Wednesday, July 15, 2015
Wednesday, February 18, 2015
One of our largest struggles this year is the students who are called "T9s", or "transitional ninth graders". These are students who did not pass all of their eighth grade LEAP but were allowed to attend high school anyway. Across the board these students perform far below grade level and many have 504 accommodations. In addition to academic short comings, many of them are emotionally immature and not able to keep up with the amount of work and responsibility that is needed in high school. Their teachers meet constantly about their progress, accommodations, ability and behavior in non-stop attempts to make them successful despite already showing that they have not mastered the skills that they need for high school. In our previous generation, if you did not pass your classes and/or did not pass your LEAP test you simply did not move on to the next grade. Instead, now we have 4.5, 8.5 or as they are now called, T9's. Almost 7% of the entire freshman class is a T9. If the reform was working, would we really have so many students that are not mastering content?
Despite a myriad of deficiencies in students in previous years, this year's students have come in with even lower reading scores than the last group of students. Our school uses the STAR Reading assessment in July and a post assessment in December and the average range of reader is approximately fifth to sixth grade. Many students are even farther below, and to reach these students four remedial English classes are offered this year but student placement is based upon LEAP scores, not this reading assessment. This means that students are placed in the standard English classes despite performing at the same or similar level to the T9s or, generally, elementary aged students who are AT grade level.
There have been HUGE amounts of testing infidelity (a quick Google search shows examples here, here and here with many more available. My own experiences will not be documented here, but it has happened quite a lot) along with the high numbers of new teachers and high teacher turn over in New Orleans. While cities such as Dallas and Atlanta look to make similar changes as the ones that occurred in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, what can really be said about the abilities of the children in this system?
My colleagues and I make informal but necessary observations about our students. Algebra classes are remediating basic skills, not to mention the absolute need for students to use calculators for even basic calculations and there is a shocking lack of understanding about mathematical processes; students exhibit an inability to visualize intangible objects and thus have a hard time using maps and constructing models- one teacher jokingly commented, "did no one let these kids cut and paste in elementary school? They have no spatial reasoning!". My year in kindergarten left me shaking my head at that comment because I knew that they had not been allowed to be creative.
Creative? By the way, that is a word that my ninth graders do not understand.
In an attempt to teach essay writing I told the students that I wanted them to break out of the middle school essay writing format of "firstly, secondly and lastly" (they don't even know to use "finally" instead of "lastly") and I encouraged them to write creatively. I was met with confused looks and weird speculations as to what that meant.
My students don't know words. Basic words. I have heard, this year more than any other, "stop using all them big words". My students do not understand that I do not speak formally with them but correctly; their language ability is hugely limited despite many of the charter schools using 90 minute reading blocks regardless of the schedule for other classes. What is really happening?
I wish I had a dollar for every time that a high school teacher asked "what are the middle school teachers teaching?".
More concerning than what the elementary teachers are teaching (or not teaching) is how they may be treating the students. This year's students are incapable of independent work. For every dollar that I'd receive for a teacher asking "what are the middle school teachers teaching?", I'd lose two dollars for every time that a child has declared, "you're not helping me!". I've gone so far as to have students define the word "help" in a general context then an academic one, and despite the fact that they could say that teachers are supposed to give new information they still expect their teachers to do the work for them or to explain it so much that the only word left is the answer. The idea that they are supposed to absorb the information presented to them, digest it then practice it themselves is lost. I spent the month of August teaching the students about Bloom's taxonomy and fostering independence and it has not changed even a bit by now.
What I do see, however, is that students are incredibly grade driven and want to be successful, but their esteem is deeply tied to correctness. Students yell "See! I'm smart!" when they get answers correct-they have no idea that they thought and worked hard to get their answer. They have no real idea of their abilities, and giving students their reading scores resulted in statements of denial and complaint. Early in the school year, a student was transferred from my class to the remedial English class. Every time I see him he tells me that he has an "A" in that class; completely unaware that he is working at the sixth grade level. An attempt to tell children that they have shortcomings and that we can work to fix them ends in anger and tension between the teacher and student. Students have actually told me NOT to grade on correctness because their other teachers didn't. This is a real issue.
