Controversial Issues

“Yo , what classes you got?”

 “I got retard class, weight training, retard math, science, another retard class, history, and computer skills.”

Retard class….  Straight from the mouth of a special education student at my school discussing his second semester schedule with another student.

This is a good indicator of problems within classes like “study skills,” “targeted academic skills,” and “resource room.”  The students know they’re in the remedial class, and while the classes are billed as a way to support students’ academic skills and bring them up to speed, they often do little of the sort.  To date I’ve only heard of one student in the special education department (SPED) being exited because they’ve acquired the appropriate skills.  I absolutely agree that students qualifying for SPED classes need something that a standard curriculum does not (or cannot) deliver, however I argue that if a student views their support as “retard class” it is unlikely they think the class is working in their best interest.

Let me back up a bit.  The SPED classes I’m referring to are for students who, to a casual observer, would appear to be a normal student.  These are not students with significant developmental disabilities, but students with either a “specific learning disability” or an “emotional/behavioral disability”.  These can manifest in a variety of ways from dyslexia or difficulty processing math, to anger management issues that impact a student’s ability to succeed in a standard class.  These students are tested in a variety of ways, usually after failing many or all their classes.  Then, in conjunction with parents, a doctor, school nurse, school psychologist, and counseling staff the student is diagnosed and an individualized education plan (IEP) is written to provide accommodations and modifications to increase student success.  These may include shortening the length of assignments, allowing late work, increased time on tests, or changing standards for an assignment.  Students with IEPs are often then placed in one or more SPED classes depending on their academic abilities in addition to their general education classes (with the stipulations of their IEP in place).

Back to the “retard class.”  SPED classes can focus on a variety of things ranging from basic math or writing skills to skills around executive function, study habits, and organization.  In these classes, the students do elementary work: basic arithmetic worksheets, introductory grammar and spelling worksheets, and short “what I did this summer” type writing assignments.  The same assignments they’ve been doing since early elementary school.  They haven’t been successful with them yet, and how can they be anything but bored at this point.

On paper the theory makes some sense.  These students lack the basic skills necessary to succeed in a standard class, so we explicitly teach those basic skills in an attempt to remedy that deficiency.  I should also point out that these are difficult students.  They have a history of failure in the school system.  By the time they are in high school they know full well that they are behind, resulting in lower motivation and a tendency to act out in class.  That is precisely why the mind-crushingly boring arithmetic and grammar worksheets should be scrapped in favor of the intellectually stimulating activities often seen in accelerated classes.  If you already hate school and have a history of being unsuccessful, how does continuing to do the kind of work you did in elementary school going to motivate you to be more successful?  We are repeatedly applying the same interventions with the hope of new results.

These classes can be reorganized to better meet the needs of their students.  I argue that Project Based Learning appears to be an ideal choice to change the intervention.  The authenticity of the project should work to hook the interests of students.  As an example: instead of another grammar worksheet students could work as lobbyists making recommendations on controversial legislation (nothing gets some students to perk up like debating legalizing marijuana or lowering the drinking age).  The final deliverable can be easily adjusted to properly align with the skills of the student.  While an AP class may have a final project of a lengthy, fully researched, policy brief, a SPED writing class could have a final product of a letter to the editor or even a short position statement.  The level of skill can be easily modified in PBL, and there is considerable research showing that PBL can increase motivation and learning of content and skills.

We all need to feel challenged or we get bored.  We all want to be more successful in the future than we have been in the past.  We respect students when we give them work that challenges them and makes them push themselves toward an authentic goal.  In AP and IB classes students are motivated by the exams at the end of the course and the possibility of earning college credit.  They are not all intrinsically motivated students who understand the value of a good education.

Similarly with SPED students we cannot expect that they will see the value of basic skills just because we teach them.  We need to create authentic situations in which those skills become necessary.  We need to create a need for learning and proper motivation for success.  Hopefully then, “that retard class” can become something of real value to students.

Calle 13: Preparame la Cena

A student today asked me to raise their semester grade from a B+ to an A.

