Sunday, November 4, 2007

Washington Learns Creativity

I was asked to present at a creativity summit, which took place this week on October 30. It was amazing. I didn't realize it at the time, but the summit was the result of recommendations Washington Learns made to the state to not just improve public education, but totally transform it. The report came out about a year ago. I had heard of Washington Learns and their work from a friend who helped organize the event, but never looked into it. Thursday, after school, I read the entire report. It's exciting and revolutionary. And what's even more impressive about this, is that legislators in Washington have begun to act on it. Here's what it says:

"Our current education system was designed for the previous economy, and our students are falling behind international standards. As our economy and the world around us changes ever more dramatically, we must transform our education system in order to better prepare our children." It found that Washington is in a unique position right now. We rank second of all 50 states on the New Economy index, which means that we have a very high potential for being a leader in the global economy. Of the top nine states on the index, we rank bottom in education. Only 50% of our kindergartners come to school ready to learn. Only 74% of our ninth graders graduate from high school with their peers. Just 60% of our African American and Hispanic students graduate from high school with their peers. And nearly one-quarter of employers report difficulties finding qualified job applicants, thus importing educated workers from other states and countries to fill our best jobs, leaving less stable and lower paying jobs for people educated in Washington. It it because of these factors, that we must transform our public education system. Here are some of the recommendations Washington Learns made:

1. Develop a lifelong seamless education system that starts at birth and continues through the graduate level. Already, the state has created a department of Early Learning. In fact, at the summit, I met their senior policy advisor. The state sponsored Department of Early Learning is real! They are working to implement a "Thrive by Five" program, which is a public-private partnership that offers support to prepare young children so that they are ready to learn when they reach kindergarten.

2. All day kindergarten - Haven't kindergarten teachers been saying this for years? It's about time. Starting this year, my school has one class of kindergarteners who stay in school all day.

3. Increase opportunities for everyone to get post-secondary education. There are a number of recommendations for how they plan to do this, including mentoring middle school and high school students where students connect with people in the fields in which they have an interest. Scholarship programs are available for students to get degrees in math and science. Also, there will be increased investment in workforce training.

4. Attract and retain the best and brightest teachers, which translates to increased bonuses for National Board Certified teachers. Whoo hoo! We got $5,000 this year, and I went to Costa Rica for a week this summer! Starting this year, those teachers who teach in a school with over 70% free and reduced lunch will get an additional $5,000. While I don't like to be happy about the dire need of the families in my school, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't happy about this one. My school is at 71% free and reduced lunch. So... I'm thinking... maybe Europe this summer?

5. Create K-3 classrooms that build solid foundations. This one is very intriguing. What they're recommending is to redesign the K-3 grade classroom so that students are grouped according to ability, not according to time logged. And in these classes they would increase students' exposure to arts, science, music, foreign language and other subjects. The thinking behind it is that every student is an individual, with individual needs. Not all learn at the same pace and acquire the needed skills by the end of third grade. These students then enter the intermediate grades behind, and continue to be behind throughout their schooling. By restructuring the primary grades, their hope is that all students enter the fourth grade at a fourth grade reading level, with a basic understanding of math, and the ability to work cooperatively. I can't say I'm completely sold. I have some concerns about ability grouping. But, I'm intrigued. I wonder what this will do to Reading First?

6. Here's the one I'm most excited about, so I'm going to quote directly from the document: "Offer better support and teacher training at all levels, making sure that teachers have the skills and resources to bring math, science, and creativity into every classroom."

Did they just say math, science and CREATIVITY? Not reading? So, does this mean that my administrators should be promoting the teaching of creativity in my class? Doesn't that completely go against the GLAD training I received the week before? So much of what our professional development work has been over the past few years is reading, to the exclusion of other subjects like social studies, science, and art. I've never been told that I shouldn't be teaching those subjects, in fact I've been told the opposite. The challenge has been how to fit them in with the required 90 minutes of literacy instruction. They've gotten so strict with what counts as "literacy instruction". Writing a persuasive essay does not, but writing in response to your reading does. I've taken all of this with a grain of salt, and been given the freedom to do so. I've been lucky to able to explore how to integrate the literacy instruction with other subjects and have found ways to make it work. Not all teachers have had that luxury. Just remember my previous entry with the boy who thought he was learning history. What I love about this recommendation is that it sounds like a directive from the state to be teaching creativity. And if this is to be implemented, like many of the other recommendations out of the Washington Learns report, I think it is.

