Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Swimming Upstream: A Veteran Swim Instructor's Tale

      "Hey, boss.  You wanted to see me?"
      "Johnson, come on in and sit down."
      That's odd.  Normally Mr. Stevens would grin and shake my hand before my annual review.  Something just wasn't right.
      "Johnson, how long have you been a lifeguard here?"
      "Well sir, since I graduated from State five years ago."
      "Uh-huh.  And how do you think things have gone so far?"
      What an oddly vague question.  I leaned back in my chair.
      "Well, sir to be honest, I struggled a bit the first year or so.  The Aquatics Program at State gives you a lot of useful information, but you don't really learn the tricks of the trade until you go out there and do it.  Some things they teach you work, other things not so much.  Some swim lessons you'll spend time on and they'll fall flat, others you'll improvise and knock it out of the park.  As much as I've struggled, I really have enjoyed seeing my pupils improve.  Even though they aren't lifeguards yet, I believe there well on their way to becoming them once they complete the program."
       The Boss leaned back in his chair.
       "You see, Johnson, that's the reason you're here today.  You know the state budget is tight.  As the person in charge of this club, you know that the North County Leisure Board is constantly looking at how we're doing in an effort to make sure their dollars are going to the right places.  I need to look at every single one of my instructors to make sure he or she is properly instructing the pupils in all that they know."
       "I understand that, sir.  I'd like to think that my body of work speaks for itself, but I'd be more than willing to answer any questions you might have."
       "If that's the case, I don't mind if I take you up on that offer.  Johnson, what is the NCLB's goal for all its clubs in the county?"
       "That's easy, sir.  To have all its pupils become proficient swimmers in the freestyle and backstroke by the end of next year."
       "Exactly.  So what's all this I hear about you teaching the butterfly and breast stroke in your classes?"
       I gulped.
       "Well, you see sir, I believe that in order for my pupils to become well-rounded swimmers, they need to be exposed to ALL the strokes."
       "But, Johnson, you're wasting valuable time that should be dedicated to the freestyle and backstroke."
       "I can see how you might think this sir, but I assure you that my students measure up to others in the country despite the fact that it might appear that they do not."
       "Well, let's look at some of your students' scores from last year to see if this argument holds water.  What can you tell me about Sally Southerland?"
        I paused for a moment.
        "Sally is a great girl in my eleven-year-old class.  She actually won the most improved award last year because of all the time and effort she put in to swim practices.  She has a great attitude and everyone in the class loves her!"
        The Boss groaned.
        "Johnson, would you say that she is at the level she needs to be at, according to the NCLB?"
        "Well, no sir if you go solely by the NCLB guidelines she is behind her peer group and isn't currently on pace to master the freestyle and backstroke.  But compared to where she was she's..."
         The Boss waved his hand.  I stopped.
         "What about Peter Poland?"
         "Well, personally I think Peter is a great kid.  He's one of my favorite pupils in the eight-year-old class.  The really picks things up quick when he is here.  Unfortunately, Peter is out a lot.  He has a single mom and she has diabetes.  There are days when she isn't feeling well enough to take him to swim practice so Peter has to stay home and take care of his two younger sisters."
         "Yes, yes that's all fine and dandy.  But what about his swimming, Johnson?"
         "Well, again he does well when he's here.  He has mentioned he loves the class but unfortunately there isn't a pool located in his neighborhood so he doesn't get to practice outside..."
         "Johnson.  You're avoiding the question."
         I sighed.
         "To be honest sir, he too is behind his peers in the freestyle and backstroke."
         The Boss looked down.  "Last student:  Josefina Machado."
         "Josefina just joined us two weeks ago.  I don't know a lot about her as she doesn't speak a lot of English.  She seems nice though and from what I can tell..."
         "Johnson, her swimming?"
         "Well, sir to be honest I don't know a lot about her ability at this time.  She just started so.."
         "Johnson, you know that the NCLB doesn't care about your excuses.  Since she is a member she is our responsibility.  It doesn't matter where she is from.  All that matters is where she is NOW."
          I nodded, glumly.
         "Johnson, I'm going to be honest.  I think you're good at what you do.  I really do.  Your pupils seem to like you.  The parents never complain about you.  The lifeguards, pool staff, they all think you're top-notch.  Unfortunately, based on your record and experience I'm afraid we're going to have to let you go."
         My jaw dropped.
         "My experience, sir?"
         "Johnson, of all the staff here at the club you're the most recent hire.  Everyone here on staff has been established:  Smith, Johansson, Petrov, McLarney, and Schultz.  They've been here since the beginning.  Now, you came highly recommended at your adviser over at State spoke very highly of you.  Said you would bring some new, innovative teachings over to our club.  Unfortunately, Johnson, these new innovative teaching methods just don't seem to be working.  I mean, we just went over three students in a class of twenty.  You know how the NCLB works.  It doesn't matter if the other seventeen pass with flying colors.  If we don't get one-hundred percent proficiency at our club then it gets shut down, plain and simple.  The NCLB has made no secret of this benchmark."
          "But sir, I mean is it even realistic to expect that every single swimmer be proficient in those two strokes?  They come from a variety of backgrounds.  Some of them just don't do well on those two strokes but do well on others.  Some of them don't have access to a pool at home.  Some of them just started.  Why am I responsible for someone's swimming ability if they just joined my class a couple weeks ago?"
          The Boss sighed.
          "Johnson, you know how this game is played.  The NCLB came by last week and timed your kids.  You were there.  They stood there in their suits and ties and had every single kid do the 100 meter freestyle and the 100 meter backstroke.  If they were on the correct pace for their age they passed.  If not, they failed.  All your classes did it, ages five to fourteen.  You've seen the scores.  You know how your kids did."
          "But, sir that assessment was only a snapshot in time!  I mean, look at Ronnie Taplow.  Two weeks ago, he did a sixty-second second freestyle.  If he swims AAU this summer, he'll be one of the top swimmers on his team.  But last week, he got tested the day he came down with mono.  He was eight seconds slower.  Surely, there's some way he can be re-tested!"
          The Boss slammed his hand against his desk.
          "Damnit Johnson, quit making excuses!  You're worse than your pupils.  They're in your class so you're the instructor of record.  Your job is to prepare them as best you can for that one day and from what I've seen and am heard today you cannot do it.  I have no choice but to terminate you immediately from your position."
          "But, sir!  I've always wanted to be here.  I love my job and my pupils.  Many of the older boys look up to me almost as a father..."
          "None of that matters, Johnson.  All that matters is your scores.  This is the profession you've chosen. The NCLB knows what it is doing.  If they didn't then surely we'd know about it."
           I put my head down.
           The Boss stood up and patted my shoulder.
           "I'll give you until the end of the day to collect your things.  I'm sorry Johnson, I wish it didn't have to end this way."
           He left me in that chair and walked out of his office.  In that brief interlude, I heard the joyous screams of children enjoying their Thursday afternoon swim lesson.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Dear Student: A Free Verse Reflection On Final Exams

