The State of Education


If you are reading this, you likely started reading my writings because of my reflections on student teaching. Some of you may have found me because of the recognition I received from Scholastic Magazine for “Best Student Teacher Blog” back in 2009. Others seem to have been sent here by teachers in education programs, possibly as part of your coursework in such a program. (If so, I’m extremely flattered that I was recommended to you, and I apologize that I left my humble blog in such disarray in my long absence.)

When I last updated this blog, I was still in my second year of teaching. I am now about to finish my fifth – and final – year of my teaching career. This is the epitaph of my time in the profession, my moment of grief for a vocation I loved and could not stay in, what happened when I told my students that I was leaving teaching, and ultimately a defense of why I am getting out now.

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I generally don’t divulge many details about what is happening in my school, and I have tried to keep a modicum of anonymity (although I know that the curious reader could probably put the pieces together). That’s for my protection as well as my students, none of whom deserve to be dragged into blog posts by name (or even gender, where I can avoid it). I know as a first-year teacher that I am in somewhat of a precarious spot, despite the fact that my position itself is not anywhere close to being on the chopping block and that I have pleased administrators enough that I think I’ll be around next year. (It also helps that I’m the third high school English teacher in as many years; the position needs some consistency.)

But I have to write about something that is happening at my school right now. It’s simply too much for me to keep in.

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I hate politics.

Okay, that’s not true – I hate being involved in politics. Especially when it comes to my vocation.

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I finished the book I’ve been reading this week earlier today, Why Do We Gotta Do This, Mr. Nehring?: Notes from a Teacher’s Day in School by James Nehring, and I have to give it my highest recommendations for any junior high or high school teacher (although it will be more topical for the latter). It is a very compelling book, equal parts narrative and commentary but all contained within a narrative framework that is very approachable. Nehring does a great job of telling the story of education – not a history, but the way things are. I say “are” because I don’t think things have changed a whole lot in the 20 years since this book was written and published; in fact, if you replaced all instances of “Walkmen” with “iPods,” there would be virtually no dissonance with the reality of education in 2009.

There is much that can be said about Nehring’s commentary – perhaps the most important part of the book, although the narrative is entertaining and engaging – but I want to return to that dreaded question that I wrote about a few days ago*.

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I have actually been on somewhat of a roll with my personal reading lately: in the past three weeks or so, I’ve finished the novel A Separate Peace – which was excellent – and read through Dave Barry’s History of The Millennium (So Far) (a fake history in Barry’s normal vein of humor – absolutely hilarious) and Ernest Hemingway’s early short story collection In Our Time, which contains a number of Nick Adams stories. (Both of these were, coincidentally, bargain buys at a local Waldenbooks.)

Why do we gotta do this stuff, Mr. Nehring?: Notes from a Teachers Day in School

Tonight, I started reading a book that came to me by way of a rummage sale, something that my mother (who is a fanatic about these kinds of things) picked up for me because it’s about teaching and…well, you probably know how mothers can be.

The book is “Why Do We Gotta Do This Stuff, Mr. Nehring?”: Notes from a Teacher’s Day in School by educator James Nehring (now an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell), published by Fawcett Columbine in 1989. I’ve read a couple of books by teachers about their experiences (most notably Educating Esme by Esmé Raji Codell, a fine read from an elementary teacher’s perspective), so I thought I knew what to expect.

But I have to admit that this is the first book of this sort that I’m reading as a full-time teacher, and it struck me when I started reading the first chapter that I have a much better point of reference now. For example, the major controversy in this first chapter (and keep in mind the time): kids having Walkmen.

It has to be said – Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. (For those of you who, like me, don’t speak French: The more things change, the more they stay the same.)

I’ll keep you posted as I read through this book.

Faithful readers: What are you reading? Anything good?

My recent post on autism has apparently sparked some interest (hello Trinity students!), which I’m not altogether surprised at: autism is a hot topic these days, and for good reason. It’s especially a matter of concern for teachers, who are now faced with a greater likelihood of having a student on the spectrum mainstreamed into one of their classes.

Well, besides all of the nice comments that the last article sparked (despite the fact that it was mostly about my own personal dealings with autism as the parent of an autistic child and not really about education in general), I happened to get a message through facebook from a former classmate of mine who student taught and graduated at the same time as I did back in the spring. This message, however, was not about teaching and ASD but instead about teaching with ASD.

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(Pardon the title.)

I have never been in any industry where unions have been a part of life until now. I’m honestly not that big a fan of unions, although I recognize their importance and function, especially in education where they play a role in mediation and contract negotiation (which of course applies to other industries as well). So I’m just getting my feet wet in this kind of stuff.