That brings me back to the creativity summit. One of the strategy recommendations made was to launch a public-private campaign to promote creativity and innovation. Creativity Matters, with the prompting of our governor, Christine Gregoire, and led by Eric Liu, member of the Washington Learns Steering Committee, launched this campaign through the summit. The foundational ideas of the summit were that creativity matters, that it can be taught, and therefore, it should be taught. Eric broke creativity down into five "Habits of Mind" which include:
1. Observing intently
2. Taking risks
3. Persistence and the capacity for resilience
4. Recognizing patterns
5. Making connections
These five habits of mind are what creative thinkers do, and if we teach these skills to students, we can teach creativity. What has happened, however, is creativity has been viewed as an extra for which we don't have time. And now, our students aren't prepared to enter the workforce, where, in our global economy, creativity is a must.

Unfortunately, Eric said, we have "succumbed to the tyranny of the measurable." All of us face this. It's why Reading First has taken over K-3 classrooms in schools. It's why I had to go the GLAD training. It's why we don't teach creativity right now. It is the belief that these systems have caused test scores to rise. How do you argue with that? Schools that have implemented a system such as Reading First, direct instruction, or GLAD have watched test scores rise, and why would you want to mess with that? Unfortunately, the tests only measure certain skills. And, what people don't recognize, is that if you implement any system, where all staff members buy into it, everyone uses the same language, and you're consistent, test scores will rise. I also believe that test scores will continue to rise if we educate the whole student.

The report did not directly name any of the programs I mentioned. But, at the same time, they don't seem to fit in the same way we see them put in place now with this new vision of public education in Washington. It's an exciting time to be a teacher. I just hope our leaders in education have the creative capacity to see it.

Oh! And thank you to Lance for teaching me how to hyperlink text! I never would have figured that out without your help. I also love the Google Maps Eagle Cam you built. I will share that with my class, and I'm sure it will inspire them.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

I had to attend GLAD training

I had to attend GLAD (Guided Language Acquisition Design) training this week. It took me out of the classroom for four days so that I could watch a master teacher demonstrate GLAD strategies with another class of students whose teacher was also getting the training. We and seven other teachers, sat in the back of the classroom, as trainees are supposed to do in GLAD demos, and watched it unfold.

I wish I could say that it was a valuable experience, and that I came away with tons of new ideas that I’m excited to utilize in my own classroom. I can’t. Instead, I was horrified. The purpose of GLAD is to give teachers strategies for teaching to their ELL (English Language Learners) student population. It also serves the purpose of helping students in your class who speak English at home, but are very low in reading. I have a number of students in my 4/5th grade class that fit both descriptions, and still I was horrified.

GLAD is a collection of strategies that are designed for teaching all the academic subjects and for teaching cooperative learning. Here’s where my struggle with this begins. All students are divided up into color teams. Posted on the wall is a colored dot representing the color of each of the teams in the class. Teams compete to earn points throughout the duration of the unit of study. They earn points for being on task, making good choices, showing respect, solving problems, working together, listening, bringing back their NOT homework, but their “Home School Connection”, etc. Whatever behavior the teacher sees and wants to see more of, gets points.

I’ve never been a fan of a rules/rewards/punishment type of system. I didn’t like it as a kid either. In my ten years of teaching, I used it for one, maybe two years right at the start of my teaching career. I pulled out a tweak of the system when I taught an unruly group of sixth grade gifted kids a few years ago, where they were working to earn a letter each day to spell out the word “squid”, after which we would dissect squid as a reward. It took them until April. This type of system always felt fake to me. In an ideal world, and I aim for the ideal, always, I want people to be behaving politely because it’s the right thing to do. Because if you don’t, you can cause others to feel bad, and that should give you pause, not because I might get a Jolly Rancher if I’m the first to take out a piece of paper. I understand why subs use it. But we’re not learning about how to get the behaviors we want in our substitute teaching classes, we were learning about getting the behaviors we want from our regular everyday classes.

