Sunday, January 27, 2008

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Problem with Curriculum

This one is Dan Meyer's fault, again. Dan has a set of posts out there on good presentations* that I think any teacher who lectures even once a year should read and take to heart.

He said:
Expect your audience to have exactly 20% your enthusiasm. Thus, if your enthusiasm level is only at 70% throughout your presentation, the best you can expect of your audience is 14% enthusiasm. 14%! That's science, people, don't try to argue me on this. If you aren't feeling it, please don't inflict your tepid emotional state on the rest of us.
When I looked through various data and figured out what, out of the curriculum my students didn't learn last year, I realized that it all had something in common. The material my students don't learn is the stuff I don't ask them to do something with. Whenever I ran out of inspiration or time and ended up just lecturing/having them read about something, they tested poorly on it. This seems so obvious in retrospect, but seeing the pattern in the benchmark tests and making that connection was actually pretty amazing at the time.

So, for this school year one of my big goals was to have students transform information as much as possible. Even when I introduced a topic through lecture or reading, the goal was to make sure that I always did something else with that information afterwards. What that has meant for my classroom is a lot more creation on the students part, which is definitely a good thing. The less I talk and the more they do, the better.

I just finished up grading midterms and an overall end-of-semester grading frenzy last week, so I've been thinking about what I failed to teach in the first semester this year. There were a few things that I didn't spend enough time on the doing, or wasn't clear enough about originally, but overall the goal of doing things has been helpful. What's left on the pile of "things no one seemed to get" are now the things that I don't care about.

This is the problem with curriculum: How can I make them care when I don't?

I'm a history teacher because I love history. Love love love it. I'll spend hours discussing it for no reason other than the fun of it. But there are things on my curriculum that I don't care about. That I don't see as important. That aren't part of what makes me passionate about history. (There are also things on my curriculum that just aren't true, but that's a whole 'nother can of worms.)

I was talking to our new AP and social studies overseer about this problem recently. He used to teach World History, so he knows exactly what I'm working with. He feels that the state curriculum is just a jumbled mess of facts, and if we're going to teach from it and teach well, we need to make the connections between those facts for ourselves and then make them explicit for the students. (What Dan calls the "through-line".) This really clicked with the problem of curriculum for me: I can't explain the connections when I don't see them myself.

I'm not familiar with the standards/curricula for history in every state, obviously, but in my experience they're mostly the problematic type. Have some facts your students should know. (Abe Lincoln was president of the US during the Civil War.) Standards shouldn't be a list of facts but a story framework. What matters is the connections, not the facts. History is interesting because its a story. So make the story the aim of the curriculum.

If nothing else, it'd make my job easier.

*Dan Meyer, How to Present

Sunday, January 20, 2008


I've been thinking. (Yes, yes, you could smell it/hear the gears turning, me too.)

I really just want a chance to talk to other secondary social studies teachers about ideas, lessons, et cetera. To post my "stuff that works" and see theirs and generally actually collaborate with our people doing what I'm doing in my subject.

Is there interest out there for this sort of thing? Or am I totally blind and missing it?

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Math teachers have got it goin' on.

I'm quite jealous of math teachers.

I thought about teaching math, back in the day, when I knew I wanted to teach something but had no idea what.* I love math. I didn't do any serious acceleration in high school, but I took AP Calc my senior year and loved it. (Got a 5 if you care about that sort of thing.) I've always been a history nerd, but it was always nice to take a break from the seemingly endless reading and writing to solve some problems. There's just something so addictive and satisfying about solving a hard math problem, isn't there?

My AP Calc teacher, Miss Hawes, greeted us the first day of class by telling us "You will all get 5s." She was serious. She was also terrifying. I loved her. Sure, we did a ton of homework and it was hard work, but she really knew how to teach math. She had that dry sense of humor that only math teachers can pull off--you know, where they're making a joke while explaining a very complicated problem and five minutes later you go "That was a joke!"

I'm reminded of her, and of my jealousy for math teachers, by stumbling onto Dan Meyer's posts about assessment. One of the things I always admired about Miss Hawes was the way she handled tests. On every test, you had the opportunity to do test corrections to receive points back on the test. The way it worked was that she'd hand back the test and announce 5 or so students (it was a class of 16) who were tutors because they'd done well. The rest of us would get tutored by them to figure out how to fix what we'd got wrong. She'd then set aside some class time and the tutees would be interviewed about their test, why they got it wrong, and prove they'd figured it out by doing a new problem for her. If they did well enough, they and their tutor would get points added to their test grade. If not, they could go back to their tutor and try again.

This sort of approach seemed like sheer brilliance to me then (and was I ever so proud of how often I ended up on the tutors list) and I still carry it around in the back of my head as "how assessment should be done." Dan's approach is a bit different, but the same idea that the student should be able to get credit for mastering a skill they'd not got at the test is behind it. I really admire the way he's broken his curriculum down into its elemental pieces, because I know that took a lot of thought for him.

