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14 posts from September 2012

Maren Johnson | Education Policy, Film | September 30, 2012

Study Your Craft


by Maren Johnson

The auditorium was packed with several hundred teenagers from two school districts when the bell rang for lunch.  No one moved.  The occasion causing the students to sit in place and ignore the bell?  An arts assembly at our school.  In conjunction with a local film festival, our students had watched a movie in their social studies classes and now had the opportunity to hear from the director.  A student asked the guest speaker one last question, "Do you have any advice for aspiring film makers?"   Students wanted to hear the answer, and they weren't going anywhere until they did, lunch bell or not.  Our guest, the award winning film maker Alrick Brown, shared three ideas in response:

1) Study your craft.  If you shake your booty on YouTube, that doesn't mean you're a film maker. If you get a million hits on the internet, that doesn’t mean you’re a film maker. The success needs to be replicable and you get that by studying your craft. 

At first I thought this was some sort of statement against the democratization of art through social media.  Not at all.  Our guest mentioned that the reason he was able to be a successful film maker, making movies in often difficult circumstances in developing countries, was because he studied and worked hard at it: a Masters Degree in Education, followed by two years in the Peace Corps, then a Masters Degree in Film making.   The message of the importance of study and hard work in all careers really seemed to hit home with the students.  Clearly this applies to teachers as well—we need to study our craft!

Video Productions teacher with guest film maker

Janette MacKay | | September 29, 2012

Wiggly Teeth and School Funding


At curriculum night last week, I parent asked me to share what a typical day was like for first grade. I felt like the guy in the truck commercial. My mind flashed to all the things that had happened that day:

Tamara | | September 27, 2012

When Well-Meaning Policy Results in Inadequate Service


Tamara Mosar

In the state of Washington if you are an English Language
Learner in-country for less than three years you cannot be considered for
special education services. Unless there is written documentation (key word
there being written)of special education services having been received in the
country of origin or if qualifying tests can be administered in the student’s native
language. There is very good reason for this: English Language Learners often seem
slow to make progress in comparison to their grade level peers. They often
display behaviors inappropriate to the classroom: refusing to answer questions
or make eye contact, hiding under desks, violating other student’s personal
space. All of which should be expected from students not yet able to
communicate in English, who come from cultures where eye contact with adults is
not acceptable, have a different definition of personal space, and often have
post traumatic stress syndrome. So the policy is there to attempt to recognize
this reality for ELLs. To give them time to acquire language and acclimate to
our culture, rather than write them off as SPED.

However the policy can backfire. For example I have a student from Bhutan who in infancy was relinquished by her mother to another family in order to keep her from starving to death like two older siblings. Severely malnourished, this child was taken by the new family to a Nepali refugee camp where after care from camp doctors,the adoptive family notes significant developmental delays. Eventually, according to the family, the camp school places this child in special education courses. When the family arrives in the U.S. the child is placed into an age appropriate grade per policy. Parents alert school personnel to the child's history, request grade level retention, and special education services.  ELD and Special Ed staff attempt to start the identification process but hit a dead end because there are no written records from the refugee camp school-just the parent’s word- that
the student received special education services, and there is no Nepali version of the qualifying tests. Policy regarding qualifying ELLs for special ed apparently cannot take ancdotal evidence from parents in place of written documentation or test in the primary language. Thus, the child was left with only ELD services much to the consternation of the family. 

I now have this student in middle school. A notoriously difficult time to qualify even an English speaking student for SPED services. Especially as this child is studious and compliant-you know, the kid who quietly fails. We may be able to squeak in through a Health Impairment qualification because we still can't get around the primary language testing issue. But it will take time. Time we are running out of. And this is how well meaning policy quietly fails.

Tom | | September 26, 2012

What if?


Images (1)By Tom White

On the way to the grocery store last Saturday I listened to a wonderful essay called “The Presumption of Decency.” The essential message was that we should presume the best in people, even if we disagree with their views, and it was clearly directed at the current presidential campaign. Then on Sunday I read a column by Eugene Robinson in which he calls for an end to rampant teacher bashing, specifically to the penchant education reformers seem to have for blaming teacher unions for the dismal quality of education in our nation’s poorest neighborhoods.

I couldn’t help but draw a connection between the two and ask the dreamy question, “What if?” What if both sides of the education-reform debate stopped fighting and started working together? (And if you don’t think these two sides are actually fighting each other, it’s time to come down from Candyland and read Class Warfare by Steven Brill and The Death and Life of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch.)

