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

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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

About Time

The best way to improve American education would be to move to metric time. If we divide the day into 100 ‘hours’ of 14.4 minutes, we can claim that our children attend school nearly 5000 hours a year – more than China, Japan and Korea combined.

Okay, nobody will buy that.

The current discussion about this country’s dismal education system, however, is all about time. How much time — days, hours — should our children be spending in school? More is always better, right?

Students in Japan attend school 240 days a year; in South Korea, it’s 220. In the US, it’s only 180. Since those countries regularly best us academically, the solution seems obvious: keep kids in school for more days, or make the days longer.

Some states have eliminated snow days in order to force districts to make up these ‘free’ days. My district gets only 3 snow days this year, where last year we had 5. In most years, we use up those days, and in a few years, we’ve had to make up a day or two because we’ve used up our allowance. Rural districts have ten or more snow days a year; unless they use up spring break and a few Saturdays, they’ll be in school until nearly the end of June. In other words, don’t plan your vacation yet.

I’m not so sure that keeping kids in school five more days in June would replace the time we would have spent in the classroom in January or February. More

Why You Should Vote for Schools

Schools educate everbody; everybody benefits. Educating kids well keeps them off the street, out of trouble. That trouble could be breaking into your house, defacing your property, or worse. Kids who get a good education grow up to get jobs, pay taxes and contribute to the community. That’s the way it’s supposed to work. Education is a community endeavor, not just the responsibility of parents.

Our schools are not terrible. We try to give all students the same opportunities. When you take differences in education systems into consideration, our schools don’t look so bad when compared with schools in other countries. We don’t ‘track’ students. Our test results include all students, not just those who are going to college.

Schools are not capitalistic ventures. Maybe the US isn’t ready for a socialized system for medicine, but we’ve had a socialized school system for two hundred years. Our state schools, in spite of many promises over the years to fix the system, are still funded by property taxes. Changes in the economy impact schools just as they do every individual.

Schools need money. Withholding money from schools will not fix the problems. If you are unhappy with the way schools are being run, look at who’s running them. Don’t punish the kids.

Whenever a levy doesn’t pass, you can almost be guaranteed that some enthusiastic and energetic new teachers have lost their jobs. The ones who stay are those who’ve been there longest. Veteran teachers are not all burned out, but rookie teachers, in spite of their inexperience, have a lot to offer. They bring new ideas and enthusiasm to our schools.

Size does matter. When teachers are let go, class sizes increase. If you believe that class size doesn’t matter, I invite you to spend a day in a public classroom of thirty-six students, the maximum allowed in my district. More

The School That Time Forgot

A strange artefact from the future arrived at my classroom door this week. Since technology is rarely seen in my district, I had to ask what it was. Answer: an LCD projector, a sort of super overhead projector that hooks up to the computer they put in last year. Potentially, I should say. First we have to find a cord long enough to stretch across the room to the computer.

That object has been plugged into the ‘drop’ on my east wall (a ‘drop’ is a sort of magic watering hole for computer thingies) since early 2010. So far it has proved good for little. It takes 15-20 minutes to get it up and running in the morning. (Sort of like my students.) Last year I took attendance on it, believing that somehow parents would figure out how to sign in and see that their child was tardy 57 times. The goal was for  us to post grades there as well.

This year, it doesn’t do attendance, grades, or much of anything. Useful websites like Google docs and Quia are blocked, but students always seem to be able to play games when we go to the lab. I mostly ignore it, since I am a MacSnob.

In addition to the unexpected technology, we received new textbooks this year. The English books are so huge that I cannot reasonably expect students to cart them around. In the real world, people carry Kindles, not books. I keep a class set of these weighty tomes, thinking that when it’s winter and my room is 55 degrees, we can build a sort of igloo out of them and stay warm.

Meanwhile, we can all try to electrocute ourselves with the exposed outlets in my room. I spoke to the custodian, who told me that he had ordered more outlet covers, but there was some sort of problem so he didn’t know when they would be in. Maybe our outlets are all so old that they have to go to hunting through the antique mall for covers.

My outlet cover has been broken for four years. I taped it over after boys started sticking paper clips into it just to feel the current running through their bodies. I didn’t notice what they were up to until they all started holding hands, trying to see how far the current would reach. I am not a scientist, but I know that paperclips don’t belong in sockets and that boys shouldn’t hold hands.

More

De-Grading, part I

There is a saying in education, “Grading is degrading,” meaning that grades shouldn’t be used as an punishment or a reward. Obviously the people who came up with this notion didn’t realize that teachers have to give grades, and no matter what grading scale or method you use, they become incentives. Students care about points, not learning.

There isn’t one best way to grade; all methods are subjective, based on a teacher’s own philosophy and habits. But unless a student understands how a teacher grades, any number or letter on the paper means nothing.

The most common methods of grading are neither rational nor objective. This bothers me; numerical scores imply some precision or at least consistency. The problem is that most teachers were not trained to grade. We know all about assessment – formative and summative, norm-based and criterion-based, formal and informal – but when it’s time to put numbers on paper, we sometimes end up with unintended results or unrecognized errors.

What follows are a few observations about the way grading is practiced in many American Schools.

57 Currencies

You go to CVS and see a bottle of shampoo for $2.79. At Target you see the same bottle marked 229. When you go to pay for it, the cashier says, “That will be two hundred and twenty-nine yen.” How much is that in dollars? She doesn’t know. Is 229 yen a better deal than 279 cents? To find out, you need to convert yen into dollars.

What if every store used a different currency – Euros at the grocery store, pesos at the gas station, rubles at McDonalds? Confusing, to say the least.

There are 57 teachers at my school. All of us use points, but ‘points’ means something different in each classroom. More

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