Focus student activities on learning

Quote from the revised Bloom's taxonomy about activities.

In one of the very first English 101 courses I taught, most of the students struggled with the concept of specific detail. I decided to try an activity a member of the Western Kentucky University graduate faculty had shared with the teaching assistants there.

I bought a bushel of apples. (I was teaching five sections of English 101 with 20 students per section.)

In each section, I had every student take an apple from the basket and write a description of that apple. When everyone finished, they put their apple on the teacher’s desk.

Then I had each student read his or her description aloud while another student tried to pick out the apple that was being described.

In the first four sections, every student was able to identify the apple by its description. As a reward for writing good descriptions, each student left class that day with an apple.

In the fifth section, I had students take an apple to describe, and then put it on the desk after they’d written their descriptions, just as I had in the four other sections.

The activity ran smoothly, with students readily identifying the apples from the descriptions, until it came Jerome’s turn to read his description.

Jerome was a black kid from Cleveland, first in his family to go to college, the first black at that particular college, an incredibly hard worker with a sweet disposition and a delightful sense of humor. Of all the students I’ve taught over nearly a half century, Jerome was my favorite.

When Jerome read his apple description, probably half the apples had already been identified, but the student attempting to identify Jerome’s apple couldn’t find it.

Jerome had written a beautiful description of the ideal apple, a distillation of the essence of an apple.

It was a fine piece of writing.

But Jerome hadn’t described his particular apple.

We had to wait until all the other apples were identified by their descriptions before we knew which was Jerome’s.

In four of my five sections that day, students performed an activity. They had fun doing it. Maybe they learned something, but I wouldn’t swear to it.

In the fifth section, students didn’t just perform an activity. Those students saw acted out before their eyes the difference between a generalization and specific details. They all learned why specific details matter.

But the student who learned the most was Jerome.

That’s why Jerome left class that day with two apples instead of just one.

Learning When Those Who Can, Teach

You’re probably all too familiar with the saying, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”

There’s just enough truth in that cliché to hide an equally important observation: Those who can often cannot teach what they do.

I advise middle school and high school teachers to take a part-time or temporary entry-level job every so often to keep in touch with the workaday world. More often than not, the person tapped to train a new entry-level person lacks teaching skills. If the new hire and the trainer happen to have similar learning strengths and preferences, the orientation can be a pleasure for both. If they don’t match, the training is frustrating for both.

Those of us who work with students need those periodic reminders that learning can be a struggle even when;

  • the instructor is highly skilled at the job
  • the student wants to learn
  • the student works hard

You can read those facts but to really understand how they affect students, nothing is as educational as work experience.

NYS teacher evaluation guidelines set

Governor Cuomos’s office announced teacher evaluation guidelines have been agreed to by the state education department and New York State United Teachers (NYSUT).

According to a news release from the Governor’s press office today, the plan gives 60% of evaluation weight to teacher performance based primarily on classroom observation and 40% to student achievement as measured by scores on state and local assessments.

At least 31% of the points must be based on observations by a principal or other administrator; at least one of the observations must be unannounced. The remaining points must be based on defined standards that can include:

  • Observations by independent trained evaluators.
  • Peer classroom observations.
  • Student and parent feedback from evaluators.
  • Evidence of performance through student portfolios.

Twenty percent of the student achievement portion  of the evaluation must be based on state tests and 20 percent from three testing options that include:

  • State tests
  • Third party tests or tests approved by the state education department
  • Locally developed tests (subject to SED review and approval)

Districts are allowed to use state tests for the entire 40 percent of a teacher’s rating.

Scoring for the evaluations is as follows:

  • Ineffective: 0 – 64
  • Developing: 65 – 74
  • Effective: 75 – 90
  • Highly Effective: 91 – 100

School districts and teacher unions set the allocation of points (called “the curve”) for teacher ratings.

The state education commissioner can approve or disapprove local evaluation plans.

Part of today’s announcement was an appeals process for the New York City schools. That process will go into effect Jan. 17, 2013 if the city and the teachers’ union agree to an overall evaluation system.

Classroom tech rant and wishlist

A discussion on the Foreign Language Teaching Forum about what one could do with Google docs prompted a thoughtful and funny piece by Margaret Kohler, who teaches elementary and middle school French at West Side Montessori Center in Toledo, Ohio. Below, with her permission, are her thoughts on what would help her teach well with technology.

I’m sick of all the new technology being thrown around and thinking, “Holy Toledo Mud Hens! Am I supposed to use all this? Why? When? How? Good gracious I’m behind the curve!” I mean, technology is only ONE of the many things we have to think about to be good teachers, right?

In a word:
Classroom tech rant and wishlist
It’s like a techno-avalanche. Last year I revved up my technology use so my students would be “Prepared for the Future” and because I figured it “Had to be Better” and mostly what I got out of it was headaches. Things that didn’t work. Things that disappointed. Things that had to be updated—right in the middle of class! Things requiring an add-on. Things needing more bandwidth. Streaming issues. Things that I had to get permission for. Broken links. Things that worked differently on different computers. Kids losing passwords. And the worst: things the kids didn’t know how to use yet so I used foreign language class time to teach them technology.Ugh, I learned my lesson. I’m grabbing the few golden nuggets that were home runs, and keeping them. The rest:forgetaboutit.

On the other hand, for example, my school is now moving to a “Google platform” or “Google environment” or we are getting Googlized, whatever, and the kids are going to have accounts, so naturally I think: ok, how can I take advantage of this? What in the functionality of this thing might benefit me/my students?

