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. 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 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.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

School districts

A lot of new teachers and even families have questions about or are confused about the school districts in the city. It is a complicated mess of politics that has left the very small city of New Orleans with a splintered group of schools that it is not always easy to learn about. The city's schools are divided into schools run by the Recovery School District, Orleans Parish School board, charter and private schools. Unlike most cities and even our suburban counterparts, there is no unified district that handles all students within New Orleans/Orleans parish.

This can be troublesome for parents looking for schools and teachers looking for places to work. There is a very large difference in the two types of public schools. Charter schools are completely autonomous, save for the requirement to take the same state-mandated standardized tests. This means that everything from teacher salary to amount of funds available to the school can vary. Charters are being touted as the solution to the education gap, however, being a charter school is a very vague description of what the school does. It is as vague as saying "fast food restaurant"; it only means that they are self-governed and it does not give any information about what systems are being used within the school. This alone means that statistics about charter schools are inaccurate; the methods used within each type are not considered when collecting data. For instance, Audubon Montessori uses very different teaching methods than Kipp Central City but they are both charter schools.

Within the heading of "charter school" are two more types: Charter management organizations and Independently run charters. The CMOs are basically franchise organizations. It is one organization that runs multiple schools. These charters are eligible for more and different types of funding and have a different set of requirements to keep their charters. These are organizations like Crescent City Schools, ReNew Schools, KIPP Schools, Firstline Schools , New Beginnings Schools , ARISE Schools and Algiers Charter School Association. Aside from the Algiers CSA, and New Beginnings, they all use the KIPP school model.

Then there are the independently run charters. These schools are governed by either the Orleans Parish School Board , which was the city's original school district, or the Recovery School District . These schools are autonomous, however. Some are montessori, some follow traditional school models, some are new and some are old. The Orleans Parish Schools are the highest performing and most prestigious schools in the city. The politics behind why that happened would have to be saved for another day.

That leaves everything else. The Recovery School District came about as a means to "recover" the failing and damaged schools in 2003. The plan was for them to take them over (leaving the passing schools to stay with Orleans Parish), improve their SPS Score then charter them out. Why the schools wouldn't be returned to Orleans Parish is more politics that will be saved for another day. What actually happened, however, is that the RSD was mismanaged; run by people who did not know why the schools were failing and did little to actually improve the schools. They quickly ran out of money and had outstanding bills all over town. The ultimate solution was, by the end of the 2013 school year, to close or charter out the bulk of their schools. Out of the frying pan and into the fire. This district now only runs five schools in the city.

Despite all of this, children are eligible to go to any public school regardless of which district governs it or where it is. The only restrictions ever fall under the selective enrollment schools which require a testing process to be considered for entry.

Teachers entering Teach for America or Teach Nola are eligible to work at any public school regardless of which district governs it.

Knowing how the school districts work, which schools are governed by which organization, and how to find their SPS scores is very important in navigating the New Orleans educational system.