Tuesday, June 30, 2009

I finally read all of Mike Schmoker's article, Radically Redefining Literacy Instruction: An Immense Opportunity, from the March 2007 Kappan. It came up when I searched Balanced Literacy, and the word radical jumped out at me, rebel that I am.

I have shared this article with my writing project colleagues, who in turn are sharing it with this year's Summer Institute participants, one of whom is the superintendent of a small upstate district. I hope he will pursue its recommendations with a vengeance. I want to scatter copies of it throughout my school; not that it would bear fruit. One of the reasons that I have left my eighth grade classroom is the powerlessness I have felt: I seem to have no way of influencing literacy instruction, not as a mentor for student teachers, not as a member of a "Professional Learning Community," not even as a department coordinator for my middle school ELA team. And this article is GOOD STUFF.

The improvements it suggests are not high-tech or expensive in any way. I will be able to follow his recommendations as easily when I am teach writing to freshman at the local community college as I could when I was teaching reading and writing to eighth graders. All we have to have is some paper and pens, some reading material, some provocative questions, and our desks facing each other in a U-shape, or a circle.

Get ready for a revolutionary approach to teaching: his recommendation for improving students' literacy and thinking skills is that we should have them read, discuss, write, discuss some more, all while they are in our classrooms. The teacher's job: to get the reading material together, propose provocative guiding questions before they read, facilitate discussion after they read, ask them to write about what they read and discussed, talk to individual students about places in their writing or thinking where they were weak. No homework need be assigned or graded. No essays need be graded with extensive red marks or useless comments.

Direct instruction in reading and rhetorical strategies cannot disappear, but would make much more sense in the context of the authentic purpose for which we develop such skills, rather than to fill up a workbook, a Scantron, or a planbook.

I think I'll go read some material that I might use in September, and think of some provocative questions to go with whatever I find.

Monday, June 29, 2009

(note: I wrote this in January 2009, as a personal statement of my research interests in the field of education)

In 1974 there were no personal computers, only room-sized machines. Cell phones did not exist. The internet was in the early stages of development by the military and a few universities, although probably without Al Gore’s help. Teaching and learning went on in classrooms with blackboards and overhead projectors. Research in libraries involved paper-bound collections of monthly journals and published articles.

Professional development from school districts in which I taught (including JC, Binghamton, Harpursville, and Windsor) in the seventies and eighties was spotty at best. I relied on additional coursework in reading, subscriptions to IRA and NCTE publications and attendance at some state conferences to stay up to date.

In the nineties, after some years at home with my young sons, I returned to teach at the middle school. My Syracuse mentor, Dr. Margaret Early, recommended Nancie Atwell’s book on workshop-style classrooms for middle school English (1987). I became an Atwell clone, and grad students visited my classroom to study how change happens in a teacher’s career (Mikoda and Beddow, 1995). My work with students led me to write more myself, giving me even more insights into the decisions a writer faces if she really cares about what she is writing.

Changes in professional development policies in my district brought better speakers to our superintendent’s conference days, copies of current professional books, and more chances to attend state conferences, to listen, to present, or even to speak and present. Because of the internet I was now able to communicate with English teachers all over the nation to discuss new methods and changes we had made to the workshop style

Now, as a twenty-year-plus veteran, I have watched my district begin to develop into a professional learning community (PLC) after reading Richard Dufour’s work and listening to him speak (2006); I have watched my department follow the elementary teachers into the balanced literacy movement. In the middle of these two consuming initiatives, I incorporated computer software for attendance and grade reporting, interactive Smartboard technology for lessons and planning, as well as a Blackboard site for my 8th grade ELA class. More important to my own professional path was the establishment of a new site of the National Writing Project in nearby Cortland, where I participated, in July 2008, in my first Summer Institute.

