Tuesday, March 17, 2015

#PARCC: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

For the past several days my students have endured the new Common Core State Standards aligned PARCC assessments. After administering and proctoring for over 8 hours in three days, I have a few takeaways from this high stakes test which we will do all over again in May. It would be very easy to dissect all of the nuanced problems within the test but I thought I would start with a generic overview of the good, the bad and the ugly. This is in large part due to the fact I am not sure what I can or cannot say about the test for fear of violating the consent form all staff had to sign. :)

The Good

I feel it fair to say the test itself presented little overall difficulty for my students. They seemed to navigate the controls with relative ease and many of them finished with ample time to spare in what I would consider generous testing time frames. Many of the students reported they enjoyed it better than the old “fill in the bubble with a number 2 pencil” tests which were the predecessor. If I had to estimate the average student was able to finish most of the tests in around 20 minutes despite being given anywhere from 60-90 minutes for each test.

The Bad

The bad of the PARCC test is that we are using it all together. Over the course of two tests (Performance Based and End of Year) there is massive loss of instructional time. Depending on your level of technology, the tests are taking schools weeks to administer. For schools testing on devices, students and teachers are unable to use any technology during these time frames due to the test monopolizing their use. What is surprising is we are not using other nationally normed tests which take a fraction of class time to administer and get feedback.

The Ugly

Another ugly of PARCC testing is really not specific to PARCC at all but high stakes testing in general. Schools have pep rallies and send home special instructions for the week of testing. Teachers and administrators reach out to the community and ask for children to be well fed and rested. They even go so far as to outlaw homework to keep the children’s stress or anxiety levels low and therefore prepped for testing. Some will have special parties and treats geared towards keeping kids positive and happy for testing week. What is ugly about this to me, is why are we not doing these things every day? Why do we put extra emphasis on the stress levels and health of a child during testing week? What are we doing to engage with parents and kids to promote positive health for kids regularly? Also, why do we have pep rallies and other gimmicks to attempt to convince kids the tests actually matter?

I realize a world without standardized testing may be as possible as a world of hover boards and flux capacitors. However, what about engaging in conversations about the health of kids more than during testing week? Why not limit the testing time period to the absolute minimum? Let’s be mindful of the amount of instructional timing lost and resources spent due to testing. Is testing the worst thing we have in schools? Not by a long shot. However, we can certainly look at the way in which it is used and make it useful to students and learning rather than companies and politicians.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Classroom Management

When we start the journey of a teacher, nearly all of us had the same goals in mind. We wanted to make a difference in the life of a child. Some of us came into the profession wide-eyed and nervous while others came in with a feeling of confidence or even a slight arrogance. However, all of us at some point were humbled by something we were not quite prepared for. This happens more often than not in our early years as a teacher. We realize the possibility our college course work and teacher preparation program may not have been as thorough as we would have liked or assumed it was. In most cases we attempt to seek advice from those around us by way of our peers and fellow teachers. Yet, a realization often comes over us as we begin to seek that help. Many of the teachers we work with have entrenched views on education where status quo and tradition reign supreme.

There are seven critical areas in which new(er) teachers often struggle. These areas are classroom management, motivation, parents, technology, initiatives, traditions, and professional growth. In addition to new teachers, I often see veteran teachers struggle in these areas due to an outdated or potentially engrained belief system. For example, student motivation and the use of punishment and rewards is a largely unchallenged bastion of schooling within most classrooms. Yet research done by many individuals, including Daniel Pink, would suggest alternate ways in which to look at how we motivate students.

To me one of the most critical elements of a teacher’s job is that of classroom management, which is a topic that I have reflected on and given great thought to.

