From the CURMUDGUCATION blog: > It’s Great Not To Be Needed> aPARCColypse Now> What Do I Fix Next


It’s Great Not To Be Needed

Posted: 21 May 2016 09:52 AM PDT

It is one of the best things in teaching– that moment when your students just don’t need you.

I’m the adviser for many creative, artsy, performance activities. One of my fave side jobs is stage crew adviser, which also ends up being basically the stage manager and house manager for our auditorium and related facilities. It’s my job to train the students in lighting design and execution, sound work, backstage grip stuff– everything that has to happen in order for a performance to happen on our stage.

Every May the district rents our performance space out to a local dance studio (run by one of my former students, because I teach in a small town) and my crew gets to experience being a stage crew for hire. They get two rehearsals, and then two performances. The dancers come equipped with music and choreography; it’s up to us to design and execute the lighting, keep the music on point, handle everything that comes up backstage. In an average, or below-average year, I’m moving from station to station, offering advice, tweaking choices, making sure that the crew has thought everything through and that they don’t have any questions. In an average or below-average year, I get plenty of exercise and log plenty of steps.

This year I sat in the lobby and kept an eye on traffic in and out of the hall.

The crew didn’t need me for anything. They made their choices, executed their plans, corrected their mis-steps, coordinated their duties. If space aliens had kidnapped me from the lobby five minutes before curtain, it wouldn’t have made a bit of difference to the show itself.

This is the dream. Students who have learned and internalized their learning so well that they don’t just remember the specific how-to’s of specific situations, but they can see the whole organizing structure of ideas and values so that they are perfectly capable of analyzing and responding to new situations. Better still, they can evaluate their own work as they do it and decide to pat themselves on the back or make better choices.

They’re students, and they still like the affirmation and confirmation, so I tell them they’ve done a great job. But, really, they already knew that. They’ve acquired the most important, most valuable of educational “outcomes”– they’re own personal inner guidance system.

This is one of the things I find fundamentally troubling about test-centered accountability– the continued insistence that without the Big Standardized Test, or the Ongoing Computerized Feedback, or whatever we’re selling this month– without all of that, the poor students will never know how well they’re doing. But a constant feedback loop of, “We’ll just check the computer data to see how you did” teaches them that they must always look to someone else, someone outside themselves, to know how they did. The proof is always in someone else’s pudding.

Add that to the kind of no excuses systems we see in urban charters, and we are creating a system in which children are taught NOT to be independent, self-directed, self-actuating humans with their own inner guidance system.

That’s just wrong. The end product of an education should be an independently functioning human being.

That’s always my goal. My crew ran the show for four straight nights, did it well, and did it without needing me to get them there. Last week we passed out yearbooks (yes, that’s me, too) and my yearbook students were able to contemplate the book with pride because it was their book. There are choices I might have made differently, but it’s not my book. It’s their book, and they took responsibility for it, using all the training I’ve given them over the years filtered through their own judgment and inner guidance. That includes training the rest of the staff. I always tell my seniors, “The real measure of how good a job you did is not your own book– it’s next year’s book.”

It’s easy to give in to the urge to fiddle, to tweak, to tell yourself that you’d better stay right next to that student and keep issuing directions so they don’t mess up or make a mistake. But you can’t practice functioning independently if nobody trusts you. How, I keep wondering, can a child ever get to pride in their ability to read and write if they spend their whole school career hearing, “Just hold on there, buddy. I’ll let you know whether you can read and write or not.”

It is a great thing to look around in May and see students who absolutely do not need me. It would be discouraging and sad to see students who can’t make a move, a choice or a judgment without checking with me for the data printouts. I am proud of my students, and far more importantly, they are proud of themselves. The end of the year has come, and they don’t need me. It’s perfect.

aPARCColypse Now

Posted: 21 May 2016 08:51 AM PDT

The last ten days have been a test of how diligent PARCC might be about protecting their sad test (and, yes, a test of the internet’s ability to coin a PARCC-based pun to refer to this dustup). For those of you playing along at home, here’s a rundown of what has happened and what issues are involved and some of the questions on the table at this point.

Events kicked off when Celia Oyler, an education professor at Teachers College at Columbia University, posted an anonymous critique of the PARCC fourth grade reading exam. That post was picked up by some other bloggers, including me, but within a few days PARCC was on the case.

