Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Bringing Weapons to School

In so many of the movies that I’ve watched over the past 25 years, a common trope is apparent.  Anytime there is some new technology or innovation introduced into our society, it is almost always co-opted by some form of bureaucracy, and in most cases, weaponized.

The movie that really drove this point home for me as a child was “Short Circuit,” a quintessential 80’s flick starring Steve Guttenberg, Ally Sheedy, and of course, the sarcastic robot, Johnny Number 5.  As anyone my age will tell you, the idea of having a robot like Johnny 5 around would have been, in the parlance of our time, radical.  This was an amazing technology, an artificial intelligence capable of independent thought, with a thirst for knowledge, and a desire for fun as well as social justice.
The main crux of the film was that Johnny and his creators were trying to save him from being turned into a mindless killing machine.  Of course they succeed, and evil is punished accordingly.
A more recent and, in retrospect, way cooler, example of this is the plotline in the latest installment of the Batman franchise, “The Dark Knight Returns”.  At one point in the film we learn that Bruce Wayne and the R&D wing of his company have constructed an experimental energy reactor capable of delivering free power to all of Gotham (read, NYC).  The only catch is that he refuses to turn it on, because he is afraid that the introduction of the technology will call for, wait for it, a desire from others to turn it into a weapon.
Eventually, it IS turned on, subsequently weaponized, and used as a bludgeon to bring the city to its knees.  Batman’s only solution is to drag it out to sea, where it can explode without hurting anyone.
Over the past few weeks, the hazy details of the State of New Jersey’s plan to enforce the development of Student Growth Objectives (SGO’s), also known by their alter-ego, Student Learning Objectives, have begun to emerge.  As the Instructional Leader in my building, I’ve been tasked with helping the staff through this process.
We are currently developing the Objectives themselves, essentially the skills that educators will target in their classrooms as a way of gauging the progress of their students.
On it’s face, a Student Growth Objective is a great idea.  The concept is that teachers will create assessments that will check a student’s level of understanding of specific concepts multiple times over the course of the year.  The teachers will look at the data that has been collected on each child, and use that information to guide the instruction for EACH INDIVIDUAL CHILD BASED ON THEIR SPECIFIC LEVEL OF NEED.
If you are at all familiar with the blog, you know what a high value I place on Individualized Instruction, and this appears to be a great tool that we can use to start actually altering the types of instruction that are considered acceptable in a 21st Century Classroom.  The more I have gone through the process with the staff in my building, from Math teachers to the In School Suspension teacher, the more I have come to realize how innovative and valuable this exercise has the capacity to become.
But here’s the problem, and isn’t this always the problem?  They want to turn it into a weapon.
The SGO process is tied directly to the state legislation known collectively as EE4NJ (Excellent Educators for NJ), an acronym that begs two initial questions:

1.  By what measure are the educators in NJ, a state that consistently over the last 40 years has been ranked among the top 5 performers in the country, not excellent?


2. How can we strive for excellence when the bill itself substitutes the word ‘for’ with the letter ‘4’ in its own name; did they write it through text message?