I still remember when I had my classroom management binder filled out with all of my classroom management strategies and rules for the classroom. I probably brought that into my first interview to show off that I knew I was going to be an expert classroom manager. All of those color-coded tabs with rules, procedures, and everything that could possibly happen in my future classroom. Then I got to the first day of school with thirty, junior high kids in the room and I realized the binder was not worth the paper it had been printed on. I started to realize all the cute little tricks and tips and strategies I learned while in college were not the Golden Ticket to a well-behaved classroom.
 At some point in your career, hopefully it’s sooner rather than later, you realize the fallacy of classroom management methods typically taught to new teachers, many still used by veteran teachers.
 The simple truth is you cannot make a child do something they do not want to do.
 You will have a student who will look you dead in the eye when asked to do something and he will simply say, “No.” You will reply with, “You better or else.” The student will look you back in the eye and answer, “Or else what?” You will then realize there is no “or else” because you can’t force him to do anything. Now this might seem like a shock because, as a new teacher, you would hope that you have some power or authority in the classroom. However, in my experience those teachers who feel they have that authority and power are the ones who struggle the most. The moment you get into a power struggle as the teacher in a classroom, you have already lost. If we don’t need traditional classroom management techniques, then what do we need? How can you as a teacher effectively manage a class of students? (Stumpenhorst, 2015)

Classroom management, along with the other six items, is a critically important topic to reflect on and analyze if a teacher wants to stay relevant and effective. My goal as a teacher is to always look for ways to improve on the work I do every single day with students. Teachers who are reflective about their practice are often the ones who evolve with their students and are better suited to meet the needs of the learners in their rooms. Regardless if you are looking at classroom management and motivation or education traditions and initiatives, the most effective teachers are those willing to take a critical look at their craft with the goal of continual improvement. The dynamic of a classroom and what we know about learners is ever changing. As a result, we need teachers ready to start a revolution of ideas and meet the needs of these learners.

For more insights and content regarding Classroom Management as well as the other 6 critical areas to revolutionize your teaching check out The New Teacher Revolution

Friday, January 16, 2015

Educational Erosion

In my heart I believe every single teacher went into the profession with the intention of changing lives and inspiring kids. I truly believe this because the alternative is too horrible to contemplate. Yet, every single one of us can name a teacher or two in our building who seem to have lost their desire to do amazing work with kids. On the surface you may think these teachers are “sucky” but I think we are being a bit shortsighted and missing the larger picture when it comes to less effective teachers. It is my belief many teachers are simply experiencing symptoms of educational erosion. Just as cliffs along a coastline erode and shrink, I too think teachers suffer a similar fate. There are many variables, which impact the rate of this erosion.

Water Pressure
Just as cliff sides around the world experience different waves, storms, and tides, teachers have different pressures put on them as well. These pressures come in the form of testing, evaluations, initiatives, administrators, parents, legislation and the laundry list of things, which ultimately stand in the way of teachers doing their jobs. While a teacher may have stood tall on day one of their first year, the job and the stressors eventually erode away the tough exterior.

The number of initiatives, programs, and new responsibilities being placed on teachers is increasing to a monsoon level in some schools. Teachers’ very fabric of being which they started their careers with is being blasted out to sea.

Type of Rock
Cliffs can be comprised of different rocks determining the erosion rate and the same can be said of teachers. Some teachers are emotionally and mentally more prepared to withstand the years of teaching with its onslaught of emotional and physical waves. The reality is, some teachers are built differently and can handle all that is tossed at them. Yet, just as it is with rock, they all have a breaking point.

The hardest rock can withstand the strongest Mother Nature can throw its way. However, over time the rock changes and erodes into something different. The inspired and passionate teacher from day one evolves and erodes in the same manner. When you see a “sucky” teacher, stop and wonder what they have experienced to make them the way they are. While this is in no way supporting poor teachers, it is to say sometimes people have been beaten down so much they can’t stand back up enough to return to that person they were on their first day.