I want to know a little of what it CAN do because I am curious. I suppose I could just give the technology teacher a list of things I’d like to improve, and have her figure out what she’s got in her bag of tricks that can help me, but I want to be a partner in it because I know my classes best. There might be something it can do that I didn’t even realize could be useful. And if the whole school is using it, chances are I won’t have as many irritating little issues because it will be meticulously maintained for everyone, and the kids will already know how to use it.

It would be cool if someone would summarize the technologies out there being used for foreign language right now and what the practical uses of each are. What each techo-thing “does better” for foreign language learning and why. In r-e-a-l-l-y simple language. (Comprehensible input, please.) Sort of like the miscositas site but more comprehensive and for like 5th grade reading level.

What I especially want to know is HOW something has improved student learning outcomes (tell your story.) Or HOW it has saved time. And then some really smart person could make a decision tree to help teachers choose the right technology for their actual needs. (And update this information daily on a free website, just because they are nice!!) But I think the reality is a lot of teachers are just faced with their school getting a certain platform or technology, and trying to sift through it and find what in that can be of use.

So I visualize a two-way street: Start from where you are at: think of your needs and look for the best ways (tech & non-tech) to fill them.

At the same time, jump in the techo waters and just swim around really nonchalant, being aware of what’s out there without feeling pressured to catch every new fish in the sea. It’s hard when really smart-looking people say: “YOU should be using glibbitmeister! It’s the social networking/techno-learning tool of the century! It revolutionized my life!It’s more useful than the invention of toilet paper! I’m giving it to all my grandchildren this year!”

I believe I have gotten past that starry-eyed stage now and am wiser and more judicious (if not slightly cynical) about technology. I haven’t made friends with it yet, but maybe that’s in the future.

The wonderful tech person at school listened to my technology rant recently and just chuckled and said, “pick one or two things each year you think could be most helpful and don’t worry about the rest.” I love her!

Has anyone else gone through this? Maybe everybody already knows all this, and if so, sorry for the long post.

Anyway, thanks for explaining Google docs! I was hoping someone would tell me what it does!

Pay hike, learning link not proved

If you believe that all that stands in the way of quality education is better pay for teachers you’ll have your opinion confirmed by reading Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America’s Teachers by Daniel Moulthrop, Ninive Clements Calegari and Dave Eggers (The New Press, 2006).

If you’re not already persuaded, however, this book may make you less inclined to believe that “better schools begin with better pay.”

Moulthrop, a radio reporter, and Calegari are both former classroom teachers. Eggers is the founder of 826 Valencia, a nonprofit providing free literacy and literary arts services for young people, and Calegari is its founding executive director.  Interestingly, 826 Valencia’s programs are provided by unpaid volunteers.

Teachers Have It Easy begins by debunking myths about education. The tone of this section sounds like a teenager’s “Why do I have to? Nobody else has to” whine. The authors appear to think nobody but teachers have to pay to take continuing education classes, nobody else works more than their contract hours, nobody else in a high stress job goes without “a good deal of time off” as compensation. I’ve been a teacher; it was hard, long, and stressful. But whining about how tough teaching is does not convince anyone who hasn’t do it.

As proof that better pay produces better teaching, the authors point to studies by the Education Trust about the effect of high quality instruction on student performance. Note that language: The correlation that was studied was instructional quality and student performance, not teacher pay and student performance. If there’s a study that proves the more you pay teachers the more students learn, I didn’t find it cited in this book.

The bulk of the book is a series of stories about teachers, would-be-teachers and used-to-be-teachers.  These are supposed to show the caliber of people who are not becoming teachers because of the poor pay. Reading the stories, I was inclined to think many of them were not people I wanted teaching.

The final part of Teachers Have It Easy is devoted to profiles of districts that “start paying teacher more.” Reading past the headline, however, it’s clear that none of the success stories began by increasing teacher pay. All began by restructuring the teacher workforce through changes in hiring/budgeting/instructional policies, professional development standards, and then by changes in the way teachers were paid.

In Denver schools, for example, teachers were paid to learn how to write objectives and use them in their classroom. One former teacher, currently a principal, says she never knew objectives were useful; she had been in education for 36 years.  I don’t think someone would last 36 years in a hotel housekeeping position without knowing how to clean a toilet. How could someone rise through the ranks to a supervisory position in education without knowing the instructional equivalent of cleaning a toilet?

Although Moulthrop, Calegari and Eggers fail to prove their thesis that better pay for teachers results in better education for students, they do make the case for paying good teachers well. Indirectly, they also make a case for greatly improved teacher education programs to prepare new teachers to do a better job from their first day in the classroom with instruction in basic skills like how to write an objective.

Good teacher or good lecturer?

A New York Times op-ed piece today “A New Measure for Classroom Quality” sounds as if the author equates teacher effectiveness with lectures.

R. Barker Bausell, a biostatistician and emeritus professor at the University of Maryland School of Nursing, says that teacher effectivess be determined by “measuring the amount of time a teacher spends delivering relevant instruction.”  He cities research showing efficient teachers produce students who performed well on standardized tests.

Bausell says we need to do something to improve the home envionment for poor kids and provide lots of tutoring, both of which are good options.  However, Bausdell doesn’t explain, at least not to my satisfaction, how come all that tutoring is needed if all that’s involved in good teaching is to deliver relevant content fast. Nor does he address the issue of whether standardized tests measure the kinds of learning students must do.

Bausell says schools can videotape a few minutes of instruction a day and make decisions about teacher effectiveness on that basis.  Bausell doesn’t say anything about having the videotapes reviewed at teacher evaluation centers in Pakistan to take advantage of the time difference and reduce budget outlays. Perhaps he didn’t have space to go into that.