It was a galvanizing experience. I was among other questioning teachers, searching for new knowledge and fresh best practices. We taught ourselves, in that first summer institute, how important it is for learners to construct their knowledge in social settings, and to transform their understanding with frequent bursts of ungraded writing interspersed with reading and discussion. In my personal research, I discovered ways to use my new online course site (Cook 2008, DeSouza, Farabaugh 2007) and justification for its use (Wright 2006).

Why is institutional change so slow? Change is difficult for human beings; literature and political history bear this out, but aren’t teachers a forward thinking lot, or shouldn’t they be? Can the personal quality of flexibility be identified, encouraged, developed in pre-service teachers? Some say no to this question (Gladwell 2008). I’m not sure I can see it in a pre-service teacher, after hosting five student teachers, two research assistants, and many observers logging their fifty hours preceding student teaching.

Professional learning community (PLC) tenets require me to re-evaluate my methods continually after examining data from common assessments. What do my students need to know and be able to do? Are students learning that? If they aren’t, how will I help them? If they are, where will I go with them? As department colleagues score state assessments, we talk about the student results and writing before us. There is still disagreement about methods, even when research is laid before us by consultants and district administrators. What are the habits of mind that prepare a pre-service teacher for this constant examination of formative assessments and the data they produce?

We could not foresee Facebook, Myspace, AIM, CAD-CAM, an on-line course sites, and neither could our teachers, who worked with paper, pen, and textbook. We have expanded our awareness of literacy to include visual and technological literacy, but we cannot know the technology that our students will know in their lifetimes – how can we prepare them for the new skills they will need? How can we best prepare teachers? These are questions of critical national importance, and perhaps global significance as well.

During this same half-century of my lifetime, research into brain structures, revealing more sensitivity to visual cues, has become more sophisticated. What will we find out next, as generations of video gamers, graphic novel and manga readers, and ipod and Blackberry users grow up and have children (Carr 2008). What impact should all this have on our schools? If writing can be considered a technology that restructures thought (Ong 1986) how will use of the internet restructure thought? How can our educational institutions become more flexible? How do we change faster in midstream, not 180 degrees but tweaking that makes perfect sense in other settings (manufacturing, sales), but somehow eludes educational institutions?

My recent experiences as my district develops into a PLC make me very interested in creative problem solving in educational settings. We are faced each day with new problems to solve. We know we cannot do what has always been done. PLC structures, imposed from above, sometimes seem more like tedious punishments than solutions, swamped as we are with student/parent personalities, curriculum issues, new state mandates. The National Writing Project’s Summer Institute showed me the power of our writing and discussion; how can all teachers, and especially new teachers, be brought to that same table?

Global shift and a new level of connectivity suggest to me that we should be dreaming up new ways to set up schools; some people already are. See, for example, “The Networked Student,” suggested by Alec Couros’ Networked Teacher (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XwM4ieFOotA), or Clay Shirky’s discussions of connectivity (http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/clay_shirky_on_institutions_versus_collaboration.html). I want to be in on this dreaming and think-tanking, and I want to set up our future classrooms to be more responsive, more based on knowledge that change is constant, and embracing guided flexibility. School days need to allow for more teacher discussion and revision of lessons, classrooms need to be seen as more virtual, with laptops everywhere, wireless networks, and discussion groups mushrooming both in school and at home. Measurement of growth in some other way than numerical grades, changes in school calendars, even school “walls”…teachers should know when they enter the profession that change is needed constantly. Current research fed to us via network, like intravenous nutrition, would be common and expected and would inform our teaching. Teachers would discuss research findings and their consequences in classrooms. We would no longer regress to “teach as we were taught,” because colleagues would help us solve problems in constant reflection and discussion.

Early in my career, I agonized each August over how I would set up my thematic units and whole-class books throughout the year. Later in my career, I have suffered through tedious mandated curriculum “realignments” to match state standards. The product, a huge three-ring binder, sits unused, while teachers still need to talk to each other about what is being taught at each level. How can we encourage that constant discussion, so that we all can improve our response to diversity and ensure equity of experience among all our students?

