Less Art in the Classroom!

In my view there is too darned much art coming out of kindergarten and 1st grade.  Ok, I am sort of kidding but what I mean is that, as parents, we receive a blizzard of art.  It’s too much to honor or use in a meaningful way.  As a parent volunteer, I find myself in a mad rush to get the students to complete the artwork before the station/center ends.  They get rushed and have no fun and the quality of the art suffers, all to make sure more art is produced.  Anybody else see a problem here?

Every so often, the kids do a “peak” project.  My daughter just made a five foot long stuffed paper dolphin.  She did the dolphin art; parent volunteers cut the dolphin shape, traced that shape onto the back paper, and stuffed the dolphin.  Therefore, the kids did a picture and, really, the adults made the art.  It’s cool and beautiful, but it isn’t completely “hers.”

I am not sure where the mad rush to create disposable art comes from.  It is easier, I suppose, to make disposable art than to work with the kids on truly meaningful art.  And, true, quantity seems to beat quality for many Americans.  However, in my classroom I will try to only do meaningful exercises, art or otherwise. 

Creating a dolphin from start to finish, painting it (two sides, not one), cutting it out (fine motor skills), stuffing it (different fine motor skills plus judgment about how much paper, where, plus – believe it or not – the structural and learning benefits of stuffing them with near skeletally placed and shaped stuffing) all makes for a truly wonderful, memorable, and celebrate-able project that should deservedly be kept and preserved for “the ages.” 

I think teaching quality by taking the time to do art “right” is a far better lesson for the students than, what, churning out high volumes of low quality art?  Really, what is the benefit of rushing through one (or two) pieces of art a day?  Working for two, three, or more days on one fine piece of art is the same amount of art practice as the same hours spent on disposable art.

Sure, there is need for practice pieces to hone cutting skills or drawing skills or color choices or whatever.  Nevertheless, wouldn’t it be better to do those exercises as “practice” so the students truly have the freedom to experiment, make “mistakes,” and build their skills?  Likewise, in practice art, the adult wouldn’t feel compelled to “help” the student do it “right.”

Yes, for me, art will be “practice” work, identified as such and with a particular intent in mind (e.g. cutting), and periodic “peak” pieces that take multiple days and represent accomplishments and even artistic statements of which the students and their parents can be deservedly proud.  

Here’s to less (disposable) art in the classroom!

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NCLB and ELL’s

How have changes in the law affected classroom practice in relation to ELLs?

The dominant legal change in recent years is NCLB. NCLB has a number of provisions intended to improve success rates for EL’s. Unfortunately, NCLB’s other requirements end up applying at least as much pressure on ELL’s as it offers help. The biggest problem is that setting high, uniform standards is particularly challenging for students facing the twin pressures of learning achievement and language gaps. The standards themselves are challenging enough for English speakers, but when applied identically to students who are also challenged by language comprehension and fluency issues, these standards can become almost unachievable. Compounding this particular problem is the NCLB requirement that achievement of these standards be tracked across various social and demographics groups of interest, including ELL’s. This creates considerable pressure on the schools and therefore on the students to make Herculean progress under difficult conditions.

Two of additional challenges are worth mentioning. The first challenge is the California law (upheld against legal challenges) requiring that all standards tests be administered in English. So, not only do the ELL’s have the challenge of learning in L2, they have the challenge of being test on that learning in L2. Second, we are in a world of ferocious budget cuts. At a time when the ELL population is growing far faster than the general population and the pressure (as above) to improve results in this ELL subset is growing exponentially, cash available is dropping precipitously. There is some cushion in that many ELL’s are in Title I schools, but even there, and more so across the board, schools and teachers are being asked (demanded) to do much more with much less.

To conclude, the legislative focus on ELL’s is theoretically positive but the practical aspects of the current legal climate are challenging for ELL’s nonetheless.

Cambourne in the Classroom

How may a classroom activity be adapted for students at various stages of language acquisition?  Address evidence of student comprehension and assessment methods.

Many of the techniques that improve outcomes for ELL’s are also good techniques overall.  Echevarria, Vogt, and Short (2008) take Cambourne’s “Conditions of Learning” and apply them to the ELL friendly classroom.  These eight conditions are immersion, demonstration, engagement, expectation, responsibility, employment, approximation, and response (Echevarria et al., 2008, p. 24).  I will briefly describe their application below:

1.       Immersion – Constantly use all aspects of language (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) to practice English language and content concepts.

2.       Demonstration – Show students the core learning in practice and have them model those concepts as well.

3.       Engagement – Create a safe environment, emphasize the relevance of the material, and teach it at appropriately challenging levels of difficulty.

4.       Expectation – Hold appropriate but high levels of expectation for all students.  Look past language challenges to the full capabilities of each student.