All joking aside, the bill calls for the SGO’s to make up 50% of a teacher’s evaluation each year.  While this may not seem problematic, there are many troubling reasons this should not be tied to keeping your job.
The first is that teachers, in order to guarantee that they can keep doing what they love, will be reluctant to make the SGO’s as rigorous as they should, or can, be.  By holding the bar as high as possible, you are potentially shooting yourself in the foot.  
In addition, the student populations in individual schools will now be consistently called into question within that school.  Since the ability to show growth in your students is the measure of success, a teacher with a different classroom make-up compared to his or her colleagues may be at an advantage or disadvantage.  Students with strong work ethics and supportive families will be a hot commodity for teachers.  In some schools, however, the strongest teachers are sometimes syphoned students that struggle in various ways, because of their previous track successes with such students. Unfortunately, a class full of struggling students competing against a more heterogeneous grouping may hurt these high quality teachers.
Finally, those that teach Math or Language Arts are considered teachers of a “Tested Area”.  In addition to their SGO’s, these teachers will have up to 35% of their retention evaluations linked to Standardized Test scores alone.  Aside from keeping potential Math and Language Arts graduates away from those subjects, and the lack of job security linked with pay that they offer, current teachers in those subjects have a distinctly different level of anxiety when compared to their colleagues in the “Non-tested Area’s”.
The culmination of the building-wide anxiety that was created by this law, and its intended effect of essentially ending tenure, brought the tension in our building to the forefront the past three weeks.
And it didn’t have to be this way.  They took a great, innovative idea, and used it to create a cudgel, a weapon.
This is nothing new, the influx of high-stakes testing as an evaluative tool is in and of itself a very similar story.  What we need to ask ourselves as we move forward, not just as educators, but as a society, is what do we truly value in the education of our children.  Do we hope to make them into critically thinking innovators, or simply an army of test-taking, institutionally bullied imitators.
The state has it half right, looking at students as individuals is key to unlocking their potential as students and learners.  The problem is taking that good idea, and using it to intimidate and threaten the very people responsible for creating the type of students we all want to see in our society.
I think back to the way this is handled in the films that I’ve seen.  The only way to stop the potentially damaging weaponization of quality innovations is simple, you have to fight back, and you have to let everyone see you doing it.  If we do it that way, we can retain the value of the innovation, and shame those who would use it inappropriately into the background.  That, or we’re going to need a talking robot or Batman to save everyone.
I think I’m more comfortable relying on us.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

An Open Letter to Students: What to do While the Adults are "Reforming" your Education

Dear Students,

If you attend my district, you’ve probably noticed a slight chill in the air this week at school, that has unfortunately very little to do with the weather.  Your teachers had a full staff meeting this week, where they were formally introduced to the newest reform initiative in our state, the “Excellent Educators for New Jersey” (EE4NJ) evaluation reform law that goes into effect next year.  Now, that may sound like a strange thing to you, and it should.  As much as it claims to be for your benefit, you can simply add it to the numerous other acronyms that will be done in your name over the rest of your public education; QSAC, PGO, CCSS, PLP, ASK, PARCC, HIB, SST, and SIP to name only a few more.
EE4NJ is essentially a guarantee.  A guarantee that your teachers will probably have a latent, hopefully subconscious, level of disdain for you for the rest of their careers, now that your progress through school is directly tied to whether they get to keep their jobs.  
It also guarantees that those once-a-year, mind-numbing, single measure tests that you’ve been taking will simply not be enough data to fire those terrible teachers, so expect standardized assessments in EACH AND EVERY ONE OF YOUR CLASSES 4 TIMES A YEAR, until you graduate, or tap-out from exhaustion or anxiety. This doesn’t include the new and improved end-of-the-year standardized tests, which will also become 4-time-a-year as well. If you’re counting, that’s somewhere around 24 standardized assessments a year, and that’s the minimum. Over a public school career, the total conservative baseline number is 325 tests. Awesome.
You can expect that you’ll be well prepared for these tests, because if you fail them, half of your teacher’s evaluation is in jeopardy, so be ready for a year of test prep, every year.  Teachers will also be observed about twice as many times as well, so the odds of a great teacher deciding to get a job in this state is probably going to decrease as well.
But enough about us teachers, you still need to learn don’t you?

I don’t hold a whole bunch of stock in Self-Help style texts, nor am I one who outwardly seeks out the various advice columns in my paper, but I think you all might need some assistance in the coming years.  Here is a handy checklist of activities that you should be doing on your own, while us adults are busy “reforming” your education.

1. Find something you love to do, and do it as much as possible.  The odds of your classes being a place that values self-expression, or various ways of solving a problem, are on their way out.  Expect that the time you spend in school will do little to develop yourself as a person, as you will primarily be viewed as a number moving through a system from here on out.  That means when school is out, you need to follow your passions, and seek out mentors that can help you actually learn things.  Look at stuff on the internet, there’s some worthwhile stuff being done on the fringes, here’s a good example: Seth Godin, "Stop Stealing Dreams"

2.  Read for fun. Trust me, this one’s going out the window.  You’ll be doing mostly “informational” reading at school, sounds like a blast right? They’ll also want you annotating everything and proving that you understand the various intricacies of historical and scientific texts, yippee!  Books are one of the best pleasures that you can take in life, don’t let them destroy that for you.

