Wednesday, December 21, 2016

A Timely Reminder: The Holidays are not Joyful for All Your Students

When I posted this essay last year, I was unprepared for how widely it would be shared.  Clearly, it filled a need I didn't realize was so great.  As we approach the holidays, it seemed wise to bring it out of retirement for the benefit of those to whom this is new information and for those of us who sometimes forget.
Sometime around the third or fourth year of my career, I was asked to teach a course called Senior English.  This was a semester long class for students who needed an additional half credit of English to graduate, mostly seniors on the five- and six-year plan.  In addition to books smarts (which some took great pains to hide) they were wiser than they should have been at that age. 
Calvin wrote an essay about being stopped by the cops while carrying more than an ounce of dope. The moral of the story, it turned out, was, “Always keep some juice in your glove compartment in case you have to eat your $#!+.”
That was tame compared to Betsy, who, through a series of misguided choices that snowballed, found herself serving at the pleasure of a dope dealer boyfriend who gave her room and board in exchange for pimping her out. And this, of course, was preferable to life at home with her abusive father.
And then there was Perry. Perry’s parents were cocaine addicts. By the time he was six, he knew how to get himself ready for school and on the bus because his parents were incapable of doing it for him. At age 13, he found his father’s cocaine stash. By 15, he was addicted to heroin. One thing led to another, and he found himself facing an attempted murder rap. Now on probation and hoping simply to be a normal teenager, he couldn’t understand how the stoners always knew to target him: “I swear to God, Ms. T., I wasn’t at this school twenty minutes before somebody asked me if I wanted to get high.”
In January, after the kids returned from winter break, Perry began falling asleep in class, not doing his homework. I feared he had begun using again and kept him after the bell one day.
“What’s going on, dude?” I chirped, trying not to sound judgmental.
“I’m sorry. My mom’s boyfriend tried to pick a fight with me over break. I think he wants to get my probation violated. So I’m living with my brother in the city.”
Perry was taking a commuter train from Chicago to the western suburbs, a trip that required him to get up at four in the morning. He wasn’t using; he was just exhausted from the effort of trying to be a normal kid. In mid-explanation, he grinned and said, “See what my girlfriend got me for Christmas?” and held up his arm to show me his watch. The metal band hung nearly an inch slack on his too slender wrist, but he glowed with pride.
“Wow—I think she kinda likes you!”
He chuckled shyly.
“Are you going to be doing that commute for the rest of the year?”
“I don’t know. I’m trying to get enrolled in Gordon Tech.”
“Okay, well, keep me in the loop, okay?”
What else could I say? Perry probably would have desired it otherwise, but circumstances had rendered my class a very low priority.  I let him sleep.
That same January, three different students told me tales of constructive eviction from their own homes. I had grown accustomed to disdaining stepfathers and mothers’ boyfriends. Not until this time did I begin to blame the mothers themselves. With no children of my own, I tried very hard not to judge the parenting of the adults in my students’ lives. Intuitively, though, I knew that while I had often accepted the company of some fairly worthless men, I had yet to meet the man for whom I would sell out my own flesh and blood.
            I share all this as a public service announcement.  Both new and experienced teachers may benefit from being reminded that some of our students have spectacularly bad parents.  If your child has asthma, you should probably forbid smoking in your home.  If you have young children who should be asleep by nine, the late-night partying needs to take place somewhere else. 
At worst, many of our students spend the so-called holidays with people who should not  be allowed to own a pet, much less raise a child.  The TS in PTSD stands for traumatic stress, and it doesn't just affect soldiers.  It can result from being beaten by someone three times your size or threatened with homelessness.  Under chronic stress, the brain has two options.  It can completely shut  down, resulting in the student who  will not respond, who shrugs off our attempts at communication.  Or it can remain perpetually vigilant.   These are the students are always angry, ready to fight you or their peers or the cops or whomever they perceive as a threat. 
This winter, please recognize that some of your students may have spent two weeks in what amounts to a battle zone.  Don’t be surprised when they manifest bad behavior upon their return to your classroom.  And try not to compound the problem by being harsh with them.      
No matter how unreasonable their behavior seems to you, it makes sense to them.  You don’t need to know the specifics of their situation to give your kids the benefit of the doubt, to remind yourself that no child wakes up in the morning and asks, “How can I screw up my life today?”  Make an effort to be the calm, trustworthy, reliable adult they absolutely need at this time.  As Eric Jensen wrote, “If yelling worked, the kids from the worst families would be the best behaved.”
One more thing I think needs to be stated explicitly, although I wish it didn't: all the students I wrote about here were white.  No race or ethnicity has a monopoly on dysfunction.
Here’s hoping 2018 is a better year in every way!


