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16 posts from October 2012

Kristin | | October 31, 2012

Invisible - The Stuff That's Probably Illegal


ImagesCA4WUIQRBy Kristin    

This article is just fabulous.  Written by an ex-police officer and Marine who now teaches physics, it outlines why teachers deserve more credit than they're getting.

The reason it fits in this post is that Matthew Swope mentions things teachers do that blur the professional boundary between student and teacher.  It's risky to cross that line, but teachers do it every day in order to let a kid know someone cares about him enough to stand by his side even if there's no learning target involved.  Even if it could be seen as inappropriate.

Maren Johnson | Education, Education Policy | October 30, 2012

Hey, Ms. Johnson, Do you need a letter too?


Smart cards

By Maren Johnson

When I miss school for a professional reason, I like to briefly explain to my students why I will be gone—I want my students to know I do not take being absent from their class lightly.  Before attending a recent training on our new teacher evaluation system, I told my chemistry students a bit about what I was going to be doing.  I even showed them our colorful UW CEL instructional framework “Smart Card”—hey, it’s a little like the Periodic Table of Teaching! 

Just before this, one of my senior students had asked me for a letter of recommendation.  I have had this student in class for several years and would be happy to write one. Before I was going to be absent, I explained to the class the new teacher evaluation system as involving observations as well as teachers gathering and submitting evidence.  Clearly, the student who had just asked me for a letter of recommendation was listening.  He leaned back, raised his hand, and said with a big grin, “Ms. Johnson, do you need a recommendation letter for your evaluation too?  Let’s talk about this—maybe we can work something out!”

Janette MacKay | | October 28, 2012

It's Time to Vote


On my 18th birthday, I practically sprinted to the school library to register to vote. I don’t think I was really as excited about the democratic process as I was about the right of passage it marked. It happened to be just a few months before a presidential election, and all of a sudden I started to notice the ads and the news stories and quickly became aware of how complex voting could be.

Tom | | October 27, 2012

Unsolicited Advice for the National Board


ImagesBy Tom White

It’s often said that receiving unsolicited advice always sounds like criticism. That’s unfortunate, since giving unsolicited advice isn’t usually intended as criticism; it’s usually just one person looking at another person and articulating where there’s room for improvement. Which, now that I think about it, is a pretty good definition of criticism.

So it’s in that spirit that I’m about to give advice to the National Board. Advice that is entirely unsolicited. Keep in mind that I love the National Board. I love what it stands for and I love what it’s done for the teaching profession. In fact, other than marriage and fatherhood, National Board Certification is perhaps the best thing that’s ever happened to me. But just like marriage and fatherhood, National Board Certification is not quite perfect.

And they apparently know this. In fact, under their new leadership, they’ve signaled that big changes are in the works; changes that will hopefully make the National Board more relevant to the current educational landscape, while making the certification process more accessible to today’s teachers, and without compromising the high standards that are at their core. So here goes:

Maren Johnson | Life in the Classroom, Science | October 24, 2012

Unfortunately, it's not invisible: The Equipment


3_Industrial_Hazardsby Maren Johnson

This month on Stories from School, we are trying to expose some of the "invisible" work that teachers do--the things in teaching that may go unseen by others.  Unfortunately, what I have to write about is not at all invisible--rather, it is all too often in our way!  Science teachers, Career and Tech Ed teachers, and other teachers of project and lab based classes spend much of our time functioning as equipment managers--not the most glamorous duty, but a duty, indeed, it is.  You can see a few of us in the photo off to the left, and yes, we are hamming it up for a Homecoming spirit day dressed as Industrial Hazards, but you get the idea--our equipment is large and can be hard to handle.

What are some of the “invisibles” that come with all this equipment?

Kristin | | October 23, 2012



3420508579_395e53ac1b_oBy Kristin

Here's an old fashioned Polar Bear exhibit.  Some effort has been made, but even if you haven't spent much of your life glued to Frozen Planet on the Discovery Channel you instinctively know that this isn't the kind of home a polar bear would choose.  The tire swings and poolette are intended to give the bear some mental and physical stimulation, but I doubt this cage provides a quality of life worthy of such a magnificent creature.  Zoos are getting better, but they still face the challenge of being ambassadors of wild creatures even as they keep the creatures in exhibits that, at best, mimic small parts of an animal's habitat - kind of like trying to design a school that serves the needs of all its students.

Tom | | October 21, 2012

The Field Trips


FerryBy Tom White

It was a beautiful spring day in the great Pacific Northwest; my third graders had just spent the morning meeting their pen pals for the first time. After corresponding with them for eight months, we were at Edmonds Beach during a really low tide, looking at all sorts of marine creatures and getting pleasantly muddy. Now we were on the ferry, having lunch on the sun deck with our new friends as the boat sailed across Puget Sound. We got to the other side, disembarked and milled around on the dock, planning to catch the same boat back so we could enjoy some more time at the beach before returning to school.

