We Reap What Ed. Policy Has Sown

So this week’s head-scratching story of Ahmed Mohamed and his engineering project, a clock, brings us to the” why”.  As in why didn’t anyone recognize the use of a circuit board to make a clock in a high school engineering project.  IMG_1530

There are, of course, the deeper, darker parts of this story. Prejudice, poor judgements, all had a large role in this student’s treatment. Deny if you must, but had this object been a real incendiary device, the school would have evacuated immediately without waiting around for someone to make a definitive call on what it was.

But there is, for me another undercurrent that impacted this event.  Why didn’t the school, i.e., the teacher, recognize that this was not a bomb, that it was a physical science/engineering project?

For most of the last 20 years that I taught in public schools, science was not part of the school day.  That’s right – no time for science. Or social studies. Several years ago, there was a superintendent in my school district who told us to teach science through reading. Seriously. Sorry kids, no explorations for you.

Time in the day that might have been spent teaching science or social studies was allocated to improving reading, writing, and math scores. Or test preparation.  To be fair, districts have begun to recognize that teaching science and social studies is essential to a good education and so, for the last 2 years, we have had district mandates for including actual science and social studies (experiments, labs, simulations – not “just reading about it”). Schools struggle to incorporate STEM and STEAM and social studies into school days, but the damage of ignoring these subjects has already been done.

Is there any question that, after 20 years of being ignored, our students – some of whom are now teachers – don’t have a basis in science to recognize when a clock is just a clock?

Blaming the Common Core?

This morning’s Washington Post carried an Op-Ed piece by Deborah Kenney, founder of Harlem Village Academies. Unlike many charter schools run by large (overseas) conglomerates trying to turn education into cash cows, this charter appears to have pedagogy and students at the center.

The question Ms. Kenny poses? Is the Common Core causing school experiences to become rigid, developmentally inappropriate, prison-like experiences? Or is it poor pedagogy? Or is it something else?

I started examining the Core when it first came out – partially because of my interest in mathematics curriculum development.  I do believe having the road map for instruction that comes out of the Core is beneficial. I know I may be lulled into subtly lowering expectations for my students because the topic is difficult or because there is some roadblock to students’ learning. Checking adherence to the rigor that is expected of most students at grade level serves as a reminder of the goal and expectations.

The contrasting examples Ms. Kenny cites – a Kindergarten class learning about verbs through interactive and directed play and the class where students didn’t speak except for a rote response to a drill activity on the same topic – point to what I believe is the giant release the core gives teachers. Or at least what it should give us: we are free to address the standards in whatever way our students need. This is the aspect of the Common Core that excites me, the potential to address the curriculum as creatively as I want.

Instead of relying on a textbook, series, or program, what if we plan collaboratively with our colleagues for the students we have in front of us without fear of reprimand for not using some mandated materials? Instead of using a textbook as a Bible, use it as a resource — go to it when necessary? Unpack those standards, understand what happens vertically as well as in our own grade level.

Raise your hand if you’ve seen large textbook publishers “correlations” to state or Common Core standards. Did they make sense to you? Well, most of the time they didn’t to me either.  It seems as if those correlations are marketing materials aimed at purchasing agents within districts. The connections to what we are teaching seem truly fuzzy. Okay, I’ll say it….. they are bogus. A lot of the time.

As one of a team of teachers aligning our available materials to Common Core math standards, I frequently hear teachers complain that they have to go looking for materials. That’s a fact, but it is a fact by design. There are many inventive teachers out there who relish the chance to tap into their creativity and deliver meaningful and memorable lessons.

Our students deserve a rigorous education. They deserve one that is not stifling, or rigid, or devoid of the joy of learning. What we need is time to collaborate, time to research best practice, time to unpack standards.



With An Apology to My Students…..

This is a tumultuous time to be a teacher – many, many new mandates are arriving this year making for a lot of teacher discomfort as we try to make sense of things.

My own personality is that I am an early adopter – not always a good thing I’m sure, but I do tend to try new methods and materials out fairly readily. We have been struggling with Interactive Read Alouds (IRA) and Writing About Reading (with the unfortunate code name WAR in this district – just saying).  The changeover to a more strategically envisioned IRA lesson seemed like a natural extension of the Making Meaning  program we’ve used in our district for about 10 years.

Writing About Reading (sorry, can’t say WAR – I grew up in the 60s) also feels like what our students need. But the message we’re getting, whether intended or not, is that we need to have our students up and proficient for their grade level expectations nearly immediately.

In the rush to get our students performing at higher levels, it is far too easy to forget that the students may not be prepared to be successful. So sometimes they are not. Even with pressure on educators, whether perceived or real, can make for a tricky mix – we want our students to do well, we want them prepared for the new and increased demands on them, and we feel like it should happen NOW.

Last week, I needed to submit an independently produced written response so my grade level could practice applying the district rubric with consistency. So I did and the writing was AWFUL. I had been explicit with students about how to plan for the writing and then set them loose. Bad!

What I didn’t do was about as devastating as what I did do. I didn’t gradually release the responsibility for writing to my students who had not had this writing experience before.

So I did what most teachers do – I backed up, apologized that I hadn’t shown them or given them what they needed and started over.  We took a short text from Gouvdis and Harvey about animal adaptations, posed the essential question (“How do different animals adapt to hear in their environments?”), and went to work with a shared modeling. We talked – this is a 75% ELL classroom so we talk first – we made notes together on our planners, we shared our ideas for a topic sentence and a closing sentence, we found the (required) 3 pieces of evidence supporting the topic and then we turned our notes into sentences and paragraphs.

The take-away from this is that asking kids to do something for which they are unprepared is wrong. I now realize that I had been asking my students to do something they didn’t yet know how to do; something we needed to work on so that gradually the responsibility could be released to them.

Sorry kids. I promise to do a better job of teaching you from now on!

The New Math

It’s been a long, strange journey from where I started as a teacher to the present. I say this because I’ve just finished a month of work with some wonderfully talented third grade teachers on our District’s Common Core Math curriculum maps. When I think back on the way I used to teach, I’m reminded that the “old days” were not always the “good old days”.

When I started teaching elementary school in 1987, math was a matter of following the workbook pages from page 1 to page n.  One day, kids are doing the addition facts for 12, the next day (having mastered addition and subtraction skills, of course), on to subtraction with renaming in 3 places.  No particular mathematical understanding on the part of the teacher – or the students – was necessary. Just do it.

If there is one thing I’d like to ask a former student, it is “how did you survive?”  There is possibly a support group for my former students who either learned to be mathematicians in spite of me or despite my pedagogical “skill”.

One thing I’ve learned about mathematics over time is that there’s a huge difference between the ability to remember and perform the process and the comprehension of the skill. As frustratingly painful as it can be to build understanding over process, as many times as that fragile understanding is undermined by well-intentioned helpers, it is through understanding that students become mathematics thinkers.

Measuring up to the challenge of teaching mathematics, even in elementary school has gone way beyond the ability to eek a 40-minute lesson out of a teachers’ manual.  Teachers need to understand the math themselves and become empathetic to those who cannot do so. It is a heady challenge for one who was considered a math underachiever.

As we educators unpack new Common Core Mathematics standards and uncover what it is that students really need to know in order to understand the mathematics standards, we are challenged to go beyond our old ways of teaching. It it far more important to reach levels of understanding than it is to use up all the pages in a math text.

And that’s a good thing.