Monday, November 3, 2014

Culture shock in the classroom

By now, everyone is familiar with the changes that have occurred in New Orleans in the last almost nine years. From Hurricane Katrina to a Superbowl win to several TV shows in our honor, the American citizen has developed an idea of what New Orleans is. However, it is a very different story once you are actually in the city. 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. Classroom 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 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. 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

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Professional development opportunities

I don't know about many others, but my development as a teacher has been exclusively of my own volition. My mailbox gets full with ads and fliers for companies selling uniforms and school gear and book sets but we never get information about trainings and developments. Our school PDs tend to center around online systems and programs that are being implemented school-wide. Because of this I spent my last summer reading InformEd and watching videos on Teaching Channel. Most of the best resources that I've had have come from here or from my certification courses. Last night during my class we had a guest professor come in to talk about technology in the classroom. Thanks to her, we all got new ipads yay! While she told us about some useful apps to use, she also told us about free professional development that is offered through or linked to by the state. Using the District and School Support Toolbox, there is a link to CourseWhere at the bottom of the page. Here there are lists of development opportunities both online and throughout the state (you can link directly to it here). You can search by month or course. There's not a whole lot going on now, and apparently there are fewer courses in December but there may be a lot of choices for things to learn.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Is teaching reading with audio effective?

In classrooms all over the country, teachers are searching for ways to increase student success. Many students struggle with reading, whether it is a lack of desire to do it or missing skills that make it more difficult. Reading teachers are practically doing flips in the classroom to keep children engaged, especially as more schools have block schedules and fewer schools separate the broad scope of literacy into separate classes (the once traditional reading, writing and ELA classes) but some of these tricks may not truly be helping children become more literate.

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

John White and summer interns

For many collegiate and post-collegiate people, internships are the salary-free way into the job you want. Some interns are paid, many, many more are not. Some interns work during the summer and off time from college, some work for years. That's not news. What is news, however, is that John White may be spending $2.5 billion on invisible interns in the DOE. The DOE is supposedly broke; many parishes have not had raises in years and teachers, para-professionals, admins and whole schools have been shut down because of lack of funds. Hence, the idea that money is being spent on interns could boggle the mind. http://crazycrawfish.wordpress.com/2014/06/29/did-ldoe-hire-100-summer-interns-at-25000-a-piece/ When people ask why the schools in Louisiana perform so poorly, or why the schools in the most prosperous cities perform so poorly, or why so many people feel so hopeless, this is why. Corruption is the name of the game, folks.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Making history or making mistakes?

It has recently been publicized, first through The Washington Post, that The Recovery School District has officially closed the last of its schools, making New Orleans the first city in the country to be completely charter (with the small exception of a few open enrollment schools in Orleans parish, mention in the Times Pic article here). Many people are proponents of the charter system. To the average outsider, charter schools in New Orleans seem to have improved the performance of it students, at least improving school SPS scores above a failing rank; however, few people, know much about the differences between charters, charter management organizations and district run schools. In New Orleans, the conversations are quickly becoming moot.

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.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Home to the state's top high schools

My friend's mom, a long time educator in Mississippi, sent me this link to a NOLA.com article naming Thomas Jefferson High School as Louisiana's top ranked high school. The article is news from the recent U.S. News and World Report article. Thom Jeff is a selective-enrollment, gifted school in Jeferson Parish. Great school, with a nice, new campus at the old site of Archbishop Blenk high school. I wondered about the ranking, though, knowing that Thom Jeff was chosen over Benjamin Franklin High which is actually a national competitor, and so many other parishes whose schools out rank the New Orleans metro area. Everything you need to know is always in the data. For a person who hates mathematics, I trust in data and statistics wholeheartedly (it was the only math course that I ever got an "A" in-EVERYONE should know how to read and analyze data). In the complete pdf report, U.S. News details the methods used in ranking the schools.

In the methodology I found that these rankings hinge upon the number of disadvantaged students in a school and how much better those students performed on state tests than expected. There seems to be no determinant for what is the "expected" performance for "disadvantaged groups", which includes minorities and low-socioeconomic families. The last stage of factors is if the school carries AP or IB courses, which are considered college preparatory. This aspect makes sense in considering the effectiveness of a high school, however, it just isn't enough data to print national rankings based on diversity.

My own school was recognized, as it is still an "A" school by Louisiana's standards but does not meet U.S. News' standards because we are not diverse. The student body is primarily Black and we are 84% free or reduced lunch. While I know that our AP scores are less than stellar, falling below the radar as compared to a more diverse and selective enrollment school (which my school was when I attended) feels like a cheat when such standards seem like they're in place to assist in benefiting the minority and poor children. My school consists of those very children!

I can appreciate the rankings, whether I agree with the standards or not. I wonder how other people feel about their own school and district rankings and if other districts, especially teachers who have taught in multiple districts, feel that New Orleans is really doing it better than the rest.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Utilizing direct instruction

A former coworker shared this short article about keeping instruction direct.

I found it and the comments interesting when considering my own teaching and teacher training. One of the commenters agreed that scripting your lessons can help you say just what you want to say in the amount of time that you want to say it. Another commenter disagreed that if you don't know your content well enough to teach exactly what you need to in that moment, then maybe you shouldn't be teaching. The original commenter replied that he often asks his new teachers to script their lessons. The second continued to disagree.

Is scripting a lesson helpful? Should all teachers do this? What IS direct instruction, anyway?

I was trained to teach a lesson in the "I do, we do, you do" format. However, this format doesn't always apply to English class, especially the higher up in grade level that you go. This method is essentially "direct instruction". You teach, uninterrupted, for some amount of time and THEN you check for understanding,students are invited to ask questions and do work with teacher assistance. This was taught to me at a charter school with a very high number of new teachers. Doing this also helped me to learn how to break broad skills into smaller skills. However, scripting my lesson, which I no longer do, did not make me any better of a teacher nor any more able to anticipate student misunderstandings. I hate lesson scripting. I think it is another way to manipulate teachers into devoting every possible second to work rather than having any down time. One colleague of mine wrote a 19 page lesson plan for one week of teaching. ABSURD.

Despite the fact that this is a very common way to structure lessons, my students HATE to follow this. Just yesterday they were in an uproar because I asked them to listen only so I could clarify their misconceptions about a skill (character archetypes). I couldn't get a sentence in edgewise without arms shooting up and students yelling questions. Despite doing exactly what is mentioned in the article, my students can not follow that format, even at this point in the school year. My opinion, though, is that it is the best way to teach new skills. It is the best way to keep pacing on track. It is the best way to ensure that you teach only what you mean to and not muddle the lesson with unnecessary details.