Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Lives of Teachers: Autonomy Versus Control

I have a lot going on right now, but I had to write a post for a project I'm working on about teacher autonomy, so I thought I'd post it here. 

Clearly, if we just leave teachers to their own devices, to teach with their doors closed and no supervision, we cannot be assured of high-quality instruction.  At the same time, if we ask teachers to be automatons who parrot pre-packaged lessons, they will not be able to discern or respond to the nuanced needs of their students.  Being a good teacher requires a remarkable amount of professional judgment, which can only be developed and honed through experience and reflection.  Trying things out, seeing how they work, tweaking them, and trying them again is one of the best ways to become a skillful teacher.

I teach at a school that has, in general, erred on the side of requiring less of teachers, of leaving teachers more or less to their own devices.  As someone who loves creating curriculum, this has suited me well, and we have ended up with a great deal of creative and engaging curriculum.  At the same time, it's not effective in all cases, and we have also ended up with a great deal of misguided and dull curriculum.  New teachers are overwhelmed at the prospect of having little guidance; we have not had enough vertical alignment and differentiation (for example, we see teachers in grades 1 through 5 teaching nearly identical mini-lessons in writing! Ah, Lucy Calkins.); and there are times when all teachers, no matter their experience, realize they don't know enough about how to teach a certain concept, and would like some help.

So as a school, we are trying to navigate the space between too much autonomy and too much control. We are asking teachers to documents their lesson plans each week, but in whatever way works for them -- in other words, you plan your week in the way you always have, and you post it online.  As long as plans are there by Sunday, you're good to go.  There is quite a bit of flexibility in terms of how teams carry this out.  And there is definitely more leeway given to experienced teachers.  If you have proven, over the years, that you achieve results with your students, others will rarely question what you are doing in your classroom.  If a teacher is judged to be struggling, more oversight and guidance come into play -- her plans might be more closely monitored, for example, and she might be asked to explain the thinking behind her plans.

This question of autonomy, in the end, comes down to whether teachers are meeting students' needs. There are certainly a number of ways to teach nearly any concept -- the question is, is your instruction effective, and does it meet the emotional, developmental, and cultural needs of your students?  How you figure out whose instruction is effective is, of course, a bigger conversation.  It is clear you can't tell only by looking at test scores.  It's also clear that it's complicated.

I often make comparisons between running a school and my father's job managing employees at a retailer.  I do not agree with people who think schools should be run just like businesses -- but I think there are definite similarities.  The process of supervising and evaluating employees at my dad's work involves goal-setting, 360 evaluations, mentoring, and many conversations.  When someone is not performing well enough, they talk a lot, they let them know specifically what they have to get better at and how it will be measured, they try to help them get better, and they document all of the steps taken. If it works, great.  If not, that person is asked to leave -- including the higher-ups.  The bottom line might seem clearer in business than in education -- making money is the goal -- but that's not all they focus on. They look at adherence to the mission and vision of the organization, communication and people skills, risk-taking, etc.  And they manage to evaluate all of these things, not only by looking at a number (ie. a test score), but using a more complex system.

It seems like there are things that must be non-negotiable in a school.  A teacher must follow and adhere to the mission and values of the school where she teaches.  She must meet the developmental, emotional, and academic needs of her student.  She must be able to work with colleagues and families. And she must be permitted to use her professional judgment to make decisions about all of these things.

PS. Until recently, I might have talked about adhering to curriculum standards. It's no longer really permitted, in education, to question the validity of the standards, and I do think that having standards, or competencies, that we expect of students is in theory a good idea.  But I have a lot of questions about the standards we currently work with.  I am reading a book I think everyone should read: "Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us," by Daniel Koretz.  (I have such a crush on him.)  And he says, "The process of setting standards -- deciding just how much students have to do to pass muster -- is technically complex and has a scientific aura, but in fact the standards are quite arbitrary ... Standards-based reporting provides a very coarse and in some cases severely distorted view of achievement."

So I am more ambivalent about the standards than ever, but try to keep those thoughts to myself so as to avoid being run out of town on a rail.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Writing is like talking

I've been trying to infuse my science, social studies, and math instruction with more writing.  At my school, we aren't that great yet at teaching children to write, and the result of our instruction in that domain leaves much to be desired.  (I am fully implicated in this problem along with my colleagues -- for years, I've been saying I don't really know how to teach writing.)

Yesterday I decided that, as the culmination of a week of testing minerals to determine their properties, each student would write a short description of one "mystery mineral."  Other students would have to use their description, and the clues gleaned from the mineral tests, to figure out which mineral they were describing.

Using our new ELMO, I modeled how to take the results of your mineral tests and turn them into sentences which, when put together, would produce a short paragraph about your mineral.  I carefully scaffolded the lesson with 3 different versions of a fun flip-up paper (with a space for the answer inside): one version that only required filling in blanks, another that provided "hints" of what details to include, and a final sheet with only a title.

