The Case of Natalie M.

There is a point in any discussion where everything has been said, but everybody hasn’t yet had a chance to say it. I think that applies to the case of Natalie M, the teacher blogger who got caught complaining about her students on line.

Since I haven’t yet said it, I will proceed, and I will be brief.

First, I am certain that her blog was cherry-picked for negative comments. That is to be expected: people pay attention to bad news. Nobody will remember all the nice things you say and do if you do one really stupid, bad thing.

Second, I believe she has a right to state her opinion. Everyone does. There are consequences, however, and it does not appear as if that possibility occurred to her. She used a public forum and made unprofessional remarks. If she does not lose her job, she has certainly lost her credibility. Teachers are not held to a higher standard than other professionals. I would not go to a doctor who complained online that all his patients were fat, lazy slobs.

Currently teachers are the scapegoats of education. No matter how unmotivated and ill-mannered our students are, we will be blamed for their failure. This isn’t fair, but it’s the reality for now. The truth about our schools needs to be told, but it must be spoken persuasively if we want to bring about change.

Natalie M sees herself as some sort of hero, a person who is not afraid to speak the truth  about our schools. I believe she has hurt our cause, not helped it. Her unprofessional words make us all look bad. Any of us who speaks out now will be tossed in the same pile — another angry teacher who hates students. It will be assumed that many of us have secret contempt for children, even if we don’t blog about it. Negative comments made to students will be scrutinized. Will I be able to have frank discussion with a student about a failing grade or bad behavior, or will my criticism be seen as insulting and abusive?

There are, as she says, serious problems with the education system in this country. But rather than “opening the door” for serious conversation, she has reinforced the public’s suspicions of teachers. The truth needs to be told, and teachers are the insiders who can describe not only the problems, but potential solutions. I wonder, though, who’s going to listen to us?

How Grading Participation Makes Behavior Worse

In past school years, I gave participation grades. Lest you think that I logged every raised hand and rated comments as insightful or banal, understand that in my school, ‘participation’ is a code word for ‘behavior.’

It sounds so simple and fair. Five points a day — just for showing up, looking interested, following directions. Two points off for being tardy, talking out of turn, sleeping, being off-task. Five points off for unexcused absences, bad behavior. Kids who behave are rewarded, and kids who don’t pay the penalty.

My school has discipline issues. It is not unusual for five or six students to arrive five minutes or more late to class, or for several students to skip class altogether. Many students have no self-control; they talk whenever they feel like it, grab one another, use profanity. Fights are not uncommon.

When students are ‘written up’ for these offences, nothing may happen for several days, sometimes more than a week. Then the offending student will get an after school detention or a couple days of in-school suspension. By then, he has forgotten why he’s being punished.

While I can’t do much individually to improve school climate, I thought that if students understood that they were lowering their grades, their behavior would improve.

Instead, nothing changed – except that I had one more thing to keep track of.

Here is what I finally learned: Grading behavior does nothing to change behavior. In fact, it may even make it worse. That sounds like a paradox, but I have seen it happen over and over.

Here is why: More

Another Look at Mastery Learning

Some years ago I attended a professional development inservice which, like all such events, was selling the ‘flavor of the month’ teaching method. At that time, it was Mastery Learning.

What they said made sense to me. Students should not be left in the dust as we march through the curriculum, but should proceed at their own pace, not moving ahead until they demonstrate that they have mastered material.

After several hours of indoctrination, another teacher raised her hand. “It’s all very well to allow students learn at different paces. But how are we to teach such a class? What’s today’s lesson? That’s what I need to know when I walk into the classroom each day and face thirty students.”

Another added, “And how do we grade them?”

These were very good points. Our presenters couldn’t give us a very good answer. They talked about enrichment activities and remediation, differentiated instruction and layered curriculum.

A teacher can remediate and enrich, but what happens when it’s time to send home grade reports? Are students graded on how much material they cover, or how thoroughly they master it?  Should a student get an A because she finally mastered Chapter 1, even though the rest of the class has mastered five chapters?

And what does ‘mastery’ mean when we talk about grades? Is a “D” — the lowest passing grade — enough?

Because I have always taught a few mixed-level classes, I was interested in finding a way to implement Mastery Learning. After many years of rejecting it as impractical, I have begun to figure out a way to do it, and have applied some of the principles to all my classes.

The greatest improvement I have seen is in students’ attitudes. In a traditional classroom, much of the responsibility is on the teacher’s shoulders. Students complete tasks, but rarely take ownership of their learning. To them, it’s just a points game.

Mastery Learning puts responsibility back on students. If they get D on tests, they can’t just push on, understanding less and less, becoming more and more alienated until they give up. They may choose to give up, but now they understand that they’re responsible for that choice. There is no reason to give up. A poor grade is not failure, but the first step towards mastery. Behavior improves.

