Must Teachers be Passionate? #sol14

Slice of Life is sponsored on Tuesdays by Two Writing Teachers. For the month of March my students are posting a slice each day on their blogs and I am joining them.
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I’ve been doing a lot of pondering lately.  The topic of most of my thinking has been teacher passion.  This morning I finally shared my questions on Twitter.

I work with a lot of amazing, passionate educators every day at HTHS.  I’m also lucky to have a PLN full of teachers who are passionate and engaged, always seeking new information and honing their craft.  But I  recognize that passion can be consuming.  It means lost sleep and bringing work home with you.  It means you can’t (or don’t) leave your job at the office.  It means spending money and time on conferences, books, journals, professional development.  Granted, if you are passionate about a subject it doesn’t always feel like work.  But it still takes a lot out of you.

My question is, should we expect all teachers to be passionate?  Is that fair?  Or is it ok for a teacher to be in it for the convenient schedule, steady paycheck, and reliable hours? Plenty of teachers enter the classroom for those reasons and do a fine job. And the expectation for most careers seems to be that you go in from 9-5, do your job, and come home.  Passion not necessary.

Business Journal recently looked at passion in the workplace and  discovered that passion is rare in more careers and workplaces.

Two recent discoveries by The Gallup Organization offer insights into why passion is rare in U.S. workplaces:

  • 55% of the U.S. working population is not engaged at work.
  • 16% of the U.S. working population is actively disengaged

 

This pushed my thinking a bit more. Then my friend Teresa and I started talking.

That’s where I get stuck. Part of me feels that it isn’t fair to expect all teachers to be passionate about their career or current position.  But if we aren’t passionate, don’t our students suffer?  If my job performance suffers as a result of not being engaged at my 9-5 job, who is affected?  My company and I will have to deal with the ramifications, but odds are no one else will.  But if a teacher is not engaged and passionate about their subject area or their job, then their students are the first to suffer the consequences.

So what should expectations be?  Is it ok for teaching to be a way to pass the time, get a paycheck, and get to retirement?  Or should we demand that our teachers are passionate about something related to their job? That could be a passion for the subject matter they teach, or a passion for learning, or a passion for fostering the best in kids, as long as the passion is related to their job. Is that the answer?

I’m not sure what the answer is, because teaching is an all-consuming job, whether you are passionate about the career or just showing up everyday.  You won’t leave work at the office, you won’t be able to stay distanced from the students, and you will never be able to walk away unscathed.  Even if you aren’t passionate, it will have a deep and lasting impact on you.  And you can certainly teach students without being passionate, provided you are engaged in the day-to-day activities in your classroom.  When we demand passion, are we demanding too much?

Could passion lead to burnout?  Or does it prevent burnout?  My friend Tony Keefer used the word “play” to describe what teachers can do to spark passion and I love that.  You can play in a subject area, in the field, in reading, in writing, and beyond.  And play is equated with fun, so that’s good!

One of my experiences in school today pushed me to think further about this topic.  My awesome student-teacher set up a Skype call today for my seniors, who were able to speak with a local news anchor about her life in the industry.  The anchor was so passionate about her job but she made it very clear that it’s a 24/7 job, which reminded me a lot of teaching.  She said you are always “on” and always representing your company.  As a teachers, we can certainly relate!  She pointed out that if you don’t enjoy the job and you aren’t engaged and passionate, then you wouldn’t make it.  Should teaching be the same way?  Maybe it’s the responsibility of administrators to filter out teachers who are not passionate, to make sure they don’t end up stuck in a career path that they despise to the detriment of students.

All of these questions are still swirling about in my mind.  I’m not sure there is an answer, but it’s fascinating to think about.  I’ve been coming back to this question of passion since I wrote my post “You’re Too Smart to be a Teacher”.  That post inspired conversations about teaching as a backup career and way to get by until something better came along and whether that was fair to students and colleagues.  I won’t pretend I haven’t met teachers like that in the past, so I know they are out there.  But that might be true in all careers, so is it fair to expect something above and beyond that in teaching?

What do you think?
 

Check out my friend Katherine’s response to my pondering, too!

Why Is the Only Way Up to Go Out?