That’s where the ferry worker found me. “Are you in charge of this field trip?” He looked concerned.

“Theoretically,” I said. “Why, is there a problem?”

“Yes. It seems the Edmonds dock has been damaged. They need a new part to fix it. It’ll take about five hours before we can send another boat back across. I just thought you should know.”

No conversation about the invisible realities that affect teachers’ lives would be complete without bringing up field trips. There’s nothing I hate – and love – more than taking my students out into the world for some hands-on learning.

They take an incredible amount of time.

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Books, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Professional Development, Teacher Leadership | October 20, 2012

The Mindsets


FWhen I was an undergraduate, I loved having the opportunity to choose whichever courses interested me. Outside of my major, I took everything from calculus to photography to sociology. I also took advantage of another benefit offered: the option to take courses "pass/fail." I engaged this option whenever there was the chance that I would earn less than an "A."

At the time, I justified it from a financial standpoint. I had tuition and housing scholarships which required a certain GPA: a "C" would harm my GPA, but a "P" had no effect on it and I'd still earn the credit. However, in hindsight, I see that this behavior was a sign of something I'm only now starting to understand: my transcript was my identity.

Recently at an after-school meeting, one of our building associate principals shared an article summarizing the work done by Carol Dweck of the Stanford University School of Psychology. The gist: while it is not absolute, there are generally two "mindsets" into which people can be classified--the "fixed" mindset and the "growth" mindset. 

A person whose disposition is in the "growth" mindset will relish challenge, recover from failure having learned and applied critical lessons, and "end up" in a different and usually better place from where they "start out."

In college, I was clearly of the "fixed" mindset.

Travis Wittwer | Current Affairs, Education Policy | October 16, 2012

The Paper


By Travis A. Wittwer 8088082266_c5ee72d6ec_n

Paper. A school is dependent on paper. This thin, white, innocuous object has value beyond what is initially seen. Paper marks the flow of ideas and learning throughout the school. It is hard to imagine a school without paper. Yet, each year imagining a school without paper becomes easier to imagine.

Paper is an indicator species for resources in the school. Paper represents the health and strength of the school. Paper is symbolic of other resources within the school such as writing utensils, novels, additional support in the library, or clubs to create school culture. 

Paper, and that for which it represents, is another item I will include on my list of Invisibles

Kristin | | October 15, 2012

Invisible - Letters of Recommendation


J04221491By Kristin

One night at 11:30 the phone rang, waking me up.  It was one of my all-time favorite students and she was sobbing.  At midnight her online application for a desperately needed scholarship was due and the librarian, who had promised to write a letter of recommendation, hadn't done so.  If she sent me the link and password, would I write one?  She wouldn't ask except the librarian wasn't answering her phone.

Mark Gardner | Books, Life in the Classroom, Literacy | October 14, 2012

The Budget


Sale booksAnother invisible: the budget. I spend a lot of time on as part of my job. As chair of the English department, I have keep up the inventory of our resources--a key resource, of course, is our store of books. Every student at my school is required to take an English class, and my department budget works out to be about $1.80 per student per year. Granted, once you buy a book you can use it multiple times--but books also wear out, and our department budget also has to cover, among other things, basic supplies like paper, staples, dry erase markers, and the other necessities that my 18 full- or part-time English teachers usually end up buying out of their own pocket when the department supply runs out around mid-November.

When I get an email that we are a class-set short of copies of an anchor novel in the curriculum, I have to find a way to cover that gap. In a dream world, I'd buy library-bound hardcover copies of each novel, which start at about $20 per copy. Scratch that: in a dream world, I'd supply all of my students with e-readers wherein they can interact with, annotate, and easily carry their texts. 

Janette MacKay | | October 11, 2012

The Lesson Plans


To plan a complete and well-designed lesson takes time. Most of us have 30-40 minutes of prep time per day, yet teach 6-10 lessons per day (at the primary level). Since that in-school prep time is also the only chance we have to go to the bathroom, organize manipulatives, or gather materials, not much lesson planning happens during the school day. Which means that either we do most of our planning on our own time, or we don't do it and end up winging it.

We need community members, administrators, and policy makers to carefully consider where they want us to focus our efforts. How much time do you want me to spend preparing lessons for your child?

Mark Gardner | Current Affairs, Education, Life in the Classroom, Professional Development | October 9, 2012

The Job


File5074c0e3670deI was sitting in a conference in another state last week when the conversation got heated.

We had just listened to a very well executed presentation about how to improve assessments so that they minimize the "chance for student error other than not knowing." We'd heard about PLCs and how to make them work. We'd heard about the power of shared assessment rubrics and the value of examining student work. We'd all drunk the kool-aid and sat smiling, basking in the glow of new learning with all its potential for impacting student growth. 

