Friday, October 26, 2012

Some thoughts on the release of A to F Grades

First, stop and read this article:

Okay.  Now you can go on, and this will make much more sense.

I have to wonder if these people ever listen to themselves.  There are so many things wrong with this situation, it's hard to know where to start.  However, here are a few.

“When we get to the position to where we're being attacked because we're somehow pawns in the political system, that's offensive to me — maybe insulting,” said retired Gen. Lee Baxter, a board member. “We ain't (ranked) 47th (nationally) because of me. We're not 47th because of this board. You were 47th when I got here.” 

If you are offended at being called a pawn, don't be a pawn.  We aren't (because ain't isn't a word, no matter that they added it to the dictionary) ranked 47th.  We are only 47th in the amount of money we spend on education.  Our schools consistently achieve at higher levels than that.  If you want to complain about that ranking, talk to the legislators.

“Part of any plan is recognizing what the problem is and recognizing there is a problem,” Price said.

Yes.  So why is it exactly that we are required to recognize the flaws in our plan, but you aren't required to recognize the flaws in yours?  We know what the problems are in our system.   Therefore your system to identify said problems is redundant.  Since you won't listen to what we have to say when we give you ideas for solving our problems, I'd say the people who have the issues are not the same people being "graded" by this system.

“All these flunking schools under (the previous system), nobody seemed to recognize.”

Let's think about this for a second.  Just a second - really - that's all it will take.  Point 1 - you say this is a more rigorous system because the old one was too easy.  Point 2 - under this new, more rigorous system only 9 schools out of 1,750 failed.  (.5%)  So which of these 1,750 schools were "all these flunking schools" under the previous system?  Incidentally, I only count 8 of them as failing (if that).  Any alternative education school is an alternative education school for a reason.  I'd like to see what happens if we look at how those kids are actually helped.

So, now that we have all of this data, how does this help me as a teacher "fix" my school.  It doesn't.  Not one little bit.  I could already tell you how attendance effects my kids - not that I can do anything about it.  I could already tell you what academic areas need help.  I could already tell you that some of my kids need extra support.  Now if you'd quit wasting school money on this ridiculousness, maybe they could get it.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Letter to Senator Jolley

Dear Senator Jolley, 

I read about your adventure teaching class at Northern Hills Elementary School.  First of all, I want to offer a sincere “thank you.”  If more of our legislators would get out into the classrooms (and be willing to learn something), we would have far fewer divisions between the politics of education and the reality of education.  To that end, I’ll be sending copies of this letter to some of them.  I hope they appreciate the step you have taken.  Having had all day to think about what you said, I have some comments.

I am sorry you do not feel you have been invited to come teach or participate in classrooms before.  Thinking back on some of the things I have written, I suppose I could have been more clear.  To clarify my offer, you (and any other member of the Senate or House) are welcome to come into my classroom for any reason at any time.  If you would like to observe, great.  If you would like to read to children, great.  If you would like to teach for an hour or a day, wonderful.  If you prefer, I will happily meet with you and/or your colleagues and let you help create these lessons.  I will help make sure anyone who isn’t used to being in front of a group of kids is comfortable with what they would teach.  We can use technology (SmartBoards, iPod Touches, laptops), or we can go old school.  I will prepare lessons for any subject.  I will create short lessons or longer projects.  My students and I will blog with you, Skype with you or e-mail with you if you would like to participate in a unit instead of a lesson.  If you or your colleagues would like to visit/observe/teach/read to a class other than 3rd grade (which is what I teach), I will be happy to arrange that, too.  You are welcome and wanted at my school.

That said, please don’t feel like you aren’t accomplishing anything when you come and read to a classroom.  Research shows that children who are read to become better readers.  Very often, our students have no one at home to do so.  Because of all the content we need to cover in the classroom, it is often one of the things that doesn’t happen as frequently as it needs to at school.  If I could find someone to come in and read to small groups of my students daily, I would do it in a second.  Taking on that kind of assignment is worthwhile for those kids.  In addition, any time you spend time in the schools you are getting a picture of what is really going on.  It is the only way to know what needs to be done.

