Sunday, January 22, 2012

Semester Two, Week One - 18 Hours Donated to my Classroom and Students

Ask a teacher how many hours he or she works at home, before or after school, to be ready to teach, and most won’t know. I didn’t know until this year when I decided to chart my hours of off-contract time. I donated, invested, 240 hours to my students and my classroom during the first semester of the school year.  Six 40-hour weeks donated in 18 weeks. The results don’t surprise me; they don’t dismay me. They don’t make me angry. They are the price of being the kind of teacher I aspire to be – one who is responsive, who knows her students and their abilities, who gives timely feedback and works with students to succeed.

I teach Reading for Pleasure, a semester elective, in a large suburban high school. The class is popular with students, their parents, and the special education department. In any one class, I’m likely to have a National Merit semi-finalist and a special education student. I’ll have AP students and kids who still struggle with reading and writing. I also have kids who like to read, some who don’t, and some who just want to like reading again.

This was the first week of the semester and it was typical – kids coming and going. Assignments done just before students are transferred out of class; other students transferred in without doing the introductory assignments. My head is spinning with kids.

I work extra hard this first week to get to know my students. Ours is a class where everyone reads self-selected books and nearly half of my new students won’t have a clue what kind of books to choose. I need to help them, and that means figuring out who they are.

Within the first few minutes of the first day, students write an introductory letter to me…their likes and dislikes, interests, talents. They tell me know if they have a favorite book or author and what they hope to accomplish in my class. It’s taken me until tonight, Sunday, to read and respond to the letters, and to take notes on what the students have said. What I learned is invaluable, and will be instrumental in helping me find books for my students.

I know who my athletic guys are, and I’ll introduce them to Chris Crutcher. I have a couple of hunters and fishermen – they’ll learn about Gary Paulsen and Jon Krakauer. One boy said he liked to read books about ‘the streets.’ For him, I’ll recommend Paul Volponi and Walter Dean Myers. I have a couple of jokers who wrote outrageous things in their letters, and I’ll respond in kind: Bill Bryson, David Lubar, and the Son of the Mob series.

For my girls, I’ll suggest Simone Elkeles, whose romances are highly predictable but fun to read. Many of them already know Sarah Dessen, so I’ll move on to Sarah Zarr and Lauren Myracle. Laurie Anderson and Jodi Picoult will be popular again.
Many students said they liked adventure and mystery. Neal Shusterman and Scott Westerfield write books that will be perfect.
I have a group of science-fiction and fantasy readers who need books. Some have heard about the Hunger Games, but alas, I have no copies to share…my copies are still in the hands of other students who are taking their time reading. Mortal Instruments is a series my students have heard of, but it’s one I can still recommend. The Inheritance books are big right now, since the final installment came out late last year. I have students who are gleefully working their way through Maximum Ride books, keeping count of where they are in the series.

Carefully reading, responding, and recording all this information is labor-intensive, but it will pay dividends for all of us. I’ll later use everything I’ve learned to give each student an individualized ‘Books to Read Next’ list, with a few suggestions from me at the top of their pages.

 I will have made my point with the first assignment that students and what they have to say, are important to me. I promise them I read every word they write, but they won’t believe me until they get a first paper back with my feedback in the margins, on the top and bottom of the paper. Even then, they withhold judgment until they begin to see me respond, again and again. Once the pattern is set, THEN they’ll believe me.
Another first-week assignment is for students and parents to fill out an information sheet. I ask students and parents to tell me whatever they’d like…anything that will make my job easier. Students and parents are so honest.
I’ve learned who’s shy, who is afraid to speak in front of the class. I know who’ll need an extra prod, who will respond to praise. I can tell which parents are involved in their children’s lives. I know my students work long hours after school, that they have medical difficulties that might or might not be shared by the school nurse. One girl has severe rheumatoid arthritis and vision problems; a boy suffered a stroke one year ago. One is ADHD, one needs a seat up close to the front of the room. One is a clown, another can be giggly. My favorite comment was a mom who said her daughter wanted to be me when she grew up!

