Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Choose Your Own Adventure

There's nothing like a good professional quandry at the end of a day.

One of our counsellors came into my room to discuss a student. This particular student has not attended my class more than twice all semester. There have been out of school suspensions, in school suspensions, and just plain truancy.
Now, according to the counsellor, the student is plenty smart enough to pass the course--I'm inclined to believe her. The question: would I be willing to provide enough work from fourth quarter to help the student pass. You should be wondering how it is possible to pass a semester with only one quarter worth of work. Well, in my district, we help students out by not allowing them to receive anything lower than a 45 percent for the first and third marking periods. That way, a student can try to earn a 75% during fourth quarter, plus pass their final exam, and earn a 60% so they can pass. Lovely.
I told her I'd have to think about it.
So blogging colleagues and education watchers, what would you do? Would you give the student all of fourth quarter's work with only two weeks to go in the quarter?
Here were my thoughts, in order:
1. Hell no.
2. How about I give him an exam like the one the state uses? If he can pass that, he clearly has the ability!
3. How about I just say, "It's the Year of Jubilee; all debts are forgiven," and just pass him. I mean, that's what they want me to do, but they can't come out and say it. So, they'll ask me to let him do the work and then he can "pass."
4. Is what I do here really called teaching?

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Mr. McNamar's Mail Time

If I lacked confidence, my first attempt at a mailbag might cause me to never blog again. It's a sad tale. I went from being a 2006 Best Blog of the Year Finalist to having only one person ask me a question. Don't worry Sport's Guy, I'm not much competition for you.
Now to the mailbag:
What's your idea for the perfect use of the results of standardized tests?

I feel that standardized tests are much like instant replay in baseball. People fear that they will ruin the integrity of the classroom; but the fact that schools keep getting it wrong by graduating unprepared students creates the need to implement them. Here's how I would implement them:
1. Move the test to the first month of school.
2. Use tests that allow for quick use of gathered information.
3. Inform instruction based on the skill sets of the class.

If a braineater landed on Margaret Spellings' head, what would happen?

Re-sist temp--ta-tion...Re-sist temp--ta-tion... Seriously though, she's got to have something going on up there. And by the way, I did a youtube search for her appearance on Jeopardy--came up empty. I don't know why, but I couldn't find her clips.
And anyone able to get that position has to be smart enough to at least know the right people!

If we want to keep our jobs, what books should we recommend to high school students who ask us for suggestions?

Suppose we didn't have to give them all the same books, that students actually had interest in reading outside of the classroom; the first book I'd recommend is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. This is the one book I would choose to keep in every student's curriculum.
In general though, I would respond first with a question of my own: "What are you interested in?"
For students who have never valued reading, or, haven't been taught by parents to value reading, it is important to allow them to read books that don't have the literary merit of the classics. If they don't engage in reading what they are interested in, then I don't believe we can engage them in the more complex classics.
On a different note, I would recommend that every student read a book like StrengthsFInder 2.0 by Tom Rath, or How Full is Your Bucket? by Tom Rath. This non-fiction genre provides students with the skill of self-reflection, which is essential if we ever want to influence them.

Okay, thanks Joe for using the mailbag. I enjoyed my first opportunity, and I hope in the future it works out even better.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Ask the Teacher

I want to write a column for the local newspaper that mimics a Bill Simmons Mailbag. But instead of sports, I'd field questions about school and education. So, I'll try it here on the blog first. In the comments section, ask a question. I will answer the question in a future post.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Read the Dictionary

