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Posts Tagged ‘academic achievement’

Every school send kids to the dean for fighting or stealing or drinking.  Then those kids get detention or suspension or some other punishment.

And then they just keep on failing in class.

My school not only allows, but requires teachers to give detention  for missing work and low grades during an extended lunch period.  Each subject has a certain day of the week (English is on Tuesday) and we’re supposed to hold students who are failing and make them do their work.

That’s right, we stigmatize failure.  We hold students immediately responsible for their choices to slide by and not achieve.

Any student who fails to show up will get an after-school detention with the deans.  That’s right, our deans support our teachers and help them get results by making kids accountable.

Do they get the message and become more self-motivated?  Not always.  They’re teens.

But they know that success is important to us.  They know what our priorities and expectations are.  That’s more than can be said for most schools.

“But you work at an elite magnet school for the arts!  Sure, they’e not all geniuses, but they all did have to apply to get in and have to keep their grades up to stay in.  Most schools don’t have that luxury.”

That changes nothing.  Bottom line: students will not take academics seriously if we don’t.  If we want improvement in our schools, we absolutely must make academic success our top–our only–goal, and zero in on it with passion.

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A valuable life lesson

A valuable life lesson

An analogy I came up with last week to help enlighten my students, far too many of whom have tried to slide by, giving the minimal amount of effort they could and still pass the class, and who (shockingly!) failed my class for the last grading period:

There’s a classic episode of The Simpsons where Lisa is doing a science experiment at home.  She puts a food pellet in a hamster cage, but attaches it to a little wire that’s hooked up to a battery.  The hamster nibbles at the pellet, gets a bit of a shock, and quickly gets as far away from it as he can.

Lisa notes in her journal that the hamster has learned a lesson.

Then she puts a cupcake in the kitchen, and likewise puts an electrified wire in the back.  Bart comes by and grabs for the cupcake.  It zaps him but, unlike the hamster, Bart does not learn his lesson.  He keeps grabbing the cupcake, and keeps getting zapped.  He’s immediately addicted to a pointless cycle of self-destruction.

Here’s the application:

Bart is like too many students who, seeing how delicious that cupcake is, keep letting their hunger for it overcome their common sense.

The cupcake is the elusive goal of getting by in a class without having to work very hard.

The wire and battery represent the inevitable failure that follows this course of action.

After all, as Einstein said, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result.  How many kids must be thinking, “THIS time my plan to goof off and somehow be just good enough will surely work like a charm!”

Now, when I see students slacking off, or otherwise doing things that will hurt their chances for success, I tell them, “Stop grabbing the electric cupcake.”  They’re already sick of it.

If only I could get them to strive for the huge chocolate cake of well-earned achievement!

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Two Sundays ago, the Las Vegas Review-Journal ran a huge story about the massive failure of local students on common assessments.  I sent a letter to them responding to it.  Some of their story was honestly true, much was misinterpreted and out of context, but mostly it failed to take into account the most salient factors. 

Over the following week, they printed three letters in response to the article.  Mine wasn’t one of them.  All three that did run were positive in nature.  Why didn’t they print mine?  Is it because I’d just had a letter published the week before?  Is it because my letter wasn’t sycophantic enough?  Is it because I called them jerks on Facebook for crudely mis-labeling my last letter? 

Whatever the reason, here’s an excerpt from the letter the local paper didn’t want you to see:

In your lambasting of local education, you fail to explain why things are so bad. At one point, “culture” was reluctantly offered as a factor. No kidding!

In the first five weeks of school, I’ve spoken with a dozen parents who want their children removed from my English classes and placed in an easier class. This happens every year, as it does to every teacher I know who runs rigorous classes.

One mother explained that the problem with my class is that it’s “all reading and writing.” Apparently, I should be having more dance parties.

It’s incredible just how many parents in Las Vegas will insist on easier classes and demand lower standards. The lazy, entitlement culture is deeply entrenched here.

The next time you want to complain about education, write a scathing exposé about the thousands of your neighbors who regularly bully teachers into mediocrity.