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I tweeted this message out the other night and the response was tremendous.  I began teaching in 2005 and many of my friends have already left the classroom.  Almost all of them are still in education, but they are no longer teachers.  My friends are principals, vice-principals, supervisors, coaches, curriculum coordinators, professional development coordinators, and every other title in the education world.  Many of them were phenomenal teachers and it saddens me to know that they are no longer bringing that enthusiasm and expertise to students.  That’s part of the reason I have no interest in that world.  It’s not that I don’t want to take on a leadership position…..I would love that!  But there are few options for teachers who want to remain in the classroom.

It made me feel better to learn that I am not the only teacher who does not plan to enter administration in the near future (or ever, at this point). During the conversation on Twitter it became clear that talented teachers  crave leadership positions.  So then why is it that the only way to move into a leadership position in education is to move out of the classroom? The Atlantic took on this issue a few days ago in “Great Teachers Don’t Always Want to Become Principals“.

I think that part of the reason teachers are not given the same respect as other careers is because many members of the general public view it as a stop-gap.  There are two choices, in their eyes: if you are a great teacher then you teach for a few years (ideally under 10 years) and move into administration, or if you are a bad teacher you stay in the classroom.  I can’t tell you how often I am asked when I plan to get an administrative position and when I respond with “never”, people just stare at me. “But you are a good teacher!” they often say.  That means I shouldn’t stay in the classroom?

And I’m not knocking those who do move into administration!  All of my friends are fantastic at their new jobs, too.  I just hate that the only way to take on a leadership role is through that type of position, the one that removes you from the classroom.

I’ve already completed by National Board Certification but most districts don’t even treat that as equivalent to a masters degree, so there aren’t a lot of leadership opportunities available.  There are some national opportunities, but most of them involve leaving the classroom for a sabbatical at the least and forever in some cases.  That’s not what I am interested in.  I want to stay in the classroom and continue working with kids!

How can we allow teachers to take on leadership roles (not necessarily entirely new positions) and still keep good teachers in the classroom?  I know of some districts that create hybrid positions and I think that’s a great idea.  Teachers spend part of their day in the classroom, teaching their students, and the other part of the day running professional development and mentoring other teachers.  To me, that seems perfect.  It allows new teachers to learn from master teachers while also keeping those teachers in the classroom part-time.  Lots of districts have professional development coordinators who are solely administrators but I’d love to see those become hybrid positions.  Spend the morning teaching (the same type of classes you would normally teach, with consistent kids) and the afternoon planning PD, running PD sessions, and working with other teachers.

I know if that was an option I’d gladly take it at some point.  But I can’t see myself leaving the classroom completely, because teaching is my passion.  What about you?  What type of leadership position do you think should exist for teachers who want to stay in the classroom?

Help My Students Wreck This Book!

I just created a request for my classroom: Help My Students Wreck This Book!

If you chip in to help my students, you’ll get awesome photos and our heartfelt thanks.  I am working with two of my colleagues in the district to establish a “Wellness Day” for our incoming freshmen.  Keri Smith’s “Wreck This Book” will play a vital role in helping our students learn that making mistakes is ok and often encouraged!

Your support would mean so much to us.  And you can use code DREAMS to have your donation matched!

 

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Is It the Teacher or the System?

No doubt you have seen this week’s viral video of high school student Jeff Bliss demanding an end to what he calls “packet teaching.”  I don’t disagree with Mr. Bliss’ sentiment and I sincerely hope he does create change.  I hope people continue to talk about education and what students deserve long after the furor has died down. But I do have a problem with how the media has attacked the teacher seen in the video.

Do we blame the teacher or the system? That’s the question we need to focus on.

The media and most comments on news websites are attacking the teacher for being a paper-pusher, an awful teacher, and much worse.  The vitriol is cruel and beyond the pale. But how do we know this specific teacher made the packets that she handed out?  How do we know she had a choice in the matter? We don’t, and that’s a problem.  I refuse to crucify a singular person for what may be a much larger problem over which she has no control.

Right now we have Jeff Bliss’ side of the story, and a 90-second long clip of his speech during class.  We do not have information from the teacher and if she expects to continue teaching in any capacity I imagine we will never hear from her.  However, a little digging will show that she has a social media presence devoted to her classes. (I won’t link to her here because I don’t want to contribute to her name being brought up any more, as the district is not using it in their statements).