Is it possible that curriculum can best be set by the individual learner, following motivations that come from deep within? New and developing technology and sites foster individualized progress and social connectedness. Wikis proliferate, some as conduits of socially created pools of information (Levin 2008). Perhaps a teacher’s role is to be a facilitator in the vastness of the internet and the moderator of socio-educational networks (Drexler 2008). Just as I could not have imagined using Smartboards instead of blackboards, it is difficult to imagine the direction our classrooms could take, but we must. It falls to us, even in our outdatedness, our immediate obsolescence, to train those who will define the new roles of teachers, the new form of schools.

Individual learners can be a driving factor in where a classroom goes. I think of the first few weeks after my Smartboard was installed. I hadn’t yet had more than one training session. Students were sometimes my teacher as we both learned the new hardware, they with more savvy than I, so lines were blurred between roles of teacher and learner. I am often reminded, in such situations, or when my student groups arrive, through discussion, at the same list of learnings as I would have given them, of something that my Syracuse mentor, Dr. Early, told me as I finished my studies for my master’s degree: “Let students take over as much as possible in classroom. Design your classroom so that can happen easily and safely.” She wasn’t just talking about handing out papers or collecting milk money. When students take responsibility and an active role searching out information, they learn more. Letting students, with some training at first, discuss what they are learning, reflect on their abilities, teach each other, encourages the kinds of attitudes toward new knowledge that can be as important as factual knowledge stored, which computers can do for us.

Attitudes and habits of mind appear to be more important than anything students could memorize about language use. Unfortunately, it is difficult to assess attitudes and habits of mind, and yet I am expected to do that as my school community develops as a PLC. Now I use scores from multiple choice reading comprehension tests developed by state sub-contractors. In effect, I am saying that those scores reflect students’ application of reading strategies or habits of mind we have discussed and developed. Those tests do not measure how well they will do when faced with a web page they need to decipher, but they are all I have now, with no time to develop more responsive measures.

As for writing skills, we all use the holistic scoring for transactional tasks, but what will my students have to present to the public world in the future? Certainly not five paragraph essays, as we see from news accounts on line (Carr http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/print/200807/google). It seems apparent, though, that people will always tell stories – in print, in video – and so it still seems important to work with students to understand how to tell our stories more clearly, more artfully, and knowing that, to understand how to get more from stories that others tell.

I can reflect on these issues at my yellow writing table in the peace and calm of my home, but every morning, I return to my busy classroom, where I face students with a wide range of abilities and attitudes: non-readers and proud of it, word-callers who are proud of their phonics skills, avid readers who devour Twilight or Uglies or End Game or Maus or Lord of the Rings, even if a book is far above or below their “level” (Fountas and Pinell, Reading Recovery, Rigby, DRA, Wright Group, etc.), writers who can’t spell, spellers who can’t think critically, resisters who glare out from behind a skateboarder’s fringe of hair, Goths all in black who read only manga.

Every student who sits around my large u-shaped table is wrapped in a delicate, volatile blanket of emotional growing pains compounded by societal issues played out in their fractured families – mental illness, abuse, addiction, poverty, over-abundance, grandparents as parents, absent parents, children raising children. Before I can teach them, I must motivate them to listen to me, using all my skills as an actor and entertainer. Before I can teach them I must meet each student where she is, or where he hides, and bring them to another place.

I have many questions about how to do this right – how to help adolescents who manage to reach that age without decoding or comprehension skills, perhaps because of disabilities; how to reach teens who have much to say but resist writing for whatever reason; how to work in a team of teachers. I look forward to the chance to examine the research, to ask new questions, to find new ways to be an educator and train new ones in the 21st century.


Atwell, Nancie, In the Middle, Heinemann, Portsmoth, NH 1987

Carr, Nicholas. "What the Internet is doing to our brains: Is Google Making Us Stupid?." The Atlantic Online 200807July/Aug 2008 24 Jun 2008 .

