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Teaching is not an easy job.  No teacher I’ve met would refute this, regardless of their situation.  Tony Danza lasted one school year, with significant trouble, and he only had one class and a bigger paycheck than most teachers.  First year teachers constantly report being overwhelmed, underprepared, and roughly a third of all teachers leave the profession within three years.

“But you get all that time off!”  Yes.  I do get substantial breaks for the holidays and summers, but these breaks are unpaid time off.  On top of that a very significant number of teachers spend time on these unpaid breaks planning their next lessons or catching up on grading.  Add to that the fact the not a single teacher I know works only their contracted time (40hours a week) and you have teachers doing considerably more work than they are paid for.  Personally I work in the neighborhood of 65 hours a week and never fewer than 50. (50 would assume I do zero work at home, which simply does not happen.)

Growing class size, cuts in special education budgets, reduced English Language Learning (ELL) support, and the ever rising stakes of standardized testing all serve to exacerbate the already difficult job.  When I assign an essay in my AP World History class I can expect to grade 133 of them.  At 6 minutes per essay (a reasonable estimate) I can expect over 13 hours of grading for this one assignment.  If I want to get essays returned in anything resembling a prompt timeframe I can expect to grade in the evening and on weekends.

OK.  So teaching is tough.  It’s in the newspaper all the time.  The point has been made.  So what?

The difficulty of teaching is not sufficient reason for teachers to abdicate their responsibility to their students.  The students did not create the difficult situation.  The students did not vote down taxes that help provide funding for reduced class size and arts education.  The students are the ones for whom the stakes are greatest.  They get a very limited window for their educational opportunity and it is the responsibility of teachers to make sure their pedagogy is not another barrier placed in a student’s path.

I’ve worked with a wide variety of teachers across four schools.  I’ve taught 6th grade, 12th grade, and most levels in between.  Across the board I’ve seen great teachers doing their absolute best for students, and I’ve seen teachers who could be great making excuses for why they’re not great.  The excuses range from “I don’t offer re-writes or revisions on essays because it becomes too much work,” to “there’s no way we can do a research paper, think of how long it would take to grade,” and “the English department teaches writing.”

I’ve heard variations of these multiple times from multiple sources.  My personal favorite is: “Some days you just need a frozen-waffles lesson.”  I get it.  Life gets in the way of perfection, and our lives should not be completely dominated by our jobs.  At the same time though we need to maintain high standards and integrity.  There is substantial data that when properly motivated, students will rise to meet high standards, and when given the opportunity they will also sink to our low standards.  When we bring out the “frozen-waffles lesson” the students realize and they react accordingly.

If (as per part one of this series) we’re going to expect our students to take responsibility for their education, teachers have to take responsibility for making school worth our students’ time.  I don’t believe that every day should be “fun” but every day in class should definitely be worthwhile.

Teachers should always make sure that students understand why they’re doing a particular assignment or task.  It is of the utmost importance that students understand why their work has value beyond their grade.  (Fred Newmann is great on this subject.)  If we can consistently contextualize assignments in terms of their value beyond school we will go a long way to improving instruction, and it’s frankly not that hard.  Just start every lesson imaging a student asking you “so why do I have to learn this?”  If you cannot answer that question with something better than “it will be on the test,” you need to rethink your lesson.  I assure you that your students have other things they think are more important.

As a teacher it is your responsibility to show students the value of the work you do.  Telling is not enough.  You must show.  Students bear great responsibility for their education.  I’ve never seen a student fail as long as they put in their best effort; however students are not the only ones who bear responsibility for their education.  Teachers are equally responsible for creating a safe and effective learning environment while simultaneously delivering lessons that are of the highest quality.

Every time a student struggles to meet the high standards in my class I feel a bit like a jerk, but every time a notoriously difficult student tells me they can’t skip my class because it’s meaningful to them, I know I’m doing something right.

We ask our students to work hard all the time.  We ask them to balance seven classes, sports, music, and being a well-adjusted human being.  We tell them that they should work hard in school so they can work hard in life.  It’s time for teachers to take some of our own medicine and live what we teach, and it’s time for someone to stand up and support this effort.

When did the stakes get so high for schools? When did we start putting so much responsibility on teachers for the success of our youth and so little responsibility on the youth themselves?

When a student in my classes is unsuccessful, the discussion immediately turns to what I can, as a teacher, do to accommodate the needs of the failing/struggling student, instead of how the student can change their behavior in order to be more successful. By no means should teachers be removed from all responsibility, but students should absolutely be held accountable for their own academic success.

My own high school experience (not all that long ago as I graduated from high school in 2001) did not mirror the above situation at all. Yes, there was absolutely an expectation that my teachers should do a quality job of teaching me, but my parents were also informed enough to send me to a good school, and I recognized that success was completely my responsibility.  The responsibility did not fall solely to my teacher. My freshman year of high school, I learned the hard way that I wasn’t entitled to excellent teachers and only doing interesting and authentic assignments. My transcript suffered, but I learned from that experience and changed my own behavior so as not to repeat the same mistake twice.

