I Wrote a Guest Post on Dad Gone Wild

I wrote something about my experience in an alternative teacher licensure program and sent it to TC Webber of Dad Gone Wild. He posted it and hopefully it will get the conversation going about teacher training. Here’s a permanent link. I’m super excited that Diane Ravitch retweeted me!

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Books on Teaching, part 2

Here are two books I’ve read recently that are written for teachers about improving their classroom practice. My favorite things about these books are their titles, and for once they actually live up to them.

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Never Work Harder Than Your Students and Other Principles of Great Teaching by Robyn R. Jackson

The title of this book comes from something I’ve seen and done many times–a teacher working really hard in front of a passive group of students–working so hard she’s actually doing stuff they should be doing, like answering her own questions, and voicing all sides of a discussion. A lot of this book’s info is stuff I learned in my MAT classes–begin with the end in mind, zone of proximal development–but it’s the kind of stuff that’s good to hear again in a new way. I liked that Jackson is so reasonable in her expectations of what teachers will be able to actually accomplish. For example, she acknowledges that you can’t teach every standard, so she gives you a principle to help you pick which ones to teach and which ones to skip. Her advice is grounded in the reality of a teacher’s classroom experience and she acknowledges at every turn how hard this job is.

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Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom by Daniel T. Willingham

Again, the title of this book was tailored to appeal to me. I’ve joked that the reason I became a teacher is because I like school, am good at it, and never wanted to leave it. Even 7 years in, it’s honestly a little baffling for me when students don’t feel the same. This book is organized around questions teachers might ask about classroom challenges that psychologists can answer. The title question is also one answered in Thinking, Fast and Slow: the brain isn’t made for deep, abstract thinking, but for doing minimal work with minimal effort. Willingham focuses a teacher’s attention on whether or not the specific actions they’re asking students to do will help them build skills and remember facts or not, pointing out that “dog and pony shows” are often counterproductive (no matter how much principals may like them). He also gives a few concrete strategies, like storytelling and building background knowledge.

I loved the way this book debunked several myths about the brain and education that create more work for teachers without enhancing student learning, especially the idea of multiple intelligences, and the idea that students need to learn to “think like scientists” and other experts.

Internet Roundup: Education Part 7

Betsy DeVos, who Trump has announced he will nominate to be Secretary of Education, is like many of his cabinet picks, a fox put in charge of the henhouse, vowing to destroy the institution he has chosen to entrust her with. If Detroit’s terrible decentralized all-charter school system is any indication of what she intends to do with the rest of the country’s schools, we are all in trouble.

DeVos and those who agree with her about educational issues talk a lot about “school choice,” which is one of those things that sounds good in theory, but does not work as advertised. The logic of free markets does not apply to education for a few reasons. First, education is not a consumer product, it is a public good and a human right. Second, all parents are not necessarily able to act as “informed consumers” where schools are concerned, and are constrained in their choices by geography, transportation, and a lack of time to research different schools. Third, allowing companies to profit from education incentivizes them to spend as little money on educating students as possible, so that they can keep more for themselves. Fourth, “choice” does not guarantee quality. It doesn’t mean “pick any school in the world.” It usually means “pick one of the two terrible schools in your neighborhood.”

Here are a few articles that fully explain the folly of charter schools, vouchers, other “school choice” policies, and debunk the arguments behind them.

“The Problem with Choice” by Pauline Hawkins

The Essential Selfishness of School Choice” by Steven Singer

“Why Is ‘The Decimation of Public Schools’ a Bad Thing?” by Nathan J. Robinson

If school choice isn’t the answer, what is? This article discusses in a very comprehensive way the concrete reforms and changes in education that would actually work. The author is a Texas legislator who visited all 55 of the schools in his district and conducted many interviews. Time, stability, resources, support staff, wraparound services: it’s really common sense, but also expensive.

