Sunday, April 29, 2012

Values can't Hide from Wordles, Thank Goodness!

I love wordles – these word clouds reveal the author’s purpose in visual ways that help both the author and reader make new value judgments about the piece.

You copy a text (I’ve used my own writing, political speeches, passages from the Bible) into the wordle website and the site analyzes word frequency. The more often the word is used, the larger it will appear in the wordle. The site lets you play with color and font and layout, and most of us know the moment we’ve found our favorite.

Recently I wordled two documents, one, in deep frustration. I studied the state of Oklahoma’s State Department of Education’s new A-F School Grading rules and wanted to see what the SDE valued. I’ve already written about my finding…

I always assign students a self-reflective midterm, and this semester most of them turned in their reflections. They’ve set goals that need to be revisited, they need to observe patterns in their reading choices and record and analyze the books and pages they’ve read so far in the semester. The last question I asked on the midterm was, “Tell me something that makes you proud of your work in Reading for Pleasure.” I wanted them to have the opportunity to think about what they'd accomplished through the nine weeks we've been together.

I went through the papers and copied all the statements, cleaning up grammar as needed. Then, I took that seven page document and wordled it.

I posted it on Facebook, and Christie Paradise, a great friend, found the SDE wordle and posted it alongside the students’ wordle. Differences popped out at all of us.

Often when I see something developing in my work that interests me, I turn it over to my students so they can observe and comment. That’s what I did. I shared both wordles and asked them to copy the words that popped out at them – and then simply write their observations.

Nearly every student saw the difference in what was valued…they identified the warm emotions of their own list and the emphasis on scores and grades from the other.

Several students’ responses are worth sharing.

“It’s kind of jarring, the difference between the two lists. Not that I expected a school-board generated policy to have the words ‘love’ or ‘proud’ in it.”

“The goals we set for ourselves are so much more genuine.”

“I don’t want to be standardized. I want to be proud of my achievements and love what I do.”

“The R4P wordle invokes a sense of discovery.”

R4P: “Students have learned to read at home, to pursue…discoveries. Most importantly, students have grown…This is awesome.”

OK A-F Grading wordle: ” means to an end, empirical, mechanical parts of a machind that creates unhappy, unmotivated puppets.”

OK A-F: “There was one word I was looking for but could not seem to find: teachers. Nowhere to be found. Their complete absence suggests they are independent of this formula…that means they ought to be independent of its consequences, of its inevitable fallout. But something in my gut tells me this is not the case.”

OK A-F: “Learning is about the numbers and not the kids.”

My kids get it. They understand setting personal learning goals and monitoring progress. They know how to take pride in achievements, even if it’s finishing, as many do, their first book read for pleasure. They know learning (and achievement) occur when both the head and the heart are fully engaged. They know joy and achievement should be partners.

What am I proud about? I’m proud my students strive for their personal learning. I’m proud they come to class with books, and read and write and talk about books. I’m proud they care about their work and are eager to share it with me.

How can we share this pride with our State Department? How can I help them sustain that pride as we turn students into test-taking automatons? How can we tell the State Department we’re preparing ourselves to be life-long readers, to be parents who read to their babies when they become parents, to be adults who can always talk about the book they’re reading at the moment?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Another grab for power by the State Department of Education

*Sigh* I look forward to the time I'm not spending time and energy writing to legislators, some of whom have steadfastly ignored my every word for over a year now. I'll also say every letter I've ever sent or delivered or mailed to the Superintendent has likewise been ignored. But here's another.

Oklahoma Commission for Teacher Preparation has a singular political history in our state -- I don't pretend to understand, but I DO know it has been the guardian of the National Board program in the state since its beginning. Education Leadership Oklahoma has supported over 6000 Oklahoma teachers as they attempted certification, and boast of nearly 3000 NBCTs -- 10th in the nation! Now, again, the State Department wants to take over OCTP and control the funds generated. No word of the fate of ELO under this new world order, but I shiver in fear. 

My latest letter -- which will probably be ignored again.

Recently, while reading an OEA legislative message, I read a disquieting remark by Joel Robinson,  actually a post on Facebook…I’ll return to Facebook later in my letter: ““With legislation now moving through the Legislature that will shift responsibility for the NBCT program from the Oklahoma Commission for Teacher Preparation to the State Department of Education, the agency will continue to work to make the verification process quick and efficient,” Joel Robison commented via Facebook” So, he’s confident enough of SB1797 that he’s announcing on Facebook?