 

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Yesterday, the Las Vegas Review-Journal ran a letter I wrote about merit pay for teachers, but which was really about celebrating the achievements of hardworking students.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that they took the opportunity to insult us by giving the letter the heading “Teachers Irrelevant.” 

Geez.  I simply said that students deserve the credit for their own success, not that teachers don’t matter at all.  At any rate, here’s the letter:

As the new school year settles in, there’s increasingly more talk about starting merit pay for teachers here. Many teachers have responded by explaining that they have no control over whether or not their mostly apathetic students focus, do homework or even show up at all.

I’ll offer another perspective.

I teach more than 200 honors English students. It’s a foregone conclusion that most of them will develop larger vocabularies, broaden their literacy, and improve their writing skills this year. Most of them will get an “A” in my class. Do I deserve any special reward because of this major, consistent success?

Absolutely not.

The credit for the success of these students lies entirely with the students themselves. Just as the blame for the epidemic of failure in our state lies with those students and their parents who fail, the success of those who excel is exclusively due to their own choice to care.

I’ve never met a teacher who feels any other way.

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On Tuesday, a counselor at my school sent an email out to all of a certain student’s teachers, asking for help with his struggling performance, at the request of the student and his mother.  Though I commended them for this interest and effort, and the counselor for facilitating that, the substance of my comments was as follows:

Thank you for working with _____ and his mom. He’s really a decent kid; I enjoy having him in class and hope he turns around and does well.

That being said, let’s not all go through that dog and pony show where we shrug our shoulders and pretend we don’t know what’s wrong here. In my class, for example, last quarter, _____ had three large homework projects, which were discussed in class, literally, every day, with handouts given and posted online. None of them were turned in. He clearly didn’t study for the last big vocab quiz, either. He has another quiz Thursday and another big project–which we’ve also reviewed every day this quarter–due in two weeks. I can only hope he turns it in.

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Last week, the Clark County School District superintendent announced that he’ll be leaving over the summer. As the school board starts searching for a replacement, I’d like to throw my hat in the ring. Below is a list of ideas that I like. I plan to be at their meeting on Thursday, April 8, at 4 PM, to discuss my interest with them. I’d appreciate anybody’s support!

These are only ideas, not laws set in stone. These tentative suggestions are meant to illustrate my priorities and values as an educational leader. Ideas would be discussed with the public and school district legal counsel, and may need to be enacted more or less strictly in practice.

  1. All decisions about finances and policies should be made with this motto in mind: “Academic achievement above all.”

  2. Frequently and regularly conference with every principal in the district about their needs, ideas, and concerns. Be open and available to all faculty, parents, and the community. Have an open door policy, and engage the community in person and through media more often. Public schools are community schools, and everyone’s input will be valued.

  3. Reduce non-teaching personnel throughout the school district: eliminate “regions” and regional superintendents, “teachers on special assignment,” and non-academic departments such as “Equity and Diversity Education.” These and many other examples of bureaucratic pork do nothing to improve students’ education.

  4. Reduce and/or eliminate programs that encourage ongoing student failure, in terms of lowered expectations or unreasonable credit retrieval: social promotion, 50% minimum grades, certificates of attendance, and block scheduling, which will also save the school district millions of dollars.

  5. Reduce number and frequency of physical mailings from school district to homes; vast and expensive waste will be ended here.

  6. Aggressively find and eliminate waste and abuse in the free and reduced lunch program.

  7. Consider ending year round schedules in elementary schools, as another cost-saving measure.

  8. Expand an emphasis on basic literacy and arithmetic in elementary grades. Consider re-instituting tracking of students based on achievement, to better modify instruction for individual student needs.

  9. Under no circumstances will funding for arts and sports programs be cut.

  10. Another cost-saving measure: all school district materials will be printed in English only.

  11. Require every campus to survey their community about dress codes and standard school attire.

  12. Strictly enforce discipline and attendance regulations; end the “revolving door” of discipline and endless truancy allowances.

  13. Empower teachers to conduct more effective disciplinary action against disruptive students, such as immediately placing them in an in-house suspension or placing them on RPC.

  14. Make it easier for campus administrators to discipline or fire grossly incompetent teachers; likewise, advocate for reform of current licensing standards and alternative licensing to attract experienced professionals to teaching.

