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Category Archives: High horse

On Pursuing Higher Ed

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Today, my principal asked how I liked working at my school. I enjoy the autonomy of being the only chemistry teacher in the building. I’m beholden to no one else’s schedule, grading policies, or lab constraints. But I also can’t share my responsibilities with anyone else, have to get ideas from outside the building, and (because I do things differently) can’t trade curricula with anyone else. This year is my 3rd year back in public schools, and I love it. I missed it so, but I’m also so glad that I can afford to choose to be part-time.

Lately, there’s been a number of my Twitter-teacher-friends (more than one, less than 15) who have declared that they are going to be taking time off for mental health and/or personal reasons. And a number of them will be pursuing advanced degrees!

I’m completely in awe and in admiration of these teachers’ dedication to enhancing their educations and advancing their practice. I’m so happy (maybe a little jealous?) that they’re getting this chance.

I’m also acutely aware that, for some, pursuing a PhD or EdD is less work than teaching.

This deserves a whole lot of conversation, starting with expectations of K12 teachers in general, along with the internal and external pressures of the job, the dedication with which many teachers throw themselves into everything they do, the money teachers pour into classroom supplies, and the outside hours we use to do that last lesson tweak. It’s the extra time mixing chemical solutions, proofreading both versions of the exams, attending one sports match and a drama production and the orchestra concert, writing letters of recommendation for colleges and scholarships, applying for grants from the PTA, listening to the sobbing student found in the hallway, and filling the copy machine after the last set of originals are fed into the machine. It’s helping the unsure students who come to your room for help and tracking down the weak ones who don’t voluntarily show. It’s confronting the kids who think they got away with cheating and celebrating the ones who finally get it.

Day 51: Chasing Them Down

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Day 51/180: making sure they actually catch up

Recently, I saw a question regarding advice for new teachers and/or things experienced teachers didn’t know going into the practice. While I’ve learned a lot over nearly 10 years’ time, I couldn’t think of something in particular that others hadn’t already covered. Today, while going through the grade book, I found it: you’re going to have to chase them down.

There’s kinda two philosophies as far as assignments go (if there are required assignments in class): either students do the work and get credit (or don’t and fall behind); or students have every opportunity to do all of the work at nearly any time. To me, the former is a waste. The kids who miss one major assignment and then give up will either drop the class with a failing grade, or be forced to continue even though they’re already lost. There are some kids, especially in lower grades, who just can’t keep track of assignments and due dates and texts and backpacks, or who don’t have a good place to practice at home. It’s sure easier for the teacher to not accept in excused late work, especially grading-wise. The latter option is hard on teachers with a ton of extra grading and assignments and trying to keep up with the fast kids while maintaining the slower ones. Some kids may just be perpetually behind, and when the semester comes, they (and their grades) get cut off.

So what do you do, as a responsible teacher? Just let them go, or get them to do work by following them, sending emails and phone calls home, contacting counselors and parents, and keeping the kid and everyone immediately around them in the loop?

And where’s the right balance?

What’s in a Lab Credit?

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My son is three, and we just had a teacher conference with his teacher. Strange for a preschool, perhaps, but I appreciate hearing what his strengths and weaknesses are. Since they have one, I asked what they had been doing recently in their science curriculum, and she said that it’s hard to work in science with all of the writing and numbers practice. While I disagree with her bias (and, probably, she with mine), I think it’s a real wasted opportunity to not encourage curiosity for a bunch of three-year-olds. (They’ve also made the science updates a lot more prominent since I asked.)

I’m not an elementary school teacher, but the (little) science I remember doing was doing science. Playing with circuits, crushing stuff, watching bugs and caterpillars, and pouring liquids together. Then in middle school, it was still mostly lab-based: dissections (not my favorite), pinning and labeling insects, making a scale model of the universe, Rube Goldberg contraptions, a sludge lab. In high school, there were a lot of notes to take, worksheets to fill out, and some more labs. I strangely don’t remember the labs nearly as well as when I was younger. Labs suddenly had particular aims in mind, and heaven help your grade if you missed what it was supposed to mean to you, rather than the lab making an impression on the student.