Travis Wittwer | Current Affairs, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom | September 25, 2012

The Woods


8013832785_f8351707ba_mBy Travis

Sarah Brown Wessling, an English teacher at Johnston High School and 2010 National Teacher of the Year, wrote that "teachers must be able to expose all the 'invisible' work we do." 

I completely agree.

And her comment made me think of the forest adjacent my school. 

Tamara | | September 24, 2012

Defining Quality Education


Tamara Mosar

As I followed the Chicago Teacher Union’s strike, getting
past the noise about evaluations, salaries, the right to organize, it became
evident to me the underlying issues point to a conversation about education in
this country few are engaging in. Namely, are we as a nation still willing to
provide a free “quality” education to all children? Now many will tell me there
are numerous people engaged in the Should We Privatize Education debate. I
know. I live thirty minutes from a state that chose to spend a significant
portion of the budget for teachers’ salaries on laptops for every student from
a certain company. But that is not where I am going with this post.

 I don’t think we can enter the conversation of public and political will regarding continued provision
of public education until as a nation we come to consensus as to what
constitutes “Quality Education”. There have been volumes of back chatter
regarding the impediments to a “quality education”: relentless and rising poverty,
bad teachers, bad administrators, bad parents (just once I’d like to hear bad
policy or bad politicians), community violence, limited if any early childhood

But what is “Quality Education”? Does “quality“ mean all
students graduate? Does it mean if a student graduates they are ready to enter
the workforce? Does a “quality” education mean students are prepared to enter college
without the need for remediation in math and English? Or does “quality”
education mean students can demonstrate mastery of subjects in end of course
exams or standardized tests like HSPE, SAT, AP, or IB? Does a “quality”
education include the provision of health care and social services?   Does “quality” education produce a just and compassionate citizenry?

What say you?  Any
takers for this conversation?

Rob | Education, Education Policy, Elementary, Life in the Classroom, Literacy, Parent Involvment, Social Issues, Teacher Leadership | September 22, 2012

Guidance Team


By Rob

Struggling students are referred to the Guidance Team.  We identify the most significant barrier to student success.  We develop a plan to address the barrier.  We choose metrics to track the effectiveness of our plan.  We document our interventions and meet regularly to track progress. 

A teacher may bring a student to the team who’s reading below grade level.  We review the student’s reading data.  Perhaps we find evidence they need phonics support.  We align our school’s resources- this student will meet with our reading specialist for an 8 week phonics intervention.  This may lead to improved fluency and the student can then carry the meaning while reading.  As a result, their reading comprehension improves.  I’ve seen this happen.  It demonstrates some of the best work a school can do.

Maren Johnson | National Board Certification, Professional Development | September 18, 2012

Hope and Fear: New National Board Candidates


by Maren Johnson

Hope and Fear: New National Board Candidates

One of the projects I am most excited about this year is facilitating a group of National Board candidates. We have never actually had a National Board cohort in my district before (we are a bit small and rural), but this year we have a healthy sized group--Whoo-hoo!  Even a teacher from a neighboring district is joining us.

We started our first meeting with a "Hope and Fear" protocol for setting group norms that I got from one of the expert National Board trainers in our state.  Participants individually wrote their hopes and fears for the National Board process, shared them, then together came up with norms that would help facilitate the hopes and prevent the fears.

Mark Gardner | | September 17, 2012

Resistance, Part 2


File000242235294If you skim back through my past posts here, you might notice that I have cast the word "data" with a very specific connotation. I even did a search on SFS for the word "data," and lo and behold, a bunch of my posts--and even more interestingly, a bunch of my comments on other posts were there... and just the snip shown in the search results highlights my apprehension, distrust, reservation, and resistance to data.

While I curse under my breath, I have to recognize: that search? That's data.

I'm having to re-evaluate my own resistance.

As I examine the new teacher evaluation system, I'm in general a proponent of what it contains, but anything that mentions that four-letter-word always unsettles me a little. 

Not long ago I co-presented at a CSTP teacher leadership conference, and one of the points about leadership was to consider how to activate change and to recognize that growth and change cannot happen unless someone is upset. By upset, we didn't mean p'd off, we meant having their status quo challenged in a way that unsettled people enough to get them moving.

I guess that is what the d-word embedded in the new evaluation system is doing to me right now... unsettling me enough to allow me to change. Especially since I discovered Flubaroo.

