Friday, November 25, 2011

NCTE Reflections: Teaching as the green light

I owe a debt of gratitude to one of my English Companion Ning colleagues, Paul, who I now regret not making more of a connection with when I had the chance. Paul's powerful reflection on NCTE made a connection between Gatsby's green light and teaching, and this connection rang a resonating note of clarity through me. Like Paul, teaching is one of my green lights, that thing that I strive for and never feel as if I have fully reached.

This realization also connected with many of the feelings and reactions I had to Linda Darling-Hammond's keynote speech. With another dose of gratitude to Mark, I'm going to borrow his second NCTE reflection format to help me process my thoughts about the keynote. During Darling-Hammond's speech, as with many other sessions I attended, I bounced back and forth between Twitter and my notebook. Here are some of the statements and observations I made during Darling-Hammond's keynote address and my thoughts.

Linda Darling-Hammond reaffirmed my own thoughts as to the purpose of education. These are the reasons I left a corporate job to teach. I knew I felt this way, even when I was working on my MA in English, but I've often struggled these ideas into put into words.
  • "The most fundamental act of empowerment is the act of communication."
  • "The power of literature is such that thoughts who would oppress others restrict access to the book."
  • "The path to power is through the book and the mastery of language."
She even quoted The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, which I'm about to start with my A.P., students. Douglass knew then what my students struggle to understand now: "why is this important?" I think we all have to find our own answers to the "so what" question, but those answers come back to the power of the word to change our minds, protect ourselves from those who would enslave us, and influence our world in positive ways.

Two of Darling-Hammond's statements about the job I do is captured the challenges I face as a high school teacher:
  • "The job is actually to enable learning for a very diverse set of learners"
  • "The most important skill is learning to learn--that is the heart of what we do as a profession."
Teaching kids to learn how to learn and teaching such a diverse community of learners make teaching the green light for me. I want to be a great teacher for all of my students. But the truth is that I don't reach them all. On a bad day, I leave work feeling like I've confused 90+ kids. On a good day, I see a face light up in understanding or a smile replace a frown. But never do I see that for all students in all classes.

Part of the problem in our system is that we're focusing on the wrong things. We've lost sight of the green light as a nation. Rather than the empowerment through language and learning to learn that should be the heart of all we do, so many of my colleagues focus on the test. That makes emotional sense because at my school like so many others has been designated a failing school. But the reality is that test-taking skills aren't relevant for the world beyond the classroom walls.

As Darling-Hammond so aptly observed, "multiple choice is not what we do in the real world."  The demand for routine skills is down and non-routine skills is up. Yet, the easiest skills to test are also the easiest to digitize and outsource--we're not teaching what kids need to know. Darling-Hammond argues, "20th century teaching cannot meet 21st century demands." But our educational policy is still "framed by the image of a teacher who can say what they know and students write it down." I struggle with the urge to lecture just to get more "done." But what am I really getting done if I'm racing through the breadth of my curriculum without achieving any depth? Coverage leads to routine skills, not thinking, and not learning to learn.

There is a disconnect between what Darling-Hammond calls the Bureaucratic and Professional models of education. In a bureaucratic model, the focus is on "doing things right." In a professional model, the emphasis is on "doing the right things". Our current test and score method is about doing things right--and it's getting us nowhere.
  • "The frame that is being brought to the teachers of this country is unforgivable and don't you forgive it."
  • "Of course we have an achievement gap. We have an opportunity gap."
  • "We cannot fire our way to Finland. We have to do what Finland does." (probably the most tweeted comment of the entire keynote.)
How many times this year alone have I felt like I'm part of the most hated profession in the country, that I'm losing my way in the mire of negativity? It's hard to be upbeat when there's a national blame game going on. But the truth is, the problem isn't really a teaching problem and most teachers are not bad teachers. As Darling-Hammond noted, for schools with <10% of kids in poverty, the U.S. is #1 in the world in reading, according to the latest PISA scores.