Before we all get fired up about entitlement, grade inflation, and lowering academic standards in American public education let me say that I did not raise the grade.  This student will be ending first semester with a B+.  The grade she earned.   I believe that a grade of 89.5 (or .6 or .7) should be rounded up.  I was fully convinced when a colleague of mine explained it in terms of significant digits.

To paraphrase him:  if my syllabus says that an A is 90% then I need to stick to that.  If I want to be more precise in my grading I should be more precise in my syllabus and specify 90.0% or 90.00% to earn a grade of A.  Additionally there is significant subjectivity in grading and there is no way that I can be so confident in my application of standards and rubrics that I can be confident to a hundredth of a percent.  As such I take other factors into account and if appropriate I am definitely willing to adjust a student’s grade.

This student definitely works hard and her request was very polite.  She also included rationale to support her request of a grade change.  I’m including her entire email below (direct copy, spelling and grammar issues retained, name changed):

Hi Mr. McCormick,

 I wanted to talk to you about my 1st semester grade. After putting the final in, I have an 88%. I would sincerely appreciate it if you could round it up to a 90%. I know that is rounding up 2% but I have put a lot of hard work into this class and have been trying my best. This class is the only class that is bringing my gpa down and I would be really happy if this got up becuase I have been struggling to keep my grades up a lot. This grade is really important for me to stay in Honor Society as well.  I have tennis outside of school every tuesday and thursday. I also have AP Bio class which is really tough too. I promise to keep my schedule neat this semester so I can get an A in this class. I can come and talk to you tommorow after school about this if that is more convinient to you as well. Again, I would sincerely appreciate it, Mr. McCormick, if you could possibly raise my grade up.

Thanks,  Kid McStudent

 There’s a lot to unpack in there.

I’m not offended that she asked, but I am a bit surprised at her logic.  She worked hard and has a busy schedule with other tough classes, can’t I just give her a break?  Given many classes I might agree that her hard work is valuable and she should be rewarded for putting in substantial effort.  My class however, has some different structures in place that change the definition of “trying my best.”

Every single assignment, essay, test, and quiz in my class can be revised, rewritten, or reattempted barring the final exam.  Assignments and essays in particular can be reattempted multiple times in order to show mastery.  At the end of the day what’s most important to me is that students learn the skills and content I’m teaching.  If it takes a couple tries, no problem.   Thus in my class trying your best would include taking the opportunity to revise or rewrite assignments that were below standard.  This student has not made good use of her option to retake and rewrite assignments.  She’s been riding the edges of an A and a B all semester, and she didn’t do particularly well on the final which took her grade from the “probably going to round up” range to just outside of it.

The second piece of her rationale that’s interesting to me is the issue about Honor Society and her GPA.  The value for her is clearly the numbers aspect of the grade as opposed to any sort of learning the grade represents.  From the constitution of the National Honor Sciety the groups’ purpose is “to create enthusiasm for scholarship,… in the students of secondary schools. ”  I think she’s missing the point a bit.  Enthusiasm for a high GPA and enthusiasm for scholarship are different things.  To me an enthusiasm for scholarship would include the interest in improving your learning for the sake of learning as opposed to trying to negotiate up a grade for the numerical value of an A over a B.

This students’ issues further convince me that a standards based assessment approach is the only reasonable course of action for solving issues of assessment.  Throw out the compliance grades.  Throw out the points for effort.  Get rid of the idea that everyone gets a blue ribbon just for showing up.  If you’ve made the choice to take more challenging classes (like AP Biology and AP World History) you should not expect to simply receive an A without demonstrating that you’ve learned the appropriate skills and content.  Doing poorly on the final exam indicates that you still have something to learn.

I need to be honest with myself and my students on the purpose of my grades, and what I am measuring.  If I want students to improve their writing I need to assess their skill at writing.  If I’m giving students points for turning an assignment in on time I’m assessing their ability to meet a deadline.  As a profession teachers are guilty of assessing many things other than learning be it attitude, effort, or prompt compliance just to name a few.

