What Would You LIKE to Learn?

I’m writing my “Welcome Letter” to students. It’s going to a blog post this year. I’m trying to save trees–it’s a pain in the ass to get more paper when I run out. I have to requisition paper just to make the forms to get the paper, and I can’t really afford a virtual assistant. So, digital, here I come.

When I start the school year, I think of my most difficult customer. The kid who doesn’t want to be looking at my ugly face for 180 days and prays for a snowstorm or natural disaster to relieve him of that obligation. I don’t target nerds like me…they show up politely whether they like me or not. If I can convince school haters, I’m golden.

So, within the first day or two I’ll ask a question, “What would you like to learn?”

Life is about learning. The problem with education isn’t that policy’s bad, teachers suck or kids are stupid, it’s a failure to provide an intersection point.

Screen Shot 2013-08-24 at 9.16.15 AMImagine a graph–any graph. There is generally a point where the two lines meet. On a supply and demand or pricing graph, you have a bunch of people trying to not pay for stuff and a bunch of people trying to overcharge. Depending on the amount of stuff in circulation, the lines meet and you get a dot in the middle. If the lines don’t meet, that means you didn’t sell your product.

I wasn’t good at math. I had to go to the Psych Services tutor in college to understand this stuff. She told me, “You’re okay, take a deep breath.” The guy in the next cube over was being treated for his fear of spiders.

Anyway. A graph is a graph. Right now what we have in education is a graph where the lines don’t always intersect. We have one group of people deciding what will be taught and evaluated, another teaching, and a third wishing they could learn something else entirely. Lines that don’t meet. When the lines don’t meet, that means you didn’t sell your product. My product is education. Not just education, but the LOVE of education.

When the lines meet, you get a dot in the middle of the graph. You need the dot in the middle of the graph. The dot represents the place where we all come together and agree on something. Cost effectiveness. The price we’re willing to pay. The salary we’ll take. Work efficiency. Break-even point. The willingness to teach and learn. It’s all the same. The lines need to meet.

I’m a writer–I don’t generally write about graphs.  But the truth is the truth whether I like it or not–the dot in the middle–the point of intersection–is the truth in all things. In math or relationships, we need that common ground.

One student put this in perspective, “You write a lot of curriculum. Teachers meet for this. Why don’t students meet with teachers and write it? ” Brilliant. Especially at the high school level where students are my customers. They express what is useful to them. Then, I guide them on paths to the top of the mountain.

So, this year, I’ll be asking “What do you want to learn?” We’ll decide together.

“Casey,” you might say, “How will they know what they need?” You’d be surprised. Given guidance and an objective, they soar. When I get customer dissatisfaction in the ranks, I say, “Here’s what I was aiming for. How can you achieve this to show me you learned?” Most of the time, they do far more than I’d have assigned.

Learning isn’t top down. I learn from my students.  This year I learned from the world. I’m a better writer, a better person…I have the type of friends who push me to be great. I push my students to be great. Better than me. Students often ask me a question.

“Miss, why are you teaching?” You see, everyone views teaching as the job you get if you can’t get another job. It’s a perception I’m trying to change.

“I’m here because I love you guys. I want you to be better than me.” It takes a while for that answer to sink in. When it does, when students believe this truth, we learn great things together.

This year, I’ve learned things I love–things I wanted to learn. Why would my students be different? That is why we will start with the question, “What would you like to learn?”  

And then, we’ll accomplish that goal.

[image: investopedia.com]



The boy slept on the desk. I woke him again. I wasn’t that boring. Maybe I was–am I qualified to make that determination? That was a minute of his life he would never get back. I asked him after class.

“Was I that boring?”

“No, Miss, I had to work.” He worked in his family business–a restaurant–until one or two o’clock in the morning most nights outside of soccer season.  We agreed that he would do his classwork on weekends.

Another girl was failing. She was absent all the time. She never came after school to make up her work. “Redo that test with me,” I said.

“I can’t stay after school. I’m not allowed.” She had to babysit. Her mom worked multiple shifts. Food and rent were important. We got up early and met in the mornings. Some days she stayed home. She emailed me. I sent her work.