I understand that almost every year the SDE makes a power grab to take over  the professional development funds administered by OCTP, but I was surprised at how very, very confident Mr. Robinson appeared…’Legislation moving through,’ just tripping along to gut one of the most successful agencies in OKC to give the SDE more money?

I am closely aligned with one of the offices at OCTP – ELO. I can tell you ELO, Education Leadership Oklahoma, with its unwavering dedication to our state’s premier National Board Certification program, has changed the face of education in our state.  This year has seen a fierce struggle to reinstate this program back to a reflection of its glory days; nearly 3000 NBCTs in our state are serving students in public school classrooms every day. The training and support candidates and NBCTs receive from ELO makes a difference in schools all over the state.

Now, once again, from another direction, it looks like we’re fighting for our lives again. I use the pronoun ‘we’ because for over ten years I’ve been a proud part of the ELO family. I’ve been a trainer at the Summer Professional  Development Institute, I’ve  created writing workshops for candidates. I’m the Regional Coordinator for the Norman area and hold twice-monthly support meetings. These meetings are the most amazing examples of true professional learning communities, and we all benefit from coming together and working. I’ve been a member of the Selection Committee and have read applications for the scholarships that the OK Legislature has generously provided to give teachers an opportunity to go through the National Board process. I have been to national conferences with other NBCTs and have always been proud of the work OCTP and ELO does to nurture and support NBC candidates, and celebrate NBCTs once we’re certified.

I’ve read the summary of SB1797 – have yet to plow through all 53 pages, and see no mention of ELO…only OCTP. What’s to come of ELO and the National Board program in our state? Why would you think about handing ELO over to the SDE? We saw what happened last year when we trusted the SDE and the State Superintendent to do the right thing for our NBCTs. She cut the funding and threw the responsibility of her job back on your shoulders. Her contempt could not be more clear.

We are now in the middle of verification processes to finally pay our NBCTs the stipends we were promised by law by no later than January 30. The SDE has known for months a process of verification would have to be invented, and it seems to have waited until the last minute to pressure districts and teachers for proof of NBC, and employment as full-time teachers in public schools. The SDE’s lack of planning has, indeed created an emergency upon our parts.

Districts scrambled to verify the employment of their NBCTs, and to send that information to the SDE as quickly as possible. The SDE, in turn, was to contact every NBCT within the district to inform him or her of the next part: teacher verification online through the certification website. I can tell you my unofficial poll is showing about half of us are being informed by the SDE. In my building, with over 20 NBCTs, about half of us got any message from the SDE. On my hall, only one of the four NBCTs received the email from the SDE – I was one of the three that got nothing. Instead, we’ve had to rely on email, word-of-mouth, and Facebook to learn we have until May 1 to log on and verify our information. To add to the stress, May 1 has been given as our deadline. No word that we were supposed to verify, but May 1 is our deadline. Think of this – professional educators must rely on social networking for the communication of something as important as verifying our NBC status!

After we’ve gone to the website, created a profile and walked through the verification process, some NBCTs receive an email in response telling them they were successful. Some saw a pop-up window that said the same. Some, like me, got no response, so I can only pray I did everything right. Again, a break-down in communication that has us all on edge.

I tell you this story to ask you why in the world would you give OCTP and ELO into the hands of the SDE? OCTP has proved its efficiency, its dedication and professionalism over time. The SDE has created chaos that may very well result in an NBCT not being paid because he or she didn’t know the procedures.
Might I also remind you, all this NBCT furor is happening at the height of the testing season in every school in the state? Teachers are already stressed and distracted and truly don’t want to have to spend the kind of psychic energy we’ve been force to, on ourselves. We would rather be focusing on our students and their performance.

And this is the agency you’re going to put in charge of OCTP, and I assume by default, ELO? You’re going to give OCTP and ELO to an agency that has shown over the last two years it has nothing but contempt for teacher preparation, teacher development, teacher training, teacher learning. Teachers.
Please, defeat SB1797 and give OCTP and ELO your vote of confidence. They’ve earned it every day, with every teacher in our state.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

A thank-you letter to Legislators

In Oklahoma we have enjoyed one of the most forward-looking support systems for National Board in the country. Education Leadership Oklahoma has been given the charge of selecting candidates for scholarships, for training and support of the candidates, and for continuing the work of networking for NBCTs. As a result of all this dedication, Oklahoma is a national leader.

For the past few years we have seen the public support erode and the political rhetoric heat up. The State Department of Education Superintendent shorted payments as one of her first official acts, and the next year failed to request any funds to pay the $5000 stipends to the nearly 3000 NBCTs. It literally has taken an 'act of Congress' to reinstate the stipends.