As a trail runner I see places where erosion is being stemmed and even reversed through supports such as walls, barriers or other assistive measures. Teachers need support to survive the waves of standards, assessments, initiatives, meetings and everything else wearing them down. This is not to say teachers are pathetic and can’t handle the rigors of teaching. However, I fear we will have a generation of teachers leave the profession because teaching itself is eroding into purely data management and assessments rather than relationship building and learning as a joyful act. I have yet met a teacher who says they are tired of teaching. Yet, they are tired of everything else asked of them, which ultimately gets in the way of the job of actually teaching.

Administrators who step up for their staff to push back and protect them from the storms of our educational systems are to be commended. They are the ones who can help stem the erosion of our teachers so as not to lose them. In addition, fellow teachers need to be able to support one another and help weather the storms cropping up seemingly more and more regularly.

Just as harbors and bays provide shelter from the storms, teachers too are seeking shelter. In some extreme cases, they seek shelter by simply leaving the profession all together. The feelings of stress overwhelm them to the point of exhaustion and they leave. It can be argued some of these teachers should leave but I argue we are losing the good ones too.

Another shelter teachers are taking is through leaving for positions of less accountability and pressure. Instead of teaching tested subjects they head into the waters of electives and other roles where there is shelter from high expectations in the form of rigid standards or high stakes testing. This is not to say these teachers are hiding from accountability but they need a space where they can interact with kids in a positive way without the pressure and stressors looming over them brought on by over standardization and testing.

The final shelter teachers are taking is holing up and shutting down in their rooms altogether. They ignore the new initiatives and everything new being asked of them. For them it is about survival and getting through the day.

Educational erosion may be a made up idea but the reality is teachers erode over time. Most if not all teachers walk into their first teaching job with the best intentions and a good heart. Yet somewhere along the way the system batters them into a shape or form almost unrecognizable to where they started. We must be better to our teachers, especially our new ones, if want them to withstand the weathering of a career in education. Erosion over time can create smooth and polished masterpieces if it is controlled and nurtured. However, if unprotected it will ravage and destroy all in its path.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Bullies, Trolls and Fakes

As many of you know I am a huge proponent of social media use for educators. The potential positives for teachers and administrators alike are boundless and I know my professional growth has been impacted greatly through my use of social media. I have been able to gain countless resources to pull into my practice as a classroom teacher, which has benefited my students. In addition, I have been exposed to ideas and thoughts influencing the way I think about and perform my duties as a teacher. On top of it all, I have made countless connections with inspiring, friendly, helpful and even humorous individuals around the globe. Every single one of these people has changed the way I look at many aspects of my role as a teacher both from the good and the bad.

However, having said all of that, I feel as though there are pieces to social media many people are aware of but seldom point out when talking about it to new users. In fact, there is a pretty dirty underbelly to social media worth mentioning and being made aware of.

For starters, there are bullies abound in the world and social media is no exception. There will be a time when you will share something and you will be bullied for what you share. It will come in the form of derogatory tweets or negative comments on your post, picture or video. In some cases you may want to write about something culturally, politically or racially charged. Inevitably you will be harassed because you are not ____(fill in blank with a race, gender, other social status)____ and therefore you are not worthy of taking up that banner. On one hand some will ridicule you for bringing the subject up at all while on the other you will be ridiculed because you should have written or talked about it sooner. With some people there will be no winning.

Another thing will be when you share something and someone else will tell you they are already doing it or has previously done it. These trolls will claim your idea is not new and therefore people shouldn’t celebrate your own personal innovation but rather condemn you for not arriving at that idea earlier. They will not be content with your personal discovery or a new idea but rather judgmental you didn’t come up with it sooner or that you are just copying something already being done.

In addition to bullying, you have to watch out for the fake teachers out there trying to put out the persona of perfection. If you follow certain individuals or groups you might think you are inadequate or in no way capable of teaching at the level they do. Every post, tweet or picture is the model of the perfect classroom and the perfect lesson. It is easy to follow them and feel like there are impossible standards to live up to. In many cases I have looked at teacher’s content online and feel as though they are prefect in every single aspect of teaching. It appears as though social media is being used as a way to make others feel bad for not doing all the amazing things other people are doing in their schools or classrooms.

