The Empowered Educator

Collaboration Interrupted

This morning I pulled teachers together to collaborate on the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System–OTES, but, like so many things in education, we were interrupted.  The flow of ideas and sharing was halted.  However, I have never quite had this type of interruption.  This time….we were interrupted by Batman who came equipped with a bowl of chocolate bars.  So the next time you are doing collaborative work…look out for Batman…or better yet, make sure Batman is available.

Get Connected!

October is Connected Educators month.  This movement started two years ago.  Originally developed by the U.S. Department of Education and its partners as part of the Connected Educators initiative, CEM offers highly distributed, diverse, and engaging activities to educators at all levels.

To join one of the events or just to see the kind of learning and connections that are occurring visit the website here.  I have been working to be more connected to educators everywhere over the last two years.  Teachers need support, and I have always been lucky enough to work in a building where I could collaborate with and lean on my fellow educators.  However, being connected through Twitter, Google+, and blogs to educators around the globe has empowered me and allowed me to bring new ideas to my local teachers.

Why not step outside your comfort zone, and get connected.

Hey, politicians, I double dog dare ya! (A call to see what teachers do.)

As a 26 year classroom veteran in education, I thought I really understood what the responsibilities of teachers are.  As the mother of a first grader, I really thought I understood what the responsibilities of a first grade teacher are.  Although I currently teach high school English, I have a credential to teach elementary school and spent four years substitute teaching in various grade levels including first.  It is a busy, challenging, exhausting grade level.  So, I really thought I understood what the responsibilities of a first grade teacher are.   However, after chaperoning a group of four first graders on a field trip, I can tell you I had no clue what a first grade teacher faces and accomplishes each and every day.

My home is an education home.  We are readers, explorers, thinkers, ponderers.  My husband and I seek out ways to expose our boys to new experiences and resources to grow whatever interests they may have.  We live a scheduled life during the school year where everyone goes to school and on time unless there is an illness or very special event.  Everyone completes homework, both students and teachers, before bed.   Our boys have their own rooms and space.  They have a set bedtime.  We are a nutrition, housing, utility,  and transportation-secure family.  My husband and I have an awesome support system from a dear friend who cares for our children like her own before and after school.  Our boys thrive emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, and creatively in this secure, nurturing environment.

When I think about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I fully realize that my children have their physiological needs met at home.  They are fed, kept warm, and clothed.  These represent the lowest level of human need.  Until this need is met, nothing else matters.  Free and reduced lunch programs attempt to address this issue, but a nutrition insecure child is never on the same plane as a nutritionally secure child.  Hunger or lack of basic hygiene affects everything.  I know my children have never experienced true hunger or even a weekend without heat in the winter.  The next level of Maslow’s hierarchy is safety.  While bullying is a real issue, I know my children feel safe at school.  They are not afraid to go.  Yes, they become frustrated with the requirements of the day, discipline, and friends who don’t play nicely, but they are not afraid.   However, what good is a safe school environment when the safety at home is unstable or children are not guided in their daily lives?  My children want to be at home more than any other place.   Other students, who have to fight to have their basic needs met, cannot focus on math when what they crave are attention and meaning.  The next two levels of Maslow’s pyramid are belonging and esteem.  While both are nurtured in the classroom, belonging first must come from family, friends, and being in groups like sports, church, or clubs with esteem being built through practice and encouragement of tasks at home.  Nothing builds esteem like mastering a task, no matter how small.

Humans begin to want to learn, explore, and know after the first four needs are met.  So what happens when a child does not come to school every day with these basic needs being met?  Do the public and our lawmakers–both federal and state–really understand that teachers are not given a raw material that is standard?  In industry we would call it quality control.  If our children were a moldable raw material, we would insure all of them are at the level of esteem on Maslow’s model.  But they are not.  So what do we do?  Industry would reject the substandard material, but as educators, we cannot.