And we wonder why high school kids aren’t curious about science anymore. So when is the curiosity supposed to be turned off in favor of merely hearing about science? And why are the labs that count on transcripts not the ones that count in a person’s head?

It’s that time of year when some Seniors start to get nervous about the numbers of credits they have versus the number they need to graduate. I haven’t done extensive research on grad requirements, but from what I’ve seen, students have to take 2-3 credits in science, and 1-2 of them have to be lab-based (more, if they’re college-bound). I don’t have a problem with requiring a certain number of credits to graduate. I’m a little mystified, however, about the distinction between science credits and lab science credits.

I know there’s a few courses that can’t actually have labs because of certain limitations, like not having equipment for an organic chemistry lab, or few resources for a hands-on anatomy/physiology course. But take freshman science, often designated as “Physical Science” or “General Science”. It doesn’t usually count as a lab credit, only as a science credit. I’ve never understood this. What is going on in those classes, if not labs? The kids in those classes are supposed to be learning lab techniques and how-to-do-science. Are they sitting in place and hearing about science rather than doing? I stuffed as many labs as I could into my freshman science course (the last thing I wanted was 36 bored freshmen in a single room). And they didn’t get lab credit for my course. I know teachers who don’t do labs because they take too long or the students might screw up and get the wrong answer. Kids also get answers wrong on worksheets, so we should stop assigning worksheets, right? Maybe I’m more mystified about science teachers who don’t actually conduct laboratory courses. And part of my frustration lies in not knowing how to tune my own chemistry classes into meaningful labs (hence, wanting to go to a modeling instruction).

So I’m wondering what’s a lab credit? My state requires 12 labs per year for lab courses (but still no lab-credit-love for general science). And why do biology, chemistry, and physics automatically get the designation? I’m not advocating course audits, but maybe there needs to be something else, some bigger expectation of kids (and teachers and coursework) in high school.

A Bunch of C-Words

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Ahem. Competitive, Cooperative. College, Career.

Being competitive is a positive trait for business in America these days. Businesses must get to the top, and they only want the very best people to get them there! We even have entire “reality” TV shows about getting to the top (including Survivor, America’s Next Top Model, The Amazing Race, Creature Shop Challenge, American Ninja Warrior, Project Runway and, of course, The Apprentice). Success, especially very-public success, is clearly rewarded. What’s wrong with success? Why shouldn’t my kid do the best and be the best? Some college applications still ask about class rank, and kids still vote for “Most Likely to Succeed”, right?

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with success. After all, who doesn’t want to be successful? But maybe there’s a problem with defining “success” (or even “competitive”) as “being-top-dog-all-the-time”. Even for schools without explicit class rankings, students make their own comparisons and know their place in the line. There’s a world of difference between being a leader or top of the class and being domineering and/or a poor winner. Someone posted a link to this op-ed on America’s obsession with getting kids competitive, as well as this one, advocating not sending your kids to Ivy League schools. It reminds me of this NYTimes bit on Worriers and Warriors and the genetic component with how kids (and adults) handle stress.

As a non-competitive person, I think that all of that stress and pressure to be Number 1 has to be draining. Parents start their kids in pee-wee soccer at age three (okay, some start soccer for sheer exercise, but some have actual goals in mind for their kids), they have to get their kid into the highest-ranked pre-schools and private schools, they make their kids sign up for lists of AP courses and music lessons and tutoring (although UNC researchers recently found that more AP courses predict better college GPAs, but only up to five courses before a plateau), and there’s tons of leadership camps and courses in- and outside of school. Moreover, if a kid must be on top of every list (i.e., aggressive domination), that’s at the expense of every other kid.