Make a rigorous, yet attainable standard.  Provide the students with opportunities to master the content and skills necessary to meet those standards and assess based on those standards.  As much as I may not like it, the grades my students earn have a very real impact on their college prospects.  I think my policies of allowing students to repeat assignments is a good first step in improving my assessment model.  If you give students opportunities to learn the skills and content, then give them opportunities to show their mastery of said skills and content there should be very little room for discussion.  “I worked really hard,” doesn’t work when there are no grades for working hard.  Proof of working hard should show in learning through revising, and taking advantage of those second chances.

I don’t blame my student for trying.  She’s playing the game that’s been put in front of her.  For motivated students, earning high grades are a very real pressure.  I think there are teachers who would adjust this grade for her, and this is where I take issue.  As teachers it’s our responsibility to help change the game.

Can’t Knock the Hustle (Watch the swears, don’t bump it a work.)

There were four different sugar and grain based “snacks” in the social studies office today: oatmeal cookies, cinnamon rolls, store-bought brownies, and homemade brownies.  I get it.  It’s finals time and people are stressed.  Lost of people like to help mitigate their stress with sweets, and honestly it doesn’t bother me.  It’s their body, their business, their loss.  I can understand that.

When it gets to me is when they turn their weakness on me.  The teasing: “these brownies are soooo goood!”  The faux admiration “look at Gabe with his healthy veggies.”  The jealousy.  The sideways comment about how my carrots and cucumber represent some sort of “moral high ground”.  “There’s nothing moral about it,” I think as I relish the sweetness and crunch of a Nash’s carrot.  Simply put:  I want to get through the day feeling good.  Grains and simple carbs make me feel like garbage.  Veggies don’t.

With sugar I get a sugar high.  I get a sugar crash.  I get gassy.  None of that is particularly appealing for a job where I spend most of my day walking around helping students and thinking quickly.  Not to mention how a sugar crash and feeling gassy is a perfect demotivator for heading to the gym after work to sweat and lift heavy things.

Why the insecurity?  Why do my colleagues have to take their issues and foist them on me?  I’m happy to discuss healthy eating, and why I make the food choices I di with them, but I want to do it from a place of reasoned discourse.  Starting the conversation with jabs about how green vegetables are in some way morally superior to grains is ludicrous.  I try extremely hard to be non-judgmental and not proselytize primal/paelo eating onto unwilling coworkers so it’s particularly frustration when it’s called out like school-yard mockery.

I didn’t have a brownie.  I didn’t have a cookie.  I didn’t have a cinnamon roll.  I didn’t get into a heated discussion about the evils of trans-fats and high fructose corn syrup, or how you don’t have to be allergic to gluten to avoid it.  I am not strong.  My coworkers are not weak.  I ate my veggies because that’s the lunch I’d packed for myself and it was satisfying.  I moved on to my paelo-approved, and incredibly delicious shepard’s pie (thanks Well Fed) and went out to teach full of energy and satisfaction.  Positive reinforcement for positive choices.


Time for more push-ups.

Enter the Unapproachables

Grant Wiggins of Understanding By Design fame made some serious waves in the online education commmunity.  Essentially he made a claim that fiction shold be banned from English/Language Arts (ELA) curriculum.  It’s a fairly short post and it comes out pretty strongly against fiction, and has garnered some pretty vitriolic response.  It makes sense that people (particularly ELA educators) would rail against this idea.

Fiction, be it novels, poetry, or short fiction holds a very strong place in ELA curriculum around the country, and Wiggins makes the claim that we should remove it in favor of non-fiction.  His argument is that “the reading all of us are required to do in our adult responsibilities involves heavy doses of nonfiction, for which our students are totally unprepared” and ” the required readings in most English classes do not serve males at all.”  Strong statements that are pretty much guaranteed to make people angry.

Step back though.  Read his post again.  Is this really the kind of argument that you would expect from the man who asks us to use backward design when creating lessons?  This is brash, provocative, and has fairly limited evidence.  This is an intentionally inflammatory statement in the model of A Modest Proposal.  Wiggins is not arguing for the removal of all fiction any more than Swift wanted the Irish to eat their children.  Then what is he doing?

By my reading Wiggins is asking us to examine our assumptions in ELA curriculum.  Why does fiction get such an honored position?  Where is the time spent working with speechwriting, presuasive writing, or informational news writing?  One could easily argue as well that ELA would serve our students well by teaching methods for communicating effectively through blogs and social media.