Dear Student,

We've come to the end of our road together
You and me
We've been through thick and thin
You have grown in some ways but not others
You haven't always been in class
Or on your best behavior

You've tried your best
Other times not so much
I know
Or at least I have an idea
Of what you're capable of
Do you see it?
Your abilities
What you could become

Your home life sucks
I get it
It's not pleasant
In fact, it's downright miserable
You've grown up too fast
You're 15 going on 30
Lots of people growing up have two parents
You've got maybe one
On a good day
Many times you are the parent
And it's not an easy job

I see glimpses
Of your intelligence
Of a good, kindhearted soul
Other times not so much
I see anger in your voice
I see despair in your eyes
I see frustration built up
Over a system that has let you down
It's still letting you down today
I am part of that system

Your fate is in my hands
It's too much power honestly
For a person such as myself
Why me?  
I see you there Student
You've been in my classroom
You've been part of my life
And yet here we are

You're more than a number
I know that
And yet that's what you will become
That number will become a letter
A letter grade on a transcript
Employers won't see what I've seen
They won't know what I know
In fact, they won't even see my name
It's like I don't even exist

But I do exist
And now I have a decision to make
My job is to evaluate you
To assign a numerical value to your learning
I can't grade what's in your head
All I've got is the work you've produced
It isn't much at all
It's nowhere near what was expected of you
Right now, you're not where you need to be

This decision is more than a class
It's about your life
Can you turn things around?
Am I doing you a disservice?
What does that letter grade mean to you?
Do you see it as hope?
Or does it represent complacency?  
Will it motivate you?
Or completely break you?