Many of today’s teaching methods include cooperative skills and training (Think, Pair, Share; group work; global pen pals; lab partners; etc.). These techniques increase information processing (over passively listening to lectures in class) and boost student learning. This doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of student-leaders, but possibly a reduced emphasis on the domineering aspects that can come with domination of some students over others. I’m not saying that a school-room’s goal should be to have across-the-board even achievement with no rankings (that’s silly and unrealistic). Leaders don’t necessarily have to be cut-throat and aggressive; instead, they can help others to find their best traits. Again, students always compare themselves to others, and everyone knows who the smart kid is in the room.

What do competition and collaboration in K-12 education have to do with the President’s goals for students to be “college– and career-ready”? Lots, but there’s also a gap. Arguably, kids need both some sort of drive (competitive nature) and social skills (collaborative skills) to survive much of further school (college) and employment (career). So how do we know students actually have the skills they’ll need in college? Standardized tests cover course-content in (English) language arts, and math (and sometimes science). But neither competition (except athletic) nor collaborative skills are tested in public schools. Common Core curricula advocate for flexibility in thinking and understanding, rather than for merely finding correct answers (confirmed by this amazing article from the NY Times talking about why Americans stink at math).

What’s not been mentioned? Creativity. Culture. Cross-disciplinary. Compassion. These traits are, similarly, hard to measure or even define. But most people, certainly colleges, view them as important.

So is bridging the gap a K-12 teacher problem? Kinda. There are lots of teachers who are changing or have already changed their methods for the better. But there are many more who need to: some refuse to do so, and some don’t know how to. Is this also a post-secondary problem? Kinda. There’s a big difference between getting numbers about kids and getting the kids. Is this a parent problem? Kinda. Expectations and support for kids will, of course, vary for each family.

There seems to be a big communication gap between what all the parties want in their kids for each stage of their education, and what they get out of them later. So perhaps a more pertinent questions is, what do you want for your kids, and why do you want it?

Even better: give your kids some say. What do your kids want, and why?

The Female Bill Nye

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Who’s the female version of Bill Nye?

Oh, come on… you know one…

Don’t you? I mean, there must be one out there somewhere. Right?

Apparently, there’s not. Dr. Sten Odenwald on HuffPo says there aren’t any female science promoters. And then he looks for significant women in history.

I think that’s the wrong comparison.

The women he mentions, including Rachel Carson and Jane Goodall, didn’t seek fame: they were doing research that they wanted to be popular, trying to promote particular agendas that were acceptable to the public. They were not necessarily the greatest minds of the day or even of their time, however important their research. And Albert Einstein, perhaps the best scientific mind ever, was not a science promoter. When you think of the-next-Einstein, you don’t think of Neil deGrasse Tyson. The current best science promoter may, however, be Dr. Tyson. This title of science promoter… it’s not about intellect. I mean, PhDs sure don’t grow on trees, and I fully respect the people who have earned the title of Doctor. But their fame has to do with the particular fields these people are known for. Carson will be known for Silent Spring, Goodall for chimpanzees, Einstein will be associated with relativity, and Dr. Tyson will be associated with killing off Pluto and harassing Jon Stewart over the direction of The Daily Show’s turning planet.

There are a lot of female science promoters out there, if you know where to look. Besides I F*ing Love Science by Elise Andrew and Brain Pickings by Maria Popova, there’s The Brain Scoop by Emily Graslie. Ms. Graslie gives, what I think is a pretty good reason for not having many female popularizers in Where My Ladies At?, where she describes the marginalization of her videos’ content by commenters who apparently only care about her looks and denial of her skills and knowledge:

(I’ve written of my lunch-date-love for Ms. Graslie already.) I think that’s also why a number of women who do write about science choose to not have their own names associated with their channels/handles/columns. It’s a desire to be taken seriously. It’s, frankly, one of the reasons I chose a non-gendered title for my own handle.

