Friday, September 28, 2007

The DI Debate Continues

The Direct Instruction debate continues at Marginal Revolution, via Joanne Jacobs.

The comments are worth reading.

I always find it interesting that people give such flimsy opposition as to pick on that single, widely-reported attribute - "scripted" teaching - and malign it through ridicule, or base the entire rejection of the program on that when few people have ever actually seen it in action. (Including myself, except online videos, but I have carefully examined a DI text I bought for myself, and I was, for a short time, taught with DI, way back when.)

Here are some quotes from the comments I particularly liked:

"When Meryl Streep shows up to make a movie, they hand her a script. But when a new teacher shows up to teach her first class, in many school districts they ask her to invent her own lesson plan. What gives?"

"In the Middle Ages, education was conceived as a three step process.

The first was "Grammar" which meant mastering the details, and basic facts. This is the basis for our phrase "grammar school." Next was Logic which meant piecing together the basic facts (mastered by this point) and understanding arguments. The last step was Rhetoric which was concerned with creating new arguments and expressing oneself. Each step in the chain was necessary to go to the next level.

DI looks like it works very well with the first part. Students need to learn their phonics, mathematical tables, basic historical dates and events, rudimentary science and the like. Only once they have mastered those can we expect them to be able to use them creatively. If they don't master the basic skills, they'll never be able to ascend."

This second one, in particular, made an enormous amount of sense to me. In English, we tend to want students to be able to perform at the Logic and Rhetoric level in their writing, but they haven't yet mastered basic grammar. So we end up trying to teach them grammar AS we teach them logic and rhetoric in their writing. It would be so much easier to eliminate one of the assessment categories. I don't expect that students will write perfectly all the time, even with DI, but I do expect that if they've had teaching which has resulted in mastery, communicating with them about their grammatical mistakes will be a much easier conversation. Pointing out a lack of focus in a thesis statement is much easier when you don't also have to point out subject-verb agreement, how to make a smooth transition between ideas, and how to spell "a lot." (Or, rather, how NOT to spell "alot.")

What DI has the potential to provide, in my opinion, is a common language - a language about language and how it functions. All the ridicule based on improperly represented assumptions of DI - that it is rigid, scripted teaching intended to make dullards of us all - strike me as some sort of ed-demagoguery: a word I've coined in my mind for whenever I see another report on education emerge, and the resultant hysteria it produces.

We received a survey in our boxes today which informed us that our district is considering merit pay, despite the fact that our state voted against it. This has fueled my thoughts tonight.

If we are going to pour more money into education, why don't we put it into training teachers in effective teaching practices, rather than abandoning them to the Darwinian gauntlet of graduating from sub-standard ed-schools and alternative programs? Maybe this is simplifying things a bit, but I always ask myself: when did the successful education of our students become determined by the assumed greed of teachers? The idea that we would work harder for money than for truly successful strategies?

It's ed-demagoguery at work. Teachers want more money. Make the money dependent on student success, don't use it to improve teacher effectiveness. The assumption being that teachers will work harder at the Sisyphean task of making ineffective teaching practices slightly less ineffective, on their own, with no instructive or useful training? It seems like saying, "Traditionally, we've taught you to trap a mouse with a paper bag and a piece of cheese, but we need to catch more mice. Here's some paper. Please figure out how to make a better paper bag."

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Mamacita raised a few eyebrows with this post a few weeks back, a rant about the poorly behaved students in schools. From The Trenches followed up with this mostly supportive post, which also examined some criticism from another blogger.

I'm not really going to discuss the posts (you should go read them), except to use the original as a springboard for something I keep saying over and over, and which I believe to be true: we could solve 60-80% of these disciplinary problems if we put students in classes where they were able to perform at their ability level, and excel from that level upward - something which might also help solve the engagement problem.

I recognize these students Mamacita is talking about - but for the most part I recognize them as the students in my class who are either above or below the "middle ground" I am expected to teach to. The ones below the middle ground become listless and frustrated with material that is over their heads, and a teacher who is too busy juggling ability levels to give them the concrete instruction they need. The students above the middle ground grow bored and resentful as they see themselves being held back by both the middle ground and those below it.