She has a Pinterest page devoted to resources students can use, a Youtube page linking to Crash Course videos and other content for her classes, a Twitter account, and a few other history-based resources where she interacts with students.  Obviously, this does not mean she is a wonderful teacher, but it does seem to me  that she is passionate about her job.  Those social media sites are most likely culled together outside of school hours as most schools block them, so she is devoting time outside of the 9-3 of classes to her profession.  It seems to show dedication to her students and passion about the subject matter she teaches.  And I have a hard time juxtaposing that with the comments I am reading on websites decrying her as the world’s worst teacher, a lazy idiot, and a detriment to society. Again, there’s nothing about a social media presence that guarantees she is a vibrant, engaging teacher. But it does give me pause. If she is a terrible teacher who does nothing but pass out packets, why has the district not addressed that prior to this situation? Does she have positive evaluations? Has she been encouraged and mentored? What is the truth about this situation?

I’ve read too many comments on news websites that say something along the lines of,  “Come on, this is all on the teacher.  It’s not like there are principals out there saying, here, hey you have to devote all of your class time to test prep.  You are required to assemble some packets of prep, pass them out, and have students complete them before the standardized tests.”

I have news for those commenters.  There are many, many districts like that.  Too many.  I have friends who are amazing teachers and are now being handed a packaged curriculum, complete with a script, that they must follow.  They are being forced to skip teaching science and history and instead must hand out test prep packets for math and ELA tests that will decide whether they are “good” or “bad” teachers.  They must administer practice tests in their classes instead of doing PBL or science experiments.  One friend, currently teaching elementary school, just told me that after our state tests next week her school will finally let her teach science and social studies.  Pretty much an entire year’s worth of curriculum in one month.  And this is in a good district, a district that people move into because it is highly-ranked!

They aren’t an anomaly.  Sadly, in our standardized-test obsessed culture they are becoming the norm.  And that is a huge problem.  It’s not the students’ responsibility to fight this and I don’t blame Jeff Bliss for standing up to the person in front of him, the teacher he deals with daily.  But the reaction from the public needs to go way beyond that one teacher.  Where is the investigation into the district as a whole?  Where are the interviews with students talking about the test prep they are forced to do in all classes?  Where are the interviews with parents in other states explaining how their children no longer take music or art classes but instead they take test prep classes in their place?  Where are the interviews with administrators explaining how their schools are  considered failing or no good because the difference between their special ed population and gifted student population scores is too large and now they must force packaged curriculum on their teachers and students in order to satisfy the state or federal government?

“But why don’t they fight back? A good teacher would stand up and refuse to teach like that!” commenters say.  But they do fight back. It’s not just in a way that gets them fired and I can’t begrudge them that.  They fight back by attending meetings, bringing research to their supervisors, talking to parents about getting involved, sharing books and other unpackaged curriculum with students.  They put themselves in the line of fire as much as possible without getting fired.  Are we really asking teachers to get fired in order to prove they are good teachers? Can’t you fight from the inside? Don’t you want those teachers in front of your classroom while they wage a silent war outside the classroom walls? Or would you prefer they get fired? Is that the answer?

That’s the problem. And that’s what I wish we were talking about thanks to Jeff Bliss.  And I’m pretty sure it’s what Jeff Bliss wants us to talk about. Because that’s how we will begin to change things.  Not by focusing on a single situation in a single classroom but instead, focusing on the results of NCLB and the standardized tests being forced on our students and teachers.  By 2015, our students will all be taking the PARCC tests and teachers’ jobs will depend on the results. In NJ, PARCC third-grade assessments will have nine sessions with an estimated eight hours of testing compared to NJ ASK’s five hours and four days. The PARCC assessments in other grades will run approximately nine and half hours compared to about six for NJ ASK. That’s a lot of lost teaching time in just a few grades in one state.  It’s even worse in other places.  The numbers get worse when you add in test prep classes that districts require students to take and the time taken from other content areas in order to prepare students.