So, as the master teacher, (I need to give her a name, I’ll call her Mrs. Adams.) as Mrs. Adams stood with her marker, waiting for teams to pay attention, giving points to teams she saw doing what she wanted, kids started to learn how to work the system. I watched while two teams stopped listening to her lesson. One team had a couple students singing, the other team had students talking. She paused a moment and waited for them to be quiet, then granted them points for quieting down. Maybe this is a sign that this is not a master teacher, maybe that’s not a GLAD strategy, but it all went downhill from there.

There were other ways for students to earn rewards, outside of their teams. These came in the form of Historian Awards. (Never mind that this had nothing to do with being a historian. I’ll deal with that topic later.) Mrs. Adams would appoint two scouts to sit in chairs while the rest of the class grouped up on the floor for a lesson. At the end of the lesson she would ask the scouts to name two students to which they wanted to award Historian Awards and explain what they did and how it was an example of solving problems, making good decisions, or showing respect. The mere giving out of the awards always took 4-5 minutes, and anyone who might have been listening before, completely lost focus for this. Ironically, during the lesson, the scouts were usually the ones who were most off task. They weren’t listening at all. They were thinking about to whom they would give the awards.

At the end of the fourth day, one of the “scouts” covered his Historian Award with black permanent ink, front and back, and was bragging about how he was getting high while sniffing the fumes. “Oh, this smells so good,” he’d announce to his team. As we grouped up on the floor for the next lesson, he hid his in his sleeve and was sniffing it throughout the lesson. He, being the scout, was the model student for good behavior. I saw another girl, who had received a Historian Award earlier in the day try to pierce the skin on her wrist with the pin. Apparently, she had already tried this earlier, and had two scratches on her wrist. That, to say the least, was distracting for the students around her. (I did tell the teacher about the “cutter” she had enrolled in her class.) The best was when the scouts would choose to award students who were completely off-task throughout the entire lesson. They would make up something about how they were listening, and that was an example of showing respect, and Mrs. Adams would say, “Good job,” and move on to the next lucky winner.

Do you see what I mean by fake? Is it just me? If I did this in my class, I don’t think it would serve anyone. So, let’s get into the nitty-gritty-- the learning. Isn’t this what it’s all about, anyway?

If you didn’t know, I’m very passionate about the teaching of social studies. I attend all the social studies conferences, read all the books, get the magazines, serve on committees (when they form), I’m on the board of the Pacific Northwest Historian’s Guild, I write social studies curriculum, my bachelor’s degrees are in history and political science; I care a lot about the teaching of social studies. So, when I learned that the focus of study for this week was the American Revolution, I was very excited! And, then as you know, I was horrified. Here’s how it happened.

To start off the unit, Mrs. Adams asked students to predict the meaning of the word “revolution”. Each team was asked to talk to each other, make a decision about what they think, and why they think it. Their ideas were recorded on the chart, and then we switched to the next activity. Students looked at pictures from the time of the American Revolution and sketched or wrote what they observed. This was an assessment piece for the teacher, and was not revisited with the students. Next we heard Mrs. Adams read a “big book”. The students were just as skeptical as I was. They asked, “That’s a book?” “Yes. It’s a ‘big book’,” she stated firmly. The “big book” was a collection of unbound, 12” X 18” laminated construction paper with pictures and text, that I think she wrote, glued on to the “pages”. (We didn’t hear who the author of this “big book” was.) She read the text to us. It included some important events, such as the “shot rang round the world”, and introduced some key people. And then, she was done. Instead of “closing the book” she gathered the pages, tapped them on her knee to put them all together again, and asked students to chant the Independence Bugaloo with her, a poem she had written on six foot long chart paper hanging in the back of the room. After she showed the hip circle and arm swing she wanted the students to do whenever they get to the word “bugaloo”, no one could take her seriously. The kids were just laughing. Laughing at Mrs. Adams.