3.  Ask your teachers and principals “Why?” whenever they ask you to do anything that sounds or feels like compliance, and not learning.   When they run out of answers, work your way up to your Superintendent, Board of Education, and eventually the people your parents elect to represent them.  Don’t expect a whole bunch of logical responses outside of demanding that you do as you are told... keep asking.

4. Remember what is happening to you, remember how it feels to be a part of this system.  Go into the world, regardless of the cynical way you are being taught, and be an agent for change.  Remember what you had to do outside of your school to be effective, smart, and caring.  Do your best to force people to give our next group of kids a real shot at a quality, ethical, and humanistic education.

I’m sure there’s more to add to this list.  I wish it didn’t have to exist, but as far as us educators are involved, it’s being decided for us, and is therefore our reality.  While the adults are busy figuring this thing out though, time is passing, time that you need to spend protecting your biggest investment, your mind.

What advice do we still need to give?  Students, teachers, parents, politicians, and community members, please let me know...

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

"Strikethrough" Nominated for "Story of the Year: All Genres"

Extremely proud to announce that my short story, Strikethrough, has been nominated for "Short Story of the Year: All Genres" at Preditors and Editors.

The award is a reader's poll, and the voting is live from now until January 14th.  You can vote here.

It was a great writing year for me, and this nomination was just a bit more icing on the cake, and any support you can offer would be much appreciated.


Friday, December 21, 2012

Guest Blog on Project Middle Grade Mayhem

Very excited to announce that I have a guest blog up at Project Middle Grade Mayhem, concerning authentic writing in Middle School classrooms.  Please check it out today!

Also, a big thanks to Eden Unger Bowditch, author of The Atomic Weight of Secrets: The Arrival of the Mysterious Men in Black, for a very kind introduction.

Here's the link:

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Writer's Workshop Conferencing Tips

My class workshop/studio focuses on 3 major "Process" papers, with additional supplementary papers that emphasize full student choice.  The following are tips for conferencing with students during the supplementary paper process, but they have direct applications for conferencing in general with students as well.

The supplemental papers can cover a very wide range of genre, lengths, and subjects.  Frequent conferencing, particularly on the front-end of the paper, is key to student success.  The following is a brief overview of the path students might take through the supplemental paper process.

