Friday, February 17, 2012

The Education Conundrum--How to Teach Every Kid?

Yes, I'm still out of work ... one more day, according to my recheck yesterday with my primary care doctor.  I'm resting on the couch with my computer (I seem to be okay until I get up and start moving around, so I guess this counts as resting, which is the big word in my recovery ... I mentioned that I'm a failure at resting, right?).

Anyway, I got talking to some friends in the education world (many of my friends are teachers, which I suppose is only natural), and we got talking a lot about the education conundrum--namely, how to teach every student (I will not insult anyone's intelligence or fan flames of government distrust by using the words "no child left behind").

Schools are in different places.  VASTLY different places.  I have to say that, if nothing else, I was pleased to learn how truly cutting edge my school is in a lot of ways.

Anyway, I view education through three lenses--as a former student myself, as a parent, and as a teacher.

My hope with this post is to generate conversation.  Nothing would make me happier than for the comments to fill up, for people to share their thoughts and experiences, and for all of us to do a little thinking, a little learning, a little growing.

And, okay, I want to write a professional article on the state of education today for a national ed journal (I actually have a Master's Degree in education along with a B.A. in English ... I just play dumb sometimes ;-)).

Just to get a little bit of jargon out of the way, I want to give you two words which have significantly impacted my own philosophy of education: Personalized Instruction.

Basically, this is the notion that every effort should be made to make learning accessible to all students.  Obviously, writing a separate curriculum for every single student is patently impossible, but allowing students some voice and choice, trying to make learning interesting and relevant to all students, considering that there are many different ways to demonstrate knowledge ... yeah, it's hard to explain (and also VERY hard to do), but hopefully that makes some sense.

I learned how to read when I was a toddler.  While it sounds impressive, it was actually a huge detriment to the basic foundations of my education.

Why?  Because, while I learned early on how to delve into literature, to lose myself into the magic of a story, I never learned how to read strategically.  If I had no interest in reading something, I wouldn't.  If I was assigned a chapter in a science textbook or a history article or something, I simply couldn't force myself to do it.  I had no skills for how to read something that was difficult for me, and I never learned how to do that until I was a teacher myself.

Between the precocious reading and strong skills in writing I demonstrated at a very early age, I managed to write my way into correct answers for most of my school years.

And math?  Yeah, let's not even go there.  To this day, I cannot add two digit numbers in my head, never mind multiply, divide, or subtract.  I was too busy reading--and reading what I wanted to read, at that.

Because of the way tracking was done at my school, however, I could not take Honors English and Pre-Algebra.  I had to make a choice, and so I ended up in Algebra I with no preparation at all.  Math, which had always been hard for me, became a nightmare--I walked into Algebra I thinking that "X" meant multiply, and it only got worse.

I carried the "laziness" burden around with me for most of my school career.  When I was a high school junior, I finally convinced my mother that I really was trying, and I got evaluated, tested, and diagnosed with two learning disabilities, one in auditory processing ("in one ear and out the other" was the story of my life) and one in spatial awareness (explains why math is such a struggle).

I also learned, as an adult, that I have ADHD, which retrospectively explains why I long struggled with focusing, with completing tasks, with making good choices, and with basically sitting down and shutting up when told.

If my teachers had been trained in personalized instruction, in student-centered learning, school would almost certainly have been a more positive experience for me.    

Like all parents, I want my kids to get a good education, to learn lots, and to be successful in school (as measured by things other than report cards and test scores).

Addie is a senior now, and she has always been tracked into high classes.  She's in her second A.P. English class this year, and she just started French V.  .

Addie is extremely bright, but she's also a very lazy student.  She knows how to get by; she learned early and well how to play the game, how to jump through the right hoops.  She's always gotten good grades, but I wonder sometimes how much she's really learned.

The SAT experience was a perfect example of this.  She took the SATs, did slightly above average but not good enough for the schools to which she's applying, so she did a bunch of prep-work, figured out how to raise her scores, and received exceptional numbers when she retook it.

She is also--and I know she'll read this and probably freak out, but it's God's honest truth--an academic snob.  When she is taken out of her Advanced Placement ivory tower, she gets very frustrated with her less book-smart classmates.  The superiority complex she's developed as being one of the "smart kids" has not prepared her for the real world, nor has it given her the skills to teach herself when the going gets tough (as it inevitably will when she starts college).      

