Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Some thoughts on current education issues--But, of course, what do I know? I’m just a teacher.

Friends and family members often ask me about my thoughts on various changes and trends in education and education reform. The latest such question has left me dwelling on my thoughts on various issues with education reform. (These issues surround me on a daily basis, so they're never really too far out of mind.) 

The issue of fixing public education in American is most certainly big and complex. Our students deserve the very best education, and there are dedicated teachers, administrators, and advocates out there who are working towards positive change. I most certainly do not think that I have all the answers to the complex issue of fixing our educational system, but I definitely have some thoughts based on my years in the classroom and the impact that reform efforts have had in my classroom and on my students.

  1. We need to realize that it’s not as simple as blaming “failing” schools and “bad teachers.” We have a flawed system and failing societies. Read and follow Diane Ravitch. Enough said.   Check out her book The Life and Death of the Great American School System  
  2. Standardized testing is NOT the answer. It sounds like a good idea to have standards and to measure those standards. Despite the fact that standardized tests are not authentic assessments, they are being treated as the way to determine what a student has learned and can do. The standardized testing that has come with NCLB is not used as a diagnostic tool; rather, it is used as a weapon.  Yes, it points out that there are achievement gaps, “under-performing schools,” and links between academic achievement and social economic status, but it’s not fixing the problems.  Rather, it’s making them worse because of the focus on testing. Additionally, with the pressure to make AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress), some teachers, administrators, schools, and districts have resorted to cheating so that they pass. (And notice who is cheating in these situations. The students are not often stressing over those tests, but the teachers and administrators are. That alone should indicate a major problem.) For more about what is going on in “failing schools,” check out this TIME magazine article on the 10th anniversary of NCLB And then there’s this interview with George W. Bush. He clearly has no clue about the real impact of NCLB. 

3.       Teachers want to see their students succeed, and we want to help them reach that success. NCLB implies that teachers are willingly, knowingly leaving students behind. Good, true teachers are not out to get their students. Teachers also know that a student’s true worth and achievement can’t be measured by a standardized test.

4.       Enough with the testing! Standardized testing is flawed in so many ways. Many teachers find themselves having to “teach to the test” so that their students will pass the test (and so that they and their school “pass," too). Some subject areas have to struggle with the curriculum crunch more than others, but many teachers find themselves cutting activities and more authentic assessments for the sake of preparing for the tests. Note: I do believe that, as teachers, we can work against the “teach to the test” mentality and provide authentic assessments and ensure that students have the skills necessary to pass mandated tests. However, this mentality is a reality of the times.  Daniel Dyer has a wonderful blog post about how education has changed from when many of us were in school.

In addition to the crunch in the curriculum caused by the “teach to the test” mentality, testing takes up a lot of TIME! Because of testing, students miss valuable hours that could be spent on true, meaningful learning opportunities. Teachers miss hours of time that could (and should) be used to plan these meaningful learning opportunities and assess students’ work because we must go to training sessions to prepare for administering these tests. And then we spend hours each school year monitoring these tests. (Note-These hours come out of our planning periods and class time.) We pace up and down the rows of students taking tests, making sure that no one is cheating. And we often have to wake students up because they have fallen asleep while taking the test! (Remember—they’re not really stressing over these tests.) As proctors, we can’t work on anything because we must remain vigilant at all times. I work through lesson plans in my head. It’s really a truly productive time. (Can you hear the sarcasm?) This year, our state is piloting an electronic version of the writing test. Most of our standardized tests have been electronic for years, but the writing one is just making the change. Because we must pilot the test, my students have to take a test (that won’t count) over two days later in March. Oh, and this pilot test happens weeks after the real one. More valuable instructional time is just slipping away this coming month.

5.      Merit pay doesn’t work. Check out Daniel Pink’s eight points about why merit pay doesn’t work  Pay is not a motivator. Teachers didn’t enter the profession for the pay, trust me. We’re motivated by working with our students and watching them succeed. We’re motivated by sharing our passion for our subject area. I already work very hard (all year long, I might add). I want to improve, and I am constantly working on improving my teaching methods. And I revise lessons constantly to best meet the needs of my current students. More pay will not make me work harder. I can’t think of how I could work harder than I already do without completely sacrificing my sanity. If you haven’t checked out my Starbucks story, this would be a good time. And, if you’ve never seen it, watch this video of Matt Damon defending teachers. If you have seen it, watch it again, especially if you’re a teacher. It’s a great morale-booster!

6.       Teacher education programs need to raise the bar. Yes, there are, sadly, “bad” teachers in our public schools. But, as Matt Damon points out, there are “bad apples” in every profession or career. This is a reality, but it should not be our only focus. This being said, I believe that teacher education programs need to raise the bar. I’m aware of more than one instance in which a mentor teacher has recommended that a student not continue with her education program and receive certification, but the education program directors at the student’s school ignored this recommendation, and the student was certified and is now in a classroom. (Note-She had passed her Praxis exams, standardized tests. But does that mean she’s ready to teach?) Students in teacher preparation programs need to be fully prepared to enter the classroom. This means students in education programs must spend plenty of time  in a variety of classroom settings. They must have real teaching experiences and receive a lot of feedback before beginning a teaching career.

7.       Authentic teacher evaluation systems need to be created and put in place. A two-minute walk-through twice a yearor even one half-hour visit each year, is not enough to truly evaluate a teacher. A teacher’s evaluation and/or pay should not be determined by these superficial assessments. Granted, administrators have full plates, too. But there needs to be a better system. And good teachers want to improve. Although it may be uncomfortable at first, many teachers would probably welcome comments, observations, and suggestions from honest, well-meaning colleagues.

