Monday, June 30, 2014

Is There Too Much Testing in the New Common Core?

Is There Too Much Testing in the New Common Core?
                The State of Utah has adopted the new Common Core and hired a company to write not only end of the year tests, but tests that teachers are expected to give their students throughout the year.  The middle schools in most of the state are developing weekly tests that students will take in each subject covering the learning goals established in the new Common Core.  The students who pass these weekly tests are given enhancement activities while those who do not pass are retaught the skill and retested.  Is all of this testing good for students?
     The purpose of testing is to determine if a student has mastered a skill, but not all objectives are easily tested.  In English Language Arts, students are expected to write two essays: an argumentative and an informational essay with both using correct M.L.A. documentation.  In order to achieve that goal, students need to develop the ability to analyze information, evaluate its relevance, select appropriate information and write it in the coherent, well-written essay that uses parenthetical footnotes and a Works Cited.  To do this students need to not only have skills in punctuation, grammar and usage (the old standbys), but be able to think critically, and compose a carefully thought-through response on command.  Developing these skills takes a variety of learning tactics: modeling good writing, discussions and analysis of nonfiction, materials, as well as grammar, punctuations and usage drills.  More importantly the student needs to write, reflect and rewrite.  If students are taking weekly tests on a single learning goal, the teacher will not have time needed to complete the more important learning activities. 
                As well as the two essays, the students must pass a test on reading skills, literary analysis, vocabulary development and various other language arts skills.   Some of these skills could be contained in weekly tests, but then schools are focusing on the least important skills and the students with the lowest potential for success.   Schools should meet the educational needs of all students, not just the lowest ten percent.  The new Common Core requires teachers to increase the difficulty (lexiles) of the reading materials that is taught.  That is a positive move.  The new Common Core requires students to read both fiction and non-fiction and is not dissimilar to curriculum that was used in schools thirty years ago.  With the advent of Adolescent Literature, many school allowed the reading materials to decline so that many books that had previously been taught in fifth grade were now being taught in the ninth grade.  This too is a positive note.  The new Common Core Curriculum not only focuses on fiction, but nonfiction.  Since students need to be able read non-fiction to be successful in the real world, this too is an advantage.  In order to motivate students to read these more difficult pieces of literature and non-fiction, teachers need time and an opportunity to introduce them in creative ways or students will quickly become disinterested and bored.  If teachers are expected to give these weekly tests, they will be forced to resort to short condensed of selected bits of literature and articles instead of full pieces of literature.  This means our students will become illiterate and lack any culture. 
                End of the year testing has its place, but the administrators and legislatures need to get out of the classroom and let the teachers do their magic.  Teachers are not robots and neither are students.  Weekly testing will reduce what our students know, help them become uncultured, illiterate, unprepared young people who will drop out of school from sheer boredom.  Don’t let that happen.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Alpha Teacher:

