TLN Teacher Voices
Wasting Minds: Why Our Education System is Failing and What We Can Do About It
by Ronald A. Wolk
Reviewed by Renee Moore, NBCT
Teacher Leaders Network
In a wonderfully well-timed blessing, I received a copy of Ronald Wolk's new book, Wasting Minds. Wolk is the founder and former, longtime editor of Education Week. His well-grounded and thoughtful reflections on the conditions and, more important, on the future of U.S. education echo those of many others looking at the future of education. This growing consensus, small though it is at present, bodes well for our nation and our children. Without a vision, the people perish.
Wolk's contribution to this discussion is particularly helpful because it is so succinctly and directly stated. He divides the book into two parts: faulty assumptions and new visions. He begins with a highly accurate analysis of the problems with our current systems of education, based on his long history of documenting education reform efforts. Wolk rightly notes that because of our tendency to switch too quickly from one reform attempt to the next, we have very little longitudinal information on the outcomes of these prior efforts.
His primary assertion, and one with which I strongly agree, is that "we will make real progress only when we realize our problem in education is not mainly one of performance but one of design" (p. 25). In the current education reform push, we are trying to put better "parts" into an archaic machine engineered to produce what is no longer needed.
Furthermore, education inequality is not just a byproduct of this system but is, in fact embedded, into its very structure. Failure to recognize this has led us to this dangerously circular reasoning: That we can close achievement gaps or significantly improve the quality of education for historically underserved populations of students without completely redesigning the school systems that serve them.
Wolk cites numerous court cases from around the country and the Supreme Court that have declared, "If students are required to meet high academic standards to be promoted or to graduate, then public schools are obligated to provide them with an education that is adequate for them to accomplish that" (p. 89).
Wolk also points out that as we have pushed further and further into reliance on standardized testing, we have moved farther from what knowledge students actually need to succeed in modern life. Employers, as well as colleges, are increasingly pointing out that the skills they need public school graduates to have are not the ones we are measuring in the current state standardized testing. What the expanding role of testing has done is suck tremendous amounts of much-needed resources from school systems. Wolk cites two major studies that put that cost nationally between $500 million and $22 billion.
Wolk's bold questioning extends to another almost religiously held view in today's reform conversation: putting a highly qualified teacher in every classroom. He calls this goal good but impossible. His logic is that in a field as large as teaching, there will continue to be a range of quality, and although we should work harder to eliminate those who clearly do not belong in a classroom, the rest should not only be distributed across schools but, more important, receive ongoing support toward continuous improvement.
Despite misconceptions about the reach of collective bargaining agreements, Wolk correctly observes that teachers actually have very little control over most of the key aspects of our classroom work and school operations. He asks, "How can anyone believe that the goal of placing a 'good' teacher in every classroom can be achieved without changing the conditions in which teachers work—the way schools are structured and operated?" (p. 62). The sad truth is if we did have a highly qualified teacher right now to put in every classroom in the United States, many of them who don't quit or aren't run out for refusing to toe the standardized line may well end up burned out, frustrated, and mediocre.
Summarizing the paradox that has plagued teaching in the United States throughout its history, Wolk concludes, "Although we refer to teaching as a profession, not much about the job is professional. Professionals like doctors and lawyers set their own performance standards, hold their members accountable for meeting those standards, determine to a large degree . . . their own working conditions, and receive compensation perceived to be commensurate with their professional contributions to society" (p. 59). These professional characteristics are denied to the vast majority of U.S. schoolteachers.
Most impressive, however, are Wolk's suggestions about what we need to do to correct many of these problems, and primary on that list is a compelling argument to redesign education around more individualized student learning. This closely parallels the vision of my teacher leader colleagues in our book Teaching 2030 (see the related video and blog post).
Teachers will more and more become what Wolk calls "advisors who guide students in educating themselves" (p. 101). On the surface, this seems like a radical, and to some even irresponsible, conception of teachers' work. In reality, students and their families are already rapidly moving toward a much more personalized approach to shaping their own learning. Certainly, the incredible growth and influence of social media tools is one driving force in that shift. Another is the growing realization that children do not learn all things at the same pace and in the same way, and that we do them a great disservice when we try to force them into such fast-food-style learning patterns.