It is time for our Nation and State  really to look at what is holding us back in education.  I can tell you it is NOT the teachers.  It is NOT the vision.  In Van Wert, it is NOT the facilities, resources, or knowledge base.  It is not the school leaders.  The foundation of education hinges on the raw material.  I am not sure the public or politicians, who are AGAIN debating high stakes legislation that will remove local control and require me to jump through a dozen new hoops to remain employed, really understand that not all students come to school ready to learn.  Not all students want to learn.  They are not standard.   Education has to prepare these students for high level thinking, reading, problem solving, and collaboration.  And every year, my time becomes less about classroom instruction and more about preparing students for high stakes tests (which also impact my rating as a teacher), tracking standards, collecting evidence of my worth and my students’ abilities, completing required evaluations, serving on committees, and reading at least four hours weekly to stay up on changes.  Somewhere in there I create and implement high quality lessons and evaluate my students to see where to go next.  Sometimes, I sleep and eat.  I often yell at the walls and cry.

So back to my double dog dare.  A week ago, I accompanied my son and three of his classmates on a field trip adventure.  I already described where my son falls on the Maslow hierarchy.  He is also a rule follower, reads at a fourth grade level (which, by the way, the new testing system assumes he will do by second grade.  By fourth grade, the tests are written at an eighth grade level, but that is another post), enjoys school, and attends every day.  The other three children in my charge were two girls who were independent thinkers, were willing to accept me as their leader for this adventure, and could quickly understand what we were going to do next.  And finally, I was assigned Joe (not his real name–I picked the name Joe because that is my husband’s name and only has three letters).  School starts at 8:20.  Joe arrives about five minutes before we left at 8:50.  I quickly got the impression this was a routine for Joe as my son’s teacher told me he would probably be here, but also took a few minutes to go over options with the teaching assistant should Joe arrive after the bus left.  Joe missed morning work; Joe had to rush to complete regular morning routine–that daily slow time that builds community.   Joe is below not meeting belonging on Maslow’s hierarchy.   On the bus, I got to know my charges.  Joe could not keep his hands to himself.  He had little sense of the big picture.  When we got to our location, there were, in my opinion, too many other schools there.  The rooms were crowded.  My son stayed with me, as did the two girls.  They knew they needed to stay with me or be lost.  Joe did not have this basic need to remain with me.  When it was time to move on the next activity, he would throw a tantrum.    We lost him again.  As it was time to leave the field trip location and walk to a nearby park, Joe became thirsty.  I told him I would get him water, but we needed to get to park first.  And he was lost again.  He was going back into the building we had visited as the rest were walking toward the park.  He complained about everything.  Finally, I stopped and got the water bottle out of my bag.  Until I met this physiological need, he was not going to move forward.    By now, I had hold of his wrist while the other three children held my hand and each others.

About a minute later, I heard him comment about how good the water was.  He had reached into my purse with his free hand and removed the water bottle.  That caused me to reprimand him for taking something that was not his to take.  On the way home, he sat in the seat with me on the bus.  He was quiet.  I spoke positively to him after a day of yelling his name and trying to find him.  And back in the classroom as the teacher lined up the class to go to an end of day special, I realized what amazing work first grade teachers do and how unfair the evaluation of their worth is when based on the growth of the student.  She pushes my son to grow and pushes through the baggage Joe brings with him to help him grow as well.  She is working her tail off for the good of these children.  She knows them and meets them where they are EVERY DAY. My students come to me in eleventh grade with a wide variety of abilities, but I never saw how wide that range is at first grade.  The student is the equation.

So, politicians, superintendents, boards of education, business owners, I double dog dare you to chaperone a small group of first graders on a field trip.  You must insist the teacher give you a wide range  of students in your group of four.  He or she can do that.   Then I triple dog dare you to sub for an entire day (I added this after a Facebook comment I read…why not…how brave are you?).  Then examine the PARCC assessments for that grade level, check poverty levels in that classroom, have that teacher show you all the evidence he or she collects weekly to “prove” student growth and teaching practice, and be amazed that one human being can do all this amazing work.  THEN–STOP ASSUMING THAT TESTING, LEGISLATING TEACHER EVALUATION, AND MANDATING SCHOOLS PROVIDE SERVICES THAT SHOULD COME FROM HOME will fix education.  Education does not need fixing….it needs breathing room.  And America needs to address poverty.  PERIOD.