It was not the mission of my teachers to make class fun, motivating, or particularly interesting. Those were bonuses of a particularly high quality class. For much of my high school career, class was class, and just like eating your veggies or doing your chores, it was something that you did because you were supposed to. You go to school, and to be successful after school, you need to be successful in school. If I didn’t like math that was my problem; I’d better still pass it regardless. There was no discussion of talking to the teacher about why or how to make things different because I wasn’t interested in the class or didn’t do my work.

When did society lose the value of individual student responsibility? When did a student’s success fall at the feet of the teacher instead of the student (let alone the parents)? I’ve had countless emails, meetings, and discussions with parents, students, and counselors asking me to change my standards by excusing assignments, modifying assignments, or giving extensions because little Joey or Susie is “having a tough time right now, but they’ll do all their work in the future,” only to have the same conversation a month or two later when nothing has changed.

Even more frustrating, is when a student attempts to shed responsibility because “the teacher only told them when it was due once, and they forgot.”  An argument I have heard far too often.

I respect the idea of individual educational advantage. Some students enter the public school system significantly advantaged over other students. There is no doubt about that. At the same time I watch students work diligently to overcome their disadvantages and learn despite significant barriers while students with every advantage fritter away their opportunities. It takes hard work to be successful regardless of your starting point. When did we lose sight of that?

To use a sports analogy if you are trailing someone in a race you have to run faster than the person ahead of you in order to overtake them. If the person in front of you had a head start you may have to run significantly faster, but if you both continue running at the same pace they will always stay ahead of you. The same is true when it comes to educational advantage. If you are a disadvantaged student you have to work harder to overcome the barriers that were placed in your life through no fault of your own.

Is it fair? No. Is it easy? Of course not. Does it work? Yes.

My point, however, is not limited to students who are academically disadvantaged. Those students who are academically advantaged have just as much need to learn the value of hard work and self-control in order to be happy and productive upon graduation, regardless of their goals for college or employment.

When we hold teachers accountable for the success of every student in their class (while continually increasing caseloads without increasing compensation) we’ve removed individual responsibility from the student while constantly increasing the burden on the teacher.  . If I have students who are not engaging with my class it is definitely my responsibility to try and make class work for them, just as they have a responsibility to engage with any material they wish to learn.

No matter how hard I try, no matter how motivating I want to be, I cannot and will not pick up a pen and write an essay for a student. I cannot read a book for them, and I cannot make them think. They have to want it. I can do everything in my power to make a student see the value of their work through transparency and contextualization, but a student who is actively choosing not to learn will not learn. My pedagogical ability is not going to be the deciding factor. To paraphrase a Chinese proverb: teachers open doors, but it is the students’ responsibility to walk through them.

We need to bring individual responsibility back into public education. The consequences are too severe not to. By regularly spoon-feeding assignments to students that are precisely targeted to their academic ability, we teach them that there is no significant challenge to life and we tell them we think they are only capable of progressing by baby steps. We may teach them how to write a structured paragraph, but we forget to teach them to work hard and overcome challenge. A student who doesn’t know how to work hard easily becomes an adult who does not know how to work hard and a country of adults incapable of working hard does not bode well for our cumulative future success.

Dead Prez: They Schools (NSFW – Lots of Swears)

“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.)

I have two classes of seniors this year.  1st period and 7th period.  Today I had two very different discussions with them regarding motivation, accountability, and the importance of being prompt.

First period has the classic issues of high school.  Class starts at 7:30 and by 7:28 I have between two and four students in class.  Many more pile in during the last two minutes and by the time the bell rings at 7:30 I have roughly half the class.  The remainder trickle in during the first thirtyminutes of the class.  To remedy this I will be implementing daily graded assignments that will be completed in the first 5-10 minutes of class.  This is a lot of work on my end and is definitely a top-down way of handling the attendence issues in the class.  For students who are regularly prompt they’ll have little trouble keeping up and will essentially be getting credit for showing up to class on time.  I have no problem with this remedy though it is inelegant and I would prefer a more bottom-up option.

During seventh period I had a similar discussion.  I discussed my issues with my first period class and applauded them for generally being on time and doing the work of the class.  I was caught off guard when students though my solution for first period was unfair. 

Their claim was that first period now has many more chances to earn credit in the class and as such it would be easier to earn a high grade.  By giving one period credit for making it to class and participating, but not the other one I was not being equitable.  I allowed their reasoning and we discussed options.  After brief discussion we decided that the best solution was to implement a regular participation grade for doing the work of the class.  The class was on board with this and so there will now be a weekly participation grade in seventh period to mirror the regular “warm up” assignments in first period.

My hope is that because they were part of the solution seventh period will be more invested in participating in class now.  In theory their ability to impact the grading in the class should help increase their buy-in and work to myadvantage to increase participation beyond it’s current level.  I plan to informally track the participation levels of seventh period and the attendence patterns in first period.  My hypothesis though is that the option that students worked with me to implement in seventh period will have a greater effect than my top-down approach in first period.  I’m now wishing I’d had the presence of mind to bring the topic to the students first before implementing a solution.