Friday, April 29, 2011

Lesson Plans that Didn't Work The Way I Thought They Would.

Someone asked me recently if everything went perfectly in my classroom.  It got me to thinking about some of the disasters I've had from time to time.  It is fun to get together with old colleagues and share some of our frustrating times.  And the chaos has descended on me at all grade levels.

One of my early disasters has stuck with me over the years.  I was teaching a fifth grade in social studies and trying to get my students through the civil war.  What was the civil war about?  What were some of the problems facing both the north and the south?  What was slavery all about?  

My class was all white kids, mostly middle class from good homes.  But the standard social studies textbook seem to me to gross over the civil war in a few pages.  AND... we didn't seem to have much in the school library that I could make use of for the kids.  So I put together what I thought was a great idea.  I would choose some of the kids and make them southerners, slave owners, cotton barons.  Got to have slaves to grow and process cotton.  The rest of the classroom would be northerners and be industrial owners, manufacturing, some farmers, and ship owners.  

My idea was that we would have this debate and get to see both sides but especially see how slavery was such a terrible idea.  I split the room into two parts, north and south and let them plan their presentations.  This took several days as it took the "north" awhile to understand this debate.  At first they were willing to let the south have their slaves and I had to prod them into saying they didn't want the south to have slaves.  

Anyway, we finally started our debate.  I had picked a small group of bright kids to be the south and they started out by saying that if they didn't have slaves, they would go bust, their cotton farms would collapse and the north would never get any cotton.  When the kids representing the north got to say their piece, the practically folded on me.  "Well, we can't grow cotton in the north and we need cotton for our clothes so, okay, you can have slaves."  No, no, no!  The north kids just didn't get their heads around the fact that slavery was terrible.  

Then the southern kids got up at the podium once again and said that they were giving the slaves medical help, that they had taken these people from Africa where they were being eater by tigers and living in grass huts and that they had built them wood buildings here in the states and were providing them with food. They even held up some National Geographic magazines with pictures of natives with spears and those grass huts.  My kids representing the north practically sold out on the spot.  I was beside myself trying to get the north to understand freedom but it was slow going.

Indeed, I got a couple of phone calls from parents asking what was going on--was I promoting slavery?  I almost beg one parent that I knew fairly well and asked her to push her daughter a bit on the theme of freedom, having choice, that all humans were equal.  She said she'd see what she could do.

It took about a week of afternoon debates and discussions before the north got their act together.....with a copious amount of pushing from me to finally get to the equality and freedom part down.  The kids loved all this talking stuff--much better then reading stuffy old textbooks but I'm not sure that some of them ever got the meaning and problems behind the civil war.  I can only hope.  I never tried the north/south debate again in class.  I have thought about it for a number of years.  Wonder if it could ever work at that grade level.  Maybe middle school.

Another lesson that bombed was in an Instructional Technology class during the summer with about thirty to thirty-five experienced teachers.  Both elementary and secondary teachers, they were all working on their fifth year certificate.  Just after a mid-term exam I planned to go into roll playing and recorded sound (then 33 1/3 records, and tapes).  

First off, these were experienced teachers--they were all sharp.  A fun group to work with.  And they were not afraid to ask questions.  Up to the mid-term things had gone very well indeed.  The mid term test was just a simple one covering the use of technology in the classroom that I had demonstrated up to that point in the quarter.  I gave the test on a Friday and graded it over the weekend.  But I made sure that the points in the test didn't total more then about sixty five points all together.  No one hundred perfect score here.  If I remember all of the class received between fifty-five to the full score of sixty-five points.  A lot got a perfect score....not surprising.

But on the following Monday, I arrived in class dressed in a dark blue suit, dark power tie, shinny black shoes.  Not summer time garb at all.  And I didn't smile when I went into class but just started passing out the mid-term tests.  