Initially they went after tweets that linked to Oyler’s article. That in itself was an…. interesting move because none of the tweets actually included allegedly copyrighted material, but they did link to posts that did include the test prompts. This suggests its own little DMCA research project– just how many degrees of separation from copyrighted materials can companies legitimately pursue? Apparently a link to a post containing allegedly copyrighted materials is not okay. What about a link to a source that contains a link? A link to a link to a link to a link?

The clean-up of twitter seemed to be job one, taken on so quickly that the DMCA request filed included a misspelled job title for the guy at PARCC filling the request (Kevin Michael Days, Assoicate Director, Operations). Meanwhile, Oyler got a letter, not from the PARCC legal department, but from PARCC chieftain Laura Slover herself, requiring Oyler to take down the allegedly copyright materials AND requesting that she hand over the name of the anonymous teacher.

Next up– going after the posts themselves. Diane Ravitch’s post just kind of went away overnight; Ravitch’s blog is on the wordpress platform, which turns out to be an important detail. Many other bloggers who work on the blogger platform received notice that their DMCA-violating post was being turned back into a draft (basically, unpublished but not actually erased). The targeting there seemed a bit random– some posts were hit almost as soon as they were up, while my post stayed up for almost a week before anyone got to it, though I did not get a nifty letter from blogger explaining why it was happening. It just did. I’m a little curious about exactly whether a bot or a harried secretary or an intern or Slover on her lunch break did the detective work here, because it all seems a little slapdash. (I have reposted a redacted version

of my post for the time being, just to keep the record straight).

There has been speculation that twitter and blogger have been hit by PARCC

and quicker on the draw because they are more “corporate” entities than wordpress. With the exception of Ravitch, I haven’t run across any wordpress bloggers who have been pushed to take the post down, and in fact, this post on a wordpress blog

has been up since May 11 has all the material in Oyler’s original post and then some.

The blogger platform belongs to google, which adds a level of irony to all of this since google is infamous among writers for the google books project, in which google just went on ahead and made digital copies of every book they could get their hands on

. I’ve published a couple of books and you can find them fully available in free digital format on google– and not because google asked me, but because they just went ahead and did it and if I don’t like it, I can ask them to take it down.

There are multiple issues involved here. Mercedes Schneider has raised the question of who exactly holds the copyright for these items.

I suggest you read all of this– there are several complex issues here above and beyond the fact that we taxpayers footed the bill to create the damned tests in the first place.

Many folks have raised the question of whether or not publishing and discussing the prompt items comes under the doctrine of fair use.

Which takes us to the larger question of how we discuss, as a country, anything at all about the tests if nobody is allowed to talk about them, ever.
PARCC has offered their own press release on the matter

, chock full of hooey about how the security of the test must be protected and keeping things fair for all the hardworking educators and students out there. I particular like the part about being fair to the many hundreds of educators who have invested thousands of hours providing input and helping to develop and review test questions, ensuring that they are of high quality, align to standards, and are grade-appropriate.” In other words, we’re worried about swell teachers and not proprietary corporate products. Because these teachers slaved over these super questions and then said, “Please, don’t let anyone see or discuss our work, ever. We prefer to live in the shadows.”

Meanwhile, the story has been picked up by Slate, USA Today, and the Progressive. And yesterday afternoon Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post provided a good summary of The Story So Far.

And now, since corporate types are home for the weekend, the story can simmer for a bit.

Issues? As a sometimes writer and hack musician, I have a great deal of respect for intellectual property rights. But to use copyright law as a way to keep a secure lock on a piece of work that virtually unprotectable is just… silly. The prompt that I originally included verbatim can be summed up easily as “Read the story Sadako’s Secret and make up another story that could be a sequel to it that talks about when Sadako tries out for the junior high track team.” That summing up could be done by any English-speaking human who ever laid eyes on the test, including every single child who took it. To imagine that it can be kept more secure than the launch codes or the latest episode of Walking Dead is just dumb. Dumb, dumb, dumb.

More importantly, and I have made this point before,

any test that requires that level of security is a crappy test. It is a test built on a foundation of “gotcha” and hidden tricks.

