26 September 2006

Yes, "average" students can do AP

In his column today, Jay Mathews discusses Patrick Welsh's assertion in his September 19th column that "average" students are being pushed into advanced classes (AP and IB) that are too difficult for them, and that they need to be in easier classes where they can succeed.

I agree with Mathews, and disagree with Welsh. What I see Welsh upset about is what I've spent four years trying to do with my AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) students, and in fact, is what the AVID program is geared toward. AVID's purpose is to challenge students academically by placing them in higher-level classes than they would have otherwise been in, and then--the important part--PROVIDING THEM WITH SUPPORT ONCE THEY'RE THERE.

Mathews, while he does an excellent job refuting Welsh's arguments, misses one key necessity--co-curricular support outside of the class itself. The process of moving "average" kids to higher-level classes won't work just by dumping them in AP classes and hoping they hang on. Virtually every student in higher-level classes is there at least in part because of a supportive parent, and this often-overlooked factor is often the determining factor between an "average" student and a "higher-level" one.

The purpose of the AVID program is to be the academic support (and de facto academic parent, when needs be) either for students whose parents are unable to help them at home, or in addition to the parents' support. As long as a student has the individual determination to succeed and a support structure on which to rely, the average student is just as capable of success as a higher-level one.

On a personal note, I'm proud to say that every single one of my AVID seniors this year has been moved up at least one level in English since their freshman year (from remedial to college-prep, college-prep to AP.) Two of them have even moved up two levels. Every single one of them has more than the UC-minimum of two years of lab science. Every single one of them has received credit for at least one AP or junior-college concurrent enrollment class (we have a very meager AP selection, so many students take JC classes to supplement their regular course load.) All but two of my AVID seniors have a UC GPA of a 3.0 or higher, and the two that don't are within spitting distance of it.

These are kids that started out below grade level. Many of them still tested at the basic level in English on the state test at the end of their junior year. They've worked extremely hard to be where they are, and I'm proud of all of them.

I've carried over my AVID philosophies into the pre-AP English classes I teach. Last year I took nine students that scored below grade-level ("basic") on the state tests. All of those kids also scored below grade level on an independently-administered reading exam we give them to determine class placement, so I know the exam results were more or less accurate. At the end of the year, six of those nine were recommended on for sophomore pre-AP. All six of those students scored on grade level this past year on the state tests, and one of them scored advanced (above grade level.)

Bringing so-called "average" students into AP classes is more important than just for looking good with regards to how many minorities are enrolled in higher-level classes. As Mathews stated, it takes an incredible amount of extra work on the part of the teacher and the parents. But this is what we, as professionals, are supposed to be doing anyway.

If we want these students to truly succeed in college, they need to be doing college-level work *now*. Students don't just magically show up to college and suddenly have the skills necessary to succeed--this is a process that must be learned through prior preparation. With programs like AVID, so-called "average" students can be prepared and supported to succeed in rigorous courses in both high school and college, as long as they have the individual determination to do the work.

Mathews, Welsh, and any other interested party can ask any of my honors students if I ever once slowed down my English class just to support students who were struggling. I already know what their answer will be. All of my support methods were either built into the class or conducted outside of school time, and virtually all of the students thrived--it came down essentially to the matter of whether or not they were willing to put in the extra work necessary to succeed.

I have enjoyed Welsh's writing before, but I really think he missed the mark on this one. His is a mindset I see all too often in my school, and it's one thing to beat my head against the same walls locally, but it truly frustrates me to see those same opinions espoused in a more national venue by a person who should really know better.

We need an "Extreme Makeover: School Edition"

Overheard yesterday while talking about trying to get work orders fulfilled at my school:

"Yeah, it's like the Make-A-Wish Foundation."

Maybe you had to be there, or maybe you just have to work in our district, but I laughed so hard tears were leaking out of my eyes.

Maybe I'm just bitter about the broken desk I still have (why oh why did the Williams Act people skip my classroom when they came last week?) or the projector that STILL isn't ceiling-mounted after 4 years, leaving students to trip over the cord, or the three work orders I've put in since April to get the tagging outside my classroom door painted over... Yeah, probably that.

