Friday, August 03, 2007

Getting back into the teaching mode...

Getting back into the mode...
I've moved, unpacked, settled, and explored, and after once again having the time and inclination to visit the blogs and websites of teachers I admire, I feel myself getting back into the teaching mode.

After visiting Doug's blog Borderland, I read Shauna's latest blog entry concerning her apprehension with her son starting preschool. I visited the Sylvan Learning Center website, entertaining the possibility of shaking up my own professional development paradigm by working at one of the centers this school year, and then checked out an article at NEA Today that had some fascinating responses to the question: what does the future hold for public education?

After 1) reading the responses, so many of them reaffirming my own opinions on the politics of education versus the reality of education, 2) being reminded of parental concerns thanks to Shauna's thoughts, 3) perusing a website where education really is a business, and 4) hearing Doug's teacher-thoughts echoing in my mind, I tried to determine where my own personal interest and focus falls each July or August as I prepare to meet another group of young learners. With the boost of an afternoon cup of coffee, my mind came up with a question instead of an answer:

Is a child's/student's intrinsic motivation to explore, learn, risk, and try being damaged or otherwise thwarted by the poor teaching practices of parents, teachers, and other education "professionals" as a partial result of NCLB's Test, Test, Test, Punish, Punish, Punish design?

Without gory details or my usual ramblings and recounting of classroom horror stories, I would have to respond, "yes, very often." It's a question I'll be trying to answer with more precise responses over time in the future, since I've been feeling for the last few years that I've been a good teacher in spite of NCLB, and not because of it. Until then, I'll share some quotes from notable responders to the NEA inquiry (while wishing that there had been some responses from "plain ol' parents" too):

Deborah Meier
Education Activist and Author "We will see a return to celebrating childhood, enjoying those immensely useful childlike qualities instead of squashing them. Instead of making 3-year-olds do "academic" worksheets, I imagine K–12th grade will look more like the kinder (children's) gardens of yesteryear, with everyone involved in serious activities. Playfulness, after all, is at the core of what strong intellectual work is all about."

Alfie Kohn
Author "When I ask teachers what their long-term goals are for students, one response I hear almost everywhere is "lifelong learner." It's not just that we want them to know certain things but that we want them to keep wanting to know, not just that they're able to read but that they do read . . . and think, and question.

If we took this objective seriously, every educational practice and policy – from whether to assign homework to how to assess learning, from the size of classes and schools to the length of school days and years – would be evaluated primarily on the basis of how it affected kids' excitement about ideas. Higher achievement (let alone higher test scores) would never constitute a sufficient basis for doing something. If a proposal might well turn students off to a given topic, let alone to intellectual inquiry itself, it wouldn't stand a chance. And of course intrinsic motivation to learn would be the principal outcome variable used by educational researchers.

I believe that schools should and can make student interest their primary criterion, but I can't say whether they will. The likelihood of this transformation will depend on how willing we are to align our practices with our goals."

Linda Christensen
Educator/Rethinking Schools "Education is at a dangerous crossroads. While the federal government urges schools to close the achievement gap and work for equity, it endorses programs that teach compliance and rote answers. School districts write mission statements about creating citizens of the world, but more and more, they turn teachers into robotic hands to deliver education programs designed and shipped from sites outside of our classrooms.

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation has pushed administrators to grab quick solutions to get a fast bump in their test scores. Instead of taking the time to build teacher capacity to improve instruction or creating schools as learning communities, more administrators opt for "boxed" professional development— from fill-in-the-blank writing curricula to stick-the-kid-on-the-computer reading and math programs.

But against this tide of top-down reform, a counter movement of resistance is surfacing. Many teachers are insisting that the real world must be at the heart of the curriculum, inspiring students to acquire the academic skills that help them understand self and society.

My vision for the future of education is that as teachers, as union members, we have the nerve, the audacity to struggle to nurture a curriculum that simultaneously responds to urgent social demands as well as the academic needs of our students."


In my mind, everyplace is a school or classroom. We'll see how it goes this year.


  1. Michaele, like you, I believe that I've been a good teacher in spite of NCLB. I also think I've been a good teacher in spite of irrational curriculum demands, textbooks that are boring, schedules that pull my class apart throughout the day, students' family problems, and kids who don't want to work. This is only a partial list, and it might sound like I'm complaining, but I'm just saying that I try to put standardized testing in perspective by remembering that it's only one of many other obstacles that have been around for as long as I can remember.