The Alpha Teacher

                If you’re my contemporary you will recall Cheech and Chong’s hilarious rendition of Sister Mary Elephant.  When the routine begins with the familiar sound of pandemonium in a classroom, a cacophony of student voices and small almost inaudible whisper of a female teacher saying, “Class” with absolutely no effect on the chattering students.  The frustrated teacher repeats her whisper slightly louder, “class” with still no decipherable effect.  Finally the teacher screeches, “Class” at an ear-splitting volume and the student fall silent.  The teacher timidly whispers, “Thank you.”  This routine is funny to most of us because we have all experienced these ineffective teachers.  Unfortunately, those same techniques are still being employed.  To earn the students’ respect a teacher must become the Alpha Dog by: first, behaving in a self-confident manner; second, creating a positive relationship with your students; and third, developing a routine or a structure in your classroom where students know what to expect.  Becoming the Big Dog, the Alpha Dog, will make your career easier and more enjoyable for everyone.
                The Dog Whisperer has effectively described how to be the pack leader which is exactly what a teacher must be to be effective.  If the teacher demonstrates signs of passive behavior like Sister Mary Elephant, the students will ignore her.  If the teacher becomes aggressive snapping, growling barking at students, the students will manipulate her to continually snap, bark and growl because everyone loves a good show.  If the teacher decides to be “their buddy,” a new leader will emerge and it won’t be the teacher.  How does a teacher emerge as the “top dog,” the Alpha in a pack of whining students?  Watch The Dog Whisperer and notice what he suggests about carrying yourself upright and know when to look at students.  Develop a “teacher look” by keeping a serious or stern face why you make direct eye contact with a student.  Proximity is another powerful tool.  Arrange your desks so you have access to all of your students.  When a student needs “extra attention” move close to his desk, kneel down, moving your face directly into his and using a whisper explain what he is doing wrong, and redirect him.  Sometimes it only takes a question:  "What should you be doing right now?"  Maybe he has no clue.  Finally, call in the infantry, invite “Bart Simpson” to the teacher's desk, ask him to call his mother and explain to her what he was doing in your class.  When he is finished, take the phone and thank her for her help in solving this issue.  The rest of the class has just witnessed the teacher's power and are shaking in their proverbial boots hoping they don’t have to do it.  The word will be out. “Don’t mess with Mrs. Jenkins.  She will make you call your mother.”  If this doesn’t straighten out Bart, it is bound to prevent some potential problems down the road. 
                Next, to be the Alpha Dog, the teacher has to be the dog responsible for the happiness of the pack.  Stand in the hall between classes, greet each student  using his/her name, compliment him/her, and chat with him/her about his/her outside life.  This is the time to strengthen positive relationships with your students.  If a student feels that the teacher likes him and care about him, he is less likely to misbehave in the classroom.
                The most important time in your class is the first two minutes.  Establish a routine or a starter, so all students know what to expect each day.  Just like walking a dog every day creates a pattern that the dog enjoys and appreciates, the teacher needs to create a similar structure with her students.  Don’t get the leashes out yet, but it is the same idea.  When I was in 8th grade, Mr. Limb, our science teacher, walked into the room directly after the bell rang and slapped a yardstick on the desk.  Although we knew it happened every day, we jumped to attention and the chatter stopped.  That particular starter never worked for me.  First, all of my desks are filled with students and the thought of inadvertently hitting one terrified me.  Second, there seemed to be a shortage of yardsticks in my school.  Maybe lots of teachers tried Mr. Limb’s tactic and broke them. Instead, I purchased a small xylophone with three notes on it.  It sounded like the old NBC intro-music.  The notes are high and piercing.  Students covered their young ears, but don’t worry it never affected my old ears at all.  Then, I would say “It’s your favorite time of day, Silent Sustained Reading.  Get your books out and I’ll put ten minutes on the clock.”  I use an old oven clock to time them. Always start the class on a positive note and it will set the atmosphere for the rest of the period.  School should be something students look forward to just like the dog looks forward to his daily walk.  Within a month, students are asking if they can play the three notes on the xylophone, or put the ten minutes on the clock.  What is especially satisfying is that they all begin finishing my line in unison.  On days, we don’t get to have “Our favorite time of day,” they complain.  Routines are important.  How do you think the army turns restless, smart-mouthed teens into “a fighting-machine.”
                So don't be a teacher like Sister Mary Elephant who cannot control her class and don’t give them a writing assignment about why they should behave appropriately.  First, they are having too much fun destroying their teacher's mind and second, the English Department is trying to convince them that writing is fun.  Instead watch The Dog Whisperer  and learn how to be the Alpha-Teacher.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Don't Forget to Laugh