I went to a professional development meeting this morning in which we were given concrete strategies to use in what are now being called "stacked classes." Differentiated classrooms with ability levels so diverse they require teachers to teach two (or more) different curriculums in the same class period. The basic premise is that we begin with the same literature or subject matter, and with a unified activity (such as a journal). We then split the classroom up and teach one thing to one group, and another to another group, all the while finely splitting the hairs of a timer so that instruction for both is timed down to the minute. (And what if one group runs over? I hear you asking. Why, we do what we've always done...tell the other group to find something to do, or whip out some busy work for them. Alternatively, stop the slower group and have them complete the assignment for homework.)

The teacher then bounces back and forth between groups, but we have the same problem as ever - the implication is that we can trust ONE of those groups will be self-sustaining and self-motivated while the teacher works with the other group. So while we're making more work for the teachers, we've backslid into the exact same position as before - those kids who know how to learn on their own will, at least to the extent of the lowest-common-denominator of expectations the teacher is able to set, and the kids who can't learn on their own will be given activities which don't actually increase their ability level, but rather maintain them at their level while making it appear we're giving them more personalized time.

It just seems so odd to me that though we are now able to admit students have wildly varying needs in the classroom, we cannot bring ourselves to assign students to classes according to their ability, where a teacher would teach one specifically targeted lesson that might have the potential to bring students up to the level of their peers, instead of simply maintaining their status quo.

I guess that will have to wait for when I have my own school. :)

Saturday, September 22, 2007

What Teaching English III Looks Like

Friday's Student Quote Of The Day: "I can't believe we have to work so much in this class! We didn't have to do any of this work last year. We never had homework. We never talked about theme and tone. We didn't have to do any of this literary analysis stuff."

Me: "But this year you're juniors. I have to prepare you for the TAKS and SATs, and for college or careers. Those things require you to be able to read and write very well, and I wouldn't be a good teacher if I ignored how much work is involved to succeed at them, would I?"

Student: "I didn't say it was a bad thing. I just can't believe it."


Because I needed a solid writing sample from my students that wasn't a personal narrative, I assigned a 3 paragraph "literary analysis" covering theme and tone in a Native American speech. For preparation I gave them a list of the 6 most common themes in Native American literature and rhetoric as notes. We've also been working on tone since the second day of class, and have identified the tone of several folktales and speeches already. They also received a list of tone descriptions from me, and added to it on their own. We then read Chief Seattle's 1854 Oration together, and completed a close-reading activity I designed which required them to comb through the speech identifying similes, and imagery. They had a day and a half to complete the writing.

The instructions were explicit: Compose a 3 paragraph literary analysis of Chief Seattle's 1854 Oration. In the first paragraph, identify one of the common themes in Native American literature and rhetoric, and provide a quote from the speech which illustrates that theme. In the second paragraph, choose any passage and identify its tone. Provide a quote which illustrates the tone you've chosen. In the third paragraph, choose a passage you particularly liked, and explain why it caught your attention.

That was the assignment. The actual implementation of it looked something like this:

Putting Out Fires

Do we just make up any theme we want? No, you simply choose one from the notes you took in class on common themes.

I don't have those notes. Check your binder. Look at the table of contents I gave you for your work this 6 weeks. See number 18, Notes on Common Themes in Native American Literature and Rhetoric? Right between 17 and 19? Go and see if you have those notes. Oh, yeah, I have them right here.

What's tone again? Check your notes. They are number 4 in your binder.

Do we have to write in complete sentences? Yes, because your sentences will need to make paragraphs, as explained in the instructions.

Do we need to put our names on this paper?

Is this for a big grade, or a little grade?

Should I indent my paragraphs?

Does spelling count?

Is "nostalgic" a word?
Yes. How do you spell it?

Silent Writing Time

3 minutes in: Why have you put your things in your backpack? Did you finish your literary analysis already? I thought this was just busy work. I don't give busy work. Lots of teachers do. I'm sorry that's been your experience. Get out your paper and pencil and begin writing.

5 minutes in: [Student delivers paper to my desk. It has a bulleted list of the required information, and is on a different speech.] Go back and read the directions again carefully.

10 minutes in: Is this all we're doing today? Have you finished yours? No. Then let's cross each bridge as we come to it.

15 minutes in: Someone farts. It sounds staged.

20 minutes in: Class still recovering from fart.