They wrote things like this:


I stopped the class at least 3 times to remind them that good writers explain things so that others can understand, and I gave examples of ways to turn these single words into sentences.  My mineral is clear.  Its streak color is white.  It is dull and opaque.  I can scratch it with my fingernail, so it is not very hard.

At the end of the lesson, at least 7 students still had fragments on their papers.  Three of these had collapsed in frustration, one in tears.  Definitely not my strongest teaching moment -- but one to learn from.

One student, Willy, kept asking me (in a high-pitched whine, I might add), "Why do I have to write it like that?  Everyone knows what I mean!"

I came back today prepared for a do-over.

First, I read to them from an adult field guide to rocks and minerals that uses some of the same language they have been learning: luster, transparency, opaque, streak, hardness.  I pointed out that the geologists who wrote the book had to write with complete sentences so that other people could understand.

We talked about tests they would take. About being in fifth grade, in high school, in college, and doing science and writing about it.  We talked about what if a stranger came in our room, someone who wasn't learning about geology. "What if Ms. Seaborne walked in here right now and you read this to her: 'White, clear, opaque, fingernail. Fingernail!?'"  I exclaimed dramatically.  "Would she have any idea what you were talking about?"

(Later, I heard two girls talking as one helped the other complete the assignment.  Their heads bent closely over the paper, Maia said earnestly, "But Shanaya, if Ms. Seaborne walked in here to read this right now, she wouldn't understand that!")

Then I told them I had a secret to share.  The thing is, I said conspiratorially, writing is like talking.  If you say what you would say to a friend, and then write it down, you've got it!

I had realized, in my thinking about yesterday's lesson, that trying to figure out what to write on their papers, how to put these ideas into sentences, seemed like a secret code they had no access to.  They thought I knew the answers, and they couldn't figure out how I got them.  They needed to understand that they had the words they needed themselves, and could access them without my help.

I suspect that this is what usually happens to them while they are writing: A teacher asks them something.  They answer with a one-word response, or a fragment of some kind or another.  The teacher knows what they are trying to say (we teachers are always automatically translating in our heads, without even noticing that we are doing it), so she restates their sentence: "Oh, you mean...?"  They nod, and we say, "Write that down!" 

The actual sentence comes from US, not them.  So they don't make the connection that the words can and do originate in their own minds.

Some students, of course, make the connection, and start to turn their thoughts into sentences on their own.  Some do it automatically; others do it once you've modeled it a number of times; but for others, it seems like magic, not something they can produce themselves.

I had Willy come up to demonstrate.  He brought his table of results from the mineral tests.  With much drama, channeling a talk-show host, I asked him, "Wiiiiilllllly, what is the observable color of your mystery mineral?"

Predictably, he answered, "White."

"Oh yes," I said.  "It is white.  But if Ms. Seaborne walked in and you looked at her and said 'White,' would she know what you were talking about? She'd say, 'What is white? Your cat? Your pet elephant? Your house?'  How will you say it so Ms. Seaborne would know what you were talking about?"

It took a few tries, but finally he had it.  "My mystery mineral's observable color is white."

As he said it, I wrote it.  "See?!" I exclaimed, practically dancing around in my effort to keep them engaged.  (This is why I'm so tired when I get home from teaching.)  "Willy thought it.  Then he said it.  And then I wrote it.  Writing is like talking!"

As we went on, Willy kept answering my questions with just one word.  "Wiiiiiillllly," I would trill.  "What is the streak color of your mineral?"  "White," he would answer.

But if I made him start with my name, he would use a complete sentence.  "Ms. Swamp," he would begin.  "My mineral's streak color is white."

Each time, I pointed out to the class how Willy thought, then spoke, and then wrote.  Because writing is like talking.

At the end, we had a list of sentences like this.

My mystery mineral is clear. 
My mineral's streak color is white.
My mineral is glassy and translucent.

I showed them how to cross out "my mineral" and replace it with "it" after the first sentence.   I wrote "mystery mineral = it," throwing in a little math for good measure.

In the afternoon, I walked them through it step by step.  Each student had a partner, and I made them ask each other (with much drama, of course) the question.  Then their partner had to answer, addressing them by name.  We did two sentences together, then I asked those who thought they could continue alone to do so.  Four students were still stuck, so I pulled them to a side table to work with me.

I ended up with 20 mineral descriptions that sounded halfway decent.  The hardest part was when they wrote about the hardness of the minerals.  To test hardness, we tried to scratch each mineral with our fingernails, a penny, and then a nail.  This gave them an idea about how hard the mineral was.  But most wrote sentences like this: "Its hardness is nail."  Which doesn't make a lot of sense, but they were following the pattern.  So next week, we'll tackle that sentence.  What happened when you tested the hardness?  How can you explain that in writing?

The trick to teaching young children is figuring out all the steps we take to do something, and then breaking those steps down even more, into their smallest parts.  Which, for grown-ups who do these things (like counting, reading, and writing) automatically, is very hard to do.  But it's also what makes it fun.