird to belong here.

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.

On Poverty

**This will be my attempt at one of those writings where I just sit down and write. Start to finish, no breaks, minimal proof reading. I’ve seen it done before and I hope that it won’t ramble or repeat myself too much.**

Our school didn’t do so well on the latest round of state testing. Specifically, we struggled on the poverty subgroup. I guess we don’t get poor kids. So this summer we were given a book to read, A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby K. Payne. There is a ton of criticism of this book, much of it deserved. I personally found it to be rather simplistic. The graphics are basic and not really enlightening, but maybe I was suspecting too much. The author has a Ph.D and the book claims to be research based. However, it relies heavily on patterns that teachers might notice about their students from different classes.

Did I say patterns? I really meant stereotypes.

The premise of the book rests on the idea that there is a shared culture among classes that supersedes ethnicity, gender, or nationality. For example, the book wants us to believe that the poor are loud, that the poor lack long-term planning, and lack proper social cues. It is even complete with a made up case studies of what might happen. Oh, and for an author that has a Ph.D, the notes are trash. The notes are’t so much citations of sources as they are a list of stuff she read. Kind of like the links in a blog post.

And there was another, more personal reason that I didn’t like the book. There is a connection between behavior and culture. When Ruby Payne connects poverty to culture, she is in essence saying that the behavior of people leads to poverty. If you come from a loud family that has a big screen TV you must be poor. If you value a relationship more than achievement, you must be poor. If you lack social tact, you must be poor. But I grew up in poverty, and I couldn’t relate to what she was writing. Don’t get me wrong, there were struggles. I have been employed since the 5th grade (paper routes, Burger King, YMCA, Burger King again, hotel house keeping, Target, teaching). I remember the subtle pressures and jealousy felt as my peers would take vacations, shopping trips, or attend camps I couldn’t. I remember what it would be like to not have a parent home at night because they were at work, and I’m not talking about an on-call doctor. I remember being worried about if we were going to lose our house. When my behavioral experience doesn’t match Ruby Payne’s description it’s like my experience in poverty has been disingenuous. If Ruby Payne had me as a child in class she might acknowledge that my family was poor, but I wasn’t in poverty.

That strikes at the biggest problem with Ruby Payne’s thinking. Being poor is just having a lack of money. That’s easy for society to fix. But the term poverty carries much more baggage (drugs, poor housing, low intelligence, etc.) than the term poverty. Being poor is a paper cut that requires a band-aid. Being in poverty is having a disease that must be eradicated. When Ruby Payne equates that loud, rambunctious student with poverty, we teachers look to cure the disease. That is dangerous. That is the type of thinking that will lead to racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and nearly every other kind of discrimination possible.

Okay, so I disliked the book, but I waited to write this post unit we had the in-person workshop with the presenter from Aha! Process. The presenter was much better than the book. By focusing on the lack of exposure people from poverty might have, he made poverty a experiential problem and not a behavioral problem. My growing up in poverty wasn’t based upon behavior, but was due to a lack of experience on the part of my parents. Even though I would say that I have moved from poverty to decidedly middle class, or lower middle class, there are still experiences that might have benefited me that I will never know about or have to learn myself.

While the presenter did fall into the trap of stereotyping occasionally, I felt that he did an exceptional job of maintaining the focus on experiences. What he was trying to get across was empathy. Our students come to us from many different backgrounds, and while some will have had the same experiences and then have similar mindsets and paradigms for interpreting the world, others might not. As teachers we need to make our expectations abundantly clear, especially for those little things we might take for granted. Most of our students aren’t trying to do wrong by us, and we need to not only understand that, but acknowledge that.

And if we can accept that as a maxim, those little things really aren’t differences after all.

Bad Images of School Spirit

For the past two weeks I have been trying write about how I view the concept of school spirit. It seems like the topic has come up in discussions at staff meetings and even among the students themselves. Every time that I have tried to write I have come up with some kind of imagery that I was going to use an analogy to describe school spirit. At first it was a tripod, then a pyramid. Even a Russian nesting doll came into consideration. Think about that for a second.

The Nesting Doll of School Spirit….ugh, what a waste.

I keep trying to write and I keep second guessing myself because no matter what I use I always feel like I am missing the point. When I feel like I miss the point I feel like I am contributing to the problem rather than solving the problem.

We have brainstormed ideas on activities and many of them sound really neat. I would be excited to try some of them. But I think what we are doing is backwards. The practices that represent a positive school spirit only manifest themselves in the correct environment. And that is where we don’t focus our attention enough. It is the reason that our all of our activities ultimately feel shallow and contrived rather than being authentic. School spirit requires an emotional investment, but we haven’t created an environment where that emotional investment can thrive.

In the post linked above, the author talks about the professional relation between the staff and students. A successful, spirited, supportive school can only exist when there is a collectiveness between the major stakeholders in the school. Students to students, students to staff, staff to staff, it all needs create a cycle that builds a mindset of us. The intrinsic nature of the educational system we live with though, tends to push us apart. We form cliques. Students group themselves by GPAs, extracurriculars, and different career paths. Staff divides themselves into departments, coaches, classified vs. certified, just to name a few. Our schools do not represent an opportunity to unite, but instead drive us apart. When we are driven apart our leaders tend to divide us into groups that suits their own self-interested pursuits and wonder why their followers revolt or resist.

Once we are driven apart we aren’t under any obligation to view our peers, colleagues, students, teachers, and administration as people. We can assign them traits that we would never ascribe to ourselves. We don’t think of them as us, but rather they are something other. We otherize people. As teachers we create assignments, give grades, and demand obedience that we would never wish upon us. As administrators we create rules and climates that are the furthest thing from being warm and inviting. As students we continually tune out teachers, ignore and belittle their effort, and worship credentials rather than knowledge. Our schools have created an environment where we live by the adage, “what have you done for me lately?” If those others won’t give us what we want, well screw them. We hand out detentions and suspensions, give out low grades, assign more homework. We leave to take classes online, take classes at the community college, just flat out skip school. Then we justify our actions by claiming that they deserved it.

We do all of those thing because it provides a barrier that protects us. Until we are willing to be vulnerable in front of each other, we will always have an unsafe environment that will never be supportive, collaborative, learning environment. (On a personal note, I really think that I have been struggling with the vulnerability side the past two years.) When we are vulnerable we place our self-confidence, our self-image in others. When we are vulnerable we inherently trust each other. As a teacher, when I am vulnerable, I am trusting my students to not ridicule me and tear me down. As a student, when I am vulnerable, I am trusting my teachers with my self-esteem. If that trust and vulnerability are mutual we become emotionally invested in each other. Once we are authentically invested in each other, then, and only then, can we begin to build the activities that appear to create a positive school spirit.

Until we learn to give a crap, our culture will be crap.