Dear Student
Why do you put me in this position?
I don't want to have to decide on this
You've made me this way
Where will you be in twenty, thirty years?
Will you remember me?
Will you have any idea the agony you've put me through?
I hope that whatever happens
You'll know this decision wasn't taken lightly

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Pressure Point: How School's Today Create Mass Murderers

It's kind of hard when you ain't got no friends
He puts his life to an end
They might remember him then 

-P.O.D. "Youth of the Nation"

In the days since last Friday's horrendous shooting in Newton, Connecticut, I have been doing a lot of thinking about everything that happened.  In the days and weeks to come this story will gradually unfold.  We will hear more stories about the heroic actions of the teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  We will hear more about Adam Lanza from people that knew him best to people that will be on TV for their fifteen minutes of fame.  We will hear about Connecticut gun laws and the NRA's influence in that state.  We will hear from first responders as they provide us with descriptions of a crime scene beyond what even the most grizzled E.R. nurse or doctor has ever had to deal with.  We will hear from community members about how their simple New England town will never be the same.  

In addition, we also will hear explanations for why this happened.  Glorious, glorious explanations.  Explanations that defy logic and that are made by people with zero common sense and yet who make more in one year than you or I will make in a lifetime.  Some of my favorites so far:  Teachers should have been armed, students should have been armed, we took God out of schools, it's what we get in this country for tolerating "the gays," the school featured an all female staff, etc., etc.  We then will (temporarily) have meaningful conversations about gun control and regulation, the prevalence of violence in the media, and access to mental health.  Our politicians will promise to put aside their ideological differences and will vow to work together to ensure that what happened in Newton never happens again.  

And then, it will happen again.  

And again.  

And again.   


Since 1998, there have been eleven school-related shootings across the nation.  They have taken place from Connecticut to California.  There have been shootings from as young as middle school (Jonesboro, AR) to college (Virginia Tech).  Public schools, Native American reservations, and Amish schools have all experienced a shooting during this time period.  When P.O.D. wrote their above song "Youth of the Nation" it was composed right after the Santana High School shooting in Santee, CA in March of 2001.  Since they wrote this song, there have been eight additional killings throughout the country.  The youth of the nation that the band talks about hasn't gotten any less violent.  Why?  

Since the shootings in Newtown, pundits on the left and right have offered theories about why these kind of things happen.  I've already mentioned the more absurd ones.  Yet, believe it or not, there have been some theories that warrant further discussion.  There has been talk about the media's influence as it has been revealed that Adam Lanza's mom was an avid doomsday prepper.  There have been many good articles about living with children with mental issues and how difficult it is to get these children proper support.  Lastly, there has been discussion about the breakdown of compassion in society.  Why are all these murderers seemingly loners that resort to violence rather than have meaningful conversations about their feelings and attitudes?  

With these in mind, I'd like to offer another theory that warrants consideration.  I know, I know.  You're sick of these theories by now.  And yet, this is one that hasn't been addressed as much as it should.  It is the idea that the structure of schools today is what caused these people to crack.  The high-stakes, high-pressure environment that we subject kids to from as early as the first grade.  We test kids constantly.  Tests are what allow them to take advanced classes in high school.  Tests are what get them in or out of college.  Tests are what keep their schools open, or cause their schools to close, separating them from their peers and breaking up any kind of social bonds they had been able to create.  If you're a good test taker, then college was your reward.  If you weren't a good test taker, you could still earn the respect of your peers through athletics or clubs.  Not involved in extracurricular activities or not getting good grades?  Then, the cards are stacked against you in your public school life.  

More about Adam Lanza will come out.  However, I'm willing to bet he attended Sandy Hook Elementary as a child.  Something about that experience caused him years and years of pain and suffering.  Granted, it didn't help that mom was a doomsday prepper, and that there was a hearty collection of firearms in the home.  Yet, something made the experience so miserable for Adam that he felt the need for retribution even though he had been beyond the school's walls for eight years.  Was he picked on?  Bullied?  Called names by students?  Ignored by teachers?  Was he over-tested?  Was he under appreciated?  Yes, his actions were extreme.  But is his story that uncommon?   

The answer is no.  Today's high-pressure, high-testing school environments breed tales like that of Adam Lanza.  For those of us that have been in high school since 2001, think back to your schools.  Who among your friends thought the SAT was fun?  Who among your friends got excited to take year end state tests?  Who among your friends actually high-fived the kid in math class who broke the curve and caused everyone else's grade to drop?  Who among your friends felt happiness for a peer rather than resentment when he or she got into the school that rejected them?  Schools today pit students against each other in a real life Hunger Games.  However, in this version, the losers aren't killed.  They are the ones who end up doing the killing.  