    I think part of the job involves keeping the kids away from the rough edges of the institution, stimulating their imaginations, and encouraging them to dream.

    Here's to an audacious new school year! You've inspired me to think maybe a little bit bigger and bolder.

  2. Morning Doug, thanks for the feedback. I agree with you about education's "rough edges." As a kindergarten teacher and child advocate (we teachers seem to get double-dosed when we're parents too, don't we?) who is now contemplating working in Texas, my fourth state in five years, I've been examining my professional practices and the personal reasons behind them and have found that my reactions have been much more visceral (for a longer period of time) than I had expected. I catch myself trying to keep from swinging so far away from the data-driven numbers and each district's assessment/documentation requirements that I'm required to observe, produce, yes, even manipulate...over to what must appear to others as overly-simplistic behavior, trying to determine what it will take to make each and every five year old feel safe, welcome, and eager to be themselves while with me. It's been difficult for me to balance partly because I haven't had the opportunity to spend more than a year in a state since leaving Alaska, so I've been knee-jerk-reacting to each new version of our "new and improved educational system." The only things that have remained consistent as I cross state lines have been 1) each state's own knee-jerk-reactions (and wow, some of those kicks are doozies!) and 2) the many colleagues new to the profession with whom I've worked who believe that following scripted lessons and never questioning anything **IS** teaching.

    What we don't like in ourselves, we don't tend to like in others, eh?

    Interesting glimmer from another country: we attended our daughter's middle school orientation last week. Lots of gang issues three years ago, a "sainted" principal came in, "cleaned house," mandated uniforms, etc., insert any made-for-t.v.-heart-wrenching scenes here... We met another family (military too) who just came to Texas from an extended stay in Germany. Mom is German, dad American. When Mom heard that homework would probably take four hours each afternoon, she had a heart attack and asked when her son would have time to "be the child that he is and is supposed to be." Several stammered responses from teachers followed... I think they would have preferred to break up a schoolyard fight or search someone's locker. Sigh. It will be an interesting year.

    Did you make the switch to sixth grade this year?

  3. I've wondered about what it would be like to change schools frequently and work in areas where people are more accepting of outside authority (not sure if that's the right way to express it, but that's my impression). You'd probably understand what I mean when I say that I don't know if I'm fit to live anywhere else after living here for 27 years. The people from Germany sound like they belong in Alaska :)

    I'm happy to report that I will be teaching sixth grade. Are you going to be teaching in Texas? Any idea about which grade you might have?

  4. Not being able to speak Spanish probably comes across as an uncomfortable silence outlined by a little checkbox on my job applications here. That paired with teachers still tranferring in-district (the first teacher work day is next week!) makes me think that a higher power wants me on the outskirts this year, either subbing, or doing the parent volunteer thing, or heck, even taking college classes for myself at UTEP.

    Now do I UNDERSTAND Espanol? Most of the time! Must have something to do with having lived here from ages 1-10. But I respond in English. I get some odd looks when shopping- after all, in El Paso, right across the border, who would assume I was... Inupiaq Eskimo? Ha!

    Oh yes, in two letters of recommendation that I've received from Lower 48 administrators, comments such as " she quickly set herself apart as an outstanding teacher..." "she contributed actively to the conversations of all collegial groups, inservice teams..." and "brings fresh perspectives as she is an out-of-the-box thinker though still a team player" made me laugh. Why? Because the points I would bring up (and hear nothing but the roar of a single cricket chirping in the background as a response to) were elements from experiences I'd had as a teacher in Alaska. For years.

    I've found that in New Mexico and Kansas, administrators "administer," and often don't care to be questioned. They dictate, tokenly ask for feedback, make the big decisions, and have the boxes delivered to teachers who then are expected to read whatever scripts are enclosed verbatim. Teachers are so busy jumping through the hoops that the old timers have just given up (why be a squeaky wheel when you're so close to retirement or can be replaced by someone much more affordable), and the new hires don't KNOW to question, examine, wonder or explore (and are too busy testing, testing, testing to KNOW to come up for air). It's been more than a bit uncomfortable for me at times.

    Have a TERRIFIC year with your sixth graders-


  5. The fact that I "fit right in" in Fairbanks has more meaning for me when I hear this stuff. :)

    I always enjoy reading your out-of-the-box thinking.


As always, thank you for your comments, tips, suggestions and questions!