Paved with Unintention: One Way We can Stop Perpetuating a Test Culture

I recently came across this strategy on Pinterest, and at first glance, I really liked it. I liked the template wording, particularly for the age group targeted (3rd-8th graders). I also liked the visual appeal.  The strategy is great! However, check out what the teacher wrote under the purpose for learning and the metacognitive indicator. I’m also dubious about the lesson itself. 

The purpose for learning that day –identified by “So that I can”--is, basically, to do well on the Connecticut Mastery Test.
The metacognitive indicator-- indicated by “I’ll know I’ve got it when”-- is the score she receives on this practice exercise.
Finally, while practicing a strategy is certainly laudable, should it be the objective of the lesson? DRP strategies, by the way, are pretty awesome reading strategies. But that’s just it. They are strategies for doing the learning…not the learning itself. 

This is no way to integrate creativity and curiosity, nor is it a way to instill a love for learning.  Nor is it the ONLY way to help students acquire these skills.

One of the biggest arguments I get into with teachers is how to design curriculum that addresses what the students need to know how to do, but does it in a way that instills a greater purpose for the learning.   

The teacher, who created this objective, would probably tell me, “Students need to know  how to use these strategies on the reading passages of the test.” 

Absolutely they need to know these strategies! However, does the use of the strategies have to be the emphasized objective of the lesson for the student? Why? Why can’t it be the means of obtaining a more creative objective? Why can’t the use of strategies be an objective that the teacher has under her belt, but is NOT the focus for the student? 

Most likely, given the reference to an answer sheet, the students are reading a series of passages, probably from a workbook of some sort. The passages will have no rhyme or reason other than to exist for the student to use DRP strategies on. Why not locate and provide several short articles that are based on the current unit of study, whether that’s Sarah, Plain and Tall or Mammals of the Sea? Students can decide which ones they want to read and use the strategies to read them.

The misuse of metacognitive activities, here, is particularly painful. These students begin to perpetuate themselves as data or scores, and they have no idea how they know what they know. Why not find a more simple, authentic way to incorporate metacognition? 

I humbly suggest that teachers can instill a love of learning, while still teaching crucial skills. We need to do everything we can to stop paving the test-culture road. 



Today, I am:  reading and deciding on two articles that will help me with my final project on [whales, the turn of the century lifestyle].

So that I canunderstand more about why [whales, dolphins, the Pioneers] do what they do and figure out why we don’t do the same thing.

I'll know that I've got it when:   I can explain what the article is about to a friend who has read a different article.
 Mindy, together with some of her former students, recently published Transparent Teaching of Adolescents, a discussion of effective teaching strategies for high school. Join the conversation!


Myth Buster: "Teachers must work tirelessly to be effective."

In his blog post on The Qualities of an Effective Teacher: No. 4—An EffectiveTeacher is Tireless, Jake Hollingsworth argues that “good” teachers must understand that they will work long hours and must have no care for the fact that students neither realize or appreciate the number of those hours. 

I respectfully disagree. 

First, there is a distinction to be made between “good” and “effective.” Good implies a quality that is desirable by another whereas effective implies a quality of successful implementation. One of the worst adjectives that can be attributed to a teacher is good because it perpetuates this strange morality of martyrdom in teacher identity: that he/she can only be good if he/she works tirelessly, the unappreciated, selfless educator.

The image conveyed by Mr. Hollingsworth is that of a teacher sitting at a desk (at home and/or at work), with a computer and stacks of papers. It is a tiring image, and one becomes weary in just looking at it.  Why set this image up in front of new teachers? They will think that this is the way it should be, and that unless they are doing so, then they are not “good.” 

It’s simply not true. 

Effective teachers spend their planning time wisely and purposefully, and they DO care what their students think about the presentation of lessons and assessments. We can spin our wheels for days on a particular unit, and it will fall flat in presentation. It just won’t “jive.” On the other hand, an afterthought of a lesson, which took moments to plan, will garner an enthusiastic response. 