5.       Responsibility – Give students choices, encourage reflection, hold students to high standards of independent performance, and encourage critical thinking.

6.       Employment – Allow students to demonstrate the skills and concepts they have learned.  Explain real world context and value of the concepts being learned.

7.       Approximation – Encourage and reward risk taking.  Embrace “approximately correct” answers as stepping-stones to completely right answers.

8.       Response – Allow for continual constructive and focused feedback from multiple sources, including peers (Echevarria et al., 2008, p. 23).

All of these eight principles do double duty.  Not only do they promote powerful learning in ELL’s (and other students), they create better opportunities for assessment.  By recasting learning tasks away from passive into active learning, students’ proficiencies and weaknesses are more clearly observable and more easily remediated.

Reference

Echevarria, J., Vogt, M., & Short, D. (2008). Making content comprehensible for English learners: The SIOP Model (3rd ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Evaluation?, Part Two

I have been thinking about my post yesterday.  I think it is a mistake for me to shy away from evaluations of my classroom and my teaching. 

I got into teaching to stand for something special.  I will bend every effort to excel and to incorporate the best elements of teaching into my practice. When I am evaluated, some combination of three things will happen.  One, the high quality of my work will be seen. Two, the observer will make suggestions that improve my teaching.  Three, I may meet one of these dogmatists I fear and disagree with some or all of the assessment.  These are all outcomes that can only benefit all concerned.

The tricky one is where there is disagreement.  I have always felt a strong pull to comply with authority out of a desire to be accepted and/or a fear of sanction. However, I have also always had strong analytic skills of my own.  Given that the former instinct usually overrode the later, these encounters would frequently leave me feeling violated and, subsequently, acting out against that authority in some covert (and ultimately self-destructive) fashion.

Being slightly wiser these days, my philosophy is different.  Now, I trust that the best thing to do is to stand for my beliefs, regardless of consequences.  This does not mean being stubborn.  I have a strong intent to be open in all aspects of my life.  However, it does mean that I need to stand for my reasoned beliefs.

I will be respectful.  I will be inquisitive.  I will be open to learning and to improvement  However, if, in the end, I disagree with the advice or assessment, I will stand for myself.  It is possible that this will have negative consequences for me and that is ok.  However, if I am respectful, if I demonstrate a willingness to listen and an ability to change if persuaded, and if my arguments are sound, I am comfortable that these discussions will generally end positively.

Rules in Schools

The idea that if a rule does not merit a major consequence, it does not merit being a rule applies in schools too.  Establishing rules that are not enforced or, worse, are only infrequently enforced is more than a waste of energy.  It’s actually counterproductive, accommodating a certain lawlessness that is ultimately corrosive.

I see this in the “Raise your hand” rule too.  It seems to me that students should not be allowed to shout out answers, except in chorus.  It is much too difficult and takes too much management to allow shouting out of answers sometimes but not other times.  However, rare is the teacher who consistently enforces this rule and, therefore, rare is the classroom where shouting out is absent.

In my classroom, non-verbal symbols will be followed with rigor.  Likewise, shouting out will not be tolerated, rewarded, or even occasionally condoned.  The central rule in my classroom will be respect and major violations of that principle will receive quick, firm intervention.  Minor departures from the principle of respect will not be treated as rules violations.  Rather, they will be treated as teaching moments or ignored, as the case may be. 

What will not happen in my classroom is the proclamation and subsequent ongoing violation of rules.  Any rule discovered to be unworthy of consistent enforcement, will be considered unworthy to be a rule.

Rules

It seems to me, that the breakdown of the non-verbal cue environment is frequently a function of fatigue. 

After a certain period of years or after a certain number of routines are imposed, it just takes too much energy to demand consistent obedience.  Unfortunately, this leaves those routines in a broken state, halfway between useful and purposeless.  The students sense that lack of seriousness and the routines become mere speed bumps, occasional interruptions to be tolerated but not respected.

One of the very first principles we established for raising our daughter was to draw the circle of rules tight enough to cover the major infractions but loose enough to need only infrequent enforcement.  This was based on the observation and belief that kids have considerably more energy to chafe against relatively pointless restrictions than parents have to enforce them.  This leads to the “Don’t, don’t, don’t… ok” syndrome that eats many parents alive.  We try to only establish rules that we are willing to us overwhelming force to enforce.  If it is not worth a major consequence, it is not a rule in our house.

Nonverbal Communication

I have found non-verbal communication in the classroom to be somewhat ineffective. 

On the one hand, it often does not get attention like verbal communications.  In the case of the “quiet” symbol, it frequently takes a while for all the students to notice the symbol is “up” and quiet down.  The noisier the student is being, the longer it generally takes to recognize the symbol, unfortunately. 