I might have learned all these details later on in the semester, but what a gift it is to know them now. I could have read the papers later in the semester, but I need to know as much about my students as I can, as quickly as I can.

This week added nearly 18 more hours of outside-the-school day time to my days. The beginning of a semester is exhausting work to start with, and the extra 18 hours were daunting. But, tomorrow I have two sets of graded papers to return to my students; I have records about students’ lives that will be valuable for my work with them.

Currently I have 154 students on my roll – too many. But each is mine, and I’m getting to know him and her. I won’t willingly give up any of them, so I must make peace in my own heart with how to be the teacher each of them needs me to be for the next 18 weeks. That will mean I’ll continue to put in hours before and after school, and on the weekends, to treat each paper with the respect it deserves. To respond to each student with the attention he or she should expect from me and every teacher.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Open letter welcoming Legislators back to the Capitol

Sent to members of the Appropriations and Education Committees of the Oklahoma State Senate and House of Representatives. I will try to write to them each week and share the notes here. I always cc our Superintendent of Public Instruction. 

Dear Legislators,

Welcome back! We’ve had a successful semester of school and I know you’ve been working hard on the legislation you’ll be introducing and supporting.

I would like to share two articles I’ve read just today that I hope will inform your work and mine as we begin another Legislative season. I know we have the same goals: to provide all the children of Oklahoma with a quality education. I hope teachers and legislators can find common ground in this quest. Remember, every teacher in your district has valuable knowledge and experience you can tap to help you through this session.

My friend, Anthony Cody, a teacher in California, recently wrote an opinion piece for CNN that turns the traditional status-quo/reform dialogue on its ear. He reminds us that the current atmosphere of standardized testing has had ten years to prove results and has not. This environment is now the status quo. He tells us what true education reform should look like, and it’s not what’s going on in our state right now. We are mired in the status-quo. Testing, and an over-reliance on test scores, is something to reform. It is no longer part of education reform.

 In the past few sessions, the Oklahoma Legislature has made standardized testing more and more high-stakes, adding to the status-quo of the testing culture. We know that is an abuse of standardized tests, which are a quick snapshot of a student’s achievement, one day in April. But now, in Oklahoma, third graders will be retained, high school students will be denied diplomas on the basis of one test, one day in April. Soon teachers will be evaluated on that one test, one day in April.

Somehow policymakers believe that one score, one day in April is an accurate evaluation of the day-to-day interactions between teachers and students. Somehow policymakers believe this one score, one day in April mitigates family circumstances, family poverty, parental education, childhood hunger and poor health. So, teachers will now be evaluated and perhaps fired based on that one test, one day in April. Schools will be graded on the same test. As Anthony states, to believe in the magic power of one test, one day in April, ‘narrowly define[s] student outcomes…’ and he suggests that real reform ‘…will challenge us to elevate rich assessments rooted in the classroom, featuring authentic evidence of student learning.’

Read Anthony’s editorial to see the wisdom teachers can bring to the discussion of school reform.

Including the wisdom of educators is the theme of Tom Watkins’ editoral. Watkins is the former Superintendent of Schools for Michigan and he laments the recent demonizing of teachers in our society. ‘Rhetoric from the state and our nation’s capital has never educated a single child. It is out teachers who know their subject matter, who have a passion for teaching and learning…’ He points out in Michigan, just as in Oklahoma, educators have been left out of the discussion of any education reform.

He asks the question we teachers in Oklahoma have been asking: ‘If education is the key why are we locking teacher out of the education agenda?’ I respectfully ask you that question. Why have classroom practitioners and administrators frozen out of your deliberations about new legislation?

Superintendent Watkins ends his piece with a challenge: “But if you are a policy-maker…consider re-evaluating how you can harness the talents of the master-link in the learning process – our great teachers.’ Oklahoma also has teachers who can help you strengthen your legislation and carry out reasonable mandates. We can show you how a proposed bill will help or hinder current requirements and earlier mandates. We can tell you what works in the classroom and what can’t be done.

