Pedagogical Epiphany: A Collegial Conversation

“There have been many measures taken to try to turn the educational system towards more control, more indoctrination, more vocational training, imposing a debt, which traps students and young people into a life of conformity… That’s the exact opposite of [what] traditionally comes out of The Enlightenment. And there’s a constant struggle between those. In the colleges, in the schools, do you train for passing tests, or do you train for creative inquiry?” –Noam Chomsky
Background Info:
When I heard the term COMMON ASSESSMENT a few years ago, my initial thought was: Oh that’s cool… a way to see if teachers are teaching the same skills. The context of it was for a history class, whose students were given excerpts of source documents that they needed to incorporate as support when answering an opinion- based question on a given topic. Teachers corrected other classes’ work using the same rubric. My understanding was that the purpose was to see if students were able to form a plausible opinion on a topic while incorporating outside sources. Sounded like a good idea.

As time passed, my department (English) was given the task of creating common assessments for certain courses. Our first attempt was to focus on common units, such as C.A.P.T. ( the Connecticut Mastery Test for sophomores). The attempt was a good one with predictable outcomes, such as the level of mastery had a lot to do with the level the course was being taught on (for instance: level 1=high achieving students, level 2=moderate achieving students, level 3=low achieving students). That worked until the thrust of the collapsing of levels became a movement to which we responded. Then, we saw more or less the same results but within a given class.

The focus of common assessment quickly took a turn from the actual assessment to data driven instruction which meant we needed to move to assessments with measurable outcomes. This is where the grey area needed to turn to black and white, but this didn’t occur in a collegial fashion because while commonality exists in our classes in the sense that we are all working from the same curriculum, approach, emphasis and methods vary by the very nature of 12 individual teachers coming from different backgrounds of experiences and styles– not to mention pedagogical philosophies.

The problem:
Data driven instruction was problematic for me, by in large, due to the fact I just stated, but more so in the goal of insuring all students learn the same skills AND content in order for an accurate predictor upon which to modify teaching. It’s one thing to ask us, as teachers, to teach the same skill and content, it’s quite another for the student outcomes to be a determining factor in our ability to teach our students. It even took a turn in various educational systems to be the basis upon which teacher’s success in the classroom is measured. Suddenly, data driven instruction had painted, in my head, one hundred and twenty five robots where one could not be distinguished from the other. Sameness is the word that ruminates when I hear D.D.I. mentioned.

We are not the same. Teachers are not the same as each other, even in a given department. Students are not the same as each other. They will not learn the same. They will not retain the same. They will not test the same. They will not, by their very nature, become the same. I am reminded of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale every time I think about common assessment and data driven instruction. And if that wasn’t enough, we were then asked to create common FORMATIVE assessments. We were set up in teams, to tackle this next venture in teaching, under the guise of “collaborating.” Only, collaborating, in my mind, is working together on a shared interest. Interest being the key word.

Pretty soon, teachers will become obsolete and we’ll be replaced by computers so education is delivered the SAME everywhere to everyone all the time. I will resist that kind of teaching with ever core of my being.

The conversation:
Completely fed up with the idea of creating C.A.’s, C.F.A’s to address D.D.I, another colleague and I asked if we could branch off to form our own “team” to work on the curriculum that only the two of us teach. We have met periodically for a solid year now, sometimes even on our own time, beyond our “team” allotment or curriculum hours. While I have taught this course for 9 years, now, my colleague was in his first year last year. What began as a mentor-like relationship has morphed into more of a collaborative effort. We discovered that the basis of all of this is a shared interest. While our philosophies are unique to each of us, there is a compromise that takes place in the way we create opportunities for learning for our students– thus, enriching, as I see it, our own pedagogies, not to mention the outcomes for students. We feed off one another’s ideas, something that first took place on Google.docs last summer as we created a common assessment based on the summer reading we’d assigned. Openness is essential to the success of such an endeavor. Since, we have mirrored the same experience in developing other common assignments– oftentimes, sharing the outcomes or answering questions, posing what if scenarios.