Deb Teitelbaum, PhD, is the author of Shut up! A Quick & Dirty Guide to Decreasing Teacher Talk and Increasing Student Talk in the Classroom, available on Amazon. You can find her on Twitter @debteitelbaum,  Youtube, and her Facebook page, Teaching Up!



Tuesday, October 11, 2016

What if I told you there were no U.S. schools?

Among the sticks used to beat teachers in this country is the perception that U.S. students are less educated than their international peers.  Those who make this claim usually cite the findings of large international assessments, such as the TIMSS or PISA studies, that show the mean score of American students well below those of other industrialized nations.  Here’s the problem, though.

From an instructional standpoint, there are no U.S. schools.  There are no American students.

 “Whaaat?!” I hear you cry.  “Of course we have U.S. schools.”

No, we don’t.  We have a Department of Education—a fairly recent addition to the Presidential cabinet.  With the smallest staff but third largest budget of any cabinet-level department, it is empowered to lead the dialogue about education and disperse funds for various programs and grants.  

Now, you might be thinking, “Doesn’t receipt of those funds entail some sort of compliance measure or attainment of some standard?”

And the answer is, “Mmm...meh.”

Let’s take a recent and well-publicized example, the Race tothe Top program, part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.  Among the stipulations attached to the receipt of these funds were the adoption of common standards and the use of high quality common assessments.

Had these stipulations been enacted, we might be on the road to having U.S. schools.  Instead, they became plot devices in a political drama that pit the liberal/tyrannical Obama administration against states with conservative/freedom-loving legislatures.  Those states voted essentially to renege on the terms of the deal. 

Most of the decisions about the enactment of teaching and learning are made at the state or district level.  That is why, in some states, science teachers must present the argument for intelligent design along with evolution or why other states use textbooks that refer to African slaves as imported workers.

The difference between the states becomes unmistakable when their international achievement scores are disaggregated and each state’s results are presented separately.

The graphic seen here is taken from U.S States in a GlobalContext: Results from the 2011 NAEP-TIMMS Linking Study.  It reveals that in eighth grade mathematics, Massachusetts students, on average, are outscored only by students from South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan.

Also noteworthy is the success of many states in comparison to Finland.  Until this three-ring circus that constitutes our Presidential election eclipsed everything else, I couldn’t pull up my Facebook feed without reading about the idyll that is is Finnish education.  According to the NAEP-TIMSS data, though, more than half of the states in this country, including several of the most populous, outscore Finnish students in math at the eighth grade level.

Now, I know that test scores do not provide a complete picture of a school system.  However, test scores are the preferred metric of those who criticize “American” schools.  By and large, these are the same people who shriek, “Government overreach!!” in response to any effort to ensure that students in one state receive the same quality of education as students in another. 


This year will mark my 21st as an educator, and I am officially tired of defending my profession.  Alexis de Toqueville asserted that, in a democracy, people get the government they deserve.  Perhaps in a confederation of quasi-independent states, they get the education systems they deserve as well.  

Monday, August 22, 2016

You may have rigorous expectations, but do your students?

I’ve been sweating over the agenda for a workshop on teaching English II—sophomore English for you civilians. 

I’ve read Fisher & Frey’s Rigorous Reading.  Twice.  I’m going to have the teachers practice creating all six levels of text-dependent questions.  I’ve got a great heuristic device for analyzing poetry.  I’ve got another for analyzing character[1]

For our opening activity, I’m going to ask them to deconstruct the end-of-course test using an activity called List-Group-Label, once again tapping my current favorite professional book, Making Thinking Visible.  I want the teachers to see that higher order thinking skills are not antithetical to the test.

To drive this point home, I even selected the wood floor background for my PowerPoint slides.  It’s visual metaphor: the EOC represents the floor, the least our students should be able to do.  If we teach to the ceiling, the floor will take care of itself.  Clever.  I know, right? 

So why am I sweating?

They say that nothing is idiot-proof to a sufficiently motivated idiot.

I taught high school English for eleven years, and I was clever even then.  I had nifty heuristic devices and graphic organizers and catchy expressions.  And they were all very effective…for the students who gave a damn.  Nothing is student-proof to a sufficiently apathetic student.