Cook, Devan. "A New Kind of Reading and Writing Space: The Online Course Site." Reading Matrix: An International Online Journal 1533242X(2002) 18 Jul 2008 .

Drexler, Wendy and her students. “The Networked Student,” video posted at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XwM4ieFOotA, November 26, 2008.

Dufour, R. and R., Eaker, R., and Thomas. Whatever It Takes: How PLCs Respond When Kids Don’t Learn, Solution Tree, Bloomington IN, 2004.

D'Souza, Quentin www.teachinghacks.com

Farabaugh, Robin. "The Isle is Full of Noises: Using Wiki Software to Establish a Discourse Community in a Shakespeare Classroom." Language Awareness 16(2007): 41-56.

Gladwell, Malcolm. “Most Likely to Succeed,” The New Yorker, December 15, 2008 http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/12/15/081215fa_fact_gladwell.

Levin, A.. "Social Software: What's New." BookBlog. 16 Oct 2004. 11 Jul 2008 .

Mikoda, C. and Beddow, J. “Searching for Meaning and Making Change: An Insider/Outsider Collaboration,” The Potter’s Wheel: Change in English Language In Language Arts Classrooms, ed. Rosalie Rafter, NYSEC, 1995.

November, Alan. Web Literacy for Educators, Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks, CA 2008.

Ong, Walter, "Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought." from The Written Word: Literacy in Transition. Ed. Gerd Baumann. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. 23-50

Reid, Alex lecture delivered at Seven Valley Writing Project Summer Institute, Cortland, NY Monday July 21, 2008

Richardson, Will http://www.weblogged.com/

Shirky, Clay. "Institutions vs. Collaboration." TED Ideas Worth Spreading. July 2008. TED. 20 Jul 2008 .

Shirky, Clay. "Why Abundance Should Breed Optimism." Britannica Blog 2008/0721 July 2008 22 Jul 2008 .

Shirky, Clay. "Why Abundance is Good: A Reply to Nick Carr." Britannica Blog 2008/0717 July 2008 23 July 2008 .

Tovani, Cris. Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? Stenhouse, Portland ME, 2004

Wright, J. Lenore. "Creating Community in the Philosophy Classroom: Using Blackboard's Online Journal to Improve Reading, Writing, Thinking, and Speaking." Teaching Philosophy 29(2006): 1-21.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Data, Data, Who's Got the Data?

Mondays -- I hated Mondays. Not just because they were the first work day after a weekend at home, either. No, for the last two years, they were not just Mondays, but PLC Mondays, the day our newest contract designated for tacking on fifty minutes of Professional Learning Community activities. Fifty minutes of manipulating numbers obtained by giving quarterly common assessments to all students taking, say, seventh grade science, or eighth grade ELA, fifty minutes of looking at data, comparing students scores, discussing instruction that preceded those scores, planning instruction to improve those scores.

I had heard of professional learning communities before PLC arrived in Windsor. This PLC, however, was a purchased program from Chicago. It was not about discussions among colleagues who respected each others' backgrounds and opinions; rather, it was enforced dialogue about improving student scores between people who did not necessarily respect each other. Rather, we tolerated each other because we happened to work in the same building, in the same department, on the same core team.

Good discussions about pedagogy happened, despite our mixed loyalties and twisted intentions. We did observe trends among our students, depending on how we taught certain concepts. We devised plans of action to reteach some skills, to reinforce material that didn't seem to be well understood. We sometimes talked about teaching without acting as if what we did in our classroom was secret and perhaps shameful.