Having said all of that, I still support social media use and encourage teachers to use it as a way to connect themselves to the world. Bullies, trolls and fakes are there but that is life. Ignore, block and move on. Also know they are clearly in the minority. Don’t ever be afraid to stand up for what you believe in and write, tweet, post what you are passionate about. Recognize everyone is at a different place in this wild journey we call education and life. Some are further along than you and will potentially put you down for it. Ignore them and think about those who are at the same place or a different place and will be influenced by you sharing your work. As for the “perfect” teachers out there, recognize it is not all true. Many teachers talk themselves up in social media but also they are not completely honest or at least not fully transparent. It is not popular to share real failures and days where we had a horrible lesson or blew up on a kid. Bottom line, people are only sharing the best of what they have to offer. There is nothing wrong with this but just keep this in mind when reading about those so-called perfect lessons or strategies. Realize it and just keep focusing on making yourself better one day at a time.

Social media can be the key to unlocking great connections for you and your students. However, just be aware of the trolls, bullies and fakes out there. Recognize them and move on to create those meaningful connections that will better you as a teacher and as a person.

Thursday, January 8, 2015


As a parent and a teacher I often reflect on how these two roles intersect and are greatly influenced by each other. Lately I have been thinking a great deal about failure and how we “use” it in school as well as outside of school. I worry we might be, for lack of a better term, screwing up a generation of kids due to the way we are using and not using failure as a learning tool.

For starters, have we become overly obsessed with making kids feel good about themselves and in doing so reducing our conversations to dishonest and artificial? For example, when we give every kid a trophy or a ribbon just for trying, are we watering down accomplishments and celebrating kids’ inadequacies? While that may sound harsh, should we artificially be building kids up and telling them they are good at something they are not? In doing so do we run the risk of kids never developing coping skills to deal with failure or a situation where they are not the “best”? By falsely telling a kid they are good at something or being shielding them from failure, are we helping them in the long term?

Along those same lines, are we actually letting kids fail? Is there an environment in our houses and schools where kids can experience failure? This does not have to be soul crushing or life altering failure, but they need to fail at things. When a kid produces a poorly written piece of writing do we give them an “F” is that is deserved or do we inflate it to protect the student from the feeling of failure?  If we are watching our kids learning to ride their bikes do we run in and hold the seat before giving them a chance to fall and get back up? If a kid fails, let them fail. Stand right next to them and help move on but don’t shield them from the failure, they need it.

Another aspect of failure is the notion of celebrating failure, which has become rather popular among teachers and parents alike. However, I disagree with this idea to a point. If my kids fail at something, I don’t celebrate it nor do I encourage them to fail. Celebrating failure is telling kids failure is something to aspire to and places value on something we shouldn’t value. Instead the focus should be on getting back up and trying again. When our kids fall when we are teaching them to ride that bike, do we celebrate the skinned knees and bruises? No, we pat them on the back and encourage them to get back on that bike and keep trying. We celebrate their ability to stick with it and finally succeed. Shifting the focus off the failure and on to the “what now” is the key to making sure our students and children have the skill set to face adversity and keep going.

When kids do fail it is ok for them to feel bad about it. Failing should not be a positive experience and for those who have failed, they know this to be true. I cannot think of a time in my life where I failed and felt good about it. I hated it and it fueled to me to get better and avoid that feeling. Kids need to feel that if they are to understand how to grow and learn from those mistakes and overcome obstacles. Constantly protecting them from those negative feelings will create a false sense of confidence which will likely not serve them well in the long run.

If we are going to use failure in schools or in our homes, we need to make sure we are doing it effectively. Simply shielding kids from failure or giving them cake and ribbons when they do fail may not be the best approach. Let’s create environments where kids are safe to take risks with the potential for failure. Let them experience failure and not enjoy it but help them use that feeling to get back up and move past it. It is only through allowing kids to truly experience failure and let them learn from it that it can truly have value.