Once the laughter stopped, she drew the world map on chart paper and pointed out where the 13 colonies were, and where Great Britain is located. Then we got to the timeline. The timeline was built as she told students her version of all the important events starting from 10,000 BC to 1789, when George Washington became president. I stress the “her version” part of this exercise, because that is all students were exposed to throughout the four days. They heard that 10,000 BC was around the time when anthropologists and archeologists think Native Americans weren’t native and crossed the land bridge at the Bering Strait to settle in the Americas. (I thought that was open to debate.) She told us that Jesus Christ was born, and posted a picture of him with long Caucasian hair, looking off in the distance, angelically. This “important event” was included because it marks when our calendar starts. She explained this when a student asked why she was posting a picture of Jesus Christ in the classroom. After that, no more questions were allowed.

Mrs. Adams continued, jumping ahead to when England first started to colonize America, then to the French Indian War, the Stamp Act, the Boston Massacre, and all the major events that led up the war, then all the major battles during the war, and finally the end of the war. She did this with a group of kids who weren’t even listening. She told them quick 30-second sound bites of her version of each of these events, writing in the name of the event, and posting a picture. It felt strange to get information about something this way, but I kept thinking that later students would get to read about these events, and see their complexity, as they’d gain some sense of the challenges that faced the people living in the colonies. There was still time for them to become historians and do some research and analysis of life during the American Revolution.

After our morning was over and the teachers met to talk about what we saw and begin our work on creating the laborious GLAD posters, I asked Mrs. Adams and her partner, who I’ll call, Mrs. Jones, about the prospect of students conducting their own research on the American Revolution. They assured me that the first day was the “teacher input” day, and that all the other days would be students doing their own work. They would be reading and writing, and doing their own research to learn about the time period. So, I believed them. And then day two came.

Day two was no different. It included review, a revisiting of nearly everything that was written down from the previous day. It also included, as they promised, students reading. One member from each team met with Mrs. Adams to read a piece of paper with about three paragraphs of information about the Boston Tea Party. These students would become “experts” on the Boston Tea Party and later teach their teams what they needed to know. As the students read, she asked for students to select important words they thought should be highlighted. After they reached the end, they completed a “mind map” or a graphic organizer that asked students to list the event, date, causes, people involved, what they did, and results. She helped them pull out the information from the reading and told them what to write for each section. While Mrs. Adams read with her “expert group”, the rest of the class was busy with “Team Tasks”. Team Tasks are a menu of items each team must complete together. This basically boiled down to copying the posters and charts she created the day before. They made the world map, the timeline, a picture of George Washington with facts she had written about him, and one more paper she called an Exploration Report where students listed what they observed, and what they were wondering and predicting.

Later, when we got back together to talk about what we saw, I asked Mrs. Adams and Mrs. Jones to explain the purpose of the team tasks. This question was met with an uncomfortable silence. I tried to fill the silence, and not seem like I was being overly critical (they couldn’t possibly know what I was really thinking) and said that I just wasn’t sure and really wanted to know for myself. Mrs. Jones spoke and rambled off a list of reasons why the students do the busy work: “It’s to build on their skills of working together cooperatively, and to develop their social skills. They have to negotiate with each other to determine who does what. Plus they develop academic discourse and learn note-taking skills.”

I pushed further. “But, I saw them copying what had been written on the charts from the previous day. That doesn’t seem like note-taking, what’s the thinking behind having them copy?” More awkward silence. Uh oh. It was at this point that I decided that no matter what happens, from now on, I would just smile and nod. I don’t like confrontation. I especially don’t want people to feel like I’m disrespecting them as professionals. These women had put a great deal of work into this training, and care equally about GLAD as I care about students being given opportunities to think for themselves and discover. I didn’t want to offend them, but at the same time, this is a program that is taking me, and eight other teachers out of the classroom for four days, to teach our students how to copy my writing, and not think for themselves. This school year will be filled with more teachers doing the same thing. If we are to buy into this program, I want to see the value in it, and after four days, all I could see is dumber students doing work for points.

The next two days didn’t change. At no point did students touch a book. One group of high-level readers came close when they got to read the first chapter of We the People. While 30 copies sat in the back of the classroom, these students were given Xerox copies, and asked to locate “clunker” words, words you don’t know, and “links”, words that you do know. There was no discussion about the content of what was in the reading, or about what students were thinking during the reading selection.