I just finised reading Dennis Fermoyle's post titled, "What I Believe: June, 2008." Belief number five regarding who is to blame when students fail, reminded me of a word I will never forget: culpable. A great professor at Northwest University, Dr. Hobson, uttered the word while reading to us from Cornelius Plantinga Jr.'s Not the Way It's Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin. Not an easy read!
What I remember most, though, was the discussion about the difference between responsibility, which denotes both "answerability" and "accountablity," and culpability, which denotes "blameworthiness." Most discussions regarding educational blame use the connotative meaning of responsibility to cast teachers as blameworthy. However, we must learn to use the nuance of language to adjust our perspective.
First, let us allow for the truth that some teachers lack the insight to self-reflect and thus recognize their culpablity in student failure. Certainly low quality teachers exist, but there is no evidence to sugges that the whole of teachers are of low quality.
A great teacher should always accept responsibility when students fail to achieve. In this sense, I mean that he should be able to answer the question of why that student failed. Sometimes, a responsible teacher will evaluate his efforts and realize that, indeed, he is culpable for the failure.
As my school year comes to a close soon, I will evaluate my year as a unit of work. I believe I am answerable to my students, their parents, and my administrators for the content choices and pedagogical approaches. I can already tell you that I am, in part, culpable for some student failure. In at least one case, I failed to create a connection with a student who clearly could have used my attention.
When it comes to casting blame for student failure, teachers need to accept responsibility, but we don't always have to accept culpability.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

No offense, but why do we read this stuff?

You know what's coming next when someone begins, "No offense, but...." So when my student began talking to me using that phrase, I knew it would be about Othello. We've just started reading the play this week, and I had to have the purchase the play on their own to avoid having to teach Julius Caesar.
It is a legitimate question, and one that I have struggled with more this year as I teach many students who don't want to go to college. If the purpose of English class is to create competent readers and competent writers, does it really matter what texts we use? If my students would be more interested in reading non-fiction about the life of Snoop Dog, why not have them read that book?
Let me say that there are really two main skills that I focus on teaching my students when we read fiction: analyzing character and analyzing theme.
In our everyday interactions, we need the skill of analyzing character. We need to pay attention to what others say, do, and have said about them. It helps us to determine how we interact with those people. But that can be taught through memoirs about Snoop Dog.
Additionally, we need to recognize the magnitude of events in our life and analyze their impact on us. Analyzing theme allows us to learn this life skill. But again, we can read for thematic content in the memoir of Snoop Dog.
Okay, it isn't a classic, but who cares? Does every student need to read Othello or All Quiet on the Western Front? Probably not. Which leads to a more complex question. Does our current education system need a complete and dramatic overhaul? This overhaul does not imply that all teachers are worthless, like some critics would want you to believe. Instead, the overhaul would be directed at our approach. Why can't we get away from town by town school districts and instead move towards highly focused institutions much like the collegiate system.
For instance, a high school graduate looking to pursue a broadcasting degree searches out schools like Syracuse University. But the engineering types might choose Northwestern University. Create schools that are focused on interests, and students will respond. Because frankly, I don't blame some of my students for being bored by Shakespeare; they're never going to use its wisdom and grace beyond my classroom.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

What do students hear?

A failing school with a high minority population brings a guest speaker to motivate students. The speaker, a minority himself, tells his inspirational story of rags to riches despite hustlin' during his teen years.
He talks openly about how he didn't see the value of "math or english" to help him get through the hell he was forced to endure. In the end, he figures it all out and is trying to make a difference.
He encourages students to have a vision, to have the courage to move up, and to read anything they can get their hands on. A great message.
But do the students hear that message, or do they pay attention to the model--"I had to do what I had to do to get by."
I enjoyed his message. I enjoyed his delivery. But I can't help but wonder what message was heard today.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Horse Racing

A brief divergance from educational blogging follows.

If I weren't a teacher, I might have chosen sport photography. An image can enliven us or sadden us; make us think or make us laugh. Yesterday's Kentucky Derby brought tears to my eyes as Eight Belles collapsed after the race. The image of her suffering on the track just before she was put down brought back the single most powerful sports photograph I have ever seen--jockey Chris Antley holding Charismatic's leg after he fractured it trying to complete the third leg of the triple crown. I can't look at that photo without crying.