So yes, Jeff Bliss has every right to confront his teacher and demand a better education.  But the adults reading the articles, writing editorials, and speaking on 24-hour news channels about the situation have a responsibility to dig even deeper.  One teacher in one school is not the problem.  Administrators and districts who demand “packet teaching” are the problem. And that’s what we need to be talking about.  We need to put the spotlight on the decision-makers who choose the curriculum teachers are told to teach with. We need to demand that politicians stand up for our students instead of making money for Pearson and other testing companies.  I am grateful to Jeff Bliss for showing the world what testing culture has done to many of our schools. I just hope that parents and taxpayers start to see beyond that classroom and look at the bigger picture.  Because I don’t think Jeff Bliss is speaking about one situation in one class.  He wants to change the paradigm and we all have to stand up in order for that to happen.

Why I Stay

A few weeks ago, my friend Beth Shaum asked  if I would share why I stay in the classroom, despite the current teaching climate and  teachers leaving in droves. I kept thinking about it and drafting a response, but eventually the email fell  into the abyss of my inbox and I was swept up in taking care of my husband, who was having surgery at the same time.  I never did get my response to her.  But that’s ok.

Beth didn’t need my response, because she received so many beautiful photos and reasons.  She shared her final video this weekend and it’s something that every American needs see.  Teachers, from all over the country, teaching everything from elementary school to high school, share deep and heartfelt reasons for remaining in a profession that’s slowly becoming one of the most negative careers one can choose.

Over the weekend, I shared why I became a teacher, despite being told I was wasting my potential by doing so.

But today I want to share why I stay.

Despite the vitriol.

Despite the standardized tests.

Despite the unions.

Despite the budget cuts.

Despite the mandates.

Despite the disrespect.

Despite the other options.

I stay because what I do matters and it makes a difference.

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I work hard to ignite a passion for reading in my students.  I introduce them to tools they can use after my class to continue reading and finding books.  Sometimes, years later, they contact me to talk about books. They are engaged.  That’s why I stay.

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I try to make writing fun and authentic.  Blogging, poetry, challenges– anything that provides an audience beyond me.  And now I have a classroom full of bloggers, some of whom are reaching out to other bloggers. They are writers. That’s why I stay.

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I create readers.  I create writers.  And there is no job in the world that can make me happier.  I owe my students a thanks for being so awesome.  They are wonderful people and citizens. That’s why I stay.

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Me and some students in central Mexico

I travel and share information about my students with children in other places.  And I bring back ideas and information for my students, who then make connections between their lives and the lives others are leading across the globe. Those connections will make them better global citizens. That’s why I stay.

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Monarch butterflies at the El Rosario eco-preserve in Michoacan, Mexico

I am a reader, a writer, and a citizen scientist.  I want to share my love of nature and science with my students and show them that anyone can participate in science, even if they don’t choose science as a career.  That’s why I stay.

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Watching the Newbery awards announcement with my 6th graders a few years ago.

I am a life-long learner. I love getting students excited about learning because I am excited about learning.  And when they leap out of their seats or squee in excitement I can’t help but get excited, too. That’s why stay.

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Donations for the children’s hospital– Valentines put together by middle schoolers.

The world is a big place and not everyone is as blessed as my students.  Everyone needs to reach out a hand to help those around them.  As a teacher, I can bring those opportunities to my students and help them become compassionate leaders.  That’s why I stay.

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A book can change a child’s life.  With a classroom library and the wide range of books I am always reading, I can help students find that special book.  That’s why I stay.

Not because of the tests. Or the mandates. Or the races to the top. Or the children not left behind. Not because of the curriculum. Or the meetings.  Or the time spent at home preparing lessons and grading papers.

“In the end, we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.” Baba Dioum

That’s why I stay.

Because of the books. Because of the writing. Because of the changes I see my students leading the world towards.

Because I believe in my students.

Teaching isn’t perfect.  It isn’t fun everyday and sometimes you just want to give up.  But in the words of the Lorax, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”.  I decided a long time ago to be that someone.

“You’re Too Smart to be a Teacher!”