Will this be the way future students function? When I think of the franchisation (yes, I made that a word) of the New Orleans schools and the KIPP style, Doug Lemov methods spread throughout most of the schools, I fear that subsequent classes of students will follow in this path. I love teaching ninth grade. I love teaching literature and thinking and analyzing the world around us, but if children continue to walk the halls of local high schools with the idea that they do not need to learn anything, has the reform really increased student knowledge and ability or are these students doomed leave their high schools and walk into a world that they have not the skills nor attitude to face?
Monday, November 3, 2014
Despite the romanticized view of this city that most of America has, it is a troubled and complex mangle of culture. When I started this blog my intention was to have a place where teachers new to New Orleans would have some resources for the classroom as well as support in teaching our uniquely demented children. There is a fairly large number of teachers who move to this city and for them, and anyone who has not lived here a while and learned what makes our culture exactly what it is, your experience with these children and their families is often a huge shock. For the young, new teachers this can be an absolute brick wall that divides them from their kids and makes teaching in these classrooms almost impossible.
With that, I have been thinking about some things to know that might help the onset of culture shock.
1. Set rules and expectations and never bend or break them.
Many children come from homes and families where there are few explicit rules and families often give in and bend them if there's enough whining, complaining or fighting about it, and worse, many teachers will be manipulated to bend as well. Students often end up feeling like their teachers aren't fair, are biased, or don't like them if they aren't able to get the rules broken. There's some saying that goes "children crave structure" and it's true. I have read many times that a classroom shouldn't have more than six or seven rules and that makes them easier for the teacher to manage. I have nine, which includes "do your best" (you'd be surprised how, when kids aren't working and wonder why they receive a consequence, saying "you weren't doing your best" is actually an adequate answer). There are also designated bathroom/pass times for every freshman classroom to avoid kids leaving the room during crucial teaching time. With that, kids always know what their teacher expects in the classroom. There will always be someone who will try to bend or break the rules but students truly know what is "fair", and often the students keep each other in check. My favorite is when someone asks to go to the bathroom outside of bathroom time (you may go in the first twenty minutes or last twenty minutes) and before I can even say "no", another student plainly replies ,"20/20 rule, man".
If a rule has to be bent or broken, make it explicitly known that the situation is an emergency or exception. This helps the children continue to feel like they are being treated fairly.
2. Behavior management is tricky.
Unless you are the kind of person who is able to be stone-faced and does not tell jokes to your students or have much of a personal relationship with them, even the best behavior management systems get tricky. A lot of students do not respond to consequences right away; some even do not respond until or unless you are yelling. A lot of parents give their child a direction but don't enforce it right away, then become annoyed and yell and/or whip the child and that's when the child knows where the limit is. If you are or plan to be particularly open with them, they may not take you, your rules or your consequences seriously. A visual behavior tracking system helps because they can see exactly how close to the "limit" they are.
3. Fights are normal.
Fights are normal if not expected. They are not an expellable offense even if the school says so in writing. Parents raise children to hit back if they have been hit and to stand up for themselves if they have been wronged. Parents often fight when they face conflict. Some of my former colleagues once discussed all the fights that they'd been in from childhood to adulthood. I was the only one who hadn't any fights, even with siblings. I always have to be the exception. Even at my current school, which is supposed to be "a cut above the rest", parents have fights at football games and even come to the school ready to fight teachers. Fights are normal. Fights start when a piece of paper is thrown in play. Fights break out across campuses. Fights create chaos where mobs of students run to watch.
If a fight breaks out or is about to break out in your room, do your best to separate the students and call for help. Document as much as you can.
4. Respect is a truly subjective word.
Or rather, disrespect happens often and easily. Also, cursing in the presence of an adult is not considered disrespectful if the student is not cursing AT the adult.
A lot of behaviors are overlooked because children are not shown what respect and having good manners is. Most of the students at school say "please" and "thank you" and "God bless you" but don't see arguing with an adult as disrespect. Defining respect in your classroom is a must.
5. The children behave like and may think they are helpless but shouldn't be treated like they are.
Many teachers truly have the best intentions when it comes to their students and just want them to be successful and feel good about themselves. However, teachers may often be tempted to "help" their students too much. Many of the children of New Orleans are being raised in an environment of helplessness; they often believe that all Black people get food stamps and rightfully so; our poor job market leaves many people with few options for growth and citizens feel helpless to be successful and most of all, our streets are truly deadly for our teens in ways that no one can help. They walk into the classroom already defeated and need their teachers' help to show them exactly how to become independent and strong.