During these valuable discussions, though, I always felt uneasy because of what I saw as flawed, almost certainly questionable data. To obtain information about students' comprehension of what they read, we had to ask them to read material that was not at their independent reading level, was not about their topics they chose, material in which they probably had no interest. Then we asked multiple choice questions, some of which required students to use particular skills and strategies we had been focusing on. We could not ask our students, however, to read too much text; we could not ask them to answer more questions than they could manage in 45 minutes. We might end up with a data base of responses with only five questions testing inferential skills, among the twenty questions that involved a variety of other comprehension skills. Five items asked about two small texts, do not seem to give a good indication of whether a student "gets" the idea of combining text evidence with outside knowledge to draw inferences. I was not the most conscientious student during my Tests and Measurements class at Syracuse, but that does not seem like a good sample. And yet, talking about our flawed analysis still yielded important agreements about classroom practice or helpful suggestions for the teacher just beginning a career.

PLC Mondays were accompanied by requirements that we write up our discussions, write up our data analyses, write up up our plans of action. These tasks wore down my enthusiasm for the process. I got confused by many new acronyms and forms, slowed down by technical difficulties with files and folders on the shared drive, irritated because some colleagues were more accessible, more amenable to the process than others.

To complicate the PLC initiative, there were other movements afoot. Balanced literacy, a new twist on ELA for the middle school, required much intellectual and persuasive energy. Countering arguments and attitudes was an additional source of Monday afternoon stress. On some Mondays, after dealing with students' emotional backlash from weekends spent in dysfunctional families, I had nothing left for these PLC sessions.

I wonder what would happen if schools got together for PLC in units bigger than districts, perhaps facilitated by BOCES or NYSED. Would it be easier for teachers who didn't have to work in the same buildings to discuss classroom practices and their consequences more honestly and authentically? Talking with building colleagues involves ego, past history, competition, cliques. What would have to change for better quality PLC sessions to happen?

Also, are there better ways to find out whether students are understanding the processes and skills cultivated in an ELA classroom than to give a paper and pencil, multiple choice reading comprehension test? Should ELA classrooms be treated in a different way because they involve processes rather than content knowledge? But wait a minute...even in the so-called "content" areas, aren't habits of mind more important than knowledge that can become obsolete so quickly? So how can discrete data like answers to multiple choice questions be helpful? Is PLC really about reflection and collaboration more than hard data?

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The water, almost at high tide, tumbles toward me again and again, the sound of it striking the sand building and subsiding in overlapping sine waves. my ears and eyes can't get enough, and then, strangely, they overdoes so that I must close my eyes and simply listen for a bit. I open them up again to see the soft grays and blues, the frothy white, the wet sand, As I look down the beach, all the colors fade into the haze of evaporating mist and sandy cloud; the same effect as I look up the beach to the north.

The sun puts a bright gloss on the waves that crash in to my left, there to the north. My mind, my senses, are totally engaged, as the ocean smell blots out even the scent of copious amounts of sunblock. A white sail, with sun on the leading edge, emerges from the gauze of the horizon,, like part of the atmosphere, but then recedes again into the gray distance, just out of perception, or perhaps just within it. All I see here is wavering, indistinct, shape-changing, amorphous, shimmering.

My awareness and my consciousness transcend the mundane, the everyday, the voice of knowledge and civilization in my head. I am drawn from my everyday self to another place. My usual stressors are gone, replaced by the constant sensual barrage of the beach, and I am healed, as if the content of the air -- every ion, every water molecule, every mineral carried in the moisture -- were medicinal. I am healed a little more with each gust of the breeze, each lapping of a wave, each cry of a gull. I am healed.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Power of Reflective Writing