I’m sure this post will make some people mad, but I had strong feelings about assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education Jal Mehta’s op-ed published by The New York Times today.  I don’t agree with most of what he said, but this part struck a chord with me:

In the nations that lead the international rankings — Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Finland, Canada — teachers are drawn from the top third of college graduates, rather than the bottom 60 percent as is the case in the United States. Training in these countries is more rigorous, more tied to classroom practice and more often financed by the government than in America. There are also many fewer teacher-training institutions, with much higher standards. (Finland, a perennial leader in the P.I.S.A. rankings, has eight universities that train teachers; the United States has more than 1,200.)

There are brilliant people out there teaching right now.  I know because many of them are my friends.  I teach with amazing and smart colleagues.  My Twitter PLN teaches me something new everyday and forces me to reflect on my own teaching.  There are also some people who have no business being in the front of a classroom. I know some of them, too.

But too many of our brightest minds don’t even consider going into teaching.

I’m not saying this because I read statistics or talked to someone who did research.  I’m saying it because I lived it.  And I see it everyday with my students.  Teaching isn’t seen as a viable, worthwhile option for our brightest minds and that’s a terrible reflection of the value placed on teaching in this country.

I graduated in 2001 from High Technology High School.  My classmates were all brilliant, the top students in our county, and I count among my friends numerous engineers, doctors, lawyers, scientists, and CEOs.  One friend wrote a best-selling science book.  Another founded a rival to PayPal.  Many friends have worked for Google, Apple, and other top companies.  They write best-selling apps and are involved in world-changing research. They work in labs at Princeton, MIT, Harvard, and Yale.  They write code for Google and Mozilla.  They are the minds behind start-ups and tech giants.

But you know what my friends and classmates aren’t doing?  Teaching.  I can count on one hand those of us who went into teaching K-12 after college.  And that’s looking at multiple graduating classes.  When I decided to go into teaching, people looked at me and said, “But why?  You’re so smart!”.  As if you can’t be intelligent and want to go into teaching. Even today, when old friends learn that I am a teacher, they tilt their head and look at me as if I made a mistake.  They can’t understand why someone “so smart and with so many options” would decide to teach. Then they ask when I will go into administration.  When I explain I love the classroom and have no desire to enter administration, they shake their heads.  Obviously, I am not as intelligent as they thought I was.

It’s no different today. Looking at my current students, I have two or three  who have mentioned even a passing interest in teaching as a career.  And they’ve all told me that their parents are shocked to hear they would consider going into teaching when they “could do anything they want”!

In other countries, teaching is a competitive field.  Only the top third of college students are able to enter teaching programs in many of the countries exalted by the US for providing a top-tier education, such as Finland.  Teacher training courses are rigorous and well-respected.  A small number of colleges and universities are able to grant teaching licenses and teachers continue their training after entering the field, supported by their schools, districts, and the nation as a whole.  While many of these countries are smaller and more homogenous than the US, making the classroom much different from ours, that doesn’t change the respect given to teachers by those nations. And that respect starts when someone enters the teaching field as a university student.  It’s difficult to get into teaching, so you must be great if you make into the major, graduate, and get a job.  The United States is, unfortunately, very different.

Why aren’t our top students becoming teachers?  Obviously not every brilliant person is cut out to be a teacher.  All you have to do is sit in on a few college classes to see that.  But there are many intelligent people out there who would make fabulous teachers and are not entering the profession.  And I think the reason our top students discount teaching is because our teachers are seen as disposable. The public and politicians spit vitriol blaming teachers for everything from student behavior to the downfall of our country.  Teachers aren’t trusted to make decisions about their own classes and instead administrators and corporations hand down scripted curriculums.  Reformers like Michelle Rhee, who have barely any training or teaching experience, spend their days telling us how to teach.

Stop.  Just stop.  Start treating teachers like professionals– like engineers, doctors, lawyers, CEOs, actuaries, scientists–and we will attract more people to teaching.  When more people are attracted to teaching as a career, universities can develop more rigorous teacher education programs.  And teaching can stop being a back-up career for the lowest 60% of college students. Far too many people in the US think that teaching is an easy career, one to go into if you can’t decide what else to do. I have  too many acquaintances who went into teaching because they thought it would be easy or they wanted a job they could do for a few years before getting married.  The requirements for becoming an education major or doing alternate route are much lower in teaching than in many other professions. Do you know what I had to do to enter the highly-respected teacher education program at my university?  Fill out a sheet of paper, have a 2.75 GPA, show proof of a Mantoux test, and pass the Praxis I.  My friends in engineering and science majors had higher GPA requirements and more pre-requisites.