I challenge you with another line from Watkins’ piece: ‘Show me how this helps teachers teach and out children learn.’  Please keep that statement in your heart and head as you begin to deliberate about legislation this coming session.

Teachers are the experts in our classroom, in what works and doesn’t in a school. We are the experts in working with parents, and in assessing real, authentic student learning. We are ready to help, to add our voices to the discussion.

Claudia Swisher

Saturday, January 7, 2012

How much of what public educators are suffering is a self-inflicted wound?

Another piece I wrote earlier. Teachers must become political, do their homework about candidates, ask questions, and above all, VOTE. In Oklahoma, we now have a non-educator dentist serving as Superintendent of Public Education because teachers did not do their homework. Those who voted for her now have buyer's remorse, but it's too late for our children now.

Teachers have unwittingly contributed to the recent attacks on our profession by not becoming political, not being active and involved. These attacks and the damages they’ve done to public education are, therefore, self-inflicted wounds. The question is, will we staunch the bleeding or sit helplessly by and allow the damage to continue?

By nature, we teachers are  apolitical. Since we work with all children every day we try to balance and respect the views of our students, their parents and our administration. That balancing act demands that we not take sides in the classroom, be open and accepting of all, as we teach our students to analyze ideas, and points of view through close reflection.

We are engulfed by the demands of our jobs – with planning, delivering instruction, revising, teaching, assessing, planning, instructing, revising…Our teaching life is more than a full-time job, and often we’re so weary we hesitate to take on ‘one more thing.’

After 36 years in the classroom, voting in every election, being the best citizen-teacher I could be, I decided teachers cannot afford to sit quietly on the sidelines, voting, but not speaking up. Or worse, not voting, or worst, not even registering to vote.

Today, teachers’ very apolitical stance, our acquiescent silence, is being used against us, and more critically, against the students we teach.  Policymakers count on most of us staying quiet.
One statistic I’ve heard suggests only 30% of the teachers in Oklahoma even vote. We have ceded our rights and our voice by not voting, or by voting without thoroughly checking out the platforms of candidates.

Some of us, like some voters in general, vote straight party tickets without investigating the messages of candidates who become our elected leaders. Some of us vote for one knee-jerk issue that in no way actually impacts what really happens in our classrooms, issues that are used to manipulate and enflame.

So, if only 30% of teachers vote, we have given up our right to affect educational policy, and to share our expertise.
If only 30% of teachers vote, policymakers assume we’ll sit quietly as they attack our retirement programs, our professional organizations, and our commitment to our own personal and professional growth.

If only 30% of us vote, lawmakers assume we’ll accept laws that mandate more testing, more testing misused to promote students, to evaluate teachers and to grade schools. Lawmakers, many of whom have never taught a day in public schools now decide they know what and how we should teach, and they assume we will quietly continue working under a heavier and heavier burden of mandates.
It’s an ugly truth, but teachers must accept partial responsibility for the current anti-teacher, anti-education climate in our state, because we have been apolitical. We don’t vote, we vote without studying the issues.

We have elected, or allowed to be elected, lawmakers whose stated plan is to cripple public schools, to send public tax money to private schools, to encourage charters to squeeze public schools, to invite for-profit online schools to cannibalize our schools. We have allowed policymakers to label us as whiners when we point out the promises that have been broken. We sat still as teacher evaluations are now based on student test scores.

We are complicit. We have chosen not to vote, to not even register to vote. We have chosen to vote without investigating candidates’ motives.

Our current anti-teacher, anti-public education climate is, in part, a self-inflicted wound. Not only is the profession, and indeed, all of public education, bleeding, we stood still as it happened. We helped; we allowed others to damage our profession and the public education system we’ve devoted our lives to.  We did not protect ourselves and our students and our profession from attack.
Now, what’s our plan to heal the damage?