Our school is painted white, and I'm convinced that only idiots paint a school white. It's like saying, "yeah, here's a nice fresh canvas for you guys to draw/paint/tag on!" I might as well start passing out Sharpies and reward them with extra credit for creativity.

17 September 2006

Confronting the Culture of Can't Do

This week's LA Times's School Me column by Bob Sipchen really struck a chord.

Sipchen discusses the trials of Danny Martinez, just another freshmen beginning his year at just another southern California high school, facing just another battle with the school to be placed in classes befitting his goals and abilities, rather than classes that the school has room in which to put him.

Sipchen finishes his column with his question of the week: "Have your first weeks of school been fun or frustrating?"

Sadly, my first weeks of school have resembled Daniel's, only from the teacher's end rather than the student's.

Although my school is roughly 1/3 the size of Eagle Rock, we have had the exact same scheduling problems--students shelved in classes where they are out of their ability range (either too easy or too difficult), an administration promising to straighten schedules out, an overworked guidance department who tells us daily not to send students to the office because they don't have the resources to deal with them.

Tomorrow begins the fourth week of school, and I'm still trying to get scheduling changes for four students in one of my classes, students who should have never been placed in that class to begin with and who requested the change before school began. On Friday, I was told that, with luck, they'll be out of the class by the end of the month, 5 weeks after the start of school.

Sadly, I have other students who just gave up and accepted their fate--students repeating classes at a lower level that they already passed on a higher one, students who gave up on getting the math or science or history class they need for college admission because they were told too many times the same thing that Daniel and his mother were told: "There's nothing I can do."

This year has been unusually replete with scheduling nightmares, and all of us teachers have become cranky and cynical on a level not normally seen until May, with the onset of state testing. I thought it was just me, and then in the lunchroom on Friday, we all came to the consensus that it feels like the end of the year, instead of just the beginning.

I can deal with my own convoluted schedule--five preps, class sizes of up to 39 students, a classroom that was supposed to undergo modernization beginning at the end of the month, but has now been pushed off three more months. I don't like it, but I don't have a choice, so I deal.

What I can't handle is seeing students, strong and struggling alike, stuck in a system designed to support them, but that instead seems to be failing them this year. I estimate this year that close to half of my students have a study hall or teacher's assistant period, simply because there is no class space in which to put them. We're short teachers. We're short classroom space. We lost one of our computer labs this year. Our library has been turned into the front/counseling office because the office building is undergoing modernization, and that is apparently also running late.

What started as an exasperating and stressful series of events for all of us has turned into an educational farce. While all of us (administrators, office/counseling staff, and teachers) are soldiering on as best as possible, none of us are happy, and it's an attitude that is rubbing off on the students.

There's nowhere to really point the blame for the disaster that this school year has been so far. Hindsight is always 20/20, but in this case, the situation we're in at the moment is so convoluted that I don't think that more prior planning could have even averted the problems we are having.

I'm exhausted, and it's only the beginning of the fourth week. I'm rapidly becoming bitter--bitter with the system, bitter with the students, bitter with public education as a whole.

I hate to lose faith so soon, but I honestly don't think I've ever had a worse start to a school year, either as a teacher or as a student.

Sorry Bob--I doubt that's what you were looking for. I'm generally optimistic and enthusiastic at the start of each new year, but that's just not happening for me right now.

Sage Advice Indeed

Around last March, I acquired a subscription to Edutopia, a magazine published by the George Lucas Educational Foundation and that is free for teachers.

I picked up this month's issue and was thumbing through while I was making dinner, and my eyes settled upon the Sage Advice column, where the question of the month was "What's the most commonly asked question in the classroom?"

I laughed long and loud at one response:

Most frequently asked question: "Can I go to the bathroom?"
Most frequently heard response: "I don't know? Can you?"
Next most frequently asked question: "May I go to the bathroom?"
Next most frequently heard response: "Yes, you may."

This is a daily exchange in my classroom, and it seems as though every year, just as soon as I get one group of students trained, they move on and I start the new year, training a new group of students.