So why am I jealous of these math teachers?

I don't know how to do this in social studies. My curriculum is content-focused, not skill-focused. I want it to be skill-focused, but I have to work within the reality of the dread end-of-course test. I do think I'm going to spend some time with my thoughts on essential social studies skills so that I can break them down into elemental, assessable piece and do a better job of instructing & assessing them in the future. However, I'm not sure how to integrate this with the rest of my curriculum. How do I deal with a reality of high-stakes, knowledge-based testing? How do I remediate whether or not a student knows standard VUS8b "transformation of the American economy"?**

I constantly struggle with this, and I haven't found any good answers.

* I'm not a math teacher because I cannot explain it to other people. I used to try to help my brother with his algebra homework. I'd look at the problem, solve it, and he'd ask. "What did you do?" "This." "Why?" "Cuz that's what I needed to do to solve it?" "How did you know?" "I just did." Not very helpful, huh? (Besides, I wanted to major in history anyway.)


Thursday, January 17, 2008

Free Money

No, I'm not giving money away. :)

From USAToday:
Could Free-Reading offer a glimpse of the future, when big, bulky — and expensive — textbooks go the way of the film strip?

Newman thinks so. "This is a shot across the bow for a lot of people," he says.

Schools spent $4.4 billion for textbooks in the 2006-07 school year, according to Eduventures. While that's only about 1% of total expenditures, the prospect of free, state-approved materials could profoundly influence how schools spend money — and what publishers offer, Newman says.

"If suddenly you don't have to spend $100 million every four years on textbooks, it's not found money, but certainly it's money that could be applied to other kinds of educational endeavors."

I like this idea of not spending money on textbooks, although I have to ask: who actually buys new ones every four years? I think our cycle is six or seven years.

So, here's the question: If you could go textbook free due to free online resources, what would you spend the textbook budget on?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

"Where's the Teacher?" Moment Today

Picture, if you will: A classroom full of students. The desks aren't really arranged, but pulled into random groupings of 2 and 3 and 4. Everyone in the room seems very intent on their notebooks or their laptop, talking quietly with those in their group. You look around the room for the teacher, and you can't seem to find her. Nobody's lecturing, and several people get up and walk around the room to talk to others about something before going back to work.

I actually had a student stop by and be unable to find me in the room (even after someone told her I was there) until I came over to her. Feeling truly invisible now!

Friday, January 11, 2008

Things that Work

I'm currently finishing up the unit on the Industrial Revolution with my 10th graders. This unit has been going pleasantly well, especially compared to the jumbled mess it was last year. To finish it up, we're taking a look at some of the effects of the I.R. in order to have students write an editorial as if they're a reporter in 1830.

The set up is that they're moving around the room to different stations with information, pictures, music, etc on topics such as "child labor", "modern buildings" and "industrial production." The thing that's making this work well, rather than just be ok, is that I asked them to not only list positive or negative effects for each topic they examined, but also discuss how the negatives could be fixed with their groups. Wandering around the room clarifying ideas in their information, prodding them to consider negatives and positives not directly specified, and asking them about their suggestions for improvement is my favorite kind of teaching. Small conversations in which I can poke and prod at their ideas and see things start to click. Without having to outright say it, I got a lot of "so that's why we have laws about that nowadays" out of them. :)

My favorite overheard remark:
"I know how to fix this one--have kids go to school more." *sees me walking by* "I never thought I'd say that." I smile.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

The Ledge

TMAO of Teaching in the 408 has a fabulous post about the Ledge. Go read the whole thing, even though I'm quoting it a lot here.
You get up on the ledge as a young teacher when you realize that there is no formal system of accountability anywhere. The evaluation process is an outright joke, your intern advisor calls you exemplary, and your BTSA lady pops in so you can fill out some forms.

I miss my student teacher evaluations. My supervisor was an incredible, former high school principal who knew more about teaching than anyone I've met (in-person) since. He could tell me what I was doing wrong and suggest ways to fix it. He made me cry on a regular basis. He knew that wasn't a problem though--crying was part of me dealing with how hard doing this thing right was, and how much I still had to learn. When he praised me, I deserved it.

You’re up on the ledge when you want to know how to get better, but there’s nothing there. The vast store of practical strategies you took from your alternative or traditional route credentialing program seems to be running a little dry and district PD is either non-existent or an exercise in futility. There is no formal plan for post-competency-acquisition development, unless it is in the areas of technology, and you already know how to use PowerPoint.

This year, my district finally got it about PD. They cut down on the floofy offerings, offered actual sessions on 21st century strategies, sessions on other relevant topics, and listened to the survey they sent out last year. The result? I'm going to more PD sessions than I have to, because they might actually be of use to me.