I.               Topic/Genre Generation
a.     The main issue at the beginning of the process is helping students to face the “white page.”  This can often be a daunting task, especially for students who may not consider themselves writers.  The most important question to ask the students during conferences at this point, is whether their topic or genre interests them.  Failure to attach themselves to a topic of importance will doom the product to failure, as it will neither engage the students, nor make their writing exciting and valid.
b.     “But it’s Hard!”: Allow students to flounder here.  There is no rush to find a topic, and it may take students time to make a decision.  This is the best time to give students a chance to explore their desires, wants, and interests.  Do not confuse a student struggling at this point with a student “not doing,” give them the time they need to find something worth saying.
II.             Outline/Planning
a.     This step will be different according to genre and topic (as well as the student’s level).  Remember to gauge the steps in a way that is authentic and meaningful, not simply arbitrary.
b.     Start Small, Go Big:  Remember that planning is the act of creating a paper’s skeleton.  We will add the muscle and skin later, but now we need a strong foundation.  The outline and planning provides this.  Allow students to create plans that help them to look at the document as a whole, and help them to see all of the moving parts, before we ask them to compose.
c.     No One Way:  Use your knowledge of the individual students to determine what steps you’d like them to consider in their plan.  Make sure that they also have authorship in these plans, and that they understand each step, and why they are doing them. Without the buy-in, the paper will end up being for you, and not for them.
III.           Text Generation
a.     The Simplest Step:  Get out of their way and let them write.  Let them write for extended periods of time, and stress the need for getting everything down, not simply the bare minimum.
b.     The More the Better:  Writing is sculpture, we start with a large chunk of rock, and we will eventually cut away from it and shape it to our desires.  Text generation is building the rock.  There must be enough to cut away from when we’re done, so urge students to write as much as possible.
c.     No Arbitrary Rules:  Don’t tell the students that paragraph must be a certain length.  It isn’t true.  Don’t tell them that a persuasive essay is five paragraphs.  It isn’t true.  Don’t tell them that you must provide a counter-point in every argument.  It isn’t true.  Avoid any type of arbitrary rule that is not indicative of authentic writing, and certainly don’t tell them that there are writing rules, which are in fact designed by you to guarantee certain types of outcomes.
IV.           Drafting/Editing
a.     Once the student has generated the requisite amount of text, they should begin a typed draft.  Students should be cognizant of self-editing during this process, but understand that this is not relegated to getting rid of the red and green “squigglies.” Before they begin a formal, “hard edit” they should print the document, which will force them to look at the paper in a different way.
b.     Don’t Overwhelm:  When editing a printed piece, resist the urge to correct every mistake.  Odds are that this will result in a paper filled with red marks.  Rather, read the piece looking for a pattern of errors.  Once you recognize the pattern, stop reading the document, bring the pattern to the student’s attention, and teach a mini-lesson if necessary.  Ask the student to go forward through the remainder of the document and find other examples of this mistake, and have them corrected when they bring it back to you.  If the student is recognizing the mistake, great!  If not, re-teach accordingly.  Try not to mark for more than three areas of improvement per draft, as this will allow the student to manage the drafting and editing process.
V.             Publishing/Performance
a.     Make sure students know that they are not simply writing for their teacher.  By requiring the students to either publish or perform their work, it forces them to take pride in their endeavors, and to write for themselves. The added pressure of “getting it right” falls on them, and placing the writing in the public arena is a powerful motivator.

Things to Remember:  these  papers are about creating buy-in, and opening up students to a writing life, where self-expression is sought and encouraged.  As teachers, we can provide individualized instruction that is student-directed, and still cover the curriculum requirements we are responsible for.  For formal, class-wide pieces, we can still have process-driven papers, but supplementary papers can allow additional opportunities for individual growth.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Talking about Poetry with Middle School Students

  As my classroom begins to roll over into full workshop for the rest of the year, I know that many of my students will be attempting poetry, many for the first time.  It's important as teachers that we have authentic discussions with students surrounding our expectations.  Middle school students generally come into poetry with similar misconceptions or issues.  Here is a list of the most common:

-       -Poetry has “No Rules”
-       -Poetry must rhyme
-       -Poetry must be short
-       -Poems must be on a serious topic
-       -Poetry should be difficult to understand or vague
-       -Poetry only needs to make sense to the writer

None of these things are true, and helping writers through these assumptions is key to getting them to write poetry well.  There are a few general ways you can attack these conceptions, and create a more meaningful and authentic experience for children.

1.     Poetry is not Anarchy:  As with any other piece of prose, poetry must be created with intent behind it.  This intent can be shown through many different ways, but unless the student is writing poetry that purposefully assaults the conventions of Standard English, poetry should be grammatically and conventionally sound.  This is the most common mistake kids make when starting middle school poetics.  To address this, have he students redraft their work in paragraph form, or ask them to compose in this manner.   This will allow them to make sure that the poem follows standard conventions without confusing them in terms of line breaks.

2.     Poetry is written for Performance:  Poetry has historically been a spoken art form.  As such, the use of commas and periods in the poem must be used with intent, directing the reader as to how the poem should sound when read aloud.  This is also an opportunity to teach mini-lessons around the use of Alliteration, Assonance, Metrics, and Rhyme (although these are higher level concepts).

