Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Year's resolution

It's New Year's Eve day--we just got a shredder, so we're busy going through years and years worth of paper. Some of it has been shredded, some we'll save.

*The receipt for my sister's cremation.
*A rejection letter from the Paris Review back in 1982 with the encouragement to send more words. (It was my first and only fiction submitted anywhere--an encouraging letter from a favorite literary magazine was enough.)
*An envelope with a picture of Mother Theresa and the Pope inside, with George Carlin's home number scrawled on the outside in my mom's handwriting. All four are dead now--I think I'll hold on to this.
*My old beat up code cards I used to stuff in my pocket on the way to moonlighting in an inner-city medical center, cards I used several times. More than once I regretted that they worked--severely brain-damaged children are hardly miracles.

And on and on, funeral cards and christening announcements, of little interest beyond my clan.

I had planned to post a list today--a snazzy (or at least snarky) Roll of Hubris, topped by the madness deep below the ground, the Large Hadron Collider, which remains broken.

And plowing through the paper reminds me of my own--feigning immortality despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Our students are mortal, too. We use up a lot of their time pushing them through a system that judges them by how well they test. We use up a lot of their time preparing them for an environment that requires staying on task even when the point of the task no longer matters.

So here's my New Year's resolution: recognize my students' mortality. I am taking a piece of time in their finite lives. I'd better make good use of it.

Every task I require of my students should hold value, a value I can articulate, a value beyond "to get you ready for the next year" or "to get you ready for the High School Proficiency Assessment."

If it's something of questionable value but required by the curriculum, I will not hesitate to share my doubts, and I will work to get the curriculum changed.

Yep, I know, I know, you do this anyway. I also know that we are agents of the state, and are required to teach a specific curriculum. I am not challenging that--I am free to go work in a private venture if I want to thrust some megalomaniacal value system on my charges.

I'm talking about the day to day small stuff that rewards children's persistence but not their curiosity, that rewards performance over mastery.

What are we doing here?


Louise Maine said...

Bravo! I am there too and until I can actually change the curriculum I still have to apologize for what I have them do. I am starting to get scrutiny from above for worrying about content but it is a battle I am prepared to fight.

Sean Nash said...

What are we doing here? Allow me to sum up my opinion REALLY briefly, as this too could take a fairly fat volume...

We have HUGE divide between the folks who really have the content knowledge to drive the curriculum (higher ed.) and the (should be) pedagogical experts in our K-12 educational institutions.

That needs a word or two more: one could argue that higher ed. is a collection of research institutions with their eye on publishing academic works in dusty old journals... not on teaching & learning. However, my experience was different. The gentlemen I learned science from at the undergrad level were deeply knowledgeable, but more importantly passionate about teaching. Luckily for me, they were naturals at this, for very little training is given to those at that level. So, I have seen higher ed. work so well. Those gentlemen... who have their eye not only on fostering cutting research (but with undergrad students) but also teaching their own classes and inspiring subsequent waves of future teachers.

Hell- I ran into Dr. Ashley (a parasitologist and model biology instructor) in the video store just last night (where I got "Burn After Reading" -funny stuff) and I walked out of the store -planning more projects than I already have- on the way to my cold, blue car.

The flipside is... we hire near idiots to control state level curriculum. Let this statement be preserved on the web. Our current curriculum director for science (K-12 mind you) was an elementary teacher. Our previous was a 7th-grade Earth science teacher.

I am a generalist instructional coach in a high school. My focus as of the past three years has been pedagogical polishing across all content areas. Apparently- I was hand picked for this job because of a predisposition toward pedagogical skill and a drive toward excellence. That really isn't a un-purposefully cocky statement.

Allow me to be the person to state here that instructional strategies cannot fix the system at a higher level. Being a "good teacher" does not qualify one for conceiving, writing, disseminating, and managing the implementation of a comprehensive high school science curriculum.

So how do we fix that? I can tell you how we make an attempt in my state... we "involve" expert teachers. Mmmmm hmmmm. I have been involved as a "content expert" in several stages of the creation of our high-stakes state exam at the high school level. It sucks. Seldom have I been so disenfranchised as when I have had to spend four days locked in a room with 9 to 11 other "content experts" wishing... praying... I had a member of higher ed. int he room with me to help drown out loud voices drenched with scientific misconception. *Sigh.*

So yeah- "Missouri teachers have a voice in our own exam." Uh huh. let me say in writing how bad of an idea this really can be. I would love to give you examples. I could give colorful examples that would make the readers of this blog giggle and feel good inside you aren't in the Show-Me state. However, (and I am being very serious here) I cannot do that. I have sworn in writing that I will not give specific examples of the items on these exams, nor the discussions/debate surrounding those items.

How CIA is that? I even got a letter in the mail a week after each even *reminding* me of my commitment. See what I mean?

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.

So I ask... how can any true oversight of such a sick process be done if only students subjected to the test... or silent (and often underqualified) teachers?

*I started this comment around 1:00pm... but with diapers, bottles, etc... I have lost my train of thought. Sorry. But I will post trusting that my pediatrician pal understands.


doyle said...

I can't afford too much scrutiny yet, but then again, I'm not known for playing anything safe.

I think Sean captured a huge part of the problem in his note.

I have no idea where you find the time, but your words resonate here.

I remember Dr. Kaufman, a botanist at Michigan, whose passion for science and plants changed my world. (He gave me his account number so I could use the SEM--a few weeks later, he wondered who had been spending so much time burning up his account. He wasn't angry, more amused--a natural teacher.)

Part of the problem with teaching in public high school is that classroom management is at least as important as content. Few kids want to be there after being exposed to 8 or 9 years of formal education.

Though I've been fortunate--I am blessed with wonderfully supportive administrators--I realize my observations are more focused on my management than my pedagogical skills. (Twice I've been jokingly told that it's science, and beyond the evaluator's scope--both times it was a low level 9th grade class. I can't imagine a similar conversation about a language arts class.)

I'm fortunate in that I'm older, bigger, and grumpier than most new teachers with a soft spot for my wackadoodles, so management is rarely an issue when I'm observed.

Another problem is that expectations are too low for teachers. This is no secret, of course, but it's not easily fixed. I happen to love teaching, and I'm in a position where I can bail out if I wanted to. Many of my colleagues are happy, too--I work with a good group, including two retired chemists and a retired human physiologist. A few others, however, are not happy. If you don't like teaching, it must be a miserable experience. There is no place to hide.

Our state exams also involve teachers, with similar results. Officially I am not allowed to even peek at the state test when it is given, though I am expected to proctor it.

I do get to see the rejected questions, and a few of them are preposterous. Still, it's the reject pile, so maybe our exams are scintillating examples of brilliance, I have no way of knowing.

So I guess my next question is this. How can a presumably competent teacher influence the curriculum at the state level short of falling into the trap of committees? Seems to me any teacher worth his salt would not get too terribly involved in a process that requires a substantial portion of time outside the classroom. (The meetings for designing the state tests occur during instructional time.)

Finally, I agree that there is a misconception about the higher ed folks. A good researcher is going to be excited about his work, and it's natural to want to share this joy. I've had some TA's that sucked during the formal parts of class discussion but who rocked outside of class. I suspect that professors with any experience quickly learn what works and what doesn't in a classroom--takes a bit of smarts and self-awareness to get there. Maybe I'm just romanticizing, maybe I just got lucky, or maybe I just don't remember the knuckleheads.

I am rambling--I should know better than to respond while celebrating the New Year. I suspect this may be edited heavily before long.