Who on earth would go into teaching today, with the vitriol and hatred spewed at teachers? Certainly not many college-bound students with other options. And those at the top of their class have lots of other options. Hmmm….study business and be respected or study education and spend the next twenty years being cursed and blamed for everything wrong with this country? Sounds like an easy decision to me.

We need to change how teachers are viewed. Obviously there are many amazing teachers out there. I know lots of them. But we need even more. And we need to make sure education isn’t a last-choice major for anyone. If it is, they should be weeded out instead of thrown in front of kids. (*ahem* Teach For America, etc *ahem*). Teaching is a profession, it’s what teachers are. It’s not just something we do. So it’s time to raise the bar.

We need to move away from the Praxis and other one-time tests.  In order to earn certification, teachers should be reflecting and improving constantly.  One way to do this is through a portfolio-based requirement. That’s why I love National Board Certification. Unlike the Praxis exam (pretty much the only requirement in some states), National Board is reflective, difficult, and empowering. Something like National Board certification should be required of all teachers within the first few years of teaching. And the process should start in college, just like it does for other well-respected professions.  Take engineering, for example.  Engineers are expected to attain their PE, or Professional Engineers Certificate.  Many employers in industry and government require licensure in order to advance to senior engineering positions. It’s a years-long process:

The Licensure Process:
1. Earn an engineering degree.
2. Pass the F.E. Examination. (8-hour exam)
3. Gain engineering employment experience. (All states require that candidates complete four years of qualifying engineering experience, under the supervision of a professional engineer.)
4. Pass the P.E. Examination. (8-hour exam)

Engineers are expected to pass two exams and complete four years of work under a mentor before becoming certified.  They are made aware of this in college and begin with internships before graduation. Why aren’t teachers required to do something similar?  Instituting a process like this would require districts, states, and the federal government to provide teachers with more support, more time to collaborate, and more professional development.  You may not agree with it, but the lack of requirements for teaching and the abundance of teacher education programs make the general public see teaching as a career anyone can do.  There’s no challenge in getting certified, as long as you don’t have a criminal record, and it’s a career that anyone can enter.  That needs to change.

Great teachers are passionate.  They love their teaching material or content area.  They are life-long learners and model that for their students.  They read.  They write.  They collaborate.  They are patient. They are kind.  They are the utmost professionals.  But they are treated as inferior and worthless.  “I can be a teacher! It seems like such a nice gig,” is a refrain I’ve heard all to often from those not in education.  They think because they showed someone in their office how to print from the computer or how to use the new Keurig that they can teach a room full of high schoolers.  Or even worse, “I went to school. I had teachers from kindergarten til twelfth grade.  I learned how to teach.” Who needs to study education, right?  Teachers are little more than babysitters in the eyes of too many.

Raise the bar.  Make the education major more like pre-med, engineering, or most hard science degrees.  Require a higher GPA to enter the program.  Institute pre-requisites.  Require education majors to double-major or minor in a subject-area  or child-development. Send students into the field more often and for longer periods of time. When they enter the field, new teachers should be mentored by great teachers for more than just their first year.  Districts should provide more opportunities for authentic professional development.  Teachers should be given more autonomy and celebrated when they and their students succeed (and success should not equal scores on a standardized test).  High-achieving schools and teachers should serve as models.  Pay teachers like the professionals they are.  Not just a living wage, but a respectable wage.  This will take money.  But it’s about time we made education a priority, rather than just a soundbite.

Raise the bar, raise the profession, and raise each other up in the eyes of the public.

When teachers are seen as professionals, it will be a more attractive career choice for the brightest minds.  And a larger pool of applicants, especially talented applicants, can only help students in the classroom.  Choosing to teach shouldn’t be seen as a waste of potential.  It should be the most respected decision one can make.

Our children deserve the best, so we need to attract the best to the classroom and keep them there.  Stop telling me I made a mistake and instead ask me about a day in my classroom.  Stop telling your son or daughter that choosing to teach will be a waste of their talent and instead encourage them to make a difference.  Stop encouraging great teachers to leave the classroom and enter administration, as if teaching is beneath them.