But the problem lies more in this: the idea that online and in real life, women aren’t taken as seriously as men, especially in business and STEM-related fields. A few days ago, the NYTimes just posted an advice for how women should negotiate for a raise in the workplace. Even hiring women in the first place isn’t so easy. I, sadly, don’t have many women in my own science/math lists, but a decent number in the education lists. What that says about gender ratios in those fields, or who I read, or whether I also (unconsciously) prefer, I’m not entirely sure.

And why do we need another Bill Nye anyway? Absolutely nothing against Bill Nye, but I’m going to guess that whoever fills those fantastic kid-enthralling-shoes is going to want his/her own legacy.

Getting My License

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Actually, I already have my teaching license. In two states. And I have to renew it. In two states. At different times. And in different intervals of years. And the procedure is different for each state. And the fee is different for each state. And the process to get each in the first place is also different.

So that’s not a pain or anything.

It does no good to grumble about it: I don’t have control over the states’ requirements, I only have to follow them. And I thought about going through the National Boards program (NBCT), but I don’t have a class of 6+ kids needed to do the test/experiment thing. Plus, it’s apparently shutting down temporarily. (Side-note: I have to say, when I called the NBCT hotline, the woman on the other end was fantastic, and we ended up chatting for more than half an hour about teaching and stuff.)

The reason I’m keeping the first state’s license? It’s stronger; that is, if I move, it’s more likely to get me a new license in the new state. My current state’s license may or may not do that. It seems like each state thinks their license process is the best, so no licenses actually transfer across state lines very well.

Here’s what I do mind: I’ve got the top license for one state, and it doesn’t translate to the top license in another state. And if I move again, I’ll most likely have to work through even more licensing procedures in the next state. I don’t mind doing professional development: it’s something, as a professional, I should be doing anyway. I do mind jumping through more hoops to prove that I can jump through hoops in a different state.

Diane Ravitch and CCSS

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Diane Ravitch, an education researcher (and if, as a teacher, you’re unfamiliar with her work, you should get familiar, because like her or not, she’s one of the more “visible” education advocates at the moment), made a speech to the Modern Language Association on Jan. 11th. The jist of it is the recent history of national-level legislation (i.e., NCLB, RTTT, and CCSS) and its detrimental effects on public education.

While I think a lot of what she says is absolutely true (that testing is hurting our kids, that NCLB and RTTT had some good intentions but aren’t actually increasing learning, that CCSS were started by corporations and non-classroom-based individuals, that teachers aren’t respected in this country), I’m a little saddened by the lack of suggestions as to what to do for politicians and for teachers (very different talks).

Yes, after the first round of tests under CCSS, test scores plummeted. Standards were raised, so how could that not be expected? (Wait, it was expected, so perhaps the media are in large part to blame the big negative hype.) But as an educational historian, Ravitch shouldn’t have jumped on that bandwagon, and instead amplified the real story. It makes sense that standardized test scores drop when new tests are introduced: teachers don’t know what’s on the new ones, and can’t teach to it the first year, which means kids also don’t know what to expect. I also agree with Ravitch (getting into mild conspiracy theory territory here) that this drop in test scores will be used against the public education system and that teachers will be blamed, letting politicians declare a need for allowing for more outsider-influences in the public school systems.

CCSS is supposed to be aligned with the whole “college and career ready” idea, but I have yet to see anyone actually define that. Besides, I think the college-ready and the career-ready paths are very different, and nobody seems to acknowledge that.

No, there’s no plans for kids who don’t pass CCSS standardized tests. But there’s also no plans now for kids who drop out. Some states already have (or have had for years) high-stakes exit exams to graduate, and have missing kids.

