Sunday, April 24, 2011

I don't suck at this

A couple of weeks ago I found myself in a conversation with several of my colleagues about Baseball's opening day.  For one, an avid Red Sox fan, Opening Day marked the beginning of the end of the school year.  "You know what it means to me?  It means that I have arrived at the point in the school year at which I can start counting the number of papers that I have left to grade in hundreds instead of thousands."

"That's the most depressing thing I have heard all week," said my good-natured colleague.

"No it's not," I insisted "it's hopeful."

The prospect of having thousands of papers to grade at the start of the year is daunting.  Hundreds of papers are manageable.  It's really just a matter of setting aside the time, adding as much caffeine as is needed, allowing for occasional procrastinating visits to Sh*t My Students Write for purposes of encouragement and letting fly. It falls nicely into a pattern that the author of not that kind of doctor has called the Five Stages of Grading.

When I first started teaching and I went home over winter break with a pile of ninth grade essays on To Kill a Mockingbird, my dad looked skeptically at me and asked me, "Does everyone spend as much time grading as you do?" and then hurriedly followed that up by saying "I am not saying you're doing it wrong, I am just asking if it takes everyone this long to get it done."

I got the idea.  He was asking, in his own Dad way, "Do you just suck at this? Or does this really take this long?"  He meant well.  There's a good reason why the obvious answer, that it does, in fact, take this long to teach kids how to write properly, was not immediately apparent to him.  It's because we often hide the amount of time that we spend grading out of a fear that the amount of time we spend working outside of the school day is in some way our own failure.  I always felt as though there was someone out there had figured out a shortcut to reading and marking papers and I was just ashamed of the fact that I hadn't discovered the secret yet.

It has taken me a while to accept that I do not actually suck at grading.  I am not doing something wrong.  It just takes a really long time to do it well.  A really long time.  This is what I find revolutionary about that a couple of groups of teachers in New Jersey and Michigan - two states where teachers have been under a full assault from all sides - are doing by staging grade-ins. They are sitting in public and doing the things usually done around their kitchen tables at night after their kids have gone to bed or in the local Panera Bread (free WiFi, cheap coffee) on Sunday afternoons or on the subway train after work or wherever else one might find them outside of school hours.

The fact that we can't get done everything that we need to do during the school day is not a failure on our part.  It is a reality of the job.  Here's the other reality: as class sizes increase year by year and as state testing systems pull writing off of their assessments because it's too expensive and / or time consuming (ya think?) to grade all of the student responses, English Language Arts teachers are the only ones actually teaching writing. I know that this is a huge generalization, and there are plenty of other content area teachers who are, against all odds, teaching kids to write on lab reports, research papers and explanations of math problems.  In my ideal world all teachers would teach reading and writing.  Why?  Because kids have to encounter language skills in multiple contexts in order to actually be able to utilize them when they need to do so. 

Again, back to reality.  I know how long it takes to grade this stuff.  And I totally understand why someone who does not think that it lies within their content-area job description to teach writing would not do so, especially if their class sizes have increased by 15-20% over the last five years like mine have.  It's hard work, and it's not particularly familiar territory for a great many teachers.  Despite this fact, the sense among ELA teachers that we are now the only ones teaching kids to write only adds to the pressure to provide meaningful feedback to students.  And as there are more and more students in my classes every year, it becomes more difficult to provide the kind of feedback my students need.  It also means that students think that pesky things like mechanics only matter in English class (if even there).  In case you need a reminder of why little things like this matter, see Taylor Mali on the subject.

Teaching kids to write isn't easy, cheap or convenient for anyone, but I wouldn't be doing this job if I didn't believe it to be necessary and important.  I suppose that what I want people to understand about the time that teachers put in after school hours is that this is an important part of children's educations. I also want them to know that as teachers, every time someone says "Oh, of course teachers put in some time outside of school, but..." we cringe.  We cringe because we know that whatever idea they have in their heads about what the work we do outside of school is like, they really have no idea. They have no idea at all how long it takes to provide feedback to 150 14 and 15-year-olds on what it is that they have written.

Unless teachers make the invisible hours spent grading, planning, writing IEP goals, responding to parent phone calls and e-mails, writing curriculum and tutoring kids one on one visible to those who would blow that work off as insignificant, we can't expect anyone to understand.  We can't expect anyone else do do it for us.

The problem is that teachers working alone at home around dining room tables are very easy to ignore. Speak. Write. Make your voices heard. And when people tell you that they know what it is you do with your time, say very politely, "No, I'm sorry, you do not.  Here is what I do.  Here is why I do it.  Thank you for listening."

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Open Season

Ah, spring is in the air, the cars are covered in pollen, teenagers everywhere are rediscovering the importance of deodorant and it's time to start TESTING SEASON!  So begins the annual spring ritual of the American public school in which, right at the exact moment when children begin to stare longingly out the window and think of summer we plunk them down in front of a three-hour-high-stakes-paper-and-pencil nightmare and say "Good luck kid!  Show us what you've learned!"