Back Channel

I use Back Channelling in my classroom quite often.  It provides a  way for student to ask questions, provide answers, or think through problems during an activity.   This article in Edutopia discusses more fully the use of back channels.

Lash the rafts together!

Well, we have almost made it to the end of the first nine weeks.  With all the changes we are working through in education, one focus remains…our students and their ability to learn.  I think we would all agree that the ability to learn is the most important skill our students can have, as well as a skill with which our students seem to struggle.  Being able to learn has to come before critical thinking or problem solving skills can be developed.
I know I am guilty of focusing on the content–after all, I know my students are tested on that and must grow in that.  As a teacher, I know simply force feeding students a diet of new information will not lead to mastery of the skill or content.  Ohio’s New Learning Standards demand we teach our students how to learn.  This article from Mind/Shift was a good reminder for me to teacher students HOW TO LEARN.  (Click here to read it). There is a list of strategies we can use with students or teach students to use.  I find myself asking students more and more to explain how they came to understand something.  How do you know?  Why did you do it that way?  What went wrong here?  What in the text made you think that?
I was reminded of the importance of learning about learning this week as I worked on a high level thinking process with some other English teachers.  The students were posed with a question and from there it was their jobs to figure out what they knew, didn’t know, and what they needed to know to fully answer the question.  The goal was to research, collaborate, and build knowledge.  The goal is not the end product but rather the process.  We are finding our students are not good at open-ended real-world processes.  But shouldn’t that be THE SKILL they have when they leave Vantage?
I challenge you to examine if your classroom is about learning to learn.  We cannot deprive our students of the ability to know how they arrived at an “answer” or how they determined the procedure to solve a problem.  This is called metacognition, and it is also the skill we must have as teachers as we learn to explain why we do what we do in the classroom.   I would also challenge you to collaborate on a lesson with another teacher.  I have written units with my other staff before, but this week I tried something totally new with some other teachers.  We were constantly reworking and reflecting about the process.  The week was energizing….and we can all use that.
I am still treading water and keeping my head above the surface, but this week I lashed my raft to a couple others and floated for awhile.   I was still paddling like mad, but the journey was shared.  AND THE STUDENTS REAPED THE BENEFITS!!!

Feel like your head is spinning?

Ohio is a place of change….at least educationally.  So much change that it is mind boggling at times.  Three changes are affecting classroom teachers in my building directly.  The New Learning Standards (what I teach and when I teach it), the Next Generation of Assessments (how students are evaluated as a measure of overall school effectiveness), and the Teacher Evaluation system (my effectiveness measured via observations and the growth my students achieve and then boiled down to a one word rating).  Plus new school rating report cards, the Third Grade Reading Guarantee, and changed in Early Childhood Education standards.   And in Career Tech our school board structure will be shifting.  Yep, all that AT ONCE….spinning, spinning, confusing, and dizzying.

And, some things did not go away.  New teachers participate in a four year residency program in addition to this.  Ohio Graduation Tests and the Next Generation of Assessments will happen simultaneously for awhile.  Individualized Education Plans will still be written and implemented.   And on, and on.

This handy chart from ODE offers a quick look at what is happening when.

Time to jump in

Well, it is time to do it.   Time to jump in.  Time to take the plunge.  Time to blog professionally.  I have been actively blogging for two years on a personal blog (arlaallen.com), but now it is time to add a professional blog.  I am guessing the blog will be more a repository or curation of all the amazing material I find about teaching, learning, and technology.  I also hope to provide an easy way for my colleagues to find information they need when they need it.

I have been busy this summer.  I have volunteered to teach administrators, support staff, and teachers how to use Google Apps effectively to do their jobs more effectively.  In June, I completed the three-day training to become an OTES Certified Assessor.  OTES stands for Ohio Teacher Evaluation System.  This system of evaluation will be required in my building beginning next year.

I also was accepted to be part of the Ohio Department of Education Network of Leaders.  Our job is to become knowledgeable about the New Learning Standards in Ohio and the Next Generation of Assessments and then go forth and train others.  It is exciting to be more closely in contact with ODE.