This flapdoodlery is, in many ways, a waste of all our time, even as it is necessary to push back when PARCC tries to silence any serious critique of their product. We should be talking about the test, its many flaws, and the many reasons it should be thrown in the dustbin of education history; instead, we are busy talking about corporate shenanigans and the idiocy of trying to lock down the internet. But there are important reminders here. It’s a reminder to outfits like PARCC that maintaining perfect secrecy and security is a fool’s game. It’s a reminder to those of us in the blogosphere that the platforms and social media that we use are companies, owned and operated by corporate entities, and it is ultimately their circus and they can do what they want with the monkeys.

But most of all, it’s a reminder of just how lousy the PARCC is. A test so sad and fragile that to let any part of it see the light of day will cause it to shrivel to dust like a data-sucking vampire (not the cute sparkly kind), a test so feeble that it can’t withstand the most rudimentary examination or discussion. All of this is simply more proof that the PARCC is a bad test that needs to just go away.

What Do I Fix Next

Posted: 20 May 2016 04:56 PM PDT

Every top teacher that I know can tell you what their Worst Thing is.

The good-bad teacher model that’s constantly being used as a basis for policy proposals– it’s nuts. In that universe, teachers are good or bad. Put a bad teacher in a classroom, and education withers and dies as students fail to thrive. Put a great teacher (or an “effective teacher”) in a classroom, and test scores fly upward and a thousand learning moments bloom. If you’re a teacher, you’re good or bad, and when you step into a classroom, your fruits reveal your nature.

But “good teacher” is not what you are; it’s what you do. And every good teacher knows a list of things she needs to do better.

This is one of those killer Things They Don’t Tell You In Ed School. You will not be able to do everything you know you need to. You will see all the things that need to be done– and you will only be able to do some of them.

The prevailing reformster model of teaching is solid state, a set stasis. Get the teacher put together just so, then come spray on the Kragle and lock it into place.

However, on this planet, teaching is much more like juggling. You’re tossing up a couple of balls and an apple and several eggs and a pair of hamsters and maybe a chainsaw, and not always with grace, but always with the knowledge that there are some bowling balls and waffles that you need to pick up and add. Oh, and you are riding a unicycle on a tightrope, carrying laser sharks.

I’ve really just been looking for an excuse to run a picture of a laser shark on this blog. Today is my birthday, so happy birthday to me. You’re welcome.

Like all jobs that fit the juggling metaphor (I wouldn’t pretend for a second that teaching is the only line of work that is like this), a key ingredient is reflection.

Think. Look. Listen. Weigh. Check your assumptions. Check your results.

When you don’t reflect, it’s easy to let things slip or slide. How long has that apple been lying on the floor instead of flying through the air? Am I using my bowling ball grip on a marshmallow? Am, I really not ready to add the ten tennis balls, or am I just slacking? And particularly at the end of the year, have I let my heart harden when it needs to stay open, ready, and willing?

Conditions in the classroom always change, because the school and the rules and the climate and the world and most of all the students always change. Have I made the right adjustments?

And that’s the conscious Big Stuff. Any complicated high wire juggling extravaganza requires a million micro-adjustments in every second. That’s why data-crunching analysis may have its place, but I also need the mental discipline to be reflective, mindful, present.

This is why I reject the data-driven test-centered model favored by some– not because I have no interest in data and feedback, but because I’m operating on a baby seal for which I need precise and subtle instruments, and these folks are offering me a blunt ax.

If you ask me, “Are you a good teacher?” I don’t really know how to answer. I can tell you if I think I did good work today, or this week, or this year. Oh, this year. The end of the year is brutal, a giant polished wall that reflects back all my miscues and mis-steps and missed opportunities and failures of the previous year. I can start sorting out the stuff that I must do better next year, the broad strokes and the fine touches. I have to figure out what to fix next.

I have been in the classroom for thirty-seven years, and there has never been a year when I didn’t have a list if things to do better. I get many more objects in the air with far less wasted effort than I used to, but still– still there is more to do better. Some of the challenges are brought to me– shorter class periods, more days lost to testing, class size fluctuations– and some I bring myself. But dammit– I am doing the work better, and I will keep doing it better. I just have to figure out what to fix next.

I don’t talk about this often because we mostly live in a meat and potatoes world, but in addition to being art and science, teaching is a spiritual pursuit as well– you have to be in tune with yourself, your students, your surroundings, your content, your community, the ebb and flow of the day, the week, the year. You reflect and you grow, and if you don’t keep growing, then you shrink and ossify and fail to do your best work. You reflect and you grow, and because you reflect and grow, you keep asking–

What do I fix next?

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