This is not the norm.
It gets worse when you do get better. Your level of quality as an educator changes, but title, position, responsibilities, and compensation remain stagnant. ...

You realize the profession incentivizes mediocrity. It does not drive people to show movies all day, or let kids text and screw around in class – ineptitude takes folks there – but it does incentivize using the same lame worksheets you used the last time around, the same crap readings, head-butting against the same, predictable failures to comprehend and achieve. Because the only lever school leaders have to lean on is the level of caring inherent in the individual teachers, the only thing driving you to do more is to care more. But there’s a limit to your caring, and a limit to the effectiveness of your caring.

I can't reuse stuff I hate. I pull out old lessons and just look at them and go "how could I teach this crap?" So I spend hours and hours recreating lessons, coming up with new ideas (or hoping for inspiration because I'm flat out and don't WANT to give in and lecture) and then the lessons never go as well as planned.

I look around at teachers who copy everything they need at the beginning of the unit because they know exactly what they're doing ahead of time. They spend very little time planning, go home right after school, stay caught up on their grading, and get a lot more sleep than me. I want to be them, I want to relax and not ruin the rest of my life for this job, and I can't. I care too much.

But how long is that going to work? How long before I burn out?

This is my third year doing this. No wonder so many of us don't make it to 5.

Friday, January 4, 2008

5 Dangerous Things

If you think kids these days are overprotected, this is worth a watch.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

How Teaching is like Writing which is like Everything Else

One of my favorite authors is Elizabeth Bear, who maintains a slice of the writer's life blog that I find fascinating. She likes to say that "writing is like everything else" because of the number of analogies she and other authors come up with to explain the writing process.

Teaching, I suspect, is not quite like everything else, but planning is like writing and other acts of creation. You know: sometimes you get a great idea in a flash of intuition and you go into flow and it just keeps coming, sometimes it's like pulling teeth to get those words on the page but you have to do it, and sometimes you just plod along but the words get there somehow. When all's said and done, you wonder if the readers can even tell the difference between intuition like fire in your brain and the long slow pull.

The reason this connection between planning and writing is interesting to me is that it explains why I get so much more done on my last period planning days than my 2nd period planning days: flow. When I know that if I get into a groove I can just keep working until its exhausted, I'm much more likely to make the effort to put myself into the focused state of mind I need to plan. When I know I'll have to go back to class (not teaching--running a study hall, ugh) at 9:55 no matter what I'm in the middle of, I'd rather do something mindless like enter grades and copy things.

All that considered, no wonder people complain about students not thinking and not engaging with the lesson: why should they put the effort in when no matter where they are, the bell will ring and they'll have to go to their next class?

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

How do you learn?

One of those things we try to do as teachers is to teach kids based on their own learning styles. Sometimes we even try to help them think about how they learn. We give them learning style inventories, get them to reflect on what methods worked for their learning, get them to do that whole metacognitive thinking about thinking thing. (Well, some of us do. This is something that I'm not very good at, actually.) I wonder, though, how much other teachers understand their own learning processes. How do you all learn?

This question is inspired by the realization that my own learning style has been getting in the way of my teaching.

I learn very inductively. (After a distracted quarter of an hour of research, I'm still not sure if that's actually the word I want.) That is, I learn best by taking a pile of specifics and doing the work on my own to turn them into generalizations. I like to stuff myself to the gills with information on whatever topic I'm currently researching, and then I let it all ferment. I find connections, I sort, I sift, I go off on wild tangents that still connect back to the main topic, and after a while it all clicks. All that mass of information is organized into a nifty little outline, with conclusions and their supporting data, along with the occasional sidenote sticky fact. A few months later, I've forgotten the supporting data but the conclusions have become a firm part of my mind.

Because I learn like this, I tend to feel that everything needs context. "If I'm going to expect my students to understand x," I say to myself, "I should tell them about y and z so they can see why I think x is true."

Sometimes this urge is a good thing.

More often, it's not.

One of the main things that connect lessons I come away from feeling like it just didn't fly is that in my zeal to show you x, y, z and their funny cousin q, I got away from the basic principle of all design: keep it simple, stupid.

I need to constantly ask myself questions like:
  • "Teaching with primary documents is great, but do I need to expose them to this many different sources on the topic?"
  • "Do they really need to know the answers to all 10 of those questions to get the essential understanding I'm aiming for?"
  • "Will this information actually help them make sense of things or just bog them down in more facts to memorize?"
  • "Am I making the narrative behind the information clear enough or just expecting them to see it because I do?"
I'm actually pretty excited about this realization, because I've finally gelled a vague frustration into a thing that I can do something about and I did something about it today while planning. Nothing like a little success to build up confidence. ;)