Thank you for recognizing that what comes from home affects what happens in the classroom.  Despite the rhetoric I have heard from many, many, many people in the last year, home life makes a huge difference.  It is not an excuse.  Nor is poverty.  Both are realities that need to be addressed.  There is a reason why it doesn’t matter what kind of tests we give, low income areas come out on the bottom.  When we start to work together to make sure these kids’ basic needs are taken care of, then I guaranty that the success rate of those same kids will skyrocket.

The problem of ability levels in classrooms is a tough one.  How does one teacher handle 6 levels of ability in one classroom?  Not only that, consider that some of those kids are high ability in one area (say reading) and low ability in another (like math).  Many of them need special services, but since Oklahoma only recognizes them as special needs if they are performing 22 points below their ability level (IQ), they don’t get that assistance until they are several grades behind.  Low IQ students will often never qualify because they are truly working to the best of their ability – even though that ability is below their actual grade level. 

So, how do we handle it?  I don’t know.  I work harder.  I try to work with the kids one on one so that I can address some of their struggles.  However, we need more support for those kids.  Very often the support we do have is stuck doing piles and piles of paperwork and testing kids for days on end.  That is not helpful.  I know what my kids are struggling with every day.  I don’t need 4 different reading tests to tell me that.  What I need is someone who can work with those kids to pick up what they missed somewhere along the way while I teach them the grade level content.  Don’t get me wrong.  Some diagnostic testing is necessary, and with some kids extensive testing is necessary.  However, because of the laws we currently have, all of the kids are tested and tested and tested and tested, not just the ones who need it.  There is too much testing, too little help, and too much time taken away from the classroom.

As for class sizes, I am certainly not going to argue with you about class sizes mattering in lower grades!  However, even though I am not an upper grade teacher, I am going to throw my support their way.  Class size matters in upper grades, too.  At least it does if you want them doing more meaningful, hands on, active lessons and fewer worksheets and seat work.  Even if individual instruction time weren’t an issue (which it is), and even if classroom management of that many students weren’t an issue (which it is), and even if trying to manage grading assignments for that many kids weren’t an issue (which it is) – even without any of those things, our classrooms are just not built for large class sizes.  If you want kids out of their seats, you need to make sure we have enough room for them to do so safely.  (I’m assuming you believe, rightly so, that active learning is better for the older kids as well.)  So, either we are going to have to have bigger classrooms or fewer students.  I would prefer both, but I do have to be realistic.

Finally, I want to repeat – thank you.  You made an effort, you learned some things, you experienced the classroom for a while.  That is all we can ask.  You referred to us as classroom professionals.  The wording and the sentiment are very much appreciated.

Christine Paradise

Monday, October 8, 2012

To the Members of the House Education Committee

To the members of the House Education Committee;

I have to admit, this letter was almost left unwritten.  Not because I did not want to write it, but because it just fell to the bottom of the list of things I had to get done tonight.  I left school at 4:30 this afternoon, and before I even got home, I had a call from a parent wanting to discuss some problems her child had with an assignment tonight and some struggles he had in class.  I stopped for almost an hour in a parking lot to talk to her because I know they have football practice at 6, and they wouldn’t have time to talk later.  I finally got home at almost 6:00 and since that time I have been working on the new spelling program I am implementing for my kids so that I can help them with some of their reading and writing struggles.  If I hadn’t had an e-mail pop up on my computer from my friend, colleague and mentor, Claudia Swisher, about her own letter, I wouldn’t have remembered to stop.  It is now 10 minutes to 10 o’clock at night, but for you to hear stories is important.  For you to see the impact of the ELO and NBCT program is important.  So, I’ll get a little less sleep tonight.  That’s the life of a teacher.