Addie's education has been largely what I refer to as "old school"--ability grouping, lots of paper and pencil tests, little opportunity for collaboration with peers, and so on.  I'm pleased with the education she's received (and I'll be proud as heck at graduation that she's going to be among the "chosen ones" wearing the National Honor Society cord), but I'm also aware of its limitations.

Belle's school approaches education very differently.  It's all collaboration, groupwork, projects that might or might not be reflective of a child's efforts (you can read my rant on a recent situation here, if you so desire), and so on.

Belle, who is also a very bright kid, takes great pride in helping out classmates that struggle.  I'm pretty sure she's more computer-literate than I am.  She loves conferencing with her teacher about everything from her writing to the books she's reading.

At Belle's parent/teacher conference a couple of months ago, I got the unmistakable impression that her teacher knows Belle as a learner, is well aware of her strengths and challenge areas.  I have no doubt whatsoever that her teacher (who is absolutely outstanding, by the way) personalizes instruction for Belle and her classmates.  

That being said, I worry that Belle is, at some point, going to hit a wall as well.  As the gaps between "the smart kids" and those that struggle widens, the personalization piece becomes increasingly challenging.

Is it fair to expect Belle to "self-teach" while the teacher focuses on skills she's mastered with the rest of the class? Should Belle have to do the lion's share of the work in group projects?  Is there going to come a point in time when she, like Addie, realizes that it's all about jumping through the right hoops at the right time?

Unlike Addie, Belle is a child absolutely driven by intellectual curiosity, so I'm hoping that she'll manage to avoid those pitfalls.

Personalized instruction has become extremely important to me as a teacher.  Like, it's the driving force of my personal philosophy of pedagogy these days.

I know my students.  I know them very well, their strengths and their challenge areas.  I know the specific ways to motivate each kid (sometimes it's positive reinforcement, sometimes it's the iron fist, sometimes it's calling home, sometimes it's bribery with doughnuts, and so on).  I know what each student is capable of, and I know how to help them set realistic goals for improving their reading and writing skills.

I know which kids freeze up during paper and pencil tests, and I know enough to go over failed assessments orally with them so they can demonstrate that they do in fact know the material being assessed.  I know that, if a student is missing an assignment, I can get him or her to make it up pretty quickly by staying after school with me or eating lunch in my classroom.  I know that, even though my students make fun of me for being lame when I make a big deal over them understanding complex literature, it invokes a sense of pride in them.

It's actually not as impressive as it sounds; I work in an extremely small school, and we are fortunate enough to have very wise district-level administration that arranges for consultants to be brought in to train teachers based on specific need (kind of like personalizing instruction for teachers ... genius, really).  The district admin is also quite gifted in grantwriting, which makes a lot of things possible that wouldn't be otherwise.

The friend that was most frustrated during our recent conversation works in a huge school.  HUGE.  He was distraught because a high percentage of his kids failed the first quiz on a play they are reading aloud as a class.  Each student had a study guide, encouragement to take notes during class discussions, and plenty of opportunity to ask for clarification knowing that an assessment was forthcoming.

"I don't know what else I can do!" he lamented. (there might have been a F-bomb or two thrown in there as well ...)

I probably didn't help much.

I suggested the idea of differentiated assessment (in other words, giving kids a choice of how they want to be assessed on the material).

It's actually not as loosy-goosy as it sounds; if your performance assessments are rigorous, which they should always be, and they are measuring the same thing as a traditional quiz, does it really matter how the students demonstrate the knowledge?

My friend was assessing whether students could identify the characters and major plot points from the first section of a work of literature.  The assessment was matching, fill-in-the-blank, and multiple choice for quotation identification.  While students are given the option to re-take the quiz if they fail, their potential grade caps out at a 70 for a restest.

The reason for this, as texted to me by my friend this morning?
The cap is a result of A.P. parents bitching to the school board about how unfair it is to their kids that someone with "more time" can get the same [grade] as their child, who "did it on time".
As the parent of an A.P. student, I find this appalling.  If I want Addie to be challenged--and I do--then it would be my (and, presumably, her teacher's) expectation that she be held to a different (and definitely higher) standard than a kid that can't read.  That seems like a no-brainer to me.  