The last day included a celebration of the students’ work, where each team got to share one of the menu items they made of which they felt the most proud. One group shared a formula poem with verbs, adjectives, and prepositional phrases about a noun. The noun they chose was Loyalist. Later, I asked them what a Loyalist is. They didn’t know. They had gotten the word from a chant they were asked to recite, but there was no chart or book that was available to them where they could find out what a Loyalist was. Even if there was, there was no culture in this class to go find answers to questions by doing research. It didn’t even occur to them to ask. Imagine learning about the American Revolution, and not knowing what a Loyalist is. How can we call this learning history?

If we are teaching them history, they need to see that history, just like science, is a process, where the student makes the discovery. History isn’t something that our teacher just tells us, and then we know. We have to read and interpret from multiple sources, including primary sources. It kills me to think how the stories of how our country came to be were reduced down to 30-second sound bites and notes on a chart. By adopting this program, we are teaching students that history is disseminated from your teacher and that there are no interpretations left to be made. Just go to your teacher for the answers. Do you see why I’m horrified? What will this do us as citizens? Why read anything? What do we need libraries and archives for?

On our very last day, when we all met together for the last time, where I decided to continue to smile and nod, the teacher whose classroom was used shared something a student of hers had said. He was very excited when he told her, “Wow, we’re learning history!” And I cringed in horror.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

I'm done with report cards, CANTALOUPE!!!, the Levelator and Amblypigid Love

Do report cards take as long for other teachers as they do me? I've now survived 29 grading periods. Multiply that by 25, the average number of students I have in each class. times two for my two classes of students, LA/social studies and math/science. That makes 1,450 report cards. Oh my ****ing *@#%. And here's the thing I didn't mention, it still takes me an hour to do each one. I haven't gotten any faster. I have this unhealthy, obsessive compulsive tendency to read EVERYTHING my students have done. Do other teachers do that? If anyone is reading this, please tell me I have to stop that.

I got my first comment on my blog! I'm still so excited. Thanks, Jason! I went to Jason's blog, who also went to NCCE and made a comment on his site - my first ever comment! He runs a blog called the Tech-Savvy Teacher... news, reviews and how-tos from a teacher-neard in the field. (It's much cooler than this site.) See, I can't even figure out how to make these links live. Maybe I'll try the help button, later. Anyway, if want to check out Jason's blog, here's the url: You'll just have to cut and paste until I work this out.

I have to report my most recent very cool tech discovery. Another teacher and I run a tech club at our school. We've been working on making podcasts where students are reading short picture books to help younger students learn to read. They follow along as they listen to the story read aloud. So, Natalie reads Repunzel. She spends weeks and weeks editing, and it sounds pretty good. But she's horrified at how when she says the word, "cantaloupe," it doesn't come out soft, sweet and melony, instead it's CANTALOUPE!!!! She thinks she leaned forward and got too close to the mic. Also, after the alarming CANTALOUPE!!!!, the entire rest of the podcast is lots louder.

So, I remember hearing something about a free software that levels out loud sounds and soft sounds. I find the notes I took while at NCCE and find the name of this software - the Levelator! Isn't that a great name? So, I find it, download it in a flash, drag her podcast in and it literally spits it out with a normal reading of her entire story. The whole thing took 5 minutes, tops. It was amazing. Here's the link if you run into similar troubles.

The last thing I have to mention is this highly disturbing video I saw of amblypigids showing affection for other amblypigids. Do you know what amlypigids are? I didn't either. They're also called whip spiders, although, they're not spiders. They're arachnids, but not spiders. They're creepier than spiders. So creepy, I can't bear to put a picture on this blog. You'll just have to copy and paste to see what they look like. They are apparently the only social "spiders" known. Watch the video. Listen to the podcast and learn that if they are separated, and don't get to caress each other, they soon get depressed.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

NCCE sessions -Karen Schmitten and Kelly Hinderer - PNW Journeys of Discovery

This was very cool. NCESD got a grant to develop an amazing site that tells the story of exploring and settling the West using primary sources. The site is packed with resources. Make time to look through this. I can't wait to use this with my students.