25 minutes in: have managed to redirect entire class back to writing, but copy-cat farts have sprung up.

30 minutes in: Principal makes announcement about something important enough to interrupt my class. Students should not be using cell phones in the hallways. Yes, thanks, that'll fix it.

35 minutes in: Still walking the room, still having to show students the notes, the correct speech, reminding them to write in complete sentences.

Next period: wash, wince, repeat.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Student Learns Beauty Is Only Skin Deep

Every now and then, a teacher lucks out with a class that is imbued with "the looove." They just looove everything, and their joy shows and is contagious among them, spreading into their behavior and participation in class. They don't say it out loud, but their actions have, for me, an unspoken commentary of happiness, something like "We looove being in class, and what's this? Whatever it is, we looove it too...oh, okay, maybe we didn't looove it as much as we thought, but we are going to looove this new thing you're giving us, promise!" These classes aren't without their problems, but their problems tend to be unique to the usual experience.

This particular class has recently been infiltrated by a new student from another school who, for some reason, came in fighting battles (with me) that don't exist and has not, so far, been successful at reading the cues from her classmates. That is, she doesn't realize we've already agreed that we all have "the looove," or she came from a more hostile educational environment, perhaps. She decided she wanted to make her mark by being rude and confrontational. So far, she's been tolerated, but much of her challenging behavior has been ignored by all of us. I get the sense the students are trying to be gentle with her.

Today she decided she really wanted to push some buttons, and she thought it was going to happen in my class. She came into class very late, and made a dramatic entrance by walking in front of me while I was talking, dropping her purse to the floor by her desk loudly, and putting an open can of coke on the desk. She's very pretty and likes to preen, so she did some of that too.

She definitely got everyone's attention. I told her immediately she needed to get rid of the open coke (bottled drinks only in the classroom), then ignored her when she tried to protest. Out of the corner of my eye I watched her make a slow, dramatic trek to the trash can and proceed to stand there drinking the rest of the soda before throwing the can away (a common tactic). In front of me, I saw the entire class riveted on her antics, but not in the way you might think. (And not in the way I'd expected either.)

Classroom dynamics are a funny thing. You see, I already have an Alpha female personality in this class - and she started out the year being as nasty as she could be. When she realized I wasn't having any of it, we made our peace with one another and moved on.

Since she was in front of me, I watched her facial expressions go through a variety of contortions, finally settling in a raised-eyebrow expression of disapproval - something like a high-society maven disapproving of a woman who's worn a bikini to a formal fund-raiser for underprivileged children. I could have drawn a cartoon bubble over her head that said, "This will not do."

The other students' gazes ping-ponged between her and the new girl, and they began to roll their eyes, grin, and giggle. The new girl continued her dramatics, and finally returned to her seat.

when I'd finished my instructions I had them break into self-selected groups for an exam review activity. The new girl messed around in her purse, applied some lip gloss, and generally stalled until all the groups had been chosen.

Then she said loudly (I kid you not), "Who wants me in their group?"

You could have heard a pin drop.

For a very long time, no one said anything. Finally, one student said, "Well, it looks like we all already have everyone we need."

She didn't know what to say to that. Luckily, before I had to step in, a group of all boys said they'd take her. But as she joined them I heard, "But you have to sit there and participate. We don't want to talk about make-up and shit."

Student Is A Star

Our school has a tradition of asking teachers to award football players stars during the week before a game. We email their coach their name, and they receive an adhesive star to wear on their helmet during the game. While I don't mind this in theory, I do mind that it has created a culture of students who will ask for stars, or bargain for stars, rather than understand the stars are awards for above-and-beyond effort. Many of them often feel (and loudly voice) that they should be given stars for doing homework, or coming to class. Sometimes, when I ask for volunteers for activities, they will say, "If I do, can I have a star?"

I tell them consistently that they will never receive a star for asking or bargaining, and if they don't know why, they can come talk to me about it. Since no one has ever come and asked for an explanation, I tend to assume they really do know the spirit in which the star giving is intended, but they try the alternatives anyway.

A student in my last period class has been, since day one, a stellar young man. He has volunteered for everything. He will quiet the students around him when they talk over me. He is funny, and polite, and always positive, with a big smile. He is always volunteering to read the answers to the homework, and when students ask about alternative answers ("Could the answer also be C?"), he takes the initiative immediately and says, "Ms. Thomas will have the final word, but if it were me I'd say no because..." And I know that he has really paid attention to the homework.