What They Said: What I Learned from Conversations with Texas Educators” by Diego Bernal

Internet Roundup: Education, Part 6

I’ve been keeping myself informed on education policy for a few years now, and am beginning to get involved in local efforts to improve laws and programs. There’s a lot going on in Nashville in this arena; for some great commentary on our local education politics, follow TC Weber’s blog Dad Gone Wild. Now that I’m no longer in survival mode with a brand-new baby, I am starting to go to meetings and get to know the people here in Nashville who are making a difference in our schools. I even spoke at a school board meeting last month!

I like to share some of the things I read and find noteworthy, but there’s been so much happening this year that it’s hard to tell what to link. This time rather than highlighting specific policies or changes, I picked some articles that address overarching themes in the debate.

“Education Does Not Cure Poverty–It Cures Ignorance” by Steven Singer 

So much of education policy is driven by the idea that if more people graduate high school and college with useful skills, they’ll be able to get good jobs, and the economy will improve. But improving your income is not the point of education. It’s a nice side effect. And counting on schools to improve our country’s economy lets a lot of people off the hook–the ones who are paying low wages, the ones who speculated irresponsibly and crashed the stock market. I love how Singer gets into big questions about what makes life worth living, and turns lawmakers’ conventional wisdom on its head.

“Stop Humiliating Teachers” by David Denby

It’s past time for the attacks on teachers to stop. The assumption behind so many education “reform” laws is that teachers are lazy idiots who do the bare minimum for their cushy benefits, who won’t do any real work unless they’re in fear for their jobs. This insult does more to hurt teacher morale and scare bright young people away from the profession than anything else, except perhaps the low pay, which is insulting in a different way. Denby puts the blame squarely where it belongs, on poverty.

“The Myth of the Superhero Teacher” by JP Fugler

If we depend on teachers to be superheroes in order to adequately educate our children, we’re going to be disappointed. First, there are not enough “rock star” teachers out there, and second, it’s a recipe for burnout. And as Fugler points out, it’s patronizing, substituting fawning praise for tangible rewards. I wish he had addressed the data-driven arguments I often hear about how giving students a “good” teacher three years in a row can reverse the achievement gap. That bogus research is based on formulas that predict the growth of corn. But I love how Fugler points to the movies that perpetuate this myth.  Teachers are just normal people trying to do an emotionally taxing, cognitively complex job, and we need support and resources and freedom from excessive, unfair scrutiny more than we need a pat on the back.

Books on teaching

I recently read two books for teachers that I hoped would help me improve my teaching by motivating my students.

150 Ways to Increase Intrinsic Motivation in the Classroom by James P. Raffini

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I didn’t find this book to be as helpful and useful as I’d hoped. Most of the activities were for a specific age group or a particular subject matter, and wouldn’t transfer well for use in every classroom. The only ones I think I’ll use are the ones that function as “icebreakers.” I think the most broadly relevant part of the book was the way it broke down motivation into filling students’ needs for autonomy, competence, belonging, self-esteem, and enjoyment. From there, it focused on making changes to some structures in the classroom that can either improve or harm student motivation. Those structures were task, authority, reward, grouping, evaluation, and time. More broadly speaking, thinking of ways to tweak those structures to fill student needs could create lots of good changes in a classroom.

The Multiplayer Classroom: Designing Coursework as a Game by Lee Sheldon

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This book gave me a lot of validation because one of the main things it suggests is something I already do in my classroom. Rather than starting students with a grade of 100, so that every assignment is a chance to lose points, I begin everyone with a grade of zero, so that grades only ever improve, and every assignment earns some points, even if it’s not perfect. This grading structure mimics video games in which players begin at level one and gain points until they reach higher levels. It’s much more motivating than a more punitive grading system. Sheldon spends a lot of time applying video game terminology to his class activities, which I thought was less interesting or important than how the actual activities and structures of the class are changed by this gaming focus. There are several case studies that I wish I’d seen more details of, and I didn’t see any case studies in my own subjects, so I was kind of left wondering how my class could become more gamelike. I’ll keep thinking about it though. This book gave me a lot to think about.