The United States tests its students more than any other country in the world.  We constantly gripe about how low are math and science scores are compared to the other industrialized nations.  We are accustomed to being number one.  In everything.  So clearly, it's not the system we have in place, it's that we haven't been doing enough practice.  So we test.  And test again.  We don't let people pass the grade or graduate unless they past the test.  We grade schools on how well they do on these tests.  If schools don't do well on these tests then we shut them down.  We begin to care about the tests and nothing but the tests.  Our classroom instruction revolves around test-taking strategies.  Our staff meetings have conversations about how to improve test scores.  If we actually pass the tests we celebrate, even though "passing" might only mean 60% proficiency, depending on the state.  

Chances are, if you are reading this blog today, you were a decent test-taker or found something you were passionate about after school. You, at least, were able to graduate high school and college.  You may have been awkward at times in school.  Maybe even picked on. And yet, you survived.  You had a fairly normal home life and you had a support system at school with either teachers or your peers.  Now, think about the opposite end of the spectrum.  Think about those kids your school left behind.  Can't think of one?  Go through your old high school yearbook.  Find someone whose name you've never heard of until tonight.  Someone's who's senior will is blank or mentions only one or two people.  Someone who didn't join any sports or clubs.  Someone who you would pass in the streets tonight and wouldn't even have any idea that he or she was from your home town.  These are your Adam Lanzas.  

Adam was clearly troubled.  His mom was troubled.  Chances are, his brother Ryan probably had a screw loose too.  Who knows what his dad's deal was.  What he did will live on in infamy.  His name will be synonymous with evil.  He probably had a mental illness.  All this will come out in the coming weeks.  And yet, at no point will you hear about how the environment of public school's today might have been a factor.  Maybe Adam was a good test-taker that had friends.  But what about Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter whose grades were slipping and who had changed his major?  What about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold of Columbine infamy who had been bullied constantly throughout their high school years?  These people weren't sane to begin with.  And the environment of their schools, without question, exacerbated their problems.  Until we somehow and some way of having a meaningful discussion about the pressures of school today, we unfortunately will continue to have school shootings, regardless of any temporary stop measure that politicians put in place in the coming weeks.  

As P.O.D. sang in "Youth of a Nation":  

I guess that's the way the story goes.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Text Messaging: How Today's Publishing Companies Dictate Public Education


The above phrase was one that recently came across my screen as I attempted to create a course outline for the UC A-G system.  As a recently accredited high school, the next major step for our school was to submit all our courses to the UC system to ensure that these courses would be approved for any of our seniors who applied to the UC system.  It was a lot of work, especially for those of us who have multiple preps.  For the most part, it was a simple matter of copying and pasting our curriculum outlines including our units and corresponding learning objectives.  It was all self-explanatory and, for the most part, made perfect sense.  Except for the fact that we had to provide a course text for all courses.  

To understand why I took issue with this, you have to understand my educational background.  As a social studies education major, one of my assignments was to look at a variety of textbooks and to compare them against North Carolina state standards.  What I found was that the textbooks were all over the board in terms of covering the material they were expected to cover.  Some of the textbooks covered topics in depth while others missed them entirely.  This was eye-opening, especially when we saw that all students were expected to have mastered the same material for the end of grade exam throughout the state.  Therefore, it was possible, nay probable, that students would be tested on material that wasn't covered in their textbook and that they had no knowledge of.  

Flash forward to my first year teaching.  I ended up as my school's 7th grade representative for selecting new textbooks for the district.  Myself and fifteen other middle school teachers representing all middle schools in the district attended a textbook fair where we got samples and saw presenting by all the bigwigs in the textbook industry:  Houghton-Mifflin, McGraw-Hill, Pearson, etc.  We all got sample versions of the textbooks as well as supplemental materials that the companies offered.  Our mission was simple:  To review all the information and to be ready to discuss which textbook we wanted the district to adopt by the time we met again in just under a month. 

I took this opportunity to review the textbooks as I saw this to be the most important part of the selection process.  Sure the bells and whistles of CDs and interactive websites were nice but I worked at a school of struggling readers.  I needed a textbook that was appropriate for their reading level.  Even as a first-year teacher, I knew that it was a lot easier to supplement material that was too easy rather than start with material that was too difficult and overwhelming.  I wanted a textbook that would be appropriate for my school, with the hopes that other teachers would agree with my reasoning and rationale.  I ended up ranking the books from one to seven based on what I thought would be best for my students.  