There’s no such thing as being too smart to teach.  Start respecting me and my colleagues.  Start treating us like the professionals we are.  Start making a difference.

More Reading, More Writing, More Engaged Citizens of the World.

Cum hoc non propter hoc.

Causation does not equal correlation, especially when it comes to children and test results.  In today’s  NY Daily News, Robert Pondiscio, a former fifth-grade teacher at Public School 277 in the South Bronx and now the executive director of CitizenshipFirst, lauds the NYC Education department for “… abandoning the literacy curriculum used to teach a generation of our children to read”.  In the shift to the Common Core, he says the NYC Dept of Ed is leaving behind the balanced literacy approach of Lucy Calkins and the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, which he says has done a disservice to students.  Having taught at a Project school here in NJ and at non-Project schools, I beg to differ.

I began my teaching career in a 3rd grade heterogeneously-grouped class that used Lucy Calkins’ methods.  I attended training workshops, Saturday reunions at the Project, and read every piece of material I could get my hands on.  And I watched those third-graders blossom as readers and writers.  It was hard to facilitate the workshop and took a lot out of me as a teacher, but I was a better teacher for it. I was constantly reading and writing alongside my students, pushing them to reach higher and higher.  While they may have started by reading books that were “just right”, my mentor and I were always pushing them to follow the  reading ladder, as Teri Lesesne shows us.   Students did not stay stuck on a lower level, never moving forward, as Pondiscio insinuates in his op-ed.  That’s not the point of the method! The students receive individual attention, conferences, and book recommendations.  They read constantly, both in and out of class.  In the year that I spent with those third graders, they grew into stronger readers and writers, as evidenced by their assessment scores.

When I moved to my own classroom and started teaching sixth grade, I brought the balanced literacy approach with me.  Today, I teach high school in a co-taught humanities class (alongside the world history teacher).  I continue to use a balanced literacy approach, modified for my high school students and schedule.  And guess what?  It still works.  Which is why I am baffled by Mr. Pondiscio’s claims.

He says,

What is wrong with balanced literacy? It assumes you build readers by encouraging kids to find books they love and read a lot. But over the years, that approach has consistently and systematically failed. Only 23% of our eighth-graders score “proficient” or higher on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a figure that hasn’t budged in a decade.

Before I moved to my current job, I taught at an average middle school in suburbia.  It wasn’t a Project school, but I used the same methods and ideas with my sixth graders at that time.  I still attended Saturday Reunions, on my own time, and brought new ideas and methods back to my classes.  And once again, I watched my students grow into readers and writers. Like Pondiscio’s students, many of mine came to me without background knowledge and needing scaffolding.  Over 80% admitted to being nonreaders on my annual first day survey. So we read.  A lot.  Just like I do with my students in high school.  They read their independent novels, where I challenged them with Donalyn Miller’s 40-book challenge.  We read shared texts in class, both whole class novels and shorter pieces.  And we used Kelly Gallagher’s Article of the Week to share great informational pieces at least once per week.  I expected my students to read and they did.  I expected them to improve as readers and writers, and they did.  I had the test scores to prove it.  Again, these were classes that were grouped heterogeneously and included students from all kinds of economic backgrounds. High expectations yielded higher results.

How does Mr. Pondiscio’s statement relate to balanced literacy? Where is the evidence that there is a connection between the balanced literacy approach and the percentage of eighth-graders who score proficient and higher? Causation does not equal correlation.  My guess is that poverty and other issues outside the classroom contribute a great deal to those numbers.  Do we know what the passing rate would be if the students were not being encouraged to read and write on a daily basis? Of course not.  But we do know that Mr. Pondiscio taught at a school where 89% of students receive free and reduced lunch.    Noted researcher Stephen Krashen has been telling administrators for years that our crisis is not literacy, but poverty.   As Mr. Pondiscio points out in his op-ed, students who come from poverty typically don’t have access to books, museums, and parents who stay home with them.  So if, as Krashen says in his research, “more access leads to more reading, and if more reading leads to better reading, writing, spelling, grammar, and a larger vocabulary (Krashen 2004),” then we need to flood students with books and reading material at school.  And that’s exactly what a balanced literacy approach does.