Another boy disappeared for months at time. His family moved for work–migrants. I gave him an assignment to be done on the road, not really sure if he’d return.

Still another paid the rent for his whole family–as a sophomore. The parents couldn’t. He was told, “You can’t work that much. It’s now allowed.” Sometimes life doesn’t give us nice  choices. I bet he learned more about life than if he learned my questions one through three.

I have had emancipated students, young parents, students shouldering the family finances, students who were undocumented and hiding. One student couldn’t go back to see his mom before she died of cancer in their country–months before graduation. Another was the caretaker for her terminally ill mother. She put off college for her family. One year, I gave my September Survey, “What do you do for fun?” A freshman girl answered, “Not much–I play with my son.”

It’s easy to be judgmental–to look at the problems students face as they strive to make it through high school and into the world. Honestly, we all have problems, kid. Someday your boss will fire you if you don’t get the work done. But I’m here to help. Not to cram my material down your throat, because truth is–standards be damned–that might not be the biggest mountain you climb today. Just getting to the sunset might be the goal.

What’s the right approach? How can I serve you?

How can I make sure that even though you have nearly insurmountable issues,  you understand you can control the outcome? We all face mountains in our own way. You determine what you need to be successful and you make it happen with your grit and tenacity. You use these insurmountable issues to make yourself a better person; a better adult. Sometimes they become a blessing, a benefit to you in the future rather than something that kept you down. Realize that you have the skills, the dedication, and the desire to succeed. How can I give you that guarantee?

Judgmentalism. “She can’t stay home to translate.” “It’s illegal for him work that late.” “Going to your country for vacation for three weeks at Christmas is not an excused absence.” “How can they have kids so young?”

Families often fight to survive. Somewhere in between, that kid tries to do your math, my critical questions, and read a text that doesn’t seem to apply to his crisis. Sometimes they do it just because they like me. Then it’s up to me to provide the justification. The value.  In the midst of all this chaos–where each day crumbles into a survival mechanism in the outside world…I teach that education is the only lifelong friend–that no matter where you are,  education makes you better, equalizes the playing field. Education is not just the stuff in the books. The desire to learn more and the curiosity to refuse to let the flame extinguish is the single factor that gets you ahead.

Education must be flexible, personalized, and human–I say this even as I watch class plan after class plan be filled with standardized tests, post tests, high-stakes tests and entire credit classes that prepare students for tests.

Each student who comes through my door again and again is a hero. Especially the ones facing challenges so big they’d cripple adults. Yet they come, and they bring it every day, and they smile.  Someday soon, they will be great–no, they already are. Someday soon, they will be monumental. The biggest success. More successful than me.

That…is why…I teach.


Teens Doing Science Voluntarily–On a Saturday, at Science Online Teen

There are trees in New York. Really.

There are trees in New York. Really.

I’m honored to be here at the Science Online Teen conference. Stacy Baker graciously invited me to come down on behalf of Learnist. I took the commuter rail down early this morning, and had just enough time to enjoy some coffee after getting off the 125th Street platform in Harlem, but not quite enough time to take the pilgrimage I’ve always wanted to take to the Apollo Theatre, just around the corner. After all, I’m here to pay homage to science, after all, not music. Maybe later, if I’m good.

I arrived at the Upper East Side efficiently after a wonderful stroll past the flowering trees–I was here in Manhattan about a month ago for Startup Weekend Edu, but it wasn’t time for the trees to flower. Just time to take part in one of the coolest contests in the world. Today, the weather’s good, the trees are flowering, and, if I’m not mistaken, I think I might even have seen a couple New Yorkers crack a smile. I always try to tuck my smile away before getting off the train here so I can’t be recognized as a foreigner.

My destination today–the Convent of the Sacred Heart School. I found it easily–it’s the real-life “Mr. Monopoly” mansion, donated to the school at end of the Gilded Age. I’m immediately finding myself distracted by all the teens buzzing around, excited about science. On a Saturday. I wish I could have brought a busload of my students.