In our second year, after looking at the work we’ve done and the results of what the students have produced, we are currently looking at ways to refine our initial work in order to make it more effective. So, at our “summer” meeting today, we sat across from one another (after discussing, debating, creating, revising, concluding)– and I asked “How is this type of collaboration so effective in the sense that we are creating common assessments and utilizing data to drive the revision of our instruction and not so much for the teams we’d been assigned earlier in the year?” This is work that I look forward to because it makes what I’m teaching better, it makes me a better teacher, and it makes my students better educated.

The solution:
What I’m saying is that if the alphabet soup of all this new philosophy were modeled after what my colleague and I believe we have accomplished, the essence of our students’ (and essentially, teachers’) individuality will not be lost, only enriched. The nuts and bolts would include two teachers with a shared interest or pedagogy beginning with a collegial conversation about what they teach and why, what they want their students to achieve and why, and how they will accomplish it all. The rest will work itself out. Ultimately, invite more teachers in on the conversation. My colleague described it as achieving the same goals through a more “organic” process.

”Passing tests doesn’t begin to compare with searching and inquiring and pursuing topics that engage us and excite us. That’s far more significant than passing tests and, in fact, if that’s the kind of educational career you’re given the opportunity to pursue, you will remember what you discovered.” — Noam Chomsky

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Occupy Education

I was on Facebook the other day & saw this:
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Often, I’m prone to finding cartoons about education, most of which I post on my classroom door, because through all of the ridiculousness (and that is a polite word), we need find the humor in life [education] to move us through it.

Attached to this cartoon was the group who posted it, and their plea read…
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So here it is, my stand on the current state of education from the point of view of a mom & an English teacher (high school, primarily grades 11 & 12) who lives & teaches in a predominantly white, upper middle-class town in Connecticut(school population of about 2,000)… who, at the beginning of her career (the first 11 years) worked at the other end of the spectrum, in adult education, teaching high school drop outs and at-risk youths. I’ve seen both sides.

Ever since No Child Left Behind was instituted (thank you, George double-ya. NOT), I have personally witnessed a decline in education unlike any I’d ever observed in my 22 years of teaching. While I don’t think the premise was a bad idea, which in my mind was to improve the education in at-risk areas in order to provide equal opportunity for every student, the process of instituting this backwards policy is just downright ridiculous. Let’s improve education by imposing stricter guidelines for receiving funding that are based on test scores and performance by providing funds to those areas w/ the highest gains in test scores. Sounds like not a bad thing, right?? WRONG. One of the biggest problems with education are these blanket policies that NON-educators (a.k.a. politicians w/ political agendas) cast over the whole educational system.

By refusing to look at the whole state of education in America and by making it a numbers game, we (society) are forced to lose sight of the QUALITY of education, by being forced to focus on QUANTITIES, that is being provided to our youth.

While I don’t get caught up in the numbers game of education, I do see the direct effects of this policy in my school and in my classroom:

Funding has been cut tremendously simply because we are a school system that is working, consistently achieving among the highest test scores in the state as well as moving among the greatest population of students on to post secondary education (and a large # to some highly competitive, prestigious schools). We are a school system that wasn’t broken; therefore, because our performance rate is already well above average those in the powers-that-be do not see huge gains, we are forced to cut & cut & cut budgets. This means larger classes, fewer teachers, less money going to materials & technology.

Time has been impacted because we are seeing more and more mandatory assessments, due to data-driven instruction, which are required to be given to the students; this detracts from meaningful and authentic teaching time in the classroom. Another effect this is having is the need to “teach” to the tests to show gains which decreases the time allotted for some of the more meaningful content in our curriculum. Moreover, teachers are having to correct multitudes of tests, more, which takes away from providing meaningful feedback on the other work the students produce.

Professional development time has been geared towards convincing educators that DATA DRIVEN INSTRUCTION is the way of the future and we need to climb on board the data train. I call it brainwashing, and I will resist this thinking at all costs. Hence, meaningful preparation, planning, and development from a teaching perspective has been cast aside, so we can find ways to analyze the data and come up w/ more assessments.

The individuality of instruction has been hindered because not only do we need to test MORE but these tests have to be exactly the same so the data is accurate. In essence, the powers-that-be are asking teachers to become robots in order to produce robots who all possess exactly the same data base upon the conclusion of their public high school experience.