It was the final response on the page, however, that really made me think:

"What are we doing today?" A large number of middle school students ask this question every day, despite having the day's agenda written on the whiteboard and the weekly calendar printed and handed out on Mondays.

What they are really asking is, "Can I connect with you again today?" and "Please focus on me, because I want some one-on-one time with you." Never underestimate the power of a friendly teacher smile, a listening ear, and a word or two with these students!

While I work with freshmen, they are usually not far from middle-school students in terms of behavior and ability, and this is a question that I hear scores of times in a single day. Usually, I will tell the first student that asks (despite the fact that I too have an agenda on the board) and then, when each successive student asks, I'll point to that first student and say, "I don't know, ask _____."

It never really occured to me until I read the above piece of sage advice what students are really asking, and now I've resolved that, when they ask, I'll instead ask them how their day has been thus far.

I enjoy talking with my students--hearing about their lives and their thoughts and their general outlook on things. For the past four years, however, I always interpreted the "what are we doing today" question as nothing more than kids being too lazy to look on the board, an interpretation that now makes me cringe. I want my students to connect with me, I want to connect with them, and I'm glad that the sage advice opened my eyes.

So, how was your day?

16 September 2006

Critical Thinking, Not Standardized Tests

Well said...

Public Schools Should Teach Kids How to Think, Not How to Master Multiple Choice

By Jeff Lantos

(JEFF LANTOS teaches at Marquez Charter Elementary School in Los Angeles.)

I'M BEGINNING my 20th year of teaching in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and if I've learned anything, it is that good teaching cannot be measured quantitatively.

Every year, we hear administrators crowing or politicians moaning over student test scores as if these numbers were indisputable indicators of teaching excellence, mediocrity or failure.

In fact, test scores (on the annual standardized state test) are like the closing prices on the stock exchange. They fluctuate for any number of reasons. A bad breakfast, a case of the jitters or skipping a line and filling in the wrong bubbles can wreak as much havoc as not knowing the difference between "abjure" and "adjure."

Likewise, teaching to the test can inflate scores but, given no context, all this random information is seldom retained. As a result, evaluating a teacher based solely on student test scores is like evaluating a corporation based solely on just one day's stock price.

If you really want to evaluate a teacher, you have to walk into a classroom, sit down and listen. I'm convinced that when you're listening to good teaching, you hear a familiar refrain. It goes like this: What is the connection between … and … ? So much of good teaching is about taking strands of information and looking for connections and broadening the context.

Endless test preparation has the opposite effect. It shrinks the context. It reduces inquiry. It mitigates against Socratic dialogue and can drain much of the passion from teaching and learning.

If we can get beyond the notion of schools as testing factories, then teachers will have the freedom to strive for a higher standard of excellence. Part of that higher standard would include the teaching of critical thinking. How does a teacher do that? By creating an academic environment in which students can sift through the mass of facts being hurled at them and begin to perceive pathways of interconnectedness.

The irony is that young students begin by making connections. They're taught to check their subtraction by adding. They can see that a rectangle can be divided into two triangles. They know there's some link between the Pledge of Allegiance and the flag hanging from the wall. They connect classroom behavior with a specific code of conduct.

The challenge for teachers is to build on that foundation, to encourage students to seek connections between, say, fractions and percentages, or between lobbying and legislation, or between Copernicus and Darwin, or between the main characters in two different novels.

I like to ask my students why the food in India, Africa and Mexico is so much spicier than the food in Ireland, Iceland and Finland. Typically, lots of theories are advanced and eventually (and perhaps with some guidance) students use their knowledge of geography, chemistry, botany and economics to make the connections that will lead to an explanation. We teachers call this "thinking across the curriculum."

Once students start seeing how and why seemingly disparate topics are related, and more important, once they start looking for and making those connections, then the teacher will have performed that special kind of classroom alchemy — turning passive receivers of knowledge into active participants in the learning process.

The answer to the spice question: First, spices grow in equatorial regions; and, second, in hotter climes, food rots more quickly, so spices were needed to preserve the food and, later, to mask the rancid smell.