I walked around studying “my stuff.” History, architecture, imagining this mansion in full swing. Then I got busy. I am honored to go to three workshops today that will be uniting teens with real scientists and educators changing the landscape of science. I’ll be making some Learnist boards, connecting with some scientists who love historians, I hope, and talking to a whole lot of teens who will be changing the landscape of our nation. We need them. We need them to do great things. We need them to transcend the boundaries of their education and ask the key questions, like “Why?” and “Why not?” So, if you will kindly excuse me, I’ll go meet some inspirational people, and later today, I’ll tweet out some Learnist boards, and maybe even write an article or two about these teens.

Wherever you are, enjoy this weekend–it’s a glorious day in Manhattan for learning about science and paying homage to some really inspiring teens.


All Toilet Paper Is Created Equal–Why I Avoid the Faculty Bathroom

Screen Shot 2013-02-19 at 11.27.08 PMI don’t like the faculty bathroom.

 It may be a strange topic, but when I have to go to the bathroom, I use the regular student bathroom at the end of the hall.

I have a key to the faculty bathroom–it’s a prized possession in my school–my colleague still doesn’t have one and is forced to borrow mine. I only lend it to her even though I never use it–it’s like a rank on my epaulet I want to keep–it says “You are someone. You have a key to the faculty bathroom.” I’d make her one for her birthday, but I fear it might be illegal, because it says “DO NOT COPY.” You don’t want just anyone, mind you, using the bathroom. One-ply’s not cheap. It has to be regulated in these tough economic times.

Screen Shot 2013-02-19 at 11.22.22 PMThe real reason I don’t use the faculty bathroom is the same reason I don’t cut in line on those rare occasions I buy lunch. I wait behind the students who got there first. We’re all the same. I don’t need to cut the line. I don’t need a special bathroom, either. Even if it’s clean and good-smelling with a bathroom attendant and two-ply paper. I’m just like anyone else.

I must confess, some of my best interactions with students have been while we were in those cafeteria lines, hallways, and bathrooms. While I was being a person like just everyone else, not using my teacher-authority. Connecting with students as people builds the basis of relationships that allow me to teach and them to learn. One thing we sometimes forget in this field is that, without exception, students are our customers. They are the ones who matter. We market to them, sell to them, and serve them. We give them our best, but if they don’t buy our product, no learning takes place.

In much the same way, policy exists to serve them, too. When it does not, it must be changed. Even at the expense of testing, evaluations, funding, and agenda. Sometimes the system gets too top down. It makes it harder to listen to the guy at the bottom. Which, unfortunately, is the student we need to teach, who educational leaders must lead, and policy must serve.

Screen Shot 2013-02-19 at 11.19.46 PMTeaching is the smallest part of all of this. Teaching isn’t really teaching at all–it’s sales, marketing, counseling, and life coaching. We fit in the learning  to cement those bricks and build a house no wolf can blow down. There are a lot of wolves in the world.

Some people really like the faculty bathroom, even if it’s pretty far away and they have to earn the key. Maybe they feel special. Maybe they just want a moment to hide away from the chaos where no one can chase them down. Not me. I’ll be like everyone else, because the truth is we all teach each other, so I’ll count myself in with the ranks of students–I learn every day. I’m just the one who get stuck putting the grades in the book.

[images: Stockazoo.com, singing pigs.wordpress.com, http://blog.relyonpdi.com/bathroom/luxury-bathrooms-its-all-in-the-details/]


Don’t NECAP me, I’m SLO

[image: joyhog.com]

I’m having writer’s block–It’s ironic to make that statement as I’m writing, but I’m sitting here looking at a copy of the Common Core State Standards for inspiration.  That, in and of itself is a problem. You see, I need to come up with some SLOs in order to keep my job teaching.  For all those who are not teachers, I’ll explain.  SLOs, or Student Learning Objectives, are a key part of the new teacher evaluation system. If I can’t measure “student growth” using these SLOs, I will be asking if you want fries with that. The NECAP is the old test we used to use to measure growth, but now we’re going to have a new one now, the PARCC.  As in, “It’s a walk in the…”

I’m still trying to understand all the acronyms.  I’ve formally studied five languages and can swear in two or three more.  Still, I’m having a tough time keeping up. In addition, I have an advanced education. One would think I’d be intelligent enough to comprehend. It appears not. I’m staring at these walls of data and acronyms that were surely created by The Daily Show–come on, what educator wants to hear “SLO” in the same sentence with “student?”  I want “quick” at the minimum. And NECAP is what my Irish ancestors did to people they didn’t like during the Troubles. PARCC is where I want to go to drink a beverage until I can wrap my head around some of the elements of ed reform.