The meeting ended up being a total farce.  The more affluent schools dominated the conversation and advocated for the most challenging textbook.  This book was nearly five-hundred pages and read like an upper class high school text.  It was far and away the book I felt would be most inappropriate for my students.  I was in such disbelief about the book that was selected that I emailed the district social studies coordinator afterward to see if there was some kind of mistake.  Nope, there was not.  The district had officially purchased a book that my students could not use.  The affluent schools had their book of choice and used these books daily.  I had a classroom set of books that sat on my bookshelf for an entire academic year while I instead wrote simplified versions of text that was appropriate for my students.    

So, why didn't our school pick another book?  Easy.  The district bundles all books together to save money. What one school gets, they all get.  Textbook publishing is a multi-billion dollar a year industry.  Why have sixteen middle schools selecting seven different textbooks when you can have sixteen middle schools selecting one?  The district I taught in wasn't unique in this regard.  Districts throughout the country do the exact same thing.  One size fits all.  Everyone takes the same test, so these big districts should all have the same book, right?  However, as my earlier example in textbook analysis shows, this does the students a disservice.  Giving students a textbook they aren't prepared for also is a disservice to the students.  But, hey, if it saves a few bucks and the school was going to fail anyway, what does it matter?  

Flash forward five years to the creation of my course outline.  The course that required a textbook was a contemporary issues class that I had created from scratch.  It was driven heavily by current events and media awareness and so, because of that, there was no course textbook.  And yet, the state of California expected it from me.  The UC website would not let me leave it blank.  In order to appease the Golden State, I selected a book on media awareness that sounded like something a course like mine would have.  Yes, the state of California forced me to lie about my very own course.  But, why?  Why does the UC system expect every course to use a textbook?  

Herein lies one of the major problems of education today:  We are slaves to the textbook industry.  Why do you need a textbook to teach?  If you are a master of course material as your undergraduate or master's level training has provided for you, shouldn't you be able to teach your course as you see fit?  Why do you have to include the words of the editors from McGraw-Hill or Houghton-Mifflin?  What is it that they know about the course material that you don't?  If these books are written by teachers like myself, shouldn't I be just as capable to present the information to my own students without them having to use the words and ideas of somebody else?  

Once again, it all comes down to money.  In the UC's eyes, a course is not legitimate unless your school has forked over money to pay a major publishing corporation.  In order for the UC system to accept your course, you must prove that your school has the funds available to pay our friends at Mc-Graw Hill and Houghton-Mifflin.  Because obviously if you aren't using a textbook, your course cannot be real.  There is simply no way that you can create a course and then teach it using independent resources rather than material from a major publishing corporation.  As long as your school has fed the beast, the UC system sees no reason to question the content and material of your course.  Just tell us about your course and list your textbook and we'll be happy to approve it.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, I to this day, have yet to use a textbook for classroom instruction.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Ups And Downs: The Escalator Test Of Teaching

"Would YOU pass the escalator test?"

The following question was posed to an audience by former NFL player Tim Ware at a recent conference I attended for athletic directors in the county. The question was meant to show how important a role that coaches and teachers play in the lives of young men and women today. The idea of an escalator represents a time and place far removed from the classroom in which a former student or player of yours sees you on an escalator. If you have been or are a dedicated and caring teacher or coach then that student or player will see you, track you down, and engage you in conversation even if it has been twenty or so years since you worked with this student or athlete. On the flip side, if the student or athlete sees you and chooses not to engage you then you clearly did not impact this individual in a positive or meaningful way. The message was simple: Be that coach or teacher that students remember positively even twenty or thirty years down the road.

However, the question got me thinking in another, most likely, unexpected route: Do you even WANT to be that coach or teacher that gets recognized? Now, don't get me wrong, I understand the metaphor. You want to be that person who impacts young lives and who has former students or players come up to you even after several years. I am in agreement with that message. The role of the teacher especially is to build relationships with students and to impact them positively for years to come. The great teachers are the ones who still get classroom visits from their students after they graduate and who get the wedding invites a long ways down the road. If you reach this point in your teaching profession then clearly you are doing something right. So, why then am I asking myself if I even want to be this person?