The difference really lies in how the teacher spends his or her planning time in reaction to what has occurred in the class.  Ascribing to the definition above, the “good” teacher will simply pick up and do the same thing again, using the same approach on the next unit, spending the same amount of ineffectual time.  However, effective teachers will not spend the next number of hours planning in the same way. He or she will reflect, first, so that the same problem/issue won’t happen again in another unit. 

The effective teacher also asks students what they think, and by doing so, will find the first of many time-savers. For example, as opposed to agonizing for hours over a rubric for a project, effective teachers will work alongside students in determining a rubric of expectations. Generally, what they’ll find is that a student-created rubric is far more rigorous than what they would have created. Further, students who have created it will strive more diligently to meet those expectations. 

Thus, a good deal of an effective teacher's time is in thought, not in doing something tirelessly.

I will concede that the motivation for preparation should NOT be to gain appreciation from students. (I write about teaching as a thankless job at length in a previous blog post.) However, effective teachers will “see” appreciation of students in the form of engaged interest, interactive discussion, and the dawning of understanding. If we do not see any of those, then we cannot say we are effective. 

Truly effective teachers might spend a large chunk of time planning a large unit, the first time. However, following their reflection on the reception of the lesson and garnering student feedback, the next time will be much more fluid and purposeful, lessening the time but increasing the impact. Additionally, effective teachers do not always start from scratch; they collaborate with others to save time  and share with others to improve practice.

Truly effective teachers are not hinged to any desk for a ridiculous number of hours every day. If you’re doing that, stop. If you find yourself grading papers endlessly, STOP. Talk to your mentor or talk to someone who just seems to “have it all together.” That person will have valuable information as to how to work not only effectively, but realistically.

Effective teachers do not seek to reach an idealized "tirelessness." Rather, they seek and find efficiency. Effectiveness does not lie in a number of hours spent, but in the quality of the time spent.

Mindy and some of her former students recently published Transparent Teaching of Adolescents, a discussion of effective teaching strategies for high school. Join the conversation!  


Overcoming Teacher-technophobia

There it sits… showing off its silicon superiority and sleekness. Doesn’t matter if it’s an e-app or an i-thing; it’s there, reminding you that YOU, as a Digital Johnny or Janey-come-lately, don’t even know where to begin. (If you know what a Johnny-come-lately is, by the way, you’re in my age group.)

Everyone around you is tweeting and texting, swiping and blogging with devices that seem to get smaller with every passing year. More to the point, technology is now a category on your annual teacher evaluation. It probably reads something like: Integrates Technology. So, now, it’s part of your job. But what do you do when you just don’t know where to start? It is all so overwhelming!

I’m not going to throw a lot of tech-talk at you or even make suggestions as to what technology to use. I’m going to ask you to do something much more difficult. I’m going to ask you to:

1 . Have no fear

The mindset for working with technology requires that you understand that you can’t mess it (or them) up. Really. You can’t mess up an entire program by typing or clicking in the wrong place. It might make a loud noise or give you little warning, but you can’t break it. In fact, if you do manage to do some never-before-seen thing (which is incredibly unlikely), tech people are VERY interested in it because then, they can solve the glitch and be heroes. They like that kind of stuff. What’s really nifty keen is that whatever you DO do, can be fixed. Type in the wrong thing? Edit. Click on the wrong button? Go Back. No one is timing you. No one is counting how many times you mess up.

Those of us who remember rotary dials and typewriters, seem to have this sense of permanence about things. When we typed papers, we had to get it perfect or redo the whole thing. If we dialed one wrong number in a sequence, we had to hang up and start over. Technology is all about flexibility.

2. Embrace not knowing

This is a hard pill to swallow, I think. We like things spelled out, laid out for us. We are of the group who had manuals with instructions. However, with technology, you jump in and when you have a question, you seek the answer. There are HELP buttons and FAQs (frequently asked questions with answers). Sometimes, there’s even a handy reminder that pops up. Programs are designed to be used without knowing.