Of all Wolk's recommendations, the idea of letting students (and their parents) direct their own learning is the one that may make some in education and policy most uncomfortable. An important aspect of system redesign that would support this is greater use of performance-based assessments. He lists several of the most common reasons more schools and districts have not embraced such assessments. Curiously, two that he does not mention are the higher cost and the more insidious philosophical view that education really should be indoctrination (and that view is held on the left and the right of the political spectrum); therefore, assessment should simply be regurgitation.
In line with his vision of the future, Wolk argues as I have, that we need to do away with the practice of dividing children by age into grade levels, making our learning systems truly integrated and seamless from prekindergarten through college.
Ronald Wolk may prove to be one of many prophets crying in the wilderness of education reform, but as Barnett Berry notes in his prologue to Teaching 2030, "We cannot create what we cannot imagine."
Back in 2007, we titled a post at our companion blog Teacher Leadership Today this way: "Why Do Teachers Quit?" Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that over the intervening 3 1/2 years, a number of teachers have found their way to that post and added a comment. The most recent appeared just this week. It comes from a young teacher in Louisiana and is worth highlighting, because it may offer an answer. It certainly expresses the frustration many feel.
I am a young, motivated third-year third grade teacher. I have moved schools, moved grade levels, and had my first child in the last three years. I have also survived a district-wide reduction in force. My mother is a former classroom teacher and currect administrator, so I knew what I was getting into. However, I am starting to realize that eventually we get burned out.
In my opinion, it isn't the teaching part that is exhausting. Teaching is the most enjoyable part of my day. Surprisingly, I also enjoy analyzing data and using it to create effective lesson plans. I think it is exciting and challenging to develop ways to close the gap of educational deficits of my students. I am like many young teachers. We are not incompetent or unwilling.
Despite my enthusiasm concerning instruction, I am burning out as well. It seems that I must continuously manage extra things for which there is simply no time. For example, tonight I'm consumed with a plethora of technology issues, an action plan for updating classroom workstations with excercises to address weaknesses my class as shown on formative assessments, and papers to grade. You see, I have had much constructive professional develoopment. However, these in-services leave me with a list of new things to implement and...you guessed it...no additional time to put what I have learned into practice in my classroom. I feel that if I had just one student-free day in my classroom, I could keep my head above water.
Additionally, paperwork as a teacher is a nightmare. There are times at work that I neglect my paperwork because I place my students as first priority. After being reprimanded, I realize that I'm just going to have to learn to place my students on the back-burner. I suppose paperwork is simply more important to administrators.
So why am I burnt out? I don't have enough time to plan and coordinate quality instructional strategies, and I have to spend much of my available time pushing paper. Did I mention I have a family at home to take care of?
Last fall, when TLN member and experienced special educator Elizabeth Stein decided to make the move from elementary to middle grades teaching, we thought it would be interesting to give her two popular books for new middle school teachers and see how helpful – and necessary – they might be, despite her nine years in the classroom. Here’s her report.
by Elizabeth Stein, NBCT
Smithtown Central Schools (NY)
Teacher Leaders Network
During my interview last spring as I pursued a transfer from elementary to middle school, one of the standard questions came early on: Why do you want to be a teacher in the middle?
I knew this question would come. Yet when the time finally arrived, I was struck with a sense of urgency to make my case. After eight years as a special education teacher at the elementary level, I knew it was time to move to the middle grades. My response included statements to support my hope to go from teaching students to learn how to read to teaching them how to read to learn. I tried to convey the excitement of teaching within the parameters and true meaning of educating the whole child. This is a developmental age where kids can laugh one minute and cry the next. Where a teacher must take into account the serious balance of social/emotional and academic needs throughout each day, within each lesson…and be ready for anything at any moment.
Before I transferred, I was in complete harmony with my elementary teaching assignment. Planning lessons and making any necessary changes on the spot was second nature. Developing a rapport with the kids was extremely simple. Working with colleagues to meet the needs of the students was clear-cut. Now that I’ve transferred, I know I have shaken up my world.