  15. End all emphasis and pressure on teachers to utilize “learning styles,” multicultural education, cooperative education, and any other educational trend that is not supported by research as being consistently beneficial to learning.

  16. End any doctoring of disciplinary and other statistical numbers to the school district and public; stop pressuring and punishing administrators and teachers for “excessively” high discipline rates. Secrecy is out; transparency is in.

  17. Assertively involve parents in the education of nonproficient students: at all grade levels, after each grading period, nonproficient students will be required to attend conferences with their teachers and parents to determine the causes of student failure and to make definite resolutions to fix them. There will be no “grading of parents,” but as appropriate, these meetings may lead to voluntary parenting classes or seminars, such as many campuses already sponsor.

  18. Require schools to counsel habitually truant and disruptive secondary school students to enroll in alternative placements such as virtual high school, distance learning, adult education, etc. This will reduce discipline problems on campuses and will redirect school resources to those who want to learn.

  19. Actively encourage community organizations and businesses to reward successful students, especially through promotions, discounts, and in offering good students employment; CCSD will officially recognize and endorse such organizations and businesses to encourage the community to patronize them.

  20. Sell unnecessary facilities and materials. Does the superintendent’s office have a big leather chair and a huge oak desk? If so, they’ll both be on Craigslist by the end of my first day.

  21. I will perform my duties as superintendent for the same salary I make as a teacher, with no added perks or bonuses. This alone will save the school district hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

Anyone who thinks I lack sufficient financial background for this position should know that I am raising a family with five children only on my teacher’s salary (my wife is a stay-at-home mom). If I can make that work, I can make the school district’s budget work!

 

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This week is semester exam week in my school district, which marks the halfway point of the year.  As students work on their big tests, I’ve found a few nuggets of positivity or, failing that, laughter:

  • While one class worked on their exams, I finished grading the book reports they turned in last week.  The most common feature was most students’ response to a directive to write a paragraph about their favorite and least favorite things about their books, and what they would change.  Nearly everybody said that they liked the parts that were happy, and that they would change the parts that were sad.  Everybody said they’d make it so that Simon and Piggy don’t die in Lord of the Flies.  Those who read The Lovely Bones said that they’d save Susie.  And students who picked The Grapes of Wrath…well, they’d keep Route 66 and pretty much turn the rest into a college road trip, if they had their druthers.  Luckily none of them read the Bible for their book report, or humanity might have been denied the Atonement altogether!
  • In fact, one girl was quite emphatic in her assertion of editorial license: “I would most defiantly change the ending.”  *ahem*  Yes, I’m sure you would.  I see several students every year who spell definitely that way. 
  • On a positive note, though, (more…)

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There are forty students enrolled in my third hour class.  Thirty showed up today: one had been suspended, nine others were truant. 

For the previous two classes, their homework—as explained at the beginning and end of each class and posted on the board—was to get a copy of a novel from a list I’d given them, and merely to bring it in to class today.  The list included authors such as Mark Twain and Ray Bradbury (and, for that matter, J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer) among two dozen others, the only other requirement being that the book they choose be at least 250 pages long.  I told them that our school librarian had a copy of the list and could help them find a book.  Obviously, they had a few hundred books to choose from.

Out of the thirty students in class today, only ten had a book.  A few others probably had a book but left it at home.  However, the vast majority of the unprepared twenty clearly hadn’t put forth any effort at all, hadn’t bothered to write down or remember the assignment, and had lost or thrown away my handout list.  They didn’t even care enough to try to do it.  Keep in mind that the assignment was merely to have a copy of the book with them.  That was it. 

And only one-fourth of the kids in that class will get credit for it. 