Now, I understand that tests are an important part of any educational system, and that assessments are necessary to drive instruction, to measure student progress, and to determine if kids are learning what we are meant to be teaching them.  I get it.  As an educator who never knew what it was like to teach in the world before No Child Left Untested - I mean "Behind" - I totally understand.  We have to do it.  Not just because someone else says we have to do it.  It's good practice, in principle at least, to use assessment to meaningful purposes.  My primary beef with our current species of assessment has very little to do with principles and a great deal to do with the practical facts of the case: many of the assessments themselves are poorly designed, and the data that comes back is lacking critical information regarding what kids have an have not learned.  We pour our kids into a can of alphabet soup - MSA, HSA, STARR, AP, IB, SAT, ACT, PSAT and the most ironically named standardized test on the planet, the Virginia SOL - and what we get in return is...very little.

What's worse is this: the pressure to push numbers causes everyone, teachers, administrators, parents, and kids to do exactly that, to push numbers.  Which would be great if it were our job.  But it's not.  Our job is to actually educate children.  And not just to educate them to sit a three hour exam.  Our job is to educate children to respond the the ever-growing challenges of an increasingly complex world that requires critical and analytical thought if one is to remain socially and economically relevant. 

As the preponderance of sentence fragments in the preceding paragraph might indicate, I get a little fired up about this.  Here's why: testing does weird things to our brains.  Let me explain.  Several years ago, in the run up to state exams, I had perhaps the most vivid nightmare that I have ever had.  Period.  I had a tough class that year.  In my group of 30 tenth graders, five kids had been arrested for various offenses before spring break.  Almost half of the students had diagnosed learning disabilities and the average kid was reading on a sixth grade level.  So I was in full on prep mode from day one.  I thought it was our only chance of getting them to pass.  To push the numbers just a little bit.  Enough to make AYP anyhow.

My class of misfits was doing alright until about two weeks before the test when they collectively seemed to lose their damn minds.  On the Sunday night before testing week, I drifted off to sleep doing some reading for my own coursework and suddenly I was in my classroom.  I found myself facing the usual suspects of my previous five years of teaching.  Every kid I had ever taught with a tragic life history, all of the kids who were so ADD that they couldn't remain seated for 45 minutes, every gang member, everyone who had ever been suspended, hospitalized, expelled or arrested was there.  It was like Dangerous Minds on meth.  That was when the fire alarm went off.

I collected up my things, grabbed my sunglasses and rosters and said something like "Alright folks.  Let's head outside. C'mon now."

But they didn't move.  They just sat there, being themselves, refusing to move.  That's when I started to raise my voice.  Somehow, even before I could smell the smoke in my nostrils, I knew that it wasn't a drill.  I knew that it was a real emergency.  After much screaming, threatening and wheedling on my part, a few of them started to drift out.  The boys, that is.  Finally, after what seemed like decades, I was left facing only a small group of girls, ranging in age from 14 to 17.  I could feel the room warming up, see the smoke getting thicker, hear the sirens wailing away in the parking lot.  Just when I thought about physically dragging them all from the building, they all simultaneously stood up like some kind of cheer squad: in unison, and turned 90 degrees to the right.

They were all pregnant.

This feeling of overwhelming terror came over me and I remember thinking "Oh my God.  They're doomed.  Not only are they doomed for this generation, but for the next generation as well.  Because of me.  We are all deeply, deeply screwed."  Not to rely on a narrative cliche, but that is when I woke up in a cold sweat. 

This is what testing does to us as teachers.  It drives us to the very edge of reason and, because of the fact that many of our jobs now rest on our ability to make numbers move, we attach so much importance to that one three-hour exam that we forget about how little control we have over the myriad factors that determine how kids do on these tests.  We are trying so hard to do everything, to solve every problem, to cure every ill, that to do just the best we can with the time we have seems like a colossal failure.

I am a strong believer in the fact that all teachers should watch The Wire.  It won't make you feel any better about the job - it will probably make you feel worse - but it will at least give you some context to smile wryly when things get so insane that you think you must be living in some kind of bad teaching movie that is being filmed in real time so that at any moment some director is going to pop out and say "Great!  I feel like we have covered the hardship portion of the movie, let's move on the the 'innovative teaching method that inspires these hard-nosed kids to love you and succeed in life' part!"

Season four of The Wire is set in the Baltimore City Public Schools, and in one memorable scene one of the characters' little brothers, his backpack too large for him, is shuffling home with his older brother from school.  The older brother asks what is going on in school, and the younger one says "MSA prep.  Teacher say if we don't do good someone gonna get fired." It's heartbreakingly perfect in that the kid realizes that the numbers are all that matters.

Right before testing season, one of the first year teachers, who is also a former police officer named Prez "can't believe the pointlessness of teaching test questions and wonders how it will ever assess what the kids are learning. Grace [another teacher at the school] explains they're not really assessing the kids - if the scores go up the administrators can say that the schools are improving. Prez realizes he's been here before: they're 'juking' the stats, just like in the police department. 'Making robberies into larcenies.  Making rapes disappear.  You juke the stats and majors become colonels.'"

Couldn't have said it better myself.