I think it’s good to step out of your comfort zone. At least that’s been one of my mantras for the first half of this school year. I knew there was going to be a transition phase, but did not realize the intensity of what I would experience by “moving up a level.” And now here I am—on another planet.
New teachers typically get a mentor their first year. This is my ninth year teaching—who needs a mentor, right? Wrong. I do. That’s where Rick Wormeli comes in.
I’ve been clutching onto his books, Day One & Beyond: Practical Matters for New Middle-Level Teachers and Meet Me in the Middle: Becoming an Accomplished Middle-Level Teacher for the past few months. Reading through his accumulated wisdom (which he draws from other teachers as well as himself) has confirmed what I’ve suspected all along. Kids are kids, and the underlying premise of educating them well remains the same regardless of the grade level.
Kids need teachers to connect with their needs, care for them, and make learning meaningful. Kids want you to be fair, and they like to be active learners. They like to have their opinions valued, and they like to make decisions. They must have structure and limits set so they can exercise their need to explore a sense of self and learn within a safe learning environment. Knowledge and skills are important, but ultimately, Wormeli says, “What we teach is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter what we teach. What matters is what students take with them when they leave us at the end of the year; this is our greatest testimony as educators.” This is one of the many Wormeli quotes I have taped on the inside of my plan book and my brain.
Both of these books are treasures for any new middle school teacher, be they novice or level-jumping veteran. Veteran teachers who are new to the middle school world (like me) can easily build upon their teaching behaviors and past habits. The new teacher will find these books invaluable as she or he begins to formulate ideas and evolve toward the polished practices and effective actions of experienced professionals.
From the first day of middle school
Day One and Beyond (2003) is a sensible and realistic book to guide all teachers to organize the necessary components of effective teaching. It’s structured within 12 chapters that provide easy-to-read, easy-to-apply, and easy-to-connect-to advice, delivered via Wormeli’s real-world perspective and friendly writing style. It is perfect for the new teacher who has never set up a classroom, kept a grade book, prepared a substitute teacher folder, dealt with parents, or set up the physical classroom.
As a veteran teacher, after reading this book, I combined Wormeli’s advice with my own experiences and thought: this is such great advice for a brand new teacher. It wasn’t until a few months into the year that I found reasons to return to this text and tweak my own ideas and organizational systems. For example, the chapter on discipline has been a tremendous help to me.
As a special education teacher, two of my periods are spent teaching reading using the concepts of the Wilson Language Program. One of my groups presents as a challenge (or shock) to a well-polished elementary school teacher’s teaching system. It’s a class I look forward to each day because I know these kids genuinely benefit from the teachings and reading experiences I plan for each day. Yet, there is one student who, due to his diagnosis of dyslexia (and some severe learned helplessness behaviors), pushes back to the point that I find myself in a constant decision-making mode as I guide all of the kids to be accountable and responsible for their actions and learning. His behavioral shifts are sudden, disruptive, and predictably unpredictable. There is no rhyme or reason. And the worst part is that his behaviors adversely affect the entire mood of our small group instruction.
I’ve felt there was really nowhere for me to turn for collegial support. My instinctive strategies often work — for the minute, the day, the week — but I sometimes feel like I am only one cell within a large egg carton. At the elementary level, we had a team approach where the student is in one classroom with some pull-out sessions—so it was easy for teachers to brainstorm solutions. Here, each class runs independent of the next; especially in eighth grade. Chapter Three in Day One and Beyond has been the place I turned whenever I needed to be inspired to keep my chin up. For instance, the idea that discipline is a teaching tool, not a thing apart from other classroom instruction, connects directly to my convictions. Wormeli says:
The most effective disciplinarians are those who understand the nature of the young adolescent and who employ what works, not what’s punitive or vengeful. Accomplished middle school teachers see management issues as opportunities instead of annoying intrusions. They realize the full scope of who they’re teaching: humans in a highly susceptible stage of transition….