This leads to the second issue.  If the point of non-verbal cues is to provide information in a non-intrusive, quiet way, these symbols need to operate in silence.  This is how it works in the military.  On patrol, the only language is the silent world of non-verbal communications through commonly understood symbol language.  Unfortunately, in schools, this is not the case. 

Frequently, the “silence” symbol is accompanied by “shhh!” from the teacher and/or other students.  More perversely, the “I want a drink” and “I want to go to the bathroom” symbols more often than not provokes a whole conversation between the student and the teacher.  “Do you have to go now?” or “No, you have to wait, you should have gotten a drink at recess.”  Both the silence and the class focus are broken.

Evaluation?

It does make sense to get feedback from a knowledgeable observer.  However, I am afraid that being observed and evaluated on an ongoing basis is a dangerous thing to desire.  Of course, being observed by my principle and other members of my school community is expected and desirable.  If a school were right for me, I would fully expect to meet their standards or receive correction.  Likewise, everybody can use some outside guidance.  I would be grateful for whatever feedback I could get from people who have my interests and the interests of my students in mind.

I am just not sure the kind of people that would provide this corps of evaluators are the kind I by whom i would like to be evaluated.  Perhaps I am just revealing more of my scars, but the most likely people to become evaluators are highly experienced teachers who like evaluating other people.  This worries me for two reasons.  First, “highly experienced” also means “learned to teach 20 or more years ago.” Likewise, “likes to evaluate people” might also mean “loves finding faults and telling other people what to do.”  This is not to say that every evaluator would have these characteristics.  Most of the teachers I know would be welcome in my classroom anytime as would most of the teachers I have had here.  However, truth be told, there are many people in the world who would just love the opportunity to misuse the power of this role, though most likely with the best of intentions.

You know my background as a trader.  What I LOVED about that was that the results were absolutely concrete, beyond debate, and that I had total control of outcomes.  After years of being miserable as a student in the educational system (as you have read in my various pained posts on the subject), it was such a relief to finally find objective measures of my results.

Maybe with NCLB et al, we are moving more towards this evaluated vision of the world.  On a classroom-by-classroom basis the results, at least as measured by standardized tests, will be clear.  Of course, these results are themselves highly problematic, reflecting only a narrow subset of the year’s achievements and being highly dependent on the mix of students in the classroom.  However, they remain objective standards that do reflect a certain truth impartially.  It will be interesting to see as time passes how many of the tools of the private sector will be brought to bear on teacher quality.  I hope some are added and that they are added wisely.

Mistakes

Mistakes are, after all, unavoidable. We have only three options for dealing with them.

First, we can work hard to prevent as many as possible.  Getting solid training, as we are doing, is a good step.  Referring back to our texts from time to time would help too.  I find I frequently see things that I missed when I go back to old sources.  As we grow and gain experience, we have more context for the lessons we have been taught and those lessons reveal more meaning.  We can also continue with our professional development and continuing education to increase skills.  With all this training, we simply need to add careful, thoughtful planning and constant self-scrutiny.  By doing all these things, we will reduce our incidence of mistakes.

Second, we can be aware of mistakes when they occur to minimize their damage.  Sometimes this is as simple as correcting a misstatement.  Other times, it actually involves some clean up, perhaps an apology.  Yet, in my experience, the density of mistakes in the world is so high that circling back to ameliorate a mistake frequently causes more problems than it solves.  The best way to make up for a mistake is often to keep moving forward, committing do better in the future.

Third, we can identify and analyze mistakes after they have occurred in order to adjust our behavior and reduce their likelihood in the future.  This is not hard but it does require discipline and the willingness to constantly be reminded of our human fallibility.

The good news is that constantly learning from mistakes is the best way to constantly increase professional competence and outcomes.  By committing to learn from our mistakes, we commit to striving for the very highest levels of achievement for our students.  That is more than worth the effort.

Isolated No More

Pedagogical theory keeps advancing over the years.  It is an unfortunate fact of teaching that, once in the classroom, teachers are very isolated and insulated.  I cannot think of another profession where there is so little opportunity to observe how others pursue similar objectives.  Likewise, that isolation has meant that there has been little or no competitive pressure to improve performance, at least until recently.

School administered professional development (PD) time has diminished over the years, squeezed between budget pressures and the teachers’ union.  This is really a shame. The children would be much better served if three elements that are currently dormant or near dormant were re-emphasized. 

First, PD time should be re-established in an important position in the school year.  This should include several full days of various meaningful trainings prior to the year’s start as well as shorter, “quick hits” throughout the year.  Second, teachers should have much more opportunity to visit other classrooms, within their school, within their district, and even (or especially) in other schools with entirely different philosophies.  Finally, the existing benefits/requirements for continuing education are good, but teaching is such a broad and evolving activity that more emphasis would no doubt be beneficial.