The lines become blurred with curriculum. If every teacher is teaching directly with an "I do, we do, you do" structure and adheres to the "you do" part, children will be less helpless. Many of our schools use centers for independent work but teachers are still present and assist; the students become persistent at getting teachers to give them answers, whether explicitly or through getting teachers to explain every angle of the problem until all that is left is the answer.
My very best freshman will still sit frozen in fear of getting an answer wrong because their previous teachers have "helped" them get the right answer before turning the assignment in. If the material has been explicitly taught and practiced, they should be able to do the work on their own. If the majority can not, ask the students what steps they missed and see how the lesson can be adjusted. Giving kids an answer never helps them.
6. Kids need honesty.
New Orleans' public schools are some of the worst in the state-a state which ranks as 48th in the nation. Our kids want to be and should be as successful as any other child but don't know how far they have to go or what they have to do to get there. Patting the children on the back for everything gives them a false sense of ability. It's a delicate bubble that will be burst at some point. We want our children to get better, so just like we do as adults, we should show them how to find their weaknesses and improve them rather than treating them like they have none.
It is also beneficial to teach them how to accept feedback. They exist in a world of negativity and exclusion and it would benefit them to learn that everyone who is honest with them is not being malicious.
7. Parent involvement is unpredictable.
Even the most well-intentioned parents have complex lives that can hinder their involvement. Many others don't know how important their involvement is. Phone numbers and addresses change very often. Parents may go on field trips and to spring cookouts but not to conferences.A plan for what to do if you can't have parent support is good, but don't let the difficulty of getting in contact stop you. For most kids, knowing that you will talk to their parent will alter their behavior.
8. Parents' priorities are often out of whack.
Kids often come to school without bookbags let alone classroom supplies. Girls are donned with $100 Brazilian weave but don't have a week's worth of clean uniforms. Parents may decide that an assignment you give is stupid and not make their child do it. They value sports over education despite how often they will tell their child that their education matters. Children miss countless days of school for no reason but may come to school with a fever months later. It is not a battle that truly can be fought, but awareness of it can help a teacher work around it.
9. Understand that their world view is nil.
Many children do not know the names of places on the other side of town. If they live on one side of the river they most likely don't cross to the other. Many do not know the name of our lake or the major colleges. Lessons should include a lot of context and background information and this is a great way to utilize nonfiction texts! They are very excited to learn these new things- even the older darlings.
10. Many schools do not have adequate special educators.
Classrooms are often filled to the legal capacity and many of the students may have IEPs, 504 accomodations or even be English language learners and the school may not have enough special education teachers or para-educators to help. Be proactive in getting help from special ed teachers and seeking resources that will help you differentiate for the high numbers of special need students.
11. Despite what the news may say about the success of the charter schools in New Orleans, the children are still about 3 grade levels behind.
Children in private schools and highly reputable public schools are still not reading and computing adequately and they and their parents don't know it.
However, you can't remediate everything. Careful choices have to be made about what skills to review/remediate, lessons need to include a lot of spiraled practice of key skills and support can be offered during tutoring time.
12. They are prejudiced.
Not always in a bad way. The younger children tend to find their White teachers novel and interesting and take a liking to them but older children carry some weird prejudices and stereotypes. The older students tend to set out to "run out" young, white teachers and mark them as weak and incapable. Sticking to the rules and not treating the students as if they are "poor, helpless Black kids" is very important as well as constantly offering examples of equality as well as breaking down stereotypes that students will stick blindly to.
13. They need love.
Most of the things the kids will say and do are because they are trying to get your attention. They want and need positive feedback, kind words, compliments and even hugs. Some of the most terribly behaved kids are simply acting that way because they want someone to love them.
I know a lot of these don't seem unique to this city as many of the situations are the same in other places, but the culminations of all of these things can create a very complex and difficult school environment.