8.       Teachers shouldn’t be evaluated based on their students’ standardized test scores, and pay shouldn’t be tied to student achievement on standardized tests. Imagine that a doctor tells her patient that he has high cholesterol.  She writes a prescription for medication and advises her patient about dietary choices that will help improve the condition. The patient doesn’t take the medicine like he should and doesn’t make the dietary changes necessary. The patient has his six-month check-up and it’s obvious that the condition has worsened. Should the doctor now earn less because her patient hasn’t improved? This would be crazy, right? Yet this is the idea that many have when it comes to education reform and teacher pay and rankings. 
      It’s also unfair to rank teachers based on student achievement because not all classes are created equal. In our state, students take the reading and writing tests in the 11th grade. I teach IB HL 11th grade English. My students will do quite well on their standard-level reading and writing test. But does this mean that I should earn more than a colleague who teaches regular-level English 11? Of course not!

These are just some of my thoughts on some of the hot topics concerning education and education reform efforts right now. But I’m just a teacher. What do I know? Clearly the legislators (non-educators) have it all figured out.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Giving students the tools to become stronger, more confident speakers

This past Tuesday, my English department spent our in-service day discussing oral communication skills. We started with a discussion of Erik Palmer's Well Spoken. After reading some good reviews of Palmer's book (and seeing that Kelly Gallagher wrote the foreword), I purchased and read the book last spring and then recommended it to my department chair. She then purchased copies for every teacher in our department, and we decided the book would become the focus of a department workshop. We worked together to create what became a very productive in-service.

There are a plethora of books on public speaking out there, and as a Speech & Debate teacher and coach, I've read (and own) many of them. Palmer's new book is perhaps the best resource for teachers of any content area. It is concise (only 148 pages), clear, and organized, with practical ideas and suggestions that can easily be implemented into any classroom, not just English classrooms. The question of how to teach oral communication skills more effectively seems to come up quite a bit in my English department, and Palmer's book is the perfect little handbook full of answers and ideas to get teachers started! (You can also check out Palmer's website.)

Here are some highlights and additional thoughts on teaching public speaking skills in the classroom:

  • I have heard a lot of teachers complain about how their students lack presentation skills. Others are noticing, too. In his introduction, Palmer discusses the National Association of Colleges and Employers survey. The results of "NACE's Job Outlook 2011 survey suggest that 'New college graduates looking to crack the still-tight job market need to hone their verbal communication skills...verbal communication skills topped the list of 'soft' skills they seek in new college graduates'" (5).  Palmer goes on to discuss similar findings in a survey of 104 Silicon Valley employers. Perhaps the most striking observation is that "employers sought improved oral presentation skills more frequently than they did written skills" (6). We need to readjust our thinking and teaching of oral communication and presentation skills. Instead of thinking "the presentations are so bad," we need to think about how we can better teach the skills. Also, we must provide opportunities for students to present and improve. The weak skills will not magically improve if students are only giving presentations once or twice a year, or even just once a quarter. Instead of thinking of presentations as an "add on" to our curriculum, we need to consistently integrate speaking opportunities. And not all speaking opportunities need to be formal. Think-Pair-Share discussions, group discussions, whole-class discussions, Socratic Seminars, group presentations, informal and/or impromptu presentations...all of these provide opportunities for students to practice their skills!
  • Students also need an opportunity to reflect on their presentations. It's one thing for a student's teacher and peers to tell him/her what they need to work on, but it's a whole new, more meaning experience when a student sees these areas for him/herself! Palmer suggests that students tape themselves at home. I encourage teachers to videotape presentations in class! Aside from providing meaningful opportunities for students to practice their presentation skills, I believe that videotaping presentations, and having students watch and reflect on their presentations, is the best way for students to work on and improve their presentations skills. I record presentations in my Speech & Debate class (and team), of course, but I also record presentations my English 10 and IB English I students deliver. At first, students can be a bit anxious about the idea that their presentations are being videotaped, but they quickly see the incredible value of videotaped presentations! Students watch their video and write a critique in which they focus on their strengths and weaknesses and create goals for future presentations. NOTE: Be sure to include a statement and explanation about videotaped presentations in your course policies/syllabus! 
  • We need to create a culture of comfort in our classrooms. Students need opportunities to practice their presentations skills, and they need to have a safe, comfortable environment in which to do so. There are many things that go into creating a "culture of comfort." Always starting with positive comments is essential to creating a "safe zone" in the classroom. Palmer tacks this idea on as almost an afterthought in his discussion of creating a "safe space": "Finally, let students know that positive comments are appreciated" (101; emphasis added). Starting with positive comments should be the first step in creating and maintaining a safe zone in the classroom. Not only do I require students to start positive when giving oral critiques, but they also have to start with positive comments when they write critiques of their own presentations. It makes a difference for confidence and comfort in the classroom.
  • Students need to understand that visual aides must enhance presentations in order to be effective. All too often, students get so excited about creating their visual, be it a Power Point or a poster, and they start planning the visual before they plan their message! Palmer has a great chapter about using visual aids. I'll just add a helpful tip our librarians share with our students: the "10/20/30 rule" for Power Point presentations. 10/20/30: No more than 10 slides. No more than 20 words per slide. Size-30 font.
  • Assessing presentations--Palmer emphasizes the importance of teaching and evaluating content and delivery separately, and he provides some helpful rubrics as well as some critiques of rubrics. As Palmer points out, though, "not all speeches have to include all elements of effective oral communication" (114). You can add skills onto the rubric as they're covered and practiced. You can even let students decide which elements they want to be assessed on based on their goals from their critiques. 
There is so much more I can say about the importance of public speaking and our responsibility as educators to incorporate meaningful presentations opportunities into our class activities and lessons! I'd love to hear your thoughts, comments, questions, and ideas! I'll plan to share some public speaking teaching tips every now and then in my blog posts.