I have a lot of pretty awesome kids this year so far, and he is one of them.

Last week, my student teacher told me that this student had gone to him privately and asked, very quietly, "Do you think Ms. Kudu might give out any stars this week?" When my student teacher offered to ask, he said, "Oh, no, that's okay. I'll wait and see."

Somehow, I hadn't realized he was a football player.

So this week I gave him a star. It's been a pretty rough week, and my other football players have been wearing me thin by "jokingly" telling one another, within my earshot, not to bother trying for a star in English class, as well as being all-around disruptive. Today (game day) was especially difficult, and they were especially disrespectful.

During his class today my "star student" waited for a lull, then pulled the little star sticker out of his pocket. "Ms. Kudu, thank you for giving me a star." And he showed it around like it was a prize.

I was so impressed I thanked him back, and told him how much it meant to me that he showed his appreciation for the star. Then I had to leave the room to go to the bathroom, because I must have gotten some dirt in my eyes and they were watering.

Monday, September 17, 2007

I Win!

I do a little simple CSS website design on the side occasionally, for myself and some author folks I know from another life. (Gas money, free signed and personalized books, etc.)

But I am pretty proud of my own teacher website, which is my own property (not the school's, not hosted at TeacherWeb or etc.), and which I reconfigure every year to be both useful, attractive, and user-friendly to my students and their parents. This year I even incorporated a privately-hosted message board for the students to communicate with one another and me (spam and ad free!). I'm pretty excited about it.

Today I got an email from a parent. The subject line said: You Win For Best Website. The parent went on to compliment my website, and it was a wonderful bit of flattery in three simple sentences.

Sometimes, it's the little things.

Student Gets Irony

Today was the last day before progress reports. We did a quick review of four types of irony, read Chief Canasatego's speech, and discussed the types of irony used. Then they had composition time to complete their rudimentary literary analysis of Chief Seattle's 1854 Oration. (Identify theme and cite textual support, identify tone and cite textual support, in two well-composed paragraphs.) Meanwhile, I took in late homework, helped kids with their grade graphs, and reviewed grades in the gradebook with them.

There was a homework assignment which was slightly open to interpretation, and some students took the opportunity to debate their grade with me. The problems were worth 2 points each. Every time someone did, one fairly popular student would tease, "Grade grubber! Why do you bother her for two points? Don't you think teachers have better things to do?"

So I finally turned to him (I have great rapport with him) and said, "You need to mind your own business and your own grades!"

The class laughed and applauded, and then, from the back, I heard...

"Oooooh. Situational irony."

The Disaster of Differentiated Classrooms

In the differentiated classroom, students of (sometimes drastically) different skill levels* are expected to learn identical material under the guise of several well-meaning premises, among them:

1. Equality. That each student should have a chance to learn exactly what their peers are learning, without being socially sequestered from their peers.

2. That education, up to now, has worked well enough that all students should theoretically be at the same level.

That second one is the stinker because it ends up requiring a lot of if/thens. If the student’s education has not been adequate, then the material must be modified so that the student can remain in the same classroom, and learn the same material, but at their own pace and with assignments which are scaled down to their ability - therefore, not the same as their peers’.

This is especially troubling in the high school English classroom. These differentiated classrooms, and the accommodations necessitated by them, end up being more about grading some students on what they have always done up to now, not what they can learn to do from here, because the modifications are often so heavily skewed the student need go nowhere in their learning.

For instance, I have a student whose accommodations state that he is not to be graded on spelling or punctuation. This one is new to me - though I’ve seen accommodations before which decreed the student would not be graded on spelling and punctuation on rough drafts and in-class work, this student is not to be graded on them all...not even on final drafts. Therefore, this student’s progress is completely hampered by the restrictions placed on his own learning. Could I find a way to help this student progress in spite of his own accommodations? Certainly, if I had the time to work with him individually. But with class sizes topping 30-33 this year, and he unable to come for morning or after-school tutoring because he rides the bus, that isn’t going to happen. This is a case of a student being left behind by a system purporting to serve his best interests. It is so much more important he be in a particular classroom than that he be able to spell and write coherently punctuated sentences.