Mine is to continue contacting my legislators, to tell my story, to volunteer my expertise. I will educate myself about the legislation coming forward. I’ll confront my legislators about any involvement with ALEC, which writes much of the current legislation being passed around the country. I’ll get involved with candidates’ campaigns, volunteering time and donating money if I can.  I will ask questions. I’ll find other professionals who feel as passionately as I do, and I’ll work with them, together, for all students. I will be loud.

Teachers, what’s your plan?

Monday, January 2, 2012

What does success look like in YOUR classroom?

I wrote this last school year about two students. I've changed their names to protect their privacy. What's your success story?

Success in the classroom. What does it look like? Is it everyone in class testing ‘above average?’ Or is it more nuanced?
I teach an elective called Reading for Pleasure in a large high school in Oklahoma.  Students who haven’t taken the class sometimes think it’s a blow-off class, a semester to sit around and do homework, talk to friends, and escape any academic work. Unfortunately for the future of my class, at least one decision-maker at the state level thinks the same thing and will not recognize the class as a college-preparatory elective. Students who take the class understand this class can change their academic lives, increase their test scores, and turn them into readers and writers. I watch it happen every semester.
Last year, as always, I asked student to reflect on their learning in my class. They reported how many books and pages they read, their reflections about personal growth, and their perceptions of whether the class helped them in their classes or on standardized testing. They measured their own success in their own terms, and reading their remarks reminded me that success is often quiet, nearly invisible, and hard to measure, even though we try so hard to measure everything.
One girl, Marcy, read 21,234 pages in our 18 weeks together. Another young man, Jay, read 935 pages. Which is my success? Jay, for sure. Let me explain.
I quickly learned he entered high school mired in academic failure…bad grades at the middle school, frustration and low confidence in any reading task. Meetings with Mom and lots of surveys and letters to me revealed his concerns and fears of failure. So, why was he in a class called ‘Reading for Pleasure’ when he struggles so? Because his mother loves him and he loves his mother. She saw the class in the course catalog and hoped reading more often would help his reading. He agreed to stay in the class because he trusted his mom. I tell my students I know some of them hate (read ‘are afraid to fail again’) reading. I tell them I’d be frightened to be enrolled in a class called ‘Swimming for Pleasure” and I appreciate their willingness to stay in the class and give me a try. Jay, like other poor readers, was afraid I’d reveal his weaknesses in reading and writing and ridicule him.
I have my students set their own goals for the semester, but I have mine as well. For Jay, I wanted him to find a book he enjoyed, to read it for pleasure, and be able to talk to someone about it. We started small: Schooled by Gordon Korman. I knew he would need tiny successes to build his confidence. I expected him to read and write every day like the other students, but my expectations were realistic for him…a few more pages every day, a few more words written every day. He read painfully slow, and his daily Reading Logs reflected his struggles.
He learned to trust me not to reveal his difficulties to the class. He trusted the other students to be so interested in their own books that they didn’t look at what he was reading. He learned that other students loved the same books he did, and he learned I would read the books he recommended. He learned the power of a community of readers, and saw he belonged there. The number of pages he could read in a class period increased…the number of words he wrote on his Logs increased. He began to evaluate, find humor, put himself in the place of the main character. My goals and his were being reached day by day.
At the midterm, he’d only read Schooled and a bit of My Side of the Mountain by Jean George. On his midterm he wrote: “I have learned that I may be a slow reader but I enjoy reading.” That’s a huge success and one we both celebrated. He also admitted to me that Schooled was the first book he ever finished. At the midterm he had read 208 pages, not a lot. But that was 208 pages more than he’d ever read before. We continued to work together to challenge his views of himself as a reader and a writer. Every book, every Reading Log stood as a measure of his achievement. Each made him a stronger student and a better reader. I evaluated every Log, I asked more and more of him. What was acceptable as response at the beginning of the semester no longer got him the same grade. He’d showed me he could read and reflect, and I continued to hold him accountable for deeper and deeper insights.
So what about now, at the end of the semester? Jay read a total of 935 pages – all of My Side of the Mountain, Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, one other book, and part of Stetson, by S.L. Rottman. I got to meet  Paulsen at a conference, and told him about the impact his book made on my student. Jay told me in his final that “I read faster, [and] can understand more about a book now.” When asked if he thought our class helped him with testing outside of class, he told me, “Yes…I can actually read it.”
Reading every day, reading books he chose, books that reflected his interests and abilities helped Jay grow. Writing every day about his books helped him become a better reader; talking to me in his Logs gave him an interested supportive audience. He practiced every day, practiced skills he knew were weaknesses. He came to class with a great attitude. His 935 pages is a monumental success, and he knows it.
Marcy? She breezed through books that were too easy for her, fantasy and vampire series, mostly. She didn’t write every day…she ‘forgot’ to write when I asked the class to stop reading and do their Logs. My goals for her included a broadening of her reading choices, choosing more challenging books, deepening her thinking about her books, reaching insights.  She resisted my attempts to draw her out, to discuss her books, to deepen her thinking, to try a different genre, more adult novels. She saw reading as a race and she had to finish first, read the most number of books. She didn’t grow as a reader and a writer; I was unable to help her develop her abilities…my attempts to get her to think deeply, to be reflective, to evaluate her responses to her books…they all failed.  Every time I attempted to show her how important the thinking and writing were, she pretended to agree, but did not follow up. On her final, she admits she really avoided the Reading Logs and that didn’t help her grade or her growth.
If I tell someone I had two students, one who read 21,234 pages and another who read 935 pages, most will mistakenly identify my success and my failure. I was able to help Jay grow; I failed to help Marcy. Jay, with his five books read in 18 weeks, is my shining success. When he left my room for the last time, I was doing the “happy teacher dance” behind him. He grew so much as a reader and writer…and I got to be there and watch it happen.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Teaching is my family's business -- I aim to protect it