11 September 2006

Bill Would Limit Hiring of Unwanted Teachers

If a new measure passed by the California Legislature is signed into law, as expected, principals at low-scoring schools will no longer have to hire bad teachers forced out from other schools, and leaders of higher-scoring schools will have an annual window for hiring whomever they want. One principal who supports the bill says it would allow her to find people who are a "good fit" for her school, but the president of the California Teachers Association said the bill incorrectly implies that all of the teachers in question are poor performers.

10 September 2006

No State Education Official Left Behind?

Last week I wrote to the editor of the Daily Courier (Prescott, Arizona) to point out an egregious grammatical gaffe . Today I’m going to write to the reporter at my local newspaper who cobbled together this sentence in a story about lack of oversight for California schools that fail to meet No Child Left Behind standards:

But there’s not enough resources available for micromanaging, state officials said, adding that they are starting to work more at the district level as more are deemed failing by the feds.

Single subjects demand singular verbs, and plural subjects demand plural verbs. “Resources,” the subject of the first clause in this complex sentence, is clearly plural. Therefore, the correct verb to use is “are.” The reporter (or the copy editor) should have written: “But there are not enough resources available….”

Unfortunately, my gut instinct tells me that when the reporter called the state education officials, one of them probably did say, “There’s not enough resources available.” In which case, why are these less-than-highly-qualified people in charge of enforcing the mandates of No Child Left Behind?

06 September 2006

Why Class Size Does Matter!

One of the major components of the SRA Reach program that was implemented in my school district is smaller class sizes. The program itself recommends no more than 15 students, but states that the program can still work with a larger class size. Fortunately, my school district as well as our Reform Coordinator has worked hard on keeping the class sizes for students in the SRA Reach program relatively small.

Right now, my 3 hour block class has 20 students. It should come as no shock to those of us in education (or for that matter anyone with a modicum of common sense) what a difference this makes. I've had my 3 hour block students for the same amount of time as I have had my two group of social studies students, about a week and a half, and guess which group of kids I feel I already know better? You got it, my small class size of 20 students.

In a week and a half, I've been able to determine which of my students are struggling because they are second language learners, which ones may have attendance issues, and the few who probably need this intervention due to family issues. This cannot be said for my larger class size of 25 and 30 students respectively. In years past, I've had class sizes reach 33 students, and it often took me well into the first quarter before coming to the realization that more than a few of my students needed extra help. This inevitably left me struck with pangs of guilt thinking I should have caught on sooner.

Even now, I know all the names of my students in my SRA Reach class. That cannot be said for my other two classes, although I am almost there. I can't help of wonder if I will run into the same pitfall as in years past, catching almost too late that a student needs my extra help and guidance. I understand more than ever that class size has profound impact on the building of community in the classroom. When kids don't think the teachers know who they are, they have to wonder if the teacher really cares about how they are.

This is part of the beauty of the SRA Reach program: its emphasis on small class size. With more one to one interaction, I am able to connect with these kids as more than a classroom teacher. Part of knowing who my students are in the SRA Reach class is to instill in them the sense that regardless of their past school experience, they will be successful, perhaps for the first time since they ever entered the doors to their education.

By the way, this emphasis on small class size is also found in AVID, the program that La Maestra mentions in her article What it takes. If programs such as this can deliver on the promise of raising the achievement level of kids who may not have reached success otherwise and one of the main components is smaller class size, wouldn't it behoove those who make policy to try to reduce class sizes across the grade levels?

One of my co-workers helped prove my point today. We were discussing her Math/Math Support class, which consists mostly of the same group of students who are in my SRA Reach class. The behavioral issues I've faced with this group of students has been minor, but in talking to her, she has had numerous behavioral issues since the start of the school year. I couldn't figure it out because I know she is a strong teacher with good classroom management. It was only after she revealed to me that she has 29 students that it all made sense. In addition to 20 students I teach during my block of SRA Reach, she receives those students plus 9 more.

These are students who are struggling across the board academically, therefore, doesn't it make more sense to keep their class size small? The small handful of students she mentioned to me, I can see being disruptive in a larger group. However, because my class size has remained small, those problems have not emerged in my classroom.