The basic elements required to make this method work are flexibility, structure, and choice. Teachers must be prepared to have students working at different rates, while providing a structure that holds it all together. And students should have some choices; this gives them ownership of their learning.

If you are interested in this method and want the details, here is how I have organized my Latin classes: More

Do Classroom Games Help Students Learn?

It’s been a long week, an endless winter. Students file into my classroom, looking weary.

“Can’t we just play a game today?” one of them asks.

In the last thirty years, many standard teaching methods have lost favor. We are discouraged from lecturing, drilling,  and other teacher-centric teaching methods because they do not ‘engage’ students. Group work, hands-on activities, layered curriculum, differentiated instruction are all the rage.

Games fit neatly into a child-centered classroom. But are they a valid way to teach? Do kids actually learn better by playing games than through other activities?

My answer: sometimes, but usually not.

In a foreign language classroom, we do many things: we read, we write, we listen, we talk. The goal is to form habits of memory and use.

There is a time limit for these activities: fifty minutes a day, five days a week, 180 days a year. Three years of instruction add up to 27,000 minutes (before subtracting announcements, assemblies, and other random interruptions.) As any language teacher (or learner) can tell you, this is barely enough to learn to communicate in another language. Many people think it would be nice to be able to speak another language, but have no idea of the time and effort demanded.

Where do games fit in? More

Narrowing the Choices

I spend a minimum of an hour a day grading papers. Some days it adds up to as many as three hours. In a normal week, it works out to about ten hours of marking up papers, sifting through sentences and paragraphs, evaluating the evidence of learning.

One of the side effects of all this activity is the inability to let my mind off the leash. I tend to approach every part of my life with the left brain, viewing everything I read through critical eyes, including my own words. If a person needed a cure for writing and reading too much, having an English teacher grade everything would put an end to even the most fervent love of words.

Alas, I do not need to be cured. I need to write more, read more. But it’s pretty hard to sit down and read for enjoyment or work on my unfinished novel when I’ve been bleeding red ink all day.

Nor do my students need to be cured. At an age when their minds ought to be soaking up information, they have learned to hate reading because it always comes with a not-so-secret agenda. “Read the following passages and answer the questions by filling in the circle corresponding to the correct answer. Be sure to darken each circle completely, using only a number 2 pencil. If you change an answer, be sure to erase completely. Do not make any other marks on your answer sheet.”

If the only point to reading is to prove that you read something by bubbling in answers, or writing short answers and extended responses, or occasionally making a book report, why would they want to read? Reading isn’t fun, it’s a test.

Modern education revolves around testing and grades. More

Sorrows of the Liver (and other depressing information)

It has been proven that drinking too much alcohol can give you Sorrows of the Liver. I learned this from a research paper written by one of my students. I consider myself fortunate; while there have been a few mornings when my liver was a bit gloomy, most of the time it handles my bad habits without getting depressed.

This week most of my sorrows have been caused by bad grammar, incorrect word usage, and failure to properly cite sources. It’s been a long week.

Sunday: I read a letter to the editor in our local paper that makes me bang my head on the counter a few times. “Why are teachers paid so much? Our schools are terrible. If students don’t learn, their teachers should be fired.”

Don’t worry; this is not about to be a rant. I do point out, however, that no one is blaming doctors for the obesity epidemic.

Monday: When I arrive at school, the towering pile of research papers is waiting on my desk. What makes my liver sad is this: I have sixty students in my two English classes; thirty-one research papers were handed in. Thirty-one!

That number correlates closely with my failure rate for those classes: 58%. So far I haven’t been called into the principal’s office, but I expect that conversation to take place soon. One of my fellow English teachers has already been scolded for failing too many of his students, and his percentage is lower than mine. How do you pass a student who hands in no work? Perhaps we should stop making them read and write. More

Imagination Should Not Be an Elective Subject

As a teacher of Creative Writing, I often feel like I’m not contributing much. Though it is part of the English department, Creative Writing is an elective course. There is no graduation exam for electives; we are “none of the above” subjects, whose only purpose at times seems to be supporting the “real” subjects – math, science, social studies, English. We are kept around to fill holes in students’ schedules and give them something fun to do when they’re not cramming their brains with math and science.

That’s about the way I saw it too, when I began. But in the three semesters that I’ve taught this class, I have come to believe that Creative Writing could be the most important class that students take. They have been so well ‘schooled’ that they are badly educated. Since the age of five, they’ve been learning not to write down an answer unless they’re sure it’s correct, to follow directions, and do things the right way. Socially, they’ve learned that the goal of school is to fit in, not be different. Certainly not to be creative. Except for a few rebels, they don’t know how to have ideas.

And yet, without new ideas there is no progress – or even survival.

Can people be taught to have ideas? Can creativity be learned? If it can, it won’t be from fill-in-the-bubble tests. The notion that there is a right answer and a wrong answer for every question is what our children are learning right now.

But there isn’t a right way or a wrong way to write a poem or a story. More

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