Don’t Forget to Laugh

by Jill Jenkins
                Life is a series of pratfalls and if you can’t laugh at yourself, you will explode.  Allow yourself the luxury of a good laugh.  Schools are all unnatural situations fighting impossible odds.  The tension can get so thick that everyone and everything seems to be coming apart at the seams.  Teachers are asked to perform miracles in over-crowded classes filled with students who are riddled with hormones, who are growing so fast that their butts can’t stay in their plastic, broken chairs while their voices cracks and their shoes that fit in the morning are now pinching their feet.  All of them are secretly pining for some unrequited lover who is a pimply faced adolescent who not only has no idea that they even exist, but is also secretly pining for another unsuspecting adolescent.  From this turmoil, teachers are expected to create a well-organized army of intellectuals who can read three grade-levels above their own grade, compose both argumentative and informational essays at the snap of a finger with correct M.L.A. documentation, and decipher advanced college calculus and do all of this without ruffling any feathers of parents, counselors, administrators or fellow teachers.  Is it any wonder that whining from the staff room can be heard three corridors across the school, but the sane solution is to stop whining and start laughing.
                Laughing will not only reduce teacher stress, it will reduce student stress.  Laugh not only at the everyday occurrences, but (and more importantly) laugh at yourself.  I recall a particularly difficult day when I was teaching theater at West High School.  Play rehearsal was under way for Alice in Wonderland. The auditorium was filled with cardboard barrels that Sweet’s Candy Company had generously donated to make the many mushrooms for our set.  One of these barrels had been placed in front of the stage where I sat to give the students stage directions.  On this day, students were not paying attention and were spending too much time socializing in the wings causing them to miss too many cues. Like a good educators, I called the cast to the front of the auditorium to lecture them on why it was important to focus during rehearsal because of the limited time we had to prepare our play.  Lack of time to properly prepare is an on-going problem in schools.  As I talked, I paced about finally sitting on the edge of the barrel. Unknown to me, the lid was slightly askew and when I sat down, the lid flew across the room and I folded like a taco and fell into the barrel. Needless to say, with my arms and legs poking directly from the top of the barrel and my behind deep inside, I could not free myself.  In fact, I couldn’t move. The room fell silent.  I know secretly they all wanted to laugh, but were afraid.  What could I do, but break into laughter.  There was an audible sigh from the students ant they helped me from my predicament.
                As an educator, don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself or try something outrageous.  When students understand that even teachers make mistakes, laugh and move on,  they will less afraid to move beyond their comfort level and try new things.  It is okay to fail.  That is how people learn.  When you enjoy your job, your students will enjoy theirs.  You will be surprised how a little humor will improve their ability to learn.  By reducing stress, you are teaching students how to effectively deal with stress.  Don’t forget to laugh. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

What Teachers Do Matters, But What Teachers Don't Do Matters More

                What teachers do matters, but what teachers don’t do matters even more.  When my late father was in his early eighties, I asked him to recall the most memorable experience from his school days.  Since he had dropped –out of school in ninth grade, I thought it might be revealing.
                On Sadie Hawkins Day, the students were expected to dress in bib-overalls, but my father couldn’t because his mother could not afford to purchase extra clothing. Although they lived in an affluent neighbor for the late 1930’s, his parents were divorced and his mother had moved into her parents’ home to raise her two sons as a single parent.  His grandparents had money and lived in the old Sweet’s mansion on Ninth East and Ninth South in Salt Lake City, but his mother did not. 
                When my father arrived at school, he saw a group of boys “pantsing” another boy who was also not wearing overalls.  My father tried to silently sidle away, but they spotted him, chased him down and captured him.  He fought back with everything he had.  During the attack, he looked up at the school and saw his teacher peering down through a window watching the victimization, but she made no effort to intervene. My father claimed that the knowledge that his teacher made no effort to stop this event was more painful than the humiliating event itself.
                Students perceive teachers as their protectors. When a young person sees a teacher watching any form of persecution without stopping it, his sense of safety is diminished.  My father escaped his persecutors and ran home.  He did not return to school that day, because he was humiliated.  Within a year, he dropped-out of school.
                If a school wants to decrease absenteeism and lower the drop-out rate, all staff members need to be student advocates. All students need to feel safe.  Schools must carefully select activities to include all students, not just those who come from financially stable homes. Surprisingly, all neighborhoods have students whose families are not financially stable.  Schools need to focus on activities that are inclusive, because there are fewer incidents of bullying when students feel like a community.  By focusing on shared positive experiences and student similarities, students more often care for each other, rather than bully each other.  When differences are emphasized, students often punish and mistreat those who seem outside the norm.  Above all, in schools it is everyone’s responsibility to intervene when a student is being victimized.  Students count on teachers to protect them, advocate for them and teach them.  What teachers don’t do does matter.