When I was a student, I didn’t care about math.  Despite that fact, I did fairly well in it because I could plug-and-chug.  Teach me the algorithm, and I’ll know when I have the right answer.  I was far less successful in any math class where I had to figure out which algorithm to use or—God forbid—create my own. 

Close reading, like theoretical mathematics, is not merely an intellectual act.  It is a manifestation of the desire to understand.  Before students can successfully read between the lines, they must believe that there’s something worth finding there. 

I am an ethical person.  I no longer provide after-school professional development because it doesn’t work and, frankly, it’s inhumane.  I need a minimum of three hours and teachers who are not already exhausted.  It is not enough for me to present the material; I want teachers to use it.

For the first time since arriving at my current employer, I’m concerned that teachers may not be able to implement what I give them.  I can’t in good conscience craft a presentation on how to effectively teach English II without including some instruction on how to build the will of the students to engage with the material. 

 And, to be quite honest, I'm not sure I know how to do that.  I'm not sure I ever did.

I'll keep you posted.




[1] Big ups to Denise Sawyer of Lee Early College in Lee County, NC, by the way, for her assistance in pulling these materials together.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

What if there's no prior knowledge to activate

            Activating students’ prior knowledge is one of those edu-speak phrases so often repeated that it has in many ways lost all meaning and functions only as a square on satirical faculty meeting bingo cards.
The intention is good.  New information can be more readily understood and remembered if it can be assimilated with material that already resides in long-term memory.  For example, if I needed directions to somewhere in downtown Durham, NC, I would ask where it was in relation to Fullsteam Brewery.  I have a very clear mental image of that area and can easily build onto it, despite my nearly tragic lack of directional sense.  I once missed the entire state of Virginia.  True story.
Unfortunately, the places with which I am that familiar are very few, and my map reading skills are purely theoretical.  When I first moved to Athens, GA, from Chicago, I needed to buy a shower curtain, so I called the local Target store and asked for directions.  
The clerk asked, “Do you know where the mall is?” 
I said, “No.” 
She tried again, “Do you know…” 
I said, “Let me save you some time.  I’ve lived here about sixteen minutes.  I don’t know where anything is.”  We eventually worked it out. 
The prior knowledge activation technique that I hear used most often is to ask students, “What do you know about ______?”  And the problem is that many of our students don’t know anything about the topic.  Asking them, “What do you know about Ancient Egypt?” is analogous to asking me where the mall is. 
Actually, it’s worse.  I absolutely knew that I had no idea where the mall was.  Our kids often think they know things when in fact they don’t or the things they know are complete fiction.
            According to Dr. David Sousa, author of How theBrain Learns among other titles, we tend to remember best the first and last things presented to us in a learning session.  That means students need to receive only correct information initially.  The use of the above technique or the much-beloved KWL chart may explain why students give those same wrong answers on the end-of-unit test, despite weeks of instruction.
            It may be more useful to plan your lessons with an eye toward creating a schema, as opposed to activating prior knowledge.  Consider, for example, Ancient Egypt.  Rather than asking students what they know, present them with an image like this one.  Better yet—give them an assortment of images. 
Now ask them simply to observe: “What do you see?” This can be done individually, in small groups, or as a whole class.  Make certain to limit students’ contributions at this point to what is objectively present in the image.  No interpretations or value judgments just yet.
When students have exhausted their observations, ask them, “Based on what you see, what do you think is going on?” 
Finally, ask students to consider what questions persist for them.  “What are you still wondering about?”
This activity, called See-Think-Wonder, is taken from the superb book Making Thinking Visible,  I like that it allows students to craft an accurate mental framework on which to attach the material they will be studying.  Later in the unit, the teacher can refer back to the images rather than spending a great deal of time explaining a concept.  Because the students were allowed to ponder the images for a considerable amount of time, they are apt to be remembered and serve as useful shorthand. 
Perhaps more importantly, it presents academic material as a puzzle to be solved.  Cognitive psychologist Dan Willingham, author of Why Don’t Students Like School?, explains that people like puzzles and will keep at them provided they believe they have a reasonable chance of success. If you have ever persisted at a difficult crossword or Sudoku, you know this is true. 




Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Teachers of Teachers are Teachers

Around October of my first year of teaching, I experienced an overwhelming depression brought on by what seemed the inescapable truth that my work simply did not matter.  My students would succeed or fail despite my efforts.  New teachers typically cite this belief as their primary reason for leaving the profession.

Déjà vu struck last week.  I left work Friday afternoon convinced that the individuals under my tutelage would flourish or founder despite my efforts.