Is this a remedial class?  Far from it.  (more…)

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The first four weeks of school are over.  Some thoughts:

  • As students transition into using new vocabulary words in their own writing, they seem to have an instinct for using unfamiliar words as adjectives.  I find myself reviewing parts of speech much more than I’d like to at the high school level.  Most teens need to be reminded that parts of speech are not interchangeable.  The first word of our first unit is “adulterate,” the verb meaning “to corrupt or make impure.”  Without closer guidance, they’ll just use it like this: “He was a really adulterate guy.”  Of course, if they’re talking about Bill Clinton, I guess I could give them half credit.
  • I usually don’t like open house, the annual night where parents come in to meet their kids’ teachers.  I never know what to do up there, not that it ever makes any difference, anyway.  Life goes on as if it never happened, and I forget everyone I met as soon as I go home.  This year, though, one parent thanked me for assigning  a list of options from which students have to choose for their independent reading this quarter.  “If you hadn’t assigned these,” she said, “the kids would never read them.”  It’s nice enough to get a compliment, but it’s even better when a parent understands the reasoning behind what I do!
  • Yesterday, a college student called me to say that he’d missed the last two weeks of class because his grandmother died.  He offered to bring me a note from his parents.  I told him that was unnecessary. 
  • Every year I notice this: before our morning announcements, kids in an honors class will all stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance together.  Kids in non-honors classes rarely will.  It’s a very stark, and very absolute, difference.  This begs a chicken-or-the-egg question: is a student’s citizenship influenced by their academic performance, or is their academic performance influenced by their citizenship?  Or are both, perhaps, shaped by the same factors in the home environment…
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It still always surprises me when a student blithely declares anything unfamiliar or which requires sustained concentration to be “boring,” and then dismisses it, as though their snap judgment is all the criteria necessary for rejecting something as unworthy of their effort.

What is it about us that we’re so accustomed to labelling something “boring” so quickly, and then so definitively putting it behind us and never looking back?  Why don’t we consider this trend, which developed fairly recently in our society’s history but which now has roots as deep as any cherished value, with any more scrutiny? 

Think about this: when we call something boring, what are we really saying?  What we usually mean is not that it is too inherently dull, but that it is too difficult to comprehend.  (Certainly, that’s what students mean.)  But when did it become such a virtue to announce that we are incapable of handling something?  Why do we now feel that it’s acceptable to ignore anything that taxes us? 

Imagine someone going into a gym and trying to lift five pounds.  They find it very hard.  Any normal person would think, “Wow, I’m really weak.  That’s awful.  I need to exercise until I’m stronger.”  But if we approached this situation the way many of us approach mental tasks, we’d think, “Wow, that’s too heavy.  This is stupid.  This is for losers.  I’m out of here.” 

And thus we become a society of intellectually flabby brain-wimps.  Worse, we become a nation of brain-wimps that prides itself on its ignorance, doing so in an unspoken compact where we pretend that our weakness is a virtue, so that we can reinforce each other’s desperation to ignore it.

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On this eve of yet another glorious year of teaching, I want to set three goals for myself to improve my work.  After reflecting on what my strengths and weaknesses are, and what I want to achieve, I’ve settled on these basics:

1.  More time for independent readings in class.  Each quarter will start with a good book chosen by each student from my lists, and I’ll set aside a couple of class days to read and take notes and/or fill out a log.  After that, they might bring in their own stuff for a few more days of reading here and there.  We read plenty in my classes, but it’s usually from the textbook, with most of their other reading being done on their own.  That doesn’t cut it.  This will pack in more quantity of reading, which kids desperately need.

2.  Speaking of desperate needs, we’ll do more short, spontaneous compositions with instant editing and feedback.  I always want to do more of this, but never get around to it, and it’s so essential.  Quick writing workshops with paragraph-or-two compositions that they’ll peer edit / I’ll edit and they revise in another quick draft, all in one day.  This will benefit their mechanics better than enything else I can think of.  This must be done every other week, at least. 

3.  Finally, I’ll be nicer.  Not in class, I mean, where if anything I should be more strict and where my ability to act enthusiastic when “on stage” serves me well, but outside of class, when kids come in for help or make up work, or when I see kids outside of school.  As it is, my painfully shy, introverted side takes over there and I tend to mumble dismissive one liners and look the other way.  As much as I hate to admit it, a more engaging personality from me does improve classroom performance for them, so here’s one to work on…

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First of all, I like summer school. Its compacted time frame forces it to be rigorous, disciplined, and serious. Tardies and absences get hammered pretty quickly, daily quizzes and grade updates keep the kids on top of their game, and the fact that they (or their parents) had to pay for it creates an immediate investment that improves their own efforts. These kids may have messed up, but their desperation now brings out the best in them.