Wiggins isright to question the types of fiction we traditionally use.  Why does one book make it into the educational canon when others do not?  There is an enormous amount of available literature to use for education, but we traditionally use an extremely small slice.  Shakespeare, Jane Austin, Steinbeck, Orwell, Harper Lee, Fitzgerald, and Salinger.  Why do these authors and their books make the cut when others do not?  Educators could stretch themselves to add more non-canonical texts and add variety to the ELA curriculum.  Text selection is just as important in an English class as it is in a research paper.

Near the end of his post Wiggins makes the claim that students are not appropriately prepared to conduct research and write research papers.  I completely agree with Wiggins here, and I also agree that part of the solution is to increase the non-fiction, and non-textbook, reading that students do.  This is not the sole responsibility of the English classroom though. 

All teachers, and particularly core academic teachers, need to take the responsibility for writing on their shoulders.  Social Studies needs to teach how to write for history and politics.  Science needs to teach writing lab reports.  Math needs to teach writing for mathematical analysis.  No class is exempt from teaching writing, but far too often we say “this isn’t English, I don’t need to teach writing.”  This attitude is what hurts our students more than teaching books they’re not particularly interested in.

Don’t take Wiggins so seriously, but do take a moment and reflect on the pedagogical choices you make.  Why did you choose this text?  Why is this assignment relevant and meaningful?  If you can’t answer these questions maybe you should make some new choices.

Teaching the bill of rights to students. It’s all about the relevancy of lessons. Why are we studying this? Because you need to know your rights and be a participant in democracy. First amendment cases are good for teaching because they get at the basics of student beliefs and misconceptions. It’s surprising how many of them think that it’s illegal to criticize the government, or the military, or that it’s illegal to burn the flag.

 In order to facilitate this discussion I framed it in the current Snyder v. Phelps supreme court case. It’s a strong teaching case for two main reasons. One, it is so outrageous that we avoid the discussion of are they correct or not to say what they want. All of my students agree that it’s in bad taste, it’s rude, it’s abhorrent, it just shouldn’t be done. Because we all agree on that we can have a real discussion about should this speech be protected. We don’t argue about the content of the speech, but the constitutionality of it. It allows us to have a real issues discussion. Secondly it helps so much to have an undecided court case. I introduced the case on the same day as oral arguments. It’s a prediction of how the court will decide, and that give the students agency. They are actively interpreting current events in a way that directly relates to our school work. The current events aren’t tacked on, and there is true context and relevancy for the issues that extends beyond the classroom. They matter to the world, and that matters to the students.

As I continue to teach government I plan on keeping in mind that the court begins its sessions in October and intentionally lining my lessons up with that schedule. It’s so meaningful to use current cases as opposed to cases that have already been decided. It takes more work as a teacher, but it makes a clear link to following the news and education. Citizens have to be informed, and structuring the government class in a way that makes students participate in current events as well as understanding the structure of government dramatically increases student engagement and helps them create meaning from their schooling.

The New York Times today posted a story discussing how some states (Tennessee, Arizona, Virginia, Georgia) are allowing patrons to bring loaded firearms into bars.  I can’t help but think that this goes beyond the intent of the second ammendment, but it does so in a way that would be extremely clear to students.

The Second Ammendment: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” 

It’s beyond me that personal safety covers the “security of a free state.”  I think this article is useful for a government class regarding the discussion of individual rights and the common good.  This is a case that helps illustrate this point in clear terms.  Having guns in an alcohol serving establishment seems like a clear violation of the common good as peoples’ judgment is impaired while under the influence and the potential danger posed to the general population is extremely high.  This article could be well used in a class as a counter to an article that discusses the importance of maintaining the common good at the expense of individual rights.  (A pro-gun control article would be the logical choice.)

To take the next steps one could work with these laws from the abovementioned states and contrast them to some of the stricter gun control laws in the country as a way to work on a true solution.  Students would be then able to use real evidence to support a structured way of handling the issue of gun control.  This would line up nicely to a Structured Academic Controversy, or a mock congress, or both.