Sunday, October 31, 2010


As I struggle with getting my Fundamental Level and College Prep students to succeed, I am running into some serious roadblocks which may prevent me from reaching our goals. Here are the roadblocks:

1. My students are reading well below grade level.
Q. If the state standards expect student performance at grade level, shouldn't our classroom tests also be at grade level? And shouldn't all students be judged according to the standard?

2. We have a glaring achievement gap.
Q. If our highest achieving students are reading Shakespeare, shouldn't our lowest achieving students also be reading Shakespeare? Otherwise, doesn't the gap continue to grow?

3. My lowest achieving students don't attempt homework.
Q. Should I read the text to them?

4. A small but dominating number of students disrupt our halls during class.
Q. Should I close my door and ignore?

I've found myself in a troubling predicament philosophically. On the one hand, I believe in the idea that all of my students deserve a college prep curriculum. However, it seems that too many of my students don't buy into that same belief. While I am asking my lowest performers to attempt their readings each night so that we can work on chunks of text in class, they are not even bothering with it. My lowest performers are being given the same novels and short stories as my college prep students, but I can't "differentiate" if none of the students try the reading.

I want my school to operate successfully. I want our hallways clear and free of distraction so that my students can find success. I don't want to allow the disruptive students to get away with distracting our school, but if I interrupt class to call security, I take away instruction time from my students. If I simply move the disruptive students along, I'm tacitly allowing the disruption to continue.

I want all of my students to succeed at grade level and to the same standard. If I lower the reading levels of my novel selection to match where my lowest readers are at, I am suggesting that these students are not capable and thus lowering my expectations for them. By not giving them an honest college prep curriculum, I am, again, tacitly allowing the achievement gap to continue and grow.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Let Stupid Reign

Apparently, the message the Washington Officials Association, the organization overseeing high school referees in Washington state, would like to send is that charity demands permission. When a group of referees allegedly violated their uniform code by sporting pink whistles in support of breast cancer research, the WOA chair, Todd Stordahl, threatened suspensions.
Stordahl claims that the referees are the ones sending the wrong message, that their choice to use pink whistles in direct violation of the code is some type of slippery slope.
Well, Mr. Stordahl, good luck and enjoy your 15 minutes of fame.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

What is Fair in Teacher Evaluations?

Our staff just found out some important and interesting information regarding our evaluation process. The news, which I am generally indifferent to, came as somewhat surprising considering I served on the committee which worked for two years to create and tinker with our evaluation plan.
Our evaluation plan has six domains, five of which relate directly to classroom instruction. Each of those domains were given indicators to support the overall domain's intent. Here is one of the domains, and its indicators:
Domain 4: Instruction for Active Learning
  • Well-defined content and language objectives were posted.
  • Examples were relevant and connect to students' lives.
  • Effective teaching strategies, instructional aids, media, and resources prompted student engagment.
  • Explanations were clear.
  • Differentiation of instruction evident.
  • Higher level questioning was evident.
  • Initiation and closure evident.
  • Lesson was relevant, motivating, and engaging.

Now to the news. If any of those eight indicators is marked as "No" or not evident, the evaluator is expected to mark the teacher as "Not meeting standards" for the entire domain. So, if I were to have seven of those indicators marked as "Yes," but missed out on posting my objectives, I am considered as incompetent at Instruction for Active Learning.

Now, I can't help but wonder whether we would dare hold our students to a similar standard. Would a student essay which is well-organized, persuasive in tone and effect, but lacking evidence of an effective conclusion be marked as failing the essay completely?

These are the issues which cause teachers to grow cynical. While we are told this is not a "gotcha" process, the notion that missing 1 out of 8 indicators makes us a failure, and that is precisely what such a policy implies, creates an atmosphere of distrust and fear.

In the end, I wonder what my global colleagues think about their evaluation process. Is it fair? Is it even possible to have fairness when dealing with human evaluators with different ideas of what is and is not evident?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Teacher Morale

If you are like me, the recent thrashing of our profession was everything from thought-provoking to ire-building. And readers here know that I am not always a full supporter of unions and that I cheat on my public school by supporting charter schools and working for a non-profit focused on getting urban students out of public schools and into elite boarding schools. For me, the recent drubbing we took coincided with a healthy dose of chaos in our building. Teachers, who are normally well-spirited, have quickly grown weary this year. An obvious lack of energy and passion hovers over our faculty. If we are this worn down in October, what will we look like in March? Should our morale remain in the depths of despair, our students will certainly suffer. As of this day off from school, here are my ways to improve teacher morale at any building where morale is low:

1. The Gift of Time: As student scores drop, the amount of time a teacher can devote to planning dwindles. Instead, we attend professional development sessions where adminstrators "model" appropriate teaching methods. Then, we are shipped off to unwrap standards, create common formative assessments, score those assessments, make a pretty chart about those scores, and then start all over again. I'm not suggesting that we shouldn't seek improvement. However, what should happen is that we are allowed to focus on the areas that we need to improve on as individuals. Do you need time to plan your next unit? Then sitting in a professional development session on Marzano's effective teaching strategies (which are common sense) probably isn't the best use of your time.

2. Differentiate: What a fantastic word! If your sophomore English class has students reading at the 5th grade level and students reading at the 11th grade level, then YOU must differentiate. Why is this only an effective concept for teaching students? Every professional development looks the same for every teacher. No matter that you have already created, delivered, scored, and analyzed your pre-assessments. Today, we are all working on creating pre-assessments. Treat me like an individual, just as we are expected to do with our students.

3. Respect: Please value us. When Teacher X is doing the best she can with a terrible situation she did not create, tell her you appreciate her; don't question how she missed that one student out of 70 who wrote on the cafeteria table. Teachers generally do their best. We are notorious for accommodating others, giving more of our time and selves than we ever should be required to do professionally, and for making something out of nothing. So let us know that. The other day I noticed an adiminstrator at my door. He watched for about two minutes and left. Later that day, he sent an e-mail to the staff letting us know that he had been out to many rooms that afternoon and saw excellent teaching happening in the building. It's time that schools learn from the business world. Value your "help."

A secondary aspect of teacher morale is under our control. Though we are running in so many different directions, and though our frustration levels are at an all-time high, we need to come together, not divide ourselves. Teachers need to find ways to come together.
Our school recently came together by purchasing a Staff t-shirt. One hundred and two of our roughly 150 teachers, custodians, and support staff put up the $12 to purchase a terrific shirt. In the process, we raised over $500 for a newly established Faculty Scholarship Fund. You know what your building needs in terms of morale; start making it happen.
If you need fun, go have fun together. If you need respect, start letting your colleagues know that you appreciate them--something I need to become better at and will remedy once I stop typing here.
At any rate, we can either allow others to beat us down or we can choose to be great in spite of them. Our morale is ultimately in our hands.