Wormeli explains that discipline should be set up at the beginning as one dimension of instruction and assessment. He sends the clear message that to just teach and focus on our subject matter is not enough. As middle school teachers we must have time to teach how to live as respectful members of a society and community, in a civilized manner.
Another observation that gets me through each day is the message that teachers must understand and respond to where young adolescent students are physically and emotionally right now before we can do anything cognitively. Wormeli’s words provide great peace of mind for me as I continue to find the balance between teaching my subject of reading and working with some students who want to do anything but read. This chapter on discipline has validated my own ideas and continues to strengthen my wish to give the students what they need.
Chapter Five on grading has also been a great resource of knowledge. Wormeli’s ideas on record keeping and grading have provided me with ideas tailored to the middle grades. At the elementary level, grading was a completely different experience. It was more about formulating comments on how Johnny was performing, then stating whether kids were achieving at satisfactory levels or “excellence.” Grading was simply about rating students on a 1-4 scale to depict their level of mastery in each content area. At the middle school level, I see how easy it is for teachers to get stuck on the “grade-myopic train.” And sadly, they take the kids along for the ride. The focus on grades is all consuming for many kids. What letter they get on any given assignment seems to define who they are for many students. And the kids seem to think that the teachers “give” them their grade.
Wormeli guides teachers to use assessment to inform instruction. He considers assessment another teaching tool. He outlines a grading system that keeps the focus on informing and guiding instruction that I found to fit exactly into my own belief system. (These are ideas he develops further in his 2006 book Fair Is Not Always Equal.)The sole purpose is not to label kids; it’s all about instruction and creating students who are accountable for their efforts and behaviors.
The fundamentals of good middle school practice
Wormeli’s first book, Meet Me in the Middle (2001) is another vital resource for all brand new teachers, and for those entering middle school for the first time regardless of prior teaching experiences. It’s divided in three information packed sections: Creating a Culture of Learning, Higher Student Achievement through Innovative and Accomplished Practice, and Extending Our Professional Practice. The first two parts are comprised of five chapters and the third part includes seven chapters. This book clicked with me for so many reasons, and earned its own spot in my school bag every day. Every time I had a question, a concern, or needed to turn somewhere to just validate whatever I was feeling, I was able to substantiate my sanity by engaging in dialogue with the pages of this book. I’ve had my copy for about five months, yet it has all of the wrinkles, post-its, and annotated notes in the margins one would expect if I owned it for years.
The book begins with a questionnaire to see if you are a teacher who guides students’ motivations in ways that entice them to invest in the learning process of your lessons. The premise of all of Wormeli’s valuable ideas for motivating students nest naturally into my own belief that a teacher must shake up his or her instructional techniques and tap into the students’ natural instinct for fun. And the challenge lies in finding the balance between teaching the subject and also supporting the students’ emotional states and desire to have fun. The answer to finding this balance lies within developing a safe and relaxed learning environment where the kids feel the structure, yet also feel the importance of their place in that environment.
Wormeli’s chapter on brain research reminds teachers of the necessity to focus on the faces that stare back at them during the daily lessons. All teachers must learn to recognize when the empty faces staring back at them need to be revived. And this redirection can often occur with a simple tweak to the process of learning: Limit the amount of teacher talk and present the information in chunks to allow students to process key ideas.
Wormeli’s next chapter on active learning continues to support the need for teachers to plan content around opportunities for students to explore their thinking and the thinking of their peers. I am a firm believer in the idea that kids should not have their minds completely filled with the ideas of the teacher at the front of the room. Students need time to connect to ideas, decide what they think of ideas, and, most important, they need time to think about why they think the way they do. I marvel everyday at the developing ideas of my deep-thinking middle school students. Their connections are critical to the learning process as we strive for the right blend of content, emotions, and fun.
I think fun does not have to always be in the form of a game or activity. If fun engages students and motivates them to learn, then sometimes I think fun can be defined as feeling like a valued member of the classroom learning environment. When a student feels valued; he is more likely to be engaged and motivated and more likely to feel part of a community of learners.