I am a fourth generation teacher. My father was my junior high principal, and HIS father was his high school principal. My mother-in-law was a teacher. My sister is a teacher. My sister-in-law and her husband were teachers. My cousin was a principal. My son is a trumpet professor and my daughter-in-law is a teacher. I take this profession seriously, since it is the family business.

I went into teaching in the late 60's, earning a whopping $5300 my first year. I taught three years before I returned to a position, and I taught on emergency certificates four of my first five years of teaching. I've taught students from every grade level in public education, K-12. I've taught in three states, at seven schools, for ten principals. I've been an elementary classroom teacher, a school media specialist. A multi-categorical resource special education teacher, a Title I remedial reading teacher.  A high school English teacher, teaching all levels from remedial to honors.

I've worked hard to prepare myself for the challenges of my classroom. Besides a teaching certificate in English Language Arts, Library Media, I have a Reading Specialist graduate degree, nearly 20 hours past my masters in special education, and I am a National Board Certified Teacher, renewed until 2020. I love learning as much as I love teaching, and I hope that shows.

Currently I teach an English elective, Reading for Pleasure...a lucky combination of everything I've learned about students, about reading, literature, books and people. When young teachers tell me they want my job, I point out it only took me 30 years, experience K-12, jobs as a classroom teacher, a library media specialist, a special education teacher before I felt qualified to teach this class.

This is all to introduce myself, and explain how passionately I feel about public education, its teachers and students, and the parents who share their children with us every day.

I take the attacks on teachers and public education very personally. These people, most of whom have never taught a day in their lives, have marginalized the training, the experiences, the commitment, my family. They are trying to sell off the family business for their own profit. My family and I have invested ourselves day-by-day for over a century to public education.

I'm near the end of my career -- this is my 37th year of teaching. At least two of my four granddaughters have talked about becoming teachers. I would love to tell them I worked to protect the profession from profiteers who know nothing about the joys and heartbreak teachers experience in the classroom.

I hope to talk here about books, about my class. I hope to share letters I will be writing to my policymakers here in Oklahoma as I fight for my profession. I hope to find like-minded folks who want to talk books and education.