“Only two questions,” I assured my students, during one of the last classes of the year. We were discussing the final exam which they would take during one of the ninety-minute test sessions during two half-days the following week.
“Only two?” a student repeated, evidently distrustful of this information. The other three finals, in math, social studies, and science, involved anywhere from 45 to 100 multiple choice questions.
“The first one is an essay about your best piece of writing this spring. The second one asks you to discuss some event or person or book that changed you this year.” The best piece reflection I had used on the final exam for at least ten years. The question about a major influence had come to me during discussions with the other eighth grade ELA teacher about end-of-the-year requirements. He had agreed that another reflective essay, this one about students’ personal lives, would be a good accompaniment to the essay about what they had done that good writers do. Little did we know how well our students would do with this question.
I wish there were additional time in the school year. Many students chose to write about a teacher or coach at school, and I would love to have had the honored teachers stop in at my room to read the tributes. One teacher did stop by, at my invitation, and he was moved, especially by the essay of a girl in his advisory group that he had especially tried to encourage all year. She had been depressed about problems in her family, so he made it a point to cheer her, and show her the value of choosing one’s own attitude. She wrote about exactly that – seldom does a teacher get to hear or read such praise. Many of his baseball players wrote about his efforts with their rather dysfunctional team. As Mr. B said, “You can’t tell whether it’s sinking in when you’re working with them,” but it obviously did for those three or four young people.
Sometimes students wrote about their own friends, or family members. Others reacted strongly to an injured veteran of Iraq, a Windsor alumnus, who spoke to us in an assembly about his journey to overcome his inertia, pain, and depression after losing a leg and his boyish good looks. Our fall team-building event, a visit to the ropes course, was also the topic of many essays. The more papers I read, the more certain I was that the money spent for that field trip and for other character ed programs was money well spent. Our own professional development sessions in the past ten years had told us that middle school students remember affective experiences, that which appeals to their emotions, far more than any academic work done in these pre-teen years. These essays were proof of that, as our eighth graders wrote articulately, passionately, convincingly, about how they had been changed.

The more papers I read, the more sure I was that reflection like this is a good way to get the best writing out of our students during an end-of-the-year exercise like this final. Isn’t it easier for us, as adults, to write about things we care about? And if it is easier to write, then isn’t it more likely that we will care about saying it correctly, effectively? I know that it is much easier for my teaching to have an impact if I am working with a student on ideas he cares about. Research supports me in this classroom observation, research too voluminous to cite here. Nancie Atwell found it in the ‘80s, but it has been researched and written about even more since she asked about the power of student-centered writing to improve their formal writing.

Why, then, do teachers continue to fight this knowledge by working on student writing through assignment of formal essays and other heinous parallel tasks? Is it fear, when faced with classrooms filled with reluctant writers, that forces them to fall back to antiquated techniques? Is it lack of awareness, even after decades of research?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

I'm thinking about modelling. I'm thinking about learners creating rubrics, and about learners needing time to work with material that is easy for them at first, and then working up to material that is right at their instructional/learning/nudging level; I'm thinking about scaffolding.

When post-secondary students (pre-service teachers, perhaps) are examining pieces of writing to develop a list of criteria by which quality can be measured, they should start with samples of writing from younger writers, much younger at first, and then work with samples of writing closer in intellectual age to them, and so on and so forth until they are reading, critiquing, and having writing conferences with their own classmates. Good writing conference techniques may not have been used when they were students in elementary and secondary classrooms, so retraining should occur so that the same mistakes are not made when they are in a classroom with their own students.

When students are learning the groundrules for discussion in a classroom, they should at first discuss a text or other content that is simple, and then work up to a text or content that is more complex. I have seen this go wrong. Class discussions gone wrong are not a pretty sight, and they were bad enough to keep me from having them for many years. Small groups were not much better if students were not trained and given templates for their remarks.

For reading lessons, tudents can work with a really easy text, say, a children's picture book with minimal text, then a fable or fairy tale (not saying they are easy, but they are short and can be used to demonstrate certain strategies). Then students have guided practice, in a small group, perhaps, with a more complex text. Those who demonstrate understanding can practice the technique with their chosen independent reading text, while others benefit from some reteaching.

This can apply to listening: Have students listen to a children's story aloud, with no pictures. Guide them to listen to increasingly difficult material. Discuss the techniques they used. Show them some additional ways to focus, similar to reading strategies but without visual cues. Read aloud some short news stories. Work up to New York Times articles.