With the paper work finished I announced to the class that I was quite upset with them.  They were teachers and I expected more.  No one had gotten over sixty five points and that was unacceptable to me.  Therefore, I was assigning an extra assignment.  I continued, "the only book that there were enough copies in the library for this class was 'Peter Rabbit' and I wanted them to 'mediaerize' (I made the word up) this book and turn it into me on Wednesday."  "AND I didn't want to work harder because THEY hadn't work hard, therefore those mediaerized reports had to be one hundred words long.  Not one hundred and one or ninety nine but ONE HUNDRED.  The reason for this was that the computer would do the grading  [how about that for a nasty response?]

I remember someone raising their hand but I ignored it...which wasn't my normal style. Then I asked the class how many were graduate student working on their masters.  Most raised their hands and I mention that they should have known better--their report was to be different.

The class was silent, one student slammed his notebook shut--a great bit of communicating his disgust with me but not going over the edge to get on my wrong side.  I then told them I had a record that would explain how I wanted them to "mediaerize" their report.  I had a 33 and a third record of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown."  One of the selections is "Book Report" and is a musical on how each of the characters in the show works on their book report of Peter Rabbit. Lucy with all her charm starts off..... "one, two, three, four, five, six, seven--[sigh] eighty three to go."  As I played the record, I had expected to see the class break into smiles and become more relaxed but that didn't happen.  THEY TOOK NOTES ON THE RECORDING.  

At the end of the recording I had to tell the class that I had been putting them on, role playing a poor teaching behavior.  A high school girls PE teacher stood up and looked me straight into my eyes and said, "You mean you were putting us on?"  And when I nodded yes, she said, "You have spoiled my entire week!" (and it was Monday) and then sat down.

I debriefed the class--you have to do that with role playing as it is an emotional response and you have to get them to analyze their feelings.  Most agreed it did make them pay more attention to the record then had I not role played that bad teaching behavior....although several mentioned that they had had professors that did just that--add an assignment for poor grades on a test.  I also told the class that a perfect score was 65 and would equate to an "A".  The class had done well on the mid-term test.

Well, I recovered and I thought the class did too.  Several talked to me in the days that followed about role playing and where they might learn more about this teaching behavior.  I did think I needed to make some adjustments to it if I were to do it again.  The blue suit seemed an overkill--maybe something not in the power suit category.  

The rest of the quarter went well.  I had a guest speaker who taught films and lesson plans using film.  He was outstanding.  I know I did some television instructions, particularly with the newer portable units that was just then coming on the school market.  And finally it was final test time; end of quarter and the class.  I felt pretty good about most of the presentations.

On the day of the final, I gathered the test, made sure I had enough copies and headed for the classroom.  The students were all there, actually sort of excited about the test--or so I thought.  Before I could say anything, one young teacher stood up and said, "Dr. Blackwell, we want you to know that this has been a wonderful class and we have learned many things of value for our teaching and learning."  And with that announcement, the class go up and walked out!  To a person.  I just stood there with my mouth open I suppose.  "Okay," I think, they are all out in the hall waiting to laugh at me."  So I went to the door and wandered into the hall trying to look cool.  BUT they were not there.  To this day I don't know where they went.  I thought they might have gone to the coffee shop to await me there but not so.  When I returned to the classroom, there they were laughing up a storm.  And that sweet young thing that had made the initial announcement stood up once again and said, "Now, Mr. Blackwell, how did you feel when we all walked out....and also, how did you feel when you found we weren't in the hallway?"  Tons of more laughter erupted.

I know that the class had gotten the lesson on role playing and recorded sound. The test was handed out and I made a few remarks about wishing them all well in the coming school year.  A few contacted me about this and that during the year but I have never forgotten the class that walked out on the final test of the quarter.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Bond of Teachers

[An editorial note:  I am embarrassed to say that there were a number of misspellings, incorrect sentence structure, and a number of other writing errors in my previous blog.  I just found them today.  Please accept my apologies for poor work.]

And I am embarrassed on another front--big time head bowing shame.  I attended a forum put on by my old College of Education and the Journal of Educational Controversy Blog, a blog that I admire quite a bit.  The subject of the forum was the role of Teacher Unions in Education.