Tom | | September 15, 2012

The Five Paragraph Essay


ImagesBy Tom White

I was asked to switch from third grade to fourth grade this year. I'm enjoying the change, but one of the realities I'm facing is the increased emphasis on writing instruction. Third graders learn how to write paragraphs, while fourth graders learn how to write with paragraphs. Consequently, I've turned to the five paragraph essay: an effective, flexible starting point for young writers.

Like it or not, the five paragraph format is effective. There's something appealing about introducing a topic, expanding on it in three, detailed paragraphs and finishing with a succinct conclusion. If you can give three good reasons for holding an opinion, then you’ve got something. If you can’t, then you don’t. As there was no way I could come up with three good reasons why my mom should let me play with the lawn darts after my trip to the emergency room, the darts stayed hidden. Understanding the five-paragraph format is a useful tool for anyone with an opinion or an agenda.

It’s flexible. Not only does it work as an essay, but it also comes in handy when writing short stories. You introduce the characters and setting in the first paragraph, throw in a beginning, middle and end and wrap up the story with a fifth paragraph and boom: you’ve got yourself a story. Other uses come quickly to mind: fairy tales, pourquoi tales, even the standard three-part joke can trace its roots to the five-paragraph format. Once you’ve mastered the five paragraph essay, the sky’s the limit.

Although teachers and assessors may tire of the five-part, formulaic pablum put forth by fourth graders, working with young writers is a challenging endeavor. Good teachers know how to use scaffolds; and the five-part format is just that. Think of it as a literary algorithm. Or better yet, imagine John Coltrane or Andre Previn in their youth, banging out “Hot Cross Buns” and “Ode to Joy” while their parents patiently endured those tough times, knowing their future virtuosos had to master the basics before they could conquer the world. Like it or not, kids are not born knowing how to write.

There’s no shame in teaching the five paragraph essay. Not for me, anyway. Writing is easily the most complicated thing we teach. Students need a place to start; something they can grasp and understand and then improvise on. It's time to give the time-honored five-parter it's due.


Kristin | | September 11, 2012

I Heart Tests


375894_4159524717774_1046311469_nBy Kristin

When I saw this poster it made me laugh out loud, partly because it's true and partly because when I face where we are as public educators I can laugh or cry. 

Here's where we are: there is a clear, definable line between students who are successful on tests and students who are not, and that line divides children not only on the basis of academic achievement but of economic status and race.  Poor children don't do as well.  Do I want to cry because the injustice of a broken system feels bigger than me, or do I want to cry because the dirty secret is out?  

Mark Gardner | | September 9, 2012

Time to do it right


File7481347212800This year, I only have 44 students--all 9th graders. 

I'm still working full time, but half of my day involves work as a TOSA, guiding teachers on peer observation learning walks, assisting with PLC initiatives, and other near-the-front-lines work. While this work does require preparation, meetings, and organization, it does not require me to curl up with a stack of papers to grade after my sons have gone to bed (or before they've gotten up). Having only two English classes this year will be a far different experience... previously, five hours of student contact time each day meant as many hours each day of outside-of-my-contract-hours planning, assessment, and feedback. 

It's just part of the gig, so don't read that as a complaint, but rather as a statement of reality.

Part of my role as TOSA is to help with the implementation of the newly mandated Teacher and Principal Evaluation project (TPEP), and again and again I hear from both teachers and administrators that their top concern about this new initiative is not its content, aims, or potential.

It is about time.

Maren Johnson | Education, Travel | September 6, 2012

Teacher Talk


By Maren Johnson

Growing up, I never wanted to be a teacher.  My parents were both teachers, my aunt and uncle were teachers, my grandma was a teacher, my great aunt was a teacher.  Not me, I wanted none of it.

After graduating from college, I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life.  I joined the Peace Corps.   I applied to be an agricultural volunteer to help small farmers, but instead, I was assigned to be a math teacher for two years in Guinea, West Africa.  I taught in a small town in the rain forest on the border with Liberia.  Before the Peace Corps, there was no math teacher at my school.

Under tree
Teachers under the tree at my school in Guinea, West Africa

Kristin | | September 2, 2012



Teacher chart 001By Kristin

This summer I saw something very similar to the chart you see here. A principal was explaining how she gathered and analyzed student data, and how that data drove her administrative decisions.

You can see, if you click on the chart, that Teacher B didn't do so hot.  Because a teacher's reputation precedes him, what's going to happen if parents find out about Teacher B's scores?  Will they request a class change?  Will they complain?  Test scores are scary for teachers because they don't tell the whole story, but they tell an important part of the story.

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