Ravitch should be more vocal about testing in general, rather than railing about CCSS. I actually don’t have much of a problems with having CCSS (or NGSS), but do have a problem with testing, especially on nebulous standards. It’s okay to have a nebulous standard (maybe something like, Students will read 4 American novels and write essays contrasting them with each other and their historical significance), but then the state test shouldn’t be about particular novels: it’s so limiting when the standard was so loose. And that type of standard I made up is about understanding the material and discussion with others and ideas, and a standardized test (especially a multiple-choice and/or computer-graded one) is about particulars within a book. It’s so limiting to be told what to teach and how, particularly when the standards are billed as flexible.

Besides, screaming about Common Core (or NCLB or RTTT) isn’t going to change the fact that it’s the new thing for most of the states. CCSS is coming (and/or is here), and it’s not going to be the problem: it’s what we as educators choose to do about it that could make or break our kids. We need to prove to politicians (that’s really who’s controlling the types of standards we have) that testing doesn’t increase what our kids learn, and that instead, teachers need to be trusted as the trained professionals we are.

Edit, Jan. 21, 2014: I was pointed to this article on aligning CCSS with “college and career ready” in Oregon, by EPIC.

Watching My Words

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Cliches are like chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get (but you can guess based on the person giving it to you).

While working on renewing my teaching license, I’ve started to realize just how much jargon is in the education profession. And not really jargon (since the definition of jargon doesn’t exactly fit here because a lot of non-educators use it), but buzzwords liberally inhabit our professional culture. I think, however, the scope of these words is mostly limited to professional development situations, resumes, and political organizations and isn’t found during class time. That being said, teachers need a lot of terminology to describe what they do, at least so their administrators can tell anxious parents that yes, the staff does provide CCSS-aligned differentiated inquiry-based flipped-classroom educational services.

And buzzwords are confusing. They’re supposed to mean particular techniques or methodologies, but can (have to?) be tweaked into a teacher’s own personality and classroom situation to fit teachers’ and students’ personalities.

With that, I’ve started a page of education lexicon (also linked above). Use it for translating political language, resumes, or for a starting point into the terms themselves. I am not judging the efficacy of any of these terms or topics, I’m just listing items that I have found.

Post more terms below (if you have an informative link to go with it, so much the better!) I know I’ve missed some obvious ones, because they’re so ingrained in my own vocabulary. I’d love for this to be a more-or-less permanent glossary.

“Girl” Science

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I love xkcd!

How to get girls into science. Let’s see…

  • Make sure girls know that they’re different: check.
  • Make them feel like there must be a division from boys for a reason: check.
  • Only give them simple experiments that work 100% of the time, so that when they get to classroom situations (or real situations) that don’t, they’ll have unrealistic and demoralizing expectations: check.
  • And make sure their equipment is dumbed down (and pink!) so that girls will understand it: check.
  • Give them things to work on at home to “boost their logical skills”, like cooking and memorizing lists: check.
  • No, wait, let’s not really give them science: check.
  • And give them only truly exceptional role models as superheroes, so that they’ll feel inadequate unless they achieve Nobel-prize status: check.

Perfume and soap classes drive me nuts. They’re fine as classes, and there’s a lot of science behind cosmetics, but don’t bill them as science when the class consists of stirring random stuff together with no thought process as to why it turns out the way it does. Throw in a lab notebook of some sort, and I’ll be placated.

What’s wrong with encouraging everyone in science? Why the need to recruit boys and girls separately? Is there a reason to separate (i.e., make distinctions and put kids in gender-based groups) the sexes, especially at younger ages? There’s now evidence that if girls want to do science, they do it really well. I like to think that there’s no longer doubt (at least in most first-world countries) about whether girls can or should do science. But there still seems to be a lot of doubt about whether girls want to do science. I like this blog quite a bit (new experiments once or twice a week!), but why it’s billed as “for girls” doesn’t make any sense to me (although, they do only simple things and are mostly foolproof and have few suggestions for further study, to make it more, ya know, science-like instead of following directions).

As I’m not the most eloquent person in prose (but just read my lab reports!), here’s Zombie Marie Curie via xkcd to explain how just working on something will make you great.