This is very different from the psychology of being told what to do and how to do it, which is how we were raised. You didn’t touch anything without fully understanding it. Your goal, now? Learn as you go.
Our children (and grandchildren), have learned how to not worry about not knowing. They put the game in the player, pick up the joystick and go, seeming to know exactly what they’re doing at every moment. They don’t. They just understand that it’s okay not to know because they’ll find out or figure it out.

3. Find a mentor who is in your age bracket

I don’t mean this facetiously. I mean it seriously. Young people, who are Digital Natives, are immersed in the technology culture; thus, they really don’t make the best explainers or motivators. They can (unintentionally) make you just feel inferior, just by their reactions: “You don’t know what a ‘cookie’ is? Really?”

That’s why finding a friend, who will talk in a way you understand, is key. Whoever this friend is, he or she should be comfortable with computers, those phones that can access the internet, iPads, and the internet, in general. Let this person know what you’re trying to do, and he/she will most likely have an experience that is similar. You are not alone!

4. Reinvent yourself as a Digital Pioneer

The pioneers who ventured out West had no idea what they were getting into. They planned as best they could, but for the most part, they figured things out as they went. This is where you are. You are neither Digital Immigrant nor Digital Native, but Digital Pioneer. It doesn’t matter that others have gone before you; this is undiscovered country for you. Discover this country for yourself and your students. You’ll do things you never thought you could do, and most importantly, you’ll meet students where they are…in their world.

You got this.

Mindy and some of her former students discuss their experiences in the classroom in Transparent Teaching of Adolescents: Creating the Ideal Class for Students and Teachers. Get your copy, today! : )


What happens when you give creative people something uncreative to do...

My classmate, Sean, and I grew up within one block of each other. We went to high school and college together, and because we both loved theatre, we performed together many times. Eventually, we both wound up as high school English teachers at the same high school.

Test preparation was in high gear at this point, and administration decided that all teachers, no matter their individual discipline, were going to teach math and English for the state assessment test. Further, we were "paired" up with a fellow colleague for twenty minutes at the start of the day to complete a daily test prep exercise.

Quite fortuitously, Sean and I got thrown together. 

But "math"? Seriously?

Now, Sean was okay with it. I was a mess. Math really isn't my thing. So, he took over the Math stuff on Math days, and I did the English stuff on English days, and so it went.  For a while. But creative people just can't leave things so...orderly.

Having worked together onstage, we knew how to "pick up" on each other's cues. And one day, Sean spontaneously began to portray a student. He was all like, "Dude, why does the poet say that?" It was hysterically funny. He asked crazy questions about the exercise, and the students loved it.

And they were learning. He was coming across as "dumb", but they were learning the strategies because he was asking those questions.

We switched it up on Math days. I became the student, and the dumb questions (in my case) weren't so far off the mark. I really had a tough time with math! I really didn't understand. However, forcing him to explain why and how he was doing things obviously helped the other students, who would often chime in and share why and how the teacher was doing what he was doing.

It was so cool. Further, it made--what most of our peers considered to be-- the most boring part of the day enjoyable for everyone.

I remembered our creative approach while watching this training video on Teaching Critical Thinking, wherein college instructors and college students are sitting together in a class. Side by side, these two groups struggled through the same concepts and ideas. No doubt, the college students felt a bit awkward at first, but later, the groups became a learning community. Isn't this what we want to do?

Why don't we do this more often? Why don't we ask teachers to "sit in" on a colleague's class to learn something new? For example, have a PE teacher sit in on an Art Class, English teachers in Algebra, History teachers in Music. Maybe just for one week out of the school year.  Maybe just for one day?

What students would see would be a powerful model for learning, if not an incentive to do better than the teacher. More to the point, they would see how to learn. They could watch what the teachers do as far as note-taking, participation, and asking questions. All the stuff that we want them to do well but never have time to teach explicitly.

Just a thought.

We wouldn't want to do anything too crazy...