At heart is the issue of “rigor.”  In the Old Days, I had to take three masters’ classes to prove I was smart and continuing to learn. Learning was the measure of the professionalism we had to exhibit as teachers.  I had to have a masters’ degree, then I had to learn more. It was expensive, but I love learning. So, I learned and learned.

But teachers with advanced degrees are expensive, so someone found a study that said that advanced degrees might not correlate with educational success and they found another way to measure me.

It was decided that we should be able to design our own plans, that they should be individualized. The problem was that nobody would commit to what actually counted on that plan when I called for help, so I did twice the amount of hours required and finished a year and a half early. I guess it wasn’t “rigorous” enough. As luck would have it, it was determined that that whole system was, in fact, not “rigorous” and it was defeated like every bad guy who dares to oppose Chuck Norris.  Mine didn’t count. It is currently being used as a doorstop because I’m afraid to throw it away.

I asked the question, “So, you’re saying that for exceeding expectations set by my bosses, and by coming in far in advance of the deadline, my work is not going to count? That doesn’t make sense. I should get a reward.”  What makes sense doesn’t matter, because once it has been established that rigor is missing, rigor must be found. End of subject.

Now, we have a new system.  On the surface, it looks okay–a million evaluations and conferences a year–like a picnic with a rubric.  I was  looking forward to seeing my evaluator get a new pair of track shoes and run marathons, because that’s the distance that would be mathematically necessary to finish that number of evals.  And since the new system barely gives him time to eat Easy Mac, I think the running might do him good.  In either case there are so many rubrics and matrices that my mind is exploding.

I’m looking forward to honest feedback from an evaluator I truly trust–that part’s exciting, but I’m still having writer’s block when it comes to translating the 101 paged instructional manual into documentation.

In the mean time, I’m witnessing the following unintended consequences in the field of education:

1. Inconsistencies.  On one hand, I have to do a ton to be evaluated and certified, but other pathways like Teach For America can bring educators along a different path with far fewer hours of regulations. It’s creating a lot of hard feelings systemically.

2. Resentment. Good people are leaving the field and taking advantage of other opportunities.  Many who have options, because they are good, are taking those options. We are losing good teachers.

3. Difficulty training new teachers. Student teachers report teacher reluctant to accept them because teachers are afraid a student teacher will ruin “their numbers.”  This is a real fear–the numbers effect evaluations.  “Reluctantly” is no way to train the next generation of teachers.

4. People deciding against teaching. One new teacher reported to me that four of her original cohort of a dozen or so decided not to teach because they “didn’t like the bureaucracy.”  Again–we are losing good teachers. These people had other options.

5. Out of touch programs.  An excellent potential teacher was released from a teacher prep program for his essay response to “What is your philosophy of teaching?” He said that his philosophy was not important until the basic needs of the student were met. It was a brilliant, albeit political essay about meeting the needs of the underserved in society first. Once that is done, we can teach. I wished I had written that essay myself. He’ll be a rock star IF he can get through the red tape.  And certainly once he learns to write SLOs.

6. Gaming the system and grade inflation. People are choosing easier goals. They are inflating tests for SLOs, saying. There are all sorts of tricks.

These are scary trends. I love teaching, but I don’t like the constant reinforcement of my  friends saying, “Why are YOU teaching?  You could be so successful.” Because by the definition of society, I must not be successful, since I teach.  Heck, I had one person ask me if I had proper university credentials and another say I probably taught at some charter school teaching my students to march in lock step and pass rote tests because I dared to refer to my kids as my “scholars.”  No wonder we can’t reform education.  We have a bunch of SLO people NECAPing each other.

So, I’ll go PARCC myself on the couch for a bit longer and see if I can come up with something I can spend the year measuring.  This will determine whether I will be asking all of you if you want fries with that.  Follow me on Twitter, and I’ll be able to tell you which register I’ll be on when the time comes.  Maybe I’ll supersize that for you.