How does scaffolding work in other subjects? ELA is more process, far less content than most subjects taught in school. I am lost in a sea of wonderings; I'll have to talk to some colleagues.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Boxes and dust -- they abound in my classroom this week. Students are here for three hours in the morning, to take finals, but then they leave and I have started to clear out the papers and books I have accumulated in a thirty year career as a secondary English classroom teacher. The traffic patterns of a school year are such that there are entire shelves of professional development material that have not been touched since September, folders jammed with papers and exercises I have not used in five years, collections of student work from a decade ago. Much of it goes into decrepit boxes stolen from the main office, to be dumped in the recycling dumpster. Some folders go in a crate to take home.

How do I decide what to keep and what to discard? My criteria can change, even as I am sitting in the midst of it all. What stuff is gimmicky and what stuff is really what children need? Lots of stuff was gimmicky: word finds, templates for students to create wordfinds, checklists for peer editing, rubrics in educationalese, student posters with erroneous definitions of words that convey emotion, exercises designed by teachers who are now travelling consultants, giving presentations to other teachers on how to raise test grades fast.

I have left for my replacement teacher all the folders of material related to the state assessments, some dating back to the first test, given to my students in 1998. There are actual test booklets, scoring leader guides, scorer guides, exemplars written by adults, exemplars written by students, many multi-colored copies of state rubrics. I also left in the filing cabinet the student "literacy folders" that were delivered to me last week, associated with students who will be in eighth grade next year. They used to be gold writing folders, with samples from fall and spring each year from kindergarten up. Those we gave to eighth graders in June. These literacy folders are new -- I gather that they will travel with our students up to the high school, though I can't imagine how the high school English teachers will use them, with their carefully recorded running records of miscalled words. It's too late for that information to help students or teachers by the time they are teens.

I have also left packages of construction paper, empty manila folders with writing only on one side of the tab, hanging folders, plastic tabs and paper tabs to go in them, if they only have student names written on one side (I have recycled this way for years). A few boxes of Ticonderoga pencils are left from a year when they flew out of my drawers like flies, on the occasion of every state assessment (there were four), every common assessment (there were four), and often on plain old class days (there were far fewer than 180). There is much Wite-out, left over from my serious writing workshop days, before other district initiatives interfered with that very student-centered activity in which children found their writing voice, had things to say, said them to some extent, wrestling with words and ideas all the while. It was nice while it lasted, a little over ten years. Some new black and white composition books, which I used for students to record their reading responses, fill spaces in a bottom drawer, along with boxes of paper clips, rolls of transparent tape, index cards of many colors, red and green Bic pens that workshop writers once used for self-editing.

Most of my extensive classroom library, over 300 paperbacks and a few hardcovers of well-written young adult literature and non-fiction, will stay here. Titles will change, but the concept of putting the right book in front of the right child will not, and my replacement will need a collection to get her started with that process. Some of my historical fiction has been farmed out to social studies colleagues for the same purpose, to put the right book in the hands of a student who is curious.

I take with me the material I want to be reminded of when I am training new teachers. I take student writing: the most authentic, so they will know what heights writers in student-centered workshops can attain, and some of the least, to show them what to question and nudge. I take copies of poems that worked for students, that inspired writing and reflection. I take collections of poetry and short stories that allowed me to develop literate readers who could discuss ideas and assess quality.

I hope to be training new teachers. I don't want them to think that teachers have to amass papers (or power point presentations, or Smartboard files) which contain gimmicky activities, though. I want them to be as comfortable as possible with change, since the constants of our profession, as of our lives, are few. I want them to be readers of current research, experimenters, classroom researchers, always asking themselves whether this lesson or that lesson really helped students read, write, speak, listen, understand the world around them better. Keeping up with technological changes, alone, will require teachers (and students) to be flexible and forward thinking. I want them to be reflective, as Socrates advised, not just to make life worth living, but to make their classes worth attending. Most of all, I guess, I want them to know how to ask good questions. And there aren't a lot of papers in my files that help teach that, which is why I'm throwing so much out.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The tears I wiped away from the corners of my eyes on Friday night, at the moving up ceremony for our eighth graders, were not tears of regret for my decision to leave the classroom, nor were they tears about missing particular students as the year ended or colleagues as I ended a portion of my career. I was listening to a student sing a song often chosen by middle schoolers who like musicals. "Tomorrow, tomorrow...is only a day away." She sang with a strong voice, once she got used to the microphone and forgot her nervousness about the crowd. Another student had sung before her, with a paler voice, pitch perfect but thin. The applause matched it, strengthened only by the desire to get out of that auditorium and into the gym where they could move around and listen to loud music and show off their clothing. But then her singing was over and this girl stepped forward.