I mean, I’m female and in science. My story is this: I was in school, minding my own business, when, out of the blue, a spectacular female rockstar scientist appeared and said, “YOU should do SCIENCE!” and I was inspired and I went and got through school, pushed my way through the male-dominated big, bad world and did science!

xkcd rocks!

But that’s not my story.

I had very little science in elementary school, like a lot of elementary schools. Teachers of young kids are just scared of somehow doing science wrong (and really afraid of math). I had strange science teachers in middle school for biology, earth science, and physical science (all male). I had a terrible bio teacher (female), a fantastic chemistry teacher (female), and a great and terrifying physics teacher (male) in high school. Most of the math teachers were male. In college, half of the chemistry department was female. Most of the math department was male, and the female teacher and I didn’t get along very well. The teachers I worked with most closely were female, but I didn’t consciously decide on female teachers… they also happened to be the younger and more in-touch people. I don’t know that I saw a science-female-role-model and thought, “gee, now I think it’s possible!” but I also don’t think I was ever discouraged in sciences.

So how do we, as a society, encourage girls and boys to go into science? AND, if they’re not interested, that’s okay! I’d rather have really enthusiastic people in the field they love than half-hearted drones working on paychecks.

What’s Right With Our Schools?

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Politicians and the collective media like to point out the horror stories and slides of public education. After all, bad news makes for more readers/viewers. In the case of schools, not all publicity is good publicity. Really, all bad school news does is make people (including [especially?] media-people) make blanket statements about the condition of the whole educational system based on single incidents (much like this sentence).

And I’m not saying that the bad attention isn’t warranted. There are problems in the American education system, like rubber rooms in NYC, teachers betraying community’s trust and having illicit or inappropriate relationships with students, and teachers not doing their jobs. And the bad news is somehow even worse when it’s a teacher (or clergy or police), someone who’s supposed to protect. People not doing their jobs or taking advantage of underage kids don’t often make headlines when their job is in banking or marketing or computer programming or construction or even politics (heck, some of these people even get re-elected).

Fortunately, these terrible scandals are not the norm for most schools, public or private. And in terms of academics, most of these scandals aren’t applicable.

There must be something right with today’s education system, too.

According to the CIA Worldbook, 99% of Americans over the age of 15 are literate. That’s a pretty positive statistic. Reading is, obviously, not the end goal of all education and won’t make kids able to inherently function in modern society, but it’s a good start.

Okay, so we (by the way, who’s “we” anyway?) need to change our education because someone has deemed it to be not-working. Let’s figure out just how not-working our kids are… which means they should take some sort of test. Here’s an old (2010?) article from the NEA, but I really like the cartoon. I mean, how does testing actually boost school achievement? Here’s how the failing rate of schools looked in 2011:

As the Atlantic article also notes, this chart tells us nothing about how “failing” was calculated, nor what to do about it. Very different solutions are needed for schools that failed because of teacher incompetence versus lack of textbooks versus high-poverty area kids focusing on lunch rather than tests. And really, check out those numbers again. Nearly half of our schools across the country are failing? And in just six school years, the failure rate increased from 29% to 48%? How realistic is that? Maybe it’s the tests that aren’t accurately measuring our students’ successes.

One solution for avoiding public schools is to, well… avoid them. Getting rid of public schools (otherwise known as charter schools or voucher programs for private schools or computer installations), however, isn’t a proven solution at all. This article from Salon talks about the failure of “reform” tactics in public schools.

Our public schools do a lot of things correctly. If we, as a society, chose to celebrate the fabulous things they do and support all of the kids and teachers, and even administrators in there, I think we’d find a more invested society in the positive outcomes of the systems, rather than the unfortunate detractors that occasionally occur. Here‘s a nice list, based on research, of ways that parents and others in the community can reach out (reach into?) schools to provide kids with positive support.