First off, you have to know that teachers have such a small window to gets results from our young men and women.  The problem with this is that today we live in a very results-oriented society. Every profession has a way in which to measure results. Doctors have successful surgeries. Firemen put out fires. Lawyers win cases. Policemen catch bad guys. Businessmen and women increase a company's sales and profits. Pilots successfully land planes. The point is that teaching does not have the sense of instant gratification that these other professions do. Sure, we get to see students pass our class and hopefully graduate form high school, but after that we lose contact with them. We hardly ever get to see the fruits of our time and effort with the vast majority of our students.

I don't want to pass the escalator test because the world has too many escalators.  For every student that recognizes a teacher on that escalator, hundreds more go by having no knowledge of who this teacher is or what he or she has done for that one individual. Sure, it's great to have made a positive impact in that young man or woman's life. Nobody is saying that's not something to strive for and be proud of. What I'm getting at is that right now there are hundreds of thousands of students across this country getting a poor education. They are drifting aimlessly on that metaphorical escalator. For every one person who sees an inspiring teacher, one-hundred have never had the chance to be inspired in the classroom because they have had life's cards stacked against them. For every wedding that inspiring teacher gets invited to, there are thousands of weddings that will never happen because kids weren't given a chance to succeed in life.

How do we fix all these broken escalators? This is the question that drove me to start by blog three years ago. The American system of public education is in shambles. Everyone knows it and nobody talks about. This fall campaign season hasn't mentioned it once. It's the Voldemort of 2012 issues. Sure, every once in a while a candidate will mention teachers but nobody talks about how the SYSTEM itself is inherently broken. How children of poverty are behind from the get-go. How students of lower socio-economic status drop out at disproportionately high rates. How English language learners are placed in special education simply because they don't know the language. For every student who was inspired to succeed by a kind, caring teacher there are over one-hundred who have slipped through the cracks in the American public education system and who today ride that escalator aimlessly drifting through life.

When all is said and done, I want to be down in the trenches fixing the system. I don't know if that will be as a classroom teacher. It might involve policy. It might involve a movement. At this point, I cannot be certain. What I can be certain of is this: The system needs to be reformed from the bottom up. Somebody somewhere is going to have to get the ball rolling and make this a national discourse. Chances are this person won't end up inspiring students the way a classroom teacher does. Chances are this person may only be recognizable to his or her immediate peer group. Chances are this person might very well change the American system of education and yet will never once be stopped on an escalator to be thanked by potentially millions of students that he or she helped to give a better life.

If that's what it takes to fix the system then I'm more than happy to be just another face in the crowd.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

What We (Didn't) Learn: The Misguided Role of Final Exams

"Yeah, um, I have never seen this before."

The following phrase is an all-too-common response by students taking final exams at both the secondary and post-secondary level. We've all, at some point in our lives, taken an exam in which we come across material we just haven't seen. Maybe it was because we were out that particular lesson. Maybe it was because we wrote down an equation incorrectly. Maybe it was because we wrote down something else while the teacher or professor was going over something we should have been writing. Maybe it was because we actually listened but just didn't think this idea or concept was important enough to make note of. Whatever may be the case, the truth is that on practically every final exam there will be some kind of question that we just haven't seen before and that we will inevitably get incorrect.

Which begs the question: Is it fair that we as teachers are assessing students on something they will get wrong no matter how we taught the material? If students get a question like this wrong are they to blame or are we to blame for asking them in the first place? How can we as teachers assess our students both on what they know as well as what they believe to be important? How do we create one uniform exam that address a classroom of twenty students who may have twenty different single questions or ideas they did not learn? And how to we use this exam to better our teaching?

Final exams are currently designed to benefit those who can successfully play the school game. Finals are all-encompassing, meaning they include material from the entire course or semester. Students who typically do well on final exams aren't necessarily the best or brightest. Instead, they are the ones who have figured out how to play the game. They are able to take a large body of information and shove it into short-term memory just long enough to regurgitate it in time for the final exam. They then are able to successfully lose the majority of the information as soon as the exam ends. It is a skill that is not taught in school and therefore a reflection of the home environment. When is the last time you learned how to "cram" in school? Teachers don't teach how to do this and therefore the students who are successful are the ones who have independently learned this skill on their own.