Then reality began to crash in. My colleagues from another district (in that other state) began to recognize the vast gulf--the chasm--between the promise of this ideal about which they'd learned and grown excited, and the real resource and personnel limitations they knew they'd face upon arrival back home.

How are we supposed to do this? They pleaded. We're already so busy doing everything else we have to and we don't even have time to do all that--and now there's more?

The answer was obvious:

Travis Wittwer | Education Policy, Life in the Classroom | October 5, 2012

The Meetings


Picture 2By Travis Wittwer

In keeping with October's theme of Invisibles, I share with you ... The Meetings, but first, a brief definition. "Invisibles" is a general term for all of the unseen things that teachers do to keep the education machine running. The goal of October is to bring a few of these Invisibles to light so that people outside of the school setting have a clear idea of what it is like inside the school. 

So on to The Meetings as my teaching partner and I have been all week. It started on Monday .... 

Janette MacKay | Assessment, Education, Elementary, Professional Development, Social Issues | October 3, 2012

Teacher Fever



I woke up in the middle of the night, and knew something was wrong. I was cold, hot, shaking, queasy, everything ached. I stumbled into the bathroom to find a thermometer and wait…


yup. A fever. Now it’s definitive. I’m sick.

Like somehow I didn’t know that until after the little number popped up on the thermometer.

Well, it’s probably just a little virus, or something I ate. Uncomfortable, unpleasant, but not serious I consoled myself as I curled up on the floor by the toilet where I would be spending the next few hours.

A temperature tells us our immune system is working. It’s fighting off the weakness in the body and in a day or two, we will be well again. Most fevers don’t send us running off to the doctor. Unless they persist…

A fever tells us something is wrong. But by itself, it doesn’t tell us what is wrong or how serious it might be. It takes a while to figure out if you need to call in sick, or check into the hospital.  Just get some rest, or run expensive tests using big humming medical equipment. These are the thoughts running through my head at 2am on the floor of the bathroom.

What does any of this have to do with teaching? Well, since I’m home sick today, I’m sitting here looking at my school’s MSP scores from this past year. We, like many schools, seem to have a bit of a fever. Our scores aren’t where we’d like them to be. They certainly aren’t terrible, but they’ve declined two years in a row. I guess you would call that a fever in reverse.  Anyway, it appears that we’re a bit under the weather. However, the numbers that I’m looking at don’t tell the whole story. It’s a small school. A few kids having a bad day are enough to change our scores from one year to the next. Listen to the staff conversations about this, and we all have an idea what caused the trouble. But what we don’t have is expensive medical equipment that can give us a definitive diagnosis. All we have is the number on the thermometer.

Do we need more professional development to help improve our instruction?

Or new curriculum?

Or a new intervention program?

Or new technology?

Or stronger anti-poverty initiatives?

Or maybe a better thermometer?

Maybe the one we have is broken.

After all, in the past few years we’ve changed our test from the WASL to the MSP, and then changed the administration of that test from paper and pencil to computer based. It’s hard to compare year to year using an inconsistent tool. Looking at National Assessment (NAEP) scores from the past ten years, our 4th grade state scores have remained relatively unchanged.  It doesn’t seem to matter what we do: which curriculum we adopt, which diagnostic test we administer, which RtI model we embrace. The scores have not wavered in the past decade.

According to the Flynn Effect, we are getting more intelligent over time. If that’s true, then seriously, why aren’t our test scores rising?

I’m not saying we can’t or shouldn’t do anything to try and raise student achievement. On the contrary, I think we need to do even more…way more…to figure out how to level the playing field, provide meaningful, appropriate instruction, and assess it in ways that aren’t skewed by politics. If after a decade this fever has persisted, it seems like it’s time to do more than just keep taking our temperature over and over.

Tom | | October 1, 2012

Fun and Games with Teachscape


CatchBy Tom White

Last Monday night, many of us watched the Seattle Seahawks beat the Green Bay Packers with a controversial touchdown pass. Then we watched it again, and again and again. It was an interesting play; two “referees” saw the same thing from pretty much the same angle, but while the guy on the left saw an interception, the guy on the right saw a touchdown. (See Figure A) The guy on the left then deferred to his colleague and they ruled it a touchdown. It was immediately challenged by the Packers. So the refs went off the field to watch it again and talk about it. Three commercials and 17 replays later, they came back onto the field and ruled it a touchdown. Seahawks win, 14 to 12.

Four days later, on Friday morning, the faculty at my school sat down to watch some very different film. We watched Teachscape videos. Our district is complying with the new teacher evaluation system by using the Charlotte Danielson evaluation model, and we’re using Teachscape to support it. Consequently, we get to spend the majority of our professional development time watching teaching videos and talking about whether the teaching is unsatisfactory, basic, proficient or distinguished.

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