I am no longer a classroom teacher.  Instead, I provide professional development programs for P-12 teachers.   Sometimes these programs take the form of weeklong workshops.  Occasionally, they look like the more typical “drive-by” PD— a few hours after school or on an early release day.  Most recently, I’ve been helping individual schools identify their instructional challenges and then tailoring PD to those needs. 

Twenty years in education, nearly half of it with adult learners, has led me to the conviction that there is no such thing as Adult Learning Theory.  While adult brains may have better impulse control and somewhat longer attention spans, they also have much more deeply ingrained habits of mind than children.  Encouraging a new way of thinking about a difficult topic is exactly as difficult in adults as it is in children—more so if you first have to supplant an old way of thinking.

I begin most workshops with an injunction against blaming the students.  To do so is to accept an external locus of control, to concede that nothing in your classroom is in your power.

As I struggled with my frustration with the lack of progress I was seeing in the teachers I work with, I returned to this idea.  If my students weren’t making sufficient progress, I would change my teaching practices to address that.  What, then, was I doing wrong as an educator that was preventing my teachers from progressing?

When teaching a new and sophisticated concept to children or adolescents, I know I must provide multiple opportunities for them to engage with the material before they will feel confident in their understanding.

So, why would I expect an adult to make the shift from teacher-centered to student-centered instruction based on a single modeled lesson?

When teaching complex processes to children and adolescents, I break it down into discreet steps and teach each explicitly. 

Why, then, should I be surprised that the teachers I work with didn’t do any of the things that must precede a student-centered classroom, things I not only had not taught but had not even identified?

When working with children and adolescents, especially those with troubled academic pasts, no learning will occur until you establish a mutually respectful and caring relationship with each student.

My group e-mails weren’t doing the trick?  Shocking.

I went back in on Tuesday with a renewed internal locus of control: what can I do differently to help these educators be more effective?

I sat in on a first grade reading class and saw that, although most of the students were eager to participate, the teacher was calling on only one student at a time.  As a result, students were either shouting out or checking out.  Both problems could be remedied if the teacher used more student-to-student interactions, but the children didn’t know how to engage in an academic conversation. 

With her blessing, I’ll be modeling that skill both for her benefit and theirs on Thursday. 

Discreet steps.  Multiple exposures.  Personal relationships.


I’ll let you know how it goes.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

I Don't Need a Buddy--I Need You to Do Your Job Better!

A friend once asked me whether New Yorkers were as rude as everyone said.  I explained that in my experience New Yorkers were not necessarily rude.  They just didn't go to any great lengths to make you feel good about yourself.  To illustrate the point, I described wandering around Greenwich Village with a UNC classmate one spring break, looking for a place to have dinner.  I ducked my head into a shop and asked the woman running the place, “Could you point me to Little Italy?”

Without breaking eye contact or uttering a word, she extended her left arm and pointed. 

“No, seriously,” I prodded.

“Seriously,” she insisted.  “Keep walking in that direction and you’ll run right into it.”

She was right.  She was tremendously helpful, just not very friendly.  But here’s the thing.  At that moment, I didn’t need a friend.  I was already with a friend.  And my friend and I were really hungry. 

As a woman who works in education and lives in the south, more and more, I find myself wishing for a little more of that businesslike efficiency and a little less flaccid friendliness.

Efficient: Calling one teacher into your office and saying, “The last time we met, I asked you to get your lesson plans to me by 3:00 pm on Fridays, and you haven’t been doing that.  If you miss another deadline, I will have to reprimand you formally. ”

Flaccid:  Calling the entire faculty into a meeting and explaining, “Some of you haven’t been getting your lesson plans in on time.  We really need you to do that.  Okay?”

Efficient: Encouraging—nay, demanding—that employees interact with each other as adults, that they stop gossiping and take their complaints to the source of the complaint, not to you.  When Employee X comes to your office and says, “Employee Y hurt my feelings yesterday,” your response is, “I think you should talk to Employee Y about that.”

Flaccid: Enabling behavior from adults that you would not tolerate in children.  When Employee X comes to your office and says, “Employee Y hurt my feelings yesterday,” your default is, “I’ll talk to her. Okay?”

That word—okay?—like you’re asking permission to lead!

I wonder sometimes if part of the reason little ever changes in education is that we’re all so damn busy trying not to hurt anyone’s feelings.  So we allow incompetent people to serve on essential committees because we don’t want them to feel left out.  And we neglect to document behaviors because it would make everyone uncomfortable.  And we pretend we don’t see bad teaching or abusive administrators. 