Not to brag, but I was an amazing "crammer" back in the day. I was one of those weird students who liked the challenge of finals. I would go over my entire notebook three or more times over the course of a few days quizzing myself on the information I had meticulously taken in class. I collected all my tests and quizzes from the class and put them in one neat, ready-to-access pile. I didn't go the group study thing. In fact, I despised it. Why should I waste my time with other people when I can learn the material better on my own? Besides, my success rate spoke for itself. I played the game and played it well. In nearly every college class, my final grade was always higher than my mark before final exams meaning the final exam had helped me increase my grade. As soon as my final was done, the information began to gradually vanish, lost for all eternity in that void where information goes if you are unable to successfully transfer it to long-term memory.

Where and when did I learn this skill? I honestly don't know. I had final exams in high school and studied for them. I had notebooks, but I don't think I was as organized in high school as I was in college. My parents never quizzed me. I never made flash cards. There were no learning-friendly websites where I could create my own quiz. In fact, I remember using my desktop computer to types notes, but nothing else. I never used a highlighter or underlined key words or phrases. It was simply that I had the ability to re-read material a handful of times before it was committed to short-term memory. Again, this was done in the solace of my own room, without a parent or sibling to assist me. Again, I didn't join friends for any study sessions at the library or someone's house. I crammed, brain dumped, and then left the final, getting ready to take to take the next one. Simple as that.

Despite all this, I too, encountered questions that I had never seen before. This idea stuck with me as I began my teaching career. I needed to give midterms and finals to see how my students were doing, but more specifically, to see how I was doing as a teacher. I couldn't figure out why my middle-school students were not good test takers. They had all the information and many of the questions I pulled directly from their notes. I did my best to make sure there were no "gotcha" questions. I gave open-ended short answers and essay questions in hopes that they would have a wide range of topics to choose from and could play to their strengths. Despite all this my first set of exams went extremely poorly. I couldn't figure out why my students didn't do well. When I asked how many of them studied, three hands went up. Seventeen hands stayed at their sides. The answer became obvious.

As tempted as I was to lecture my students about the need to study, I had an epiphany and realized that when push came to shove, these students would not study. They were not like me. They had never learned how to "cram" as I had. Study skills was not a skill our school taught. The majority of my students that first year had more important things to do at home rather than study. Who was I to criticize a middle-school child for taking care of his siblings as opposed to studying for his social studies exam? I couldn't do it and it would have been wrong if I had. What I had to do was find a way to have my students showcase their learning in a way that they could show what they learned while not worrying about having to "cram" for a final exam. How could I create a final that showcased what my students learned without having to study for it?

Flash forward four years. I'm currently in the process of giving my high school students a final exam. The exam is tomorrow and I haven't written a single thing. And yet, the exam is already done. How did I pull off this black magic? Simple. I have my own students write their exams. Let's consider that idea again: have students write their own final exam. You want students to take ownership of their learning? Let them decide the material on the exam. Let them show you what they have learned and what they found important. None of these "gotcha" questions. None of these "I've never seen this before in my life" terms or ideas. One exam, created by the class with specific guidelines and expectations. Students can show what they have learned and do not have to "cram" at home only to ultimately lose the information as soon as the exam ends.

In having student-created finals, I've found that students actually enjoy the process. Some of them are amazed that they can write "easy" questions on the final exam. However, "easy" means students having a clear understanding of a term or concept, which is ultimately a way of showcasing knowledge. If the correct answer is the only noun in the list and the other three choices are silly adjectives, then I have taught my students the difference between Spanish adjectives and nouns and how to tell the two apart. If they choose similar Spanish vocabulary words to English ones, then they have learned that the two languages often share similar roots and because of that will mean similar things. If they are creating a section on negation and underline the verb as a "hint" then students know that to negate a sentence in Spanish requires you to put the word "no" before the verb. All these things that students include are ways in which they can showcase their learning and how I as a teacher can assess my instruction.

The last benefit of student-centered finals is that students begin to understand how to prioritize a body of knowledge. They write their own notes and examples on the final. I've had students in the past copy and paste pages of notes. When it came time for that section, students had no idea what to do. We saw that it would have been better if we had put those notes into our own words and condensed the information. Essentially, what students are learning is how to take a large body of material and condense it into key points and ideas in creating the final. It is a skill that they will need later on in college when they have to take more traditional final exams. However, if they begin this skill in high school then they will be much more prepared by the time college exams roll around. They will have had experience taking a semester's worth of material and shrinking it down to a way that was manageable and that made sense to them.

A much better option than expecting our students to "cram", don't you think?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Succeeding At Failing: A Case Study

"How's Sinja doing in your class?"