According to my friend, every student (not just in his particular section of the class but those taught by other teachers as well ... huge school, remember?) is supposed to do the same assessment for an agreed-upon work of literature.  The same paper and pencil, boring as heck assessment.
The attitude is that standardized tests aren't done that way, so we're not helping them if we don't give uniform assessments.  "Students need to learn to take ALL forms of assessment" is the attitude of the consultant who makes policy.
I gave a recent assignment to my students where they had to write a letter to Romeo or Juliet from the point of view of another character.  The rubric was very specific and, in my opinion, very rigorous.  They had to identify and describe at least three plot points from Act I, they  had to demonstrate their knowledge of a character by taking on his or her persona, and they had to make a judgment as the character on their impressions of Romeo and Juliet's first meeting.

I could have given them a multiple choice test.  I could have said, "Write a summary of Act I".  It accomplished the same objective, after all; I mean, I could tell by the letters if my kiddos understood the play so far.

You know what?  They had a freaking ball writing those letters.  A large number of kids challenged themselves (with absolutely no prompting from me, I might add) by attempting to write their letters in Shakespearean language.  One of them, writing as Mercutio, talked about being very busy with his "interest in Indian opiates" after referencing Mercutio's vision of Queen Mab.

Kids who would have flat out refused to write a standard summary, who would have randomly picked letters on a multiple choice quiz, became engaged in this assignment beyond my wildest dreams.

Now, please don't get the impression that I think I'm the world's greatest teacher.  I'm definitely not.  I have lessons flop all the time, although since I've received training in inquiry-based learning, in increasing student engagement, in allowing students a degree of choice in what they are doing, in looking at bottom line objectives tied to curriculum standards instead of hoping that they'll circle the right multiple choice letter, it happens a lot less often.

So why is the idea of at least exploring this sort of student-centered instruction and assessment so abhorrent to some schools?  According to my friend, it comes down to three letters--SAT.  I'm guessing "NECAP" is in there as well (that's the state standardized test that decides whether or not a school is "failing").
The major problem in this district is that the entire system is built on the idea that every kid should be on a path to college.  Therefore, every kid must be able to do well on the SAT, and therefore they must be able to do that sort of test.
I think it's an even deeper problem than that, though.  I'm totally convinced that half the reason students flub the SAT is that they have never been engaged in school, they have experienced little to no success in school, and so they walk in expecting to bomb the SAT ... and we all know how powerful self-fulfilling prophesies are.

Will a student suddenly do a 180 because he or she experiences success by summarizing the first part of a work of literature in an unorthodox way and subsequently blow the SAT out of the water?  No.  Of course not.

But if students can experience success at school, if they--dare I say it--actually push themselves to go above and beyond merely identifying plot points on a multiple choice test because the assignment is *gasp* kind of fun, I don't see how that can be seen  as anything but positive!

And there is no doubt that, in this day of standardized testing as the be all/end all, we have a responsibility to teach students how to take a test.  It only stands to reason, though, that the likelihood of those "test-taking lessons" going over well increases exponentially when you're dealing with students with some degree of school buy-in.

And that's not going to happen if all they have to look forward to are circling letters (and, just in case anyone's wondering, "B" has been proven to be the most common multiple choice answer ... when in doubt, go with "B").

Please share your thoughts on this very serious crisis in America ... I like to think, learn, and grow as much as anyone :-)


  1. The problem is the same in most countries. I don't think you can really teach every child. If you really want to do it one of the only ways is to have each student have their own teacher. Or get the parents involved too, but most parents wouldn't go for that. I probably would, but I'm not actually a parent just yet. I suppose I'll find out eventually.

  2. I think this is why many homeschoolers do well. Not all, but many because they're given more time and choices. The Romeo & Juliet assignment is a perfect example because the students were allowed to be interest-driven with their work.

    Like your early reading, learning by interest is key. I absolutely hated history in school, but when I became an adult, it was fascinating. I just wasn't "ready" to learn it when it was presented to me. Had I been able to choose another way to learn it, then yeah, maybe I would have done a lot better.

    I understand the reasoning of the parents being upset over some kids getting the same test for being able to retake it. If that's the case, then all the students should be allowed a second chance to improve not only their grade, but their assignment. I mean, think about all the things you've written or done in your life. In hindsight, it's so easy to say, "I should have said that" or "I should have done it this way."