The first speaker was from the Washington Policy Center in Seattle, a think tank which favors conservative thought. Their representative was given the first opportunity to speak.  She used a PowerPoint presentation and spoke for about twenty to twenty-five minutes.  It was about how we need to improve our schools and that the teacher unions are standing in the way.  A major point was to be able to fire those teachers who are underperforming.  They also want to hire people to teach who have not been certified in teaching...they call it opening the teacher pool.

My major embarrassment comes from the fact that I walked out after her presentation because I was so incensed that I had just listened to another person who has not taught in a classroom for any length of time telling me how to run our schools.  I didn't wait to hear from the president of the Washington Education Association or from the American Federation of Labor speakers.  

Boorish behavior on my part and certainly not academic in any way.  John Dewey would have been upset with me for not listening to all sides.

A major problem for me in the past year or two on the evaluation of our school system by many pundits, writers and organizations is the fact that no one has defined for me what is an operational definition of a "poor" or "ineffective" teacher.  If they do make some attempt to define those terms it is almost always with regards to testing.  If students do not make progress on a test, then it is the teacher's fault.  As you readers well know, this bothers me to a great degree.  

I was in my first year of teaching fifth grade in a suburban school when I began to hear from one of the first grade teachers that her class was a "handful."  As we gathered in the teachers' room for lunch or at recess, someone would ask Anne, "How's your class this morning?"  And Anne would relate some incident in which the class went off on its own behavior, not that which Anne wanted them to do.  It became "THE CLASS."  And yet, Anne said from time to time, there was not a bad student among the kids.  Collectively they just couldn't work together.  

Although the principal said after that first year that he would "break" up the class for second grade, it appears that somehow some of those kids became the nucleus for the "the second grade class."  Let me say that our primary teachers were all excellent, experienced and knowledgeable teachers.  I forgot who got "the" class but we talked about it from time to time in the teachers' room.  I remember that the primary teachers would put their heads together and try different approaches to the class but it seemed to run on its own schedule.  They learned the material but it was like pulling teeth. Hard work.

I left the school to do graduate work before that group of students reached the fourth grade.  Some of my elementary colleagues teased me that I was a chicken and couldn't face getting that class.  Perhaps a bit of that was true....I really don't know.  But what I do understand is that there are times when a group of students come together and they are a handful for their teacher.  I wish I was a better sociologist and knew how to observe and analyze these groups.

I've been in many teacher rooms over the years and every once in a while I hear the teachers talking about "that" group of kids.  And when I enquire as to what the problem might be, the general answer is...."we just have a group of kids that are a handful."  

I've never had to work in a school where there were gangs or disrupting students.  I wonder how that works?  What do the teachers do?  

This morning I listened to Diane Ravitch on the Jon Stewart;s television show.  As an aside I am amazed at myself how I have gone from a critic of Dr. Ravitch to an outright fan of hers.  I suspect it shows the power of looking at your data and changing your mind.  She mentioned that the Scandinavian countries have strong teacher unions and consistently outdo the American schools.  They weed out those who might not be a good teacher before they become teachers.  You can find that video on  

Thanks to all those teachers in our public schools who are continuing to teach their students while reading and listening to all the criticism of them.  It must be difficult to forge on.  And I also wonder where we will get teachers in the future.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

What are the Characteristics of a BAD teacher?

What seems to be the norm these days is that I have gotten stressed over news both from print and television of people who are bashing teachers again.  With so many negative forces in our society why are they ganging up on teachers?  It is a puzzlement to me.  We have bankers making tons of money off the poor, we have police kicking and stomping on handcuffed prisoners, we have companies forcing workers to work overtime and on weekends....we have a slew of possible candidates for being a negative force in our society and we pick on teachers.  Maybe it is because we teachers don't fight back--we just want to teach our kids.

Recently the governor of Idaho has signed into law the anti-union bill against teachers coupled with the provision that Idaho can now fire (pink slip) any teacher regardless of how long they have worked at their job.  If I understand the law Idaho can fire any teacher for any reason.  Sad.  