The chapter on differentiated instruction is another not-to-be-missed read. Wormeli’s ideas are well-known (he’s written several books with differentiation as a major theme) and truly a source of support for new and veteran teachers. After reading this chapter, I put a few ideas into place. One is sharing Gardner’s theory on multiple intelligences with kids. I incorporated this with my elementary school students, but found great value in taking this idea to another level at the middle school. My students really got into using this as a tool for deepening their awareness as they naturally try to define themselves. They followed my lead to think more deeply about their strengths are and how they can use those strengths to achieve academic and social goals.
Companions on a journey
Both of these middle-school-focused books by Rick Wormeli guide new teachers to know what to expect and how to set the year up for success. They help veteran teachers who are new to the middle school scene build upon past practices and plan to reach and teach the whole child at this very exciting phase of academic, social, emotional, and physical development.
The information in both books has been a tremendous source of knowledge and support and has helped me through the first half of my first year as a middle school teacher. And I know they’ll continue to be a source of comfort and wisdom as I journey through the rest of this school year and beyond.
Elizabeth Stein is a National Board-certified special education teacher in the Smithtown Central School District on Long Island, N.Y. She also teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in special education and literacy. Her advice for new special education teachers appeared in Teacher Magazine last summer.
Photo: Education Week Teacher.
Becoming a Great High School: Six Strategies and One Attitude that Make a Difference
By Tim R. Westerberg
Reviewed by Mary Tedrow, NBCT
High School English/journalism (N. Va.)
Becoming a Great High School: Six Strategies and One Attitude that Make a Difference is full of familiar information since, as a classroom teacher, I have been on the receiving end of many of the innovations cited by Tim Westerberg as means to move a high school from “good to great.”
Westerberg’s thin text (i.e., “a quick read for busy administrators”) outlines methods to change the attitude of the professionals in the building to a we-can-do-it mindset as the professional team moves schools from okay to wowser. Westerberg leans heavily on the business management text Good to Great that was making the rounds in my system in 2000. Westerberg’s text is essentially a roadmap for where to drive the building-level bus of reform, in Jim Collins' Good to Great terminology.
Citing Robert Marzano as the wellspring of his ideas, Westerberg employs another education buzz-term, the writing standards mnemonic 6+1, to outline what a school can and should do to move a high school to greatness: Follow the six strategies and couple them with a can-do attitude, the plus-one aspect of the formula.
Many of Marzano’s points are incorporated here: Too many standards are taught. Focus on the Power Standards. Administer frequent common formative assessments to assess student learning. Encourage collaborative work among the professionals to create standards of teaching and learning. Define rigorous teaching to encourage a culture of success and foster the mood that “what we do here is important” to the student body at large.
What about the elephant?
There is little to argue with in this text as it sets clear guidelines for professional improvement in a building where the success of each child is paramount — also my classroom goal. I agree we need alignment from top to bottom.
The book outlines the role of administrators in this framework. Rather than just read it, I can imagine an administrator referring to it from time to time to check in on where and how the strategizing is going.
I’ve no beef with the content.
I do have a beef with the elephant in the room.
Westerberg gives only a nod to the need for the professionalization of teachers in his afterward, where he references the work of the Center for Teaching Quality and its 2008 TeacherSolutions report about the teachers’ role in improving the nation’s schools (Measuring what Matters: The effects of National Board Certification on advancing 21st Century teaching and learning) on page 112 of 114 pages. He acknowledges that teacher leadership is the next step in reform.
It should be the first.
The outline for effective teaching and learning ignores two essentials that would make such a plan truly great: empowerment of both students and teachers through ownership of goal setting and self-evaluation and assessment, along with the time to do so.
A bulleted list on pages 57-58 outlines eight ways to find time for teachers to do the essential work of collaboration. Many items on the list have been promised to those of us who yearn for collaboration with peers (but never considered in my working experience is bullet #1, a huge insult to professionalism: eliminate duty periods). Only one suggestion has been acted upon in my workplace: provide substitutes so teachers can work together.
This has happened twice in the past year.