 

However, this summer I’ve noticed that too many kids come into summer school in an entirely wrong state of mind.

 

And I don’t just mean the stoner who asked to go to the bathroom about an hour and a half into the first day of school, and who never came back.

 

One boy just this morning looked at his failing grades in my class and rattled off his list of excuses, clearly a well prepared and rehearsed litany that he’s used comfortably for years. I can only surmise that he started this class, as he may start all of his classes, intending to “see what happens,” and fall back on his excuses if and when he fails. I just can’t get people like this to be more proactive, to overcome the fatalism that got deeply instilled in them somewhere along the line.

 

In June, a girl with special ed problems gave me two papers that had been due the week before, both very poorly done, and without any discussion with me about it first. (more…)

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“Don’t hit the kids and don’t hit on the kids.”  If I had to summarize my best advice about teaching in just one saying, that would be it.  However, last summer’s post, 50 Things New Teachers Need To Know, went into a bit more detail and has now garnered thousands of hits, making it this blog’s most popular post.

During the school year between then and now, I’ve made some more notes and now have this new collection ready.  As I say at the end, take it all with a grain of salt, but I have no doubt that this list is more useful than a bachelor’s degree in education.  Furthermore, I like this list even more than last year’s.  Enjoy!

 

1. Cover any windows on hallway-facing doors to your room from the inside with paper. If administrators complain about it, just cover as much as you can at eye level.  You don’t need lollygaggers out there distracting students by making faces at their friends in your class.

2. PC Myth #5: “Your teaching skills are more important than content knowledge.”  In my own undergrad days, an early class taught me that I wouldn’t need to worry about subject knowledge because I already had more than the students would, and I should just focus on methodology, classroom management, etc.  As a result, I spent my first couple of years as a teacher watching all those college theories go down in flames, and desperately playing catch up on the English facts that I needed to know to teach well. 

3.  Always remember: administrators are politicians.  (more…)

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There is a great inequity in justice in our public school systems.  I refer, of course, to the fact that some students have higher grades than others.  This can only be the result of institutional disenfranchisement, and must be corrected by government intervention.  Besides, our nation’s future faces catastrophic academic failure if we don’t artificially prop it up now.

By which I mean, the failing students need a bailout.

All of those kids who are only half as likely to do any kind of studying or homework as they are to even show up at all will be granted a special dispensation from the Department of Education, something in the neighborhood of, say, 800 billion points.  (Though, what with corruption, unforeseen needs, and poor management, that total will likely exceed a trillion points.)

So every slacker who sat there and chose to finish a class with a 2% grade will now get to graduate, which is perfectly fair.  Uncle Sam will guarantee the success of every student in America.  After all, what with the obesity epidemic, most American kids are “too big to fail.”

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385371841I read this fantastic book review this week in the Wall Street Journal (courtesy of a link from Arts & Letters Daily–let’s give credit where credit’s due).  Daniel Willingham’s new book, Why Don’t Students Like School?, gives the perspective of a cognitive scientist reviewing the research on the psychology of education.  Among his assertions (as reflected in the book review) are:

  • “When we confront a task that requires us to exert mental effort, it is critical that the task be just difficult enough to hold our interest but not so difficult that we give up in frustration….The challenge, for the teacher, is to design lessons and exercises that will maximize interest and attention and thus make students like school at least a bit more.”
  • On drilling: “research shows that practice not only makes a skill perfect but also makes it permanent, automatic and transferable to new situations, enabling more complex work that relies on the basics.”
  • “He advocates teaching old-fashioned content as the best path to improving a student’s reading comprehension and critical thinking.”
  • And my favorite part, on multiple intelligences: “No one has found consistent evidence supporting a theory describing such a difference. . . . Children are more alike than different in terms of how they think and learn….At some point, no amount of dancing will help you learn more algebra.”

I added a comment to the WSJ article commending this book for deflating the vacuous trends of politically correct schooling today.  My professional development classes and meetings drive me bonkers.

 

This book isn’t in the local library system’s inventory yet; better put in an order.

 

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