Then there is the governor of New Jersey who has repeatedly said that the Teacher Unions are the cause of all the troubles in the state.  Wow!  All of the troubles?  Like Idaho, he now has been given the power (delegated to the school districts) to fire any teacher not doing the job.  

Yes, I know a little about poor teachers.  I was a member of the "Teacher Education and Professional Standards" (TEPS) committee of the Washington Education Association.  Our task was to decide when a teacher in the State of Washington was fired if the WEA should supply legal assistance (lawyers).  If I remember correctly it was about fifty-fifty.  Half the time we would be in support of the teacher, the other half of the time we suggested that that person seek another profession.  This was my teachers association taking on the challenge.

So let me give you a make-believe hypothetical (I know, redundant) scene.  I'm a new principal of a middle school and I have a teacher who I do not like.  She was teaching at the school before I was appointed principal and she is well liked by the faculty.  She is fifty-five years old and has ten years to retire.  She doesn't like the way I favor the new female teachers and has challenged me on some of the changes I have tried to make.  She is also an English teacher who makes the students read.  The kids respect her even though she is strict.  

SO!  I have need for a social studies teacher and appoint my nemesis to the position even though she objects. She has never taught Social Studies.  And I have the power to do such a thing.  After a year I find that the students in her classes did not make improvement so I fire her.  Yes, this scene can happen and does....and will.  

If we are to fire "bad" teachers we need to at least have some criteria as to what a "bad" teacher is.  As an academic I have the following categories to suggest.

Negative Attitude teacher.  One who belittles students, fellow teachers and the school in general.  Does not get along with parents or thinks parents are doing a poor job of raising their children.

Overt Religious teacher in a secular setting.  Tends to have students pray to solve problems, makes references to religious books.  Also does not want to teach certain subjects believing that they are the churches domain.  Note: this teacher could be exceptional in a church school setting. 

Political teacher.  Either right or left in political thinking.  Changes information in textbooks to fit political beliefs.  Encourages students to think in one direction.  

Overly Fond teacher.  Focuses on certain students and bonds with them.  Sex may result between teacher and student.  

Insensitive teacher.  Someone who makes fun of students disabilities, looks, behavior, etc.   A teacher who picks on certain students because of some characteristic such as race.  Quite often this teacher does not have a compassionate personality.  

Please note that I have not listed teachers whose students do not score well on tests.  There are too many variables to measure in children's rate of learning from parents, neighborhood, nutrition and society norms.  

With several million teachers in this country I suspect there are some who will fit the above categories but I think the numbers are not very large.  I have already written about a teacher who was fired from one school district only to be chosen the 'teacher of the year' in another district.   Why?  I've always wondered about this.  And in another school one teacher who was in my opinion obviously pedantic, boring, routine only to see his style was just what certain students needed.  

Sadly the State of Washington has recently proposed a budget which will probably result in a three percent pay reduction for most teachers.  And in some cases, there will be teachers furloughed from their jobs.  I suspect a few school districts will say they have gotten rid of some 'poor' teachers.  I wonder if they really will have done just that.  

I think most teachers I have met or observed deserve a pat on the back and a pay raise.  Thank you all for your services and your skills in teaching students.  At least this is one profession that is trying to improve our society.

Monday, April 11, 2011

A Major Paradigm in MY Thinking.

Jane Austin is one of my favorites to read on my Kindle.  Incredible writing with sentences going on for paragraph lengths with a complexity that at times I have to go back and re-read to remember what was the subject and the verb--or should I say what were the subjects and the verbs.  

So it should not come as a surprise for me to say as I clicked my way through a hundred or more channels on my high definition television that when I came across Pride and Prejudice I stopped for a while and watched with the sound still off.  Having my own copy of the movie I believe I could now recite many of the lines for many of the characters. So I just watched the film.

The scene was in the father's large room in the manor with his desk and books.  Oh my so many books.  Large book cases going up to the ceiling.  Books were important items in Jane Austin's time.  Indeed, the whole movie starts with Elizabeth crossing some section of land reading a book.  This was how the relatively upper class lived in the early 1800s with their manors and libraries.  One had to have a library to be viable in society.  Elizabeth does not go to school, she reads.