Let’s consider a few things. When you test students, you must choose measurable content to test them on in order to provide accurate data. In other words, we need to be comparing apples to apples and oranges to oranges. There needs to be a right & a wrong answer in order to get measurable date. LIFE and EDUCATION is not about black & white. More of it is about how to manipulate the grey areas, and in the grey areas you find critical thinking. Critical thinking cannot be measured by ONLY demonstrating right and wrong. There needs to be BALANCE in education (which No Child Left Behind is forcing educators to leave behind in their teaching). In this ever changing, global, technologically advanced world, our children NEED critical thinking skills to move forward. It is our responsibility as educators and as a society to prepare them to cope for this world. How do we do that? By producing students who are highly motivated , self-disciplined, collaborative, resourceful, high-level critical thinkers.

In reading Daniel Pink’s Drive, he talks about intrinsic learning being the new learning & motivating factor to learning in the 21st century. No more can we dangle a carrot (test scores) over our students to get them to WANT to learn — because let’s face it, if students don’t want to learn, they will not be productive. We need to design educational opportunities for them to use their multiple intelligences (both sides of the brain) in order for them to embrace education and be successful. Rote learning & memorization (teaching to the test) is a thing of the past, and unless we move past it, our country will continue to decline in the global community. Education NEEDS to be meaningful and authentic in order for students to acquire knowledge and call it their own.

Just the other day, a student in my class was asked to call upon knowledge she’d acquired earlier in the course to apply to a current lesson we were working on. Her response was, “Oh … you mean that. I forgot that. Once I’m tested on something, I forget it because I don’t need it anymore.” My reply was, “Well, take out your notes and use them because in order for you to be successful on this assignment, you need that knowledge.” I’d be willing to hedge a bet that by asking her to recall this information for it’s application to this new content, she won’t be inclined to forget it this time.

Furthermore, in addition to providing students w/ content that is diversified, we need to provide them experience that is diversified. In promoting commonality (teach common materials, use common methods & assessments…) we are robbing our youth of becoming the well-rounded, multi-faceted individuals we want them to become. It’s just as important to provide a balance of experiences in promoting individuality. So those math & science classes, which ask students to primarily use their left brain, should be balanced w/ the arts, so they can equally use their right brains. And even w/in a common course, education cannot require teachers to teach completely in sync (while I do believe the goals should be the same) the methodology and content should be varied to provide the students w/ the best experience, w/in each given course, they could acquire. It’s called modelling and the absence of it falls under the guise of do as I say, not as I do. Individuality is a necessity, both on the part of the teacher delivering instruction and on the part of each learner being asked to develop their individuality. In my school, we were asked to voluntarily take part in a program called Learning Walks, something I volunteered for. I was assigned a student to shadow for a day, to go w/ her to each class in order to observe the whole of her day. OH MY GOD, the insight I gained from that day. What I saw was a variety of teachers, topics, methods, styles, reactions, interactions: balance. A good blend of balance that afforded me to step outside my role as teacher and back into my role of mother (for my children aged, then 17, 15 & 13) who were benefiting from this multi-faceted array of experience and realize how grateful I am on their behalf. This learning walk took place prior to the thrust of No Child Left Behind. I believe my experience would be a very different one today.

It’s about balance. I’m not saying testing is a wrong kind of assessment. What I am saying is that it needs not to be the only kind. I’m not saying commonality in the goals/standards we set for students is wrong. What I’m saying is they need to create a better balance. And w/ the ever increasing focus on data and data-driven instruction (apples to apples and oranges to oranges), we are robbing our youth of the ability to apply, analyze, synthesize and evaluate information.

And for the at-risk schools, the powers-that-be need to institute different ways of reaching these students, call upon their intrinsic needs & goals as individuals (think about the teacher Erin Gruwell, whose impact on education at an at-risk school in Long Beach, California was captured in the book and film Freedom Writers) in order for them to achieve success in school. This doesn’t mean more testing. It means finding better, more creative ways to invest in educating our teachers and, ultimately, our youth… the future of our country.

Public education is dictated by the pendulum that swings from one extreme to the other based on the political agendas of time. It swings to the extreme right until effects of given movement are found to be not working. Then in an effort to fix what was broken from the last movement, it swings all the way to the left. When will society learn that it’s somewhere in the grey area (the place of balance) that true success in education will be achieved?

In conclusion, I agree w/ the Facebook post which calls for us to OCCUPY EDUCATION before it’s too late.