    I'm not involved the school system like you, so I can't comment on that. I just know that test scores are so final, and like you said, they often do not represent what the student really knows. You should see me take a typing test -- I suck, big time! But when I'm on a roll typing, God only knows what my actual WPM is. As homeschoolers, we do take tests, but they're not as cut and dry as they might be in schools. I'd rather give my kids an open book test and make sure they've retained the information, rather than just randomly filling in the blanks and guessing.

    The real question is whether the schools have the time, resources, and funds to customize their lessons and let the students be more interest driven. It certainly makes sense to me, but is it possible?

  3. It's not just America, it's Britain too. The idea of standard tests means that only a few will excel, the rest will either struggle to achieve or fail. Why? We're all different.

    What you're doing at your school is superb as the kids will learn the value of learning and that is a skill that standard tests don't take account of.

    'Standardised' is another word for mediocre. Every person, every child is different.

  4. first, yes you can use my poem...smiles...i would be honored...

    second, it def is hard esp with increasing class size...i know in my boys school it is like 32 kids in a 1st grade class...def not easy to individualize but maybe break into smaller groups...i think if this is done there has to be fluidity though because you can pigeon hole someone pretty fast in a slower group or diff learning style...

    i think there are many teachers who are kept well passed their prime due to tenure, at least i see that here...they teach to the standardized test without deviation and some are even bitter about it and take it out on the kids...sorry i am in the midst of a night mare year with one teacher...we are honestly just trying to survive it...

  5. Muito legal o seu blog,
    passei para conhece-lo.
    Beijos e bom carnaval.

  6. @Mark: That link between home and school is perhaps the most serious problem, and why teachers have to come up with really creative ways to engage things. I know that, when you're a parent, it won't be like that with you :-)

  7. @Rena: Thank you, as always, for your wisdom. It's funny, much of the way my school is moving mirrors home schooling in a lot of ways.

    I'm going to be honest with you, I did not think highly of home schoolers until I met some that actually held their kids to high standards and made learning relevant (you, of course, were one of them :-))

    My school is having a paradigm shift from traditional education to focusing on student engagement ... if a student is interested in what they're doing, they'll learn. Period.

    I am very proud of my school and feel incredibly fortunate to be part of such exciting and innovative work ... I just worry about the thousands of schools out there that aren't able to do some of this.

  8. @Martin: You're right ... success on a standardized test is not the slightest indicator of future success in life. It's crazy.

    It took me five times (yes, I sad five) to get an acceptable score on the SAT. I scored in the 3rd %ile in math on the GRE (grad school equivalent of the SAT), and yes, you read that right ... 3rd. My IQ is 122 (tested three times over the course of ten years ... they were trying to figure out if I was very smart or very dumb lol), which is within spitting range of genius.

    And I could probably be considered successful at life. I have a job I love, adequate pay, good benefits, the intrinsic rewards that go with teaching (and you cannot put a number on that).

    The idea of being pigeonholed by tests just makes me crazy ... they are not a valid indicator.

  9. @Brian: First, thank you for the permission :-) I'm thinking about running a clip of an erupting volcano on my SmartBoard, showing pics of the fossilized aftermath of Pompeii, then reading the poem. I think it'll make it more real for them, and definitely more interesting (not that your poem isn't good enough to just hand them to read :-))

    I hate bad teachers. I really do. When you've been teaching long enough, you make a really good salary ($50,000-$60,000 a year is a rough approximation), and those are often the teachers that use the same old stuff over and over again each year. I make a lot less money than that, and I spend nights, weekends, any spare second trying to find good stuff that'll interest kids (and spending my again much smaller salary on materials to make it even more meaningful). A huge part of today, for example, will involve searching for volcano visuals--maybe even a short informational text (an area students are very weak in reading)--in preparation for teaching your poem.

    I'm not complaining--I LOVE what I do, and trying to make learning interesting and relevant for kids is an exciting challenging.

    But I know what you mean about bad teachers. Both of mine have had at least one, and the universe gives out payback--Belle has the best elementary school teacher I've ever encountered this year, so it'll cycle around for you and yours as well.


  10. @Andy: Gracias :-) ¿Qué es la educación, como de dónde eres? ¿Los maestros tratan de hacer que sea divertido e interesante, o lo que acaba de decir: "Lee un capítulo?"