Why?!

Because someone might get mad?  Or get their feelings hurt?  Or not feel affirmed and fuzzy?

Perhaps my upbringing was too no-nonsense but it seems to me that people’s self-esteem should result from their having done something worthwhile, not because everyone else is in a conspiracy to protect them.

In the pilot episode of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Matt Lauer asks one of the rescued girls how she ended up a victim of kidnapping and, presumably, rape.  She explains, “I didn’t want to be rude so… here we are.”


I’m not suggesting we stop being kind to each other or that we take no notice of our colleagues’ feelings.  On the other hand, the behaviors I’m describing are not kindnesses. They are duplicitous, cowardly, and, frankly, an abdication of our responsibility to the children we’re supposed to be teaching.  It’s certainly not kind to them.


Saturday, January 16, 2016

Making a Murderer: How Did So Many People Miss the Point?

Typically, I blog on education-related topics, but today I’ll be shifting gears a bit.  Like almost everyone in the county, the Netflix series Making a Murderer consumed a significant chunk of my time recently.  Of all the things that appalled me about the documentary, what I found particularly infuriating was the amount of activity it engendered in the snarkosphere. 

I read several blog posts that I suppose were intended as observational humor about such banalities as how unattractive Dolores Avery is, how unfashionable her clothing was, how moronic her phone conversations with Steven were.  And the more I read, the more I seethed.

Let’s be clear.  The Avery family is white trash.  They are poor.  They are uneducated.  They are physically unattractive.  They’re the kind of folks who think nothing of tossing a tire on a bonfire. You would not want them as neighbors. 

They’re not clever and cuddly white trash, like the gang on Duck Dynasty.  And they’re not sexy, dangerous white trash, like The Sons of Anarchy.  They are reality trash, not reality TV trash.
And that’s kind of the point.

Civil rights are not the sole province attractive, educated people.  You don’t even have to be a particularly nice person to have civil rights.  They are not something you earn; they are simply something you have.  That’s why they’re called “rights” and not “privileges.”  The Constitution exists to protect everyone’s civil rights, even those of the trashy and ignorant. In fact, I would hazard that the trashy and ignorant need the Constitution more; the wealthy and the educated know how to advocate for themselves.


If you watched all ten episodes of Making a Murderer and failed to absorb that, you are part of what is wrong with our justice system.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Ask This, Not That

As 2016 begins, many of you may have resolved to eat healthier or exercise more.  My Facebook feed is plastered with recipes for things like Swiss chard wraps and fat-free, dairy-free oatmeal cookies.[1]  A particularly popular phenomenon at this time of year is Eat This, Not That, a web presence that shows people how to swap calorie dense foods for lower calorie “equivalents.” 

In this same vein, I decided to create a post for teachers who have resolved to get their classrooms in shape this second semester.  Very often, the problem you’re trying to correct is actually a symptom of a more important problem that you may not have even considered.  So, ask this, not that.

Don’t ask, “How I can raise homework completion rates?” 

Ask instead:

Why do I assign homework?  If I took out their homework grades, would some of my failing students be passing? Do I give my students timely and meaningful feedback on their homework, or do I just collect it and pass it back periodically? Would I want to do this homework if I were one of my students?  Could I get better results if I had them do the homework in class and the classwork at home (flipped instruction)? 

Don’t ask, “How can I get my students to follow directions?”

Ask instead:

Do I wait until all my students are looking at and listening to me before I deliver instructions?  Do I give instructions while simultaneously passing out papers or checking attendance?  If I’m not paying attention to myself, why would the kids pay attention to me?  Do I give lengthy instructions with multiple steps?  Do I craft my instructions with concision and precision? Do I explicitly check for understanding when I’ve finished my instructions, or do I just ask, “Got it?” and move on.

Don’t ask, “What behavior modification system can I implement so my students stay on-task?”

Ask instead:

Do my students understand what they’re supposed to learn from this work?  Will they know when they have learned it?  Is this work sufficiently challenging?  Is it too challenging?  Is there a real upside to finishing the work on time or a downside to not finishing? Would I want to do this work if I were one of my students?

You may not like the answers to a lot of these questions.  The good news, though, is that if the problem lies with you, so does the solution.

Happy New Year, everyone!

And remember—breathe in, then out.  Repeat as necessary.

Dr. Deb



[1] I made this recipe, and the cookies were absolutely dreadful!  Just sayin’.