Wednesday, October 15, 2014
Tuesday, July 8, 2014
Literacy is defined simply as the ability to read and write. As the educational systems shift and change, many shortcuts are being made in an effort to show success within that very broad definition while ignoring the smaller implications of literacy. If we look at American students at the first grade level, one could say that they are literate. They can write and read sight words and comprehend short books using many sight words and basic decoding skills. Yet, by the fourth grade, many student's literacy skills stagnate. The gap continues, in most cases, and yet many teachers do little to remedy this. We are often busy with our bells and whistles, just getting children to behave in class and prepare for more standardized tests.
Many teachers' favorite reading aid is the use of audio books. They are used in a variety of ways. Some teachers use them exclusively for children with exceptionalities, while other teachers use them with the whole class on a regular basis. This second use has not ever sat well with me and it wasn't until this past year that I realized why.
I had the conversation with my students on more than one occasion this past year. They want to either be read to or listen to audio. The other three English teachers use audio and I would not. I cited the reason that there are two separate parts of the brain that process auditory information and visual information, and I could not continue to reinforce the short-cut of relying on audio to get them to understand a text. As an English teacher in a society that is decreasingly interested in reading, I am constantly considering what the purpose is of my teaching. Am I teaching literature to familiarize students with classic books? Am I teaching literature to teach students how to analyze written text? Am I teaching literature to teach students the art of writing? Am I teaching literature to teach them how to think critically about words on a page?
Consider which of these is a good reason to teach English.
I do not believe that every child is going or should go to college. I do, however, believe that it is very hard to be successful at anything if you can not think critically. Therefore, my focus is on understanding words on a page. Not many bosses are going to give audio recordings of reports or files, nor will many professors. Even if we are using our phones, tablets or even using Netspeak, we are dependent upon understanding written language far more than verbal communication.
How can we understand words on a page if we are listening to them? Several people have told me that their students are required to follow along while reading, and some do checks to ensure that students are accurately following along. To me, that is tantamount to listening to a movie while looking at a series of still photos of the movie. There is no continuum and there is no whole.
Consider the large-scale goal for students. Small scale, educators want them to pass their standardized tests. Large scale, we want them to be successful in life. If I want my students to compete in the workforce, they need to have real skills instead of a grab-bag of short-cuts.
Children develop their auditory processing before they are born. Do we really need to give them more practice at that? Conversely, their vision is highly undeveloped even by their sixth month of age. When children finally learn to read, the first thing that they must learn is how to recognize the visual symbols that make up the alphabet. A child's ability to recite the alphabet has no relationship with their ability to identify the 26 letters that compose it. When I was a child, my sister used to always say "facetious". I knew the meaning of the word and the correct context to use it. Yet, I never saw it written until I was about 20. Could I have effectively used the word in writing if I had never seen it? Remember, literacy is the ability to read AND write.
Students have an amazing ability to expand their receptive vocabulary but struggle to reuse the words on their own. It may seem like they understand what is in a text but they are relying on their auditory processing to figure out context and meaning, which is the basis of early communication.
A functional knowledge of neuroscience, child development and educational psychology are almost as important as content knowledge when it comes to teaching. Many times, our expectations or practices don't match what is actually reasonable in a developing child's brain.
In this article, The Reading Brain, the importance of understanding the complexities of literacy in English and the parts of the brain that must work together are discussed.
This second article Reading the brain jumps right into the mechanics of reading and includes photos of PET scans showing each area that is used for different tasks. There are even more resources included in the pdf that could be very helpful for teachers.
This article looks at the adaptations that humans have made to accomodate written language.
The Science of Reading research simply addresses how scientific research can and should be used in improving reading outcomes.
Next year, my students will work more on developing decoding skills, morpheme knowledge, critical thinking tasks and syntax as well as focusing on more skills-appropriate readings in order to facilitate more academic and, hopefully, life-long success.
Sunday, June 29, 2014
Sunday, June 1, 2014
Many eyes have turned to our city as an example of the charter done right but are we really making history or making mistakes that the children of the city will have to pay for? Charter schools were supposed to open up school choice by allowing families to send their children to any school in the district, not just the one closest to them. What has happened is the school have since been franchised to owners who have few people to answer to. Some people might say that absolute power corrupts absolutely; can this happen to the charters and their boards? Jessica Williams wrote an interesting article on the topic at "The Lens. New Orleanians might want to take a closer look.