What ends up happening is a perpetual game of catch-up. As a teacher, I plan for the middle, and juggle the students on either side of the equation as best I can. The ones who can’t keep up copy and cheat when they fall behind, those who can move ahead are left with large holes in their daily instruction they must fill while those behind are helped (interrupting the flow of their learning). Those who have the mental acuity to keep up, but who require heavy modifications due to their technical skills are just as much at a disadvantage. They may be able to verbalize answers and thoughts, but then must labor along at the writing tasks, still trying to keep up. In-class silent reading is a nightmare, especially if they must read something in class in order to complete an activity on it in class - there is as much as a 15-30 minute disparity between reading speeds, sometimes more. Again, juggling those who finish early with those who finish later. It’s much easier to succumb to reading out loud or listening to recordings, just to keep on track - which doesn’t serve any of them well in the end.

No matter the tricks and techniques I use (and I’ve got a bag full of them by now), my students and I are left with differing degrees of frustration. How is this fair to any of them? I teach 6 classes of English III. The solution would be to fill the classes according to ability, and allow me to differentiate grades fairly among them, according to the class. Different assignments for different needs, but not an assortment of them within a single class, where the (parent viewable) gradebook allows for no leeway. Some would argue that this is returning to the old system and the “short bus” mentality, I suppose. All I can say’s not only the teachers who are frustrated with this. Students target one another just as acutely in these situations, resenting the slower students responsible for their impatience, resenting the quicker students responsible for the overwhelming pace of the class.

The juggling required denies me the opportunity to help any of them get ahead - it simply assures that most will stay where they are.

*My neighbor, a 10th grade teacher, currently has one class which is designated inclusion and has 4 inclusion students with various modifications. She also has 4 Asperger's students, a deaf student who requires 3 translators, and 3 students with BIP's (Behavior Improvement Plans) so severe they require an additional teacher at all times. The class is at 31 students. One of her Asperger's students wanted to take pre-AP, but the school did not want to designate a pre-AP class inclusion for his sake, so they asked her to teach him the pre-AP curriculum in the same class at the same time. Since she has not had adequate pre-AP training, and the two curriculums are drastically different at our school, she refused. The AP teachers then got involved, because the student's modifications decree he is not to be given reading homework, and pre-AP is reading intensive. (This could be worked around, if he were placed in a class where he is the only, or one of few, special needs students, but not this class.) Admin then proposed that her inclusion teacher could teach him the pre-AP material, thereby removing the inclusion support from the 4 inclusion students. She refused this as well, rightly citing how illegal it would be. They then proposed that the inclusion teacher (a first-year teacher period) could teach the regular students while she taught the pre-AP curriculum, again depriving the inclusion students of inclusion support. She refused this as well, but they began divvying her students up in the gradebook at the end of last week as if they may insist on it. We are waiting to hear the final word.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Student Has A Rough Day

During an activity the other day a student suddenly blurted out loudly, "God! This is so stupid! Is this even in the TEKS?" (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills.)

After assuring him it was, and that the activity was also preparatory work for an upcoming literary analysis we will work on, he continued to grumble loudly. I went to him and said quietly, "Is this really about the assignment, or are you frustrated about the grade you got on your homework?"

He ducked his head and mumbled, "I'm frustrated about the grade on my homework."


Reader's Notebook

Excerpts from the sci-fi (cyberpunk?) novelFeed, by M. T. Anderson, about teenagers in a futuristic society where the "feed" (internet, advertising, etc) is pumped directly into the brain.

People were really excited when they first came out with feeds. It was all da da da, this big educational thing, da da da, your child will have the advantage, encyclopedia at their fingertips, closer than their fingertips, etc. That's one of the great things about the feed - that you can be supersmart without working. Everyone is supersmart now.

We had this major debate going on...and then I said this thing, and Calista said this thing, and it was like, da da da da da, da da da da da, da da da da da, all day. It was kind of fun. I like debates where you argue about different points of view.

Here's a pretty fair review, in my opinion. What's frightening is that the depiction of the teenagers didn't strike me as terribly futuristic, sadly, but current, and the relentless targeting of them by corporate advertising is already occurring - if not directly into their heads through a feed like in the book, then as close to it as possible. The book is worth picking up at the library.