Our local union, which is a part of NEA, met today to elect officers. No one really wanted to volunteer to be a part, so most of the current officers were re-elected. One of our co-presidents, however, voiced her strong opinions about NEA leadership and her objection not to helping out the local union but to supporting the national organization. Much of it had to do with controversial retired General Counsel Bob Chanin (check here for a taste, although I’m not too enthusiastic about the reliability of many of these sources). It’s all politics.

That was the timbre of my first real union meeting: no one wants to be in charge, and we don’t much care for the higher-ups.

Union, right.

I spent this morning doing some work in my classroom, and while I am pleased at the progress I am making in getting organized and making everything feel like my room (although it will feel more like my own room once my wife and I put up posters and other things in the classroom on Wednesday), I must take a moment to rant on a subject that is often a source of frustration for teachers: assessment.

However, my gripe is not with the current institutional assessment practices – standardized testing and what-have-you – but with how some teachers handle assessment individually in regards to instruction.

See, I have this crazy idea that assessments are intended to, you know, assess the learning that students achieve during the course of instruction. Which means that assessments should reflect what is being taught. Good so far? I think most teachers would agree that this is a start.

So when I look at your assessments, you the unsuspecting teacher who doesn’t know that I will inherit your classroom once you leave, I should expect that you taught everything that you assessed, either the content (if fact-based responses are required) or the skills, right?

So if I notice that on every single assessment (and study guide) I happen to look at that covers a unit surveying an author’s work – say, for instance, Robert Frost – you have included the author’s birth and death years as a fill-in-the-blank question, then I can assume that you believed that information necessary for the full and proper comprehension of the works of that author, correct?

Wait, you mean that knowing the exact years that an author was born and died in aren’t all that relevant to the specific understanding of that author’s body of work (aside maybe from knowing the general historical era they produced their works in)?

This isn’t difficult, teachers: teach what needs to be learned, and assess what needs to be learned. I have been guilty of this in the past, too, but no more. If a significant portion of your test is filled with objective information that is meant merely to activate the rote knowledge part of students’ abilities (and thereby help out students’ grades), then I don’t know that the assessment will really be a successful one, since it will skew the results of the assessment by favoring students who have mastered memorization and by penalizing students who have not developed good memory skills or who freeze up and forget information even after the most well-rehearsed memorization because of test anxiety. When assessments are not accurate – or just, to use a more evocative word – then no student succeeds, even if they pass.

[end rant, exeunt]

One of the areas of teaching that I’ve always struggled with has been motivation. I have tried to ask myself the hard questions: How do I motivate those students who have no intrinsic desire to learn or who have no personal interest in what I am trying to relate? What steps can I make? What will I not do to make this work – that is, what is off-limits for trying to motivate students? To date, I have not found easy answers, and I learn more and more that I must have a toolbox of ideas, not one trick to flip that proverbial switch from “unmotivated” to “motivated.”

I have also long been a critic of standardized testing (perhaps even before I decided on teaching as a career), with a rapidly growing (albeit somewhat morbid) fascination with the drive to use norm-referenced tests. (There’s a joke – although it’s not really a joke – about politicians who decry the fact that half of our students are below average: the punchline being, of course, that it is a mathematical certainty that half of any group will be “below average” because of group norms.) I tend to see the effects of standardized testing as destructive and antithetical to a profound approach to education, emphasizing lower-level thought (rote knowledge and memorization) and leaving little opportunity for higher-order thinking, such as analysis and synthesis. I don’t often feel the need to write about this because there are so many others who have written about the topic with greater evidence and precision that I possess.

So when I got my copy of the Illinois English Bulletin, the publication of the Illinois Association of Teachers of English (IATE, of which I am a member), I was interested to read an article entitled, “How Can Students Be Motivated to Do Well on Standardized Tests?” by Tisha Ortega. Unfortunately, Ortega’s approach was somewhat disappointing to me.

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Since I have largely completed the work for my education degree at this stage, I thought I would make a rotation back: before student teaching, I wrote a lot about theory, and during student teaching, I wrote almost exclusively about practice, but now I’ll return to theory, relating it to practice (now that I have really had some of it!) where possible. In order to focus my thoughts, I’m returning to a book that a professor and I used to teach freshman composition, Considering Literacy: Reading and Writing the Educational Experience, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner. (Here is an entry on a composition instruction blog on this text as a textbook for a first-year university writing course.) I have previously blogged about essays contained in this collection, specifically Mike Rose’s literacy history entitled “‘I Just Wanna Be Average‘” and Mark Edmundson’s essay “On the Uses of a Liberal Education: I. As Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students“; however, there are a number of other works in this collection that deserve attention as well.

One such of these essays is “Engaged Pedagogy” by bell hooks, the nom de plume of Gloria Watkins.

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