    **Sorry, my Spanish is a little rough ;-))**

  11. Oh, I absolutely hear you on the whole homeschooling thing. Before I started looking into it, I knew one homeschool family and I thought of them as "flakes". I mean, they were great people, but I got the impression they goofed off more than anything. I was way wrong. Once I began looking into homeschooling, I was blown away by all the things people do with it. I had no idea.

    I'm often torn and feel like an outcast because, even though I homeschool, I have many friends who have their kids in the school system, be it private or public. I also have friends and family members who are teachers, including my MIL & SIL. I often get frustrated when homeschoolers put down the school system because I see both sides. Not everyone can homeschool and not everyone should. I know how much time, effort, and money teachers put into their work. One thing I don't like doing is bashing the system because I know how hard they work. It might not be perfect, but then again, homeschoolers aren't perfect either. I think we're all just trying to do the best with whatever means we have available to us. What works for one might not work for another.

    My daughter was homeschooled from 2nd to 12th grade. She's currently in college studying to become a teacher. Go figure! :)

  12. There's a recent article in the NYRB about the Finnish school system that discusses the Finns' largely successful approach to public education, contrasting it with the well-meaning, but I suspect misguided, attempts of the Gates Foundation, among others, to reform via emphasizing teacher evaluation methods and "market principles".

    I think anyone familiar with Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs sees some pretty obvious reasons many public schools are struggling. When kids come to school malnourished, hungry, tired, insecure, neglected, and in some cases outright abused, etc. they are in no position to learn. No amount charter school competition or teacher evaluation is going to address those problems. It is a sad fact that before many kids from neighborhoods like the one I grew up in, and the ones that are far worse, are ready to be educated, they have other needs that require fulfillment first. They need: a good breakfast; clothes appropriate for the weather; teachers & counselors who are genuinely interested in their well-being and equipped to help them with social/familial issues; access to libraries and computers; an appropriate study environment outside the classroom; and some (far too many) need to protected from the cruelest of their fellow students, and most taught how to interact on a basis of mutual respect with their peers.

    If it were up to me, we'd tear down every brick/cinder block school with lousy heat and A/C, and build modern proper campuses. The school year would be longer. Every kid would get three squares at school. We would pay teachers like the professionals they are, and there would be twice as many of them. I know folks reading this are shaking their heads and thinking it's pie-in-the-sky utopian thinking, but these are things we can afford to do as a society now. Today. I mean, if we had a rational tax code and didn't invade another country on bullshit pretenses, we could afford it. If we stopped subsidizing profitable businesses and socializing risk while privatizing profit we could absolutely afford it.

  13. Wow, what a powerful post. I can only reflect upon my own school experiences before the whole 'leave no child behind' in the Chicago public school system. I became impressed that given limited resources at my high school that the smartest kids (AP, Gifted & Honors classes) and the slowest (Special Ed) both were given access to outside cultural events via field trips to musical performances and such. At first, I did not understand why they were given the opportunity (hey, I worked hard for my grades, I thought it was a reward), but if this exposure was meant to transform a B student into an A student, why not also help a D student transform into a C student? Surely, this was just as worthwhile a goal?

    I actually became frustrated that certain programs were being wasted on me such as free SAT prep classes rather than going to the students with the greatest need. I knew how to study, I would survive just fine without the extra assistance, but it could mean the world to a student without my natural abilities. I graduated with honors from high school, but I gladly would have given all the special treatment that I received to a student that was more deserving.

    I felt like that they wanted me to be an elitist (stupid white sash that I was supposed to wear at graduation since I earned a place in the Honor Society) and it really wasn't what I wanted or felt about myself. Perhaps it was a case of the lowest hanging fruit, they concentrated their efforts where they could obtain the fastest/easiest results. It felt lazy to me that the administration did not do even more for struggling students (back then there was a policy of letting students drop out of high school) as opposed to mainly focusing on the 'gifted' ones.

  14. The problem lies in the fact that our priorities are messed up. We don't mind that movie stars and sports players get paid millions of dollars but we complain when we try to give teachers raises. It also seems that as we try to fit everyone in the college bound pigeon hole we are having to make it larger to accommodate those who are unable and not wanting this route. Further it is interesting how the teachers are expected to do more than ever before and yet they have less support than they have ever had. Just a few thoughts on the way I see things.