A Purposeful Summer

School is ending for the year. Our graduates have walked, and only a couple days of cleaning and tying up loose ends remain. The end of May is always a time for teachers to take a big sigh of relief and finally give in to the exhaustion that has been accumulating for the past ten months. Summer break makes people think teachers have it easy, but I always remind them that 1) it’s only two months now, not the three most of us remember from our own childhoods, 2) it’s unpaid, and 3) we still have a lot of school-related work that needs to get done during this time. Not to mention, I teach summer school, so I’m still working anyway. Summer school’s not a bad deal though. My school can only afford to pay me for half the day, so I have my afternoons free, and there’s only one five-week session, so I still have almost a month off in July.

Like many teachers and students, I always have great illusions about all the amazing things I’m going to get done with my extra free time during the summer. And then in August I wonder where the time went and why I didn’t get all that stuff done. My life has always been run on the academic calendar, so you’d think by now I’d know how much I can actually accomplish in this time and be able to make some realistic goals.

I don’t claim to be great at time management. I’ve written before about struggling with it (and even more so, about messages blaming women in particular for poor time management). When my toddler takes his afternoon naps on the weekends, I feel listless rather than purposeful. I feel like there are so many things I have to do that I don’t know where to start, and then I feel bad about wasting any of this little bit of time dithering rather than being productive.

Summer has the potential to multiply that procrastination. I figure there are two ways I know of to combat that listless feeling and the resultant dithering: 1) scheduling things, and 2) routines. I need to take my own decision-making out of the equation by making appointments I have to keep and committing to them by spending money. Summer means a new daily routine, and if I don’t take the time to think that new routine through, I’ll end up not knowing what to do with myself and wasting all this awesome summer time. Living by a routine might seem boring, but if you’re thoughtful about setting the routine and building in flexibility, it can allow you to be really purposeful about the way you spend your time, which is the ultimate regret-buster.

This summer I wanted to recapture some of the things that made me feel bold, beautiful, confident, and vital when I was younger. In high school, I participated in almost all of the drama productions we did. My favorite plays we did were The Diary of Anne Frank and The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. So, inspired by my high school drama memories and Amy Poehler’s memoir Yes Please, I signed up for improv classes this summer. I liked the way Poehler described how improv taught her to trust her instincts and sparked her creativity. It would be awesome if the classes had that effect on me, but I’ll be happy if I don’t end up feeling like I made a fool of myself every night. I’m a little nervous about the classes, a good kind of nervous that tells me I’m stepping out of my comfort zone.

I also need to focus more on my physical fitness, and I don’t like working out for the sake of looking good (no matter how much that’s the real motivation). A workout powered by self-loathing makes me feel worse than I felt before I started, no matter how much stronger my muscles are. It seems more healthy to exercise for the sheer joy of it, and there are not many forms of exercise that make me feel joyful. However, I took dance classes from ages 4-16 and really enjoyed them. I could barely notice how much I was sweating when I was focused on executing complicated steps in time. So I bought a pass for several classes at the summer dance program at Vanderbilt. I can take a variety of types of dance classes, depending on which ones fit my schedule and preference each day. I’m most excited to try tap-dancing again. I hope some muscle memory lingers from half my lifetime ago.

One other big thing happening this summer: we’re going to try to put our house on the market soon. So de-cluttering, putting things in storage, and making this place look as if no one lived here, are going to take a lot of work. The last time we bought a house, it was easy because it was our first time. Being a seller is a whole new ball game. I’m also feeling nostalgic about leaving the home I came to as a newlywed, the place that sheltered our baby in his first two years. So this huge project is going to take some grieving and emotional work as well as physical labor.

As if classes and real estate weren’t enough to keep me busy for two months, I would like to post more frequently on this blog this summer. And my almost-two-year-old is at a particularly adorable stage right now, and I want to simply enjoy him with some of this extra time. He deserves some visits to the playground and the splash park and a few play dates. And I’m finally going to take the plunge and get a smartphone, so I’ll be that much more distracted as I try to accomplish all these goals.

So here’s to a deliberately planned summer of personal growth and necessary, if bittersweet, change. Let’s hope that in August I can look back and say I made the most of it.