The elephant in the room that policy makers don't want to address is poverty. The richest districts in the country spend more than 10x more than the poorest districts in this country, according to Darling-Hammond's figures. Even in my wealthy, large, suburban school, almost 20% of our students receive free and reduced lunch. I'm not trying to minimize the struggles of the families at my school, but we're the lucky ones, relatively speaking. We as a nation need to address this division between the haves and have nots before we get to the teaching issues. Darling-Hammond noted that the achievement gap was closing when national policy focused more on mitigating poverty. How can I expect students to be ready to learn if they have worked to support their families, provided child care for their younger siblings, or not even had a decent meal? Really, the bubble test doesn't take care of a family and grades don't matter when basic needs aren't being met. That's Maslow's hierarchy of needs at its most basic.

However, I don't think education is doomed. Perhaps I, too, could be accused of having "an extraordinary gift for hope" (Fitzgerald),but  I think we can change the focus of education in this country. For me, it starts in this blog and in the thoughtful reflections I make on what works for my kids, keeping in mind that the heart that Darling-Hammond framework of empowerment and language mastery that Darling-Hammond so clearly articulated.

My green light is the idea that I'm teaching my students so that no one will ever be able to take advantage of them. I may not reach all of them, and I can't solve the poverty problem on my own. But I can teach many of my students to think beyond the bubbles. Maybe, if enough of my colleagues and I teach enough kids the skills that matter,  those kids will look beyond the obvious answers and address the elephant in the room.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Initial thoughts on NCTE11--Thinking is messy work

Some teachers I know have looked at me in amazement when I tell them I pay my own way to NCTE. Yes, it’s a lot of money. No, I’m not doing it for certification points. No, I’m not presenting. The money is the upfront investment in my education; though I won’t get any more fancy letters after my name, I will learn. I come to NCTE to talk, listen, and think. It’s an expensive, messy, wonderful process that’s worth every penny I pay.

Though I did not go to every session, I’ve taken away more than enough to ponder. There have been sessions that were informative, especially about new ways to use technology. I’ve discovered more tools than I can possibly learn and use in a given school year. Other sessions have challenged me to think about how I might interact with my students. I’ve seen student-produced documentaries that blew my mind. I’ve heard ideas about how to get kids to interact with books and with one another.

And then, there were the conversations. I was fortunate enough to steal moments during the convention and to spend evenings sharing dinner and conversations with some of the smarted educators I know, many of whom have been my friends on Twitter for quite a while. They challenged me, listened to me, and shared their thoughts. These “unscheduled” sessions were some of the most rewarding of all.

But I have no idea how to process all of this. I feel like my brain might be leaking a little as the ideas for teaching, considerations of the problems facing our profession and our country, and connections between what I’ve seen, heard, and felt to my own practice press against the boundaries of my attention.

Perhaps the interesting and affirming comment about that very problem came from Tony Romano, an outstanding teacher from Illinois. In his session, he mentioned that he and his co-presenters, LeeAnn Spillane and Gary Anderson, knew they were throwing out a lot of ideas and activities. Tony went on to say that we, the audience, might not even use most of them right away, and that’s ok. Sometimes, ideas take time and we might find that three years from now, one of these ideas will come in handy.

I am reminded again how vital reflection is. All of this learning is just as messy for me as it is for my students. And just like when they encounter ideas that challenge their understandings, I feel excited and disconcerted, like the vertigo one feels at the top of a roller coaster ride. But the real danger is leaving my thoughts unrecorded. Not working through it would allow me to forget and return to a sense of equilibrium, just like I can when my 60-second roller coaster ride ends. Letting myself return to where I was it would make this weekend a wasted effort.

So, I need to force myself to meander down the paths, stopping to rest now and then. Honoring my own messy, recursive thinking is probably the most difficult, but rewarding part of the work I do. It lets me be the learner so that I can be the mentor that reassures my students as they, too, struggle to make sense and make meaning.