This girl would not have been in our school if not for two decisions on the part of our local school board, at the recommendation of our superintendent. She is in a special program for educating autistic children, one classroom of which is housed in our middle school so that its participants may be placed in core classrooms while receiving the support they need to succeed. Our school board had to approve the location of that group of students in our building. According to our superintendent, the decision was not unanimous. Some members had to be convinced that it was a good thing.

That same school board approved another recommendation by the superintendent, five years ago; that is, to pursue a policy of inclusion. Our classes would include all the students with individual educational plans, IEPs, and consultant teachers would be hired to co-teach for all students of differing abilities. In other words, resource room students were to receive the same education as their non-IEP classmates. This decision was controversial with teachers who felt unprepared or who didn't want to interrupt the sovereignty of their rule over day-to-day classroom curriculum. I admit that I was nervous about co-teaching, but I welcomed the shift in attitude and the insistence on teaching to all children instead of just to the middle.

And so it was that, five years later, Olivia, the singer, came to my classroom, and students like her to other classrooms, and students with a variety of special needs into other classrooms where they had seldom been seen before and had certainly not been welcomed with special instructional awareness before. Olivia, and these other students, came to be accepted and included by the other students, as well as teachers who felt more and more comfortable as training was provided and their comfort level with the consultant teachers increased.

I don't want anyone to think that our middle schoolers no longer used the words, "retard" or "retarded," in a negative way. I have had to say my standard admonishment, "We don't use that word in that way in this classroom," more than a few times this year. The behavior of students, the treatment of students with differing abilities by their classmates and by their teachers as well, though, has changed. Attitudes, and thence behavior, take time and legislation to change. The legislation was provided when the board adopted the inclusion policy, and invited the Oaktree classrooms to our district. Training came in fits and spurts, sometimes amid protest (it was stressful to be out of my classroom with state assessments and the accountability that accompanies them hanging over me) even as we knew we needed help. Time passed, until the evening that Olivia stepped to the microphone.

My tears came when her classmates heard her sing so beautifully and reacted so honestly by listening, murmuring their astonishment, and standing to give her a loud, heartfelt ovation. She almost couldn't continue the song because of her own tears, but her classmates stayed standing and the cheers subsided enough so that she could put the last chorus on the song and finish, again to loud applause, cheering, and obviously compassionate support. I was so moved by the changes in attitude displayed by often immature, needy, difficult eighth graders -- in other words, normal thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds.

Our school's journey to that moment was not easy or smooth, didn't always look polished or professional. I remember the first year when the state sent an audit team to evaluate our response to students with special needs, and I was so unsure of many practices in my classroom. We grew through that bumpy beginning, though. It was simply a given that our students were going to be given quality instruction in the same classroom at the level they required, with awareness of special needs, learning styles, brain-based research. All decisions flowed from that assumption. All expectations began there.

Underneath my proud tears and astonishment at our students' growth, at our school's growth, are my questions: why can't we make other educational changes so quickly? Why do some changes occur with just a bit of kicking and screaming, while other conflicts between past practice and current research resemble civil wars in third world countries, with fires set in the streets, sniping from the rooftops, secret meetings at midnight in the faculty lounges? How can educational reform happen faster so that more students reap the benefit of new research?