However, later on in the film there is a dance, a ball and major gathering of the elite and there is music.  In the balcony there is small orchestra playing for all the dancers down below.  Being an ex-musician I watched with keen eye as to how the musicians were behaving, were they really playing (they were) or acting.  And somewhere in this musings of mine, it dawned on me that there was no way to save musical ideas or performances in those days.  They could save ideas to paper and make books but they didn't have the capability in those days to save sound.  One could write the music down on paper but not save the sounds for later on.

I mused (is there such a word?) on this for a bit before resuming my channel clicking only to find Anne of Green Gables.  Ah, one of my other favorites.  Again, books were priceless and a scarce item.  Anne has to travel the snowy lanes to her friends and neighbors to borrow books promising to return them promptly.  But still no recorded sound.  And farm homes didn't have the space for a library.  

Then my thoughts returned to my Kindle. I don't need a library in my house anymore.  I can get rid of books and still keep them.....on my Kindle.  Now for this discussion let us agree that when I write Kindle it can mean iPad, the Nook, Sony's eReader or any the many other ebook readers on the market.  Which eReaders will survive in the coming marketplace I am not sure, however, the Kindle seems to have a foothold at this time.

The new Kindle (I have version number2) will hold 3500 books...more then any possible library I might have in my house.  That was the size of my small library in my first elementary school.  Thirty-five hundred books.  We now come to the question of how long will we need libraries of any sort.  I can hear the collected sigh of so many folks who love books.  I do understand.

But...then my mind switched to how we now can record and save sound.  Jane didn't have this capability but I do.  I can listen to great orchestras, marching bands in Glasgow or jazz at the Village Vanguard.  What a wonderful thing Edison did for music.  I grew up with 78 rpms records, then 45 records, and finally 33 and a third beautiful records.  It was grand.  Wait, wait, what do you mean I can have it better.  It's called the Compact Disk and it's BETTER!  Finally, we have the perfect item to record sound.  And then came the iPod.  Forty hours of recorded sound!  Can you believe it?

Then came the major change in my paradigm of thinking.  And as if on cue, a school district appears to agree with me.  They allege that kindergarten children will all need iPads of some sort.  Books and sounds will be available to any learner!  Families will not need an encyclopedia as my parents had for me during my youth.  And we will not need to share a computer as the iPad (all types) will handle that duty.

With the advent of cloud computing I can see entire libraries (collections) of material (art, music, print, maps, graphics, photographs, etc) that will be available to all who seek it.  Plato would have loved all this, just sitting there and asking questions.  

There was a philosopher who once said, "Do not live in the answers.  It is the questions that are important."  How true today.  It is the important questions that have value, not the answers.  We have the answers literally at our fingertips...we just have to figure out what the question should be.

There are some of you, gentle readers, wonder where I have been all this time. It took Jane Austin's library of books to make me realize that we now practically have the library of congress at our command.  Right now.  Amazing.  It is a changing paradigm for me.

Thanks for putting up with me.  And thanks to all those teachers who are making the children ask questions.  You're on the right track.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Do Teachers make mistakes?

All the time!  Everyday!  No, we don't do it on purpose, it comes naturally.  Mistakes take on all sorts of configurations and sneak past the teacher when we're not looking.  I still worry about some of my mistakes.

One that bothers me even to this day was Fred.  Fred was a lanky, thin kid in my fifth grade who was very quiet.  A good kid who never seem to get in the way or ever did anything wrong.  But he was a slightly below average kid that I just never reached.  Because he was so quiet I guess I would overlook him from time to time.  But I did that with all the kids, overlooking them at the moment while helping someone else.  

If I kid raised his/her hand I tried to get to them in a manner of minutes.  Sort of like the sign in the doctor's office that reads, "IF YOU'VE BEEN HERE TWENTY MINUTES, PLEASE SEE THE RECEPTIONIST".  If too many hands waved in the air I would sometimes stop the class and see what the overall problem was.  But sometimes a hand in the air was not a problem but rather a need by some student for me to see what they had done.  A bit of praise and I could move on to the next student.