04 September 2006

What It Takes

Last week was our first week of school, and as such, I had my head buried in the sand work, and missed Bob Sipchen's fantastic column on the college admissions game, as well as the follies and inanities of the college ranking system.

Not that I don't subscribe to US News, and not that I didn't pop open that issue and puruse it when it hit my mailbox to see the rankings... OK, actually, I didn't, but only because I was in the midst of hectic preparations for school and didn't have time.

However, on the same day it arrived, I had 14 seniors over to my house for a pre-school senior BBQ (yes, things like that are actually permitted in the small town in which I live and teach), and I passed off the issue to the students, who eagerly devoured it, not only for the rankings, but for all of the other articles on college that the issue contains.

In his column, Sipchen mentions a few programs devoted to getting students from low-performing schools into four-year colleges, but it doesn't mention the AVID program, a program I've been involved with since college. In its 26-year history, AVID, which stands for Advancement Via Individual Determination, has managed to gain acceptance for 77% of its graduates into four-year universities, affecting a much larger group of students than programs like Upward Bound or Gear Up. Begun in a single San Diego high-school classroom, AVID can now be found in middle and high schools in 36 states and 15 countries, and since 1990, has graduated over 40,000 students and sent them on to college.

I'm proud this year to have the first cohort of AVID seniors at my school, students I've had in the program since they were freshmen. While there are only the aforementioned 14 of them, it's a new program at a small, rural school, and it's taken all of the energy I've had for the past three years, as well as the work of a number of other wonderful people, to get this group this far. And as the program builds support at my school, the number of AVID seniors graduating and enrolling in four-year universities will only climb. I can look at my 14 seniors and already know that, barring major unforseen circumstances, all of them will be going to a university next year, and I know that they will succeed once they are there.

I can't offer my AVID seniors one trained guidance counselor for every 90 students, as can the Webb School, mentioned in Sipchen's article. I'm not a trained guidance counselor (although I am certified in college-counseling) and the single counselor we have for our 1100-student population is swamped just trying to ensure that students graduate. My school can't offer intensive writing and SAT prep classes and representatives from top colleges. I can only prepare my kids as best as possible by giving them test-prep materials, taking them on yearly college visits, and fighting tooth-and-nail for them to be in every college-prep or college-level class they take.

My work with my AVID students is a constant struggle against a system that is not designed for these kids to succeed, and a constant struggle against the low expectations people have for these students--expectations at home, at school, in the community, and within themselves. While my teaching assignment is English, I spend far more time mentoring, pushing, encouraging, and nagging students to push themselves and believe in themselves than I ever do grading essays.

What does it take? This year alone, it has taken about 30 hours of senior conferences, completed the summer before the students' senior year with the knowledge that once school begins, there won't be the time. It's taken begging and bargaining and sweet-talking and outright bribery (with chocolate and cookies and cinnamon rolls) of various school officals to get the students into the classes they've needed to meet college entrance requirements.

It's taken numerous meetings to ensure that the program is run correctly, so that the students who most need it can benefit from it. It's taken hundreds of pounds of candy, sold bar by bar, and thousands of gallons of water, spent on car after car, to pay for college visits, study materials, and SATs and application fees for kids who don't qualify for fee waivers.

It's taken box upon box of kleenex, used by both male and female students who come to school sick so that they don't miss a second of education, who come into my classroom in tears over challenges in their lives that would make the most stoic adult dissolve into a puddle on the floor, and by me, as I try to make sense of the system and the students and their lives and the fact that nothing is ever fair and that no matter how hard we all work, good kids still will get screwed.

But most of all, it's taken an iron-clad determination that these kids will succeed at whatever the cost, a determination I am stubborn to wear on my sleeve, and one that I push on the kids at every opportunity. Far greater than the challenges of college-prep and AP classes are the challenges that many of my students face at home on a daily basis--kids in the foster care system, kids expected to raise their siblings while their parents work, kids expected to work to support the family, kids who don't have any family at all.