Meanwhile, directives based on Marzano have added a burden to already burdened teachers who must delay their “own work,” in the form of lesson planning and assessment, to do the work of the building. This creates a resentment that places any improvement program at risk.
Unwillingness to comply with change is often dealt with in high school reform books in a chapter titled “Dealing with Difficult Teachers.” (Though, thankfully, Westerberg has not included that chapter.) Yet, as each new directive comes from above, teachers are tasked with building the plane while flying it, and recently this has been occurring in shorter and shorter time frames.
It is exhausting.
Veterans get good at fending off the change-du-jour. Teachers learn to shrug, shut the door, or risk getting worked to death over every new initiative.
Great schools will be a fact of life when great working conditions are standard and teachers are provided with time and resources to enact deep and lasting reform. Piling more work on already over-worked teachers continues to thwart the best intentions.
Westerberg’s plus-one attitude adjustment at the building level comes from celebrating success. But whose success is being celebrated? No matter how noble, celebrating your goals is not the same as setting and reaching my own. Neither is it the same as the sense of pride and self-satisfaction when the self-identified work achieves measurable change.
Thus does corporate partying make cynics of us all.
Both Marzano and Westerberg would do much for the education field if they first wrote the book on acknowledging and providing space and time for teacher knowledge and growth, rather than on how to manage change in a non-conducive environment.
That would be revolutionary.
Teacher Ariel Sacks blogs at the TLN website under the banner "On the Shoulders of Giants." In a recent post she identifies the top five reasons teachers avoid contact with education policy -- and refutes each one. Here's the first:
* * * * *
Recently on the Teacher Leaders Network, I landed in a discussion about the many great teachers we know who, for a variety of reasons, stay far away from education policy. In this post, I'm trying to respond to what I see as the top five reasons teachers tend not to get involved.
One: It's not my job to be involved in education policy.
My Response: While it's not in our job description to be involved in education policy, it is in our best interest to voice our perspectives, because policies directly affect the conditions of our work, our ability to do our best for our students, and our willingness to stay in teaching.
Historically, teachers have been the recipients of policies written by outsiders, higher up on the ladder than we are. We experience the results of decisions and usually have plenty to say about how they play out in our schools. How many times have you issued some choice words about the latest education legislation at lunch with a group of colleagues? Why not hone that message and share it with a wider audience? Also, if the policy makers are at the top of the education pyramid, who does that leave at the bottom? Students and parents. And that's just not right. We need to challenge the current hierarchy so that the people who matter most in American public education, students, parents, and teachers, have a bigger voice. Teachers, especially, who are most directly responsible for the' education of students, need to be heard on the issues.
TLN blogger Renee Moore (TeachMoore) writes of miguided education funding priorities and their impact on those citizens who most need access to a quality educational experience:
As our state and federal governments put less funding into education generally, they insist that our nation must rise again to the top of global educational attainment. The Secretary of Education proclaims we must learn to do more with less. I know I'm not alone in finding that statement deeply disingenuous, if not downright insulting to those of us who have never been given proper or equal resources with which to educate the children for whom we are responsible.
When children at one elementary school in town can have a library with books and computers, while those across town have to settle for some donated older books on a cart — when one high school has a fully functioning science laboratory where students can engage in hands-on learning — while at the other, teachers have to buy a single lab kit out of their own pockets to show their classes an experiment — as long as these and many other inequities are allowed to continue unchallenged, we are lying to those children in those poorer conditions when we tell them we value them or their education.
Read her complete post at teacherleaders.typepad.com
The Well Balanced Teacher
by Mike Anderson
Reviewed by Kristen Sluiter
Fourth Grade Teacher (WA)
New Millennium Network
In the spirit of full disclosure, it took me months to finally finish Mike Anderson's The Well Balanced Teacher: How to Work Smarter and Stay Sane Inside the Classroom and Out. Anderson taught for 15 years and shared that around his 5th year he realized he was working more than in his first year. In my fourth year of teaching, Anderson’s observation was one I’d recently happened upon, too.
One of the main reasons it took me months to finish this book was that, frankly, the first chapters did not resonate with me. I was looking for advice on how to set up a weekly schedule to balance my needs as a person and my needs as a teacher.