I am alternatively certified.  I do not have an education degree.  I have a business degree and a law degree.  My entire teaching career (8 years strong now) has been guided by the National Board program.  My first year teaching I worked with Don Coleman.  He was going through the National Board process at that time, and, despite that very time consuming process, he took hours and hours out of his time to talk to me about what National Board Certification meant, how it helped the kids and how to teach up to National Board standards.  The most important thing, he told me, was to make sure that everything you do impacts your students in a positive way.  Make sure you take an honest look at what you are teaching and how you are teaching it so that your kids get the best  you have to offer, not just the bare minimum of what the textbooks have to say.  I set a goal then to earn my NBC.  I had a plan.  I was going to teach the minimum 3 years and then apply to assess NBCT applications.  After that, I’d apply for the scholarship, and if I received one, I’d apply that 5th year.  If not, I’d apply again the next year and the next, until I did qualify.  It was never an option not to earn this certification.  To me, those teachers were the best of the best, and that’s what I wanted to be.  I studied and worked with Don.  I attended hundreds of hours of professional development, and yes, I did qualify for that scholarship, and yes, I am a very proud NBCT.  Little did I expect that I would be the last group to receive an ELO scholarship – without which I could not have afforded to go through the process.

So what does all that mean for the kids?  They are the important ones.  Let me give you just a few examples:

                1.  I had a student come into my classroom with a Kindergarten/1st grade reading level.  I teach 3rd grade.  Because of the books I read to prepare for the Reading Assessment and the teaching methods I learned while doing my Writing Portfolio, I was able to sit down with her and analyze what her problems were and work with her to solve them.  I knew how important her confidence was in the process and how much she needed to work for it.  Work she did.  We did before school tutoring, lunch time meetings and after school meetings.  She read and discussed and worked on our online computer programs at home.  At the end of the year, she had increased her reading level to beginning 4th grade.  This little girl who would barely speak the 1st day of class asked me the last day of class if she could address the class.  I let her.  She crouched low to the ground, with her hands down and said “When I came to 3rd Grade, I was a failure.”  Then she stood, raised her hands high above her head, and said “I am leaving a success.”  Although that was enough for me, you’ll be pleased to know she has passed her state reading tests every year since – with flying colors.  I know because she comes to me every year to share her successes.

                2.            Last  year I was one of the finalists for District Teacher of the Year.  As part of that process, I needed to have some of my  students write letters to the district about what kind of teacher I am.  One of my students from the year I did my National Board application wrote for me.  Without a single bit of guidance from me, he wrote about how much he learned during the science lesson I did for my portfolio.  He outlined what we did, how we did it and why we did it.  It had been over a year since we did that lesson.  He remembered every goal we had, what the processes were that we used to investigate the issues, why we used those processes and what the results were from every part of a 9 week series of lessons.

               3.            One of the books I studied to prepare for the Math Assessment portion of the NBC process was about how to recognize what kids were doing wrong with math problems.  I had always been able to see that the answers were wrong, but I could very often not figure out why the kids were doing what they were doing.  Since they can’t explain it most of the time, it left me just to teach the same thing again and again and hope I addressed the problem.  After reading this book, I was able to recognize what they were doing in these problems and more directly re-teach the students.  My state math test scores this last year were better than they were before I did this study.

I could go on and on, but I don’t have the time to write a novel, and you don’t have time to read it.  I know that some of this evidence involves studying I did which could have been done outside the NBC process.  However, I wouldn’t have even known those books existed without the meetings and training offered by ELO and my mentors.  I am a better teacher because of the relationships I built through this process.  I am a better teacher because of the reflection I do on every lesson now.  I am a better teacher because the NBC process taught me it’s okay to scrap something that isn’t working and start all over again.

That takes me back to the beginning of this letter.  I will end now because it is now 10:30, and I have 7 different sets of spelling lists to create for my kids.  Differentiation of instruction is another area that I am better at now than I was before I went through the National Board process.

Christine Paradise, NBCT