Friday, March 30, 2012

On Tears and Tests

I spoke to a teacher recently and she told me this story:

One of the better students in her AP English class approached her desk teary-eyed and accompanied by a close friend. The girl said, "I am leaving school. My mother is moving us closer to the boyfriend"--the last two words dripping with distaste. The teacher admitted regrettably that her first words in response were: "But we need your test score!" She recovered with "I am so sorry to hear that" and other words of consolation and support. But she was shocked and dismayed at how co-opted she had become by a mindset that puts tests results ahead of students.

I firmly believe that no teacher ever got into teaching to raise standardized test scores--given once a year--as high as possible.  I firmly believe that teachers were and are called into this profession and remain in this profession for an incredibly rich constellation of factors that include everything from passion for a subject to love for young people and a desire to help them reach their full potential.  And I firmly believe that teachers, like the one with whom I spoke, recognizing that they have been co-opted can and will make choices in words and actions that express that calling.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Composting Lessons

How about this for a parent child exchange?  A friend of mine related a conversation he had with his fifth grade daughter after school.

Bill: What did you do in school?
Emily: Oh, we didn't do any work.
Bill: No work? What do you mean? What did you do?
Emily: Some friends and I spent most of the day learning how to compost. We built this compost box. And they gave us this list of everything you can compost.  We asked some middle school kids for help and got their ideas.  We wrote all these down on some paper and are starting to figure out how we can get more stuff to compost from maybe restaurants and stores. Then we had to go to the library and I checked out these books on composting.

So no "work" just a whole lot of learning. One key to student engagement is to blur the line between the work of learning and what creates Fun & Excitement for students.  Finding lessons and activities during which students lose track of time and consider the day to have been work-free helps develop a joy and passion for learning that can be lifelong.  

Nearly 7 out of 10 (69%) students on the recently released National My Voice survey agree that learning can be fun. While this is a clear majority of students, it should makes us wonder if the 31% of students who could not agree think learning is only work and drudgery. Learning does take effort, but that effort need not be a dull affair.  Learning that is hands on, interactive, has an everyday life application, and makes a difference engages students in a way that makes effort seem easy.  How can you compost lessons you know need recycling into something rich, useful, and nurturing for your students? 

By the way, my friend Bill reports they are now saving egg shells and coffee grinds.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Study Period Period

I can't tell you the number of study periods I have observed in which studying was scarce. I have seen study periods held in traditional classrooms, in cafeterias, in libraries, and in the bleachers of a gymnasium while phys. ed. class was in session. I have seen study periods with 6 students and a few with over 50.  Inevitably one or two students seem to be studying, another couple are doing homework, and the majority are sleeping, listening to an iPod, or quietly chatting.  The adult at the front of the room rarely seems to mind. In one study period the teacher and some likeminded students were watching a video about dirt bikes that the teacher had brought in (I am not at all against teachers and students sharing common interests in this way!) In one urban high school, we were told that some seniors had 3 study periods a day because they only need a few classes to graduate. Disruptions seem to be the only unallowable.

I want to make a bold recommendation: Study Period full stop. Let's get rid of it. Let's start by being honest and admit that in most schools it has decayed into a glorified teenager-sitting session (I really can't use "baby-sitting"). The students who are "studying" are either doing homework (which I suppose is fine; that's when my 2 kids said they did their homework) or cramming for a test they have later that day. So much for "home" work and "studying" for tests. But for most kids it is the idlest part of the day. And if kids need idle time let's keep it, but let's not pretend it's anything other than recess for high school students.

What if we trusted kids? What if we said: You are going to have this free period every once in awhile in your schedule and here are some options: You can go to the library to study or read. You can go to the media center to watch an educational video (TED talks!) or look up something you are struggling with in a class (Kahn Academy!). You can go to the computer lab and do anything educational online. You can go to a teacher for extra help. You can form a club. You can help out a secretary, or the librarian, or the media center coordinator, or the cafeteria staff, or the bookstore staff, or the custodian.  No; you don't get paid; it's your school, too. You can take a nap. You can listen to music.

What if instead of pretend study periods we had IEP (Individualized Education Plan) Periods for every student? Every student makes a plan for something they want to learn during that time and are held accountable to learning it.  What if instead of mock study periods we had Portfolio Periods during which each and every student and to work with an advisor on building a portfolio on interests and skills that could be used as part of a college or job entry process?

What if we stopped pretending and ended study periods period?