Each chapter takes on a new topic about how to create balance in one’s teaching career. By chapter 3 entitled "Belonging: Becoming an Integral Part of a Community," I was fed up. The previous two chapters were about the importance of managing stress and meeting my most basic needs like sleep and nutrition. As far as I was concerned, I didn’t need any more ho-hum reminders that eating well, keeping an exercise log, feeling safe at school, finding a way to disconnect from school, and getting enough sleep were key.
I dismissed the book for months as I struggled to find my own routine for balance. After discovering for myself that it takes small steps to create balance (and sometimes in the most unexpected ways), I picked The Well-Balanced Teacher back up again to give it another try.
As I neared the end of the book, I finally engaged. It was in the very last chapter, "Balance: The Importance of Balancing Our Time and Energy," that I found what I needed. It had sample schedules of two different teachers with varying needs/lifestyles. And it offered solid advice that anyone who might be struggling could get behind.
To paraphrase, it acknowledged that there isn’t enough real time for all we need to do but that if we carve out time for nonnegotiables, figure out what to eliminate, learn to say no, work more efficiently and leverage the strictness of our schedules, we might just have it made.
And there in the Afterword, was a note from the author that validated what I’d figured out in the months away from the book: Take small steps and start now.
We're pleased to make the "finals" for Best Group Blog in the 2010 EduBlog Awards — our second year running. If you like what you see here... and you see it by December 13, 2010 ... you might drop by the EduBlog Awards page and give us a vote. We haven't actually won yet! We're listed as TLN Teacher Voices.
Susan Graham blogs under the TLN brand at Teacher Magazine. Her blog A Place at the Table offers a wonderful mix of reflections on education policy and practice, spiced with savory observations on the teaching life. This article for the ASCD Express online magazine draws on Susan's three decades of experience as a middle school home economics teacher who survived the transition to "Family and Consumer Sciences." In the Express's recent themed issue on Teaching Boys, Susan reveals that she actually has more males than females in her FACS classes these days. Quite a few more, in fact. And here's why:
The terms "machine" and "construct" provide insight into why my boys like to sew. At the risk of stereotyping by gender, boys are more likely to be kinesthetic learners; they are concrete, independent learners who are much more interested in solving problems than in absorbing content. Most students are more motivated when they "do" rather than when they are told, but a 13-year-old boy often really needs hands-on experiences at school. A sewing project requires students to read and follow sequential instructions and translate words on a page into a three-dimensional object. A boy who is resistant to literature often finds technical reading more engaging and more aligned to his long-term literacy needs. The mechanics of the sewing machine are a real-life lesson in the physics of interconnected simple machines.
However, workplace readiness skills are the core of my curriculum, and workplace readiness skills seem particularly appropriate for middle school boys. Although the adolescent transition of middle school girls may be dramatic, it is usually gradual. But middle school boys frequently explode into young adulthood in a period of months rather than years. They are impatient to be men, but they retain the impetuousness of childhood. Their enthusiasm to test their newfound skills and ideas is too often perceived as defiance or disruption.
They want control and independence, but rather than providing opportunities to develop responsibility and personal accountability, these boys are held to expectations that reflect values, priorities, and goals set by adults who never ask the boys what they thought was important. Adolescent boys tend to have more self-confidence than judgment, and they need to learn to assess their own level of competency. Working independently or in a small group to produce food or clothing is about as personal and immediate as learning can get. And performance is measurable when it goes in your mouth or on your back.
Great insights that reveal (once again) what the folks over in "electives" and "voc-tech" have to teach us all about engaging curriculum. Read more of what Susan has to say at the ASCD website.
TLN member Ken Bernstein, blogging as "teacherken" at DailyKos:
I most often write about schools. I have often mentioned that I think we need a radical rethinking of the purpose of our schools, because the way they are structured and what we are doing with them is undermining our democracy and ultimately will also undermine our economy, not as the "reformers" would have you believe, but because we will be training drones, not educating creative thinkers who can add to our society and our economy.