We do build readers by encouraging them to find books they love and read a lot.  And unlike Mr. Pondoscio, I can share examples with you.  Take this email that I received a few weeks ago from a former student.  Now in high school, she tracked me down via this blog and sent me an email that still has me on cloud nine:

 I don’t know if you remember me but I thought I should contact you because I owe you a thanks. Before having you as a teacher, I wasn’t a fan of books or reading, but you changed that for me. I was able to find my love for books in your class. When you first handed out that reading packet, where we were challenged to complete 40 books by the end of the school year, I was horrified. When the end of the year came and I saw that 38 of those boxes were completed, I felt so accomplished, and to know I enjoyed most of those books was an even greater feeling. It was like I discovered something new about myself. I have a learning disability that is associated with reading so to have flipped my view on reading like that gave me a lot of self confidence, since it was such a difficulty before. I am so thankful to you for helping me discover my love for books, which in the long run helped to minimize my disability. You always encouraged us to read what we would enjoy…

Tell me that a balanced literacy approach doesn’t work and I’ll show you 200 more survey responses, emails, and notes from students that show you it does.  Students who now score higher on their SATs/ACTs, receive higher grades in all of their classes, and are more knowledgeable about the world they live in.

That student is still a reader, so I asked her what her favorite book is (seeing as tastes change after middle school!).  What she said simultaneously broke my heart and made my heart sing:

It’s so hard to pick a favorite book when there are so many good ones out there! I guess if I had to pick I would say that Too Kill a Mockingbird and Penny from Heaven are tied for first. I heard a lot of good things about To Kill a Mockingbird, but my brother and sister told me they hated it for the reason that in high school their teachers made them dissect every detail of the book to the point where the sight of the book made them sick. I wanted to read the book on my own, before I could have the chance to hate it. I needed to read this classic on my own without bias so in the seventh grade, I did. It turned out to be a very great favorite of mine.

Stop buying programs.  Stop buying novel comprehension kits, scripted texts, and items like Accelerated Reader.  They do not work.  They aren’t real.  Instead, they create a false sense of security because students can game the system and “pass” an assessment.  An assessment that looks nothing like the real world.  I asked this student about her favorite book because I wanted to know if she still read.  After leaving my class, students moved on to a new building where they were forced to use Accelerated Reader.  Unfortunately, I’ve shared my frustrations with AR (and similar programs) many times in the past.  Student after student would come back to me and say they were only allowed to read AR books, so they just stopped reading.  We need to stop this.

Mr. Pondiscio is right:  “The more children know, the more they can read with genuine comprehension.”  So let’s give them more knowledge.  Surround them with books, newspapers, read alouds, magazines, websites, technology, and fabulous teachers.  No one method is everything.  Mr. Pondiscio talks about E.D. Hirch’s early-childhood curriculum, one of the many recommended by the Dept of Ed, and says, “Its central premise is that an essential goal of reading instruction must be to ensure that all students — and disadvantaged kids most specifically — are explicitly taught the knowledge and vocabulary that speakers and writers assume they know.”

Exactly.  And we don’t do that when we hand teachers a curriculum and standardize education.  Excellent teachers know that children get smarter when they are all provided with the opportunity to learn more and become more knowledgeable.  So we need ELA and content area teachers working together to flood all students.  That means dropping the standardization and being flexible.  Taking the time to read one more chapter in that great read aloud because it sparked a cool research project for the class, or debating an article in the newspaper because the students have strong feelings about the topic, or throwing out the lesson plan because an issue in a popular novel or nonfiction text has inspired the students to write letters to a local politician.  Students need real-world experiences and real audiences.  They need to read like adults read, talk and write about books the way educated adults do, seek out more information the way your or I might, and write like they will when they are adults.  And we get them there by encouraging them read and write as much as possible in school.

And that’s what I see when teachers use a balanced literacy approach.  It’s a balance between choice and shared reading using authentic texts, not some piece created for a textbook company to use.  As Mr. Pondicio says, “…stops treating reading comprehension as a skill to be taught and sees it as a reflection of everything a child learns about the world.”  Exactly, sir.  More authentic reading. More authentic writing.  And the result? Smarter, more engaged citizens of the world.

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