A question that inevitably comes up on a near weekly basis for the faculty at our school. Sinja, a junior, who has been with us since last year, continues to struggle in all her classes. All her teachers have noticed her ability, but when push comes to shove she doesn't produce results. Her test scores are high. So high in fact, that she was one of the top-scoring sophomores on a practice version of the CAHSEE, the test all California students are required to take prior to graduation. Yet, when it comes down to it, Sinja's grades are in no way a reflection of her knowledge. This current term she again is failing all her classes, some of which she is taking for a third consecutive time. Despite the faculty's best efforts, nothing seems to be lighting a spark for Sinja.

Having taught over three-hundred students throughout the course of my five-year teaching career, I have seen a wide variety of student abilities and motivational levels. Some students are gung ho thanks to parental encouragement. Some students are gung ho despite a lack of parental encouragement. Some students are hesitant because they have had a bad experience with a previous teacher and are unwilling to put themselves out there for sake of ridicule. Some students have a learned helplessness in which they have been ignored for so long they have given up trying. Some students have never had a teacher push them and have been content to float by as an "average" student. Lastly, there are some students who are gifted, but do not want to show off for sake of being ridiculed by their peers or not wanting their peers to see them for how they actually are. Sinja is like none of these students.

To try and understand Sinja, we need to look at her background. She is a second generation student whose family hails from East Africa. Her parents have done their best to instill in her a sense of what life was like in their homeland. Unfortunately, this life seems oppressive for a student who has spent the duration of their life in the United States. Sinja's parents do not let her date (although she is nearly seventeen years old) and she is not allowed to go out with friends on the weekend. All this is a shame, because Sinja is very happy-go-lucky in school and makes friends easily. The boys often say how attractive she is, but she will dismiss it with a violent shaking of her head and will repeat the phrase, "No, I'm not beautiful. No." After school, she can often be found on her laptop looking at Facebook. She normally is one of the last students picked up from school and there are days that she has to wait at the library across the street until her father picks her up on his way home from work.

Sinja's academics therefore, are an enigma. You'd figure that someone in her position would try to do her best and excel in high school. That way she could go to college and finally get a chance to experience some freedom for the first time in her life. If you were in Sinja's place, isn't that what you would want? However, Sinja seems to have taken the alternate route by doing whatever she can to fail her classes. It's almost as if she is doing it as a way to say "Fuck you" to her parents for not letting her live her life. The extent of this hatred is hard to measure and the faculty has even suspected that there may be an abusive relationship in the home. Whatever the case may be, Sinja is doing everything in her power to make sure she doesn't pass any of her classes.

It's actually remarkable the extent to which Sinja will go to fail. Taking a test in class but needing more time? Sinja will hold on to her test and then "accidentally" lose it the next day. Having an ongoing assignment worth a large portion of the grade? Sinja will have the assignment up but will claim that she is trying to find the right words/image/phrase to help better get her point across. This word/image/phrase will never materialize. Doing a group project? Sinja will insist that she works better alone. She will have less required work of her since she is the only one doing it but will still manage not to complete the assignment. Completing classwork? Sinja will go above and beyond what is expected of her on the first half of the worksheet, but will leave the last half blank because she never got to it. Time and time again her teachers will see the work Sinja turns in and will just shake their heads because they know she is capable of so much more.

So what do we do to a student who is succeeding at failing? As teachers, we can't in good conscious, pass her because she should be doing well in the class. If that were the case then we would have to pass everyone, regardless of their work or effort. Meetings with the parents have gotten nowhere as they seem as perplexed as her teachers. When we talk to Sinja about her future she mentions half-heartedly that she would like to go to college one day. We tell her that for that to happen her grades need to improve dramatically. She nods and will say, "Yeah, yeah I know. I need to do better." But by this point in Sanja's academic career, these have become hollow words and idle promises. No matter what Sinja says she will do, she always reverts back to clever ways in which she will successfully fail all her classes.

As teachers, we are going to continue to see if we can find a breakthrough with Sinja. If things don't improve she most likely will become a dropout in six months time. She'll be kicked out of her house and will most likely be living on the street without a high school diploma. She will finally be free of her parents' "prison" as she feels it to be, but at what cost? She will have thrown away her future for a way to say "Fuck you" to her parents. She'll be asking herself if it has all been worth it. All her teachers know the answer. Her parents know the answer. The only one who doesn't know the answer in Sinja. And by the time she finally realizes it, it will already be too late.