I have students whose motivation comes from watching parents exhausted and physically worn down from field labor. I have kids who get their motivation from alcoholic and physically abusive parents. I have kids whose motivation comes from parents and family members who tell them that they can't and won't make it to college, and that they'll just end up back here in five years with two small children and a job at a packing house and broken dreams. I have kids whose motivation comes from being part of a system that entraps rather than frees people, and a desire to change that system and someday give others the help they were often unable to receive.

The race for college admission isn't all about name-brand schools and esoteric ranking systems, a fact that I try to impress daily upon my students. It's what they do with it when they get there, the opportunities they make for themselves, that will determine what they get out of it. They make the best opportunities for themselves from what they have in high school, but I constantly worry that it's not enough--that they'll still be behind when they get to college. There is only so much I can give them, so much I can do for them in the short time I get with them. And I just don't know if it will be enough.

But the only thing I can do is continue trying, and hope that the skills they learn and the motivation they gain here will propel them through university and earn them their diploma.

I can't wait to see where my kids end up. I'm not a parent, but I honestly can't imagine being any more proud, more anxious, or more excited about my own children than I am for the 14 young adults whose lives I've been privileged to be a part of for the past three years, and for the changes and challenges they will face this year, their senior year.

175 more days.

02 September 2006

The Ostrich Awakes

So... How y'all doing?

Due to more technical woes (I can no longer access any of my old blog notes, posts that I'd begun, as well as my list of words for Jargon Jungle) as well as the insanity that is the first weeks of the school year, I've been doing my best impression of the Struthio camelus found on the right.

What have I been up to?

  • I have five preps this year, out of a total of six classes that I teach. "Insane" does not even begin to describe this arrangement, an arrangement further complicated by the fact that, in a few short weeks, I will be moved out of my classroom and possibly into more than one classroom, so that ongoing campus renovations may finally reach my room, modernizing it with touches like new carpet, new paint, a new ventilation system (our HVAC system only actually heated--no VAC) and, my personal favorite, a new SmartBoard!

    This SmartBoard has actually been sitting in the district warehouse since last Christmas, but due to various bureaucratic issues, has woefully remained in limbo until now. I should be back into my classroom after Christmas, but until then, chaos remains the status quo.

  • I've been mentoring/conferencing/counseling. Due to our lack of adequate counseling staff (a fact I will discuss in more broad terms in my next post), a number of students come to me for college-counseling advice. This is something I really enjoy, and that I've spent time acquiring training in, through UCLA Online Extension's College Counseling Certificate program--I can't say enough great things about it! However, as much as I enjoy it, it takes a considerable amount of time out of my already hectic schedule.

  • I'm teaching a new class this year--new not only to me, but to the school. Without going into too much boring detail, it's an upper-division literature seminar elective that meets the UC F-area fine arts requirement. I'm enjoying it immensely, but between the prep time required for new classes, as well as the size of the class itself (about 40 students) it also has taken a large chunk of my time.

  • In addition to teaching, I have my fingers in a number of different pies--I'm a union rep, on the WASC committee, and I'm advisor for a couple of different student organizations, one of which had an event last night that was part of a larger community function. I'm proud to say that not only did my students do well in their roles, but they excelled, and I received comments from a number of adults on what a great group of kids I had. In fact, while I spent a lot of time preparing for the event, once I got there, my students were so ready to go and so hard-working that I pretty much stood back and watched as the well-oiled machine that those kids have become sprung into action.

    Even the freshmen, who have been with the group for only a week now, performed above and beyond what I would have expected of my most dedicated, veteran seniors. There's something about watching them work that made my heart swell and my eyes want to fill... Oh yeah, pride. I am so proud of those kids. What a privilege it is to work with them.
So, to all, I apologize for my extended absence. While I'd anticipated the start of school to be hectic as usual, I'd planned on popping in with my pre-written material (Jargon Jungle as well as a few other things) and when I lost it all, I just didn't have the time to try to recreate most of it.

I will, however, slowly but surely be recreating Jargon Jungle--I anticipate the first one will return next Tuesday. So if any of you have any favorite (or reviled!) educational jargon that you'd like to share, I'd appreciate the assistance in recompiling my list.

And the moral of the story is:


Happy Labor Day weekend, y'all. ;-)