This year, the Legislature has considered several bills, and one, SB1879, is still alive, in a third or fourth iteration. For me there were always two sticking points: a fixed amount of money was to be allocated each year for stipends and any left over would revert to the SDE, the very leaders who tried to kill the program, for its teacher merit pay scheme.

The other issue I had with the original bill was while there were scholarships (100, down from 400), none of these new candidates would be eligible for a stipend when he or she attained NBC. 

Last week, in the House Appropriations Committee, two amendments were offered: one limits stipend payment for the original ten years of NBC, and the second offers the stipends to new NBCTs. 

This is my letter that I sent the Appropriations Committee members involved. I will revise and send to all the Education Committee, my own Representative, who's stopped talking to me. Then, I will send it to the Appropriations and Education Committee members in the Senate when it goes back to those Committees.

The fight is not over; the fight is not won. But there is hope, and I've had precious little of that for the past few years.

Here is my letter:

I am a teacher…a National Board Certified Teacher…a trainer of National Board candidates, a proud Regional Coordinator providing support for candidates. I have spent over ten years immersed in the world of National Board, and Education Leadership Oklahoma. I have attended national conferences and seen that other states don’t measure up – to our system of professional development, and to our level of legislative support of candidates and NBCTs. I have been so proud to be an NBCT in Oklahoma. Until recent developments put our entire program in terrible jeopardy.

I was excited by much of what I read in the original SB1879 and saw the Legislature's sincere intent to solidify and strengthen the ELO program, a true national leader in NBC. There were areas I had grave concerns about as well. I wrote to Senator Ford and shared my support and my concerns. As I've watched and listened to the discussions, I'm more and more excited about the product you're finalizing.

All along my support hinged on continued support of new NBCTs: scholarships to go through the process and stipends when teachers attain National Board Certification. The scholarships are the first gesture of support, an initial investment in strong teachers who want to become even stronger. The NBC journey is arduous and challenging for a teacher; the financial burden of paying his or her own way adds more stress. So, scholarships will insure the continuation of our program.

But, in the initial versions of 1879, these teachers would not have received a stipend after attaining NBC, and I could not support a bill that would deny recognition to new NBCTs – a $500 ‘pat on the back’ is not the same support  NBCTs have enjoyed for the past ten years. I want the NBC and ELO program to flourish in Oklahoma, and it won’t until our new NBCTs also earn the same stipend. In our program we focus on the elements of equity, access and fairness. In every lesson, in every Entry, we need to address these concerns in our classroom. The way this bill was originally written, new NBCTs would be afforded NONE of these, and I could not support the original SB1879.

Another troublesome element in the original bill was the fact that any funds left over from paying stipends would revert to the SDE. Believe me, the TLE program in no way resembles the NBC process, and investment in TLE over NBC and ELO was a slap in the face of all NBCTs around the state. I was grateful to see that provision of the bill is gone.

But I still had deep issues. With your continued work this week, you've addressed my exact concerns, and I'm feeling so much more hopeful about this legislation.

Rep. Coody, I met you at the NBCT reception and sent you a couple of emails with some suggestions for revising this bill.

At the NBCT reception, I learned about a study by the Gates Foundation – a study that looked into the effectiveness of NBCTs in improving student test scores. While NBC does not narrowly focus on just test scores, an NBCT in a classroom can make that kind of impact. I'm including the link to the chart for you to use in discussions with skeptics. NBCTs DO make a difference – even Bill Gates sees this.

With Rep. Dorman's amendment, extending stipends for new NBCTs, I can now whole-heartedly support SB1879. Rep. Denney's amendment limiting stipends to the original ten years is also a concept I agree with. To continue to provide Oklahoma's students with the very best teachers, having new, younger teachers cycled into the NBCT family, bringing their enthusiasm and expertise, will energize our profession and our schools. Experienced NBCTs would be there to mentor and guide, and Oklahoma will profit.

I often talk about the 'happy teacher dance' when describing those moments in the classroom when a student 'gets it' or exhibits deep learning or makes a connection I've been working on. The 'happy teacher dance' is that payoff for all the hard work, the long hours, the belief in teachers' and students' partnerships.

I am doing the 'happy teacher dance' right now! You've strengthened this bill, you've shown us NBCTs that we are valued, that the work we do is valued. You've shown us all you believe in our power to educate.

I will personally, publicly support this bill as amended. I will write and speak whenever I can, giving my approval of your work.

I want to know what else you need from me, from my fellow NBCTs.