So after explaining the lesson and giving them an assignment to help solidify what I had just taught, I'd walk around the classroom to see how the kids were doing.  Fred would always be studiously working at the assignment.  My mistake was not saying to him, "How are you doing?  Does this make sense to you?"  or something like that.  It was easy to pass Fred.  Strangely enough I can still remember where Fred sat much of the that year--last row on the right (facing the class) about four seats back.

Somewhat like education today, we were trying to increase the reading and arithmetic scores on our yearly tests and all of the teachers were working hard at getting kids to learn.  I felt pretty good with my class--reading was not a problem for most of my kids but I did spend more time on arithmetic then I had the year before.  Time on Task!  But if you are going to spend more class time on reading and arithmetic something has to give--some other subjects have to be slighted in time to make time for the increase work on those two main subjects.  Do you slough off on Health?  You don't want to ignore social studies with the important components of geography and history.  Spelling was definitely not on the hit list; we had to have spelling.  Besides, spelling was always the first subject in the day and it gave me a chance to collect lunch money while the kids worked in their spelling books.  

So as usual I didn't do much in art or music.  I could sometimes get the kids to sing a song while we got ready for lunch or as we walked down to the busses to go home.  But art meant that I had to get supplies ready, a lesson plan as to what we were going to do and some sort of objective that the kids could focus on.  So art got dumped.  Occasionally I get the kids to design a cover for a report that they had done but that was it.  No regrets on my kids could read well and I am positive most could do mathematics at grade level or better.  

It was April and spring was beginning to show up around the school.  The kids were tired having worked hard most of the year.  They were already looking forward to summer vacation and NO SCHOOL.  Funny, here the kids were looking forward to not having school and yet when I met parents in the stores during the summer months, they almost always said the children were looking forward to school in the fall.  And I suspect they were.

But by mid April the kids were tired.  Same old stuff.  "Get your books out"  or "Take a piece of paper and put your name on it."  Boredom.   So this was a time when I would try to do something different.  Moving desks and chairs around was a start, perhaps putting kids into groups or if necessary, breaking groups up into rows.  Sometimes moving my desk to a different corner of the room.  Definitely changing the wall bulletin board helped.  Time for a new map or pictures of places where families were planning to visit during the summer vacations.  

Finally, I designed an art lesson that allowed the kids to do some drawing--I can't remember what it was, maybe some with perspective or balance but I finally had the kids do some art work.  So I'm walking around the room, praising the kids, giving some suggestions and I get over to Fred.  Fred has out done himself.  He not only had done the assignment he had gone far beyond my expectations.  I praised him up and down.  Probably made some comments to the class although I tried not to single kids out.  If you a kid who doesn't get noticed in class and a lot of the other kids do, it hurts.  But Fred had surprised me completely.  

From that moment on I had Fred do art work for the bulletin board, for the windows facing out.  He could draw anything!  And you know what?  He started to blossom.  He'd smile a lot more and participated in class much more.  So I got perhaps the rest of April and all of May where I could get Fred to do some art work.  And his grades in all the other subjects when up.  

I remember writing on Fred's elementary school file that the next teacher would get in the fall that Fred had an amazing talent in art.  "Make sure you get him to start drawing early in the school year."  I'm not sure what happened in the middle school with Fred but I heard that he got into trouble with the Sheriff's department and his step-father sent him to Montana to live.  I hope Fred got to do some more art work.  He was good.  But I wonder what if I had had art lessons earlier in the year that would have allowed Fred to expand on his creativity.  

I've heard that Michelle Rhee, ex-head of the Washington, DC public schools does not believe in lesson plans in creativity and that students should not be coddled.  Maybe, but I will always wonder what if I had given Fred more opportunity to creative might not he have problems in the middle school.  After all these years I still worry about him.

Thanks to all those teachers who manage to get in ALL the subjects even though the pressure is on to teach reading and arithmetic to increase test scores.  Where were you when I needed you for advice.  Thanks for doing what you do.