3.     Poetry is not from Concentrate:  A poem is as long as it “needs” to be.  In some cases, this is predetermined, as in Sonnets or Villanelles.  Other poems have their length determined by subject alone.  In either situation, the economy and functionality of words is paramount.  There should not be any words or phrases that amount to excess baggage, and students should be able to justify why things are included on the page.

4.     Poetry is not all Dirges:  Neruda wrote about fruit and salt, Whitman and Ginsberg wrote about their bodies, and Bukowski wrote about his own depravity.  There are no “set” topics for poetry, the desire to write alone is the key, the need to capture, to “Name the World.”  If the student wants to create a Haiku, make sure they research the form, understand the subtleties it provides, and not focus on the fact that it is only 3 lines. Choosing a topic is important, but not limited to what we would typically define as “momentous” or life altering events.  A good poem adds grace to the mundane, meaning to normalcy.

  This post is as yet unfinished, what would you add to it?  What issues do you see when students attempt poetry?

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Thick of It

I always found popular culture intriguing because it represents what is relevant RIGHT NOW.  I think many students share this sentiment but often find popular culture and current events quite distant from what goes on in their classrooms.  With the recent super storm, Hurricane Sandy, students in Morristown, New Jersey were in the thick of what was on the news and flooding social media networks.  I thought this was a great time to capitalize on their interest with what was going on RIGHT NOW.  When we returned from our seven days off from the storm, I immediately presented the students with “The Hurricane Sandy Relief Project.”  The project has two components, a short term (individual), and a long term (group).  The short term project involves donations, interviews with the those involved, and immediate relief for victims.  Often in our society, donating time and money is seen as the endgame.  I disagree.  While donations are essential and necessary, they do not change an infrastructure in a way that creates long term improvements for the community.  Therefore, students are spending more time on the long term aspect of the project.  Students are required to focus on one issue related to the Hurricane.  Some of their topics include the gas crisis, the electric grid, price gauging, and Morristown preparations, etc.  They are required to research how this issue unfolded during Hurricane Sandy.  Then, they will write a business proposal to the appropriate person with a plan of how to improve on their topic of choice.  They will include a statement of need, a budget, and an overview of their creative suggestion.  Lastly, they have to “sell” their idea to their classmates.  The goal is to eventually send off the best proposals/presentations to local government officials, power companies, or local community members, whomever the relevant recipient may be. 
                We are halfway through the project and students are collaborating effectively with Google Docs, sharing ideas at any time of the day via their computer, phone, or tablets, which allows me to immediately see any changes they make to the document and to keep track of their pacing.  Google Docs is a teacher’s dream as I don't feel the need to hover over them in class, I can keep track of who is doing what from anywhere.  It is a phenomenal monitoring system.  The greatest thing I have noticed is how invested students are in this project.  Because they feel an intimate connection to the Hurricane, they care immensely about the success of their proposals.  I (the teacher) am not the final viewer of their product, in fact, I am the first of many.  Their product will be judged by their classmates and ultimately their community.  The stakes are high for this assignment, students refuse to stay married to their product, they see it as adaptive and ever-changing.  They don’t want to continue with a “bad” idea, as many of them do with their traditional assignments.  Once they start a traditional assignment, they are hesitant to revise and change it, because they know that their perhaps sub-par idea will receive an acceptable grade.  This assignment is about more than grades, thus they are willing to revisit, revise, and reflect.
                From an educational standpoint, this project allowed for genuine, meaningful research, collaboration, and communication.  They are learning a variety of skills such as persuasive and informative writing, public speaking, and prototyping.  They are also beginning to think about important marketing questions; what presentation will impact their classmates the most?  What is the best method to capture the attention of an audience?  How will our classmates connect emotionally to our product or idea? I love that students are beginning to understand the process; discussion, research, discussion, dividing of tasks, writing the proposal, and  bringing the proposal to life with a presentation.  Ordering is difficult for many students, as they are quick to jump around and find it perplexing to follow a pattern.   This project guides them in how thinking should be sequenced for the best possible product.  I look forward to sharing their presentations and proposals in the coming weeks.